Querido Mexico…

22 07 2009

I haven’t been anywhere in a while…and though I know I’ve eaten some great meals recently, I’ve neglected to take any photographs.  I’m in the mood to write, though, so what to do?  Dig up an old, yet-unrecorded trip, of course.  Two and a half years ago Chris and I spent a few days in Mexico City and had a wonderful time.  I’ve been a little saddened by the news about Mexico recently, and sometimes wonder if I’d be up for this same trip again, at least right now.  While most of the violence I read about is taking place along the border, I have also read about brazen instances of violence in the resort towns as well as Mexico City.  I wish this were not the case, because I had such a great time, never felt unsafe (at least not too unsafe), and Mexico City and I have unfinished business.

We arrived in Mexico City around 4pm on a Friday, 30 November 2007.  We hired a taxi from the airport (I had done a great deal of research on taxis — we only used Super Sitio or Servitaxis) and began the long, slow drive into the city.  I had read that the traffic in Mexico City was bad, and even with an expectation that it would be bad, I was amazed at just how bad it was.  It took us so long to get to our hotel — the Hotel Camino Real in the Polanco — that we only had time to run in, throw down our stuff, then walk briskly to the National Museum of Anthropology.  It was almost 6 by the time we finally got there.  The posted hours for the museum said that it would be open until 7; however, around 6:30 guards started walking around turning out lights and rounding everyone up.  Unfortunately, this left us with no choice but to run around trying to see as much as we could see in very little time.  I wish we could have spent hours there!  The collection of artifacts is amazing and I’m sure its so much more impressive when you can take the time to read about everything.

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Once we were officially kicked out, we walked back to the hotel to freshen up before dinner and stopped to take a look — it was a pretty cool-looking hotel.  The design was quite minimalist and modern.  Here are a few snapshots:

Entrance

Entrance

Fountain out front that changed water patterns

Fountain out front that changed water patterns

Standard bedroom

Standard bedroom

Loved the modern bathroom

Loved the modern bathroom

That night, we walked to La Fonda del Recuerdo for dinner.  The walk was somewhat long, but I enjoyed the stroll.  I don’t recall what we ate, but I do recall that we enjoyed ourselves and many tequilas y sangritas.  We both developed quite a taste for the Don Julio Reposado with a sangrita — so tasty.  The restaurant had a very festive atmosphere with jarochos performing traditional music, lots of tables full of happy people, and the odd (to me) roving people trying to sell you flowers and other items.  I’m still not sure what the deal was with the person who came to the table with a bird cage with little tiny birds in it…  After dinner we walked back in the chilly night air — this felt very good after a heavy meal and a few tequilas.  I have read that we should have taken a cab to and from the restaurant, but I enjoyed the walk and never felt unsafe.

The next morning we woke up super early and took a taxi to the bus station where we managed to get on a local bus out to Teotihuacan.  My ability to speak Spanish came in very handy here, although it was still a bit confusing and I was never 100% certain we were doing it right until we actually arrived at our destination about an hour later.  We were the only people on the bus going to Teotihuacan, so that also had me slightly worried that we were on the wrong bus…but, it all worked out.  The strangest thing happened on the way, though.  The sun was barely beginning to rise as we headed down the highway when suddenly the bus driver pulled maybe a foot or two to the side of the road (not out of the road — just barely to the side) and stopped…and got off.  People started looking around to see what was going on but no one seemed to know….all the while cars are just flying around us.  After a few minutes the driver got back on and we continued on our way.  Not really sure about that…this was one point on the trip where my imagination started running a bit wild.  But I guess he just needed to make a pit stop…or something.

When we got to Teotihuacan it was not yet open, so we had to stand around outside the (open) gates (I tried to walk in and was promptly sent back out).  Once it opened we headed in and started exploring — we were practically the only people there for a while.  It was simply beautiful.  The stairs up to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun were a challenge — the steps were tall and narrow — but the view from up top was profound.  The park abounds with interesting visual perspectives.  Here are some of my favorite shots from the day:

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After wandering around this amazing ancient archaeological site for a few hours we caught a bus back to the city.  The bus ride back was cool — since we were on a local bus, we made several stops in little towns along the way and I felt like I got a greater sense of what the towns are actually like. 

