May 10, 2012

recipe – dark chocolate chip banana bread & mini muffins

recipe – dark chocolate chip banana bread & mini muffins

I’m a green banana person.  I know, I know… “Gross!” most people are thinking.   Whatever.  You can have your boring old yellow bananas and I will savor the starchy-crisp-green-grassness of my underage banana babies.

On the other hand, I get REALLY – I mean truly, unnaturally – excited when my bananas mature past their adult stage and start to develop brown age spots  (btw, wouldn’t it be strange if bananas applied Retinol and stood in front of lasers so they could turn back to yellow?   Just sayin’…)

But I’m not the only one excited by the signs of aging bananas.  Everyone at Casa Resnick knows that old bananas = a hot slice of banana bread at the breakfast table very soon.

Baking banana bread is also the perfect excuse to use my grandmother Lollie’s vintage mini loaf pan from the 1950’s.  Seriously, how cute is this thing?

My mom saved it and gave it to me a few years ago when I started cooking obsessively regularly.  It’s essentially four small pans connected together, so you can easily bake multiple mini loaves at once.  I love to do slight variations… one might have chopped walnuts, the next some cinnamon & nutmeg, and the last one a double-helping of dark chocolate chips (that one always seems to disappear first).   We usually make a few small loaves for slicing and a big handful of mini muffins, the perfect size for school lunches.

I have this super easy banana bread recipe that’s basically foolproof (unless you’re the type of fool who forgets to stir in baking soda or eggs).  It’s also a little decadent, because come on, let’s not try to pretend that banana bread is healthy (for the record, carrot cake is not healthy either).   You can whip it together and pop it in the oven in under 5 minutes… and your kitchen will smell downright delicious because of it.

The one super-important ingredient for this recipe – over-ripe bananas.   There’s a big difference in taste when they’re at that perfect stage of ripeness.    Too young and the bread won’t have that rich caramel-y banana flavor.  Too old and the texture gets too runny and weird.  Just right and and it tastes… well… just right.

So how do you know if your bananas are ready?  You could try to calculate the brown spot to yellow skin ratio, but it’s sometimes hard to tell.  Here’s how I do it:  try to pick up the bananas by the top of the stem.  If the stem falls off (like in the above picture), they’re ready.  If not, give them another day or so (if you’re really impatient, you can put ‘em in a paper bag and they’ll ripen more quickly).

Got your bananas?  Good, you’re ready to go…

Dark Chocolate Chip Banana Bread & Mini-Muffins

Ingredients

  • 3 medium bananas, very ripe
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/2 stick unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 ½ cups all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup dark chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

For bread loaves:  spray your baking vessel with flour baking spray, such as Baker’s Joy (if you don’t have this, you can butter the vessel then lightly dust with flour).

For cupcakes: place cupcake liners in a cupcake pan (no spray needed).

Mash the bananas using a pastry cutter or potato masher.  Add the sugar, flour, eggs, baking soda and salt and stir with a wooden spoon to combine (don’t overmix, just stir until the flour is incorporated).  Stir in the chocolate chips.

Pour the batter into your baking vessel  - fill it about 2/3 of the way full.

Bake until the tops are nicely browned and the centers are cooked through.  A wooden tester inserted into the center of the loaf should come out clean, with no cake stuck to it (if you happen to strike a chocolate chip… and you will… try a different part of the loaf).

You’ll know it’s close to  being ready because your kitchen will start to smell crazy delicious.   Here are the approximate baking times:

  • For large bread loaves:  bake approx. 45-55 minutes
  • For small bread loaves:  25-30 minutes
  • For regular size cupcakes: 18-22 minutes
  • For mini cupcakes: 12-15 minutes

If you have some extra batter after pouring the bread loaf, make a handful of mini-muffins.  Poppable and delish!

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May 2, 2012

recipe – nopales fajitas with mango & avocado

recipe – nopales fajitas with mango & avocado

Searching for a vegan dish to serve at your Cinco de Mayo fiesta this weekend?  Not really?  Well… here’s one anyway.

I didn’t intend for this to be a Cinco de Mayo recipe (or a vegan one, for that matter)… it just kinda happened.  Josh and I were scouring the SM Farmer’s Market for the next candidate in my “Cook Something New” challenge (see: Chiogga beets from last week).

“Here’s something I bet you’ve never cooked before,” he said, pointing to a table full of cactus paddles.  “True, and I’m not quite sure what to do with them,” I thought as I scooped up a handful and promptly stuck myself full of thorns (damn you cactus).

Turns out, cactus – also known as prickly pear or nopales – are surprising easy to prepare.  You can roast or grill them whole, or dice and saute them like I did in this recipe.  They taste like a lighter, citrus-y green bean (with a similar texture to green beans) and they combine beautifully with a wide variety of ingredients, from eggs to tomatoes to mangoes.

