Saturday, March 28, 2015

Tasty Travels: Melbourne

Melbourne park

In today's world of oversharing, it's almost an unwritten rule that you need to document everything that happens to you. Like they say, "photo, or it didn't happen." Sometimes I am really into that concept and other times I cannot be bothered. Last June--almost a year ago now--my husband and I went on our honeymoon to Australia for a month. We took a lot of photos like we normally do on trips. This time however, I was a little less concerned about capturing perfect shots, and getting all of the tourist appropriate photos, and more focused on enjoying myself. It was also so unlike me to hardly take any food photos. The trip was a much needed vacation after all of the wedding craziness. Australia was the perfect place to unwind and take in the beautiful sights and adventures. 

The only problem with Australia is that it is far from Canada. Like about 29 hours of traveling far. I can deal with sitting on one plane for a long period of time, but I hate transferring from plane to plane for short bursts of time. We flew from Ottawa to Toronto to Chicago to Sydney and then to Melbourne. There were times when you are sitting on a plane for 15 hours when it can drive you crazy if you let it. You actually lose a day of your life. 

The first stop of the trip was Melbourne. We wanted to start up from the near bottom of Australia and make our way up the coast. It would have been easier to fly into Sydney; everyone goes to Sydney. I wanted to see many aspects of Australia and Melbourne was on the list for sure. I would suggest anyone going to Australia make a stop there. To be honest, when we first arrived I didn't think the city seemed very "Australia" at all. It seemed like most other big cities. And seeing that we went in June, it was actually the middle of winter. At first, I was a little underwhelmed. Then I started to discover neat little pockets of the city--and all of its charm and culture--and realized that it ended up being my favourite city of the trip. 

Melbourne is located on the coastline of Victoria and has a population of about 5,000,000. If you were to compare major cities in Australia to Canadian cities, Melbourne would probably be Toronto and Sydney would be Vancouver. I would say it is probably the fashion, food, art and culture capital of Australia and the city knows it. You could say it is where the country's hipster culture resides. It has a lot of art galleries, restaurants, concerts and boutiques as well as a neat mix of architecture in the city centre and surrounding suburbs. 

On the first day we hopped on the free City Circle tram rides around the city with somewhat cheesy commentary of the sites. I usually feel bad for the first city we travel to because I'm either very jet lagged or just getting into the traveling rhythm. It takes a few days to adjust to any new situation, so I usually start of slow by going for a few walks around the city interspersed with adequate naps. 

Melbourne park

The above photos were taken in one of the neat parks of the city off of Federation Square, which is one of the main public, green spaces of the city. You know, the one every major city has usually smack in the middle of all of the business action. There is also a visitor centre, art gallery, theatre and restaurants in the square area. When I go to any new city I usually either check out the main market or the main square first. You will usually see and experience the hustle and bustle of the city's natural groove there. 

On one of the days we met my cousin for lunch in the Southbank area, another bustling Melbourne spot with the main focal point being a casino and entertainment complex. My cousin has lived in Melbourne with her husband and little boy for a few years now. It is also nice to know people in the cities you travel to so they can give you recommendations and suggestions of where to go. Catching up with someone you haven't seen in a long time is also nice, especially when you are somewhere unfamiliar. 

After a few days of getting over jet lag, we booked a day tour to Philip Island. Everyone I talked to about Melbourne said "you have to go see the penguin parade on Philip Island!" It is one of those essential--albeit completely tourist--things you have to see. Day trips are fun and penguins are cute, so we thought, why not? We hopped on a bus in the morning at a Melbourne tourist office and headed out for a day of activities. The penguin parade didn't actually start until the evening, so the tour made sure to fill the day with other things. 

The first stop was at the Moonlit Sanctuary about an hour outside of Melbourne. This was the typical Australia I was expecting. The sanctuary is a wildlife park where you walk around and see koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, dingoes and all sorts of other animals up close. See a koala and or kangaroo in the first few days of being in Australia: check! 

Koala bear, Australia

Moonlit Sanctuary, Australia

Moonlit Sanctuary

This precious dingo with only one eye was behind a fence. Obviously he's a little too dangerous to be walking around the park. The place is actually a sanctuary for rare and endangered animals--and not only a tourist attraction--so they take great care of the animals. The animals not behind fences are super friendly. 