Once we made it back to the hotel we hopped on the subway and headed down to the Centro Artesanal crafts market to do some Christmas shopping.  First order of business, however, was lunch.  There were several stands serving all sorts of foods near the entrance to the market, and after walking through once we settled on a fairly crowded taco stand where we got perhaps our favorite meal of the trip.  We ordered a few varieties of tacos — I wasn’t always sure of the meats, so I just pointed to what looked good (and it was, indeed, good).  Our favorite taco, we agreed, was the taco chile relleno — delicious queso-filled chiles rellenos that the woman working the stand tossed back onto the hot grill, cut in half, and stuffed into delectable corn tortillas.  This was exactly what we were looking for — fantastic street food.

After lunch we headed into the market and found all kinds of goodies to bring home and give our family members for Christmas…everything from cheesy magnets to lucha libre t-shirts (vamos, Mil Máscaras!) to a beautiful mirror set in tin and more.  Chris bought me a gorgeous hand-carved and painted wooden platter for my birthday.  Since we had learned in Turkey that I absolutely HATE negotiating, we had a system — I identified the goods and Chris worked for the best price.

Next we headed to Chapultepec Park and strolled about for a couple of hours.  The people-watching was great and the park is really beautiful.  I’m a big fan of urban parks and Chapultepec goes down on my list of one of the best.  I managed not to take very many photos for some reason…but here are a few.

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That night I asked our hotel for a dinner recommendation and they sent us to La Hacienda de los Morales.  In retrospect, I’m a little disappointed in our dinner experience that night.  The building was beautiful but the atmosphere was a bit too fancy and it was not cheap.  I don’t mind paying more for food if it blows me away, but the food was just fine.  I wish we had found a local gem.  I would have preferred something a little more adventurous, more fun.  As this was our last dinner in Mexico City, I’m left feeling a bit unsatisfied.  This is the first of my unfinished business with Mexico City.

The next day, Sunday, we again woke up early and headed to the Zócalo  — a day I which I had been anticipating all weekend.  I could not wait to stroll the massive plaza and see the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Templo Mayor, and especially the National Palace to see the Diego Rivera murals.  When we arrived at the Zócalo, this is what we saw:

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Christmas had arrived…as had a massive ice skating rink filling the entire plaza, making it virtually impossible for me to get any perspective on the vastness of the square!  Sure, it was fun watching kids and grown-ups alike skate around and the decorations were very festive, but Chris had been telling me how cool the plaza is, how many different things I might see…and instead all I could see through the bleachers set up all around was an ice skating rink, and forget about getting a good perspective on the cathedral or the palace.  Oh well — it’s still beautiful and I’m thrilled to be here, and as it was a Sunday morning it was cool watching people heading in for mass.  I did manage to get a few shots that turned out okay:

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Our final stop for the day before we had to begin our return journey to the airport was to be the Palacio Nacional and the murals.  Although we had confirmed (through various written publications…) it would be open, when I approached the guard to go inside the told me it was closed today — no one could go in.  I fruitlessly tried to explain how I was flying home later that day and how I had come specifically on this day to see the murals — I’m not sure what I thought would happen, as if he’d say, oh, okay, well come on in for a special tour…  Needless to say, we did not get to go inside.  So, I had learned a few important lessons on this trip.  The first lesson is that posted hours in Mexico City are more like guidelines (I’m also thinking back to the Anthropology Museum).  The second lesson is that if it’s really important to see something, don’t save it for the very end of the trip!

Our quick trip to Mexico City was wonderful, but I know it was just a taste of what the city has to offer.  As I mentioned above, we have some unfinished business.  I want more time at the museum.  I want to see the Zócalo on a regular day.  I want to find better dinner spots.  And I want to see the murals!  Even with this unfinished business, though, I was instantly attracted to the sights, the colors, the sounds, the general festive and animated feeling I noticed everywhere we went.  Plus, it’s always a blast for me to travel somewhere where I can speak the language.  I know I’ll be back.





From Yachats to Olympia

23 06 2009

Chris and I just got back from another trip out to the Pacific Northwest, and yet again I am convinced this is the most naturally beautiful part of the country.  We hopped on a plane out of Austin on a Thursday evening, and after a five or six hour delay in Denver due to massive thunderstorms (allowing us to watch Game 4 of the NBA Finals), we arrived in Seattle around 2:30 in the morning.  Luckily, I had booked us a room at the Hilton Airport and Conference Center on Priceline (for a grand total of $58!) so we caught the shuttle to the hotel and crashed.  Around 9 the next morning my brother called and said he’d be there to pick us up shortly to begin our adventure down to the Central Oregon Coast.