I didn’t really have a recipe for this dish, so I just improvised with a bunch of random fruits and veggies we had on hand.  The combo of sweet mangoes with tart nopales and savory-sweet caramelized onions worked beautifully… light, healthy & fresh.

Nopales Fajitas con Mango y Avocado

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1/2 red onion, diced
  • 2 nopales paddles, dethorned & diced
  • 1 cup grape tomatoes, quartered
  • 1/2 mango, diced
  • 1/2 avocado, diced
  • 2 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons Cotija cheese, finely crumbled (optional – eliminate for vegans)
  • 2 limes
  • Flour tortillas

To prep nopales: use a sharp knife to scrape the thorns off the paddle, then slice off the outer edge all the way around the perimeter.  Cut off the thick bottom end and rinse the paddles in cold water.  Slice into strips or dice as desired.

Cook Fajitas:  heat 2 tbsp canola oil in a large skillet on medium-high heat.  Add red onion and cook until lightly caramelized, about 7-10 minutes.  Reduce heat to medium and add nopales.  Cook just until they begin to soften and give up their juices, about 5-7 minutes (when you taste them, they should still have a little crunch but release a savory/tart flavor).  Add tomatoes and cook about 2 minutes longer.  Remove from the heat and let cool slightly.  Stir in cilantro and mangoes.

To serve:  char a flour tortilla over a charcoal grill or gas flame until hot and blackened in spots.  Spoon about 1/2 cup of nopales mixture down the center of the tortilla, then sprinkle with avocado and cotija cheese.  Serve warm with lime slices on the side.

Save any leftovers and serve them for breakfast atop scrambled eggs… olé!

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May 1, 2012

meet ninja & rocky!

We got kittens!!  Meet our newest family members, 10-week-old babies Ninja & Rocky.

Weighing in at a combined 4 pounds, Ninja’s a blue point Siamese boy and Rocky’s an American shorthair boy (true to the above photo, Rocky has spent the majority of his early life on his back defending Ninja’s pounces).  They tussle 95% of the time and cuddle when they sleep… true brothers in the making.

They’re usually moving too fast to photograph, but I managed to catch Ninja just before naptime.

I love them when they’re so teeny tiny (Ninja practically fits in my shoe).  Every single thing they do is adorable, even when it involves unraveling a whole roll of toilet paper and shredding it to pieces.  Such a cute mess.  More pics coming soon!

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April 26, 2012

recipe – roasted beets with balsamic, fresh mint & goat cheese

recipe – roasted beets with balsamic, fresh mint & goat cheese

The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.

– Jitterbug Perfume (Tom Robbins)

*******************************************************************************

I hate beets.  Let me repeat.  HATE.

Then I read the lyrical and altogether lovely Jitterbug Perfume and decided to give them a try.  The whole book centers around the global quest for a mysterious perfume ingredient, which ends up being – you guessed it – beets.  Seriously passionate people cannot resist beets (in this book) and since I am a seriously passionate person… well….

This sort of convoluted logic doesn’t convince my palate.  Beets and I now have a love-hate relationship.

The knife twisted this morning at the Farmer’s Market when the beets started cat-calling me.  “You want to love us…” they lamented.  “Give us another chance.  If anyone can make this relationship work, it’s you.”  And so I let down my guard and let them hop into my basket.

You see, I have this little thing going on at the Wednesday Santa Monica Farmer’s Market.  Every week, I pick something new that I haven’t cooked before and give it a whirl (because what fun is going to the Farmer’s Market without some sort of challenge?  I know, I know, I need help).

I had never actually cooked beets before, just picked idly at them in restaurants.  I figured if I roasted them and tossed them with a few of my favorite things (namely, mint, goat cheese & candied walnuts), they might actually have a shot.

Roasted Beets with Fresh Mint, Balsamic & Goat Cheese

  • 7-8 medium beets (I used a mix of purple and chioggia beets), scrubbed thoroughly
  • A little olive oil
  • Salt & pepper
  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 cup candied walnuts (I always keep a stock of the Trader Joe’s ones on hand, a must-have pantry item)
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh mint, plus more for garnish
  • 1/2 cup (4 oz) goat cheese, crumbled

Roast the beets:  Preheat the convection oven to 375 degrees F (normal oven 400 degrees F).  Chop off the tail and the top greens of each beet, leaving the top of the beet intact.  Rub with a little olive oil, sprinkle with kosher salt and wrap each beet individually in foil.  Roast for about 45 minutes to 1 hour (less if the beets are small, more if they’re big) until tender when pierced with a fork.  Let the beets cool slightly, then unwrap the foil.  Using a paper towel for leverage, slough the skins off the beets – they should slide right off.  Cut off the tops, then cut the beets into quarters (smaller beets) or eighths (larger beets) and place in a large bowl.

