Sunday, June 30, 2013

#SundaySupper Summer BBQ Party...Featuring California Layered Pasta Salad

This week, #SundaySupper is getting everybody geared up for the upcoming July 4th holiday by sharing our favorite Summer BBQ Party recipes! Our hostess is the lovely Jennie from The Messy Baker, and she asked us to share dishes that are perfect for all your upcoming Summer cookouts. One of the things I love best about Summer parties is all of the fun side dishes. I recently remembered a popular potluck salad from my childhood in the 70s: layered salad. It was so pretty to look at, but let's face it: it's totally retro! I like the concept, I decided to play around with the concept and see if I could come up with something a bit more modern and fun. What I came up with was my California Layered Pasta Salad. I layered cheese tortellini, veggies, ranch dressing, and toppings to create a modern spin on the classic dish.

Why California if I live in Texas, you may wonder? I used avocado and ranch dressing in the salad, which brought California to mind...and I just liked the way it sounded. This salad is pretty to look at and full of robust flavors. Even better, you don't have to turn on the oven to make this hearty salad. This salad is the kind of Summer dish that will make you the hostess with the mostess...or the most popular guest at the party. Let me show you how quick and simple this gorgeous salad is to whip up!

Friday, June 28, 2013

#FennelFridayCookingClub...Featuring Zen-Sational Grilled Zucchini & Summer Squash with Goat Cheese and Balsamic Reduction

For this month’s #FennelFriday roundup, we’re featuring vegetables and the very exotic Zen-Sational seasoning from Fennel Pollen Ranch. Zen-Sational is a tasty, exotic mix of ingredients: fennel pollen, sumac, seasame seeds, curry powder and other herbs and spices. The flavor reminds me a bit of za’atar, my favorite Middle Eastern seasoning blend. It’s a fantastic spice blend for flavoring fresh Summer vegetables. For some reason, zucchini immediately came to mind when I tasted this seasoning direct from the tin. That got the creative wheels rolling. Since it’s Grilling Week here at The Weekend Gourmet, I wanted to grill my veggies. From there, I let my imagination run wild and came up with my Zen-Sational Grilled Zucchini & Summer Squash with Goat Cheese and Balsamic Reduction.

For a bit of color contrast, I decided to grill rounds of inexpensive in-season zucchini and yellow summer squash. After the rounds were grilled, I topped them with crumbled mild goat cheese and the Zen-sational seasoning. Just before serving, I drizzled a homemade balsamic reduction over the top. This simple and versatile dish tastes equally good served warm or at room temperature, and it can be a side dish or  even a light al freso Summer dinner.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Cheesy Bacon-Onion Ranch Burgers...Featuring Tillamook Sliced Sharp Cheddar Cheese

Last Summer, Michael and I spent a week visiting family in Portland, Oregon. While we were there, we took a drive to the Pacific coast. On our way to the ocean, we stopped off to visit the Tillamook cheese and dairy factory. Tillamook is one of our favorite cheeses, but seeing how it was made and the pride they take in their products turned us into even bigger fans. I was thrilled when Tillamook recently offered to send me some coupons for a few free packages of their sliced cheese to create a Summertime burger for my Grilling Week. I was really excited to get in the kitchen with some sharp cheddar to make an original burger. Not an ordinary burger, mind you…but my Cheesy Bacon-Onion Ranch Burgers. There’s not much better at a Summer cookout than a perfectly grilled burger. Add a quick homemade bacon-onion jam, melty Tillamook sharp cheddar and a creamy ranch spread…and you’ve got one great All-American burger on your hands.

This recipe does have a few components to make, but it takes less than an hour to whip up these burgers for dinner if you multitask. While the onions for the topping caramelize, you have a pocket of time to whip up the creamy ranch sauce and season the ground beef. This burger smells so good while it’s cooking that everyone will be running to the grill or kitchen to find out what you’re cooking. These burgers literally explode with flavor, so they're perfect for next week's Fourth of July celebrations!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Kicking Off Grilling Week With a Weekend Gourmet Flashback: Firecracker Cheeseburgers with Grilled Maui Onion-Fresno Chile Pico de Gallo

It's hard to believe, but July 4th is coming up soon...the year is flying by so quickly! I'm going to be featuring lots of recipes  between now and then that will be perfect for your holiday celebrations -- everything from Summer cocktails, to desserts, and burgers. I'm kicking off Grilling Week here at The Weekend Gourmet with one of my favorite recipes from last Summer, my Firecracker Cheeseburgers with Grilled Maui Onion-Fresno Chile Pico de Gallo. This burger literally explodes with flavors, so the name is very fitting! I made this burger as part of my ongoing partnership with Frieda's Produce last July, and they liked it so much that they've featured it on their website. This burger is bursting with spicy flavors, so I couldn't resist sharing it again! 

