Returning to Italy

If you’ve read the About Me page, you know I found my passion for traveling while living abroad in Italy.  It’s been about eight years since that semester abroad, and I am well overdue to go back.  My husband’s family is Italian, and it’s been a goal of his to see where they’re from.  Naturally I am 110% behind him on this goal, and could not wait to go back to the spark that ignited my love for world travel.  There’s only one thing that’s been lingering in the back of my head…how on earth will I get by in the land of gluten?!

Immediately I have visions of gnocchi, pizza margherita, tiramisu, everything I can no longer indulge.  Here’s the wonderful thing I found out though as our plans begin to come together, not only do Italians have an understanding of celiac disease, but they’re incredibly sympathetic to our needs.  I found dozens of sites and travel reviews referencing the stipend that Italian citizens receive to purchase gluten free foods once they’ve been diagnosed.  Upon stating “senza glutine” restaurant owners will quickly work with you to offer gluten free meals, understanding the importance of washing their hands and paying attention to avoid cross-contamination.

I can’t speak from experience on this, but I’m excited to return and see just how accepting they are of my needs!  I would love to hear from all of my readers to see what your favorite restaurants, sites, etc. are that you consider a “must do” in Italy.  Please share your experiences with me, I love a good recommendation prior to a big trip!!

Want to know what made me fall in love with Italy the first time?  Here goes…

The old world charm of Cinque Terre

The old world charm of Cinque Terre

 

The view of Firenze (Florence) from the Duomo

The view of Firenze (Florence) from the Duomo

 

City lights in Torino (Turin) during the 2006 Winter Olympics

City lights in Torino (Turin) during the 2006 Winter Olympics

 

Eastern-most edge of Italy in Trieste

Eastern-most edge of Italy in Trieste

 

Last, but certainly not least, the view from our dorm room of Mt. Grappa in Paderno del Grappa!!!

Last, but certainly not least, the view from our dorm room of Mt. Grappa in Paderno del Grappa!!!

Anxiety in Lima

Lima, Peru is a beautiful city that I’ve been so lucky to have visited twice in the last three years.  When I found out I’d be going back last summer, I could not have been more anxious!  Not only was the trip was scheduled smack dab between Ukraine and China, but Lima held some not so great memories from my first visit.  Technology has become a wonderful thing, connecting each of us regardless of location.  Thanks to Skype, I was able to connect with my mom and sister (in the DC metro area) to call and wish my grandmother (in Florida) a happy birthday while I was gone.  I was staying a few blocks from Miraflores, and was so excited to show off my hotel room to everyone back home…it practically took up an entire city block!  Later that same week on a video chat with my boyfriend (now husband), I reached a near breaking point with what I would eventually find out was celiac disease.  We’d been catching up about my day when mid conversation I ran to the bathroom and began vomiting.  I’d only had one beer with dinner, which had been at a highly recommended sushi restaurant.  I hadn’t been drinking any local water, and could not for the life of me figure out what was wrong.  This wasn’t the first time I’d done this either, only a few weeks prior I’d had the same thing happen while I was in Charleston, South Carolina.

Fast forward two years later, I now know why the beer and sushi made me sick that night.  But how sick had I been?  Were there other meals that upset me that week?  I was excited to experience Lima again, but would I run into the same problems armed with the truth about celiac disease?  My second trip started out a bit rocky.  I’d been getting phone calls and emails from United all morning telling me my flight to Newark had been delayed.  Before even arriving at the airport, I knew there was a good chance I wouldn’t make my connection to Lima.  As I checked in at the counter, a sigh of relief came when they informed me I’d already been re-booked, and would be connecting through Houston.  My coworkers were not so lucky, I’d been given one of the last seats on the Houston flight, and United had no other options for them.  Eventually they were switched to another airline, and we were all set for our trip.

One of the great things about having to travel for work, is that you don’t always have time to go out to eat.  I know that sounds counterintuitive and normally I’d be annoyed by this, but it actually put my anxiety at ease.  Our hotel staff were great, I’d mastered the phrase “sin glooten” and they were especially careful with each room service dinner I was served.  Each morning started out on the right foot as well, our hotel offered omelets made to order (my favorite!), and freshly squeezed juice from local fruits.  When we finally got our workload under control, I took my team out to what I think is the most incredible site in Lima.  We had dinner at the restaurant overlooking the Huaca Pucllana, it is actually built on the grounds of the Incan ruins, which are illuminated after the sun has set.

