Monday, October 23, 2017

MexiCanIGoBack?

For some reason, I've always been drawn to Mexico. I suppose it's easy to see why with all of the beautiful beaches and delicious food. However, the thing I love the most is that it's so rich in culture. That's why it's no surprise that I wanted to go back even though I have a lot of other countries on my travel bucket list that I have yet to visit.

In the past, Drew and I have stayed at the adult-only Hyatt Zilara properties in both Cancun, Mexico and Montego Bay, Jamaica. They are the only all inclusive resorts we've been to but based off what others have said and what I have read, the service and food are a lot better than most. However, I was a little torn when deciding which hotel to book in Cabo. On one hand, I love that food and drinks are unlimited at all-inclusives. On the other hand, we really wanted to experience local, authentic food but weren't sure we'd still want to if food was already paid for at our resort. Also, Cabo only has the kid-friendly Hyatt Ziva. As much as I love kids, I admit it was so peaceful and luxurious without them at the Zilara properties. Despite the downfalls of staying at the Hyatt, we decided to book there regardless because of the two free nights from the Hyatt Credit Card sign up bonus we had.

The hotel was pretty good overall but we were really spoiled by the Zilara properties so I kept comparing it back to those. The downsides: no alcohol in the minibar, no tortilla chips & guac or alcohol in the 24-hour deli, fewer breakfast and lunch options, poor nightly entertainment, no turn-down amenity, no chaise lounge on our balcony and not as great of a view for the price. Although we could see the ocean from our room, our main view was of the pool. Lastly, there were two big weddings on our last night which led to a bit of chaos and the restaurants being under-staffed.

view from our room
There were 7 restaurants, 6 bars, a snack bar, a coffee bar and 24 hour deli, 6 bars. The only breakfast options were the buffet, the coffee bar and room service. I would have loved if at least one off the a la carte restaurants were open to serve specialty egg dishes, pancakes, french toast, etc. We ate at Coco Loco for lunch almost every single day. They had tacos, burgers and fries, chips & guac and ceviche. They were all really good but I must admit, I did get sick of it by the end. I believe there was only one other restaurant open for lunch each day.

Tacos al Pastor and Fish Tacos at Coco Loco's
We tried every restaurant for dinner and all were delicious, except for Dozo on the last night. We had teppanyaki there another night which was great but our dinner on the last night was mediocre at best and the food was cold by the time it arrived. Some of the dishes that stood out above the rest were the Duck Magret at Bon Vivant, El Molcajete at El Molino and El Arroz Negro at El Cortijo.

Duck Magret at Bon Vivant



Molcajete at El Molino
El Arroz Negro at El Cortijo

My favorite part of each day was talking with the staff. On two separate mornings, we went for the hotel-led walk on the beach. We were the only guests that showed up on both mornings so it gave me a chance to brush up on my Spanish and learn about what it's like to live in Cabo. We also spent a lot of time talking with Eduardo in loss prevention who went out of his way to make us feel welcome. We chatted about everything from food and cooking to Mexico and the US.

horses on one of our morning walks
Eduardo, Myself, Drew and Juan
Although it was expensive, we opted for a 50 minute couples massage at the on-site spa, Zen. It made me feel a little better when I saw a sign in the spa saying that the price included gratuities. However, we still tipped an extra 15%. The all inclusive resorts are usually inclusive of gratuities but I personally feel that the staff deserves more. The massage felt amazing after our previous day's outdoor adventure, which I'll touch more on below.

Zen Spa
One of my other favorite things at the hotel was the coffee drinks they made before dinner time outside of the Piano Bar. The bartender poured flaming vodka over coffee, Kahlua, and Brandy or Whiskey and then topped it with whipped cream and a cherry. The drinks packed a punch and were out of this world!


Location wise, the hotel itself was within walking distance to a supermarket and mall, which didn't really have much. I was sure to stock up on Mexican Vanilla Extract while in the supermarket. In the other direction, there was small, upscale shopping plaza called Mall Plaza del Pescador.