Dingo, Moonlit Sanctuary

wallabies, Moonlit Sanctuary

You get bombarded with licks and nudges if you're holding a bag of food. As soon as we turned the corner of the first path, a group of wallabies emerged from the bushes ready to see our group. And you can't give all of the food to the first few animals you see. We had miles of animal paths to cover. I'm sure the animals also appreciate selfies and the many photos people take as appropriate affection. 

Moonlit Sanctuary, Australia

Moonlit Sanctuary, Australia

And yes, there is a difference between a wallaby and a kangaroo. Although they are both marsupials, kangaroos are much larger with longer legs. Wallabies usually have a lighter coat. Think of it like kangaroos being regular dogs and wallabies like corgis. You can definitely tell when the kangaroos jump toward you, like this guy:

Kangaroo, Australia

I know it's a rarity for me to take way more animals photos than food photos. It was Australia after all; it's the home of the Steve Irwin legacy and getting right up close to cool animals. Then there are the not-so-cute animals. Sorry Tasmanian devil, you are not the most appealing of the bunch. 

Tasmanian devil

After the sanctuary, we stopped at Phillip Island Chocolate Factory. It was another fun tourist attraction with exhibits about chocolate and chocolate goodies for sale shaped like penguins and koalas. I bought a few chocolates that I was going to give away when I got back. Unfortunately they smushed in my bag so I just HAD to eat them myself. 

Then, right before the penguin show started we saw the sunset near the beach where the penguins make their burrows. The coastline was pretty cold that night--it was winter--so we had to bundle up before going to see the penguins. The island covers about 100km and sees a lot of surfing activity as well as Grand Prix racing. 

Philip Island

Philip Island Australia

These are some of the burrows that the penguins find when they come in out of the water. You are probably wondering what the "penguin parade" actually entailed. Every day on the island, thousands of penguins emerge from the water and race along the sand to their burrows. It is quite literally a "parade" of penguins. 

penguin burrows Philip Island Australia

Philip Island Australia

It is one of the most bizarre tourist attractions I have ever seen. There were huge concrete bleachers set up on the beach with spotlights shining down on the water. Hundreds of people wait eagerly to see a glimpse of the penguins. The staff there have to make sure everyone is quiet when the penguins come and especially make sure no one takes any photos, which is why I have none. 

Mike and me were joking that it is like hundreds of people staring at you on your commute home and you being like "I just want to get home in peace, come on man!" The crowd freaked out when the first few penguins emerged in a group and then left into the sand. I was like "that was it?" Then more and more groups of penguins emerged. The best views we got were walking along the boardwalks and following the penguins instead of sitting on the bleachers. There is also a giant gift shop of everything penguin related you could ever want. 

Penguin Parade Philip Island

Philip Island Australia penguins

Melbourne has many other things to experience besides a penguin parade. Our hostel was right in the Fitzroy area, a suburb of Melbourne that has gone through an extreme gentrification. It is now the hipster spot to go to in my opinion, for shopping, cafes, restaurants, live music and bars. One of the main streets called Gertrude St is Melbourne's "street of the moment" according to Lonely Planet. Pretty much every night we were there we walked down into the neighbourhood and had a hard time deciding which place to choose. 

Melbourne's Chinatown is another neat place for food. The driver of the Philip Island tour dropped us off in Chinatown on the way back from the tour and we had dinner there that night. Lygon Street is another popular food destination with more pizza and pasta restaurants than you know how to deal with, as it is also the city's "Little Italy." You won't have a hard time finding good food in Melbourne--and you know how I feel about cities that deliver on that promise. 

Our hostel was across the street from the Melbourne Museum and was about a 10-15 minute walk from most things. Now here's where I tell you about the one somewhat bad thing that happened on our trip. That one bad thing also clouded my judgment of the place. We stayed at The Nunnery. For the most part it was a nice hostel, for a hostel. This trip sort of pointed out to me that I am over the whole hostel scene. It was a nice hostel, for a hostel. We got a private room with shared bathrooms.

