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What’s in New Jersey?

“What’s in New Jersey?”

That is almost always the immediate response when I tell people I’m headed to New Jersey. Once associated mainly with Atlantic City and its casinos and boardwalk, the mention of this northeastern state now provokes loud images and soundbites from “Jersey Shore”, the MTV reality TV show that followed several housemates spending their summer in the borough of Seaside Heights, which sits around the halfway mark on the coastal stretch known as the Jersey shore.

“I’m going to visit friends. They live by the water… the town has a really chilled and relaxed vibe,” I reply. 

“By the water…” The pondering begins. Silence follows. “You mean, the Jersey shore…???”

Sigh. No more needs to be said. Unbidden visions of JWoww and Snooki are suddenly bursting before our minds’ eye.  Locals are quick to counter that all that went down in Seaside, far south of Highlands and Monmouth Beach where I spend my time.

So… why a 3-week stay in New Jersey?

My friend, K, and her husband, S.

I met K almost 7 years ago in Tibet. She was traveling around Asia; I was taking a circuitous route back to Toronto from Auckland, my ‘home away from home’ for (almost) two glorious years. We met on a G Adventures tour (GAP Adventures at the time) that started in Beijing, took us on a 48-hour train journey to Lhasa, continued overland via jeeps through several smaller towns in Tibet, before ending the trip in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Point-and-Shoot Photos from Tibet, 2007

Lhasa – Circling the Potala Palace

Lhasa – Spotting the Moon

On the Road To Gyantse

On the Road To Gyantse

Desert Road, To Gyantse

Prayer Flags at Everest

Prayer Flags at Everest

Although we tried to keep in touch during the first few years after returning to our respective homes, life got in the way as it often does and contact became sparse and then more or less trailed off. In 2012, I had some time off and decided that it was about time to reconnect.

By this time, K and S had moved in together. While K was thrilled that we would be meeting up again, S was a little more wary. He’d never heard mention of me and the details of our friendship hardly allayed his concerns: we met halfway across the world 5 years before and the sum total of our interaction since was a few emails. And now I was coming to stay with them? To say he was concerned about his physical safety is not an exaggeration… he’s from Queens, NYC.

His reaction was understandable. Friendships are normally developed over months and years, not a week to 10 days. But there’s an intensity to travel and to the bonds that are formed during it: you begin to rely on one another, to look out for each other and to admit truths that you might be loathe to express to those who you see day in and day out. Your ‘travel friends’ are getting to know the you that’s coming into being, the one that changes and grows because of the travel, at the same time that you yourself are. And the longer you’ve been roaming, the more you look for those true connections, what with all your old and familiar friendships feeling so very far away.

Fast forward to today and I’ve met the families of both K and S, stayed in relatives’ homes near and far and had the privilege of attending their wedding.

When they think of me, they now also think of food.  Generally meat. Often on a spit. Did I mention I was invited to their Greek Easter celebration last year?

Greek Easter 2013

Adding skordalia to the beet filling for the pantzaropita

Adding skordalia to the beet filling for the pantzaropita

Homemade Dessert

Homemade Dessert

Food, Food and More Food

Food, Food and More Food

Lamb and Kokoretsi on Spits

Lamb and Kokoretsi on Spits

Lamb Close-Up

Lamb Close-Up

So it all seemed very natural that my stay ended up being dominated by food. Poor K now had to put up with two large appetites, her husband’s and mine! She would wake up thinking: What are we going to eat today?

Ingredients

Ingredients

I watched as K’s practiced hands made pita after pita after pita for one of the 4 or 5 savoury veggie pies (her own variation of spanakopita) we consumed during my stay. She’d layer the bottom of a cast iron pan with one pita before adding the filling (a combination of various veggies she’d grown in her garden, onion, garlic scapes and feta cooked down in a pot) then covering it with another layer of pita, folding over the edges of the bottom layer to seal everything in, then adding a generous topping of extra virgin olive oil. I very quickly understood why they purchased their olive oil in one gallon cans: it is used in a huge amount of Greek dishes from sauces, to appetizers, marinades and mains.

Rolling Out the Bottom Layer

Rolling Out the Bottom Layer

K's Garden Veggies for the Pita Filling

K’s Garden Veggies for the Pita Filling

One Gallon of Olive Oil... Disappears in No Time Flat

One Gallon of Olive Oil… Disappears in No Time Flat

Finished Product: Veggie Filled Pita

Finished Product: Veggie Filled Pita

 I learned how to make proper tzatiki, draining the cucumbers of excess water with a sieve and salt. Unsurprisingly, the larger the container of greek yogurt the happier everyone is. The tzatiki is topped off with a few whirls of extra virgin olive oil.

