Winter is Coming ...

For a girl who grew up in year-round flip-flop weather, winter can be a daunting thing. What's to love about piling on thick layers on a daily basis and having to trudge through the gray slush that collects on Manhattan's streets after snow and grime mingle and mate, after all? I bitterly suffered through New York's blisteringly cold winters for years—until I found something to love about it.

A few years ago, as part of my 30 Before 30 Project, I fastened my feet onto a snowboard for the very first time. I went home that day with a bruised rib and a battered ego, but also with a firm resolve to conquer those slopes. So as soon as the next season started, I bought a full set of gear and just went for it.

I was lucky to have a group of similarly enthused friends, so we spent practically every weekend snowboarding and, little by little, I went from a rag doll flopping wildly down the mountain to a girl just happily breezing her way (and only occasionally unintentionally cartwheeling) down the slopes.

A friend of mine once told me that she'd read in the book The Happiness Project that one of the ways to stay happy is to constantly improve at something. I see the truth of that. It made a world of a difference to have snowboarding to escape to every weekend. On those slopes, the burdens of daily life did not weigh heavy on my mind; it was just me getting to know the board and the mountain. With every toeside turn nailed and links finally done right came a sense of accomplishment—a high that would stay with me long until after I'd unstrapped that board from my feet.

When I think about the girl who used to whimper at the sight of snow, she seems like someone from another life. Now, I can hardly wait to rekindle my romance with those snow-covered mountains.

The moral of the story: Find something to love in whatever seemingly interminable situation you're in. Do that well enough and not only will you forget what was so unbearable about the situation in the first place—you might even start to enjoy that challenge-filled time of your life.

Summer in November: Escaping to the Dominican Republic

In the midst of all the crazy weather that hit New York, we slipped away for a much-needed Caribbean getaway.

What I experienced of the Dominican Republic, I found enthralling. In some ways, it is almost disconcertingly similar to the Philippines. The aquamarine waters and tropical vegetation could be on any of our 7,000+ islands. The concrete structures lining the streets of the barrios and the neighborhood folks hanging out on corner stores were reminiscent of rural towns back home, too. Even Cabarete's bustling, right-smack-on-the-beach nightlife could easily be mistaken for that of Boracay. 
But the local culture and flavor, from the unending medley of merengue and bachata on the radio, to the rich Caribbean cooking—all of that is unmistakably Dominican. Shopping for groceries was endlessly fascinating, and feasting on everything fresh and local was sublime.
We were lucky enough to have a lot of authentic home-cooked food. But the meal that really stood out for me was at La Casita de Don Alfredo. I loved the Shrimp a la Papi, in particularthat massive cast iron pan of juicy whole shrimps swimming in buttery cream sauce was positively decadent and delightful. 

The trip was far too short to squeeze in everything that I would have wanted to do so I am dying to come back. I didn't know that Cabarete has very good surfing and unfortunately, we just weren't prepared to catch some waves—so a quick escape to the DR to surf is on my to-do list. This agenda item is bolstered by the fact that the DR is one in a (frustratingly short) list of countries that Filipino citizens living in the US can visit on a whim, as we can simply get a tourist card upon arrival. It's a travel advantage I definitely plan on taking advantage of again the next time I hear the call of summer.

For more information on this lovely part of the Dominican Republic, click here.

Um Segredo: New York's Secret Dinner Party

Better late than never. 

Last Saturday, we were fortunate enough to join the last of chef David Santos' Um Segredo Supper Parties. Chef David, a Per Se and Bouley alum, has been spinning magic out of his home for some time, hosting secret dinner parties that have earned raves from beginning to end. I had been stalking his themed menus for months, salivating over the uni-focused night and wishing I had a seat at the Ferdinand Magellan-themed dinner (for which there was a suckling pig shout out to the Philippines, despite the great Portuguese explorer's meeting his demise on our shores at the hand of our local hero, Lapu Lapu). This was the last Um Segredo dinner to be held in David's home before he brings his vision to the larger public at last with his restaurant Louro (funded in part by this successful Kickstarter campaign), which opens on December 1st.

The journey to the secret location felt like a scavenger hunt, with a scenic tram ride and a bit of wandering through unfamiliar territory before we finally came upon that candlelit path to culinary heaven.
Our group was quickly christened "The Puppies" as we were the youngest and least experienced of the lot—and by the latter, I mean that we were the only Um Segredo virgins among a table of regulars. As one delightful plate after another was placed in front of us, not only did we understand why these folks kept coming back for more—we also wished fervently that we had gotten to partake in more of those wonderful dinners.