No great adventure can start without full bellies, so we decided to stop first for breakfast in Olympia at an old favorite — McMenamin’s Spar Cafe.  My brother and I split an order of the biscuits and gravy, and I had an over-easy egg and hashbrowns on the side.  Who would have thought I could get one of the best biscuits and gravy I’ve had outside of Texas…let alone in the Pacific Northwest?  It was delicious.  The thick, dense biscuits were covered in a hearty sausage gravy and topped with crumbled bacon and green onions.  Upon first seeing the plate my brother and I both thought there was no way SPLITTING this dish would fill us up…but how wrong we were.  It was delicious and filling.  Chris got the chicken fried steak and eggs with hashbrowns.  The crispy fried steak was covered in the same delicious gravy and, according to Chris, fantastic.  Again, who would expect delicious chicken fried steak and eggs outside of Texas?  I tried a bite — it was indeed delicious.

After breakfast we made a pit stop at the local camping/outdoors store in Olympia for camp fuel and a few bag dinners, stopped by my brother’s place to load up his stuff, and then we headed down I-5 toward Oregon.  We cut over to Highway 101 through Corvallis, Oregon on 20.  At Newport, we stopped by a grocery store for a few more provisions then headed south on 101 until we made it to the Carl G. Washburne Memorial State Park.  They had one walk-in campsite left so we decided to take it.  Although the campsites were somewhat close together, the campground was beautiful, and there were so many big trees and slight elevation changes within the campground itself it didn’t feel too terribly crowded.  I also liked how the drive-in campsites were completely separate from the walk-in sites.  We dropped our stuff at the site, threw a wine bottle and

cork screw in a day pack, and walked over to the beach to take in the sunset on the Pacific.

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We walked all the way down the coast to some rocks covered with birds, then headed back and found a nice little spot to sit and enjoy the sunset with a little red wine.

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It was lovely.  When the sun was almost gone we decided to head back to set up camp.  We munched on chips and salsa as we got a nice fire going in the fire pit, then whipped up some bean and cheese burritos for dinner.  That really hit the spot.

That night I had maybe one of the best nights of sleep while camping ever.  Whether it was the sound of the waves on the coast all night, the softness of the ground in the campsite, the perfect cool temperature, the popping and crackling of the slowly-dying fire, the sound of the light drizzle on the tent in the early morning hours, or the fact that I was really tired from a long day of travel, I don’t know…but it was wonderful.  I woke up refreshed and ready to go.  However, the early morning drizzle turned into a bit more of a heavy drizzle, so we opted to hop in the car and head up to Yachats to look for a good cup of coffee…and find one we did.

We happened to stop into this wonderful coffee shop and bakery called The Green Salmon — great coffee and perhaps even better baked goods.  I was only going to get coffee, but after sampling Matt’s maple croissant, I had to order something too.  I got a cinnamon croissant and it was flaky (but did not just explode into crumbs when you bit into it), buttery, cinnomony, and delicious.  After coffee we headed back to camp and set out on the hike to the Heceda Head Lighthouse.  The hike starts out in the forest just down from the entrance to the park.  This part of the hike is easy and absolutely gorgeous.

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We encountered tons of salamanders in the path and found them quite difficult to see (they either looked like the ground or like sticks on the ground) — that, coupled with the fact that they moved incredibly slowly, kept us on our toes as we tried our best not to step on any.  After a few miles the trail crossed 101 and started into the woods on the other side of the road.  We quickly started going up and found ourselves high above the beach.

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A little bit further, and we were at the lighthouse.

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We spent at least an hour exploring the beach and the tide pools below the lighthouse.

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I had never seen starfish or anemones outside of an aquarium…so cool!

On our way back, we took the Hobbit Trail fork to the beach (the fork is on the beach-side of 101 along the Heceda Head Lighthouse Trail).  The entire hike was around 6 miles and except for portions near the lighthouse, is easy.  The entire hike is incredibly beautiful.  As always happens with me in the Pacific Northwest, I am struck by the green, by the amount of life everywhere…not to mention seeing spruce, firs, ferns, moss, rocks, and sandy beach all in one place.  Amazing.

