Jerseygator's Blog


17 Months Later…

Posted in Friends,travel by jerseygator on October 18, 2016

European Vacation #2

It’s hard to believe that almost a year and a half have flown by since my last post. Much has transpired in that timeframe, both good and bad (miss ya, brother), but life goes on, eh?!

To celebrate my 55th birthday, we took family and friends on another European Vacation and Tracey said that the agenda for this trip was MINE. Since the previous visits had not included Normandy, that was FIRST on my places to visit. It is a place that is awesome and haunting at the same time and a must see for anyone who wants to actually feel what freedom costs, it’s palpable. Check out the video in the link provided, American Cemetery.

After France, we took a train to Brussels. We all fell in love with this amazingly diverse city; diversity in people, culture, architecture, history and more. The Grand Place is the central point in town and a tourist hot spot. grandplace

The centerpiece is the Town Hall, built in 1402, but it is not a church. It was built to administer the commerce of the city. There are some architectural oddities in this building that, once you see, you cannot un-see! Leave comments if you notice any.

One of the other items in my ‘bucket list’ was to visit Bruges!  If you’ve seen the 2008 movie ‘In Bruges’, you know my obsession (I LOVE this movie). If not, be forewarned, it’s a dark comedy/drama. However, the setting is the ‘Most well preserved Medieval City in all of Europe’. Bruges is referred to as the ‘Venice of the North’ for obvious reasons…

bruges01

 

Next, it was an alone trip for me, through the famed Ardenne Forrest of Belgium with the destination of Bastogne. For those who do not recognize the name, it was the main sight of the World War II ‘Battle of the Bulge’, where elements of the 101st Airborne among other US troops were  surrounded by the German army whilst defending the city.

bastogne01

 

Meanwhile, once we were back in Brussels, my two youngest children and their Aunt Annette wanted to try an Absinthe Bar. This one, known for Delirium Beer (available in the USA) had over 400 different types of absinthe available. They didn’t particularly care for any of them!

absinthe01absinthe02

All in all, a trip with six adults can be challenging at times but it really was a time for all to remember.

Advertisements

The Big Finnish (trip)!

Posted in Friends,travel by jerseygator on June 26, 2012
Tags: ,
Image

Kenz gets up close and personal with a Norwegian troll in Epcot.

Have you ever had a moment where you ask the universe for something and it responds in a big way?  A couple of months ago I was visiting Orlando with McKenzie, my BFF Stephanie, and Steph’s niece Chelsea.  While in Epcot we rode the Norwegian ride and afterwords I mentioned how much I wanted to visit a Nordic country.  Less than two weeks later we got the opportunity!  Stephen’s best friend from his teen years was tying the knot in Finland, where he has lived for the last 5 years, and we decided to give the trip as a gift to Stephen, as long as he let us tag along.  Jake and Cecilia graciously let us crash the wedding and our trip to the top of the world was on.  Lesson here…when you ask the universe for something, be prepared for an answer and don’t say no.

We started our trip with a drive up the Jersey Turnpike to Newark airport.  Off in the distance we could see NYC and the Freedom Tower, which is already dominating the skyline.  It’s an impressive site.  We made it through security with only one hiccup…we all had carry on bags only (we travel light) but Stephen had forgotten that he had a little present for Jake in his backpack.  Stephen was pulled over by security after they scanned his bag.  The TSA gentleman joked “Whadda ya got, a beer in there?” at which point Steve realized he DID have a beer in there!  He had carefully wrapped a home-brew for his buddy as a gift and nestled it down into his clothes.  After a laugh, the TSA official told him not to toss the beer, but to check his bag (free of charge) and even walked him to the counter through a side door so he could take care of it.  Don’t believe all the horror stories you hear about TSA…this guy was seriously cool.

Image

Those Dutch know how to run an airport.

