White Pizza with Asparagus, Proscuitto, and Eggs

I made some whole wheat pizza dough Monday night. It has been resting in the fridge since then and has obviously been on my mind – last night, I dreamed about it. I was in the kitchen, tossing the dough around effortlessly, just like in an old Italian kitchen. Then I woke up. Let’s just say that my efforts tonight did not turn out like my dream.

The pizza still turned out good, though.

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To be fair, I am a pizza novice. This was only my second attempt at homemade dough, so I’m still perfecting the craft. I don’t usually deal with flour and yeast and all those things I usually associate with baking – something I just don’t do. Baking is more of a science; cooking is art. Toss in a little of this, a dash of that, and voilà: dinner. This might seem strange; I am, after all, an engineer by day, but I’m an artist in the kitchen (or so I like to think).

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Anyway, back to that pizza. The main downfall of whole wheat dough is that it does not have the light, fluffy quality that the white stuff does. In my opinion, the health benefits are worth it, though. I think the key is that the dough needs to be very thin to allow it to get a bit crispy.

And I love white pizza. Sauce on pizza is something I rarely eat, mostly because many places pay so little attention to the sauce. I’ve also been on an egg kick for quite a while now, and after having a pizza at La Madia with prosciutto and egg, I had to create my own.

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**A note about the photos: I would give my left hand to be able to cook during the day and, therefore, take photos in natural light. Unfortunately for my photos (but fortunately for my left hand), I have this pesky 9-5, after which I run and go to the gym, which puts me home just as the sun starts setting, usually. Worse, the lighting in my kitchen is just plain awful. So please, don’t mind that nasty yellow tint that the tungsten lighting creates. If ya’ll start viewing my blog more so I can get some advertising revenue, maybe I can quit my job and cook full time!**

White Pizza with Asparagus: Two Ways
inspired by La Madia’s Cracked Organic Egg, San Daniele Prosciutto, Caciocavallo Cheese & Black Pepper Pizza

for the dough (adapted from Wolfgang Puck)

1package yeast
¼ cup warm water
3 3/4 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup cool water
1 tablespoon olive oil
Pinch salt

In a bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Put the flour in a food processor. In a separate bowl, mix the cool water with the olive oil and salt. With the motor running, pour the olive oil mixture and the yeast slowly in through the feed tube. Process until the dough forms a ball that rides around on the blade.

Transfer the dough to an oiled bowl and let rise – mine rested for two days, but after one it seemed ready. Knead the dough, then divide it into 4 pieces – one for each pie. You can roll it out with a rolling pin (which I don’t have because I don’t bake), or slowly spread it out on a baking sheet using your fingers, letting it rest a little in between each tug. I did pizza two ways, so I had two pizza sheets with dough and froze the rest.

for the pizza

1 bunch asparagus, washed, trimmed, and cut into ~1-inch pieces
4-5 cloves garlic, cut into thin slices
2 shallots, thinly sliced.
extra virgin olive oil
1 block asiago cheese, shredded
1 block parmesan cheese, shredded
1 block good quality feta cheese, chopped in to cubes
few slices of prosciutto
few slices of pancetta
4-8 eggs

For both pizzas:

Preheat oven to 400. Drizzle some olive oil over the dough and top with the garlic slices.

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The amount of cheese is really a matter of preference – add as much as you like of each cheese. I went with about equal amounts of asiago and parmesan, then sprinkled a few feta chunks throughout. Then top with raw shallots and asparagus. Try to leave little indentations where the egg will go later.

Add prosciutto to one pizza, and pancetta to the other. You know me – I had pesto on hand – so I put some pesto on one pizza also instead of the drizzled oil and garlic.

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Then crack raw eggs in your little indentations. I used 4 eggs on each pizza because they turned out pretty large, but you can adjust this depending on the size of your pizza.

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Pop them in the oven for about 15 minutes or until the egg is set. Be careful not to keep them in too long, since it’s best when the yolk is still soft and oozes over the rest of the pizza!

