Unexpected Austin

Wednesday, August 11th 2010: Wake up far too early for a sunny day in August. Eat some melon. Head to airport. 
Destination: Austin, Texas.
Purpose: Training as a Peer Mentor for Academic Programs International.
[Just wanted to set the scene for y’all. Why the James Bond writing style?…If I told you, I’d have to kill you.]
Once I passed through security – always a barrel of laughs, that process – I proclaimed it breakfast time. And whaddya know, but there was a UFood Grill in the American terminal. I have heard of this particular restaurant and have always wanted to go, but all its Massachusetts locations are in downtown Boston, and it’s not easy to just hop down there. (Mostly because I refuse to drive in Boston. I value the lives of myself and my car far too much.) It’s a super casual dining place that features all health-focused fresh foods – AND tart frozen yogurt. If I haven’t mentioned it before, I have a frozen yogurt, erm, problem. The problem being that I love it and will get it at pretty much anytime of the day or night, irregardless of actual hunger. It’s usually worth it.
But, I also saw they offered smoothies, and that sounded perfect so early on in the day. I grabbed a yogurt and the Mango Madness smoothie – mango, banana, and orange juice.
It was a little heavy on the OJ flavor, but it was pretty tasty. And it made me happy to see a substantial healthy breakfast option in the airport. It made me smile.
I had a layover at OHare in Chicago, and was equally as successful in finding a healthy lunch option!
It was lacking in the protein department, and was seriously screaming for some avocado, but it was really fresh and tasty. The cilantro made ALL the difference, and I was really impressed that it was even there! When I think of airports and herbs together, I see a flight attendant asking me if salt counts. Go OHare and cilantro!
Got to Austin and eventually found the other 3 Peer Mentors who were with me – we were on the same flight the whole time!
I’m just going to say it now: I have never, EVER in my life experiences humidity like I did in Texas. It was what I think rain forests and green houses are like. It was intense and inescapable. But I actually kind of liked it – the air conditioning never felt too cold! 
Despite all the heat, we still saw plenty of runners and bikers and strollers out and about, sweaty and smiling. It was impressive. Insane, but impressive.
After getting to the hotel, my roommate Gab and I chilled in the room and literally talked for 2.5 hours straight. She had studied with the API Toscania program, and it was absolutely incredible to share our mutual Italy experience/adventures. In fact, the entire time in Austin was like the best therapy I could have asked for in the transition back to home life. I loved hearing about everyone else’s experiences and even though we all went to different places, we all had the common ground of loving every minute of it and it was amazing to connect with that. It was just the coolest group of people. I kinda wish we got to work together more as Peer Mentors. But before I get too wish-washy…
On to the FOOD. We definitely ate well in Austin. The first night, we went to a Tex-Mex place. As we should have.
 
