Cooking class in Tuscany: Lessons from an Italian kitchen

To end our Tuscan trip, I had planned a special treat for Marlon: a one-day cooking class in Tuscany, in a real Italian kitchen.

Cooking lesson in Tuscany

It’s no secret that in our home, Marlon rules the kitchen and I am mostly useless merely his lowly assistant. I knew he would love learning the secrets of a real Italian kitchen hands-on, from a real Italian mama. I may be bad at cooking, but I’m great at finding things online! So, after searching for a one-day class that would fit our schedule and budget, I found Max&Me: Tuscany Cooking, run by Eugenia and Massimo from their home in Sesto Fiorentino near Florence.

The plan was for me to babysit Tala in Eugenia’s lush herb garden—which by the way contains the happiest, healthiest rosemary I’ve ever seen in someone’s home—and keep her entertained…

Cooking class in Tuscany Tala in the herb garden

not to mention happily fed with the occasional snack of prosciutto…

Tala eating prosciutto

while Eugenia and Marlon worked on our four-course lunch.

Cooking lesson in Tuscany near Florence

And, boy, did Marlon work. “I’m a little scared of her,” he whispered to me before I took Tala out for a walk. Well, if there’s anyone who can intimidate a big man like this, it’s an Italian mama who is the queen of her kitchen! You should have seen his face when she told him that the onions he’d been furiously dicing just weren’t diced finely enough.

But that’s precisely the great thing about doing a cooking class like this. While Eugenia has generously made her recipes available on her blog, there’s no substitute for hands-on learning. How a ball of pasta dough feels in your hands when it’s just right; how long to let the flavor of a ragu develop (or even what “fully developed” flavor is); what the freshest, top-quality ingredients really taste like; the little hacks and tricks picked up over a lifetime of cooking—these are things you just can’t pick up from a Youtube video or blog post.

I like to think Marlon absorbed some of Eugenia’s personal standards and stories that day. All of it just inspired him to cook even more. Some of the techniques he learned have found their way into the other things he makes at home, even dishes like Indian curry or Filipino kaldereta.

Oh, and our onions are really, really finely diced now. They’re practically invisible.

But enough about that. You want to see the food, right?

Cooking lesson in Tuscany roast pork with guanciale and potatoes

Let’s begin. Buon appetito!

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Five faves: Riga Central Market

Five faves from Riga Central Market

Whether we’re at home or traveling, Marlon and I love to visit markets. Because we stayed at a self-catering apartment in Riga, a trip to the Riga Central Market became a necessary part of our visit, as well as a different insight into the city. Once we ventured beyond the pastel prettiness of the Old Town and stepped across the railway tracks to the market, Riga truly started to get real.

Spread out over five former Zeppelin hangars, the Riga Central Market was Europe’s biggest covered market when it first opened in the 1930s. Today, it’s the nerve center of the city, where people come to buy daily essentials—including, of course, food. Here are five of my fave finds from the Riga Central Market.

1) LATVIAN BREAD.

Riga Central Market bread

In my previous post, I mentioned how good Latvian bread is. (Side note: read this lively account of a baker’s trip to Riga, in which he enthuses that “the best old-world Jewish baking is in Riga.”) At the Riga Central Market, we discovered Latvian bread in all its various forms and hues, from fluffy white loaves to the deepest, darkest rye bread.

But the best of them all were these crunchy, savory bread chips from Latvia’s most famous bakery, Laci. I got seriously hooked on these!

Riga Central Market black bread chips

Of all the things you can do with stale bread, deep frying it and tossing it in a secret mixture of herbs and salt has got to be the best—and the most addictive. Move over, potato chips… bread is where it’s at!

2) SMOKED FISH

Riga Central Market smoked fish

One entire pavilion at the Riga Central Market is dedicated to fish, and I’d say about 2/3 of everything in that pavilion is smoked.

