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Friday, January 30, 2015

Cheers To The Freakin' Weekend (Plus, Where To Buy Flowers In London)


Am I right?

It seems like this week has dragged. What are you doing this weekend? I wanted to visit the new Sky Garden at 20 Fenchurch Street (AKA The Walkie-Talkie AKA 90s Cell Phone), but apparently, I missed the boat when it came to booking tickets because you have to reserve waayyy, wa-hayyy in advance. I even tried to book a table for breakfast, lunch, or dinner at one of the building's three restaurants and was sniffily rejected by the online booking system. Fail.

That's one of my frustrations about living in a city like London. There are amazing opportunities for things to do and see on the weekends, but high demand means that you have to plan early. And sometimes, I just feel like being spontaneous. Londonist is great for last minute suggestions, though. Maybe I'll go to this Lego exhibition instead (can't believe I just typed that - I am so sad) and see if John wants to go on a Westfield shopping spree while we're out there (bo-ring).

But anyway.

This was the week of ... flowers.


Like many Londoners, I have my little London secrets: shops, restaurants, coffee shops that I like to keep to myself. Stems on Sicilian Avenue in Holborn is one of these secrets (but oops! I just told you.). I don't know what your experience of buying fresh flowers in London has been, but mine are almost always heinous. Options are:

1) Walk into dark shop with fancy lettering on a black marquee. Smile at shopkeeper who looks up from the glow of her Macbook Air just long enough to scowl at you. Browse selection of "artisan" bouquets priced at upwards of £35. Laugh nervously as your eyes dart around for "cheaper" alternatives, such as daisies, tulips, anything that will keep you from having to use your Boots points for lunch this week. Leave shop and walk into Tesco across the street, purchasing a selection of gerber daisies while ripping off the £10 price tag from the cellophane after you've swiped it through the self-scanning machine.

OR!

2) Walk past flower stand outside tube station. Consider the sad, drooping roses which have clearly suffered from fuel-poisoning after sucking up the exhaust pipes of passing London traffic. Avoid making eye contact with the stallholder so he doesn't start pointing out hastily-tied bouquets for "Only £25, darling. It's a bargain." Bargain my ass. Weakly request a bunch of five tulips instead, which will set you back £10. The arrangement looks lame, so you ask for another five, and you're suddenly down £20. Stallholder takes your money and wraps your pink and purple in brown butcher paper. You leave feeling slightly triumphant, but your face falls when your tulips die practically as soon as the sun sets.

To avoid either scenario, I usually head to one of my favorite markets in London on Sundays: Columbia Road Flower Market, where beautiful, ginormous bouquets of all persuasions can be purchased for ridiculously low prices (especially near closing time, which is when I typically go to get the best deal).

Aside from Columbia Road, however, Stems in Holborn is terrific for bouquets that you want to give as a gift. Their beautiful little shop on Sicilian Avenue always has a unique, thoughtfully arranged selection outside and the vibe is incredibly friendly and warm. The bouquets - whether large or small - always evoke a sense of the rustic countryside for me. Definitely not Tesco.

I bought the sweet little purple and yellow arrangement (GO HUSKIES!!! I mean, what?) above for a friend who needed cheering up on Monday (which she loved) and they were only £5! Cheaper than a nice block of chocolate (and flowers last longer, in my experience).


Yesterday, a dear co-worker of mine was retiring after 45 years (yes, really!) and I sent him off with some blue roses from Stems.

So, you see? It *is* possible to find pretty, reasonably-priced flowers in central London. But let's just keep this to ourselves, okay?

Oh, and have a great weekend.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Review: Forge & Co, Shoreditch


I love helping Londoners with restaurant recommendations - especially on Twitter. One of the most frequently asked questions is about co-working spaces, or places where freelancers can plug in, settle down, and work for the day, all while enjoying a decent cup of coffee or food. Described on their website as a "social working space", Forge & Co (situated directly opposite the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch) does just this: its canteen and bar area is for socializing and chilling out, while its workspaces provide hot desks for freelancers and small businesses.

