The Joy of Cooking & the Internet

My appreciation for both cooking & the internet have increased dramatically since we moved overseas.
Up until ~2.5 years ago I did not know how to cook at all – sorry, Mom.  I had a very busy extracurricular schedule growing up which didn’t leave much time for cooking lessons.  I also had little to no interest in learning.  This feeling continued through my college years (why cook when there is a cafeteria full of mostly edible food?) until I met Alex.  Alex loves to cook and to explore new cuisines – he will eat anything once, probably twice, even if he didn’t like it.  Turns out I was marrying into a whole family of amateur chefs.  My then future brothers-in-law used to make fun of me for having zero culinary skills.  Alex did most of the cooking for us until last summer when we got married and I quit my job for a few months.  Suddenly, I found myself in charge of finding recipes, shopping for ingredients, and doing most of the dinner preparation.
Faced with this new challenge I quickly became addicted to recipe apps (Yummly & Epicurious in particular) and food blogs, especially my favorite dailies from Saveur.com.  I have always loved eating food but now I have a new love for preparing food.

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I now spend a considerably amount of time every week browsing online for new recipes, ingredients, and techniques to try.  Naturally, these endeavors result in many successes and the inevitable failures.  There are some challenges with trying to explore cuisines and ingredients when living in Germany.  This is probably more so for me because of the cuisines that I prefer (Asian and Mexican, most notably); if I were trying to master French or Italian cooking things might be easier.  Unfortunately, I seem to always make things difficult for myself and choose recipes that involve ingredients not often found in German markets.  Thank goodness we live in Berlin.  There are a surprising number of large, well stocked Asian markets here (we just discovered one down our block!!) which have really made my life in Berlin wonderful.  They not only provide me with my weekly jar of peanut butter but also have enough sauces & ramen varieties to keep us satisfied for years!  However, Mexican ingredients are much more challenging.  I previously mentioned my failed attempt to make mole verde without tomatillos…  The other day I wanted to make black bean burritos but discovered that a can of frijoles negros cost 3.50 euro.  So obviously that was out of the question.  These difficulties force me to be a little more creative and usually involve me searching online for ingredient substitutions.

Other than enabling my new culinary adventures, I have started appreciating the internet in other new ways, mostly relating to communication.
For example, the other day I was able to watch some of my dearest friends graduate from our alma mater live online.  After we finished watching the ceremony, Alex mentioned that he felt like we had “been somewhere else” for a few hours.  I agreed – it really had seemed like we were back in Ohio watching the ceremony in the student center.  It is pretty incredible that we can get some of what we are missing even when we are far away.
I have the same feeling every time I text people back in the States.  I still “talk” to them just as much as I did when we were living in the same country.  Thirty minutes, two hours, 4,170 miles – it doesn’t matter the distance now that our cell phones are hooked up to the internet!

Alex and I often talk about how crazy it is that our parents lived abroad in the Stone Age before any of these technologies were available to average folks.  I would feel so much more cut off from my family & friends if I couldn’t shoot them a text or send a funny Snapchat.  I haven’t even mentioned video chatting, which really puts you in the action no matter where you’re calling from.  Last summer we were able to video chat with our parents from a tiny island in Croatia!  Which, by the way, had amazing internet speeds.  It is a huge advantage for us to be able to communicate with everyone so quickly and easily.  Especially for me, being unemployed and spending most of my days alone, it is really great to be able to chat with my friends easy-peasy.  Sometimes I think maybe we are spoiled by such wonderful technology…  Maybe we are missing some of the grand adventure that our parents had when they moved abroad because we are still so connected to the States.  But, as they say, if you got it, flaunt it.

Below are some of my recent culinary experiments and links to the recipes!

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Above: Pork vermicelli is one of our go-to dinners.  We use a recipe from Helen’s Kitchen on YouTube (she has tons of  Vietnamese recipes).  Alex made this meal – vermicelli has kind of  become “his thing”.

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Above: Chicken with a lime & coconut milk sauce.  The recipe can be found here.

