Perks! Caveats! Secrets! Collective Travel Tips for Going Solo

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Many of the most meaningful and fun experiences in my life have happened while traveling alone. I met people who are now life-long friends; took part in a Vendemmia (family grape picking and crushing celebration) in Italy; was treated to an “insider’s” tour of Rome by a fantastic guide, Andreas, who made the sites extra special because he felt sorry for me traveling solo; and drove winding French roads in the rain to Rocamadour, France, on a spiritual quest to visit a Black Madonna. I can indulge in as many farmer’s markets as I want! I also do my best writing when alone. No distractions or anyone telling me to “Hurry up!”
I asked a few of my friends, who also value traveling alone, for some tips they’ve learned over the years and what makes solo travel special. Here are their thoughts:

What advice can you offer on traveling alone?

Bonnie advises:    Most important, savor every moment, enjoy every bite of local cuisine and take lots of pictures.  Until you know your way around, carry the address of your lodging whenever you are out sight- seeing.  Observe landmarks high and low, that are close to your hotel to help you find your way back.  Go a little further from home base every day.  If you are in a country where English is not widely spoken, explore thoughtfully.  Until you get your footing, stay in the busy tourist areas if possible. There will be LOTS to see and absorb.  If you are going to venture out on public transportation, watch the people getting on to see if they are using change or tokens so you can be prepared
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Maya says:     To just try it! I think three days is the perfect amount of time: long enough that you can’t mope about being alone the whole time, and short enough that you know it will be over soon if you truly hate it! I would also say I remember being worried about being scared or bored. I have felt both those things, but they are empowering to overcome. Also, bring a book.

Robyn suggests:     Don’t be afraid to reach out and make new friends among other travelers or locals.  Try new things, take a chance,  put yourself out there.  Embrace the people and culture.  Get out of the museums and churches, and spend time in cafes and parks and local shops where ordinary citizens hang out. Find festivals and concerts and art exhibits.  Explore the country by bicycle. This allows you to get out of the cities, appreciate the beauty of the countryside and its people, and get some exercise.

Ali recommends:     RESEARCH where you want to go–decide on a few places you would like to go, and then determine if they address all (or much) of what you’re looking for, during the time of year you’ll be traveling: weather; landmarks (open at that time); activities to do as a “single.”
READ REVIEWS – on the hotel, the location, etc.  People will tell you exactly what they think about a place, hotel or activities in your “chosen” place. I have often re-thought my destination, based upon candid reviews alerting me to items I never would have considered.

What are your greatest fears about traveling alone?

Maya:    Like any woman, I fear for my personal safety the most.

Robyn:    My greatest fear is losing my wallet/ID/credit cards…

Ali:     Safety.  Make sure you are aware of where you are traveling, and if there are any safety concerns you need to be aware of. Then read up on your destination to ensure there aren’t any specific areas where you need to be even more cautious.  And…always be aware–even if you know it to be a safe area.
As for my travels–a few things… In Madrid I was pick pocketed.  I found out later that pick pockets are rampant in parks in Madrid and Barcelona.  I didn’t engage with these people who were asking for a donation for a kids charity for more than seconds, yet it was long enough for them to steal $100 from me.
A word of caution for single women travelers — always be alert.  It’s no big deal if you’re pick pocketed, but you need to be alert for people watching you or showing an overly friendly interest.  Never disclose any detailed personal information (last name, city of residence, company, etc.).  Also, if you’re staying at a hotel at an airport and go to drink in the bar, there may be people who want a “hook up” before they go on their merry way–they aren’t always just being friendly because they want a nice conversation.  I noticed this right away in a hotel I often stay at, at the Frankfurt airport when I have an early flight the next day.  Don’t be scared, just mindful.

“The steward just asked me if I was not afraid to travel alone, and I said, “Why, it is life.”
― Emily Hahn, Congo Solo; Misadventures Two Degrees North

What do you miss most when traveling alone?

Maya:     Of course there are times when I wish I could share a view, or a funny misunderstanding, or something reminds me of someone in particular, and I wish they could experience it too. But I think traveling alone really forces you to deepen your relationship with yourself simply because you have no other option. In the least self- absorbed way possible, it really strengthened my own understanding and friendship with myself. In the least clichéd way possible, it has helped me learn more about myself and contribute to my own self improvement. For example, I have a lot of anxiety, and it has been great practice in trusting myself and going with the flow (like when transportation is delayed or you’re not on the bus you think you are).

Robyn:     Sometimes you want to share the experience and emotions with someone you know – in the moment.  “Look at that!”  “This tastes incredible, try it.”  I miss being able to share the journey, the adventure, with a fellow traveler.

Ali:     Having someone to share experiences with.

Do you feel you are treated differently when traveling alone?

Maya:     I’m really answering this from traveling abroad alone, so I do feel that most of the attention I’ve gotten has resulted more from being a foreigner than being alone.

Robyn:    No different from at home.  In the presence of couples, you really have to make an effort to reach out, being especially nice to the wives. They always seem to be nervous when a single woman is in the room, and the husbands are often reluctant to engage in too much conversation for fear of making their wives mad!

Ali:     No—I enjoy meeting other people.  Sometimes it can feel awkward, however, that’s all on me–no one has ever made me feel that way.

Do you venture out at night alone?

Bonnie:     When I am out during the day,  I check out places close to the hotel where I can have a nice dinner.  I ended up going to one little restaurant in Istanbul many nights because the food was amazing and the proprietor was so interesting to chat with.

