Writing or Querying? Try Road-tripping.

We all know that it’s a good idea to step away from the computer sometimes. But it’s so tempting when it’s right there, isn’t it? Especially when you’ve gotten in the habit of writing or revising every day, or when an agent might be tweeting something relevant. *coughs*

A couple of weeks ago, I decided I needed to physically step away (farther than across the room from my dear, darling laptop). Luckily for me, the timing was perfect to drive out to Wisconsin with my four-year-old twins to visit family, so we got the little Scion xA all gassed up and ready to go.

One of the best things about a road trip? Road trip food that’s different from what we get at home:

The trip couldn’t have been better. Not just the visit with family, which is always fun and doesn’t happen often enough, but the open road, the freedom, the time to think. (Yes, one can even think with two preschoolers in the back of a Very Small Car, having provided them with books, favorite stuffed animals, and the music of their choice.)

Of course I brought my laptop along (duh), but I used it sparingly. Instead, I read books (when not driving), scribbled outline notes on my next WIP in my notebook, and listened to my own music when it was my turn: Beethoven, Sigur Rós, Utada Hiraku. So peaceful, so free!

Now that I’m back, I’m digging back into drafting, but it sure seems like fun again after stepping away. Highly recommended!

Tagged!

The fabulous Jaye Robin Brown tagged me and some of the #wipmadness crew with a new set of questions in the latest question-asking tag game passing through the interwebs: http://jayerobinbrown.blogspot.com/2012/02/tag-youre-it.html

Her five evil questions aren’t actually all that evil:

1. What is the  best meal you’ve ever eaten – what, when, and where.

Not evil, but wow, this is a hard question for a foodie! I’ve had delicious meals here in Boston (most recently a five-course tasting menu at Upstairs on the Square in Harvard Square, drool), in Austria (bone marrow soup! Wienerschnitzel!), and Iceland (is it bad that we tried whale?), among other places. But hands down, some of the best foods I’ve ever tried were in Spain, and so here’s a photo of one of my favorite dishes we had last year, arroz a banda, a rice cooked in seafood broth and then served with the fish and of course aioli.

2. What is your earliest memory?

I was about three years old, and I’d wandered out into the tall weeds behind the house–well above my head–and before I knew it I was alone. I’d never been lost, and had never been completely alone. It both thrilled and terrified me, and I remember tingling with excitement. After reveling in my independence for a few minutes, I turned around and went home, feeling like I’d been forever changed.

3. If given your choice of a secret rendezvous with any fictional hottie – who would you choose?

Don’t laugh. But the love interest in my current WIP is about my favorite ever. I’d pick him over any fictional hottie right now.

4. What is your favorite joke?

OK, this question is a little evil. I guess I’m a fan of the oldie-but-goodie about the three strings who walk into a bar and end up with a frayed knot.

5. Pick three words to describe yourself (one is just too hard!)

Persistent, energetic, and open-minded

So! For the next part of the tagging, I have to hit up three other friends with five more questions. I’d love to hear answers from:

Kerri Maniscalco: http://kerrimaniscalco.com/

Elodie: http://commutinggirl.wordpress.com/

Ruth L. Steven: http://ruthlaurensteven.blogspot.com/

Without further ado, my questions:

1. Keeping with the foodie theme, what’s your signature dish? Something you make that blows people away and that you luuuuurve.

2. If you could be any fictional character, whose story would you want to live?

3.  If you won a magical trip to any destination and had to use the setting in your next novel, where would you go?

4. Your favorite five authors. Go!

5. What music are you listening to while working on your current WIP?

Writing Retreat of Dreams!

Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway’s contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question that begs to be answered. In the comments, you can hop from destination to destination and get everybody’s unique take on the topic.

This Week’s Topic:

Describe your dream writing retreat. Where would you go? Who and what would you bring?

This topic is something I think about a LOT. Like many others, I squeeze writing into my daily life, and the idea of a writing retreat conjures up all kinds of images of productivity. Who wouldn’t want a a honeymoon with a WIP instead of a quickie?

Thus a dream retreat for me would really be anywhere that provided stretches of alone-time, plenty of tasty food and caffeinated beverages, and the opportunity for literary discussion, all in an inspiring setting.

The place that best fits the bill for me? Ronda, Spain:

Specifically, I’d choose the HOTEL REINA VICTORIA (http://www.hotelreinavictoria.es/es/hotel-ronda/main), a place that offered the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke the peace and inspiration he needed to write.

