Happy Holidays from Amsterdam!

Spending the holidays with J and his family in the Netherlands has been a lovely and fascinating experience. We all have our particular ways of celebrating Christmas but it's nice to experience other customs, too. There was no decadent Noche Buena and silly White Elephant gift exchange for me this year, but I got to enjoy freshly baked Weihnacht Stolle on Christmas morning, an extended second day of Christmas, a lovely walk in De Hei to work off all the holiday treats, and a visit to the charming Christmas market in Amsterdam.

Ice skating at Museumplein in Amsterdam
Food stands at the Christmas market in Amsterdam's Museumplein
Food stands at the Christmas market in Amsterdam's Museumplein

Amsterdam has also created a new holiday tradition with the Amsterdam Light Festival, which lights up the canals with different installations. The best way to see everything is to hop on a canal boat tour, but you're likely to see many of them simply by walking and biking through this beautiful city.

Chandeliers over canals for Amsterdam Light Festival 2015
Parkour lights at sunset for Amsterdam Light Festival 2015
Sunken Statues of Liberty at Amsterdam Light Festival

Wherever and however you are celebrating this wonderful season, I wish you the merriest and brightest of days!

The Bright Lights of Dyker Heights

The last week before Christmas always tend to be crazy for everyone and I'm no exception. I always travel at this time of the year so that I can spend the holidays with my loved ones, so that comes with lots of rushing between year-end get-togethers with friends, last-minute hustling at work, and getting piles of errands out of the way. The past few days have been nothing short of hectic. But last night at least, I got to take a breather from the madness and take in the spectacular holiday sights at Dyker Heights.

My friends and I trekked to this Brooklyn nabe, drawn by stories of mansions magnificently lit up for the holidays. Dyker Heights certainly lived up to our expections. As we walked from block to block, we saw one house after another crowded with our favorite Christmas characters, festooned with Santas and reindeer, graced with nativity scenes, and draped with tons of twinkling lights.

Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights

It was the perfect way to cap off another sparkling year in New York. Tomorrow, I'll leave the city once known as New Amsterdam for the original version so that I can enjoy the holidays with my favorite Dutch guy. When I return, there'll be a whole new year to enjoy in this spectacular city. Thanks for a brilliant holiday send-off, New York, and see you in 2016!

Let's Have a Brilliant Holiday Season, Shall We?

We all have our favorite Christmas traditions. Some people absolutely must see the lighting of the tree in Rockefeller Center, others simply have to skate in Central Park, and still more insist on dressing up as Santa for a pub crawl. My personal favorite is to soak up the exquisite holiday windows at Bergdorf Goodman (for windows of Christmases past, click here and here). This year's windows are the most brilliant that I've seen to date—figuratively and literally. Bergdorf Goodman partnered with Swarovski for their sparkling displays, embedding a total of 7,024,615 crystals in their holiday tableaus. It's quite a sight to behold. Their visual design team's attention to detail is staggering; I could've spent an hour looking at every bedazzled piece.

Bergdorf Goodman's Brilliant 2015 holiday windows with over 7 million Swarovski crystals
Detail shot of Bergdorf Goodman's Glitterati 2015 holiday window
Bergdorf Goodman's Brilliant 2015 holiday windows with over 7 million Swarovski crystals
Detail shot of Bergdorf Goodman's Crown Jewels 2015 holiday window
Bergdorf Goodman's Brilliant 2015 holiday windows with over 7 million Swarovski crystals
Detail shot of Bergdorf Goodman's Brilliant 2015 holiday windows with over 7 million Swarovski crystals
Bergdorf Goodman's Brilliant 2015 holiday windows with over 7 million Swarovski crystals
Bergdorf Goodman's Brilliant 2015 holiday windows with over 7 million Swarovski crystals
Detail shot of Bergdorf Goodman's Brilliant 2015 holiday windows with over 7 million Swarovski crystals

With just a little more than 2 weeks left before Christmas, time will surely breeze by in a frenzy of holiday parties, shopping, travel and rushing to tie up loose ends at school and/or work. For myself, personally, I hope that I can keep myself from getting completely swept up and try enjoy all the little things that make this season so happy and bright. I hope you, too, will all get to enjoy your own special traditions and I wish you the happiest of holidays!