I made a spicy, colorful pico de gallo by grilling slices of Maui onion and one red Fresno chile until slightly softened and browned...I also added green onion, diced yellow and orange tomatoes for a nice color contrast, lime juice and cilantro. Then, I made a creamy chipotle-chive cream cheese spread for the toasted buns. The burger patty is a mixture of lean ground chicken breast and spicy Mexican pork chorizo. There’s also a double shot of cheese: small pieces of sharp cheddar are mixed into the burger mixture, forming gooey pockets of cheese...and the burgers are also topped with a slice of Monterey jack cheese. The finishing touch was slices of cooling, creamy avocado. Come check out this burger...and see how easy it is to whip up!

Friday, June 21, 2013

SodaStream Source Review...Plus a SodaStream Fountain Jet Giveaway!!

According to the calendar, today is the first official day of Summer!! Here in Central Texas, that means drinking a lot of icy-cold drinks to help stay cool. We drink our share of  ice water and iced tea, but sometimes only an ice-cold fizzy soda can hit the spot on a hot, sunny afternoon! To make that easier and more affordable, I’m kicking off Summer with a fun SodaStream giveaway! If you’ve never heard of SodaStream, it’s a fabulous machine that fits easily on your kitchen countertop and lets you make fizzy soda and flavored carbonated water at home. No more lugging home heavy bottles of soda from the grocery store...and the reusable drink bottles are also  good for the environment! SodaStream recently sent me a SodaStream Source machine and several varieties of soda syrups to test out in my kitchen. The set up was super easy – within 10 minutes of opening the shipping box, I had the CO2 cartridge installed and was ready to try the machine out! 

The Source allows you to lock the provided soda bottle into place, then you simply press down on top to carbonate the water. The Source even has an LED indicator that lights up as your press, indicating the fizz level from 1 (easy one the fizz) to 3 (super fizzy). This lets you customize your drink experience…we like our soda really fizzy, so we use the third level (about 7 pumps). The resulting beverage is just as fizzy as any name-brand soda you'll buy. After the water is carbonated, you remove the bottle and add your favorite flavoring. SodaStream offers a wide range of flavors in three varieties: Natural (sweetened with cane sugar), Regular (a mixture of sugar and sucralose) and Sugar Free (sweetened with sucralose). We tried both the regular and sugar free syrups and really liked both. I drink sugar-free soda exclusively and find most “regular” sodas way too  syrupy-sweet for my taste. We sampled SodaStream’s Regular Root Beer with a casual dinner one evening, and I found it refreshing and not overly sweet. With 35 calories per 8-ounce serving, the Regular soda syrups are low in calories too! 

Of the flavors we've tried so far, my personal favorites are the Diet Orange, Regular Root Beer, and Crystal Light Lemonade. The lemonade is tart and fizzy…perfect over a big glass of ice on a hot Texas afternoon! Whatever flavor profile you like -- fruity, traditional soda flavors, energy drinks, tea, or  even Crystal Light and Kool Aid --  they have it in their huge inventory of flavors. The starter kit I received came with single-bottle samplers, which makes enough soda for Michael and I to each have a large glass with our dinner. We’re planning to buy an extra reusable beverage bottle so we can always have a bottle chilling in the fridge. If you’re not into sweet beverages, no problem! SodaStream also makes unsweetened fruit-flavor water enhancers that can be added to water that you carbonate.

So…who wants to win a SodaStream Fountain Jet Starter Kit in time for Summer? SodaStream is going to give one of you a fabulous starter kit that includes:
  • A SodaStream Fountain Jet in winner’s choice of color (black/silver, red/silver, or white)
  • One carbonating bottle, reusable for up to 3 years
  • Reusable CO2 cartridge carbonator that will fizz up to 60L of soda
  • Variety 6-pack of popular sample-size flavors
  •  THREE full-sized flavors of the winner’s choice 

Entries will be accepted until 1159 PM CST on Tues, June 25th. You can have up to THREE entries to up your chances of winning. For one entry, leave a comment below telling me which three SodaStream flavors you most want to try. For a second entry, Like SodaStream on Facebook and leave a post on their wall that The Weekend Gourmet sent you. For a third entry, follow SodaStream on Twitter and tweet the following: “I just entered @TheWeekendGourm’s Summer @SodaStreamUSA giveaway!”. Make sure you leave a comment below  for each entry you complete since I pick winners via random number generator. Finally, please make sure to include your e-mail address on at least one comment so I can find you if you win. Good luck!!

