Productive

Wait…what could this be…an update???? Surely thine eyes deceive!
Nope. I’m here, and [mostly] in one piece. What prompted a sudden revival of posting, you ask?…a weekend of blatant procrastination. I am none too proud of it, but the past 3 days have been painfully unproductive. And with 6 1/2 weeks still left in the semester, it’s not making me happy.
Today, however, for the first time in two months, I actually read blogs. I blew the dust off of my Google Reader and read. And I’ve decided, it was possibly one of the more productive things I’ve done yet during this absolute hell ,ahem, busy semester.
As I’m sure any current college senior can attest, that ubiquitous question “so what are you doing next year?” is the hot topic of the moment. And I will say it is quite a relief to a) know the answer and b) be able to ignore the GRE-mania that has taken over my friends and fellow tormented classmates. But, I can’t say I’m immune to my own self-questioning of is this what I really want. As I’ve been running around, making arrangements for gaining my 6 months of food prep experience required by the CIA, I can’t help but hear that very teeny voice in my head saying “oh, but this could be BAD. WHAT do you think you’re doing?” etc, etc – that same voice that held me back before Florence figuratively slapped me in the head.
One of the blogs I depended upon in Florence for restaurant recommendations had been left ignored, like all the others. I caught up on it today, and it all came hurtling back to me. Everything I learned – everything that Tuscany taught me – about food, and food as something inexplicably more, flooded my senses. Oh right – this is why I love it, why I want it. Duh.
I really do miss those yellow apples.
BUT, a number of other exciting things have happened in those few & far apart moments when I’m not metaphorically [usually] bound to my desk chair researching recipes from the 1940s. (My thesis and I….it’s a love/hate relationship. Not sure if I’m the love or hate…but that’s another post for another time.)
Fall Break was last weekend, and I spent it with my aunt & uncle in Georgia. Not only did I get to hang out with these adorable faces for 4 days:
Bosco, Banda, and
Buster!
…but I am also hoping (planning? let’s not jinx it just yet.) to spend the summer with them while getting the aforementioned food prep experience at a restaurant just down the street from their house. We went there – Three Blind Mice – for dinner and a little good-natured schmoozing with the owner/chef to check out that possibility.
My initial reaction to the restaurant itself was something to the tune of “too good to be true.” And I hadn’t even tasted the food yet. The decor is pretty perfect – you walk in and there is a wall of wines ordered by country of origin in front of you; a look to your left is a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf filled with culinary literature*.
*Side note: As a result of my thesis, I now have a venerable wealth of knowledge concerning what to call “food writing”: this includes, but is not necessarily limited to, ‘culinary literature,’ ‘culinary writing,’ ‘cookery books/literature,’ and ‘gastronomical literature/writing.’ Just in case you thought I was only trying to use fancy words…I wasn’t. That’s just a broad enough title.
But let’s get to the menu, right?

 

Now, I don’t know if you can see it, but if you look under appetizers, you will see a affettati board, which is Italian for literally ‘slices’, usually referring to meat. Look a little further down. Any die-hard Gillianasana fans remember finocchiona???  (Hint: here and here!) Only my favorite.sandwich.EVER. from my beloved sandwich shop/wine bar, Casa del Vino!! Y’all, I just about had a heart attack. I have not had the pure unadulterated joy of finocchiona since my last day.second-to-last sandwich in Florence.
…and then our waitress brought out the bread.
Ok, no olive oil & balsamic, but it is in middle-of-nowhere suburban Georgia. Let’s not push it, shall we?
I was seriously torn come decision-time, but I went with the Nicoise salad. I’m a huge fan of tuna in salad – but I hate ‘tuna salad’ (mayonnaise makes me gag. and shudder. and then gag again.). I actually make it all the time at home. That, and when my family and i were having lunch after touring Pompeii, my mom and I got this salad with tuna, corn, olives and arugula that blew our minds. Italy kinda does that.

 

Loved it. Especially because it was over arugula, my love for which knows no bounds.
My aunt ordered the Panzanella after I had another mini spaz attack over it (another fave of my mom’s & mine), but I actually didn’t love it. In another appeal to its audience, it included chicken and that was just kinda wrong to me. That and my pescatarian ways are slowly taking over. My uncle got the shrimp & grits (you see how awesome this restaurant is – it had rigatoni abruzzese just under shrimp & grits…genius.) and near licked his plate clean.
But, I will never forget the sage words (haha, get it? sage? like the spice…oh, never mind.) of my Italian cooking professor when he told us that the way to judge a restaurant is by its appetizer menu – CHECK – and its dessert menu.
We ordered 3.
My uncle ordered a chocolate-raspberry fontaine, a pastry of deep dark chocolate and raspberry filling enclosed in a flaky phyllo dough
I had a bite or two, but found myself a little distracted by the meringue-topped key lime pie…
…was amazing, mouth-watering, and basically exactly what I think of when key lime pie comes to mind, only maybe a step above. Even my aunt who hates key lime pie – and really desserts in general (I don’t know how I’m related to her either) – had a couple forkfuls. It was so light and perfectly tart, and didn’t have any of that icky gelatinous artificial mouth-feel that waaay too many key lime pies do. My fork was momentarily panicked when it could find nothing but a few graham crust crumbs left. Of course, then it found…

