Categories
Adventure General

Divine Visions of Chocolate?

Several years ago, on a trip to Niagara Falls on the United States side, I came across this church:

 

Chocolate Church, Niagara Falls, NY

In case it wasn’t evident from the first photograph. Here is another one that shows the board outside the church more clearly:

IMG_2254

A quick google search produced nothing illuminating about this chocolate themed church. I found it so fascinating, I had to stop and take a photograph!

Recently, however, a visitor (thanks Jeannette!) commented on an earlier version of this blog post and shared a link to a 2011 article about this church. Apparently, it was sold to a company that plans to convert it into a chocolate factory and museum. I have no idea if this plan has indeed been put into effect. Here is a link to the article:

https://www.niagara-gazette.com/news/local_news/sweet-sale-for-lebanon/article_4c8f0d75-dc13-54a3-a346-b4937a328899.html

Categories
Adventure General

Heavenly Visions of Chocolate?

On a recent trip to Niagara Falls on the United States side, I came across this church:

 

Chocolate Church, Niagara Falls, NY

In case it wasn’t evident from the first photograph. Here is another one that shows the board outside the church more clearly:

IMG_2254

There was no other signage of any kind, so I have absolutely no idea what sort of church this is, or how chocolate is involved in their worship. If anyone knows anything about this, do let me know in the comments!

A quick google search produced nothing illuminating. I found it so fascinating, I had to stop and take a photograph!

Categories
Adventure Reviews

Grace Cathedral, San Francisco

If you’re visiting San Francisco, Grace Cathedral should definitely be on your list of places to visit.

Grace Cathedral at night, San Francisco

Grace Cathedral at night, San Francisco

It’s breathtaking at night and the ‘Gates of Paradise’ or ‘Ghiberti Doors’ are exquisite.

'Gates of Paradise' or 'Ghiberti Doors' in San Francisco

Grace Cathedral, San Francisco

To be fair, the gates are a replica. The original gates were in Florence at the Florence baptistery. However, were you to go to Florence today to see the doors, you would be looking upon a replica too, as the orignal doors are now stored away in a protected and controlled environment.

Here are some close-ups of sections of the doors:

Close-up of Ghiberti doors, San Francisco

Close-up of Ghiberti Doors, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco

Grace Cathedral at night, San Francisco

Grace Cathedral is also famous for its labyrinth. It’s as beautiful inside as it is on the outside, and I found it strangely calming to sit inside the cathedral for a while, after a long day out in the city. It’s very cool and quiet inside, and I found myself unsurprisingly, in a contemplative mood.

After visiting the Cathedral, I would also recommend walking over to the famous hotel across the street: the Fairmont San Francisco. This is where the United Nations Charter was first drafted, in the hotel’s Garden Room.

Categories
Adventure General Reviews

An Island Paradise 5 Minutes from Downtown Toronto?

The Toronto Islands are surprisingly beautiful, all things considered. I’ve been before, several years ago, but it was only on a recent trip there for the first time in years, that I realized how picturesque the islands are! Obviously, they’ve got nothing on any island in the Caribbean, but for a beach in a busy metropolitan centre, it’s pretty gorgeous. Far more peaceful than the beach in Chicago, and more beautiful than the beaches on Sentosa Island in Singapore for instance, by several orders of magnitude.

I think Toronto residents often don’t get to enjoy the beaches on the Islands as much as they could and should.

Don’t believe me? See for yourself.

Best beach in Toronto

Toronto Islands

We even managed to stay long enough to enjoy a beautiful sunset:

Beautiful beach on Toronto's Centre Island

Categories
Cooking Food General Recipes

Delicious Re-fried Beans are Surprisingly Easy to Make!

Loads of people I’ve met and blogs I’ve read tell me to buy a can of re-fried beans at the store when I am making burritos or quesadillas or whatever else I might be making that call for re-fried beans. Not being Mexican myself, and never having researched the issue, I assumed it must be difficult to make good re-fried beans at home, that there must be some secret to it.