Overlooking the Huaca Pucllana during dinner!

Overlooking the Huaca Pucllana during dinner!

I have to admit, I truly love trying new things when I’m outside my comfort zone.  If you’ve read my blog before, I’m sure I’ve mentioned it a time or two 🙂  Peru is one of those places where there are so many fun new things to try!!  I was a little afraid of going for the full fledged guinea pig that street vendors sell.  If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, google image search “Peru guinea pig” and I think you’ll understand.  BUT, when it’s cooked and served like any other meat, I’m all in!  I’d tried the appetizer sampler platter before at the Restaurant Huaca Pucllana and wanted to share with my coworkers some of the unique foods Peru has to offer.

Appetizer sampler at the Huaca Pucllana Restaurant - the guinea pig is in the upper right corner!

Appetizer sampler at the Huaca Pucllana Restaurant – the guinea pig is in the upper right corner!

Dinner at the Huaca Pucllana Restaurant

Dinner at the Huaca Pucllana Restaurant

Please forgive me for not remembering everything I ordered…unfortunately this trip pre-dates my blog, and I’ve now started to keep better track of everything I’m trying!! Trust me though, if you ever find yourself in Lima, Peru this restaurant is a can’t-miss opportunity.  The ambiance, menu, and wait staff make the experience one to remember.  If you love food as much as I do, I’m hoping you’ll appreciate the next two pictures of some of my other favorite meals while I was there.  As I said before, everyone in the hotel staff (we stayed at Golf los Incas) was incredibly helpful with my gluten free requests.  One of the first nights we were in town, my team and I enjoyed dinner at the hotel restaurant, where I could not get enough of this great dish!!

Steak and potatoes at the Golf los Incas Hotel

Steak and potatoes at the Golf los Incas Hotel

Any trip to Peru would not be complete without their signature dish….CEVICHE!!!  On my first trip to Lima, I tried ceviche for the first time and seriously could not get enough of the stuff!  For those new to the dish, ceviche can be any assortment of raw fish, cooked in the acid from local lemon and other citrus juices.  Talk to any Peruvian and they’ll tell you that you can’t recreate the dish anywhere else, because the local citrus is what makes the dish.

Enjoying ceviche in Miraflores

Enjoying ceviche in Miraflores

The last two pictures I want to share with you all today are from two of my favorite spots in the city.  The first is on the water in Miraflores, where you can watch people para sailing over the coast line.  Although I didn’t get the opportunity to actually try this myself, it was great to watch as everyone else flew over the hazy coast line.  The last picture is quite simply a beautiful contrast of new and old on the Miraflores water front.  This quaint home is situated between two high rise apartment buildings, and boasts the most enchanting home garden and front door!

Watching people glide in over the coast

Watching people glide in over the coast

Beautiful juxtaposition of old and new :)

Beautiful juxtaposition of old and new 🙂

 

Planning Ahead

As I sit down to write this post, I’m slightly exhausted from the marathon last two hours.  We’re planning to visit family out of town, and it’s much easier on everyone else, and safer for me if I plan ahead.  I got a great idea a while back from a friend that had figured out how to have nice meals each night on her own without having to cook after a long day at work.  She’d picked up those aluminum foil containers, cooked dinners until they were nearly done, packaged them individually, and froze them for later!  With this thought in mind, I was determined to make a variety of dinners for our trip.

Meal #1: Chicken Parmesan with Corn & Rice Spaghetti

I was feeling ambitious for the first meal, you can tell by the number of pictures that as I got further into the process, I was taking less photos and typically running all over the kitchen!  For this meal, I started by dipping each chicken breast into an egg.  I then covered the chicken in Italian bread crumbs.

boneless skinless chicken breasts, egg, Italian bread crumbs

boneless skinless chicken breasts, egg, Italian bread crumbs

I then pan fried the chicken for about 2-3 minutes per side, just long enough to brown the edges.