Riga Central Market smoked fish variety

Smoking fish is a big part of local food culture, and here we saw all kinds: fish smoked with garlic, peppers, herbs and spices…

Riga Central Market smoked fish with peppers

even smoked caviar, which formed a kind of chewy jerky.

Riga Central Market caviar jerky

Marlon and I love our smoked fish—as a child traveling to India, I once carried daing and smoked tinapa in my handbag on the flight—so we bought some for our dinners at home. Although our preference would have been to eat it with a heaping plate of hot rice (of course), instead we flaked some smoked mackerel over a big salad with vinaigrette on the side. Yum!

CHEESE

Riga Central Market smoked cheese

Latvians don’t only smoke their fish—they smoke their cheese too. We tried some of the smoked cheese, but I really loved were these soft cheeses crusted in different herbs and spices. My favorite was the cheese at the bottom, which is covered in a curry mixture. If you’re going on a picnic in Riga’s main city park, this with a salty-savory cracker would be perfect.

PICKLES

Riga Central Market pickles

I was once a girl who fished pickles out of burgers and left them on my plate, uneaten. Pregnancy changed my relationship with pickles forever, and now I love them!

Next to smoking, pickling is a favorite technique at the Riga Central Market. With all sorts of pickled fruit and vegetables ranging from your usual gherkins to beets, tomatoes, whole heads of garlic, and even slaw (also known to us Pinoys as atchara), this is pickle paradise. Pregnant women, take note.

FRUITS AND BERRIES IN SEASON

Riga Central Market cherries in season

Latvia is densely forested, with 47% of land covered by lush, green forests. This makes wild berries and fruits abundant, and picking them is a popular summertime pursuit. While we were there in July, these big, bright red cherries were overflowing from market stalls and sidewalk vendors around the city. At less than €5 (Php300) for a kilo, they were super cheap… and Tala loved them, too.

Is that five things already? Okay, this is not a foodie find, but always a favorite: FLOWERS!

Riga Central Market flowers

Flowers from Riga Central Market

IG-Baby's breath from Riga Central Market

Latvians love flowers. There’s even a 24-hour flower market in Riga—you know, for urgent flower needs, such as those 2 a.m. lovers’ quarrels or 5 a.m. train station goodbyes. Our visit to the Riga Central Market ended with a walk past these colorful flower stalls, which was a nice way to leave.

Apart from watching locals go about their daily business, the best thing about the Riga Central Market is that everything is super affordable. I even spotted some bouquets for as low as €1 apiece! I definitely recommend it if you’re in Riga on a budget—and even if you’re not, it’s a chance to experience Riga, for real.

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Brunch in Rotterdam: Memory Lane

If you think a good brunch is an essential part of a perfect weekend, then you’re a lot like me. And if you just happen to be in Rotterdam for the weekend, I’ve got a gem of a brunch place for you.

Rotterdam brunch Memory Lane

For a delicious brunch in Rotterdam, look no further than Memory Lane. Situated on Hoogstraat in the city center, this casual, cool restaurant serves both breakfast and a proeverij (tasting) lunch until 5 p.m. from Tuesdays to Sundays.

Marlon and I started our 24-hour date night in Rotterdam with brunch here. I was already charmed by their hilarious Twitter come-ons, but when we walked in we knew we had chosen the right place.

Rotterdam brunch Memory Lane restaurant

It’s homey, cozy, unpretentious, and casually cool without trying too hard. The relaxed combination of recycled wood, old cafeteria-style tables and chairs, and haphazardly piled cookbooks appealed to the deepest recesses of my eclectic granny heart.

Rotterdam brunch Memory Lane cookbooks

And then there was the food.

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Rollende Keukens, Amsterdam’s food truck festival

Rollende Keukens 2014 Amsterdam tosti camper van

If there’s a time of year that makes me glad we live in Westerpark, it’s every last weekend of May. That’s when over a hundred food trucks roll into our neighborhood for Rollende Keukens, Amsterdam’s very own food truck festival.

