Seafood Pasta

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Seafood Pasta has become one of my favorite things to make at home.  Usually I save myself the trouble and buy pasta from the store, but last weekend I had a whole afternoon wide open so I rolled it out from scratch.

I’ve covered the pasta bit here, so I won’t bore you with that, but I will share the sauce with you because it was so easy and so delicious.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 2 Cans Crushed Tomatoes (28 oz. each)
  • Olive Oil
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 bottle
  • 1 bottle clam juice
  • 4 large basil leaves
  • 2 large springs of thyme
  • Mussels, clams, or any other seafood you want to add (scallops or squid would be great)

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Inspired by this recipe, I started by adding some garlic to a glug of olive oil over medium heat.  As the garlic was starting to brown, I added the crushed tomatoes, the whole bottle of clam juice, basil, and thyme.

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Let all of that simmer for a while, until about 1/3 of it has evaporated.  When the sauce is almost ready, start boiling salted water for pasta. While that cooks, wash and debeard your mussels and clams.  Be sure to toss any mussels that have already opened.

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When the sauce is ready, place the shellfish in the sauce and place a lid on top.

img_3597Cook until the mussel shells have opened.

About five minutes later…

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When the pasta has finished cooking, combine the two and serve with parmesan cheese.

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I enjoyed mine with a nice crisp glass of sauvignon blanc, and I strongly encourage you to do the same. Bon appetite!

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Paris, Day 3

dsc_0435My third and final day in Paris was the rainiest of all, but I got a few dry hours in the morning. I had yet to see the Eiffel Tower in daylight, so I headed that way.  Most of the time I was in Paris, I walked places. But this morning, I took the Paris metro. I found it to be reliable and fairly easy to navigate.

img_3324I took a few token selfies of myself in front of the tower, and headed to Angelina’s for a hot chocolate.  Many of my friends and family members gave me recommendations for my trip. Unfortunately, I didn’t get around to most of them, since I was only there 3 days and didn’t want to feel constrained to an agenda.  But I am so glad I went to Angelina’s. I got their famous hot chocolate and two macaroons: a shiny gold vanilla one and a light green pistachio.  I wish I’d gone there every day of my trip, because they had so many amazing little confections.  The macaroons were delicious and I wish I could have tried more.

Then I sat down in little park to enjoy them. The hot chocolate was much richer and thicker than anything else I’d ever had before. I have a major sweet tooth, and would never call something “too rich” but I can definitely see how some people wouldn’t like it.

Later that afternoon, I wanted to visit the Musee d’Orsay.  My mom and several other people had told me how gorgeous it is. When I got there, the line wound on for ages, and my heart sunk. I was not willing to stand in line, in the cold rainy weather, for at least an hour.  So instead I found a nearby cafe, and safe under a heater along the street to enjoy a carafe of wine and watch people go about their lives.

img_3365My final dinner was the best of my trip, by far.  I returned to Comme Chai toi, where I’d had a drink the night before.  One of the servers recognized me from my previous visit and welcomed me to a table.  I told her I wanted one final delicious french meal, but that I only had appetite for two courses.  She recommended the fried brie, followed by the french toast.  I also asked her to pair wines with each course.

img_3367It goes without saying that I liked the baked brie.  I would happily eat baked brie for dinner every night of my life, but this was especially good.  There was a light crispy coating on the outside and the perfect glaze of honey.

img_3372The french toast also exceeded my expectations.  It had layers of sweetness that really elevated it from other french toast I’ve had.  I guess it should be no surprise that Parisians do French toast best! If you find yourself near Notre Dame in Paris, I highly recommend a visit.

Walking back to my hotel was bittersweet. I was sad that my trip was over, but glad that it had been an overwhelming success. I fell in love with Paris,  I’m already trying to figure out when I can return.

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Paris, Day 2

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The second day of my trip, I slept late.  I could already see full daylight peeking through the curtains when I awoke.  I took my time getting ready, grabbed my camera, and headed to Luxembourg Gardens for a look around. When I arrived, I was surprised to see an abundance of joggers.  I love to go for long runs around cities, but it’s not something you see very much in Europe. It made me wish I’d packed my running shoes!

