Cozy Winter Soups

I’ve been trying to cook more this year, for a number of reasons: homemade meals tend to be healthier, more affordable, and offer an opportunity to stay in during these cold winter months (I know, I live in San Francisco, but I can pretend it’s cold!) I love homemade soups, but they often yield so many servings that I want to be sure I’ll like it before making a whole batch. So, I turned to my trusty crowd-sourcing tool Facebook, and asked my friends and family for some of their favorite soup recipes. I received several appealing recipes, and I’ve had a chance to make three so far. Each was delicious and nutritious; I’ll highlight them here:

Curried Lentil, Tomato, and Coconut Soup from Bon Appetit

My friend Sonia recommended this delicious lentil soup which is packed with spice and flavor and just happens to be vegan/plant-based. A definite crowd pleaser.

Curried Lentil, Tomato, and Coconut Soup

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Holiday Cooking

I recently glanced at my small collection of cookbooks and realized that I was pretty uninspired by all of them. I don’t buy cookbooks often, as I find I can usually get a good recipe on the internet or by checking out a cookbook at the library; thus, my cookbooks are dated and I rarely find myself cooking from them. And to be honest, I don’t cook from recipes all that often anyway – I find it’s simpler to throw together a stir-fry, pasta dish, salad, or tacos by “feel.” But this holiday season I began to feel like it was time to trade out some of the old for a few fresh new titles for my cookbook repertoire, so I treated myself to a Christmas present: Alison Roman’s Dining In.

Dining In cookbook by Alison Roman

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When Jack and I began planning our recent trip to Europe, we expected to only visit Italy. We had our hearts set on seeing Lake Como and the Piedmont region, but we weren’t sure where else to go. We looked into visiting Cinque Terre on the Ligurian coast, but quickly realized that we wanted a bit more city sightseeing to balance out the quieter lakes and Italian countryside. I looked at a map and realized that Vienna, Austria was just a quick plane ride from Milan; neither of us had visited Vienna before, and we had fantasized about spending time in this seemingly charming city after watching the movie Before Sunrise. This location was new to both of us, different from the other spots we were visiting, and fit seamlessly into the logistics of our trip. Vienna it was!

St Stephen’s Cathedral

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European Vacation 2015

I had every intention of writing my Vienna post this month, but time is getting away from me and I don’t want to rush through all the details. We attended a wedding in Kansas City last weekend, and we’re headed to another wedding in Washington, D.C. this weekend, followed by some sight-seeing and a conference in Anaheim for me – so my food and travel writing has taken a back seat. However, I did want to write up a quick recap of our Italian vacation itinerary from two years ago, as our friends who just got married last weekend are planning to recreate much of this trip on their honeymoon, and it got me feeling sentimental.

2015 was an epic year for me as far as travel was concerned. For years I had been dreaming of using my education leave hours at work to finagle a trip abroad to study Spanish. I had a coworker who traveled to Chile to take Spanish language immersion classes, and our company paid for this time off as well as some of her travel expenses because Spanish is an applicable skill in our job. What an amazing opportunity! So, at the young age of 33, I planned a trip to Spain to study Spanish, and combined this with travels around Spain (solo, then with a friend) as well as Italy (with Jack).

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European Vacation: Vienna and Northern Italy

Jack and I just returned from a two-week vacation in Europe. We visited Vienna as well as three spots in northern Italy. I hope to write up each of the cities/regions we visited in detail over the coming months, as well as some of the delicious meals we ate while traveling. Here is a general outline of our trip:

Days 1-2: Travel days

We Flew from SFO to VIE with a short layover in FRA (Frankfurt). We left San Francisco at 2pm on Saturday and arrived in Vienna by 1:10pm Sunday.

Days 2-6: Vienna, Austria

We stayed in Vienna for four nights (Sunday – Thursday). It rained for most of our stay in Vienna, but we were able to do most of the activities to which we had been looking forward. We saw one of the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen, attended a 4+ hour-long opera, ate incredible Middle Eastern food, ate fish cooked in beeswax, drank local wine at heurigen (wine gardens outside of the city), and explored much of this beautiful imperial city on foot.

At the opera (are we being photobombed??)

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On August 11th Jack and I celebrated our five year wedding anniversary with an extravagant dinner at Saison. This Michelin 3-star restaurant started as a pop-up project in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco seven years ago, and quickly garnered a stellar reputation. The restaurant earned its third Michelin star in 2013; it is currently ranked 37th on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

Saison is located South of Market (technically South Beach), just a block away from AT&T Park. Despite being the most expensive restaurant in San Francisco, it has a very welcoming vibe. The dining room has a warm, urban feel with exposed brick and dark grey walls, leather and wood furniture, with various mounted animal heads on the walls; natural light from a large window softens the overall feel of the decor. The music playlist was a catchy mix of 70’s and 80’s rock including Fleetwood Mac, Rolling Stones, and Billy Joel. It did not feel pretentious in the slightest.