 

…the sticky toffee pudding.
Ok, now I am well aware of the reputation – or perhaps infamy – of British cuisine. That being, in layman’s terms, that it sucks. But I had heard of this dish before and being the dessert aficionado that I am, I was curious if nothing else to see what it was.
I did not expect it to be one of the fluffiest, most moist and caramel-y cakes ever steeped in a heavenly bath of liquid toffee. My aunt – you know, the one who “doesn’t like dessert” – and I dueled over the last toffee-soaked speck like two cats over catnip. I promptly texted my brother to inform him that his birthday present this year was going to be my recreation of this. It will be done.
The prospect of working here for a whole summer? Exciting is a sufficient but mundane word to describe how I feel about that!
And on the summer, I just might have a life again. A thesis-free life, at least!
I’m also writing a weekly blog for Converse (my college) – because, you know, I need something else. But it’s pretty fun 🙂 And the next post (up tomorrow I believe!) is all about my favorite topic – Florence!
Ok, back to…Henry James, a paper on Emerson, or chemistry problems. Gosh, what thrilling prospects.
Here’s to being productive.
~Namaste~

Restaurant Review: Red Lentil

When my aunt and uncle left to go home to Atlanta, they took my brother with them so he could have a vacation down there. My anti-fish/anti-“health food” brother. What’s the big deal, you ask? My parents and I can go out to fun, interesting restaurants the doorways of which my brother couldn’t be paid to darken. Naturally, the first on the my must-go-to list was a relatively new vegetarian/vegan restaurant in Watertown, near Cambridge, Mass: The Red Lentil.
My mom and I met my dad there, who arrived before us and much to our relief and delight (we were starving), had already ordered the eggplant caponata appetizer and was sipping on a ginger brew – like ginger ale, only with much fresher ginger and very refreshing. I’d never tasted anything quite like it; I stole several sips! 
[Word to future diners – no wine list!]
First of all, I really liked the feel of this place. It wasn’t too loud, despite the fact that every table in the small dining area was packed. The walls were a funky lime green that gave it a hip – not 1970s nightmare – aura. The clientele were, well, as expected in Cambridge – in every size, shape & color! For any non Mass readers, Cambridge is where Harvard is located. ‘Nuf said.
So, about that appetizer…
One of the best things about this place hands down is their presentation. Every single dish we saw was beautifully and artfully placed on the plate. You eat first with your nose & eyes before your mouth, and it was lovely that the chefs take this into consideration.
As for taste? Well, I really enjoyed this. The sundried tomato spread was tangy (although a tad pasty, like it had been spread on too soon) and the crusty slice of bread was wonderful. The eggplant was mixed with tomatoes, capers and olives and went perfectly with the sundried tomato spread. My parents felt it was good but still missing something; I agreed, it wasn’t the most amazing thing to pass my lips, but it was tasty and made my empty tummy happy.
After LOTS of deliberation (so much looked good!), my mom chose an appetizer & salad:


Beet-potato latkes

Arugula salad w. beets & golden beets, walnuts, and herbed goat cheese.
The latkes were very interesting, and enjoyable, but perhaps not to die for. It was also a lot of food! It was a little too big; by the time you get to the middle, we found our tastebuds a bit bored. The salad was great, very fresh, and a delicious combo of flavors. And the goat cheese was de-LISH!
My dad got the special:
Tamale filled with tropical fruits, black beans, and spiced soy chorizo
Again, a bit underwhelming. And again, we couldn’t put our finger on why! Tasty but nothing particularly *wow*.
I ordered the Macrobiotic Platter – a choice of tofu, tempeh, or seitan with pinto beans, fresh veggies (broc, squash, zucchini, sweet potato) and a brown rice-sea vegetable mixture.
I really enjoyed this. The tempeh was perfectly cooked and had that great grainy texture I adore so much, even if it was a tad on the salty side for my taste. The pinto beans were, well, pinto beans, but what I was really impressed with was the sea vegetables! They had the coolest flavor – I’ve had & love seaweed salad at sushi places, but never had this particular kind of sea veggie before. It tasted like, um, the sea? I know, specific; I suppose it was salty with a pleasant bitterness not completely unlike kale, but with a hint of vinegar in there. (Is that better? 😉 It was nothing life-changing, but I did very much like my entree.
We were debating dessert…and then the table next to us ordered. And then my dad reminded me of the “always judge a restaurant by its dessert” rule set forth by my beloved Italian cooking professor. And it was done.

All the desserts at The Red Lentil are vegan, gluten-free, and made in house. Gotta love that! We obviously went with chocolate – if nothing else, for comparison’s sake!