At nighttime it was noisy, the bathrooms were not great and the room was just alright. Then on the second night Mike found bed bugs crawling along our bed. I discovered the next day that I had been bitten all over by the bed bugs and we had to wash every single item of clothing we brought--only a few days into our month-long trip. The staff moved us to a much nicer room in the guesthouse that was also much quieter. So yes, I am over the hostel thing now. I am getting too old to deal with it. I would much rather stay in cheap hotels than in a hostel again. At some point you are over that scene. 

Melbourne Museum

For that being the only bad thing to happen, we were lucky. I am always careful when traveling anywhere to avoid bad things like that happening to me. I hold my wallet a little closer, don't take my nice camera to certain places or only find licensed taxis because that's how I am. I would much rather over think things than have unexpected bumps in the road happen. I am an a-type, need things planned type of person who can also have fun. 

St. Kilda beach Melbourne

Speaking of fun, how awesome is it to take a 20 minute train ride to a gorgeous beach? Australia, I am so jealous. St. Kilda beach is another hot spot for beach goers, nightlife cravers and penguin seekers. Yes, they also have a penguin viewing area. Like I said, it was winter there when we went, but if this is what winter looks like then Canada could take a few hints. 

St. Kilda beach Melbourne

Sadly, this was the only food photo I took in Melbourne. I told you, I was less focused on the perfect food shot and more focused on animals, beaches and other cool things. This photo was of the sliders I had at Belle's Diner in Fitzroy. I recently read that they have re-branded themselves to be more of a fried chicken focused establishment. It was one of the many awesome places we visited in Melbourne, including these places listed below. Then it was off to Sydney, Cairns, Brisbane, Noosa and the Whitsunday Islands.

Belle's Diner Melbourne

Favourite Restaurants in Melbourne:

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Roasted beet pasta with Barilla pasta

Roasted beet pasta sauce

This was the meal I was going to make on Valentine's Day. For some reason, Valentine's Day also falls on the same weekend as Family Day in Canada. That means that most restaurants and hotels are packed that weekend and Valentine's Day celebrations seem to be overshadowed by other things. Maybe the "family" part is more important now than those gushy, Valentine's Day gimmicks. In the case of my schedule it was, as my parents were visiting from out of town that weekend. I suppose beets aren't the most romantic of foods when you think about it. 

Beet tart

When you do eventually have time to celebrate Valentine's Day alone or have a quiet night together, I would recommend not bringing up the subject of the "beet test" while you're eating something like this beet tart I made awhile back (pictured above). Did you know that you can discover the "transit time" of your digestion by eating beets? And guess why? Because of the bold colour. Although with our relationship, this is probably something we would laugh about because we're the type who aren't afraid to talk about each other's digestive habits. According to the "beet test," you should be "seeing red" within 24 hours otherwise your insides are too slow. 

Barilla products

I am not normally a gluten-free eater, but sometimes a break from carbs is probably good for digestion. And luckily, Barilla knows the key to my heart with lots of pasta. The Zeno Group mailed me this lovely assortment of pasta and healthy living gifts to try, including 3 boxes of Barilla Plus pasta, a Barilla apron, a Mediterranean Diet cookbook, some 2012 Dolce Vita Chianti wine by David Rocco, some Olive and Olives extra virgin olive oil, an ibitz family activity monitor and a copy of the new Living with Gusto magazine. Barilla strongly supports the Mediterranean diet with its emphasis on vegetables, fresh ingredients and a balanced diet. According to the Mediterranean diet pyramid, you should be eating 55% carbohydrates, 30% fats and 15% protein. 

With some of the Barilla rotini I made an eggplant stew from this Persian seared eggplant and tomato beef recipe. Although it's not quite a Mediterranean recipe, it was a hearty mix of meat, vegetables, protein (with a spicy yoghurt sauce) and carbohydrates with the gluten-free Barilla pasta. 

I like to think of myself as somewhat of a pasta connoisseur. When it came to the difference between regular and gluten-free pasta, I really couldn't really tell the difference between the two taste wise. Barilla's is a white pasta using a blend of corn and rice flour. The only downside I would say is that after a few days in the fridge, the leftovers with the gluten-free pasta don't seem to hold up as well as regular pasta. For my next dish, I was inspired by one of the beet pasta recipes they sent me for a Valentine's Day inspired menu. 

