Old and New Photos

Yes, I am procrastinating… again. I managed to sneak in a few solid hours of very productive work today on my paper on neoliberal policy and its effects on health outcomes for poor people in Nicaragua. I like that paper. The topic is interesting and its flowing nicely. Right now, though, I’m working on a community profile for Hammond, Indiana. This. is. boring. It’s one of those papers, you know – I didn’t choose the topic (except for choosing the city), and having to write about the mundane aspects of a post-industrial city are not exactly exciting me. So here I am, posting pictures from some recent outings.

The countryside of New York looks an awful lot like the countryside of Wisconsin, though Eric will quickly point out that there are hills in New York. Ok. Point taken. We were recently visiting Eric’s family’s country house in Otto, New York for his brother’s and my new sister-in-law’s wonderfully small wedding. Here are a few shots from that lovely fall day.

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Eric and his mom. Love this moment.

And here are more images from my time in Nicaragua this past summer. Clockwise from the top left corner:
-a statue in the cemetery in Granada set against a bright blue sky
-reflections in the window of moto-taxis
-the main square in Granada
-old-fashioned potter’s wheels in San Juan de Oriente
-coffee in multiple stages of production – from berry to roasted bean
-a local artisan in San Juan de Oriente makes traditional ceramics on the old-fashioned potter’s wheel

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My time in Costa Rica (top three photos) and Panama (bottom three photos) were characterized by outdoor excursions and city fun. Clockwise from top left corner:
-a snail in Corcovado National Park
-sunset view from Finca Maresia in Bahia Drake, Costa Rica
-beaches on Isla del Caño
-a large ship carrying more than 4500 cars through the Panama Canal
-graffiti in the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City
-views of the modern Panama City from the original city ruins

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Finally, my sisters and I had a fun little weekend in Seattle back in September. Here are some shots:

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of course we hit the market

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oh the irony

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sisters in front of the gum wall

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feeling kind of lonely while they both play on their phones

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truffle popcorn and wine? um, yes please

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kayaking

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Amber is really, really white

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hiking

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more from the hike

And that’s it!

Almost Bibimbap

This life of mine has gotten busy. Whew. Here’s what has been on my plate lately:

  • School – 16 graduate credits, 4 classes, 5 papers/assignments due in one week
  • Work – I’m still trying to work 8-12 hours per week at my engineering job
  • Research Assistantship – I started working for a lab that is researching agent-based modeling of groundwater resources for use in the public sector. That’s a mouthful – and that was the shortened version. This job takes about 10 hours/week of my time, but in exchange, I receive a small stipend and a tuition waiver. That’s right, I don’t have to pay tuition. So worth it.
  • Engineers Without Borders – I just got involved with this group for a project they are doing in Guatemala. They are working to install a new pump for their water distribution system. The project is an integrated effort among planners, engineers, and public health students. My work will involve taking a community census and I’ll be traveling with the group to Guatemala in January. For now, in my spare time – ha! – I’m writing a plan for the work while I’m down there and trying to develop a collaborative team with professors and other public health and planning students.
  • Moving! Yes, we moved! When we found out our landlord was defaulting on her mortgage, we thought it best to try to find a new place to live that we liked rather than scrambling to find something passable when we get kicked out. We didn’t have a lease anymore, so we weren’t totally sure of our rights and just figured it be easier to start the long, drawn out search for a decent apartment in the summer/fall yet. And we did! We found a pretty neat space only 4 blocks from our old place. In that same week I had five assignments/papers due, plus all the other above stuff, Eric and I were busy packing all our belongings into boxes. Talk. about. stress.


So we’re all moved in with just one shelf to put together and a few more pictures to hang. So far, we’re really liking our new place, and the cats are really enjoying running up and down and up and down our new stairs at night. Seriously.

