What’s in a Name? (or the tale of two “Las Vegas Suites”)

Ciao Readers!

I think I’ve mentioned more than once that we took a road trip over Spring Break.  We started off in Las Vegas, splurging with a great AAA rate for 2 nights at the Bellagio (I’ve always wanted to stay there).  When I was checking us in, the concierge asked if we were there celebrating anything special, to which I responded (honestly), “Yes, our 24th Anniversary” (yes readers, you read that right, and THANK YOU, I do look too young). The nice young woman then disappeared for a few minutes and returned with the keys, telling us we had been complimentarily upgraded to a “suite.” Pretty cool, huh?!  We didn’t know what “suite” meant till we got to the room – almost 1600 sf, 2 bathrooms, a living room, dining area and bar (pictured below).  Now that’s a Las Vegas Suite!!!

Fast-forward a week to the last day of our road trip, heading back from California through Arizona.  We had not made hotel reservations as we were playing the last part of our trip by ear and wasn’t sure how far we (i.e. Steve) would drive that night.  It looked like if we pushed it, but not unreasonably, we could get to Flagstaff, AZ, so I got on my trusty ipad and started trying to find accommodations.   I guess I didn’t really think Flagstaff, AZ would be such a  popular place for Spring Break (aren’t you supposed to go to Cancun or South Padre Island?!), but most of the hotels were booked.  I did find a couple of rooms, but seriously – 189$ for a so-so rated Days Inn?!?!?!?  (for the record that’s more than our deluxe suite at the Bellagio).  So, I did a quick recalculation and started trying to find not-too-scary motels in outlying towns.  Which brings us to the phone conversation with the Canyon Lodge in Seligman, AZ:

Me:  Hello!  Do you have any rooms available for tonight?

Man with HEAVY GERMAN ACCENT (Reinhardt) speaking curtly and directly (read “military-like”):  Do you smoke?

Me: No Sir. (“Sir” is an old habit from living in Texas and going to Texas A&M)

Reinhardt: Are you sure?

Me: Yes Sir.

Reinhardt:  Do you have pets?

Me (assuming he meant with us and not in general): No Sir.

Reinhardt: Are you sure?

Me: Yes.

Reinhardt: Yes, I have one room.  60 dollars.  When will you be here?

Me (very concerned at what 60$ buys after hearing 189$ for a Days Inn):  We’re driving there now, we should be there in about 3 hours.

Reinhardt:  You must arrive before 10:00.  I close the office at 10:00.  No smoking and no pets.

Me: We’ll be there by 9:00 at the latest, thank you very much!!!

I will save you all from re-hearing this same conversation, which took place again once we got to the motel.  (The ridiculous thing was that right outside our room was a smokers’ patio, complete with ashtrays and interesting looking characters smoking away.) The next part was hysterical – Reinhardt explained he actually had two rooms left, the “Grand Canyon” theme room and the “Las Vegas Honeymoon Suite” (apparently every room has a theme).  He then proceeded to show me a slide show of all of the rooms, while all I could think was I am really tired and really don’t want to be forced to make any more small talk (I already dodged the question about my German last name and refrained from wishing him a happy first night of Passover).  So I said, “I see you already have a key in your hand so I’ll take the room you chose.”  He said, with a sly grin (as much as someone with his accent and demeanor could muster) that it was the “Las Vegas Honeymoon Suite” and he was “certain you will enjoy it very much.”

OMG!!!  First of all, the “Las Vegas Honeymoon Suite” was right above his office. Coincidence? I think not.  We could hear his phone ring and we could hear the conversations – you can do the math in reverse.  EWWWWWW.  As if that was not enough discouragement from “enjoying” the room, the room itself was beyond indescribably aesthetically assaultive.  The Las Vegas-y things were cheesy puzzles of Las Vegas glued together and hung on the walls, along with gaudy decor and an entire mirrored wall.  I’m sorry I didn’t take better photos of the cheesiness, but we were tired (fortunately tripadvisor was correct about the rooms seeming clean) and I didn’t know I was starting my blog back up yet.

So there you have it, a book-end of “Las Vegas Suites”:

 

 

Once Upon a Passport (with never-before seen photos)

Ciao Readers!