Once Stephen’s bag was checked we were ready to get on board.  Darrol had sprung for slightly more spacious seats, as he and Steve are both six footers.  We had lots of leg room, so were pretty set up for the 7 hour flight.  The movie choice wasn’t much, but we all had books and Darrol had downloaded some movies on his iPad.  We even got a little bit of sleep, which is good, as we left at 6pm our time and 7 hours later were in Amersterdam at 8 in the morning.  Hmmm…where did our night go?  After a brief stint at the Amsterdam airport, we hopped a flight to Helsinki,

Image

We knew we’d find some McMullens if we just started looking!

Once in Helsinki we picked up our rental car and headed out of town.  The wedding was being held on the island of Pollinge on the crinkly bits of Finland. (Although not Norway, I think Slartibartfast would have approved.)  We got to the ferry and started wondering how we would ever find the B&B or the wedding venue.  Stephen suggested we just start “looking for McMullens” and within 30 seconds we saw the groom’s Mom and brother in a neighboring car.  Jane, Josh and Tracy rode the ferry over with us and we followed them to the wedding site.

Finland is beautiful.  Five times the size of NJ with just over half the people, with the lush summer foliage of an area that knows it’s got to get green while the greenin’ is good.  There were times when it reminded me of Tennessee or Virginia, with it’s slightly rolling hills and green pastures.  It was cool enough for a sweater some days, but sunny and clear while we were there.  Our little B&B was set up like a hostel…2 twin beds and a small powder room in a little room with a big attached balcony that looked over the water.  There was a huge shower room downstairs with a tricked out sauna that we never had the chance to use (next time!) as well as a communal dining area.  Stephen bunked in the room next to us, and we got to meet “Uncle Coop” and Kim, Jake’s uncle and aunt from the states who stayed on the other side of us.  Sitting on the porch well into the night (as the sun never really sets) drinking Karhu beer with Coop, Kim and Steve was a good beginning to our adventure.

Image

The amazing, soon-to-be-famous fish stew. Seriously, it tasted even better than it looks.

Wedding traditions vary in other countries of course.  There was no rehearsal, but they did hold a rehearsal dinner for family and friends.  We had the soon-to-be-famous amazingly delicious fish stew (which recipe we did NOT get but will, I swear it!), as well as slabs of thick bread and the most scrumptious butter ever.  I literally went back for seconds on soup and butter.  The soup was salmon with potato and dill, delicately flavored with just the right amount of spice.  We met new folks, gave toasts, laughed over traveling mishaps and generally just had a great time.  The bride’s father, Kennut, gave a moving speech about how having Jake in their lives had made the world a smaller place by bringing them new friends and family, a sentiment shared by us and our new friends in Finland.

The wedding was held in a community hall that had been built by the members of the community (of which Cecilia’s family belonged.)  It’s deep, warm wood tones felt very close and comforting, and the homey touches that decorated the tables and ceiling were so sweet.  Have you noticed that, once reaching a certain age (ahem), you’ve been to so many weddings that you can tell right off which ones are going to be fun?  This had that vibe right from the get-go.  We came into the hall the first day we arrived to find the groom’s friends stringing paper hearts from the ceiling, and a laid-back party feel already established.  Red checked napkins and thought out guest placement cards mixed and matched cultures, ages and genders.  I sneaked a peek at my place setting and saw I didn’t know anyone around me but Darrol.  WooHoo!  Time to get to know people!  The day of the wedding was beautiful…someone ordered up some great weather.  It was warm and sunny (I didn’t even need a sweater and that, my friends, is just weird).  The bride and groom walked down the dirt path that led to the community hall and up the front steps while the guests congregated in the grass.  The ceremony was short and very heartfelt.  Jake was so moved by his new bride’s written vows that he was unable to give his own for a bit, as he was overcome by emotion.  Honestly, it was about the sweetest thing I have ever witnessed.

