Monday, January 26, 2015

Well, after the holidays ended, I switched back to a mainly gluten-free diet.

I have to tell you, it’s not that fun. I miss drinking good beer and being able to eat whatever I want. Now, I drink more herbal teas than coffee and eat more fruit for a snack instead of sweets. I’m sure it all be good in the long run for my health.

But sometimes, you have to wonder: what the heck should I eat? Especially when it comes to snacking.

Well, one mainstay for me has been to make my own gluten-free crackers. They taste like My Everything Bagels minus the gluten. I eat these crackers with cheese, hummus or any other dips I may make at home. They’re delicious and nutritious!

To provide structure for these crackers, I use flax seeds and yes, ch-ch-ch-chia seeds, a cousin to the ones you once used to grow in your clay chia “pet.” Chia seeds seem to be the new health hotness and are used to jazz up salads, cereals and energy bars. Chia seeds contain more alpha-linoleic acid, an omega-3 fat, than flax seeds, and also provide calcium, fiber and iron. 

Just 2 tablespoons of chia seeds contain about 139 calories, 11 grams of fiber, 9 grams of fat and 4 grams of protein, in addition to the above nutrients mentioned.

Chia seeds are kinda strange to work with at first, but now I’ve grown to like them. When you add liquid, the chia seeds swell and look like a squishy blob. For breakfast, sometimes, I make a “chia pudding,” by adding 2 tablespoons of seeds to about ½ cup of almond or coconut milk. Shake the seeds in the milk and let rest at least 20 minutes or as much as over night. Then, top the chia seed pudding with fresh fruit, dried coconut and some almonds. Yum!

If you’re looking for a healthy, gluten-free snack, these crackers are the way to go!

A batch of my Gluten-Free Everything Seed Crackers served with hummus topped with nar.
Gluten-Free Everything Seed Crackers
Adapted from this recipe by Gluten-Free-Vegan-Girl

¼         cup      (25 g.)             flax seed flakes (I can buy them here already "cracked" so I don’t have to grind them.)
¼         cup      (40 g.)              chia seeds (Or substitute all flax seeds for the chia.)
1          cup      (240 ml)           water, room temp.
¼         cup      (40 g.)              My Everything Bagel mix (A homemade blend of white and black sesame seeds, poppy seeds, garlic and onion powder and salt.)
½         cup      (75 g.)              sunflower seeds
¼         cup      (40 g.)              pumpkin seeds, roughly chopped
1          teaspoon                      za’atar spice sprinkled on top
¼         teaspoon                      salt or less to taste.

Mix flax and chia seeds together with the water. Whisk together and let rest for 20 minutes. The seeds will absorb the water and become kind of like egg-whites or glue-y.
Then, stir in the remaining ingredients, minus the za’atar or whatever spices you like.

Using an offset spatula, carefully spread out the cracker mixture thinly on parchment paper or a flexi silpat baking mat. (This stuff sticks everywhere. I've tried rolling the mixture between two sheets of paper, but it sticks and you lose a lot of the seeds. The baking mat is the best way to go.)
Sprinkle the spices on top.

Bake the crackers for 30 minutes at 375F/175 C, with a convection fan. Remove the tray from the oven, and then flip over so you can crisp up the other side. (If you leave two pieces of parchment, you can't peel off the second piece very easily. The silicone mat is the easiest way.)

Also, at this time, try to use a pizza wheel to slice the crackers into small squares. Then continue baking for about 20 more minutes. The crackers are done when they start to slightly brown on the edges and feel crispy.

Total baking time is about 50 minutes in my oven. If your oven doesn’t have a convection fan, the crackers may take a bit longer to bake.

Store the crackers in an airtight container about 1 week, if they last that long. But don't eat too many in one sitting as I did...too much fiber! ;-) I also use the leftover cracker crumbs on top of salads.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

American cities like NYC and Las Vegas may be full of glitzy neon signs, but I have to say they don’t compare to the collection you’ll find here in Warsaw.

Yep, our Polish capital is home to the Neon Muzeum which is dedicated to the preservation of Poland's Cold War-era neon signs. Opened in May 2012, it is one of just a handful of neon museums in the whole world. The museum is located in the Soho Factory, an old factory that now houses galleries, restaurants and design shops and hosts special events in up-and-coming Praga, a neighborhood on the eastern side of Warsaw.
Awhile back, we visited the Neon Muzeum as part of a group tour and saw how creators, David Hill and Ilona Karwinska, have collected more than 50 neon signs from around Poland. The duo first collaborated together on a photography book, called Polish Cold War Neon in 2005, and the idea to preserve these now very fashionable and retro neon signs developed.

