Sunday, September 30, 2012

What I'm Cooking...Thai Chicken Noodle Soup

The Most Popular Dish at the US Olympic Training Center, according to Outside magazine, is the Thai Chicken Noodle Soup.  I wanted to see why it was so popular, so tonight I fixed it for dinner.  

The ingredient list is packed full of nutritious items like lean chicken breast, bean sprouts and a jalapeno pepper.
Ingredients for Dinner
The recipe itself from the magazine was pretty easy.  I decided to make a couple changes though. First, go read the original recipe on Outside's website, then read about my adjustments below.

I roasted the chicken breast first and didn't cook it in the boiling water.  Since I wasn't creating my own flavored broth, I substituted the 1.25 quarts of water with 1 quart of (low sodium) chicken broth and 2 cups of water.  I followed the rest of the recipe exactly.

There was a nice amount of spice from the slightly pickled jalapeno peppers and the broth was so rich and flavorful.  The smell that filled the house was quite intoxicating.  I can easily see how this recipe would be the most popular at the US Olympic Training Facility.

This recipe was so good, we each had a large second serving too.  I doubt I'll make this again soon, but it has already made it into my recipe box.

Kudos Outside Magazine, Kudos.

Noodles, Bean Sprouts, Green
 Onions, Cilantro and Jalapenos.

Added the Chicken and
the Amazing Broth

Have you made any recipes from Outside Magazine?  Do you know where I can find more recipes from the US Olympic Training Facility?

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O'Hare 5K on the Runway

Ever want to run on a runway at O'Hare? Well, this is your opportunity. On Saturday, October 20th the Chicago Department of Aviation and United Airlines are partnering to host a 5K timed run and a 5K fun run/walk.

The website indicates this is on an active runway, which sounds pretty cool to me.  After the race there is additional entertainment for the whole family.   All the proceeds from this event go to the Wounded Warrior Project, a great organization.

I just signed up for the fun run, this morning.  I haven't done a race at all this year, mostly because of this, so I figured I'd start slow.

I read about an equivalent run at JFK earlier this year and I was pretty excited about the idea. Now this great idea is in my own back yard!  I cannot wait.  I think this event will sell out, so if you are interested, you should sign up right away.  Let me know if you sign up and we can all meet up at ORD.

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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Dealing with Dietary Restrictions while Traveling

It seems like this is the season for my friends and colleagues to dramatically change their dietary habits.  Several friends are going Gluten-free and a colleague has gone Vegan.  You even see Gluten-Free Menus everywhere now.  
  I was recently in Toronto for work with my Vegan co-worker. Let's start by saying this Vegan use to be the most voracious carnivore around.  While in Toronto we ate at Barberian's Steak House - the place we visit every time we are in Toronto. This is really an old world steak house. I was concerned that my colleague wouldn't really be able to find any vegan fare.  Boy, was I wrong.

He explained to the waiter his dietary restrictions and without missing a beat the waiter opened the menu and started explaining all the alterations that could be made to the menu items then he started explaining all the items that the kitchen could make off the menu. There was no consulting with the kitchen, the waiter took control and owned the table.

The Vegan got a huge healthy salad, an entree with both cooked and raw vegetables and a baked potato. Now I'm not saying that a Steak House doesn't have these items anyway, but the way this was handled was top notch. I wouldn't expect the Steak House to have too many Vegans popping in for a meal.

Veganism is more than
Tofu and Sprouts
My point: Don't let your dietary restrictions stop you from going out to restaurants with friends and colleagues. You just have to ask for an accommodation, it is extremely common now. If a local Steak House can accommodate a recent Vegan, you'll be surprised what other restaurants can do.  Although, I wouldn't go reverse and ask a Vegan restaurant to accommodate your wild carnivorism.

Do you have dietary restrictions that keep you from dining out?  Do you find restaurants to be quite accommodating?  Are you seeing the dietary restrictions becoming more and more common?

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Olympics & More: Exploring London / Olympics

I love London! Seeing this City with the buzz of Olympic Fever was great.  While in College I spent 5-6 weeks in London.  I got a good feel for the City and saw a ton of the touristy things in January 2000.  I didn't feel obligated to run around like a wild man trying to see everything in just 48 hours.

I woke up Saturday morning (22 hours after my arrival at Heathrow).  I had a quick bite to eat with my friends who were hosting me and I decided to pop down and take a walk along the river Thames.  I took the Jubilee Line down to the London Bridge station.  My plan for the day was to see the Bridge with the Olympic Rings, then I'd walk across the river and make my way to Big Ben, eating lunch along the way then hope back on the Jubilee Line and go to Wembley Park for the Football Game.