The verdict: Eric liked the prosciutto better. I thought both were delicious. Next time, I might try baking the crust for 5 minutes or so before putting the toppings on to allow the center to get a little crisper.

Roasted Cauliflower and Asparagus Panzanella Salad

I promise I’m working on a post about travel. Really. It just takes a lot longer to write, edit, and organize photos for a trip than for a simple recipe.

Simple recipe – such as tonight’s roasted cauliflower and asparagus panzanella salad. This dinner, no doubt, was inspired by not one, but two panzanella blog posts I read today. I came home on this hot hot evening with no real idea of what was for dinner. A peak in the fridge revealed aging cauliflower and asparagus, a loaf of bread, arugula, fresh rosemary, and some green garlic pesto.

It was almost… fate.

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And despite the roasting, the low effort and lack of cooking was perfect for the first hot night of the summer.

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Roasted Cauliflower and Asparagus Panzanella Salad

for the salad:
1 head cauliflower
1 bunch asparagus
arugula
a few slices of day old whole wheat bread
1-2 sprigs of rosemary

for the dressing:
green garlic pesto (this can be omitted, but the recipe is below)
lemon zest
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Trim the tough ends off the asparagus and cut it in to one inch pieces. Cut the cauliflower into similarly-sized pieces. Toss both together with salt and enough olive oil to coat. Spread them in a single layer onto a baking sheet and roast in a 400 degree oven for 20-30 minutes, or until the edges start to brown and the veggies are just tender.

Meanwhile, cut the bread into large chunks and throw them in a pan of warmed olive oil. Stir around a bit, letting the edges toast and crisp, then toss in some salt and rosemary. Let them cook until they’re crispy to your liking (I like them to be a bit chewy on the inside still).

For the dressing, whisk all ingredients together. Toss together the arugula, roasted veg, freshly-made croutons, and the dressing.

Green Garlic Pesto

As I said, this is obviously an optional ingredient in the dressing. You can omit it entirely, or substitute any other pesto.

1 bunch green garlic, ends trimmed
one handful of cashews
one handful of fresh grated parmesan cheese
1/2 cup olive oil (more if needed)
salt and pepper

Simply toss all ingredients into a food processor and blend. Drizzle in more olive oil if needed for the right consistency.

Soba Noodles with Ginger-Scallion Dressing

So, that soup I told you about… turned into this noodle salad. I gave Eric the choice tonight – either noodle salad or hot and sour soup. Both would be made with bok choy, soba noodles, and tofu, but I think Eric is sick of soup because he immediately chose the noodle salad. No loss, though, because I had some inspiring ingredients in the fridge and a recipe in mind.

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I own very few cookbooks. Two, in fact. Most of my inspiration comes from other food blogs or meals I eat at restaurants. One of my cookbooks is by Heidi Swanson – Super Natural Cooking. I love this book (thanks Caroline!) because Heidi always uses good, whole ingredients with really tasty results. She also writes a blog – 101 Cookbooks – (apparently she owns just a few more than me), which is where the base of this recipe comes from.

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I also had some very special ingredients in my fridge – green garlic and locally-made tofu. I’m writing this recipe the exact way that I made it, but if you don’t have green garlic or the amazing tofu that I found last week, just omit or substitute. I did manage to use some of that harissa I made yesterday, and it tasted great on top of this salad.

Soba Noodles with Ginger-Scallion Dressing
adapted from Heidi Swanson’s Otsu Recipe

for dressing:
zest of 1 lemon
1 ~1-inch cube of fresh ginger, peeled
juice of fresh lemon
1 stalk green garlic
2 stalks scallions
1 tablespoon agave nectar or honey
3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup Liquid Aminos (or soy sauce works)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons sesame oil

for the salad:
12 ounces dried soba noodles
12 ounces extra-firm tofu

1/4 cup chopped scallions and green garlic
2 portobello mushrooms, sliced
1 head bok choy (baby bok choy would be nice also), chopped

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, toss all the ingredients for the dressing in the food processor, blend while pouring in the oil. When the water boils, cook the soba noodles for about 3 minutes, just until soft. They cook very quickly, so be careful to watch them.

