Paying it Forward (Part Dos)

31 07 2008

A few posts back I marveled at the rewards that come from that aspect of travel that has to do with passing it on, and the best part about it is when you know it’s made an impact. I knew this not only from the excitement that my brother’s girls had while looking at the photos, but from what came to pass after.

Alyssa, who had studied Peru in school and started this whole thing, told me about her project, and about how they had to make food when they presented. They were supposed to make “a…al…alfa-somethings” (she couldn’t remember). Of course I knew what they were supposed to make and didn’t. I knew firsthand. They were supposed to make alfajores. (Yes, that sounded right.) Well they didn’t make them after all, but she wanted to.

The next 20 minutes were spent trawling the internet for the alfajor site her group had found, and then we decided to give it a go ourselves. When I suggested this, Alyssa was thrilled, so off we went to the store, and we spent the afternoon (and the next morning) baking.

Having found several recipes, we wound up, for reasons I cannot now explain—nor can I now even find the recipe—using one that suggested making dulce de leche from evaporated milk. The recipes I found to this end (none of which I can recover currently) involved boiling the milk, in the can, for four hours. While this seems simple enough, it is actually a taxing project, since you have to continuously monitor the pots to ensure there is enough water that the cans don’t explode (we popped a hole in the top of the can, which helped, but then meant we had to take care that water didn’t hit the top).

My brother, who was visiting, got impatient and opened one can before it was quite time, meaning we had to pour the almost dulce de leche into a pan, then place that pan in a pan of water, and stick it in the oven for another hour (yet another recipe I can’t seem to find). All in all, the dulce de leche took nearly five hours to make. But in the end it was delicious.

The cookies, on the other hand, were a bit of a flop. I didn’t roll them thin enough, so making a sandwich was tough. We settled for slathering dulce de leche on individual cookies, which the kids loved, but it was incredibly messy. In all, though, Alyssa was happy, and I was happy, both because I had found another alfajor lover and because I had passed down yet another happy moment of traveling. As for the cookies, I’m still perfecting them.

We used this recipe for the cookies, and it was good, though a little on the dry side.

The Beauty of the Brownie

23 07 2008

First, thanks to all who racked their brains to come up with food ideas for Marina. We did indeed end up with some great suggestions.

In the end, I think the winner turned out to be the brownie, which is an often overlooked American food, but a goodie (pun intended) nonetheless. And she went home with not just any old brownies. No, I sent Marina on a mission to one of my favorite places in New York City: the industrial-chic gourmet garden that is the Chelsea Market.

This cavernous brick building is lined with some of the best-smelling shops in the city, which in turn sell some of the best-tasting foods. It’s also an American food icon in its own right, given that it’s the former headquarters of none other than Nabisco, maker of such all-American favorites as the Oreo Cookie and Barnums Animal Crackers. Today it’s got something to make any foodie happy, from the creamery to the Italian market. (It is also, I might add, a favorite haunt of the Russo parents when they visit.)

Perhaps the strongest and most decadent smell that comes from the Chelsea Market (disregarding the occasional fragrance of fish, of course) wafts blissfully out of Fat Witch, purveyors of, in their words—and I wholeheartedly agree, “Manhattan Magic,” aka the best brownies. Ever. I was first turned on to Fat Witch early in my New York experience by a good friend, Terri, who had it at the top of “must do in Manhattan” list when she visited. One bite of fudgy goodness and I understood why.

These brownies are everything a brownie should be: dense (without being too heavy), chocolately and incredibly delicious. And with varietals so like the Snow Witch (white chocolate brownie) and the Red Witch (with dried cherries) there is one to satisfy every craving. There are even Brownie Babies for those times when “just a bite” is enough (read: NEVER).

And so, off Marina goes to Brazil, with an I Heart NY T-shirt and bag full of Fat Witches. And I, perhaps, have found the alfajor of North America.

An Addendum

18 07 2008

I am still thinking about Marina and her food question. Had a long conversation with Jessica last night and it seems the answer always comes back to apple pie. Or any pie I suppose. They do indeed call it American Pie, don’t they?

Anyhow I think perhaps we’re on to something with the BBQ sauce suggestion, and I will definitely check into root beer as well, which makes me think of an interesting travel tidbit. Many moons ago, when I spent a month in the car with two college girlfriends gallivanting across the country, we found ourselves in Atlanta.