Barilla Plus pasta

I used Barilla penne pasta and inspiration from a few other beet pasta recipes that I searched. When I am developing recipes, I usually search for quite a few recipes of the same thing and take bits and pieces from each to make my own. This beet pasta uses roasted garlic, milk and cottage cheese to add some creaminess to the tartness and bold flavours of the beets. To be honest, beets aren't my all-time favourite vegetable. I don't eat them by themselves as much as I probably should. It might be the fear of getting the colour everywhere or the strong earthiness taste. Either way, I did enjoy this pasta dish, as I usually do with most pasta dishes. 

Beet pasta recipe

Roasted Beet pasta (adapted from this recipe)
3 medium sized beets, peeled and cut into slices
3 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves of garlic
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1/2 cup cottage cheese (or parmesan cheese)
1/2 cup milk (I used almond milk)
1/2 pound penne pasta
A splash of red wine
Oregano, thyme, salt and pepper to taste

Roasted beets

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. On a baking sheet with foil, toss the beets with olive oil, salt, pepper and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Wrap the garlic cloves in foil with a bit of olive oil. Roast the garlic and beets for about 30 minutes.
2. Transfer beets to a food processor with 1/4 cup cottage cheese, garlic and a bit of water or oil if the mixture is too thick to blend. 
3. Transfer the mixture to a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Add the milk and the splash of wine. Add the remaining cheese, sugar and seasoning. You can also use a potato masher to make the mixture smoother. Heat for a few minutes until everything is combined. 
4. Cook the pasta in boiling water until al dente. Add the beet sauce to the cooked pasta and sprinkle with a few more herbs and more cheese if you want.

Roasted beet sauce

As soon as the beet sauces hits the pasta, it turns a lovely pinkish, red colour. Alternatively, you could boil the pasta in a bit of beet water to get the same effect. Did you know that bakers sometimes use beet juice in red velvet desserts for colour? It's like an all-natural food colouring. 

Roasted beet pasta

So there you go. You get some romance, digestion talk and a neat pasta dish that will impress your special someone. I'm pretty sure pasta is the second or maybe third love of my life--have to include my cat in there too. Barilla has some great pasta recipes on their website you should try that you can "feel good about." 

Happy belated Valentine's Day!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

My favourite wedding day details

I think my friends are starting to get sick of me talking about weddings. I know after my wedding I didn't want to look at anything wedding related for a long time. Then I found out our wedding was featured in Wedding Bells magazine 2015 edition and I was thrilled. I was an intern at the magazine ages ago and wrote quite a lot of wedding-related articles, so I was excited that my actual wedding could be in the magazine. It was featured on a one-page spread in the print edition and on the "Real Weddings" section of the website.

We were engaged for 5 years. That sounds like a long time for some people, but it just seemed to work for us at the time. Or original venue fell through, so we took a break from planning for a bit to take our time finding somewhere else--life got in the way a bit--and we just rode out the whole engagement thing for awhile. We were both cool with that. One thing that started to drive me crazy was that being engaged for long meant so many wedding ideas went through my head during that time. After so many back and forths, Pinterest boards, decisions and drafts, I think we came up with something that resembled us very well.

Recently, I started doing some D.I.Y projects to preserve some of those wedding memories. I printed out a bunch of photos and put them in an album that I really need to put one of our photos on the front because the stock image photo reminds me of "Gone Girl" for some reason. My parents got us a beautiful wooden keepsake box for Christmas with photos on the side that I have stored some momentos from the day inside, such as a dried piece of my bouquet, our invitation and some jewellery. It's as close to a "wedding shrine" that I will ever get. I believe they were called "hope chests" back in the day.

I wanted to share some of the details from the day in well, more detail. I had Excel spreadsheets going of my planning, projects and budget. After all of the work, I really did enjoy the process--as overwhelming and nerve wracking as it was. There were a few things I maybe wanted to splurge on but couldn't bring myself to go overboard; it was just one day after all. I also wanted to do a lot of the things myself instead of buying them to save money and add a bit of personal touch. It wasn't meticulously put together or elaborately planned by a designer and that is alright.