Disclosure: SodaStream provided me with a Source unit and a variety of soda flavorings to facilitate this post. However, all opinions expressed about the unit and the flavorings are my own.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Weekend Gourmet Dines Out for June...Featuring Citrus at The Hotel Valencia

This month's featured restaurant for The Weekend Gourmet Dines Out is Citrus, located on the picturesque Riverwalk inside The Hotel Valencia. Chef Jeff Balfour's restaurant offers breakfast, a paella lunch weekdays, and a multi-course dinner menu that focuses on locally-sourced ingredients. Add in attentive service, elegant decor, and Riverwalk views...and you've got a winner of a restaurant on your hands! That's not just my opinion -- Citrus was recently named one of the Top 20 Places to Eat Now by San Antonio magazine. Chef Balfour recently invited Michael and I to come for a dinner tasting to sample some of their signature menu items. The food was gorgeous to look at and fabulous to taste!

We dropped our car with the friendly valet located directly in front of The Hotel Valencia, walked up the stairs to the second floor, and quickly found Citrus. After entering the restaurant, we were quickly escorted to our table. We couldn't help but notice how elegant and romantic the restaurant decor -- featuring  low light and shades of red and orange -- was. 
Our friendly server came to our table, introduced herself and presented a bottle of chilled white wine for us to enjoy with our first two courses. It was a lovely crisp, dry 2007 Stonestreet Broken Road Chardonnay from the Alexander Valley region of California. This wine paired perfectly with our first two courses of the evening. Our first course offerings included (1) a lovely crab cake served with creamy avocado slices and a refreshing baby mesclan salad and (2) plump Nantucket Bay scallops served with carrot jus and roasted trumpet mushrooms. The crab cake was full of lump crab and perfectly cooked, and the sweetness of the crab worked perfectly with the rich avocado. The scallops were perfectly seared, their sweetness matching well with the earthy mushrooms and the slightly sweet carrot broth.

Our second course offerings included (1) a grilled and slow braised oxtail sope and a salad of sliced heirloom tomatoes, green pepper salsa, sea salt and chopped red onion. The sope was an upscale take on a traditional Mexican food item; the rich shredded oxtail meat reminded me a bit of Mexican barbacoa, its richness balanced by a tart red pepper aioli slaw and an earthy masa base. The salad was perfect for Summer: light and refreshing. The heirloom tomatoes were full of flavor and juicy, and the salsa provided a touch of heat. 

Between the second and third courses, our server brought out a second bottle
of wine for us to enjoy with our entrees. This time Chef Balfour selected a red wine for us, a robust French pinot noir. This full-bodied red wine was rich enough to stand up to spices and red meat featured, but it was also very smooth and easy to drink. As we sipped our wine and discussed how much we enjoyed the first two courses, we admired the nighttime Riverwalk view just outside our table. Chef Balfour hand-selected our menu that evening, so we waited with eager anticipation to see what delicious dishes would come out of the kitchen next. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Guest Post...The Perfect Summer Fish Dish: Blackened Mahi Mahi with Mango Salsa

Today, I'm sharing a guest post that features spicy grilled mahi mahi that's topped with a spicy-sweet mango salsa. With grilling season upon us, this is a healthy and refreshing dinner option.
It doesn’t get much more summery than food cooked on the grill. Biting into a juicy burger, hot dog or grilled chicken sandwich covered in char marks will make you feel like you’re lounging poolside, even if it’s cold and rainy or you live hours away from the nearest beach. One of the other great things about using your grill in the Spring and Summer is that you’ve got dozens of grill recipes to choose from. Whether you’re in the mood for classics like burgers and bratwursts or dying for a slice of grilled pizza, there’s essentially no limit to the types of food you can make on the grill. It’s versatile, quick and simple to use — what more can you ask from a cooking tool?