Robyn:    Sure!  But I pay attention to my sixth sense and local intel regarding whether a certain area is safe.

Ali:     It depends.  Not about the safety aspect–it depends whether or not I’m traveling for work (when being “out at night” means dinner, then bed), in a place where there may not be much night life (i.e. Maine–where again, it may be dinner and then bed), or if it’s a place where there is local night life–then I would definitely go out (However, in this case, I am mindful to be cautious in different surroundings).

What do you love about being by yourself?

Bonnie:     The best part of traveling alone is setting your own schedule and leisurely indulging in places that are of great interest.

Maya:     I really value the time to myself. As I’ve grown older and more comfortable with the idea of being alone in general, I’ve been practicing how to use that (now very precious) time to its fullest extent. I would like to point out that I am exceedingly lucky at my point in life, I have few obligations, no dependents or serious relationships I can’t take a small break from, I am financially stable, and I have generous time off working for a school. I recognize the majority of the world is not this lucky. Here is an example of a time an independent trip helped me: Last autumn I was really struggling with my job and unsure if I wanted to stay with it. During a holiday weekend I gave myself four unscheduled days in a different location. The physical and mental space from my work gave me the clarity to see benefits to the job I hadn’t considered, and it gave me unpressured time to decide what was right for me. Of course, I was fortunate in the regard that I could afford the trip, and it was made much simpler by the fact that I was already living abroad. But if you have the time and resources, I would encourage you to try it!

Robyn:     I can do what I want, when I want, and go where I want.  Freedom and flexibility.  When you travel by yourself, you end up meeting more new people.

Ali:    I can travel when my schedule allows, to a destination of my choice. So much of what we do is dictated by a travel partner or family–it’s nice to do something YOU want to do.  I can get up when I want, go where I want, see what I want, eat where I want, leave when I want. It’s actually very relaxing knowing that if the sight at your destination was not as touted or a restaurant wasn’t great– there is no one to apologize to–you just go on!

“Whether by plane, bus or carpet,
own the magic in your ride.”
― Gina Greenlee, Postcards and Pearls: Life Lessons from Solo Moments in New York

Do you have an anecdote or experience to illustrate how your advice impacted your trip?

Bonnie:     Met two men on the flight to Istanbul and ran into them the next day in the park.  Ended up spending the day with them sightseeing, laughing and chatting.  They were from Houston, had been lifelong friends and the one man was accompanying his best friend to Africa.  The son of one of the guys was in the special forces and fighting bad guys in Somalia.  They were meeting the son on his R @ R and they had just broken up the trip with a one night stay in Istanbul.  I still think about them. I am quite sure if I was with someone I never would have spent the day with these two terrific, well-traveled gentlemen.  Lucky me!  Seems the people I met on this trip were travelers, not vacationers. Be aware of and count on your instincts.  I tried to be pretty close to “home” when the sun started setting.  Best laid plans, right?  One day I was in the 1000 year old Grand Bazaar just meandering and enjoying all the sights, sounds and people.  When I left, the sun was setting.  I ended up leaving from one of the many entrances but not the one through which I had entered.  I found myself in a close dark alleyway filled with people who were selling their wares.  I had NO idea where I was and I had a very uneasy feeling.  I figured if I just kept going downhill, I would hit my main landmark, the Bosporus Sea.  When I got to the Bosporus it was pretty dark but I knew my way back to the hotel from there.

Robyn:     On a trip to Slovenia, I was the only single person in the group.  At our little hotel in a small town, Podkoren, I decided to order a beer and join a group of local men outside at the picnic tables.  We couldn’t speak each other’s language but had so much fun trying to communicate using a few words and body language.  They bought me a second beer and we laughed a lot. I made new friends and learned more about the local ski jumping facility. The rest of the group was just hanging out in their rooms.

Ali:     I went to La Rioja in Spain to drink wine and went to many wine tours specifically in Spanish to improve my command of the language. After a few glasses of wine, I thought my Spanish was really good (they may not have felt the same way!) In Bad Durkheim, Germany, the annual Wurstmarkt is a 600 year old tradition, now with rides, great food and amazing wine from the famous wine region.  I imbibed, as I took the tram from Mannheim. On the way home, I didn’t relinquish my last glass of wine because, in Europe, you evidently can have alcohol on public transportation.  I was chatting up the entire car, talking with a German who had lived in Kansas and talking with a nice grad student about my cute single daughter in NYC.  While I was jumping off of the tram, at my stop, he kept asking where she was–poor guy. On another train ride, I was on my way back to Mannheim from Basel, Switzerland and there was a group of middle-aged friends who decided to lead the train in song.   This happened for about half of my two-hour train ride–it was great–they had everyone laughing, including the conductor.  All I could think of was–“That was me after the Wurstmarkt”!

Did you ever have a “What happens in ____ stays in Vegas?”

Maya:     Not kissing and telling!!!

Robyn:     When cycling on the islands of Croatia, our group took a break to hang out at the beach.  There was also a nude beach close by.  I decided to swim naked in the beautiful, warm waters of the Mediterranean and it was amazing!!!  I was able to recruit one other woman to join me and we took pictures of each other walking out of the water and onto the beach. Only for ourselves. Just to remember.

Ali:     Yes, however, it was by a work colleague and, ew-NO.  However, I am going to a Club Med in December, so maybe we should have a “part deu,” as I would never rule it out.  :-).