Inside, you’ll find more than 500 letters in various fonts preserved from old Polish cafés, libraries, pharmacies, stores, train stations and even the former National Stadium. Some shine bright, while others wait for restoration until funds become available.
During the Cold War era, these neon signs were designed and made by architects, graphic designers and artists as part of the state-run Reklama, a graphic design company that ended up creating more than 1,000 of them. One such sign is “Berlin,” dating from 1974, which served as a textile company, a gift shop, and a household appliance store. Reklama designed the sign and ended up repairing it nearly 40 years later for the museum.
I loved exploring this trendy museum! You can’t help but wonder how these bright, unique signs once lit up the otherwise drab Communism landscape in Poland. What stories could be told if the signs could talk?
Next to many of the signs you’ll also find brief descriptions.
Left: “Syrenka” (Mermaid) is the symbol of Warsaw. This neon sign from a Public Library, dates back to the early 1970s, in the Ochota district. The symbol and letters were removed during a renovation and then donated by the library to the museum.

Right: The “Bar Biedronka” (Ladybird Milk Bar) was designed in 1969. Milk bars were very popular as affordable social eateries post WWII and have now become fashionable again. There are several locations in Warsaw.
Restauracja Szanghaj  was once located at Marszałkowska 55/73 in Warsaw.
Hopefully, neon will continue to appeal to future generations. After all, neon is a pretty cool form of visual communication. Stop by the museum and check it out for yourself!

Neon Muzeum
ul. Minska 25
Open: 12-17 Wednesdays to Saturdays; 12-16 Sundays.
If interested in buying memorabilia, check out the Neon Muzeum Online Store.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Art Nouveau buildings, an old cinema turned hotel and 19th-century factory buildings converted into lively pubs and restaurants, these are a few more reasons why I really liked Łódź.

Of course, the drive from Warsaw took longer than we expected (2 ½ hours), so we were hungry and thirsty by the time we arrived in Poland’s third largest city in mid-August.

We quickly dropped off our bags at Cinema Residence (Stare Kino) Hotel and set out in search of food and drink. By this time, it was way after 5 o’clock. Time for a cocktail!

After reading about OFF Piotrkowska, I knew this complex, made up of old brick, 19th-century factory buildings, would be the perfect place to start. In fact, there were so bars and restaurants here that we saw no need to go elsewhere. These buildings make up the former Ramisch family cotton mill factory that was started in the 1850s in the heart of the city. The mill ended production in 1990, and the buildings fell into disrepair until 2010 when locals breathed new life into them.
Now, you’ll find a revitalized area that reminded me so much of the hipster areas we saw in Berlin. Old factory buildings + bars and restaurants = cool!

We started out with drinks at MITMI Restobar (pronounced ‘Meat Me’), a casual bar/restaurant that featured exposed, raw brick walls and tons of outdoor seating. We also nibbled on an interesting appetizer of savory waffles with blue cheese and roast beef. Strange, but still tasty! Later, we moved onto another nearby restaurant for dinner. We were lucky to even get a seat anywhere as all the restaurants were hopping on the Friday summer night we visited!
And if you’re craving something sweet, there’s even a retro-style metal camper turned into an ice cream parlor. How’s that for hipster creativity?
Now, turning to the daytime, you’ll find ulica Piotrkowska, which splits Łódź into two. The street, just under 5-kilometers long, ranks as the longest pedestrian street in Europe. It is lined with restaurants, stores, beer gardens, pubs and a mix of beautiful neo-renaissance and art nouveau buildings. Many of these ornate buildings reminded me of the ones we saw in Riga, Latvia, recently.
We enjoyed walking up and down ulica Piotrkowska, and I think we almost covered the entire street on foot while we were searching for street art in Łódź. And if you get tired of walking, there are several bike rickshaws available so you can rest your feet.  
Unfortunately, during our holiday weekend visit, ulica Piotrkowska was rather quiet. We even had difficulties trying to find an open café for breakfast. From what I’ve read, I’m sure this street is normally as busy as OFF Piotrkowska was.

So have my recent blog posts tempted you to plan a visit to Łódź yet?
“Turn of the Millennium” walk, from ulica Piotrkowska 98 to 146, is made up of  nearly 13,000 paving blocks with engraved names of well-known and not-so-well-known citizens of Łódź . 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Łódź is a city of contrasts.

