Over-the-Humpday Challenge: Luck of the Irish

St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S. carries a lot of connotations. Green, shamrocks, beer, leprechauns, pots of gold, beer, luck, rainbows…did I mention beer?

I’m not a fan of beer. I’m a bread gal, through and through. And what better time of year to try your hand at making Irish Soda Bread?

Answer: none. Roll up those sleeves and preheat that oven people. We’re goin’ green – and for once, I’m not talking about the environment.

 

This is the first recipe I’ve made from the big yellow food bible, also know as The Gourmet Cookbook.

After hours of online research in a quest for the ideal soda bread recipe, it finally hit me: go to Gourmet. You can’t go wrong there. True story. They have not one, but two recipes for this particular kind of bread – I went with the Irish Brown Soda Bread. Love me some whole grain action!

Irish Brown Soda Bread (ever-so-slightly adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook)

Ingredients:

1 1/4 c. all purpose flour

1 c. whole wheat flour

1/2 c. oats (not instant – but I don’t have to tell you that, right? 😉

1/4 c. toasted wheat germ

1 tsp. sea salt (scant tsp. unless using table salt)

1 1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 stick or 4 T. cold unsalted butter

1 1/3 c. buttermilk

If your wheat germ needs toasting:

Preheat your oven to 350 F. Spread 1/4 c. wheat germ on a silpat or baking sheet (it shouldn’t stick much, so don’t worry about greasing the pan yet) and stick it in for about 2 1/2 – 5 minutes, depending on the intensity of your oven. Mine, for example, is a beast and in 3 minutes my wheat germ was a little well-done. Moral of the story: watch your wheat germ.

On to the good stuff:

Now preheat your oven to 425 F.

Cut the butter into bits and set aside or back in the fridge – you want it cold. Ireland-in-January-cold.

Get all the dry ingredients mingling together in a large bowl and whisk it all together.

Throw in the butter bits and toss the mix around to coat – don’t get too intense about this. We’re talking seconds here.

Ok, now you want to work the butter into the mix with your fingertips. You can use a pastry blender too, but if you actually have a pastry blender, I probably didn’t even need to tell you that.

Anyway, you want to get the mix to look like a “coarse meal.” I’ve never done this before, so I was a little anxious. Don’t worry – it’s pretty hard to eff-up butter. You basically want to massage the butter into the dough. It takes a bit of elbow grease, and if your counters/working space is a little on the high side, you may want to do this at a table that is hip-height. Or just flex your marching band backstep muscles and stand on your toes like me.

Now measure out your buttermilk and stir it in. I started with a spoon and switched to my hands after a while – sometimes messier = easier.

 

At this point, your dough [and hands] will be quite sticky and dare I say, gloppy. That’s ok! Just make sure you have floured the heck out of your work surface – and keep that flour canister handy. Knead the dough for about a minute and try not to get frustrated with its stickiness. This might be the most difficult step of the entire recipe. I promise you the result is worth it!

Your oven should be ready and rarin’ to go! Plop that dough on a silpat/greased/lined & floured baking sheet and form it into a 7-inch-wide round. Use a knife to mark a shallow X in the top.

It’s completely acceptable to pretend you are Zorro when you make the X. [Xorro?]

Now bake that dough-baby for 30-40 minutes or more – it should sound hollow when you tap the bottom. It took my loaf a looooong time to get close to that, probably closer to an hour, and I even think I took it out a little early. But I’m a big fan of doughy bread, so I had no problem with this. Personal choice.

Sit it on a rack – not a sheet or cutting board because the bottom will get soggy (yes, I did learn that the hard way) – and let it cool for about 2 hours before cutting it. That’s what the directions told me, anyway, although I don’t think the world would stop spinning if you cut into a little early.

Holy Saint Patrick, this bread is SO GOOD. It tastes incredible – crusty, dense, doughy, with the subtlest hint of sweetness from the buttermilk. I just had it plain today because I think fresh bread is best eaten naked, but I’m pretty sure this is going to make some epic toast and grilled cheeses in the incredibly near future. And it didn’t take that long to make – we’re talking half an hour prep time tops.

Mission: Irish Soda Bread Accomplished. Move over, Guinness. This is officially the best way to celebrate this holiday. Ever.

Oh, and about the luck? Tonight I also poached first egg ever with great success, and created a pretty awesome roasted chickpea recipe off the top of my head in minutes. This bread is better than pot of gold any day.

I know what you’re thinking – that stupid leftover buttermilk. Stay tuned, my friends. I’ve got you covered.

A Few of My Favorite Things

Sometimes, the world appears to be caving in. When you feel like you are watching helplessly as lives are destroyed by natural disasters and heartless dictators, I find that it can help to turn to what you love. Because when the big things make you cry, you have to find the little things that make you smile.

Like a crusty and perfectly golden piece of baguette.

 

Juicy red plums. As tasty as they are pretty.

 

My long tea spoon that I [not-so] secretly stole from home. I use it multiple times a day. It’s perfect for eating oats, yogurt, nutella, and everything in between.

 

The vino-themed kitchen towels I found on sale at Bed Bath & Beyond. Affordable, adorable, and amazingly wine-stain-free. So far.

 

Warm spring breezes, new flowers, and extra sunlight.

 

What makes you smile?


 

That Darn Swing and the Return of OTHdC

It’s official. My “to-do today” list is 9 items long, I’ve had to fit in 2 short-notice meetings today, and I made lunch while talking on the phone and checking my email. The semester is, without a doubt, back in full-swing.

Really, it’s a good thing. I need to-do lists – they make me feel efficient – and I like have a variety of things to do. Too much free time is dangerous for me; I get into ruts and am easily frustrated.

That is, at least, what I keep telling myself.