On Monday, I went to check out their Canteen and instantly loved the interiors: designed as an entirely open-plan space, the bar area is denoted with soft chairs, low tables, and a beautiful long bar of glittering spirits. The Canteen section housed several long, communal tables and more intimate seating designed for two people, while artwork hung on the walls.

As an American, one of the first thing I notice about restaurants is service. And London can be notorious for bad/indifferent service. But I was greeted warmly as soon as I walked into Forge and effortlessly catered to when I requested cocktails instead of the lovely bottle of red we'd been generously offered.

I asked the bar manager to knock up a "fruity, non-alcoholic" concoction for me as I'm currently participating in Dry January (otherwise known as, OHMYGODSOMEONEPLEASEHANDMEAGLASSNOMAKETHATABOTTLEOFWINENOW) and was presented with this berry beauty:


It tasted like a Starburst. All different kinds of wonderful.

Then we turned our beady eyes to the menu: it's varied (from sharing plates to salads), traditional (corn and herb fed chicken), and even brow-raising (Forge & Co are well known for their Ox heart burger - not for the faint-hearted! See what I did there? Heart ... hea - okay, sorry).

But because we've been missing our Pacific Northwest seafood fix, we plumped for the Dublin Bay prawns with caper butter. And they were ... huge.


The samphire was a great addition - I love a bit of samphire with seafood (except for the time I had samphire at Trullo, which was so over-salted that I gagged, and then was icily lectured by the waitress, "Madam, samphire is naturally salty." Sigh.).

Unfortunately ... the prawns were undercooked. Really undercooked. When they're done, prawns should have a meaty, whitish texture (prawns this big taste almost like lobster). This was transluscent and tasted strongly of the sea (read: fishy). Which was a shame, because we had to actually send them back. And I never send things back because it's embarrassing and I hate kicking up a fuss.

But - but! They were great about it. Our server whipped away our plates and returned, apologizing as the chef agreed the prawns were undercooked. I think this speaks volume about a restaurant: sometimes, it's not so much about the food, but how an awkward situation is dealt with - and Forge & Co definitely handled this with grace. On the rare occasion I've complained (albeit, as politely as possible), I'm used to being blamed (ahem, Trullo). So, I was impressed. We ordered the duck rillettes as a replacement, which came accompanied by some delicious rye toast.

Our main course of 28 day Speydside ribeye with chips (yes, we made the mistake of ordering the same thing again - we're so boring!) was nicely cooked, but slightly underwhelming. John thought his Bearnaise sauce tasted a "bit off" and I didn't love my salsa verde. To be honest, my focus was on the mini brussel sprouts with lardons (which we'd tacked on as a side), which were dee-li-cious. Seriously, I could've eaten another plateful of those on their own! And they were a terrific accompaniment to the steak (I actually prefered it to the salsa verde).


After having a huge hit (the cocktails) and a couple of meh-misses (the prawns and the steak), our dinner was suitably redeemed by this gorgeous chocolate fondant, served with a scoop of chestnut ice cream - a winning combination that you really can't go wrong with. The chocolate was perfectly melted in the middle, and the plating was so pretty, I felt a little bad digging into it.

Just to give you an idea of how pretty the interiors are at Forge & Co (and to show you what an utter creepster I am), take a look at their bathrooms:


THOSE SINKS, THOUGH. Aren't they dreamy? I'd love to have a sink like that in my future home. Can you imagine? I'd wash my face all the time just to stare into that pretty pattern.

But I digress.

I think that Forge & Co is a great place to meet for a drink with friends, grab a coffee during the day, or even brunch on the weekends. If I ever took this blog full-time (yeah, right - I wish! Could I also win the lottery, please?), I'd definitely consider camping out there.

With the food, I think there's some room for improvement, but we had a fun evening and the staff were just so darn nice, that I walked out thinking that I could walk right back in.

I was generously hosted as a guest by Forge & Co and Zomato UK - thank you so much! All opinions are my own.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Guest Post: Fall In Love With The Whole Ingredient's Vegan Macadamia Goji Bliss Balls


Hey! You! Yes, you! Where are you running to? Don't run away just because you saw "vegan" in the title of this post.