The hotel was also right across the street from The Dolphin Center, which is owned by Cabo Adventures, an amazing tour company. The center serves as a pick up location for many of their tours which I would highly recommend, especially considering Hyatt Ziva is roughly 1/2 hour from Cabo San Lucas. I'll go into more detail on their Luxury Day Sailing and Outdoor Adventure in upcoming posts.

On one of our last days, we took a 5-10 minute cab ride to downtown San Jose del Cabo to do some site-seeing and shopping. The area was a lot smaller than I expected so we were done in less than an hour. I kind of regret not checking out one of the restaurants there.




If we had never stayed at the Hyatt Zilara Cancun, I would rave about Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos in a heartbeat. It's just hard for me to say it was amazing since we have. However, I can't emphasize enough how amazing the staff was at both properties. I would definitely recommend the hotel to families with children but if you're looking for something romantic or like to party, it's probably not the best choice. I'm sure we'll still end up going to other Hyatt Zilara properties as they open in new locations...I'm eyeing you, Dominican Republic!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Where Have I Been?

As some of you (or none of you) may have noticed, I haven't written in a while. As much as I love writing about travel and food, the reality is that I have a full time job and a house to take care of with Drew. It goes without saying, then, that a lot of our time is spent working and a lot of our money is spent on bills and home improvements rather than on a travel....meaning that I don't always have something to write about. When I finally do have something to write about...I find it hard to start writing again. However, I do make it my personal mission to ensure we find a way to fit travel in.

This past July, we went to San Jose Del Cabo, Mexico. I had the trip in my sights almost two years prior and wanted to stay at the Hyatt Ziva Los Cabos as we have stayed at previous Hyatt Zivas/Zilaras in the past and really enjoyed them. However, they can be a little pricey. Not to mention, I really wanted to stay at least 7 nights so that we would have plenty of time to relax at the hotel and enjoy what Cabo has to has offer. The flights from Boston to Cabo can also be expensive.


To save money, we decided to wait it out a year and did the following:
  • I took out a Hyatt Credit which, which at the time, had a sign up bonus where if you made a certain amount in purchases on it within the first 3 months, you would get 2 free nights at any Hyatt hotel. There is an annual fee on the card. However, the annual free night at a selection of hotels more than makes up for it. - - and now that I've had the card for over a year, I used my annual free night to book a night in Nashville!
  • I waited to book the hotel until there was a 50% off sale. Sometimes the Ziva/Zilara properties offer deals such as getting the 5th night free when paying for 4 nights in addition to 50-55% off. Unfortunately they weren't offering this deal around the time we wanted to visit. 
  • I continued to use my Rapid Rewards Credit Card for a majority of my everyday purchases, utilized Rapid Rewards Shopping when shopping online, and took countless e-Rewards surveys to earn enough points for two free round-trip flights. Mind you, we still needed to pay roughly $87 in fees per person but that's a heck of a lot better than paying out of pocket for an international flight.
  • I utilized the Southwest flexible dates calendar when booking flights to find the cheapest flights they offer. Although the seats can be uncomfortable (like most airlines), I prefer to fly Southwest when available because they let you bring 2 suitcases, a carry-on and a personal item - all for free! I'm pretty sure they're the only airline that still offers this and the savings can definitely add up. 
Between the 2 free nights and the 2 free round-trip flights alone, we saved an upwards of $2200! I didn't even count the 50% off the hotel as savings because I wouldn't have booked it in the first place if it wasn't 50% off.

Now that I got that out of the way, be on the look-out for my next few blog posts all about Cabo!


DISCLAIMER: I am not licensed to give financial advice nor am I doing so. I am only telling you the methods I used that helped save me money. They may or may not work for you. Also, I make mention of several offers that were available when I researched and planned my trip. These offers may no longer be available and/or may have changed.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Whirlwindy Trip to The Windy City

After booking a day trip to Chicago, I kind of regretted it. I've been exhausted lately and I just wanted to sleep all weekend. Being up for 23 hours straight did not sound like my idea of fun. I may have cancelled if it wasn't for wanting pizza.