While in College, I often ate at Pizza Express and I had intended on eating here again - just for old times sake, not because it was a destination.  Unfortunately, each Pizza Express I came across was closed.  Such is life.

I stood on London Bridge and took a picture of Tower Bridge - such a quintessential London landmark. This was even a greater treat with the Olympic Rings flying high.  I debated on popping over to the Tower of London and being an uber-tourist again, but thought better of it -- since I really only had about 2 hours of site seeing time.

I continued walking along the north side of the Thames - along the river walk. I passed by the rebuilt Globe Theater, then I came across the Eye of London. When I visited in 2000 the Eye hadn't opened yet. -- it actually opened about a month after I left the UK.  While, I don't care for heights, I do think this is someplace I'd like to visit and take a ride. I didn't do it this time, again, because I didn't have a whole lot of time to kill.

I really had forgotten how far this walk was.  In my mind I figured it would be about 30 minutes allowing for time to stop and take photos and to really enjoy the unexpected London heat.  This 2.5 mile walk around the River took me just about an hour. I managed to make it to Big Ben and saw a beautiful view with both the Union Jack and the Olympic flags blowing in the wind.  Such a great, once in a lifetime view.

By now, it was 14h00 and the game would start at 15h00 and the trek from Big Ben to Wembley would take about 40 minutes.  I decided to head up and spend a bit of time at the Olympic shops outside of the Stadium. I figured there would be some Olympic tchotchkes that I could bring back to some friends and colleagues.

I hopped back on the Jubilee Line and was heading Northwest the 13 stops from Westminster.  Then I decided that I wasn't quite ready to go to the game.  I wanted a beer at a pub along the way.  I hopped off at the very next stop, which happened to be Baker Street. For those of you unfamiliar with the Baker Street station, when you exit you are in a very touristy area and are just a few feet from 221B Baker Street -- Sherlock Holmes' House.  I walked around the block and found a nice little pub and ordered a pint.  I sat at the bar and drank my beer for about 25 minutes, then headed back to the Jubilee Line and worked my way back up to Wembley.

There was one thing that London did very well during the Olympics was the "Pink People".  Outside of the major tube stops and various attractions one would encounter people who were wearing pink clothes (a jacket, a windbreaker or a shirt). These folks were equipped with maps and timetables -- they were City Customer Service people.  I did stop off at Baker Street and asked a couple of questions: 1) How does it take to get to Wembley (which I already knew) and which Tube Line is the best? and 2) What pub do you recommend within walking distance from here? Both answers were quick and accurate.  I found out later that most of these Pink People were actually volunteers.  How great would it be if London (or Chicago or New York) would have these volunteers to help visitors?

Did you do some non-Olympic related tourism while in London? When visiting the City what are your go-to locales?  When sitting on the Tube (or the subway, the El, the Metro, Max, or BART) do you get an urge for a beer and just hop off and find the first place around? If you do, does that mean you are an alcoholic?

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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Microwave Macaroni and Cheese?

Lifehacker posted an article about creating an individual macaroni and cheese in a coffee the microwave.  The point is to make a non-processed individual serving as a quick side or as a way to feed a craving.  You can buy the microwavable individual serving mac and cheese in the store, but it's all processed and chemical driven.  

I like mac an cheese, but never fix it because it takes too long to make a good one and the blue box stuff is just crap - in my opinion.  Let me also tell you that until I bought my condo in 2009 I didn't even own a microwave. I was without a microwave from 2001 until 2009 and was perfectly happy.  I still don't use a microwave much, but at least I have one now -- I gave into the modern American requirement (actually, it came with the condo, I didn't request it).

Back to the matter at hand.  When I first saw this recipe, I wanted to try it immediately. Unfortunately, I didn't have macaroni. The smallest noodle I had was orecchiette.  Let's just say using orecchiette doesn't work. It just turns into a noodle brick. See!

Today I tried it with actual macaroni. While the recipe works pretty well, in my mug and my microwave, I had to add about 1/4 cup more water after the second two minute cooking window.

I didn't have shredded cheese, but I did have a couple slices of cheddar, which I crumbled up and put in the cup.  I also added just a splash of soy milk and stirred.  Definitely needed to add a bit of salt and pepper, too.  Other than that, I followed the recipe exactly.

It was good.  I could easily see myself eating this a few times a year. It tastes a hell of a lot better than the pre-packaged stuff and takes a lot less time than a true homemade mac and cheese.  Next time, I'll try it with a different cheese -- maybe Gruyere...

Have you tried recipes from Lifehacker?  Do you ever crave mac and cheese - and if so, how to you deal with it? How often do you use your microwave? Do you have an irrational hatred of the microwave, like I do?

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Monday, September 24, 2012

Olympics & More: Chase Visa VIP Lounge London Olympics

What to do while in London for the Olympics?  Well, considering I had only 48 hours in London and had tickets to the Gold Medal Soccer Match, I decided, I'd spend as much time with friends as possible.

