Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Couple of Reasons to Visit SOFIA

"Bulgaria has many secrets, many layers."  Annie Ward, The Making of June

I had the opportunity to visit Sofia, Bulgaria last week.  I really didn't know what to expect and had absolutely no time to read about my destination before the trip.  I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised!  A couple of full days will give you a taste of what Sofia has to offer.

Here are my recommendations:

Start by joining the Free Sofia English Tour.  The  tour starts everyday at 11 am and 6pm in front of the lions of the Palace of Justice in the corner of Vitosha Blvd. and Alabin Street.  Just show up at the meeting point and you'll be greeted by the tour guides.  They will take you around for two and a half hours showing you the most important landmarks of Sofia and telling you all about their history and traditions.  With this tour you will not enter the buildings that are part of the circuit but once you learn about them you can later visit the inside of the wonderful churches and museums the city has to offer.  The tour is free! but a donation is greatly appreciated.

Walk the pedestrian Vitosha Blvd. and have a drink or two in one of its many restaurants.  Another great stop is a visit to the Arena di Serdica hotel which houses the ruins of an ancient Roman amphitheater, part of what was the city of Serdica.  Their spa shares space with the ruins and scheduling a massage on such a setting is a wonderful treat.

The city center is not big and you'll walk from one attraction to the next in no time.  The streets are clean and I was able to communicate in english with people working in the city center.  Bulgaria is known for its rose-growing industry and they sell countless products made out of roses.  I've learned that rose jam is good for the stomach.

I had a great time in Sofia.  I enjoyed visiting the Orthodox churches and walking the city's yellow pavers which give Sofia a unique look. Their Tolerance Square, which houses a Mosque, a Synagogue and a Catholic Cathedral within a few minute's walk from each other made me finish my visit with a great appreciation for this city.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Rome on a Budget: How to Shop in an Italian Supermarket

“Rule No. 12: shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.”  Michael Pollan

This post is for those who have recently arrived to the Bel Paese (the beautiful country = Italy) and are trying to figure out how to shop in a local super market.  It will be also helpful for those traveling on a budget and who will do some grocery shopping during their stay in Italy.  

Bring your own shopping bags to the supermarket, it is the green thing to do or you'll be charged for plastic or paper bags if you didn't bring your own bags.  Everyone brings their own bags.

First, in order to get a full size cart you need a one Euro coin, which you have to insert in the coin slot in order to release the cart.  When you return the cart after your shopping, simply push the Euro out with  the lock/release piece and you'll get your Euro back.

On the produce department you'll be provided with plastic gloves, they are worn for hygienic purposes.  Pick a bag and place your fruits/veggies in the bag.  Notice that the fruit and vegetable bins are marked with a number, memorize it!  You'll have to go to the scale and weight your fruit.  Place your produce on the scale, select the bin number and a label with the name and the price of the product will be printed for you.  Stick the label on your bag and your merchandise is ready for the cash register.

Most butcher, bread and salumi sections have a number system in order to keep track of people's turn.  If the supermarket is not crowded, there is no need to pick one.

No one in Italy will sell you fish on Mondays.  All fish stores and fish sections on supermarkets are closed on Mondays.

If you find yourself shopping at the same supermarket all the time, get their fidelity card called Tessera.  You accumulate points which later can be exchanged for merchandise or a coupon with a certain monetary value.

Most people shop for one or two meals at a time, so they have only a few products to buy.  If you are used to buying in bulk and overflowing your cart, it will take you a long time to bag your groceries (which you have to do yourself), making you the recipient of disapproving looks by the other shoppers.   If figuring out how to pay and bag your groceries at the same time sounds like a stressful activity, recruit the help of a friend the first few visits to the supermarket.  I know I waited for the weekends to go with my husband if I had a specially long grocery list.  Don't forget to pick up a bottle of wine, you may need it the first few times after check out ;)

Words to know when you go to a supermarket:

TASTO: The bin number that you will have to press on the scale.
TESSERA: Your fidelity card.   Is the first thing a cashier asks for.
BUSTE?: the cashier is asking you if you want to buy shopping bags.  If you didn't bring any, estimate how many you will need.
SPICCIO: They are asking you for change, coins, which they always seem to be short of.