I’d bring my laptop of course, a stack of books, and a notebook and pencil for scribbling in the garden. I’d love to have a group of writerly friends along too, for those literary discussions after productive writing sessions. Anyone with me?

A Visit to the Hub

Bostonians can thank Oliver Wendell Holmes for a nickname that stuck. He dubbed the State House “the hub of the solar system” back in 1858, and people still call Boston “the hub of the universe” today.

So why is this relevant for tourists? Boston is an awesome place to live, but it’s also a great place to visit. Now that visiting season is gearing up–the three months it’s actually warm and pleasant here–it’s a good time to take a look at ten must-see highlights.

  1. Fenway Park. The oldest baseball park in the country, and the home of the Boston Red Sox. Tickets are hard to come by, but you can try www.stubhub.com or at least take a tour of the park and grab a beer at Boston Beer Works.
  2. Newberry Street. Perfect for people-watching and window-shopping. Set yourself up at a café  like Sonsie and watch the world go by.
  3. Public Garden. Especially if you’ve got kids along, you can’t miss a ride on the swan boats and a visit to the duckling statues made famous in Robert McCloskey’s MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS.
  4. Canoeing on the Charles River. Rent a canoe or kayak for an hour or more and paddle along the river between Boston and Cambridge: http://www.paddleboston.com/main.php
  5. Museums. Depending on what type of peeps you come with, consider hitting the Boston Children’s Museum, the Science Museum, the Museum of Fine Art, or the Aquarium.
  6. Freedom Trail. Don’t miss the trail marked in red paint that leads you to many of the historic sites from the American Revolution: http://www.thefreedomtrail.org/ Visit everything from the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown to the Paul Revere House and Old North Church in the North End, then treat yourself to a delicious cappuccino and tiramisu in Caffe Vittoria on Hanover Street or have a pizza at the famous Pizzerina Regina on Thatcher Street.
  7. Quincy Market. Tourists love Quincy Market with good reason. Fun shops and a whole hall full of tasty restaurants on one end, and the historical Fanueil Hall (also on the Freedom Trail) on the other.  Head around the corner for a fresh Guinness at the Purple Shamrock or raw oysters at the (likewise historical) Union Oyster House.
  8. Chinatown. Right beside the theater district you’ll find scores of authentic restaurants, bakeries and shops well worth a visit.
  9. The T. Boston is a very walkable city, but don’t miss a ride on our subways that also go above ground in places. One of the best views of Boston is when crossing the river to Cambridge on the salt-and-pepper bridge.
  10. Trolley tour or duck boat. A great way to get your bearings in the city when you first arrive, but make sure you get off it and into the streets yourself when you finish!
Have a great visit in the Hub!

Horchata: a Valencian specialty

Let’s face it: most tourists who visit Spain head for Barcelona, Madrid, or Seville. These three beautiful cities have a lot to offer, including a lot of great food and drink.

But Valencia, the third-largest city in Spain, is likewise a great place to visit. For starters, it’s now connected to Madrid with the high-speed AVE train, cutting the travel time down to well under two hours. It’s on the Mediterranean coast, with a compact “old city” downtown, surrounded by a huge ring of colorful neighborhoods and attractions such as the modern City of Arts and Sciences. Farther out of town you’ll find la albufera, a watery reserve where rice for the famous paella valenciana grows – and where you can spend several hours in one of the local restaurants enjoying one of the best rice dishes you’ll ever taste.

Besides paella, Valencia is known for another specialty: horchata. This sweet and milky drink is made from the chufa, or “tiger nut,” and is definitely worth trying. Tucked away in the Plaza Santa Catalina in the city center are a couple of establishments which specialize in the drink. My favorite – both for atmosphere and taste – is the Horchateria Santa Catalina. Small marble tables dot both the downstairs and upstairs, and colorful blue and white tiles decorate the walls, making it the perfect place to take a break from shopping and sightseeing.

Along with your horchata, be sure to order a plate of fartóns. Not only is the word a lot of fun to say, these soft bread sticks covered in powdered sugar are the perfect complement to your milky beverage.

¡Buen provecho!

Ensaladilla Rusa

I’d have a hard time picking a favorite tapa in Spain – so many delicious ones to choose from! But ensaladilla rusa – “little Russian salad” – is definitely up there on my list, especially because it’s slightly different in each bar you visit, but always delicious.

Another bonus: you can pretty easily get most of the ingredients in the US to prepare it at home. It’s also fun to prepare with kids. You can do all the prep work and chopping, and then each child can add in some of the prep bowls of ingredients and help with the mixing.

