Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Travel Planning

Here are some of the resources I use to get the best travel deals out there:
  • - This is a great travel aggregator that pulls in information from several different sources. I primarily use it for looking up the best/cheapest airfares. One down side is you cannot input "child" as an option when doing the search. (Many times, children get lower fares than adults.) Also, sign up for their free weekly newsletter. This is a great way to find out about specific deals.
  • - I don't so much use this website, but I love getting their weekly email of the top 25 travel deals. This is also a great way to find out about specific trips and can be a starting off point for your travel planning.
Once I find out the general date and place we're targeting, I then break it down into the best deal and the most convenience for our family. Many times, going directly to the airline's website will get you the best price for your airfare, but the research on the travel aggregators will help you determine which websites to use for purchases.

Another thing to consider, is what will work best for your family. For example, we are traveling to Sweden in August - (I found a great deal!) Through my research on, I determined that August was a great time to travel to Stockholm (who knew?) Brad and I decided that instead of flying from our hometown in Central Illinois (which would be luxuriously convenient), we opted for flying direct from Chicago. There are two reasons for this decision; it's cheaper, but more importantly, we are taking our 4 year old twin sons with us and feel a direct flight will be easiest on them, and therefore, on us as well. We also chose an airline that caters to families, SAS. When taking an 8 - 9 hour flight with 4 year old boys, it's important to have things available to keep them happy. SAS provides a seat-back screen at every seat (even coach!), video games and child friendly meals. They also seem to have decent vegetarian options - but I'll have to report back on that after the trip!

For hotel options, I feel the best way to go is a bundled trip that includes airfare, hotel and if applicable, ground transportation. We've done this before, but for our upcoming trip to Sweden, I wanted to make sure we had a hotel that catered to families and was conveniently located. After checking (which is another valuable resource) and googling hotels in Stockholm, I found a great, reasonably priced hotel that was family friendly. In fact, they have a children's play area within the hotel and each child receives a surprise gift when you check in. By going directly to the hotel's website, joining their frequent guest program, and using the early saver rate, I feel I received a great price for our 9 night stay. (Again, I'll provide a full report on the room once we return.)

In summary, with a little online checking, you can find great deals that fit your needs. You don't have to have a travel agent or join a tour group. Independent travel is easy, affordable and provides a lot of options. Go plan a trip!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Sense of Place

I've always been fan of travel writing. Sometimes funny, sometimes scholarly, but nearly always illuminating. 'A Sense of Place' by Michael Shapiro is a collection of interviews Shapiro had with some of the most prominent travel writers in the world, Jan Morris, Pico Iyer, Simon Winchester and others, providing insight into the craft of travel writing. He speaks with the authors about their motivations and their opinions, and what they have learned after a lifetime on the road.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

You Can Take it With You

There's nothing worse than getting stuck in an airport or on a plane with nothing to eat. On my last trip I decided to pack a lunch. I'd done this before but this time I used the new lunch boxes Jenni bought for the boys. They're called Bento boxes. They're very clever little boxes that keep all your food in neat little compartments. They're nice and slim so they fit into your carry on or backpack and they have a cold pack you can stick in the pocket of the carrier.The food will only keep so long, but it definitely allows you to take a wider range of veggie friendly snacks along for the ride. Plus, you can pack it up again before you leave for home.

Asparagus Salad with Eggs and Herbs

I've made this salad many times for my family. I've even tried it out on some of my non-vegetarian friends. I was surprised they ate it, and they were surprised how much they enjoyed it. A couple tips: try to get thin asparagus, it's easier to cook and works better in the salad. Also get it when it's in season. It's always better. Arugula is a peppery green that accents this salad nicely. I'm a big fan of arugula. If you haven't had it before, don't go crazy with it. This is a Vegetarian Times recipe. It's for two. Modify for your friends as necessary.

5 teaspoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
12 asparagus spears trimmed
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons fresh chives
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
2 cups arugula
1 head Belgian endive, leaves separated
1 oz Parmesan cheese, shaved (about 1/4/cup)

Mix oil, garlic and 1 teaspoon of thyme in a small bowl to make a garlic oil.

Heat 2 teaspoons of garlic oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add asparagus, cover and cook 3 minutes, or until tender. Transfer to a plate.

Fry eggs in 1 teaspoon of garlic oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of chives.

Whisk lemon juice in remaining garlic oil; season with salt and pepper and toss with arugula and endive in a large bowl

Divide greens between 2 plates; top with 6 asparagus spears and 1 egg each. Sprinkle with remaining chives and thyme. Garnish with shaved Parmesan.


Bad for You Mashed Potato Soup

You can actually make vegetarian dishes that are just as bad for you as non vegetarian ones. It's good to be bad sometimes, right? This recipe comes from a Rachael Ray cookbook. It's her recipe but you can get as funky as you like with the butter and cream. I always use real butter and mashed potato flakes to thicken this up if its too soupy. I like a sharp sharp cheddar as well. It stands up well to the potatoes.This is great in the spring and fall.

Mashed potatoes:
6 medium white potatoes
2 tablespoons of butter
1/2 cup of sour cream
1/4 cup of milk
salt and pepper to taste

4 cups of mashed potatoes
1 cup of heavy cream
2 cans (14oz each) of vegetable broth
1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
2 scallions
1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
10 blades fresh chives thinly sliced

In a large pot, cover potatoes with water and boil, 10 to 12 minutes until tender. Drain potatoes and return to pot. Using a potato masher, combine potatoes with butter, sour cream, milk and salt and pepper.