Autumn in New York

We have had a glorious fall season in New York, with plenty of days with golden foliage, blue skies and crisp temperatures. But these days, we are begrudgingly adding on more layers as the leaves and temperature continue to come down. I usually try to resist adding layers for as long as I possibly can because every single one added feels like accepting defeat. But this stubbornness of mine has a very predictable result: There is always that one day every year when I am forced to concede to the coming of winter and I slink into a store sadly to buy a thicker coat, a scarf or a hat just so I can make it home comfortably. That day came last week, so I am coming to terms with the fact that our gorgeous New York autumn is coming to an end.

On top of that, the onset of cold weather is wreaking havoc on my figure! All I seem to be in the mood for these days are heartwarming, waistline-expanding treats. It doesn't help that New York has so many tempting seasonal goodies out there combining two potent drugs: carbs and #fomo. I'm in danger of falling victim to Dough's pumpkin spice doughnuts every morning, and I spend far too much time thinking about how to squeeze a stop at Dominique Ansel Kitchen into my daily commute (flaky hundred-layer cinnamon buns layering brioche, cinnamon butter and applejack brandy glaze cause that kind of food madness). And then there's Momofuku Milk Bar's Thanksgiving croissant, which is made with stuffing-flavored dough filled with roasted turkey, cranberry sauce and homemade gravy. Hello — that's my idea of a Thanksgiving pre-game!

Thanksgiving may mark the end of fall but there's plenty of good times and delicious food to be had until then. Wishing you all a lovely and well-stuffed Thanksgiving with all those you love!

Oy Manhattan! Yo Brooklyn!

Live in a city long enough and its particular way of speaking starts to color your own. I have lived in New York for close to a decade now and it's certainly become that way for me. I never developed an American twang because of the city's multicultural nature — why adjust your accent when so many of the people you'll encounter from the fruit stand vendor to your colleagues to your bodega guy are likely foreign, too? Nevertheless, New Yorkisms have wandered into my daily lingo, whether it's to call someone's attention with a "Yo" or to say "Oy vey" in a moment of exasperation. Artist Deborah Kass captures these aforementioned New Yorkisms with her newly installed "OY/YO" sculpture at Brooklyn Bridge Park. Seen from the Brooklyn side, the bright yellow letters bid Manhattan "Oy"; from the Manhattan side, the sculpture throws up an appropriate "Yo" to Brooklyn. Kass's sculpture will greet both sides of the East River in Brooklyn Bridge Park until August 2016, so do come by and say hola!

Nous sommes parisiens

Another dark day has come to the City of Light and our hearts are broken. Those who have visited Paris and experienced it as a place of love share in the grief, though what we are feeling cannot come close to what those who call this glorious city home must be going through.

Numerous Parisians responded to these inhumane acts of terror by amplifying their own humanity: the hashtag #PorteOuverte spread throughout social media as Parisians opened their homes to those who needed shelter, while taxi drivers turned off their meters to bring people home safely. In the study of terrorism, it is said that terror is the weapon of the weak. Those who sow terror do so to force us to believe that the world we live in is one of infinite pain and tragedy. While pain and tragedy certainly exist, the chosen response of so many Parisians in the wake of this tragedy show that there is far more kindness, benevolence and humanity in the world we live in. When we are hit hard, we feel compelled to hit back and multiply the pain already inflicted. While justice must be sought, we must take care not to let our humanity get overtaken in the process.

As Parisians band together to get through this difficult time, I hope that they also find some small measure of comfort in the sympathy and solidarity flooding in from the rest of the world. While we cannot know the fullness of your pain, we stand behind you and in this moment, nous sommes parisiens.

Je suis de tout coeur avec vous.

Which Food Subscription Service Is Right for You?

Blue Apron, Plated, Marley Spoon or Hello Fresh - Which food subscription service is right for you?