What you need:

  • 2-3 large potatoes
  • 2 small or 1 large can of tuna in olive oil (spring for the good stuff from Spain if you can)
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs
  • 2 large carrots
  • 1 cup of peas (frozen ones – defrosted obviously – hold their color well)
  • 1/2 of a small sweet onion
  • 1 can/jar of white asparagus
  • 1 can of anchovy-filled olives (you can usually find the Goya ones)
  • olive oil to taste
  • sherry vinegar to taste
  • salt to taste

1. First, get going on the prep work. Peel and slice the potatoes into small cubes, and the carrots into small slices.

2. Boil the potatoes, eggs, and carrots (in separate pots), and heat up the peas in the microwave. When the eggs are boiled, cut them in half, reserve the egg yolks, and finely chop the whites.

3. Finally, finely chop up the onion, and set aside in a small dish. Open the cans of tuna, olives, and asparagus, and finely chop half of the olives.

4. Ready to combine! Begin with the potatoes in a large bowl, and then add in the carrots, peas, tuna, onion, chopped egg whites, and chopped olives.

5. Add dressing and season. You’ll need a ratio of about 3/4 olive oil and 1/4 sherry vinegar. Pour it right into the bowl along with a couple of pinches of salt, and then continue to add whichever of these three you need to taste.

6. Spoon out the mixture into a serving dish or platter, then top with the remaining full olives, white asparagus, and crumbled egg yolks.

¡Delicioso!

a visit to dubai

A few months ago, I had the chance to hop over for Dubai for two weeks for work. Who was I to say no? I’m always up for going someplace new.

And now that I’ve been there, everyone’s been asking me, “Dubai! So what was it like?”

My reply is generally, “It was … interesting,” followed by any number of details, depending on the audience:

  • It was perfect weather in January – sunny and 85 degrees pretty much every day (in the summer, apparently not so nice, unless you like it hot-hot-hot).
  • Amaaaaazing souks, with just about any beautifully exotic trinkets you could want: scarves, spices, shirts, jasmine perfume (my favorite!), and tons of gold jewelry. You can definitely get some deals if you know how to bargain.
  • Delicious food, especially Indian, Pakistani, and Moroccan. Not exactly the best places for the squeamish as far as cleanliness of eating establishments goes, but you can test out your stomach of iron here.
  • No alcohol. No kidding.
  • My co-workers and I were pretty much the only women we saw out on the streets. And I couldn’t figure out where the kids go to play – didn’t see a single playground.
  • All that half-finished construction makes it feel a bit like a ghost town. Besides the Burj Dubai towering over the rest, there are dozens of other high-rises downtown, but it sure looks odd when you get up closer and see that so many of them aren’t close to done, and that they are surrounded by abandoned cranes. Will they ever be finished?

Let’s face it – it’s this last point that makes current-day Dubai so distinctive. Several articles have been written about the high level of bankruptcies and desertions, and the sad state some of the guest workers are in – who came there to work and are now stuck there, many without work. Seeing all those empty and unfinished buildings definitely hits it home, since these signs of the economy’s downturn here are too big to hide.

    best croissants in boston

    I’m always skeptical when I hear from someone that this or that bakery actually has real croissants, like they have in this little place called France.

    So far I’ve only come across one place that meets that bill in Boston, and, well, I haven’t come across any others in other parts of the US. Please shout out if you’ve found one somewhere, and I’d be happy to try it out (road trip!).

    First off, you can rule out grocery store bakeries, even those like the unique Trader Joe’s, which has many delicious things, but not authentic croissants.

    I heard about a couple of bakeries in Arlington that supposedly had European-style croissants, but they just didn’t do it for me:

    • Quebrada: good butter ratio, but too dense and heavy, more like a flaky roll than a croissant
    • Bella Moto: nice and flaky, but waaay too much butter – these things were greasy!

    Nope, there’s still only one place for me, even though it often means waiting in a long line outside of the store on a cold or rainy day. Clear Flour in Brookline, right over the border from Allston: http://www.clearflourbread.com/

    Oh … my … God … get me some of those croissants!

    Tortilla Española

    In honor of Spain making it to the World Cup final (¡que viva la roja!),  I made a few tapas for us to nibble on during the game.

    Every time I make a tortilla, I am amazed how six of the most simple ingredients in the world can come together to become something so delicious. All it takes is:

    • potatoes (3 large)
    • eggs (8 large)
    • onion (about 2/3 of a medium-sized one)
    • garlic (1 large clove)
    • olive oil
    • salt

    Not only is it made up from simple ingredients, but it’s pretty quick and super-easy to prepare. The only challenging part is the flipping. We’ll get to that in a minute.