I made this bibimbap at the old place a number of weeks ago – before the craziness (see above) set in. It’s not a very authentic recipe, which is why it is called Almost Bibimbap, but it certainly tasted good. For me, one of my favorite parts of a good bowl of bibimbap – a Korean dish of rice, veggies, meat, egg, etc etc – is the crispy rice that gets all crusted to the side of the stone bowl. This is hard to replicate at home, but I think I came pretty close with the method outlined below. Oh, and I made it vegetarian because that’s what Little Blue Hen did! The Korean pepper paste – gochujang – is essential for authenticity. Try to pick it up at an Asian grocer or perhaps Whole Foods.

Almost Bibimbap

inspired by Little Blue Hen
Toppings

Spicy Cucumber Salad

1/2 english cucumber, cut into matchsticks
2 tablespoons Korean red pepper powder or
gochujang pepper paste (or I just used red pepper flakes)
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon sesame seeds

Whisk together salt, pepper paste, rice vinegar, honey, sesame oil, and sesame seeds. Toss with cucumbers.

Cabbage and Bean Sprout Salad

Approximately 1/4 – 1/2 head of a large Napa cabbage, chopped finely
2 cups bean sprouts
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoon sesame seeds

1 tablespoon rice vinegar
salt

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Toss in cabbage and bean sprouts and cook for 1 minute. Meanwhile, whisk together the other ingredients minus the salt. Drain the veggies and mix with the dressing.

Seasoned Mushrooms

1 pound portobello or white button mushrooms, chopped
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
2 tablespoons or more of a neutral oil like grapeseed oil

Heat the neutral oil in a pan and saute the mushrooms and garlic, adding more oil as needed. When the mushrooms are almost cooked through – they should reduce quite a bit in size – pour in the sesame oil and sesame seeds.

Bibimbap

Cooked brown basmati rice
3 tablespoons neutral oil
Spicy cucumber salad
Cabbage and bean sprout salad
Seasoned Mushrooms
1 egg for each serving, fried
gochujang

Cook the rice in a rice cooker or pan. Heat the oil in a pan and put the rice in the pan, packing it down. Let the rice crisp up on the bottom, then stir it around a bit and let it sit for a few more minutes. Work in batches like this until all the rice is nice and crispy.

Divide the rice into bowls. Top with each of the salads, and then top the whole thing with a fried egg – make sure the yolk is nice and runny. A big scoop of gochujang goes on top. Serve like this, but mix it all together before eating!

Mexican Micheladas

This drink has been our obsession all summer. Eric and I started drinking Micheladas at Big Star, a taco joint just down the street from us. At Big Star, a Michelada is made by squeezing lime and pouring hot sauce into the bottom of a salted-rim glass, then topping it with Tecate beer.


Michelada con Sol on the beach on Isla Holbox

When we went to Mexico this summer, we averaged two Micheladas a day, but in the Yucatan, they were different than what we were used to from Big Star. Different – and better. These Micheladas contained all sorts of goodies under that beer – Maggi juice, which tastes an awful lot like soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, lime, and hot sauce. When ordering, you specify the type of beer you want – we found most light beers to be pretty comparable – and they serve the beer alongside the glass so you can pour it in yourself.


Eric enjoying his Michelada

Let’s talk about the Maggi juice for a minute because this is important. Every single bar we went to used Maggi juice. There was no substitute. When I’d ask what Maggi juice was, I’d always get this same answer – “It’s just Maggi juice”. I found my bottle at a Mexican grocer. The viscosity is slightly thicker than soy sauce, but I’m sure soy sauce would add the appropriate flavor.


Sunset, swing, and micheladas

We found we liked them a bit heavy on the Maggi and hot sauce side. The one pictured above was heavier on the lime. There didn’t seem to be any exact proportions, but when we got home, we experimented with how we like them. Here’s how you do it:

Mexican Michelada

Nice, chunky sea salt
Maggi juice or soy sauce
Worcestershire sauce
Hot sauce
1 lime
Mexican beer like Tecate, Modelo, Sol, Pacifico, etc

Rub lime juice around the rim of your glass and them dip the rim into a plate of salt.

Add ice to the glass and pour in 1 teaspoon of Maggi juice, 1 teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, 2 teaspoons of hot sauce, and the juice of half a lime.

Top it with beer.

Mix and enjoy.