[Insert here bowls of some seriously delicious salsa, guacamole, and queso. I always thought queso was just glorified melted Veleveeta cheese….I was wrong. It’s amazing.]
I went with the fish tacos for my entree. It was a tough choice, but I’ve always wanted to try them, and I do love me some grilled tilapia. It was a good choice 🙂
The corn tortillas were soft (my fave!) and tasted homemade, and I never thought I would say this, but the best part of the dish was the Chipotle Ranch dressing drizzled on top. I usually opt for no dressing, because the plate typically arrives drowning under a cloying, bland, cheap-tasting white goo. But this was unlike no other ranch I’ve ever tasted. It was light but wonderfully creamy, well-spiced but not too hot, and accented the dish without taking any other flavor away. Basically, exactly what a sauce should be. One of the best tex-mex experiences I’ve ever had. (The only one that was better was a seafood enchilada in downtown Boston when I was around 9. It remains in my head as one of the tastiest seafood dishes yet to reach my mouth. I could eat one right now.)
After dinner, the group of us wandered around downtown Austin (ha! that rhymes with Boston!…maybe I need to get out more.). Austin is such a cool city! It reminded me a lot of Charlotte, North Carolina which I was totally not expecting. Most of our group ended up doing a bit of bar-hopping on the [in]famous 6th street, but my 20-year-old status and very tired self prevented me from doing the same. Luckily, my roommate and one other girl were also still 20, so I wasn’t alone. Yay for the youngin’s!
After a none-too-restful night, I awoke groggy but excited to get started. It was so great to actually meet the people I had emailed obsessively and see the building where that rather hefty check was sent to. The API Staff is just awesome. And a lot of them are Gillianasana readers, which just makes me grin like an idiot to know. [Hi everyone!!!] And the office decor is SO cool. The creative director Mark is, well, creative. It’s really colorful and fun, and I have plans to decorate my future apartment a la API. You’re all invited to my housewarming party. Bring chocolate.
We went out to lunch & I had my first one of these:
A fried pickle! And the consensus was that it tastes like…um, a fried pickle. Yep.
Dinner was really exciting. Like, really really exciting.
Italian! What else would get me so excited?
[That was some delicious focaccia. Nothing like the focaccia I had in Italy…but delicious nevertheless. Crispy, cheesy, chewy. God I love bread.]
Remember my first garganelli experience? I loved the shape, and when I saw it on the menu simply done with a tomato & basil sauce, my mind was made up quite quickly.
Simple is always a good way to go.
The dining experience in Austin was really fun. Great food + great conversation. It was, well, great!
And lo and behold, what was across the street from this Italian restaurant but a frozen yogurt shop. I was all over that like white on rice.
This was my first experience with pay-per-ounce fro yo, and I must say, I am jealous of those of you who have one nearby. Although my wallet sure is happy without them.
But who can say no to this??
Not I. 
I went the next night too.
The next and final day, we all gave our presentations about our personal study abroad experiences. It was so much fun to hear everyone’s, and made me want to go back. And then go everywhere they went. Global tour, anyone?
Earlier, we met with our program managers, aka the person I stalked via email for 3 months when I was dealing with the massive amount of paperwork involved. [Note to all those study-abroad hopefuls I just scared: most of it is now done online. I am jealous.]. Mine was absolutely awesome, despite the fact that I emailed her 3 times in a row in a period of 10 minutes, and it was so cool to meet her (and see a pic of her adorable son!). 
Another highlight was lunch.
Turkey+sprouts+lettuce+tomato+mustard+”avocado”. Apparently in Texas, when you see avocado on a menu, it means guacamole. Only one more reason I love Austin. More places should adopt that principle.
But dessert basically eclipsed everything else. There is a “cookie delivery service” nearby that the office orders from often, understandably. But the kicker? The cookes are delivered fresh from the oven.
In one word? GENIUS.
That was hands-down the best M&M cookie I’ve ever had. It was all gooey and melty and warm and if I didn’t have enough reasons to up and move to Austin, this would do it. I want to open a fresh-from-the-oven cookie delivery service. Seriously. Possibly one of the best business strategies I’ve ever heard of.
After our training was all over (*tear*), a small group of us decided to check out Barton Springs Pool, which is a public outdoor swimming area with natural water. (I don’t know how else to describe it; by “natural,” I mean not chlorinated. So before you start giggling about the concept of “unnatural water”…shutup.)
[I love that there is an award for “Best Swimming Hole.”]
We ran back to the hotel and I fought with the hotel printer, and before I knew it, it was dinner time! We met at a tapas bar (we were going for barbecue, but the was an hour-long wait, and it was already 8 o’clock. Not happening.).One of the group studied in Barcelona, so needless to say, we asked him for recommendations. I
went vegetarian.
It was some fresh bread with some of the best grilled veggies I’ve had – and I have had a lot! It was leeks, artichokes, and asparagus in smoked olive oil + sea salt. The leeks literally melted in my mouth. That romesco sauce on the side was none too shabby, either. I wanted to partake in the bottle of wine, but that pesky age limit and my conscience stopped me. Oh, to be in Italy again.

It was really a great trip. Even better than I expected, and I was pretty excited to begin with! The job will be a lot of work, but studying abroad is something I’m pretty passionate about & I think it will really be fun. 
That wasn’t the only surprise; the trip seemed to trigger a bit if reverse culture shock. Perhaps it was all the talking about living in our respective countries and how much we loved and grew from it, but either way, I came home happy but a little hurtin’. But what it really did was remind me of what a crazy, confusing, beautiful experience studying abroad is and, for me, was. And I’d do it all over again.
Thanks, Austin!
I think I’ll be back 😉
~Namaste~
[P.S. – if anyone read this earlier, my mouse clicked the “Publish” button of its own volition when I was halfway through writing it. Hate it when that happens.]
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The Case of “The Lasts”

Ugh, I hate this part. You know, the one where everything you do is “the last.” Last load of laundry in our crazy machine [it secretly wishes it were a rocket ship – you should hear it on spin cycle). Last shopping trip in the market. Last time I have to climb the never-ending stairs to Italian class…ok, maybe I don’t hate every part. Those stairs at 8 in the morning were not exactly a treat.
After I got my grade on my Italian final – all good 🙂 – I came home for some overnight oats!
Before you go to bed, put oats in a bowl and pour an equal amount of liquid (I’m a fan of almond milk) over them, and maybe add a dash of cinnamon. Let them sleep in the refigerator and when you are both awake, the oats will have absorbed the liquid and be soft – voila, no-cook oatmeal!