Now, there is much to see and do in Atlanta, but when you’re just passing through you must be selective. Here is what we chose to do: 1) gorge ourselves on everything Johnny Rockets had to offer since we hadn’t eaten in, I think it was 22 hours? 2) Wander around downtown and in Underground Atlanta, which happens to be a pretty cool, uh…shopping mall. And 3) Visit the World of Coca Cola. Yes, there is actually a World of Coca Cola, and in that world one learns various facts about the sweet carbonated substance. The most memorable part, however, was neither the “world’s largest collection of Coke memorabilia,” nor was it the “fully functioning bottling line,” but the tasting room.

At the end of the tour one finds oneself in a tasting room with more than 60 different varietals of soda. Yes, we tasted various types of coke and coke-like products from all over the world, including, but not limited to, some terrible concoction made with an excess of ginger (no, it was not ginger ale) that I remember coming from Italy. At the end of our tour around the world via coke we were all—as can only be imagine after 60-plus tastings of random sticky sweet substances, AND more Johnny Rockets than is USDA recommended—feeling rather sick.

A few conclusions to this story:

1) It hadn’t occurred to me (or for a long time at least) how much the varietals of soda can be definitive of different cultures. In Spain, for example, I was addicted to Fanta Mandarina, even though I never drank orange soda at home. Fanta Mandarina is entirely different, and I even tried Orange Fanta in South America, but it simply wasn’t the same.

2) Today I discovered that Inca Kola is also made by Coca Cola, (but has its own, very cool, site), meaning that I most likely tasted ithe electric green substance which is ubiquitous in Peru, many years ago; in Atlanta of all places. For those who are wondering, Inca Kola resembles Mountain Dew in color, but is much more similar to Cream Soda in taste. That or bubblegum.

Sabor del Peru

3) Root Beer might just be the thing for Marina to take home, though I worry about her suitcase.

4) Thinking about the World of Coke reminds me why I don’t really drink soda any more. Except when I’m in a foreign place and have to try their version…

Doing as the Peruvians do (with a Spaniard - there's that shrinking world again).

Small, Small World – And a Conundrum

18 07 2008

For people who love to travel, the world seems like a very big place. Massive. As in, It’s-so-huge-that-I’ll-never-possibly-get-to-all-the-places-I-want-to-go GIGANTIC.

But then there are times when something will happen to make you realize how small the world really is. Like, for example, when you meet a girl in Buenos Aires (who happens to be from London), and she then becomes a great friend. It’s an even smaller world when that initial girl emails and says that her friend (who happens to be from Brazil) is going to be in New York.

And so one Sunday afternoon you find yourself in the Lower East Side (of New York) drinking beer (from Belgium) with Marina (from Brazil) who met Liz (from London) at Carnaval (in Brazil)—and you’re all linked through Argentina (from which no one involved happens to hail). Whew. Looks like travel makes it a small world after all. Sorry for annoying song reference. It was inevitable.

True story? Funny you should ask. Yes. It most certainly is a true story. I showed lovely Marina around New York on Sunday, and marveled at her marveling at New York (and the fact that she had yet to meet a New Yorker who was actually from New York). Then on Tuesday I went with Marina to see the New York Philharmonic play (for free) in Central Park. Through her met numerous other small world souls (from all over the world) through an organization called Couchsurfing, which requires a blog all its own but for today’s purposes helps travelers meet people and find free places to stay (making the world less expensive and thus smaller).

And now for the conundrum. The great thing about having someone in town who isn’t even from America is that you really get to see New York (and the US) through a different lens. And you find yourself explaining things that seem so commonplace, such as leaving your credit card at the bar to keep a tab open and what is a Zagat.

But then there was a question I couldn’t answer. “What types of food are very American?” Simple enough, right? Hot dog. Apple pie. Watermelon? (And then I get stuck in things like hamburgers that seem repetitive.) But it turns out there was more to the question: one goes to Italy and brings home Limoncello; you get champagne from France, alfajores from Argentina (you didn’t think I’d not mention those, did you?). But what should Marina take back to Brazil from America?

And hence the conundrum. I have no answer. She surely wouldn’t bring back hot dogs. Or apple pie or watermelon for that matter. Bourbon is American, but who wants to bring that back? If she were in San Francisco I would suggest Ghirardelli chocolate, but given we’re in New York that won’t do. And thus I’m stumped. So. Thoughts? If anyone can shed light on this little dilemma, please, please enlighten me. And Marina.

