Vegology Branching Out, from Home Cooking to Competitions and Catering

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I started this blog four years ago to help me get out of my comfort zone in the kitchen, and to inspire others to do the same. From trying out new ingredients for the first time, to testing strange cooking techniques, to doing vegetarian cooking demonstrations, to traveling to distant places just to see what is going on in other food communities, I have stepped out of my comfort zone in a lot of ways, with mixed results. In four years, I have learned a lot about cooking and eating, and I have further developed my food philosophy as well. I do not reflect often, so although I have grown in a lot of ways since June 2010, I still see myself as a newbie, learning as much as I can, from people with more experience and different perspectives than me.

My initial reaction when I was asked earlier this year to participate in the Richmond Vegetarian Festival Food Fight was, “who, me?!” The Food Fight is an Iron Chef style cooking competition, in which three competitors must prepare three vegan dishes in one hour, using only the limited pantry ingredients and equipment available at each of their stations. The dishes must feature a secret ingredient, which is revealed seconds before the clock starts.

The invitation came in a tweet, and my immediate response upon receiving the Twitter notification on my phone was to look over both shoulders and wonder if there is another Vegology out there for whom this invitation is meant. I ignored the message, assuming it had been broadcast to a long list of people who would jump on the opportunity.

When the organizers (from Citizen, one of my favorite lunch spots in RVA) followed up with me, I realized the first message had not been an error. I was still in hand therapy and could barely cook for myself at the time. What I could do in the kitchen and at work, I was really slow at. The competition was about a month away and I figured it would give me a good goal for therapy to get my hands and wrists mostly functional by the end of June.

So I recruited a partner, my delightful and talented friend Brittany from Eating Bird Food (read her wonderful post about the competition here), and I agreed to do it. We do not cook fancy or complicated food and we do not spend hours perfecting our plating techniques or our knife skills, so we expected to come in dead last. We were determined to make food that tasted good and to have a ton of fun doing it. And that is almost exactly what happened.

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The secret ingredient was fennel, one that we had not anticipated at all. After a quick strategy session, we started grabbing ingredients from the pantry, chopping, blending, and roasting (in a toaster oven!). Our first dish was raw spiralized summer squash “noodles” in a fennel and basil pesto sauce, with pan roasted red peppers and a sprig of fennel on top. We had a lot of fun putting this together, and twirling the squash “pasta” into little nests on each plate.

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We worked really well together, and just focused on the cooking while we worked. I tuned out the audience, the host who narrated and entertained during the whole thing, and all of the comments from the judges and other competitors. There were definitely a few times that Karri Peifer, the host, put the microphone in my face and I had not even realized she was in our kitchen or had asked me a question until that black bulb was right in front of my mouth. I doubt that any of my answers were very impressive – sorry Karri!

Our focus paid off when our vegan ground beef, or “nut meat” came out perfectly. Our second dish was a nut meat lettuce wrap taco with a fresh corn and fennel salad on top. The spicy “meat” was countered by the sweet fresh corn, and I thought it tasted pretty good. The judges said they couldn’t detect the fennel, which we had included in the “meat” as well as the corn salad, but our proportions must have been off, or the strong flavors of other ingredients drowned out the fennel flavor.

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Our final dish, which was described by one judge as “homey” was a Nourish Bowl with jasmine rice, black beans, roasted sweet potato and fennel, and pan roasted red peppers, finished with a peanut sauce and Thai basil garnish. All three dishes were ones that any home cook could easily throw together. I’m not sure if “homey” was meant as a compliment or not, but I took from it that we cooked our food, which was exactly what we had set out to do!

Each duo was given a score out of 240 total possible points, and dishes were evaluated on taste, presentation, innovation/uniqueness, and use of the secret ingredient. Our team (Team VegBird) came in second place, and the host announced that we were within two points of the winners! The winning team was Kate Koyiades and Mackenzie Monday from 821 Café. Yes, that’s right, two points away (out of 240) from professional chefs. What?! We were very pleased with the results.

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We celebrated with a beer from Ardent Craft Ales, a new brewery that is located in Scott’s Addition, right down the street from the festival. I would be lying if I said that was it. Then we took the party over to Hardywood for another beer and some tacos from the Boka Tako Truck.