This was…a disappointment. The cake was super dry – I think the chef needs to meet Dreena’s blog! The ganache was lovely, and as for those peanut-butter-looking bits in there, I have no idea what they were, perhaps pieces of cake that got tiedyed? It was good, but not great. Of course, they could just hire me as their pastry chef and all their problems would be solved. Sounds like a plan to me.


And, another mark against them – my mother went to the bathroom before we left and, well, it wasn’t a pleasant experience. Dirty bathrooms in a restaurant? Come on, guys, that’s TOO easy to fix!

Overall though, it was a fun dinner. It was new and different, and I am so excited that vegetarian/vegan cuisine is gaining in popularity. I wish one would open up close to me! The biggest issue (food-wise) here is that the dishes themselves won’t make you say “whoa.” A lot of it would be very simple to make at home. I would, however, recommend it to everyone from strict vegan to the veg-curious. My parents & I truly enjoyed The Red Lentil, and I am more than happy to support veg-conscious places like this.
 Rock on, Red Lentil. Rock on.

~Namaste~

Restaurant Review: Bella Luna

Instead of letting everyone in the house abandon me and leaving me to stalk the aisles of Whole Foods for dinner (not necessarily a bad thing, really), my mom invited me to her dinner date with a friend. And then put me on restaurant-search duty as the resident foodie of the fam. I was more than happy to oblige 🙂
I had read about Bella Luna, a funky restaurant/lounge in Jamaica Plain in a feature in the [Boston] Globe. It  was described as “satisfyingly groovy” and had a menu to match, so we figured, why not??
I couldn’t have described it better myself.  You walk in to a somewhat dimly lit space, most of the light shining out of big paper mache star lamps. The decor was funky, just shy of kitsch, and the service was great. Our waiter had an impressive knowledge of the wine list, too. Best of all, they have outdoor seating under bright red umbrellas. I love sitting outside. I think it totally ups the atmosphere and makes for an even lovelier evening meal.
If we weren’t charmed yet, each seat had a different plate with its own hand-drawn design:
Clearly designed by some aspiring artists. TOO cute!
And I loved the bottle the water was served in:
A restaurant I just went to recently did this too…maybe this a becoming a trend in the US restaurant scene?
To start, we 3 split an order of some seriously awesome fried calamari. For all you skeptics out these, I usually don’t like fried food because it tends to make me violently ill, but I couldn’t resist one golden, crispy bite – and it was SO good. Some of the best I’ve had.
We also split the Mediterranean Duet, warm pita bread with raw veggies and 2 dips: classic hummus and a spicy eggplant dip:
The hummus was only so-so, a little too creamy-chickpea-y for me. What can I say, I need my tahini and GAHLIC! But the eggplant dip was ca-razy good! Heavy on the ginger and with quite a kick of spice, and really tasty. The other two helped, but I pretty much dominated this plate.
For my entree, I just got a big salad – love me some arugula!
The shrimp was lovely and fresh, and the cheese was deliiisssh. Arugula and sharp cheeses like prmeggiano were basically made for each other. It also had pumpkin seeds, which I totally loved! Such a fun extra flavor addition. It was in a very simple lemon vinaigrette, which I felt needed a little work – it was a little too much like straight lemon juice. I think just a spice or two added to it could really make it incredible. But I was a very happy leaf-eater with this salad.

Mom got this beauty:
Arugula, goat cheese (!), cherry tomatoes, red onion and garlic oil.
Ok, I don’t know what kind of crack they put in their crusts, but this pizza was one of the best I’ve had. And I’ve had what I consider the best – fresh from the oven, in Italy, after making it myself. But this was up there. The crust was that perfect thickness and the arugula + garlic oil made it herby and delicious. I had a slice and then a couple more teeny tiny slivers when we brought it home. Whoa.
And Mom’s friend Barb (and just in case she reads this…HI!!!) got the wild mushroom ravioli:
I had half of a bite of my madre’s bite because it’s me and I avoid all things involving peas like they’re mosquitoes (and, actually, ravioli…but that’s another story), but the bite I had was some seriously phenomenal ravioli. The earthy mushrooms + creamy sweet cheese filling flavors were just spot on.

Dessert came in the form of lemon sorbet and tiramisu. Now, I will say that this is one restaurant where the “judge a restaurant by their desserts” rule does not work. We had great appetizers and wonderful entrees, but I was quite disappointed in the dessert. The sorbet, although refreshing and lemonade-like, had a very odd texture. It was almost like freezer burn-icy on the outside (which had a watery flavor) but then oddly chewy on the inside. Sorbet, to me, is supposed to be smooth and almost creamy, at least easy for a spoon to dig in. This was almost gummy, and there was nothing inventive about the flavor. The tiramisu was even more of a disappointment – I mean, I realize I’m horribly biased, but still. The sponge in the middle was watery and weak tasting, and the whipped cream on top tasted very artificial. And the chocolate syrup was no better than Hershey’s out of a bottle – not that that doesn’t have it’s place, but come on. That place is not tiramisu! I tried [multiple times] to take a picture, but the sun had long since set and LuLu wasn’t having it. Clearly they should just hire me to be the tiramisu chef! Haha, jk jk (sort of ;).
Dessert aside, it was a lovely meal with great conversation and company, and that is what a meal is supposed to be.
~Namaste~