Blackened mahi mahi with mango salsa takes all of the best flavors of summer — fresh fish, juicy mango, zesty cilantro, flavorful tomatoes and spicy jalapeno pepper — and mixes them up into one easy dish. Not only is it bursting with summery flavors (tomato recipes are particularly in season during the warmer months), but it’s incredibly simple to make. Just throw together a bunch of spices you probably already have in your pantry, grill up your fish, top with salsa and there you have it: a light summer dinner ready in under an hour.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

A Food Lover's Weekend In New York...Part III

After enjoying a relaxing, fun afternoon carriage ride through Central Park, Michael and I headed to afternoon tea at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel's elegant Lobby Lounge. The hotel's lobby is located on the 35th floor, adjacent to Time-Warner Center. An expansive, panoramic city view greets you as you enter The Lobby Lounge...featuring Central Park, Columbus Circle, and part of the Midtown Manhattan skyline. 
From the second you’re seated, you know you’re in for a very special experience. With floor-to-ceiling windows, natural light and cushiony couches, this is a lovely and peaceful setting to unwind and enjoy afternoon tea! We made our tea selections and admired the gorgeous view below. Before we knew it, a tower of traditional tea goodies arrived, including ginger scones with marmalade and Devon cream, and an assortment of beautiful tea sandwiches. 
Everything was expertly prepared, beautifully presented, and quite tasty. After about 20 minutes, the sweets plate arrived. It contained a variety of handmade shortbread, tarts, nougat candy, and a mini cupcake. The two-bite desserts  were not overly sweet, and they paired nicely with our tea. I have to say that afternoon tea at The Mandarin Oriental is a perfect pick-me-up! Soothing and restorative, it’s a perfect break from the hustle and bustle of the city below.
After tea, we headed to The Casablanca Hotel. This Library Hotel Collection property has a lot going for it: colorful Moroccan-themed décor, amazing guest amenities, and a fantastic location. Our room was spacious and comfortable, and it featured the included amenities we had come to appreciate at the other Library Collection properties during our trip: complimentary WiFi, an afternoon wine and cheese reception, a business center, and morning continental breakfast. If you want to be near the action in the heart of Midtown and Times Square, but you want a peaceful place to escape to afterward? The Casablanca is an ideal choice! We loved that we could be right in the middle of the action in seconds, but also had a peaceful place to return to when we had had enough of the neon lights and crowds. The Casablanca truly gave us the best of both worlds! The hotel is literally steps away from Times Square. Simply walk out the front door, turn right, and walk to the corner. Look up, and boom: this is your night time view! 
The Casablanca is a small boutique property, so it feels very intimate. The decor is earth-toned and features lots of wood and intricate tile. We thought the atmosphere was very warm and inviting. From the second you walk into the cozy lobby, it's easy to understand why The Casablanca is one of the most popular hotels in the area.
It was our last night in town, so we headed out for dinner and a performance at The Blue Note Jazz Club. Our dinner that evening was at Chef Charlie Palmer’s upscale Aureole. Even better, it was a short 3-minute walk from The Casablanca. Aureole offers a fantastic  three-course dinner menu on Sundays that's called Big Mag Boeuf. For just $49 per person, you’re served a fresh seasonal salad, crispy pommes frites, sautéed spinach, and a bone-in roast rib of beef for two that's carved table side. That price also includes a classic dessert and a glass of delicious Bordeaux wine poured from large bottles. Between the wine being poured and the beef being carved table side, this dinner features a lot of showmanship! The steak was perfectly cooked and fork-tender.
Aureole is decorated in a modern style, and the service is friendly and attentive. For the quality and amount of food you receive with this meal, it’s a fantastic bargain. After dinner, we hopped into a cab and headed to jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval’s second set at the legendary Blue Note jazz club. The Blue note is located in The Village, and it's one of the best places in the world to see live jazz. We’ve been fortunate to see several shows here, and it’s always a great time. If you don't have time to grab dinner before your show, they offer a full menu of cocktails and food. Arturo Sandoval put on a fantastic show, and were lucky enough to score a table right in front of the stage! When the show was over, we made our back to The Casablanca, detouring to snap a few last pictures of Times Square. Since it was well after midnight by then, the crowds were much smaller. That allowed us to walk around and take a lot of pictures. This is one of my favorites.
An hour or so later, we walked back to The Casablanca and settled in for some much-needed sleep. As you can see, the Casablanca motif extends to the creative do-not-disturb sign for the door! We thought that was a very nice touch. We had one final day in New York before heading home to Texas, and we had a pretty ambitious agenda! Michael slept in a bit while I took a walk through Midtown to visit with chocolatier Kee Ling Tong at Kee’s Chocolates. For more details on that delicious experience – and lots of other sweet treats – read my article The Sweet Side of New York. After my chocolate tasting, I walked back to the Casablanca, and we packed up our bags. The friendly, helpful bell man and front desk staff held our bags for safekeeping while we headed out for a few final big-city adventures.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Food Lover's Weekend In New York...Part II