After landing and taking the HEX and the tube to a friends house - arriving just in time for lunch, we decided to head back towards the river and hang out. We got off at Green Park and walked by Buckingham Palace and then just wandered.  We walked around, talking and enjoying the uncommon warmth we were experiencing and stumbled across the street Pall Mall.  I remembered this street not because my previous trips to London, but from an email from my bank...

A few weeks earlier I received an email from Chase Bank inviting me to the Chase Visa VIP Lounge during the Olympics. Basically it was a receptions space with open bar and food where you could meet Olympians during set hours. To gain access, you just had to have a Visa Signature Credit Card - my Chase Sapphire Preferred got us in.  If you were there during certain meal times you'd get meals prepared by Chef Morimoto.  We were not there during a meal time, so we just drank Heinekens and ate pretzels.  Most importantly, I was able sit and chat with a friend that I hadn't seen in years. Thank you Chase and Visa.

We didn't take any pictures while at the Chase Visa VIP Lounge, so we'll have to view the pictures from Adam at Point me to the Plane.  We also didn't see any Olympians -- so the main reason for going to this spot we missed out on. But we did get some free beers.

If the stars and the moon aligned and I happened to be in an area where I would have access to a free open bar hosted by my bank, I would definitely stop by again -- I do enjoy a free beer or two.

Did you go to the Visa VIP Lounge in London during the Olympics? Which Olympians did you meet? Did you get some great food from Chef Morimoto, or did you settle for Heinekens and pretzels like us?

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

What I'm Cooking...New Mexican Grilled Fish

A couple weeks ago I made Swordfish.  I had a run in with a surly fish counter guy at Treasure Island, but he didn't dissuade me.  I urged people to be nice to people trying to cook new things - don't take it for granted that everyone is as great as you are.  Following my post, the Chopping Block sent me a swordfish recipe - which if you follow me on Google+, you've already seen it.  If not, it is below:

New Mexican Grilled Fish

  • 4 Fish Steaks or Fillets (STEAKS OR FILLETS!), skin removed
  • Grapeseed Oil for the Grill
  • Lime Juice, Freshly Squeezed to taste
  • Combine the lime juice, achiote paste and olive oil in a small bowl
  • Season the fish with salt and pepper and generously brush with the anchiote marinade. Allow to marinate for 30 minutes or more -- no more than 2 hours.
  • Heat a grill over medium heat. Brush grates with grapeseed oil to prevent the fish from sticking.
  • Grill the fish on the first side until golden brown, 3-4 minutes. Turn the fish over and squeeze lime juice on the grilled side.  Continue to grill the fish until cooked through
Serve the grilled fish, topped with Fruit Salsa. What? You don't have a recipe for Fruit Salsa. Well, the Chopping Block folks have provided that as well!

Grilling Swordfish and
Veggies for Dinner
Fruit Salsa:
  • 2 Cups Fresh Fruit, Cleaned and finely diced (pineapple, mango, papaya, strawberries or a combination)
  • 1/3 Cup Red Onion, Minced
  • 1 Jalapeno, Finely Minced
  • 1 Lime Juiced, Freshly Squeezed
  • 2 Tablespoon Fresh Cilantro, Roughly Chopped
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
Toss all ingredients together. Season to taste with Salt and Pepper, Sugar and Lime Juice. Allow to sit for one hour before serving.

I couldn't find any good mangoes at my grocery, so I opted to get jarred mangoes. I got them home and took immediately rinsed off the sugar water. The mangoes were very soft  (too soft really), but still tasty.

I marinated my fish for about 2 hours then tossed it on the grill.

What is your favorite fish recipe?  Do you eat it plain, with a rub, or a salsa - or both?

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Friday, September 21, 2012

Hotel Porn #5

Canadian Hotel Porn? A couple weeks ago I stayed at the Toronto Marriott Bloor Yorkville.  Of course, after checking in, I immediately take a look at the in room Porn selection.  This Marriott had a slightly different selection than the previous hotels I've stayed at recently.

Here are my favorite titles from this stay (Parenthetical comments are my own):
  • Hide Your Whores (From whom?)
  • Rank and Skank (How is this appealing?)
  • Tosh.Hole (Now that's pretty funny)
  • Old and Nasty (Good to see that Marriott is open to differing tastes, eh?)
  • My Backdoor Whore
  • Sexsomnia
Read the other great titles of the porn movies here, here, here and here.

How are the porn titles at the hotels you've stayed at recently?  Do you see the same old titles with each visit?

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Buying Miles from the Airlines - Ever a Good Buy?