She’s Baaaccck…

Didja miss me??!! 
So, instead of attempting to put the past 6 days into words, I will do it with pictures. They’re worth a thousand, right?
Stop #1: Ursinus College, Collegeville PA
P.F. Chang’s – loved how they served the wine flight!
The Collegeville Diner
Campus
Stop #2: Haverford College, Haverford PA
Love it.
Stop #3: Lancaster Art Hotel, Lancaster PA
The restaurant used all local, organic food! I was a happy foodie 🙂
Amouse bouche: Gazpacho
lettuce+cauliflower+zucchini+beans+snap peas+ fennel+goat cheese = YUM.
One of the best pizzas…ever.
Chocolate cake w. raw almond butter filling. I all but licked the plate.
!!!
Stop #4: Goucher College, Towson MD
[Pit stop in Pittsburgh!]
Baskin-Robbins kiddie cone soft-serve 🙂
This salad had some of the tastiest roasted tofu EVER. I want to know what they did to it!
Stop #6: Oberlin College, Oberlin OH
Solar energy panels power their entire environmental studies building – too cool, right?!
Dinner at the Black River Cafe:
Homemade raspberry-lavender sorbet. Amazing doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Our last stop was to Hyde Park, NY to check out the Culinary Institute of America for me. They didn’t allow pictures inside the school and I was so focused on the tour, I didn’t take pics of the campus – but it was gorgeous. To sum up, I was in love with it. And if it hadn’t been sealed earlier, when we passed by one of the baking classes that focuses on gluten-free/vegan-friendly baking, one of the students brought out biscotti they had just made for our tour to try. I am a little superstitious about talking about the possibility of my going there, just because, um, let’s just say I had a truly awful, scarring experience with the undergrad college application process and now I’m totally scared of jinxing this next upcoming process. Stupid maybe, but…I can’t help it.
We ate lunch in the school’s student-staffed cafe. Mom got a pesto-white bean soup:
It wasn’t, perhaps, amazing, but it was most definitely delicious and worth the price. I had a chopped veggie salad:
Now this reached amazing-status. Radish, beets, green beans, carrot, zucchini, fennel, potatoes in a champagne vinaigrette. So simple but so good. And I had a roll because I was not about to leave without trying the bread:
Oh, this is up there on my favorite-breads list. Yes, I have one – it also includes the rolls at Legal Seafoods, the bread from our local Italian specialty food store, and the Tuscan bread at Sergio’s. This was a perfect little piece of carb heaven. Crispy-crunchy on the outside, doughy and fluffy on the inside. If I learn how to recreate these, my life could be complete.
The drive home was brutal beyond belief – what should have been a 2 1/2 hour zip turned into a traffic-laden 5 1/2 hour nightmare. Despite a downright blissful yoga class this morning, I’m still exhausted. BUT, it was a very successful and pretty fun trip. My brother has a better idea of what he wants in a school, and I had some seriously delicious eats.
I think I’m going to sleep for a veeerrrrrry long time tomorrow. I can’t wait!
~Namaste~

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~

ColorFULL

I just love salads. Fun textures, yummy fresh flavors – and such pretty colors!
My mom stopped at a little cafe called Baker’s Best in Newton (Mass) that is a cafe as well as a kind of take-away place – lots of prepared foods like salads and hot pressed paninis. She grabbed three different salads, and I threw a little of each on a bed of spinach. I love eating this way – light, fresh, and a little bit of everything.
There was an orzo salad with feta cheese, asparagus and roasted peppers in an oil-and-vinegar dressing – probably my fave! Another was a noodle salad, a little spicy with chili, shrimp, cilantro and asian veggies like bell peppers and snap peas. Probably my least favorite – too oily and the noodles were a little mushy, plus I’m not big on spicy foods. The last was a red quinoa salad with veggie strips and mandarin oranges – this I loved as well. The fun thing about salads like these are they’re super easy to duplicate – and even play with and improve upon! Pick a grain, pick some veggies, maybe a little cheese, and spices and BAM! super yummy, quick, homemade salad ready for chowin’.
As much as I have been thoroughly enjoying my time on the elliptical jamming to my newly-downloaded Glee tunes, today was not a gym day (let’s just say, sometimes it sucks to be a girl). The weather was beautiful, and it was the perfect day for a walk around the neighborhood with the dog – and LuLu!
Love that natural light 🙂
A baby!
I think she was feeling a little shy 🙂
I love this tree. Every time I walk by it, I say that to myself. Doesn’t it look like a woman stretching her arms up and out? Very free. Beautiful.
Dogs will be dogs!
Lean on me…
I love walks. They’re like free therapy.
Tippy likes them too 😉
~Namaste~