Ultimately, weddings become parties and Finland knows how to party!  Darrol learned very quickly that tapping on the glass does not prompt the couple to kiss, but quiets everyone down so that the tapper can give a speech (*snicker*–he was warned before he actually tapped very long, but I would have liked to have seen his face!).  There are no speeches given, but as a concession one of the groomsmen allowed that “if anyone wants to make a speech, come see me.”  Still not sure if that was to check for content and to lock them in a closet.  The highlight was the Finnish tradition of drinking songs.  There were sheets of lyrics on the tables and someone in the room would start stomping or banging a beat then everyone would burst into song, punctuated by shots of homemade schnapps and ending with everyone belting out “skol!” and downing the drink.  Seriously awesome.  Followed by more awesomeness as Jake’s band (with a fill in drummer) rocked the house down and everyone danced the night away.

The following morning was going to be an outing on the amazing hand built boat captained by Cecilia’s uncle, but the day dawned the opposite of the wedding weather…cold and wet.  Guess we’re going to have to wait until next visit to sail the beautiful Alexandra.  Stephen, Darrol and I said our goodbyes and heading back to Helsinki for the next part of our journey.  Amsterdam!

An Offal Party

Posted in Cooking,food politics,Friends,locavore,New Jersey by jerseygator on January 27, 2011

As part of our conscientious eating, we are working to eat the whole animal when we choose to eat meat.  Recently we invited our friends to an “offal” party, that is a dinner party serving organ meats.

When we purchased our meat last fall, we ordered 1/2 cow, a whole pig, 2 lambs and a goat.  We opted out of the scrapple, having ordered that last time and determining that, if you didn’t grow up with it, it was nigh inedible.  (When the butcher asked if we wanted it, I inquired what it was.  Her response?  “Just what it sounds like, sugar.”)  This time, we took the organs from the cow and goat: heart, liver, kidneys and one non-organ, the cow tongue.

Beef heart

Let me start by saying that, other than liver and onions, none of us had eaten cow or goat organ meats before.  Darrol and the kids do eat the chicken hearts, so had an idea of what that tasted like, and we’ve had pate’ made from goose livers.  Fortunately, Darrol is both an experimental eater and an experimental cook, so he was up for it.

He started by making some beef stock with bones from Mr. Cow, then prepped the different cuts.

The beef tongue, which wins for weirdest looking thing we've ever cooked.

The heart was huge and was examined for the valves and chambers out of curiosity.  It was a least 4-5 times larger than a human heart; Darrol cut it up into slices to stew with broth and vegetables.  The tongue was incredibly odd looking and really didn’t look edible at all.  It was placed into the pressure cooker with some water in order to cook the meat.  Once removed, the “tongue” part (what you’d see if you looked into a cow’s mouth) was removed, leaving a large piece of meat.  Taylor had eaten a tongue chimichanga at a little Mexican place near the Delaware border, so Darrol decided to make taco filling with the tongue meat.

Beef kidneys. Darrol separated them into lobes then chopped finely.

In looking for recipes for steak and kidney pie on the internet we were repeatedly warned that kidneys stink!  Watch out for the stink, here’s how to get rid of the stink, etc.  Well, I guess that happens if you buy kidneys from the grocery store (in England…can’t say I’ve ever seen them over here), but kidneys from a grass fed cow that is immediately processed and brought to your freezer evidently have no odor at all.  I even held one up to my nose trying to smell something bad.  They smelled faintly of meat.  Darrol chopped them up finely with some chuck and sauteed them; the pie filling was topped with phyllo dough and baked to a golden finish.

The last thing in was the liver and onions, as they cook quickly and should be eaten right away.

Liver in all it's bloody glory

This was a familiar smell to most of the older generation, as we had moms or grandmoms who used to cook up a batch.  The frying onions made the whole house smell wonderful.

Darrol managed to bring four diverse dishes to the table all at once, an amazing feat that was appreciated by all.  We had some local cheese from Philadelphia, courtesy of Tim, and some homemade latkes made by the amazing Lil.  Tim, incidentally, recently lost close to 100 pounds on the “primitive” diet, which is based on meat, veg, fruit and nuts with almost no refined grains of any type.  Lil had also brought some crackers made with nut meal, and some “primitive” brownies to add to the table.