In a separate, non-stick pan, pan fry the tofu in olive oil, letting the sides crisp up a bit. The tofu will become sort of bouncy and the edges nice and golden. Set aside, then cook the bok choy. If chopped finely, this will only take a few minutes; you still want the leaves to be dark green and the stalks to be mostly crunchy. Set these aside and lastly, cook the mushrooms in the pan. I read somewhere once that cooking all the veggies separately lets them develop their own flavor… I’m not sure if this happened or not, but cooking them separately did ease my usual problem of putting too many vegetables in the pan.

When all the veggies are cooked, toss with the noodles and dressing. Top with fresh scallions and green garlic. I also used the harissa I made yesterday, which added both a great flavor and nice color.
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Harissa

I made harissa for the first time ever today because I need to use it for a recipe later this week. Before I get to that, though, I want to tell you about the most amazing grocery store.

Not to make you jealous, but we live within walking distance of Stanley’s, a mecca of cheap, quality produce. Would you believe I bought all of this… rappini, green onions, fresh thyme, 2 lemons, 2 mangoes, 2 packages of whole wheat pasta, strawberries, 2 packages of white button mushrooms, 4 portobello mushrooms, a large bag of baby spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, 1 red bell pepper, and a loaf of fresh bread… for $25. Yes! $25!
Picnik collage

It’s ludicrous, I know. I’m not sure what I will do when I move away from Stanley’s.

Anyway, on to harissa. I won’t bore you with the details; you can easily do a google search on the origins of harissa, a North African condiment. I’ve been seeing it included in recipes all over the place lately, and I have a great idea for a soup that I want to add it to later this week. Use it in place of ketchup or hot sauce or on anything that needs something, well, extra.
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Harissa
adapted from Amy Scattergood’s LA Times recipe
This recipe probably tastes better if you toast and grind the spices on your own, but sometimes I’m too lazy with my mortar and pestle.

5-6 dried red chiles (I used my New Mexico chiles again)
2-3 sun-dried tomatoes
1 red bell pepper
2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
~1/3 cup olive oil

First, get to work re-hydrating the chiles and sun-dried tomatoes by letting them sit in boiling water for about ten minutes. Meanwhile, roast the red pepper. I do this by just placing the pepper over the gas flame, but you can also roast it in the oven. Be sure to remove the dark, burnt skin.

De-seed the chiles (though, in my second batch, I left the seeds in and omitted the cayenne pepper – that worked out nicely). Just throw everything in the food processor and blend, drizzling the oil in slowly. If you need to, add a little of the water that the chiles were re-hydrated in. The consistency should be paste-like; a little chunky is fine also. You can adjust the heat by the amount of seeds you include or by adding cayenne pepper.

Stinging Nettle Pesto

Ever since my mom bought me a food processor for Christmas, I’ve been making pesto like some sort of obsessed, crazy woman. In fact, at one point in the last month, every single plastic container we own (which, admittedly, isn’t that many) was filled with pesto. Just yesterday, when I whipped up two more batches of pesto and put them in the fridge, Eric made the comment, “whew, I was getting worried… we didn’t have much pesto left!” It’s almost come to be an expectation that we have pesto at any given time!

I’ll share with you guys some of the different kinds of pesto I’ve made in the next few weeks (my sister said to me the other day, “remember when we used to think pesto could only be made with basil?”), but my latest version involves stinging nettles. I had a bunch leftover, even after I made stinging nettle soup the other day, so I decided to make pesto. Nettles definitely have a milder flavor than, say, basil or other herbs, but it is still distinct and delicious.

