For those of you who know my past history with food and cooking, you’ll know of my late-ish start at the ripe old age of 25. Before cooking, there was canned soup, preferably Chunky beef stew. And before that, I survived on falafel sandwiches from the deli, cheeseburgers, Harvey’s poutine because, yes, I’m Canadian, and that’s how we roll with fast food in high school.

But in my 20s, things magically changed. I picked up a chef’s knife for the first time and learned to wield my way through pounds of onions, mountains of garlic, and bushels of tomatoes.

My first few meals felt like a Herculean accomplishment. I’ll never forget the first Pad Thai that I made at my Dad’s house, mounded on a platter, decorated with cilantro and quartered limes. The creamy soup that I couldn’t wait to serve my first ever dinner guests. The mortification over missing the directions to take the soup off the heat before adding the dairy…rendering my velvet beast into a curdled nightmare, more reminiscent of Chinese egg drop soup than anything vaguely Italian-ish.

And I will never, ever forget that first risotto, my first real accomplishment in the kitchen. The smell of the white wine hitting the pan to deglaze the sweet onions. The homemade stock, ladled into the pan one loving spoonful at a time. Making risotto always transported me into my grandmother’s kitchen. Such a cliché admission these days, the reminiscing about kitchens that once were. The domain of family matriarchs whose immigrant kitchens spawned earnest food from the homeland.

But it’s truth, plain and simple. My Nana ran that oregano-infused kitchen with an iron fist. And she loved risotto. Her house smelled like risotto. And though she never got to see me cook, or learn of my passion for food, I always feel as though I’m channeling her spirit when I stand at the stove and stir. And stir. I sip wine and I stir.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a dinner hosted by the feedfeed and Austerity Wines. Austerity had co-hosted an event in New York in the spring of ’17 and I’d remember getting pleasantly buzzed off of their velvety Cabarnet and a spicy Pinot Noir. This year I was game to try their wines again and was amped to start off the evening with sangria featuring their bright and tropical fruit-forward Chardonnay.

The dinner was effortlessly chic, cooked by chef Michael Chernow of Seamore’s restaurants in New York City. Winemaker Steven DeCosta spoke to us about Austerity’s production process and growing conditions for all of those lip-smacking grapes. Austerity’s Chardonnay comes from Monterey County’s Salinas Valley with its cool winds and warm midday sun, ideal growing conditions we learned. And as I teetered home after clinking glasses with some of my favorite NY cooks ), I started to brainstorm ideas for eating and pairing these jewels of the California wine country.

Starting with their Chardonnay- a bright and mineral flavor, perfectly paired with any spring meal. I confess that Chardonnay isn’t always my first choice when it comes to white wine – I find that an overly oaky taste is too much for my palate and tend to stick to grassier numbers – new world Sauvignon Blancs or a dry Pinot Gris. But I can enthusiastically get behind Austerity’s Chardonnay, smooth and buttery and with only a light oak flavor since much of the fermentation process happens in steel casks. It’s so enjoyable as a crisp drinking wine, that I almost considered not cooking with it and saving it for our Greenwood Lake sunset viewing sessions.

Almost.

Risotto was on my mind, as per usual. And just a splash of Chardonnay goes a long way to infuse the rice with a fruit-forward flavor, leaving the rest for me and my stirring/drinking habit.

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In the planning of our spring break vacation this year, Costa Rica emerged as a possibility and I shot it down. We were eager to do something off the beaten path, something a little different from the warm weather destinations that have dominated our previous spring break jams – Jamaica, The Cayman Islands, the Dominican Republic. We’ve spoiled ourselves with great vacations, no doubt, but I wanted to do more adventuring. Europe? Rodney said too cold. A Colorado ski vacation? (too cold again). A last-minute trip to New Zealand or Australia felt a tad ambitious, so I opened up my phone’s AirBnb app and started to dig.

Whether it was destiny or fate, or some other powers that be (Jackson, were you guiding this?), I kept landing on Costa Rica. My mum and step dad are people whom I’d describe as “repeat offenders”, visiting Costa Rica year after year, raving about the monkeys and the night walks and the poisonous Fer-de-lance they’d encountered in the jungle. And I had heard great things about the newly-renovated Four Seasons in Papagayo. Suddenly our trip was less about dreams and more about execution: Costa Rica it would be, with a Four Seasons visit on the front end and an AirBnB chaser.

Even though I was a late adopter, I’ve become a sucker for AirBnb. I’m never the first one to try a new platform (hello Instagram, 2013!), particularly when it involves borrowing someone’s home for a few days. But after a few independent stays where I could test out the process and see whether AirBnB is all that it’s cracked up to be, I felt comfortable enough dragging our three young kids down to a rental in a foreign country….two hours from the closest airport (Liberia) and a mile up a potholed dirt road. Costa Rica, it appeared, had some pretty cool properties, including one that I found built into a mountainside, not far from Tamarindo.