Sikil Pak – Mayan Pumpkin Seed Dip

We have had an extravaganza of food inspired by our travels recently. I ate a boatload and a half of ceviche in Central America, so I made a really simple (and great!) ceviche inspired by those great meals. And in Mexico, we ate this Mayan dish called Sikil Pak (in Maya) after a strenuous day of floating down a natural canal through mangroves. The dip, almost like hummus in its consistency, is really simple – our guide told us it was made of just pumpkin seeds (pepitas en español), cilantro, tomatoes, onion, and water.

The canal I mentioned is in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in the Yucatan, Mexico, a short drive from Tulum. We based ourselves in a nice hostel in Tulum town (as opposed to staying on the pricier beach road) and were able to explore Sian Ka’an, Mayan ruins, and the numerous cenotes from this central point. To gain entrance to Sian Ka’an, you must go with a guide. We booked a tour through our hostel for $75 per person, which, after the tour, seemed really, really expensive. Either way, it was my birthday, and we wanted to see some nature. We also learned that the best way to float down a canal is to put a life jacket on like a diaper.

Sian Ka'an Collage


Ever wonder why you see so much of Eric on this blog? It’s because I’m always behind the camera!

Anyway, I recreated this dip this morning with only a tiny bit of experimentation. I had thought that tomatoes would provide enough water to provide the right consistency, but in the end I needed to add additional liquid. Instead of water, I added a bit of lime juice and some vegetable stock I had in my freezer, though water will work in a pinch (and should be more traditional). Oh, and of course I added garlic. Nothing is made in my kitchen without garlic.

This dip is traditionally made using a molcajete, of course, but in my lazy modern kitchen, we used a food processor.

Sikil Pak

3 cups raw pumpkin seeds, or pepitas
3 large tomatoes
1/2 cup vegetable or chicken stock
juice of 1 lime
3 cloves garlic
1 onion
cilantro, to taste
salt

Put the pumpkin seeds and garlic in a food processor and grind until you have a fine, sand-like consistency. Add in the onion, 2 tomatoes, stock, and a bit of cilantro and salt and process until the mixture turns creamy. Taste and add more salt and/or cilantro if necessary.

Chop the last tomato into a dice and chop some extra cilantro finely. Mix the diced tomatoes and cilantro with the dip. Optionally, you could process everything together for a very smooth dip, but I liked the added texture and color of the chunks of tomato and cilantro.

Serve with chips or crackers.

Heirloom Pico de Gallo + Mexico Pictures

Being in Central America all summer was pretty cool, I must admit, but I did miss a few things about Chicago. Namely, farmer’s markets. I never found quite the variety of vegetables in Central America that I find in Chicago – seems counter intuitive, since the fertile, sunny lands of that region seem ripe for producing some excellent veg. However, with the shear population of yuppies in the US, not to mention a perhaps new-found appreciation for farm-fresh products, the US boasts some pretty amazing produce. So when I was eating sad, mealy, flavorless little tomatoes in Panama, I could only think about the luscious heirlooms showing up at farmer’s markets at home.

The first Saturday I was home I went to the Green City Market in Chicago and bought about two pounds of heirloom tomatoes. My god.  Where did this flavor come from? I made this variation of pico de gallo featuring a variety of heirloom tomatoes, an onion, a jalapeno, and garlic – all fresh from the farmer’s market. And really, I think that’s the trick – the fact that everything came from the market is perhaps why it tasted so good. Also, though, I think there is something to be said for fresh farmer’s market garlic. I mean – wow! Wow! Have you ever had this stuff? It’s so juicy and pungent. I bought three types – I can’t remember the varietal names – but I labeled them mild, medium, and strong. I used the mild garlic for this pico de gallo, as I used it raw. It really added this silky, complex dimension that, in my opinion, really boosted this salsa to a whole new level.

