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Archive for February, 2009

Three of my favorite flavors in one insanely good dessert.  This is what I ended up making to fulfill the chocolate quotient on Valentine’s Day.  In my house we gild the lily and then, while the gold is still molten, roll it around in diamonds.  We served a chunk of this in a bowl with Ben and Jerry’s and served it with a side of Makers Mark.

Chocolate Whiskey Soaked Bundt Cake

Chocolate Whiskey Soaked Bundt Cake

Here’s the article from the New York Times – with a link to the recipe of course.

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festlogo-mar09

When I lived in Seattle, one of the great treats for me was visiting Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door headquarters in Edmonds, Washington.  I could spend hours in this cozy, little temple to European travel.  There is a shop where you can stock up on guidebooks, Civita Day Bags and a number of other travel items with Rick Steves’ smiling face on the package.  For a small fee you can also schedule an appointment to go over your itinerary with a member of the staff (they also make this service available over the phone.)  You can talk to an expert about maximizing your rail pass.  But the real draw is the library.  The place is filled with just about every book that has ever been written about an European destination as well as DVD’s of all of Rick’s PBS shows, a viewing station and internet access.  You are encouraged to browse by the many tables, comfy chairs and the crackle of the fire.  What’s more, they let you make copies.  (The copier is not coin operated; go ahead and make your copies and then tell the cashier how many you made.)

Every weekend the Backdoor offices also offer free travel classes on different destinations at the local moviehouse.  The instructors are all Rick Steves tour guides, most of whom have spent a good deal of time living in the country.  There is a little bit of pimping for Backdoor merchandise and tours, but the information they provide is well worth sitting through a few commercials.  There’s also a slide component to the presentations allowing you to get a visual picture of the country you’re learning about.  These slides help you envision your travels and often prompt the instructors to mock the evolution of Rick Steves’ glasses which is good fun.  In recent years they’ve added some language classes and classes on photography too.

Twice a year or so, Europe Through the Backdoor holds their Rick Steves European Travel Festival a day long series of lectures, all free.  There are worse ways to spend a Saturday than dreaming about traveling through Europe.  This year, the event will take place on Saturday, March 7th and the man himself, Rick Steves will offer four of the lectures – Italy, Spain and Portugal, European Travel Skills (invaluable for first time travelers), and a special lecture based on his recent ten day trip to Iran.   Other classes will include Turkey, Slovenia & Croatia, Ireland and Paris.  The Paris class is taught by Steve Smith who is the coauthor of Rick’s France guidebooks and who lives in Burgundy for part of each year.   Packing Light & Right with Joan Robinson may be helpful if you have trouble weeding your travel wardrobe although I have found it to be the class filled with the most overt Rick Steves product placement (his bags are pretty great, but I get bored hearing about how great they are).  If you are planning a multi-city trip using a Eurail pass or Europass, or if you have never been to Europe before and are nervous about train travel, don’t miss the European rail skills class.  It’s extremely informative.

If you plan on attending any of the classes at the festival make sure to RSVP on their website.  Also, do not underestimate what an event this will be.  Edmonds will be crawling with travelbugs on March 7th.  I was also surprised by how many people had come from out of town – Canada, California – to attend.  The events will be crowded, but not unpleasant.  The same can’t be said for the store.  If you want a day to relax by the fire and read guidebooks, this is not the day.

By the way, Edmonds is a lovely little town.  At lunch time head to Olives Cafe and Wine Bar.  After all that talk about vacationing in Italy or Paris, it’s great to gulp down a glass (or more) of vino before attending afternoon classes (although you may not want to participate in the Q&A if you indulge here.)  There’s also a second travel store in town, The Savvy Traveler, that you might want to visit.

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Oscar Night Post

The Oscars are tonight and I thought I would use the occasion to highlight some of the films that have inspired some of my most romantic travel fantasies.

Best Actress – Katherine Hepburn in Summertime. This is the tale of Jane Hudson, Hepburn, 40-years-old and unmarried (of course, a big spinster in 1955) who goes to Venice and finds romance with a married man.  It was filmed largely on location in Venice and though Kate’s lover is ostensibly the tan Euro-gentleman Rossano Brazzi, her real lover here is Venice itself.  She did her own stunts for the scene where she falls in the canal – and paid for it by getting terrible ill from swallowing the water.

Kate enjoying a spritz by the canal.

Kate enjoying a spritz by the canal.

