What, No Light Salad Dressing?

When my husband and I moved to Brussels in 1997 many things changed in our lives. There were the obvious things like switching countries, homes, job, leaving career (for me), having babies overseas, making new friends and so forth and so on.

 

The Early Days in Brussels

The Early Days in Brussels – 1998

One of the most impactful changes for us was how we viewed food and the preparation of food. Before moving to Europe, my husband and I prided ourselves in being foodies and good cooks. We enjoyed cooking and had even gone to a weeklong cooking program in Tuscany in 1996. It was in the Florence food markets that we got an appreciation for the “farm to table” concept and for learning what it was to eat foods that were in season. However, back in the states because of our busy work schedules we relied more on processed foods. During the weekdays there were many Marie Callender potpies, Prego spaghetti sauce, and Hamburger Helper. It was only on the weekends that my husband and I had the time to prepare food from scratch. We loved cooking for family and friends.

The farm to table concept in the US in the mid-nineties was more regional and not as commonly accepted as it is today. Little did we know that living in Europe would explode our palates and enlighten our attitudes about food and its preparation.

We did not set out to be food enlightened. It just happened. We found some very different cultural practices in Brussels. For starters, all stores were closed on Sunday, even food stores. Belgians spent Sundays at home with their families and not at a mall.  During the weekdays food stores closed at 6 p.m. At first we felt this was such an inconvenience but we quickly adjusted. We found ourselves cooking even more and spending time at home on the weekends. Belgium is a foodie country where people enjoy their food, wine, and beer. We had access to an amazing array of farmer’s markets. Any bread you bought was delicious freshly baked bread. There was no such thing as processed Wonder Bread or light bread. In time my husband and I gave up drinking diet sodas which had been a staple in our US diets. As any expat will tell you, you need to adjust to the local offerings. We found ourselves trying new foods. We also did a lot of traveling throughout Europe exposing us to an even greater variety of food. In 2001 both my husband and I attended The Cordon Bleu Cooking school in London. He did a cooking program and I did a pâtisserie course thus furthering our passion for cooking.

 

Two babies and Two Yellow Labs

Two babies and Two Yellow Labs

I was a successful graduate of Weight Watchers 35 years ago and have maintained my weight to this date. Before moving to Belgium, I had relied heavily on low-calorie and low-fat processed foods. I was especially dependent on light dressings. When I showed up at the Belgian supermarket I looked for the dressing section only to discover they had ONE kind. It was mustard vinaigrette and it was not even a low-fat version. Oh my, what is a girl to do!! For the first year of living in Belgium, anyone who visited us from the United States was instructed to bring light dressings and Pop-Tarts. OK, I must confess, I still like Pop-Tarts. I did try the local Belgian dressing but it was boring and I was still hung up on the calorie count. Then one day I decided to make my own vinaigrette from scratch. Sure, it was a full calorie dressing, but it was devoid of all the artificial stuff you find in a processed bottle of salad dressing and tasted much better. Gone from my salad dressing were all those unknown food additives. By 1999 I started making my own salad dressings and have never looked back. And guess what? I did not gain weight! My husband and I found ourselves making other things from scratch, like the cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving dinner because you could not find Ocean Spray cranberry sauce. We started reading labels carefully, mainly because they were in Flemish and we needed to translate them to make sure we knew what we were buying. In general, we became more mindful of our food quality and its preparation.

My husband making fresh pasta with our son.

My husband making fresh pasta with our son.

In Brussels, I had become a full-time parent, which allowed me to cook more during the weekdays. However, the reality was that with 2 small babies 18 months apart, 2 labs, and a husband who traveled frequently, I felt somewhat overwhelmed and was not as creative with cooking as I had hoped to be. Furthermore our children were picky eaters and I found myself cooking two meals every night, one for the children and one for the adults. Expeditious cooking was the name of the game. In some ways I fell into the trap of feeding my children what they preferred because it was easier: Kraft macaroni-n-cheese, white sauce pasta, and frozen chicken nuggets. I continued experimenting with food and over time my children’s palates evolved. It took until 2007, when the children were 10 and 9, for me to finally be able to prepare one meal for the whole family. In general as a family we started  preparing more food from scratch.