I recently sat through a subway ride listening to a couple discuss the items in their cupboard and grocery bags, divining what they could cook out of that just-bought and soon-to-expire melange. This, I thought, is precisely why I use food subscription services. It takes the guesswork out of cooking: just for a few dollars more than what I would spend at the grocery store, all I have to do is open up a box, follow a recipe, and be pleasantly surprised at the delicious end result. These boxes of goodies delivered to my doorstep have taken me through a winter of discontent, a spring holed up in my thesis cave, and a summer of seeking more substantial options than my go-to homemade salad. When J is in town, it's a fun, economical and egalitarian dinner option for us—either of us can easily do the cooking and because it's convenient, we're happy to do it. Lately, we've taken to divvying up the work since he prefers prep while I like cooking. When I'm cooking for one, a meal for 2 can sometimes stretch to 3 or even 4, which makes the food subscription an economical choice for me. In my quest to find the food subscription service that suits me best, I've tried some of the most popular ones out there. So if you're wondering which subscription service is right for you, here are my personal experiences with trying various boxes ...

Blue Apron
Price point: $9.99 per serving ($59.94 for 6 servings)

What I like: Blue Apron is my go-to service primarily because it offers the lowest price point—and given my current status as student-loan beleaguered city gal, it makes the most sense for me. I have ordered Blue Apron the most throughout the year, having found it to be the best value for the price. I've enjoyed the diversity of their meals, with my favorites being the Asian and Middle Eastern recipes. I also appreciate how most of their recipes tend to be one-pan cooking affairs—I subscribe to these services because of convenience, so I am thankful when they don't make me use 2 pans plus the oven to cook one meal! Added bonus: Blue Apron now offers a wine subscription service to up your dinner game with a wine pairing—so it's obviously a subscription service after my heart!

What I don't like: The lower price point is reflected in the slightly less convenient menu options and packaging. Meal selection usually gives you two sets of 3 dishes to choose from but you cannot actually choose any 3 out of the 6 (the way you would with a more expensive service like Plated). When you open your box, the ingredients come in one big jumble, so you need sort them per recipe later. I find this to be a very minor inconvenience, which only becomes irritating if two recipes call for a certain ingredient in different quantities and it's hard to tell which is which. Because I've used Blue Apron the most, however, I've also observed that the portions, in particular for the protein, seem to have shrunk over the year. Nevertheless, it's still my go-to subscription box favorite!

For more information on Blue Apron, visit www.blueapron.com.

Which food subscription service is right for you? A Marley Spoon meal Marley Spoon's Grilled Lamb Chops with Minty-Yogurt Sauce, Charred Corn and Green Beans

Marley Spoon
Price point: Advertised as $8.70 per serving (but the final bill comes to $61.50 for 6 servings or $10.25 per serving)

What I like: Marley Spoon offers a premium service for a lower price. First, its meal selection is very flexible, allowing you a true choice between seven different recipes. Second, Marley Spoon's delivery process is very convenient. On the delivery day, I received a text message giving me a choice of which hour I would like to receive my delivery—a great feature for those who would not otherwise be able to use a subscription service if they don't have a doorman or super to receive their deliveries while they are at work. I appreciated being home to receive a fresh box of ingredients from the pleasant delivery guy so that I could immediately put everything in the fridge. Inside the box, ingredients were neatly divided per recipe, with a handwritten note for a personal touch. The ingredients were of great quality and the protein portions were generous, though I was surprised that one recipe required me to purchase my own eggs (other services included eggs when called for, and only expect you to use your own oil, salt and pepper).

What I don't like: I had a rough start with Marley Spoon, which tarnished an otherwise a pleasant experience. I gave the service a try after a $30 discount coupon popped up on Facebook but after completing sign up and payment, I found that the discount had not been applied. I was a tad annoyed but figured it would be quickly rectified, but customer service response was painfully slow, despite my contacting them by webform, email, Facebook, Twitter and phone. Over the phone, I was told that they could apply the discount on my next order as the charge had already gone through, which I found presumptious considering the experience was disappointing so far. I eventually got the refund but I am still incredulous that it took so much time and effort on my part for it to happen. While writing this post, I decided to get another delivery when I saw that Marley Spoon advertised the lowest per serving prices, but cancelled when I realized that the final total of $61.50 did not jive with the advertised $8.70/serving price and could not find an explanation of what the additional $9.30 was for (shipping is free). Maybe another time ...