And with her inamorato, Rosanno Brazzi

And with her inamorato, Rosanno Brazzi

Best Supporting Actress – Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief. Grace Kelly is so uppercrust, so well-put-together, so shiny and blonde and scrubbed that you might assume that she would be a cold ice princess, but there is always something in Kelly’s performances that hints that she is naughtier than she looks.  Paired here with Cary Grant, this glamorous sensuality of hers is on full display in this sexy romp through the French Riviera. I have never once watched this movie and not spent the next few weeks tying wispy scarves around my neck and pretending that I could smell the breeze off of the Meditteranean.

Cary Grant and Grace Kelly tool around "the French Riviera" in their convertible.  Though Hitchcock loved setting his movies in remote and romantic climes, he detested working on location.

Cary Grant and Grace Kelly tool around "the French Riviera" in their convertible. Though Hitchcock loved setting his movies in remote and romantic climes, he detested working on location.

The fireworks outside may not be the most subtle of visual metaphors, but this scene is so beautiful you won't care.

The fireworks outside may not be the most subtle of visual metaphors, but this scene is so beautiful you won't care.

Best Art Direction – An American in Paris

“Paris.  It reaches in and opens you wide…and you stay that way.”  Paris here is not only a romantic, moonlight dance with Gene Kelly along a sound-stage Seine (“It’s very clear…our love is here to stay…”) but also, in the jaw-dropping final dance sequence it is brought to life in a stunning homage to the painters who have captured Paris so brilliantly on canvas.

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Kelly steps (and taps, and kicks, and pliets) into a Toulouse Lautrec.

Kelly using his great "Joe the Plumber" quality for good.  He prided himself on making forms of ballet, considered by many Americans to be high brow, accessible and enjoyable for the masses.  Here, in his scenery, he works the same magic with impressionist art.

Kelly using his great "Joe the Plumber" quality for good. He prided himself on making forms of ballet, considered by many Americans to be high brow, accessible and enjoyable for the masses. Here, in his scenery, he works the same magic with impressionist art.

Best Actor – Cary Grant in North by Northwest. I wonder how many people have booked a “roomette” on Amtrak thinking that their trip will be as sultry as the train ride Eva Marie Saint takes with Cary Grant in this movie.  Who am I to say you will be disappointed?   This movie wafts through my mind every time I am on a train and the memory of it even adds a little romance to the Metro North commuter train – an astounding victory for fantasy over reality.  The fully clothed love scene in their compartment is, in my opinion, among the sexiest on film.

Blah


Eve Kendall: It’s going to be a long night.
Roger Thornhill: True.
Eve Kendall: And I don’t particularly like the book I’ve started.
Roger Thornhill: Ah.
Eve Kendall: You know what I mean?
Roger Thornhill: Ah, let me think. Yes, I know exactly what you mean.

Life Time Achievement Award – Audrey Hepburn. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that on some level I want to be Audrey Hepburn.  I have chased moments from her films all over Europe: dreamily repeating her refrain from Roman Holiday by the Trevi Fountain (“So happy.”), embarassing myself imitating her Funny Face glide down the long staircase in front of the Winged Victory at the Louvre, accusing my husband of being Carson Dyle while honeymooning in Paris (I’d shown him Charade before we left, so he humored my outbursts.)    In real life, travel is about so much more than romance, fashion and distant accordion music, but at home on my couch, Audrey Hepburn embodies the romance of travelling in the movies.

Audrey at the Louvre - "Take the picture, take the picture!"

Audrey at the Louvre - "Take the picture, take the picture!

    With Cary Grant in "Charade." Found, as I often can be when I'm in Paris, stuffing her face along the Seine.

With Cary Grant in "Charade." Found, as I often can be when I'm in Paris, stuffing her face along the Seine.

audrey_hepburn_and_gregory_peck_on_vespa_in_roman_holiday_trailer

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Sorry there’s no picture.  I just threw this together for lunch.

Ingredients:

2 slices of bread

butter/margarine

1 TBL (or more) cream cheese

Lox, a couple of slices

1 oz. havarti, cut into thin slices

A couple of slices of red onion

1 TSP dried dillweed or fresh dill to taste

Heat a skillet over med-high heat.  Take one slice of bread and spread butter on it so that as much of the surface area of the bread is covered by butter as possible.  Set that slice aside for now.  Take the othe slice of bread and spread the cream cheese on one side.  Flip the slice of bread over and spread that side with butter or margarine.  (This will be messy, dealing with the cream cheese on one side and butter on the other, but you can deal with it.)  Put the slice of bread, butter side down, into the skillet.