Riding high after our second place finish, I packed my car the next day for a road trip to Asheville, NC for the grand opening of my sister’s ballroom dance studio, Rococo Ballroom. We spent a week putting the finishing touches on the studio space and getting the word out for the grand opening and ribbon cutting.

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I spent my days handing out flyers, hanging posters around town, writing press releases, shopping for décor, and cleaning impossibly large windows and mirrors. I squeezed in three classes at Asheville Yoga Center (so wonderful), and at night I ate a ton of the best vegetarian food Asheville has to offer. To see all of our great eats, check out the #vegologyeatsasheville hashtag on Instagram.

After the great experience I had branching out at the Vegan Food Fight, I did not hesitate to say yes when I was asked to do all of the food for the Rococo Ballroom grand opening party the following Saturday. I prepared food all day in my sister Meghan’s kitchen, packed it into containers within a giant cooler, plated when I got to the studio, and then replenished from the same cooler throughout the party. My “catering kitchen” on-site was a gigantic cooler with a pack of gloves, a cutting board and knife, and a few bags of ice, all located on a sidewalk outside the back door of the studio. The kitchen got soaked during a sudden downpour halfway through the party. I adapted. The food turned out pretty great!

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The appetizers included caprese salad bites, which were basically tomato, mozzarella, and basil, skewered and marinated in a balsamic viniagrette, and cucumber cups filled with jalapeno cilantro hummus, topped with chili powder and pimentos.

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We also enjoyed watermelon, feta and mint bruschetta, which was a nice summery treat.

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Dessert (not pictured) was a tower of mini cupcakes in gold foil wrappers to match the regal décor of the studio. We also had a cheese tray and plenty of wine, which I wrapped in custom Rococo Ballroom labels just for the party. The selection  included Waltz White (Pepperwood Pinot Grigio), Rumba Red (Castle Rock Pinot Noir), and Bolero Bubbly (Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut Rose Cava).

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After pulling off a week of helping to open a business, bookended by a vegan Iron Chef competition and my first catering gig, I needed a glass of Bolero Bubbly wine to relax!

In retrospect, the marathon week was a great way to celebrate Vegology’s fourth birthday. It definitely boosted my confidence and pushed me to ask myself the question, “what’s next?” proving once again that it’s sometimes a very good thing to push yourself out of your comfort zone and try something you’ve never done before. It could turn out great or it could turn out to be a disaster learning experience, and either way at least you can say you did it!

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“Almost Free” Sangria

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I am fortunate to say that I have just returned from a beautiful and relaxing vacation in Mexico. Kyle and I joined my family for a week at an all-inclusive resort in Cancun. We swam with dolphins, explored the natural beauty of Contoy Island, enjoyed relaxing spa services, and went shopping on the crowded streets of Isla Mujeres. We went snorkeling at Xel-Ha, and as I swam on the surface of the clear blue water in a rocky lagoon, I saw a large barracuda calmly and terrifyingly glide below me. We ate delicious food at beautiful restaurants and expansive buffets on the property. All of our beer, wine, and cocktails were included, and we even had a liquor dispenser for in-room mixology.

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We threw a little birthday celebration for my Mom a few days early this year, at the end of the week. Faced with an amazing itinerary of activities, a ridiculous amount of credits for free spa services, a cocktail menu that I couldn’t have drank my way through in a week if I tried, 24-hour free room service, and seventeen hours of buffet service available per day, I struggled to find something special I could give Mom for her birthday that wasn’t already included! Then as I walked along the fresh fruit buffet one morning, it hit me. You can’t get real sangria here. One of my Mom’s favorite warm weather indulgences isn’t available on any of the menus. But the ingredients were.

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When you explore any of the shopping districts, plazas, tourist attractions, or resort areas in Mexico, you are always greeted with merchants calling you over to see what they have to sell, promising you a great deal on whatever it is you may be searching for. “Hola, Señoritas, come inside, great prices for you, real silver, dresses, blouses, almost free for you today.”