We woke up Saturday morning and headed to the Lower East Side for a morning of sweet treats at The Doughnut Plant and Il Laboratorio del Gelato. To read more about that adventure – as well as lots of other New York sweet treats – check out my article The Sweet Side of New York. After our little food adventure, we headed to The Village to visit a spot that any fan of the movie The Big Lebowski will appreciate. The Little Lebowski Shop is located near NYU and Washington Square Park…and it offers lots of Lebowski-themed souvenirs and tee-shirts. We had a great time browsing around this kitschy shop that is indeed little. The store owners are super nice…and huge Lebowski fans, of course. We picked out a few items and snapped a few pictures. If you love The Big Lebowski like we do…and are in the area? Stop in and check this place out. The Dude would definitely abide!

From there, it was a quick 5-minute walk to Washington Square Park. It was a gorgeous Spring afternoon – blue skies and temperatures in the 70s – so people were out in full force to sunbathe, enjoy picnics, people watch…and walk their dogs. The cherry blossoms and tulips were in bloom, so the park was full of vibrant color.

We spent about 30 minutes snapping pictures and soaking in the gorgeous weather. We even met this little fellow…who was pretty much the cutest hot dog we’ve ever seen!

After resting in the park for a bit, we headed to our hotel in The Library Hotel Collection, the very lovely Hotel Elysee. This historic hotel is located in Midtown East, between Madison and Park Avenues. The location makes it perfect for those who are planning to do a little shopping, and the ambiance makes it perfect for couples looking for a little romance. The Elysee was built in the 1920s, and it has a very colorful history. Before it was a hotel, it was a residence. Some of its famous tenants included baseball player Joe DiMaggio and playwright Tennessee Williams. The elegance of the 1920s era was apparent from the moment we walked in the door. Our guest room was located right next to the elevator, which made us feel like it was our own private elevator! The room was decorated in soothing shades of cream and blue, which we found very relaxing. The Elysee is considered one of the most romantic hotels in the city, and I couldn't agree more! 

Like all hotels in The Library Collection, we were offered a wide range of amenities: free in-room WiFi, bottled water, an afternoon wine and cheese reception and morning continental breakfast. The Elysee is also home to the famous Monkey Bar, a piano bar located just off the lobby. We had another great date night planned, and this hotel set the romantic mood perfectly! On our way out, we stopped by the evening wine and cheese reception to start our date night.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Food Lover's Weekend In New York...Part I

One thing is for certain: we love to travel. Another thing that’s certain? We have a soft spot for New York. There’s no city quite like it…if you want it, New York likely has it! Great entertainment, tons of museums and fun neighborhoods for exploring…and lots of great food that fits any budget. You can find everything from hot dogs from a street vendor, to pizza and deli fare, to world-class fine dining. Literally any type of food you could ever want is at your fingertips -- day or night! Michael and I arrived in New York a few weeks ago with one goal: have as much fun and eat as much good food as we could over a four-day period. As you’ll soon see, we managed to eat our way around Manhattan – north, south, east and west. A small disclaimer: New York is too big to possibly visit every iconic or delicious destination in only a few days. That said, we visited some of our old favorites, and we found a few new culinary delights. I'm so excited to share them with you!

Our hotel stay for this trip was provided by the Library Hotel Collection, which is comprised of four fabulous boutique properties located around Manhattan. We stayed one night at each of their beautiful properties, and I have to say that all of them really impressed us with their attention to detail, friendly employees, gorgeous décor and customer-focused amenities. We arrived at The Library Hotel the first morning and dropped our bags for them to store before heading out for the day. The Library is located a few blocks  from Grand Central Station and within walking distance of many Midtown landmarks. For book lovers like myself, this hotel is a true delight. It features a Dewey Decimal System decorating scheme, and literary references are around every corner. There's also a light and airy Reading Room on one of the upper floors that contains books that guests can read while they enjoy complimentary coffee, tea, cookies and fruit. From the moment you walk into the lobby and to check in, the charming library motif is evident.
Each of the 10 guestroom floors corresponds to one of the 10 categories of the Dewey Decimal System, and each of the 60 guest rooms are decorated with books and art that fit within the category it belongs to. For example, we stayed on the 8th Floor: Literature. We were in Room 800.002, Classic Fiction. Inside our cozy room was a collection of books that corresponded to our room’s theme. What a nice touch! The room was tastefully decorated, and the bed was very comfortable. The finishing touch was a whimsical pillow on the bed.
Traveler’s Tip: All hotels in the Library Collection include free in-room WiFi, an afternoon wine and cheese reception, expanded continental breakfast, and complimentary business centers. Those little touches make you feel like you’re staying in someone’s home, not a hotel.