Our Polish friends (although Varsovians) wrinkled their noses in disgust when we said we were going to Łódź (which is pronounced like "Woodge"). However, none of them had visited Poland’s third largest city for more than 10 years!

I was shocked!

On our Polish road trip in August, we discovered that Łódź has a pretty side as you walk down ulica Piotrkowska, the longest pedestrian street in Europe. The ugly side rears its head as you wander off the side streets and see dozens and dozens of neglected, old tenement and factory buildings falling into ruins. But then, amidst the good and the ugly, you’ll discover a cool, artsy, hipster vibe to Łódź, which is home to more than 30 gigantic street art murals. This is why we decided to stay a night in Łódź so we could explore it properly.
This is one of my favorite murals located at ul. Pomorska 67 by Spanish artist ARYZ. 
Here’s the Galeria Urban Forms map we used as we walked more than 10 km around the city center trying to find as many murals as we could. In 2009, the Urban Forms Foundation was established to set up permanent street art in Łódź’s public spaces. Since then, artists from Brazil, Chile, France, Germany, Spain and Poland have been invited to create street art throughout Łódź. (Here’s a list of the artists.)

We saw 16 out of 35 of the large Urban Forms murals plus a few extra that weren’t on the map. Hope you enjoy this photographic journey through Łódź as much as we did!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

I’m not a religious person, but our grandparents are very Catholic.

So when they visited us, I made a special road trip with them to Częstochowa (see map), which is home to Poland’s most important pilgrimage site, the Jasna Góra Monastery. Every year, millions of tourists flock to the monastery to see the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, a revered icon of the Virgin Mary which has been the object of pilgrimages since the 14th century.
During our June visit, we encountered hundreds of tourists at the monastery and had to time our visit just right so we could actually see the Black Madonna painting. This revered icon is only unveiled at certain times, so be sure to check out this website before you plan your trip.

Numerous legends surround the Black Madonna, which could date back to 400 A.D., when it traveled from Jerusalem to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and survived a fire. The icon eventually ended up in the hands of an advisor to the King of Poland and Hungary and was left at the Częstochowa monastery because of a vision in 1384. In 1655, the Black Madonna was credited with saving the monastery against the Swedish Invasion where the monks successfully held off the Swedes for 40 days. Since then, the icon has been credited with numerous miracles such as healing sicknesses.

Even if you’re not religious, the Black Madonna, secured behind a golden gate, is a pretty sight to see. I just cannot imagine believing in something like that strongly, but plenty of people do.
Our grandparents were very happy to see the Black Madonna so that’s all that matters. We also visited the inside of the monastery’s ornate basilica, which dates back to 1695. How this beautiful church survived WWII is a miracle to me!
After our visit, we wandered to one of the nearby restaurants, which served decent Polish food, but nothing special. You could easily include Częstochowa as part of a daytrip from Warsaw or as stop along the way to Krakow, which is what we did.

We stayed the night at Browar Czenstochovia Hotel & Spa, a wonderful boutique hotel in a restored brewery. Luckily, this hotel served really good food and locally-brewed beer!
Have you visited or would you like to visit Częstochowa?
International flags line the walkway leading up to the Jasna Góra Monastery.

Other things to do/see in Częstochowa:

Stare Miasto (Old Town) has several interesting old buildings including the Franke's House, built in 1903, which belonged to Adolf Franke, an owner of a textile mill. The building housed a German hospital and army hotel during WWII and now has offices and shops.
St. Sigmund’s Church, originally built in 1350 but badly damaged during WWII, sits in the middle of Stare Miasto as well.
The Neo-Gothic Holy Family Cathedral of Częstochowa, is one of the largest churches not only in Poland but Europe as well. It was built in stages from 1901-1927 of red brick and sandstone details.
I didn't have a chance to peek inside, but the exterior is beautiful.
Our Lady of Częstochowa Orthodox Church, ul. Kopernika 23, is a rare Orthodox church in central Poland.
Parku Miniatur, located in a old quarry, features miniature versions of religious shrines from around the world as well as a gigantic 13.8-meter (45.3-foot) white, fiberglass statue of Pope John Paul II. We drove around the park so grandma could see the statue, but I refused to pay the ridiculous 25zl admission fee.
The Holy Virgin Mary Avenue (Aleje Najświętszej Maryi Panny) leads from St. Sigmund’s Church in Stare Miasto to the parks in front of the Jasna Góra Monastery.