A Handmade Holiday

The environment is a familiar one. Christmas music is blaring, young couples are walking hand in hand, and ovens are operating at maximum capacity. Everyone is frantically searching for the perfect gift. Go to any store, anywhere in the world, within the week of Christmas day and it will be apparent. People disregard the fact that Christmas is intended to be a season of peace and joy, and they fight one another to get the last discounted ipad on the shelf. But I have learned year after year at Christmas that there is not one gift, anywhere in existence, that can replace the simplicity of something handmade. As the saying goes, money can't buy you love, unless you ask the so-called stars of  The Real Housewives of insert city here on Bravo per say, but I ardently believe this to be true. Sure I succumbed to the pressures of buying beautiful, and thoughtful gifts in the store, but I sought something unique this Christmas as well: a hand made holiday.

I have a love of many things...one of which is scrapbooking. Sneaking about in my Nana's drawers, I recovered loads of photos from their golden years. Their childhoods, my Mama's adolescent years, and even my sister and my own humble beginnings as bright eyed little girls. Antique black and white photos portraying my Nana's wedding day, portraits of my Mimi, and pictures from our beach house down in Forked River from 15 years ago. Regina waddled around in her swimsuit and life vest, while I plotted how to jump into the lagoon. My Papa had to tie me to the boat with a leash like rope, for fear that I would take a running leap to swim with the fishies. It was a beautiful time in our lives, and I looked back fondly on what a fortunate young lady I was to grow up in a loving family. Fortunately, I discovered old photo albums Mommy amassed as well and I had a multitude of picturesque memories to work with. Already well equipped with scrapbooking materials to scrapbook all four walls of my bedroom, I went to the craft store to find a medium for these memories... one for each of my immediate family members. For Mom, a desk calendar, for Regina, a mirror, for Dad, a letter holder, for Papa, a clipboard, and for Nana, my favorite of all, a serving platter. I bought some funky glues and assorted paper mache supplies and went home with my stash.

Early mornings when family was off to work and Regina was asleep, I worked in my little makeshift workspace (aka the kitchen) I labored like a little elf. Making something tangible out of simple polaroids. Photos that might have been thrown away had I not stumbled upon them. With some glitz, a little glue, and lots of artsy additions I made gifts that I am quite proud of. Each of them is functional, as well as personally relevant. Mommy has a small workspace and much need for a unique time piece, while Daddy handles all the bills and boring mail. Regina is a fashionista, Nana loves to entertain, and Papa is always engrossed in some task on his feet and could use a clipboard.

Beyond pragmatism, I think the gifts are simply lovely, because they were made from scratch. In the process, I was able to relive my happiest memories of childhood, and muse about what it must have been like to know my Mimi and grandparents when they were so young. Before ipods as well as facebook and all the other things that preoccupy us these days. Besides the crafting, I baked a few concoctions including coconut cupcakes with cream cheese icing, Granny's traditional "dunk cookies" perfect for a good cup of coffee, and a pumpkin pie. Baking is particularly gratifying because it is a process meant for sharing. Cassie and Christopher came over and we reminisced about awkward high school years, contentment in college, and anxious aspirations for the future. Cassie shared her quick and easy Peppermint Schnapps's Brownie Bites, of which Chris and I ate nearly ten. Yum.

We just finished a splendid spread of fish, fresh capellini, lobster ravioli, and broccoli rabe and are lounging by the fire before Christmas mass. Life is calm, for the moment, and I am with the people I love. All will be well if we continue to have faith in the power of togetherness and the beauty of memories past to sustain us through any trial.

"So for tonight, we pray for, what we know can be...And on this day, we hope for, what we still can't see. It's up to us to be the change, and even though we all can still do more.There's so much to be thankful for."

Dim Sum and Dumplings

What a beautiful weekend it has been. Food, family, and friends. Or should I say copious amounts of food. Thanksgiving in America is a fairly consistent indicator that overeating will ensue. But oh how lovely it is to be surrounded by the people you adore, as you inhale four variations of potatoes, nana's stuffing, turkey with all its fixings, and not one, or two, but four kinds of pie. I am still suffering from the comatose state illicited by my formidable Turkey Day five course marathon of consumption.