Then, I talked to one of my best friends who happens to be Mexican and she told me that I was most certainly misinformed. This friend of mine happens to live in a wooden hut, a-top some wooden stilts, in a little village in Panama, with an indigenous community called the Embera-Wounaan. I shall write more about this later, I promise.

Here is her house:

Embera-Wounaan village in Colon Province, Panama
A hut in an Embera-Wounaan village in Colon Province, Panama

While I was visiting her in Panama, we talked about re-fried beans and she even suggested making some right there in her little hut. And so we did!

Re-fried beans for breakfast!

We had the beans with eggs for breakfast, and they were delicious, even though we had no cheese (there is no electricity in the village and hence, no fridge). Oh and we also had fried sweet plantains, which in my opinion, are overrated.

This homemade re-fried beans adventure really encouraged me, so when I was back in North America, I did some general research on making re-fried beans, namely, the process, spices etc., and then proceeded to make some myself.

Spicy homemade refried beans
Spicy homemade re-fried beans

You should try it too! Here is my recipe!

(I based this recipe off my friends’ recipes, but I tweaked the quantities of the spices (you guessed right, I increased them) and incorporated some of the useful tips and information I got from my internet research.)

What you will need:

1 cup beans (you can use kidney beans, pinto beans or black beans)

Water

3-4 tablespoons ghee

1 medium sized red onion

2-3 cloves of garlic

2 small (or one large) jalapenos

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon red chill Powder

1 tablespoon cumin Powder

Two handfuls of  (I use either cheddar or Chihuahua (this is one aspect of the recipe I need to do more research on. I need to find out what cheese is best for this recipe!))

Cilantro/Coriander for garnish

Preparing the beans:

Soak the beans in plenty of water (at least tree times as much water as beans) overnight or at least 7 hours. This soaking is important; if you don’t soak the beans, they won’t be soft enough and the result won’t taste as good. There are allegedly short cuts to this, but I don’t believe they can produce the same results.

The next step is to cook the beans. Here’s a little tip, don’t use the water the beans were soaking in, to cook them. This water contains ‘oligosaccharides’ released from the beans, and they cause.. eerm..  flatulence! If you don’t follow my advice, there is always this yoga pose:

Pavanamukta Asana (Wind-relieving pose)

(Image by The Holistic Care Yoga Wiki. The above image is CC licensed, for more information go here.)

It’s a pretty easy pose, but it’s also easy to just throw the water out 😉 . So with fresh water, cook the beans in a pressure cooker until the cooker whistles about 4 times. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, you can simply boil them, it’ll just take longer. If you’re cooking them in a pot with water, the beans will be done when you can take one out and squish it between your fingers. I suppose you could use canned beans instead of going through all this trouble, but I am somehow not a big fan of things in cans. I feel, and obviously this is subjective, that beans from a can don’t taste as good as beans that have been soaked and cooked.

Method:

Finely dice the red onion, crush the cloves of garlic, and chop up the jalapenos.

Now we begin cooking! Start with some oil or ghee (Indian clarified butter) in a frying pan. (Apparently, what makes really great re-fried beans is cooking with lard. Since I am a vegetarian, that was not an option for me. But, it turned out quite well when I used oil, it also worked well with ghee.) Since I believe in Ayurveda (an ancient system of Indian medicine see here for more) I actually prefer cooking with ghee; it’s supposed to be healthier than oil. If you’d like to read my recipe, go here.

Of course a Mexican might be bemused or even annoyed by this bizarre substitution, but I think fusion and playfulness in cooking are good, as long as you are aware of what you’re doing, and acknowledge how the recipe or method has been changed. This ensures that you are more aware of how these changes affect the end product and this makes you a better cook. (I didn’t mean to sound preachy here, it’s just that I feel strongly about the difference between being playful and creative on the one hand, and being just, well, plain lazy, on the other.)

Anyway, I really ought to get back to writing about the beans eh?