On my first trip to Mexico, I visited Mexico City, Teotihuacan, Puebla, Oaxaca, Huatulco, and a few small towns in between. Everywhere we went, we heard “almost free for you” from the local peddlers. That was the trip through malaria country, when we doused ourselves in military grade bug spray, brushed our teeth with bottled water for fear of what flowed from the tap, and once had to draw the shades on the tour bus for the duration of a four-hour trip through the mountains so that the political protesters outside the bus couldn’t identify us as American students.

My most recent trip was the one at the five-star all-inclusive resort, with bilingual wait staff around every corner, a reverse osmosis water purification system on the property, complimentary Wi-Fi, an in-room Chi hair straightening iron, and “almost free” sangria. Both vacations were incredible experiences, for very different reasons. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to see the country from many perspectives.

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My attempt to create a “free” cocktail made from things found in the room and on buffets (for which you must pay a hefty weekly fee, hence the “almost” in its title) began three days before the birthday celebration, with the squirreling away of free sugar packets. I needed twenty 5-gram packets for my recipe. After I swiped all of the 5-gram sugar packets from the coffee condiment tray in the room two days in a row, the housekeeping staff started replenishing the tray with 4-gram sugar packets instead. Hmm. Maybe they found my stash of sugar packets hidden under an upside down coffee cup and they were on to my game. Regardless, they left the stash and enabled my hoarding, albeit in smaller size packages, for another day.

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The fruit came from the breakfast buffet on the morning of the celebration. The tropical fruit salad was cut by the chef, but I had to break down the peach slices and pineapple chunks into tiny pieces with a plastic fork and knife. The knife was surprising sharp for  plasticware.

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My in-room free liquor options were vodka, whisky, tequila, and rum. I went with the rum. This sangria was starting to feel pretty Caribbean. The liquor dispenser provides one shot-sized dose of liquor per press of the nozzle, which is  convenient if you are trying to measure your liquor in modest, drinkable, portions. However if your aim is to dispense twelve ounces of rum at once, operation of the dispenser becomes a little more difficult. But I’m not complaining.

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I never saw a drink pitcher at any of the bars or restaurants for my whole stay. The only thing that resembled a large vessel in which I could mix my ingredients was a 32-ounce insulated mug that retailed for a ridiculously high price of $40 in the gift shop. I considered using the ice bucket, but we are classy people. We do not ruin the in-room amenities like the shiny silver ice bucket. So I mixed the fruit, sugar, and rum in a (presumably) clean plastic bag. Double-bagged, just to be safe.

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The boozy bag o’ fruit chilled in the mini refrigerator for about eight hours.

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We thought the mini bar contained apple juice and orange juice. I reached for what I assumed was orange juice and then I read the label. Bebida con pulpa de mango. This was a box of 16% mango juice plus water and sugar. I thought, it’s a good thing I only had fourteen 5-gram packets and four 4-gram packets of sugar, instead of the twenty 5-gram packets I desired, because we’re about to make up the difference with this “juice.”

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A free bottle of wine comes with the room, along with a very cheap corkscrew. Based on the tropical fruit, liquor, and juice I used, I would recommend a citrusy white wine if you have a choice. I did not have a choice, and I knew that Mom loves read sangria, so Kyle wrestled the artificial cork out of the Spanish Merlot and I dumped it and the mango juice into the sangria bag.

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I couldn’t serve the sangria out of a complimentary laundry bag (what kind of bartender do you take me for?!) so I emptied a 1.5 liter water bottle, snipped a small corner off the wine bag, and transferred the homemade hooch to the botella de agua. Fancy.

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I served the sangria over ice with a splash of soda. Mom was pleasantly surprised by the gesture, and after each drinking at least one glass of the fruity wine cocktail, we all survived the night. Success!

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Almost Free Sangria

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 cups fresh fruit, diced
  • 1-1/2 cups light rum
  • 3/4 cups fruit juice (orange is preferred, but mango works too)
  • 1- 750 mL bottle of wine
  • 1/2 cup club soda, citrus soda, or ginger ale

Preparation:

  1. Combine sugar, fruit, and liquor in a large pitcher (or whatever vessel you have on hand). Mix thoroughly.
  2. Refrigerate the fruit mixture for 8-12 hours.
  3. Add juice and wine to mixture. Chill for 1 hour.
  4. Add the soda right before serving, or add a splash to each glass. Serve sangria over ice.

