Bigger Fish to Fry

When it comes to getting away (from it all and for a decent stretch of time), how often is too often, if there even is such a thing? How much is not enough? I just returned from a week-long vacation after having not been on one for over three years, so, to answer my own question: three years might be too long to go without getting away.

This trip was pure bliss, not just because I was traveling with my honey, but because I’ve been so bonkers with school and business responsibilities, I promised myself I’d embrace the feeling of doing nothing. Being ever the planner, though, I enforced a strict dress code of “nothing with buttons or zippers!” and made sure everything we packed fit into carry-on luggage only so we could whiz through the airport as we pleased. Nothing will hold me back from bliss!

Thankfully, I’m not the outdoors-y, adventurous type to begin with, and the bf accommodates my lackadaisical ways, so it was easy to forego signing up for excursions and saying no to the local tour vendors who marched up and down our beach every hour, trying to lure us from beneath our umbrellas and onto a parasailing boat.

TCI Beach Umbrellas

I’m fine right here, thanks.

Grace Bay Beach ranks every year as one of the best beaches in the world and is located on the island of Providenciales within the Turks & Caicos Island (TCI) chain. We’ve been to Grace Bay three times and it was our second time back to Alexandra Resort (the same spot we booked the last time we took a vacation), which just turned all-inclusive and lost on us because we don’t eat a ton while we’re away, I’m a teetotaler, and see above regarding excursions. Meal prices onsite seemed a little exorbitant for us as a pay-as-you-go couple and TCI imports almost everything, so, while we made a point to go grocery shopping as soon as we landed and most of the items at Graceway Gourmet were equivalent to what we’d find shopping at home, quality-wise, it was a little challenging sticking to our food budget.

Version 2

“Ugh with this view,” said no one ever.

I think it goes without saying that when you’re on an island getaway, you’ll be eating a ton of fish (if pescetarianism is your thing). In TCI, though, most of that fish is in the form of conch fritters or fried grouper, so we were happy that our supermarket haul allowed us to give our tummies a break every few meals.

Version 2

A delightful veggie platter from our grocery trip.

Toward the end of our stay, we ventured back to have a meal at Lupo (you can’t really take me anywhere without me having a pasta craving at some point), a delightful rustic Italian restaurant that we found during our last stay on Grace Bay three years ago. I was thrilled to see they were still open for business and thriving.

Version 2

Enjoying Lupo leftovers (with a handful of greens thrown in, of course) on the balcony.

Now that we’ve returned from our getaway, I think I’m still in vacation mode and hope this feeling lingers a little longer. Being in New York City, it’s easy to get caught back up in the whirlwind of this environment and forget all about riding that wave of rest and relaxation. But, I’ll tell you this much: there is no way I’ll be letting another three years pass without giving myself another proper vacation. After all, what’s more important than to empty out your brain every so often, visualize amazing things, and take in some of the beautiful gems that nature and life have to offer you?

For the Love of Food

ICYMI, this past Monday, October 24, was Food Day, an annual national celebration headed up by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. It was created a handful of years ago to encourage Americans to be more mindful about their eating habits and take ownership of their well-being, and to bring attention to policies—or lack thereof—regarding accessibility to healthy, affordable, and sustainable food.

To “observe” Food Day, one needs only to commit to making some sort of food-related change to his or her normal habits—anything from giving up soda to supporting farmers at the local farmers’ market to reading up on how Members of Congress voted on certain food policy issues. Some towns and college campuses put together big events to encourage their communities to join in on making these changes or identifying local food- and nutrition-related issues that need their attention. In doing so, they hope that these personal commitments and community-wide achievements last well beyond the one day once the momentum kicks in and everyone sees the positive results of what their efforts can make.

