Category Archives: Food and drink

(Cook) book review: Everyday Detox, by Megan Gilmore

As someone who’s naturally suspicious of the word “detox” outside of the context of recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, I was a bit trepidatious when I first received Megan Gilmore’s cookbook, Everyday Detox. I think “detox” — as in, clearing one’s body of “toxins” — is one of those woo-woo concepts that doesn’t actually have any basis in science, and my hackles go up when people talk about “detox diets,” because what does that even mean? But, in paging through Gilmore’s book, I saw that there was a whole chapter devoted to “liquid nourishment,” and, being a smoothie fanatic, I couldn’t resist trying some of her recipes right away, pseudoscience or no! (Also, to be fair, Gilmore explains her “detox” philosophy in the beginning of her book by saying that she’s in favor of consuming fresh, whole foods, rather than packaged foods that are “loaded with preservatives and chemicals,” which is reasonable, and not what I typically associate with the word “detox”).

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A creature of habit, I make almost the exact same smoothie for lunch every day, which I like, but I needed to shake things up (pun very much intended!). I cracked open Everyday Detox and started with the Chocolate Chia Shake, which is gluten free, dairy free, soy free, egg free, and vegan (none of which are dietary requirements for me, but nice to know). This recipe did require a trip to the local fancy grocery store to purchase chia seeds and raw cacao nibs, but, as it turns out, the investment was totally worth it because this sucker was DELICIOUS. Even my mother, a professed hater of dates, liked this shake, and one of its main ingredients is dates. That’s how good it was! Emboldened, I moved on to the Banana Nut Protein Shake, which knocked my socks off. Despite involving several handfuls of spinach and two tablespoons of hemp hearts (?), it was rich and tasty and satisfying. I loved every sip.

I haven’t yet had a chance to try any of the non-liquid recipes in the book. I will admit that the names of some of the dishes have me a little gun-shy (whenever I see a recipe for “rice,” in quotation marks, I get nervous), but given how phenomenal the two recipes I’ve tried so far have been, I think I need to put my skepticism aside and try more of the ideas in Everyday Detox. I’m looking forward to giving the Peppermint Fudge Bars a whirl, and the Salt And Vinegar Brussels Sprouts also sound delicious. Overall, I’d recommend this book for those looking for healthy, fresh meal ideas who aren’t put off by a few hemp hearts here and there.

 

(Cook)book review: A Good Food Day, by Marco Canora

I haven’t done much cooking over the last six weeks, since, you know, baby, etc. But our last round of parental visitors left yesterday and I figured it was a good time to restart my normal cooking routine. I’d been wanting to crack open Marco Canora’s cookbook, A Good Food Day: Reboot Your Health with Food That Tastes Great since I’d gotten it. I liked the fact that the recipes seemed healthy but not diet-y, with lots of fresh, whole ingredients and flavors. Canora’s philosophy, as laid out in his “10 principles for a good food day,” involves making eating enjoyable through consciously, mindfully eating a wide variety of real, high quality foods. This jibes with my philosophy, too, so I was excited to give the book a shot.

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I chose the recipe for braised chicken thighs with garlic, lemon, and Greek olives, since I’m a sucker for a good bone-in, skin-on chicken thigh. I started cooking just as Al was dropping his dad and brother off at the airport, and Lucia was awake (sort of), so I threw her in the sling, covered her with a receiving blanket so that no hot oil would come anywhere near her, and got cooking.

Cooking with Lucia

Cooking with Lucia

I realized as I was cooking that I didn’t have the Greek olives that the recipe called for, so I substituted some capers, figuring they’d provide the salty, briny kick that the recipe needed. I also didn’t bother peeling the garlic cloves as the recipe instructed — who has the time, right? The recipe was easy to make and came together quickly — definitely do-able for a weeknight. And, I’m happy to report, it tasted great.

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I am not always a fan of cooked lemons — I think sometimes the tartness can verge on the sour and overpowering — but in this, the lemon-y taste was counterbalanced by the sautéed onions and garlic (yum). The chicken came out perfectly tender and juicy. I served the dish with baked sweet potatoes and roasted asparagus.

Dinner, complete

Dinner, complete

Overall, a very satisfying meal! I’m looking forward to cooking more out of Canora’s book soon. Al has requested the cacio e pepe popcorn, so that’ll be my next project. Recommended for those who want to cook with healthy, whole ingredients without skimping on satisfying flavor.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

My dad’s lentil soup

Since Lucia’s birth, I’ve been lucky enough to host all three sets of her grandparents in succession: first my parents, then Al’s mom and stepdad, and then Al’s dad and stepmom (and youngest brother). Al and I have really enjoyed kicking back (ha!!) these past few weeks and letting our loved ones cook for us and do our laundry (and of course we’ve enjoyed their company and emotional support). Turns out that infant care does not leave much room for domestic chores, including cooking, which is something I used to do every day. So I’ve let others make me food, and it’s been pretty great.

Snow day

Snow day

Today is a cold, snowy day and Al’s stepmom is cooking us dinner tonight. I suggested lentil soup, which is hearty and warming. I’ve always enjoyed my dad’s lentil soup, which he makes from scratch. Years ago, when I was fresh out of college and first learning to cook, I asked my dad to send me his recipe for lentil soup. He didn’t have it written down (I’ve never seen the man cook from a written recipe in my life), so he typed the whole thing out in prose form for me. It was like my dad was talking me through the recipe, step by step. Having a recipe in that format was really helpful at the time, when I didn’t know my butt from my elbow in the kitchen, but now I’m used to reading recipes written out in the traditional form. Today, I decided to transcribe my dad’s recipe so that I (and others) can more easily use it. So here is my dad’s delicious, foolproof lentil soup recipe: perfect for a cold winter day! Bon apetit.

