The Trip: {Sicily, Ephesus, Athens & Crete}

After a week of having no power at home, I can say that I am extremely thankful for deodorant, fresh foods, blogging, air conditioning, and not having to fold laundry by candlelight while sitting on a towel because you are sticking to your leather furniture.

True story. Winds 85+ mph aren’t good for power lines, fences and trees, apparently. And, when it’s 90* inside your house, it makes you very hard to live with.

So now, on to the FINAL chapter of this trip thing… I promise!

(Missed part I, II & III? Read ’em!)

After our first 10 days of travel, we needed a break.

As in: If I didn’t get to just sit for several hours at some point (and maybe get a drink with an umbrella in it), I might die. Also, not sweating all day long and walking more than 10 miles in a day would be great, too.

{Read more about the particulars of the cruise below – it was wonderful!}

Enter, The Navigator of the Seas. This beauty was a floating resort, and included multiple pools, restaurants, bars, a theater, a rock climbing wall, putt-putt, sport courts, free frozen yogurt machines and an ice skating rink: H.E.A.V.E.N.

It was also going to carry us – in our well-appointed state room with a balcony view of the Mediterranean – to Sicily, Ephesus, Athens and Crete.

{Mt. Etna’s black lava, landscape, lunch, the terrifically blue sea}

Our first destination was Sicily. We hired a private tour with Sicily Life, and totally enjoyed having our local guide walk us through the sights we had arranged. We saw Mt. Etna, an active volcano; an oil & honey shop; and the pristine village of Taormnia. But – our favorite spot of the day, and arguably the best meal of the trip – was at a little mountain side restaurant. We enjoyed three types of pasta (one with wild mushrooms and a light cream sauce; one with pine nuts, fennel, and raisins; and one with a fresh vegetable primavera) and two fabulous desserts (a sponge cake with icy cream drizzled with chocolate, and small fried pockets of crispy dough filled with mascarpone and chocolate chips. I. die.) with our guide as we spoke in depth about politics, education, marriage & courtship, cooking, the mafia, economics and everything else we could think of! The views were spectacular, and we purchased luscious olive oils, pesto, flavored honey, a painted bowl, and a vintage embroidered handkerchief.

{Fresh pom juice, ancient ruins, rug making, Mary’s House, and a view of our ship}

After a peaceful day at sea spent lounging in the sun by the pool, we arrived in Turkey. Another private guide, booked with Celsus Travel, and a driver awaited us to whisk us off to Mary’s House, Ancient Ephesus and the Terrace Houses, the mountaintop village of Sirince, a rug maker and bazaar. We walked where Paul preached, drank fresh pomegranate juice and Turkish coffee, and picked up a beautiful scarf, Turkish delight (which always makes me think of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe!) and lovely pottery to take home.

{View from the Acropolis, olive tree, Mars rock, Greek yogurt, new watch}

A quick overnight journey brought us to the shores of Greece, and a short taxi ride brought us to the foot of the Acropolis. We were awed. The ruins were positively majestic, and the clear sunny day allowed us to see the rest of the ancient city sprawled out below us. We visited the Agora, Acropolis museum, walked the streets, browsed the shops, and ate spanakopita, Greek Salad, Baklava, and my favorite (and a MUST on my trip to-do list) authentic Greek ewes milk yogurt… cold, creamy and tangy with a spoon of rose and strawberry preserves. I can taste it now… totally delightful. We took home a lovely gold anchor charm (a Christian symbol used in the catacombs we saw in Rome), and cool watch for the Husband.

{Blue, blue, blue…}

Finally, we reach our final destination: The crystal blue waters of the Greek isle of Crete. We simply hopped on the city bus at Chania to the center of the city, and took an amazing walk to the beach. A shorter excursion day, we lounged in the sun for a few hours, and then wandered back to port, stopping for gyros and an olive wood serving set. This spot was gorgeous – each house was dripping with flowers (no matter how small or dilapidated), and the port (which was designed by Venetians!) looked like something from a painting.

We arrived back in Rome after another delightful day at sea, and took the train to the airport to fly back to our cozy home… We were tired and happy, with minds and hearts and souls expanded to capacity with the joy of discovery, and the richness of fresh knowledge and life lessons.

It had all bee totally worth it… and we were better for it.

