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Wednesday, February 27

Peanut Butter & cookies

With food successes in our kitchen, there are also failures.  Yesterday’s peanut butter cookies are one of them.  I was inspired to make peanut butter from scratch because I had the time and urge to try it.  The recipe is simple.  Raw, shelled peanuts, roasted and then blended with a little bit of oil, honey, salt and little water.  I had skin-on peanuts so I toasted them in a skillet on medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring often.  I placed the toasted peanuts in between two kitchen towels and rub the towels to rub the skins off.  This works for 80% of the peanuts, rest have stubborn skins so I just picked the skin off by hand.  Since they were still warm, the skins came off easily.  In a small mixer or a food processor add all the ingredients and blend.  The ratio is 1 cup shelled peanuts, 1 tablespoon canola (or another neutral) oil, 1 teaspoon honey, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon water.  Water isn’t necessary but my peanut butter was too thick to move in the processor so I added water to make it smooth.

After a paragraph on homemade peanut butter I’ll actually talk about the failure.  I was craving a homemade cookie that was also healthy.  I found this SimplyScratch recipe.  It didn’t have any flour, a flourless cookie with ingredients in my pantry? All the reason to try it.  

I have no idea what happened but I suspect 1 teaspoon of baking soda might have something to do with it.  Or nutella and eggs were too loose, needed some flour for binding and to make a thicker batter.  Or the recipe is completely flawed.  Whatever the case, I am sad it didn’t turn out as planned.  Now that I have little less than a 1/4 cup of peanut butter, I’ll be making my usual soba noodles with peanut sauce for lunch.  However if you have a nutella and peanut butter cookie recipe that’s mind blowing and healthy (there’s that stinky word again), please feel free to leave links and/or recipes in the comments.  

Thursday, February 21

Hope Springs or Hoping for Spring

The weather isn't looking like it'll turn anytime soon so we made these to be transported to an outdoor seating in a Mexican village, consuming authentic food.  For the past 4+ weeks, the sun attempts to shine and barely makes it out in its full glory before the clouds move in.  Fortunately today is one of those unusual days that the sun battled with the clouds and won.  Unfortunately this type of day is few and far between.  It could be worse, with meters and meters of snow, this is better than that.

Also, we're fiends for Mexican food so it was high time I made enchiladas with homemade tortillas.  Last time I made this, we made it with flour tortillas and it was just okay.  I am just not a fan of flour tortillas because they leave a sticky, clumpy white flour after taste.  So making most of the components from scratch here, we've got a keeper.  

Spinach and Black Bean Enchiladas with Red Chile Sauce
Yields 10 medium corn tortilla enchiladas, 3 servings or 2 generous servings

Red Enchilada Sauce
2 dried Ancho chilies
2 dried Guajillo chiles
1 cup water or stock

Remove the stems and seeds from the chiles.  In a medium non stick pan, toast dried chiles on medium heat.  Turn every 30 seconds to prevent burning the chiles.  Toast for 2 minutes.  Soak the toasted chiles in hot water for 20- 30 minutes. 

Once soaked, remove from the liquid.  Blend the chiles in a blender/food processor without the water.  Scrape down the bowl of the processor and blend 2 more times.  Add ½ cup liquid, salt and blend.  Scrape down the sides again and add the other 1/2 cup of water and blend until smooth.  If it isn’t pureed completely, push the sauce through a sieve into a bowl.  Discard any pieces that aren’t pureed.  This makes 1 cup of sauce.  Use half for the following recipe and save the other half for braising chicken or pork another night.