When the oil is all heated up, add the diced onions and cook until slightly browned.

Now it’s time for the Jalapenos and garlic.

Once they’ve cooked for a few minutes, add 1 tablespoon each of cumin powder and chilli powder and 1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper. Mix it all up and fry until you smell the spices. Mmmm the fragrance will make you hungry!

It’s time for the beans! Add the cooked beans to the pan and let them cook for a while. Until they go from this:

To this:

Add salt to taste.

Now taste it and see how you like it. If the flavour is rich and intense, you can stop cooking the beans. If you think the beans taste like they could use a little more cooking, add a little of the water left over from cooking the beans to the pan, and let the beans cook some more. When you think the beans are done, turn the heat off and add a handful or two of grated cheese to the pan. Mix it all up until the cheese is melted and evenly mixed in.

Your beans are ready. Garnish with coriander/cilantro and enjoy!

Hot, homemade refried beans

I’ve use these re-fried beans in enchiladas, burritos and tacos, I’ve even made a re-fried bean-pizza. But most often, I like to just scoop some beans onto a plate and go at them with a spoon 🙂

Categories
Adventure General

Evening Light in Ann Arbor

Spring is finally here! I happened to be in Ann Arbor today and was overjoyed when I saw the sun out and shining with a little touch of actual warmth. Even this evening was gorgeous! The light was absolutely beautiful at sunset and dusk so I took some pictures around town while I ran errands.

I thought they turned out very well considering I used an iPhone and took them from a moving car while my friend was driving.

20120312-024652.jpg
Spring Sunset in Ann Arbor, Michigan
20120312-024724.jpg
Ann Arbor on a Spring Evening
20120312-024833.jpg
A shot of the sun setting on the first spring day of the year, in Ann Arbor
20120312-024859.jpg
Dusk ahead of us and sunset in the rearview mirror.

 

20120312-025000.jpg
The beginning of an eery spring night.

 

Categories
Adventure Reviews

More Panama: Pirates in Portobelo

In a previous post about Panama I wrote about Isla Grande- this beautiful island in the Caribbean. When it was time to leave Isla Grande, we took a boat to the coast (to La Guaira) and then got on an another quintessentially Panamanian bus to Portobelo. Portobelo is a picturesque, sleepy, colourful (literally) town in Colon Province. See how brightly coloured the houses are:

It’s also full of adorable little dogs:

But what it’s really famous for are the following:

– The Black Christ

– Gold; and

– Pirates

1. The Black Christ

A famous statue of the black christ or El Cristo Negro is housed in a church called Iglesia de San Felipe in Portobelo.

Inside the Iglesia de San Felipe in Portobelo
Inside the Iglesia de San Felipe in Portobelo

Legend has it that the statue of the black christ was carved in Spain and was being taken to Colombia, but the crew decided to leave it behind in Portobelo because it was bringing them bad luck. Portobelo is now the site of an annual festival called the Black Christ Festival.

2. Gold

Apparently, one third of all the gold in the world passed through Portobelo. All this gold was processed in this spanish customs house built in 1630:

Spanish Custom House, Portobello
Customs house Portobelo.
Close-up of Spanish Customs House, Portobello
Close-up of Spanish Customs House, Portobelo
Angled Profile of Spanish Customs House, Portobello
Angled Profile of Spanish Customs House, Portobelo

3. Pirates

Because there was gold, obviously there were pirates! Apparently, Portobelo was attacked repeatedly by pirates. The most famous one to attack and sack the town was Captain Morgan! As a result, the Spanish fortified the port. The beautiful forts are now in ruins.

A fort called Batteria Santiago in Portobello, Panama.
Batteria Santiago, Portobelo, Panama.
Cannons in Batteria Santiago, Portobello, Panama.
Cannons lined up and ready to fire! Batteria Santiago, Portobelo, Panama.

Now, I’ve seen plenty of forts in India and Europe, but I found two things to be particularly striking about these forts. First, dead coral was used in the walls!

