Eurotrip 2015: 3 Countries, 6 Cities, 2 Weeks

Ugh, can't believe it's been so long since my last post! Sorry to anyone who has been wondering what happened to me during the last month and a half. Life has been incredibly hectic, and I've had very little time to focus on my blogging. 

So what have I been up to lately? Well last month, Jimmy and I took a long-awaited vacation to Europe -- two weeks, six cities, and three countries to be exact, and it was a whirlwind! Definitely one of my favorite trips to date and I already want to do it all over again!

Roma Colosseum

Roma Colosseum

Rome

We started off in Rome, which is beautiful and set the bar pretty high for the rest of the vacation. I've been to Little Italy in NYC a million times, and I always thought it was some kind of Americanized cliche, but Rome very much brings to life all of the qualities that people love about Little Italy. The cobblestone streets, the quaint little restaurants, the outdoor dining, and the picturesque atmosphere. It was amazing! We loved it and were so sad to leave. 

Ponte Vecchio Bridge

Ponte Vecchio Bridge

Florence

We hopped on the high speed rail to Florence next. If I was to sum up the city in two words, they would probably be "art" and "leather." We visited the Uffizi Gallery to check out Botticelli's famous "The Birth of Venus" and other Italian Renaissance pieces that I recognized from my art history classes in college. Being there made me wish I had brushed up on all of those historical details so I could appreciate the art even more. A city known for its leather products, we couldn't very well leave without taking advantage of the ridiculously cheap prices. It was shocking to see leather goods being sold at a fraction of the price as they are in the states. While bringing home a new leather jacket was extremely tempting, I settled for a few smaller products instead. We were only in our second city and I was already afraid of running out of luggage space!

Venetian Gondolas

Venetian Gondolas

Venice

Next and last stop in Italy: Venice. There are no words for how beautiful this city is. Even though it rained nearly the entire time we were there, Venice was absolutely picturesque. Wandering -- and consequently getting lost in -- the quaint little alleyways made getting around an adventure in and of itself. It was so relaxing to be in a city that didn't allow cars, motorbikes, or bicycles and not have to risk your life every time you crossed the street. Seriously! So amazing. We loved everything about Venice and hope we have the chance to return one day. 

We're engaged! 

We're engaged! 

Paris

Entering the second week of our Eurotrip, we flew to Paris. After a week of learning very basic Italian, we now had to transition to speaking French, and it was HARD! Not only because we knew close to nothing about the language, but also because it's probably one of the most complicated languages to master. And on top of that, a majority of the French people we encountered didn't seem to appreciate our attempt to speak it. We were lucky enough to have a friend in the city who showed us around and gave us a "true Parisian experience" (and also helped with the language barrier,) so it was great to have her around. But the best part of Paris was definitely GETTING ENGAGED! It came as such a shock for me because I thought that things like that only happen in the movies. Ahhhh! It was amazing, and it's something that I'll always look back on and smile :)

Barcelona Cathedral

Barcelona Cathedral

Barcelona

Next, we flew from Paris to Barcelona, and once again had to transition from one foreign language to another. Spanish was much easier for us to pick up again, so we felt a lot more comfortable communicating with people. I was so looking forward to Barcelona because I've heard tons of great things about the city. The architecture is beautiful and the food (if you love seafood) is delicious. I was on a mission to eat as much octopus and croquettes as possible, which wasn't very hard because they were EVERYWHERE. Love it!

 

Barnacles, one of the most bizarre-looking foods I've eaten to date.  

Barnacles, one of the most bizarre-looking foods I've eaten to date.  

Madrid

Last stop on our whirlwind Eurotrip was Madrid. I have to admit I wasn't expecting much from the city. After having planned five other itineraries, I didn't have a lot of time or energy to focus on Madrid. But wow, this city was great. I loved it way more than Barcelona because it reminded me of the Spanish version of Rome. Overall, Madrid was much easier to navigate on foot (when you don't account for the heat or the sudden hills) and I felt much safer walking around most areas than I did in Barcelona. I loved the city so much and I wish we were able to spend more time there. I could use more octopus, croquettes, and of course cava, in my life!

So that sums up our entire trip. I have so much more to say but this post is already long enough. If you've made it to the end then I applaud your devotion, and thank you! Right now we are back in the routine of normal life (boo) and just trying to enjoy the summer -- the first one that we're engaged! We haven't started much wedding planning yet but there will be enough of that coming in the next two years that I'm savoring this stress-free time now!

Cheers, I'll try to make it back soon so I can start posting recipes and getting back into my groove again! 

