Wow. 

Words cannot describe how perfect crêpes are.

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Wait, yes they can. I’m a writer, after all! I took a deep breath before making these french pancakes because, frankly, I have never made them before and they seem so delicate and graceful with their lightly browned folds and surprisingly crunchy edges. I had only seen them done on TV about a dozen times (the reason I know the basic recipe), so it all seemed like a distant and unreachable feat. But oh, was I wrong. It was so easy! After making the batter, everything else just fell into place. Literally, make the crêpe and fill with whatever your hungry self desires. For my lovely readers, I have made two crepes: one with Gruyere with white wine mushrooms, and the other with Nutella, sauteed pears, and almonds.That’s it, y’all, and if you follow my recipe, you can do it too!

What you need:

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For the crêpes (makes 4-6):

1/2 cup of flour

pinch of salt

1 cup of milk

1 tbs melted butter

2 eggs

Savory filling:

2 cups of freshly grated Gruyere cheese

2 large portobello mushrooms, sliced up thin

1 cup of brown baby bella (wow, lots of B’s) crimini mushrooms, sliced up thin

1/4 cup of white wine

salt and pepper

butter

Sweet filling:

Nutella (I don’t have a measurement because..It’s Nutella)

2 pears

butter

sliced almonds

How you do it:

Gruyere and mushrooms

1. Make the batter. In a medium bowl, put in the flour and salt and blend together. Make a little well in the center and pour in the melted butter, 2 eggs, and half of the milk. SLOWLY incorporate the flour into the liquid, and start whisking. As you whisk, slowly pour in the rest of the milk. Whisk/beat until all the lumps are gone. It should be the same consistency as cream. Throughout the cooking time for each crepe, whisk occasionally.

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2. Cut up the mushrooms. In a saute pan, put in some butter. Then add the mushrooms and begin to fold them around until they all get coated with the butter. Add some salt and pepper to taste. When the mushrooms begin to look more translucent, add the white wine. Let the wine reduce for about 4-5 minutes while stirring the mushrooms. Once they are all cooked, turn off the heat and set aside. Make sure to taste them! If they need some more salt or pepper, add. I added a lot of pepper because it goes really well with the Gruyere.

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3. Grate the cheese. I used a delicious Gruyere cheese. It is on the expensive side, but it is well worth it and this recipe doesn’t call for much at all. Just one small to medium block will do. If you want to use something else, mozzarella or a nice aged Gouda will work well too. Set aside.

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4. Find a circular, small/medium pan- as flat as you can find! With the mushrooms and cheese at your side, add 1/4 cup of the batter to the middle of the pan and let it coat the whole surface. You will see that the batter becomes more and more yellow. Cook the first side for about 20 seconds, and flip. When you flip it, add a handful of the cheese evenly on one half of the crêpe. On top, add the mushrooms. Fold the crêpe over and cook for about 5 more seconds on both sides (use a large spatula to flip! That way, they wont fall apart.) Serve immediately on a bed of mixed baby greens.

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Nutella with sauteed pears and almonds

1. Saute the pears. Slice each pair up into 1/3 inch slices. In a pan, add butter. Let it get pretty hot, so when you add the pears it makes a sizzle sound. Place the pears so they are not overlapping each other. Cook each side for about 2 minutes. They should be slightly golden brown and mouthwatering. Set aside.

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2. Assemble. With the pears, jar of Nutella, and almond slices by your side, cook the crêpe just as you did for the savory one above! When you flip the first side over, add the Nutella to one half of the crêpe and spread as evenly and quickly as you can so you don’t burn it. I just lowered the heat down to the lowest possible while I assembled this one, then turned it back up to medium when I finished adding everything. Add a few slices of pear and then the almonds. Fold and cook for 5 seconds more on each side. Serve immediately and garnish with some sliced almonds!

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DONE. What did I tell you guys? It was so delicious and filling, and really made a regular dinner special. My dad was my guinea pig, and when I asked him how it was his answer was a satisfied groan and continuing to scarf it down.

I really hope you all try this out. It is simple and depending on the filling, super quick. You can fill it with whatever you want: ham and cheese (a classic French street-style), chicken and mushrooms, goat cheese and roasted red peppers, or even a breakfast crepe with eggs, bacon, and cheese. Once you get the hang of actually cooking the crepes and flipping them over gracefully, you will not be disappointed- ever.

Bon appétit, amis! Happy eating, friends!

Keep imagining, keep cooking.

Erika

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Is Paris and all it is famous for a little, well…overrated?

There was a time I thought so. Some may be gasping in horror at my thinking this, but it is due to a certain experience that rubbed me the wrong way. I do love the language- french is so enthralling. It grabs you and pulls you in deeper as each syllable touches your ears. Literally, touches. I can feel the french language when it is spoken, so much so that I could spread it on some fresh baguette. But I didn’t always appreciate the charms of the city itself the way I do now.

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Ponte Alexandre III

While studying abroad in Italy, my longtime friend, Mafe, and I decided to make a trip to France. Paris was excitedly on our minds; we wanted to have a lovely, french-filled weekend with lots of delicious food. We packed our trendiest Paris-worthy outfits and made our way to the city on an uncomfortable Ryanair flight. Just a minor detail, we thought, no big deal. Everything else was going to be perfect.

