Saturday, May 16, 2015

Netflix's Chef's Table + an existential crisis

"We educate kids to be settled in a comfortable chair. You have your job. You have your little car. You have a place to sleep. And the dreams are dead. You don’t grow on a secure path. All of us should conquer something in life. And it needs a lot of work. And it needs a lot of risk. In order to grow and to improve, you have to be there at the edge of uncertainty."

Francis Mallmann uttered those words in the Netflix series Chef's Table while I sat sipping coffee before going to work. And I tell you, I've never felt more like I needed a big change in my life. Do we really want to sit at a desk for 8+ hours a day, making money for someone else? How did we get to this pointIs there room for all of us to follow our dreams?

It's not often a television show can send me into an existential crisis, but this one is worth it. I started watching Chef's Table in the 30-minute coffee breaks I build into my morning routine. (If you've ever lived with me, you know the one thing I can't stand is rushing, so I wake up 3 hours before I have to be at work to walk the dogs, squeeze in some quick yoga, get ready, and eat breakfast.) From the first episode, starring Massimo Battura, I was hooked. The show opens with the story of the Modena earthquake in 2012, when centuries-old buildings crumbled and thousands of wheels of honest-to-goodness parmigiana-reggiano toppled and broke. In an effort to help the cheesemakers sell the blocks of cheese before they spoiled, Massimo offered up his recipe for a classic Italian risotto, and people across the country made the meal--the largest dinner party in Italy, they say.  

In another episode, Francis Mallmann cooks traditional Argentinian cuisine, with his own twists, over open flames. We see the house he lives in, alone, on a small island in a lake tucked away in the Andes. We watch him teach young students how to cook curanto, an ancient way of heating food in a pit with hot stones. We watch him fish and connect with the earth in the most natural ways possible. 

While the photography is spectacular and the food is stunning, what gets me is the philosophy that each chef shares. Dan Barber shows us how to reconnect with the land and leave little destructive impact. Francis Mallmann teaches us that living a comfortable life isn't the most rewarding. And Niki Nakayama discovers that her she can use her creativity to display the hidden sides of her personality, the ones she's too shy to share with anyone.

Watching some of the world's greatest chefs use their passion to create the lives they want and using their influence to change the world gives me a little hope. Maybe we can follow our dreams--we just have to figure out what they are first. But until then, here's Massimo Batturo's Rissotto Cacio e Pepe recipe, courtesy of NPR:

Risotto Cacio e Pepe
1/2 pounds Parmigiano-Reggiano, aged for 30 months4 quarts still mineral water17.5 ounces Vialone Nano or other arborio rice1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil1 teaspoon white peppercorns1 teaspoon Szechuan or black peppercorns1 teaspoon long Jamaican peppercorns1 teaspoon Sarawak peppercorns
Parmigiano-Reggiano water, made 24 hours ahead
To make the Parmigiano-Reggiano water: Grate the cheese and mix with the room-temperature mineral water in a large pan.
On the stovetop, slowly heat the water until the Parmigiano-Reggiano starts to form threads at the bottom. A thermometer will read between 176 and 194 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the pan from the heat and let it to cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and leave overnight in the fridge.
The next day, take the solid part that has formed on the top and place it in a bowl. This will be used to cream the risotto. Strain remaining solid part to collect the Parmigiano-Reggiano water. Cut the solid part into thin slices and cook in the microwave for a couple of seconds. This is tasty with crackers!
To make the risotto: Over low heat, simmer Parmigiano-Reggiano water in a pot. Put the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the rice and toast until it starts to warm up.
Wet the rice with the Parmigiano-Reggiano water. Stir and continue cooking, adding liquid as you would with any risotto. About three-quarters of the way through cooking, add a little bit of the solids that separated from the Parmigiano-Reggiano water.
When the rice is ready, in 30-35 minutes, remove the pan from the heat and briskly mix in the remainder of cheese to give the risotto a creamy texture.
Crack the pepper individually and grind the Jamaican pepper. Spread the risotto out on a plate and sprinkle generously with the various types of pepper. Serves 4.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Winter is coming (2015 edition)

It finally happened: we got a whole five inches of snow here in North Carolina. Panic ensued. And since we woke without power and couldn't work, we took off on a snowy (and brief) adventure.