I am grateful to my dear friends for the stories and advice they’ve shared for traveling solo. Here’s one last anecdote from me:
One time, when I was 23, I took a train from Paris to Mont Saint Michel, in Normandy, for the weekend. The train was uncrowded and at one point split tracks. This meant that I had to be in the correct part of the train to continue onto my desired destination. In my broken French, I asked the conductor which car I needed to be in for Mont Saint Michel. He eagerly ushered me into a private compartment which was lovely, assured me this was the correct car and went on his merry way punching tickets. After his rounds, he returned to my compartment, and sat down next to me for some conversation…actually, flirtation! Suddenly, he had his arms around me and started making out with me! Flabbergasted, I nicely pushed him away and showed him the fake wedding ring I wore, insisting that ” je suis marié!” I am married! He finally got the message and left. I quickly gathered my bag and found a seat next to an American family visiting their son who was in the military.  I was protected!
Do you have any advice or stories to share? I’d love to hear about them! Until then!

When you’re (traveling) with someone else, you share each discovery, but when you are alone, you have to carry each experience with you like a secret, something you have to write on your heart, because there’s no other way to preserve it.”
― Shauna Niequist, Cold Tangerines: Celebrating the Extraordinary Nature of Everyday Life

Ciao for now!

Mary

 

My Tips for Hosting an Incredible Paella Party in 5 Simple Steps

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Seafood Paella made with Love.

Step 1
For me, the most important thing is starting with a great guest list. I choose family and compatible friends who have met before. This creates an intimate, comfortable atmosphere for all, and you, the host/hostess, need not worry about guests feeling left out because they don’t know anyone. You will be focused on making layers of flavor with the paella, with fleeting moments of conversation with your guests! Remember to read your guest’s facial expressions. Does everyone feel part of the party?
Oftentimes I encourage interaction between people who might not know each other well by taking photos of them together. This usually prompts a conversation between them and keeps the party moving along.

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Maya, Ali and Mirna. Simply the best friends ever!

Step 2
Keep the menu simple. Paella, Green Salad, Plenty of Drink, Dessert. This is not a time to try a new recipe or overload your guests with too many appetizers. I usually ask one guest to bring light appetizers like olives and Manchego cheese. Something to snack on to absorb the alcohol while viewing the entertainment – me singing while stirring the paella! Making the paella on a grill outdoors keeps the party contained outside and creates a side show for the guests. FullSizeRender.jpg-5Involve your friends by asking them to help. Our Fire Man, Bob, kept the grill fire fueled. In between fire duties, he connected the Flamenco music to outdoor speakers and later in the evening switched it to good old rock ’n roll. When it comes to drinks, I have resorted again to keeping it simple. I’ve made Sangria for past parties but have found that most guests prefer their favorite cocktail or variety of wine. Pelligrino is a favorite sparkler to quench thirst between drinks. All beverages are on hand and within easy reach on a dedicated “bar” table. This year, my sister-in-law, Mirna, brought me a bottle of fine Vapor Distillery Rhok gin( formerly Roundhouse), made in Boulder, Colorado as a gift. It was a warm evening and suddenly gin sounded really good! I know this is not a traditional Spanish accompaniment to paella but Mirna started whipping up cocktails with the gin and they were such a hit, several of the guests were requesting her special drinks! This is when you just go with the flow and enjoy the moment.

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Bob. The Fire Man.

Step 3

Enlist a co-chef! What would I do without Eva who has been my co-chef for three years? Eva is able to co-taste with me and offer suggestions to improve the recipe or technique. Choose someone compatible that you work easily with, does not freak out and understands flavor combining. Discuss each other’s roles beforehand so you are not duplicating tasks. Two people cooking also helps keep the pace moving along so you are not eating at midnight!

Step 4
Prep all ingredients for the paella in the morning. Have them measured out and in bowls in order of appearance to be added to the dish. When you start cooking, there’s no need to look at the recipe. It’s all right there in front of you. Continue to monitor guests for engagement and over dinner, ask them to share a favorite summer food memory.

Step 5
End the evening with one spectacular dessert. I always make a traditional Australian Pavlova. It’s my mom’s favorite dessert and works well for a crowd. The mouth feel of soft and creamy meringue and whipped cream, accented by tangy lemon curd and fresh berries is undeniably one of the best combinations on earth. And, it’s different. Make the meringue and lemon curd the day before. The night of the party, just assemble by spreading the curd onto the meringue, lavishing whipped cream over all and sprinkling with the freshest berries you can find. Done. Your guests will thank you.

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All the girls pitched in to help finish off the Pavlova. Such a great group! Love them all!

“He tastes of rice with a touch of saffron. He says I taste of seafood. I guess we’d make a good paella.”
Chloe Thurlow, Girl Trade

Ciao for now,

Mary

Koreatown Part II

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Lunch at Sun Dong Nan set the tempo for the rest of our exploration of Koreatown. Across the street from our lunch spot is the landmark Chapman Market, a beautiful Spanish and Moorish style building dating to 1929. In its heyday, it was the city’s first drive in mall, frequented by wealthy families and Hollywood movie stars.

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Archway leading into the Chapman Market.

This luxury one stop shop for produce and dry goods was unique in that you could just drive through the archway into the middle patio, park, then shop. In 1988, it was named a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument. After several new owners and renovations, it is now home to Korean boutiques, bars and restaurants. A visual beauty!
Just down the street, we discover City Center, a three-story mall catering to the Korean population with a variety of shops including The Face Shop, where we purchase several face masks to please, please, diminish our wrinkles and a glance at sunglasses where the friendly salesman eagerly tries to sell us $450 glasses. All we want is a referral for something sweet to eat. He sends us to Okrumong, a few blocks away, his favorite place for shaved ice. IMG_8151Anything cool sounds heavenly. Okrumong reminds me of a tea room where friends would meet for an afternoon indulgence. Overwhelmed by the dessert choices, we decide on Green Tea Snow.