Obviously, after everything was said and done my favourite details weren't actually the details themselves. My favourite part was the people I shared the day with and the people who helped me along the way. Everyone was willing to pitch in and was eager to help and as stubborn as I can be sometimes, I welcomed the extra input. Here's a bit of a breakdown of some of the wedding day details:

For my invitations, I turned to Minted's Wedding Stationery. I mean, how do you ever choose on that site? There were so many options, from rustic to classic to bold to formal and you can customize each element of the invitation like the colour, type of paper, envelope and liner. The invitation is supposed to set the stage for the event, so I wanted something fun, rustic and slightly vintage-looking. I chose the "bud and blossom" design from Minted. Also, I realized afterwards that supposedly the bride's name should come first? I just put our names based on how people usually refer to us: "Mike and Laura."

Minted buds and blossom wedding invitation

Once the invitations were sent out and the venue booked, it was time to start in on the smaller details. You know where a good place is to find great little things for decorations, accessories and D.I.Y projects? Etsy. One store in particular, Create my Fete, came to the rescue when it came to favour bags and paper straws. I wanted Kraft paper everything and since it happens to be in style now with rustic weddings, some of the options were quite pricey. Etsy has some great options though, so I would recommend hunting through there before turning to some bigger online stores. For the place cards, I bought a stack of Kraft paper from Michael's and cut cards out from them and hand wrote people's names on them.

Mint polkadot paper straws

Kraft paper striped favour bags

The candy bar was my piece de resistance of the reception room. After going to many weddings, I knew I definitely wanted a candy bar. I incorporated some of the cake stands and dishes I already had in my kitchen with some new additions from the Dollar Store. I wanted to add some height to it, so I used a wooden crate as the middle base and then smaller baskets to elevate the galvanized buckets. Going to Bulk Barn to get the candy a few days before the wedding was so much fun. We ended up with far too much candy afterwards even with all of the guests taking bags home.

Rustic vintage wedding candy bar table

Another place I found some neat wedding finds was WeddingStar. They have all sorts of cute accessories, favours and wedding products at reasonable prices. I even bought our Save the Date cards from them:

These vintage typewriter place card holders were a neat find and instead of using them for place cards, I used them to hold various signs that I had set up for "sweets," "sips" and "signatures." I also bought some blue mason jars to add some colour to the rustic feel. You have to have mason jars at a rustic wedding.

WeddingStar vintage typewriter place card holder

As you may have noticed too, we decided on long tables instead of smaller, round tables. I loved the idea of "harvest tables" and people all sitting together. Since it was a small wedding, everyone fit at two long tables plus the head table. It added to the intimate feeling I think. I bought the burlap from a fabric store for the table runners. My husband painstakingly sewed the edges of all the burlap with a sewing machine so it would look nice. He is a much better sewer than I am. 

I knew the four-course meal that the venue made for us would be a lot of food, so we opted for the candy bar and a few little desserts instead of a huge cake. When I heard about Boomf, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. They make marshmallows out of your Instagram photos! I also heard later that it was owned by Kate Middleton's brother, so you could say our wedding had a bit of a "royal" touch. Boomf recommends using lighter rather than darker photos so they show up better on the marshmallows and you can see how some of them are a bit harder to figure out what they are than others. They were still a neat touch to the dessert table. And of course, I had to have my favourite French macarons from Le Petit Bon Bon on there too. 

Boomf marshmallows

Le Petit Bon Bon macarons

To get that "rustic, vintage" wedding feel, you have to do a little vintage shopping. I mean, there are a lot of vintage-inspired wedding things out there now and you can certainly get the look without stepping into an antique store. It is nice to have some kind of heirloom or actual vintage piece to tie everything together though. Luckily, I heard about a vintage wedding rental company that was going out of business (well, not so lucky for her I guess) and was selling off some of the props. One cold night in November, I drove an hour out of town after work to see what she had in her barn--the things I will do for vintage. I ended up buying some old signs, crates, frames, windows and tables for a great price. A friend gave me a bunch of vintage tea cups to use.

vintage tea cups

Guess where my mother-in-law found these glass vases for the tables? From salad dressing bottles. She saved every glass salad dressing bottle from the previous year so I could use them for the centrepiece flowers. They were gorgeous with a bit of baby's breath and ribbon tied around. Seriously though, that's the secret to some of this wedding stuff. As long as it looks good--and you like it--it doesn't matter whether it came from the dollar store, a garage sale or the grocery store. 