Being January, the gardens were pretty but not in full splendor.  In retrospect, I probably could have skipped them, but I’ll definitely return if I find myself in Paris again during the warmer months.

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After the gardens, I popped into a cafe for a proper Parisian breakfast.  I was disappointed that they were out of chocolate croissants, but I guess that’s what happens when you wait until 11 AM.  Fortunately, it’s Paris, so I thoroughly enjoyed my plain croissant.  When it comes to flakey pastry, nobody outdoes the French!

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Sure, I missed the chocolate croissants, but my timing wasn’t all bad.  A few moments after I sat down the skies opened up. If there’s anywhere I want to be holed up, though, a Parisian cafe is it.  I leisurely enjoyed my coffee, journaled, and waited for the skies to clear.

After about an hour, I headed back to my hotel for a bag switch.  I knew I was going to be doing a lot of exploring on foot, so I dropped off my large bag and heavy camera and traded them out for a smaller bag with the essentials.

Having spent my entire first day on the left bank, I headed over the river to see what the right bank had to offer.  Crossing the river, I found one of Paris’ more modern attractions: the love locks.  Aggressive vendors hassled me, trying to sell me a lock.  I laughed to myself, surprised that they thought a woman visiting Paris alone was their target audience.

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I meandered along the right bank, past the Louvre again and through the Tuileries Garden, down to the base of the hideous ferris wheel.  I continued towards the Arc de Triumph and Champs-Elysées.  Feeling peckish, I found a restaurant to stop at for lunch.  As usual, I took seat by the window.

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I ordered steak tartare, frites, and a lovely glass of wine.  It reaffirmed my take-away from last time I was in France: the food is really hit or miss (for my palette, anyway).  While some things are like a bite of heaven, others just don’t appeal to me.  I was disappointed to  discover that this steak tartare fell into the latter category. The tender rare meat was mixed with a pickle relish that totally overpowered the dish. At least the fries were good!

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Rejuvenated by lunch, I headed out for some more exploring.  I strolled down Avenue des Champs-Elysées, popping in and out of stores as the rain showers ebbed and flowed.  I visited some of my American favorites (looking at you, Sephora) as well as some local shops.  As evening was setting in, I snapped this photo of the Arc de Triumph, then hopped on the Metro back to the Latin Quarter.

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Later that evening, I went for another stroll.  On a whim, I popped into a little restaurant and sat down at the bar for a glass of wine.  It was an L-shaped bar, and the only other patrons were two women about my age.  They were drinking and joking with the bartender; clearly the three of them were friends.  About half way through my glass of wine, the bartender asked me if I understood French.  “I’m afraid not,” I said.  “Oh, Thank God!” she said, “We are being so stupid.”  Now that the barrier was broken, the conversation continued in English and all four of us started joking around. Another server even joined in. It felt so warm and friendly, it made me wonder why the French get such a bad rap.  The girls invited me outside for a cigarette, but I declined as I don’t smoke.  I was just finishing as they returned.  “You should come back for dinner tomorrow,” the bartender told me.  I smiled and said I would if I found myself in the area at dinnertime.

I smiled the whole way back to the hotel. I’d had such a lovely, leisurely day and I wrapped it up feeling like I’d made Parisian friends. I was fully enraptured by the City of Light.

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Paris

img_3259It was still dark out when I arrived in Paris yesterday morning.  I’d barely slept on the plane but I was eager to start experiencing the city, so I grabbed my bags, breezed through customs, and caught a train from CDG into the city.  Forty minutes later I emerged from the subway and made my way to my hotel. I was immediately greeted by Notre Dame, which is quite an amazing way to be welcomed into the city.

I found my way to my hotel but it was too early to check in so I dropped my luggage and headed out to do some exploring.  Feeling famished, I popped into a bistro around the corner and sat down with a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast.  I felt very Parisian as I sat there, alone in the window, journaling and watching people pass by.

img_3097After enjoying a leisurely breakfast, I struck out again to explore the Latin Quarter where I’m staying.  I walked up to and along the river, stopping to admire Notre Dame and all the beautiful architecture Paris has to offer.  I always enjoy looking at (ok, into) people’s homes and imagining their way of life and Paris apartments are now securely lodged at the top of my real estate lust list (along with a DC brownstone, a Tuscan villa, and a ski chalet in Vail… it’s a lengthy list).