Paying It Forward

16 07 2008

The fun thing about travel is, of course, the meeting of new people and the seeing of new things. That part’s a given. But an equally important part of travel (and the part that keeps us travel fiends going in between trips) is the sharing of the travel experience. Even better, sharing the travel experience when the experience itself is a new thing.

Let me explain. While at home in California I got to spend quality time with my young nieces from Colorado, who, at ages 12 and almost 11, are finally old enough to understand the magnitude of international travel and actually be interested in it. (As opposed to six years ago when the little Flamenco fans I brought from Spain were cool solely for the pretty designs on them.)

Now, these girls have had their fair share of travel in the course of their young lives, but somehow trips to California or even the all-inclusive resort in Mexico (while it of course has its merit) does not quite have the same effect. Getting their hair braided doesn’t count discovering a culture.

So the fact that Alyssa (the older sister)’s eyes lit up when I mentioned my trip to Peru was fantastic. When she enthusiastically told me she’d done a project on Peru this year, I wasted no time in whisking her away to my computer and pulling up photos from the trek (a feat not all that easy, given that the pictures—which I finally had all organized and ready to send out—were lost when my hard drive crashed).

There we sat for nearly an hour, flipping through photos of the trail, the houses, the people, and, wonder of wonders, Machu Picchu. To my delight, Alyssa was riveted, as was her sister Nicolette. They were fascinated by the scenery, the dress, the trek itself. And the fact that their aunty (who, admittedly, they know to be a bit of a priss) went five days without showering. And, for my part, I loved reliving the experiences and the stories, and watching their excitement.

But even better was the fact that they were experiencing the wonders of travel (albeit armchair travel) for the first time. While I’ll never know the exact impact it had, by the looks on their faces I’d guess that these girls figured out that there are wonders out there, and that it’s within their reach to see them.

But more importantly, I think it sparked a desire to see them, and it was educational too. Later that day, when Alyssa and I visited the store and I didn’t take a bag for our cans of condensed milk (a preview of my next post) we talked about doing little things for the environment. And when I told her that Salkantay, the glacier she saw in my photos, was melting rapidly because of global warming, her response was, “That would be terrible if I wanted to see it when I grow up and it wasn’t there.” Check and check. New generation of female travelers (and environmentalists) officially recruited.

Flashback: Summer at the Lake

10 07 2008

It seems somewhat odd to blog about my trip home in terms of “travel” but California is so chock full of beautiful places and fun things to do, how could one not? My trip home started in one of the prettiest places in California (and Nevada). The Russo clan headed up to Lake Tahoe for the 2008 family reunion. Thanks to (Vacation Rentals by Owner), we took over a lovely (and massive) house, complete with hot tub and loft for the kids, and spent three relaxing days playing in the sun.

(Some) Russos in Tahoe

(Some) Russos in Tahoe

Which got me thinking about all the great times I’ve spent in Tahoe in the past. It really is an ideal getaway spot, especially since it’s a mere 4-5 hours from the Bay Area. This trip, we spent all our time at the beach, playing in the lake, kayaking, making sand animals (yes sand animals)…

But beyond the lake there is so much else to do. The former Olympic Village at Squaw Valley has a swimming lagoon (in case there’s not enough water in the lake), a spa, and a roller skating rink, not to mention the cable car that provides some pretty stellar views of the area. They even offer sunset and full moon hikes. Then there’s hiking, biking and horseback riding through the lush wooded areas. Even walking through the houses makes for a pretty workout.

Then there’s Emerald Bay, one of my favorite Tahoe spots. There is little that rivals Emerald Bay when it comes to pristine, intense natural beauty. As a child I joined our family friends at their cabin in Tahoe every summer, and the highlight of those trips was always the day Uncle Mike piled us into the boat and headed over to Emerald Bay, where it’s not just the striking green water that fascinates. Perhaps more fascinating is the craggy Fannette Island (the lake’s only island) atop which sits a mythical-looking miniature castle. Then there is Vikingsholm, the ornate Scandinavian mansion on the shore (which can of course be toured). Hiking around the bay affords some stunning views, but there is something about being on that rich green water and circling the island that excites.

The grown-up side of Tahoe has everything from casinos to great restaurants (my favorite being the classic, right-on-the-lake Sunnyside). But my adult Tahoe highlight centers around girl’s weekend, life vests, and the Truckee River. That would be river rafting, folks, because when it comes to fun in the sun (and fun with water) Tahoe has a little bit of everything.

Other Great things about Tahoe?