I’d really like to say that I’m an old pro. That balancing school, 3 jobs and 2 blogs is a cinch for a near-compulsive organizer like me and just a matter of having the right day planner. But I would be lying, and that’s just lame. In all acutality, I live via the post-it note on my computer that lists everything I need to do just today, and I generally drink lots of tea and spend some quality time with Tastespotting. PS – Cookie-dough stuffed cupcakes. I can’t make this stuff up. Already on my devo fare list. (That’s “I must make” in Italian.)

As a general rule, I write things like little notes and my grocery list in Italian. Mostly to keep it in my head. Well, that….and I’m really just a huge geek.

BUT – this is a food blog, not an I-need-to-whine-about-growing-up blog, so let’s get to it.

For those of you who followed my previous blog, I started a Wednesday post called Over-the-HumpDay Challenge. I’d pick a recipe or certain goal for the day and report back. Recipes are probably the most fun 🙂 SO, today, I had every intention of bringing that back while making use of the buttermilk left in the fridge from these lovely cupcakes.

With images of warm and flaky buttermilk biscuits danced in my head, I opened the fridge…and saw this:

Now, I realize that buttermilk has some staying power, but I draw the line at 10 days. One sniff and my mind was made up: mission aborted.

So I made some tea and went back to reading about food in Florence post-WWII. It’s for class, I swear! A class I designed myself actually, syllabus and all, about the role food plays in the lives of women of the Mediterranean region in the 20th century. Man, I love going to a liberal arts college. More on that later.

And as a fresh wave of homemade tomato sauce and thick crusty bread flooded my brain, a new challenge came to mind:

Anchovies.

Now, don’t judge. It took going to Florence and finding the best sandwich shop in the whole world (ignoring the fact that I have not been to every sandwich shop in the whole word, that is not an exaggeration) to get me to fall in love with these salty little slivers of goodness.

Anchovies + herbs + pecorino + schiacciata = true sandwich love.

I like to think of anchovies like bacon. I could eat it by itself, but it’s so much better when it’s used for flavor. I looked at the use-by date and was all the more inspired – I will NOT be foiled by expiration dates twice in one day!!! I also had the end of a bag of frozen brussel sprouts and some arugula that was begging to be eaten quickly, and was seriously craving some olive oil. And thus, dinner was born.

I chopped up about half of the tin of fishies small and a clove of garlic after blanching the frozen sprouts. Blanching is just a fancy word for plunging (yes, plunging) uncooked veggies into boiling water and cooking it for about ONE minute. They turn a really vibrant green color, and they are easy to cut in half after.

I mixed everything together in a bowl and doused it with salt and pepper, herbs (rosemary-oregano-sage-basil-parsley) and olive oil. I was craving olive oil after reading about Florentine diet & culture. Normal? Probably not. But that’s how I roll.

I broiled this mix for, um, 10 minutes? on high. I don’t know, I just kind of watched it until it started to brown a bit. While I waited, I tossed some arugula (my FAVORITE green!) in a little balsamic and sea salt in the same bowl I used to mix the veggies & fishies. Out of the broiler, onto the arugula and top with some parmigiana.

Dinner.

Don’t forget the bread!

This was delicious! I love when my meals are successful. There’s nothin like that feeling, right?

Mission Use-Up-Anchovies: Accomplished.

I guess those biscuits will just have to wait…

Restaurant Review: Sagra

Thank goodness I have a family who can eat Italian food any day of the week.
Tonight, we decided to try out a brand new restaurant tht’s just opened up in my town (Dedham, Mass): Sagra.
[For anyone who lives farther away in Mass, there is another one in Somerville!]
Now, not gonna lie, part of the reason we went was so I could look into job opportunities – I want so badly to work in an Italian restaurant! If nothing else, to talk to patrons and use all my food-talk to explain the wonderful dishes. And wonderful they are!
No good Italian restaurant lets a table be without bread.
This was goooood. Garlic bread, light on the garlic. I actually liked that – it makes it more versatile, so anyone opposed to having garlic-breath (or just someone on a date) won’t have to worry. It was very much like focaccia, although the texture seemed a little denser to me than usual. Maybe it’s just their way of preparing though. The beauty of bread is that the same 4 ingredients can make SO many different things!
Oh, and also, that it goes with cheese.
This is not just any cheese. This is ricotta spiked with parsley and orange zest in a ring of olive oil. The olive oil was very light in flavor, which I didn’t totally dig, but this ricotta was pretty incredible. The orange and parlsey combo gave it such a wonderful, fresh flavor! It meshed really well with the creaminess of the cheese. Forget cream cheese – I will have this on a bagel, please!
To start, we ordered my absolute favorite – bruschetta tradizionale. I have been craving it lately – honestly, I’m surprised I haven’t made it sooner myself! Bread + olive oil + fresh veggies. Hard to go wrong.
And Sagra’s was no exception. I loved the grilled bread, and the added arugula underneath (I always eat the garnish!). Could have used a little basil, but that’s my only issue. I love the funky-shaped plate it came on, too! At this point, I was starting to worry that I wouldn’t have any room for my dinner…
But I can generally make room. Especially when goat cheese is involved.
I was feeling some greens, so I ordered the Spinaci Caprino salad – spinach, radicchio, goat cheese, Turkish apricots in a raspberry vinaigrette. I added grilled shrimp to it, because…well, it’s shrimp. That’s just a given.
This made so happy. Unlike SO many restaurants, the amount of dressing was perfect – enough to taste it and, well, dress the salad, but not so much that it was overwhelming [or caused soggy spinach….serious pet peeve of mine.]. The goat cheese was good goat cheese, and the sweetness of the apricots and raspberry complemented the bitter radicchio very well. It was massive, but I ate most of it 🙂