Today I am going to wax nostalgic, so your indulgence is required (and appreciated).  As we were planning for our Winter 2015/2016 trip to Europe it dawned on me that my passport might expire before then.  I checked, and sure enough it was getting close – can you imagine going to the airport for a year-long awaited trip to discover your passport was no good?!?!?!  Egad!  In any case, renewing my passport (and looking through the nifty stamps in the old one) made me think about and marvel at everything we have seen and done (and eaten) in the past 10 years.

Ten years ago I did not have a passport; I had never seen a major work of art; I couldn’t have found Slovenia on a map to save my life.  It kinda blows my mind thinking about everything I’ve experienced since then….

Some things I have seen:  The Mona Lisa, The Sistine Chapel, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Stonehenge, Michelangelo’s David, hundreds of works by Van Gogh, the world’s largest indoor Buddha, The Colosseum, Pompeii, Notre Dame and a thousand less-famous but spectacular monuments, churches and works of art.

Some things I have done: Run a 10K around a lake by Mt. Fuji in Japan, taken not one, but two cooking courses at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, marveled at Gaudí and Dalí works in Spain, been left stranded by an ornery bus driver in Croatia, ran into a family of bears hiking Mt. Koyasan, had a line in a movie, climbed the Eiffel Tower, marveled at Venice, discovered cool Slovenia, was stood-up by Green Day in Bologna, saw two versions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, ran my first (and 2nd – 7th) half marathons, carried cats across the ocean in the cabins of planes….and lived in Italy!

Some things I have eaten: deliciously stinky cheese in France (and amazing breads, and pastries, and….), succulent roasted pig in Croatia, spicy (yay!) Sri Lankin food in Florence, weird and wonderful octopus balls (takoyaki) all over Japan (and all-you-can-stand sushi for 3 months!), frites and herring in Amsterdam, divine Belgium chocolates (in Belgium of course!), everything I cooked at Le Cordon Bleu (Steve specially enjoyed this), the official world’s best gelato in Bologna and enough pizza to feed an Italian army!

Since I’m not getting any younger (who is?), it makes me happy to realize that most of the coolest things I have done, achieved, experienced, etc. have happened after age 30, even more-so after age 40.  So, as you read this and I recover from having my gallbladder out, let’s reminisce and know that there’s more to come!  Thanks for reading!

(Mostly) Never-before-seen photos:

The Shake Shack Saga Continues (do-it-yourself version)

Ciao Readers!

So, that last post really exacerbated my longing for a Shake Shack burger (and I am glad I amused at least one of you who knows I was a long-time vegetarian).  I confess that I am one of those people who, once they get an idea in their head, can’t let it go until they make it come to fruition.  Which brings me to my current quest to replicate the illusive magical burger at home.

Fortunately for me, a writer for Epicurious already did the hard part – deciphering exactly how and what goes into making the perfect faux Shake Shack burger.  Now, all that was left for me to do was to track down the exact ingredients and replicate the process.  Okay, let’s take a time-out here – do you think I’m nuts at this point? Do rationale people go through all of this over food?  Have I been permanently psychologically damaged by watching too much Food Network?  In any case…

I think it’s the buns that make the burger, and fortunately, Shake Shack buys buns that anyone (anyone who lives on the East Coast) can buy at their grocery, Martin’s Potato Rolls.  For those of us in New Mexico, the internet does the trick (as I write this I am tracking my buns’ trip from Pennsylvania).  The rest of the ingredients are things you can find at most groceries (though be sure to buy really good quality, thick, fresh, crispy pickles; the ones I found at Sprouts are pictured below).  I did have to get the butcher to grind the meat for me as you need 3/4 to 1/4 sirloin to brisket (am I sounding nuts again?) but other than that, really no sweat. (The butcher did ask me why in the world would I need ground brisket, and no, he had no clue what Shake Shack is.)

So, as soon as those buns get here, we’ll conduct the experiment, take pictures and report…. (for those of you who know I have to get my gallbladder out and that I shouldn’t be eating fatty foods, rest assured I am only going to try a bite, just to sate my taste for now; after that I’ll just watch Steve enjoy his).