You know, I had the very same thought when Laura of The Whole Ingredient started following me on Twitter. "Vegan | Wholefoods | Foodie | Londoner", her profile said. "Oh boy," I said to myself, and waited for her to unfollow.

I mean, have you seen my Instagram posts? They're about as meaty and carnivorous as you can get! But then I clicked on the link to her website and instantly fell in love with her healthy but delicious recipes: Peanut Butter Pie Granola, Super Protein Kale Caesar Salad, and Pecan, Sage, and Cherry Quinoa Stuffing all spoke to me. To me, readers, a die-hard carnivore.

That kind of says it all.

After gushing about how much I loved her recipes, I found out that Laura and I have quite a bit in common: we both work in publishing, we both love to write, and we both love food.

The reason why I love The Whole Ingredient so much (aside from the beautiful photography, great writing, and mouth-watering recipes) is because it's so accessible to those who aren't necessarily vegan or perhaps are a little too intimidated to try vegan recipes for fear that they'll taste like ... cardboard (yes, my previous experience with a vegan brownie was akin to that of biting into a cereal box). It's a non-judgey, welcoming place for all to try some healthy and nutritious recipes without the use of fancy gadgets (ahem, I still want a spiralizer, though) or crazy ingredients.

I love Laura's approach to cooking and to life, which is why I am honored to share her recipe for Macadamia Goji Bliss Balls - a delicious, good-for-you alternative to chocolate truffles. Enjoy!


The Whole Ingredient - Macadamia Goji Bliss Balls

Are you familiar with ‘bliss balls’? If not, please be assured this is merely the term du jour for truffle. Or healthy raw truffle, to be more accurate. I have no idea where the term came from, but I suspect there is a yoga connection somewhere… Essentially, these Macadamia Goji Bliss Balls are a deliciously healthy and nutritious way to indulge in something sweet, while benefiting from the wonderful superfoods that are all rolled up in lovely coconut.



Have I mentioned yet that a batch of these tasty treats can be yours in just ten minutes? Perfection. Bliss balls really are one of the easiest and most versatile raw snacks you can make – all you need is a food processor and ten minutes.



I like to whip up a batch at the start of the week, ready to be deployed in any number of the following ways:

·        with my morning coffee;

·        as a delicious addition to my bowl of Healthy Plum & Pecan Granola;

·        as a snack at my desk;

·        for a no-fuss healthy dessert;

·        as a topping for a more extravagant dessert; and

·        when I’m out and about and don’t want to be tempted by a less virtuous treat (and everyone’s bag or pocket has space for a teeny tiny tupperware, right?)



My recipe for bliss balls also makes them super-powered: the macadamia nuts alone are a powerhouse of protein, vitamins and minerals (including zinc, copper and potassium), not to mention the added bonus of antioxidants such as selenium, that help to protect us against harmful toxins. Macadamias are also low in cholesterol, meaning they’re great for our hearts! Goji berries are another excellent source of antioxidants and can boost our immunity – which is exactly what we need during these cold months.



Why else should you give these a try? Well, this is a snack that’s refined sugar free and includes raw cacao, which not only tastes delicious but is a fantastic source of B vitamins and, again, antioxidant powers! Chocolate really is good for you. I roll these in desiccated coconut (result = virtuous Bounty bar!), but you could use anything else you love, from chia seeds to matcha powder or more raw cacao. Be creative!



So here’s my recipe for Macadamia Goji Bliss Balls: I hope they are as popular in your house as they are in mine!



Makes 12

INGREDIENTS

o   10 dates, pitted

o   50g ground almonds

o   2 tbsp raw cacao (or cocoa powder)

o   1 tbsp maple syrup

o   2 tsp solid coconut oil

o   Pinch Himalayan pink salt

o   30g macadamia nuts, chopped small

o   30g goji berries

o   30g desiccated coconut

METHOD

1. Put the dates, ground almonds, raw cacao, maple syrup and coconut oil in a food processor and pulse on a slow speed to begin with. The ingredients should start to clump together; once this happens you can increase the speed to create a smooth paste.

2. Combine the mixture in a bowl with the macadamia nuts and goji berries.

3. Roll into small balls and coat with the coconut.

4. Store in an airtight container in the fridge.

Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful recipe, Laura! I can't wait to make these this weekend! I think that they would look great in a mason jar with a ribbon, if you wanted to give them as a gift, don't you think?