Make the dressing:  in a small skillet, bring the balsamic vinegar to a simmer over medium heat.  Cook until it’s reduced to a syrup and sticks to the back of a spoon, about 15-20 minutes.  Pour the balsamic over the beets and toss gently.  Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil & the candied walnuts and toss gently again.

Season the beets with salt and pepper to taste.  Transfer to a serving bowl and top with the fresh mint and goat cheese (don’t toss again, otherwise the goat cheese will turn pink from the beets).  Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

Did this recipe convince me to like beets?  No (OK maybe a little).  Ours is an unrequited love, and I kinda like it that way.

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April 25, 2012

recipe – mini beef bourguignon pot pies

recipe – mini beef bourguignon pot pies

On the very rare occasions when I toss my pescetarianism aside, it usually means I’m in the presence of bacon.   Or perhaps… bacon-and-wine-braised beef.  Actually, any meat that has been wrapped, sauteed, braised or otherwise touched by bacon (insert smiley face here).

I made Ina’s beef bourguignon for the kids a few months ago and they raved about it.  It’s such a luscious, complex melange of beef, bacon, veggies and red wine.  It’s perfect really, especially on a rainy day.

But rather than make the exact same thing again, we wanted to give it a little twist – add a crust and turn it into a single-serving beef pot pie.   And, lest you forget… we LOVE anything mini or single-serving than can be prepped a day in advance and baked just before serving.  Makes our dinner-partying life so much easier…

Mini Beef Bourguignon Pot Pies

  • 1 batch of Ina Garten’s Beef Bourguignon (make it up to 2 days in advance); a full batch makes at least 16 mini pot pies, so cut in half if needed
  • Puff pastry (1 sheet for every 4 servings)
  • 1 egg

Fill a 6 or 8oz ramekin with the beef bourguignon (fill it to just about 1/2 inch below the top of the ramekin, otherwise it will bubble up and crack through the pastry crust while cooking).  Roll out the pastry crust and cut circles that are about 1″ diameter wider than your ramekin.  Drape the pastry over the ramekin and crimp the edges to seal shut.  Prick all over with a fork.  Put the ramekins on a foil-lined baking sheet.

Make ahead:  you can complete this step up to a full day in advance.  Cover the ramekins with foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Bake: preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Lightly beat the egg, then brush the pastry crusts with the egg.  Bake for about 18-22 minutes until the tops are browned to your liking.  Let cool for about 5-10 minutes before serving… they’re hot!

Note:  serve these with both a fork and a spoon… once the meaty & veggie parts are gone, people tend to want to drink the broth.  It’s too tempting not to.

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Happy Birthday Sam!

Happy Birthday Sam!

When I met Sam, she was only 13.  This past Friday, she turned the big ONE-FIVE (Papa Josh & I are still in denial… where did the time go?!).  At this rate, she’ll be driving, graduating and moving into college before we run out of mustard.

Sam is one of the sweetest, smartest, most creative and just all-around amazing people I know… so we wanted to give her an awesome birthday.  After a whirlwind 3-day weekend of gifts, roller skating, shopping, fine dining and sweet treats, we decided to close the celebrations with a big family dinner Sunday night.  We’d make all of Sam’s favorite dishes and decorate the dining room with her favorite things.

Sam has always loved owls.  Even as a baby, I’m told she only uttered the sound hooooooo for months.  So naturally, owls would be part of the table motif, in addition to an utterly obscene amount of roses, all fresh from the backyard (the gardeners put down a new layer of mulch a couple weeks ago and they’re blooming like crazy!).  Add in Sam’s favorite colors of light aqua blue & white and we had a colorful Spring tablescape for our Sunday night dinner.

The menu included all of Sam’s favorites, from Grandma’s meatballs to Asian caramelized steak, to a raspberry tart (I’ll post recipes soon).

My personal favorite would have to be the fresh homemade bread.  There’s just something about throwing together flour, yeast and salt and then witnessing a loaf of bread emerge several hours later… it kind of makes you feel like a magician.  Or like a highly evolved cave woman.

This time, I took my usual quick French bread recipe, sprinkled the top with some freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano, and popped it in a 425 degree F convection steam oven (pan of boiling water below the bread) for about 20 minutes.  Out popped a crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside, savory piece of bready goodness.

We served it with butter and four different kinds of salt:

  1. White truffle salt
  2. Smoked sea salt – this was everyone’s favorite (find it at Surfas).  It’s also great for margaritas and smoky-citrus-y cocktails.
  3. Hawaiian red salt (from Koa Kea in Kauai)
  4. Good ol’ fleur de sel

And in case you’re wondering, I actually have 15 different kinds of salt at the moment.  Yes, it’s a sickness.

Sam cleared half a loaf all on her own – I’ll have to make this more often!

After dinner, Josh & Stu built our first backyard fire of 2012, soon to become a biweekly tradition.  Since we had just recovered from Easter, we still had a stash of Peeps on hand, so I figured it was the perfect opportunity to introduce the fam to the wonders of Peeps S’mores (wtf are Peeps S’Mores you ask?  wonder no more)

Sophie and Jessica made a chocolate birthday cake and cupcakes, so between that, the raspberry tart, oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and Peeps S’Mores, we were in dessert heaven!