My second birthday present o my Mom: silver earrings (not free).

My third birthday present to my Mom: the satisfaction of knowing that if I ever end up imprisoned at an all-inclusive resort, I will make friends quickly due to my improvisational mixology skills, and will therefore be safe and happy even in the direst of circumstances.

Happy Birthday Mom!

Hello Spring! Salad

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This time of year, when the air is thick with pollen and my cloudy sinuses make me feel like I’m in a permanent fog, there are just a few things that are enticing enough to get me out of the house and into nature. One of those things is the South of the James farmers’ market, which I visited last weekend. The market tables are covered in green, with bright pops of red, pink and orange, during the spring season. The stars of the show are the strawberries, asparagus, and fresh herbs, with fresh greens rounding out the strong ensemble. Last week, I also picked up turnips, radishes, sugar snap peas, goat cheese, and fresh pasta.

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If you get there early enough, you can get local farm fresh eggs, which are a real treat. Lately we have enjoyed eggs and greens, fried in the same skillet, for an easy weeknight meal. I prepare them by wilting the greens in olive oil and garlic, cracking a few eggs into the pan, and then covering it and simmering for 3-4 minutes. Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper top it off, with some grated Parmesan if we’re feeling extra indulgent. So quick and easy, nutrient-packed and delicious, it’s no wonder we have had this dish once a week for the last month.

I have been staring at the Israeli (pearl) couscous on my pantry shelf since the last snow, waiting for inspiration to strike. A bunch of fresh dill and asparagus turned a craving for Israeli couscous into a full-fledged spring recipe idea, and I have made this easy salad a few times since. I look forward to trying it with some Bombolini pasta herb shells in place of the couscous later this week. Likewise, you could substitute whatever fresh herbs you have on hand for the dill; I think tarragon or parsley would be great. The lemon and asparagus complement each other, and the peas lend a sweetness to the dish that balances the tartness of the lemon. This refreshing salad is perfect for dining on the patio, if you can brave the pollen and get out of the house to enjoy some warm spring sunshine.

Pearl Couscous Salad with Roasted Asparagus, Peas, Lemon and Dill

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Ingredients:

  • 4 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 bunch asparagus, trimmed, cut into 1-inch lengths
  • 1-1/3 cups Israeli (pearl) couscous
  • 2 cups sweet peas, blanched
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
  • 6 green onions (scallions), chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Toss asparagus with 1 Tbsp olive oil, and light salt and pepper.
  2. On a rimmed baking sheet, roast asparagus for 15 minutes at 400 degrees F, or until bright green and tender-crisp.
  3. Heat 1 Tbsp olive oil in medium pan over medium-high heat. Add couscous to pan, and toast 5 minutes, while stirring.
  4. Add 1-3/4 cups water to the pan, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and cover. Simmer couscous for 10 minutes.
  5. To a large bowl, add peas, dill, and green onions.
  6. In a small bowl, combine 2 Tbsp olive oil, lemon juice, minced garlic, and lemon zest. Stir thoroughly to combine.
  7. When asparagus and couscous are done cooking, add both to the large bowl and stir to combine. Add dressing and toss to coat evenly. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  8. Serve warm, or refrigerate a few hours or overnight to let flavors develop and serve chilled.
  9. Extra credit: serve with a glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc. Mmm.

A Few of My (New) Favorite Things

First things first, I have to give a shout out to John Robinson of Robinson Imagery, who posted a preview of our engagement photos today. Kyle and I had a blast during our engagement session this weekend, and we can’t wait to see the rest of the photos soon. Thanks John!

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I treated myself to a little spring break last week and I had ten consecutive days off work. Please don’t tell my boss; the time off was legit, but I don’t think anyone had really counted it up yet. Ten days is a lot of time, so I avoided announcing the total, in an effort to keep from shocking him and thereby causing him to change his mind. Perhaps even more shocking is that until day one of vacation, I didn’t have many plans for my time off. For the first time ever, Kyle and I both took off work and did not plan a trip. We just kind of winged it. . . and it was fantastic! A ten-day long staycation allows for a great deal of thoughtful reflection and self-discovery. Also, it provides you the opportunity to do some exploring close to home and to try out things you never had before.