Browning the chicken breast

Browning the chicken breast

The chicken was transferred to a glass baking dish, where I covered it with marinara sauce (I used Ragu sweet basil).

Sauce covered chicken breasts, ready to go into the oven

Sauce covered chicken breasts, ready to go into the oven

With the oven set to 375ºF, I baked the chicken for about 25 minutes.

Fresh out of the oven!

Fresh out of the oven!

While the chicken was cooking, I boiled my gluten free pasta.  After it was cooked and the water had been drained, I separated the pasta into to individual foil containers.  I took the leftover sauce from the container, and poured it over the pasta.  I think the finished product turned out pretty great!

Two Chicken Parmesan dinners, ready to be frozen for our trip :)

Two Chicken Parmesan dinners, ready to be frozen for our trip 🙂

When it comes time to reheat these, I’ll put these back in the oven for 3 – 5 minutes.  Since this is a first for me, I may have to play around with the reheat temperature/time, but I’ll let you all know how it turns out!!

Meal #2: Balsamic Chicken, Roasted Red Potatoes, and French Cut Green Beans

Here’s where my multitasking started to kick in.  Before I started the Chicken Parmesan, I put two of the chicken breasts in a ziploc bag, covered in balsamic vinaigrette.  While the first dish was cooking, I cut red potatoes into quarters.  Heating a large frying pan with about 3 tablespoons of coconut oil, I added the quartered potatoes.  I never cook these the same way any two times, so for this time, I seasoned them with ground pepper, sea salt, garlic powder, and blackening seasonings.  There’s no magic amount of time to cook these, I just keep the heat at a steady medium temperature, and continue stirring them occasionally until I can cut through a potato with my spatula.

Red potatoes in the frying pan with seasonings

Red potatoes in the frying pan with seasonings

Once the oven was free from the first round of chicken, I put these balsamic vinaigrette covered chicken breasts into the oven.  Again, I cooked them at 375ºF.  Because I hadn’t browned the chicken first, I left these in the oven for about 20 minutes per side.

Balsamic vinaigrette chicken breasts

Balsamic vinaigrette chicken breasts

To round out the meal, I split a can of french cut green beans between the two foil containers.  The finished product for this looks pretty great too 🙂

Finished meal: Balsamic Chicken, Roasted Red Potatoes, and French Cut Green Beans

Finished meal: Balsamic Chicken, Roasted Red Potatoes, and French Cut Green Beans

Again, since I’m new at traveling with meals like this, it’s going to be a bit of a guessing game when I reheat these.  But thankfully, since the chicken is mostly cooked, it shouldn’t take too long to be ready!

Meal #3: Stir-fry Chicken and Rice

Here’s where the craziness of three meals in two hours started to hit me.  I’d been trying to keep up with the dishes, and with what seemed like constantly beeping kitchen timers! For my last meal, I went super easy.  I cubed the last two chicken breasts, and chopped up a crown of broccoli.  I put the chicken and broccoli in a fry pan with Mirin (sweetened sake) sauce, gluten free teriyaki sauce, and ground ginger.

Stir-fry chicken with broccoli

Stir-fry chicken with broccoli

Meanwhile, I cooked a cup of white rice in the rice cooker.  Splitting the rice between the last two foil containers, I topped it with my stir-fry concoction!

Stir-fry Chicken, Broccoli and Rice

Stir-fry Chicken, Broccoli and Rice

All six containers are now safely in the freezer, and ready to go 🙂

Gluten Free Guide for Hosts

I frequently get questions about what to buy, what I can eat, etc. when we’re traveling or visiting someone else’s home.  In an effort to make things easier on anyone looking for this type information, I thought I’d put together a post to help out the non-celiacs that want to play host!

The Basics and What Contains Gluten?

If you’re hosting someone with celiac disease, or a non-celiac gluten intolerance you need to be aware of what gluten is, and all the shady places that gluten hides.  Gluten is wheat, rye, barley, oats or foods made from them such as flour, bread, pasta, pancakes, flour tortillas, pastries, breaded or battered foods, croutons and oatmeal.  It’s not just in breads and pastas but also in things like beer, alcohols, some fat-free sour creams, blue cheese, salad dressings, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, root beer, vitamins and medicines — it loves to hide. It can be in peanuts, in boxed rice mixes, EVERYWHERE.