Sam blew out 15 candles, we all had a chance to hold Rebecca’s adorable/edible 1-pound teacup Yorkie, much food was eaten, and we all smelled like a campfire at the end of the night.  In other words, perfect homey goodness.  Love you Sam!

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April 21, 2012

Josh’s Birthday Getaway (part 3) – Havana Eats & Drinks – La Guarida, Cafe Laurent, Coppelia, Madrigal and more


There’s something you should know about me – I plan most of my vacations around food (like you didn’t know this already).  What to eat, where, who the up-and-coming local chefs are, their signature dishes, where the local chefs eat, the best farmers markets, etc.  Yes, of course, I leave room for surprises, but I like knowing that the core of the day is structured around the city’s best tastes & flavors.

For me, a unique meal in a memorable location is the essence of great travel – it touches on all your senses and can instantly transport you back to a place and time.  Like that salted Asian pear I had on a 110 degree F day in Tokyo, or the buttery pain au chocolate I ate on the Paris subway alone at 7am, or that amazing 4-hour long birthday lunch at Per Se overlooking Central Park.  Food can be the most magical teleportation device.

Planning our Havana dining itinerary was both exhilarating and daunting.  The best meals in the city are served in people’s homes.  They don’t have websites.  There’s no Havana Zagat guide.  These intimate and private restaurants – known as paladares – are cooked in a home kitchen with as few as 4 or up to 20 seats, usually set up in a converted room in someone’s apartment.  You might walk through the family’s living room to get to your table.

So how to begin planning?

Super-lucky for us, the New York Times ran an article on up-and-coming Havana paladares one week before our trip, so we figured that was a good place to start.  We hit 3 of the places on their list and a few of our own.

Dinner our first night was at Havana’s most popular (and admittedly, a little bit touristy) paladar, La Guarida.  The restaurant was featured in the film Fresa y Chocolate and sits on the top floor of a dilapidated family tenement in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood.  Other than a beefy security guard standing in the building’s doorway, you’d walk right past it.  But once you turn in, you’ll discover a spectacularly gorgeous early 1900′s building, grand stairwells leading up to a grander empty ballroom, with clothes-pinned laundry drying where dignitaries once danced.  It’s surreal.

La Guarida definitely had some of the better food on the trip.  And the espresso cocktail pictured above is a must-try.

But this is where I should probably tell you that Cuban food is not the most exciting.  I’m not sure why I was so surprised by this… I guess I figured a place with such amazing salsa dancers would have equally vibrant and amazing food.  But Cuba is a country where eggs are rationed at 5 per person per week and where the entire city could unexpectedly run out of salt or beef (literally, we heard stories of major ingredients becoming unavailable for days and even weeks).  Given that, and the fact that there is not a tremendous amount of fresh produce or herbs/spices, and the cuisine is a little uneven.  Most of the fish and meat was sadly overcooked.  Still… the experience of these paladares trumps all, and you can trade off the forgettable food for the unforgettable ambiance.

On a sidenote, the mojitos are solid pretty much everywhere.

The next morning, we skipped the hotel’s buffet breakfast and ventured out into the city.  We sat down at a restaurant only to be told that just two of the menu’s 20+ dishes were available that day (remember I mentioned the shortages?).  So off we went walking again….

Just a few blocks away, at the corner of Calle Oficios and Calle Teniente Rey, we discovered a cute little hotel restaurant and bar.  They had eggs.  They had pineapple.  And most importantly, they had Guarapa!

Guarapa is raw sugar cane juice, extracted from 6-foot long stalks of freshly-shucked sugar cane using this fancy contraption:

It takes some serious strength to juice the stuff – 10 powerful rotations extracts just a few drops of nectar.  But when you pour it over ice with a healthy swig of aged rum, mmmmmmmm… all that exercise is worth it.  We had these every morning – it’s a great way to smooth out the cobblestone streets.

Lunchtime brought a detour.  I had set up lunch at the paladar Atelier (mentioned in the NYT article).  We didn’t have the exact address, just the intersecting streets, and we made the mistake of asking a local shop owner for directions. “Ah yes, I know exactly where this is.  I will take you there,” she said.

Twelve blocks later, we arrived at an apartment building that is totally not the one we were seeking, but we felt kinda bad because this nice person just walked half a mile with us, and… you can see where this is headed.  We were having lunch here, like it or not.

I’m not sure whose doorbell we rang, but it was either Grisel, Ana Maria or Juana.  One of them took us up five flights of stairs to an apartment with a very beautiful balcony overlooking the street, and probably the nicest host you could imagine.  “Welcome to Las Clavellinas,” he said, handing me the flower that is the restaurant’s namesake.  It was just us, having a private lunch in the family’s home.