Also, before my solo adventure through Central America, Eric and I spent a week and a half in Cozumel and the Yucatan in Mexico. Two very cool friends of ours were married on a beach in Cozumel, so we took the time to travel a bit after the festivities. To be honest, Mexico, or the Yucatan more specifically, has never been high on my travel priority list. I’ve always thought it was where Americans went who didn’t know how to travel anywhere else. Americans who were afraid of new cultures and languages (wait, they speak Spanish in Mexico?). You know the type. And while there were certainly plenty of those people – I mean, Playa del Carmen is practically Florida – we also discovered that Mexico is really, really awesome! I always say – it’s probably touristy for a reason – and that description is so fitting of the Yucatan. People have been coming to this part of the world for so long because it is downright beautiful. Take a look:


El otro lado – the other side – the East side of Isla Cozumel
Have you ever seen more inviting water? Whiter sand? A cuter butt?


Eric makes the snorkel in the Dos Ojos Cenote (aka sinkhole, or cave)


Fish feast in Tulum – ceviche, pescado a la plancha, y mas


Sunset on Isla Holbox


Streets of Isla Holbox – no paved roads, no cars, only golf carts!


A little video of snorkeling with whale sharks in the Gulf of Mexico


Eric practices his moves in the “stadium” at the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza


Church on the main square in Vallodolid


This is what Eric says is possibly one of the best meals of his life. Tortas and burritos in Valladolid.

And finally… a recipe!

Heirloom Pico de Gallo

Like I mentioned above, the fresh garlic made this dish a real winner.

2 pounds heirloom tomatoes, diced
1 onion, diced
2-3 cloves mild, fresh garlic, diced
1-2 jalapenos, diced
salt

Combine all ingredients and add salt to taste. Wait about 15 minutes before digging in to allow the garlic flavors to permeate the dish. Serve with chips. 

Back in the U.S.A.

So my plans of blogging while abroad completely crumbled. For one, I did not have a computer with me (just the ipad and my iphone), so I had to go to an internet cafe and pay to use a computer just to blog… and well, who wants to be sitting in an internet cafe when there are colonial buildings to see, toucans to listen to, and Spanish to speak? Yeah, me neither. So hopefully I can catch up on some of the things I’ve been up to now that I’m back… of course, though, I’m now back in school – and loving it after my first week – working part time at the same engineering firm, and soon I will start my Research Assistantship, which adds another 10 hours per week to my workload. yikes.

Anyway… what most people want to know now is if I can speak Spanish or not. The short answer is un poco… a little. I took two weeks of Spanish classes – 40 hours of instruction – and while I learned a lot, how much actually stuck with me is a different story. Once I left my Spanish school, I started staying in hostels… and well, hostels are not good for Spanish! You meet people from across the globe who have varying levels of Spanish skills, but most commonly, everyone spoke pretty competent English. So we spoke English. I found myself using the same words and phrases in Spanish over and over… where is the bus station? How do I get to Boquete? Me llamo Abril. Como el mes. My name is April. Like the month. Yes, my name is a month.

Anyway, Nicaraguans and Panamanians speak fast… and don’t exactly pronounce the s at the end of words, so even if I could ask the question I wanted to ask, I was not guaranteed to understand the answer. And this fear of not understanding the answer made me a rather shy Spanish speaker. I found it best when I was with others who spoke no Spanish at all… then I had to be the one to speak and listen and understand. If I was with someone who spoke better Spanish than me, I’d often just lean on them to catch the answer to our question.

In the end, I learned enough to get around comfortably… enough to know how to get to these cool places:

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The cemetery in Granada, Nicaragua.

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Sunset in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

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Costa Rican beach near Corcovado National Park in the Peninsula de Osa

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Scarlet Macaw in Corcovado National Park

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Passion fruit at a coffee farm in Panama

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The Panama Canal

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Flowers and buildings in Panama City

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Graffiti in Casco Viejo, Panama City

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Casco Viejo – the old colonial city in Panama City

I’ll share stories and food another time… must get to some homework now!

Bienvenido a Nicaragua

It’s been quiet around here lately, but that’s because I have been on the road and barely cooking a thing!

Instead, I spent a fabulous week and a half roaming the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, eating all sorts of goodies and seeing some pretty amazing sights (I swam with whale sharks! Hello!). After that, I had two days in party city, aka Miami, before I embarked on my month long tour through Central America.