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And you know what I love about having so much pesto around all the time? When Eric and I get home from long days of work, running, etc etc, it’s so nice to be able to pull dinner together in a matter of minutes. My whole wheat thin spaghetti cooks in less than 10 minutes; stirring in pesto, edamame from the freezer, and arugula couldn’t be easier. And lately, to add a dash of protein, I’ve been throwing a poached egg on top of almost everything.

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Stinging Nettle Pesto
Adapted from Lucid Food

1 big bunch nettles (sorry I can’t be more precise with this!)
1/3 cup toasted nuts – I used cashews since they were in the freezer, but pine nuts are more traditional
1/3 cup fresh parmesan cheese
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 raw garlic clove
salt & pepper

First, get a pot of salted water boiling and prepare an ice bath off to the side. When the water is boiling, dunk the nettles in (using a tongs!) for about 30 seconds. Remove quickly and dunk them into the ice bath. When cooled, squeeze out as much water as possible, then transfer to a food processor. Toss in the rest of the ingredients except for the olive oil and start to process. Slowly drizzle the olive oil in; you should end up with a paste-like consistency. You can process until very smooth or leave it just slightly chunky, like I prefer it. Be sure to taste it! Any of these ingredients can be adjusted; sometimes a splash of acid – lemon juice or vinegar – tastes great also.

Also, you can save the water that you boiled the nettles in… it’s a great start to a veggie stock.

You can do all kinds of things with pesto – I regularly use it on pizzas, sandwiches, in soups, etc etc… but the most classic and easy way is to toss it with some al dente pasta. I always always always use whole wheat pasta, too – I’ve come to prefer the flavor even.

This Cat…

Alf used to be so sweet.
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Just look at him. Breaks your heart.

Then how did he turn into this guy?
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Alf wants to get into everything. He whines when he doesn’t get his way. Right now, at this moment, he is doing everything he can to keep me from typing. He wants attention.

But then I remember… he always had a little bit of devil in him:
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And yet, he can still be so cute.

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Such is my love/hate relationship with my cat.

My Definitive Guide to Salad

My friend Caroline told me this weekend that she can never make a salad that she likes. It’s not that she doesn’t like salad – when other people make it, she enjoys it – but there’s a certain je ne sais quoi about her making it that she doesn’t enjoy. So Caroline, this post is for you. It is my definitive guide to salads, which I make almost nightly. I’m not sure if this will help you make a salad you like, but if nothing else, it may stroke stoke (pardon that typo) the flames of your love for salad..? (ok, Eric told me to say that… I can’t stop giggling right now.)

Anyway, there are a few key factors that must be right in order to make a good salad. First up: lettuce.

Sure, baby greens are good. They’re easy since you can buy them pre-washed in almost any grocery store, but I almost always find there are too many types of greens, and there are too many of the bitter greens in the mix that often ruin a salad for me. Also, I’m a self-professed lettuce snob. Iceberg? Never. I can barely even stand Romaine. My favorites are butter, bibb, red leaf, and some harder-to-find greens such as arugula, watercress, or sorrel. Tonight, I had some watercress, arugula, and locally-grown pea shoots on hand, so I mixed those three together. The pea shoots taste almost like fresh garden peas – yum!

Second: simplicity. I think one mistake many people make is throwing too much on their salad. Red peppers, carrots, cabbage, corn, egg, bacon, onion, asparagus, tomatoes, mushrooms… look at that list. My rule is to only put two, three additional ingredients. Tonight, I went with one – black olives.

Third: dressing. Eric says this is key. A good dressing almost guarantees a good salad, in his mind. Most of my dressings are some variation of the same thing and almost always include extra virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice, lemon zest, dijon mustard, and salt and pepper. Sometimes I add other acids – wine vinegars and apple cider vinegars are my favorites. Ultimately, ratios are important (1:1 vinegar:oil is what I like, but I do like an acid-heavy dressing). Tonight, I had ramps in my fridge, so I made a ramp vinaigrette, but other additions I like are shallots, roasted garlic, or some bleu/feta cheese.