Spinach & Black bean filling
1 tablespoon pork fat or canola oil
1/2 white onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
1 /2 cup cream of spinach, defrosted or frozen
3/4 cup cooked black beans, drained if using canned
1/4 cup liquid from soaked chilies
1/2 cup red enchilada sauce
1/2 cup swiss cheese, shredded (cheddar, Monterey jack, fontina all work.  queso fresco is the authentic choice but that’s not available here. )
1 tablespoon green onions, finely sliced  

In a 10-inch skillet on medium heat, add pork fat (or canola oil).  Add chopped onion and cook for 1 minute.  Stir in garlic, cumin and chipotle chili powder.  Stir in spinach and black beans.  Season with salt.  Increase heat to medium high, stir in liquid from soaked chiles (making sure seeds or pepper skins don’t fall in the filling).   Once bubbling, reduce heat to medium low and cook the filling for 8- 10 minutes.  If using frozen spinach, cook for another 10 minutes.  Once cooked, the filling should be dry to fill the tortilla but still a little wet so it doesn’t dry out in the oven.

Preheat oven to 400°F or 200°C. In the bottom of an 8x8-inch square pan (or 9-inch round), spread the red enchilada sauce. Fill 10 (homemade preferred) corn tortillas with the filling and place tightly in the pan. Spread the enchiladas with 1/4 cup of red sauce. Top with shredded cheese and green onions. And finish with another 1/4 cup of red sauce.

Bake the enchiladas in the oven for 12 minutes. Once out of the oven, let it rest at room temperature for 5 minutes before serving. Rice, Guacamole, and Sour cream are great accompaniments.

Friday, February 8


If there was a trip that I anticipated in Europe it was Rome. Of course Istanbul surpassed all expectations but I was nervous and excited about Rome. We went in August, yes it’s been a while since the trip and I am behind on our travel posts.

Upon arriving, we realized August is the worst month to go to Rome. Not only is the city filled with world tourists, it’s hot as hell that time of the year. Seriously so hot that even the tank tops and shorts I wore was too much clothing. This also explains why the Romans (and Italians in general) leave for the entire month for a beach vacation or to cooler quarters. Therein lies the other problem, many restaurants, shops and small boutiques were closed for the month. I’d done research and thankfully we found few restaurants that were open. And thus we endured the heat and toured like troopers.

Rome has a charm of a city that has survived generations and many influences. It feels like a really old city. We stayed close to Termini (mail railway) station so commute to the sights was accessible. I wouldn’t call it easy because they change their routes and times for August but it’s manageable. Since it is a large city, plan public transportation prior to the trip. The husband is always our map-reader and direction-determiner so we were are lucky. (Note- to arrive to Termini from the airport without a car, take the Leonardo Express to Termini. It’s about 30- 40 minutes.)

On the first day we visited the Spanish Steps and enjoyed our first gelato. The gelato was from a “not-on-my-list-gelataria”, and it was still yummy. Then we walked over to the Vatican for tickets and tour information, only to be turned away. The day was a national holiday and the Vatican was closed. Speechless, we trudged on. As we were leaving the Vatican, we were approached by a woman offering a deal for a morning tour. Her prices were too high so we walked away. Then we were approached by a Pakistani man with the same offer and lower prices. We accepted that offer and bought tickets.

Next stop was Piazza del Popolo with a brief look in Santa Maria in Montesanto. Mostly to get cool from the heat. Having seen plenty of churches in Europe, they’re starting to look the same. Before any of you roll your eyes and close the internet window, I will say we distinguish the different styles baroque, gothic, Romanesque, etc and appreciate the architecture however since we aren’t pros nor fans of any particular style, it runs together. Now that I’ve explained my reasoning, I hope you’ve stopped judging.

We ate lunch (food reviews, later) and headed to the Colosseum. It is striking. A structure built in 80AD and parts of it still standing. Its age is apparent and the history is fascinating. It was built to seat 50,000 people (in that time!) and was said to be built for gladiator fights. It is said those that lost the battle were killed in the arena in front of the audience. Tragic. The dimensions are spectacular as well. It was built in slopping tiers to allow people of all walks of life to see the fights. There was even an equivalent of box seating, in that time. That’s not too surprising because back then they very much encouraged separate seating for the wealthy and the poor. I highly recommend a tour with a guide at the Colosseum. Don’t bother trying to find an outside tour company, the tour guide we had when we bought our tickets was knowledgeable and pleasant.
Inside the Colosseum
We walked around the Colosseum before heading to the Roman Forum. The forum is made up of ruins and was the city square at the time it was built. Since they are ruins, many buildings are almost destroyed and/or are in bad shape. The government is investing in restoring the remains. The Basilica Nova was the most interesting. It’s a structure of enormous size and made us wonder how it was built in that time, without machinery.