Ingredients:

1 c. lentils (any kind will do, but my dad favors the brown kind)

14 oz. can of tomatoes, diced

1 medium carrot

1 medium onion (yellow or white)

1 stalk celery

2 cloves garlic (or more to taste)

4 c. chicken and/or beef stock

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. pepper

1 tsp. dried oregano

1 tsp. dried parsley

1/4 tsp. ground cumin (optional)

1 tsp. lemon juice (optional)

1 c. chopped spinach, fresh or frozen

Bread or crackers (optional)

Method:

Rinse lentils and place in a soup pot. Add chicken or beef stock. Heat on medium-high. While mixture is coming to a boil, peel and cut up the carrot, onion, garlic, and celery. When the lentils are rapidly boiling, add in all the veggies, including the canned tomatoes. Stir well. Bring to a boil and then lower heat to medium. Mixture should be at a high simmer/”medium boil.” Add in all spices. Cook soup uncovered for about 45 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. If the mixture thickens too much add broth or water to regain the correct consistency.

After 45 minutes, add in spinach and lemon juice, if desired. Bring to high simmer/medium boil for another 20 minutes or so, stirring to make sure it doesn’t burn or stick on the bottom of the pan, adding stock or water to keep it soup-like. Cook until lentils are soft and seasoning is just right. Serve with crackers and /or bread (pita is great!) for dipping.

Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh

Happy belated Thanksgiving! To think: only a few, short days ago, we were still basking in the golden glow of everyone’s favorite gluttony-and-gratitude-based holiday, and now we’re deep in the throes of Cyber Monday (which lately has been extended to Cyber Week)-style cut-throat consumerism. Sunrise, sunset. I don’t know, wouldn’t Thanksgiving be even better if it weren’t immediately followed each year by events in which people get trampled to death in parking lots? Of course, I say all of this as I contemplate buying a severely marked-down food processor online. At least I’m not trampling anyone. Yet.

This year, for the first time since 2011, Al and I were in the U.S. for Thanksgiving (last year we were in London and the year before that, Cape Town). The day before the holiday, we drove out to Pittsburgh to visit Al’s friends Hakan and Meredith, who recently moved there from Louisiana. The drive to Pittsburgh from Alexandria was supposed to take four hours, but between the unrelenting snow and my compressed bladder, it took us six-and-a-half. Frequent (and annoying) pee breaks are the new normal for preggo me, and there’s nothing to be done about it. Despite all the stops, though, we got to Pittsburgh before it got dark.

Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving dinner

Pittsburgh, as it turns out, is a pretty cool town! I had never been there before, but I’d heard good things, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s an old industrial town filled with red-brick buildings and steel bridges and funicular railways running up steep hills. Since it has that aging steel town vibe, it lends itself well to hipster enclaves, and there are lots of fun, young neighborhoods packed with cool bars and shops and restaurants. Plus, since there are a ton of universities and colleges in town, there are plenty of museums and cultural events. Of course, the only “cultural event” in which we participated while there was a showing of Disney’s Newsies (the musical), but hey, you do what you can.

Our Thanksgiving day was nice and low-key. Meredith and Hakan did most of the cooking (turkey, stuffing, carrots, cranberries), but I contributed mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie (using the same recipe as I used two years ago, except minus the hand-roasted and pureed pumpkin, now that I’m back in a country where canned pumpkin is a thing), and a gallon-sized bag of Chex cookies ‘n cream Muddy Buddies. We sat down to eat dinner around four and then went downtown to see the evening show of Newsies, which was pretty faithful to the delightfully cheesy 1992 movie of the same name, except with more pirouettes and high kicks!

The next night, we went to dinner in Shadyside, a hip neighborhood in the East End of Pittsburgh. We ate at the astonishingly unfashionable hour of 5:30 (in fact, when the restaurant called to confirm our reservation, they asked whether anyone in our party had “trouble going up and down stairs”), and it was great. Now that I’m in my thirties (and seven months pregnant), I really enjoy eating early and then being able to digest for a few hours before going to bed early. I figure this lifestyle will make my transition to the nursing home that much easier when the time comes!

We bid our friends adieu on Saturday morning and drove back to Virginia. The snow had melted and we made quick time on the way back, even with all of my many pee stops. We were sad to say goodbye to our pals, but now that they live much closer, I’m sure we’ll see them again soon. As we drove back, I reflected on all of the things I’m thankful for this year. There are a lot, but most of them can be boiled down to the following: the baby, Al, my family, and living in a country in which canned pumpkin is abundant.

Happy Thanksgiving! 

New Zealand, Part 2(b): South Island, continued

Here is the third and final part of our New Zealand adventure, covering the remainder of our time on the South Island. Check out parts one and two if you haven’t already.

The Catlins

The Catlins

From Te Anau, our next stop was an area called The Catlins, in the far south of the South Island. Al and I had both been looking forward to The Catlins, but it turned out to be one of my least favorite parts of the trip. It’s not that the scenery in The Catlins isn’t impressive — it is! very! — but the weather was so utterly hideous that it was hard for me to enjoy it. I grew up in Michigan and I thought I knew from variable weather, but The Catlins was a whole new ballgame. Within seconds, we’d watch the sky turn from sunny to ominous gray and then start to rain, which would then progress into hail, and then snow, and then back again, over and over. The entire day that we drove through The Catlins, we were barraged with a mix of rain, hail, and snow, punctuated by brief moments of sunshine. Even when the sun was out, though, it was still bitterly cold (hence the snow flurries), and I spent a lot of time sitting in the van with the heater on full blast while Al would hop out to take photos, and then rush back in.