My mom ordered a verdi misti (mixed greens salad) to start [she needs her greens too]:
A truly excellent simple salad. The dressing was just a balsamic + oil, also very well proportioned. And the best part was the addition of fennel! LOVED it. Really added a nice crunch and fresh flavor (yup, I stole several bites ;).
Her entree was too pretty not to show off:
The special risotto: Golden Beet risotto
The risotto was very well done, with a very strong parmesan flavor – very much like mac & cheese with rice instead of pasta. You couldn’t really taste the regular beets – but you sure can see them! That yellow thing would be a bog ole roasted golden beet – and it was de-LISH. We’ve already decided to look for it at the Farmer’s Market (which opens next week – I’m.SO.excited.). It was a little sweet, with a nice smokey flavor from the roasting, and went so well with the strong cheese flavor and rich creaminess. On top are “hen of the woods” mushrooms – I’d never heard of that type of mushroom before, but they sure were tasty! I just love that deep, earthy tasty of mushrooms. Again, a perfect addition to this dish. A little fresh parsley and black pepper, and my mom was quite content. As was I to steal a bite or three.
My brother got a rigatoni pasta dish with broccoli rabe (which I always forget how much I like, but I do!), red peppers, and sausage. He was unimpressed, but I loved it – took my right back to Florence. AND, our waitress studied abroad in Rome when she was an undergrad and, well, I get really excited when I meet someone who’s had a similarly amazing experience in Italy. We bonded over mutual loves of Nutella.
Speaking of Nutella….
Nutella Bread Pudding. Boom.
I’ll be honest, it wasn’t as hazelnutty as just straight chocolatey, but that did not stop me from helping my brother polish the plate clean. This was lick-the-plate good (I refrained…but it wasn’t easy.). Although I have one teeny tiny criticism – that white scoop was supposedly “hazelnut semifreddo,” but it was really gelato/ice cream. Semifreddo is much more mousse-like, light and airy. It was definitely hazelnit though – it had big chunks of what tasted like caramelized hazelnuts in it and was heaven on a spoon. As was most of this. Cakey, chocolate, melty, moist…if you go and just get this, that would be acceptable. My cooking professor always told us that you judge a restaurant by its desserts – and in this case, Sagra gets a big fat 4 stars.
Why have I never made bread pudding before? Hell if I know, but I think it’s high time that changed. Mission: Bread Pudding is ON.
~Namaste~

Restaurant Review: Gran Gusto

What to do when you’ve just returned from a semester in Florence and are itching to go right back?
Go to one of the best Italian restaurants nearby.
Enter: Gran Gusto.
Located in Cambridge, Mass., Gran Gusto is owned and run by native Napolitani. Chef Giuseppe Castellano was generous enough to bring a taste of his home country to my home state, and boy am I grateful. Everything is homemade – from the focaccia slices brought in classy metal conical baskets, to the pasta and pizza, to the classic Italian dessert offerings. Oh, I was home!
After reading the menu and listening to our waiter (who spoke to me in Italian – I wanted to hug him!) list the specials with a certain flair that can only be described as veramente italiano, my parents each started out with a salad – and I stole plenty from each of their plates.
This is baby spinach, fresh asparages, roasted red peppers and a slice of what I am mostly sure was an aged pecorino (but might have been a good parmegiano reggiano…my tastebuds’ memory is failing me). It was all dressed up in a light oil-and-vinegar dressing and drizzled with a touch of balsamic. It was just lovely. The freshness and different flavors of the veggies, the sharp pungent taste of the cheese, and the sweetness of the balsamic was Italian simplicity at its finest. 
I should also mention the wine – my parents ordered a really nice red from Montalcino and gave me sips. YUM! Oh, I miss a glass of wine with dinner. It really makes the whole thing more satisfying.
For our entree, my parents and I ordered the same thing – boring, yes, but it sounded SO good!
Fresh fettuccine with morel mushrooms (some of the best funghi in the world), spinach, and baby squid called calamarelle. I heard squid and I was there! None of us were sorry, either. The pasta was perfectly al dente. The sweetness of the squid melded beautifully with the earthy mushrooms flavor, and I was just so happy. There’s just something about a wonderful plate of fresh pasta that gets me grinning every time.
No picture, but my brother ordered a pizza with ham, mushrooms, olives, artichokes, and the mandatory fresh tomato sauce and bufalo mozzarella. Though I’m quite sure no slice will ever top the pies we made in cooking class, this was as authentic as it gets. My dad said it really took him back to his childhood, when he could wander down to a pizza place that used the fresh tomato sauce and mozz. The boys at the table were quite satisfied 🙂
When dessert time rolled around, the words of my beloved cooking professor resonated in my head: “The true way to judge a restaurant is by its dessert list. The way the chef chooses to finish the meal is very important.”
Couldn’t agree more.
My brother went with the tiramisu – one of our mutual favorite desserts. The thing I love about tiramisu is that it’s always a little different every time I taste it. This was no exception. Though I still prefer our rendition, this was good with a thicker than usual layer of cocoa, giving it a really nice deep cocoa-y flavor. 
My parents, hankering for something lighter and fruity, went with the delizia limone:
A wonderfully light lemon sponge cake with a chilled lemon cream in the middle and a couple big fat slices of strawberries hiding!
I ended up helping them out a lot with this – I love that it was chilled! It turned the tart lemon, sweet cream and airy cake into a light lemony cloud of dessert perfection. And the strawberry slices in the middle were like finding buried treasure!
If you live anywhere in the vicinity of Cambridge and have a hankering for bell’ Italia, or even just want to brush up on your Italian language skills, take a trip to Gran Gusto. It certainly helped this homesick Florence-sick chick!
~Namaste~