(There are different ways of preparing them; some people add more stuff to it the night before. That’s why they’re so fun – lots of different ways to experiment!)
Before…
After: all mixed up with some vanilla yogurt.
This was exceptionally good today – it tasted like snickerdoodle cookie dough! The perfect way to prepare for my cooking practical, the second half of my final for that class where we actually have to cook for and be judged by our professor.
We set his table up all pretty:
We were split up into teams to tackle 3 courses of 4 dishes.
Course 1: BREAD
Not just bread – stuffed focaccia and pizza.
This was the focaccia we made a couple weeks ago for our “green class.” It’s amazing, and this time it was even better. The spinach is sauteed in a little olive oil and garlic to add flavor and it worked – the spinach-garlic combo sang through the bread. The mozzarella (use fresh buffala mozzarella – it’s a little fattier but you can use less to get a powerful punch of flavor) was perfectly stretchy, and the dough was juuuust dense enough to hold up it’s filling but fluffy enough to be like eating yummy, doughy, pillows. 
Another team made pizza margherita – tomatoes, mozzarella, basil. This was very probably the.best.pizza. I’ve ever had. The flavors was perfectly balanced and so fresh. The crust was the right thickness – not cracker like but not like you were getting more crust than ingredients in your mouth at once either. The sauteed the tomatoes in garlic and olive before topping the dough to bake – this is essential for non-soggy pizza, because if you just throw the raw ingredients on the top, the water (that makes up most of the veggie) will release and make your pizza WAY to heavy to eat. The cheese was golden but not gummy or too crispy and with the basil was SO good. Yup, will be making this when I come home.
Next course: Pear-filled ravioli in a walnut-herb sauce with pecorino.
PEAR!
This was very tasty. The pasta was a little undercooked, but I actually like overly-al dente pasta (yes, I’m odd). I wish the pear had been blended with the pecorino and then filled, the ravioli with just chopped pear felt a little sparse to me. But the walnut sauce was SO good – walnuts, parsley, and basil. You couldn’t really taste the walnuts, at least not unless you looked for it, but that is actually kind of the goal. Like pesto – it’s not ALL about the pine nuts that you add to it, but if you took them out you would know. It really did work well the sweetness of the pears. As my professor commented – “amazing”.
Dessert: MY TEAM!
[Thanks again blogger for the sideways picture. It’s not funny anymore.] 
Crema di amaretti – I also made it here.
Gosh, I love pretty food.
The filling is very similar to tiramisu – we used the double boiler method to kill any salmonella ickiness in the eggs as we beat the. Here’s what we did: Separate the whites from the yolks of your eggs (it’s one egg for every 2 people you are serving). Get your double -boiler going; when the water is simmering (NOT full-on boiling!), use a hand-mixer (or one of those fancy-schmancy Kitchen Aid mixers that I can only dream about owning) beat the yolks with cane sugar (tablespoons=number of eggs used) until it’s nice and creamy. Set it aside to cool. Get your water a-simmerin’ again, and repeat the process with egg whites (no sugar) until they form stiff peaks. Not sure what that means? I didn’t either. Get them to the point where if you turn the bowl upside down, the egg whites don’t move (and please use a second bowl underneath when testing this…). Let those cool as well. Fold in marscapone cheese with yolk-sugar mixture gently. Then add the egg whites. 
This is where I added a couple teaspoons of cinnamon. I remember thinking it would be good the first time we made it, and I wanted to do it for the final. My teacher loved it! Yay! Nothing like feeling innovative in the kitchen to make me smile:)
Now, look at the consistency you have. You want something tiramisu-filling-like, very light and creamy. We made the call to add a liiiiittle bit of whipping cream (whipped with a little lemon juice and a pinch of salt to get it fluffy!), and that really made a huge difference. We used about 125 grams of cream, and we were making for 14 people – so you really don’t need much.
To plate, dip two amaretti cookies (they’re like little almond biscuits, I will have to consciously search for them in the States when I come home – I’ll keep you updated!) in strong coffee mixed with just a few drops of milk and sugar. Sprinkle the top with coffee (instant here is fine), chocolate chips and cocoa powder. Voila! better-than-tiramisu goodness.
Our professor’s comment? “Delizioso!”
He gave me a big hug when I left and that was when this whole “I’m actually leaving” business hit me. WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH! DON’T MAKE ME GO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Ahem.
SO, after class I wandered over to the Ponte Vecchio to do some window shopping. I have been searching for a necklace with the Florentine fleur-de-lis crest, and I knew if I would find it anywhere, that’s where it would be. The Ponte Vecchio is known for its jewlery, specifically marble and gold. Honestly, I really can’t stand gold, but I was still hopeful. It was looking pretty dim at first; all I could find were charms the size of my pinky fingernail at the low, low price of 122 euro – which is, what, maybe 150 dollars? Ugh. I was feeling like giving up, when I crossed to the other side and found it.
Yay! 6 euro, and I already have a chain 🙂 Ain’t it perty?
For the first time this week, the sun was out! I have been planning on returning to Piazzale Michelangiolo to get some better pictures because a) the day we went it was cloudy, b) I have a new camera!!, and c) the combination of my carberrific lunch + the joy of finding my jewelry left me with some newfound energy to burn!
The walk there is lovely.
[Ponte Vecchio]
Remember the funky trees?
It’s quite a hike to get there…
And just when you think it’s over…
But it’s worth it.
Even though I’ve only been here for 4 teeny months, I still call it ‘mine.’ Not that it only belongs to me; more in the way that it has made such an impact on me. It’s home.
Dinner tonight was long-anticipated. We planned to go to Cibreino – “the poor man’s Cibreo.” Cibreo is one of the most important (and most expensive) restaurants in Florence. The chef is world-reknowned for his take on Italian food. Simply put, it’s a big deal.
Cibreino is a little trattoria around the corner from Cibreo that offers a limited menu for a MUCH smaller price. Same kitchen – fewer options.
I was excited.
We got there at 7, when it opens, and all breathed sighs of relief when there was a table for 4 ready and waiting. The trattoria is a very small room with only 8 or so tables, so we were a little worried. It was also mostly tourists – and we were treated as such, which was a little annoying but to be expected considering the fame of this place.
After much debate and some help from our very entertaining waiter, I ordered:
It was a veggie-fish soup. Very well spiced and I loved the fish that was in it – no idea what it was called, a kind of white fish that looked a little bit like tuna (different taste though). It was a little brothy for me, but it was so well-seasoned that it didn’t hinder my enjoyment of it. They also brought us a “surprise” bowl of the minestra di pane – bread soup – that is very similar to ribollita. That was awesome – tasted just like Thanksgiving stuffing! Ah, the wonders of sage.
At the end of our class today, my cooking professor was talking about going to restaurants. He said the best way to judge a restaurant is by its appetizers and dessert – how they start and end a meal. He emphasized the great importance of dessert and ending a meal on a sweet note, because there’s always room for sweet! (You understand now why I enjoyed this class so much?) I was feeling inspired and so Alaina and I split the flourless chocolate cake.
Best. Decision. Ever.
This was one of the best chocolate cakes EVER. Very thin but SO dense and moist. I could have eaten an entire cake’s worth of it. But, aside from the phenomenal flavor, I also appreciated the portion size – it was a perfect dessert. Wonderful taste but not overwhelmingly huge so as to make you waddle out of the restaurant. Well done, Cibreino. Well done.
What fabulous plans do we have on our last day in Firenze? Pack, pack, pack – print boarding passes – and then pack some more. Ah, the glamour of life abroad.
And I loved every second.
~Namaste~

