Monthly Archives: September 2013

Getting My Kitchen Mojo Back: Lentil Tomato & Spinach Soup

Hi there!

Hope that you’ve been enjoying your weekend. Mine has been nice and relaxing. Usually when I get back from traveling, especially with jet lag and all, I feel like I need a good week to recover. This feeling of getting back into a groove has started to take shape, but it won’t last… because I have a work trip to Seattle this week! I’ll only be gone a couple of days though.

With prepping for my Amsterdam work trip and getting ready for vacation, being gone a couple of weeks, and now getting myself organized back at home (hello tons of work to catch up on, piles of laundry, a needy puppy and a dirty house!), I feel that I haven’t been at all creative in the kitchen in probably about a month. With nothing on my schedule this weekend, I was happy to have time to get my kitchen mojo back. I came up with several recipes I’ll be sharing with you guys, and today I’m taking a travel recap break and instead talking about this:

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A couple days ago I caught a bit of a cold, and anytime I’m not feeling my best with a heavy head, I crave soup. Warm, hearty, veggie-packed soup.

Given my recent obsession with lentils, I felt like creating a soup recipe centering around lentils needed to happen. I wanted the soup to be packed with vitamins and goodness, and to be pretty easy to throw together. This soup is exactly that, and delicious to boot!

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I made it even easier by picking up precooked lentils from Trader Joe’s, but if you’ve got the time, you can use dried lentils and cook them yourself beforehand.

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Pick up some fresh bread (or make some yourself, if you’re an over-achiever!) to dip into this wholesome soup to make it even more awesome.

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Lentil Tomato & Spinach Soup
Author: 
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 4
 
Ingredients
  • 2½ cups prepared brown lentils
  • 4 cups baby spinach
  • 1 14-oz can diced tomatoes (I used one seasoned with basil, garlic & oregano)
  • 3 cups vegetable stock
  • ½ TBSP olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove
  • ¼ yellow onion
  • 1 TSP cumin
  • ½ TSP black pepper
  • ½ TSP salt
Instructions
  1. Roughly chop the spinach, and mince the garlic and onion.
  2. In a deep large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add minced garlic and onion and cook until lightly browned, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add the spinach and cook until wilted.
  4. Mix in the lentils, can of tomatoes, and vegetable stock, and stir to combine well.
  5. Season with cumin, pepper and salt.
  6. Simmer the soup uncovered for 15 minutes, or until soup is at desired consistency.
  7. Serve immediately with fresh bread.
Notes
The soup will thicken a bit more after it's done cooking, so you may want to remove it from heat when it's a bit soupier than you prefer. For leftovers, you can simply add more vegetable broth to the soup before reheating.
Nutrition Information
Calories: 206, Fat: 2 g, Carbohydrates: 32 g, Sugar: 5 g, Sodium: 842 mg, Fiber: 12 g, Protein: 14 g

 

I’m off to get packing and ready for a very early morning!

Wine, Pizza, Tartufo, Oh My! My First Dinner in Venice

Sometimes in travel, just like in life in general, things just don’t go fabulously. This was the case for my husband and I the day we traveled to Venice from Austria.

Everything started off fine. We caught a train from one town in Austria to another, and with 15 minutes in between when the train got into the station and when the bus to Venice left, we figured out where the bus was and made it with a couple minutes to spare.

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The not so great part of the day started when we got off the bus and had to figure out where the ferry was that could take us to the Lido of Venice where we were staying. After walking around confused for awhile, we found the ferry area but could only find ticket window drive-thrus. My husband went to ask the kiosk man where we could buy tickets, and the man blatantly ignored him, so he just waited on line on foot while everyone else was in cars. We later figured out that this was because we purchased tickets for the ferry that everyone with cars uses to transport their vehicles to Venice. We had to climb up and down the narrow ferry stairs with our heavy luggage, which would have been fine had we not arrived in Venice and had to walk nearly 2 miles to our hotel.

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Two miles might not sound like a lot, but it is when you have a lot of baggage, the hot sun beating down on you, and no idea where you’re going. We would have hopped in a taxi, had we passed one at all. And unfortunately my iPhone map kept malfunctioning. To make matters even worse, one of the wheels on my heavy suitcase started to tear and not work properly. My husband was lugging it for me and the suitcase just kept getting harder for him to move. Let’s just say that walk was not very fun!