For more delicious vegan recipes, check out The Whole Ingredient - prepare to be inspired! 

Photos © 2015 Laura Hemmington

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Travel Talk: In Defense of Organized Tours


So, this morning, I jumped on to #ttot (which stands for "Travel Talk On Twitter") - a chance for travel enthusiasts to chat and discuss a short set of questions on Twitter once a week. The theme was "tourist vs. traveller" and one of the questions was along the lines of, "What would you say to a tourist, if you were a traveller, and vice versa?" Someone scoffed, "I'd tell tourists that there's more to travelling than organized tours!"

I chuckled along to myself.

But then I got annoyed.

Here's why:

Before there was Expedia, before there was Tripadvisor or Kayak or Agoda or Hotel.com, before there was Mr. & Mrs. Smith or i-escapes.com or Voyage Prive ... there were phone books. And travel agents (these both still exist, I'm totally aware).

If we wanted to go on vacation, my mom would sit down with a pen and a thick pad of paper, make several phone calls, and write things down like, "$354 round trip, 7 nights". I'd be playing in the other room and hear her murmuring on the phone, beginning questions with, "Okay, and what if ...? Could you tell me one more time ...?" Then, off we'd go - to tour the East Coast, the Canadian Rockies ... on a bus. With a group. Of thirty-something other Chinese tourists.

Yes, I was one of them.

I scoff at the Chinese tourists taking selfies in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, but I was one of them. Right down to the umbrella-wielding tour guide, the group lunches (at Chinese restaurants, of course), the multiple translations (Mandarin and Cantonese - sometimes even three, if Japanese tourists were in our group), and dirty looks from other, non-Chinese tourists.

Yes, I was the recipient (aged 9) of the charming comment, "Here come the chinks," at a McDonald's in New York (uttered, ironically - or not so ironically? - by a black woman), as we all piled out of the bus for an early morning breakfast.

Humiliated, embarrassed, ashamed - didn't even begin to describe how I felt.

I hated the bus tours. I hated getting up at 6:30 in the morning, racing to the bus, dozing off for miles of uncomfortable travel, listening to explanations in Mandarin, Cantonese twice over, being told where to go, when to eat, or where to stand. Most of all, I was so embarrassed.

But without the resources to plan a trip that we have today, it was difficult for my parents (and really, my mom) to organize a self-run trip. Sure, you'll tell me in the comments that you're a product of the 70s or 80s (or earlier) and your parents took you to an amazing trip to Switzerland when you and your brother were just aged three and four, and that you have fond memories of eating cheese sandwiches on the Swiss Alps and losing your favorite donkey keychain souvenir when a passerby knocked it out of your hand - sure. You'll tell me that.

But looking back, I really feel for my parents. They were inexperienced travellers. They were worldly, sophisticated, and had a thirst to travel and explore, but organized trips were so much easier - less stressful, especially with two small children. Letting someone plan your schedule, take care of your food, accommodation and transportation? It was a compromise - and a good one, at that.

Even I get anxious about trip-planning now. I've been shortlisted for the "Travel" category of the UK Blog Awards, but I am one of the most anxious travellers you'll ever meet.

There, I said it.

I hate planning trips. I love exploring new places and I love to travel (and I wouldn't trade the freedom of traveling on your own terms for anything), but the logistics of it all makes me breathe into a paper bag. The real travel pro? John.

Cool-as-a-cucumber, he's used to showering in first class lounges in another time zone upon arriving from a business red eye flight and giving back-to-back presentations within an hour or so of said shower. John is the ultimate travel pro (I actually joke that he's a robot). He never freaks out and is always up for adventure, but he also makes rational, measured decisions.

Unlike me.

Want to know what our holiday planning is like? John sits in front of the computer in the kitchen, looking up flights, dates, and searching hotels, while I whirl around him like a dervish, pretending it isn't really happening, offering to look up some Tripadvisor reviews here and there, and saying things like, "That airline totally crashed in 1998. That airline is sooooo sketchy". Go ahead, withdraw my shortlist nomination.