A Wonderful World

Pick a day of the week, any day, and I’ll give an example of why I’d rather spend it in Florence. Wednesday, for instance:

Lunch at Sergio’s. I think we are official regulars.
I got their ribollita for the second time because I wanted to re-try it after I had it at Mario’s. For comparison’s sake, of course. Sergio’s version is chunkier, you can see the pieces of vegetables and soaked bread, whereas Mario’s was smoother, almost like it was pureed. Sergio’s uses better olive oil, but also tastes a bit more cabbage-y than Mario’s (I’m not much for cabbage)…I think it’s a toss-up. They are each amazingly delicious and soul-satisfying in their own right. This is one love triangle I hope is never resolved 😉
Unfortunately, a large part of my day was spent sleeping. One nap after Italian in the morning, and another in the late afternoon. Sleep and I have a very interesting, ever-changing relationship, and right now we are having some schedule difficulties. It will work itself out eventually; right now, I’m just taking it when I can get it and focusing on getting work done and erasing stress.
I started to get antsy after an all-too sedentary day last night while working and decided that a walk was just the medicine I needed. It was nice to just get out and get some air and do some thinking. And get gelato.
I walked by Carabe, one of the places nearby which seems to have mysterious opening hours that are always ‘just wrong’, and when I saw it open, I took it as a sign. Who am I to mess with fate?
I have gone once before and got the almond, but was a bit underwhelmed by it. My roommate went recently and raved about the tiramisu, so obviously I had to give them another chance! There was also kiwi on that cone – not because it’s the perfect compliment to tiramisu, but really because it looked good and I wanted to try it. I gobbled it down before Frida came out, but it looked like what you might imagine kiwi gelato does – pale green with little black seeds. It was deeelicious. The tiramisu was a semifreddo, not gelato, which basically means it’s a kind of cold mousse instead of frozen. It was heavy on the coffee flavor–but that’s a good thing! It was good. Tiramisu gelato is one of the funnest flavors to try because you never know what it’s going to be like; some are more coffee-y, some are more rum-y, some are blended smooth and others have actual pieces of tiramisu in them. It’s a wonderful world.
The sky looked so cool, I couldn’t resist taking Frida out again. She was in one of her moods and it’s a little blurry, but doesn’t this picture make it look like the bell tower is fake? Like one of those little models architects use. I swear it’s real!
I didn’t really sleep and have a neck/head ache that would stagger a horse, but I’m doing just fine because it’s Thursday, and that means one thing…
COOKING CLASS!!!
Not until I’ve had my oats, of course:
Doesn’t it look like the vanilla is giving the cocoats a big hug? …Well, I thought so. I swear I’m not crazy…just, um, creative.

