Summer travels: Puerto Rico

Before I go on another trip, I figure I would write about the last trip I did with my family and Errol to Puerto Rico. We flew Spirit Airlines (Warning: NEVER FLY THIS!), which was quite a debacle trying to make weight with our luggage. But we made it into San Juan and met up with Dad's students. Every other summer, he teachers a coral reef ecology course, and this was his third one. 

San Juan is a beautiful, history city. It still has the cobble stone streets and colorful colonial buildings. We stayed there overnight, and Errol and I joined the students with a night on the town in San Juan. 

After San Juan, it was off to La Parguera where we would spend the majority of the trip. La Parguera is the town where Dad's course is, where my parents had their first start as a married couple, and where I was conceived. It's a small town where everywhere is walkable, making it very convenient. The university is on a small island that you take a boat to, and the place has tons of iguanas! 

We stayed at Villa Parguera, which had very basic rooms but had amazing views from the pool area. My sister and I went to the pool pretty much every day.

View of the ocean from our hotel. 
It was perfect timing when we joined my Dad in Puerto Rico, because the next day was Father's Day! We had delicious seafood at La Casita.

Errol was able to go scuba diving with Dad's class at "The Wall". It's a 100-foot dive with a wall of coral. I describe it as if I did it, but I can only live vicariously through the amazing pictures and videos that Errol took.

Errol got to dive, but my sister and I were able to go snorkeling a few times! A couple of Dad's students took us around and were finding things for us like starfish and sea pearls.

The one thing I would recommend everyone to do while in Puerto Rico is swimming in the Bio Bay. It's a bay that has phosphorescent diatoms, and when you flick the water they illuminate. It's an amazing experience, like swimming in space and touch stardust. We weren't allowed to take pictures on the boat, but you can just imagine it. Again, the timing was perfect because we were able to do this during a new moon!

We also joined Dad's students to an island to spend the day snorkeling again.  Some of his students went spear fishing, and even Errol got to try! We saw sea slugs, star fish, sea cucumbers, baby fish, and even some barracuda!

Another excursion was a trip to Cabo Rojo to show Errol and once again see the majestic cliffs over the ocean. The beach is a cape that makes you feel like it's your own personal paradise.

On the final day, we went to Aguadilla, a town near the airport that Dad's students flew in/out of. One of his students' house is there, and it is truly paradise. It's on a cliff overlooking the ocean, and has beautiful landscape in the front yard as well. We were treated to a delicious last breakfast. 

Puerto Rico is a wonderful place to visit. I would allocate a minimum of a week to explore all it has to offer. The island has mountains, plains, oceans, rain forests, caves, and so much more! AND you don't even need a passport because it is a US territory. I can't wait to visit again; Errol and I are thinking of going again next summer to stay with one of Dad's old students who are getting their PhD's at the university. They live in Rincon, which is one of the places we didn't get to explore. But apparently there are turtles off the beach! Definitely on my bucket list for next time! 


Cook-venture: Pan-Seared Shrimp with Garlic-Lemon Butter

Errol and I made this dish back in June, and it has to be our favorite dish so far in The New Best Recipe. I recommend anyone and everyone to make this!

1 1/2 pounds extra-large shrimp (21-25 per pound), peeled and deveined
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon sugar

3 tablespoons softened butter
1 medium garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley 
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Beat the softened butter with a fork until light and fluffy. 
Stir in the garlic, lemon juice, parsley, and salt until combined. 

Toss the shrimp in the salt, pepper, and sugar. 

Add half the shrimp onto a heated 12-inch skillet over high heat with oil. 
Cook until spotty brown and the edges turn pink (about 1 minute). 
With tongs, flip each shrimp and let stand for
30 seconds with the skillet off the heat
Repeat with remaining shrimp. 
(The timing sounds very specific, but Errol used a timer when cooking and it seemed to work... this cookbook is very particular, and it always works out!) 

Add butter to the skillet when you add the first batch of shrimp back to the skillet. 
Cover the skillet and let the shrimp and sauce stand until cooked (1-2 minutes). 
Serve immediately... trust me, you won't want to wait. 