Everyone sits down to try the offal stuff

Everyone sat down to give the fare a try.  I will say that the young men of the group ate heartily and seemed to enjoy pretty much every dish.  We had one participant who basically thought the concept was interesting in theory, but not in practice.  She stuck to latkes.  The overall impression was favorable, with the favorites being the liver & onions (2 votes) and the steak & kidney pie (2 votes).  The tongue tacos were my favorite, as I just don’t like the texture of organ meats, and tongue is basically just a meat from an unusual place.  The heart stew was good, but didn’t win any votes as favorite.  I wonder if we put some dumplings in there if it would have won over more people?

Steak & Kidney pie

Liver & onions

Heart and Veggie stew

Tracey tries a tongue taco

There’s shore “food” and there’s good shore food

Posted in Friends,New Jersey,restaurants by jerseygator on September 16, 2010

We got back from the shore today, barely beating a severe thunderstorm that knocked out the power and many branches.  A fun time was had by all, and we’re already making plans for next year.  And before we go next year, we will research where to eat a bit better.

I’m a foodie (yes, I admit it) and like to try new things.  However, the shore doesn’t offer you much unless you’re willing to drive.  And there is a reason they offer coupons in those lobby books.  Yeah, don’t go there. (Although the coupons are great for things like boat rides and other “touristy” stuff.)  The first night we asked a local and found a little diner (The Vegas Diner) which wasn’t too bad.  We had some typical diner fare with good service.

The next morning we decided to try one of the boardwalk diners.  The advantage of going on the off season is no wait and what I presume is more personalized service.

Miss Amy's on the Wildwood Boardwalk

We found “Miss Amy’s” at the far end of the boardwalk in Wildwood just a short walk from our hotel.  They had a $2.99 breakfast special (you know, 2 eggs, 2 cakes, 2 bacon) which was really tasty.  So tasty in fact, that we went back there the next morning for the same deal!  The manager brought us a sweet roll hot out of the oven to go with our breakfast and we were ready for a day at the beach.

Unfortunately, our dinners weren’t as good.  After The Vegas Diner we found a coupon for a mexican restaurant (Juan Pablo, and yeah I cringed when I wrote that) where we had highly mediocre food (although Courtlyn said the crab cakes were good).    We also had highly mediocre service.  It reminded me of eating on International Drive around Disney World.  They sense “tourist” and don’t bother to treat you well enough for a repeat visit.  The next night we asked the locals again (yes, we learned our lesson) and went to “The Lobster House” in Cape May.  Everyone told us what a great restaurant this was.  Not that night.  The lobster bisque was good, but my salmon and Kenzie’s tuna were overcooked.  My sense was the restaurant was big on ambience but very typical fare otherwise.

George's Place in Cape May. This is the entire restaurant!

Finally, I decided to go on line and check out the bloggers (duh!).  This is how we found “George’s Place” on Cape May.  Oh. My. God.  I’ll preface this discussion by saying that we went there for lunch on Wednesday, and then back for breakfast AND lunch on Thursday before going home.  Yeah, that good.

Not too long a wait in the off season... but be prepared

George’s Place (301 Beach Avenue) is a small corner diner with just a few booths.  As it is off season, we didn’t have to wait long, but be prepared.  We had to wait outside for 20-30 minutes twice, but it was worth it!  Once seated, the service was fast and friendly.  The booths will only comfortably fit 4 adults, and no larger parties would be able to sit together.

We found out that Guy Fieri from Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” had just filmed a segment there, which will air in November 2010.  We were curious what he had highlighted, but our server didn’t know.  George’s specializes in Greek food, so after looking at the menu, we decided on the gyro (all except Kenz, who went with the cheeseburger).

Guy Ate Here! Watch Food Network in November for segment

While waiting we started with the humus and pita, and I think I can say it was the best of both I’ve ever had.  The pitas were fresh off the griddle and were almost too hot to handle (although we certainly did, with lots of ouches and blowing on our fingers).    We wiped the dish clean and were contemplating getting a second order when the server brought our lunch.