For me, food has played an enormous role in my life, starting from the time I was a child. Every Sunday, my Nonna Rosa would pick fresh herbs and vegetables from her backyard garden and, when I was old enough to stand on a chair and lean over the kitchen table, call me downstairs (we used to live above her in a two-family house) to help her prepare fresh, homemade pasta, hand-cranked through the heavy, metal pasta machine that had traveled with her on her journey from Italy to America. In that small kitchen, we cooked pounds of pasta al dente, served in an enormous bowl with the sauce—studded with heavy, hand-rolled polpette (meatballs)—that had been simmering in the big pot on the stove all day. Alongside the large bowl of pasta would sit a platter of sautéed spinach with fresh cloves of garlic or a dish of plump, stewed tomatoes with ceci (garbanzo beans), anchovies, fresh parsley, and basil. The aromas were enticing, even to the olfactory of five-year-old me!

Spending time learning and cooking with my Nonna Rosa remains one of my fondest memories of all time. Not only was there a sense of accomplishment associated with making our own food and feeding it to our family, but I became enamored and inspired by Nonna as she shared with me—in her broken English—stories about how she came to America, how she worked in a coat factory and saved up her own money, and how she was determined to be an independent woman in this new land, something unheard of for her generation.

Not too long ago, my dear friend and fellow Registered Dietitian (and foodie and blogger and New Yorker), Marsha, from SalutNutrition, interviewed me about the tastes and traditions of Italian cuisine. It was so fun, sitting with Marsha on a breezy, beautiful day in Central Park telling stories* about my family and my love of food. If you have about 15 minutes to spare, I invite you to watch and learn a little more about the food and culture of my family’s hometown in Italy:

Marsha launches a new YouTube episode each week on different foods and habits from across the globe. Click here to subscribe to her channel.

What are some of your favorite food memories? Are there any habits you have made, want to change, or looking to learn about? Please feel free to add your comments below and share this post with anyone you think who might love food as much as we do.

*VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: My mother had a chance to watch this video when it launched earlier in the week and yelled at me for forgetting to talk about the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” (an Italian Christmas Eve tradition). I clearly did not prepare well enough for this interview; otherwise, I would never have let this happen. Marsha denied my request to re-shoot the entire interview so that I could correct my error. Thankfully, I wrote a post about it a few years ago and you can read all about it here.

Fishing for compliments

For the second year in a row, I shared kitchen duties with my mom for our family’s Christmas Eve dinner. My mom handled all the fish dishes (I’ve written about our Italian fish tradition previously here) and I was in charge of the rest, which included a variety of nutrient-dense, fancifully flavored, plant-based recipes. This year’s menu, like last year’s, combined old-world tradition with some new fusion fare:

  • Shrimp Cocktail (à la Costco)
  • Chard & White Bean Soup (I substituted sweet potatoes for new potatoes)
  • Wilted Greens Salad (I used plain, ol’ mesclun instead of mustard greens, but added Dijon to the dressing as a nod; I also threw in some chopped walnuts to add texture and offset the sweetness of the dressing)
  • Shrimp Scampi; Calamari en Brodo; Broiled Cod; and Linguine with King Crab legs (all recipes in Mom’s head)
  • Braised Kale and Carrot Stew (loosely inspired by this recipe)
  • Citrus Pound Cake w/Warm Citrus Salad (from the Dec ’14 issue of The Oprah Magazine)
  • Winter Warmer Cocktail (I don’t drink alcohol, but got everyone else nice and drunk on this)

I fare best when I eat vegetarian, but I don’t feel the need to make a show of it; I just like providing solidly healthful foods for people I love, especially when I know some of the day will include indulgences and sweets. Plus, it ensures that I’ll be getting my own fill of fruits and veggies…a true win-win.

What kind of foods do you eat and traditions do you follow for the holidays? Do you like to cook or share the cooking responsibilities with anyone in your family during special occasions? Feel free to post your comments below. I look forward to reading them!

La Festa dei Sette Pesci

I’m too full to make up a new post for today, so I’m recycling last year’s.  Going to lie down now.

As I scour my wardrobe looking for a pair of pants with an elasticized waist, I reminisce about Christmas Eves past at my parents’ house and the many family members who have gathered around their table enjoying my mother’s most favorite holiday ever (I can actually hear her snort-laughing over that right now).  Per the tradition of our province of L’Aquila in Abruzzo, Italy (and the tradition of many other parts of Italy), Christmas Eve means my mother will have spent an entire month shopping and poring over recipes for what is known as La Festa dei Sette Pesci (The Feast of the Seven Fishes) as part of the celebration of La Vigilia (The Vigil).  For me, it means I will have to ask politely for everyone at the table to please move the plate of eel far, far away from me.

