Ways to Travel in the Midst of a Pandemic

Fall has arrived. With it, my sense of wanderlust has strengthened. My husband and I typically travel this time of year, and much of our travel involves Italy. Italy is never a bad idea, but Italy in the fall is an especially grand idea. We have family there, and over the years it has become more or less a tradition to visit in September or October. There are fewer crowds than summer, and the weather switches from hot to mild. And if you have never driven the Dolomites as the leaves are turning, you are missing out on one of nature’s most spectacular color shows I’ve ever witnessed. I felt like I was traveling through one of the world’s most exquisite paintings.  Breathtaking!

Italy is never a bad idea, but Italy in the fall is an especially grand idea.

Alas, there will be no autumn excursions to Italy this year. No fun European adventures lie in store for us in the foreseeable future. Dreams of any other faraway countries are also off the table at the moment. This pesky pandemic has created all sorts of havoc in the world. I feel certain my travel days have not ended, but they have been temporarily curbed. But only temporarily so!

For now I must invoke my sense of creativity for any international travel I plan to take. No, I still cannot leave the country at the moment. But ever the rebel, I have decided to travel anyway. I plan to do it through food. Yes, you heard me. While apparating “Harry Potter style” may not yet be a thing, traveling via my taste buds is. As such, I will be choosing meals in the coming days and weeks based on places I have either traveled or wish to travel. I am meal-planning at the moment, so stay tuned for “Cindy’s European Vacation!!”

No, I still cannot leave the country at the moment. But ever the rebel, I have decided to travel anyway. I plan to do it through food.

In the meantime, we did manage a bit of a getaway a couple of weeks ago. We drove to Yellowstone. We arrived as the first snowfall hit.

It. Was. Magical!

We had visited one other time, in the summer of 2002. It was quite crowded then, and with two young boys added to the mix, we did not see as much as we had hoped. For this visit, the combination of it being post-Labor Day and the fresh snow meant minimal crowds. No bumper-to-bumper cars and trailers and campers. I highly recommend! We brought much of our food with us (I pre-packaged our breakfasts and made up sandwiches for the week in advance…plus brought along fresh fruit and other healthy snacks), and we ended up ordering take out only twice for dinner. We spent our days driving the park in search of wildlife and visiting geysers and hiking. Wifi connection was minimal at best, and all of this added up to one economical yet relaxing getaway.

Here are a few of my favorite shots:

First morning into the park from West Yellowstone Entrance
Artist Point
Final morning in Yellowstone, Swan Lake Flats

Hope you all have found creative ways to get through life these days. I will be sharing my outside-the-box travel adventures in the coming weeks, and I would love for you to travel along with me!

Buon appetito, y’all!

Socializing in Times of Social Distancing

Zoom is the New Way to do Social

In mere weeks the way we have gone about our daily living has changed worldwide. Everything from how we grocery shop to how we visit friends and family is different. Social distancing is a “thing” now. Being able to socialize requires us to now think outside the box and come up with innovative twists to stay connected. Online video meeting apps have become essential to how we interact, from business to school and even happy hours.

This past weekend we visited with our sons online via Zoom, my video app of choice. It began as a happy hour to check in with everyone, but by the end we were all eating dinner together. It was so much fun catching up!! We visited online for about two hours, and it felt as if we were in the same room with each other. Almost.

This got me to thinking about other ways to connect via social media. Most weekends we get together with our neighbors for either happy hour or dinner or some other fun outing. Obviously, limits are now in place as to how many can gather in one place, and really, if we are able to gather at all (we cannot here). I decided to send out a group text to everyone and invite them to dinner…virtually.

The text invite read: “We are hosting dinner tomorrow at our place…and yours 😉 We’ll dine via Zoom, and I’ve got a special table big enough for ALL of us. Bring yourselves, your families, your meal (BYOD!!), wine (duh!), and your sparkling personalities!! Who’s in? ”

Most everyone was able to join us, and we met online at 6:30pm the next night. Because I was the host, I set our table and had dinner ready early so I could be available should any questions arise regarding the connection process. I loved that I only needed to clean the part of my house that appeared on video. No one needed to see my messy kitchen or dusty furniture. LOL

I served my homemade ricotta as an appetizer (see this post for more information), a tossed salad, and spaghetti with meatballs & Italian sausage for the main course. And since this was a dinner party, we served one of our favorite Italian bottles of wine with our meal.

Dessert was dark chocolate BarkThins, my latest culinary obsession!! I’m addicted!!