Beyond being with my family, I was very thankful to be in the good old United States. I recently returned from Hong Kong and although it was remarkable, nothing beats the comfort of home. Ravishing though was my experience. After an intimidating 16 hour flight, myself and a few other students from Georgetown commenced on our journey to the East. It was my first time in all of Asia, so I was anxious but also a bit nervous. The flight, the language barrier, you name it, and I am comfortable handling it. What I wanted to know is... how's the food!?

Coming from an Italian family, I am extensively acquainted with pasta. We have it virtually all the time, whether baked rigatoni for dinner, or a quick pasta bolognese for lunch... even a pasta frittata with leftovers from the night before for breakfast. But I had not anticipated the emphasis the Chinese place on those noodles! Every meal....noodles. For breakfast we had scrambled eggs and nothing other than lo mein. Greasy, fried lo mein. Granted we were staying in a university, so the food was not paramount, but it was so odd having your morning tea, toast, scrambled eggs (if you could call them that) and some vegetable lo mein in all its glory. Kind of a weird experience for me, but refreshing to take a bite of a different culture.

We endeavored to the Peak Tram on our day off and rode it all the way to the top, from which we were able to see an absolutley breath taking view of all of Hong Kong in its glory. The sky was a clear bright blue, and as Barabara Streisand would say, you really could see forever. After doing the tourist gig for a bit, we settled down for a nice meal and I had the most bountiful pineapple, (yes you heard me correctly) pineapple filled with rice that you have ever laid your eyes on.

And obviously I finished it like a champ. Would you expect any less of me?

We had our fair share of street food ranging from obscure meats to dumplings in broth, with some seasonings I cannot name to this day, but nothing compared to the fine wine and dine experience we were offered by our corporate sponsor Citi Group. Dining in their posh headquarters, we sat in the boardroom and conversed with all of our new international friends. Dishes varied from traditional dim sum, which is an assortment of steamed, bite sized, Chinese delicacies offered at lunchtime, to fresh vegetables, American favorites, and fried rices to die for. Sushi and some Western dishes were also served to accomodate the diverse palletes in attendence and lastly we finished with some petit fours for dessert. Bite sized tiramisu and fruit tarts were a perfect ending to a whirlwind day, as we gazed outward at the majestic city. Surreal...

All in all it was a cultural and culinary overload. I met kind people from all over the world and various parts of the United States. We danced until 4:00 am to American pop music in the heart of Hong Kong Island. Experiencing Halloween eve in Lai Kwai Fong was a night never to be forgotten. If you ever thought Americans took Halloween seriously, you should check out this cultural nook. A narrow street, lined by bars and clubs, and charismatic people from all over the world. Over the top costumes and loud 80's music blaring from every direction. Posh people with GREAT accents, provocative getups, and lots of booze flowing, let's just say that it was an experience unlike I have ever had, and probably ever will have!

Above all though, the new found friendship and foods are what I will remember. The breathtaking backdrop as I barter with a woman who is blabbering incomprehensibly...trying to sell me coins for nearly 100 American dollars. Ok, lady whatever you say... walk away inconsipicuously. Meeting new acquaintances on the plane, and dining in the finest of hotels, it was a week to remember.

Dear Hong Kong, thanks for the memories.

Peace, Love and Pasta

The only thing in the world that is comparable to dear, unadulterated friendship is a good dish of pasta! Well actually, I should rephrase that. The only thing I can conceive of in the world that can enhance an already stellar get together among dear friends is a good dish of pasta. Needless to say, senior year has been dreadfully busy, hence the month or so since I last posted my thoughts. Yet, I have been eating, obviously, my fair share of good food and I will try my very best to maintain my sanity and post some adventures in eating. Luckily, I found some time to share a nice quiet evening with my three girlfriends to chat and catch up over a deep bowl of fusili with peas and smoked sausage.