Cross-Contamination

A gluten free lifestyle isn’t always easy for your guest to follow, and one of the hardest things for outsiders to understand is that even a portion the size of half a crouton is enough to make most celiacs sick. It’s difficult for celiacs to eat anywhere outside their home and feel completely comfortable.  Even the most careful hosts can have difficulties making food that is 100% safe.  Something as simple as handling bread before switching to another dish could completely contaminate the dish for your celiac guest.  Here are a few things to be on the lookout for in your kitchen:

  • All surfaces coming in contact with food need to not only be clean, they also should not be porous.  Stick to stainless steel cooking utensils, as plastic, wood, and non-stick surfaces can absorb gluten over years of cooking and render a carefully prepared gluten free dish unsafe.
  • Never put gluten free food directly on a cooking surface you’ve been using for many years (i.e., oven racks, toasters).  On a similar topic, if you’re frying food it is not safe to fry anything gluten free in the same oil you’ve used for something containing gluten.  For example, french fries cooked in oil used for battered chicken would cross-contaminate the fries, even if they are just plain strips of potato.
  • Cooking utensils should not be transferred between dishes, the second a utensil touches gluten, it makes anything else it touches no longer gluten free.

Safe Bets

  • Fresh meats, poultry, and fish.  They can be seasoned with plain spices or marinated in gluten free sauces/dressings
  • Steamed or roasted vegetables, again, seasoned with spices.
  • Rice — NOT the prepackaged side dishes, you’ll have to get plain white or brown rice and season it yourself.
  • Homemade mashed potatoes — again, the prepackaged stuff is NOT safe to eat, it almost always has gluten.
  • Scrambled eggs.
  • Fresh fruits.
  • Homemade salads with fresh veggies

**if you couldn’t tell by now, just about everything is fresh. I probably go to the grocery store twice a week to get everything**

Sneaky Gluten Hiding Places

  • Processed foods such as cheeses, meats, bouillon, and packaged broths.  It’s important to always check the ingredients in these things, it might shock you what’s been added in!
  • If you see any of the following on a product label, it is likely NOT safe: malt, food coloring, natural or artificial flavorings, modified food starch, ANYTHING followed by flour.  When in doubt, either check with the company, your guest, or find another product.
  • Anything labeled as a seasoning needs to be verified that it’s safe, while spices are raw and safe for celiacs, seasonings can sometimes contain gluten, especially McCormick seasoning packs — most of them are full of gluten!
  • Be extra careful anytime you use condiments (i.e., jelly, peanut butter, butter — spray or squeeze butter is the best because it won’t be contaminated), anytime a utensil is dipped in a tub or jar condiment, touches gluten, and is placed back in the container it is no longer safe for a celiac to consume.  Your best bet is to use squeeze products, and eliminating the risk of cross contamination.
  • If it’s been processed in a plant or on equipment shared with gluten, it most likely is not safe.  This one however depends on the person, for example, I can’t eat anything from a shared facility without having a reaction, but others can.  Check with your guest to see how sensitive they are, and what else you need to look out for.

Above All Else

If you remember nothing else from this post, please remember this one thing: Don’t EVER think you are bothering your guest by asking them about ingredients or cooking/preparation plans.  If you doubt anything or have any questions, I speak for all of us when I say we’d rather have you ask than find out later when we’re doubled over in pain and suffering.

Stadiums

I love watching games as much, if not more, than the next person.  But nothing truly beats going to a game in person!  While visiting a good friend in Boston this past weekend, we had the incredible experience of visiting TD Garden to catch a Celtics game.  It struck me that a blog post on surviving a trip to stadiums and arenas would be the perfect topic for this week!  Part of the game experience is getting to indulge in foods you don’t normally get to eat.  Thankfully, many stadiums are making the effort now to offer some sort of gluten free options.

TD Garden

Celtics Game at TD Garden

Celtics Game at TD Garden

Enjoying the view from our seats!

Enjoying the view from our seats!