The Challenge: Five Days of Vegan

Surprisingly this challenge was not as difficult for me as it was when I went paleo last month. I made sure to stock my fridge with tons of veggies and do all the proper menu planning. Nevertheless, there were still a few bumps in the road:

Five Biggest Challenges of Going Vegan

  1. No meat or fish. (Duh.) My one slip up was not realizing that I couldn't cook with oyster sauce. I made a huge batch of vegetable stir fry and didn't realize that I should have omitted the oyster sauce until after I ate it for dinner. Oops :(
  2. No dairy. I was ready to give up cheese for a week, but found it difficult to not eat eggs or egg products for breakfast every morning. Thus, the avocado toast was consumed, and has become my new obsession. 
  3. Keeping carbs platonic. When omitting meat and dairy from your diet, it's really easy to resort to bread, pasta, and rice for every meal. But no, grains should not be a crutch to fill the void of protein in your life. I think this simple fact is the key to maintaining a successful, balanced vegan diet.
  4. The fine print says it all. After my slip up with the oyster sauce, I was extremely diligent in reading the ingredient labels on all foods that I ate. Unfortunately, most of the time it resorted in finding a milk ingredient listed, but it made me glad that I had the sense to check beforehand. 
  5.  Have patience for the non-supporters. While at a dinner function for work last week, I explained to someone that I was observing a vegan diet. There was a planned menu and I inquired about a vegan option, to which that person laughed at me and said I should "take one for the team" and eat meat that night. It didn't help matters when the waiter seemed to think that vegan was synonymous with a paleo diet, and therefore the fish he served me was vegan simply because there was no sauce on it. This was probably every vegan's worst case scenario. I'm extremely surprised that people can be so insensitive with their comments and also just as ignorant with the facts. I really can't imagine having to deal with it on a daily basis, and I have sympathy for people who have to tolerate it regularly. 

The Good and the Bad

Going vegan for the week gave me a chance to try new recipes and other foods I would have otherwise not eaten: raw chocolate cheesecake, kale salad, and raw brownies. Everything came out really good for the most part, and I'm glad I had the chance to expand my culinary horizons. 

In conclusion

To be honest, by the end of the week I was ready for the diet to be over. I had one or two slip ups earlier in the week -- between the oyster sauce oversight and the insensitive comments/vegan-paleo mixup at my work event -- and I was feeling generally uninspired. Friday night rolled around and I realized I didn't really have anything planned for dinner. At that point I was feeling a bit down, and it was so tempting to call it quits early. I ended up sticking it out for one last night, but I think that overall I had a much more positive experience during my Paleo challenge in January. I remember feeling super healthy during that week, and I attribute that to not eating grains. While I was careful not to overdo the carbs this week, I think it still made a difference in how lethargic I felt.

Would I go vegan again? Yes, I think I would, but surprisingly I feel a bit biased towards the paleo diet. I never expected to ever think that, but then again isn't that what this whole experience is all about? ;)

Los Angeles, I'll be back

NYC has been having one of the coldest winters from what I can remember in the last few years. 20-degree weather, snow every week, and general misery has been the ongoing theme so far in 2015. It sucks, but it made me so thankful that I booked a long weekend in LA for last weekend. It ended up being one of the most frigid days of the season in NY, so I chose the perfect time to drop in. I love NYC to death, but I'll trade these below-freezing temps for a weekend 80-degree weather in a heartbeat. 

It was my first time visiting LA and there were so many things I wanted to see and do. Unfortunately I was only there for 4 days, but I loved every minute and I can't wait to go back. Sadly I didn't have enough time to do everything on my list, but it leaves me a lot to look forward to upon my return to the West Coast. 

Some highlights: 


Chocoholic Paradise: Chocolate Lava Cakes

Hi, my name is Lara and I'm a chocoholic. I was born with a sweet tooth and an innate love for all things chocolate, and rarely a day goes by that I don't have a small bite of something chocolate. If there was a 12-step program for chocolate addicts, I'd probably need 13 steps. It's that serious.

With that said, chocolate lava cake is one of my hands-down absolute favorite chocolate desserts. Whenever I see it on a dessert menu, I HAVE to order it, but I never dreamed of attempting to make it at home because it seemed so complicated. Well, now that I've made it myself I know firsthand that it's probably one of the easiest and most impressive desserts ever.

Chocolate Lava Cake: Ooey-gooey goodness

Chocolate Lava Cake: Ooey-gooey goodness

Here's the recipe I used, which apparently is the same one from Roy's, a fantastic Hawaiian-fusion restaurant that I first ate at almost 10 years ago. I distinctly recall ordering the molten lava cake on their menu and it was absolutely heavenly, so I'm thrilled to have successfully recreated it at home!