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The result…

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Ramp Vinaigrette

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil – quality is important here
juice of 1 lemon
dash of wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar if more acid is needed
2 raw ramps

1 tsp dijon mustard
salt & pepper to taste

Toss everything except the olive oil in a food processor or blender. Slowly drizzle the olive oil in until the mixture is emulsified and the ramps are finely ground.

Just pour the dressing over the greens and toppings (olives) and voila, a perfect salad.

<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/aprilds/4599659577/&#8221; title=”IMG_0377 by aprilds, on Flickr”><img src=”http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3354/4599659577_4aa2067ba4.jpg&#8221; width=”500″ height=”375″ alt=”IMG_0377″ /></a>

Chile-Marinated Pork Tacos

Last year, Eric and I went to New Mexico for a long weekend. This was at the end of summer, when the roadsides are lined with vendors selling long ristras of dried, red hatch chiles. At some point I’ll write about the awesomeness of New Mexico itself, but for now I’ll just tell you that New Mexico is famous for the hatch chile, so of course I had to have some. It was my only souvenir, which I ate long, long ago.
Pork Tacos

Fortunately, I was able to find dried, red chiles in my local grocery store, so now I can have them whenever I want.
New Mexico Dried Chiles

I had been using these chiles to make a gazillion different sauces, but this night I used the sauce as a marinade for some local, organically-raised ground pork. We have a great Mexican grocer about 4 blocks from my apartment where I can always pick up fresh, ripe avocados and a plethora of Mexican cheeses. If you don’t have the luxury of a local Mexican grocer, any other light, fresh cheese would taste nice also.

Chile-Marinated Pork

1 lb ground pork
6 dried, red New Mexico chiles
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp Mexican oregano
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (or to taste)
1 fresh jalapeno
salt and pepper

Boil the chiles in water until re-hydrated, about 5-10 minutes. When hydrated, de-seed them and place in a food processor with all the spices, the de-ribbed and de-seeded jalapeno, and some of the leftover water. Process to a fine puree. Combine the puree with the ground pork and let it marinate in the fridge for at least an hour – longer is better.

Guacamole

2 ripe avocados
1 head garlic
1/2 white onion, finely chopped
big bunch of cilantro, roughly chopped (or finely, if you prefer)
juice of 1 lime
salt and pepper

Roast the head of garlic. You can do this the regular way, or try pan-frying it like I did this time.
Roasted Garlic

This seemed to go faster than the traditional oven route, and it was easier to get the garlic out of the wrapper. From here, just mash all the ingredients together. If you make this ahead of time – which is great because it lets the flavors meld – be sure to place a layer of plastic wrap right on top of the guac to prevent it from browning.

Tacos!

Cotija cheese, to taste
guacamole, to taste
corn tortillas
chile-marinated pork
chopped spinach (I need to sneak my greens in somewhere!)

Cook the pork in a pan. This can be tricky since the chiles dye the pork bright red; thus, it is hard to tell when the pork is done. I basically added a cup of leftover chile water and simmered it until the water was gone. If you have a gas stove, turn on one of the flames and place the tortillas, one by one, over the flame. Fire each side for a few seconds, turning them using tongs. To assemble, layer the pork, guac, cotija cheese, and spinach on top of the corn tortilla.

Pork Tacos

Asparagus, Stinging Nettles, Ramps… Make Soup

I must admit, I love spring. It’s not just that the first signs of sunshine, flower blossoms, and days without coats are invigorating, though that’s part of it. It might also be a nostalgic feeling – knowing that spring used to signal the end of classes and summer break. What really excites me now, though, is the bounty of produce.

I have always loved asparagus, but it’s only been since I moved to Illinois that I fell in love with ramps, green garlic, and morel mushrooms. This spring, I discovered yet another spring vegetable – stinging nettles.

Nettles

Having grown up in rural Wisconsin, I’m no stranger to stinging nettles.  I spent nearly a quarter of my childhood with a stinging rash on my leg. Ok, I’m exaggerating. I did, however, see and feel plenty a stinging nettle in my childhood. I just never knew I could eat them… or how nutritious they are.