My view from the van as Al took pictures

My view from the van as Al took pictures

It was also really windy, so driving along the treacherous, winding coastal roads often felt perilous, as our van rocked back and forth with each gust of wind.

Sure was windy!

Sure was windy!

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We stayed at a campsite that was sort of in the middle of nowhere (like most things in The Catlins, I guess) and no-frills. Let me assure you that getting up to use the (unheated) facilities in the middle of a rainstorm was not awesome. Neither was being passively aggressively told off by some lady in a giant RV in the morning for making too much noise while opening my van door to go to the bathroom at midnight. (EXCUSE ME FOR BEING PREGNANT, LADY. Sheesh.) Anyway, we did see some really cool stuff in The Catlins, like Slope Point (the southernmost point in NZ), and we had a really good meal on the road (at the Beachhouse Cafe in Riverton), but I was ready to be done with the whole area after a day or so of crazy weather.

It was necessary to bundle up.

It was necessary to bundle up.

We fled The Catlins for Dunedin, known by Kiwis as “the Edinburgh of the South.” Dunedin, at first glance, is sort of unremarkable, especially compared with the in-your-face scenery along the west coast of the South Island that we passed through to get there. But it’s sneakily charming in an understated, Scottish way. Al and I didn’t get up to much in Dunedin other than a bit of sightseeing and eating, but it was a pleasant, low-key stop for us. In town, we visited the Otago Settlers’ Museum, which turned out to be really interesting. Dunedin was settled by Scots, and the city still retains a strong sense of Scottish heritage (hence, Al noted that everyone in Dunedin looked like they could have been related to him). At the Settlers’ Museum, they had a room where you could put on Scottish settlers’ outfits and pose in front of a backdrop. Al’s picture was pretty authentic.

Hard to get more Scottish than this!

Hard to get more Scottish than this!

After Dunedin, we drove north toward Christchurch, but we made a few stops along the way, including in Oamaru, the steampunk capital of NZ. Steampunk is, according to Wikipedia, a “sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century.” Oamaru lends itself well to being a steampunk center since its main street is lined with limestone buildings from the 19th century, giving the whole place a Victorian feel. Oamaru seems to have embraced the Victorian/steampunk theme wholeheartedly; there’s even a steampunk-themed playground. We checked out Steampunk HQ, a weird and fairly creepy museum stuffed with odd bits of machinery and art, blending Victorian era technology and the macabre.

He has a license to operate this.

He has a license to operate this.

A rough-and-tumble steampunk penguin we found working in the yard.

A rough-and-tumble steampunk penguin we found working in the yard.

Steampunk HQ light show

Steampunk HQ light show

The day we visited Oamaru happened to be Al’s birthday, so we stopped in a Victorian-style hotel for a beer (for Al) and a flat white (for me), and browsed through some of the little artists’ shops along the main street. We also popped into the Whitestone Cheese Company to taste some of the local delights. We demolished a full cheese board as a snack (don’t judge us) and then got on the road to Christchurch.

Birthday beer in Oamaru

Birthday beer in Oamaru

Christchurch was devastated by a series of huge earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 and is still rebuilding. I think because of this, Al and I had a hard time getting a feel for the city, much of which is still under scaffolding. Part of the problem, too, was that it was raining for most of the time we were there, and a lot of the activities we had read about in our trusty Lonely Planet guide were outdoors. To wait out the rain, we went to the movies (Gone Girl) and by the time we emerged, the weather had cleared, so we strolled around Christchurch’s Botanic Gardens. It must be a sign of how old and boring we’ve become, but Al and I do love a nice botanic garden. This one reminded us a lot of Cambridge (UK), which is intentional, since Christchurch was settled by the English (The Canterbury Association, in fact) and was designed to mimic an English city. Like any good English city, Christchurch had some good Indian food, so Al and I celebrated his birthday eating delicious curry and naan at a restaurant called Himalayas.

At the Christchurch Botanic Gardens

At the Christchurch Botanic Gardens

Our last pit-stop on the South Island before catching the ferry back to Wellington was Kaikoura, a beautiful spot known for whale (and other wildlife) watching. We parked our van next to a roadside seafood barbecue place, ate some scallops and chowder, and then checked out the seals that were hanging around on the rocks. The seals seemed unfazed by the fact that there were people right there, snapping photos and gawping at them.

Kaikoura

Kaikoura

Al and a seal

Al and a seal

After taking our seal photos, we loaded into the van and headed back to Picton to catch the ferry to the North Island. I was sad to leave the South Island; we had seen so many incredible things there. One of the things that struck Al and me most about driving around New Zealand — especially the South Island — was the fact that you could pull off to the side of the road almost anywhere and see something breathtakingly beautiful. Most of the things we saw from our van window weren’t listed in our guide or on any map; there’s just too much to see in New Zealand to even begin to list all of it. The whole country is bursting with hidden treasures. For example, on our way out of Dunedin, we pulled off in a little town called Waitati to get a coffee and try whitebait, a local delicacy (it was okay).

Sampling whitebait in Waitati

Sampling whitebait in Waitati

We’d pulled over not because we’d read about Waitati anywhere, but because I had seen a sign on the side of the road for a Sunday market, and figured it’d be as good a place as any to stop and get a flat white. At the little market, as we were drinking our coffees and eating our whitebait sandwich on white bread, we were approached by a kind of wacky looking lady who smelled strongly of patchouli. She wanted to tell us about the Greenpeace campaign she was working on to stop offshore oil drilling in New Zealand. We listened politely as she told us about her campaign and then she began telling us about Waitati and its alternative culture (which includes a local “pirate queen“). She also mentioned that just down the road, there was a beach where blue penguins roosted. She assured us that no tourists knew about the beach and we should check it out. So, we drove down a couple of winding roads, following the signs to Doctor’s Point, and ended up at this beautiful, empty beach.