The food was just OK (tip: rice & beans will become the staple of every meal you have in Havana), but the atmosphere was pure magic.  Romantic afternoon light pouring in through the balcony, the feeling of being totally alone in someone’s home, families having conversations in Spanish across balconies and from balcony to street… we were right there, in the middle of it all.  Something about that experience lingered throughout the day and I instantly felt more connected to the city.

I made sure to get clear directions to our dinner spot, Cafe Laurent.  This was a NYT’s reco and definitely a more upscale version of a paladar (if you didn’t walk up 4 flights of an apartment building to get there, it would feel like a regular restaurant).  They have a beautiful patio overlooking the city, it’s a great place to watch the sun set.  The food was pretty good… a wide selection of tapas along with the traditional Cuban fare.  We especially liked the croquetas and the mushroom tart.

For dessert, we decided to walk over to Coppelia, the Cuban equivalent of Ben & Jerry’s.  This place might as well be a nightclub… it was jam packed with 500+ people at 8:30pm on a Thursday.  They have a bouncer and sometimes up to an hour queue (we were lucky to wait only 15 minutes).

And here’s yet another example of the effects of communism and strict rations on food selection.  Coppelia has two ice cream flavors.  TWO.  Strawberry or caramel.  That’s all you get.  So we got both.

The ice cream was… fine?  Again, nothing to write home about, but a fun experience nonetheless.

The last stop of our dining adventure was by far the most memorable.  Madrigal is a private tapas bar taking up the second floor loft of filmmaker Rafael Rosales.  The man created a truly captivating space (the photos don’t even begin to do it justice).  It was at once strikingly modern yet with an old-world feeling… cutting-edge Cuban art meshed with a red-lit, vintage brick space.  The place was mesmerizing and would be #1 on my places to visit when we return to Havana.

Sip a frozen daquiri (the pink one is quite fun) and just take it in.  Their tapas are so-so, but so cheap you may as well try a few just to experiment.  Just so you know, quesadilla to them is omelet to us (we got our 5 egg ration in that one dish).

A perfect night and a beautiful close to a long, meandering day.

We’re already planning a return visit (Ross & Evelyn, we’re looking at you!) because there’s just so much of the city to explore.  It’s a truly magical place and a vacation I will always remember fondly.

After a three-leg plane flight home (and a near-miss with U.S. customs), we arrived at Casa Resnick to discover probably the most creative birthday greeting ever… love our sweet girls.

And to my sweet Josh… happy birthday, I love you forever.

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April 17, 2012

Josh’s Birthday Getaway (part 2) – Havana, Cuba

Havana.  It’s a trip.

If you have even the slightest streak of rebelliousness, I urge you to get to Cuba as soon as possible.  There’s just something in the air (2nd term Obama?  Fidel’s impending passing?) that makes it feel like this once-forbidden country will soon be freely accessible to Americans.  And, as everyone knows, American tourists ruin everything.  So go now.

We went to Cuba totally on a whim.  Josh had been once before and my dad went in the early 90′s (he even brought back a Cohiba which I promptly tried at age 11, never to smoke a cigar again).  When I told Josh about the Mexico trip, he mentioned how close we’d be to Cuba and the rest… as they say… was history.

Getting there was surprisingly easy.  And that’s all I can say about that.

Suddenly you’re cruising down the street in a 1950′s Buick taxi, passing giant billboards proclaiming “Socialismo o Muerte” (socialism or death), admiring a hot pink Neoclassical apartment building, and having to stop suddenly so a horse-drawn carriage or a bike taxi can safely cross your path.  It feels a little bit like going back in time.

Havana architecture is gorgeous.  Everywhere you turn, the streets expand into a sea of candy-colored pastels… it’s the Louis Vuitton Spring 2012 ad campaign in full architectural detail and I couldn’t get enough of it.  Josh had to learn to walk at 1/8 speed as I shuttered away for 10 straight hours a day.

Where to stay?  Well, first you should know that Cuban hotels are not like Western ones.  Sure, there are a couple modern hotels that have emerged recently (Parque Central and Melia, for example), but a big part of the charm is the feeling you get from staying in an old-world dilapidated Cuban hotel. Expect somewhere around the U.S. equivalent of 2 stars and you’ll be just fine.

We stayed in the Hotel Ambos Mundos – right smack in the middle of Old Havana – where Hemingway lived for seven years in the early 30′s.  You can still visit his room, which is presented as if the author were still living there (maybe he is?).  I’m not quite sure why our room had 3 twin beds, but just in case we were a traveling set of triplets, it was a nice touch.