Puffy Pizza and Planes

Gah, no update in so long! Didja miss me? Barcelona was SO FUN!!! But more on that later. When we last left Gillianasana…
I’ll be honest, Thursday did not begin well. You may remember my Easter morning surprise when I woke up to find my face swollen to 10 times its normal size. I suspect it’s either a reaction to Italian mosquitoes or something else like bed bugs….EW. Whatever it is, it got me again, and my eyes were swollen shut. As in, I could barely see to walk around the apartment. Thank goodness I had one Italian class left that I could miss. I have pictures…but I’ll spare you. I’d hate to spoil anyone’s appetite.
What upset me most about this little obstacle was that not only was today my last cooking class (*tear*), but it was the class focused on my true carb love, bread. And not just any bread….pizza dough!!!! Yes, today we made pizza from scratch. I was not about to miss this, swollen eyes or not. By the time class rolled around it had gone done a little, so I threw on my big sunglasses and was out the door. 
We all split up into 5 groups – 4 pizzas and 1 dessert. My group went with a veggie pizza – eggplant, zucchini, and mozzarella with garlic and tomato sauce. It was fantastically easy, too – my family better be ready for some pizza a la ME!
We started with the basic bread recipe – flour, water, yeast, a little salt and a pinch of sugar. *Tip*: you always use half the amount of flour for the water. Like, if you have 300 grams of flour, you use 150 ml of water. You melt the yeast in the water first and add the pinch of sugar – the sugar helps activate the yeast to move things along quicker. Mix the flour and salt together and form what I call the flour volcano – bascially make a hole in the middle of the flour pile so the flour forms a kind of wall . Pour some of the water/yeast mixture into the hole and start gently working them together – we used a fork to do this, kind of making a whipping/beating motion. Eventually it will be juuust well-mixed enough to start kneading with your hands.  Add a little olive oil, white wine, and vinegar as you knead to keep the bread from drying out. After about 10 minutes, form the dough into a ball and make an X in the top; let it rest for about 2 more minutes, then work it a liiittle bit more, then reform the ball, remark the X, and let it rest again under a damp paper towel for about 10 minutes. When your 10 minutes are up, roll it out with a rolling pin on both sides – it will probably be a funky shape, not a perfect circle. Personally, I think that makes it more interesting. Just sayin.
For veggie pizzas, the veggies MUST be sauteed at least a little before being put on the pizza and baked. Veggies are mostly made of water, and if you throw em on there raw, they will release their water onto the pizza while baking and the end result is heavy and very hard to eat – no wimpy pizzas!!! We sauteed our eggplant and zucchini in some olive oil and garlic (hard to go wrong with that combo). For the sauce, we just used pureed tomatoes and heated it up, adding a little (what else?) olive oil. Ladel it in small amount in the middle of the rolled out pizza dough and swirl it around with the bottom of the ladel. Repeat this just until it’s covered – don’t oversauce! I promise, there will be enough, even if you like sauce. Just put the ladel down.
Add your sauteed veggies and cheeeeeeese:
And throw it in the oven for baby and me about 20 minutes-ish at 215 Celsius, about 415 degrees Fahrenheit. E voila!
Have you ever seen such a beautiful sight?
Ours was my favorite I think. The crust was the perfect thick/thinness, there was just enough sauce, not too much cheese and the veggies gave texture and taste that made this probably some of the best pizza ever.
Another group made a Margherita pizza, which is fresh tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella. I liked it, but I think I prefer tomato sauce to straight tomatoes.
Then there was a [mostly] white pizza with mozzarella, parmesan, prosciutto and I believe mushrooms. I LOVE parmesan on pizza. It gives it such a good bite. This was probably my second fave.
The last group topped theirs with potatoes and rosemary. I liked it, but I didn’t love it; the textures of the bread and potatoes didn’t work as well together for me. I would rather have them separate, I suppose. 
We kept it simple with dessert – stuffed peaches. They’re finally in season here, and they were cut open, de-pitted and stuffed with a mixture of chopped almonds, brown sugar, egg yolk, cocoa powder
It was a very tasty little bite. The peaches were a little too underripe I think, but the filling was AWESOME. Like a really good biscotti – crumbly, sweet, almondy. Would actually be really good on oatmeal, methinks…
And no pizza is complete without wine, right? A very light white. My puffy self was grateful.
[I kept my sunglasses on the entire class. I’m sure everyone thinks I’m insane. Don’t care.]
After that, it was a mad rush to GET OUT of the house and get our butts to Barcelona!! My roommate from school is studying there this semester and I was soo excited to see her 🙂 After that the day started getting better (even though the puffiness didn’t fully reside until late the next day…eek). I won’t go into details about the rest of my Thursday, because, um, OY VEH. 
Barcelona – get ready. The ladies of The Palace are coming.
~Namaste~