Doctor's Point, Waitati

Doctor’s Point, Waitati

We didn’t end up seeing any penguins (the tide was up and it was hard to get to their nesting area), but the place was beautiful, and there was hardly anyone else there. Al and I agreed that if this beach had been in any other country, it would have been written up as a must-see destination, but the fact is, NZ is lousy with tiny, untouched beaches. All you have to do is wander a little and you’ll find them.

Doctor's Point - Al is the little speck in the distance

Doctor’s Point – Al is the little speck in the distance

Overall, Al and I agreed that New Zealand was one of our best trips ever. It had its highs (scenery! penguins! seals!) and its lows (being pregnant in a van with no toilet! hail!), but what good trip doesn’t? We will always remember our pre-baby adventure in NZ fondly. I’m so glad we went and I recommend it strongly to anyone else who’s thinking of taking a great adventure.

 

New Zealand, Part 2(a): South Island

As promised, here’s the report on the second part of our New Zealand adventure (part one is here), in which we explored the South Island in our trusty camper van. Since we saw so much in the South Island, I decided to break this post into two pieces, so as not to overwhelm. New Zealand can overwhelm.

Al and I had heard before we came to New Zealand that the South Island was where the really impressive scenery was, but I don’t think we appreciated how beautiful — and varied, and, in some cases, extreme — it would be before we saw it with our own eyes. Although we didn’t travel through all of the North Island, and I’ve heard that the northern part of the North Island is spectacular, Al and I both agreed that the South Island was, overall, way more interesting. If you only have a week to spend in NZ, spend it on the South Island; I promise you won’t regret it.

Not bad, NZ.

Not bad, NZ.

After taking the ferry from Wellington, we started off in Blenheim, which is situated right in the heart of Marlborough, one of NZ’s best known wine regions. Blenheim, like most wine country towns, is pleasant and peaceful. Even the low-fuss campsite where we stayed was charming, with wandering sheep and rolling hills. But the main reason one comes to Blenheim, of course, is not for the scenery or the sheep, but for the wine tasting. Given the whole pregnancy thing that’s been happening, I played the designated driver for the day and ferried Al from winery to winery. I took sips of the wines and got an idea of what Marlborough has to offer (mainly, good aromatic whites, especially pinot gris, plus their famous, grassy sauvignon blanc, which is not my favorite but sure is distinctive), while Al got nice ‘n boozy and had a grand old time. I occupied myself by drinking a lot of flat whites (which, I’m convinced, are 99% milk and 1% actual coffee, which means it’s okay to have ten of them). To punctuate the wine tasting, we also had a great lunch at a pretty restaurant called Rock Ferry.

Blenheim

Blenheim

The entire next day we spent driving from Blenheim to Franz Josef, home of an eponymous glacier. Along the way we stopped in Punakaiki to look at the pancake rocks and blowholes.

Pancake rocks

Pancake rocks

Rainbow over a blowhole

Rainbow over a blowhole

In Franz Josef, in the morning, we took a hike out to view the glacier (you can’t get on the glacier except via helicopter), took some photos, and then got on the road to go to Queenstown.

Glacier in the background

Glacier in the background

Driving into Queenstown, Al and I were treated to one of the most stunning natural views either of us has ever seen (and keep in mind that Al’s been to LITERALLY a hundred countries, so that’s really saying something).

This doesn't adequately capture Queenstown.

This doesn’t adequately capture Queenstown. Like, at all.

Neither does this.

Neither does this.

Or this.

Or this.

The town is nestled among several ranges of mountains and is situated along a bright blue, lightning bolt-shaped lake (Lake Wakatipu), which makes for some truly breathtaking views. The town itself reminded me of a cross between South Lake Tahoe and Vail — cute and touristy. Queenstown is known for its scenery and for its outdoor (including adventure) sports. Again, being a preggo, I took a hard pass on the adventure sports, but I did go on some lovely runs along the lake (while Al did stuff like careening down a hill in a wooden cart — to each his own). We also ate some fantastic Thai food in town at the oddly named At Thai. Al claims his pad thai was the best he’s had in his life (and we spent three weeks in Thailand, so this is not faint praise).

Taken during a run in Queenstown

Taken during a run in Queenstown

Also spotted while running

Also spotted while running

On our second day in Queenstown, we did some more wine tasting (okay, Al did most of it) in Gibbston, located in the Central Otago wine region. Central Otago is known for its pinot noir, which, to an American palate, tastes nothing like pinot noir. It’s fruity and jammy and not really my cup of tea/wine, but Kiwis seem very proud of it, so Al and I were diplomatic in our comments. After tasting at a few wineries, we drove to an adorable little historical town called Arrowtown for dinner. Arrowtown used to be a gold mining town and was home to a population of Chinese immigrants who showed up to work in the mines. Today there’s a historic Chinese settlement with preserved buildings from the mining days, in which Al took many goofy pictures.

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We ate dinner outdoors at a tapas place called La Rumbla, and it was delicious.

La Rumbla

La Rumbla

Our next stop after Queenstown was Te Anau, a town situated on Lake Te Anau, the largest lake on the South Island. I really liked Te Anau; it was quiet and peaceful and, as an added bonus, our campsite had two lambs on the premises (and you could feed them with bottles!).

Te Anau

Te Anau

Running in Te Anau

Running in Te Anau

Al makes a friend

Al makes a friend

 

On our first day in Te Anau, we took a boat out on the lake to go see the Te Anau glowworm caves. Looking at the glowworms involved walking through a series of dark, dank caves filled with dripping and rushing water, then boarding some little boats and being rowed slowly though the pitch dark while peering up at the glowworms clinging to the cave ceiling above. Glowworms (AKA arachnocampa luminosa) are really beautiful in the dark — they look like a starry sky — but, as we learned during the presentation afterwards, they’re actually pretty gross. For one thing, they’re a species of “fungus gnat.” Try to think of something grosser than that. I dare you. They’re also cannibals who eat each other whole. Plus, they look super gross up close. I’m just telling you.