When we finally were somewhat close to our hotel, we came across a bunch of cute restaurants, so we stopped to give ourselves a break and a bite to eat. This would have been a relaxing stop amidst a frustrating walk, had it not been the table next to us, who was having an America bashing conversation that lasted way too long.

It seemed to be an Italian American woman host/tour guide with a group of Middle Eastern business men. She and one of the men lead the discussion that centered around how much America sucks. It started on the topic of food: how we eat horribly, don’t take the time to sit down and eat and don’t know how to feed our children. It then turned into the two of them saying that America has no culture and that Americans don’t know how to dress.

When the woman said, “They drink peanut butter milkshakes. Isn’t that crazy?? No wonder why people go on shooting rampages, they’re hopped up on peanut butter milkshakes!” I couldn’t take it any longer and had to turn around and give a very obvious dirty look, then loudly comment about how I didn’t realize I would be subjected to an America hate fest and how impolite it was.

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I think of my country like I think of my family. I can talk smack about it/them, but if anyone else does, I’m very protective. Yes, the overall eating habits of America desperately need to change, but many people sit down and eat here, and eat well, thank you very much. And saying America has no culture is utterly ridiculous. One of the amazing things about America is that it’s a melting pot of tons of cultures. Generalizing about an entire country loudly in a public setting is extremely rude, and it annoyed both Adam and me.

Once we checked into our hotel, we decided to walk down to the beach a little while before sunset. After hanging out and enjoying the beach for a bit, we tried to walk back to the hotel… but all of the exits wound up being locked. We seriously couldn’t find a way out of the beach – and there were definitely people on the beach still, probably unaware like we had been since there was no signage anywhere. Eventually we snuck our way through a fancy restaurant, but it was another annoyance to our day. I kept thinking that we were in beautiful Venice and should be having the best time ever, but these little aggravations had taken a toll on our moods.

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But then, as always, something turned our day around. As we left for the hotel that night to go to dinner, I said to Adam, “The rest of our time in Venice is going to be awesome – I know it!” While I was willing ourselves to an aggravation-free rest of our time in Italy, the actual turning point came at dinner. We went to a restaurant called Gran Viale Ristorante.

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We chose a bottle of Borgo Magredo 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, from the nearby Friuli region – which we passed on our bus ride to Venice. It was delicious!

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Adam and I ordered two pizzas to share. Both had mozzarella and a red sauce – one with asparagus, the other with spinach and ricotta. They were so yummy, my mouth is watering just blogging about them.

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Even though I was far from hungry after the pizzas, there was no way I was skipping dessert! I ordered a chocolate tartufo, and you bet I finished it.

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When they brought our bill, we found ourselves with a complimentary dessert part 2 on the table: a bunch of cute mini desserts – a lemon meringue and a couple pastries filled with cannoli cream.

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Adam and I left the restaurant stuffed but so happy, and from dinner on, our Venice trip was absolutely amazing. Another recap on Venice adventures to come!

Vegetarian Living in Austria

Happy Friday! I am SO happy it’s the weekend. I’ve been feeling so crazy busy and tired since getting back from my trip and am really looking forward to relaxing and resting up a bit over the next few days.

Today’s post is about my eats while in Austria. Let me start by saying that one of the reasons I love California is because it’s so easy to be a vegetarian here. Both areas I’ve lived in in this state, San Diego and now the Bay Area, are wonderful for a girl like me who is into healthy, meat-free living and real food. I can go down the street to a farm and pick up some fruit & veggies, and mostly every restaurant has at least one thing that’s vegetarian.