What started out as the need to make certain foods from scratch because they were not available turned into making food from scratch because it was the healthiest and most delicious way to prepare it. I still have a little voice in my head that keeps me on track with my weight. My husband and I prepare food without cutting corners. We may occasionally cut back a little on the butter and cream but we try to stay true to the recipes. We do balance our meals and eat in moderation (well except for Thanksgiving). I love my chocolate cakes as you will read in the link below. We know that we have to exercise to stay in shape. In many ways, exercising is our motivation to continue cooking and enjoying delicious food.

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My homemade dressing

When you make homemade dressing the key is to reach emulsification. Emulsification is when the oil and the vinegar blend into one liquid. There are two ways to achieve emulsification. One is to use the correct ratios between oil and vinegar. Typically, the ratio is 1 part vinegar or other acid such as lemon to 3 parts oil. A second way to enhance emulsification is to use an emulsifying agent such as mustard. There a hundreds of recipes on-line but below I give you my guidelines for my mustard vinaigrette. Buy yourself a salad dressing container that will allow you to blend the ingredients well and store the remaining dressing in the refrigerator.

Classic mustard vinaigrette:

  • 1 cup canola oil
  • cup red wine vinegar
  • About a tsp. of Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground Black Pepper: several turns on the grinder
  • 1 Tbs. of dried Herbes de Provence
  • 1 Tbs. of honey (the honey softens the flavor of the vinegar)
  • 1 Tbs. of Dijon Mustard

Variations on this recipe: You can use olive oil or grape seed oil. When I use olive oil I like to use balsamic vinegar. You can also add freshly cut herbs or shallots. Have fun with it and try different ingredients.

Why I like to Run: https://thelabyrinthguide.wordpress.com/2016/10/25/why-i-like-to-run/

Why I Like to Run

My husband and children started a new tradition in 2013 when they baked me a celebratory chocolate cake after running my first half-marathon.

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Let me tell you that I now await with great enthusiasm and appetite my chocolate cake after a race. And truth be told, I would be very disappointed if there was no cake. (hint to my husband when he reads this)

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So perhaps you were anticipating a more philosophical or scientific explanation as to why I run. I would like to say that I enjoy the inner peace I feel when I run or perhaps it’s the release of endorphins, or simply that I like staying fit. Well, here it is, I run for the delicious double-layer fudgy chocolate cake that awaits me at the end of a race. Wouldn’t you?_dsc2964_new

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Yay! Chocolate Cake Forever!

PS Chocolate comes from the cacao tree which is considered a fruit tree. So there you have it another good reason to love chocolate cake.

A Weekend in Dublin

Our family visited Dublin, Ireland the first weekend of May. We left on a Friday on a 5:30 p.m. flight from Heathrow and arrived in Dublin by 6:45 p.m. We took a taxi from the airport to our hotel and were checked in by 7:30 p.m. We took advantage of a family package offer at The Merrion Hotel. The Merrion Hotel is a beautiful 5 star hotel located on Upper Merrion Street in between Merrion Square park and St. Stephen’s Green. We chose to eat a light dinner in one of the hotel’s restaurants, The Cellar Bar. The Cellar bar was cozy and informal.

Walking a Labyrinth at the Dublin Castle

Walking a Labyrinth at the Dublin Castle
The Record Tower in the center.
Photo by Curt Petrucelli

The island of Ireland is the third largest island in Europe.  It is divided into two countries: The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. The Republic of Ireland is part of the EU, and its currency is the Euro. Dublin is the capital of the Republic of Ireland and is located on the eastern coast of the island. Since our visit was short we decided to explore the city. If you have an extra day then we would recommend a day trip into the countryside.  You can do these trips on your own or as part of a tour.

Our daughter dancing in Merrion Square Park Photo by Curt Petrucelli

Our daughter dancing in Merrion Square Park
Photo by Curt Petrucelli

We spent two days meandering through the city and seeing some of the major sights. We walked through Merrion Square Park and saw the War Memorial dedicated to the Irish Armed Forces. We visited the wonderful Georgian city park, St. Stephen’s Green, built as a gift to the Dublin people from the Guinness family. We walked to the river Liffey and crossed it at different bridges including the famous Ha’Penny Bridge. The bridge, built in the 18th century, was called Ha’Penny after the half penny toll that was charged to cross it. There no longer is a toll but the name remains.