[Two days later]  Yay! The mail lady just delivered the buns!!!  Hmmmm……..seems I accidentally ordered mini slider-sized ones (pictured below), so I guess our burgers won’t be 100% spot on, but serendipitously bite-sized – and boy do these buns feel soft!  Only 2 days till the weekend and our test run.  Stay tuned…

[Two more days later] Okay, today’s the day!  So, I made the secret Shack sauce, Steve mixed the meats I had previously ground by the butcher, I opened the jar of pickles and got the fresh veggies ready.  Then, we properly smashed and grilled the burgers, buttered and browned only the insides of the buns and lastly added cheese to Steve’s……..and………drumroll please………..voila!!!!!  Do they taste like my dreams you ask?

……Almost.  They were without a doubt the best homemade burgers we’ve ever made.  The buns were oh so soft, the meat nice and caramelized on the outside, the pickles fresh and crisp and the secret sauce yummy.   But something from my dreams was missing – the fact that the last two times we had these burgers we were on fabluous vacations and someone else made them for us!!!   So, if you are asking is it worth the effort to make these burgers, the answer is an unequivocal “YES.”   But, if you ever have the chance to go on a fabulous trip AND eat a Shake Shack burger – even better!

Here’s how we did it (notice my improving photo-staging techniques):











My Semi-Requited Love (of Shake Shack burgers)

Ciao Readers!

If you’re been reading my blog, you know that I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about, watching tv shows about, searching out, and cooking food.  I am not sure if that makes me a “foodie,” a “food snob” or something else less complimentary and more Freud-diagnosable.  In any case, I care deeply about what I eat and usually try to avoid anything not delicious.

Which brings us to our January trip to New York.  I kept hearing about Shake Shack – on food tv, in magazines, etc.  Let me preface this by saying that a fast-food hamburger is extremely far down on my list of culinary sins – while I’ll admit I enjoy a fajita from Taco Cabana on occasion, I pretty much never eat fast food hamburgers (I worked at McDonald’s as a teenager – ‘nough said).   BUT, I just kept hearing about these darn Shake Shack burgers – they sounded so “foodie” for a chain….

So, we’re in New York and not that far from one of the many Shake Shacks in town (they started in NY)…unlike me, Steve does appreciate a fast-food hamburger now and again (and again)….so, I figured he could eat one and tell me what all the fuss was about!  Since it was, as you recall, 8 degrees out, most New Yorkers were hunkered down and the line and wait was not the 45 minutes+ I’d heard about, but a more manageable 10-15.   And then the burger came….and it looked so appetizing…and smelled so good….and Steve started making “YUM” sounds….so of course I had to try a bite for myself….

OMG!   I swear I don’t know what it is about those burgers, but they are STUPID DELICIOUS!!!!   I was sooooo sad at that point that I hadn’t ordered my own burger…and I left with that unsatisfied feeling you have when you’re craving something you can’t (or shouldn’t) have.   Seriously – I could not stop thinking about that burger and how I really wanted one of my very own.  Unfortunately, it was our last day in New York, so I was forced to leave with my craving left un-sated.  But like an unrequited love, I could not get that burger off my mind and I knew I would not rest until it was mine….

Which brings us to our Spring Break road trip.  Sometime before that trip I had been on Shack Shack’s website reading the ingredients and trying to glean what makes their burgers unlike any I have ever had.  (It seems to be an un-replicable combination of high quality meat, Martin’s potato rolls, a thousand-island-esque sauce, crispy fresh pickles… and MAGIC!)  And, what do you know, there’s an announcement that a new Shake Shack just opened in the NY, NY hotel in Las Vegas, which just happens to be one of the places we were driving to on our upcoming road trip!!!

We got into Vegas just about dinner time and headed straight to Shake Shack.  I was worried that the reality of the burger would not live up to the taste in my imagination, and that after pining away for almost 3 months I would be disappointed (how could it really be that good?!).  But it was even better than I dreamt (how many things can you say that about?!).  As a matter of fact, Steve and I unabashedly decided we would come back for lunch the next day (11:00 is late enough to be called “lunch,” right?).  And ya know what – just as delicious and magical as the day before!