But back to the organized tours.

When I visited the Louvre five years ago, a group of elderly Chinese tourists were, indeed, crowded around - you guessed it - the Mona Lisa. The tour guide patiently began explaining the history of the piece in Mandarin, then Cantonese, speaking into a microphone clipped to her shirt. The group pressed their audio guides to their ears.

A couple lingered on after they had moved on to the next painting, wanting to get a picture. "Move closer, move closer!" the woman said to her husband in Cantonese, waving her hand impatiently at him. I watched from a distance, amused. "Closer! How can I get you in the shot if you're not close enough?" she snapped. Her obedient husband shuffled sightly to the left. He reminded me so much of my deceased grandpa (and the woman, of my grandma), that I smiled. After the picture had been taken, they shuffled off to join the others, and I gazed after them.

And then I thought, so what? So what if an organized tour is how you prefer to travel? At least it get you out and about and exploring the world. At least you haven't let your anxiety or uncertainty or shyness or inexperience (or age!) stop you.

Today, there are smaller, "backdoor" or "off-the-beaten-path" travel groups led by travel experts such as Seattle-native, Rick Steves (whom my parents are very fond of, naturally). These groups seek to give curious travellers (who might not take the plunge of travelling on their own accord) the chance to experience a different culture or travel destination "like the locals do", providing a more authentic experience than en masse bus tour groups do while offering the security of a loose schedule and accompanying local guide.

So, seriously. Next time you pass a group of French, Italian, Spanish, or even Chinese tourists? Try not to judge. It may be their only opportunity to travel - and the only way they know how. (Okay, you can judge a little bit at white socks and sandals, or umbrellas when it's sunny out, or the inability to queue, or ...)

Monday, January 26, 2015

Birthdays


Happy Monday* (*btw, you know you overuse that phrase when your mother-in-law - who reads your blog - starts off an email with, "Happy Monday!"). How was your weekend?

Our sweet little niece, Dorothy, celebrated her first birthday on Saturday. She had all sorts of fun playing with her favorite (and only) Uncle John, hanging upside down, unwrapping presents (and promptly eating the tissue paper), giggling like the silly bean she is, and perfecting her bewildered, deer-in-the-headlights look when we sang "Happy Birthday" to her.


We brought some baby gifts from Alex and Alexa, which is my favorite online children's retailer - they always have a terrific selection of designer baby clothes and unique toys (not to mention, fabulous sale prices!). I chose this sweet sun hat from Petit Bateau to protect her little fair skin, plus these striped leggings and paint-splattered top for a little hipster ensemble. All she needs now is a pair of baby Converse ...

When I got home, it felt like my birthday all over again as I unwrapped this gorgeous wreath that had been made for me by Karen, a talented photographer and writer (and crafter!) who pens the incredibly addictive blog, I Don't Like Peas.


Isn't it stunning? I know that Christmas is over, but I think the vibrant colors transcend any season, don't you think? When I saw Karen's blog post on these beautiful fabric wreaths she'd made for her friends (each has a special story), I left a comment saying how beautiful I thought they were ... I didn't expect her to offer to make me one!

But on Friday, I received this gorgeous wreath in the mail, carefully wrapped in bubble and tissue paper, with a lovely note from Karen, who explained that the wreath had been made of silk and "leftovers from a dress my mum made for me about 16 years ago!" I was so touched.

Thank you, Karen, for brightening up my home, and for being a new friend. Twitter can be a pretty amazing place, sometimes.

Even if you didn't have a birthday to celebrate this weekend, I hope your week is getting off to a restful, restorative start!

Friday, January 23, 2015

That Friday Feeling


So ... you know you just might be a little spoiled by London-city living when you wake up, see an Instagram snap of someone's avocado toast in Australia, crave said toast, roll out of bed and into Holborn Grind on your way to work, and order their smashed avocado on toasted sourdough with feta, chilli, and a squeeze of lemon - all in 40 minutes flat. (And yes, it was damn good.)

I mean, come on. Instant gratification is pretty wonderful.