{Happy to be home at last!}

Special thanks to all that helped us dream, plan and explore: {Our awesome parents, our “Friends up North”, Hannah & Federico and many, many others…} Missed part I, II & III? Read ’em!

A few notes about the cruise – Just in case you’re planning a trip soon!:

Booking – We booked the trip ourselves over the phone after checking the Royal Caribbean website, and monitoring deals and special offers. A travel agent wasn’t necessary at any point during our trip!

Food & Drinks: Even the somewhat critical foodie that I am, I was surprised at the freshness and variety of the meals offered on board. Partially because the passengers were made up of people from a wide variety of nations, you could find brioche, baked beans, pancakes, curry or muesli for breakfast, and always had a variety of pretty well-prepared dinners in the dining room at night. We purchased a wine package, which was also a great value for us. Bottles were expensive on board, and you (technically) weren’t allowed to bring any on with you. We enjoyed a few drinks around the pool, but mostly stuck to enjoying a bottle at dinner. We also got a water package, but two bottles were provided in the room, and it wasn’t really necessary. Personally, I would steer clear of soft drink packages – pricy and too easy to fill up! Regular coffee was free, specialty drinks from Starbucks had a regular charge.

Room: We were advised to pick a room away from elevators, and close to the upper decks – great advice for a quiet, smooth trip with easy access to amenities. Also, the balcony was a must, as we ate quick room-service breakfasts there at each port before we disembarked (and opening our anniversary champagne would have been difficult without it ;).

Excursions: Don’t. Use. The. Ship’s. Tours. We zoomed passed groups of 50+ that followed rather lame guides through the sights of each stop. They might be a little cheaper than booking private tours like we did in Sicily and Ephesus, but you really miss out! And, if you have a group, or just need a taxi or city bus, you can SAVE by going it alone, like we did in Crete and Athens! Don’t be fooled – it’s easy to find great companies and deals at your port cities. Check Cruise Critic and Trip Advisor to see what other passengers recommend!

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It’s getting {real}…

We had a fun-filled visit to the old homestead over the weekend… It was about time – We hadn’t been back since Christmas!

Our days were filled with wedding festivities (hooray for Mary Beth & Luke!), a spinning class, mildly successful shopping, hang out time with friends, laughs with family, and THIS dinner.

Yes, that is a homemade grilled pizza buffet. Yes, my mom outdid me with my own recipe. Yes, it was heavenly.

My favorite appetizers, great wine, homemade dough, amazing toppings (including Pear & Gorgonzola) and a cozy fire… sigh. No place like home.

There was also BBQ and funfetti cake at the Husband’s parents’ (partially eaten in the basement due to a slight weather emergency) but that was inhaled with such vigor that there is no photographic evidence. The hail and tornado sirens might have been a little distracting as well…

The other fun development over the weekend was “THE TRIP” coming together! Gordon & Selena, our “Friends up North”, were in town and helped us finalize a few more of our plans. I told you we booked our cruise, but now we’ve purchased our plane tickets and have a few more little details to share… It’s getting real!

We leave May 24 and will return June 10. In between we will be here:

Florence, Italy {source}

and here: Venice, Italy {source}

and here: Pisa, Italy {source}

and here: Orvieto, Terni, Italy {source}

and here: Rome, Italy {source}

and here: Messina, Sicily, Italy {source}

and here: Kusadasi, Ephesus, Turkey {source}

and here: Athens, Greece {source}

and here: Chania, Crete, Greece {source}

I can hardly contain myself. I can hardly concentrate on anything else. I can hardly fall asleep. AND we have two months to go…

Oh, well. I need that time to panic over packing and booking hotel rooms and tours anyhow ;)

Any fun weekend adventures or tips planned in your neck of the woods? Do any of you experienced travelers have any advice for us? We need it!

Sweet {Pecan} Turkey Burger with Spicy Yogurt Aioli

I LOVE that show, “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” on the Food Network.

Well, really anything on the Food Network.

But, who doesn’t enjoy see those amazing dishes, and learning about what food gurus think is the BEST of the Best?

It seems like we’ve all had those few dishes that really stick with us: The ones that we dream of as we eat random green leftovers for lunch, or choke down that rubber chicken they serve at conferences and college events…. again. The ones that we crave all the more because they are so unattainable – Nestled in a cozy booth in a restaurant far away, or at your grandmother’s table in another state.