From 20 “rolling kitchens” in 2008, Rollende Keukens has grown bigger, better and yummier every year. This year’s festival was an extended five-day foodie extravaganza with 130 food trucks featuring both tried-and-tested Dutch favorites and cuisines from all over the world.

Rollende Keukens 2014 Amsterdam tortilla truck

Westerpark becomes packed to bursting with people from all walks of life: kids and toddlers squealing on the Ferris wheel, and crusty old men living out their rockstar dreams—or reliving their rock n’ roll pasts, who knows?—on the live music stages dotting the festival; trendy hipsters and young families (and that special hybrid, trendy young hipster families); the ever-practical Dutchies who stock up on cheaper drinks at the nearest Albert Heijn before coming, and Amsterdam expats seeking a taste of home.

Rollende Keukens 2014 Amsterdam sweet dreams are made of cheese

There’s something for everyone at Rollende Keukens, whether it’s simple Dutch fare like grilled cheese tostis and kroketten presented in a fun, creative way, or flavors from a dozen different countries and cultures.

If you don’t enjoy the food, which is highly unlikely, you’re sure to enjoy that untranslatable Dutch gezelligheid—a feeling of belonging and fun that comes from being in the right place with the right company. I know I do.

Rollende Keukens 2014 Amsterdam

With all this food truck fun just around the corner from our house, it was so easy to stop by every day for a quick bite. Here are my foodie favorites from this year’s edition of Rollende Keukens.

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Where to eat in Copenhagen: Hallernes Smørrebrød

Don’t these Danish smørrebrød look absolutely delicious? If you’re wondering where to eat these in Copenhagen, I’ll get to that in a minute.

Torvehallerne smorrebrod Copenhagen

First, I have to say: If there’s one way you don’t want to end a weekend away, it’s spending three hours in a hospital emergency room. But that’s exactly how I spent the hours of 3 to 6 a.m. on my last morning in Copenhagen.

I woke up i gasping from an excruciating pain right below my ribcage, and after an hour in godawful pain (like, vomiting and unable to stand up straight kind of pain), I hopped in a taxi to the emergency room at the nearest hospital. I got asked several times if I might be pregnant, and when the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me they wheeled out an ultrasound machine. You cannot imagine how terrified I was that I might see another Little Mango waving at me! Yeah, yeah, I’m not ready for Baby #2, but that’s another blog post all together.

It turned out to be a teeny tiny gall stone. Whew, yay, it’s not a baby! The doctor gave me extra strong painkillers and sent me home in a taxi. “My Copenhagen weekend cannot end like this,” was my last thought before I passed out in my hotel bed at 6:30 a.m, exhausted and miserable.

All this is why the last thing I did before catching my flight back to Amsterdam was drag myself to the Torvehallerne, the biggest food market in Copenhagen. I had to have something Danish, something delicious, and something good to remember Copenhagen by.

Torvehallerne market smorrebrod Copenhagen

I got all all of that in the fresh, flavorful and artfully stacked little package known as smørrebrød. Hallernes Smorrebrod at Torvehallerne makes these traditional Danish open-faced, brown bread sandwiches from a selection of local ingredients that changes daily.

Hallernes smorrebrod Copenhagen

They all look so appealing that it’s hard to choose! In the end I filled my plate with three, which makes a light and satisfying lunch. I chose juicy roast beef topped with pickles and crispy fried onions…

Hallernes Smorrebrod Torvehallerne Copenhagen

… and leverpostej, or chicken pate with bacon, home-pickled cucumber salad and beets (at the top). It was surprisingly tasty considering I hate chicken liver! My favorite was the laks, or citrus-marinated salmon with fennel cream, lemon and dill.

Now this is the way I like to leave a city: with its flavors on my lips. If you’re wondering where to eat in Copenhagen, look no further than Torvehallerne… and be sure to give Hallernes Smorrebrod a try!

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