Today also means about sixteen pounds worth of assorted holiday treats. By tomorrow, I believe I will be officially made out of chocolate…not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Wishing my friends, family, and fellow bloggers a very safe and happy holiday!

Flex your mussel

Welcome, class, to today’s Fresh Pick: MUSSELS

The term “mussel” is used for several families of bivalve molluscs inhabiting lakes, rivers, and creeks, as well as intertidal areas along coastlines worldwide. The freshwater and saltwater mussels are not closely related, and are grouped in different subclasses, despite some similarities in appearance. The freshwater Zebra mussels and their relatives live attached to rocks in a manner similar to marine mussels, but are classified with the Heterodonta, the taxonomic group including most bivalves referred to as “clams.”

Archaeologically, there is much evidence for humans having utilised mussels as a source of food for thousands of years. Nowadays marine mussels are still a popular seafood item, especially in Belgium and the Netherlands, where they are consumed with French fries (mosselen met friet or moules frites). In Italy, they are a popular dish, often mixed with other seafood, or eaten with pasta. In Turkey, mussels are either covered with flour and fried on shishs (midye tava) or filled with rice and served cold (midye dolma). In France, the Éclade des Moules is a mussel bake popular along the beaches of the Bay of Biscay. In Cantonese cuisine, mussels are cooked in a broth of garlic and fermented black bean. In New Zealand, they are commonly served in a chili based vinaigrette.

Mussels can be smoked, boiled or steamed. As for all shellfish, mussels should be alive just before they are cooked because they quickly become toxic after they die. The mussel shells open by themselves when cooked. (Discard any that remain closed after cooking.) Months with an “r” in their name (September to April) are said to be the in season for mussels.

Intertidal herbivorous shellfish such as mussels and clams can help people reach a healthy balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats in their diets.

For some great recipes, click here or here or try this delicious dish:

2 Tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 med shallot, minced
1/3 c white wine (or white cooking wine)
2 lbs mussels, rinsed, drained, and debearded
6 oz prewashed baby spinach
3 plum tomatoes, deseeded and diced
2 tsp tarragon

In a large pan over low heat, sauté garlic and shallot in olive oil until soft and translucent. Add white wine and mussels, cover pan, raise heat to medium-low, and steam mussels until shells open, about 7 minutes.

Uncover pan and transfer mussels to a warming dish. Turn heat to high and allow liquid to reduce (by boiling) for about 5 minutes. Lower heat back to medium-low and add remaining ingredients, cooking and stirring frequently until spinach wilts, about 5 minutes. Remove mixture from heat and pour over mussels. Serve with crusty bread and a salad.

Crying in my Suba.

THIS EVENING: A dinner in three parts.

INT: Suba, on the Lower East Side, recently renovated from a late-night club into a painfully chic, contemporary, Spanish restaurant.

A couple is seated at one of many tables located on a platform that, they kid you not, appears to be hovering over a pool of water.

Dude: What’s that smell?
Chick: I think it’s chlorine. Kind of inappropriate for inside a restaurant, no?
Dude: We’ll find out.
Chick: I think I’m sitting over the filter mechanism, although I’m not sure I’m complaining just yet.

A server arrives and explains the menu to the couple. There are no daily specials. It is painfully chic.

Dude: So, this is some kind of tapas menu?
Chick: Yep. I suggest we get a bunch of stuff, really mix it up. I barely recognize any of these ingredients and I, mind you, am a total food snob, so I would love to sample what they have to offer so I can blog about it and sound like I know what I’m talking about.
Dude: Ok, then, you choose because I trust you.

The couple places their order and sits quietly for approximately 8 – 10 minutes, awaiting their dishes and casting their eyes about the room in order to discern if they are, in fact, in a cavern of some sort that houses a giant, chlorinated pool, or a painfully chic restaurant on the Lower East Side. It is, they deem, too soon to tell.