Errol and I served the shrimp over a bed of linguine. The shrimp had such a robust flavor of lemon and garlic (a delicious combination) that I would have been happy without the added carbohydrates in the pasta. This meal was definitely special, and one I hope to repeat again when we are together.

The garlic-lemon butter sauce was actually one of the "Variations" in the book. Other variations include "with Ginger-Hoisin Glaze" and "with Chipotle Lime Glaze". I can't wait to try those!


Catch-Up: Spring Break in Cancun

Spring semester was so busy that I never got to post about my first big spring break trip! So now that I have some time to relax, it's time to catch up!

Errol's family has a time share in Cancun, Mexico, and ever since we met we talked about the possibility of going there someday for spring break. Only took us 4 years, but we finally did it! And it was definitely worth the wait! 

We had been on numerous trips together around the country, but this was our first international flight (our first international vacation was the cruise to the Bahamas in 2010). It was still relatively chilly in March up here in Chapel Hill, and the stores don't have a pool section to buy snorkeling gear. But I managed to find a new bathingsuit at Target and some other beach-y outfits.

It took a few breaths to get used to the heat and humidity as we exited the Cancun airport. But alas, my skin was happily absorbing the Vitamin D and my melanocytes began to awaken from their hibernation. After a few speed bumps, we made it via shuttle to the timeshare: Club Regina!

The time share was great, with a private entrance to the beach, awesome pool bar, and a delicious restaurant.

Sites of Club Regina beach and pool
Inside, there is a master bedroom, kitchen, living room, and patio fully equipped with a jacuzzi and a hammock. Our suite faced the absolutely beautiful Cancun sunsets, which we watched with margaritas and Coronas almost every night.

Sunset view from the patio
During one of our walking excursions, we went to La Parrilla, a Mexican grill with traditional dishes. We even got complimentary margaritas! Also, Senor Frogs style, we got tall drinks.

Errol's parents suggested that we go to Xel-Ha, an all-inclusive day in paradise. It's a natural park where we had the day to snorkel, eat all you want, drink all you want, bike, zip-line, lay out on the hammock, and more. Of all the excursions we did, I would definitely go here again! 

Views from Xel-Ha 
Another excursion we did was a trip to Chichen-Itza, which was the main cultural part of the trip. This was one of my bucket list items to see in my lifetime! It was a couple of hours away, so we went with a tour on a bus. On the way, the tour guide took us to see locals making obsidian figures and hammocks. Obsidian is a very important stone for the Mayans, and we learned all about the meaning. On the top left corner of the image, you can see that without light, obsidian is black, but when the light hits it right, it shines gold!

The tour guide told us all about Chichen Itza and the vast city that was once there. My favorite fact about this monument is that each side has 91 steps, with one more step to the top. That makes the total number of steps 365, the number of days in our calendar year!

The day we went was a special one, with a full moon. So our tour included a second trip to Chichen Itza after dinner where we got to witness a light show under the moonlight.

Full moon over Chichen Itza

Our third excursion was a day spent snorkeling in the ocean with a group. I haven't gotten the camera developed yet (much to Errol's dismay), but it was my first open ocean snorkeling. It was exciting! We even met some guys who had just graduated from University of Central Florida and hung out with them! Must have been a sign of things to come for Errol, who is starting medical school there next month.

Errol and my first international vacation was definitely an amazing one. Cancun, despite it's rampant tourism, has a lot of culture and a unique vibe that makes it a wonderful vacation hotspot.

Hopefully the next international vacation will be in Europe! 


Restaurant Review: The Lantern

Website screenshot: http://lanternrestaurant.com/
I had the distinct pleasure of Errol and my final date in Chapel Hill during our year together to be at The Lantern. It's tucked in by all of the other unique, local restaurants and shops on Franklin Street. One of the pharmacists at work suggested we eat there because her sister-in-law owns it. 

It's a delicious, high-end restaurant that combines contemporary style Asian dishes with locally grown farmer's market fruits and vegetables. Despite the prices being higher than our usual (entrees ranged $25-40), we decided to splurge for our last date.