This past Saturday, Drew and I landed in Chicago at 8:15 AM and hopped on the orange line to head downtown; super easy by the way. By the time we got there we were starving and wanted a good breakfast. It was raining at the time so we didn't want to go far. The nearest and best looking place was Wildberry Pancakes & Cafe. It had a 45 minute wait but Millennium Park was right across the street and the restaurant said they would text us when our table was ready.


Apparently, the restaurant ended up losing our place in line and we ended up waiting almost an hour and a half. I was extremely annoyed, especially considering we only had so much time in the city. They should have given us a free meal or something. The food ALMOST made up for it though. I had the most delicious red velvet french toast which was essentially three slices of cake turned french toast. 


By the time we finished breakfast, the rain had cleared and we walked to The Magnificent Mile. For the most part, there weren't any stores that aren't in Boston except for maybe Top Shop. We ended up walking until we reached the John Hancock Tower and we decided to head up to The Signature Lounge for a drink. I don't think I've ever been somewhere quite like it. Sure, I've been to other observatories but none where you can have a drink by the window! Even the views from the restroom were gorgeous. I just wish I had known about Tilt beforehand because I would have loved that!


Once we got back down to Michigan Ave, it was already 3pm. We did a little shopping and then walked to Lou Malnati's for deep dish pizza, the reason I wanted to visit Chicago in the first place. Omg...it was the best pizza ever..seriously life changing!! The tomatoes were fresh, the cheese stringy, and the crust crisp, not at all heavy and saturated like the deep dish pizzas from Uno's. I'm seriously considering paying the $60.00 to have two pizzas shipped to my home


After dinner, we headed back towards the Loop and were planning on grabbing dessert somewhere. However, I stumbled across Garrett's Popcorn Shop which I kind of wanted to try as well and bought a small tin of Garrett's mix to bring home. The combination of caramel and cheese is sooo good! Once we exited the shop, we saw the orange line and decided on heading back to the airport for our 8:50 pm flight and just grabbing dessert there. Boring, I know.


We got back home at around 1:30 am and I slept almost the entire day on Sunday. Even though I was and still am exhausted, I'm glad we ended up going for only the day. It was the perfect amount of time and quite honestly, if I had stayed any longer, I would have just gone back to Lou Malnati's for every single meal. So that's my trip to Chicago in 12.5 hours, 7.35 miles and 18,482 steps. Somehow, I still don't think I burned off enough calories to make up for that breakfast, let alone dinner #foodielife!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Stressed Spelled Backwards

Okay, so my posts have slowed down a bit this week. What can I say? I've been stressed. There's simply not enough time in a day! That being said, there's always time for dessert, especially on national dessert day. I have a huge sweet tooth so it may come as a surprise that I try not to order dessert when going out to eat, except while on vacation or while celebrating someone's birthday. There goes providing you guys with a list of my favorite restaurant desserts. Oh well, I have something better: a list of my favorite dessert recipes. Unfortunately, I don't have any good photographs of my own considering I'm so impatient and couldn't wait to eat each time I made these.


Bon Appetit's Coconut Cheesecake with Passion Fruit Glaze
This is one of my go-to recipes that everyone seems to love. The first time I made it, I spent almost $40 on ingredients...eek! It calls for 10 passion fruits and they're roughly $2 a piece. The next time, I experimented by using passion fruit juice instead. I didn't even end up pouring on the cheesecake and ended up going out the buy the passion fruits again. A few months later, I found out that some supermarkets sell Goya Passion Fruit pulp in the freezer section and it tastes exactly like the real thing; mainly because it is, only much cheaper. Also, I did make the compote the first time but found it unnecessary. I have since tried it with mango pulp instead of passion fruit pulp and it just wasn't the same. The sourness of the passion fruit perfectly balances the sweetness of the coconut.


Fine Dining's Chocolate Mousse Cake
I first made this recipe almost 10 years ago. I wasn't expecting much because the website seemed a little ehh but to this day, it's still one of my faves. I will say that it takes a lot of time an patience but the end result is worth it.