After searching around online, we figured out that there was at least one option for me.  Unfortunately, the TD Garden website wasn’t that much help, and I tracked down most information from comments and blogs online.  Relieved that I wouldn’t have to bring something with me, we tracked down Guest Services as soon as we were inside.  They were very helpful, and directed me to two separate concessions that could offer gluten free menu options.  I can’t speak to the second stand, but the stand closest to our seats had caesar salad or turkey wraps.  After grilling the staff behind the stand about where the wraps are made, whether or not the wraps were gluten free, and any question I could think of, I got myself a turkey wrap.  It was pretty expensive, but I guess that’s to be expected from any food at a special event.

Nationals Park

Game time at Nationals Park

Game time at Nationals Park

Although we haven’t been since early fall, Nationals Park is my favorite stadium to visit.  Not only do they have a completely gluten free concession stand, but they also offer gluten free soft pretzel sticks!!  I can not put into words how much I look forward to those pretzels each baseball season.  It’s always been a weakness of mine, and to find them gluten free was absolutely amazing!  The concession stand carries all the standard baseball favorites (hot dogs, chilli cheese dogs, nachos, and popcorn), plus they’ve even got Red Bridge Beer so you can enjoy your beer with everyone else 🙂

Lesson #1: Do the research before you go, make sure you’ll be okay if you don’t bring your own snacks to a game.  If the website doesn’t have gluten free options listed, call customer service.  If you still can’t figure out whether there are safe options, be prepared to bring your own food!

Lesson #2: Every stadium has some sort of guest services office, stop in to ask for help if you can’t find your way to a safe concession stand.  That’s what they’re there for!

Rapa Nui (Easter Island) – Honeymoon Part 2

After spending about a week in Bora Bora, my husband and I flew back to the main island of Tahiti for our next adventure.  Like I said in the first honeymoon post, we decided to make it a bucket list trip, and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) was near the top of the list.  Truthfully, this wasn’t our initial plan.  After telling some friends about our Bora Bora plans, they brought up extending our trip since we’d already have flown halfway around the world to get to Bora Bora.  What an incredible idea!!  We looked at a few maps later that night and realized that Rapa Nui was surprisingly close to Bora Bora.  Not only that, but there is a direct flight from Tahiti to Rapa Nui, albeit only once a week.  We could make it work!

We struggled initially in the planning stages, there aren’t many sites that have a lot to offer about planning to visit Rapa Nui.  We ran into some challenges finding a travel agent that could help us as well.  It turns out, not many people actually make it to Rapa Nui each year.  The entire island is approximately the size of Washington, D.C., and though tourism is their number one economic provider, there aren’t a ton of places to stay either.  Thankfully, we were finally put in touch with a great travel agent that locked down our travel, hotel, and excursions within a week of first speaking with us.  I’m not sure we could have pulled this trip off without her!

Having learned a few lessons in Bora Bora, I felt a little better prepared when we touched down in Rapa Nui.  Although the flight was a red eye, LAN Chile really took care of me and had prepared gluten free meals and snacks each time they served food to the other passengers.  This may not seem like such a big deal, but I frequently have to ask for a gluten free snack on international flights.  While airlines are great about getting gluten free meals, they tend to forget about the snacks.  When we arrived at our hotel, the Altiplanico, we were armed with a Spanish pocket dictionary (I suggest the Berlitz Phrase Book & Dictionary for any language) which informed me that my key phrase of the week would be “sin glooten.”  Thanks to our travel agent, the hotel had already been made aware of my dietary needs, and they were prepared to help me order from their menu.

To my delight, Rapa Nui restaurants were full of fresh fish dishes based on their catch of the day.  The locals were incredibly friendly people, that were very happy to work with our struggling Spanish, and understood what “sin glooten” meant!  Thankfully, I never once felt as though I’d been even the slightest bit cross-contaminated.  While we were there, we visited two restaurants more than once because we truly enjoyed their food and surroundings so much.  Although I can’t remember exactly what each of the meals were, I can share with you my thoughts on the restaurants, and a few pictures of my favorite meals from our trip.