After the hike we had perhaps our one big food miss of the trip — the greasy eggs.  The plan was to have our late breakfast of tacos back at the campsite, so we cooked up some bacon on our little single burner, and this is where I made my big mistake.  I should have known better.  Even as I type this, I’m getting a little bit sick to my stomach.  For some unknown reason, I decided we did not need to pour out any of the bacon grease before cooking the eggs…so we just dumped 6 eggs into the grease and started cooking.  I can still see those eggs, floating in the grease…Matt had the great idea that we just add six more eggs, and maybe then there would not be so much grease.  So we added more eggs and cooked away.  They eventually firmed up and we mixed back in the bacon and added cheese, threw the mixture in tortillas and topped with salsa…but one bite and, as Matt put it, it felt like you put a thick coating of chap stick on.  Yuck.  But of course we ate them.  And then felt kind of gross for a while…

Once we finally felt like we could move around somewhat, we decided this would be a good opportunity to get in the car and see what we could see along 101.  I had read about the Sea Lion Caves (world’s largest sea lion cave, woo hoo!)  so we drove a few miles south and found the crowded parking lot, looked around at the cheesy signs, and decided to skip it.  Instead, we headed up to Devil’s Churn for a while and then Strawberry Hill.  Both spots were beautiful, and did not cost $11 per person.

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For dinner that night we did our bag meals (even though we had scrapped our backpacking plans, the backpacking dinners came in handy) by another great fire then enjoyed good old-fashioned smores.  Then we enjoyed burning marshmellows for a while…

After another great night of sleep, we packed up and headed back to the Green Salmon in Yachats for more great coffee and pastries, then kept on going until we got to the Oregon Coast Aquarium.  I love aquariums, and this one was very impressive.  First, they had otters, perhaps my favorite animal.  Look at this fat and happy guy!  Second, the indoor deep sea life display was awesome.  Most of the tanks had beautiful blown glass pieces that, together with some creative lighting, made for some impressive displays.  On top of that, so many of these creatures were just so beautiful and interesting…  I was also able to touch (pet?) starfish, baby sharks, rays, and anemone (that was perhaps the strangest to feel — they stick to you).  The shark display was also really cool — sharks along with the bizarre-looking flounder and other big fish swim all around you.

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Once we’d seen the entire aquarium (at a very reasonable $13.25 with a AAA discount, I might add), we got back on the road and stopped for lunch In Corvallis at American Dream Pizza.  While Chris’s and my pizza was only so-so (when you order by the slice it seems like they just throw some toppings on top of cheese pizza), Matt’s calzone looked pretty tasty.  I was also impressed by the photos of President Obama eating there on a campaign stop, and the roof-top table was a great spot in this cute town.  The weather was gorgeous — sunny but cool.  I bet Oregon State is a fun place to go to school…

We made it back to Olympia around 6 or so, got cleaned up, then walked over to Fish Tales for dinner.  Fish Tales is  a casual pub-style place with great beer and good food.  I had the fish and chips, Chris had oysters and chips, and Matt had the portabella mushroom burger.  Matt and I both enjoyed a couple of pints.

The next day, we headed back to our favorite spot — McMenamin’s — for breakfast.  This time I had the scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, green onions, and cream cheese.  Chris opted for the biscuits and gravy.  Matt went with a standard eggs, bacon, hashbrowns, and toast breakfast.  As usual, the meal was terrific.

After breakfast we hit the road for our next hike — the Hama Hama Trail in the Olympic National Forest (I’ve also seen Hamma Hamma and I’m not sure which one is right…perhaps the both are?).  It took us about an hour or two to get to the trailhead off of 101 on the Olympic Peninsula.  This hike was intense, but the reward was well worth it.  The trail starts out at a gentle but steady incline for maybe a mile, and then the serious incline starts.  It was probably two or more miles of up, and up, and up…I had to stop and catch my breath and let the burning in my legs die down a bit quite a few times!  There were even a few challenging spots over streams, alongside drop-offs, and up rocks (one where you had to use a rope — very fun!).  Near the top we started encountering patches of snow — much less snow than two weeks earlier, according to my brother (who, incidentally, has seen a bear both times he’d been out on this trail before — both in the past month — while I was a little anxious about a bear encounter, and it certainly seemed likely along this secluded trail, I have to say I’m disappointed now that we didn’t see one).  At the top of the mountains we arrived at Angel Lake, and while I’m trying not to sound like a broken record, I can’t help it — it was beautiful.  Waterfalls all around us, patches of snow on the ground and all over the higher peaks, a serene lake high above the trailhead…just breathtaking.