Is it smart to buy miles directly from the airlines? This is a question that several people around the office have recently asked me.  I get travel questions like this from time to time -- probably because the office knows I'm a big travel nerd.

A few times a year, each and  every airline offers a 25%-100% bonus on purchased miles.  You buy 25K or 50K miles and get a huge bonus. Currently, US Airways is offering a 100% bonus on purchased miles -- for $1,750 you can buy 50K points and get a bonus of 50K points for a total of 100K.  Including the taxes and fees the cost is $1,881.25 -- or $0.018/mile.  This isn't a great deal, but better than what it is usually.

Do I suggest you buy these miles now and keep them in your mileage bank? No, I wouldn't recommend that. Buying miles on speculation - that is, without a specific award redemption in mind - isn't a great idea.  The airlines can and have readjusted their award charts -- if you buy on speculation you could be stuck with 100K miles and come to find out these miles only get you a coach ticket to Europe in a few months. Definitely not a good use of money.

On the other hand, if you have a specific award ticket in mind and need to buy all the miles or just top off your account, this could be a great promotion.  Like I always say, don't hoard your points/miles. Use them.  They aren't worth anything, no matter how many you have unless you actually use them. Use your miles and plan a trip like this, this, this, or this.

My advice, look at your own travel style and any upcoming trips you want to plan. Does it make sense to pay nearly $2K for 100K miles?  That just about $0.02/miles, is that a good price for what you are looking to do?

Have you purchased miles like this before?  What would make you buy these miles?  Do you buy on your regular airline or do you buy on other airlines, looking to try a new services?

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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Olympics & More: Heathrow Express

United's BusinessFirst guests get priority cards for Customs and Immigration at Heathrow. I managed to make it from the plane, through Customs and down to Baggage Claim in about 15 minutes. Amazing! I even had time to buy a new SIM card in this 15 minute window (and every time I land at Heathrow I am always at the very end of Terminal 1, too).

Since I only had 48 hours in London, I decided to take the Heathrow Express from the Airport to Paddington Station. This was my second trip to London where I used the HEX.  It really is the way to go, if you have limited time in London.  In March 2011 I used the HEX to pop into the City when I had a 10 hour lay over en route to Cape Town.

By taking the HEX you can make it from Heathrow to Paddington in just about 15 minutes.  You can also take the Tube to Paddington from Heathrow, but that takes about an hour.  The HEX is much more expensive than the Tube. The Tube will cost you about 5,30GBP or at today's exchange rate, about $8.60USD.  The HEX on the other hand costs 18,00GBP each way, or $29.20USD.

You get on the HEX from the arrivals area and baggage claim in Terminal 1 by taking the elevators down a level.  You can purchase your ticket online before you even leave for London or, like my most recent trip, there were people at the base of the escalator selling tickets. Since I was there for the Olympics, I doubt these customer service folks will be there year round.  Of course, it goes without saying, make sure you are actually buying tickets from authorized retailers -- don't just give your money to someone who says they will sell you a ticket to anything. Be smart.

The HEX also has complimentary wifi, which is great in theory, but the ride is only 15 minutes so by the time you get your phone set up and start to sync your device(s) you've already arrived.

Every time I've taken the HEX I've never had to wait more than 10 minutes and I've always gotten a seat. Obviously these trains are designed for air travelers, so there are many racks to store your luggage too.  From Paddington you can easily get anywhere on the London Transport system. Easy Breezy.

If you have a limited time in London, I would definitely take the HEX. It is quite a bit more expensive, but it will allow you to experience more time in London and less on the Tube.

When visiting London do you take the Tube, the HEX or take a Black Cab?  Is the extra 10GBP worth it to you to shave 45 minutes off your transit into the City?

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Where I'm Staying...Toronto Marriott Bloor Yorkville Hotel

I consistently stay at Marriotts when I visit Toronto, but I don't stay at the same Marriott. I like to mix it up a bit.  I do this partly because I like to try new things, but mostly because I find the prices of hotels in Toronto to be too high and very inconsistent from year to year. For example a place that goes for $150CAD last August now goes for $240CAD -- and the same hotel would have  $190CAD two years before.

The Toronto Marriott Bloor Yorkville Hotel came highly recommended from several of my more discerning travel colleagues.  I was looking forward to this hotel, even though I don't spend much time in any hotel while I travel - either for work or pleasure.

We arrived at the hotel around midnight. I had two rooms under my reservation, since my colleague doesn't have a corporate credit card.  I approach the desk and hand my identification, my Marriott Silver (ugh, not real status, I know) card and my corporate credit card.  I ask about in-room wifi and the front desk agent said it is available, but only for an additional charge. Of course, I ask him if it can be included complimentary.  He looks down and types for a while, then agrees. I clarify that it is for both rooms and with a big smile he says "yes".  I wasn't expecting this, how nice.