New favorite thing: yoga on mountaintops.

I thought it would be fun to share a few of the highlights, so that you locals may discover some new activities and places to visit in central Virginia. If you’re not local to central Virginia, either bookmark these for your next visit or use them as inspiration to find similar things near your own “close to home.”

The Monument Avenue 10K

You would have to be a real Eeyore to not feel encouraged during this race. I really don’t like running, but I loved doing this 10K. I walked most of the way, as planned, but even as a walker you feel like a rock star. There were so many clever signs like the one above, and tons of people cheering you on from the Monument Avenue median and sidewalks. The excitement and energy was inescapable the whole way. This race really was a party, and I am so glad I did it for the first time ever this year.

Patios South of the River

I have been to Legend’s deck before, but as a new resident of the Forest Hill area, I have developed a new appreciation for the space. In the Fan and Museum District, every other restaurant has outdoor seating, and nearly every residence has a porch or balcony. This is not the case south of the James. Legend Brewing Company is my new top choice for patio drinking and dining, for their delicious locally brewed beer and for their fantastic view of the downtown Richmond skyline. Also, this is a great spot for a little carbohydrate replenishment after the Monument Avenue 10K.

Crossroads Forest Hill is also a great happy hour spot with outdoor seating and live music on the weekends. Their beer list is so good that I often think I’m dreaming when I read over it. They have a consistently excellent selection of beers there. They also serve wine and small plates during their happy hour from 4:00 to 7:00 PM.

Flight Night at Secco Wine Bar

Right now you may be thinking this post is getting a little alcohol-heavy. And you would be right. It was vacation! I’m no saint! However I promise we will get to less alcohol-centric activities soon.

But first, allow me to introduce you to Flight Night at Secco Wine Bar. Every Monday, Secco features 3-glass flights of wine. I checked it out last week with some of the VAis4Bloggers crew. For $10 you could order Dealer’s Choice, which was a mixed bag of 3 random wines. For $11 you could get the Flight of the Week, which was Spanish Reds last week. That’s what I ordered and I was not disappointed. For $12 you could choose your own 3 wines off their extensive menu. They were pretty good sized pours and I had a great variety of wines to try. It was a wonderful way to start the week. Check it out!

Homemade Non-Dairy Milks at Para Coffee

After all that booze, shall we get a tad more wholesome? Nah, that’s impossible when you’re talking about nut milks. I had to title this section Non-Dairy Milks because Kyle chuckles every time I say “homemade nut milk.” But that’s what it is! Para Coffee in Charlottesville has started making their own nut milks from almonds, walnuts, pecans and pistachios, and they offer these non-dairy options in their lattes and other milk-based espresso drinks. I stopped in last week and had an iced pistachio milk latte and it was a real treat. I don’t even want to see the nutritional information, so please don’t tell me how much fat is in a cup of pistachio milk. I’m not interested. That said, I personally would not have one of these nut milk lattes every day, however this is something I will try again soon. It’s so different, you have to try it at least once.

Spice Diva

I have wanted to visit Spice Diva in Charlottesville for awhile and I finally got the opportunity last week. All the spices smell so good and they offer a wide variety of things that I hadn’t seen elsewhere. The blends are really unique too. I picked up an African style curry powder, applewood smoked sea salt, and a spice rub meant for meat that I want to try out in some vegetarian dishes soon. The owner couldn’t be more friendly, and I am excited to test out the exotic spices I picked up on my first trip there.

Hiking in Nelson County, VA

I already knew I loved hiking in this area, but recently I have found several more hikes that I want to try out. We have done Humpback Rocks (a few times), Crabtree Falls, and Spy Rock (as of last week). Next I want to do Cole Mountain and Mount Pleasant. I am addicted to the gorgeous mountain views that are your reward for making it to the top. What other hikes should I put on my list?

 

I have held back a few more food adventures and day trip activities that I plan to share in a separate post. My ten days off work were so packed with fun discoveries that it feels like my break was even longer than it was. We considered so many different vacation destinations before settling on staying close to home. I can’t believe I would have missed out on all the things our area has to offer, while in search of greener pastures, a plane or train ticket away from here.

