15 June 2014

Italian Holiday, Part 1

B and I needed a break. Specifically, we needed to get away to where work would find it hard to call. With three weeks to go until our proposed time off work, we booked a trip to Italy. We were last in Italy in 2009 and visited Rome, Florence, Bologna, Pisa and Venice.  This time around we decided to head south to Naples, the Amalfi Coast and Capri.  Overall our 11 day trip was wonderful with just a few hiccups.

The major hiccup was jet lag. Evidently I've never had real jet lag before. At least not like this. We arrived on Monday and that first night I slept great. The second and third night were another story entirely. Those nights, our first two in Sorrento, were pure misery. I told B the bed felt like a prison. While he slept soundly beside me, I laid there wide awake. Each night at about 5 AM (11PM EST) my body would finally shut down for sleep. But I couldn't sleep all day and it wouldn't have helped me kick the jet lag to do so. So by 9 each day I was up, however unready to face the day I felt.  The lack of sleep not only made it hard to enjoy our activities but amped up my anxiety level in a way I haven't experienced in a long time. B, the good, sweet man that he is, got to spend four days managing me until my body finally got it together. Mercifully, our fourth night I slept timely and soundly.

While I was fighting with my circadian rhythms, we kept right on touring, exploring Naples, Sorrento and Pompeii.  Our night in Naples, the first of our trip, was essentially a pit stop in pursuit of pizza.  B had pizza three times in four meals.  Our first lunch at Pizzeria Regina was the best of our time there. A total of five tables and not a single English speaker, the original DOC pizza they serve explains why people travel to Naples for pizza. It was phenomenal! Buttery, smooth buffalo mozzarella, perfect pomodoro sauce, just enough basil and a crust charred in all the right places.

Aside from eating pizza, we spent our limited time in Naples just walking around the city, taking in the parts that weren't touristy.  While we read a lot about Naples being unsafe and not a great place to visit, we really enjoyed it. Sure, the city is gritty and petty crime is a problem. But I felt no less safe there than I do in New York City. And unlike everywhere else we visited this trip (aside from Rome), it felt possible to escape the tourist spots and feel the real "life" of the city.

Our second day we moved on to Sorrento by private transfer. The method of travel is only important because it took us along the winding, narrow coastal road around the Bay of Naples. Stunning views of which I took exactly no pictures. Sorrento lies at the western most end of the Amalfi Coast on a peninsula jutting out into the Bay of Naples and works as a great home base. From there we visited Pompeii, Mt. Vesuvius and Positano. We also spent a fair amount of time just enjoying Sorrento.  

B found this INCREDIBLE bed and breakfast for our five night stay. Upon arrival, the great people from Magi House met us at our drop off location, towed our bags to the hotel and immediately took care of our check in. They escorted us to our room, the Nettuno, to show us how to use all the switches and remotes in our just completed suite. The best part of our suite was the private terrace complete with five person jacuzzi. But the accommodations only make up half of why this place was fantastic. Every morning we enjoyed our breakfast on the rooftop looking out on the Bay of Naples and Mt. Vesuvius. Either during or after breakfast our gracious hosts would give us advice on how to do whatever we had planned for the day, which train tickets were the best investment (cheap v. flexible), how not to get taken as tourists so often do, etc. They were just incredibly sweet and helpful and went the extra mile to make our time in Sorrento and across the Amalfi Coast wonderful.

Our first night, our B&B hosts recommended L'Antica Trattoria for dinner, the same restaurant a trusted colleague who knows food also recommended.  The food was great.  We enjoyed a lovely three course meal complete with outstanding insalata caprese, a favorite of mine that I gorged on all across Italy. 

Insalata Caprese, made with fresh, buttery mozzarella di bufala and tomatoes grown in the volcanic soils left by Mt. Vesuvius - incredible!

As good as it was, we would have better meals later in the trip. But during this dinner we had the BEST wine we had in Italy - a 2004 Primitivo.  With years of working in Italian restaurants behind me, I know more about Italian wine than any other and I naturally gravitate toward it as a result.  B, however, has never been wowed in the same way (probably because we don't routinely buy the 1997 Barolos that mark out Italian wine as some of the best).  That Primitivo changed his mind.  The next time we stop into the Vienna Vintner, I think our case will lean heavily to Italian wines.