I spent another hour or so roaming around before returning to my hotel for a nap and a change of clothes. After a few hours I emerged from my room entirely reinvigorated. I decided that my first Paris attraction would be The Louvre so I pulled up directions on my phone and set out.

img_3156I entered through the glass pyramid, paid my 15 Euro, and started wandering through the gargantuan museum. The first floor is mostly sculptures. What took my breath away about The Louvre was not only the quality of art, but the quantity.  There are over 35,000 works on display so it’s really impossible to spend time and fully appreciate each one.

img_3160img_3159I found my favorite part on the second floor: Napoleon’s Apartment.  It immediately made me wish I’d done more research because there’s very little information posted and I would have liked to know more.  Each room is so splendid, so opulent, that it’s hard for me to even fathom his level of wealth.  The high ceilings are hand painted, chandeliers hang by the dozens, and almost every available surface is either gilded or adorned with luxe, heavenly fabrics.  I wished that I could duck under the velvet ropes and just linger there with a book and a cup of tea. Through the window I could see the Eiffel Tower shimmering beautifully.  It was one of those sublime moments where I had to stop and remind myself that I wasn’t dreaming.

img_3162img_3169img_3170Last, I went upstairs to the paintings.  It seems as if they continue on forever, ranging from the very small to the very large.  Of course, the most famous piece is the Mona Lisa. I couldn’t leave without seeing her, but my amateur opinion is that she pales in comparison to some of the other works there which are so large and complex that you have to sit down and spend some time taking the whole thing in.  Some are so large that the painter must have required scaffolding to create them. Those are the ones that speak to me; I sit down, let my eyes crawl over every inch, and appreciate every face and horse; every piece of the scene.  I wonder what the artist loved most, what challenged him/her, and what inspired the creation.  Those are the paintings that make me feel something, which is why I am drawn to them.

img_3177After a couple of hours, I’d had my fill of art so I headed back out into the cold. With the Eiffel Tower’s beam scanning the city, I set out for a closer look.  It was a much farther walk than I anticipated, but it all worked out perfectly because I arrived just before the top of the hour which meant I didn’t have to wait for it to start dazzling.

img_3201By that point in the night, I was famished so I sat down in one of the first restaurants I could find.  Sure it was touristy but the price and location were both perfect.  I ordered a small carafe of wine, French onion soup, and a plate of linguine with pesto.  Wine and pesto are favorites of mine, but I don’t think I’ve ever ordered French onion soup before.  I figured there’d never be a better time or place.  When in Rome! It turned out to be the star of the meal and I regretted even ordering the pasta.

img_3202Full and a little tipsy, I walked the whole way home.  By the time I arrived, my feet hurt from walking over a dozen miles but I was too smitten with Paris to care.  I collapsed into bed around midnight and drifted off into dreamland with a big cheesy smile painted on my face.

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Homemade Pasta

img_3039About six months ago I got a pasta machine and ever since then I’ve been on a mission to perfect my pasta-making technique.  I even took a class in Tuscany! Now, I’m totally convinced that I’ve become a master and I want to share my expertise with you.

First, you need a pasta machine. I tried making pasta with a rolling pin once and it was a painful process with poor results. Learn from my mistakes and drop $25 on one of these.

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You’ll also need:

  • Flour (about 1 cup per serving)
  • Eggs (1 per serving)
  • Water
  • Sauce (I like to make pesto because it’s fresh and easy, but next time I want to try Carbonara)

If you have a food processor, it will save tons of time and effort.  Just add one cup of flour and one egg per person.  If not, pour the flour on a clean counter top and shape it into a well (AKA volcano).  Put the eggs into the middle, and mix them into the flour slowly.  Either way, the mixing can be slow going. That’s why it’s great when you have a machine to do the work.  Eventually the dough will start to look crumbly.  It probably won’t stick together without a little bit of water.  I add it slowly (a tablespoon at a time) to make sure the dough doesn’t become too soft or sticky.  It should be pretty firm, and ball up into one big mass in the food processor.

img_3035img_3036Once the dough is ready, some people suggest letting it rest.  I haven’t found this to be necessary, so I just knead it a few times on a well-floured counter top and start rolling.  Flour is your best friend when you’re making pasta.  My kitchen usually looks like a flour bomb went off when I’m done cooking, but I think that just means I’m doing it right.