Have you taken time lately to explore your own backyard?

Motorino, Manhattan, NYC

As you may already know, Kyle and I are on vacation in New York City. We arrived on Monday afternoon and met up with our friend Melissa for dinner that evening. Her first suggestion was Motorino, a pizza place in the lower east side. After some discussion of alternative options, we all decided that Motorino was a great choice. We arrived at the small restaurant around 7:30 and were told that it would be a ten minute wait.  No problem, we walked around the block. When we returned the host came outside and told us this:

“I hate to do this because it’s really rude but I have a table available now for you but I would need it back around 8:15. Or you can wait another ten to fifteen minutes and take your time.” We must have looked at him quizzically because he immediately began to explain.

“We have a celebrity coming in and I need your table for their party at 8:15.” We looked at our watches and looked at each other. It was almost 7:45. I thought about how we had been traveling all day and were looking forward to catching up with a good friend over a bottle of wine and a Neapolitan pizza. Now I don’t have anything against 30 minute meals, when I’m cooking them in my own kitchen out of a Rachael Ray cookbook, but on this night I just wasn’t in the mood. I suggested that we wait for the next table and take our time.

Motorino makes Neapolitan style pizza in the gorgeous oven pictured above. They have a good beer and wine list, and they offer a “perfect pizza wine” which is a sparkling red blend that we really enjoyed. I don’t know about how well this wine pairs with pizza; it didn’t seem like an earth shattering life changing combination. However it was delicious, and perfect for a warm summer evening.

We ordered three pizzas and shared them all. I loved the Margherita, which was topped with a tasty tomato sauce, fresh basil, and fresh mozzarella. The crust was crispy and doughy all at once with a delicious char from the oven. As we dug in, we were joined by the celebrities of the evening. That’s right, there were more than one. Kyle played it really cool.

Melissa and I struggled to be cool too. We covertly took pictures.

We finished our meal as their pizzas were coming out. We didn’t want to leave them behind. We ordered tiramisu and another bottle of wine. It wasn’t hard to eavesdrop because although we were in a crowded restaurant, we could hear the woman of the hour loud and clear through the whole meal. For a tiny lady, she’s got a big mouth!

When we paid the check, they were finishing up. Guy Fieri left first, followed by a gaggle of guidos. Then the rest of the guests at the table of ten stood up and started to walk out. As soon as they left, we bolted out the door. See, I didn’t want to interrupt her meal but I was eager to say hi. Blame the second bottle of “perfect pizza wine” – I walked right up to her and said “Rachael! Hey Rachael, can I get a picture please?” She whipped around with a big smile on her face and said,

“Yeah, sure. Why not? Hey guys, how’s it going?” I shoved the camera in Kyle’s hands and leaned in to pose, afraid that the moment might pass if we didn’t seize it immediately. Then Rachel Ray laughed and said, “How great is that? You didn’t even ask him to take the picture, you were just like, ‘take this’ and he did it! What a guy, huh?”

 

What a guy indeed. I’m having the time of my life with my very best friend in the city that never sleeps, and I hope it never ends!

Non-Valentine’s Day Picnic and Hike

I don’t usually do anything special for Valentine’s Day. When I think back to the three Valentine’s Days that Kyle and I have spent as a couple, I recall quiet dinners at home, nice bottles of wine, and my choice of romantic movies from Blockbuster (OK, that is a rare thing indeed). I think in the past we may have exchanged chocolates or cards, and I’m sure I’ve received a bouquet of tulips, but no major celebration comes to mind. We just don’t ever plan anything big for February 14th.

This year, we wanted to do something. We have had a rough start to the year and both wanted to take some time out of our busy schedules to recognize how much we appreciate each other’s support and companionship through it all. Isn’t that nice? Kyle suggested a fancy restaurant, I suggested we go somewhere for the weekend, and we both considered getting into a DIY dinner project like homemade sushi or fondue. But what really made the decision for us was the weather forecast.