    The first thing to do is to prepare the potatoes. Peel and wash them, and then cut into small thin slices. With a large potato, cut it in half lengthwise, and then cut each half in half lengthwise (so you have 4 long quarters), and then just start slicing away.

    Start heating up a pot of olive oil on high temperature when you start slicing the potatoes, so that it’s hot and ready as soon as the potatoes are. The oil has to be deep enough to cover the potatoes, so make sure your pot is deep enough.

    Get all the potatoes in the pot, and then carefully scrape the bottom of the pot so that things don’t start sticking right away. You’ll need to do that every few minutes to make sure all your slices are evenly cooked and that none of them are sticking to the bottom of the pot.

    Once they’re on the stove, dice your onion and finely chop your garlic. Your’re ready for your nonstick frying pan now. The size of the pan is important here too – I use a 10-inch pan, which is perfect for an 8-egger with the proportions listed above. Grab about 2 tablespoons of olive oil from your potato pot (reuse, recycle), and coat the bottom of your frying pan, and set it on medium-high heat. Throw in the onion and garlic, and just give the pan a shake every now and then to make sure it’s not burning. Don’t forget about checking on the potatoes!

    Things are starting to come together now, so it’s time to prepare the last 2 ingredients. Crack your 8 eggs into a large bowl, beat them with a wisk, and then add a good heaping teaspoon of salt. This is a little hard to judge at first, since you can’t taste it in the raw eggs, and you can definitely adjust to taste the next tortilla you make, so make a not of how much you put in if you are the sort who measures.

    By now, the potatoes and onions/garlic should be done, so carefully spoon them all into the egg mixture (use a straining spoon for the potatoes so you don’t take the whole pot of oil with you), and stir up your mixture a bit before pouring it into the pan.

    Add another 2 tablespoons of your potato-oil into your frying pan, and then pour everything right in. Give it a stir or two with a wooden spoon and then pat it down to settle it into a good position. It should still move slightly at the edges when you give it a little shake – this will be important for the flipping. Start it off on medium-high heat, and then reduce it to medium once you flip.

    And the flip! This is pretty much the only time when you can mess up your tortilla, so good luck! Once you start to see browning at the edges or smell cooked potatoes, you know it’s time to flip. You’ll need a fairly light plate that is the same diameter as your frying pan to cover the pan. Place the plate over the pan, and flip the tortilla right onto the plate. If all went well, you can place the pan back on the stove, add a bit more oil if you have a free hand, and then slide in the flipped tortilla, uncooked side down in the pan.

    However, there are times when things can go terribly wrong:

    • You could get burned by the pan, oil, or tortilla. To avoid this, you can place a towel on the top of the arm holding the plate. It definitely helps with minor accidents.
    • Tortilla on floor, stove, or everywhere. Sigh. This happens to everyone from time to time, especially if you are on the tiny side and your tortilla is heavy. To avoid this, you can ask a bigger friend to help you out. This is the one part I ask my Spanish husband to help me out with often. Additionally, you can normally repair missing chunks of tortilla by sliding them back into the pan underneath the main chunk of tortilla.
    • Huge chunks of tortilla on floor, stove, or everywhere. If the above doesn’t help, you can quickly beat up another egg and use it as glue to pull the chunks you’ve gathered back together in the pan. Obviously this should only be attempted if you have a very clean stove or floor, or if you don’t really like the people you’ve invited over.

    ¡Buen provecho!

    a coffee addict’s dream

    If you find yourself in Spain with a hearty coffee addiction, you will feel like you’ve finally come home.

    To begin with, the sheer number of coffee varieties will amaze and astound. I’m not talking about the double-shot-grande-no-foam types of choices, but a panoply of completely different ways to transform a simple espresso into something magnificent. Choices include:

    • café solo (espresso – the simplest and sometimes most delicious choice)
    • café cortado (espresso cortado, or “cut” with milk)
    • café con leche (espresso with milk – similar to a latte, this is the typical breakfast drink in Spain)
    • café bonbon (espresso with sweetened condensed milk)
    • café del tiempo (espresso served over ice)

    If for some terrible reason you must resign yourself to a decaffeinated coffee, never fear. Ask for a café descafeinado and when they ask you de máquina o de sobre (“from the machine or a packet”), make sure to request de máquina, and you might not even be able to tell the difference.