Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cycling the Elephant Highway

Somerville, Mass - It's hard to believe that only one year ago, I was counting down to my departure to Southern Africa, where I would cycle almost 1000 miles from Victoria Falls to Windhoek, Namibia.

Needless to say, my life has changed a lot in the past year. I haven't been on my bike since August, due to my pregnant state. Instead of watching lions and leopards prowling about the Okavango Delta, I am entertained by the antics of my own wild cats, Ozzie and Lynx.

And although I am about to start research on the updated guide to New England, there are no plans for travel to more exotic destinations in my foreseeable future.

Nevermind, other adventures await. In the meantime, my reminiscence is aided by two exciting developments:

  • The new guide to Botswana & Namibia is out, and it features my blurb about cycling the Elephant Highway. Read it here.

  • Lonely Planet TV has released a series of videos - one for each leg of the Tour d'Afrique. Follow my team member Tom Hall and me, as we pedal across Botswana & Namibia (below), or click here to see the other videos.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Somerville, Mass - I couldn't go to Venice to celebrate Carnevale this year, so I decided to bring Venice to Somerville. In honor of Shrove Tuesday (better known as "Fat Tuesday", or Mardi Gras), we hosted a Venetian Carnival dinner party, complete with music, masks and plenty of food and wine.

To start, I offered a smattering of cicchetti, which is basically the Italian version of tapas, served with two quintessential Venetian cocktails: the Spritz and the Bellini. My guests seemed to prefer the Bellini, which is a sweet fruity cocktail, made with three parts Prosecco and one part peach puree. This popular drink was invented at Venice's most famous watering hole, Harry's Bar, and named after the 15th-century Venetian painter.

The Bellini - like the bar - is preferred by Americans in Venice, but the Italians' drink of choice is the Spritz. This is not the first time I have written about this delightfully bitter aperetif: indeed it was included on the list of Top Ten Things to Miss about Life in Venice. In case you forgot, it is one part Prosecco and one part fizzy water, with a shot of bitters (eg, Campari), topped with a lemon and an olive or two. We spent many a fine spring evening sitting in a cafe overlooking the Grand Canal, sipping this fizzy orange drink. Come to think of it, we have spent many of fine summer evening sitting in the backyard of the pink house sipping this fizzy orange drink.

The first of my cichetti was a close replica of sarde in saor, or marinated sardines, a very traditional Venetian dish. Unfortunately, it's not so easy to find fresh sardines around here. The recipe I used suggested substituting sole filets, which were also not available at my local fish market. The guy behind the counter said the next best thing would be flounder, which is nothing like sardines, but nevermind... they held up very well to the onions and white wine marinade.

Next came Venetian shrimp and scallops in a saffron tomato sauce. I have to admit that this recipe came from Rachel Ray, and I'm not sure how authentically Venetian is really is. But it sure was good.

After cocktail hour, I invited the guests to the table for the first course, which is another decadence that was allegedly created by the inventive folks at Harry's Bar (and named after another Venetian painter). This is basically raw meat. If you appreciate a nice rare steak, you'll love carpaccio, which is seared only slightly and sliced super thin. We ate this often in Venice - normally served atop fresh arugula and topped with olive oil and parmesan. I found a recipe that fancied it up a bit, topping it with a salsa of navel oranges and kalamata olives. It was a show-stopper. Really, my guests devoured it, and so did I (despite the prohibition on rare meat in my pregnant state).

Finally, my main course was roasted sea bass with potatoes and olives (as per this recipe), served with a side of risi e bisi, or risotto and peas (as per this recipe). The wine was a pinot grigio from the region of Friuli, just northeast of Venice.

Of course, I am petrified to filet my own fish, so I bought the sea bass filet and altered the recipe accordingly. It's simple to prepare, but sea bass is invariably buttery and succulent. The tomatoes and olives effectively cut this richness a bit - it was divine.

The risi e bisi was practically the only dish that I was able to prepare in advance. As such, in the flurry of cooking and serving this multi-course feast, I completely forgot about it until after everyone was done with their fish! But my guests still wanted to try this traditional Veneto stew, so I served it afterwards, inadvertently adding a fifth course. Woops.

After dinner, we brought out the vin santo, a delicious dessert wine that we brought back from Tuscany. Okay, it's not really Venetian, but we used to drink it when we were in Venice. Plus, it goes great with fritole, the traditional Carnival dessert. These miniature pastries are basically fried dough, sprinkled with powdered sugar, so you can't really go wrong. But the addition of raisins, pine nuts and grappa (or rum, in this case) enrichen the flavor. My guests were swooning (and stuffed).

Over dessert, we watched Mask Maker, Mask Maker, the audition video that I made in Venice, and looked at our photos from Carnival in Venice. The evening brought back some wonderful memories of La Serenissima!

Click here to re-read my travel blog from Venice.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Wildlife Kingdom

Somerville, Mass - Look who came to visit us in the backyard of the pink house. Coopy the cooper's hawk.

My cat was glued to the window, clearly aching to get outside and stalk this beautiful creature. I'm sure she would have made a delicious lunch (the cat, that is).

Monday, February 1, 2010

Props to Union Square

Somerville, Mass - How long have we been saying that our neighborhood - Union Square - is "up-and-coming"? Approximately nine years, since we moved in.

Yes, that does raise a question about how long a place has to "come up" before it actually arrives somewhere. But never mind, roday The Metro Boston featured Union Square on the front page, calling it "a welcoming place for young, creative entrepreneurs."

The article features some of our coolest local places... The Sherman Cafe & Market started as a cozy cafe with free wifi and great egg salad sandwiches, but recently expanded to include a little store selling local produce, Vermont cheeses and other locally-produced delicacies. OPEN Bicycle is a crazy-concept - a bike shop and an art gallery all in one. OPEN Bicycle was also featured in the Boston Globe Magazine as one of the best new businesses in metro Boston. Go biker-artists!

Read more about up-and-coming Union Square...