IMG_8152Green tea shaved “snow,” layered with red bean paste, and topped with something that looks like a marshmallow but is actually a squishy rice ball. We both take a bite, expecting even a hint of sweetness but find only a tinge. “Refreshing,” is Eva’s description. Trying hard to get my taste buds to adjust and actually enjoy this speciality is difficult. I’m sure it’s an acquired taste, especially when your sweet tooth is used to more sugar. We both agree that we are happy we tried it but would probably not attempt to recreate it at home.
One thing I had not realized is Koreatown is big! It covers 2.7 square miles. Perhaps on a cooler day, it would be a good workout to experience this neighborhood on foot. Next stop- Koreatown Plaza. Free underground parking! Working our way from the top-level down, we begin in a giant home goods store that carries everything from fine china to irons. It really has something for everybody! Requiring more hydration, we head downstairs to grab a water in the food court. We sit down across from a stand selling Cheesetella. What is Cheesetella? we wonder. We watch a video of how this jiggly, thick mass of “cheesecake” is made, and try the samples they are handing out. Straight from Korea, Cheesetella is a sort of sponge cake or Asian bread that has a layer of cheddar and parmesan cheese nestled between a fluffy egg cake batter. It is half-baked and half steamed and the result is a tall, wobbly cake that is not sweet. I guess it’s all the rage is Korea. Watch this UTube video to see how it’s made. Cheesetella Utube

On our way out of Koreatown Plaza, or KTP as it is affectionately known, we spot a store selling enormous, almost gaudy gold chairs. Of course, adventurous Eva must go in to inquire. We are greeted by a super nice salesman who offers to let us experience “The Bodyfriend,” an upscale massage chair. I watch as Eva sinks into the chair and then is almost wrapped in by the salesman. They turn on the magic and she drifts into bliss. IMG_8164“Do you want to try it too?” they ask me. Yes yes. This is just the thing I need! I tuck into the chair, close my eyes and the next 10 minutes might have been the best massage I’ve ever had. I feel like three people are massaging my feet, neck and arms simultaneously. This piece of luxury comes at a price – a cool $9000!
Completely refreshed and rejuvenated after this session, we are ready for dinner. Eva chose a pub on Western Avenue but our plans were about to change. The valet hints that Beer Belly is the best joint in this area and we really ought to try it out. So we did. Beer Belly is a cozy beer bar tucked back off the street behind an ice cream shop. The vibe is low-key but not the beer or food. We eat on the vibrantly painted patio and are treated like queens. The craft beer choices are all from the Los Angeles region. Beer Belly’s message is simple and beautiful: “To us, craft beer represents a conscious movement of good will.” From Gardena’s State Brewing Company, I choose an Oolong Summer, a Kölsch with oolong tea infusion. Not at all what I expect – better! It has a kick and is refreshing. The menu as well is carefully crafted. We split an order of duck fat fries topped with duck confit and served with homemade raspberry mustard sauce. Talk about creative.

IMG_8176My salad reminds me of something I would get in France, but LA style. It’s the LA Wedge Salad. Iceberg lettuce, avocado, pickled hot peppers, pickled red onion, queso Oaxaca, applewood smoked bacon and a fried egg gracing the top. Salty, spicy, crunchy and cool. It is perfect and I know I am in LA. IMG_8184IMG_8181The food here is made with care and creativity and the staff is extraordinary. I just wish I could have tried more items off the menu, but the prior heavy lunch would not permit my stomach to expand any more. I will return for their sincere hospitality and dedication to making their place in Koreatown. IMG_8186
Sitting on the patio, I have a view of a saying painted on a building wall across from us. “Bringing Joy Through Sharing Love.” And this sums up my day of adventure and food in Koreatown. The people we met, all of them, are warm, friendly and engaging. I can’t wait to return!

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Marcel Proust

Ciao for now,

Mary

Koreatown Part I

Galbi Jjim

A visual masterpiece – Galbi Jjim.

“I Love LA!” I sang, Randy Newman style, as I drove up the I-5 toward a city you either love or hate. To me, Los Angeles is a polar opposite of San Diego, offering everything from the glitz of Hollywood, and the Getty Villa, (my favorite LA hangout), world-class restaurants, and diverse neighborhoods brimming with authentic culture. I needed a fix. Here’s how it began: “Eva, I need to get out of Dodge! Let’s leave our comfort zone and explore Koreatown, LA,” I begged. Her spontaneous spirit kicked in and we were on our way. So, why Koreatown? Anthony Bourdain. I love his show, “Parts Unknown,” and since Los Angeles is just up the freeway, why not? Bourdain’s episode featuring Koreatown made my mouth water and aroused my curiosity. We researched some “not to be missed” places and found some new ones.

Sun Nong Dan

Sun Nong Dan’s entrance in a mini mall, Koreatown

First stop, “Sun Nong Dan,” highly recommended by The LA Eater, Jonathan Gold. Open 24 hours a day, the cozy, maybe 15 table eatery, serves up strictly Korean dishes featuring steamy hot stews and bowls of soup, family style. An open doorway leads to the narrow kitchen where wafting aromas of spice and chili linger in the air, mingling with the sounds of sizzling dishes meeting the tables. Letters of gratitude from Korean celebrities?, taped to the wall are part of the decoration. Also on the wall, a mural of knife-yielding women and their somber observers. What are they doing?