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Mafe and I in Paris

Or not. On the first day alone, I was looking at a tea brewing container full of hot tea I had never seen before, and I decided to flip it over. Big mistake. The boiling tea exploded all over my hand and I had to endure the day in severe pain with stinging skin. Then, Mafe’s only credit card got sucked in and stuck inside an ATM machine, and we had minor meltdowns because, how were we supposed to get it out? Who could we ask, and, how can we get them to understand us anyway? Next, a gorgeous day turned grey and rainy quick, and we had to walk around without umbrella’s for a while until we found someone selling some over-priced ones on the street. We also had our fair share of delays and confusions on the train, but nonetheless made it to that famously romantic, dreamy tower: La Tour Eiffel. It was pure bliss- that I will not complain about. But, alas, our good fortune didn’t last long, of course. We didn’t plan how to get back to our hosts’ little Parisian apartment, and found out that after midnight in Paris there is no public transportation. We reluctantly got a taxi after a sketchy walk around the area to figure out our options, and like true unprepared tourists, fell asleep during the ride. God knows what route that lady took us on, but when we woke up, we owed 70 Euros. That’s 94.86 US dollars. Yeah, enough said.

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Mafe having a meltdown moment at the ATM

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French signs

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A night at the Eiffel Tower

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Long lines of people wanting a late-night snack

Then there’s the food, and my expectations were high. To my horror (the result of denial), I learned just how expensive food is in Paris. A simple sandwich from a little stand on the street was about $14, and it wasn’t even memorable. In fact, it was completely forgettable. So we ate like that- little things here and there like sandwiches and pastries, because frankly, we were broke students trying to get by. Some were perfection, I admit, but not all were up to par against what is expected from one of the most culinary renowned cities in the world. But there was one thing that didn’t let us down, one food that satisfied our hunt for something truly french, affordable, and delicious. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the good ol’ french crêpe .

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Pastries in Montmartre

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People watchers at a cafe

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A charming Creperie

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The man behind the crepes

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Me with my Nutella and banana crepe

Yes, the crêpe. Nutella and banana graced the folds of this delicate, thin french pancake on that day, and salvaged the little hope we had left that something would delight us enough to help us forget the unfortunate events of that weekend. Merci beaucoup, random man at the crêpe stand in Paris on that rainy day. You saved us.

So, are Paris and its charms overrated? Never. And I’m sorry for having my doubts.

In honor of this man whose crêpes I plan on devouring again in the near future, I want to recreate two classic french crêpes this week, one sweet and one savory. Oh là là, I can taste them already.

For a look at a video of the real Parisian crepe experience, click here!

 

Keep imagining, keep cooking.

Erika

Okay, so fried food isn’t healthy. Bla bla bla.

But there is nothing like a perfectly hand beer-battered and fried fillet of fresh cod, so let’s get past the nation’s health craze for one second and fry some fish! Live a little, y’all.

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Cod is a fish that is very white and dense, and when cooked properly provides a flaky and hearty mouthful. This is the most common fish used in the UK for fish and chips, along with haddock, a similar fish. They make sure you have a nice, thick fillet for each serving. However, I’m a firm believer that besides some technical basics, there aren’t many rules with food. So if you want to have fish “tenders” then you can ask your fish monger (that’s like a butcher, but for fish!) to cut the fillets how you want them. I made mine super thick and big to have a large portion to go with my baked (healthy?) “chips”. To top it all off, I spiced up regular old green peas and transformed them into my “cheeky” Parmesan peas (In England, the word “cheeky” means sassy) – and you will love me for it! Let’s begin.

What you need:

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4 fillets of cod or haddock, fresh

3 large russet potatoes

1 bottle of beer (English beer is preferred of course, but i used Heineken)

2 cups of green peas

olive oil

1 1/2 tbs of Parmesan cheese, grated

Juice of half a lemon

2 tsp garlic powder

2 1/2 cups of flour

2 liters of vegetable or canola oil

6 tsp of salt

2 1/2 tsp of pepper

Special needs:

A fryer!

(For some crazy reason I had one available, but most don’t. Use a deep medium/large pot!)

How you do it:

1. Get your chips ready. First, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Wash, scrub and pat dry your three large russet potatoes. With skin on, cut them in halves long ways. Then, with the skin facing up, cut the potatoes into medium sized wedges. Try your best to keep the same form and size as the others, but don’t worry if they aren’t all perfect or the same- everything will turn out great! After, boil some water in a large pot. Once it boils, place the cut wedges inside and blanch for about 3 to 4 minutes. Drain and set aside to dry for about 2 minutes. Then, carefully put the chips into a greased baking sheet to prepare for the oven. Drizzle on some olive oil, and be pretty generous. About 5 tablespoons would be fine, but put more if you think it needs more. Sprinkle on 1 teaspoon of pepper and 3 teaspoons of salt. Then, sprinkle on 1 teaspoon of your favorite seasoning, whether it be a Cajun spicy one or a classic lemon and garlic one, and toss together, being careful not to break any of the wedges. To my own horror, I didn’t make my own! Next time, for sure. I used a dash or two of Cajun spice mix. Do you want to make your own Cajun spice blend and be the best imaginary chef there is? Click here for a great recipe!Bake for about 25 minutes or until golden and crispy.

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2. Make the beer batter. In a medium sized bowl, pour in the whole bottle of beer. Sift in 1 1/2 cups of flour slowly, whisking constantly at the same time (you might need an extra set of hands for this- ask someone near by to sift while you whisk!). Once it is all mixed, add your seasoning. Add the garlic power, 1/2 teaspoon of pepper, and 2 teaspoons of salt. Whisk together and TASTE! If it needs more of something, add it. DO NOT be discouraged that your batter tastes a lot like beer. I was scared, too, at first, but then the result was fantastic.You want your batter to have those beer notes, y’all- It makes the dish. In another bowl, put in 1 cup of flour and set aside.