I anticipated the cuisine of Germany & Austria to be dominated by meat, but what I found there was that nearly every item on every menu centered around meat. Sometimes it took several tries to find a restaurant with a meal option I could eat, let alone one that was decently healthy. I ate quite a bit of cheese while in Austria! Here’s a look at my eats there:

multigrain seeded bread with brie cheese, cucumber and lettuce

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arugula salad with mozzarella sticks

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tomato soup

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baked potato stuffed with veggies & some sort of sour cream sauce 

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cheese croquettes with cranberry sauce 

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various veggie salads like this one

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caprese salad

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The last night we were in Austria, Adam and I found a cute Italian restaurant next to the St. Johann church. Adam had a calzone that was the size of my head, and I had spaghetti aglio e olio – a pasta dish with garlic, olive oil, red pepper flakes, and parmesan cheese:

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Before this trip, I already knew that European breakfast is just not for me. Don’t get me wrong, I adore sweets, but not at 8 AM! The first morning we were there, we ate at a cafe. I had a yogurt fruit parfait – aka the most bitter plain yogurt ever with fake strawberry sauce and chocolate granola. Two bites into my apple cinnamon croissant, I was thinking that we needed to do breakfast differently the next day. I really enjoy starting my day off with a healthy meal!

We wound up picking up some fruit, bread, peanut butter, and jelly at a nearby food store, and eating that for breakfast the other mornings. An apple + some PB & J on whole wheat bread felt much better as my morning meal.

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I obviously didn’t forget about sweets all together though! One day a bakery in town caught my eye:

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I nabbed a rich chocolate cake slice and big chocolate dipped cookie filled with jam. These desserts were my favorite part of Austrian cuisine!

Austrian Desserts

Even though my options were sort of limited when it came to food in Austria, I felt like I did pretty good with eating my own healthy breakfast, a light lunch, fruit or protein bars I brought as snacks, and then a heavier (cheese-filled) meal for dinner. One perk was the local white wine that was available everywhere we went. I certainly had my share of riesling in Austria! 🙂

Hope that you have a great weekend!

The World’s Largest Ice Cave: Austria’s Eisriesenwelt

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One of the few things I had planned on doing ahead of time while we were in Austria was seeing Eisriesenwelt – which translates to “World of Giants Ices” in German – the largest ice cave in the whole world. The cave is 26 miles long, so you can nearly run a marathon in the cave if it weren’t for, ya know, all of the slippery ice and freezing temperatures in there.

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eisriesenwelt ice cave

(source of images)

The ice cave is located in Werfen, a town not a far distance from where we were staying in St. Johann, but it was quite the trip getting there (which is half the fun might I add!) that went as follows:

Walking from our hotel to the train station –> train ride –> walked to a bus stop, but not before walking completely into town to figure out what we were doing –> hiking –> cable car –> hiking = the ice cave!

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Once we arrived towards the top, we spotted the cave:

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Werfen-5Werfen-6The tour was a bit over an hour, during which we walked over 1,400 stairs using lanterns as our guiding light. At first the cold didn’t feel too bad, but towards the end my toes were numb and I was shaking – partly from all the stairs, partly from the cold I think! The cave tours stop operating during the winter, when winds blow into the cave and freeze the snow inside. In warmer months, a cold wind from inside the cave blows toward the entrance and prevents the formations from melting. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the cave, but trust me when I say that it was pretty damn cool!

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After seeing the ice cave, I warmed up with some hot chocolate as we hiked down the mountain and enjoyed the beautiful scenery.

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Werfen has a castle that we would have liked to visit had we had time to. It’s surrounded by mountains and greenery and pretty neat looking:

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The next day, my hubby and I did a bike tour with our hotel’s fitness guru and found ourselves in the same small town of Werfen once again. Like every place I saw during our stay in Austria, it was a quaint little town.

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I burned some serious calories during our Austria bike adventure! I think I partly have my workouts in Austria to thank for me not gaining a pound while in Europe for nearly two weeks. Getting to be in the beautiful outdoors with my hubby seeing natural wonders like waterfalls, the Alps, and ice caves, all while getting exercise in — what could be better? 🙂

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A Natural Wonder: Austria’s Liechtenstein Gorge

Hi friends! After many hours of travel, I arrived back in the good ole USA last night. My trip was amazing, and as usual when I go on trips, I’ve caught the travel bug and am plotting my next 5 excursions! 😉 Here’s a look at the route we took once in Europe:

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Last year my hubby and I bought a timeshare. Since we’ve experienced some buyers’ remorse from the moment we bought it, and since we’ve been paying it without seeing anything up front, we wanted to be sure to use it for the first time during this vacation. I checked out my timeshare options with only about 6 weeks notice, and this is how Austria became a big part of our vacation.