Brain Food

Whoever said “absence makes the heart grow fonder” must have known what it’s like to be without internet for 3 days. I never realized how much I love writing this blog until it was taken away! Which I suppose would be the cloud’s silver lining. [I swear, I’m not trying to jam as many adages into one post as I can.]
Sunday was spent sleeping and studying. Yup, finals week in Italy ain’t so different from finals week at home! Except for at Converse I don’t walk by the Duomo on my way to take it or go to Sergio’s for lunch afterwards…alright, so it’s a little different.
All that studying required some serious brain food:
 Chocolate-orange yogoats
Arugula + cannellini beans + pecorino + balsamic.
My brain felt better.
My roommate Alaina’s parents got here (on Mother’s Day – che carina!) and generously invited all of us out to dinner with them! We went to Ristorante Aqua al 2, recommended by API and my roommate Sam who went here early on in the semester. They are known for their “samplers” – of salads, pastas, meats, and dessert. If you order a sampler, they bring you 3 different dishes, chosen at random. I split a salad sampler and a pasta sampler with my roommate. I snapped a picture of the salads, but even my beloved LuLu couldn’t quite get a clear shot (stupid restaurant lighting…):
From left to right: corn with cherry tomatoes, mixed greens with tuna and capers, and fennel with chicken and radicchio. I think the fennel one was my favorite – I liked how it was hard to tell the chicken apart from the fennel, it made for an interesting presentation.
The pasta samplers were not in any way photogenic or pretty, and they were passed so quickly it wasn’t worth the picture. The first pasta was fusilli (the spiral pasta) in a creamy green sauce (probably pesto) with what we think was tuna. It was good, probably my favorite of the 3. The second was farfalline (little bow ties) in a tomato sauce with mushrooms – good, but kind of blah and unimaginative. The third was a little hard to tell – it was rigatoni in a sauce that I thought was sun-dried tomatoes and eggplant but we couldn’t tell if there was meat in it. I checked the menu again online and I’m pretty sure it was just veggies, but it’s Italy – chi sa? (who knows?) Either way, it was very tasty – definitely had red wine in the sauce. You know that rich, deep flavor that you get when you cook with wine? Mmmm. Not just for drinking! There was a cannelloni (big tube pasta) stuffed with ricotta and spinach which was good, but again, nothing special. Not bad – but nothing I couldn’t find at home pretty easily.
The meal itself was not fantabulous perse, but this was one of those instances where the atmosphere and company was so nice, it was a truly pleasant dining experience. Thank you Alaina’s parents!!!
Afterwards, we went to Grom. No explanation necessary.
Melone + fiordilatte di menta (basically, creamy mint)
New May flavors!!!
I LOVED this combo!!! I’ve had melon with mint leaves sprinkled on top, and this was the perfect recreation of that in gelato form. I have no idea why they work so well – they are both really sweet, but I think it’s something about the cool mint and the fruity melon that just…works.
Study, study, study…
~Namaste~