But back to the show.
Today’s class was focused on cooking with FRUIT! Quite possibly my favorite food category. I don’t take pictures of everything I eat, mostly because it’s just not all that interesting or photogenic, but if I did – you would be very sick of apples and pears. I think I eat at least one of each a day. Can’t wait for summer berries!!
NEEDless to say, I was quite excited about today. We started with a salad:

Spinach, artichoke hearts, chickpeas, red onion, pears, fresh buffalo mozzarella, dressed with lemon juice + olive oil + few drops of good aged balsamic vin.
Now, I grew up with the reigning queen of salads. My mother makes wonderful and creative salads not unlike this one, and I’m actually pretty envious of her ability to whip up the right dressing that complements the salad ingredients. That said, this salad blew my tastebuds away! The pears just made it. Although I would recommend using a more pungent cheese like a goat or bleu, would have been even better with the sweetness of the pear.
We also made some fresh rosemary focaccia to go with it (and by made, I mean actually hand-made it from ingredients-up, not just took it out of some plastic and threw it in the oven):

Oooh, this made me so happy. 
I’ve found I’m not such a fan of the oily, airy focaccia found in the bakeries here, but the focaccia we make in class (see our first here) is amazing. Dense and doughy but thin and chewy, with juuust the right saltiness. I had 4 small palm-sized pieces…I have no ability to resist when it comes to fresh bread. And yes, I know how to make it. Expect to see a lot of this rolling out of my kitchen when I’m home.
My 1st portion of salad + focaccia:
I had a large second helping of this stuff! I can’t wait to make it again!
Next up was my team’s dish:
Risotto alle fragole (strawberry risotto)!
Sounds weird, right? Well, it was. I have had it before, at a restaurant, and liked it a lot, but my tastebuds remained a bit confuzzled. It’s something like mac & cheese in its creaminess, but then there is the surprising sweetness of the strawberry. We made parmesan crisps to top it and finished it with a drizzle of balsamic. The crisps could not be easier – literally take a palm-ful (or however much you like) of grated parmesan cheese, put it in little circular piles on a baking sheet, and bake it for 5-10 (just watch it, it will turn golden-brown when done). Easy and quite pretty! Added a nice extra kick of cheesy flavor, too. I enjoyed the dish as a whole, but I’m not hankering to have it again. To be honest though, I think that has a lot more to do with the fact that I really just don’t like rice very much; it just does absolutely nothing for me. Perhaps I should try this with pasta? Hmm, experiment time…
Next dish:
Chicken with porcini mushrooms and green apple
This dish was fine. Acceptable. Perfectly edible. But I was unimpressed. We took a chicken breast and fried it in olive oil (about 5 minutes on each side), then covered it with the simmered porcini mushrooms and apples with some parsley and baked it for about 10 minutes covered with tin foil. It’s not that it was bad, it just didn’t appeal to me. I’m not a big meat eater anyway (fish, however, is a horse of a different color!), and the texture of the chicken was quite nice (not to chewy and slightly crispy), but overall…meh. Could have done without it happily. The mushroom-apple combo was not as striking as I expected, even with the saffron added (which I love!). Good, but not more than that.
I can’t say the same for the dessert…

Chocolate souffle.
This is, I believe, my first-ever experience with a souffle…and now I am wondering why. This. was. so. good. It had the light, fluffy texture of mousse that I adore but was warm and moist like cake fresh out of the oven. The chocolate was dark but not too heavy and all in all, this was a little ramekin of heaven. We did not alter this recipe, and the only fruit added was that raspberry that you seeon top, but I think it makes an important statement nutrition-wise: it’s perfectly healthy to eat indulgent foods! It’s all about the portion size. And what better an end to a meal than chocolate? Especially in carb-form. I left perfectly satisfied.
This class was the first that I didn’t go ga-ga over every single dish we made, but the salad, focaccia and dessert more than make up for the other two (which weren’t even bad, just not something I personally enjoyed as much as the others).

The rest of the day was spent in a nearby piazza with a nap in the sun and bit of dog-watching. Lovely.

I am not sure that I have formally discussed this other than maybe some lines here or there, but I am as of now looking into culinary school after next year’s graduation (aaah! senior year…how did this happen???). I have no idea what exact career I want–and by no idea, I mean I have about 30 different ones–but I do know that my passion for and fascination with food only seems to increase, and I’m following what I love. I would go for Baking/Pastry because that’s really what I love and where I feel I’m more creative, and, well, I’d much rather deal with finicky pate a choux than learn how to de-bone a duck. It’s something I’ve been putting off announcing mostly because whenever I ‘announce’ something like this, I end up going in a completely different direction. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, as long as I love it, but right now I’m so into the food world that the thought of me suddenly not going into it is too scary and sad for me to think of.
Just throwing it out there.

The British weekend is coming!