Happy Shopping!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Artichokes, Get them Before They're Gone (with recipe!)

"Expose them {your kids} to the widest variety of vegetables and fruits, showing them how good things can be in season.  Tasteless fruits and vegetables won't win them over for life."  Mireille Guiliano

Artichokes are in season right now, and the price has dropped significantly since I first spotted them at the supermarkets.  In Rome you normally see them showcased at the Jewish Ghetto served as their famous Carciofi alla Giudia (Artichoke Jewish Style), but now they are all around town.  As a kid I ate them boiled.  It was a fun and messy appetizer, eating the tip of every leave dipped in an olive oil, lemon juice and salt dressing, but the best, the most fun part was arriving to the heart.  

Now, I have tried more sophisticated ways of cooking and serving them to visiting friends, but once in a while I go back to the simple way, for nostalgic reasons.

Yesterday I saw them, staring at me at the supermarket and I decided to try a new recipe.  Here is what I did:

  • Fill a bowl with water and add a squirt of lime juice.  Set aside.
  • Discard all the thick outer leaves of the artichoke by folding them back (which makes them crack at the bottom leaving the edible part still attached) and pulling.  Once you arrive to the tender more reddish leaves at the center stop ripping them off and just cut the top 1/2 inch. **
  • Slice them in half and discard the fuzzy part right at the center of the artichoke.  Peel outer part of stem (see video here).
  • Chop them in bite-size pieces and drop them in the bowl with water. This will prevent oxidation.  
  • Once you've cleaned all your artichokes cook them in a pan with olive oil, add half an onion (chopped small) and one garlic clove (which you can leave whole and then remove or chop small).  After five minutes add half a cup of white wine and cover until they are soft.
  • Make a béchamel sauce with added parmesan cheese to taste. 
  • Line a pie dish with phyllo dough (sfoglia).  Add a bit of béchamel, then the artichokes, cooked chicken in bite size pieces, more béchamel and then cover with another sheet to phyllo dough.
  • Bake for 35 minutes in a 400ºF oven (200º C). 

Do you have a good artichoke recipe?  Would love to learn some new ways of eating this great veggie.  Buon Appetito!! 

** TIP: When cleaning the Artichokes use plastic gloves.  For some reason they will dirt your fingernails and you'll look like a kid who has been playing with dirt all day.  That was me yesterday :(  I'm wearing gloves next time...

Sunday, May 4, 2014

A Couple of Reasons to Visit MARCHE

"As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.  I wish you all very good lives" J.K. Rowling

We had been driving for a couple of hours before we finally arrived at our destination in the Marche region.  We made a quick stop at a local coffee bar before our final drive to our friend's house.  As I entered the bar I saw a group of a dozen man, all in their 80s, playing a game of cards, drinking coffee, and having a great time.  Had I discovered a place that has found the secret to long lives?

Then, I met signor Giovanni, 94 years old, no cholesterol, no high blood pressure, still sharp as a whip and with a great disposition. Is living in Italy the secret to a long life?  Statistics certainly seem to support this fact and signor Giovanni is the living proof.  During our Easter meal he ate salami, pasta dishes, meet, desert and washed it all down with a nice red wine!  Maybe the secret is the fresh air of Marche!

Marche is an Italian region not as renowned as Tuscany, but with enough going for it to make a visit worth your while.  It is situated east of Rome and its terrain is dominated by hills.   As our friends drove us around several hill-top towns it seemed to me that on top of every hill there was a medieval city to be discovered.

Here are some points of interest in Marche:

1. The Fiastra Abbey (Abbazia di Fiastra) in Urbisaglia is a great spot to enjoy nature, visit historic sites and have a picnic on the Abbey's ground.  It is a wonderful place to visit with children!
2. Fermo, with a great duomo this medival town is a perfect stop during your trip to Marche.
3. The Tod's and Prada outlets of course! Via Garibaldi 134, Sant'Elpidio a Mare.  Several other shoe outlets are listed here.

I was impressed by Marche and now I want to return and see if I can learn the secret to their long and healthy lives!  And that is all for now.  Arrivederci,