Coral used in building Forts, Portobello, Panama
Coral Forts, Portobelo, Panama
Close-up of coral in the walls of forts, Portobello, Panama.
Close-up of coral in the walls of forts, Portobello, Panama
Close-up of coral in the walls of forts, Portobello, Panama
Close up of walls of a fort (Batteria Santiago) in Portobelo

The other thing that was absolutely magical about these forts was the unparalleled beauty of the Caribbean; I’ve never seen a more gorgeous backdrop to a fort in my life! Here are some of the vistas I am talking about:

Ocean-view from Batteria Santiago, Portobello, Panama
View from Batteria Santiago, Portobelo, Panama
Vie of the caribbean, Portobello, Panama
Caribbean waters, Portobelo, Panama
Caribbean waters, Portobello, Panama
Ocean-view from Batteria Santiago, Portobelo, Panama

What made the forts absolutely gorgeous in my eyes was the contrast between the coral and the Caribbean blue-green; the ocean was such a striking and wonderful backdrop to the textured off-white of the coral walls of the forts.

I can honestly say that Portobelo is one of the cutest, prettiest, sleepiest little towns that I have ever been to. As I said, it was indeed full of beautiful colours.

Categories
Adventure General

Part I of my trip to Isla Grande and How to Make a Delicious, Impromptu Beach Cocktail

I’ve been missing in action for over a week now, and the reason for this is that I have been away in lovely, warm, sunny Panama. I enjoyed all of my trip, but I would have to say that my favourite bit was visiting the Caribbean coast and some islands around it. This is why my first post is going to be about the beach part of my vacation.

To get to the coast one has to travel by road from Panama city to the Panamanian province of Colon, up until a little port on the coast called La Guaira. From there we took a boat ride to Isla Grande, an island off the coast. We spent two days there; it was both a beautiful and puzzling little place. It was an extremely laid-back and sleepy town, and people seemed somewhat erratic in their niceness and willingness to serve customers. (I feel I must clarify here that we visited the island during the week, and apparently, it gets much busier during the weekends.)

There were for instance, little stores on the island that sold snacks, toilet paper, water, alcohol etc., Now these stores seemed to keep arbitrary timings and on top of this, the store-keepers also randomly, decided not to sell a customer things even though they were seemingly open. On second thought, their decision not to serve you wasn’t random, I think that if you asked too many questions they decided it wasn’t worth the trouble and refused to deal with you. Now, this didn’t happen to me, but it happened to my friends, and I have it on good authority (my friends who actually live in Panama) that this isn’t out of the ordinary at all. One morning for example, two of my friends went over to a store/café and asked if the Cafe was serving breakfast. The lady behind the counter asked what they would like for breakfast. My friends said they weren’t sure, “how about eggs?”, they casually asked. She then promptly told them that both the café and store were closed and wouldn’t even sell them bottled water.

Despite the island’s eccentric (but also friendly) inhabitants, all in all, I enjoyed myself and really liked the place. I would even recommend it to anyone who wants a relaxed Caribbean vacation. It isn’t crowded, it’s fairly inexpensive and there aren’t a lot of resorts, relatively speaking. This is a good thing in my opinion because the place was empty and peaceful. There are also very few foreign tourists here, and most visitors were Panamanians. I would recommend however, that you go during the week, rather than the weekend.

When we arrived, I was disappointed because much of the shore was either rocky or had restaurants and hotels built on it. The town seemed somewhat disorganized and it seemed as though the bars, restaurants and hotels were not making the best of the wonderful natural beauty around them. Most importantly, there didn’t seem to be a nice, sandy beach about, except for little sandy bits between hotels and houses. But after lunch we went out wandering and found a lovely, deserted beach on the other side of the island.

Beautiful beach, Isla Grande, Panama
Isla Grande, Panama (Photo: Matthew Snyder).