The server returns with their first course: a “Tortilla a la Sidrería,” described as a cider-house omelet with bacalao (salt cod), carmelized onions, and American Sturgeon caviar and another froufrou dish called “Gambas a la Plancha” which is made with Maya prawns, seasoned pickles, chorizo sausage, garbanzo purée, and harissa (chile paste).

Dude: Hm, that’s a weird texture.
Chick: Which? This icky, smashed-up-egg-in-a-martini-glass-thing? I’m not sure I get it. Is this slimy substance a half-cooked egg white? I’m feeling a little gaggy. You?
Dude: Definitely. Let’s eat the prawns instead. Their eyeballs are kind of freaking me out staring up off the plate like that.

The server returns.

Server: How’s everything?
Dude: Just great, thanks.
Chick: Perfect, thank you.

The server leaves.

Chick: Yum, these prawns are good. And this garbanzo purée is quite tasty. I’m not sure I see the chorizo, though. Isn’t there supposed to be chorizo in this dish? And why in the heck would they do that to a poor pickle? It looks like a coiled-up worm. Not very appeti…
Dude: HOLY COW! Did you just see that?!?
Chick: What? What just happened?
Dude: I cut into the head part of my prawn and it exploded!
Chick: WHAT?!?
Dude: Seriously, look. There’s…head stuff…all over the dish…and on my glass…and on the table next to us. (points at enough blood spatter worthy of a crime scene)
Chick: Oh, dear. I think I’m going to throw up.

The server returns.

Server: Here’s your next course: Croquetas. Two each of duck, crab, and ham/asparagus over complimentary sauces. Are you finished with your first course dishes? May I remove them?
Dude: Yes, please, thanks.
Chick: *gurgle*

The server leaves.

Dude: I’m scared.
Chick: Me, too. You first. Try the crab one.
Dude: (takes a bite) Not bad. It’s ok.
Chick: (takes a bite) Pretty good. No, very good actually. Let’s try the duck ones.
Dude: (takes a bite) These are good, too.
Chick: (takes a bite) Maybe things are looking up. Let’s try the ham/asparagus ones.
Dude: (takes a bite) Three for three.
Chick: Did you dip it in the sauce?
Dude: No.
Chick: (dips it in the sauce) It tastes like grass clippings.

The server returns.

Server: Your final course: Arroz Negro. This is paella made with squid ink and combined with baby squid, fava beans, sea urchin, and lemon. May I remove this other dish for you?
Dude: Yes, please, thanks.
Chick: *gag*

The server leaves.

Dude: I can’t see anything. What’s in the dish? It’s all black. Everything’s black.

Chick: I think I see a lumpy thing here. It might be a fava bean covered in squid ink. (tastes squid ink-covered fava bean) Yes, it’s definitely a fava bean. And I think these round, blackish rings are the baby squid.
Dude: (tries round, blackish ring) Yes, yes, it’s squid. Ok, so it just looks weird, but, so far everything tastes pretty…Gaa! What did I just eat?
Chick: What did it look like?
Dude: I don’t know. It was covered in squid ink. I couldn’t tell, but it felt like a wet sponge.
Chick: Maybe that was the sea urchin. Have you ever eaten sea urchin before?
Dude: No, but that was probably it. Here, taste it.
Chick: (tastes it) Yuck, that’s strong and fishy…and what’s with the bizarre textures in all of these dishes? Suba thinks it’s painfully chic and exotic, perhaps, but it’s so unappealing. (holding back vomit) This is some sort of highfalutin, crazy ingredient, pretend tapas place and I don’t feel well and I’m getting sweaty and I need to find my happy place.

The server returns.

Server: May I show you the dessert menu?
Dude: No, I think we’re done.
Chick: (starts to cry; she does not like to leave a restaurant hungry)

EPILOGUE: Chick knows that she’s a big wuss for not mentioning her less-than-pleasant experience to her server or restaurant manager and using her blog to bash the meal. She would appreciate it if you could not lose respect for her.