For more information on Marley Spoon, visit marleyspoon.com.

Hello Fresh
Price point: Advertised at from $10.75 per serving for omnivores (final bill comes to $69 for 6 servings or $11.50 per serving) and from $9.08 per serving for herbivores (final bill comes to $59 for 6 servings or $9.83 per serving)

What I like: Hello Fresh promotes itself as the fresh and healthy option among food subscription services, and provides subscription boxes for omnivores and herbivores at different price points (which is fair). I did notice that my boxes included larger portions of vegetables than carbs (unlike Blue Apron which from my experience bulks up portion sizes with grains and noodles); I appreciated this as it reflects how I generally try to eat. Hello Fresh offers true flexibility in recipe choices, allowing you to choose between five recipes. Their ingredients are conveniently packaged per recipe and I quite liked how condiments came in cute little bottles, which are easy to reuse or recycle (unlike other services which package condiments in small plastic containers or packets that go straight into the trash).

What I don't like: My main qualm with Hello Fresh was that almost every recipe required me to boil something in a pot, cook something in a pan, and bake something in the oven—all of which adds up to a whole lot of dishes to wash. Perhaps this has to do with cooking each ingredient in the healthiest way possible but at the end of the day, I am a sucker for convenience, so this factor plus the higher price point means that I order Hello Fresh sparingly. However, I do find Hello Fresh to be a good option for those making an effort to eat healthy, home-cooked meals.

If you choose to try out Hello Fresh after reading this post, please consider using my referral code (UGX3XT), which will give you a $40 off your first box and me a $20 discount off my next order. You can sign up for Hello Fresh here.

Which food subscription service is right for you? Four Plated meals Clockwise from top left: Plated's Beef Pho, Grilled Chicken with Soba Noodles and Miso Vinaigrette, Chicken Braised in Massaman Curry, and Seared Fish with Chermoula, Citrus and Potatoes

Price: $12-20 per serving ($72 for 6 servings of regular meals)

What I like: Plated's distinguishing characteristic among food subscription services is that it offers the most diversity and flexibility, with a wider choice of delivery dates and a menu with 7 regular-priced entrees and 2 premium entrees that you can freely mix and match. Their ingredients are conveniently delivered bundled per recipe and recently, Plated has made the effort to source environmentally friendly packing materials, which will be appreciated by those who worry about their carbon footprint. My Dutch boyfriend, who was incredulous at being able to cook beautiful plates of Vietnamese beef pho and Thai massaman curry using this service, found Plated's recipes more clearly written compared to Blue Apron.

What I don't like: Plated has the highest price point, with regular meals priced at $12 per plate and premium meals priced at $18-20 per plate. Plated makes sense for those who have a bit more disposable income to spare and are looking to try dishes they would not otherwise cook. For me, the price point is a tad too high to order regularly but I would consider ordering the premium entrees for a special dinner party.

For more information on Plated, visit plated.com.

Halloween High Jinks (and High Kicks) as Chun Li

Finish him! Chun Li cosplay

Still on a Halloween hangover? I sure am. I absolutely love Halloween—from the "A-ha!" moment when you finally come up with this year's perfect costume to that triumphant strut down the street as strangers call out your character name and toss you candy (not taking candy from strangers is overrated). We had an awesome Halloween running around New York in kung fu fighting mode with J dressed up as Bruce Lee in Game of Death and me dressed up as Chun Li from Street Fighter (I tried to convince J to be Ryu but he was really into that yellow jumpsuit and Onitsuka Tigers and wasn't having it). Nevertheless, we had loads of fun making funny little kung fu fighting GIFs. I think GIF-making potential will henceforth be my primary criteria for choosing my Halloween costumes.