We spent a couple days just exploring Sorrento, it's narrow streets and historic spots.  But we also struck out for other destinations, including Pompeii.  When we left for the ruins the weather was gorgeous - 75 degrees and sunny. We arrived at Pompeii by train and bought our tickets to enter just it started to rain.  We weren't prepared but decided that since it was just a light rain we'd proceed and just accept getting wet. Not long after we entered the ruins, light rain became heavy and by the time we left an hour and half later, we were soaked to the skin. Thankfully we had a backpack and managed to keep the important things (e.g. my iPhone) dry.  Sadly, that means we got only one picture of the whole experience. But Pompeii was amazing. If you read about it, Pompeii wasn't particularly significant to the Roman Empire. But to see the scope of the ruins, acres and acres of really complex, thoughtfully laid out roads, stalls, and government buildings was totally worth getting drenched to see. And we got a funny story out of the deal.

Our one and only picture from Pompeii, the judicial building

The day after Pompeii we visited Positano. Getting there was easy. Public transit options around Italy are actually pretty amazing. But it also means that without a car you're at the mercy of the same public transit I just praised.  Enter the SITA bus.  We took this busline from Sorrento to Positano. The route takes you along the coastal road up in the hills. Gorgeous, but there's a catch. Imagine a big, heavy bus laden with 60ish people and some luggage taking hair pins turns on downhill grades, giving the brakes the workout of their lives. Were it not for the summers in Greece driving up and down the mountain on a one lane road, honking before going around corners all while looking at the hundreds of crosses marking those who didn't make the turn, I'd have been scared. As it was, I found the whole thing pretty amusing.  

We arrived in Positano near the top of the city. The view was incredible.

Most of the places and things to see in Positano are close to the water, so we headed down.  With the whole city built into the sides of the cliffs, the descent was steep (I felt it in my calves the next day). On the way down we looked through the various shops amd restaurants and tried to decide what to do for lunch. We settled on a restaurant right on the water and got to enjoy a lovely view over simple, delicious food. After lunch we did some more wandering and ultimately ended up sitting on the beach, enjoying the sound of the waves crashing and each other's company. Perhaps if we'd had more time we could have found other ways to spend it, but Positano while beautiful, is heavily geared toward tourists, something B and I run out of patience with very quickly. Instead of walking stall to stall and being heckled by shopkeepers to come in and buy, we decided to enjoy the natural beauty of the coast and weather.

Facing Positano from the water (note the throngs of tourists)

Rather than hiking back up the mountain to catch the bus, we decided to return to Sorrento by sea, taking a 1.5 hour boat trip around the end of the peninsula.  The boat stays relatively close to the coast line for all but the last 30 minutes or so of the trip, which left us with spectacular views of the rocks faces and cliffs.

Our last day in Sorrento, I woke up with a tension headache. That was fine because at least I'd slept. Our plan had been to go to Mt. Vesuvius. Given my headache and the probability of a bumpy bus ride up the mountain, not to mention the 1,000 meter hike straight up to the crater, I decided it was better for B to go alone and leave me behind for a few hours. While he hiked the volcano, I bummed around Sorrento, picking up a few souvenirs and just wandering. If you haven't noticed, B and I both enjoy this aspect of traveling, just ambling about seeing whatever street life can show us. I had a relaxing and enjoyable morning, with just enough walking (and Advil) to loosen up the muscles in my back, leaving me headache free by the time B got back around 2.  We did some more wandering together and then capped off our night with dinner at Il Buco, one of several Michelin starred restuarants in the area. Sometimes I forget how late meals begin in Italy (and most of Europe). Our reservation was at 8PM. The restaurant was empty when we arrived.

The interesting interior of Il Buco

Within 20 minutes of our arrival, the place started to fill up.  We enjoyed a leisurely three course, 2.5 hour meal complete with great wine. Highlights included our amuse-bouche, courtesy of the chef. For B, a zucchini flower stuffed with homemade mozzarella and fried.  For me, a deconstructed caprese with the creamiest mozzarella I've ever had, an almost yogurt-like consistency.

