Fall Foliage and Fungi at Kampinos National Park

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I’m usually very A-type personality when it comes to planning our trips. I map out whole days involving every meal, sightseeing and where we can eat or drink in between sightseeing.

However, every now and then, I step back and put the planner down. In March, we booked a weekend trip to Lake Como, Italy, with our foodie friend from Germany. I hardly planned a thing for this trip because I trust our friend when it comes to food and he had visited the area a few summers ago. I also was traveling with a recently sprained ankle so I wasn’t too mobile yet.

After a 90-minute drive from Bergamo airport, we arrived at a cloudy-covered, but still beautiful Lake Como. I had no expectations for this place, especially since we were visiting in a very off-peak season.
Our first order of business was finding food. Luckily, our agriturismo owner recommended a local wine bar that perfectly (and cheaply) served our needs. We consumed 8 glasses of wine and a large platter of Italian cured meats at Comini Enoteca, Via Montello 1, in Mandello del Lario, for only 40 euros! This was a fantastic start to our weekend at Lake Como.
Afterwards, we drove down and parked at the local train station so it wouldn’t be too far for me to hobble downhill to the pier area in Mandello del Lario. We stopped at what seemed like the only open café where we bought gelato and walked along the pier.
Then, we continued north up the coast to the next town of Varenna so we could figure out the ferry boat schedule for the next day. Varenna was full of charming, rustic houses, narrow, cobble-stoned paths and a long lakeside promenade. I’m sure the town is even prettier when the weather is nice.
On Sunday, we woke up to these wonderful views from our hillside agriturismo, Crotto di Somana

If you visit Lake Como, I can highly recommend our agriturismo, which had been recently renovated around a “crotto,” a natural cave typical of the mountain regions of the surrounding Lombard and Swiss Alps. After a pleasant breakfast featuring homemade jams, breads and cheeses, we left early to catch the ferry boat from Varenna to Bellagio.
View of Bellagio on Lake Como from the ferry boat.
The resort town of Bellagio has an ideal lakeside location so the rich and famous can just pull up in their fancy boats. We didn’t see anyone famous, just some British tourists. We wandered around a bit and then plunked ourselves down lakeside to enjoy the sunny weather.
From Bellagio, we decided to catch the ferry boat to Menaggio, located on the lake’s western side closer to where George (Clooney) lives. Unfortunately, our plans to meet up with George fell through so we decided to drive to Switzerland!
Visiting Lake Como in March was the perfect season for us because it wasn't crowded.
The town of Menaggio.
The drive was only about 45-minutes from Menaggio to the town of Lugano in Switzerland. But first we were stopped by the cops. We hadn’t done anything wrong, just had to wait for a cycling race to pass through, so we got out to take photos.
The clear waters of nearby Lago di Lugano looked quite inviting!
Lugano itself didn’t look as picturesque as the towns by Lake Como, so we stayed long enough to have a drink and enjoy the views.
Back in Menaggio, our plans went sideways. We parked the car in line for the next ferry boat and ran into a small café for something to eat. We didn’t have much time, so our friend went back out to the car. Well, hubby and I got distracted and soon enough we were running outside just in time to see the ferry boat pulling away from the shore. We literally had missed the boat!

We had to wait another hour for the next ferry boat while our friend had a drink back in Varenna and (thankfully) waited for us with the car. At least, we saw the sunset over Lake Como.

We ended our lazy weekend with a home-cooked, four-course dinner at one of the best places in Mandello del Lario – Osteria Sali e Tabacchi. Eating here was like being invited into an Italian’s mother’s home. The dishes were simple, but delicious and featured local ingredients. A few of the dishes I remember: local fish in two dishes, cured Italian meats for an antipasti, braised beef with polenta, pumpkin-filled ravioli and homemade pistachio gelato. Be sure to make reservations in advance!
Despite having a badly sprained ankle, we were able to sightsee a bit around Lake Como, relax and simply have fun catching up with our good friend. I realized sometimes it pays not to have a perfect plan.

 Have you been to Lake Como? If so, do you have any recommendations for our next trip?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Same park, same season, but different photos.

This is my second year walking through Łazienki Park (Łazienki Królewskie in Polish) in Warsaw during the autumn season. I recently spent a few hours here with a group of girlfriends so we could capture the fall beauty in photos. Even though I was here last year at the same time, the photos I captured this year are definitely different.
This is where we enjoyed the summer Chopin concerts on Sundays. 
Maybe my perspective has changed. Maybe different things caught my eye this time. Maybe I can blame it on the warmer weather effecting the trees this year.
Whatever it is, I hope you enjoy walking through Łazienki Park in its full fall beauty with me.