I’m starting my time in Granada, Nicaragua, taking classes in Espanol and living with a wonderful Nicaraguan family. From here I will be moving south, working my way towards Panama City, from where I will fly home.

So far, Granada has been treating me well. My mornings are spent practicing forming sentences in Spanish from the massive list of verbs my teacher has given me (the main problem is, I’m running out of nouns to form these sentences with!). After class, I head home for a huge lunch cooked by my Nicaraguan mama. Yesterday I had spaghetti served with rice AND tortillas. I haven’t seen many vegetables yet, but I try to communicate to Damarys (my host mom) that I love salad and fruit and all vegetables! This backfired on me when she served me pineapple yesterday morning – the one fruit that I cannot eat because I get severe stomach aches from it. In broken Spanish, I explained the problem, and she completely understood. Instead, she served me a big plate of Gallo Pinto (a mixture of beans and rice), eggs, and bread.

In the afternoons, I have been going on excursions organized by my school. I will write more about those later – mi mama is serving lunch in just 10 minutes – but suffice it to say that so far they’ve been fun, interesting, and a great way to meet other people.

I’ve also been hanging out with my host brothers – Joel and Ernaldo – ages 20 and 21, respectively. Joel is currently in law school, while Ernaldo is studying to be a doctor. They help me out quite a bit when I cannot understand what Damarys is saying – both of them speak excellent English.

Until later then… adios!

Blackened Salmon + Big News

I can finally announce on these interwebs the exciting and fun things happening right now. I let my employer know last week that I will be leaving my position so I can attend school at the University of Illinois at Chicago for a Master’s in Urban Planning and Policy this fall! Better yet, my current employer offered me a part time position – a win-win since they can still use me for several projects, and I can still earn an income and go to fancy dinners.

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And… there’s more… between now and August (when school starts), I will be spending a month and a half in Central America! Two wonderful friends of ours are getting married in Cozumel, so we are flying down for a week of fun in Mexico. After that, I fly to Nicaragua to learn Spanish and travel! Here’s the itinerary:

June 28: Fly to Cancun, head to Cozumel, learn to dive!
July 3: Head back to mainland Mexico, explore ruins, caves, etc
July 10: Fly to Fort Lauderdale (due to odd routing, I will be spending two days in Miami)
July 12: Fly to Managua, Nicaragua, take Spanish classes
July 27-August 16: Work my way through Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama
August 16: Fly to Chicago from Panama City, Panama

Yay! More details on these exciting developments later, but for now: blackened salmon. Yum. Sorry for the poor quality of pictures – I snapped these around 9pm back in the day when leaving work at 5pm meant going home in the dark.

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Blackened Salmon

2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon granulated onion
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground pepper
1 teaspoon oregano leaves
1 fillet fresh, wild caught salmon

Mix the spices together and set aside. Coat the salmon with the spice rub and let it sit for approximately 10 minutes. In the meantime, heat a pan with some butter or olive oil to medium high heat. Pan sear the salmon until the insides are opaque and the outside is nice and crisp. That’s it!


Shaved Asparagus and Potato Salad

Tonight is my last night of scuba diving class. It has been fun spending my Tuesdays and Thursdays for the last two and a half weeks taking quizzes and breathing underwater, but I’m glad it is almost over. The classes extend a half hour beyond my designated bed time, you see, preventing me from getting my required 9 hours of sleep each night. Nonetheless, it’s pretty cool that I now feel comfortable with the act of breathing through a regulator underwater.

I have been meaning to obtain my Open Water Diver certificate ever since I studied abroad in Australia in 2006. As a student, it was too expensive, though I did do a “resort dive” in the Great Barrier Reef, which allowed me to go underwater with a scuba unit for around 20 minutes, albeit holding on to an instructor’s hand.