Zucchini flower, served over basil oil and a tomato compote

The most perfect mozzarella

Every course was exceptional, leaving us glad to have saved Il Buco until our last night in Sorrento. Returning to our hotel around 11 we packed up and prepared to depart for Capri the next day. But we did so feeling like we'd gotten a great deal out of our five nights in Sorrento, a warm, pleasant little city that we would happily visit again.

14 June 2014

No Promises

The few of you that have followed my blog on and off over the years know that I moved to my own site, simplepleasuresva.com, for the last couple of years. However, given the sporadic nature of my blogging, it didn't make sense to keep paying for something I was only using a handful of times a year so I'm back to my Blogger site.

But I'm making no promises. Since I let my site subscription expire I've missed the creative outlet that having a blog gave me. Without realizing it, blogging took on a "journal"-like quality that fed a different part of me. That said, I still work too much and prefer to spend my non-working time with B, my friends and family. So I'm making no promises to keep this blog updated more than once a month or so. But here I am. 

04 March 2012

I've moved...

After three great years with Blogger, it's time for a change.  You can find all the content you liked on this site and much more at Simple Pleasures' new home: www.simplepleasuresva.com.  Come find me there!

23 January 2012

Chicken and chorizo stew

December is always a crazy month, packed with family, friends and parties.  And it's the month that I'm doubly excited to go to the mail box for the promise of Christmas cards.  The rest of the year I'm only excited to go to the mailbox for cooking magazines.  But with all the holiday hubbub, even my beloved cooking mags took a backseat.  I'm finally catching up and was pleasantly surprised to find that the January issue of Cooking Light, which arrived here right in the middle of the holiday mayhem, had several recipes I couldn't wait to try out.  This recipe was the first of several I'll be piloting and while it's heavily modified to our tastes, it turned out to be an excellent winter meal.

4 1/2 cups fat-free, lower-sodium chicken broth, divided
6 garlic cloves, divided
1 onion, quartered
1 medium carrot, unpeeled, chopped
3/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin, divided
2 (6-ounce) skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
3 cups cubed red potato
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 medium red bell pepper, chopped
6 ounces chopped Spanish chorizo
1/2 teaspoon cracked red pepper
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
1/8 cup all purpose flour
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Salt to taste

Combine 4 cups chicken broth, 3 whole garlic cloves, onion, carrot, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked pepper and a hefty pinch of salt in a large, high-sided skillet over medium-high heat.

The poaching liquid awaiting the chicken

Add chicken to pan; bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 14 minutes or until chicken is done. While the chicken is poaching, mince the remaining garlic, cube the potatoes and chop the onion and bell pepper.

Remove chicken, reserving cooking liquid; cool. Shred chicken. Strain cooking liquid through a fine sieve over a bowl; discard solids. Wipe pan with paper towels. Sauté sausage over medium-high heat 2 minutes. Add potato, onion, bell pepper and a pinch of salt; sauté 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add garlic, cracked red pepper, saffron and remaining black pepper; sauté 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add reserved cooking liquid; bring to a simmer. Taste and adjust seasoning according to your tastes.

 Ready to simmer

Simmer 12 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add shredded chicken; simmer 5 minutes. Check seasoning again.  While the dish is simmering, add flour and remaining 1/2 cup of chicken broth to a container with a tight sealing lid.  Shake until all the flour is dissolved and no lumps remain.  Add to stew and bring to boil, and then let simmer for 5 more minutes stirring occasionally.  This will thicken the stew.  Ladle about 1 cup stew into each of 4 bowls.

 Chicken and chorizo stew, ready to be enjoyed!

22 January 2012

Gnocchi with white beans and spinach

I was cruising around the interwebs looking for something interesting to add to our dinner rotation this week and I stumbled on a recipe for skillet gnocchi with white beans and chard from EatingWell.com. I wasn't thrilled by the recipe as presented but used it as the inspiration for the recipe you see here.  This turned out to be a nice, warm pasta dish for a bitter cold night.  At about 500 calories a serving (4 servings), this dish packs a lot of flavor without layering in much fat.