I got a cocktail (I can't remember it for the life of me, but it had rum and ginger ale), and Errol got a beer. 

My entree was a twist on lettuce wraps. On the left side of the picture below, you see the roasted peanut hoisin and the absolutely delicious pork shoulder. It's cooked overnight in lemon grass, and the meat basically melts in your mouth. I would have been happy with simply a plateful of that pork. It was interesting to make lettuce wraps with a different kind of leaf, but it worked. And I finished every last bit of the dish.

BBQ’d Chapel Hill Creamery pork shoulder
with cool rice noodles, lettuce cups, Vietnamese herb salad,
chile-lime sauce and roasted peanut hoisin
Errol wanted to go to Ben and Jerry's afterwards to fulfill his ice cream craving, but I wanted to finish the experience and have dessert at the restaurant. I've never had roasted banana ice cream, but it tastes just like you might imagine: mouthwatering. The brittle was a nice touch too.

Roasted banana ice cream with caramel, soft cream
and NC peanut brittle
When we ordered the ice cream, our waiter came with this extra dessert and told us "Compliments of the owners, the drinks and desserts are on the house". What a great surprise! Our pharmacist told them that we were there, and they did us a great favor by taking ~$40 off our bill.  This was my first panna cotta; it tastes like a milky, creamy gelatin. The locally grown organic cherries were a sweet and tart addition to the palate.

Almond panna cotta with organic cherries, rosé syrup
and almond-sesame candy
I would recommend The Lantern to anyone and everyone wanting to spend a wonderful night with delicious food. It is a quaint restaurant, and I would recommend reserving at least 4 days in advance. Errol tried to reserve the day before wanted to go, and it was completely reserved for 2 days. If you find it is fully booked, do what we did: go there when it opened at 5:30PM and were immediately seated.

After perusing The Lantern website, I saw that the owner has also published a cookbook: Cooking In The Moment. It looks like a great cookbook that has recipes to take advantage of seasonal fruits and vegetables. Maybe I'll try it out! North Carolina is filled with farmers markets, and I'm looking to grow herbs on our new patio.

Website screenshot: http://www.andreareusing.com/
Cheers to good eats, good dates, and good people. 


Cook-venture: Egg in the Hole

I haven't bought any meat except for deli ham for sandwiches and sausage for Zataran's Jumbalaya. I have just a handful of meals that I'm aiming to last me until I go back to Florida next Friday(!). So far so good, and it's a great feeling to be saving my limited amounts of money.

So what's the best, cheap protein? EGGS!

I have grown up with over-easy eggs with toast (or garlic rice, if it wasn't a school day). Ever since I saw it on Pioneer Woman, I had always wanted to try "egg in the hole" as a nice variation.

First, cut a hole in the middle. You can use a biscuit cutter,
glass, or a Pampered Chef  Measure-All Cup!

Add some butter or oil. 

Put the toast on. Remember to eat the center
or save it to dip in the egg yolk! 

I was winging the timing, decided to flip when the
bottom looked cooked. This was after about 45 seconds. 

Looks like the timing worked! Let the other side cook until I
was able to move the entire thing around the pan. 


I think I may eat egg and toast this way from now on! Having the egg in the center helped to have a good amount equally in each bite of toast. I may try adding some cheese next time.


Cook-venture: Banana Bread

Today, one of my roommates came with her dad to bring a carload. She brought some rugs and a TV stand, and the place looks so much homey now! I can't wait for it to be a full house.

For their visit, I made some banana bread!

The ingredients:
Dry: 1 cups all-purpose flour, 1 1/4 cups walnuts (I used chopped almonds instead), 3/4 cup sugar, 3/4 teaspoon baking soda, 1/2 teaspoon salt

Wet: 3 very ripe bananas, 1/4 cup plain yogurt (I didn't have this on hand), 2 large eggs, 6 tablespoons butter - melted and cooled, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

The ingredients
Looks like baby food...
Used Pampered Chef Food Chopper and 1-cup prep bowl. Also pictured, the Pampered Chef Cutting Board 
Chops things in seconds! Last time I used a knife, and it was hard to keep the almonds from flying around the cutting board. 
Whisk together the dry ingredients, fold in the wet ingredients, and voila! The batter will be very thick and lumpy, but that's how it should be! Bake for 55 minutes at 350 degrees, or until a toothpick comes out clean from the center of the loaf. 
The loaf was immediately cut and eaten. Managed to snag a [very fuzzy, sorry] picture before it was completely gone!