Happiness in a Cone

I’ve lived here for 3 months. You might think I’m sick of Tuscany and it’s rolling hills and vineyards and awe-inspiring landscapes…all that beauty must get overwhelming and old, right?
Nope. Loved every single second. And I’ll love all the seconds that are yet to come.
You might recall our first pilgrimage to San Gimignano, a medieval hill town in the Siena province. We went for one reason, and one reason only: gelato. And not just any gelato. Oh no. We’re talking the World Champion gelateria. Oh yes.
Our first trip in February was a huge disappointment when we, with tastebuds fully prepared for some cold, creamy amazingness, were met with a closed door and a sign that read: Closed until March 7th. ‘Let down’ doesn’t even begin to describe what we felt. [It certainly didn’t stop us from having a great time anyway!]
Now obviously, having developed into full-blown gelato connoisseurs during our semester here, this was not something Alaina and I were missing out on. Armed with a restaurant recommendation for lunch and 3 euro umbrellas, we ventured off…and got on the wrong train. Whoops! That’s the first time this has happened, which is pretty darn good for 3 months, right? [Humor us.] We did not miss a beat, hopped off at the next stop, and got cappuccinos while awaiting the right train to come along. One [correct] train + bus ride later, we were back in San Gimignano:
We found the restaurant relatively quickly, which our stomachs were greatly appreciative of 😉 It was a little fancy-schmancier than we expected – the guide book that recommended said it was a “local favorite” and it seemed more like a hotel restaurant with nice tablecloths and multiple forks and all that high class business, but hey, we were up for anything.
I ordered bruschette miste, mixed bruschettas (toasted Tuscan bread with different toppings):
From left to right: Prosciutto (a darker kind than usual?) and melted cheese — I’m 90% sure it was pecorino, roasted pepper/zucchini on melted mozzarella, and the classic tomatoes with olive oil, garlic and basil. The prosciutto-pecorino one was my fave (I know, you’re shocked). I really just love bruschette – it’s like pizza but more fun 🙂
I also got a side dish of roasted veggies – I was feeling like some fiber, I guess 😉
A tad heavy on the oil, but it’s Italy, so at least it’s really good olive oil they’re bathing in. Roasted eggplant is one of my favorite foods. If you haven’t  tried it, you must! It’s perfect in the summer – just throw some on the grill, drizzle with a little balsamic, S + P, and you’re good to go. I especially like the burned pieces, which is BAD because (as I learned in my cooking class) burnt foods contain free radicals that can cause really icky stuff in your body. So, if you’re like me, up your antioxidant intake – they pretty much kick free radicals’ cancer-causing butts!
After a lovely lunch, it was time. You know what for.
GELATO.
On our first attempt, the gelateria looked like this:
Today:
Ah, the fruits of tourist season.
After we elbowed and kneed our way into the teeny tiny store, we tried our best to scope out all the flavors – and there were a lot! Typical ones, like nocciola (hazelnut) and fondente (dark chocolate), but fun creative ones too, like raspberry with rosemary and pink grapefruit-champagne! After much rushed internal debate, I made my selection. I was not disappointed.
Dark chocolate, mint, and zabaione al vin santo 
That last one was an egg nog flavor spiked with Vin Santo, the sweet Tuscan dessert wine traditionally served with little biscotti. I had a Vin Santo gelato before and really liked it, and when I saw the eggnog flavor added, my choice was made. Mint and chocolate for me are no-brainers; when I was little my hardest decision at the candy store was between Junior Mints and York Peppermint Patties. Definitely one of the most wonderful flavor combos ever.
Now, as for the gelato? It was good. Even great. One of the best I’ve had in my almost-4-months here. The cone itself was wonderful – made with almond extract that went perfectly with the eggnog flavor. Come to think of it, they make pumpkin egg nog – I think almond egg nog would be to die for! Culinary innovations aside, this was good, but I must say my gelato-lovin heart still belongs to Perche No. Vestri has by far the best dark chocolate – the rich flavor and creamy texture is exactly what gelato should be; but Perche No has more flavors, uses all-natural ingredients that you can taste, and have the best soy gelato ever. But, this vin santo-egg nog was definitely one of the best flavors I’ve tasted. We were happy, happy ragazze
We did some shopping – San Gimignano has some great pottery places that are perfect for gifts! We made it back a liiiittle later than planned due to finicky train schedules, but we’re pretty used to that.
We made reservations at Trattoria 4 Leoni, a restaurant recommended to my mom by one of her real estate clients as their “favorite restaurant in Florence.” (Clearly they have not been to Sergio’s.) Because my parents were held hostage in America in April because of that evil Icelandic volcano, they took my roommates and I out to dinner from across the Atlantic! Being the good college kids we are and always up for free food, we were pretty excited.
The restaurant is on the other side of the Arno River (Oltrarno), where I almost wish I lived just because the minute you get to that side it becomes so much quieter. Fewer tourist attractions. 
4 Leoni was in a little piazza off a main road. The decor was very cute – teal stucco with uncovered bricks artistically placed. Very upscale, too. So far, so good!
We started with an antipasto plate of – what else? – mixed pecorino!
Pecorini misti
There were 3 different types of pecorino with a little bowl of honey for drizzling and pear slices. Pear and pecorino is another stellar flavor combo – and honey just puts it over the edge! The fruitiness works with the softness of the cheese and the honey accents the strong taste that I can only describe is cheesy – it’s Finals week, give me a break 🙂 All I have to say is, I better be able to find pecorino at home. I might cry…or just move back here.
And then, dinner was served…
Insalata 4 Leoni
This salad, served in a huge cabbage leaf, was arugula, emmenthal cheese (a kind of mild swiss), avocado, and pine nuts drizzled with arugula pesto. Yes, you read that right – pesto made with arugula instead of basil! I saw that and had to try it. I think I have mentioned my arugula obsession – I never tire of it. It just makes such a flavorful salad! It’s got a very strong, peppery flavor that’s perfect with balsamic vinegar. The pesto was good, but a little too salty – I wish they had offered a pasta dish with it, I think the fact that the salad itself was arugula-based made the pesto’s flavor get a little lost. But really, I adored this – the pine nuts were a great addition, and the mild emmenthal matched the strong arugula really nicely. Might have to recreate this at home.
Since we had already had gelato, we went a different direction for dessert…
Tiramisu. Can’t go wrong with a classic.
I think the best I’ve had was the one we made waaaaay back during our orientation week here (pre-blog – say what??), but really, tiramisu is hard to screw up. It’s just such a good combo – coffee, cocoa, marscapone; creamy, cakey…mmm. Tiramisu is one of my favorite desserts in general; it’s hard to for me to speak badly of it, ever.
All in all, a very culinarily-satisfying day. Aren’t those the best?
Thanks Mom & Dad!!!