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Eclectic decor!

Closely knit tables wedged us between students, families and professionals. Feeling a bit conspicuous with our white skin, we were still afforded the beautiful hospitality which defines this culture.

We took Gold’s advice and ordered the #24, Galbi Jjim, braised beef short ribs. Our server advised that this special dish would take 20 minutes to prepare. To ready us for this eating adventure, accompaniments of pickled green onions, cabbage and radish were placed along the side of the table to be shared and we were given our own bowl of pickled jalapeno dipping sauce and bowl of black rice that turns purple when cooked. Eva and I watched the other diners to see how they ate the dish. “Were there rules?” we asked our server. He shook his head no.

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The feast!

Voila! A large cast iron pot of the Galbi Jjim was placed between us. It was a show stopper! The brilliant garnet color of the stew had the appearance of shimmering, glossy lipstick. Mounds of hearty, thick short ribs, slices of beef, chunky potatoes, rice cake sticks, onion and chili combined for a beautiful presentation. We waited for the steam to subside before timidly taking our first bite. Sweet is the first taste which then becomes spicy but not too hot. You make your own heat with the jalapeno dipping sauce and chili paste. The onion gave it a sweetness while the rice cake sticks delivered an unexpected chewy texture. The depth of the layers of flavor was indescribable. It was impossible to discern the spices embedded in the stew. Not trying of over-analyze, we simply enjoyed every savory bite. The marrow in the flat bones was most likely meant to be eaten but there was so much food, we didn’t attempt it. The pickled vegetables were a cool bite during an intermission from the heat. We loved our experience at Sun Nong Dan and recommend it to anyone seeking truly authentic Korean cuisine.

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Eva’s first bite.

We were now initiated into Koreatown! With full bellies, we continued the adventure. More next week so stay tuned!

“For me, food doesn’t just taste sweet, sour, spicy, what have you—it tastes of feelings, it invokes memories.”
Renita D’Silva, The Forgotten Daughter

Ciao for now,

Mary

Peachy Keen

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I’ve always had a thing for peaches. I think it’s because my mom said when she was pregnant with me, she craved them. This love must have been passed along in utero because I too, delight in the season of stone fruit.
Every summer at the beach, we would excavate the old-fashioned, wooden sided hand crank ice cream maker and churn out quarts of fragrant peach ice cream, our favorite flavor. We took turns cranking the handle till our arms ached, all the while anticipating the best part – licking the paddle. It was a summer ritual.
Besides ice cream, peaches consumed our summertime baking activities: peach jam, peach pie, and my personal favorite, peach kuchen. I don’t know where the recipe for peach kuchen came from but I’ve been making it for over 45 years and still love it as much as I did as a teenager. Maybe it brings back fond memories of those care-free summers, swimming for hours in the warm ocean by day and baking with peaches by night.

Sweet and juicy ripe peaches from the farmer’s market, the best kind, are the foundation for my Peach Kuchen. The recipe comes together easily as there is no dough to roll out, just a crumble that you pat into the bottom and sides of a pan. Slice peaches on top and sprinkle with sugar. A top sour cream layer adds depth of flavor when paired with the juicy peaches and buttery crust. It is irresistible and great for breakfast too!

Peach Kuchen
Note: Although this recipe is called a “Kuchen,” it is not the typical German yeast dough Kuchen. It must be a modification perhaps by my grandmother.

2 Cups flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons sugar
4 oz. butter or 1 stick, cold and cut into 1/2” cubes

5-6 ripe peaches – I leave the skin on
3/4 Cup sugar, more or less depending on the peaches and your sweet tooth
1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 egg yolks
1 Cup sour cream
hearty sprinkling of grated nutmeg

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Mix all dry ingredients into a bowl. Cut butter in with a pastry blender or fork until crumbly. Pat into the bottom of a 7 X 11” pan.
Slice peaches and arrange over crust.
Combine sugar and cinnamon. Sprinkle evenly over peaches.

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Bake 15 minutes. Remove from oven and turn oven down to 325.
Meantime, combine the yolks and sour cream. Stir in the nutmeg or you can sprinkle it on top of the custard mixture.
Pour the sour cream custard mixture evenly over the peaches.
Bake another 30 minutes or until crust is brown and custard is set.
Serve warm or cold.
Makes about 8 servings.

An apple is an excellent thing – until you have tried a peach.
George du Maurier
Ciao for now!
Mary

Santa Fe Style!

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View from the Casita’s porch. Stunning!

Last week I wrote about the New Mexico I experienced in my 20’s. What hasn’t changed is the way the food is prepared, firmly rooted in its use of locally grown ingredients, really before it was “cool” to eat “local.” Take chile peppers for example.

Chiles require respect and dominate New Mexican cuisine. Their hot, spicy, and sometimes smokiness contribute a distinct flavor that every other vegetable must yield to. Chiles can be intimidating too. I start to feel the heat creeping up, first in my mouth, then in my throat, as my eyes water and my nose runs. Heck, this is just looking at a menu! I don’t know why, but nowadays, I am more tolerant of chile heat and not afraid to order something that will challenge my taste buds.