More Yogurt = More Tzatiki

More Yogurt = More Tzatiki

K showed me how to cut up the tomatoes properly for the Greek salad: take a small knife and make a scooping motion to carve out a section that includes a good chunk of the “meat”. If you do it well, you should be left with just the top of the tomato in your hand. I, however, did not do it well and was left with, instead, a tomato that looked like it had been cored. I hid my tomatoes under hers.

Finished Product: Greek Salad

Finished Product: Greek Salad

And, ah yes, last but not least, the meat! The marinade is a basic combination of oregano, salt, pepper, lemon juice and, of course, extra virgin olive oil, but man, is it ever A-MAZING! Grilled on a bbq or skewered on a spit and roasted, the combination of the sour bite of the lemon juice and the slight bitterness of the oregano with the salt and flavour of the meat (usually pork, but chicken occasionally) was drool-inducing.

Prepping the Pork for the BBQ

Prepping the Pork for the BBQ

Chicken and Pork on Spits

Chicken and Pork on Spits

Finished Product: Roasted Pork

Finished Product: Roasted Pork

My three weeks in New Jersey were food-filled, rather than activity-filled. I wanted the opportunity to hang out with K and S, something we’d never really had an opportunity to do given how we met. I wanted the chance to get to know them in their space, doing nothing special, the way you do with friends who live in the same city and the goal is just to spend time together.

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The Inca Trail – Part I

How does one begin to write about the experience of the Inca Trail, a journey that had been on my bucket list for more than 10 years?

The Plans

When a good friend, K, asked me to organize a trip for her and several friends to do the Inca Trail in April 2014, she insisted I book a spot for myself. I hesitated. It was November 2013 and I had made the decision to intentionally step away from my day job for a few months to travel and to work on this side of my life. The choice was undoubtedly a good one – it led to a month in Greece, my first group photography exhibit and my regular blog posts – but as with all contract and freelance work, there was no guarantee that I’d find a client for the new year. Could I afford the trip? Savings for the day-to-day was covered, but a trip to Peru? What if no new gigs came up? What if…?

F*ck it, I thought. The Inca Trail had been a dream for far too long. I was not going to miss this opportunity to walk the trail.

The tour was booked with G Adventures, one of the partners I work with through my travel consulting gig. In fact, K and I had met on a G Adventures trip through Tibet 6 years earlier and as anyone who has been a part of these small group tours can attest to, one of the biggest rewards is the incredible friendships that result with people you’d otherwise never have met.

Flights

Just wanted to start off with a quick TIP about flights.

I organized the air travel for six of our group of seven (the G Adventures group was the max size of 16). All seven of us, though, flew LAN Airlines for the international portions to and from Peru as well as the domestic portions. While the flights themselves were fine, we all had a terrible time trying to complete anything other than check-in via the website. For me, even check-in was confusing with mixed messages between the LAN airline site and its codeshare partner site. Additionally, the kiosks that were available at the Cusco airport were useless for anyone who wasn’t a member of their frequent flyer program. Unfortunately, there are no signs to indicate this and you don’t realize it until you’re about 5 steps into the process… in Spanish.

So if you’re flying LAN, my recommendations are to: 1) try and have your travel agent book your preferred seats while buying the fare; 2) failing that, call the reservations team to change your seats; 3) or sign-up for LANPASS.

Also, a specific tip for the Cusco airport. If you like to be (more or less) on schedule or if the idea of potentially missing your flight causes you to feel faint or sends your pulse racing uncontrollably, I HIGHLY recommend you ignore the advice you might receive from your hotel’s front desk that you need only arrive 60 minutes before your flight from Cusco to Lima.

It’s not that this necessarily isn’t enough time; it’s just that when you’re still standing in the check-in line 30 minutes before departure, at many other airports this is a clear signal that you should just give up and start asking about details for the next flight. Despite the fact that all the employees to whom we asked the question ‘Are we going to make our flight?’ all answered in the affirmative, most of us found this incredulous. Cusco’s airport is small though so once you’re checked in, security and the walk to the gate is a very quick process, particularly for early morning flights. The employees there are far more laid back than us North Americans are used to but that doesn’t mean they don’t know the routines and timings of the airport

Where to Begin…? 

How about llamas and alpacas? I’m not very good at telling the difference… the ears are apparently a telltale sign, but I’m terrible with these kinds of details.

Fittingly, the llamas and alpacas bookended my time in Peru.