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The hike down was almost as challenging as the hike up — perhaps not as tiring on the hamstrings and glutes, but I nearly went down on loose rocks a few times (okay, I did go down once, but it was a quick down and bounce right back up), and after a while my legs felt like pure wobbly jello.  It was much easier to descend with my knees slightly bent the whole time so as to bob up and down as little as possible, but that was quite a workout.  It was, however, much quicker than the hike up and it seemed like we were down in no time.

On our drive back, we stopped at a burger place right on 101 in Hoodsport.  I can’t remember the name, but it’s a tiny little town and it was right off of 101 with lots of outdoor seating.  The burger hit the spot and the crinkle cut fries took me back to my childhood.

After this late lunch/early dinner, my brother drove us all the way back to our hotel by the Seattle Airport and Chris and I settled in for some relaxing before our day of travel the following day.  The Hilton by the airport has a nice outdoor pool and hot tub — perfect for our tired legs.  The next day we made it home with no real delays — our flight had to hold outside of Denver due to more thunderstorms, but we had such a long layover it made no difference to us (other than cause me slight anxiety).  We made it home by midnight and thus another trip to the beautiful Pacific Northwest came to a close.





Testing the Top Ten Hikes Part Two – The Enchanted Rock

14 05 2009

A couple of weekends ago Chris and I and Chris’s mom decided to head out into the beautiful Texas Hill Country for another of the “Top Ten Hikes” according to Texas Monthly Magazine.  This hike consisted of the Loop Trail around Enchanted Rock and then, of course, heading up to the top of the main dome.  According to Hiking Texas by Laurence Parent, the dome is part of an ancient igneous batholith that covers about 100 square miles of the central mineral region of Texas, and is one of the oldest exposed rocks in North America with an estimated age of one billion years.

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We left our house on a Saturday morning around 7 and made it out to Enchanted Rock State Park by 9.  It had been raining in the days leading up to our hike but the weather held out for us, and even cleared up and got quite warm.  Enchanted Rock is definitely not something you want to do in the middle of the summer — I can’t imagine how hot it must get climbing up the dome in 90+ degrees (which, on the rock, probably feels more like 120!).

I’ve been out to Enchanted Rock twice before — once for another day hike, and once camping out in the primitive sites you have to hike to.  Both times it was cold and rainy.  I was excited to see the area on a warm and clear(ing) day.  Though we missed the peak of wildflower season, there were still some wildflowers here and there, and the moisture on the ground from the rains made for some beautiful shots. 

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Some of the cactus blooms were beginning to open too.

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I’m not even sure what this is, but I thought it was pretty…

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The Loop Trail is an easy hike that loops around the granite dome (around 4 or 4 1/2 miles long).  It follows Sandy Creek for almost a mile and then turns around the dome with small inclines here and there. 

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Once you make it around to the north side of the main dome, you’ll encounter lots of smaller rocks that I think make for some beautiful shots.  

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After we finished the loop, Chris’s mom headed to the shade to rest while Chris and I scaled the main dome.  While the trek up the rock is not long, it is steep, rising abruptly a few hundred feet.  Once at the top, the views are spectacular.

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Chris at the top

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And of course, the obligatory shot of us taking a break after reaching the top…

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What I like about this hike is the Hill Country setting — it’s beautiful out here.  The hike is a good distance — easy enough for a day hike but you can make it more challenging if you want to (by picking up your pace).  It’s hard to beat the views from the top of the dome, and really, the dome itself is really cool.  I also like how close it is to Austin.  If I had a complaint, it might be the crowds.  While we did not pass many people on the Loop Trail, the dome was crowded with all sorts of people…people wearing sandals (with heels!!) or flip flops and jeans who I’m sure must have turned around half-way.  Despite the crowds, though, I like the fact that people are out enjoying Texas parks, so I won’t complain too much about that.