The Shed Sign

My favorite place to eat true New Mexican cuisine is The Shed in Santa Fe. Originally an old hacienda dated to 1692, this restaurant has remained a family owned and operated establishment since 1953. The shaded patio, which is dog-friendly, leads into an old adobe house. Every time I’ve eaten here over many visits, the food is consistently delicious. I love the blue corn enchiladas smothered in homemade red chile sauce, their specialty. All the red chiles are grown locally and ground on the premises. Spicy, plump posole (large, dried corn kernels that have been simmered for hours and result in a popcorn flavor and a chewy texture) and soft pinto beans share the plate with the enchiladas. A perfectly balanced Elite Gold Margarita with fresh lime juice, on the rocks, tempers the heat in my mouth from the chili sauce. I am in heaven. It’s a must do when in Santa Fe and is usually my very first stop.

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As much as I enjoy returning to an old favorite, like The Shed, I also make a point to discover one new eatery like Rowley Farmhouse Ales, which will now be on my list to visit again. Unassuming from the outside, and situated in its own little space away from the shopping, Rowley is a pub-style brewery serving up some of the best food we had on our trip. An outside patio is as large as the inside pub and felt like a park with gravel floor, shady trees and long picnic tables with bench seating. Family style! Our neighbors eating behind us quickly became our friends as they showered Sparky with friendly pets. We ordered an IPA house beer and took a look at the menu. Again, local ingredients were combined creatively. Hum. Chicken Biscuit Sandwich. “What can be so great about this?” I asked myself. I took the risk. A perfectly fried chicken breast was wedged between a split cheddar cheese biscuit slathered with horseradish crema and topped with homemade cucumber pickles. On the side sat a ramekin of homemade catsup – tomatoey, tangy and not too sweet to accompany a mound of thin, crunchy and hot french fries. The side pickle tasted of briny, chile- infused heat. Wow. Every bite was a marriage made in heaven.

Mom ordered the Warm Prosciutto Pear Sandwich on toasted brioche. Another masterpiece. She also had onion rings which had to be the best I’ve ever tasted. Very thinly sliced and lightly batter-coated, they practically melted in your mouth. If I lived in Santa Fe, Rowley would be a weekly date. Besides the food, what else made this trip special? The place we stayed!

Santa Fe has over 500 Airbnb’s and we were lucky enough to hit the jackpot with the Quiet Country Casita on Historic Santa Fe Trail.  Surrounded by acres of wooded forest, the guest house, in traditional New Mexico style, was as comfortable as I’ve ever been staying in someone else’s home. Tonie and Mark live across the way and were super helpful hosts with eating ideas and places to visit. Tonie makes an Apricot Bread for all her guests which my mom and I quickly polished off. She generously shared the recipe with me. I thought this was particularly appropriate since we are now in the peak of apricot season and farm stands selling apricots and cherries lined the New Mexico highways.
Thanks Tonie!

Apricot Banana Nut Bread

1/2 cup dried apricots * see my notes below
1/3 cup orange juice
1 stick butter
1 1/3 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
Grated zest of 1 orange
2 large eggs
1 cup mashed ripe banana
1/2 cup chopped pecans
Turbinado sugar or coarse sugar

Using kitchen shears or a sharp knife, cut each apricot in 1/4” dice.
Combine orange juice and apricots in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from the stove and let cool. The apricots will drink up the orange juice.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9 X 5 loaf pan with parchment.
Melt the butter and let cool.
Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl.
In a mixer fitted with a paddle, beat the melted butter, sugar, and orange zest. Mix in the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the mashed banana, apricots with juice, and nuts.
Carefully mix in flour. Do not over mix!
Scrape dough into prepared pan and spread evenly.
Sprinkle top with Turbinado sugar and bake for about 1 1/2 hours.
Check center with a toothpick to make sure inside is done.
Cool on a rack.

* I quartered fresh apricots and put them in a 150 degree oven for a few hours to release their moisture. They came out great!

Certain things catch your eye,
But pursue only those
that capture your heart.

old Indian saying

Ciao for now!

Love, Mary

 

Santa Fe – The Past Comes Full Circle

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For me, travel is like a recipe. You take a bite, it consumes your senses. You make a memory out of a few ingredients along with the people who join you on this trip. Soon it’s in your “favorites” file. Some places have a profound effect on us, like that incredibly tasty dish you can’t get out of your mind. That dish we return to again and again and rarely disappoints. Like ingredients in a recipe, my travels create memories worth repeating. But, the experience is never quit the same because the world is dynamic and things change. Freeways move and beltways go around a town instead of through them. That small town with a cool trading post is now difficult to find among the dense population and crowded tourist traps.
Santa Fe is one of those colorful destinations where the ancient drumbeat of the culture calls me to step back in time, slow my pace and breathe in the scent of stringent sap from the Pinon pines.
Two weeks ago, I returned to New Mexico to capture this feeling where chili ristras abound and the sand palette of the mesa’s adobe is the required color block. Dedicated to improving my blog writing skills, I took a road trip to Boulder, Colorado to work with a personal writing coach. It just made sense to include a stopover in my Santa Fe. Where did this attraction to Santa Fe begin? I need to go back in time.
One spring, long ago, my mom and I rendezvoused in St. Louis. I had finished spring semester at Southern Illinois University and she flew out to help me drive back to California. Our trip across the country bonded us in so many ways. A mother-daughter trip is special. She showed me places she had visited with her friends at my age and together we discovered a few new venues. That trip, our favorite new find was Acoma, Sky City, a 13th century pueblo 60 miles west of Albuquerque that sits high above the barren desert, on a tall mesa. In 1977, it was so remote and barely known to tourists that you literally had to drive off the beaten track to get there. The only access to the pueblo was up a gravely and rocky dirt road that tested the limits of my little yellow Capri. We seemed to be the lone visitors. A young native Acoma boy appeared with a blue bandana tied around his forehead and a welcoming smile. “Would you like a tour and history lesson on the beginnings of the Acoma Pueblo?” he asked. In its ancient times, Acoma was an impenetrable fortress that protected its people from neighboring Indians as well as the Spanish.