The cream cheese should be looking up at you in the pan.  Sprinkle the dill over the cream cheese and then layer on the slices of lox.  Next put the red onion slices over the lox and lastly cover the onion with the havarti.  Cover the sandwich with the remaining slice of buttered bread, butter side up.

Cook in the skillet until the underside of the sandwich is good and brown.  Flip and cook on the second side until it’s brown – it will take much less time for this to happen on the second side as it did the first.

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My Superpower

I can't leap tall buildings in a single bound, but I can save you money on airfare.

When you use these tips to score a low fare for your next vacation, they'll cheer for you too.

I have a super power.   No, I can’t fly or render myself invisible, nor can I control the weather (yet!).  What I can do is find cheap airfares online.  A caveat.  This can become an obsession and some people may be willingly pay an extra couple of hundred dollars not to go to bed every night seeing the Orbitz fare matrix dancing in their head.  Butt I look at any airfare savings as more cheese I can eat/wine I can drink on vacation and have decided any collateral suffering is worth it.

I usually begin my watch about 3-4 months before my trip.  It can take weeks to find an appropriately penny pinching fare.  I have applied my “technique” to domestic airfares and on fares to Europe, but see no reason why you couldn’t use this advice to help you get to Asia or South America or whatever port of call fuels your travel dreams.

There are some ways of scoring cheap tickets that I won’t go into because I’ve never tried them out myself.  I am too much of a nervous Nellie to wait for mythical last minute airfares.  Supposedly they exist, but my informal survey has shown that starting about two months out from your departure date, things tend to just get more expensive.  Consolidators are another route, but be careful to check out any fares that seem to good to be true.  Finally, I’ve had every bid I’ve ever presented to Priceline thrown back in my face.  But, if you want to give Priceline a go for airfare, check the website betterbidding.com for advice on how to work the priceline system.  (Hotwire has treated me VERY well for hotels…but that’s another post.)

Okay, are you ready to get started? To begin this Oddyssey you will need 1) your destination 2) a date range in which you are willing to depart  3) an idea of how long you want your trip to be and 4) a computer with internet access.  It’s also helpful to know your limits and stick to them.  Do you have to fly non-stop?  How long (or short) a layover are you willing to put up with?  Will you fly a discount carrier like EasyJet?  Are your dates flexible?  How flexible?

Step 1 – When should you fly? Assuming that your dates have some flexibility, go to www.itasoftware.com.  Click on “Month Long Search.”  Plug in your information and ITA will show you which days that month have the cheapest flights.

An example of ITA's month-long search in action.  Here you see today's fares for week long trips from NY->Rome this May.

An example of ITA's month-long search in action. Here you see today's fares for week long trips from NY->Rome this May.

Step 2 – Get some perspective. Go to the following site and plug in the dates you found at ITA and your ideal airports.  Search for fares and write down the cheapest non-stop fare and the cheapest fare with stops that you find.
www.travelocity.com
www.orbitz.com
www.kayak.com

Step 3Is this as good as it gets? Go back to kayak.com and plug in those dates again and search for fares (kayak’s fares may differ from the ones you got off ITA).  Look at the lefthand side of the screen where it says “toolbox” and click on “Show Chart of Fare History.”  This gives you information about your flight based on kayak’s customers’ search results.   You will see two graphs.  Look at the one on the bottom.  This shows you the fare history on that flight combination, i.e. a chart of the cheapest flights that their users have found between those two airports over the span of about three months.  Where are you on that graph?  If there has been a steady upswing, you might want to think about buying your tickets sooner, rather than later.  But, if prices have recently dipped, you might wait it out and see if prices continue to go down.

This fare history for our May trip from NY->Rome shows that fares have been going down steadily in recent days.  That might indicate tha tif you wait to buy your ticket an even better bargain may be had.  (However at $386 this fare is already pretty low!)

This fare history for our May trip from NY->Rome shows that fares have been going down steadily in recent days. That might indicate tha tif you wait to buy your ticket an even better bargain may be had. (However at $386 this fare is already pretty low!)