After eating we played “Psych,” a phone app that allowed us to play together even though we were in different houses. Please note the scores. Also, note that my name in Italian is Cinzia…;-)

Cinzia is my name in Italian. You might take note of the score..#NotCompetitive

ZOOM Tips for Social Meetings

As you might imagine, an online video meeting can be challenging, especially if you have a lot of people. I’ve been in other online groups that have been super loud. When too many people try to speak at once some voices get cut out and others don’t have a chance to be heard. Here are some of my suggestions for hosting a successful Zoom dinner party:

  1. Send out the link ahead of time and have everyone sign up early if they don’t already have the app. Obviously, you’ll need your own account to host. Zoom offers a free version; however, if you have 3 or more in your meeting you are limited to a 40 minute session. Your choices are to re-sign in after 40 minutes, use a different video medium (ie Skype or FaceTime), or consider getting the Pro version of Zoom. They currently offer this at $149/year, though I hear there is discount of half off right now. I had the Pro version already, so we used that for our dinner night. I am not familiar with Skype or other video options, so my focus here will be on Zoom.
  2. Send out a reminder the day before your dinner, and again a few hours beforehand.
  3. Set up in an area you are okay to have seen. As I mentioned above, one advantage of an online meeting is you only need to clean the space that is on camera. 😉
  4. If you are the host, plan to sign in a few minutes early. Be ready to assist anyone having difficulties, and also to make sure you are not having any connection issues yourself.
  5. Once the dinner has begun, use gallery view so you can see everyone present at once. In gallery view you can see up to 49 people depending on your particular computer screen. *For this reason, if there are more than 4 in your group it’s better to use a computer rather than join via phones. ‘With Zoom you cannot see more than 4 screens at a time.
  6. Microphones. As I mentioned above, it can be tricky to have so many people on at once. We did not have an issue for this gathering, and there were 8-10 of us over the course of the call. Having said that, I have been in other video meetings where speaking was difficult. A couple of my recent online classes requested mics to be muted except when comments were made or questions asked. I’m not sure how well this would work in a social video meeting and don’t really have any suggestions on how to solve this. One tip I’ve seen is to wear ear buds or good headphones because that helps with the echoing effect. I have not yet tried that.

Social Connection Tips from YOU!

This was a wonderful experiment, and I look forward to many more opportunities to gather with friends and family via social media. As of this time we are planning a birthday dinner next week with one of my sons.

I’m rather new to the hosting side of Zoom. Anyone out there with other solutions and ideas, not only with Zoom but with your own innovative ideas, please post in the comments. I’d love to hear how you are staying connected.

Until next time, I wish you health and connection with others (from a safe distance!). Bon appetit, y’all!

Leftover Milk? Make Homemade Ricotta Cheese!

What to do with leftover milk?

We sorta got caught up in all the storing-up-for-a-rainy-day hustle and bustle at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. This resulted in us having more food on hand than typical. This morning I went through my fridge to see what needs to be used up before it expires. I was happy to find there wasn’t much. [Thank you, stress eating!] It seems the whole milk from our “quarantine package” – bought from a local restaurant last week (see yesterday’s post on comfort food here) – is the only thing on the edge of its expiration date.

I went on the almighty Google to see what I could do with about a half gallon of leftover milk and came across a recipe for homemade ricotta cheese on thekitchn.com (click here for the recipe link). With my first perusal I thought, “This looks super easy!” I then checked recipes on a few other sites to see if there might be omitted steps or ingredients.  Nope. They all seemed similar and just as easy. For my final bit of research, I called a neighbor who has made his own homemade ricotta. He verified how simple it is to make from scratch, and said the main thing to make sure of is that the whole milk is not ultra-pasteurized. If so, the mixture would likely not separate into the necessary curds and whey. Mine was pasteurized, but not ultra-pasteurized. Yay!

It took less than an hour to go from this:

Whole milk, salt and lemon juice are the only ingredients you need to make your own ricotta

To this:

The finished homemade ricotta, less than one hour from start to finish

So simple to make homemade ricotta!

With only 1/2 gallon of milk, 1/3 cup of fresh lemon juice (you can also use vinegar or citric acid…read the recipe on the above link for more info), and 1 tsp of salt I now have homemade ricotta!! In under an hour!! I spent most of that time waiting. Waiting for the milk to reach 200 degrees, then waiting 10 minutes for the curds to form…and THEN waiting for the mixture to strain.

**By the way: DO NOT throw away the whey! You can use it in place of water for a variety of things. I’m thinking of using mine in pizza dough.

Little Miss Muffet would be very happy sitting on her tuffet with this!

Fresh ricotta is so delicious! Spread it on crostini, then drizzle it with local honey (as I have done). For a savory version, use olive oil instead of honey and top with fresh tomatoes and basil. Use it in dips or pasta (think stuffed shells and lasagne). It can even be a healthy dessert when topped with figs or fresh berries and mint.

The world’s your oyster, or in this case, your homemade ricotta cheese!

Bon appétit, y’all!