Which photo is your favorite?
The Palace on the Water (Pałac na Wodzie).
The Chinese Embassy in Warsaw sponsored the building of a new Chinese garden and pagoda area in Łazienki Park.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

As a professionally trained pastry chef, being told I might want to go on a gluten-free diet sounded like some kind of cruel punishment.

I’ve worked at some of the top restaurants in the U.S., and I love dessert!

The problem is I have a hyperactive thyroid, which probably has been preventing me from getting pregnant these last three years. My hormones have been all over the place. At this point, I was willing to try anything so that hopefully we can have a baby someday. My acupuncturist and a fertility-specialty dietitian both recommended the gluten-free diet so I jumped on the bandwagon.

Going gluten-free isn’t easy, especially when you like to dine out often like I do. I’ve learned to eat a lot of salads, soups and Asian foods, which seem to be the most gluten-free friendly. A gigantic bowl of Vietnamese pho with chicken and rice noodles is my go-to dish for lunch. Italian restaurants are the worst – no bread, no pasta and no pizza.

After nearly three months of a gluten-free diet, I’ve figured out some healthy baking recipes and thought I’d start sharing these with you. Instead of using wheat flour, I’ve learned to use flours made from nuts, coconut, corn, rice and potatoes. My kitchen experiments don’t always turn out like my failed crumbly cornbread and my too fennel-y pizza crackers, but I keep playing in the kitchen. That’s what pastry chefs do!

And the results seem to be working. My blood work has shown decreased hormone levels; but since I’m also taking a thyroid medicine and doing the gluten-free diet, I don’t know which one has helped the most. (Oh and in case you’re wondering, I only had a few tiny sips of hubby’s beers at the recent Warszawski Festival Piwa I wrote about on Monday. I do miss beer!)

Since it’s fall, I’ve been baking a lot with pumpkin and sweet potatoes lately. I’ve adapted a pumpkin recipe I found online and have made these several times now. 
These gluten-free muffins are perfect for a breakfast on the go or an afternoon snack. Just limit yourself to one! I liked these so much that I ate two muffins the first time, and then realized that was just too much fiber to eat at one sitting.

These gluten-free pumpkin muffins also are girlfriend and husband tested and approved! I hope you enjoy them too!

Remember: only eat ONE of these fiber-rich muffins at a time! 
Gluten-Free Spiced Streusel Pumpkin Muffins
Yields: 12-14 muffins
Adapted from Poet in the Pantry

Spiced Streusel Topping
2          Tablespoons                organic coconut oil, melted
2          Tablespoons                pure maple syrup
2          Tablespoons                ground flax seeds
½         teaspoon                      ground cinnamon
½         teaspoon                      ground ginger
¼         teaspoon                      salt
½         cup                  (60 g.)  almond flour*
¾         cup                  (95 g.)  chopped pecans or walnuts

Muffin ingredients
1          cup                  (240 g.) homemade pumpkin puree OR canned
4          large                              eggs
⅓         cup                  (98 ml.)  pure maple syrup
½         cup                  (120 ml) organic coconut oil, melted
1          cup                  (120 g.)  almond flour
⅓         cup                  (45 g.)  coconut flour, lightly packed
1½       teaspoons                    ground cinnamon
½         teaspoon                      ground ginger
Pinch of                                   freshly grated nutmeg
½         teaspoon                      salt
½         teaspoon                      baking soda
½         cup                  (75 g.)  dried cranberries or raisins
*Note:             You can substitute the almond pulp from your homemade almond milk for the almond flour. Just be sure to dry your leftover almond pulp in the oven before using.

Preheat oven to 350F/175 C. Line a 12-cup muffin pan with paper liners and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the streusel ingredients, tossing with a fork until you get small crumbs. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the pumpkin puree, eggs and maple syrup. Once combined, whisk in the coconut oil, pouring in a steady stream.

Then, add the dry ingredients and whisk until incorporated.

Lastly, fold in the dried cranberries or raisins.

Using a large cookie scoop or two spoons, portion out the batter, filling each muffin cup about ¾ of the way.

Sprinkle and press the streusel topping on top of each muffin.
Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean.

These muffins can be stored in an air-tight container at room temperature for 1-2 days and then should be moved to the refrigerator. I had a batch of mine go sour after sitting out on the counter for 5 days. If needed, extra muffins could be frozen as well.

Monday, October 13, 2014

This weekend in Warsaw, we celebrated our own kind of Oktoberfest at the inaugural Warsaw Beer Festival (Warszawski Festival Piwa).

The festival featured draft beer from more than 80 breweries totaling 150 different kinds of beer as well as beer being sold in bottles. The majority of the craft beer was from Poland as well as Norway, USA, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Denmark, United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, Ireland and Belgium. This festive event was organized by the Mazowiecki Branch of the Polish Association of Domestic Brewers (Mazowiecki Oddział Polskiego Stowarzyszenia Piwowarów Domowych).