~Namaste~

Unreal

On Sunday, my weekend adventures took me to Cinque Terre, five little hill towns on the Mediterranean coast on the northwestern side of Italy that are connected by a loooong trail. We went with Florence For Fun, a local travel agency that arranges spring break, long-weekend, and day trips for students in Florence. It was a great deal, too! Cinque Terre (literally, ‘five lands’) is world-renowned for its incredible natural beauty–it’s on UNESCO’s World Heritage List–and it has a fantastic hiking trail with some drop-dead gorgeous sites. It really felt like we were walking around inside a postcard. It was almost too beautiful to be real.
We arose at the obscene hour of 6 AM; well, my travel companions did…I fell back asleep and they jostled me awake at quarter to 7. Whoops! I also awoke to find my puffy face had returned; a mosquito must have bitten me last night. Grrr! It wasn’t as bad as last time, and faded by the time we got off the train in the first town, Riomaggiore. It seems that it’s not just Florentine weather that likes to trick us more than treat us, but all of Italy – it was cloudy and freezing when we got there! (Don’t worry, we sang “Oh Mr. Sun” in Italian and he eventually came out to de-thaw us!)
The big deal history-wise with Cinque Terre is its muretti, “little walls.” Despite its terrain being incredibly steep, rocky, and generally difficult to farm, its people have thrived as farmers from the first centuries AD. They propped up their farms and vineyards by building little stone walls – a lot of them. 11,000 kilometers (6836 miles), in fact, which is similar in length to the Great Wall of China. I know, crazy, right?? The craziest part is they did it completely by manual labor. SAY WHAT???
This mural was painted in recognition of those who built the walls. They deserve this and more! 11,000 KM!!!!
We didn’t actually go in to Riomaggiore; we pretty much got off the train, went to the bathroom and started hiking! Didn’t stop me from snapping away, of course:
The bar where we used the bathroom listed the ingredients used in the breads/pastries they sold. TOO COOL!! Look at all that real food – no artificial unpronouncable chemical ingredients here! This made me happy. [coughfoodgeekcoughcough]
The first trail, from Riomaggiore to Manarola, is called Via dell’Amore – The Lovers’ Walk. It was actually named by a journalist who was writing a story was walking on the path and found a note left by two young lovers. Awwwwwww!!!
Doesn’t everyone proclaim their love on a cactus leaf? I would.
When couples come to Cinque Terre they bring a lock and put it on rails, plants, nets, anything, then lock it and throw the key into the ocean. So sweet!
Ok, get ready for some serious picture overload. I’ll try to let the pictures speak for themselves and narrate only where necessary 🙂
Town #2: Manarola

Follow the “Indiana Jones” bridge to…
Town #3: Corniglia

LUNCH BREAK!!!
After all that walking + 382 stairs to get to Corniglia, our collective blood sugar was very low. BUT we were determined not to let our stomachs take us to the first (or second or third) touristy restaurant we found and wandered to find the “right” place. Jackpot!!!! We found a wine bar with a restaurant upstairs. Quiet, music in the background…and some seriously incredible eats & drinks.
We started with a necessary bottle of wine:
Cute label, right?! 
They only produce white wine in Cinque Terre, and I am not complaining – this was delicious! A little fizzy, a little sweet & sour. Very tasty. (and for 16 euro, I should hope so!)
I also split an appetizer with Alaina:
Anchovies!!! They are the specialty fish here, and I see why – these were amazing. Soft, tender, almost silky in texture, and they were drizzled in a garlic-infused olive oil with I think a bit of pesto on top. I need to find anchovies at home.
For our main course, we all ordered the same thing and it was brought on one big platter:
Pasta in a tomato sauce & pesto
Cinque Terre is in Liguria, where basil is grown and hence is the region from whence comes the holy pesto sauce. And I must say, this pasta was a downright divine experience. The pesto was a beautiful, vibrant green color and the basil used was sooo fresh. Mixed with the slightly sweet tomato sauce, I was sad when my plate was empty and there was no more sauce to sop up with bread. We were happy little hikers!
After lunch, the trek continued to…
Town #4: Vernazza