Roy's Chocolate Souffle (Molten Lava Cake)

Recipe adapted from The Girl Who Ate Everything

Makes 4 servings

Equipment

  • Parchment paper
  • 4 ramekins (3 inches in diameter x 2 inches tall)

Ingredients

  • 8 oz. good quality semi-sweet dark chocolate
  • 12 Tablespoons butter, plus additional butter for greasing
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 Tablespoons cornstarch
  • 4 whole eggs plus 4 egg yolks

Instructions

  1. To make the soufflé batter, combine sugar and cornstarch in a medium mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs and yolks. Melt butter in a saucepan. Add chocolate and mix until smooth. Add the chocolate mixture to the sugar and cornstarch. Mix until combined. Add eggs slowly and mix at low speed until mixture is smooth and sugar dissolved. Pour into a bowl and refrigerate overnight.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400°. Grease each ramekin thoroughly with butter and line with parchment paper on the bottom. 
  3. Fill each ramekin with soufflé batter ¾ of the way full. Bake on top oven rack for 26-28 minutes. You just want to make sure the tops are set but the middle is still gooey. Remove baking sheet from oven. Carefully invert the ramekins onto serving plates and remove the parchment paper. The cakes should slide out easily because of the butter, but if not then run a knife around the edges of the ramekin to loosen it from the sides. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve alongside fresh fruit if desired. Serve immediately. Left over batter can be refrigerated for up to 10 days.
Greased ramekin with parchment paper on the bottom

Greased ramekin with parchment paper on the bottom

Ready to go in the oven!

Ready to go in the oven!

Fresh outta the oven... can't wait to crack it open :)

Fresh outta the oven... can't wait to crack it open :)

Inverted. Almost time to eat...

Inverted. Almost time to eat...

Ready to serve!

Ready to serve!

Superbowl Eats: Beef Tacos, Guacamole, and Salsa

It probably wouldn't come as a huge shock to anyone that I care more about what I eat during the Superbowl than actually watching the game. Usually I prepare an entire feast and invite a few friends over, but this year it was just the two of us. I made slow-cooked shredded beef tacos, loaded guacamole, corn salsa, and salsa verde.

I've been wanting to learn how to use a DSLR, so I thought this was the perfect opportunity. It's a lot harder than I thought because I've forgotten everything I used to know about shooting manually, so I'm still getting the hang of it. Here are some shots from today:

superbowl-taco-beef-1
superbowl-taco-beef-2

Slow-cooked Shredded Beef Tacos

Adapted from Gimme Some Oven

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 pounds boneless chuck roast
  • 2 tsp. chili powder
  • 1 tsp. cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. paprika
  • 1/2 cup beef stock
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 small white onion, diced
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • Tortillas
  1. Whisk together the chili powder, cumin, and smoked paprika in a small bowl. Rub the spice mix into the beef, covering each side evenly.

  2. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Sear the beef on each side until browned, about 2 minutes per side. Remove the beef from the skillet and place in the bottom of a slow cooker or a large pot.

  3. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and diced onion to the skillet. Saute for an additional 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and saute for 1 minute. Add the beef and chicken stock and stir the pan to deglaze it, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add tomato paste and whisk into the pan sauce until combined. Bring the sauce to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for a 3-5 minutes until the sauce has reduced and thickened slightly. Pour the pan sauce down over the beef in the pot/slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours, or on high for 3-4 hours, until the beef shreds easily.

  4. Shred the beef with two forks, and toss to coat with any of the remaining juices. Serve the beef in the tortillas, topped with your favorite taco toppings.

Loaded Guacamole with corn

Loaded Guacamole with corn

Loaded Guacamole

Ingredients

  • 2 avocados
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 1 garlic clove, grated
  • 1/4 cup corn
  • 1/4 cup tomato, seeded and diced
  • 1/4 cup jalapeño, minced (remove the seeds for less heat)
  • 1/2 cup red onion, minced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
  • salt to taste
  1. Mash avocados in a medium bowl with the garlic clove and lime juice.
  2. Fold in corn, tomato, jalapeño, red onion, and cilantro. Salt to taste.
  3. Store in the refrigerator, sealed with saran wrap to prevent browning.

Corn Salsa

Ingredients

  • 1 can of corn
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 1/4 cup red onion, minced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
  • 1/4 cup jalapeño, minced (remove the seeds for less heat)
  • salt to taste

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator.

Salsa Verde

Adapted from Serious Eats

Ingredients

  • 1 large poblano chile, seeded and roughly chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 2 jalapeños, roughly chopped (seeded for a hot salsa, not seeded for extra-hot)
  • 1 large tomatillo, quartered
  • 6 sprigs cilantro
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
  • Kosher salt to taste
  1. Place chopped chiles, tomatillo, cilantro, garlic, and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce to a simmer, and cook until chiles and tomatillo are softened, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

  2. Transfer mixture to food processor or blender and puree until completely smooth. Transfer to bowl, stir in sour cream and lime juice. Season with salt to taste and serve immediately, or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to a week.

Paleo Pancakes: A+ for Effort

Happy Snow Day! Because I'm on a paleo diet this week, I thought a snowy day home from work would be the perfect opportunity to try some paleo pancakes. 

I found a recipe that called for mashed banana and almond flour, both of which I had on hand. I noticed the batter was much darker in color than regular pancakes, and because of the absence of flour they cooked differently. They weren't the light and fluffy pancakes I'm used to, but ended up being pretty dry, dense and mealy. Oh, and they completely burnt on the griddle. The batter was still raw on the top when it was burnt on the bottom, which made the pancakes really hard to flip.

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