Roughing It

Ah, the weekend. What everyone looks forward to. This weekend was especially exciting though – for our last excursion, API took us to Siena and Perugia for a weekend of thorough relaxation. I would have to say this mission was most certainly accomplished.
We boarded the bus on Saturday morning  [for once not at the butt crack of dawn!] and headed to Siena, an idyllic Tuscan town a bit south of Florence. It is world-renowned for its natural beauty; in fact, if you google Tuscan landscapes, there’s a pretty good chance that one of the first pictures to pop up will be in Siena. I gave Frida a firm talking to before we left – this was not the trip to be without a camera, and her best behavior was mandatory. She grudgingly complied.
Siena’s Duomo.
Fun fact: The word ‘duomo’ has nothing to do with domes! It was taken from the German word for house and in Italy a “Duomo” is the “house of God”, meaning it is the most important church in its city.
Siena and Florence were HUGE rivals, and Siena began constructing their Duomo with plans to make it greater than Brunelleschi’s creation for Florence. They didn’t succeed, but this is nevertheless an immensely impressive structure. Just look at the detail!
InTENSE.
Main piazza – can you see the seashell shape?
Siena is also known for its horse race, a tradition dating waaaaaay back that draws thousands upon thousands of people into this small city. Siena is divided into sections called contrade, and each contrada has its own symbol and horse. Most of the symbols represent strength, including a rhinoceros, a griffin, and the tower on top of the elephant that you see above^. A horse representing each contrada gathers in the main piazza and in 75 seconds, it’s over and done with. The prize is pretty much the ability to say “hey, we won!”, but the loyalty to one’s contrada is fierce and quite endearing. Being the good little tourists that we are, we each bought a banner with the symbol of a different contrada on each.
I got the porcupine. Duh.
After our walking tour we went on a lunch-hunt. After a failed search for a recommended restaurant, we settled for another one, which turned out to be slightly mediocre, but fit the bill.
I was feelin the veggies today, and definitely made the right choices!
Melanzane alla griglia fatte in casa – Grilled eggplant made in-house
This was quite amazing, I will say. Very garlickly and tender. Perfect for this veggie-loving soul.
And bruschetta:
Certainly not the best I’ve had, but when in Italy it’s hard to find “bad” bruschetta. Olive oil, bread, fresh basil + tomatoes. Simply amazing…or amazingly simple?
After doing some souvenir shopping, we made sure to get some of the Sienese specialty called panforte, a kind of sweet whose recipe dates back to the Middle Ages when it was eaten as a kind of “trail mix” for the Crusaders.
Panforte al cioccolato
It’s a very dense mix of dried fruit, nuts (mostly almonds and pistachios), honey, and various spices. It was heavy on the cinnamon and cocoa – which I loved, and also on the orange rind – which I was not so much a fan of.Overall though, the cakey texture mixed with the variety of other textures and the complex flavors made this a very enjoyable treat for my tastebuds – those Crusaders had good taste!
Now, prepare to be jealous. The main event of the day was a trip to a thermal spa, located in the Rapolano area just outside of Siena. This area is located above thermal waters that have been enriched by the minerals of the soil deep within the earth. The Etruscans discovered that the minerals in the water were amazingly beneficial for the body both inside and out, helping everything from smoothing skin to cleansing the internal organs. There are many spas in this area that have tapped into the thermal waters and constructed pools for people to sit in and soak up the minerals to receive their many health benefits. 
Oh man, this was incredible. The water was like a warm, comforting bath, and it was so relaxing to just sit and soak and chat for a couple hours. I left feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, and all-around happy.
Rough weekend so far, no?
After our perfectly lovely afternoon at the spa, we went to our hotel – the Grand Hotel Boston! They must have known I was coming (well, me and the hundred other kids with API from Mass…). In case we hadn’t been pampered enough just yet, API had planned a four-course dinner for us at the hotel. It was nothing more than your average hotel food, but we were excited for a free meal and to be waited on regardless!
They even had menus on the table for us:
The obligatory bread and wine:
First antipasto: CHEESE!
The upper one was tomino, a very soft creamy cheese that is exactly like brie in its consistency but has none of brie’s pungency. I enjoyed it, but it paled in comparison to this guy:
Maybe I was just starving, maybe I don’t eat fresh mozzarella plain often enough, but this tasted absolutely incredible. Soft, milky, with a rich mouth-feel but a light flavor. This was the most delicious bite of the entire meal.
Second antipasto: Fritture
This was an assortment of fried veggies and rice balls. I took a taste, but nothing more. When I was on my weight-loss diet, I completely cut out all things fried and ever since then, I can’t eat it without getting horribly sick. I can’t ever taste what has actually been fried, it all tastes like the same cheap, greasy lump to me. I also think I’ve developed a conditioned taste aversion – I immediately connect the taste of deep-fried food to the unbearable nausea that I’m always stuck with after, and I just can’t do it. Alas and alack, I simply cannot appreciate it. Perhaps some day…
First primi: Zuppa di verdure – Vegetable soup
Well, the name pretty much says it all. Soup of vegetables. It was a bit too salty, and not much more impressive than something that I can get out of a can. But, I’m always happy to have some fresh vegetables, and it was perfectly edible – just nothing more.
Second primi: Lasagna vegetariana
Apparently this hotel defines ‘vegetarian lasagna’ as regular ol’ lasagna without the ground meat; the only vegetables in here were the tomatoes in the sauce. It had a hint of what I thought was nutmeg, and I did appreciate that surprisingly little tough of sweetness. The crunchy outer noodles were also a nice contrast to the soft, melty middle. Not bad, just unremarkable. I probably ate about 3/4 of it.
Secondi: Roasted Chicken
This was actually pretty decent. Very simple salt+pepper+rosemary seasoning (although a little too heavy on the salt). Too much dark meat for my taste, and I will admit for the amount of work that goes into picking the meat of the bone, the acutal amount of edible chicken I was left with was not worth it. But, I enjoyed the few bites I had. Again, nothing special. It did get me excited for summer at home though – my dad makes a mean lemon-pepper bbq chicken!
Dessert
You know me; this was what I was waiting for. Unfortunately, it followed suite with the previous courses in its overwhelming mediocrity. It was kind of like a tiramisu cake; something like angel food cake with a whipped topping drizzled with a coffee-chocolate sauce and a light chocolate cream layer. The cake was only slightly better than tasteless, and the filling was more like a pastry cream with a hint of cocoa than a chocolate filling which I found disappointing. The whipped topping was like Cool Whip in texture (thankfully without the artificial chemically taste) with a coffee-cocoa drizzle that was clearly trying to imitate tiramisu, My main complaint is WHY did they not just make tiramisu (very hard to screw up) instead of producing this subpar impostor? But, it was dessert, and I of course had no problem lapping it up within minutes.
Ok, I kind of bashed the dinner a little bit; but I promise, it was a truly wonderful evening! It was the perfect end to a long, luxurious day and the company of my sweet roommates made the dinner a success. We had laughter, wine, and plenty to talk about – luckily for me, they like talking about food, so we discussed the dinner as we ate!
Morning brings my favorite part of staying in hotels: the free breakfast. Most important meal of day, right?
Tea, yogurt, muesli, a roll [which went uneaten], and MELON! If you had only seen my face when I saw that platter piled with infinite melon…like a kid on Christmas morning. I am a full-on melon addict, and could (and when I’m at school, do) eat it every day and never get sick of it. I must have gone back 4 or five times, probably at least half a melon’s worth! It was exactly what I wanted after that heavy meal the night before. I’m so excited for summer fruits!!!
After breakfast we boarded the bus and zoomed off to…
PERUGIA!
We entered the city through what was the residential area of the city in the Middle Ages. It was a huge labyrinth of arches where people used to live under one big roof, and was really cool to see.
I was too amused with this scene: the escalator leading down into the medieval residences. I am endlessly fascinated by past-meets-present collisions! *NERDALERT*
Perugia is located in the region of Umbria, just under Tuscany, known as the “Green Heart of Italy.”
Give you one guess why:
Those Etruscans looooved their aqueducts!
There were these little yellow flowers sprouting up out of the most random spots! Frida thought it was poetic.
Ca-RAZY church!