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3. Make your peas. I made the peas before I started frying because I wanted my undivided attention for that process since it was my first time. The peas are easy and meant to be room temperature, so making them ahead of time is a good idea. Simple boil enough water to hold 2 cups of peas and throw the frozen peas inside. They will take about 5 minutes, but taste them before you drain to make sure they are cooked through and still have that nice “pop” when you eat them. When they are ready, drain them and pour into the bowl you want to serve them in. Add 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of pepper and the Parmesan cheese. With a large spoon, mix ingredients together by FOLDING, so you don’t smash any of the peas.

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4. Prepare the fish for frying. In your fryer or large pot, pour in the 2 liters of oil. Heat the oil until it reaches 375 degrees F. Pat the fish semi-dry and rub with salt on both sides. Submerge the fish into your beer batter. Then, lay it into your bowl with plain flour and cover both sides. Submerge it again into the batter and make sure it is all coated. With tongs, set it gently into the oil immediately. Watch the fish carefully, turning it to its other side about every 1 minute. Fry until golden brown on both sides, about 4 to 5 minutes. Pull it out with tongs and set it onto paper towel or newspaper, and squeeze the juice from half a lemon all over the fillets and sprinkle a dash of salt on each. Serve immediately while it’s hot and crispy!

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And you have successfully made fish ‘n’ chips with my “cheeky” peas. I promise you and your friends and family will have smiles on your faces after eating this. You will also realize that after the first time, its actually pretty easy to make! It just takes a watchful eye and a thirst for adventure.

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Well, now that we are all good and full, anyone care for a spot of tea?

Keep imagining, keep cooking.

Erika

Poor England.

I feel sorry for this country when it comes to food, because it is severely underestimated. People are always so quick to say how horrible English cuisine is. As some say about this country, “If you love the weather, you will love the food.”

Well. I happen to LOVE the weather, and I have learned to appreciate the food. It isn’t about glitz and glam with food in Great Britain. It’s about using what you have and praising the natural flavors, transforming them ever so slightly to make something delicious and homey. It’s about taking simple ingredients and making a memorable combination.

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Enjoying a Nutella and banana crepe in London

I have had my time in England. I used to spend quite a bit of time there.. Once every two or three months for a span of around three years. It was love that took me there, and because of that I was able to meet people and get to know them and the way they live on a level I never thought I would. But the relationships of my past are not the only thing that kept me coming back. It was the sense of feeling so comfortable anywhere I went. Yes, London is interesting and hip and, well, perfect. Manchester and Liverpool are fun destinations. But the small towns are what made me smile and helped me see the bright side of all the “downs” people point out about England. When it rained and was grey, I could always find laughter and loud swearing at the local pub down the street. When it was sunny, nothing could stop the English from busting out their lawn chairs and getting sun burnt to a crisp. They didn’t care, and I loved it.

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Celebrating the marriage of Prince William and Kate in Crewe. Not kidding!

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Yummy fried mushrooms with salad and a garlic sauce.

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Home made sweets with farm picked strawberries

When it came time for food, I was skeptical at first. But I truly learned to love it, and even crave it. The most delicious strawberries I have ever had were in a little town called Crewe, a small rural town just outside of Manchester where I spent most of my time. There, I also saw the most orange egg yolk I have ever seen. I am obsessed with “Sunday roast”, and English tradition of roasting a meat like lamb or beef and serving it with seasonal veggies, one, two , or three different kinds of potatoes, and Yorkshire pudding (it’s not a dessert, y’all) all drizzled with tons of homemade gravy. My mouth is watering just writing about this.

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A typical English Sunday roast. Courtesy of foreignstudents.com

And of course, the famous fish and chips. Just in case you didn’t already know, English “chips” are our American “french fries”- but better. I remember once going to a local little hole-in-the wall fish and chips shop in Crewe. They were closed for lunch (America- step up on this. Workers need a legitimate lunch break, too) so we went back later because I “had” to have it. It wasn’t my first fish and chips, so what was so special?

Well, we went back. And I don’t know why or how, but the fried fish gods laid their hands upon this shop. It was crispy and just the right saltiness- and the chips were chunky, not skinny. My favorite.

So in light of making myself not only miss England and all my friends there terribly but also making myself the hungriest I have ever been because of this post, I want to “have a go” (That’s what English people say!) at my own fish and chunky chips recipe! I’m also going to show y’all how to make a super quick and easy recipe for green peas to go with it. Say goodbye to the assumption that English food is boring and bland, because after this, you will see it’s anything BUT. Trust me, I know.

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Me having Snugbury’s ice cream at the brand’s farm in Nantwich, a town just outside of Crewe

Also, some of the best chefs I have seen on television are from England! Ironic, isn’t it? Here is a quote about British food from one of my favorites, chef Gordon Ramsay: “I think a lot of people still think of British cooking as bland and a bit dull. We have some exceptional ingredients available to us from our fantastic beef and pork to our game. Cooked well, British cooking is as good, if not better, than any other.”

Read the full Ramsay interview here!

 

Keep imagining, keep cooking.

Erika

I have a love-hate relationship with soup.

I have had enough soup in my Colombian heritage to feed the world. We are soup-eating people by nature. I love it, don’t get me wrong. Soup is yummy and pretty filling, and there is NOTHING in this world that helps a cold better than some quick chicken broth and noodles. I get it. But if you are anything like me, you are picky among the millions of soups out there. After having so many, it isn’t just any soup that catches my attention anymore.

When I thought about Russia as my next topic, my first thought was, “what can I make that doesn’t have mayonnaise in it?”. Yep. That was my thought. Why? Because Russian food seems to attract this condiment, and I am not particularly a fan. Russian food can be good, but a lot of it is known to be bland and covered in mayonnaise (pizza with mayo anyone?). I remembered a cozy night at my friend Andrew’s apartment about a year ago, and he was making a very pink soup. He told me it was Borscht, a typical Russian soup made with beets. I LOVE beets, so naturally I died and went to heaven with this one. It was just. so. good. It was tart- not what I expected, but it was definitely the factor that set this soup apart from others. It was so filling, too. But Andrew assured me that it was ridiculously healthy, so seconds and thirds were a good idea.