Our first meal was breakfast at Norma’s, located inside the Le Parker Meridien Hotel. Their breakfast is considered one of the best in all of New York, so we were excited to pay them a visit! While we looked over the extensive and creative menu, we enjoyed a glass of delicious fresh-squeezed orange juice and a complimentary shot of the day’s featured fruit smoothie. Norma’s is known for its large portions, so we opted to share one sweet dish and one savory dish. We ordered their signature Waz-Za: a crispy Belgian waffle topped with rich and fruity raspberry hollandaise, sliced bananas and strawberries, and blueberries -- then bruleed on top. This waffle creation was rich and decadent, perfect for sharing. 
For our savory selection, we went with something spicy: Normalita’s Huevos Rancheros, which was full of our favorite Tex-Mex  flavors. A base of crispy tortilla triangles was topped with refried beans, cheese, over-easy eggs, guacamole and fresh-made salsa. The spice level was perfect, and all of the flavors worked perfectly together. We left agreeing that Norma’s is a must for any New York vacation. It was the perfect way to fuel the first day of our big-city adventures!
After a bit of exploring on the Upper East Side, we returned to The Library to recharge our batteries and get cleaned up for a romantic date night. Our date night included dinner at The Palm One, an evening of jazz featuring Wynton Marsalis & The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and a post-show dessert tasting  at Thomas Keller’s per se. For full details of our evening, you can read my previous article, A Swinging New York Date Night. We arrived back at our home base well after midnight. It was time for some much-needed rest. We had a full slate of activities planned for the next day, so we had to hit the ground running. 

I woke up ahead of Michael the next morning and visited the hotel's breakfast area to pick out a few goodies for us to enjoy in our room while we got ready. We shared a selection of bakery-fresh pastries and fresh fruit, which provided plenty of energy for the morning’s activities. Before I grabbed our breakfast, I took a moment to take in the gorgeous city view that was just outside the breakfast area. What a fabulous way to start the morning!
Our first stop of the morning was to drop our bags at our next destination, The Giraffe Hotel. The Giraffe is located just south of Midtown, within easy walking distance of many great attractions, including: Madison Square Park, the Flatiron Building and Eataly. I really loved this hotel…it’s open and full of light, and it's located in a really fun neighborhood. After dropping our bags for safekeeping, we headed out for a day of exploring. 

Our first stop was the 9/11 Memorial. Admission to the memorial is limited, so we made sure to reserve a spot to visit months ahead of our trip. We arrived at the appointed time and were quickly ushered through a very thorough security screening area, then on to the memorial itself. It’s hard to adequately put into words the feelings we experienced when we stepped into the memorial area. Words that come to mind are: reverent, surreal, somber and renewal. To stand in front of  the huge reflecting pools, located where the Twin Towers once stood…and fell…caused a wave of many different emotions at once. We spent an hour walking around the grounds, reading the engraved names of those who died that day. Some of the names were familiar from watching the news coverage during that time, but most were not. We reflected, talking about that day and how it changed our lives -- and our country -- forever. I’m so glad that we were able to visit this important memorial to freedom and renewal.

Traveler's Tip: Entrance to the 9/11 Memorial is limited while construction continues, so make sure to go to their website as early as possible to reserve a spot. They will e-mail your entry tickets to you. The more time you allot -- especially during peak travel season -- the more likely you are to find an opening. For our late April trip, I reserved our tickets in late December.
After our time at the 9/11 Memorial was over, it was time to head to lunch at Motorino, widely considered one of the best pizzas in the city. We hopped in a cab and headed to The Village, arriving just ahead of the lunch crowd. We ordered sodas and two pizzas: the Soppressata Picante and the Margherita with added meatballs. While we waited for the pizza to arrive, we enjoyed the roasted mortadella with pistachio appetizer. I had never had mortadella, and this appetizer was eye-opening: roasted mortadella topped with tomatoes, spices and pistachio. Our pizzas were amazing – perfectly thin wood-fired crust, just the right amount of sauce, fresh mozzarella and perfectly spiced meats.
Traveler’s Tip: Motorino is very popular and has limited seating. Our suggestion is to arrive early or late to beat the inevitable crowds. Your can also take your pizza to go and find a nice bench or nearby park to enjoy your pizza.