The meal began with freshly baked bread and what has to be one of the most addictive dipping sauces my taste buds have ever encountered. That little ramekin with olive oil, garlic, herbs, duck fat and copious amounts of pepper was so delicious, I could've bathed in it. Chef David explained that pepper used to be a very precious commodity to the Portuguese, so the amount of pepper one lavished on food was indicative of one's wealth. For his dinners, Chef David usually uses lardo in the dip—but this being game night, he thoughtfully gathered up duck fat to put into our dipping sauce. It was love at first bite, I tell you, and a mere indication of wonderful things to come. 
The six-course dinner menu consisted of the following:
  • Venison carpaccio with rosemary, juniper, mache and cranberries—my favorite plate of the night partly because it showcased the quality of game meat we were being served but mostly because fresh raw meat is one of my favorite things in life. The venison was very delicate and tender—not as gamey as I thought it would be. Absolutely lovely.
  • Striped bass with tempura scallion, leeks and beet foam—a plate that came with a lovely historic tidbit:  Did you know that tempura originated in Portugal? Now you do.
  • Partridge with wild mushrooms, onion puree and thyme pan perdu—the most unusual and prized of game birds, the meat was extremely flavorful. I was particularly enamored with what I dubbed "country fried partridge." I woke up with the smell of battered and deep fried partridge still in my hair and salivated immediately.
  • Mallard Duck on a forbidden rice risotto with kale, spiced honey and paprika foam—a close contender for my favorite dish of the night, with the perfectly cooked duck suffused with a smokey taste resting on that sublime spiced foam and a bed of nutty-flavored forbidden rice.
  • Hare "Shepherd's Pie" with baby vegetables and a garlic potato froth—our group's most anticipated dish did not disappoint though unfortunately, my stomach did, as I was too stuffed by then to give that bowl the cleaning out it deserved. Chef David explained how he had used his grandma's technique of boiling the hare in vinegar and water to draw out the gaminess. As a result, we had tender shredded hare underneath an airy garlic potato froth. So lovely on a chilly fall night with my glass of (BYOB) Malbec. 
  • Apple roasted cinnamon crumble and caramel ice cream—despite not being a sweet tooth, I was able to locate some back up stomach space for every last lick of this dessert. Chef David served hot tea and strong coffee to go with our final treat.
It was such a privilege to be part of one of Chef David's phenomenal dinners, and I am so excited to see what he'll bring to Louro's tables once the restaurant opens in a few weeks. He assured us that he plans on having more Um Segredo dinners in the future, but in the meantime his focus will be on Louro. I look forward to seeing what his new endeavor brings—but when Um Segredo returns, you can be sure I'll be at that table sooner rather than later.

Autumn Hike: Stairway to Heaven

The last Saturday of October felt like the last carefree and beautiful day of fall.

I spent that day hiking on a section of the Appalachian Trail called Stairway to Heaven with some friends. Superstorm Sandy was looming on the horizon and we realized it would probably be our last chance to enjoy the outdoors in all its autumn glory. It was a bit of a poignant experience walking through that beautiful forest, knowing that destruction would in all probability come. Now that both Sandy and Athena have blown through the tristate area, I'm thankful that we got to enjoy that beautiful fall day when we could.

The hike was breathtaking, with fall leaves in shades of pumpkin, pale lavender and fiery red covering the forest floor and forming canopies above our head.  
We started out at the hiker's lot on Route 94, following a path that wound through a moderately steep path up Wawayanda Mountain. There were some large boulders and slippery stone switchbacks aplenty—hence the trail's moniker, Stairway to Heaven—so it was good to be wearing shoes with good traction. But every precarious step was worth treading to see the view from Pinwheel Vista. At the height of fall, when the turning of the leaves had painted a riot of colors on the landscape, it was breathtaking up there.

It's the second year in a row that I've managed to go out for a fall hike to see the turning of the leaves and every time, it's been a wonderful thing. If you've never done it before, I highly recommend adding a hike to your yearly fall to-do list, too. Fall is a beautiful, fleeting time and we should enjoy as much of it as we can, while we can.

More information on the Stairway to Heaven hiking route is available here.