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His recipe, which we both recreated in my kitchen this week, is so simple. Literally chop, mix, and boil. No one can say they don’t have time for this. On top of it all, this recipe makes a big pot of soup, so you wont go hungry. I also did a bit of research, and what I found made me want to make this even more. What are the benefits? Oh, you know, only the fact that beets have zero trans fat and zero saturated fat while still being a little sweet for those of us who crave a little sugar. They are high in carbs, so they are a great energy food. They also contain things your body needs like lots of fiber, sodium, magnesium, calcium, iron, phosphorous and vitamins A and C. Shall I go on? I shall. Beets also provide folic acid, which helps repair new cells and benefits woman who are pregnant and anyone who is physically healing. They also help protect against heart disease, and studies have shown that beets help fight some cancers, especially colon cancer.

Add in some red cabbage, which also has anti-cancer properties, boosts immunity, and has anti-aging effects, and you literally have a super soup before you. You can’t go wrong with this at all, and it’s fun to make, too.

This past weekend, my family and I had some guests for dinner, including former NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao and current Latvian Cosmonaut for the Russian Federal Space Agency Oleg Artemyev. Oleg is in Houston training for a mission that will send him to space in May 2014. When my mom and dad blurted out that I had made borscht (embarrassing), their eyes lit up. They insisted on trying it, and I reluctantly said ok. I reminded Oleg that it was my first time making it and I was not sure if he would approve. He is Russian after all, and he has this soup all the time. How could Andrew’s recipe be any good to him?

Well, he tried it. And he said it was BETTER THAN THE ONE HIS WIFE MAKES. Hopefully this doesn’t get him in trouble at home, but I had to share that to add to this recipe’s credibility. NOW do you want to make this? I think you do.

What you need:

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6 large beets, peeled and cut into cubes

2 white potatoes

2-3 carrots, peeled

1 whole white onion

1/2 lemon

1 2oz can of V8 tomato/veggie juice

1/2 head of red cabbage

4 tbls apple cider vinegar

5 tbls of butter

4 tbs of salt

Fresh dill, to taste

salt and pepper, to taste

2 bay leaves

10-12 cups of water

Sour cream, to garnish

How you do it:

1. Chop your base veggies. Wash your beets and cut off the ends, then peel them. Cut them into 1 inch cubes, and place directly into the large stew pot that you will use throughout this entire recipe. Wash and peel your carrots, and chop into about the same size as the beets. Put them into the pot. It’s always better to keep all ingredients the same size for easy eating. Wash the potatoes, but keep the skin on. Chop them up as well and put into the pot.  Then, chop up half the head of red cabbage, and put into the pot with your other ingredients. This will create a stock for the soup while being the star ingredients as well. Chop up the whole white onion and add it in. Then, with your hands, mix the ingredients. Make a hole in the center and place the butter inside.

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2. Turn on your stove to medium heat. Put the put on the flame and begin to stir the ingredients with a wooden spoon. Stir every 30 seconds for about 15 minutes. When everything is cooked down, add the can of V8 juice, dill, salt, and pepper. stir all the ingredients and take the pot off the heat. Add in the 10-12 cups of water, and place it back onto the flame.

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3. Add in the apple cider vinegar. This, along with the dill and beets, is what gives borscht its distinctive tart flavor in this recipe. Stir, and then bring to a boil over medium to high heat. Once it boils, lower the heat a bit and let simmer for 30-45 minutes, stirring often. about 15 minutes in, squeeze in the juice from half a lemon.

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4. Toast some dark rye. Rye bread is the typical bread that is eaten with borscht. It has a sour-like taste and goes perfectly with this soup when toasted just a bit. I got some regular dark rye from the super market, already sliced (I couldn’t find a whole loaf, but please try!), and toasted it on the stove top. Once its toasted nicely, cut it diagonally and place it onto a place. Serve the soup in a bowl and add a dollop of sour cream. Sprinkle on some dill to garnish.

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5. EAT! It’s best hot, and it’s so so good  to dip the rye bread into the soup. You will impress your family and friends, impress yourself, and can rest assured that you aren’t ruining your diet. In fact, you are helping it!

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If you are a meat lover, this works for you too! Some borscht recipes have chunks of beef in it. That sounds amazing to me, but Andrew keeps this one vegetarian and I think it’s perfect. Try it out if your carnivorous side is calling.

This took no time at all and makes a huge serving. Try this out and let me know what you guys think- I guarantee my readers will be pleasantly surprised. All that’s left to do is serve up a big shot of Russian vodka. Here’s to traveling across the world, and never having to leave your kitchen! Na Zdorovia! That’s cheers, lets get drunk, or to good health in Russian. When in Rome…right?

Keep Imagining, keep cooking.

Erika

In 1998, my family and I moved to Moscow, Russia.

We stayed only for a couple of months so my dad could work on his NASA business. No big deal.

But for me, Russia was anything but business. I actually remember feeling like I was in a whole new place, somewhere really far away that I didn’t quite understand. Back then, the country was still feeling the effects of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and suffered a crippling financial crash in 1998. Not to mention the conflict between Russia and the southern region of Chechnya sparked once again just one year later despite the signing of a peace treaty in 1997. Social unrest and political conflict was definitely present.