Baby's breath and jar

I re-painted the signs with our names on it to put outside of the reception venue. My father-in-law did some handy work to put the sign and the old windows together so it would fold out as a seating chart. I wrote everyone's names on the windows with a Sharpie and stuck old photos onto the wood. We also displayed old photos of our parent's and grandparent's wedding days. For our "guest book," we had a Jenga set with some coloured markers for guests to sign their names.

Wooden wedding sign

Vintage window seating chart

As you can tell already, we did a lot of D.I.Y projects for the wedding, even down to the wedding rings that we made ourselves. I really did enjoy doing all of these projects though. I've documented them in previous blog posts, including the seat signs and chalkboard frames. For the table numbers, I glued some postcards of places we have traveled to cardboard numbers that I found at the Dollar Store. Since we had long tables, we didn't really have "tables" per se. They were more guidelines for where people were grouped.

wedding menu chalkboard frame

Mr and Mrs wedding seat signs

One of the big debates was around the chairs for the reception. I'm sorry to the chair cover lovers of the world out there. I hate chair covers. They work for some rooms, but not for me. I would say this was the closest thing to an "argument" we had over wedding things. The venue offered us chairs included, however they wanted us to use chair covers as the chairs by themselves were not nice looking. I love the look of folding chairs. We were worried that for people to sit so long in folding chairs would not be ergonomically nice to them. And to rent extra chairs instead of using the ones the venue had would be extra money. I am glad I splurged on the extra white folding chairs and also glad that they had cushioning on the seats. I had to put my foot down for that one. In the end, like most wedding things, it all worked out well.

I don't know if I have even talked about all the details. I can't even remember half of the things now because all I remember was enjoying the day. It has also been quite a few months now since we were married. As tempting as it is to only focus on the party aspect of the wedding with all of the reception details, it is also important to remember the ceremony too--as well as what everyone is going to wear.

Once I had the dress, all of the other fashion details fell into place. I was intrigued by this necklace on Anthropologie by its crafty, vintage flair. I knew it would be a statement piece, so I didn't go for anything else too flashy with the jewellery. On the day of the wedding, my Mom gave me an antique brooch from my Great Grandmother that I pinned to my bouquet; it was a complete surprise. My mother-in-law also gave me an heirloom engagement ring from their family to wear.

Anthropologie necklace

My dress was a White by Vera wang a-line lace dress from David's Bridal. As you can see, it looks quite different on a model than a real person. When I tried it on, I loved how it fit me like a glove. It's not the flashiest, puffiest dress of all time. I thought it matched my personality and the style of the wedding. You can't really wear a ballgown to a barn wedding anyway. 

White by Vera wang wedding dress

The lace bolero, also White by Vera Wang, was a last minute addition. When I went back to pick up my dress after it had been altered, my parents noticed the bolero in the store and thought I should try it on. It seemed to match so perfectly with the dress and complete the whole look. My bouquet was made of lovely, blue hydrangeas. The corsages for the Moms were made up of baby's breath. 

White by Vera Wang lace bolero

And we can't forget about the groom's fashion. The dapper groom wore a suit from Sidonio's for Men in Guelph, Ontario with a blue tie from Moores and suspenders from Le Chateau. My Mother-in-law and I made his boutonnière the day before the wedding with some of the lavender and baby's breath we bought for the tables. That is some Pinterest-worthy D.I.Y inspiration:

D.I.Y baby's breath boutonniere

I also loved this "bride" shirt from J Crew that I wore on the day of the wedding to get ready in and the day after at breakfast. It was nice that many of the guests were able to join us the next day after all of the wedding hype had died down. I think everyone genuinely enjoyed themselves. 

J Crew bride shirt

Don't be fooled: wedding planning is a lot of work. Is it worth it? I would say it's worth it to make something you are both happy with, but not worth it enough to kill yourself with stress over. Enjoy the process and most of all, enjoy the day as much as you can. 

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