The Ha'Penny Bridge

The Ha’Penny Bridge

From there we went to visit Trinity College founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I. Many famous people have graduated from Trinity College like Swift, Wilde and Beckett, and continues to be today one of Ireland’s most prestigious universities.

The Trinity College Library where The Book of Kells is kept.

The Trinity College Library where The Book of Kells is kept.

The college grounds are very pretty but what took my breath away was the Long Room in the Trinity College Library. It was so dramatic yet inviting and warm. There was something so compelling about this room that made you want to take the books out and page through them.

The Long Room in the Library of Trinity College

The Long Room in the Library of Trinity College
Photo by Curt Petrucelli

The books in the library are all in various stages of restoration. The Library also houses the Book of Kells created by Celtic monks around 800 A. D. and covers 4 gospels of the New Testament. The book is referred to as an “illuminated” manuscript because it is decorated with initials, pictures, and borders. The Book of Kells is one of the few surviving manuscripts from the medieval period. It was truly remarkable to see the excellent condition that the book is in and to appreciate the beauty of its brightly colored illustrations.

A Message from the Chaplains to the students of Trinity College

A Message from the Chaplains to the students of Trinity College

We walked through the grounds of Dublin Castle established in 1204. The only section that remains from the Norman period is the Record Tower completed in 1226. Other buildings were added to the castle over the centuries. Unfortunately, we were not able to go in the castle because the buildings themselves were closed to visitors until this summer. On our second night we went to a wonderful restaurant called Bang for dinner. Bang is located on Merrion Row.

St. Patrick's Cathedral St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral
St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland.

There are two medieval churches in Dublin. The Christ Church Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Christ Church Cathedral is the older of the two, founded in 1028. We visited the Christ Church Cathedral including its crypt believed to be one of the largest in Britain and Ireland. An unusual exhibit in the crypt is that of a mummified cat and mouse that were found inside the Church organ. Apparently, stuck during a chase in one of the organ tubes circa 1850’s, their bodies were found mummified years later during routine maintenance of the organ. This exhibit is quite the hit with children. James Joyce, the Irish writer, refers to the cat and mouse in his comic prose, Finnegans Wake. He describes someone as being “…As stuck as that cat to that mouse in that tube of that Christchurch organ…” We also went looking for a relic, the heart of Laurence O’Toole, a 12th century Archbishop of Dublin. However, we later learned that someone stole the relic in 2012. I also found out that much of the television series The Tudors was filmed in the Christ Church Cathedral.

Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral

We explored the lively neighborhood Temple Bar full of restaurants and pubs. It is located on the south bank of the River Liffey. It retains a lot of its original medieval street layout. We enjoyed a great lunch at Gallagher’s Boxty House and enjoyed delicious boxtys, traditional potato pancakes accompanied with meats.

The Temple Bar in the Temple Bar Neighborhood

The Temple Bar in the Temple Bar Neighborhood

A visit to Dublin would not be complete without a visit to the Guinness Storehouse and learn about the famous Irish stout. Arthur Guinness founded the brewery and signed a lease in 1759 for four acres of land for 9,000 years. The lease is no longer valid since Guinness eventually purchased the land. Arthur Guinness was very keen on this location because of the fresh water he was able to use for his brewing process. During the tour you visit 7 stories of the building, with the center shaped like a Guinness pint glass. You learn about the history of the Guinness stout, its manufacturing, its advertising, and you end the tour with learning how to properly pour your own pint of beer. I had never tasted such a smooth Guinness stout. They say that the Guinness from Dublin tastes different to other Guinness stouts around the world. They attribute this difference to the water used in the brewing process.

We learned to pour our own Guinness pints.

We learned to pour our own Guinness pints.

On our last day we enjoyed a fun afternoon tea at the Clarence Hotel that was bought and refurbished by U2’s Bono and The Edge.

Lastly, I share with you a favorite chocolate cake recipe that uses Guinness stout. It is one of the chocolatiest cakes of all time and is one of our family’s favorite. Of course the alcohol cooks off and the Guinness adds to the chocolate taste. The full recipe yields a 3 – 8” layer cake, and weighs a ton. The recipe can be cut in half and will yield a 2 – 9” layer cake. Enjoy.

http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Chocolate-Stout-Cake-107105

For further reading go to: http://www.cheapflights.co.uk/news/explore-dublin-in-48-hours/

 

My Second Half Century – New Adventures

I have decided that my second half-century should be as exciting as my first half-century.  It was a year ago that with some trepidation I welcomed the big milestone of 50. My fifties would find me living overseas in London with my family. I would spend my whirlwind year settling into London living, doing lots of traveling, and making many new great friends. In retrospect, I have had a wonderful 50th year.