On Lake Te Anau

On Lake Te Anau

Roadside lunch

Roadside lunch

On our second day in Te Anau, we drove to Milford Sound, a huge fjord within the appropriately named Fiordland National Park. Milford Sound is supposedly NZ’s most popular tourist attraction, mostly because the scenery within the fjord — waterfalls, glacial peaks, wildlife — is so spectacular. Unfortunately, the weather in Milford Sound is almost always heinous, and the day we went was no exception. We took a two-hour cruise around the fjord and it rained the entire time, plus it was windy, which caused the boat to rock, which caused me to clutch my flat white and grimace stoically out the window while Al went outside and took photos. Here’s what I’m learning about myself as I get older: boats aren’t my thing. In fact, pretty much every time I go on a boat, I end up regretting it. I inevitably feel seasick, and scared, and spend the entire time wishing the boat would just stop moving, already, which it never does. But despite all of this, I don’t regret taking the Milford Sound cruise, because we got to see two rare crested penguins just hanging out on the shore, plus a bunch of fat sea lions lolling on the rocks.

View from boat, Milford Sound

View from boat, Milford Sound

Waterfalls, Milford Sound

Waterfalls, Milford Sound

On the rainy and windy van ride back to Te Anau, we encountered another example of NZ fauna: the kea, a marauding parrot known for eating the rubber off of car tires and windshields. The keas we saw walked out onto the road where traffic was stopped and peered quizzically up at the cars and trucks, as if scoping out the best opportunity for rubber snacking. Luckily, our van escaped unscathed.

Kea

Kea – look at that beak!

More on the rest of our South Island odyssey in the next post!

Charleston

Last week, Al and I decided to go on a mini Southern road trip. We were in Florida, so we drove up the coast on a Friday evening, stopping in Savannah for dinner, and then ending up in Charleston, South Carolina. I had heard lots of good things about Charleston and I had a vague idea of what it would be like before we got there. Despite managing to resist the siren call of the new Bravo monstrosity Southern Charm, which is filmed in Charleston, I still gleaned the general idea of the place. I expected waterways, men wearing polo shirts tucked into colorful shorts, women wearing sundresses, champagne, hanging creepers (the plant!), cobblestones, grits, and general genteelness. I was not disappointed.

Hi, we're in Charleston.

Hi, we’re in Charleston.

Now, I’m going to be honest with you right off the bat: most of our Charleston trip was spent eating. I recommend, if you care to visit Charleston, that you spend most of your time eating, as well, because the food there is really good. The rest of your time you can spend admiring the Spanish moss and going on a ghost tour (more on that in a minute). But if you don’t want to read about all of the things we ate in Charleston, you might want to skim this post. Forewarned is forearmed!

Scrambled eggs at Two Boroughs Larder

Scrambled eggs at Two Boroughs Larder

Al and I got into town late on Friday night and he had to work on Saturday morning, so we started our adventure with a late brunch on Saturday afternoon. We ate at the delightful Two Boroughs Larder, so named because it’s situated in the cool, laid-back Cannonborough/Elliotborough neighborhood. The restaurant, like the neighborhood, is cool and hipstery and feels very local. There were families eating with their kids, older people out for breakfast, and, I suspect, a few dorky tourists like us. Al had a chicken boudin blanc sandwich and I had scrambled eggs. Yum. Also, Al had this beer:

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Blonde Bombshell

Later, we wandered around the city a bit, killing time before our dinner reservation. We went down to the water and took pictures, stopped at a bar to sit outside and watch The Kentucky Derby on a big screen, and admired Charleston’s wealth of skinny old houses and elegant gardens. IMG_6555

 

We ate dinner at Cypress, where we split a cheese plate and a giant “steak presentation for two” (and what a presentation it was!).

Cheese plate at Cypress (with real honeycomb)

Cheese plate at Cypress (with real honeycomb)

After dinner, we had the awesome idea of signing up for a Charleston ghost tour, and it was so much fun! A guy named Roy, a South Carolinian with a history degree and a flair for the dramatic, led us around town, explaining various “hauntings” along the way. It was delightful. I don’t believe in ghosts, as a general rule, and neither does Al, but we both got a big kick out of Roy and his practiced delivery of various spooky Charleston stories. There were a lot of stories that began, “Now, a friend of mine…” We both agreed that Roy subscribes to the Keith Morrison school of narration: lots of dramatic pauses and “well”s thrown in for added gravitas. It helped, I think, that we were both reasonably tipsy throughout the tour (as were the five other people who attended), because it allowed us to suspend our credulity and just enjoy Roy’s creepy tales of vengeful Charleston ghosts. I highly recommend doing a ghost tour with Roy’s company if you’re in town; Al and I both agreed it was the most fun thing we did in Charleston (besides shoving food into our faces).

First course at Husk

First course at Husk

The next day, we stopped for brunch at Husk, a Southern restaurant situated in a beautiful old mansion house. Husk had really good food but they also had really good presentation. I especially loved the beautiful wooden salad plates, earthenware cups, and canvas serving bowls.

Mm, biscuits.

Mm, biscuits.

After brunch, Al and I checked out the old Unitarian graveyard, which is supposedly haunted (along with everything else in Charleston, according to Roy). It was gorgeous, full of stately trees with ghostly Spanish moss hanging from their boughs and old gravestones overrun by flowering plants.