Josie had a blast--she couldn't hold still long enough for a clear photo. I have no photos of our pug, Molly. She was so miserable I couldn't bear to make her stay out for a photo shoot.

I was not impressed.

Just kidding.

I guess he likes Virginia Tech. 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Field guide to Budapest

Four days in Budapest was not enough. It's easily one of the most beautiful cities I've seen: 19-century-style buildings flank the blue Danube river, and steeples, bridges, and statues dot the skyline. The river divides two sides of the city, Buda and Pest. Buda is known to be a bit more touristy and more expensive, while Pest is more local and a bit more convenient. We quickly learned that the further you travel from the river, the less touristy the neighborhoods are. It's a good tip to remember if you're looking for traditional food or cheaper shopping.

I still can't quite wrap my head around Budapest's history. It seems they've been under the control of one power after another for most of their history: the Huns, the Ottoman Turks, the Hapsburgs, the Nazis during WWII, and the terrifying Soviets. Today it's technically a democratic republic and a member of the European Union, but I get the feeling from some locals we met that they aren't too happy with the way things were going.

But I'm no expert on European politics (for that, please ask my friend Will). But I can offer a few suggestions for how to spend your time in Budapest. So without further ado, here's my tiny field guide to Budapest. 

1. Take a hike. On a free walking tour. 

This was the perfect way to begin our stay in Budapest. We spent three hours and who knows how many miles exploring the city with a group of travelers and a young Hungarian woman who called herself Sarah. (Really, she said her name was too difficult for non-Hungarians, so she picked something similar and easy—Sarah it was!)

I mentioned before that talking with a local is one of my favorite things to do in a new place. Like Mario in Dubrovnok, Sarah had a lot to say about her city, some good things and some bad. She told us how her mother will vote for the corrupt party in power because she's a government employee and this party gave all government workers a 13% pay raise this past year, although she doesn’t believe in their politics. Sarah's young friends didn't plan to vote at all, thinking that the race was corrupt and their votes didn't matter. Some things are the same in all countries, I suppose. 

2. Go for a dip at Széchenyi Thermal Baths.

Taking the waters at Szechyni Baths was the highlight of this trip. We thought we wouldn't be able to make it thanks to our busy schedule, but in the end we decided we couldn't visit Budapest and NOT take part in what the city is known for, so we woke up at 6 a.m. to squeeze it in. We opted for Széchenyi because it's one of the few bath houses that allows men and women to bathe together in bathing suits. Online reviews also promised it would be one of the loveliest venues, and wow, it didn't disappoint. 

One thing you won't find at the baths at 6 a.m. on a weekday is someone who speaks English. Somehow we managed to figure out how to buy a wristband/locker lock and find our way to our separate changing rooms. From there we wondered around until we discovered a handwritten sign on A4 that said "POOL." 

I'm still kicking myself for not taking our camera into the baths. The above photo is the only one I snapped on my iPhone, after we noticed a group of local senior citizen bobbing in circles and making a whirlpool in the center section in the pool. I have to admit, I wasn't originally sold on the medicinal effects the baths are meant to have, but by the end of this day, the patch of psoriasis I'd developed on my face was absolutely gone. Those waters work wonders! 

After a dip in two outdoor pools, we headed into a eucalyptus steam room. Don't miss this--I don't think I've ever breathed as well as I did on the way back to the hotel! 

3. Eat Hungarian food; end up in food coma.
If you love meat, gravy, spicy peppers, and sour cream, then traditional Hungarian food is for you! I don't know if I could eat this everyday, but what a comfort it was in the midst of a chilly September. We were lucky enough to go to Kéhli Vendéglő,  which served traditional cuisine while band played traditional gypsy folks songs. But my favorite meal in Budapest? After our walking tour, our guide offered to take some of us to lunch at a local cantina. I wish I could tell you the name of this little restaurant, but I never saw any signs. It was a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria, the only place where you could buy "hot, proper food" in Buda on a budget, according to our guide. There was no English anywhere on the menu, so our guide had to explain everything. Jon had stuffed cabbage; I ate chicken paprikas, all for $11. It wasn't the grandest meal I've ever had, but it was delicious, completely humble and homey, and the most authentic meal we had while on vacation. 