Barcelona or Bust


Bienvenido a…

Barcelona!
Be prepared for an epic photo post. I came. I saw. I clicked.
After my very first flight on RyanAir [which, by the way, Alaina hot on the nose when she called it the “Ikea of all airlines”], we arrived at our hostel around midnight and promptly passed out after some very unpleasant cold showers. We arose for a depressingly mediocre hostel breakfast, but it didn’t matter because we were in freaking SPAIN!
We met my roommate Monica, who is studying there this semester, at Plaza Catalunya. We may or may not have looked like crazy, confused tourists while trying to figure out the Metro on the way, but by the end of the trip we had that baby down!
Monica played tour guide and steered us all over the city and back! It was great because she could tell us what attractions weren’t worth spending the entrance fee to go in. It’s always fun to visit a city from a local’s point of view – I wish someone had visited me so I could show them my Florence! But aaaanyway…
We ventured down Las Ramblas, one loooooong strip that leads to the water.
Lots of people and green!
Monica knows me well and led us right to, what else, a market! Mercato St. Josep. It was SO colorful!
They had a whole bunch of fruit stands selling every different kind of juice combination you could imagine, and this I had to try. I went with Papaya-Mango:
We went back later and I got strawberry-pineapple. Both were SO good. I wish Florence would pick up on this juice trend! But, overall, my dear Mercato Centrale in Firenze wins. It feels more personal there, I think. Oh, how I will miss market-shopping!
Our tour continued and we eventually found ourselves in front of Gaudi’s Sagarada Familia, a church whose construction was started something like 140 years ago and they’re still working on it! None of us had much desire to go in – the looooong lines and one too many Italian churches did us in – but it’s a beautiful sight. I went in when I was here 8 years ago. I wish I could remember better how it looked then to see how much progress they’ve made!
Those crazy twisty tree branches in the front reminded me of Sleeping Beauty when Maleficent made all those thorn bushes grow in front of the castle to stop Prince Philip. Yes, I’m a Disney nerd. Don’t hate.
You can kind of see how the front looks a little like melted candle wax. It’s really such a cool structure!
Next stop: Parc Guell
Another Gaudi work! This I remembered well – it was my favorite part of Barcelona. I think it still is! It’s so colorful and funky. If I had a patio, I’d want Gaudi to decorate it.
One of the best views of the city.
See how crazy-cool the architecture is?!
Mosaic work everywhere!
LOVE.
You’re probably wondering by now – where’s the food?? I was a tad disappointed by the food this trip – Italy has it aaaaalll over Spain in that area. But we still ate pretty well!
We stopped for lunch at a little outdoor place across from the sea:
That would be a sculpture of a lobster. Hard to tell from this angle, but either way – wicked cool!
We started with some mandatory Sangria. I was a little concerned, my past experiences with it have NOT been pleasant – but it turns out I liked it a lot! Probably because I’ve learned to like wine so much here. Yum!
One of the prettiest sangrias we had this trip.
For lunch I was SO tempted to try their hummus & pita, but in the end I decided that I’m just going to wait until I go home to get my hummus fix – it will make it taste even better! I went with a hot sandwich with serrano ham & manchego cheese. Gotta eat local!
My family discovered Manchego cheese several years and got hooked! It’s mild but still has a real kick to it. I love how every culture seems to have their own version of ham and cheese. I’m still a prosciutto-pecorino girl, but this was very tasty in its own right 🙂
After lunch we decided to head back to the hostel for a siesta and to get ready for the night’s festivities. We made a quick stop back at Mercato San Josep for some snacks and I got some mango (yes, I’m obsessed. for good reason, mind you – it’s SO good!):
One euro of tropical juicy goodness. Mmmm.
We were amazed at how easily we slipped into the Spanish way of eating dinner so late – We didn’t finish until  after 11 PM! A far cry from the 5 PM dinner I eat at school. 
We had one mission tonight: paella. The national dish, I ate this a little too often on my first trip to Spain and got tired of it, but I was very eager to try it again. Say the word seafood and I’m there!
Monica took us to a place near the beach recommended by her program, La Fintora. It was a good sign when we were brought a glass of complementary champagne!
And bread. Not in a basket, but on individual plates – we were definitely not in Italy anymore!
And olives that were SO. GOOD. A bit different from Italian olives – a little spicier, I think. 
We ordered Cava sangria, which is made with sparkling white wine instead of the regular red wine. I like it, but I think I preferred the classic sangria.
Pretty color, though!
And then it arrived in a pan almost the size of the table. Oh yes, we were excited.
I only wished there had been more mussels! It was reaaaallly good though – in fact, I think paella is the sole rice-based dish that I truly enjoy. A little sweet from the seafood and spiced with the saffron. I ate a little too much, but honestly, how often do you eat paella by the sea in Spain for heaven’s sake!!
Before heading to the club to get our dance on, Monica took us to this really unique, cool bar, La Ovella Negra. It was like a huge open warehouse with wooden cafeteria-style tables and sangria on tap. It was really cool, very different. We went to Razzmatazz, the biggest club in Barcelona – and big it was! 4 floors of crazy booming music. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say – we had a really good time. 😉