What do you get when you put my mom and her grandchildren on the beach? A Christmas card, of course.

What do you get when you put my mom and her grandchildren on the beach? A Christmas card, of course.

Some Tahoe resources:

Keep Tahoe Blue: In California “Keep Tahoe Blue” bumper stickers are about as prevalent as those that read “A village in Texas is missing its idiot.” But the former slogan is far more hopeful: it’s the battle cry of the Tahoe Improvement and Conservation Association, devoted to protecting the lake and its surrounds. Visit the site for history and to learn how to help. A trip planning tool with information on lodging, activities, food, and more.

Tahoe World: The latest in Tahoe entertainment, complete with a calendar of happenings.

Where Oh Where Has June Gone?

3 07 2008

Well, the last time I posted was a celebration of June, and now, one month later, June has slipped through my fingertips, a blur of sticky hot days, thunder storms, the best day ever (aka the day we had a cat), a computer crash, a birthday, and a trip to California, among many, many other things.

So in the midst of all things summer (and some things not so summer), I have neglected Around the World. I have not, however, neglected the gold stilettos, which went to the doctor and came home good as new. Or, rather, better than new (being that they were this time already broken in and didn’t make my feet numb upon the first wearing). Anyhow, so much has happened that I will spend the next few posts playing catch up. For now, the brief highlights:

  • The gold stilettos: Having seen better days, the girls went to the shoe doctor, aka the tiny, cluttered shoe repair shop on 8th Street. When I handed them over to the tiny (precious) little man who examined them for minutes (that seemed like hours) before telling me, in his deep, accent-laden voice, that they needed new soles and heels, then (FINALLY!) that he could also fix the broken spot. Oh the suspense.
  • The stilettos’ homecoming: The shoes were thoroughly displeased that their homecoming festivities were delayed by my trip to California. And that they didn’t get to come, but given new bag restrictions (and the fact that the fanciest I’d be getting at home was for a little girls’ tea party) I simply couldn’t take them. I made it up to them this week. New roomie Jess and I took the shoes out for a night on the town at French Tuesday, the swanky, exclusive Tuesday evening party for which she often works. The stilettos were in their glory among all the gorgeous New York elite, and all in all declared their welcome home party a success.
  • The Computer Crash of 2008: Perhaps in sympathy for the stilettos (or perhaps just to exasperate me), the computer went to the hospital too. That’s right. One night in early June (during a massive thunderstorm no less) my computer was working just fine and up popped the blue screen of death. I spent hours on the phone with Dell, only to have them conclude that my hard drive was done for. Lucky for me, it was under warranty and they sent out a new one. Unlucky for me, I’d been remiss in backing up data and the computer had to spend much of June at Circuit City while they retrieved key items that had been lost. Lesson learned: back up. Back Up. And then Back Up again. Now I have to organize my Peru pics once more. Some day I’ll actually send them out.
  • The Best Day Ever: On the very night that my computer crashed we played pet hotel for one very fabulous and very skinny (we named her Mary Kate) kitty that Jess found in the hallway of the apartment. We thought the folks in apartment 4 had moved out and abandoned her, so we took poor MK in and were almost instantly smitten. I am by no means a cat person, but this girl was like part of the crew: smart, and playful, and she too hated the pigeons that smash into our window. But, alas, the next day I discovered that there were indeed people in apartment 4, and though I hated to say goodbye (and to return her to the incredibly apathetic girl there) MK had to go home. But, like any chick flick faithfuls, we now refer to the day we had a cat, In Her Shoes-style, as the “best day ever.” (And we also meow when passing apt. 4 in hopes that MK will once again flee those awful people and come back to us.)
  • The Birthday: In the midst of all the computer chaos and packing, I turned another year older. My birthday began rather unceremoniously with a 2:30 (turned 3) a.m. shuttle pick-up and a 6 a.m. flight from New York to San Francisco. Talk about starting off the new year as a jetsetter! It was a great birthday, though, full of phone calls and emails from family and friends, who definitely know how to make a gal feel special. And going away meant I got to drag it on, because waiting here in New York were several cards and one of the best gifts ever received: Salinger, A critical and personal portrait, with essays by John Updike, Arthur Mizener and others. I cannot wait to read it (yes, I am that big a nerd).

Everything else, including my California adventures, must unfold in due time. But I will end with a photo, as requested in a long ago comment, of the gold stilettos, fresh, refurbished, and ready to take on the world.