Of course, I was oblivious to any of this. I just loved helping my sister dress up like Mariah Carey on the cover of her 1997 album, Butterfly. I loved playing Doom on my parents’ ridiculously huge and heavy lap top. How did i never realize i was shooting at Nazi soldiers and evil German shepherds? I loved that my mom brought a few boxes of Captain Crunch so we wouldn’t miss it. I remember knocking over the box and all the cereal fell out onto the carpet. My sister was so mad at me, but we got over it by watching Sister Sister in Russian on TV at night. By night, I mean only the 4 to 6 hours of darkness that we got in Moscow. In St. Petersburg, there was zero darkness. We had to sleep with the blinds closed because even though it was 10 PM it looked like it was 10 AM. Not exactly something we welcomed, but it was an amazing experience when you are only 8 years old.

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My sister (right) and I in our super 1990’s attire in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral

Surprisingly, I don’t really remember the food. I remember buying eggs and bread on the street with my mom and sister while my dad was at work. I remember being on the train from Moscow to St. Petersburg at the train restaurant, and my mom had to ask for chicken or beef by “mooing” or flapping her arms in the air. YES, this really happened. But I don’t remember a particular dish I ate. I remember going to my dad’s coworkers apartment and watching Terminator. I remember my first time seeing milk in a box, and I DEFINITELY remember going to a restaurant, leaving my back pack that had $92 inside that i had saved up for so long, and going back and it was gone. Wherever you are whoever stole my backpack in Moscow in 1998….you are still on my list.

I remember seeing Lenin’s tomb and the changing of the guards in Red Square, and thinking St. Basil’s Cathedral looked like ice cream. I remember running through water fountains with my sister, happy and blissfully ignorant to where I was and what the people thought or how they lived. I loved Russia, and i haven’t been back since. My dad has gone a handful of times since then. He says it has changed so much since i saw it in the 90’s. I want to go back- and I will. When? I don’t know. But it was a place i lived, and i feel that I want to get to know it again as an adult. I want to people watch, and understand.

To relive my connection to Russia and all it has to offer, I decided to make Borscht. It’s a SUPER healthy soup or stew that has beets, potatoes, and lots of dill. It’s vinegary, a little sweet, filling, and so so good for you. My friend Andrew, who studied Russian Literature in New York and worked in Russia for some time back in 2011, was kind enough to show me his take on this typical Russian dish. Not only does he speak Russian, which, for any American, is an amazing skill, but he is also a mad cook. He improvises with such confidence that everything he does just turns out tasting amazing. Thanks to him, I can share this recipe with you guys and bring Russia to your kitchen. Ready for this?? My next post will be all about PINK, and its coming right up!

Keep imagining, Keep cooking.

Erika

Well, I’m proud to say I passed Roasting 101. 

It was easier than I thought. Good thing too, since roasting is pretty much the only way you can achieve the distinct smoky flavor of baba ghanoush. I didn’t go my whole life knowing about this piece of the middle east. I learned about baba ghanoush sometime in high school when I started going out to eat with friends. It also might be due to the fact that I have had a lot of middle eastern friends since then. Anyway.

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I am SO glad that I chose to make this dish. It is by far the healthiest thing I’ve ever made, and it was the most fun out of the recipes I have given you all since I began imaginarychef. Its delicious, vegetarian, vegan, and addicting.  I will admit, I doubted myself. I really thought it was going to end up tasting and looking terrible. But, what must be done must be done, so I went for it. I hope my friends out there who feel they know what it takes to make baba ghanoush perfect like my version! Feedback is always welcome and encouraged. I tried to keep it classic, but since I didn’t know what spices to add to the eggplant, I went with a few ingredients that I remembered were in a recipe I saw on the food network a long time ago by Bobby Flay, such as lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and the base of the creaminess in this dip, a sesame seed paste called Tahini. The rest, well…let’s just say I felt like a scientist experimenting in a lab. But, as I said, I went with simple and what I got in return was just what I wanted. So, let’s give this one a try. I promise you, it’s ridiculously easy, but will impress any guest. Store bought? Never again. Restaurant quality? Fine, fine. You know i’ll still order it. But homemade? Perfection.

Oh, you don’t like eggplant you say? Well give this one a chance, because the eggplant flavor is totally transformed. Smoky, rich, and creamy, and very reminiscent of hummus.

What you need:

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2 medium to large eggplants, roasted

1/3 of a cup of Tahini, more to taste

2 lemons, juiced, more to taste

1 tsp of salt, more to taste

1/2 tsp of cumin, more to taste

1/4 tsp of cayenne pepper,…i think you all know what i’m going to say.

4 cloves of garlic, roasted

Extra virgin olive oil, for topping

paprika, for topping

How you do it:

1. Prepare your eggplants and garlic for roasting. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F for the garlic. This is super easy, but takes some patience. Wash and dry the eggplants. With a fork, pierce the skin of each one all over so the heat can get in. Wrap each one tightly with a few layers of aluminum foil, so you don’t make a mess. If you have a gas stove, it will be the easiest way to roast your eggplants. Simply put each foil-wrapped eggplant directly on top of an open flame from one of the burners. I kept it at medium heat the entire time. Roast like that for 30 minutes until the eggplants start to collapse. Use tongs to turn the eggplants about a quarter every few minutes. Once they are done, set aside to cool. Then open it all up, being careful with the hot steam. There will be juice in there too- take this and drain it right into a bowl where you are going to mix all the ingredients. Cut each eggplant open, and spoon out the roasted flesh. It can be easier to do this if you just turn the eggplants skin up and scrape lightly with a spoon. Place the flesh into the bowl with the drained juice. Roasting eggplant this way and using the juices will give the baba ghanoush the smokiness it deserves.

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 For the garlic, use a whole head. Peel it completely until only the cloves, still intact, are showing. Cut the top off of the head, exposing each clove. Set the head on top of a sheet of foil. Coat the whole thing with extra virgin olive oil. Then, tightly wrap the garlic head with the foil. Place it directly on a rack in your preheated oven. Leave roasting for about 35 minutes. When finished, use the tongs to take it out, and set aside to cool.