And now, here I sit at my desk, nowhere near a Shake Shack, pining away for my once-requited love, but facing the fact that it is once again unrequited….

Ya know how the burgers on t.v. (Carl’s Jr. for instance) always look 1,000 times better than they do in real life?  These are our actual Shack Shack burgers (insert inappropriate YUM noises and drool here):

shakeshackburgers

Tutti a Tavola a Mangiare! (or why Lidia Bastianich is super cool)

Ciao Readers!

Today I return to one of my favorite dual pastimes – watching cooking shows and then getting off the couch, compelled to cook what I just watched the TV chef cook (and as an added bonus, traveling to Italy vicariously).  If you’ll recall, I talked about this in a previous post, when I made Nigella’s yummy lemon almond cake back in our little kitchen in Florence.  Well, it happened again today, with Italian chef Lidia Bastianich and her nonna’s (grandma’s) apple cake.  One minute I’m spending a lazy Sunday watching previously recorded cooking shows, the next I’m in the kitchen mixing while Steve peels apples.  And yes, totally worth it!  So simple, but apple-y and crunchy and YUM!  (It didn’t dawn on me until we’d eaten most of it to try and take a photo, below; after looking at a real food blogger’s blog today, I realize my food staging photo skills need some serious work – it is way more delicious than it looks in my photo.)

Now, here’s the thing about Lidia and her show – they are on PBS.  No fancy “Iron Stadium,” no one getting “chopped,” no timer counting down, no celebrity judges and basically no hoopla.  Just Lidia, and sometimes a grandma or granddaughter cooking simple family recipes.  Maybe I’m just old-fashioned (i.e. old), but I still really like the plain old cooking shows on PBS (did you notice I used the word “old” 3 times on one sentence – ack!).  While I love trying to figure out what I’d cook from the ingredients on Chopped (black garlic, bull testicles and gummy worms anyone?), I am sure I’ve actually learned more about cooking from Julia, the gang on America’s Test Kitchen and Lidia. Lidia just makes good food!

Not only do I know she makes good food because my mouth waters when I watch her show, or because whenever I cook recipes from her show they come out yummy, but we’ve actually eaten at her restaurant Becco in New York (photos below).  Now I know that she was not personally there cooking, but it is her restaurant (and her son’s).  Funny, but despite the wonderful pastas and seafood dishes we had, the simplest thing left the biggest impression and it is something I have been replicating to this day – fresh grated lemon zest on your appetizer bowl of olives.  Try it!  You’ll be amazed at how such a little thing has such a big impact on taste.  Anyone who is responsible for teaching me something I will do forever or filling our lazy Sunday with delicious apple cake is super cool in my book!

If you haven’t seen her show, the title of this post is what she always says at the end of the show –  everyone to the table to eat!  Actually, there is one piece of cake left…..

Thanks for reading!

The Marvelous & Maddening World of Air Miles

Ciao Readers!

In my last post I promised you some tips on how to travel on air-miles. Before I do, some caveats – I am by no means an expert and I almost exclusively use American Airline miles, so your airline’s mileage program may differ (there are also “non-denominational” credit cards that give you miles good on several airlines); this is also not meant to be a comprehensive “how to.”  However, as we’ve been traveling mostly on miles since our trip to Japan in 2008 (business class, all on miles!) hopefully I have a useful idea or two.

First off, using miles requires advance planning – lots of advance planning.  Most airlines put their tickets on sale 331 days before the travel date.  If you are using miles and want to fly as directly as possible, using the least amount of miles possible, you should plan on booking your tickets as soon as the dates you want open up.  Depending on the airline, you may be able to book each leg of the trip separately – though if you book the “to” trip before the “back” trip becomes available you may find yourself with no return tickets options once the dates do open up.  The longer you wait to book, the more convoluted route you will have to choose (this is why we were routed through, and got stuck overnight in, North Carolina on a trip back from New York last year*) and the more miles you will have to use. For example, as I have already booked our France & Belgium trip for the winter, I was able to use only 20,000 miles per return ticket; if you try to book that same trip today you will have to use at least 40,000 or have 4 stops (like a trip overseas isn’t long enough!) (we actually had to use 50,000 to book business class tickets on the way there because that’s all that was available).  Also be aware that the time of year you travel makes a huge difference – tickets cost less miles and are more readily available at “off-peak” times (why you always see us in pictures bundled up – dead of winter is the easiest time to go anywhere non-tropical).  In addition to planning far in advance, be flexible.  For example, we are flying in to one Paris airport but flying out of a different one – for this trip it really doesn’t matter and opens up many more options (I tried flying us out of Belgium, but that was a no-go).  Another idea is just get on your airline’s booking page and play around – maybe you will discover there are no tickets to where you wanted to go, but lots of tickets to somewhere that piques your interest – a travel adventure awaits!  The moral of the story is to use miles when you know where you’re going way in advance…or when you have no idea of where you’re going and will take whatever you can get.  Miles are not the way to go for important and imminent travel.