But it's Friday, and I'm treating myself. I'm wrapped up in a toasty Scott & Scott London cashmere wrap (which are amazing, by the way) and drinking this new tea, which I discovered when I was walking past a health-foods store in Covent Garden (again, the universe - or, specifically, London - seems to be catering to my every need):


Caffeine tends to make me a nervous, twitchy, anxious, borderline psychotic lunatic, so I'm experimenting with caffeine-free teas. That also means that my beloved green tea is out, but a girl can only drink so many cups of peppermint tea per day, if you know what I mean (at some point, you feel like you're turning into a breathmint). What's your favorite caffeine-free beverage?

Yesterday, I swung past Zara (despite steering clear of the sales this winter, in order to "be good") and picked up this little fringed number for a stunning £9.99. What? I'm preparing for spring (even if it's 2 degrees Celsius outside).


Stripes and plaid excite me. Plus, it's inspiring me to plan that vacation I'm supposed to take over Easter ... if you have any destination recommendations, I'd love to know.

So, this is how my Friday's looking. I'm also taking a late lunch to get my hair cut this afternoon - another treat (head massage, anyone?).

However you're treating yourself this Friday, I hope you have a wonderful weekend and I'll be back on Monday with more fun and games.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

All That Glitters Is Gold: Christabel's Edible Playground


Have you ever been to a supper club? I'm kind of an anti-social low-life (slight exaggeration there, but mostly true), so they're not really my thing, but last week I put my anti-social tendencies aside to attend Christabel's Edible Playground with Alexandra of Where2DoWhat (and fellow American, might I add) in North London (truth? The venue was less than a 10-minute walk away from my flat. Score.).

I'm skeptical of supper clubs (ew, strangers), but after being greeted at the door by Christabel herself (who's a dead-ringer for Sienna Miller, btw) with a gorgeous glass of prosecco and purple glitter popcorn, I was sold.

We were instructed to select one item from the fancy dress chest to wear (tiara for me, obvs, and an oversized, sequinned bowtie for Alexandra) and sat down to the adorable place setting above. What's even more impressive was the fact that Christabel cooked and prepared all the food with just one oven (how is that even possible?).

The first course of Snakes 'n Ladders (cheese with chilli honey on rye toast and peppers cut into the shape of snakes) was sweet and perfect for whetting the appetite, but was nothing compared to the main course of "Build Your Own Quinoa Castle and Paint Your Own Chicken".

Say what?


Yes, you read that correctly. Provided with golden buckets of pink quinoa and purple-dyed eggs, we literally dug in (with mini plastic shovels and rakes) and carefully shaped the foundations of our castles. However, taking a sneak peek at the castle-builders around me, it became quickly apparent that I was one of the few dinner guests unaccustomed to being given artistic licence over their food (that or I have no creative streak whatsoever). Before prizes could be awarded for the best castle, however, I'd already dug in - this time with my fork. Oops.

The chicken, which I ate with relish before a photo could even be snapped, was delicious and served with a chilli sauce, which we were meant to paint on with the paintbrush provided above (halfway through, I got too impatient and just ate the chicken, leaving the sauce on the side!).

But the dessert of Shortbread Jenga, Chocolate Ganache Lego, and Chocolate Mousse was ... legendary.


Doesn't that gold glitter make this dessert look like it's straight out of a fairytale? The spray-gold walnut was supposed to resemble a beetle and, though I'd sacrificed my spoon to heap dollops of the chilli sauce onto my chicken, I easily substituted a piece of shortbread for my spoon, dunking it into the chocolate mousse and not worrying too much if I got some around my mouth - this was an edible playground, after all.

Christabel's whimsical evening definitely brought out my inner child (well, that same reserved, repressed child I actually was - I couldn't bring myself to color outside the lines, for example) and was so, so much fun. When I wasn't busy ogling the children's books carefully placed around the table and (non-edible) lego pieces scattered next to my plate, I tried to take in all the magnificent colors of the food and decorations, which truly created a storybook feel.

If you're up for a similar, magical experience, why not book a place for one of Christabel's upcoming pop-ups, like the Mad Hatter's Brunch (which I've been dying to try) or the slightly more risque Cocktails 'n Crack (yes, really)? Places start at £25 and it's the perfect place to take a date or a group of friends.