We are assigned rooms on the second floor, which is actually on the 7th floor of building.  The hallways are long and covered with carpet that has seen better days. The pattern and the edges that were pulled up a bit made it look and feel like I was on a cruise ship -- the hallways felt like we were on a moving boat.

My room was large and clean.  I was surprised to find the extra pillows and towels (that I have a standing order for) were actually in my room (they were in BOTH rooms under my name). Most times this request doesn't get fulfilled.  The room had a comfortable king bed, two club chairs near the window and an flat panel TV. Nicely done.

The secondary lock on the door was in poor repair. This would not keep an unwanted guest out of the room.  Since we got in late and had to be up early I didn't worry about this issue until the next morning. As I was leaving the hotel, I asked the people at the front desk to send someone up to fix the lock.  Nothing was fixed.  I do hope they fix this lock (in room 230).  Guests safety should be a priority.

The bathroom was a standard bathroom with the Bath and Body Works products, which I still love.  The only stain on the linens I found was what appeared to be a grease stain on the shower curtain. So much nicer than Westin Alexandria (read about that here).  The water pressure was great and I always had hot water when showering.  A must in a hotel, but it is surprising how frequently hotels do not deliver.

Grease stained shower curtain
The room did have a good number of power outlets, including a double outlet on each nightstand. SCORE. God I hate when I have to crawl around on the floor to find an outlet to charge my electronic gear.  Nice showing Marriott.

While the hotel didn't meet the expectations that my colleagues had set for me, it was a perfectly fine place to stay. I did have one issue that really takes this hotel down a notch for me.  The hotel screwed up the billing of the rooms. As I said before, I had two rooms under my name, since one colleague doesn't have a travel card.  One of the rooms was billed to my corporate card and the other room billed to my personal card (that is tied to my Marriott Rewards Account).  I presented my corporate card at check-in and indicated this was the card to use.

The second issue is that we got one day of wifi free, but were charged for a second day.  The first day showed up as "Internet - $0.00", so it was on the folio as free. The second day, not so much.

A few days after check-out I called to get the bill fixed.  This is where the service fell apart. I got a hold of someone in accounting, but after explaining the issues she said she had no authority to make any changes and someone would call me back.  I called again the following day and got the same woman. She apologizes for no one returning my call, but again her manager was unavailable.  Since it was the Friday before a holiday weekend she said he wouldn't be able to call me until the next week (he wasn't gone for the weekend, just wouldn't have time to call before he left for the weekend).  I didn't get a call on Tuesday either, so I called back again and was transferred to a new person who I had to leave a message with.  He called me back the next day.

He explained that the front desk guy didn't have the authority to offer free Internet as that was only for Platinum Guests.  I didn't care what he had authority to offer, he offered it and it worked partially on the bill.  Just fix it -- and properly charge my cards, as I originally requested.  It took another couple of days before this was rectified.

The final issue, is the currency fluctuation. The charge errors resulted in me losing a couple bucks when the value of the dollar was lost.  I emailed the hotel and asked for some additional Marriott points to make up for my minimal loss. They responded in less than 24 hours and offered me 3,000 points.  Not a windfall, but a nice bit of help.  It would have been wonderful if the hotel had proactively offered something, considering the issues.

The real question: Would I stay at this hotel again? Probably.  There are many Marriotts (and other chains) in the area of Toronto I need to be in. If the price is right, I'd definitely stay here again -- just be prepared for the possibility that you'll have to spend a week (or more) working on minor accounting errors.

Have you stayed here before?  Did you have any accounting issues?  Are you surprised when you don't see a gross stain on the bed linens, like I am (kudos Marriott Bloor Yorkville for having clean bed linens)?

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Monday, September 17, 2012

What I'm Cooking...Mussels Steamed with Fennel and Creme Fraiche

Last February I took a class at the Chopping Block called Midnight in Paris (read about that class here). I loved the class and make the recipes from the class all the time.  Well, most of the recipes. I never made the Mussels Steamed with Fennel and Creme Fraiche...until this past Saturday.

I had never made mussels before (other than in class, of course), but since I'm pushing myself to eat more seafood, I figured now is a great time to give it a try.  I stopped off at Whole Foods and picked up 2.5 pounds of mussels. I was making dinner for me and my mother -- and 2.5 pounds was a pretty filling amount for the two of us.

I used the Chopping Block recipe exactly (just scaled up slightly for the extra mussels).