I will say that we witnessed a vegan protest march while we were walking through town, so the national cuisine may be changing. 

4. Look up. 
Yes, I know New Yorkers will hate me for saying this, but there's so much beauty floating above this city. Whether it's an art nouveau lamppost or a neoclassical obelisk, you don't want to miss anything. 

5. Sip Hungarian wine and pálinka.
I tried Furmint, a white Hungarian wine grape variety that produces dry wines (as I had) and better-known Tokaji dessert wines. And when you’re ready for something stronger, move on to pálinka, a Hungarian brandy. If you're not feeling bold, you can order cocktails made with the liquor.

6. Plan your day around desserts.
It’s true—we planned some days around which cafes we wanted to pop by in the afternoon for a coffee and cake. I heard that in the city's heyday, Budapest hosted more than 700 cafes! I always think of 19th-century Vienna as the cafe capita of the world, but maybe Budapest tied for that title. 

My favorite stops were Ruszwurm in Buda and Bookcafe in Alexandra bookstore on Andrássy Avenue. There was a bit of a wait at Razwurm; it's close to the touristy sections of Buda and has a spectacular reputation. The cafe dates back to 1827 and once served the emperor and empress of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire. 

But Bookcafe was spectacular. Just look at this ceiling!

I wish we could have made it to the New York Cafe, but we just didn't have the time. If you're able to squeeze in a visit, I'd love to hear about it. ( it a coincidence that 3 of my recommendations deal with food?)

Other attractions not to miss? The stunning opera house, St. Stephen's Basilica, the Parliament building, the National Museum, Fisherman's Bastion. There are too many beautiful and historical places to go on about, and I don't want to bore you with words. Photos will have to suffice: 

Can you believe this is a ceiling in St. Stephen's? There's another view of the rotunda in the following photo. 

So what did I miss? I know we didn't discover everything that makes Budapest great. I'd love to know your travel recommendations for this city. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Field Guide to Dubrovnik

Here’s the thing. Dubrovnik is stunning, almost dreamlike. It's no wonder they film scenes for Game of Thrones here. It’s also a tourist trap. We knew that we’d probably end up eating at overpriced, mediocre restaurants and pushing through tourists from every nation on the Stradun, or main street. But you know what? It was worth it.

Of course, there are a few things you can do to escape the crowds and get a real, beautiful, and fun experience in Dubrovnik. If you get the chance to escape for a few days there, here’s what I’d recommend.

Rent an apartment.

Dubrovnik isn’t known for high hospitality or swanky hotels. So for the first time ever, we booked an apartment from airbnb. Ours was right in the middle of Old Town, within the old medieval gates. This gave us a chance to make our own breakfasts (which we didn’t do often, but we should have) and stay inside the oldest part of the city.

If we ever go back, I’d probably choose a flat down a quiet side street—silly me, this time we stayed right off the Stradun. The first night we were there, I woke up to drunk teenagers singing Croatian folk songs at 3 a.m. Not good for someone who had been traveling for 24 hours and needed her sleep!

But the coolest thing about the apartment we stayed in? It has been in the owner’s family since the 17th century. It was rebuilt after the earthquake of 1667, but still has all the charm of a quaint European flat: exposed wooden beams, white stucco walls, and stunning hardware.

Kayak the Adriatic.

This wasn’t on my original to-do list for Dubrovnik, but when I realized that this may be my only chance to kayak the Adriatic, I signed us up. We registered through Adventure Dalmatia before we even left the States; just a quick email and we were done. We chose the 9 a.m. venture, just so we could get back by lunchtime and still have a full day to ourselves. I suppose everyone else thought that was too early, because we ended up kayaking with one lovely British couple and our local guide, Mario. On top of that, boat traffic was minimal at 9 a.m., so we didn’t even have to deal with that as we crossed the harbor. (Later that day we watched kayakers compete with terrifyingly fast speedboats to get across the water.)