Step 4 Extreme surfing. At this point, I am usually depressed that flights are so expensive so I start to get desperate creative.  One thing I do is go to another site, www.skyscanner.com, and plug in my information.  Skyscanner requires a little more chutzpah than the other search engines.  It shows you the cheapest fares for your trip including legs on budget airlines and flights where different legs of your trip are all on different carriers.  If you see something you like you then have to go to each carriers site and book each leg separately, you can’t do it through Skyscanner.   On a recent search for our upcoming trip to Greece, the cheapest fare on skyscanner was about $200 less than fares on other search engines.  All four legs, however, were on different airlines, there were very long and very tight connections, one leg was on easyjet and one leg had us flying through Warsaw.  As all of the flights were non-refundable at that price, the itinerary seemed a bit chancy, but depending on your trip skyscanner might just turn up a great fare.  At the very least it helps me to think outside the box when it comes to my flight plan.

Step 4 – JFK; HPN; BOS – Oh my! Can you leave from or arrive at a different airport?  It may be most convenient to fly out of NYC but do you have a friend or family member that might be willing to drive you to, say, the Philadelphia Airport?  We saved $200+ on a fare to Italy by flying out of Boston rather than NY.  Flights out of Columbia, SC are routinely $200+ more than flights out of Charlotte, NC, a little over an hour away.

On the other end of your journey, are you willing to train or drive a couple of hours before arriving at your ultimate destination?  It can save you a lot of money.  By flying this way you also have to chance for a bonus day in another destination.  When we were planning our honeymoon to France all of the flights to England were hundreds and hundreds of dollars cheaper than to Paris.  So, we added a three-day jaunt to Stratford-upon-Avon where we saw Patrick Stewart in Antony and Cleopatra at the RSC.  Our bus trip to Stratford and the chunnel tickets to Paris still didn’t add up to the difference between our cheap London ticket and the expensive tickets to Paris.

An amazing feature on ITA is that it allows you to search multiple airports.  Just separate the different cities with a semi-colon.  Last year, on a trip to England that we wanted to include Birmingham (for a conference) and London (for vacation).  We saved hundreds of dollars per ticket by flying into Manchester rather than London.  Plug in all the possible airports on both sides of your journey and ITA will spit out the cheapest available fares.

You can also use this feature to scope out great inter-European fares and then search for a transcontinental flight that will match up with that flight.  On ITA, enter every possible European airport that you can think of on the departure side, and to the destination side, plug in your desired destination.  You can then see what the cheapest fare is to your destination inside of Europe.  Then, search for fares from the US to that city.  I searched a bazillion European airports to Athens.  Most of the fares were over $200 RT, but Iberia from Madrid was $80.  I then searched for NYC -> MAD and found a RT fare for under $500.  So our total airfare per ticket to Athens was $580, including tax.  All of the other fares I found were over $850.

Step 5 – Meanwhile back at the ranch. Check message boards and newsletters.  Sign up for the Travelzoo newsletter and they will email you some great deals.  You might get lucky and have one of them match up with your plans or you may be inspired to make some new travel plans.  I am also signed up for Airfarewatchdog newsletter.  Two years ago they sent me news of a sale which got my husband and I to Italy for two weeks in July for under $1000.  I also have been known to check their message boards for sales and deals.  Also worth mentioning are the Cheap Flight Forum at Eurotrip and the Traveler’s Helpline at the Rick Steves website.  When I am really in the search zone I check all of these sites regularly in case someone has scored a fare and posted news of it online.

Step 6 – Lather rinse repeat. I will usually conduct these searches and check these sites at least once a day for a few weeks before settling on a fare.  The only remaining question is “when do you pull the trigger?”  I’d say a good rule of thumb is that when you start seeing sale fares for your dates, even if they are to different destinations, it is time to get serious.  My advice is that once you find a fare you are happy with, that you feel is a deal, go ahead and buy.  And never, never search for that fare again.  If it’s gone down since you bought your ticket the pain will be excruciating.  If you are having a hard time with “what if’s” you might see if the fare you want is available on Orbitz; they often offer a “low price guarantee.”  If the flight you buy goes down in price they will refund the difference.  Happy travels!

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Salsa Bake

A quick recipe.  This dish is not for when you are feeling fancy.  It works great as comfort food and if you want to sit on your couch and watch a whole season of How I Met Your Mother, this dinner and some beer will be there for you.

As much as this seems like a midwestern hot dish full of processed foods, it’s made of cheap, (mostly) whole foods.  It’s mushy and cheesy and seems like it should be really bad for you.  In fact, it’s healthy, full of protein and the ingredients might be things you just have lying around. This is an adaptation of a Rachael Ray recipe – you can find the original here.

Rachael Ray's version is a lot prettier than mine.  This dish is not pretty, but your stomach doesn't care.