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Cut a piece of dough a little bigger than a golf ball and run it through the pasta maker on the widest setting (on my machine, that’s a 7).

img_3046Fold it like a book, and run it through again.  You can fold again and run it through until it is the size and shape you want.  Then move the setting down one (to 6) and run it through again.  I only fold it on the widest setting. Move it down another and roll the pasta through again. Repeat until you’ve put the dough through the smallest setting. It should be so thin that you can almost see through it.

img_3050I like to roll 3-4 sheets and let them rest on a floured counter before running them through the cutting attachment.  It is a separate attachment that comes with the pasta machine and works the same way.  Once your pasta is cut, let it sit on a cookie sheet with lots of flour while you finish the batch.

Once you’re ready to cook your pasta, boil and salt your water.  Fresh pasta cooks much faster than store-bought pasta.  It usually only takes a minute or two for mine to reach al dente perfection.  Once it’s done to your liking, strain, add sauce, and enjoy!

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How my Christmas Shopping Earned Me a Free Round-Trip Flight to Europe

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You know how, when you’re Christmas shopping for friends and family, you always end up stumbling across something that you have to have for yourself?  Well this year, between my Christmas shopping and my normal monthly expenses, I am treating myself to a free round-trip flight to Europe.

Now, I’ll admit that not anyone can (or should) do this.  But if you are good about paying your credit card(s) off every month, and you have a good credit score, it’s something you might want to investigate.

Step One: Identify your Objective

Before you do anything, think about where you want to go.  For the price of my one transatlantic flight, a couple could have gotten free flights to somewhere domestic.  Where you want to go is important because it can impact the rest of the process (more about that later). It also dictates how many points you’re trying to accumulate. I knew I wanted to go to Europe, so I went to United.com and checked out how many points it would take me to get to Rome (arbitrarily picking a city with a major airport).  The cheapest one I could find was 60,000 miles, so that became my goal.

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Nice is always nice [Nice, France, 2011]

Step Two: Sign up 

You’ll probably need about 30 minutes to research, and 30 minutes to complete the multiple subscriptions/enrollments.  Here are the things you need to sign up for:

  • A credit card
  • At least one rewards program (My favorites right now are SPG for hotels and United MileagePlus for flights, but if you live near a hub city for a different airline, then that might be a better choice for you)
  • At least one shopping portal

About which credit card to choose:

I picked the Chase Sapphire Preferred because it has no annual fee for the first year, it has a great sign-up bonus, and the points are really flexible (you can book travel through Chase at a discount, or transfer your points over to a lot of other major loyalty programs). It also has no foreign transaction fee, which is important to me since I visit other countries a few times a year.  This credit card earned me 50,000 points when I spent $4,000 in the first three months.  Since that card arrived, I’ve charged everything I could on that card.  Since I’m also earning a point per dollar, I’m also earning a minimum of 4,000 points for the $4,000 I’ve spent. Since this card earns double points on travel and restaurants, I’ve actually earned way more.  But conservatively, we’ll say that this earned me 55,000 points.

If the $4,000 spend sounds daunting, and you don’t plan on traveling very far, the Southwest Visa might be a better choice for you.  I had this card until about a year ago and I really liked it. New cardholders receive 40,000 miles when they spend $1,000 in the first three months of opening the card.  So you get a few less miles, but you don’t have to spend as much.  And 40,000 miles will get you pretty far with Southwest.  My experience is that you can earn free travel faster with them than with most of the other airlines.  The only draw-back: the $99/year fee.