  • 2 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1/2 Bulb Fennel, Medium Dice (fronds reserved)
  • 1 Onion, Peeled and cut into Medium Dice
  • 2 Sprigs fresh thyme (from the garden of course), leaves picked
  • 4 Cloves Garlic, Minced
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Red Chili Flakes
  • Salt and Pepper to Taste
  • 1.5 Pounds Mussels, Scubbed and Debearded
  • 1 Cup Dry White Wine
  • 1.5 Cups Creme Fraiche (I used sour cream)
  • 1 French Baguette, Warmed
  1. Heat a large heavy pot with a lid over medium heat and add the olive oil. Gently saute the fennel, onion and thyme until softened, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the garlic and chili flakes and cook an additional minute or until aromatic.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  2. Increase heat to medium high
  3. Add the mussels, white wine and creme fraiche. Stir well and cover the pot. 
  4. Lift the lid and stir after about 2 minutes and then cover and continue to steam until the mussels are all open, 2 to 3 more minutes. Discard any mussels that have not opened (this is critical).
  5. Divide the steamed mussels (for an appetizer into 4 bowls, for an entree into two), or one large bowl.  Return the sauce to the heat and simmer until slightly thickened.  1 to 2 additional minutes.
  6. Season with salt and pepper to taste and pour the sauce over the mussels.
  7. Garnish with the fennel fronds and serve with the sliced warm baguette on the side.
Whoa. A super easy meal.  I was at a loss when I first started this recipe.  The mussels need to be scrubbed and debearded. I know we talked about this in class, but I didn't remember and I sure didn't take notes.  I scurry to the internet to find the best way to start.

Several websites said to put the mussels in cool fresh water for 20 minutes so they will filter the sand/silt from them. I did that -- then continued my research.  Uh-oh. Many other websites said not to soak in fresh water as this will kill the live mussels. Dammit.  What can you do?  

I then scrubbed the mussels and removed the beard by yanking it towards the hinge of the shell -- which was the consensus on how to do it.  I also read that once you debeard the mussel it can die shortly thereafter -- so only debeard right before you intend to cook it.

My mom, who doesn't frequently try new food, had never had mussels and she loved it. She even had seconds, which absolutely NEVER happens.  The ingredients were very inexpensive -- for two of us for dinner it cost less than $10 each -- not including the wine.

Soaking the mussels
Sauteing the onions and fennel
Tossing in the mussels
Mussels open and ready for dinner
Plated and ready for my belly!
Would I make this again? ABSOLUTELY! I plan on using this as an appetizer for Supper Club that I'll be hosting later this season.

What is your favorite mussels recipe? Do you cook them at home or are mussels only a restaurant treat for you?  How did you learn how to prepare the mussels? To soak or not to soak?

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Saturday, September 15, 2012

An Uber Update

My first taxi experience with Uber last week was great.  I was pretty stoked about my first ride. I used the service a couple times since the first run and had great success...I then tried the service again on Thursday -- with much different results.

I had to run to the office from a meeting across town (to pick up laptops, etc) so I order a taxi via Uber, which was set to arrive in 5 minutes.  After a while I got another notice that the taxi would arrive in 2 minutes, then that it was arriving. The app then failed, so I couldn't get the taxi number, not that it really mattered.  I was standing directly under the address sign on the building where the taxi was supposed to meet me. No taxi was anywhere near.  The driver called me saying he was here.  He wasn't. I asked what his cab number was - I couldn't understand him.  I even asked him to text me his taxi number - no good.  After 10 more minutes of trying to track down the driver, I decided to skip it and walked a few blocks to get another cab.

After about 20 minutes I get an email indicating my trip was complete. The trip I never took.  He charged me just for the basic fare.  This was frustrating. But at least he didn't try to scam me (by pretending to drive me to ORD, or a far flung suburb).

I decided to email Uber and explain the situation and ask them to reverse the charges.  I was prepared to dispute the charges (a whopping $3.40) on my credit card if Uber was uncooperative, but the Uber team responded to my email in less than 24 hours and took care of it.

So, what's the moral of this story? Uber isn't perfect. It is a service that relies on independent taxis to provide their service.  The thing they can control is the customer service they provide -- and Nicole solved my problem and did it quickly.

Do I wish this service was more perfect? Of course, but the idea of not having to fight with the taxi driver just so you can use a credit card is worth the little hiccups I've experienced.

What has been your experience with Uber? Is it better than you expected?  Do you find value in the service?

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Friday, September 14, 2012

Olympics & More: UAL 938: ORD-LHR BusinessFirst

The best travel money I ever spent was upgrading to BusinessFirst on United. I am sure you all think that I've absolutely lost my mind. How can a BusinessFirst Seat on United be anything special?  Well, this was my first trip ever flying in a premium cabin on an international route (other than to Toronto, which doesn't count from Chicago).

I decided to use the cash and miles option to upgrade my Exit Row seat to BusinessFirst for two main reasons: 1) To try something new and 2) Since I would have only 48 hours in London, I wanted to hit the ground running after getting as much rest on the plane as possible.