If ‘Perugia’ sounds familiar to you, it might be because it is the birthplace of the chocolate company Perugina. They produce Bacio (literally, ‘kiss’ – we have Hershey’s, Italy has Perugina!). A Bacio is a dark chocolate shell with a chocolate truffle filling dotted with chopped hazelnut and one whole hazelnut in the middle! Don’t worry, I have pictures coming tomorrow…patience, grasshopper.
This was our non-negotiable first stop.
Perugia is also home to one of the world’s most famous chocolate festivals! Every October, thousands of people flood the streets – they say you can smell chocolate everywhere! Fall Break trip to Italy, anyone?
LOOK at the Hedgehog cakes!!! Iwantonenow.
You may have noticed a key element missing from our trip so far…
GELATO! We quickly made up for its absence.
Raspberry + Bacio, because, well, when in Rome Perugia!
After a walking tour and an espresso in the sun, we were off to today’s main event: a wine tasting in Chianti!
Like I said…rough weekend.
It took place at Castillo di Verrazzano, as in the Verrazzano who discovered New York. I guess it’s not too surprising that his family has a castle, huh? We were welcomed by the owner, who was a very charming Italian man. He may have been a little too charming, because I couldn’t even dislike him despite the fact that I was absolutely green with jealousy over his “house”:
And I thought I had it rough.
He talked for a while about how wonderful it is to walk around a vineyard and take in every sight and smell it has to offer, because then when you taste its wine, you can appreciate it all the more. You can taste the cherries from the cherry tree, and the lemons growing on the lemon trees. Wine is not for “getting drunk”; as he said, a baby could get drunk! Wine is about respect. AMEN! To be honest, I only really like wine when I sip it slowly and only have a couple small glasses; I find I get bored with the flavor and forget to really ‘taste’ it if I just mindlessly pour and drink. And that takes all the fun away!
We proceeded with a tour of the castle & its cellars:

Their reserve bottles – check out that layer of dust!

We were all ushered in to a big room for the sit-down tasting. Just as I had hoped, the owner walked us through the first sip, explaining how to hold the glass, look at the color, check the alcohol content, and even how to smell it correctly! What I learned in Italy…
We started with a simple table wine, red of course:

Then proceeded to the Chianti Classico – this was my favorite:
What a fox, that Verrazzano.
Just like the other tastings, we were served lots of “snacks” with the wine that turned into a perfect dinner! Tuscan bread, olive oil, toasted garlic bread (my favorite), salami and prosciutto, pecorino (my love!), salad, white beans…the works. Oh, but I was happy.
We also got to taste one of the Reserve wines; I could definitely taste the difference in its age and quality, but to be honest, it wasn’t my favorite. It was too strong for my underdeveloped palate 😉 But it was such a fun experience!
We ended with the traditional cantucci (Tuscan biscotti) to dip in Vin Santo, the classic dessert wine.
Mmmmmmmmmmmmm. I liked this vin santo better than the last I had – less strong/bitter. I really like the two together! Really, I just love cantucci. A lot.
Before we left this beautiful trip behind and traveled back to the semi-reality of Florence, I took some pics of the castle’s “back yard”:
Now that’s rough.
~Namaste~

Back in Action

So, Spring break broke. But it was a good one! Lots of sleep, yoga, gelato, and gorgeous Tuscan landscapes. Perfetto!
Yesterday was mostly spent cleaning – swept the whole apartment! Eventually I got a little stircrazy and had to get OUT and enjoy the lovely spring weather! Had to complete the picture with some gelato:

Straciatella al caffe (coffe chocolate chip) + tiramisu. GREAT combo.