Old Havana springs to life around 9am and it’s absolutely intoxicating (not just because we started each day with a sugar cane rum cocktail).  Every morning, we awoke with no agenda, just a long meandering day of exploring, trying new things, meeting interesting people and soaking up as much of the city as we could.  We had a few surprises along the way…

You’ve heard about the cars in Cuba, yes? Nothing can prepare you for the delight of seeing so many of them – literally thousands of mint-condition and charmingly non-mint-condition 1940′s and 1950′s cars – speeding all around the city.  It’s like being in the movie Dick Tracy… I was completely smitten.

We stumbled upon this gorgeous candy-apple-red Buick (see below).  When the owner saw me kneeling in the street to get the perfect shot of his car, he offered to give us a ride anywhere we wanted in the city for 10 pesos.  No, that’s not a bargain, it’s like $12, but seriously, who cares?  How could you miss the chance to cruise the Havana coast in this?  I popped on my cat-eye Miu Miu sunglasses, tied a scarf around my neck and slid into the backseat.

The people of Havana are incredibly warm and friendly.  They’re seemingly fascinated with Americans and eager to invite you into their home for a coffee and a chat about U.S.-Cuba relations.  There’s also quite a few people working for tips.  Many conversations we had would lead to an offer to take us somewhere, show us something, or a plea to buy milk for their newborn baby (a rather effective and heart-tugging tactic).

It’s easy to ignore the people offering discount cigars and the like… it’s much harder to ignore the school professor who wants to take you around Old Havana or the museum security guard who wants to give you a private tour of the museum right now.

My advice?  Let it roll for a few times, you might find something really interesting.  We took a private tour of the Palacio de los Matrimonios and saw an official Cuban wedding (only civil marriages are recognized in Cuba), a cellist conducting a private rehearsal in the empty grand ballroom (formerly a casino), and the opportunity to climb a rickety ladder to the roof for a panoramic view of the whole city.  It was a totally unexpected experience and one I’ll never forget.

And… if you’ve had enough of the Cuban “entrepreneurial” hospitality, you can just put on your sunglasses and pretend to speak German.

At some point during the afternoon, we stumbled upon this peacock.  He offered to spread his wings for a tip.  I gave him 5 pesos but apparently it wasn’t enough, he just walked away.

Then, school let out!  Kids in any country are adorable, but the rainbow of Cuban students is pure joy.  They were all smiles and super excited to have their picture taken, jumping up and waving at us as we walked along with them.

Mr. Havana (man smoking in the photo above) was my favorite.  I swear I’ve seen him in every travel guidebook, he’s just too perfect.  And the bottom photos were from one of my favorite moments of the journey… stumbling upon a Cuban retirement home, where several residents were outside playing cards and having their hair cut.

There’s not a ton of great shopping to be done in Havana, but if you’re into vintage books, posters, currency or pins, you’ll be in heaven.  Josh picked up a couple more revolutionary propaganda posters to add to his collection, as well as a whole book full of historical Cuban coins and bills.

One of the most interesting things about Cuba is the blatant anti-American propaganda in the state-run media and national landmarks.  Reading the Cuban newspaper is kind of like watching Fox News while hanging upside down… all slant and highly entertaining (the “official” position is, of course, not to be confused with the Cuban people, who are very friendly and welcoming to Americans)

The Museo de la Revolucion is one of the best places to experience the full spirit of Cuban  revolutionary pride.  Once the palatial home of Cuban presidents from Menocal to Batista, Castro – in a snub to the ideology of the previous regime – decided to live elsewhere and converted the palace into a library of revolutionary paraphernalia.  The exhibit is, on the surface, rather dull.  You’ll find things like Fidel’s pants and water canteen on display.  But the way in which the information is presented and the total anti-Western bias makes it a must-see.   Check out the “wall of tyrants,” a tribute to Cuba’s favorite American presidents.

If you feel compelled to do one touristy thing in Havana, get your photo taken, vintage photo-box style, in front El Capitolio.  It’s only a few pesos and the whole experience is kind of amusing and bizarre – the camera is a true 19th century relic being held together by plastic garbage bags & duct tape.  I briefly thought about showing them Instragram, but didn’t want their whole world to come crashing down.

There was so much great stuff on this trip I have to split it into two posts.  The second half, covering all our food, drink & nightlife adventures, is coming next.

Oh, and just to state the obvious, you won’t have cell phone service in Cuba.  It’s a great place to go if you’re trying to avoid work, the L.A. nightly news, calls from your stalker, or just reality in general.

Part 3 – Havana Eats & Drinks… coming soon

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April 14, 2012

josh’s birthday getaway (part 1) – playa del carmen

Josh is hands-down the hardest boyfriend to shop for.  The guy has everything and whatever he doesn’t have, he somehow manages to buy for himself three weeks before his birthday (“hey look, I bought myself that thing I’ve always wanted”… “oh, you mean the thing I was going to get you for your birthday?!”  “ohhhhhhh…. oops” – it’s maddening).

My present last year was pretty decent – dinner in the private room at Mozza for him and 15 of his guy friends, plus a massage table and “anytime” massage coupons from me (10 years of piano = strong fingers = killer massages).