Well, I’m no guru, but this is one of those meals.

I’ve eaten this burger exactly once, about 5 months ago, and I’ve thought of it about 127,000 times since then. So, I decided to do something about it!

Inspired by Barley’s Brewing Company’s Turkey Nut Burger, this sandwich is spicy, sweet, juicy and fresh. The pecans are surprising. The aioli is secretly healthy. Best enjoyed with crispy baked sweet potato fries.

Oh, yes.

{Perfect for a summer dinner, or a “wishing for summer” dinner… like tonight}

The secret is really in the maple syrup, pecans and aioli, so feel free to use your tried and true burger recipe (I based mine off of this one), or even use ground beef, chicken or pork. Those caramelized, sweet pecans are to die for!. The millet, onion and veggies in this version do a great job of keeping things juicy… just be very careful when flipping. The lower fat content can cause the burgers to crumble easily…. but it’s so worth it : )

Sweet Turkey Pecan Burger with Spicy Yogurt Aioli

Serves 6

For the Burger:

  • 1 lb ground turkey (lowest fat content may not hold together as well when formed into patties – try 93%-lean)
  • 1/4 cup cooked millet (you can substitute couscous, quinoa or another grain if you have it on hand)
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 1 stalk celery
  • 1 T chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 T chopped fresh basil
  • 1 t oregano
  • 1/2 t salt
  • 1/2 t pepper
  • 1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan
  • 1/4 cup chopped pecans

For Grilling:

  • 3 T olive Oil
  • 2 T pure maple syrup

For Spicy Aioli:

Measurements are “to taste” – add a little more spicy or sweet if you’d like!

  • 1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • About 1 T Sriracha Asian Chili Sauce (available at most grocery stores!)
  • About 1 T honey
For Caramelized Onion:
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 1T olive oil
  • 2T fig or balsamic vinegar
  • Sprinkle of brown sugar (optional)
For Garnish – Optional:
  • Sliced tomato
  • Spinach
  • Cheese of your choice

Directions:

  • Prepare millet according to directions, or (like I did) use leftovers!
  • Preheat grill to medium-high.
  • Prepare aioli: Mix yogurt, chili sauce and honey to taste, cover and place in refrigerator.
  • Prepare caramelized onions: Place ingredients in pan on medium heat, stir often until crust forms, golden brown, fragrant. Set aside.
  • Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add celery; cook, stirring, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add thyme, basil, oregano, salt and pepper; cook until fragrant, about 20 seconds more. Remove from heat.
  • Add millet to the pan, toss, and let cool for 5 minutes.
  • Add onion and grain mixture to the ground turkey and stir until combined; do not overmix. Form the mixture into 6 patties.
  • Mix olive oil and maple syrup. Press crushed pecans onto the top of each patty, and brush with the maple-olive oil mixture.
  • To grill: Oil the grill rack, and grill the burgers for 5 to 6 minutes per side, flipping gently to avoid breaking them. Garnish, and serve immediately!
  • To cook on the stovetop: Coat a large nonstick skillet, preferably cast-iron, with cooking spray and set over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Add the patties, reduce heat to medium, and cook for 4 minutes. Turn and cook on the other side for 2 minutes. Cover and continue to cook until lightly browned but still juicy (the juices should run clear, not pink), about 4 minutes more. (An instant-read thermometer inserted in the center should read 165° F.)

Don’t forget those fries…

Enjoy!

What is one of your “Best Thing I Ever Ate” dishes?


What we’re {still} eating

So, I’ve been on a cooking kick lately.

<—Not like a literal kick…

{That’s my little bro and his adorable girlfriend. We got to see them cheer at their college game this week! Mad skills…}

This new culinary dedication is partially due to the fact that after being away for the holidays I missed my kitchen.

Partially because we decided to make a concerted effort to stay in a focus on our home, and home cooking this month.

And partially because Pinterest is taking over the universe.

And so, we now have a freezer that looks like this:

Lovely, yet dangerous at the same time. A TON of quick leftover meals, and a TON of ways to get hit in the head by a falling rubbermaid containers while fishing for something in the fridge. It happens.