We slept in and decided on a trip to Dunkin Donuts for breakfast! This city had SO many American chains, and when we stumbled upon Dunkies, it was immediately put on the list. If you’re from New England, Dunkies is where you go for iced coffee. Sam and I were feeling nostalgic and Alaina was sick of listening to us rave about it, so to Dunkies (called Dunkin Coffee here!) we went! Because it was so late, we went ahead and found a place for lunch after coffee. Dancing all night makes a girl hangry! We picked a random place on La Rambla and settled. Nothing fantastic, but everywhere here was touristy so it didn’t really matter. I actually was quite pleased with the salad I got:
Mushrooms, asparagus, and shards of parmeggiano reggiano. It was a really good combo!
[I have genuinely no idea why google refused to upload this right-side up. But you get the gist.]
We stumbled upon a gelato place that looked good, and felt that since we have become such gelato connoisseurs, it would be plain wrong to not sample it in another country. This place, Amorino, was actually pretty cool because when they put it on the cone they form it into a rose! You know me and pretty food. I swear it tastes better.
Mango + soy chocolate.
The soy chocolate was SO good and dark! The mango had a bit of an ‘off’ consistency and hard to eat, but my love for mango is enough to ignore such minute details.
Red shades, black dress, yellow gelato – I’m the Spanish flag!
That night we met Monica at Plaza Espanya for the “magic fountain”! There is a huge fountain in front of the national art museum and they play classical music while the fountain “dances” along. They actually played American 80s music for us…we found it incredibly entertaining. What fountain wouldn’t want to dance to Madonna?
We went out for tapas that night but sadly we had no idea that Saturday was Spain’s Labor Day and the best tapas bar was closed 😦 We settled for one nearby and it was pretty good but not a-ma-zing. No pictures, sorry! We were already dressed to go out and I didn’t want to bring my huge purse (and I was a little paranoid about stolen cameras…because mine is so new and pretty!). Just imagine some tomatoes and mozzarella in olive oil (they called it a greek salad…we were a bit skeptical but enjoyed it), an anchovy, a big slab of salted cod – which I liked at first but in the end it was too salty, and a “tortilla” which in Spain is basically a frittata. This one was stuffed with veggies and it was really pretty good. Not an incredible meal overall, but I love the tapas concept of getting a lot of little things and getting to taste a variety of foods. Always fun!
We went out to a different club, Apolo, after we went to an “Irish” pub and then this awesome shot bar! They had an entire wall of different shots and they were insane. The best was the boy scout – they pour alcohol on the bar after pouring the shots and give you a marshmallow to roast, then you dip it in the shot, eat it and then drink. It was really fun. They weren’t very alcoholic either, which I appreciated 🙂 It was a late night (perhaps I should say morning), but LOTS of fun. I actually felt like a normal 20 year old for once. 
Our last day was beach day. Hit up Starbucks for breakfast (the Dunkies didn’t have bagels and we were not feeling donuts for breakfast) and then were off to the beach. It was a little cool, but sunny for the most part. I didn’t bother with a suit, but got a little sun. I also got the roomies into collecting beach glass! On my search, a little boy saw me looking at the rocks and gave me this:
“La quieres?” Bah, of course I want it! So cute! Best souvenir ever.
Boats galore!
When I got bored, I started to play with my new camera…
SO FUN!
Finding a place for lunch turned out to be a rather difficult task – everywhere we wanted was packed to the gills. We eventually found somewhere – at that point our only requisite was that they served food. We got to sit outside, and got Sangria, so all was not lost. I ordered the pan con tomato, which is a Catalan specialty. It’s basically ciabatta-like bread with a tomato kind of rubbed/crushed on top. It was interesting…but made me long for bruschetta. It needed garlic and basil!
I also got a caesar salad which was…um, not caesar salad. The dressing was like some kind of ranch or something. It came with chicken though, which was unexpected but appreciated. 
I also stole several of Sam’s patas bravas, which is a typical tapas dish. Potatoes pan fried with spices and sprinkled with paprika and served with a tangy mayonnaisy sauce. I’m not much for the sauce but the potatoes are gooooood. Try them if you get the chance, I’ve seen them at random Mexican restaurants before.
It was a bit of a mad dash from hostel to metro to bus station – we were literally sprinting with all our bags out of the metro. But we made it. The train however that was supposed to take us to the Pisa train station from the Pisa airport never showed, and we ended up having to take a cab from Pisa back to Florence. That was a VERY unexpected and even more unpleasant little surprise – cabs are not cheap. But it was either that or sit in the incredibly sketchy Pisa train station until 4 AM, and that just wasn’t sitting right. Ah, traveling in Italy. Always a joy.
NOT.
The return trip put aside, it was a pretty fantastic weekend. Lots of fun, and I got to see MoMo, who I haven’t seen since we left school in December! Perhaps the most interesting part of the trip though was that I realized how perfect my choice to study in Florence was. I would have hated living in a huge overwhelming city like Barcelona. Not to mention the food – oh how Italy has spoiled me there! I had fun, but it was good to come home. Tiny shower, no dryer, and no peanut butter, but it works for me. American girl, Italian soul.
~Namaste~