Rachael Ray's version is a lot prettier than mine. This dish is not pretty, but your stomach doesn't care.

I’ve tinkered with her recipe to to lighten it up.  I sometimes add chicken like RR does, but it’s just as good as a vegetarian concoction.

Ingredients

2  14 oz. cans of black beans (drained)

1  14 oz. can fire roasted diced tomatoes

2 small cans of salsa verde (in the Ethnic Foods section, or substitute any kind of salsa, about 1-1 1/2 cups)

3 chipolte peppers, chopped (the peppers come canned in their own juice and I usually throw some of that in too)

1 cup sour cream (I use light sour cream)

8 oz. cheese, shredded (cheddar, jack, whatever you like)

About 3 cups of Baked tortilla chips, crushed

2 scallions, chopped (optional)

guacamole (optional)

Easy.  Preheat the oven to 375°.  In a large bowl, combine the black beans, tomatoes, salsa, chipolte peppers and sour cream.  In a baking dish (whatever you’d use for lasagna) sprinkle a handful of the chips.  Then, pour about 1/2 of the mixture into the baking dish.  Cover with 1/2 of the cheese and 1/2 of the remaining chips.  Pour the rest of the mixture into the casserole.  Cover with the remaining chips and cheese.  Bake for about 30 minutes.  Top each portion with a dollop of guac and some scallions.  Sometimes I also add some uncooked tortilla chips to add more crunch.

Serves 6-8

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The Happy Homemaker

kerr_modern_homemaker_1947

I love the term “homemaker” even though it conjures up a lot of pre-feminist images of women in a Douglas Sirk movie being stifled by their suburban lives.  The reason I love he word is because of its inherent truth.  A home isn’t something you stumble upon, it’s something that is made.

In fact, making a house feel like home used to be the full-time occupation of generations of women.   But once feminism opened up a woman’s options, a lot of us rejected homemaking.  A new generation of women were brought up not knowing how to cook, clean or manage a home.   Sometimes these women marry equally clueless men and live in squalor and their own filth.*  There’s still a need for someone to be a homemaker in every house.  We just don’t all have the luxury of having a wife at home all day to do the work.  (Dammit!  I want my 1950’s housewife!)

Homemaking is the management of the home.  It’s about making sure that you have delicious things to eat, that your kitchen counters aren’t crusty, that you’re bed sheets aren’t crawling with those dust mite things that freak me out.  Homemaking might also be about planning, budgeting and saving money.  Homemaking is as much about how your home works as how it looks.  The simple goals of homemaking are to make the lives of those living in the house healthier, easier and more pleasant.

Saving money, basic hygiene, how to plan meals – it all sounds pretty universal to me.  But, if you look online or in bookstores for help learning how to do any of the above, you will quickly learn that there is an assumption that if you are interested in homemaking you: 1) are married 2) have kids 3) own a house in the suburbs and probably 4) have accepted Jesus Christ as your savior.  (Don’t believe me, check out the first 10 websites that pop up for Homemaking on Google.)   I am not picking on families, or homeowners, or Christians, but I take issue with the idea that you need children or even a husband in order to have a home.  What about all of the single, apartment-dwelling, childless, atheists?  Where are they all living?  In a dwelling?  A habitation?  A domicile?

Still, sometimes it may seem exhausting to put so much effort into your home when you are the only one in it. The Happy Homemaker haunts us with her idea that the home is something that you create for other people.  I believe that it’s something you do, first and foremost for yourself.   My favorite definition of “home” is this: a refuge; an environment offering security and happiness. So, to me, homemaking is doing anything you do to create more security and happiness for yourself.  So it’s really very personal.   To some people this will mean cleaning, to some it will mean cooking meals.  Others will find a very satisfying sense of home in producing a fully-stocked wet bar.**  I will say that truly when you are happy at home you want to bring people into it and share it with them.  Family, friends, lovers, pets.  Anyone.

**Since I might seem to be linking feminism and the destruction of the home, I feel compelled to say that feminists have always cooked.  The National Organization for Women did put out a cookbook called Don’t Assume I Don’t Cook!a sort of celebration of feminist foodies.  Furthermore, let me be clear, ladies, that this blog post is in no way a call to ditch your day jobs and get back in the kitchen where you belong.

**I’m just saying, learning how to make a perfect martini at home will not only make you popular with your friends, it will save you money and keep you from driving home drunk/falling asleep on the subway and waking up in Bushwick.)

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