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To be honest, I didn’t know too much about Austria until planning this trip, but once I started to learn more about the country, I knew it’d be an awesome place to visit. As soon as we arrived in the country, it was breathtakingly beautiful. Thankfully our hotel, Alpenland Sporthotel, was pretty nice, centrally located and full of amenities. It wasn’t too bad looking at this view from my hotel room every day:

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Our time in St. Johann im Pongau was full of outdoor exercise with spectacular views like the one above. The first day we were there, we hiked to Liechtensteinklamm – one of the longest and deepest accessible wild water ravines in the Alps – and soaked in the beautiful views in getting there.

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I loved the outdoor gym in the middle of the park! Why don’t they have those anywhere near where I live?!

The waterfalls were so cool, and photos hardly do them justice, but here’s my attempt at doing so:

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Since it was wet and cold at the falls, afterwards we warmed up with a bite to eat. Adam had some traditional bratwurst (no comment), and I had cheese dumpling soup and tea. We split a soft pretzel too, and even though they originated from Germany, I must say that I prefer the American way of eating them. In Austria & Germany, they serve them cold with no ketchup or mustard.

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Side note: Pretty much anything vegetarian in Austria has cheese in it, so I’m not sure how vegans would make out there. I already knew that German/Austrian cuisine is not very conducive to non-meat eaters like myself, so it wasn’t a big shock to see restaurants with nothing but that on their menus.

Between hiking there and back and walking the waterfalls, it was a good 4-hour trip. I certainly got my movement in for the day and then some!

Exploring Cologne, Germany

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While planning this vacation, a lot of thought and research went into figuring out just where to visit. Once I decided that we’d spend some days in Austria after being in Amsterdam, I knew that I wanted to see Germany in between the two. After doing some reading and Googling, I decided that we’d visit the city of Cologne.

After a couple of hours on the train, we stepped out in Cologne and immediately saw what the city is most known for – the massive gothic Roman Catholic cathedral known as Kölner Dom.

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The church is the most visited landmark in all of Europe, with an estimated 20,000 people visiting it daily. It was certainly a site to see, especially if you’re into churches and their architecture.

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Afterwards, Adam and I were reading online about the history of the church, and found it crazy to see pictures from during World War II when the city of Cologne was mostly flattened, yet the church still stood tall. American troops reportedly used the cathedral as a rifle range during the war.

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(source)

Next, we checked out the Hohenzollern Bridge – a site famous for its “love padlocks.” Couples from all over the world have come to the bridge to lock engraved padlocks onto the bridge, then throw the keys into the Rhine River. It’s meant to symbolize their everlasting love for one another. I thought the concept was so neat!

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Unfortunately we didn’t bring a padlock of our own, but I kept noticing my name on so many of them! I guess that ‘Nicole’ is a pretty popular name worldwide.

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It was a gorgeous day in Cologne, so we walked around town a lot after seeing the bridge. We made our way to where the cable cars take off from, and rested our feet while riding in the sky checking out the city from high up.

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We were surprised that most of the people we ran into in Cologne did not speak English. I felt like a bit of a jerk not knowing much German while visiting their country, and I got the impression that they were a bit embarrassed that they didn’t know much English. Adam knows a bit of German but hasn’t studied it in awhile, so he isn’t exactly fluent. When all else fails, I find it best to just smile and point to things!

Later in the day when we ventured around the downtown area looking for a bite to eat, we found that menus weren’t translated into English. This presented a bit of a challenge for myself as a vegetarian in Germany – the land of bratwurst and every other kind of hot dog looking meat out there. When you tell people that you want no meat, they look at you like you’re nuts! I wound up playing it safe with a broccoli pizza, which was very good.

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Though Cologne isn’t necessarily a city I’d stay in for an extended period of time, being there for a day and night was a nice stop on our way down to Austria. Random fact: Cologne has the most pubs per capita in all of Germany. A plethora of authentic pubs may be reason enough to go check it out there!