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Above: Carnitas tacos w/ pseudo-guac (aka what you make when you only have avocado and tomatoes).  Homemade corn tortillas are the bomb and are much more affordable here in Germany than buying tortillas at the market.

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Above: The “before” of the previous photo.  I used this recipe I found on Pinterest.

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Above: Mango pico de gallo – soooooo gooood!  No recipe, I just throw things in until it tastes awesome.

 

Getting Touristy in Western Mitte

At some point, every new resident needs to bite the bullet and become a tourist in their city.
For us, this meant venturing out to the western edge of Mitte to see some of Berlin’s most iconic landmarks.  After nearly two months of living in Berlin we were becoming a little embarrassed by our lack of sightseeing within the city.  I am guilty of always thinking that we should save some of the sights to see when we have friends in town, but it probably makes more sense to see them first ourselves and decide which ones are really worth sharing.
Another reason why we haven’t done much sightseeing is due to Berlin’s size and lack of a real ‘tourist center’.  Most of the famous sights are scattered throughout the city, making sightseeing in Berlin quite the excursion.  However, the area in the west of Mitte between Potsdamer Platz  and Moabit has quite a few attractions in close quarters, which makes it a good jumping off point for tourists, tour buses, tour boats, tour bikes…you get the idea.

We started our tour at the Hauptbahnhof to gawk at the immense building and crowds before walking south toward the Tiergarten area.  Berlin continues to amaze me with its neighborhood diversity.  Western Mitte is very city-like – it has large modern buildings and government offices but also has many historical monuments and parks scattered throughout.  It really makes the more Eastern/Southern neighborhoods that I usually explore feel like the ‘burbs.

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A short walk away from the train station you can find the impressive Reichstag building (where the German parliament meets) which presents a really cool blend of old & new architecture.  The original structure opened in 1894 but underwent significant reconstruction after a fire in 1933, and the large glass dome finished construction in 1999.  You can actually walk in a spiral around the dome but it requires prior registration, so we’ll have to save that for another trip.
The Brandenburg Gate is also nearby, just outside the entrance to the immense Tiergarten park.  The gate is one of the most recognizable sights in Berlin.  It is featured prominently on most tourism ads/guides and the outline is emblazoned on every U-Bahn train window.  It stands in a big plaza flanked by foreign embassies and fancy-shmancy hotels, and even on a cold and windy day there were hundreds of tourists snapping pictures.

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After taking obligatory tourist pictures at the gate, and getting a pressed penny for our collection, we strolled through the wooded grounds of the Tiergarten.  The park is the second largest in Germany (520 acres) and is home to monuments, statues, a rose garden, an English garden, and the palace that houses the German president.  As the name suggests (literal translation = animal + garden) there are also lots of squirrels, birds, and fish to see!  I think Berlin’s parks are one of my favorite features of the city.  It it nice to be able to get lost in the woods and escape the concrete jungle for a while.

Big city life has been pretty interesting thus far – I’ve never lived somewhere that was so new to me.  To be fair, I have only lived in 3 cities and two of them were quite small, but still, the amount of stuff in Berlin is incredible.  Living outside of Washington DC was occasionally cool but it didn’t offer me the same opportunity for discovery because I had already been there so many times growing up.  I had already exhausted the Smithsonian and the other aspects of the city I pretty much despised (how many bland government buildings and $8 beers can a person tolerate?).
Needless to say, I am very happy that Berlin has so much character and even lifelong residents say they discover something new in the city every day.  I’m sure that if we live here long enough the newness will wear away and Berlin will lose some of its lustre, but a city of 3.5 million people will never be boring.
So, even though it takes a little effort to haul ourselves across the city looking for tourist attractions, it is always worth our while.

Click the link below to see more photos!