Catch of the day from the Altiplanico hotel with mushroom risotto

Catch of the day from the Altiplanico hotel with mushroom risotto

Ceviche

Fresh ceviche, served in a conch shell with a side of rice

Kuki Varua:  This restaurant was located just on the edge of the water in Hanga Roa.  The location was great for people watching, sunsets, and enjoying the island mentality.  We found ourselves here a few times, each visit staying for a longer period of time, and drinking in our surroundings.  Great for their catch of the day offerings and surprising local side dishes (green mashed potatoes and purple potato chips!), I enjoyed every single bite at the Kuki Varua.

Tuna and Mashed Potatoes

Seared and salted tuna with green mashed potatoes (Kuki Varua)

Catch of the Day

Same meal, different day…yes it was that good! (Kuki Varua)

Hetu’u Restaurant:  We stumbled upon this gem while we were walking through the downtown area (Hanga Roa).  The service was very quick, and though they did not have many tables, they certainly seemed to be a more popular spot.  The menu was incredibly diverse, and thankfully included pictures which helped with the language barrier.  The restaurant also had a nice sized wine cellar, which I have to say really drew me in!

Fish in Peanut Sauce

White fish in peanut sauce with a side of potato chips (Hetu’u)

Fish in Caper Sauce

White fish in caper sauce, side of potato chips (Hetu’u)

Kyiv, Ukraine

If you had told me a few years ago that I’d be visiting five countries in a matter of months this year, I probably wouldn’t have believed you.  If you were to have also told me that the unique and beautiful country that I visited over the summer would be in a state of inner turmoil just a few short months later, I probably wouldn’t believe you either.  But here I am, scrolling through the news pictures of the riots in Ukraine, disheartened by the changes in such a short amount of time.

I was so fortunate to be on a project this year that brought me to Kyiv, Ukraine.  I love visiting new places, and couldn’t wait to see another side of Eastern Europe.  However, trying to deal with celiac disease in Ukraine was baptism by fire for me.  I do not speak Ukrainian, nor can I read Cyrillic letters.  I tried to translate “no gluten” on my phone, but it turns out I had to be connected to the internet to access the phrase, and could never quite verify that the translation was actually correct.

The nice thing about European hotels, especially nice ones, is that they usually have a great breakfast spread.  They’ll lay out every food you can imagine that might be considered breakfast.  The Hotel Opera in Kyiv was no exception.  Every morning I ventured down to the restaurant where I was treated to a fresh fruit buffet, and made to order eggs.

Lunches were definitely more of a challenge.  The offices we worked from for the week weren’t in the most popular area for restaurants, and we didn’t have much time to step away from our work for a meal.  We alternated days going to a quick corner stop, and a luncheon restaurant nearby.  I had to take a leap of faith in Ukraine, and go with my gut.  It was a risky chance to take, but I unfortunately hadn’t planned for any other option.  Thanks to the culture, my food didn’t really have any additives, nor did it make me sick during the trip.  I always found the simple meals while we were out, keeping to sausage and sauerkraut or borscht for the most part.

My workload that week kept me from venturing out for dinner, which actually worked out much easier for me.  The hotel restaurant staff understood my concerns about gluten, and were able to help me order my meals each night.  I alternated between ordering room service and meeting my coworkers in the hotel restaurant.  Here are some pictures of my favorite Ukrainian meals.

Quail Breast

Quail Breast Foie Gras with Cabbage and Fried Quail Egg

Borscht

Ukrainian Borscht

Salmon

Salmon with Mashed Potatoes and Asparagus

Travel Tip #1: Breakfast can be your best friend, and usually a guaranteed meal.  Since hotel staff tend to be bilingual and able to better accommodate foreign requests, they’ll be able to answer your gluten free questions.  Fill up early in the day since you may run into challenges for lunch and dinner.

Travel Tip #2: Do research about a city or culture before you go.  Learn what their common dishes are, and what ways you could potentially be contaminated.

Travel Tip #3: Most translation apps on your phone need to be connected to the internet in order to access their language databases (including anything you’ve previously translated). Before you leave for your trip, verify whether or not your app will work in an area without service by attempting to translate a phrase while your phone is in airplane mode.

A little bonus on this post, there have been too many devastating pictures posted of Kyiv riots recently, so I’d like to share a few of mine from earlier last summer that show the country’s true beauty.

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