July 2011

During the summer months, when the days are longer and warmer, I find myself craving lighter food (my mother would be proud of how many vegetables I eat, willingly, when temperatures spike).  When it’s hot, you feel sluggish anyway, and a big salad with crisp veggies sound much more appetizing than a piping hot bowl of soup or something.

Today was certainly no exception–as of this afternoon, the temperature hit a balmy 95 degrees in Washington, D.C.  Now, in my homeland of Texas, this is common for the summer months.  In Texas, however, I tend to get around more in cars and usually hop from one air-conditioned location to another.  Getting around in D.C., on the other hand, is a different story.  I usually take the Metro to work, and if I need to grab lunch outside of the office or run errands after work, I have to brave the elements and walk everywhere (or run, as I did recently when a lightning storm hit and I didn’t have an umbrella).

At work today, thankfully in my air conditioned office, I read a great post on D.C. food trucks by my friend Lisa (a.k.a. http://www.thenovicenosher.com) and was inspired to think about my favorite summertime meal.  (Food trucks, on a side note, are all the rage now in D.C., for good reason–gourmet cuisine, from cheesy macaroni and cheese to Chicago style pizza to lobster rolls, all available at your fingertips around the city).

Although not available through D.C. food trucks, my favorite summertime meal, by far, is a big plate of insalata caprese.  I first experienced the culinary delight of insalata caprese while living in Rome, and I’ve been obsessed ever since.

Insalata caprese translates as “salad in the style of Capri.”  It’s apparently unknown if the salad actually originated from the island of Capri (a gorgeous island off of the Amalfi Coast, a common honeymoon destination for Italians and a favorite destination of mine while living in Italy), but it did become popular after being served there to King Farouk of Egypt during the 1950’s.

Making insalata caprese is super easy, and it’s great as an appetizer or a light meal.  All you really need are the basic ingredients:

–Fresh tomatoes (unfortunately, in the U.S. we don’t have great tomatoes like they do in Italy, but I find that the vine-ripened tomatoes they sell at grocery stores are better than the regular ones)

–Basil leaves

–Mozzarella cheese (in Italy they use buffala mozzarella, which is the best kind to use but is pretty expensive here in the States–it’s worth the splurge though, in my humble opinion)

–Extra virgin olive oil

–Balsamic Vinegar

–Salt to taste

When I want to throw together an insalata caprese, like I did recently for myself and my fiance, I simply place tomato slices on a plate, put a slice of buffala mozzarella on each tomato slice, and put a basil leaf on top of each mozzarella slice.  Add olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salt, and you’re done.  Some people also put pesto on their insalata caprese, which is also delicious.

So, if you’re looking for a flavorful, colorful dish that’s easy to make and is perfect for beating the summer heat, thank the gastronomic genius of the Italians and make yourself a big plate of insalata caprese.  And buon appetito.


“It’s easier to get to Europe than the British Virgin Islands!”

This statement was running through my head as I made the final leg of my journey to BVI, after flying out of D.C., staying overnight in Miami (long enough to grab some real Florida key lime pie), taking an early flight to Puerto Rico, landing on the island of Tortola, clearing international customs, and taking a boat from Tortola to Virgin Gorda.  My family was getting together for a vacation, and Virgin Gorda, BVI, was chosen because of its reputation as being somewhat undiscovered and private.  After an almost 18-hour trip to get out there, I understood why the island had earned that description.

As I cruised along in the boat to Virgin Gorda and relaxed, enjoying the sights of the lush, green islands and the sparkling turquoise water, I began to experience the trance that travelers to the British Virgin Islands experience upon arrival.  My family was staying in a local villa, owned by a Canadian couple trying to capitalize on real estate in the islands, and the privacy factor was not underestimated at all.  One side effect of being difficult to get to meant that Virgin Gorda was not as developed as other islands and you truly felt like you were escaping to another world.

My room in the villa overlooked a crystal blue bay and had a little balcony, outdoor shower, and a welcome committee consisting of several island lizards.  I bid hello to the housekeeper (foreigners who own real estate on the island are required to employee at least five locals) and was told that because electricity is so expensive on the island, everything needed to be unplugged and turned off when I was away from my room.  Fair enough, I thought–at least there was air conditioning, a luxury that one must often go without in the islands.