Basilica Nova
Ruin at The Forum

The next morning we met in front of the tour guide’s office at 10am. The tour guide led the entire group (30 people) to Piazza de San Pietro, shared valuable information about the Piazza, the Basilica and the Vatican in general. Then we were herded back to the tour guide offices and were asked to wait. What was initially going to be a 10 minute wait turned into a 60 minute wait in front of the office. Some of us got really angry and complained to the manager. We were told, repeatedly, it’s the day after a holiday and the Vatican is packed and therefore only allowing small number of tourists at a time.
Piazza de San Pietro
In the hot August sun, we were all miserable. One guy (from Boston) was angry with the tour guide and asked for his money back.  Finally, we were escorted to the Vatican with our guide. It was good to bypass the crowds in line since we’d done our share of waiting. Once inside, we were asked for passes, inspected for weapons and given headsets. Men with shorts and women with short skirts, shorts and bare shoulders are not allowed. The next 60- 90 minutes were dreadful. There was a dizzying number of visitors and the tour guide was trying to keep the entire group together. We hurried by the sculpture room, the Sistine Chapel and many others. Possibly because it was hot and uncomfortable being pushed around at each step. I recommend the Vatican on an off month and be prepared for the crowds. Our tour guide parted with the group and we went onto St. Peter’s Basilica through the alternate way. There is a back way so make sure you know how to find it, otherwise it’s a hassle to go out and come back in to the Basilica. Once outside, you have to wait in the long lines.

St. Peter's Basilica- Pope's Church
We bought group tour tickets at the Basilica’s entrance. 30 minutes later the tour started with only 4 of us. We were pleased to be touring with a St. Peter’s Basilica employee. Of the many things we learned, one of which is Michelangelo’s Pieta is one of his only signed works still surviving. A thief attempted to steal it so now it’s encased in a glass case.

Michelangelo's Pieta
Completing two major attractions from the list, we were looking forward to a short visit to the Pantheon. That particular day the guides weren’t offering tours so we bought an audio guide. The audio covers the history of the Pantheon as well as some notable facts like its bronze ceiling was removed to use as an addition to the Basilica.

replaced ceiling at the Pantheon
Piazza Navona is known for its appearance; the architect of the square is perfectly planned for gatherings. Trevi fountain wasn’t on our list when we walked by it to lunch one day. I am not familiar with the story (or movie) that made it famous but we found it to be overrun with tourists.

Piazza Navona
The next day we wondered through Campo de Fieri neighborhood, including its farmer’s market. Having seen many other European farmers’ markets, this was underwhelming. Campo de Fieri deserves a visit, just don’t have high expectations of the area. Trastevere on the other hand was a charming neighborhood we found on the last evening of our trip. We wandered around and came upon Basilica de Santa Maria in Trastevere. It’s a small church. 

Having found a great dinner place in the neighborhood that night, we returned to Trastevere the next morning for last of sightseeing and lunch. Getting lost and turned around multiple times, we finally found Fontanone, one of the highest points in Rome. The fountain is made of white marble.  It’s also a place to admire the city below. (The path to Fontanone can be hiked on the curvy roads of the mountain or climbed up on a flight of stairs.)

I am hungry thinking about all the food we ate. Here are some recommendations. Valentino’s near the Colosseum and the Forum is a restaurant we reminisce, often. The first night we ate there we had homemade gnocchi and carbonara. It was so good, we came back a second time. Near the Trevi fountain is Spaghetteria L'Archettoneu; this place came recommended by a friend that lived in Rome briefly. It has a long list of spaghetti dishes (they use only spaghetti), most of which the locals would turn their nose up against. Although most sounded absurd, the basic list of Carbonara, cacio e pepe, alla amatriciana, spaghetti with pesto were convincing. We inhaled alla amatriciana & cacio e pepe. House wine and bread rounded the outstanding meal.