At any rate, we’ve lucked out and hit the jackpot with some AWESOME new recipe finds. They were too good to keep to ourselves. And to our freezer. And so, here is my list of things you’ve just gotta try…

  • Eggplant Lasagna: I added a single layer of mashed sweet potatoes mixed with Italian herbs and spices. Perfect addition. Try it!
  • Tempeh Tamale Pie: The Husband was NOT a fan of the vegan cheese I used as the topping (should have done half and half) but couldn’t tell that the filing wasn’t ground turkey. Perfection with a few chips and Greek yogurt. Yum!
  • Turkey Sloppy Joe’s: This was delish, but for the sauce I ended up pretty much squirting in a mix of every bbq-esque sauce we had in the fridge until it tasted good. Whatever floats your boat!
  • Kale Chips: The BEST way to eat this slightly-scary veggie… perfect with a sandwich (love that c.r.u.n.c.h.)
Drum roll…
Best of the Best….
This:
  • Slow Cooker Chicken Tiki Masala: Best. Thing. We’ve. Eaten. In Months. I substituted a mix of Tofutti cream cheese and plain almond milk for the cream at the end – you couldn’t tell! The dish was so rich and delicious and creamy and decadent. A total MUST.

And, here’s a deep, dark secret.

I also made this….

{A box of cake mix, plain yogurt and fat free cool whip: So bad. So good.}

In my defense, it was for a “Trailer Trash Tragedy” Murder Mystery party….

See, it totally fit in. Cheese puffs on a toothpick, Funyuns, spray cheese, dirt pudding…

My dip was practically a health food.

But truthfully, I just wanted to eat gobs of it on an off-brand Nilla Wafer.

Yep. Did that.

Enjoy!

Asian Lettuce Wraps {for a Crowd}

Every once in a while, you stumble upon a truly great recipe. It’s simple. It’s healthy. It’s tastes great. Even boys like it…

In my experience, these rare and wonderful dishes usually come from a single source: A mom.

This surprising dish is no exception. Thanks to my good friend Steph’s lovely and talented mama, the Husband and I were introduced to her lettuce wraps at a Birthday party. It was Cole’s 25th Birthday, to be exact, and there was football, beer and lots and lots of boys there. And, they loved each and every healthful green-wrapped bit of the stuff.

Impossible, you say? Just try it.

Asian Lettuce Wraps
Serves 4 as written. Quadruple for a crowd!
Ingredients:
  • 1/2 lb. ground turkey
  • 1/2 lb. hot Italian turkey brats
  • 1 lg. yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 Tbsp. soy sauce
  • 1/4 C Hoisin sauce
  • 2 tsp. ginger
  • 1 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp. Asian chile pepper sauce, opt.
  • 1 – 8 oz. water chestnuts, drained and chopped
  • 1 green onion bunch, chopped
  • 2 tsp. Asian dark sesame oil
  • Head of  bib, romaine or iceberg lettuce
Directions
  • Rinse whole lettuce leaves & pat dry, set aside.
  •  In a med skillet over high heat, brown both kinds of turkey together, stirring often, drain.  Break turkey up into small pieces when cool to touch, set aside.
  •  Cook onion (til opaque) in skillet used to brown turkey, stirring frequently.  Add garlic, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, ginger, vinegar & chile pepper to onions & stir.
  • Add turkey mixture to skillet, coating turkey with onion mixture.  Stir in chopped water chestnuts, green onions & sesame oil. Continue cooking until onions just begin to wilt, about 2 min.
  • If you plan to eat immediately, arrange lettuce leaves around serving platter & pile meat in the center. For a crowd, simply transfer the mixture into a crock pot and set on low until you’re ready to serve!
  • It’s magic. Tasty, “a-mom-must-have-made-this!”, magic.

You might not wean party-goers and guests off of artificial cheese dip and buffalo chicken flavored pretzels all in one foul swoop… but this is a start.

I made this dish as an appetizer for our recent family Christmas party, and it got rave reviews. I made the filling a few days ahead, and popped it in the freezer. The morning of the party I put it in a crock pot, and it stayed warm and had an amazing flavor (it had time to “marinate”). No fuss, no worry that my dish would get cold, and it looks totally impressive…

AND, I made that delightful looking little treat above to accompany them. Lettuce wraps and dark chocolate drizzled, candy cane sprinkled, homemade rice crispy treats on a stick = a match made in party heaven.

Thank God for Pinterest.

Enjoy!