The Brown Eyed Baker's Red Velvet Cheesecake
A few years ago, I got it in my head that I wanted to make a red velvet cake/cheesecake that looked similar to the one The Cheesecake Factory serves. After scouring the internet for over an hour, I stumbled upon this recipe. Again, I wasn't expecting much since it didn't come from a well known site but it came out way better than expected. It is very very sweet and rich so it may not be for everyone but I've been craving it for a while. I wish I could make it, take one slice for myself and give away the rest because I definitely gained more than a few pounds by having leftovers for a week....and that's even after serving it to company and giving most of it away.


Paula Dean's Molten Lava Cakes
I'm still extremely mad at Paula Dean over her racist comments. However, I love food and her recipes are, unfortunately, some of the best. This past Valentine's Day, Drew and I decided to celebrate at home. He cooked dinner and I made dessert. I was dying for chocolate lava cake and this recipe looked the best. For some reason, I had it in my head that it would be a hard thing to make but it was extremely easy and it was delicious! It definitely hit the spot.


Chef in Training's Eclair Cake
My mom made this cake for a barbecue this summer and everyone really enjoyed it, including myself. People couldn't stop raving. I probably had 2 or 3 servings that same day. The next week when Drew and I were having a cookout at our house and it was 90 degrees out, I decided to make it too. I love that it doesn't require an oven.

So what did I eat for dessert on this national dessert day? Being a weekday, I stuck to my usual Weight Watchers Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Sundae Cup with Fat Free Cool Whip. I may have snuck in a Godiva chocolate truffle or two as well.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Day Tripping: Kittery, Maine

There's nothing quite like fall in New England; the leaves changing colors, apple picking, cider doughnuts, sweaters and the cool, crisp air. It's also the perfect time to take a day trip to Kittery, Maine.


There isn't a ton to do in Kittery but it makes for a relaxing and enjoyable day; just how fall days should be. My first stop is always to Stonewall Kitchen. They have a wide array of jams, preserves, baking mixes, cooking sauces, salsas, and adorable gift items. The best part of visiting the actual store is that you can sample almost all of their jams and sauces on crackers and/or pretzel sticks. Plus, there's a cafe inside that's perfect for breakfast or lunch.


After I grab something to eat, I usually head over to the Crate and Barrel Outlet before hitting all of the others. It's the only outlet they have in the area so it's always a top priority. I don't always find something that I want to buy but they definitely have some amazing deals. I purchased my favorite coffee mugs from there for $1.50 per piece!


I like to finish off the day by having dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, Robert's Maine Grill. One fall evening, I ordered the most delicious Surf n' Turf special which included steak tips, shrimp, mashed potatoes and root vegetables. They also have amazing lobster rolls there; although I wouldn't really consider them fall fare. Everything tastes so fresh and I never get that gross, full feeling I get from so many other places despite the fact that I'm well fed.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Skip It: Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca

The second "skip it" in a row!? You must think I either hate food or that I'm the most negative person in the world. So not the case; I swear. However, Boston has left me disappointed as of late.

I'm a huge fan of Eataly's La Pizza & La Pasta in New York which is why I was super excited that Mario Batali was opening Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca on Boston's waterfront. I actually held off all summer, wanting Drew to take me for my birthday. It was perfect timing, too, because we could see fireworks from our seat.

 

Once our waitress finally arrived at our table, we ordered the Mozzarella in Carozza as an appetizer. Basically, it was a very greasy and salty grilled cheese. I hoped the meal would be better. However, not so much. We decided to share the Bufala e Pomodorini and the Prosciutto & Arugula pizzas. The Bufala e Pomodorini was practically inedible. It was soo salty and sour; almost like sour milk. The other pizza was okay but salty as well. Maybe we should have stuck to a Margherita or something more simple that they couldn't screw up.

 

Dessert was good but overpriced for what it was. I opted for the S'mores Coppetta which was basically just chocolate gelato and graham cracker crumbs topped with toasted marshmallow. Drew ordered the assorted biscotti which was a plate of the smallest cookies I've seen in my life!