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2. Add the rest of the ingredients. Once the eggplant has cooled, add 4 cloves of the roasted garlic, the salt, cumin, cayenne pepper, and tahini. Then add the lemon juice, using one hand to squeeze and the other underneath to catch any seeds. Trust me, I know..I spent a good 5 minutes just looking for one seed. With a large fork,  start to mash all the ingredients together, scraping and mixing any stringiness from the eggplant. I personally like the stringiness of the eggplant in my baba ghanoush, but you can keep mashing until it’s just the way you like it. Once its done, taste it. Make sure it has the flavors you are looking for. I needed some more salt. I had originally put in only 1/2 tsp, but I added another 1/2 tsp after i tasted it.

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3. Garnish. I am a nerd and put the baba ghanoush into a cute, colorful bowl for presentation, and topped it off with the basics: paprika and olive oil. just drizzle some oil on top and then add a few dashes of paprika.

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And you are done! you have successfully made something delicious, nutritious, and exotic. 

Serve with some pita chips, warm pita bread, or prezel chips. Put it in a sandwich. Pair it with some lamb or grilled chicken. The possibilities go as far as your imagination does. PLEASE try this. You. Won’t. Regret. It.

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Keep imagining, keep cooking.

Erika

After last week’s workload at school on top of work and, well, life, I need a break.

Someone please take me back somewhere where I can relax, breathe, exhale, and take in unique surroundings. Somewhere different, somewhere far away…and has delicious food.

When I get in this mindset, I think of my adventures in Lebanon two summers ago. It was my first time in that area of the world, and certainly not my last. Lebanon is a gorgeous country with an ancient history. I had the opportunity to stay in Byblos, or Jubayl in Arabic, the birthplace of things like purple dye and expert fishing. Lebanon is what used to be ancient Phoenicia. The history buff in me was in awe while watching the way this country worked in modern times. So much history is still present in its streets and the faces of its people. Suffering is, too. Unrest in neighboring Syria leaves its mark on Lebanon, with fear that war will spill over the border continuing to rise. Internal threats are also present. In late August of this year, two car bombings outside a mosque killing dozens of people worshiping and another bomb that killed 27 people happened in a span of only two days, as reported by The New York Times. On August 23, four rockets were launched from southern Lebanon towards Israel, something that had not been done in two years. Israel responded by hitting a site in southern Beirut with warplanes.

All this against a backdrop of a rich and wonderful people, food and culture. And it’s pretty modern in some parts, too. Before I left, 90% of the reactions I got were along the lines of, “What are you going there for?”. All I can say about that is, why not?. It was an experience I will never forget. I felt comfortable there. Never scared, but vigilant nonetheless. The driving habits are crazy- no one seems to see any lanes or signs. And I wish people would wear helmets on those motorcycles that seem to be near their death. But the sound of the call for prayer in the air as I sipped my tea on a Beirut rooftop, now that was something to sit back and admire. I never felt so far away from everything I grew up with, but it felt good, it felt right.

And the FOOD. Let me just go ahead and say that living in Houston, I have been spoiled with the Lebanese food available. I am always craving it. It is so fresh, healthy, and just plain delicious. But the real deal had something extra. I don’t know if it was the fact that the breakfast at my hotel was so perfect that I still dream about it today. Or maybe it was the fact that the best meal of my life was brought directly to us on the beach in Tyre, or Sur in Arabic, a coastal town almost at the southern tip of Lebanon (We got Israeli radio signal, y’all!) , even though I saw no sign of a kitchen anywhere. Magic? Sorcery? Sent from the Heavens? I wouldn’t rule those out.

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I remember that while eating it, I was so happy. That sounds like a little much, but I promise, I was genuinely happy. I had good health, good food, and scenery that made me stop and stare. That is the feeling I wish I could have right now, sitting at my computer hunched over, sleepy and staring at a truck out my window that belongs to the City of Bellaire. Yay, It’s Monday. Not.

But let’s cheer up! I just found out today’s class is cancelled, and I am not stopping the positive notes there. What better way to keep them coming than whip up something good in the kitchen that, if we use our imagination, can take us anywhere in the world we want to be?

This week, I will take myself back to Lebanon and make something I have never made before. Will it be hummus? Baba ganoush? Grape leaves? I’m still deciding, because there are just too many things I want to make and eat and share with you all, so you will just have to wait and see!

I leave you with a look at Lebanon through pictures of my adventures. Enjoy!

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All pictures were taken by me and Andrea Forero. All right reserved. 

Keep imagining, keep cooking.

Erika

First off, lets correct ourselves before we proceed with an irresistible Italian recipe. Image

– It is not LASAGNA, with an “a”, but LASAGNE, with an “e” for more than one sheet of pasta. If you only use one sheet of pasta for this recipe, then lasagna away!

– It is also FETTUCINE with an “e”, not an “i”, as most people in the U.S. like to think.

– It is “PANINO” for ONE Italian style sandwich and “PANINI” is for more than one. I always hear people saying “i want a panini”…incorrect, my friends! But, nonetheless, you learn something every day, as we have just now. Refreshing, right?

Today I will show you, my readers, how to make a recipe that I thought required being precise, but it really does not. I say this because I kept adjusting my recipe and improvising as I went along, and as will you I am sure. It is meat free, simple, and full of flavor.

MEAT EATERS: Don’t go away! You will love this, too. Trust me! This also works as a side dish for any meat or fish, so the world is not ending.

Let’s give this a go, shall we?

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My rosemary and I

What you need:

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15-20 cooked lasagne (sheets of pasta, rememberrrr?)