After Chris and I came down from the dome, we headed back towards home — but stopped for lunch at possibly my new favorite burger place, the Alamo Springs Cafe.  This place was about 10 miles down Old San Antonio Road (just on the Austin side of Fredericksburg).  It’s casual, friendly, and the burgers were fantastic.  I had a burger with blue cheese, bacon, and mushrooms, onion rings, and a Fat Tire beer (probably not the most small-town Texas-y beer I could choose, but I think it’s a good beer and they were out of my first choice).  The burger itself was delicious, and they were very generous with the toppings.  The rings were sliced thinly and were fried perfectly with just the right amount of salt and pepper (which probably means they were fairly salty — I do like salt).  Chris had a cheeseburger with jalopeños on a jalopeño bun that had a touch of sweetness to it — according to him it was amazing.  Chris’s mom also got a cheeseburger and homemade chips.  Even the iced tea was great.  Next time I’m driving through Fredericksburg and I’m hungry, I’m definitely making a stop in Alamo Springs.

I only had my iPhone with me at lunch, so the photos are not that great…but I think it gives you a good idea of what I’m talking about.  Yummmm.

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Update — The Dinner

5 05 2009

The 10k challenge dinner turned out well.  Really well.  A perfect team collaboration to create a wonderfully balanced, slightly indulgent, and all-around thoroughly enjoyable meal.  For my part, I made potato gnocchi with a traditional basil pesto and an Italian loaf.

I’m getting better at making gnocchi.  Six large potatoes made more than enough for 13 people…

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I baked the potatoes roughly an hour in a hot oven, peeled them while still hot, and riced them.  I added salt and roughly a cup and a half or more of flour to about two pounds of riced potatoes (really this was eyeballed and then by feel) and worked the dough until it would roll into long snakes without breaking apart.  Once I rolled out about 20 snakes, I cut each one into 3/4 of an inch (or so) pieces, rolled each one off of a fork (apparently this not only makes it look the way gnocchi is supposed to look, but ensures the gnocchi cook evenly) and laid all of the finished gnocchi onto baking sheets covered in parchment paper. 

Next, I prepared the pesto.  First, I toasted pine nuts in a dry skillet until just browned. 

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Next, I toasted several cloves of garlic in their skins for seven or eight minutes and set those aside to cool.  I threw the pine nuts, cooled (and peeled) garlic, salt, and gobs of basil (that I had bruised with a rolling pin) into the food processor and processed until nicely chopped. 

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Next, I added olive oil and processed until smooth.  I poured this mixture into a bowl and stirred in finely grated Parmesan…

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and voila! 

The finished product (only slightly blurry):

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For the bread, I must confess I used the bread maker to prepare the dough (such a time saver)…but I formed the dough into a big ball and set it out to rise on an oiled baking sheet, glazed it with salt water just prior to baking, and sliced into wedges for the meal.

Rounding out the rest of the meal…

Mary stopped by Mandola’s, a wonderful Italian deli/cafe in the Triangle opened by the beloved Mandola family a couple of years ago or so (if it takes Houston coming to Austin to bring good food, I say bring it), and picked up a delicious variety of foods to create an antipasti plate.  We had two different cheeses, a Parma ham, lemon marinated sardines, olives, sundried tomatoes, artichoke hearts…most nights something like this could be my entire dinner.  But tonight, it made for the perfect way to start.

Amanda made two different salads to go with the meal — one Caesar salad and one mixed greens with a variety of vegetables.  I think everyone ended up eating both salads with dinner.  Carrie (with her husband’s grilling assistance) did the steaks, all cooked a wonderful medium rare to rare drizzled with a bit of the leftover pesto thinned with a bit more oil.  Once we started eating, I completely forgot about shooting the food…but I did manage this shot of my plate before I completely devoured it.

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Lastly, dessert.  Carrie made an absolutely delicious variation on Pastel de Tres Leches — I think we termed it Tre Latti due to the fact that she added a touch of Amaretto to the cake batter.  It was SO good.  The cake was perfectly moist, milky without being soggy, the Amaretto taste was fantastic, and the thick whipped cream topping, not too sweet, yum…… 

I have no doubt the guys could have created a delicious meal for us had we won the 10k challenge, but after this dinner, I have to say I think things turned out the way they should have, and if we happen to lose again next year…well, I’m ready to start thinking of the menu.