^Corniglia from the trail^
Vernazza from the trail
This trail called for some serious hiking & rock-scrambling! It was a little rough at first, what with that big lunch sitting not fully digested in my tummy, but after a quick breather I was good to go, and by the time we got to Vernazza, it was definitely gelato time!
Frutti di bosco (mixed berry yogurt), mint chocolate chip, dark chocolate
It was amazing gelato, but the dark chocolate was quite good. We had more chill time in this town and we got to walk and shop a bit – I found one store with some faaaabulous turquoise jewelry and I wanted to wrap the whole shop up and put it in my pocket!
We also, as usual, made some furry friends:
The hike from the 4th town to the final 5th is the longest and most difficult, and because we were quickly running out of time before out train left in the last town at 6:30, we took the very fast 5 min. train ride to…
Town #5: Monterosso
Loved the turquoise/coral colors of this house!
What a charming little beach town! We have been planning to go to a beach in May before we leave, and we are thinking about coming here to explore it more and do the last hike we missed out on (it’s also supposed to be the prettiest).
Before leaving, I had to try the limoncino, which is Liguria’s take on the southern Italian limoncello (basically lemons, sugar, and alcohol – it’s a very typical after-dinner drink). The only difference between the two is the lemons; limoncino uses lemons from the north.
I could definitely taste a difference between the ‘cino and ‘cello – the lemons had a distinctly different flavor, more mellow and sweet maybe? I liked it well enough but just like limoncello, I can only handle a few sips and after that my tastebuds just get bored. Even though it’s poured in a small dessert-wine glass, it still seems like a little too much to enjoy. But I’m still happy to have satisfied my curiosity!
[More gelato may or may not have been consumed at this point. I am powerless to anything melon-flavored.]
We also bought some focaccia for dinner on the rather long train ride home. Focaccia is the bread specialty of Liguria, and my cooking teacher expressly specified that focaccia con formaggio (with cheese) must be tried in Cinque Terre. No arguments here! I got some with cheese, tomatoes, and more anchovies (so amazingly good here!), and swapped half for some of Alaina’s cheese and tomato piece. It was really good, especially with the anchovies. Very light, airy and buttery (well, olive oil-y, in a good way). Although I think I prefer the focaccia we made in class last week for being denser and doughier, both have their own place in my carb-loving heart.
A long, glorious day of walking, eating, oohing and aahing. Now it just seems like a dream! Every moment was like stepping inside a picture on a postcard. It was breath-taking, awe-inspiring, mouth-watering, exhausting, rewarding, and above all…
Unreal.
~Namaste~

Chocolate Anger, Green Contentment

 I mentioned a slight kink to my lovely day in the sun yesterday – a sudden cloud cover, if you will. Downright stormy in fact. But this was not a storm of hurricane winds or torrential rain. This was a technological cloud of doom – my internet was gone. Now, you might say “oh, kids these day, they  lose their precious internet for an hour and think the apocalypse has come” – but I am NOT finished. My internet was gone because there was supposedly another person using my internet account, and of course that sent me into a tailspin of questions, like “if they got my internet password, what other passwords could they have??!!” My dad later explained that it was probably just a router reboot issue, and the “other user” was probably me, it just hadn’t logged me out correctly – but this was not something I knew to consider. Angry and powerless, I turned to the one thing that always helps: baking.
Some people run when they get angry. Others listen to loud music. I make cookies.
These were the cookies we made in my first cooking class and they were so incredible, I’ve been craving them ever since. We had all the ingredients on hand, and thanks to my mom who sent me my food scale, I was all set. A little too much flour (they were a little bread-y), but I halved the recipe so I think the proportion may have been off. Instead of dark chocolate chips, I chopped up some of my egg left over from Easter. Delicious, brownie-like, and not even very damaging from a nutritional standpoint. I felt quite a bit better.
I didn’t have a lot of time to focus on the internet issue anyway because tonight we had tickets (thanks to my study abroad program) to MoMix, a modern dance company performance! We had heard that it was awesome, and very much like Cirque Du Soleil (which I adore), so I was pretty excited! It was a very interesting performance – modern dance goes a little over my head, but I can usually get it for the most part. It was just such a cool experience to see it! The music was really good, and the dancers really did a beautiful job. I think I like Cirque a liiiittle bit more, but this was really cool. Such a fun way to spend a Wednesday night!!
After that, I convinced the roomies to get gelato because they had yet to try Perche No!, which is where my other roommate and I went over Spring Break and declared it our favorite Florentine gelato so far (although Vestri may tie up the competition…).
After falling in love with their soy vanilla flavor, I tried the soy chocolate – and was not disappointed! It was very cocoa-y, which I love. Sometimes when I’m having a chocolate craving, I just have a little spoonful of cocoa powder. It sounds weird, but it works – my theory with chocolate is, the darker the better! I also got mango because, well, I’m pretty much obsessed with all things mango. SO good!
We came home and sampled my cookies (I think they were approved of…), and then my internet issue came flying back at me. I was not in the best of moods. And it only got worse when I broke my tea mug, and then seconds later remembered I had a report for my cooking class due tomorrow, which was actually today as it was already past midnight. Not gonna lie, I had a bit of a breakdown. I pulled it together (although another cookie may have been eaten), cleaned up the mug shards, wrote the paper, and got to bed. Unfortunately, that didn’t leave me much pillow time, and I am feeling it today.