There was a part of the beach that looked like a Peninsula; waves broke on either side of it. You can see it more clearly in the picture below:

Beautiful virgin beach, Isla Grande, Panama
Isla Grande Beach, Panama (Photo: Matthew Snyder)

It was empty and beautiful, as you can see:

Secluded beach, Isla Grande Panama
Deserted beach stretch, Isla Grande, Panama (Photo: Matthew Snyder)

There was a café right on the beach, but oddly it had only one type of beer and only served fried plantains. It didn’t even open until about 4 p.m. This was another example of the inexplicable moodiness of the service industry on the island.

So the next afternoon, we went back to this beach with supplies of our own. We had snacks, pineapple juice and this insanely cheap Panamanian rum called Seco. As we were walking to the beach, we ran into a sole and very out-of-place looking vendor who was trying to sell fresh coconuts on an almost-empty beach. We bought some and while we were sitting on the beach sipping fresh coconut water, my friend Andrea pondered aloud if it would be weird for her to put some rum in the coconut. No it wouldn’t Matt and I exclaimed! The next thing we knew, we were making impromptu pina-colada inspired beach cocktails. Here’s how YOU can do this too, the next time you’re on the beach. (That’s my friend Andrea in the photos.)

First, take a fresh coconut and drink up some of the coconut water in it, to make space for the other ingredients:

Then, add a few generous ‘glugs’ of rum:

Next, add some Pineapple juice to taste:

Impromptu beach cocktail recipe
The best beach cocktail ever!

Swirl everything in the coconut about. Lastly, drink up!

It was a truly delicious cocktail!

Categories
Adventure Chocolate Food Reviews

Wonderful Chocolate Truffles in the Mid-West

I don’t want to sound like a pompous ass or anything. Really, I don’t.

You’re wondering why I am leading with this. You’ll know in a second.

So here goes: I’ve been to Switzerland more times than I can remember, lived in Germany and traveled around in Austria, France and Italy. And of course, I’ve eaten tonnes of chocolate in all these places. They are all known for making delicious chocolate, and I’ve had some exquisite chocolate in most of them. However, if you asked me where I’ve had the best chocolate truffles in the world, I’d have to say, and I promise that I am not doing this for shock value, the mid-west. Yes, you read that correctly, in the mid-west, of America. And no, I don’t mean Chicago. No, I mean non-urban, super-polite, sickeningly nice, mid-west America.

Where in the mid-west? Well, unfortunately, the place which sells these delicious truffles is sort of inconveniently located. It’s on the way from Ann Arbor to Chicago. It’s this little place called “The Chocolate Garden”. Here are the store’s contact details:

2691 Friday Road

Coloma, MI 49038-9712,

(269) 468-9866

To be fair, there are a few things wrong with the place. First, the name is awful because it’s utterly unimaginative. Second, the store itself isn’t particularly nicely done up or anything. Third, the truffles aren’t cheap- at least they’re not cheap if you’re a poor grad student. They’re about 3$ a piece. But, they are GOOD!

One upside is that the store is by a vineyard. We arrived there around sunset the second time we stopped there, and it’s was a beautiful sight.

Sunset glow on the vineyard
Driveway leading to the store; an abandoned barn.

I should have prefaced this review with something, so as not to be misleading you. So let me qualify the statement now. It’s perfectly possible that I am building this up precisely because I found these truffles in an unassuming store in the unassuming mid-west. Maybe the story, the whole process of finding it off the highway, wandering in with low expectations and then having my mind-blown (quite metaphorically of course), made the truffles more flavourful to my tongue. I love stories you see. More than anything in the world, quite possibly even as much as I love chocolate (if you’re thinking I contradicted myself here, I did no such thing you little nit-picker, you! Chocolate is not of this world, it is divine. As for cats, they’re ueber intelligent alien-super-beings). And it wouldn’t be quite as delightful a story if I’d found these truffles in a store in Geneva, or somewhere in Belgium. So, maybe they aren’t, objectively speaking, if one can ever be objective about such things, the best truffles I’ve had. But they were darned good, and if you’re driving by, you should stop by.