There are tons of different credit cards out there, but most of them either give you less miles than the ones I mentioned above, or they are too restrictive. For example, the American Express Gold Card is nice because you can spend the points at a variety of places, but it only gives you 25,000 points for signing up (and comes with a hefty $195 annual fee starting in year 2).  I suggest doing some research and picking one with rewards that are tailored to your needs.

About shopping portals:

To me, the shopping portals are where this really gets fun – especially at Christmas.  The portals let you earn more points for each dollar you spend, and all you have to do is click through them. Just visit portal website, then click through to the store where you want to shop. Then you shop as normal, but you get A LOT more points for your purchases just because you navigated to the website through the portal.

For example, I needed a gown for an event in January.  I found a shopping portal that offered me 6x points per dollar at Saks Fifth Avenue, so when I ordered the dress through the portal I earned 6 times as many points as I would have earned otherwise.  You’ll be impressed with the list of stores included. Some of my favorites are Sephora (up to 5x), Under Armor (up to 5x), Bloomingdales (4x), and Neiman Marcus (up to 6x).

Here are the portals for some of the major US Airlines:

I’ve found that it’s smartest for me to use the Chase shopping portal, since I have the Chase Sapphire card.  The Chase portal has a higher earn rate than some of the airline portals, plus I can choose whether to use the points toward flights, hotels, or something else.

Because of the holidays, these portals are running some especially great deals. I saw some sites with up to 15x points with purchases, and United has been offering bonus points when you spend a certain amount (500 points when you spend $100, for example).  Since I did the majority of my Christmas shopping through these portals, I’ve earned at least 4,000 points.

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Another great destination – Costa Rica, 2009

Step Three: Book Travel

So between the sign-up bonus and the shopping portals, I’m at 59,000 points. That’s just 1,000 shy of my 60,000 goal. Fortunately, I earned lots of other bonus points (for charging restaurants and business trips) so I am a few thousand over the 60,000 mark.

Now I have two options: Transfer my Chase points into United Miles and book the trip, or book the flight through chase (which makes the points go 25% farther).  I’ll let you know what I decide when I actually book the flight. Right now, I’m waiting for all the points to clear my account and working on finding a hole in the calendar.

Step Four: Enjoy

Now that you’ve put almost no effort into earning yourself free flights, enjoy them.  My recent trip to Italy was paid for with miles and it made the whole trip significantly cheaper.  As they say, the best things in life are free!

One quick note before signing off: I am not a financial professional so I should not be giving advice. The purpose of this post was just to share something that works for me.  Everyone should evaluate their own situation before deciding to follow the steps above.

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Travel Tips for Italy

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Many years ago, Italy was one of my first international trips.  I remember being so surprised at some of the situations and customs I encountered.  It’s a beautiful country with rich culture, friendly people, and delicious food, but I wished I’d known about some of their local customs so that I could be more prepared for certain situations.

So now that I’ve been a couple of times, I thought I’d write a post about some travel tips for anyone (especially Americans) who are planning their first trip to Italy.  Some of these are not glamorous, but trust me- you’ll thank me later.

  1. Ladies- throw a small package of tissues in your purse. Most public restrooms will not have toilet paper in them, so these will be very handy when you’re away from your hotel/apartment.
  2. Speaking of public restrooms, you may be charged to use them.  It’s worth keeping some change in your pocket since it’s common for a restroom attendant to charge a small fee (usually under 1 Euro). This is not like upscale American places where the attendant receives a tip.  In Italy, the fee is mandatory.
  3. On the topic of tipping, it’s much less common in Italy.  At home (in America) I usually tip around 20% but in Italy that is unheard of.  If you have exemplary service, you can leave some change on the table for the server but it is not culturally mandated.
  4. Ladies may want to bring a cross-body purse.  Pick-pocketing is prevalent in many European cities. It happened to me in Barcelona.  Bringing a cross-body bag that closes securely minimizes your risk.
  5. Pack a water bottle.  Many Italian cities have public fountains with good quality water. Unlike our fountains at home, these have a tap so you really need a container to enjoy the water properly. Traveling can be very dehydrating and your body will thank you for having water on hand.

I hope these tips help you enjoy your upcoming vacation.  If you have any other great tips, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

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