Four Seasons Resort, Papagayo, Costa Rica:

I’d read of AirBnB horror stories, the families who’d arrived in faraway locations only to find their island dreams dashed with shoddy villas and construction nightmares. But one of my (unfortunate and time-consuming) skills is that I’m a die-hard researcher. So you’d best believe that I read through every one of our intended home’s 80+ reviews to make sure that the vast majority of people had enjoyed a kick a$$ experience.

Our AirBnb only covered 6 nights (another non-pro tip: find the airBnBs that are usually completely booked), so we reserved the dates that we could, and filled the remainder with the Four Seasons in Papagayo. The hype is warranted, it’s a stunning resort with lush vegetation, giant iguanas, two separate beaches, great hikes, and howler monkeys whose (song? warble? bark?) greets you every morning, like clockwork, at daybreak.

“What’s that sound?” I asked Rodney on our first morning, convinced that someone from housekeeping was attempting to re-start a broken-down golf cart on the path directly above our house. Was it a bird? A dog? A machine? At breakfast we learned of the howlers, those sneaky little creatures whom we only witnessed in the flesh two days later when a furry family of 8 crept into the tree directly in front of our pad. There, they ate, climbed, and napped until it was time for us to leave.

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Hey, are you guys still there? Fantastic. Because it’s time to dish up part two on Antigua’s Jumby Bay Island, and it’s all about the food.

As in fresh-from-the-farm organic food. Plucked from the lady hen herself. Did I tell you that I’m now a chicken farmer? It’s all true. I learned how to enter a chicken coop without any of the residents escaping (harder than it seems) and cautiously step over forty or so chickens who like to greet their visitors like some kind of frenzied poultry paparazzi. It was all very zen, believe me. There was no screaming, no panicking, no running, no clinging to a ledge for dear life, no Hail Marys before plunging my bare arm beneath the feathered breast of a she-hen guarding her egg with a fierce case of stink eye. I may pick up the hobby this summer. Nothing beats fresh, still-warm chicken eggs. Nothing. And I’ll sacrifice life and limb to do it.

Fortunately Jumby Bay’s supremely talented kitchen and farming staff were there to help out with the remainder of our meals. Leaving that one joyous experiencing of plucking my own tomatoes, snipping some kale leaves, trimming herb flowers from the organic garden, and yes, even harvesting my own eggs…to an isolated incident of tomato salad-making for two. Forever encased in that memory box in my brain with the boldface letters A-N-T-I-G-U-A printed on the front. It’s a good set of memories.

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It’s the year of travel, or so I hope! 2018 is off to a good start with a January long weekend in Antigua.

The Caribbean ranks high on my list of must-visit destinations, particularly during the dead of winter when below zero wind chill temps make the simple act of walking the dog around the block a daunting task.

For the past few years, we’ve opted to fly south during the winter months, spending our time in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica (again), the Dominican (again), Barbados, St. Barths, and the Cayman Islands. We’re lucky that we’ve had the chance to travel so much and build up some serious Caribbean island chops, believe me, I don’t take this for granted. Plus, it puts us in a good position to share our experience at an island previously unexplored: Antigua.

I confess that prior to our trip, I wasn’t well-versed in all things Antiguan (and will even admit to having hopped on Jet Blue flight 743, due south, without having checked to find out exactly where in the emerald green Caribbean archipelago we’d be landing).

For the geography buffs out there, Antigua lies just east of St. Kitts, south of the US Virgin Islands, and north of Guadaloupe and St. Lucia. It’s one of the top islands in a chain that looks like an elongated spine that meanders from Puerto Rico in the north to Venezuela in the south.

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It’s officially the holidays. Although we already knew that. I knew that as far back as early November when I touched down in the UK to find that seasonal lights, Christmas trees, and sequined nutcrackers were already in full swing.

But that was London. There were other parts of Britain that I visited too. Parts less showy, less flashy, more understated, defined by rolling green pastures and black rubber boots. Parts that were no doubt celebrating the holidays, but you had to look for it. A seasonal mince pie here, some Christmas pudding gelato there.

Welcome to the countryside.

The Talbot Hotel

Yorkshire that is, and the second and final post of my two-part series on the UK, food + travel.

If there were ever a fitting stop to begin my Yorkshire adventures, it would be Malton. After departing from York and driving past endless meadows dotted with sheep and the occasional herd of cattle, I found myself staring up the imposing stone façade of the Malton Hotel where I’d be spending two glorious nights in the type of comfort that would have driven Laura Ashley into a jealous rage. Fabrics full of bounce and English rose. Handsome paintings of stallions and hounds and fine men in even finer hunting dress. Verdant dales, kissed with sun and a touch of English mist, peeking through every window. Those Bronté sisters knew where to set up shack.

The point of my visit though, despite my sudden desire to learn a craft like floral arranging or needlework, was food.

And much like I did on my city adventures, I tuckered into all that Yorkshire and its countryside had to offer.

The Talbot Restaurant

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