I definitely wouldn't feel comfortable recommending this restaurant to anyone but I would like to go back and try something else. Maybe they were just having a bad night!? Regardless, I don't see how Mario Batali could let this ridiculousness continue. Let's pray that when Eataly finally opens in Boston, its food bears resemblance to that at its New York counterpart as opposed to the "food" at this monstrosity.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Skip It: Blackbird Doughnuts

Without a doubt, New York has been killing the doughnut game for quite some time now. That's why I was super excited when I found out that an artisanal doughnut shop, Blackbird Doughnuts, was opening in Boston this past winter. 


I was so excited, that I hauled a** in the middle of a snow storm, dodged traffic, and climbed over snow banks just to pick some up. The inside of the shop was adorable and I loved their display. However, the menu was scarce and there wasn't much of a selection when it came to doughnut flavors. Upon much deliberation, I picked out the four best looking ones: Pineapple Habanero, Lemon Coconut, Wild Berry Bismark and Dark Chocolate-Pomegranate.


The Lemon Coconut was my favorite but quite frankly, I wish I didn't spend the money. I would have much preferred a donut from Dunkin's which would have also been roughly 1/3 of the price. Although, fair warning, I do have an unhealthy obsession with Dunks.


Anyways, back to the topic at hand. The doughnuts at Blackbird were way too sweet and it's very rare that I would say that about anything. I have a huge sweet tooth. Also, I probably wasn't supposed to eat the habanero garnish on the Pineapple Habanero doughnut but I did and what an awful flavor to be on a doughnut! Inventive, sure....but at what cost!? I will not be going back to this place and I suggest you don't either. Maybe I would be willing to try it again if they sent me a free box of dunks as compensation.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Oktoberfest

Who would have thought that Oktoberfest starts in September? Certainly not me. When I realized that tomorrow is the last day, and that it actually is October now, I thought it apropos to check the next thing off my cooking bucket list: homemade soft pretzels.


I started searching for recipes on the food network site and chose two recipes with five stars to decide from: Almost-Famous Soft Pretzels or Alton Brown's Homemade Soft Pretzels

Ultimately, I chose the latter due to the higher number of reviews and the lower butter content. Additionally, I used Blue Bonnet Vegetable Oil Spread instead of butter which I do often with recipes when trying to eat healthier. It doesn't seem to have a negative impact on taste whatsoever.


I start out by preparing the dough and separating it into 8 sections. The Sur La Table stainless steel dough scraper definitely came in handy for this step. Once the dough was rolled out, shaping the pretzels was somewhat of a challenge, being a perfectionist and all. I decided to pair the pretzels with a cheddar-hard apple cider sauce which I thought appropriate for both Oktoberfest and the time of year. Mangia! or should I say essen! 

       

The pretzels came out doughy on the inside and crisp on the outside. Delicious! However, they don't beat the buttery pretzels and their aroma from the mall. If that's what I wanted, maybe I should have tried the recipe with more butter. Oh the struggle of trying to eat healthier.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Fall Food Faves

A few weeks ago when it was 90 degrees out, I was looking forward to the fall. Now that it's freezing out, I have no idea why. Other than the food that is. Here is a list of my favorite fall retail food products. I'll admit, it's a cold Friday night and frankly I'd rather be eating my Bertolli soup than taking photographs so I kind of took these photos from the vendors' websites. I'm not entirely sure whether or not that was legal but please don't sue me, my favorite brands!?


Stonewall Kitchen Coconut Curry Simmering Sauce
I love Indian food and coconut but don’t always like coconut based sauces, especially ones that have that coconut water taste to them. That being said, I was a bit skeptical when Drew brought this home for the first time. However, I was very pleasantly surprised and it’s the only brand of Indian curries that Drew will buy or use despite the fact they’re a little pricey. In my opinion, they’re totally worth it and this is our favorite. It’s perfect on a  cold night with chicken, basmati rice and garlic naan. 