*you can also use no-boil noodles, but I really don’t think they are as good. I’m not sure if they save you money, but they definitely save you some time.

For the pesto:

1/2 cup of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, cut into medium sized-chunks

1 large garlic clove

1/2 cup of pine nuts

1/2 cup of olive oil

2 cups of fresh basil leaves, packed

For the bechamel sauce:

1 1/2 sticks of unsalted butter

3/4 cup of flour

4 cups of milk

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1 tsp ground pepper (I used white, but it really doesn’t matter- use what you have!)

2 cubes of vegetable bouillon

For building your lasagne and topping:

1 1/2 cups of Parmesan cheese, grated

1 – 1 1/2 cups of Mozzerella cheese (you can play with this, I like more cheese!)

Handful of fresh rosemary

And of course, a baking pan! I used a 13 x 9 ceramic one.

How you do it:

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.

2. Start boiling some water for the lasagne. You need enough to submerge all the pasta you want to cook. Bring to a boil and put in your sheets, and cook for about 8 minutes. Be careful not to overcook your lasagne, because they are going to continue cooking as they bake. Once they are cooked, drain and lay them out flat on a baking sheet or tray so they don’t stick to each other. You can make the pesto while this is all happening!

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3. Make the pesto. You need a food processor for this. But hey, be an imaginary chef and use something else, like a blender (Let me know how that goes)! Add the chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano to the food processor and process it until it is ground very fine. Add the pine nuts, garlic and basil and process in pulses until it is all chopped finely and blended together. Then, with the processor on, add the 1/2 cup of olive oil until the pesto is smooth. If you think it is olive-oily enough, you do not need to use the full 1/2 cup. Use your eyes!!

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4. Make the bechamel sauce. This is the most tedious part of the true Italian lasagne making experience, because you have to constantly stir and keep an eye on what is forming in your saucepan. So flex your arm/wrist muscles and get ready. In a medium sized saucepan, add the 1 1/2 sticks of butter and melt. The moment it is all melted, add the flour and whisk for a minute or two until the flour is cooked. KEEP WHISKING. Once it is cooked, add the veggie bouillon cubes. While whisking (I know, I know), add about a third of the milk slowly. Keep whisking, and you will see that the doughy thing that was once there becomes creamy, and then becomes doughy again. Once that happens, add another third of the milk. Whisk until smooth, and then add the rest of the milk. Once your bechamel looks creamy but not runny, take it off the heat and transfer it to a heat-safe bowl and let cool. Make sure you have everything for the assembly ready so the bechamel doesn’t become too stiff. I just kept stirring it occasionally to help prevent that.

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Note on the bechamel: If it looks too stiff while still in the sauce pan, add a bit more milk. That is what I did. I don’t know if that is blasphemy in the world of bechamel sauce making, but who’s going to stop me?

5. Assemble the Lasagna. Start off with putting a good amount of bechamel on the bottom, coating it completely. Then add a layer of lasagne (I used 3 for each layer). Coat the layer with bechamel. Add some pesto and spread it into the sauce. Sprinkle a handful of the grated parmesan evenly over the layer. Keep layering the lasagne, bechamel, pesto and parmesan until you add the last layer of pasta. Finish off by coating it with the last of the bechamel only. Add the mozzerella cheese, making sure to coat the entire thing. Add sprinkles of fresh rosemary on top. Wrap the entire thing tightly with foil.

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6. Bake the lasagne for one hour. If you used no-boil noodles, you will need to leave it baking for another 15 to 20 minutes. After it bakes, remove the foil and let it bake for another 10-15 minutes. This will make parts of the cheese on top crispy and delicious.

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Serve immediately, since there is NOTHING like homemade lasagne fresh out of the oven. I recommend a nice Tuscan red wine with this dish, such as Chianti. Then again, I am biased because I just love Tuscany so much.

What do you think about my recipe? Let me know by commenting below, I would love to hear from my readers! If you have a different approach, or if you tried my recipe and used a blender to make the pesto, tell me about how that went too!

Buon appetito! 

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My basil plant 

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Luna likes to ignore me, but i love her.

Keep imagining, Keep cooking.

Erika

After more than two years, I still miss my window.

I miss opening it up early in the morning to hear the horse carriages and tourists bustle around the cobblestone streets below me. Florence, or as it really is called, Firenze, was not only my temporary home, it was my haven. I went to study abroad in Italy in January 2011. I was nervous, of course; not knowing anyone and barely speaking the language can be pretty intimidating. But I was more excited, because I had been waiting for that moment for a long time. I took three semesters of Italian in Houston, so I was prepared with the basics, and I was and still am in love with all things Italian in general. I got there, and it was the beginning of one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I don’t think i really knew what nostalgia was like until I came back to the states and saw that “Welcome to Houston, Texas” sign at the airport. “Welcome back to reality” is more like it, because Firenze was a dream.

So back to my window. I became friends with some crazy, fun, and sweet Italians and Mexicans ever. Oli, William, Cosimo, Luca, Marco, Clarissa, Andre, Enrique..I miss you all so much. And my Mexican loves, brother and sister Dario and Macaria. I don’t know how Firenze could have been perfect without them. All these people were my family, and still are. They made my life there bliss, full of laughter every day and a sense of freedom from the negativity of the world that I don’t think I will ever find again. I think that is why I am almost fluent in Italian now, because I had zero American friends. I never spoke English, and I think that’s the key. Immerse yourself completely and you will see improvement every day. Don’t be afraid to not know anything. People are there to help you more than you think.