For a weekend, things thawed out a bit and we were blessed with clear blue skies and bright sunshine that pierced the cold February air. This time last year, we were recovering from a massive snow storm. This weekend, we ventured out to Pocahontas State Park in Chesterfield County, Virginia to do an easy morning hike followed by a half-healthy, half-indulgent picnic. It was two days before Valentine’s Day, which was perfect. I’ve always been ambivalent about V-Day. Why would you need a holiday to show people you love them? I’ll take romance any day of the year, so this weekend I celebrated it on February 12th. at our Non-Valentine’s Day Picnic.

We began our hike with a beautiful view of Beaver Lake. The dark blue lake was gently moving as the bright sun cracked the thin layer of ice that slowly melted away as the day went on. We could see geese in the distance, perched on the last few sheets of thick ice that remained in a large, shady corner of the lake.

That's my valentine!

We did about two miles of the 2.5 mile loop before setting up our picnic at another point on the trail with lake access. As we meandered through the woods, the trail led us to wildlife observation areas, over a few creeks, and past some interesting landmarks that others had left before us.

We finally settled down to a picnic on the edge of the lake, and while we had to contend with strong winds throughout the meal, we enjoyed taking in the scenery with very few fellow hikers for company. I would imagine that a picnic here in the summer would be more desirable from a climate standpoint, but there is no chance we would have the lake and the trail to ourselves. It was so nice to experience the stillness and silence between the laughs and conversation that we enjoyed here.

The wine definitely helped to warm us up as we faced the chill of the breeze coming off the water. In addition to an ingeniously portable bottle/box of Bandit Merlot, we packed Azar’s roasted garlic hummus, baby carrots, a fresh baguette, Babybel cheese (more portable than a knife and a block of cheddar), green apples, and a box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates.

Azar’s is one of my favorite brands of hummus. I’ve probably been eating it for about six years and I just realized it is made in Virginia. I don’t know how I ever missed it before. What a special treat!

Everything was tasty and fresh. We saved the chocolates for the car ride home, and let me just say that it was a good thing we only had eight in that box. We had no intention of finishing the whole thing, but they were almost all gone before we even exited the park. It is about a five minute drive from the trailhead to the park exit. If we had been trapped in that car for the 30 minute drive with more than three Ferrero Garden coconut chocolates, Kyle would have had to roll me out of the car and up to our second floor apartment. They were the best candy I have had in a very very long time. If you love coconut, find this candy!

And then find yourself a longer hike to work it off. Yum!

Where Oh Where Has My Little Blog Gone?

Whew, I’ve never taken such a long break from blogging before.

Are you there readers? It’s me, Lauren.

Truth is, I have been so busy with work obligations (if you can call happy hour an obligation, which I think you can when you’re brand new and trying to meet people), family visits, and doing fun things with fabulous people (Kyle! Jess! Carissa! Melissa! Bridget! – I’m talking about you!), I just haven’t sat down at the computer at all.

OK that is a lie. I have sat down at the computer but only to plan our spring and summer vacations. And I have had free time but I got so wrapped up in a few books that I haven’t done much reading on the web. Those personal reader things are cool, and I love blogs as much as the next person (probably more so) but they can never replace the feeling of having a 15-year-old copy of a treasured book in your hands while curled up in a sunny corner on a cold day.

From the very beginning, just seven months ago, I promised myself that I would never let blogging about my life get in the way of living my life. For the last three weeks, I have had a hard time fitting it in, so posts have been sparse. That’s the bad news. The good news is that my camera never rested during those three weeks, and I never stopped challenging myself with new ingredients and preparations. So I have a whole lot of posts in me, ready to come out.

Here is a taste of what I’ve been doing while taking a sabbatical from my laptop.

Making Don’t-Miss-the-Meat Vegetarian Chili during the NFL playoffs

Discovering a few new favorite bottles

Making Kitchen Sink Curry

Participating in NYC Restaurant Week in a post-storm winter wonderland

Recreating a local brunch favorite at home

Having brunch in Park Slope with friends

Trying my hand at homemade dumplings for the first time

Look out for all the juicy details soon! Hopefully sooner rather than later, because a quiet corner in a busy coffee shop, with no one for company but my laptop and a cappuccino, sounds perfectly delicious.