I cashed in 20,000 miles and $550 to upgrade one way. Not cheap, but I wanted to give it a go.  Plus I have more than enough miles.

The flight number to London started in Denver and connected in Chicago (with a plane change).  The Denver flight was cancelled and according to the gentleman at the ticket counter, a large portion of the flight was starting out in Denver.  Our flight ended up being pretty empty.  

Carrier: United Air Lines

Flight #: 938
Seat: 8A (Rear Facing BusinessFirst Seat)
Departure: August 9, 2012 -  21h10 / 21h11
Arrival: August 10, 2012 - 11h15 / 10h55
Travel Time: 8 hours 10 minutes / 7 hours 50 minutes
Flight Miles: 3,953

When I chose my seat, weeks before departure, the only thing available was a window seat or a window or aisle near the galley/lav.  My ideal seat would have been a center section seat -- since the BF cabin is laid out in a 2-2-2 configuration, a middle section allows you access to an aisle and no real possibility for someone needing to crawl over you, thus allowing the maximum amount of sleep possible.
My assigned BF forward
facing seat (on the right)
On this trip I was traveling with my messenger bag and my 21" Roller Suitcase.  I didn't realize that a 21" carry on wouldn't fit in the center overhead bins on this 767. I struggled putting my bag in the bin -- then I finally gave up and moved the bag to the exterior bins - where there was no issue stowing my bag.

The seats were pretty comfortable and I had plenty of leg room.  One issue I had with the seat was no in seat storage. I like to put my tablet, iPod, headphones and magazines in the seat pocket in front of me. These don't exist in BF. There really isn't any secure place to put these items.  They either go in your lap, or on the floor (until the Stew yells at you).

Ample legroom,
with legs extended.
Once I put my bag away, the Stew was immediately upon me, offering water or champagne. Is there really a question as to what I selected?
Bad Champagne in
a plastic "glass"
Once the champagne was delivered another Stew handed out the menus and shortly thereafter tossed us the amenity kits.  He brought these kits around on a tray but just threw them at us - not even handing them to us.  I tossed mine onto the small shelf in front of my seat.

BF Menu - To Begin
BF Menu - Main Course
I immediately check the menu to see what we are queued up for -- I also snapped a picture and send it to MS.  I was in hog heaven at this time. I was so excited, my first flight in Business I couldn't wait to experience everything coming my way. 

I then heard the door close. The BusinessFirst cabin was about 50% full and we were ready to make a move.  How exciting.  I immediately moved across the aisle where both the window and aisle seats were empty. This was a Rear-Facing seat. I've had several friends say they can't comfortably fly in a rear facing seat, but I had no issues.

As we pull away from the gate, the first Stew distributes newspapers and magazines.
After a short taxi and takeoff, we are en route to London. As we pass 10,000 feet, the Stews spring into action and take drink orders and deliver warmed nuts.  I asked for the Côtes du Rhône and the Stew says they aren't serving that on this flight.  I asked for a red wine and she asked what I wanted to drink. I again asked for the Côtes du Rhône. She said they didn't have any, even though the menu clearly said they did. I said, I wasn't too keen on the Malbec, but would like to try the other red. She showed it to me -- it was the Côtes du Rhône. I told her again, I wanted the Côtes du Rhône and when the Stew said she didn't have any, I pointed out the type of wine on the bottle. She corrected my pronunciation -- it's evidently called a Coats Du Ruin on United.  Good to know.
Warm nuts and a Côtes du Rhône
To start I had the only option, the Chilled Appetizer, which was a piece of salmon and a bit of shrimp, served along side a Fresh Seasonal Greens salad. The salad came pre-plated, but the dressing was added, seat, side.  This wasn't remarkable, but it was definitely the nicer side of acceptable.

Honestly, I was torn on the dinner options. Do I want the beef or the chicken. Both sounded very good to me.  I decided to go with the chicken as it has a Latin Flair.  It was so freaking dry and really lacked any flavor. I really had unreasonable expectations with this meal.  I was having such a great time so far on the flight and really let myself forget where I was.

There were two options for dessert, a cheese plate and a sundae.  When the Stew stopped by to ask what I wanted I said both sounded good and asked for her recommendation. She smile, winked and said, try both. This really was my plan from the beginning, but I wasn't sure if that would fly or not. I know on international carriers you can do both, but sometimes domestic carriers (even on international service) can get a bit up tight.  I started with the cheese plate and a glass of port.   Once I devoured the cheese, I saw the sundae cart wheel down the opposite aisle.  It looked pretty damn good.  The other Stew serving BF took my plate, refilled my port and walked away.  The first Stew who suggested I try both came back by -- looked at me and kept on walking. I asked her about the sundae and she said "oh, you've already had the cheese, right".  After I confirmed, she walked straight back to the galley and dumped the two ice cream sundaes on her cart, right into the trash.  How tragic.  If I had known I would have gotten only one dessert, I would have gone for the ice cream.