Maya and Me
At Hampstead Heath September 2012

Today, I am celebrating my 51st birthday.  I decided two weeks ago that I want the next 50 years to continue to be about “Firsts” and “New Adventures”. So I decided to join a women’s running group for beginners. I stay in relatively good shape by watching what I eat and exercising but I have never really run. I lost 30 pounds with weight watchers during college and it has been a lifetime goal to keep the weight off while still enjoying the pleasures of food and wine (and beer too). I have succeeded at this.  My exercise routine has varied over the years and has included gyms, group classes, and working out alone. I currently ride a recumbent bike at home and do enormous amounts of walking while living in London. I do recognize I need to add back some weight/toning exercises into my routine.

Several friends had tried the running group last year that culminated in doing a half-marathon in March of following year. I have to admit that: a) I felt very proud of them for their commitment to running and doing a half-marathon, and b) I felt a bit left out from a social perspective in not sharing in this special event. A couple of weeks ago, I cornered one of my friends and said to her, “I am on the fence about joining the running group, convince my why I should do it”. She did an amazing selling job. Within hours of our discussion I had joined the running group. Not only would I start running but I set the goal of running the half-marathon to be held in Bratislava, Slovakia next March.

Initially, I did not tell my family. I wanted to start the training to see how I would do and how my knees would hold up. Besides, they tease me all the time with, “Mommy runs like a girl”, hello… that’s what I thought I was, well a woman, but certainly my running style has not been very graceful during past attempts at making green lights. My family also teases me when I tell them that I used to play on the high school basketball team. The reason this is so hard for them to visualize is that I am all of 5 feet tall. However, it was a small school and they needed players. I had enthusiasm, which was just about all I had. My basketball career soon ended but was rekindled when I dreamt about 2 years ago that the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat were recruiting me to play with them. In the dream, I chose to play for the Miami Heat because the weather in Miami was warmer than in Chicago. At the time in real life, I was undergoing physical therapy for a shoulder injury I had incurred while doing intense yoga, go figure. I had probably spent too many hours at the physical therapist watching ESPN and watching basketball commentaries. Although, I’m not very athletic, I have skied since my mid-twenties. I vowed I would be skiing into my 90’s. Back in 2001, I felt knee pain and after a visit to a doctor and then to a physical therapist I learned that I had to strengthen my quadriceps muscles that supported my knees. I have succeeded at this and I have skied pain and trouble-free every year.

The night after my first running training, I shared the news with my family that I had joined the running group and that I was going to do a half-marathon.  I was overwhelmed by their amazing support. I expected them to tease me and instead they were all very proud of me. I relished in their positive support.  I am into my 4th week of running and I feel great. I have increased my quadriceps exercises and added stretching routines and other floor exercises. The beginner program starts out with a walk-run-walk routine that eventually has you running 130 consecutive minutes. Not only am I continuing to stay fit and working towards the goal of the half-marathon, but I’m also making wonderful new friends in the group. I have rediscovered that I am a very goal oriented person. I thrive if I have goals set in front of me and I thrive in social settings.

Curt’s Amazing Chicago Style Deep Dish Pizza

I could not feel happier on this special birthday (they are all special, by the way) I have a wonderful husband, son, and daughter. My husband is frosting a cake he baked for me as I type this posting, and is finishing up his delicious homemade Chicago Style deep-dish pizza for our celebration dinner. I have amazing parents, in-laws, and extended family. We all have our health. I also feel privileged to have some wonderful dear friends around the world. Oh, and let’s not forget my gorgeous, chocolate lab Maya who brightens up even the cloudiest of days. I am happy with who I am and grateful for what I have on this birthday. Here’s to turning 51, and to the next set of adventures that await me or better yet the adventures that I will seek out.

Celebrating my 51st Birthday with My Family
and with Curt’s Delicious Chocolate Cake
September 30, 2012