It seems like Poland is experiencing a boom in craft beer, especially after reading this recent Warsaw Insider article, with a new brewery and two contract breweries launching each month. We’ve personally seen several new bars featuring local and international IPAs (my favorite), Pale Ales, lagers and stouts on tap since we moved to Warsaw in April 2013. Just a month after our arrival, Cuda na Kiju, Warsaw’s first multi-tap bar, opened on Nowy Świat with 16 beers on tap. This is our go-to place to grab a pint after a bike ride and sit outside in the courtyard of the former Communist Party Headquarters building. It’s certainly ironic to sip a craft beer surrounded by Varsovian hipsters in this locale.
A food truck festival held at Cuda na Kiju earlier this summer in Warsaw.
Another favorite of ours, Kufle i Kapsule, also opened last summer and was featured at the festival.
We first tried a new IPA from the colorful taps at Reden by Browar Rzemieślniczy, and it was perfectly hoppy just the way we like it.
Then, there was a sort of strange Czech black lager called Skreconsky Zabak Černé 13°, not one of our favorites.

But Alebrowar had a fun stand set up where we tried one of our favorite Polish beers called Rowing Jack, an IPA brewed by Browar Gosciszewo.
Of course, not all the beers were winners. We tried a Belgian raspberry beer – too fruity – and another IPA that was too hoppy and slightly smoky.

Overall, we enjoyed the beer festival with some friends and their children (kept fairly quiet with beer stickers and colored markers) on what was a perfect Indian summer day. The only disappointing thing was the lack of seating. No one wants to stand around for four hours drinking beer.
Friends don't let friends drink alone.
The festival offered a wide variety of beers like these. 

Let’s hope the beer revolution in Poland continues to grow. We’re happy to support this movement and hope to see the beer festival return next year!
Chmielarnia, another multi-tap bar in Warsaw, strangely serves really good Indian food.
The butter chicken was delicious!
I love that Warsaw has fully embraced the food truck trend!
Another Polish mini-brewery at the beer festival.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Whenever I mention the colorful “flying ponies” in Warsaw, my friends and especially newcomers look at me like I’m crazy.

Then, I launch into an explanation.

Located just steps away from one of the many somber Warsaw Uprising memorials, you’ll find five primary-colored flying horses or Pegasus sculptures resting on the lawn in front of the Krasiński Palace (Pałac Krasińskich). Even though you’re close to Old Town, you’ll probably miss seeing my favorite sculptures.
I always smile when I see these flying ponies, as I like to call them. Since I live in the nearby Muranow neighborhood, I make weekly treks through and near the palace and the surrounding Krasiński Park (Ogród Krasińskich).
These winged horses were created by Beata Konarska and Pawel Konarski of Warsaw design studio Konarska-Nokarski in 2008. The brightly-colored metal structures were originally designed for an exhibition at the Polish National Library and was inspired by another library exhibit devoted to Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, who frequently referenced mythology in his writings. 
This summer, the park opened for the first time since we moved here, following a 13.5 million złoty renovation and restoration thanks to some EU funding. The construction fencing was slowly torn down to reveal a park filled with dozens of wooden benches, lovely paved and gravel paths, which are perfect for jogging, outdoor exercise equipment, two playgrounds for children, a pond that’s home to lots of ducks and two fountains. And all of this is about a 15-minute walk away from our apartment.
Since its opening, the park seems to be particularly popular with the locals. Older ladies walk their little dogs in the mornings. Young mothers and grandmothers push babies in strollers through the park. Runners and cyclists also are fond of the park. I haven’t seen many tourists (yet), and that’s fine with me. A hidden piece of peacefulness right in the center of the city!
I haven’t been inside the baroque palace, which is home to a branch of the Biblioteka Narodowa (National Library) and its Special Collections Section of Manuscripts and Old Prints and the Polish Jazz Archive. According to the building’s history, the palace was built for the Krasiński family between 1677 and 1700. In 1765, the palace was purchased by the Polish State and served as a seat of the Crown Treasury. Of course, the palace suffered a fire in 1782, was reconstructed and then was destroyed by the German Army during World War II in 1944. Reconstruction began again in 1948.
With its latest incarnation complete, I’m happy to have the Krasiński Palace in my neighborhood. Be sure to stop by and admire the flying ponies here!
Krasiński Palace (Pałac Krasińskich)
Corner of Bonifraterska and Swietojerksa streets
The southern corner of the park also can be reached by a 5-minute walk from the Metro Ratusz Arsenal stop.
Warsaw, Poland