After dinner, the Stews distributed a bottle of water and headed back to the galley to sit and relax.  I put my seat into the bed position and started watching a film.  During dinner I watched the new Sherlock Holmes sequel.  It was pretty decent.  Once dinner was over, I put on a film that I had already watched -- The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (which I really liked).  I watched this film and slept. I slept off and on for about 4.5 hours.  I woke up about 20 minutes before breakfast was served.  I watched a couple TV shows (Criminal Minds, Big Bang Theory and some British show that was tolerable) during breakfast.  Breakfast was a simple croissant and some meats, cheeses and fruit.  Pretty standard.

I took this quick picture outside as we were approaching Heathrow.  I love London so much - it is an amazing City and has several really dear friends of mine. Heathrow is full of opportunity -- you can fly anywhere in the world from Heathrow, it is just so exciting for me.  I know, I'm a nerd.

The flight to London is pretty short from Chicago and this flight was quite empty. I am pretty sure a flight in coach would have been perfectly comfortable. I've done it several times before, but the whole BusinessFirst upgrade was a fun little treat for me.  Would I fly BF every time I fly internationally?  Yes, if I could afford to do so -- which I really can't.

Have you flown United's BusinessFirst before? Do you fly BF if on flights that are less than 8 hours? What is your magic time frame where coach just won't work?  Do you think the cash and miles option is a good value?  Where is your favorite BF seat on United? Are you an Aisle or a Window Seat person?

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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Olympics & More: Introduction

The Olympics were never really high on my list of things to do before I die, but London is one of my favorite Cities and I have several friends who live here. Add these pieces together and I have to visit London during the games, don't I?

Since we got back from our Pacific Northwest Road Trip just 4 days before I headed off to London, I wasn't "needing" a vacation of course.  I had been to Barcelona before too, but wasn't a big fan. MS loves the City and wanted to show me his Barcelona - I'm always up for a trip.  Sit back and enjoy the read.
Did you go to London to see the games or did you listen to Boris and "Stay Away!"

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Where to put your Personal Item

I love to read travel blogs and Boarding Area has a great collection of writers.  I won't get into the specifics of the each blogger that I like or don't like, but I will tell you they do pose some interesting questions from time to time.

Last month, the Road Warriorette posted an article on Personal Items (since I've been on the road a lot in August, I'm just now get caught up on my regular blogs).  A Personal Item is your second piece of carry-on luggage (not your 21" roller suitcase, but either your briefcase, backpack or purse).  The question she poses is, where do you put your personal item? In the overhead bin, or under the seat in front of you.  I won't rehash her blog here - go read it - but I will tell you my thoughts.

Planes are almost always full now.  Airlines are charging non-elite (or non-airline-specific-credit-card-holding) passengers fees for checking a bag. What does this mean? It means passengers are bringing so many bags into the cabin.

I usually travel with a simple 21" roller suitcase (that easily fits in the overhead bin of all but the small Regional Planes) and a messenger bag with papers and my electronics.  I know that all the overhead bins will be filled and some people may have to gate check their bags.  I don't really worry about that for myself because, I am Premier Gold with United and always get space for my bag in the bins.

I never put my personal item (messenger bag for me) in the overhead bin (unless I'm on a tiny Regional Jet). I know that my small bag will take up enough space that it could make another passenger gate check their bags. I also know that people are self-centered and don't often worry about the property of other people on the plane (and yes, I am talking about fellow passengers and the Stews). I don't want my laptop or other electronic devices to be damaged by these people.

I did have a bit of a run in on a recent flight. I was going from SEA to ORD and the woman in front of me decided to put her bag under HER seat and not under the seat in front of her.  To make this work, she had to push my bag out of the way.  After about 15 minutes (on the ground) of foot fighting with this broad, I remind her that her storage area is the under the seat in front of her. She had already filled that space, I found. I then reminded her that she needs to use the overhead bins - which were now full.  The Stew then came back to see what was going on and I explained to her. She then grabbed the ladies bag (without saying another word) that was going under her seat and took it (I assume she put it in a closet up front).  The woman in front of me was extremely unhappy all the flight.  To get back at me, she SLAMMED her seat back. Luckily I was in the Exit Row, so she had extremely limited recline :).  She then hated me even more as she continued to try to SLAM her seat back into me.  Another reason to pick exit row, right?

When you travel, where do you put your personal item - Overhead Bin or Under the Seat?  Do you run into issues with people who don't understand where their storage areas are?

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