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Me at the top of Acoma, 1977.

Sparse and dry with the sun warming the dirt beneath our feet, the stillness felt eerie and haunted. Was I imagining, or did I hear the cries of Indian chants? The heat unearthed the dusty smell of clay which was also the dominant mono tone color of the pueblo. Entryways with screen doors alternated with kiva ladders for higher access to second and third floor homes. “Where is everybody?” I wondered.

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Very old photos of lonely Acoma Pueblo.

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Weathered but still standing.

The only other sign of life was two women, both with gray hair pulled back in neat braids, sitting on the ground on well-worn blankets, in front of what must have been their home. We watched in awe as their brown, weathered and steady hands painted intricate geometric designs on small pots in the Acoma colors of black, white and burnt orange. I purchased a small pot, just finished, for a few dollars. Little did I know that Acoma pottery was about to explode in the “collectible” scene of today.

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The quality of these old slides isn’t great but it tells the story!

Santa Fe was equally enchanting. This trip took Mom and me to the roof of the La Fonda Hotel, tangy margaritas, a classical guitarist serenading us, and the aroma of spicy chilis. Vibrant color- turquoise, corals and sunflower yellows decorated everything from clothing and  door frames to hanging geranium flower pots and chili red ristras. Visits to Native American museums, the nearby Taos Pueblo, spicy, innovative food I had never experienced so captivated me, my mom and I often returned to create even more memories.img_80512.jpg

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The Old La Fonda Hotel, 1977.

It has been 27 years since our last visit to Santa Fe together. The following is my mom’s recollection of her favorite time in Santa Fe.
“It was our family Christmas in Santa Fe. Dad and I met Mary and her brother in Albuquerque. The Four Runner we had driven from home was packed to the ceiling with food and gifts and the four of us. New Mexico didn’t disappoint us. Snow for Christmas! Lots of snow! The NM highway patrol escorted a long line of Santa Fe bound travelers along the barely cleared highway. It was one of those snowy years that had impacted the entire southwest. We Californians were not daunted. I said “Now it feels like Christmas.” Santa Fe was magical. More than two feet of snow and below zero temperatures. Crisp and crunchy dry snow. Christmas luminarios lit flat roofs and walkways. Our condo Christmas tree fashioned out of a pine branch and decorated entirely with southwest decor- coyotes, mini painted pots, Kokopelli. Christmas dinner of blue corn enchiladas and posole. Indeed it was one of the best Santa Fe memories. Each trip makes for another memory. I still have a quote to bring us into the present. ” The only thing constant is change.”
A lot has changed but the ambiance has stayed the same as well. Acoma Pueblo certainly has advanced its stature. We stopped there on this recent road trip for a very different experience. Now there is a visitor’s center at the base of the mesa. For $24 buses shuttle you to the top for a peek of the past. It’s structured. We passed on the tour, wanting to remember the lonely Sky City as it was.

The photo above is from our recent visit to Acoma.
For both Santa Fe and Acoma, the ingredients, culture, crisp, clear air, magnificent sunsets, were all still there, but the recipe had changed. I have learned to accept the changes, like adapting a recipe, because I still feel a deep connection to the earth that I felt the very first time my eyes met the brick-red dirt of the desert kissing the glacial blue sky of New Mexico.
Embrace it, but remember.
Next week – more on Santa Fe plus a recipe for Apricot Bread from a local.

Ciao for now!

Mary

I Write Because…

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“The butterfly does not count the years but the moments for this, its short time.” Great writing!

I believe we all are writers. The only thing separating us are the filters we choose to use to describe an experience. Our filters may be color-driven, emotionally driven, memory-driven or personal belief-driven. It’s all these variations that make one moment in time appear in a thousand different ways. I write to hold certain moments close, to learn from the past, and to celebrate my friends and family.

I find it fascinating to take a snapshot of an event in my mind, capturing only my feelings and remembrances. Reviewing past photographs helps me to go deep within and unearth times in my life that mark a turning point. I can feel the salt on my skin after viewing photos of my early years rafting all day long at Mission Beach. I smell Jessie’s puppy breath, my first dog who was my constant companion while living in Australia, by just looking at a picture I have of her hanging in my bedroom. I feel gratitude and a sense of accomplishment after looking at photos of the tiny fig tree I planted not even four years ago and seeing how at home it now feels at a height of over seven feet tall. Always when I see photos of Italy, my heart pounds and I am in love again. All these moments were important to me in some way and by expressing in writing the emotion they carried, give me intense satisfaction. Sharing these emotions reveal our vulnerability and make us human.

Five years of blogging have taught me how to look within and not be afraid of who I am. This platform has given me confidence to keep writing, even more fervently. As I embark on year six, the camera continues to click as I change the lenses more frequently, fine tune my focus and always look for the unexpected.

To celebrate the past five years of my writing journey, I’d like to share some of my favorite stories.

A long ago past adventure in Paris: June 4, 2014  Time Travels

A recent Italian love:  May 18, 2017 Take Another Little Piece of My Heart

Inner feelings: March 25, 2015 My Life as a Leaf

My favorite pastime: April 12, 2016 Play Ball!