1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 16-ounce package shelf-stable gnocchi
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon cracked red pepper
1/4 cup dry red wine
1/4 cup chicken stock*
6 cups baby spinach leaves
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon basil
1 15-ounce can crushed San Marzano tomatoes
1 15-ounce can cannellini beans, rinsed
1/2 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup finely shredded Parmesan cheese
Kosher salt
Freshly cracked black pepper

*To make this dish vegetarian, substitute vegetable stock or water for the chicken stock

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Add gnocchi and cook, stirring often, until plumped and starting to brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer to a bowl.

Reduce the heat to medium. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon oil and onion to the pan and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Stir in garlic.  Season with cracked red pepper, a pinch of salt and a few grinds of freshly cracked pepper. Saute for 1 minute.  Deglaze the pan with the 1/4 cup of wine.  Reduce heat to medium and add chicken stock.  Cook until the onion is soft and most of the liquid has evaporated, 4 to 6 minutes.

 Onions and garlic sauteing with chicken stock, cracked red pepper, salt and black pepper

Add oregano and basil. Add spinach and cook, stirring, until it starts to wilt, 1 to 2 minutes.

Spinach melting into the onions and garlic

Stir in tomatoes and beans and bring to a simmer. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the gnocchi, cover and allow to simmer for 3 more minutes. Check the seasoning again, add salt and pepper to taste.

Red, green, and gold coming together in the pan

Transfer the gnocchi mixture from the skillet to an 8"x8" casserole dish.  Sprinkle with mozzarella and Parmesan.  Place the casserole dish under the broiler until the cheese is melted, bubbling and slightly brown, about 2 minutes.

Just out from under the broiler

Allow the pasta to stand for three minutes before serving.

A heaping helping of the finished product

17 January 2012

Red quinoa and black bean salad

As B and I continue down our weight loss path (unsurprisingly, he's been more successful than me, losing 9 pounds to my 7), I keep looking for interesting lunch items.  I found this one on Oh She Glows, a positive body-image focused blog that I follow, and it's excellent.  Like most everything you see here, I've adapted it to my own tastes.


For the salad:

1 cup red quinoa
1 15 oz can black beans
1 large avocado
1 large red pepper, coarsely chopped
3 scallions, chopped
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped

For the dressing:

The juice of 2 limes
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon cracked red pepper flakes
1/2 cup olive oil

Cook the quinoa according to package directions.  Strain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process. Pour the rinsed quinoa into a large mixing bowl.  Rinse black beans and add to quinoa.  Split the avocado and remove the pit.  Score the avocado into 1/2 inch squares and scoop, with a spoon, into the mix bowl.  Add the chopped red pepper and scallion.  Toss all ingredients together.

To prepare the dressing, mix the lime juice, kosher salt, pepper, cumin and cracked red pepper in a container with a lid.  Add the olive oil, snap on the lid and shake well.  Drizzle the dressing all over the prepared salad.  Toss the salad to evenly distribute the dressing.  Garnish with more fresh cilantro and serve!

16 January 2012

Slow-cooked smoky chicken and pinto beans

I'm constantly looking for new, healthy recipe ideas.  I thumb through magazines, new and old, I browse the web, but my favorite source lately has been other food blogs.  I love taking recipes other people have test-driven and adding my own twist.  This one is adapted from just such a recipe found on Taste As You Go and had the added benefit of being both a slow cooker recipe (I'm really into my slow cooker right now) and a total comfort food.


1 cup dried pinto beans, rinsed
1 16-ounce jar of fire roasted salsa
2 tablespoons chopped canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
1 tablespoon adobo sauce
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup chicken stock
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon cumin
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 medium red onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped (ribs and seeds removed)
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

In a 5-quart or larger slow-cooker, add beans, salsa, peppers, adobo sauce, flour, and chicken stock. Season chicken on both sides with salt, pepper. Sprinkle the cumin and chili powder evenly over both sides of the chicken as well. Place chicken in the slow-cooker, pressing the chicken down into the liquid mix as much as possible. Scatter the onion and bell pepper on top.

 All ingredients in the slow cooker, ready to go

Cover and cook on low heat for 8 hours. Remove chicken from the slow-cooker, shred into large pieces and serve, garnished with fresh cilantro.