Well, great advice you say, but what about first things first?  How do you get enough miles for all these trips? (If you did the math you see our upcoming Europe trip took a total of 140,000 miles).  That’s a good question.  There are several ways to collect miles and they take a little bit of work (though I think less work than actually using the miles once you get them).  All I can do is tell you how I’ve done it.  So here it is: when your preferred airline or other travel card is having a great promotion on a credit card (one that gives you at least 40,000 to 50,000 miles after you make a minimum purchase amount), go for it!  Be aware, though, these cards usually have a 85$ – 95$ yearly fee (waived the first year), so you have to really use the miles to make it worth it.  Once you have the card, use it – for everything that will not cost you a fee (and only if you are self-controlled enough to pay it off every month as if you were paying cash).  For me it’s pretty easy – I have a personal card and a business card (so I got tons of miles upfront, thus the trip to Japan) and I use both of them for everything. Luckily, almost all of my business overhead, including my rent, can be paid with a credit card without a fee; as I would have to write a check for these expenses every month anyway, I just pay the credit card in full.  Be careful, though, some things, like apartment rent and taxes, while they will accept credit cards, will charge you the 2.49% the credit card company charges them.  Look at how much it costs to “buy” miles straight out on your airline – the 2.49% is likely more and not worth it. In addition to using the credit card for straight dollars-to-miles purchases, some airlines (at least AA) offer you bonus miles for other purchases – using your credit card at certain restaurants, shopping online through their own shopping portal (I use www.aadvantageeshopping.com), and donating to certain charities or booking cars and hotels through their website.  (Sometimes there are “miles-for-weird-reasons” promotions – like Steve and I just got 1,000 miles each for watching little educational cartoons about AA’s Advantage program (a promotion due to their merger with U.S. Air)). All of these things can rack up the miles (during Mother’s day and V-Day there are often 30 miles/$ flower promotions, for example), but be careful not to overpay. If you can buy something cheaper from another retailer, don’t buy through your airline just for the miles (again, you can do the math by seeing how much it would cost to just buy the miles).  Some of these methods require signing up in advance, so read the fine-print.  (And speaking of “buying” miles, it’s not always a terrible option if you’re close to the miles you need for a ticket, especially a business or first class ticket; many airlines will let you hold miles tickets for up to a week while your purchase the miles you need to “pay” for the ticket.)

Finally, you can get miles by flying of course!  There are many trips where it just makes no sense to use miles (unless you have a bunch just lying around) – long haul trips in the U.S. that don’t cost too much but get you tons of miles (LA to NY for example), business trips, or trips to places next to impossible to book on miles.  In those cases, buy the ticket as you normally would – you will get miles for the flight, and depending on your credit card, you may get 2x extra miles for paying with the airline’s card (plus the basic dollar = miles).  If you’re going on vacation and book the entire vacation as a package through your airline you will often get a very large amount of bonus miles.  While I hate SPAM as much as the next person, I am signed up for AA emails as not only do I find out about specials, but I think I got 5K or 10K bonus miles for signing up.

If you’re interested in learning more from folks who really do have this down to a science, “flyertalk” is a great site devoted to frequent flyers.  Also, if you have some of your own tips, I (and others) would love to hear them – please post them in the comment section! Happy Travels!!!

*If you do get stuck somewhere, or sit on the tarmac for hours, or anything else unpleasant that is the airline’s fault, by all means ask customer service for compensation in the form of miles.

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