This year, Josh’s big 45th 35th – was all about the escape.  We had a crazy-busy year of work, so I wanted to take us somewhere we could fully relax, but also have a little adventure on the side.  And since it was 2012, we needed a nod to the Mayans.

I love Playa del Carmen and a few of my friends recommended Hotel Esencia, a beautiful & ultra-private boutique hotel halfway between Playa and Tulum.  Add on a 2-day jaunt to Havana and we had the perfect combo of relaxation & exploration, luxe & exotic.  And… we would be in the right place just in case the world ended a few months early.

I started planning the trip in October, right around the height of the Mexico drug warlord scare.  While some people might consider this a reason to avoid travel to Mexico, I saw opportunity (no one ever blamed me of being risk averse).   Hotel Esencia was running an insane promo where for a 5-day stay, we’d get a daily $1100 credit at their spa & restaurant.  Have you ever tried to spend $1100 a day at a hotel?  Me neither, but it’s really fun.

Day 1: After a fairly quick flight to Cancun and a 1 hour drive from the airport, we arrived at Esencia’s main gate, a Mayan-style mud hut.  From there, it was a 5 minute golf cart ride through the jungle to arrive at the estate.  By the time you get there, you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.

Esencia is a small boutique hotel that resembles someone’s home, probably because it WAS someone’s home.  The Italian duchess Rosa Ferrari built it in the early 90′s to entertain friends and it has since been converted into a 29-room hotel.

If you believe the marketing materials, our room was actually the main living quarters of Ms. Ferrari.  It was totally gorgeous, probably around 1500 square feet with a domed brick ceiling, huge private terrace, jacuzzi, living room, back patio and master bath.   However, the toilet sitting wide open with no doors in the middle of the bathroom makes me think the duchess was single (or maybe she’s long-term relationship Barbie).

We checked in, dropped off our stuff and headed straight to the spa for the Ritual Esencia de Amor (couples massage), the first of about 20 treatments during our stay.  Unlike most couples massages where they just put you side by side in the same room, this one was special.  First, they stand you facing each other while they “cleanse your aura” with sage and candles.  Then, they push two massage tables together and have you hold hands during your massage.  At the end, they stand over you and read you a poem about your love (at which point I was squeezing Josh’s hand off so I wouldn’t snicker out loud), and then you have a private jacuzzi to relax and enjoy a warm cup of cinnamon tea.  It was 2% cheesy, 98% lovely.

Over the course of the trip, we sampled just about every spa service on the menu (it takes a lot to use up $1100 of hotel credit per day… we were happy to do the research).  If you go, make sure to try the Four Elements Massage and the Ritual de Moka, a coffee scrub & chocolate body wrap.  Yum (yes, I tasted it when the therapist wasn’t looking).

Day 2:  I have a little tradition when I travel – I love to watch the sun rise on the first morning in a new place.  It’s partially jet lag, partially excitement at being somewhere new, but I can never sleep past 5am that first day.  So rather than toss and turn, I take my camera and take advantage of being the first one up.  It always leads to some interesting discoveries…

…such as, stumbling on a light bulb washed up on the beach.  WTF?  In Santa Monica, we get syringes, Nestle crunch wrappers, and the occasional saline breast implant (no joke).  In Mexico, you get seaweed and light bulbs. There’s a dude who comes to haul away the seaweed every morning (that’s him pictured above), but he forgot to take the light bulb.

By 8am, it was already 80 degrees and it stayed just around that temp until sundown.  For the first few days, we did nothing but lay around, read, and take super long walks on the beach.  There weren’t many properties around us (just a couple abandoned places about 1/4 mile up the way), so the beach was nice & secluded, like our own personal Corona ad.

I was a good girl on the trip, I wore lots of SPFs.

HOWEVER.

On our second-to-the-last day, I decided to make a sandcastle right after going swimming.  By the time I had put the finishing touches on my masterpiece Julius Caesar Attempts to Swallow the Caribbean Sea, the not-so-friendly sun had turned my backside bright pink.  That afternoon’s hot stone massage would turn into a cucumber wrap, and I pretty much looked like the Coppertone baby for the rest of the trip.  Take a look at this work of art and decide for yourself – totally worth the sunburn, right?

Even though we were prepared for total food indulgence, Esencia was probably our healthiest vacation ever… they just made it so easy.  Daily yoga classes overlooking the beach, amazing tart yogurt with fresh fruit compote (we ate this every morning), fresh fish tacos, and seven different kinds of ceviche, which I had at every meal.  It was a pescetarian’s dream.

The main restaurant at Esencia is Sal y Fuego and they do a great rendition of fresh, healthy Mexican cuisine. They also grow many of their own fruits, vegetables and herbs on site, so it’s wonderful taste of local, sustainable Yucatan food.