I think Firenze is an amazing town.. beautiful, artistic, and history staring at you in the face. The renaissance is in every corner. I mean, Dante Alighieri’s was my neighbor! It took me many months to get over the excitement of walking less than a block from my apartment and seeing his house. I love history, and that was pretty amazing to me. I also lived about 5 blocks away (you walk there by the way..this city is not designed for cars at all. Thirty minute walk to a club? Normal!) from Santa Croce, the location of a gorgeous basilica that is the resting place of oh, you know, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galileo..to drop some names. I could go on and on about who’s tomb I saw or who’s house I was in, or that time i almost got kicked out of the place where the David is for trying to sneak a picture with my phone. Italian yelling is kind of scary, y’all.

But let’s get back to my window. I have a thing for windows, for the feeling of openness. I need it. I crave the wind through my hair. And my window, in my more than perfect rustic apartment, was huge and magnificent. It was loud when opened, just like i like it. It was my own little nook. Every morning, I would open it up wide and let all the fresh air come in as i blasted my music through my speakers. I would stick almost my whole body out that window and just people watch, counting the horse carriages as they passed. I miss that sound, the clunk of their hooves on the cobble stones..It was therapy.

Another thing I did while my window was open and music was blasting, was cook with my roommates, especially Benedetta. She is a lovely girl from a small and idyllic island in southern Italy called Elba, or Isola di Elba. You know, that island that this guy named Napoleon got exiled to. I went there, and saw his house, which is pretty amazing and made me wonder if he thought isolation was really all that bad. She taught me how to cook pasta the Italian way. That is, put your SALTED and cooked pasta directly IN the sauce you made to mix them together and serve. This actually keeps the pasta cooking and allows it to really absorb the flavor of the sauce. She also showed me little tricks in the kitchen, like freezing your meats to make individual portions so you don’t use more than you need, and its easy to use. Seems like common sense, but then why didn’t I think of that?

Something Italians do a lot is invite people over for dinner or “aperitivo”, a before-dinner tradition consisting of drinks and delicious local “snacks”, designed to stir appetite. We did this a lot at my place, and oh did the spumante (because they were about 2 euros a bottle and we were poor students) and the occasional prosecco flow (when we were already more than tipsy from the spumante and let our judgment fall out of my third story window). One evening Bene (the nickname for Benedetta) and I invited some of her friends to come and have aperitivo and dinner at our place. By this time, Bene and I had graduated from using hand gestures to understand each other and were using full fledged conversation. Of course, she was always ready to make fun of me and correct my Italian, and I did this for her with Spanish, so we were even. So she decided to make Pesto Lasagna that night, and she also decided that I should learn how. This one works for everyone because it comes sans all the meat gushing out, so vegetarians can enjoy it too, and its just plain amazing. My boyfriend, who does not like lasagna for the very reason that all the meat and tomato sauce is always so overpowering, says that this lasagna is the best he has ever had. Don’t get us wrong, we love the meat version too. But sometimes it can get a little typical, a little too much. Bene’s version is simple, bold in flavor, and delicious. That is what real Italian cooking is about. Use fresh and simple ingredients to make something spectacular and to the point. So this weekend, get your pasta face on and get ready to make some pesto from scratch, because we are heading to Florence, Italy circa 2011.

I will leave you all with something I wrote while living in Firenze. It reminds me of the way I thought there, the feelings I felt as I lived life in that city. It will give you a sense of me, as I changed and grew up there, as I found out things about myself and the world around me. I hope it inspires you to look at what is around you as well, and wonder. Wonder is the one thing we sometimes lose as adults. I think it’s time to take it back.

My eyes moved carefully with the bodies and the music. I could see and feel emotion at the same time, smiling back at me and absorbing me. Legs twisted around each other, bursts of flight making my breath catch. I studied the faces of concentration and delight as their owners, the dancers, had the audience in silent admiration. On this night, I forgot about how humid it can be in this amazing Tuscan city that is Firenze. Com’e posibile, potere vedere la vera felicita sulla faccia di qualcuno?

I have always heard people say, “Do what you love”. Love? It didn’t seem so simple to me. What do I love? And who can say if it is in fact true or temporary? But the dancers, oh, the dancers… they knew where their happiness was, and they laughed and played as they leaped and stretched and threw their bodies to each other, simply trusting, believing. As I watched the spontaneous ballet show in the middle of Piazza Della Signoria on my way back to my cozy apartment, thoughts, and possibly answers, came not flooding in but gracefully flowing through my head, as if they were already there from the start.

Happiness is already inside you, my dear friends. It does not come; you do not look for it and acquire it. It is yours- a gift from God, Allah, or “to whom it may concern”. The magnificence of this situation is that one has the ability to find it within their being and bring it out. Bring it out I say, and unleash it like a wild beast, unafraid and unrestricted of its effects on its host or its prey.  

Image Piazza Della Signoria

ImageA bar filled with singing Italians

ImageIsola Di Elba

ImageHaving fun on the beach in Elba

ImageMaking meatballs in my kitchen in Firenze

ImageFriends over at my place

ImageGrapes on the vine just outside of Firenze

ImageA breathtaking view of the landscape in Tuscany from my friend William’s home

ImageEating Fiorentina, a massive beef cut from Tuscany that is served pretty much rare, cheeses with honey, and pasta with pear

ImageNight time view of Firenze standing on the Ponte Vecchio, which means “old bridge”

ImageHundreds of people in Piazza del Duomo

ImageStreet Art in Firenze

ImageView of Firenze on a cloudy day

ImageRight to left: Me, Clarissa, and Macaria on a night out. Photo bomber: Oli

ImageSome of us, being us!

ImageAperitivo time in Firenze. This drink is called Spritz, and it is to die for

ImageMe, taking all of Firenze in

ImageRoommates: Me, Bene, and Mafe.. I miss these girls every day.

ImageMy window and I

Ciao!

Erika