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Photo Potpourri – Week 7

Spring has finally sprung!
The sun is shining, rain is pouring, flowers are blooming, and Germans are picknicking.  It took 1.5 months for Spring to catch on here in Germany but we are so very glad it did!  Unfortunately for me, with sunshine comes sunburn.  I’ve only been “lightly toasted” so far but I am very, very eagerly awaiting the arrival of our shipment from the USA which (if I remember correctly) includes some sunscreen.
Speaking of our shipment, we erroneously thought it was arriving last Friday.  We were sorely disappointed when we realized that we had misread an email from the shipping company.   I am desperate to have our stuff back, especially my clothes and our kitchen equipment.  I have been dreaming about our Wustof’s and mandolin as I struggle to slice, chop & mince with dull knives.  Oh, and I also miss our measuring spoons.  It appears as though Germans aren’t into measuring ingredients…?  Neither of the apartments we have lived in so far have had measuring spoons or cups.  What?!  I haven’t come across any in the grocery stores either, though I haven’t been to a real kitchen store yet.
Anywho, until our shipment arrives I will have to julienne by hand and do Gordon Ramsay-style measuring.  (If you don’t get that reference go check out Gordon’s videos on YouTube, his “small pat” of butter is half the stick.)
For your enjoyment, here are some photos from last week, along with a throwback I just found on my camera!

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1. I just found this picture of us on Christmas Day in Old Town Alexandria on my camera!  I will always miss that beautiful waterfront.

2. Since I don’t have a reason to get out of bed job right now I have turned my attentions to fitness & cooking (contradictory?).  In regards to cooking, I have been trying to tackle new ingredients, techniques, etc.  Last week I attempted to make this recipe for Mole Verde Zacatecano from my new best friend, Saveur.com.  I foolishly thought that German supermarkets would stock tomatillos because I had an idea in my head that they were also in Spanish cuisine…wrong on all accounts!  Consequently, I had to sub some green tomatoes from Spain (not an adequate substitute) and the mole didn’t quite work.  I also ran out of fresh jalapeños and had to use a habanero so it was hot, hot, hot.  Despite the missing ingredients, etc. it was very tasty! 5/5 would make again, with or without the correct produce. 🙂

3. Banh mi wieners!  I was inspired by Damn Delicious to make this spin on one of our favorite Vietnamese sandwiches.  It’s not sophisticated or difficult but it is damn delicious.  And it gave me motivation to pickle some carrots!

4. The humungous Berlin Hauptbahnhof (central train station).  We popped in here for a few minutes on our way to the main tourist area of the city just to see the spectacle!  It is the biggest train station I’ve ever been to – there are four floors with loads of restaurants, clothing stores, grocers, etc.  It’s pretty cool to visit just to see all of the hustle and bustle!

5. After seeing the Hauptbahnhof, we walked our way over to see some of the most popular attractions in the city.  The building in this picture is the Reichstag building where the German parliament meets.  It is possible to go up inside the glass dome and walk around the edge of the dome (example) but you have to register ahead of time.   Thus, the dome will have to wait for another day!

6. I think this picture pretty accurately sums up the feel of last weekend – sunny & colorful.  I love these new kicks I got from H&M for $10!

Easter in Bamberg & Leipzig

Beer, food & parks.
That pretty much sums up our vacation last weekend to Bamberg & Leipzig!  As I said in my post the other day, Alex had four days off work for Easter so we took advantage of it by escaping the hustle and bustle of Berlin for the countryside.

First we headed down to Bamberg, my new favorite Bavarian town (not that I’ve been to many, but still).  Bamberg is a popular destination for beer lovers and tourists, who enjoy it’s ‘romantic’ super-Bavarian appearance.  The atmosphere of the town reminded me of our beloved Old Town Alexandria; both have that certain charm that comes with old-fashioned buildings, small cafés and beautiful waterways.  And lots of ice cream!
The Old Town of Bamberg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of it’s medieval appearance which has been preserved throughout the years and World Wars.  It is really cool to see an authentic Bavarian town rather than those that were destroyed and later rebuilt.  Bamberg is also home to a large cathedral, a sprawling abbey, and an old castle perched atop the highest hill.
Due to intermittent rain showers on Friday the town was pretty dead.  The people who ‘braved’ the rain, ourselves included, huddled inside the nine breweries to keep dry (or should I say wet?).  Bamberg is known for having great beer, especially for its Rauchbier which has a smoky flavor reminiscent of bacon!  We first enjoyed Rauchbier from a bottle here in Berlin and the delicious flavor concreted our decision to travel to Bamberg.  Large beers & large plates of food kept us warm and occupied until the sun returned in full force on Saturday – bringing a lot of tourists with it.
We were eager to enjoy the sunshine while it lasted so we spent most of the day finding new parts of the town we hadn’t seen the previous day.  We spent some time walking along the river, admiring the row houses known as “Little Venice”, exploring the Natural History Museum, and taking a mini-hike up the hill to the Altenburg castle.