Reasons Why I’m Loving Football

During long flights, my brain wanders and I get to thinking about lots of random things. One of those things on my travels over to Europe was the game of football.

I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it on the blog before, but I grew up in a football family. My dad has been a high school athletic director and football coach my entire life, my brothers played football, and one of them now coaches as well. I was a competitive cheerleader growing up, and cheered at football games from the age of 7 up to 17. So while I get that a lot of women have no interest in football, I not only understand the game, I love it.

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With football season officially underway, here are some reasons why I’m digging the sport right now:

Funday Sunday…and Monday: NFL football makes Sunday and Monday nights (and sometimes Thursday nights and holidays) more entertaining. I love the feeling of grinding through a busy Monday, then being able to relax and watching a game at night, or not being as bummed about the weekend ending because a good game is coming on.

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Football Food: Who doesn’t like to eat some good food while watching a game? I like to make fun appetizers and take typical football food and make it healthier. Guacamole, hummus, cream cheese mushroom puffs, and my spinach & artichoke dip are good examples.

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Smack Talk Time: My hubby and his family are all Eagles fans, my little brother is a Cowboys fan, and my dad loves the Steelers… football season is full of endless smack talking, and it’s a good time!

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Reppin’ My Giants Attire: I’ve said it many times, I’ll probably say it many times more – I’m a New York Giants fan. While I do wear clothes that represent the Giants year-round, I definitely kick it up a notch and wear it a lot more during football season. Living in California, there aren’t many Giants fans like myself around, so it’s kind of a funny conversation starter. In fact, when my hubby and I knew each other but weren’t dating yet, I’ll never forget that I walked into a bookstore he was in wearing a Giants jersey and he said something along the lines of, “What are you wearing? That jersey disgusts me.” Quite the sarcastic one he is!

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Throwback picture from a Giants game – circa 2007

Fantasy Football: Playing in a Fantasy league is a lot of fun, and this year I’m in two! One of the leagues includes my hubby and best friend as competitors, while the other is my co-worker’s league where I’m the only female, and also the only person under the age of 40. It’s funny because I find myself cheering for people to do well that I’m not really a fan of just because I have them on my team and want to win.

Any ladies who dislike Sundays right now because their man plops himself in front of the TV all day, you might want to keep in mind that Fantasy Football helps you learn the game better, makes it more interesting to watch, plus you can win some money! No, not buying it? Okay, how about this: You can strike a deal with your man that you won’t complain about his incessant football watching and Fantasy Football stat checking IF you get a gift with some of the money he wins in his league? If he’s not in a league (or one where there’s money involved), maybe that idea could still work somehow?! As in a gift for being a great football enduring girlfriend/wife??

Are you a football fan? What’s your favorite sport?

Memorable Eats & Drinks in Amsterdam

My days in Amsterdam this time around have come and gone. I had a great time there for work, but I was excited to leave the city and start my European vacation! My hubby and I spent some time in Cologne (more on that later!), and now we’re rolling through the German countryside on the train en route to Austria. But today I’m sharing my eats and drinks from my time in Amsterdam.

A lot of my eats were at the city’s convention center where my work event was, looking mostly like this…

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tomato soup, bread & fruit

…but I also had some fun foodie experiences. Here are my top 3:

1.) TerraZen Cafe: I talked about this Japanese/Caribbean fusion vegan eatery last year, and this year I went back to the restaurant – twice actually! It’s completely hippy-ish & not in the least bit a formal eatery…and the food is really yummy! I went there once with my boss, then took my hubby there the last night I was in Amsterdam. My hubby declared it to be, “one of the weirdest places I’ve taken him,” but said that the food was tasty. I walked out with a happy belly both times! Dishes I shared there include miso soup, tempeh katsu, avocado natto, tempura and teishoku: 

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2.) Trying akvavit: One of my company’s clients is based in Norway, and during a reception they had, they served akvavit, a traditional spirit enjoyed often by Norwegians at Christmas. Distilled from potatoes, I did not expect the akvavit to taste quite so strong. It was like sipping on a shot – with an empty stomach nonetheless! – but it was interesting to try anyways.