Gravestone at Unitarian Church

Gravestone at Unitarian Church

After wandering around the graveyard, we had to get on the road and head back to Florida. I wished we had had an extra day in Charleston so we could have tried some of the other restaurants we heard about and spent more time wandering around the charming old neighborhoods. But I’m sure we’ll be back! Thanks, Charleston!

Stephanie’s favorite things

Remember how Oprah, before she became a full-time life coach for Lindsay Lohan, or whatever, used to have a show? And on that show, once a year, she’d tell everyone her “favorite things,” which were, without fail, utterly impractical, frivolous, and (it almost goes without saying) delightful? Oprah’s favorite things would be, like, “handcarved wooden boxes from Nepal in which to store your energy crystals,” and “handmade planter repurposed from thousand-year old Viking ship dredged from bottom of ocean,” and “handwoven, six-foot cashmere scarves sold by sentient, ethically raised goats,” and suchlike. But most people can’t afford to buy Oprah’s ridick favorite things (unless, of course, they sell the free car they got from Oprah), so I decided to write a list of favorite things for the rest of us. Yes, I’m not a known tastemaker like Oprah, but I do have a collection of Pinterest boards that I personally “curated” (read: clicked on stuff while watching TV), and that should count for something.

Below, you’ll find a very short and very incomplete list of a few products that make my life better and don’t cost very much. Thus, I snatch these products up at any and every opportunity. Some of them may be irrelevant to your life. Others you may find offensive (see item no. 1: dirty hippie deodorant). But maybe — just maybe — your life will change after reading this list. And that’s the goal here: changing lives.

MOVE OVER, OPRAH.

BEAUTY

1. Bionsen natural deodorant. Here’s a fun little secret about me: in some areas of my life, I’m a dirty hippie. And I mean that sort of literally. I don’t wear deodorant. There, I said it! Well, let me qualify that: I don’t wear deodorant that actually works. I read somewhere once, I think, that deodorant causes Alzheimers (the aluminum, and all), and ever since then, on the basis of something I think I read once, I’ve avoided regular deodorant. I gave up my beloved Lady Mitchum in favor of “natural” deodorants that not only didn’t work, but in some cases, actually made me smell worse. Then, one fine day while living in London, I discovered Bionsen. I’ve only ever seen this stuff in the UK, but you can definitely also get it on eBay. It claims to be made from “Japanese spa minerals,” whatever that means, and while that’s almost certainly a load of crap, it actually WORKS. Okay, let me qualify again. It works better than any other natural deodorant I’ve tried, except for maybe Malin & Goetz eucalyptus deodorant, but that stuff is twice as expensive (and it makes you smell like the Stanford campus, which, now that I think about it, is not necessarily a bad thing). So, if you, like me, are a secret dirty hippie who does not actually want to smell dirty, and also doesn’t want to pay $18 for one measly stick, look into Bionsen. When I was in London Heathrow Airport recently, I went into Boots and bought, like, six things of it. It’s that good.

2. L’Oreal Magic Skin Beautifier BB Cream. I used to think this stuff was only available in Europe because I got it in an airport in Germany, and it was called L’Oreal “Nude Magique,” and the label was in French, but guess what? It’s just called L’Oreal Magic here in the old U.S. of A, and it IS (magic, that is). It’s white, and slightly gritty, and it matches the shade of your face when you put it on, AS IF BY MAGIC. I have tried so many BB creams over the last couple of years that my behavior is teetering on the border of clinically insane. For years, I couldn’t stop myself from buying BB creams and trying them, thinking each time that THIS BB cream would be the one that would actually beautify my skin and make me look vaguely Japanese, but until L’Oreal Magic, I searched in vain. And listen, my skin is still blemish-prone and just Irish enough to include a healthy dose of rosacea, but this stuff does a really good job at making me look like I’m not a mutant cross between a sixteen year-old with acne and an old Irish person with a drinking problem. Sometimes I even wear it instead of foundation. I know! Go buy some; it’s not expensive, and it works.

3. Body Shop White Musk. If you’re at all like me, you’ve worn a lot of perfumes in your day. My first perfume was Gap Day, and it smelled like dish soap. My second perfume, a vast improvement, was Body Shop White Musk. Don’t let the name (and its offputting inclusion of the word “musk”) throw you off. This stuff smells so good, even after all these years. It’s light, fresh, and classic. When I was in South Africa, I stocked up on it, because I feel like I never see it in Body Shops here in the US, but turns out, that was unnecessary, because you can buy it online. Oh, well.

4. Maybelline Baby Lips lip balm. Again, please don’t be put off by the horrifying name. My husband actually shudders every time he sees the label or hears it advertised, but whatever, I love this stuff. I wear the “Cherry Me” color and it’s amazing. It’s bright enough to suffice for lipstick, but it also moisturizes. I carry one in every purse (which is doable since each stick of Baby Lips only costs a couple of bucks). Buy it in drug stores.

FOODSTUFFS

1. Teapigs licorice-peppermint tea. I once wrote a blog post about how I only drink Irish-style tea, with milk. Then I stopped drinking milk, and I realized I no longer enjoyed my regular Red Rose tea, and was forced, against my will, to branch out. I dipped a cautious toe into the waters of infusions, and ended up realizing that chamomile was not SO bad (but I still stand by my earlier contention that Earl Grey is the Devil’s work). Then, when I was in London, my sweet friend Yan Yan brought me a little baggie full of Teapigs licorice-peppermint tea and told me to try it. It took me a few weeks to drum up the courage to brew a cup, but once I did, I never looked back. I would now happily drink five cups of this stuff a day. It manages to be sweet, warming, and refreshing, all at the same time. I’ve tried other licorice-mint teas in the US, but nothing is as good as Teapigs. You can get it online but it takes a while (because it ships from the UK). Otherwise, it’s probably worth flying to England for.

teapigs

2. My one-cup coffee filter. I have a variety of coffeemakers in my house because, when people come over, it is much easier to brew a pot of coffee or pop a few pods into the ol’ Keurig than to make coffee my way, which is by brewing one, single, perfect cup. But ever since my dear friend Karen gave me a single-cup coffee filter holder in college, I’ve never made coffee for myself any other way. It’s cheap, it keeps me to one cup of coffee a day, and it tastes amazing. A filter cup costs $5.00. Buy one.