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After two wonderful days in Bamberg we moved on to Leipzig, a city about two hours from Berlin.  The people who drove us, and our Air BnB host, thought it was funny that we were going to Leipzig.  We likened it to someone stopping in Richmond or Pittsburgh for a “vacation”.  Although the locals might not think there is much to see in Leipzig, there are a few main sights that are worth seeing.
We may have gotten lucky, though.  Because we were there on Easter Sunday there were events going on like an outdoor music concert in the park and a medieval festival downtown.  One of Leipzig’s main tourist attractions is the very large Völkerschlachtdenkmal (Battle of the Nations monument) which was built to commemorate a victorious battle against Napoleon in Leipzig in 1813.  Another popular spot is the Leipzig Zoological Garden which we didn’t go to because of the threat of thunder storms (which never came) but I would love to go back and see it someday!  It’s supposed to be really awesome and has the world’s largest primate exhibit.  There are also a few famous churches in Leipzig where Bach once worked and where his remains are laid.
We aren’t really into seeing “touristy stuff” though so we were happy when the guy who drove us told us about an open-air music venue outside of the downtown area.  There we discovered why we had been told that Leipzig is going to be the “new Berlin”.  The ‘venue’ looked more like a backyard frat party – complete with a large Corona umbrella, a hammock, and ping-pong – but the relaxed atmosphere made for a fun time.  We spent a few hours there chatting with our driver and his friends until I got tired, which was right about the time a new slew of people were arriving (approx. 1 am).  Germans, they love the night life.

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Although Bamberg and Leipzig are quite different places they made a good combination for a short Spring vacation, and I would gladly revisit either of them!  It was nice to get away for a bit but we were happy to get back to Berlin where the beer might all be Pils, and the streets littered with cigarettes, but no one ever calls it boring.

Click below to see many more pictures from Bamberg & Leipzig!

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Photo Potpourri – Week 6

Happy [belated] Easter, everyone!
I hope you had a great holiday with lots of family, friends & candy.  Holidays away from home, whether in Germany or Virginia, are always a little bittersweet but we had a pretty awesome time last weekend.
One huge plus of living and working in Germany is the vacation time.  Legally, every person employed full-time gets a minimum of 24 vacation days.  For real.  Ready to start looking for work overseas now?
For our first vacay weekend we decided to head down South.  We spent 3 nights in the picturesque town of Bamberg before heading back north for a stop off in Leipzig, a small city near Berlin.  I have lots of photos to share with you all later but here are a few snapshots from our holiday weekend!

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1. Beautiful Bamberg!  We loved this little Bavarian town.  One really cool thing about Bamberg is that it wasn’t destroyed in any of the wars, which is kind of rare around here.  More on Bamberg will be coming soon!

2. German food is generally not my favorite.  However, when it’s done well it is soooooo good.  And giant slabs of meat smothered in gravy are what they do best!  This plate was from Gaststätte Kachelofen, a super cool restaurant in the old city.  Definitely eat there if you’re ever in Bamberg!

3. Bamberg is known for it’s many, many breweries.  We were told that there are nine breweries in the town and ninety in the surrounding area.  I think we managed to hit up 4-5 of them.  Our favorite was the Rauchbier (smoked beer) from Brauerei Schlenkerla [not pictured].

4. Happy Easter from the Freas’s!  Or Freas’?  Freases?  Who knows.  Anywho, we spent Easter Sunday in Leipzig.  We chilled in a park listening to a band play show tunes and pigged out on sausages and ice cream.