I went to Piazza Santa Croce and sat on a bench while I read the homework that I may or may not have forgotten about…It was so nice! The weather, the musicians playing, the CUTE dogs…wonderful way to get homework done. I took the long way home and walked by a church on my street and there must have been a wedding!
RAINBOW RICE!!! Sweet!
When I got back, my roommate wasn’t far behind! We decided to end Spring Break on a high note and go out to one of the many recommended restaurants nearby. We split a baby bottle of wine to go with our respective meals. I went with an appetizer + side dish, which I really like to do because the portion ends up being just right!
Crostini (toasted or grilled bread) with 3 different toppings

The one closest to the camera was a pate of sorts, not sure what animal, but sometimes I think it’s best to not ask questions. Above that was a tomato-onion something or other that included raisins – I wasn’t a big fan of that one, too sweet! At the top was an amazing smoked eggplant-garlic-oil thing that my roommate and I had NO problem polishing off. Mmmm, eggplant. I also ordered a side of cooked spinach – needed something to balance out the bread! I just love spinach. Especially in smoothies…it sounds weird, but you really can’t taste the spinach. It just turns the smoothie green and boosts the nutritional value. I miss those Green Monsters!
Today it was back to the grind. I got a solid A on my Food & Culture mid-term, yayayayay!! I love that class. And I better keep lovin it – I have a presentation and a 10-page research paper due for it this month! Eeek.
A good breakfast was definitely necessary to start back:

Banana yogoat float!
Sliced banana + raw oats + vanilla yogurt. Hard to go wrong when using good ingredients!

I went to the market after my Food & Culture class (my music class was canceled because we are going to 2 concerts this week) and picked up some necessities. 3 apples & 3 pears for 96 cents!!! So exciting. Also, yummy fresh bread:
Pane alla soia – soy bread? I like it a lot! It has an almost sweet(?) flavor…hard to describe. Other than…yum.
I picked up lunch (at Casa del Vino, of course):
Prosciutto and pecorino. Simple. Amazing.
Seriously, this took “ham and cheese” to a whole new level. It might even be my favorite, just because it was so simple yet soooo tasty.
I ate it on the steps of the Brancacci Chapel, on the other side of the Arno.

A lunch with a view!

I actually went in the Brancacci Chapel today! (I tried to go over Spring Break but it was closed.) It was lovely. So peaceful.

Frescoes surrounded the courtyard (you can see in the picture below this one).

A little sunny courtyard inside. I sat there forever, sunbathing and listening to the birds chirping. Made for a lovely afternoon.
Though the courtyard was my favorite part, the Chapel wasn’t bad either:

A pieta of sorts in the chapel entrance.

The chapel is currently being restored, so there wasn’t much space to walk around. That, and Frida was PMSing and losing battery power. Hence, the subpar pics. But it was pretty!

Yes, lots of camera frustration. What really bugs me is that I get so annoyed over the fact that ever single picture I get is blurry and unrecignizable, that I forget where I am — as in, I have to remind myself to step back and say “whoa. I’m in a centuries-old, beautifully painted chapel in Florence and I’m not even appreciating it. Put. The camera. DOWN.” And I did. Damned if I’ll let technology take away a what should be an enjoyable experience!

I walked home after that, enjoying the great spring weather – finally too warm for my coat!

I got hungry pretty early and whipped this baby up:

Lentils, a small onion, a couple cherry tomatoes, and a TON of spinach. I needed to use it up! Seasoned it with a little rosemary, sage, S&P and pecorino romano. A little boring I suppose, but I liked it! Especially after I added some dijon mustard for a little kick.
It’s harder for me to experiment a lot with cooking here because I don’t have many spices to work with – I adore trying different spice combos. It is so interesting to me how something so small can completely manipulate the flavor(s) of a dish!

I was very good last night about getting to bed. I am trying so hard to get in bed before midnight the nights before I have Italian because it makes getting up and getting through my day SO much easier. Unfortunately, very little actual sleep happened, so I’m pretty exhausted today. I came right back and took a quick nap before meeting the girl I practice Italian with, and then came home for breakfast/lunch. It’s grey and chilly today (I would love to know where that spring weather went!), but I felt quite accomplished yesterday, and so I’m okay with today being a little less active. I have yoga tonight and then it’s time for Ethnic Tuesday dinner with the roomies! I believe we are planning on Indian tonight – woohoo!!!

On my walk home yesterday, I had a moment where all of a sudden I thought “Whoa. I’m in Italy right now. Living here. How did this happen!!” It’s odd, I adapted to life here so quickly, I suppose it didn’t fully sink in. And maybe it won’t totally sink in until I am able to look at it in retrospect. I don’t know how exactly I got so lucky, but I do know that I am in total awe and gratitude that I did.
I’ve been asking myself a lot, “How do I leave this place?” I don’t just mean hopping on a plane; I’m talking about leaving the lifestyle here that I’ve become so happily accustomed to, the sights and sounds, the food. I’m so attached, I’m not sure how I’m going to be able to walk away. But, I know I will figure it out. And I suspect I will end up with a deeper respect for the cultures of both here and my home. It’s going to be interesting, to say the least.

I have a presentation (on CHOCOLATE!) due soon, so I think I will put my sleepy brain to work before yoga. A domani!