It had been entirely too long since we had all spoken and it was incredibly rejuvenating to reconnect. The hustle and bustle of scholastics, extracurriculars, jobs, and social encounters keep us occupied seemingly incessantly. Among us is an Army officer applying to medical school, a passionate science student contemplating a career in research, and a pleasant, RA dreaming of her next trip to Italy. In finding time to share a meal, we discussed our latest concerns and frustrations but more importantly we shared our most recent victories, big and small. We dished about guys, lack of guys, or shall I say lack of good guys and our aspirations for the upcoming years. We giggled about 21st birthday blunders and even planned a repeat in the upcoming weeks. We can finally, legally share a drink together in a fine establishment rather than grabbing a bottle of wine and sitting in someone's bedroom on a random Saturday evening. With a little brother's coming of age, a handsome railroad economist meeting my lady bug pillow pal :/, a Dad settling into a new city, and a surprise visit to Wisconsin.... there are plenty of special adventures to look forward to. Senior year is tumultuous and disconcerting as we embark on the next chapter in our lives but one can be certain that the transition is less anxiety provoking with the help of fine food and finer girlfriends.

So grab your favorite girls, a box of Barilla, some tomato sauce, and a package of Pepperidge Farm's cookies and relish in the blessings of peace, love, and pasta.

Applebees Please

I must say that Weight Watchers has made me incredibly cognizant when navigating the world of eating out. We have amassed many traditions as a society that bring us away from home at mealtimes and thus I welcome this new found awareness. For example, my family along with another hilarious family of four meet at Applebees every so often... Ten on the dot for some half price appetizers. I used to to think that this was the best promotion ever until I started watching more carefully my food intake. Let me introduce you to the former Francesca.

6:00 pm- Eat a complete and nourishing meal, maybe pasta or a steak. But definitely an entire meal. No skimping on dinner. I NEVER skimp.

8:00- I start conceiving of all the appetizers I can possibly consume without being rolled out on a stretcher of course. I have my sights set on the Spinach and Artichoke Dip, Boneless Buffalo Wings, and Potato Skins... Yes, all three.

9:45- Hop in the car and begin salivating.

9:55- Arrive and exchange pleasantries with our friends. Dilly-dally and order drinks until 10 pm. Then the party begins.

10:00- Among eight grown people, we order between 10 and 15 appetizers and share among ourselves. I eat all of mine and then polish off my sister's nachos. She never finishes them... Ever.

10:45- We are all pleasantly full but the conversation is roaring. Cracking jokes and laughing uncontrollably, it is a lovely evening. I am uncomfortably full but somewhere in the back of my mind, I gather that I have enough room for dessert. "I will have the Strawberry Shortcake Shooter please... or nah, on second thought I will have the Triple Chocolate Meltdown!"

11:00- Finish the entire dessert, even the assorted syrups that garnish the plate. We all talk more and eventually overstay our welcome. The family rolls on home and settles down to rest... pounds of food wreaking havoc on my tummy. Flavors that are not meant to coexist are happily cohabitating. I slip into a food coma of sleep and awake 8 hours later with a bit of discomfort. Despite the food child I am carrying, I opt for Chocolate Chip Pancakes with whipped cream for breakfast. Don't judge; it is my favorite breakfast even after a night of overeating.

The remarkable thing is I never bat an eyelash when ordering not one but three appetizers, after dinner nonetheless. And who could really resist that molten chocolate goodness. Don't lie; you know you want one as you read this!

Enter my healthy lifestyle of moderation... I decided to research the nutritional information for Applebees online so I would be more aware of calories and such. I think I may have lost a few years off my life when I saw just what I was eating. WARNING: Do not consult the nutritional information online if you enjoy Applebees! You will immediately go into cardiac arrest at the mere thought of how many calories you are consuming. It is off the scale my friends, and the dessert is an entirely different story! So now I am ready to enter the battlefield ...me versus the temptation and the showdown begins.