3. Quest Bars. Okay, these are kinda pricey, even when you order them bulk online (yes, I do that), but they’re SO GOOD and they’re full of protein. Since I travel a lot these days, going wherever Al happens to be working and living out of hotel rooms with him, it helps to not have to leave the hotel to get breakfast every day or, worse, pay for room service. So I travel with Quest Bars. They are filling and yummy and gluten-free, and I don’t feel like I just inhaled a cup of sugar after having eaten one. Al thinks the best flavor is cookies ‘n cream, but I’m a fan of the chocolate chip cookie dough. He says tomato, I say to-mah-to, etc. (Note: I don’t actually say to-mah-to).

4. PB2. Oh, hey, did you hear that I’ve gotten into smoothies recently? Well, I have. And what’s better than a smoothie with a ton of peanut butter in it, amirite?? But, being a peanut butter addict, I knew that if I purchased actual peanut butter and brought it into my house, it would be gone (into my stomach) within a day or two, so I decided to mitigate the damage and give PB2 a whirl. It’s this weird, dehydrated peanut stuff that tastes exactly like peanut butter but supposedly only has a quarter of the fat and calories. It might be sorcery. (I’m kind of okay with that). I dump this stuff into smoothies and it even makes KALE taste better. KALE.

WARMTH*

*A note about this category: I have such horrible circulation that keeping my hands and feet from falling off is a major challenge every winter (and spring… and fall). So when I find products that actually help me in my quest not to become an amputee, I take note.

1. K-Bell fleece leggings. This winter, when I was in Bangor, Maine, visiting family, the temperatures were so low, stepping outside felt like journeying into outer space. Al’s thoughtful stepmom, seeing that I was not at all prepared for the winter, gave me a pair of K-Bell fleece-lined leggings for Christmas, and they changed my life. They’re leggings…. lined with fleece. That is all you need to know. I own four pairs.

2. Timberland boots. These were another recent Maine discovery. Let me tell you: these boots are the real deal. You can stomp through snow drifts in them or wear them to the bar and feel sort of edgy, OR BOTH. They are unbelievably warm, and this is coming from a woman with notoriously terrible circulation. My feet DO NOT GET COLD in these. For anyone who has ever hung out with me during the winter (or, in fact, any time during the year), this should be endorsement enough. In case you need more endorsement, please see rapper Timbaland.

Timberland boots and a homemade hat

Timberland boots and a homemade hat

Well, that’s all I got for now. If you’re a TV producer looking to give me my own lifestyle show in which I dole out more advice about how not to smell terrible and what to put in smoothies, shoot me an email. Let’s talk.

 

Portugal, part three — Lisbon: babies and monks and birds

We spent the third and final leg of our Portugal trip in Lisbon. We rented a little apartment in Alfama, the oldest district in the city.

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Al and I were really into Alfama. In some ways, it felt quintessentially European, with its narrow, cobbled streets,  shrines sprouting out of public walls, and ancient churches. But in other ways, it felt decidedly developing world. There was trash in the alleyways, certain streets in the neighborhood reeked of fish, and the buildings were crumbling and peeling. Alfama reminded me of some parts of Brazil, and even of Mozambique.

The neighborhood

The neighborhood

By the end of our time there, I had decided that Lisbon (and Alfama in particular) looked and felt how I imagine a Southern European city would have looked and felt forty years ago. Not backwards, of course, but not exactly cosmopolitan, either (and I mean that in the best way). Alfama was very neighborhood-y: people yelled at each other from windows, laundry hung out to dry over the streets, kids played in front of their parents’ shops. We saw the same people every day when we left the apartment (most of whom were old ladies in housecoats, doing their shopping), and no one seemed to be trying to sell us anything or otherwise adapting their behavior to accommodate tourists. We later realized that we were staying in the lower part of Alfama, which is decidedly un-touristy (except for a few fado bars), but on our last night, we ventured to upper Alfama, which, we discovered, is where all the tourists had been the entire time. I’m really glad we stayed where we did.

Upper Alfama

Upper Alfama

One of our favorite Alfama experiences happened one night after dinner, when we stopped in a tiny bar near the apartment. When we walked in, the bar was empty except for the bartender (a middle-aged lady) and a monk in full black robes. As soon as we bellied up to the bar to order our drinks, the monk started chit-chatting with us in Portuguese, telling us all about Portugal, port, his life as a monk (which appeared to entail getting up very early but also drinking fairly late at night), and the places he had traveled. When I hesitated over which type of port to order, he told me to get white port because it was “like a woman: sweet, soft, and full of soul,” or something to that effect. Oh, flirty Southern European monk! You sure have a way with the ladies!

At the monk/baby bar

At the monk/baby bar

Later, as Al and I sat there drinking port (and for Al, beirão, a sweet, surprisingly not disgusting herbal liqueur), a family consisting of three adults, a baby, and a toddler came in. Everyone seemed to be regulars (including the kids). I took a video (although it’s hard to tell what’s going on since the bar was dark and noisy, but you get the idea). From there on out, Al and I referred to that place as the “monk and baby bar.”