Bruce Lee from Game of Death versus Chun Lee from Street Fighter

We partied with French Tuesdays at The Box where, loaded up on liquid courage,  I ran up the stage to join an impromptu best costume contest, throwing in some high kicks and hadouken for good measure. I had it until a chick holding a guitar lifted it up to reveal the full genius of her costume: Lenny Kravitz having his not-so-little accident. I collapsed in helpless laughter with the rest of the crowd and we all conceded defeat. Nevertheless, several folks came up to me that night to tell me they had cheered for me and still believed I should have won. I didn't realize until then how beloved Chun Li is by a generation of gamers. I had a blast dressing up as her and I'm stoked for life that I've got this Halloween look immortalized in a high-kicking Chun Li GIF:

Cosplay as Chun Li from Street Fighter

If you, too, would like to spend your next Halloween or Comic Con kicking it like Chun Li, it's actually pretty easy. All you need to do is order a Chun Li costume (Amazon sells it at the lowest price), which comes with the blue dress, bun covers and spiky wristcuffs. The costume is basically a leotard so I would recommend following Chun Li's lead and wearing the outfit with a pair of tights. Chun Li wears dark brown ones but I got Danskin's toast-colored ballet tights, which are flattering and designed to withstand numerous sessions of high kicking. While the sexier option would be to wear this costume with high white boots, I decided to go with the high jinks friendly option and was happy with it: knee high white socks and good old Converse kicks. Final tip: Make sure you stretch before heading out because Chun Li does not do pulled hamstrings!

Now to figure out what to wear next Halloween ... care to share your all time favorite Halloween costume?

What to order for brunch in New York

I know, it's just Monday. But what better way to get over a case of the Mondays than to plan a great brunch for the weekend to come? To help tide you over til Friyay, here are 8 delicious things you can plan to have for brunch next weekend in New York.

1. The Classic at Russ & Daughters Cafe
No breakfast screams New York like the bagel and lox — and there's no better place to get it than New York institution Russ & Daughters, which has been serving up the city's best salmon, herring and sturgeon since 1914. For those looking for the most classic of New York breakfast staples, make a beeline for Russ and Daughters Cafe's Classic platter of smoky and buttery Gaspe Nova smoked salmon to be enjoyed with an everything bagel generously schmeared with cream cheese and topped with a heap of sliced tomatoes, onions and capers.

Russ & Daughters Cafe's Classic board
Russ & Daughters Cafe is located at 127 Orchard Street, New York, NY and is open from 10am on weekdays and from 8am on weekends.

2. Steamed scrambled eggs with prosciutto at Buvette
It's stunning, really, how something so simple can be so incredibly delicious. Buvette's scrambled eggs are the stuff of New York legend, brought its soft and sumptuous consistency using the steam wand that normally whips up the foam for your capuccino. When we came to this cozy little West Village spot for brunch, we sidled up in a corner with decadent nutella crepes and toast heaped with these legendary scrambled eggs, slices of unctuous prosciutto and a generous pile of freshly grated parmesan cheese. Our eyes widened as a took bite after bite of these understated but absolutely delicious bites. Come to Buvette with someone you are looking to romance the morning after a brilliant evening out on the town.

Buvette's steam-scrambled eggs with prosciutto
Buvette is located at 42 Grove St, New York, NY and is open from 8am on weekdays and from 9am on weekends.

3. Fried Chicken and Waffles at Brooklyn Star
Foodies lost their minds over Brooklyn Star last year when they started serving up the chicken and waffle cone at various pop-ups. While that wonder hybrid isn't available at their brick and mortar shop in Williamsburg, I think you'll find their version of fried chicken and waffles to be a more-than-worthy substitute. The fried chicken is crisp but also juicy, the waffle is plump and tasty, the candied grapefruit provides lovely respites of freshness, and it comes with a little tub of apple butter to slather over errthang! While Amy Ruth's is renowned as the institute for this fine specimen of Southern cooking, I personally prefer Brooklyn Star's version (not in the least because its comparatively closer proximity to my bed is key to enjoying this decadent meal).