In many ways, stinging nettles are like spinach. They’re super food, full of potassium, iron, and a dozen other minerals and vitamins. Don’t just take it from me; a google search on stinging nettles reveals boatloads of information regarding the medicinal and nutritional qualities of this plant.

Unlike spinach, though, these guys can hurt you. They have tiny hairs that, when touched, release folic acid and histamines that sting. Really sting for hours. You just have to be careful when preparing them.

So, facing a refrigerator full of spring produce – asparagus, ramps, and stinging nettles – as well as some homemade chicken stock eating up space in my freezer, I decided to dump everything into an earthy, hearty, springy soup.

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I have seen recipes for stinging nettle soup; most of these are very simple and involve pureeing the soup to a fine consistency. However, with the asparagus and ramps on hand, I really wanted to see the vegetables as I was eating them, instead of mashing all the flavors together in a jumbled puree. Hence, I was on my own in soup world, flying by the seat of my pants and throwing in an assortment of veggies and I went along. The result? A tasty, earthy (I can’t say this enough), nutritious, and quite delicious weeknight dinner.

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Stinging Nettle, Ramp, and Asparagus Soup

1 large bunch young stinging nettles
1 bunch fresh asparagus
1 bunch fresh ramps
3 medium carrots
3-5 small red potatoes
6-10 cups chicken stock (this really depends on how juicy you want the soup and how big your “bunches” are)
5 cloves garlic (ok, so I love garlic)
noodles – I used whole wheat cavatappi
sea salt
pepper
eggs

Being careful not to physically touch the nettles (you can use gloves, or I used tongs), detach the leaves from the tough, stringy stalk. Set aside.

Cut the leaves off the ramps and roughly chop into smaller pieces. Set aside with nettles. Cut the rest of the ramp into inch-long pieces, hacking up the bulb at the bottom a little more.

Break the tough part of the asparagus off the bottom of the stem and cut into inch-long pieces.

Prepare the garlic, carrots, and potatoes in a similar manner. In your soup pan, saute the garlic, carrots, and potatoes in olive oil until the garlic becomes fragrant. Now pour in the stock and noodles and let simmer until the veggies start to just get soft. Toss in the asparagus and some salt and pepper; simmer for 2 more minutes. Take of heat and toss in the nettles and ramps.

Now, in a separate, smaller pot, bring 2 cups of water to a boil, then turn down heat to medium-low. Dash in some vinegar (any kind will do), and break an egg into the water. Let the egg sit in there for a minute or two, depending on how runny or not runny you want the yolk, then lift out with a slotted spoon. Serve the egg atop the soup.

Honestly, the egg here really made this a fantastic dinner. The yolk tasted so perfect with the rich, earthy flavor of the nettles. The ramps were delicious, as usual, and the asparagus just really rounded out this soup.

Colombia!

You know how Tuesdays, in Twitterland, are Travel Tuesday? Well, for me, Wednesday is really the special day. It is on Wednesday that I receive all my weekly travel updates – deals on airfare, hotels, rental cars, and attractions.

Due to the limited time off I can take working this 9-5, I rarely get to take advantage of the mouth-watering deals. And really, there are often so many constraints, black-out dates, time limits, etc, that it makes most deals not really deals at all.

When TravelZoo told me on Wednesday, though, that Mexicana Airlines was offering fares from Chicago to Bogota for $264, I immediately jumped on it. I sent emails my “travel buddies”, and within 24 hours we had bought tickets to Bogota for that advertised price of $264, round trip, including all taxes. Wow!

We’ll be making this trek over Thanksgiving, and I can’t wait! I’m going next week to register for a refresher course in Spanish over the summer, and hopefully after that I’m going to look into online tutoring through SpeakShop.

I’ll keep you posted on what we’re going to do and see! And of course, I will post pictures!