Heat a second pot over medium heat. Add mashed potatoes. Whisk cream into potatoes until fully incorporated. Bring your potatoes to a bubble and whisk in broth. Season with scallions and cayenne. Simmer over low heat, 5 minutes. Remove from heat and serve in bowls topped with shredded cheddar and chives.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Easy Eggs in Tomatoes

This is a super easy breakfast or light dinner.

Preheat oven to 425

4 large tomatoes (Big Boys etc)
1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese
4 eggs
1 tablespoon of basil or parsley
Olive oil

Core your tomatoes and remove the pulp and seeds.

Place the tomatoes in a baking dish.

Crack an egg into each tomato

Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and a little salt and pepper and a quick drizzle of olive oil

Bake for 20 minutes or until you have the yoke the way you like.

Remove and sprinkle your basil or parsley.

Good stuff

Irish National Stud and Japanese Gardens Tully (County Kildare) Ireland

Wicklow Mountains (County Wicklow)

Round Tower at Glendalough (County Wicklow) Ireland

Sunday, May 10, 2009

View from Elbow Beach Hotel

Szechenyi Chain Bridge

Another View from the Buda Hills2

Another View from the Buda Hills

Budapest from the Funicular

Grocery Stores

One of the easiest and most cost effective ways of eating while traveling is to hit the local grocery store. If you've decided to rent an apartment, you can cook your own meals with relative ease. If you at least have a fridge in your hotel room, you can store your snacks for when you need them. You get the added bonus of eating like a local.

Jenni and I had a great time in Bermuda, but the food was pretty pricey, and for us a little difficult to find. While we were walking around downtown Hamilton we found a great grocery store right next to where the cruise ships dock. It was a really hopping place, and the selection was great and the staff super helpful. We ended up with 5 bags of groceries for about the price of dinner in our hotel.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Best Macaroni and Cheese You'll Ever Eat

If you do this one right, you'll want it every week. I took some liberties with Jamie Oliver's recipe, but the original is probably still on his website.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil a baking pan with olive oil.

16 oz elbow macaroni
Breadcrumbs (Make your own out of stale bread, it's easy and better tasting.)
12 Sweet Grape Tomatoes
1 clove of garlic
1/4 cup of fresh basil
Sea salt and black pepper
1/2 cup of grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup of heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon of red wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
Chunks of fresh mozzarella, (low moisture part-skim works, but a ball of whole milk mozzarella is better)
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves
Extra virgin olive oil

Cook your macaroni in a pot of boiling salted water. Break up the bread and zip it in your food processor to turn it into breadcrumbs. Set aside.

Place your tomatoes and garlic in the food processor, add a couple pinches of salt and a quick grind of pepper. Puree. Add 1/4 cup of Parmesan, cream, vinegar and nutmeg. Puree until it looks like a smooth sauce.

Once the macaroni is cooked, drain it in your colander and then add it to your baking dish. Pour the sauce over the macaroni and mix together. Throw your chunks of mozzarella on top, sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan and thyme, and then add the breadcrumbs over that. Drizzle olive oil over the top of everything. It'll give you a nice crunchy cheese crust.

Bake 20-25 minutes or until the top is golden.

Killer Chocolate Chip Cookies

This is our standard chocolate chip cookie recipe. Like most things I tend to throw in little extras depending on what's in the cupboard. Sometimes I'll add a 1/4 of a teaspoon of ground cloves or maybe a little ground ginger. Chopped dates would work well with this too. They're chocolate chip cookies. It's pretty tough to mess them up.

1/2 cup of quick oats
2 1/4 cups of flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 sticks of butter
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
3/4 cup granulate sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 eggs
3 cups chocolate chips
1 /1/2 cups of chopped walnuts (if desired)

Set the oven at 350 degrees. Cover baking sheets with parchment paper.

Combine dry ingredients in one bowl: oats, flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon.

In a second bowl, cream butter, sugar, vanilla and lemon juice. Add eggs and beat until well mixed.

Stir the dry ingredients into the eggs mixture and blend well. Add the chocolate chips and nuts. Use a small ice cream scoop or spoon to place the cookie onto the baking sheets.

Bake until the cookies are lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Let them cool on a wire rack, and you're off to the races.

Good stuff.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Sunday Scones

This is an easy scone recipe that I've used for years. It can be modified to suit your tastes. I tend to do cranberry/orange because it makes the scones seem a little healthier. Blueberries or chocolate chips would work too.

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Cover your baking sheet with parchment paper.

3 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons coriander
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter cut into chunks
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1/2 cup of dried cranberries
1/4 cup of chopped walnuts (optional)
1 cup of buttermilk

Whisk the dry ingredients together: flour, sugar, coriander, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Then work the butter in with your fingers until the dough looks like breadcrumbs. Add orange zest and cranberries.

Pour in buttermilk and mix with a wooden spoon or fork until combined. Gather the dough and knead on a floured work surface. Form the dough into a circle but keep it a couple inches thick. Cut your scones out using a lightly floured cup or glass, or form them into balls with your hands.

Arrange on your baking sheet and dust with sugar or cinnamon. Bake 15 -20 minutes or until they're golden on the top.

Cool on a wire rack

I make icing using a cup of powdered sugar and few tablespoons of orange juice.