Day one on Virgin Gorda consisted of a hike down through the Baths (giant rocks forming impressive structures around the water) to Devil’s Bay, a great snorkeling spot known for colorful fish.  That snorkeling excursion, my first out of three that week, included my first out of third close encounter with a great barracuda.  Having a large, snarling, beady eyed barracuda swim much too close for comfort resulting in a heart that felt like it was going to pound out of my chest.  By the third time a great barracuda swam by me, it was safe to say that the cause was my sparkling diamond engagement ring (so, ladies, I beseech you–leave the jewelry behind while snorkeling, as scary ocean creatures, much like our gender, tend to be attracted to shiny things).

The trip also included a full day of boating and snorkeling with Captain Dave of the local company “Double D’s” (the name, I hope in vain, was an innocent oversight). Captain Dave hailed from Toronto and had been a successful businessman and entrepreneur until the Canadian housing bubble burst in the 1990’s and he decided that he was done with the corporate life.  He relocated to Virgin Gorda and had been living the island life ever since.  Full of fascinating knowledge, Captain Dave was like having a professor for the day.  He filled us on everything from the local economy (Tortola is doing pretty well as one of the most popular places for offshore banking in the world) to tourism in BVI (because of offshore banking, they don’t really need the tourism, but according to him 90% of the locals are employed in the tourism industry, and being on welfare would simply be “demoralizing”).

After a lecture about the economics and culture of BVI, Captain Dave steered us over to Cooper Island, a small and charming island with a beach club offering fresh seafood and the best French Fries I’ve ever had in my life.  We enjoyed a leisurely lunch and then endured a rainstorm to sail over to Salt Island, my favorite excursion of the entire trip.  My family spent the afternoon collecting colorful sea glass, which was ubiquitous on the sandy shore, and listened to Captain Dave’s stories of the island.

My favorite story about Salt Island was about the history of the shipwreck that had happened off of its coast in the 1800’s.  One fateful day, a British mail ship had tried to dock at the nearby St. Thomas island, only to view a yellow flag raised high, indicating that the island had a yellow fever outbreak and to stay clear.  The captain changed course over towards Salt Island, when a powerful storm hit and he lost sight of everything.  The ship slammed into giant rocks peering out of the water, filling the underbelly of the ship with water and causing the vessel to snap in two.  Back then, according to Captain Dave (who told his stories with the inflection of a Canadian but the dramatic flair of an islander), most people could not swim and wore heavy wool clothing.  As a result, only a handful of passengers survived, and only thanks to the courageous efforts of the inhabitants of Salt Island.  As a gesture of gratitude to the island’s residents, the Queen of England declared that the island was exempt from its monetary taxes and only asked that the island provide five pounds of salt to Her Majesty each year.  The last inhabitant of Salt Island, who had died a few years ago at the age of 84, had a yearly ritual of setting aside a five pound bucket of salt each year for the Queen’s official to claim–even though officials had stopped collecting the salt tax ages ago (the island was granted its official independence from England in 1960).

During the trip, my family also discovered what Captain Dave confirmed to us was the best food on the island.  We came across Chez Bamboo, a small patio restaurant with decorative Christmas looking lights cast about erratically and plastic chairs at the tables.  It looked charming, in terms of the casual/fancy fusion that islanders do so well, and the food was outstanding.  I enjoyed an Anegada lobster that was literally almost the size of my arm.  In my mind, on tropical vacations you’re already relaxed, but add a giant lobster smothered with melted butter sauce into the mix, and you enter nirvana.

We also discovered Yum Yum’s, a Virgin Gorda sweets shop located next to Chez Bamboo.  Hankering for some ice cream on another balmy tropical day, we stepped in and looked around at the various treats on display.  I noticed that, perched proudly on a shelf next to lollipops and sour candies, were several boxes of edible underwear. My brother Taylor, never one to hold back, asked the pleasant looking woman running the shop if anyone ever bought them, and if they came in different sizes.  She grinned slyly and drawled in her islander accent, “They’re one size fits all, man.”