Overhearing conversations. We were seated next to a table of 4 American tourists at Spaghetteria L'Archettoneu. I believe they were coworkers from different cities, visiting Rome for a conference and brought their significant others. They ordered mozzarella sticks for appetizer and main courses. When their water arrived they requested ice. Point 1. When their mozzarella sticks arrived (mozzarella dipped in batter and fried), they asked for tomato sauce. Point 2. They discussed the previous night’s drunken festivities. Point 3. What’s with the points? It’s everything that irritated us me, even as an American. Ice with water is a very American thing or shall I say 'not European'. The concept of ice with water does not exist here. The tourists may not have been aware of this, excusable. Point 2 was upsetting. American restaurants provide tomato sauce with their mozzarella sticks. This is not America. The server was puzzled when they asked for a bowl of tomato sauce. Seeing as the server had no idea what they wanted, the tomato sauce didn’t come to the table until after multiple requests and after the mozzarella sticks were finished. The previous night was a great one and the rest of the restaurant had missed out on free booze however in an Italian restaurant during lunch (with family and kids) was not an appropriate location to broadcast the night. We Americans talk (and laugh, that’s me) so loudly it is disrupt full; I am guilty too. I share this not only for you but for us too.  I hope when traveling we are aware of our surroundings and respect the culture of the country.

Taverna dei Quaranta is close to the Colosseum, tucked away on a side street. The servers were helpful and nice. There we ordered cacio e pepe and another pasta I can’t remember. I do remember both being very good. Their cacio e pepe is raved by the locals, for good reason. Half liter of house wine with dinner and this restaurant is worth the find.

Two tasty pizza places are Dar Poeta in Trastevere and Pizzarium by the Vatican. Dar Poeta has mostly pizzas, some pasta and meat dishes. Having seen all the tables ordering pizza, we followed suit. I ordered a seasonal pizza with zucchini flowers while the husband ordered one with salumi (their version of pepperoni but tastes better). The thin crust pizzas had crispy exterior and a chewy interior; the toppings were sufficient and did not overwhelm the crust. Pizzarium makes pizza al taglio. It’s made in a large baking sheet, has a thicker crust and is lightly topped with toppings. Instead of slices, it’s cut in squares or rectangles. We ordered multiple kinds. Sadly it wasn’t the husband’s favorite, I enjoyed all of it. Pizzarium doesn’t have any seating except for one bench on the sidewalk outside so be prepared to stand or take it away.

Gelato. We tried gelato from multiple gelatarias but Gelateria fata morgana stood out. They make their gelato with fresh and seasonal ingredients. On the inside it feels like an upscale gelateria. We were impressed with the flavors- cardamom pistachio, walnut, honey, hazelnut, and dark chocolate.

Worth mentioning. Bring good shoes; there is lots of walking and without good walking shoes it’s painful. Even with public transportation. Book tickets for the Vatican with a legitimate tour company. With the waiting and being pushed around in large crowds, it was grueling. Speaking of being pushed around, don’t go in August. Unless being in very crowded, sweaty places is your thing. Plus, most Romans take that month off for vacation which means many places are closed. When possible, tour the sights with an in-house tour guide. Guides that work there are knowledgeable and have a wealth of information instead of off the street commission paid vendors, as we experienced. Plus the church or museum gets your money instead of a 3rd party.

If you go to a restaurant I’ve listed or one you find on your own, we highly recommend ordering from their daily special menu. Daily specials usually mean the chef has cooked a set of dishes for the day and they’re the freshest, best to order. (Or ask the server what is freshly cooked that day.) Do order a glass, half liter or whole liter (you lush) of house wine with dinner. It’s almost always a good pairing for the food you’ll eat. And it’s cheap.

Rome is a spectacular city and worth a trip. In addition to seeing the momentous sights, it’s a city to gorge on pizza, pasta, gelato and wine.