On a couple of the days, we could only get one spa treatment so we had a lot of our credit left over for the restaurant.  Just how exactly do you spend $600 at dinner?  Easy.  Just invite your friends Don and Dom to join the party.

Day 4: After three days of multiple spa treatments and cabana-lounging, we were totally sick of it.  Ha, no, not really.  You don’t get sick of it.  But we figured we should probably get out into the real world and experience civilization, both modern & ancient.  A 20-minute taxi took us to Playa del Carmen, a cute little beach town that has unfortunately become more like a swap meet in the past 5-6 years.  Fortunately there were still pockets of quaint boutiques, art galleries & restaurants, like Calle Corazon, a pretty street where we picked up a handmade leather bracelet with a tortuga (turtle) charm for Josh, my little turtle.

Day 5:  Late morning, we headed out to Tulum, an ancient Mayan ruin perched on cliffs above the coast, and one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Mayans.  It’s stunning.

Then our driver took us to Aktun Chen for some cenote swimming.  Cenotes are freshwater sinkholes, considered sacred by the Mayans, and believed to be the entrance to the underworld (somewhere, a B-horror movie has started with American tourists going snorkeling in a cenote).

We were fortunate to be the only people in the cenote with our guide, so the experience was serene and surreal.  The limestone stalactites and stalagmites are breathtaking, and the little pockets of sunlight through the roof light up the cave in the most magical way.  I’ve heard there are better cenotes in the Riviera Maya (Gran Cenote and Dos Ojos, for example), but in my book Aktun Chen wins because they have a pet baby monkey.  Nothing beats a baby monkey.

Day 6:  Our last day in Mexico was spent in the cabana, soaking up those last rays of sun, ceviche, guacamole and mango margaritas.

One techno-laced taxi ride to the Cancun airport and we were on the way to our next adventure…

Part 2 – Havana coming soon

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April 11, 2012

easter 2012 – look what the bunny dragged in

easter 2012 – look what the bunny dragged in

We had big plans for our Easter party this year.  I can’t reveal everything, other than that it involved live bunnies (not in that way!  freak) and a new pet kitten.  Unfortunately, the time to book a bunny petting zoo is not 3 days before Easter.  Fortunately, we WILL have bunnies in 2013 and kittens are still on the way for 2012.

I have super-fond memories of Easter, mostly because my mom was the greatest Easter basket maker of all time.  Seriously, these things were legendary.  Her grass and candy strata went six layers deep with every type of pastel sweet you could possibly imagine.  It was better than Halloween.  If I didn’t fall into a diabetic coma by the end of the day, I clearly wasn’t trying hard enough.

Being on the creation end for the first time, I suddenly realized the appeal of making awesome Easter baskets: taste testing all the candy.  A ha!  So that’s what mom was up to.

Great big Easter egg hunts are a bit of a tradition in the Resnick family.  But now that the kids are older, we had to step it up.  This wasn’t just an Easter egg hunt, it would be an Easter egg-venture(TM).

Here’s what we had in our larder:

  • 5 kids
  • 7 grown-ups
  • 60 candy eggs
  • 10 “golden eggs” (with a $1 gold coin inside)
  • 15 “rotten eggs” which were filled with uncooked rigatoni noodles and a very special challenge for the finder

We hid the eggs in extra difficult places and send the kiddies off to gather.

30 minutes later (guess we hit them too well?), everyone gathered to pop open the eggs and discover their “rotten egg” fate.  And this is where the grown-ups get to have fun.  Making kids do ridiculous and embarrassing things purely for our amusement.  Among the rotten egg challenges were the following:

  1. Put peanut butter on your face and let Teddy lick it off
  2. Blindfolded, take something out of the refrigerator and eat it (poor Sophie touched chocolate sauce, raspberry jam and orange juice before finally settling on a stick of butter… have you taken a bite of a stick of butter blindfolded?  it brings you back to reality pretty fast)
  3. Choose someone to make you a “special” dish and feed it to you (Zach mixed Sriracha sauce, raw garlic, strawberries and soy sauce… it’s miracle Elan didn’t puke on the spot)
  4. Eat one piece of Teddy’s dog food (Elan took it like a champ!)
  5. Jump into the pool fully dressed (Sam took it up a notch by catching a frisbee on her way in)
  6. Demonstrate your best dance moves wearing a bra (save these photos for Zach’s wedding!)

Elan got the short end of the stick with more than 3 disgusting food challenges alone.  He was the best sport about it and we now have our family’s official nominee for Fear Factor.  Seriously Elan, I have a whole new respect for your iron stomach… you rule!

No Casa Resnick party is complete without a big yummy spread… for brunch we had a bacon & green onion quiche, swedish pancakes, cinnamon rolls, bacon, berries galore, and our family favorite… the “build your own yogurt parfait” bar.

It was a gorgeous Spring day, perfect for frisbee, swimming, and lots of cuddling in the hammock.  Time to start moving our weekends outside!

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