Family Stories:  June 18, 2014 A Drink of Nature
May 17, 2016 The Egg

Art!: Artful Traveling

Coming soon! A new look for this blog with easier navigation and ability to print recipes!

Writing frees my soul, grounds me in the present, and makes the fire of my spirit dance with delight. Mary Knight

Ciao for now,
Mary

The Music of Food

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finished Carrie Ann

The Carrie Ann

Music and cooking both have a beat, a pulse, a flow of notes and a sequence of ingredients. Listening to music while cooking brings out the best in my recipes and in me. My spirit is light as I dance around the kitchen swaying to the tunes, singing along and feeling totally in the groove of the moment. It’s amazing how different styles of music influence my final product. My food can actually take on the character of the music being played and dictate how the recipe will develop. My favorite – Rock and Classic Vinyl of the 60’s and 70’s. What is it about the tinniness of the tambourine that makes my shoulders keep time with its beat? It brings out the edginess and risk-taking in my recipes. Sinatra’s cooing makes me slow down and go more mainstream. Maybe even create a new cocktail to honor the era. Another love – blues and soul music- touches my soul and sends me swaying into a nostalgic bliss.

Everyone knows that music is the Universal Language but recently I’ve felt an even deeper connection, an awakening as to how it enhances my everyday living and balances me like nothing else can. I even hear it in my garden with the songs of multiple birds and the sound of rustling leaves that the music of the wind creates. It’s like a spiderweb of energy that vibrates across the world, bringing hope and healing to all of us, everywhere.

Music pulls out stagnancy and draws in good vibes. It’s a tonic. It intoxicates and releases memories of old and brings them to the surface. My food always tastes better and is more attractive when listening to something that lights up my spirit and draws me in.

In honor of music’s tonic for the soul, I wanted to design a cocktail of vintage meets rock. My mom actually created this drink last night, under the influence of Frank Sinatra. I named it the Carrie Ann, after one of my favorite songs , (actually a Hollies song) by one of my favorite artists, Graham Nash. I recently saw Nash perform in Riverside and my love for him and his music was rekindled. This cocktail combines whiskey with brandied cherries and maraschino cherry liqueur. Whiskey lends the “vintage” feel while the music of Nash, inspiring the addition of the cherries, is the “rock.” You can drink it “neat” or over ice with a heavy dose of sparkling water as a delicious summer refresher. I was in love after my first sip. Thanks Mom for your superb bartending skills. I can’t wait for your next invention!

The Carrie Ann

2 brandied cherries*
1/2 teaspoon sugar or one sugar cube
1 1/2 ounces good whisky. We love Bushmills.
Dash of Angostura bitters
1/2 ounce Maraschino cherry liqueur**
1 Tablespoon brandied cherry juice
ice
Sparkling water
cherry on top for garnish

*I make my own brandied cherries but you can purchase them too.
**I used Maraska Maraschino Cherry Liqueur from Croatia. A gift from dear friends, Alan and Jenny, it is delightful and delicious.

ingredients

Start with great ingredients!

Muddle the brandied cherries with the sugar.
Add ice to fill.
Pour over the whiskey.
Add the maraschino cherry liqueur and the brandied cherry juice.
Add a dash of Angostura bitters.
Stir.
Add sparkling water to taste and garnish with another cherry.

Another version is to make as directed without the sparkling water and then strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a cherry. A little stiffer drink but a great sipper.

“The light music of whisky falling into glasses made an agreeable interlude.”
James Joyce, Dubliners

There really is a kind of insane beauty around us all the time. It’s just a question of learning to slow down, take a deep breath and meet the moment.” Graham Nash

I couldn’t agree more!

Ciao for now,

Mary

“Take Another Little Piece of My Heart”

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The most peaceful, beautiful place on earth. Lucca, Italy

My heartstrings are tugging like a hug you don’t want to release. This feeling waxes and wanes but mostly waxes. It’s a longing to be in another place, another reality far different from what I’m used to. A chance to reinvent oneself, live in the moment and not be caught up in the hustle bustle and busyness of big city living. It hits me hardest after I receive a letter from my dear friend, Angela, in Lucca, Italy, who tells me the news of our mutual friends, her painting and the latest art exhibits, her pets and garden. I flashback to our meals cooked together, excursions to the countryside and festivals, and friends picking grapes for our wine. How I wish I could trade places with her for a year!

What spell, exactly, does the charming town of Lucca have on me that calls to my heart like a siren at sea? In my eyes, it’s the one place in this world where everything I love comes together so naturally. Ancient history, walled cities, pasta, gelato, sculpture, pecorino cheese, opera, olive oil, wine, art, cobblestone streets with narrow alleyways, homes of rustic reds and harvest golds, the beautiful sing-song language (so romantic), markets of fresh garden vegetables, espresso, scarves, Buccellato bread, prosciutto and the list goes on.

Whenever I feel the need to return to my dreams, I review my favorite photos of Lucca. I thought I’d share a few that tell a story about the countryside, people and food I embrace so tightly. I hope you enjoy them and are able someday to travel to this special piece of paradiso. I’ve included an amateur video I took of my friends, the opera singers, Michelle and Mattia performing in a small church in Lucca. Bellissimo!

In the words of  the famous song by Janis Joplin, [Lucca}, “takes another little piece of my heart” every time I visit.

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Angela

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My favorite photo. The view from my room at La Mimosa. Spectacular!

“You may have the universe if I may have Italy”
Giuseppe Verdi

Ciao for now!

Love,

Mary