This recipe is extremely easy, and very delicious! I recommend to anyone trying to use up those old bananas before the fruit flies start growing from it. Leave a comment if you try it out; let me know how it went! 


Summer travels: Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville, NC

One of the many travels Errol and I did in the month of June was a final trip to Asheville, NC. This was my second trip since moving to North Carolina, and Errol's fourth(!).

The trip in the fall was to see the beautiful leaves changing colors and the Biltmore Estate with Christmas decorations. This time, it was to see the amazing greenery along the Blue Ridge Mountains.

It was a 3-hour drive, and the first time my car experienced true altitudes and angles. I may need to get my breaks checked after this trip...

We stayed overnight in a Best Western and first took a stroll around downtown. The streets are full of local restaurants, bars, and shops. Each one different from the next. It would take weeks to completely experience each one.

But I found the most amazing place... The Gourmet Chip! It was filled with so many fancy style potato chips, plantain chips, and more! 

"The Italiano"

On the second day, we drove up and down the Blue Ridge Parkway, up to the top of Mount Mitchell. The views were breathtaking, and the landscape just as amazing.

One of the short trails we walked along the mountains

Another view of the trails
Found a beautiful place to have lunch

Beautiful sites

The final walk up to the top

View from 6,684 feet!

Errol says he definitely wants to come again on one of his trips to visit North Carolina. Can't wait!


Cook-venture: Hearty Meat Lasagna

Here is the first recipe since embarking on the food blogging project with my mom: heart meat lasagna! This was the last dish that Errol and I made before moving down, and I am still eating it for meals trying to finish it! But I'm definitely still not sick of it yet :) 

There were a lot of ingredients in this one, and on any normal occasion I wouldn't make it because of that. Lots of ingredients for 1-2 people isn't that efficient. I've had many wasted bunches of parsley and cilantro because of this. One of the new ingredients I found at Harris Teeter that I didn't know existed was meat loaf mix (1/3 lb each ground pork, beef chuck, ground veal). I was stuck buying $3 basil that looked really old, but it's all they had. I can't wait to start my herb garden once I get back from home in August. 

But I digress... 

One of the ingredients was a whole onion, chopped. I thought it was too much, but it's definitely not! So face the tears and keep on choppin'. Also, the recipe calls for making this in a Dutch oven. But that's on the next shopping list, post-loan receipt. So is a cast iron skillet. And an iPad!!!

This was when we added some culinary improvisation: green pepper. We felt bad that it was purely meat, cheese, and pasta. This is only half of a pepper, but it could have probably had more. 

Meat added, nice and brown. 

An entire can of tomato puree and another can of diced tomatoes!

Combination of ricotta cheese, parmesan, basil, and an egg. Looks deliciously creamy. 

Time to assemble! With no-boil pasta! 

I thought it was strange that the recipe called for starting by spreading a 1/4 cup of sauce over the bottom of the pan. But then realized it was to prevent the bottom layer of pasta from sticking/burning. 

Layer after layer...

Had just enough sauce to top the last layer! But not enough mozzarella... I didn't measure shredded mozzarella, but I should probably get more next time. It calls for 1 and 1/2 cups sauce to be spread over each layer. I used a 1/4 measuring cup for exact measurement and easier spreading. I normally don't follow recipes so precisely, but this cookbook is very well calculated!

Voila! Just out of the oven. Smelled amazing. 

This recipe requires mis en place, the French term that refers to having everything in place. Things happen minutes after another, so there is no time to chop things once the sauteeing has begun. Be sure to chop your onions, mince your garlic, (chop the bell pepper), open your cans, etc.

My first lasagna was a success! And is still satisfying my stomach for at least 4 more meals.

Disclaimer: These pictures were taken with an iPhone camera. Left the D-SLR at the old apartment in the middle of moving.