Comfort Food for the Soul

Strange times we find ourselves in these days…

I admit that I don’t mind the staying home as much as some might. We’ve stocked up here. We are fully loaded on cleaning supplies, pantry staples, and the ever-elusive toilet paper. There is a calm over my soul knowing my husband is working from home, not traveling all over the place picking up who-knows-what germs. It’s still early enough that the novelty of being together 24/7 has not worn off. Yet.

Was it only this week the stay-at-home order went into place? Feels like it’s been ages.

This world has gone crazy overnight, with lots of anxiety floating around. I’m doing my best to keep from absorbing it, by looking in the areas I do have some control and influence. News intake is one place. I have chosen to limit how much I watch, and certainly I don’t have the TV on right before bed. I’m also doing what I can to help out smaller local businesses and restaurants. If ordering online is an option for a local business, I’ve been doing so.

Same goes for restaurants. Most of those in our area offer take-out with curb side delivery. One has paired with local farmers and offers “quarantine packages” in lieu of their regular menu. Each day the package has been slightly different based on what they get from their suppliers, but usually includes several types of meat (uncooked but sometimes marinated), a gallon of milk, a pound of butter, 15 eggs, some sort of vegetable, and 2 rolls of toilet paper. They are able to help local farmers get their products out to others and stay up and running. Each order helps multiple local businesses stay up and running. Beautiful!

I find myself leaning toward comfort foods and have been cooking most nights. Somehow that helps get me through. Most nights it’s basic stuff or meals that can be thrown together quickly. But many nights I’ve slowed things down and fired up meals that simmered much of the day. We had a corned beef hash with eggs fried on top on St. Patrick’s Day. Another day found me searing beef cubes for a hearty Guinness Stew, ultimately served over creamy mashed potatoes.

Some of my comfort food favs: Pork Ragù over Creamy Polenta; Spaghetti served with Meatballs and Italian Sausage on the side; A bowl of fresh picked red ripe raspberries, still warm from the sun…[sigh]

I for sure find myself grabbing for ice cream more frequently after dinner. As a child I often spent the night at my grandparent’s. My grandmother would bring me ice cream before bed.  Just a little mind you, but she topped off the rest of the bowl with Love. I suppose it’s only natural that I reach for a scoop – or two – when feeling a bit anxious.

And finally, roast chicken. Just the aroma wafting through the house creates an instant zone of zen. Add a little gravy made from the drippings for your mashed potatoes, and suddenly everything feels so much better! Bonus: the carcass can be used to make a hearty stock…and what, my friends, puts the word ‘comfort’ in comfort food more so than homemade chicken soup?

Tonight, I’m making halibut for dinner and will be serving rice and a tossed salad with it. My husband was in Alaska last summer for a fishing trip and brought back a variety of fish to fill our freezer. While salmon was in short supply at the time he went, halibut and rockfish were not. I’ve been using this recipe from Epicurious quite often. It is simple, tasty, and can be assembled in advance.

Hope you are all finding your own ways to work through any anxiety or boredom or pent up energy during these trying times. I invite you to share your own comfort foods or any other ways you are coping in the comment section.

Until next time, stay healthy! Bon appétit, y’all!

Sometimes You Just Gotta Say, “What the Pho!”

Pho: Yeah!

Today has been super busy. Lunch time came and went before I knew it. My stomach grumbled at me, reminding me that I had not yet eaten.

“What IS there to eat?” I asked myself.

Eerily enough, I answered back, “I don’t really give a damn, but eat SOMETHING!”

To which I then replied, “Pho kit!”

I rummaged through my pantry for rice noodles and chicken broth. The fridge yielded scallions, a lone Fresno pepper, bean sprouts, cilantro, garlic and chili paste. Oh, and some rotisserie chicken remnants and shrimp for tonight’s dinner.

I was good to go!

I put some water on to boil while I heated the broth in the microwave. Once they were hot I added them to a bowl with my noodles, letting the noodles cook while I chopped the veggies. This all went into the bowl with the noodles, along with the chili paste. I threw in the chicken and [already cooked] shrimp at the end, and voila…Pho!

Delicious AP (As Pho)!

In less than 10 minutes I had a healthy, delicious meal. It took me longer to write this post than to make the Pho. You can add your own favorites to tailor it to your specific tastes. I had some cherry tomatoes I would have tossed in had I remembered them…and there is Thai basil growing in my yard that would have been a nice flavor addition. I guess the hunger pangs were to loud for me to think straight. Next time for sure.

One final note: the secret to great Pho is the broth. You can use beef, chicken, vegetable…homemade….whatever you like. Just make sure it is the best you can get. I will often use my own, but in a pinch I have found this brand by Kettle and Fire (see below). It sure speeds up prep time.

Buon appetito!