Friday night we head to Applebees and luckily the woman who introduced me to Weight Watchers in the first place is in attendance. We vow to one another to prudently survey the illustrious under 550 calorie meal options and WW compatible menu items. I opted for grilled chicken, roasted potatoes, and some steamed vegetables. I had one to three bites of any appetizer I chose, but I savored each bite. No falling victim to impulsive tasting and I felt good!

Ok, truthfully it was TORTURE watching everyone else eat whatever they wanted. but that is the sacrifice we make to be healthy. A few minutes of pleasure is not worth the repercussion of feeling uncomfortable in your skin. My friend Chris saves me the last bite of his Sizzling Apple Pie and oh boy, did I let that taster linger as long as I humanly could. But it was a good evening and I made healthy choices; I think I won the battle but the war rages on!

Chelsea Market

After work at Miss Martha's one afternoon, rather than go straight home, I met a dear friend of mine for dinner and a show in the lovely NYC. We walked considerably far, I suppose anything is far when it is smoldering, and stumbled upon one of my favorite places of all time: Chelsea Market. From a foodie's perspective, it is heaven on Earth, home to some of the most unique quality retailers. From a healthy eater's perspective, however, it poses a bit of a challenge. The first hallway we traversed, we passed three bakeries...among them the Fat Witch Bakery. They make specialty brownies of all delectable sorts, among other yum yums. Let's just say it took very much will power to keep walking.

For dinner we settled on Friedman's Lunch, and despite the enticing option of Macaroni and Cheese, I chose the Vegetable and Hummus sandwich on toasted sourdough; I had some turkey added. The sandwich included sprouts, tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, and for good measure a bit of avocado. It was filling, luckily, and lovely coupled with some brewed mint iced tea. Sadly, it was not much compared to my friend Catherine's pastrami on rye, but it was a good lesson in self-control.

After dinner we went to Buonitalia Italian market and my mouth fell to the floor, in salivation. The rows of imported Italian specialties reminded me fondly of the summer I spent in L'Aquila, Abruzzo, my freshman year of college. It happened to be the very place I met Catherine so it was a special moment of nostalgia for us. Let us pause and pledge allegiance to prosciutto and other cured meats... Yum. Again, I had to practice admirable self control in this place. I walked by each item, reading each label, and appreciating the quality of the foods. I did not purchase all I would have liked to but I did admire that culinary palace. I managed to buy my nana and mama their favorite Italian cookies, biscotti con panna. I enjoy watching other people eat the things I wish I could, oddly enough. I have one bite and share the experience without the overindulgence and crippling guilt of eating one too many biscotti.

One our way out, Catherine grabbed a chocolate chip cookie from Jacque Torres' fine chocolate shop... I elected to eat one the Chocolate Chip Spiced Cupcakes I made instead; they happen to be a yummy WW recipe. The cookie did have huge chocolate chunks folded into the batter but the residual grease left over at the end was not the most appealing. The aroma of a nearby Creperie was phenomenal and I do think that the entire experience was a good test for me. I must say, I passed with flying colors. I did not purchase any items from the Gift Basket store as I often do, snacking for days on unnecessary calories. No milkshake from Ronnibrook Dairy, no baguette from Amy's Bread, nor vat of Nutella from Buonitalia. I am quite proud. When I hit my next weight goal, I will return for one of those cookies though, but for now I can do without.

We walked to the subway and found the theatre just in time... We saw the New York Musical Theatre Festival's Best of Fest and it was PHENOMENAL. Really a spectacular display which showcased up and coming composers, shows, and talent. I was drooling, this time not over cookies, but over talented young men. Sadly most of them had significant others....other dreadfully talented young men. Sigh...

Regardless I forwent drinks and snacks at the theatre and simply enjoyed the performance, a new sentiment for me. Who does not love the Kit Kats at intermission, I ask you. But all in all it was yet another artistic/culinary experience, with many more to come.