Before Eric and I went on our honeymoon, I thought of taking classes also, but Eric had some anxiety about it. So we held off, promising that we’d do another “resort dive” when we were staying on Pom Pom Island off the coast of Borneo – off some of the very best dive sites in the world. It’s true – the diving and even the snorkeling is amazing there. Better than any snorkeling I’ve done elsewhere, including the Great Barrier Reef. Eric happened to catch a cold when we were there, and after watching the video that shows your lung exploding, he didn’t want to risk it. I dove, again holding on to my smarmy Italian instructor’s hand, and thought it was awesome. With that, I decided to take the plunge and invest in Open Water courses and my very own snorkeling gear.

bye bye water bungalow
Water bungalows at Pom Pom Island

lion fish!
Lion fish in Borneo

nemo!
It’s nemo

eric "making the snorkel"
Eric “makes the snorkel”, as our Italian dive master would say

Anyway, what does this have to do with potato salad? Nothing, really, but it is a fun little intro. This potato salad is full of all kinds of springy, healthy goodies. Nearly all my ingredients came from the market – including the Russian fingerling potatoes, asparagus, stinging nettles, and green garlic. It’s a versatile recipe, though, so if nettles and green garlic aren’t available or don’t float your boat, a simple vinaigrette would work nicely as well.

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Shaved Asparagus and Potato Salad with Stinging Nettle and Green Garlic Vinaigrette

1 pound fingerling potatoes
1 pound fresh asparagus
juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon mustard
1 teaspoon honey
3-4 stalks stinging nettles, leaves only
1-2 stalks green garlic, chopped into 1-inch pieces
salt and pepper
1 can tuna packed in olive oil
1/4 cup capers

Start by boiling the potatoes. Fill a pot with cool or room temperature water. Plop in the potatoes and bring to a boil. Boil them until they are al dente or just underdone. Strain out the water and put the potatoes in an ice bath to stop them from cooking further. Slice the potatoes into thin discs and set aside.

Using a mandolin or vegetable peeler, shred the asparagus into this strips, keeping the heads in tact. Bring another pot of salted water to a boil. Drop the shaved asparagus in for 1 minute, then remove. Mix with the potatoes.

To make the vinaigrette, mix the lemon juice, olive oil, mustard, honey, nettles, and green garlic in a food processor. Process until the oil is emulsified and the solids are nicely ground. Taste and add salt/pepper to taste, as well as some additional lemon juice or vinegar if needed.

Finally, strain and rinse the can of tuna. Combine the potatoes, asparagus, capers, and tuna, then toss with the dressing.

Avocado Toast

This isn’t so much a recipe as an idea I picked up in Australia when I worked for a small coffee and sandwich shop. I have no idea why they hired me. I had no experience as a barista. I couldn’t answer the phone because I couldn’t understand Australians and they couldn’t understand me  (though in person, communication was fine). One time, someone ordered a “kiddie cappuccino” for their 5-year-old. Choosing not to be judgmental, I made what she asked, a pint-sized cappuccino – espresso topped with a touch of steamed milk and lots of foam. When the kid, however, spit it out and started crying, she informed me that a kids cappuccino was merely cold milk topped with foam. I think I cried harder than the kid. Needless to say, many lessons were learned at that coffee shop, but they paid me cash and let me eat free sandwiches, so it worked for me.

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Anyway, Saturday and Sunday mornings, we’d serve breakfast, and when my coworker and I came in early to start prepping for the day, we’d make ourselves some avocado toast. Each morning, we would have to run to the nearby bakery to pick up the day’s bread, which was always fresh, soft, and cut into inch-thick slices. We always had access to amazing ingredients, too – freshly sliced, quality meats, cheeses, and all kinds of delicious homemade spreads. Sadly, I learned the shop went out of business a few months after I was back in the States, but I still enjoy an avocado toast every now and then.

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Avocado Toast

1 ripe avocado
1/2 cup greek yogurt (I used 2% Fage)
handful of arugula
nice, crusty whole grain bread
salt and pepper

Scoop out the insides of the avocado and mix it in a mixing bowl with the greek yogurt. Use a fork to mash up the avocado pieces.

Toast your bread in a toaster or in the oven. Top it with the avocado spread, arugula, and a sprinkling of sea salt and black pepper.