Local guides are the way to go, I’ve learned. Even if you’re part of a tour group, there’s nothing better that speaking to local folks who know the land, the culture, and the history. Mario showed us around, told us some local legends of Lokrum Island (how true they are, I don’t know), and even talked about how his parents still feel about Montenegro and how local schools don’t teach about the war. It was really fascinating to talk to someone about this stuff, instead of reading poorly translated museum labels or Wikipedia pages. 
The wind was so strong that morning we couldn’t go all the way around Lokrum Island, as originally planned. Honestly, this was probably the best thing that could have happened to us. We are NOT kayakers, I have learned. It was HARD. Our companion kayakers nearly quit on the way back in. I’m so glad we did it, but I’m also so glad it’s over.

Eat octopus salad.

Okay, I wasn’t going to do this either, even though Rick Steves recommends it. It wasn’t until Mario said we just HAD to try it that I swayed. Jon and I found a seafood restaurant in a guide book, discovered that there were six other people waiting in line to get in, and figured, it must be good. And it was! Grilled chopped octopus paired with fresh tomato and cilantro and a dash of lemon juice. It was light, a little chewy, and delicious. I’m probably not brave enough to make this on my own, so I’m glad we were able to enjoy it in Dubrovnik.

Relax at Sveti Jakov Beach.

It was a hike to get out here, but so worth it. There’s a beach very close to Old Town called East West, but it’s basically a party beach. Loud music, drinks, and tons of people. That’s not really our scene.

But if you walk out of Pile gate and down the road along the coast for about 20-30 minutes, then take a sharp right at a church, and climb down more stairs than you’ve ever seen in your life, you’ll arrive at Sveti Jakov, or Saint Jacob’s Beach.

It’s a small beach, and on a Sunday afternoon, there was no one working the bar. You’ll find more pebbles than sand (ouch!) on your way to crisp blue water. There were a few families playing in the surf, and a few couples lounging in the sun (just one without a bathing suit on, although I’m pretty sure this ISN’T a nude beach). Locals had anchored their boats just off the shore. It doesn’t get much better than views of Old Town Dubrovnik across the sunny Adriatic, away from the crowds. If you’re trying to get some relaxation in on your holiday, this is definitely where I’d go.

Watch crazy Aussies jump in the Adriatic while you sip a drink at Buza.

We mostly stumbled into this little bar one afternoon. If you go, try to get a seat at against the railing, where you’ll get the best views of the ocean. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a crazy Aussie climb up the rocks and jump 50 feet into the sea. You never know how fun it is to be surrounded by strangers cheering on these kids in every language until you’re in that situation.

Climb the medieval walls. Use your pass to climb the medieval walls to visit the old fort.

The city walls are definitely the most touristy thing on my list. Even though we got up there early in the morning, we were already fighting crowds. It’s hot up there—there’s no shade—and while there are spectacular views of the city and the sea, I wouldn’t say it’s worth elbowing your way past gawkers who stop and stand in front of you. Instead, use that ticket to visit the old fort, just outside the Old Town walls.

I don’t think most people realized that there tickets worked at the fort too, because the place was nearly deserted. We got to mosey around, take photos out old windows. There’s not much to do there other than take in the view, shoot photos, and relax, but it was lovely to get away from everyone else.

Watch the sun set over the Elefiti Islands from Mount Srd 

I don't have the fondest memories of this because I was battling an awful migraine, but it was beautiful.
When Napoleon seized Dubrovnik in 1808, he built a fort at the top of Mount Srd. It was later bombed during the fall of Yugoslavia, and parts of the building still showcase bullet holes and crumbing stone bricks. It now survives as a museum to the War of Croatian Dependence, and we stood on the roof to watch the sun settle into the horizon.

Notice the small details. 

They're everywhere. You just have to look for them. Like a pink letter box, and open window, or old fishing nets left on the dock. 

What do you think? Did I miss anything? I'll post more photos from the rest of our trip (Bosnia and Hungary) soon.