After several days of boating and snorkeling adventures, coupled with good seafood and a Robinson Crusoe-esque environment, it was time to begin the long journey back to reality.  As I began my day of boating to Tortola and flying to D.C. via Tortola/San Juan/Miami, I bid adieu to the raw nature that is Virgin Gorda.  The quiet, undeveloped beauty truly enthralls and relaxes.  I arrived in a pensive state, but I left in a peaceful, contemplative one.

Virgin Gorda might indeed be trickier to get to than Europe, but like any unique and exotic destination, it’s worth it.

Last night, my friend Kristin and I decided to head out to our favorite little nail place in D.C. to get manicures and pedicures.  I had not had my nails professionally done in about a year, so I figured that I could justify a trip to the salon in the name of girls’ night out.

We headed to Mimosa in Dupont Circle, where we’ve gone for the last 2 years for birthday mani-pedis, or in this case, for “we’re exhausted from work” mani-pedis.  Apparently we weren’t the only ones needing to be pampered, however, and we had to wait for about an hour before getting into the wonderful massage chairs.

Oh, it was worth it though–as most girls will attest, having someone else do your nails is truly a treat.  They have all of the fancy little nail tools to make your cuticles look great, and they paint the polish on smoothly and perfectly.  I do my best when I paint my own nails, but at times I struggle–my fiance Leon once saw my self-painted toenails after I had slopped on some polish (hey, I was busy that week) and remarked teasingly, as only a guy can, that it looked like a kindergartner had painted my toes.

As Kristin and I sat in the plush chairs and enjoyed our pampering session, I thought about the mani-pedi and its context in the international realm.  Mani-pedis are pretty much universal.  From Asia to North America, most women don’t mind getting their nails professionally done.

I’ve had mani-pedis in several countries, and while the experiences have slightly differed depending on the location, overall they have been somewhat similar experiences.

My first mani-pedi overseas took place in Madrid, where the salon had a little basement area and the Spanish manicurist had to fill a plastic tub with hot water upstairs and then carry it downstairs for my pedicure (I remember praying she didn’t fall down the stairs and spill hot water everywhere-ouch).  I found that in western European countries (with the exception of England) overall, there isn’t much space and they don’t have the big, fancy chairs like we do in the U.S.  It’s a more modest experience, but hey, it’s still a mani-pedi.

Having a mani-pedi in London was quite reflective of British culture, interestingly enough.  After turning in our Masters theses, my friend Kora and I decided to celebrate by going to a well-known salon in London to indulge in mani-pedis that we knew were way overpriced but wanted to try anyway.  They had the fancy massage chairs like we do in the U.S., and I assumed that it would be like having my nails done in Dallas.  In true British fashion, however, the British ladies doing our nails weren’t very touchy feely.  Usually in the U.S. they rub your feet at least, and maybe your calves.  Not in London though–true to the more stoic British demeanor, my lady didn’t touch me except when she needed to use the pumice stone on my heels.

By far, my favorite place to get my nails done was in Asia.  Mani-pedis, at least in Europe and North America, are considered luxury services and you definitely have to budget for them.  In Asia, however, everything related to salon services–massages, waxing, body scrubs, mani-pedis, etc.–are considered essential to well-being.  My Asian friends take great care of their skin (my Korean friends shamed me into moisturizing twice a day, as they told me bluntly, “You American girls, you don’t take care of your skin! You look old when you are young!), and they place a high priority on having well-kept nails, hair, and skin.

It’s also easy to view pampering as necessary for personal maintenance when salon services are cheap.  One thing I absolutely loved about living in Asia was that I could afford to be pampered on a regular basis.  In Seoul, I could get highlights, a haircut, a special hair mask treatment, a manicure, a pedicure, and an eyebrow waxing for a grand total of about $90.  Having all of those services done in the U.S., for instance D.C., would probably set me back about four times that much.  So, I got my nails done regularly in Seoul, and while traveling in Thailand and Indonesia, I made a point to experience mani-pedis there.  In Asia they also give you more massage time on your feet than anywhere else, a definite plus.

Wherever the mani-pedi experience, it’s always nice to leave with shiny, healthy looking nails and feet that feel much smoother.  I probably won’t get my nails done again anytime soon, but I’ll plan on saving up for a future trip to the salon.  Or a plane ticket back to Asia.



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