Doesn't look like much, but this is the best hummus we'd ever had

The gyros were made with fresh chopped lettuce, tomatoes and onions, along with a house made tzatziki and folded into those awesome pitas.  Sublime.  Kenzie’s cheeseburger was two patties with melted cheese on grilled sourdough (I believe) and was delicious as well.

The next morning we drove back to Cape May for breakfast at George’s Place.  Along with the standard fare of eggs, bacon, and pancakes they offer a nutella waffle.

Nutella and banana waffle

The waffle was perfectly cooked, crispy and tender, smeared with nutella and topped with bananas and very finely chopped walnuts.  Courtlyn ordered the banana french toast, beautifully presented and stacked high.

One fantastic gyro

For lunch, three of our party got the same thing that they had eaten yesterday!  You know it’s good if it draws you back within 24 hours for a repeat performance.  I opted for the falafel in pita, a variation of the gyro using falafel (a fried patty made with ground chickpeas and spices) instead of the lamb.  We all agreed to start with the humus and pita yet again as well, and we all agreed that it was worth coming back a third time in 2 days.

There is so much more on the menu that I’ve already told Darrol we’re heading down for a day trip (or two) to try the dinner menu, which includes lamb chops and pork medallions.

The Greek salad. We didn't order it this time, but the very nice lady at the next table let me take a picture of her lunch!

I’ve learned my lesson, fellow bloggers.  Keep writing about the great food out there, and I’ll listen.  I’ll also try to do my part and keep you informed of the great options we have here in South Jersey!!

Jersey Shore

Posted in Friends,New Jersey by jerseygator on September 13, 2010

This week is my first real experience of going “down the shore” in New Jersey.  I had visited the shore after moving here from Florida and was not very impressed; the place we went to had an extremely small, extremely crowded beach area (which we had to buy a token to enter!) and a lot of cheap shops and fried food vendors.  This is what everyone up here seems to live for come summer?  No thanks.

My friend Sharon and her daughter Courtlyn invited me and my daughter to spend a few days at the shore for “not-back-to-school” week.

The advantage of off season... a beach to yourself

The hoteliers aren’t dummies and homeschoolers are a nice target demographic for September before everything closes down for the winter. (Yeah, I had to learn about “closed for the season” when I moved up here, too.  Go figure.)  Seemed like a nice opportunity to see what everyone kept going on about.

We’re staying at a little hotel on the beach in North Wildwood, NJ.  The community looks like any beach community I’ve ever been in, albeit with fewer year round residents (N. Wildwood has a permanent population of about 5000).  I had a moment of place-confusion this morning thinking I was in Florida at Indian Rocks or Maderia Beach.  The beach here in N. Wildwood is wide and (thanks to the off-season) empty.  The waves and dunes are a restful backdrop to long walks and sitting in a lounge chair and reading.  Beach experience intact.

What is different is the boardwalk.  You enter under an arch that reads “Enter here to join the happiest people in the world.”

..."the happiest people in the world."

The boardwalk is wide and bordered on both sides by shops selling, yes, cheap trinkets and fried foods.  However, it’s a fun walk, sort of like being at a fair.  I’m starting to see the appeal!  Sharon and I walked the boardwalk for an hour this morning while the girls were still sleeping, staking out where we’d have breakfast and the best deals on end-of-season closeouts.  We found the bike shops where we’ll rent some tandem bikes tomorrow, and the salt water taffy store with the pleasant Macedonian woman who treated us to samples of fudge while we looked over the taffy flavors.

I had been warned to watch out for “Snookie,” and other Jersey cliches, but what I’ve found is what I’ve found everywhere I’ve traveled; Nice, decent people.  From Paris, France to Dillon, SC, NYC to the Jersey Shore, people are overwhelmingly pleasant and helpful.  Travel does open your mind and heart.  It teaches you not to be afraid of people who are different than you, but to open yourself up to new experiences and viewpoints, while having a good time.