 

Stonewall Kitchen Pumpkin Pancake & Waffle Mix
I’m a huge pumpkin fan but getting a littttle sick of it considering there’s a pumpkin spice everything out there now. However, pumpkin waffles are one thing I can’t wait to have this fall and this is without a doubt the best mix. I’m thinking I may even purchase a pumpkin spice syrup to go along with them. I saw one in Crate & Barrel the other day. 

  

William Sonoma’s Parmesan Pumpkin Pasta Sauce
I was in Williams Sonoma a few years ago when they were cooking with their pumpkin pasta sauce. The sample I had was so delicious I had to ask how to make the recipe. It was a pasta and chicken bake with pan fried chicken in garlic & herb olive oil, mixed with pasta shells and globs of ricotta cheese. I bought the sauce at full price (which is rare for me) and made it a few nights later. Drew told me it was the best thing I’ve ever cooked and he’s not even a huge fan of pumpkin. Last year, Stop & Shop came out with their own Pumpkin Pasta sauce which wasn’t quite as good but it was decent and at 2/$5, it’s much more economical than the $16.95 that Williams Sonoma charges. 


Bertolli Tomato Florentine & Tortellini with Chicken Meal Soup
This is my absolute favorite frozen meal. It’s perfect for a cold Sunday night along with a slice of freshly baked Italian bread when all you want to do is relax before the upcoming work week. We’ve tried to make similar soups from scratch but none of them came out quite as good.


DownEast Cider House’s Original Cider
Ok so this one technically isn't a food, but can you blame me!? This past weekend, I took a tour of DownEast Cider house with some friends for one of their birthdays. It was it the middle of nowhere in East Boston, yet the place was packed. During the tour, we tried several flavors but I liked the original the best; so much so, that I went out and bought some from the local liquor store today. I can’t wait to have some during the next Patriot’s game.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Which Is Better...Blue Apron or HelloFresh?

I finally got around to trying out Blue Apron after bypassing several weeks when the menu looked less than spectacular. Prior to registering, it said they didn't start delivering to my area until two weeks later. This didn't seem right so I called and they told me they do deliver to my area but they were at capacity the following week. However, the woman I spoke with encouraged me to complete the registration so I didn't lose out on my Groupon and just keep skipping weeks until I was ready to use it. Easy enough. After registering, I found out that I could cheat the system and "unskip" the following week, thereby getting me the week I had wanted. Fingers crossed it would work and that it did.

Let me start off by saying that I was very disappointed by their packaging. All of the ingredients for all three meals were thrown all together in an iced bubble-wrap bag. No cute little boxes a la HelloFresh. This meant that it took more time to load everything into the fridge and to take everything out when it was time to start cooking. Doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose? The second disappointment was that the produce was covered in dirt. No big deal considering I would have washed it first anyways but it was not the best first impression. Strike number three was the fact that they only listed calorie content on their recipes as opposed to full nutritional information.


All of the meals looked good but the first one we tried, Cumin-Sichuan Beef & Noodles, was very mediocre at best. It might have tasted better with a different sauce. Next, we tried the Southern-Style Chicken Cacciatore which was actually very good. I knew at least one of the three meals had to be decent considering I have tried some of their recipes in the past with pleasant results (sans having them deliver the ingredients). The last recipe, for Sauteed Shrimp Sandwiches, was okay but a little too basic and nothing to write home about. The Celery Parmesan Salad that went along with it, however, was a creative spin on a salad that I would definitely make again.


Now that I've tried HelloFresh and Blue Apron, I can confidently say no thanks to Blue Apron. I had initially liked the fact that it was $10 less (per week) but the quality put forth by HelloFresh makes the higher price worth it. I'll definitely be ordering from HelloFresh again in the future. My favorite dish overall was their Plantain and Black Bean Tostadas with Pickled Red Onion


Next stop: Home Chef and Plated. Which one will come out on top? Stay tuned to find out and feel free to comment below to share your experiences with any of these meal delivery services.