~Namaste~

*Insert awesome quote from The Office here*

I have resurfaced from a massive Office marathon to say: I heart Spring Break! And also Jim and Pam.
Best couple since Ross & Rachel.
Yesterday was uneventful [hence the lack of post], but nevertheless satisfying. All days such as this begin with…OATS!
Remember my Candy Land addition? Here’s a new one – cinnamon oat shore + vanilla yogurt sea. Great for spoonboarding! (Get it?? surfboarding, spoonboarding….wow. Stop now Gillian. Just stop.)
Took my roomie to my Monday sandwich place – no photo, we had to walk-and-eat because we were busy shopping for…
The most beautiful handmade leather sandals ever.
And they’re all mine. Spring can start now – time to get these babies broken in!
Lunch, by the way, was as wonderful as usual – tuna with olive oil, fresh tomatoes, and “salsa verde” (literally green sauce – very similar to pesto, different in different places – basically a blend of green herby goodness and olive oil). Lots of people were in there (all locals!), and most of the just ordered whatever they wanted on the sandwich (not off the menu), so maybe I will try that next week!
Dinner was my own random little creation:
Lentils, yellow bell pepper, parsley, spinach. Topped with pecorino that got all melty and yummy…mmm.
Today was just lovely. The sun was out [mostly] and the temperature was up. I had the windows to the kitchen wide open all day.
1st stop was to the market for some necessities! I thought you might like to see the goods:
Basil
The best almonds ever.
Semi-whole grain bread (funky shape!)
I’ve seen this several times and finally decided to try it today – it’s called “Procorn”. I don’t what exactly it is, but it is a thick brown bread filled with different seeds. Here’s a close-up:
It’s incredible! Kind of buttery on it’s own, with a really hearty flavor…I’m in love.
Yellow apples – my current fruit obsession.
Pecorino Romano
Spinach + arugula
Dried strawberries/white grapes – YUM!
This is more than I usually get; I only need the cheese and the dried fruits/almonds every 3 weeks or so. The market is just a fun place to wander around – great people-watching.  
Came back and sat on the little walkway that leads to another apartment. I haven’t been able to sit out here yet because it’s usually taken over by the girls across the hall who, um…well, let’s just say, we don’t “mesh” well. Interpret as you will. BUT everyone is off exploring Europe (or at least its bars), and this little spot is all mine! Took advantage of a new sandal break-in opportunity:
[Please disregard the mostly-chipped-off nail polish]
Frida the camera came out to sunbathe with me:
I eventually got hungry and came in to make…seitan burgers!
Seitan falls into a similar category as tofu and tempeh as a vegetarian protein – I think it’s fermented wheat, but please don’t quote me on it. I will look it up and get back to you. Whatever it is, I LOVED it! Maybe not quite as much as tempeh (but I reaaaalllly love tempeh), but it was delicious. Very much like Morningstar Farm veggie burgers, which I also adore. Can’t wait to find more and experiment with it when I go home!
It was definitely a day for a passeggiata in Firenze! I walked for a looong time. 
Oh how I will miss these streets!!
First I found the street of the apartment that my parents are renting for their week here in April:
(No idea what number their building is)
Then I crossed the Arno…
I took this because if you squint you can see the sun beams through the clouds…it looked better in person 🙂
I was searching for the Bracacci Chapel. My wonderful major advisor said it was a must-see, and that is what  my spring break is for! Funny story – I followed my directions and knew exactly where I was, but I couldn’t find it. I did find some church-like building that was getting restored in the front, but no chapel. I walked around in a BIG square and when I came back to where I started…I found the chapel. It is part of the church getting restored. Clearly, I was expecting the chapel to come to life and formally introduce itself. Nope. Slight setback done with, I went up to the door…and read the sign that said “Tuesday–Closed.” Figures. It was a great walk though!
I chilled for a while just soaking in the feeling of being in my apartment in Florence with the windows wide open, letting the breeze and sunlight in…it’s a nice feeling.
My poor roommate is sick! She just returned from Ireland and feels awful. Send her feel-better vibes! I considered going out to dinner alone, but kind of chickened-out. Lunch I have no problem with, but dinner is harder. However, I have a looooong list (Excel spreadsheet, actually – don’t hate!) of places I “need” to eat at, so I picked one of the other places rumored to have the “best sandwiches in town” and was off! On my way, I passed a gelateria that I have heard highly recommended, but whenever we try to go, it’s closed. We have seriously tried 3 different times. Quite frustrating. And I’ve always been a supporter of eating dessert first, so…
Almond gelato. MMM.
This place has “Sicilian-style” gelato – I honestly have no idea what that means/why it is different from the rest of gelato in Italy. It was good, but I didn’t find it anything more special than others – Perche No! still has my heart.
I found the sandwich place, “I Fratellini” (The Brothers) – it’s actually a teeny wine bar, a literal hole in the wall. I got the vegetariano:
There’s a hole in my bread! Actually, I really liked it, made it easier to eat I think.
Light on the vegetables – mostly just eggplant & olive oil.
It was good, but not amazing – I’m not sure anyone will beat my beloved Casa del Vino. I did love this roll though, nice and crunchy like french bread. Man I love bread.
–We interrupt this post for a random rant from the author–
Wanna hear something funny? I don’t gain a BIT of weight eating the “Italian way” – oats and fruit for breakfast, and either a light lunch if I’m going out for dinner, or vice versa – all washed down with some gelato and extra fruit here and there. It’s a fantastic way to eat – completely satisfying and no deprivation at all. It’s when I fall back into “bad habits” such as making my meals smaller to “reduce calories” – the funny thing is, making smaller meals sends a message to my brain that I “can” snack more, and it’s when I get into snack after mindless snack that my pants start feeling a little smaller. It’s a sick cycle, really. And I’ve been falling back into my snacking rut and feeling it, and I don’t like it (even though most of the pants I brought are STILL too big!) SO, all that to say with all you wonderful blog readers as my witness – I am going to become a more mindful eater. Gelato, wonderful bread, and amazing pasta will NOT be excluded, and this is NOT a “diet.” I am simply going to focus on eating what my body wants and needs – more paying attention to actual hunger, less snacking on crackers because “they’re there.” The other problem with snacking, for me, is that I enjoy the food so much less – I’m not eating it for fuel or flavor, just for something else to do. And that is taking all the fun out of food! Really, this rant is my way of holding myself accountable – if any would like to join me, feel free to comment and join the fun!
In case your eyes started to glaze over and drool got dangerously close to the keyboard when you started reading this, I will sum up: Eat real food mindfully and be happy.
Only an English major takes a huge paragraph to say 7 words.
–Now back to your regularly scheduled post–
I am planning on a trip to the Uffizi tomorrow…and other than that, who knows?
~Namaste~