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 (source)

3.) SPACE MUFFINS: I saved the best for last! Even if you’ve never been to Amsterdam, you’ve probably heard that there are coffee shops at every corner with happy people ingesting legal marijuana. I hadn’t tried any in Amsterdam on my previous trips because it’s not my thing, but I figured why not? It’s Amsterdam after all! I tried a chocolate muffin, which surprisingly tasted good. I didn’t feel the effects until hours afterwards, at which point I was giggling as I happily ate at the above vegan restaurant. It was a fun time!

IMG_1372Question: Have you ever been skeptical of a restaurant at first, then wound up loving it? 

I felt a bit iffy about TerraZen at first, but it wound up being a hidden gem in a city not known for its cuisine. The same goes for my favorite Chinese food in the whole world – Veggie Heaven in Jersey! It just shows that you can’t judge a book by its cover right? 🙂

Amsterdam’s House of Bols

Since I’ve been to Amsterdam a couple of times before, I’ve already experienced some of the big attractions in the city (including the Anne Frank House, which I’ve gone to and cried at twice). This time around, I wanted to see something new. In my online research, I wound up discovering the House of Bols.
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Established in Amsterdam in 1575, Bols is the world’s oldest spirit brand. They make 38 liqueurs, including a Dutch spirit Genever. The interactive tour at House of Bols includes learning about the history of the brand and exploring different ways to test your senses…plus you get to choose a cocktail at the end. 🙂 I thought it sounded like a fun activity, and it totally wound up being just that!

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House of Bols is located about 2 miles from my hotel, so I decided to let my iPhone and a map guide me and take a nice stroll around town. Unfortunately my phone died halfway there, so I had to use just a map to get the rest of the way. I have a horrible sense of direction, so I’m proud to say that I figured it out and made my way there without my baby Jesus guiding the way!

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One of the most fun parts of the tour was the smell testing room. They had all of these different aromas that you puffed into the air to smell, then you could guess what each was before flipping over a tile and seeing the answer. It sounds really easy, but I couldn’t pinpoint what a bunch of them were. Examples of aromas they had were pomegranate and spearmint. bols-4

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At the end, you have a computer guide you to your ideal cocktail. Mine fit into the category of fruity & complex, and it was sort of like a mojito, but it used Genever instead of rum and had fresh passion fruit in it.

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It only took 60-90 minutes to do the tour and sip my drink, and I definitely think it’s worth checking out if you’re in Amsterdam!

I always find it interesting to travel and explore an area alone. I feel really aware of my surroundings and like I’m paying a lot of attention to all that’s around me (especially when I don’t want to use my phone with its ridiculous international charges!). I always find that I run into friendly people a lot when I’m on my own. It’s fun to do and I don’t mind being alone, yet I definitely prefer to share my experiences with the people I love. Being alone definitely reminds you of that, and I’m excited to see my hubby tomorrow night and share the rest of my Europe trip with him!

Yesterday I chatted with 2 American girls here on vacation, and one said something along the lines of, “Wow, that’s awesome that you came here alone to do the tour. I’d like to think that if I traveled internationally for work, I’d go explore on my own.. but I don’t think I would have the guts to.” She had an interesting point, and I started wondering if most people feel like her, or if a lot of people also like the mostly independent, yet slightly scary feeling of journeying around on their own. Readers, thoughts on this? Have you ever traveled and explored alone? Did you enjoy it? 

Snapshots of Amsterdam

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Hallo!

When I woke up from my nap in my comfy hotel bed yesterday to the sound of rain, I thought Bummer! I wanted to walk around the city and explore a bit,  but didn’t particularly feel like walking around cold in the rain. After a few minutes of groggily debating, I forced myself up out of bed, grabbed my camera and went outside. After all, it’s not every day I’m in Amsterdam!

First, I found a fresh juice stand and ordered an all-natural fruity juice to pep me up a bit…

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The fresh air and juice made me feel so much better, and I’m so happy that I got up instead of pulling over the covers – The rain stopped and it wound up being really nice outside, and I had a good time getting lost a bit walking around the city and soaking it all up. Here are some shots I snapped from around the city:

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Stay tuned for more Amsterdam fun!