5. I got a kick out of this giant gold egg-shaped thing in Leipzig.  It seemed very appropriate for the holiday.

6. Leipzig had a really cool renaissance-type fair going on last weekend!  They had local beer and food specialties to enjoy outdoors, fun activities for kids, and costumed workers playing music.  I love stumbling across these little markets!

Alrighty, time to go edit a ton more photos! 🙂

Where the Wild Things Are

I was missing home a little this past weekend.  
It is cherry blossom season in D.C. and all of the pics on Instagram of the pretty trees has made me nostalgic.  When we went to the cherry blossom festival last year there were hardly any blossoms on the trees (thanks to bad storms) and we had to go back a few weeks later to get the full effect.  Despite the lack of blossoms, we had a great time with friends chillin’ at the marina in Southeast, drinking $14 Corona-rita’s (yay D.C.), and eating kebabs.  Who would have thought that a year later we would be eating kebabs in Germany?  Generally speaking, I don’t miss home too much yet but occasionally something triggers a little homesickness.  Usually this feeling is linked to events we won’t be able to attend – graduations, weddings, concerts, holidays, etc.  To cure it, I try to remember all of the things we can do because we’re here!

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I haven’t seen any cherry blossoms here in Berlin but there are plenty of little surprises to discover in the city.  Recently Alex and I were exploring our new neighborhood and decided to check out Volkspark Hasenheide, a large park nearby.  It is definitely one of my new favorite spots!  The park has 50 acres of open spaces and forested areas and is home to an open-air theater, mini-golf, dog parks, playgrounds, a rose garden, and my favorite feature: a small zoo!
The term ‘zoo’ might be a bit of an exaggeration for the small enclosures which mostly feature barnyard animals, but either way it was such a cool thing to find in a park!  And it doesn’t cost a penny – or rather, a Euro cent.
After perusing the zoo we took advantage of the warm(er) weather by relaxing in one Hasenheide’s many open fields.  The park was bustling with picknickers, cyclists, slackliners attempting to cross the valley.  I am really looking forward to spending lazy weekend days hanging in the park when the weather warms up and summer finally arrives.

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Special places like Hasenheide help to curb the homesickness that comes with expatriating.  It is important to remember that, while you may be missing things back home, there is always something new and exciting to do/see in your new home.  You just need to go out and find it!

To see more photos from Hasenheide park, click the link below!

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Photo Potpourri – Week 4

We were pretty busy last week because we were moving out of our old short-term rental apartment into our new long-er term apartment!  Between cleaning the old apartment and repacking and preparing to move there wasn’t much time for fun but we made up for it on the weekend.  We are loving the location of our new apartment (where we’ll be until September).  It’s only 15 minutes from where we were before, but the neighborhood is much more lively and we are just down the street from a subway stop!  The apartment itself isn’t ideal; the furniture is all quite retro and crappy and it’s lacking any kind of decor.  To be fair, the family who we are subletting from only lived here for a few months before they went on assignment in China, and during that time they had a baby.  But the apartment is large and has some nice attributes like a “winter garden” porch and a lot of large windows.  There’s some work to be done to make it feel more homey but it’s good enough for now!
Here are some pictures from last week’s moving & weekend craziness!

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1. All of our worldly possession – at least for now.  Unfortunately, it will be another few weeks until our big shipment from the USA arrives, so for now we’re living out of our very large suitcases.  It did make moving easy, though!

2. Alex immediately got to work when we first moved into the new place.  This is a pic of his new habitat: the office.

3. One of the many beautiful buildings in our new ‘hood.  Our building is, sadly, not pretty like this one but we hope someday we can find a flat in a pretty place like this!

4. The Nowkoelln Flowmarkt (a play on words on the name of the neighborhood, Neukölln) is a popular market along the canal near our new apartment.  It’s fairly large with mostly flea-market stands selling used clothing, housewares, etc.  It was packed last weekend because of the nice weather.

5. Paella!  We got this plate of chicken & shrimp paella at the Flowmarkt and it was delicious.  Spanish food isn’t super common here so it was a treat to see it at the market!  Look carefully and you can see the shrimp’s head… 😉

6. Some loser I met by the canal at the Flowmarkt who stole all of the paella.