My first pic is of an alpaca (I think) that we were feeding. Some of the alpacas were fully in there with us, pushing to the front of the fence and eager to take the stems we were holding out even when their mouths were full; others… not so much. I have a suspicion we weren’t the first to foster these delicious green munchies so those that hung back were probably contentedly satiated.

                                Feeding alpacas in the Ccaccaccollo community… look at those eyes!

My second pic is of a llama… uh, I think. As we were saying our final good-byes to Machu Picchu and making our way towards the main entry/exit for the site (Spoiler: I completed the trail! Apparently, some don’t… more on that in the next post), we were more than a little startled to see two llamas wandering up the steps, pausing at random to munch on the surrounding grass. 
This little fellow/gal (and companion, whose backside you can just make out to the left) was kind enough to make its way by me… or perhaps more accurately, to allow me to pass by it. Rather than being spooked by the swarms of curious tourists, they seemed to me to be a little wary and just wanted to be left alone to eat. 

      Surprise llama sighting as we exited the Machu Picchu site

Day 1: A Little Tip About Cusco

The tour that we selected started with Day 1 being the day of arrivals to Cusco. We’d read, though, that spending two days in Cusco is a better option as it allows you to acclimatize better to the altitude. Unfortunately, our schedules didn’t allow for it so we only had the one day before the tour began to settle in.

In regards to the altitude, I don’t think any of us were too much worse for the wear by having only the one day in Cusco. The major downside was that we didn’t have the chance to really explore and to get to know the town and based on our first day’s impressions, we weren’t super excited about it.

Thankfully, K had asked that I book us to stay for an extra night in Cusco after the tour ended. Our new hotel was to the northwest of the main square, Plaza de Armas, a section of the town that seemed a little bit nicer than where we’d been previously plus, as a huge bonus, it put us squarely on the Easter Friday parade route!

I’m so thankful we spent the extra night: Cusco is a wonderful town for wandering with plenty of original and old architecture for buffs like me. The narrow roads and lane ways lead to all sorts of interesting buildings, cute shops and openings to little squares.

Oh, and if you like to eat, you’ve got to try this restaurant: http://www.cicciolinacuzco.com. Amazing food, friendly and super helpful owner/chef and really good prices (compared to North American dining). The squid ink pasta (which, if you sit at the bar, you can see being made) is delicious.

TIP: Cicciolina is a small restaurant, so reservations are a MUST. We didn’t know this but got lucky and were given seats at the bar – for me, this was the best seat in the house: we had ring-side seats to the kitchen and bar! I couldn’t stop staring… until the food came. Then, I got busy.

Day 2: Supported Communities & Co-Ops

In 2003, G Adventures started a not-for-profit organization called Planterra to raise funds and support the communities where they operate. For more info on Planterra, please visit: http://www.planeterra.org.

To kick off our second day, we stopped off at a Planterra-supported women’s weaving co-op in the Ccaccaccollo community. We observed goods being weaved using traditional methods, but also saw how the supply and use of looms allowed these women to greatly speed up their work. Using natural stones, herbs and other elements, the women of the community showed us how they cleaned and dyed the fleece.

          Dying elements for the fleece

TIP: You’ve probably heard this already, but buying a hat and gloves at the weaving co-op is a wise choice for the four days on the trail and they make for memorable souvenirs that you will likely use again (I know I will – I live in Canada!) once you return home. We moved from stall to stall, not only looking for designs and sizes (I have tiny hands – I’ve known pre-teens with bigger hands – and I learned to hold them up for the stall owners/managers to assess who would either shake their heads or pull out a perfectly sized pair) but also for women that we felt comfortable with. Some were definitely pushier, but there were always others who gave off a more welcoming and laid-back vibe. 
We stopped off for lunch at Huchuy Qosco. This village was previously not part of the tour route and didn’t benefit from the country’s significant tourism industry. It now welcomes visitors to a Planterra-supported restaurant (it’s open to all tour groups, not just G Adventures), a three-wall structure – solid wall to the back, transparent walls to the sides that allow you to take in the beautiful surrounding scenery – built under the mountains. The food was prepared in a red stone A-frame building sitting across from and slightly to the side of the dining area and were all delicious local dishes. You definitely don’t go hungry on this tour. 

    The mountains surrounding the Sacred Valley Community Restaurant

That’s it for today’s post, but I’ll be submitting Part II on Thursday. Topic: Days 3 to 6, the Inca Trail.

For more info on the tour we took, please click here. If you have any questions about the tour, the sights, the food or anything else about my time there, please feel free to get in touch! 

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