Fried Chicken and Waffles at Brooklyn Star in Williamsburg
Brooklyn Star is located at 593 Lorimer Street, Brooklyn, NY and is open for brunch from 12pm on weekends.

4. Crèpe au Foie Gras at Le Philosophe
One of the most decadent brunch meals I've had in the city was at Le Philosophe, where one can order roasted foie gras enveloped by airy crepes and drizzled with cherry puree and dark chocolate. Le Philosophe serves this dreamy dish as an appetizer during brunch so you can have one to share for the table or order it as your main dish, supplemented with some gougères. 

Crèpe au Foie Gras at Le Philosophe
Le Philosophe is located at 55 Bond St, New York, NY and is open for brunch from 11am on the weekends.

5. The monkey bread at Colonie
Monkey bread, that delectably sweet and gooey slice of Americana popularized by Nancy Reagan in the 80s, is one heck of a breakfast treat. It's quite unclear how this delectable bread got its name (the recipe does not, in fact, include monkeys), but this much is for sure: when these fluffy clumps of baked dough are laid out in front of you, you won't be able to resist digging in and pulling a gooey, caramel-covered piece. My favorite monkey bread is served at my go-to Brooklyn Heights brunch spot, Colonie. Go with a group of friends so you can share the monkey bread AND a basket of doughnuts, too.

Monkey bread at Colonie in Brooklyn
Colonie is located at 27 Atlantic Ave, Brooklyn, NY and is open for brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 11am.

6. The pork belly at Juventino
Sometimes you want your brunch to be more like breakfast; other times you want brunch to be like lunch. When it's the latter yearning that strikes, Juventino has the perfect hearty dish: pork belly with scalloped sweet potatoes, quinoa, truffle cream and yuzu marmalade. The pork belly's rich and fatty goodness pairs nicely with the subtle creamy taste of the sweet potatoes.

Pork belly at Juventino in Park Slope, Brooklyn
Juventino is located at 370 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY and is open from 10am all week.

7. Bulalo hash at Jeepney
As a Filipino who comes from a family of folks who take pleasure in tempting cardiac arrest with every meal, it is my duty to let you know that this heartstopping brunch fare is available at Jeepney. Jeepney has elevated the beloved Filipino "silog" breakfast formula, wherein "si" stands for sinangag or garlic fried rice, "log" is short for itlog, and the appearance of "silog" on a breakfast menu indicates that your chosen protein will include a serving of both. A great many things can come with "silog": tapa (marinated beef), longganiza (Filipino sausage), bangus (smoked milkfish), danggit (the stinkiest dried fish that I hold dearest to my heart), and even Spam. Jeepney kicks the "silog" up a notch by fusing it with the Filipino bulalo: a hearty soup made with beef shanks and bone marrow. Jeepney turns the beef shanks into a hash to go with a pile of garlic rice and eggs over easy. The whole shebang also comes with a cup of bulalo broth and a big hunk of bone marrow to be slathered on with the quintessential Filipino bread, pandesal

Bulalo hash at Jeepney in the East Village, New York
Jeepney is located at 201 1st Avenue, New York, NY and is open from 11am everyday.

8. As much dimsum as you can hustle away from old Chinese ladies at Ping's
One of the weekend's greatest pleasures in any city with a substantial Cantonese influence is the dimsum brunch. While dimsum is linked to the yum cha (tea tasting) tradition dating back to the Silk Road, these days it has come to be a breakfast or lunch meal shared among big groups. Part of the fun is cornering the little ladies pushing dimsum carts laden with steaming baskets of succulent dumplings in order to get your favorites. It takes chutzpah to battle other dragon ladies for those prized baskets of har gow but it's absolutely worth it. For the more adventurous, steamed chicken feet are also on the menu.

Dimsum at Ping's in Chinatown, New York
Ping's is located at 22 Mott Street, New York, NY and is open from 10:30am on weekdays and from 9am on weekends.