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Bar Crudo

Bar Crudo is one of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco. Jack and I developed an expensive habit of frequenting this restaurant back when we lived in the NoPa (North Panhandle) neighborhood from 2009-2014. Bar Crudo is a fabulous neighborhood spot with a killer happy hour ($1 oysters, $4 beers, $6 wine), incredibly fresh and sustainable seafood, a lengthy beer menu (including several sour beers), and arguably the best seafood chowder in San Francisco.

Wall art at Bar Crudo

You’ll want to make a reservation in advance if you don’t feel like waiting a good while for a table or a spot at the counter. You can usually grab a decent reservation with just a couple days notice, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to snag a same-day reservation (you can also expect to wait in line if you show up for their popular happy hour which starts at 5pm). It’s definitely worth the extra planning to experience the delicious food at this special spot.

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Jack and I had been wanting to visit Seattle together for some time, and we finally made it happen last month. Jack has gotten to know this city fairly well over the past couple of years, as he travels there for work frequently, and he wanted to show me around. I also have some really close friends who have settled in Seattle, and I was eager to catch up with them in person. So when my dear friend (and Seattle resident) Nicole notified me that U2 was planning a tour of The Joshua Tree album with a stop in Seattle, Jack and I quickly seized the opportunity to see this epic tour, as well as explore the Emerald City together over a long weekend in May.

We arrived in Seattle early Friday and left in the evening on Monday, giving us plenty of time to explore the city. We stayed at the Sheraton Seattle Hotel downtown, which was reasonably priced and centrally located, and allowed us to earn Starwood points (pro tip: pay to stay at Starwood properties to earn SPG points, then redeem the points at Marriott or Ritz Carlton for a 1:3 conversion). The view was pretty great too!

View from our room at the Sheraton Seattle Hotel

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Momofuku Las Vegas

I love Las Vegas. On paper, I feel like I shouldn’t like it: a city erected in the middle of a desert that struggles to sustain it, full of cheesy entertainment, tacky themed restaurants and hotels, and smoky casinos. However, over in the past 10 years or so, Las Vegas has reinvented itself. Hotels now strive to provide a more inviting ambiance (with windows!), sophisticated entertainment and night life, and a range of dining experiences, some from well-known chefs and restauranteurs. Food is no longer seen solely as fuel to keep you going while you gamble; and for those of us who don’t care to gamble at all, it’s enough of a draw to keep us coming back to Sin City on a regular basis.

My ideal visit to Vegas is a 3 day/2 night weekend trip during the warm months of spring or fall. There are frequent direct flights from SFO to LAS, making it an easy trip logistically. I prefer to stay at a hotel with a great pool and decent restaurants on site or nearby (I like the SLS/W Las Vegas, Cosmopolitan, and Wynn/Encore). The evenings are centered around a good meal and maybe a show while I’m there (I highly recommend Absinthe or a concert at The Chelsea at the Cosmopolitan – we saw the Strokes there a few years back and it was awesome). I usually don’t gamble or stay out late, and I’m totally okay with that.

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Ah, Carmel. My “happy place.” Carmel holds a very special place in my heart, as it is where my parents were married in 1973, where my family and I celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary in 1993, where Jack surprised me with our first weekend getaway in 2007, and where Jack and I were married in 2012. We make a point of visiting Carmel at least once year, and we have yet to tire of this magical place.

Carmel is located in the county of Monterey, about a 2.5 hour drive south of San Francisco, give or take depending on traffic. The charming “downtown” known as Carmel-by-the-Sea is a popular tourist destination, and for good reason: the shops and cottages in this foggy little seaside village look like they’re right out of a storybook. The town is very walkable and is full of great shops, restaurants, wine tasting rooms, and beautiful homes. Carmel-by-the-Sea is quirky: there are no addresses (which is quite inefficient, if you ask me), no street lamps (warning: don’t wear high heels at night), and is full of crazy dog people (myself included).  What’s not to love?

Just east of Carmel-by-the-Sea is the quieter, sunnier Carmel Valley, which boasts wineries, fancy resorts and spas, and a pleasant climate (sunny and 75 degrees throughout the summer). The lodging in Carmel Valley far outshines the overpriced kitschy inns and motels in Carmel-by-the-Sea, in my opinion. We prefer to stay in the valley because the hotels offer so many more amenities, though Carmel-by-the-Sea is where we dine and drink.

We were married at Bernardus Lodge in the Carmel Valley; however, this resort has since been purchased by a large hospitality company, renovated, and saw its rates skyrocket. I still think it’s worth the price, but only in the summer months when you’re planning to spend a lot of time at the resort. Otherwise I recommend Quail Lodge, which is closer to Carmel-by-the-Sea (and therefore gets more fog) and is much more affordable. Carmel Valley Ranch is another beautiful (and pricy resort), though I’ve never personally stayed there. If you prefer to stay in Carmel-by-the-Sea, I recommend L’Auberge Carmel, which is a cozy and elegant hotel right in the heart of town.

Sitting area outside our room at Quail Lodge

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