BUT, Italian was more or less painless. I left actually pretty excited because yesterday we gave oral presentation about our favorite books and I chose:

Ruth Reichl is one of my very favorite authors. This book is about her time as The New York Times’ food critic, and it is just a completely charming, funny book. I’ve read her others, which I like almost as much as this, and just started her newest one, Not Becoming My Mother. ANYway, my Italian teacher went out and bought it after she heard me talk about it! I love spreading the foodie love 🙂

Today continued to make up for last night’s ick-factor when I came home, made a big cup of coffee, and discovered my internet to be restored. And all was well again. Honestly, I think my issue last night was lack of sleep more than anything else. It’s just been a bit of a tough week sleep-wise. And really, when I look back on my semester here, I am not going to remember the internet-less nights of stress; my trip is going to be marked by my sunny afternoons spent lazing in Piazza Indipendenza, making fun of the pigeons and talking to the dogs.

The ladies who lunch sit.

Lazing in the piazza is exactly what I did today – after my cooking class, of course! Today was a “green class”   – lots of antioxidant/fiber-filled goodness!

Patate agli spinaci
This was very interesting. We took boiled potatoes and peeled them–you want to boil vegetables with skins on because if you peel them first, the water will take and dissolve all the nutrients! Of course, you can do this to create a vegetable stock – all the nutrients seep into the water. But for this purpose, boil-and-peel! The potatoes were then riced (I am pretty sure it was a ricer?) –you could probably grate them too– and mixed with spinach that had been sauteed shortly with olive oil and garlic. This mix was put in a pastry bag and squeezed onto a baking sheet into perty potato-spinach flowers and sprinkled with parmesan cheese (which got all crunchy and golden and delicious!), and baked. They were pretty tasty, although I feel like they could have used a bit more oomph. More salt maybe? I feel like potatoes and spinach are two more or less bland-flavored veggies (don’t get me wrong, though, I love eating both!) and they needed more than just the herbs and cheese to make these really *pop.* Ok, I just talked about potato-spinach flowers for about five minutes, NEXT plate…

Trofie al pescatrice e pesto
Holy WHOA this was SO yummmmmmy!! We used trofie, a type of pasta that looks like it’s been stretched and then twisted, and is popular in Liguria which is near Genova where basil is grown for pesto! Nice little linkage there, no? We made the pesto, but instead of using water like last time, we used some ricotta cheese to make it creamier. Normally I don’t like super creamy pesto, but it went so perfectly with this dish! Into the pasta also went cubed pieces of fresh swordfish…oh dear, how I love fish. I’m pretty sure my eyes lit up when he said we would be making fish! The fish taste was not at all overwhelming and was perfectly balanced by the sweet and creaminess of the ricotta-pesto, and the pasta choice of trofie worked really welll. Something about the thin shape and soft denseness really seemed to accentuate the pesto flavor and the alternate texture of the fish. Definitely had 2 servings of this! Could have happily drowned in it.

Foccacia agli spinaci
They made the foccacia from scratch, of course, so the chances of this being amazing were pretty good from the start. We used mozzarella instead of the usual scamorza, because the mozzarella is fresh and less fatty. They sauteed the spinach in olive oil and garlic and then stuffed it inside the foccacia (btw – that is not an easy to word to spell) and baked it. Towards the end of baking, Marco (our teacher) brushed olive oil and white wine on the top so that it would turn a nice golden color. The secret to making foccacia in under an hour? Use a pinch of sugar in the dough. The yeast loooves sugar and will grow faster with the addition of the sugar.
This was out-of-this world good!! It was just salty enough and suuuper doughy (a very good thing!). I had extras on the crust because it was just. so. good. I just love bread. You start with yeast, flour and water and yet the variety of different results you can get from those simple ingredients is infinite. So cool.

Finally, my team’s dish:

Bet you can’t guess!

Sfogliatine di pomodori verdi (con sorbetto di limone)
This is basically a jam made of green tomatoes, lemon juice, and cane sugar inside puff pastry. We de-seeded and cubed the tomatoes and cooked them in a pan with the sugar and juice of half a lemon, and towards the end of cooking added crumbled pieces of panbrioche (a sweet bun, basically) to thicken it. We brushed milk (instead of egg yolk) on top of the sealed pastry triangles and sprinkled them with a little more cane sugar. Pop them in the oven for 20 minutes or so, and you’re good to go. We served them with a “dollop” (my teacher was very proud he remembered that word) of lemon sorbetto, which put these over the edge! It may sound very odd, but it worked so well. The green tomatoes are higher in acidity, and paired with the sweetness of the sugar and the sweet-sour sorbet (plus that hot/cold contrast), this was one of the most uniquely tasty dishes I’ve ever had. The jam was SO easy to make; definitely worth a try on my own! (Or your own – if you want the recipe, just leave a comment!)

After class & said-park lounging, the roomies and I decided on aperitivo for dinner. I have given up trying to takes pictures in Kitsch because it’s just too dark, but just image a nice glass of prosecco and various little appetizer tastings. Always lots of food and nice prosecco for the low low price of 8euro. Hard to beat.

We have make-up classes tomorrow  – whatever classes we didn’t have on Monday (we got it off for Easter). I know I am going to the market for my Food & Culture class to walk around and talk to the vendors. Should prove to be quite interesting at the least!

~Namaste~