We did some sightseeing in Lisbon, too — we checked out the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the Tropical Botanical Garden — but mostly we just enjoyed walking around, admiring the old buildings and the azulejos, and, of course, drinking copious amounts of port. (Oh, how I love port!) We also got to meet up with my cousin Allie and her boyfriend, Marlo, which was fun. They took us to some bars in Bairro Alto, one of which had a bossa nova band (from whom I requested “Chega de Saudade,” obviously).

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

I also went for some good runs and saw some of the funky graffiti and sidewalk art along the river. In our wanderings, Al and I also encountered lots of caged birds, which was both sad and weird. I’d never before been to a place where people just hang bird cages (filled with birds) outside of their homes and places of business.

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Now, a word on food. Al and I concluded by the end of our time in Portugal that gastronomically speaking, the Portuguese do three things really well: 1) baked goods; 2) port; and 3) preserved fish. I also enjoyed the simple sheep’s milk cheeses and the marinated olives we got everywhere.

Queijo azeitao - scoopable, delicious sheep's cheese

Queijo azeitao – scoopable, delicious sheep’s cheese

Apart from those things, though, Portuguese cuisine struck us as being pretty nondescript. Unless you’re REALLY into salted codfish, you probably won’t come away from Portugal with a strong impression of their food. But if you have a thing for seafood in cans, hoo boy, you’re gonna love this place!

Into preserved fish? You've come to the right place.

Gorgeous packaging on preserved seafood

One thing the Portuguese do NOT excel at, we found out, is food photography. I started taking photos of all the horrendous food photography I saw, usually prominently displayed in the windows of restaurants, because so much of it was so revolting. Here are just two of my favorites, which were actually framed.

Congealing grease, anyone?

Congealing grease, anyone?

The fact that I can only positively identify 2 out of four of these foods is not a great sign.

I can only positively identify two out of four of these foods.

But you know what? Terrible food photography aside, we ate pretty well in Portugal. And we drank REALLY well. Overall, what I liked most about our time in Lisbon was wandering into cafes and restaurants in Alfama and not seeing any other tourists. We were never bombarded with gimmicks or up-sells or even particular attention, wherever we went, and it was really refreshing. To borrow a phrase from every Lonely Planet guide ever written, the city was very “atmospheric,” and we were sad to leave.

Obrigada, Portugal, por uma visita ótima!

Portugal, part two — Sintra: gardens, castles, and creepy toys

For the second leg of our Portugal trip, Al and I took the train from Santa Comba Dão back to Lisbon, and then another train from Lisbon to Sintra, a city about 20 miles outside of Lisbon, known for its beauty, quirkiness, and abundance of castles and monuments. We stayed at the utterly charming Cinco Bed and Breakfast, which had great views of the city and a friendly cat named Jack.

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The first day, we arrived fairly late in the afternoon, hot and tired from six hours of travel, so we decided to keep it low-key and hike up a giant hill to Sintra’s Moorish Castle (Castelo dos Mouros). [About that decision — here’s the thing about me and Al: we’re constitutionally incapable of actually being low-key. We always say we’re going to “chill” and we never actually do. Even when we’re sitting on the couch, we’re both always doing something. It’s a sickness. But we are who we are, I suppose]. So, we hiked up to the Moorish Castle, which was originally constructed in the 8th-9th centuries, which is an astonishingly long time ago, if you stop and think about it. The castle has fabulous views of the city, which is lush and green and populated by all sorts of interesting looking mansions and castles.

View from the Castelo dos Mouros

View from the Castelo dos Mouros

We spent some time up there, looking around and taking obnoxious selfies, then we came back down to town and did a fortified wine tasting at a local wine shop. The Portuguese call fortified wines “vinhos generosos,” and the lady pouring them for us certainly was generous. We tried madeira, port, and moscatel. My favorite was the white port, which I’d never tried before. Boozy and delicious.

That's a lot of fortified wine. Not that I'm complaining.

That’s a lot of fortified wine. Not that I’m complaining.

After that, we returned to the B&B, where we had dinner (cheese, prosciuttio, bread, and wine — the usual) and watched British TV. We had both missed British crime dramas and since Sintra’s dinner scene seemed overpriced and touristy, it was much more appealing to sit on the couch, see the sunset, and watch Hercule Poirot solve some crimes than to venture out into the night. We’re old, what can I tell you?

The next day, I went for a run in the morning and took photos of some of the interesting things I saw around the city, including some weird animal sculptures in the local park.

Frog sculpture at the local park

Frog sculpture at the park

Then, Al and I went to the Quinta da Regaleira, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a sprawling estate packed with unique architecture and carvings. It was refurbished in 1892 when it was owned by the Barons of Regaleira, a rich family from Porto, who hired Italian architect Luigi Manini to design the estate. Manini was, apparently, into some weird stuff, as the Quinta da Regaleira is filled with references to the Knights Templar, Masonry, alchemy, and the Rosicrucians.

Templar cross on the floor of the chapel, Quinta da Regaleira

Templar cross on the floor of the chapel, Quinta da Regaleira

Al’s favorite part of the Quinta da Regaleira was a deep well that you could walk down, which led to a series of caves and waterfalls.

Emerging from the underground cave

Emerging from the underground cave

Well at Quinta da Regaleira

Well at Quinta da Regaleira

We also enjoyed the fantastical animal carvings.

Switched at birth?

Switched at birth?

Before packing it in for the day, we stopped by the Museo dos Brinquedos (Toy Museum), which was fascinating. All the nightmarish dolls one could ever want!

Creeptastic dolls at the Toy Museum

Creeptastic dolls at the Toy Museum

Finally, before leaving Sintra, we had to eat lunch and do one more wine tasting at that little wine shop. Then, we bid the town tchauzinho and headed back to Lisbon for the final leg of our journey.

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Next stop: Portugal, part three: Lisbon.