In Search of Friendly Coffee Shops (in Fredericksburg, VA)

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So far, this is one of my favorites. The Hyperion, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, is just at the limit of being too far to go to just for a few hours’ work on my day off. 50 miles each way is a little far for a half day. Gotta save this one for the whole-day excursions. When you work from home, however, you realize the value of having a change of scenery. No matter how nice the view from your window (and let’s face it, most views aren’t that great, although I’m lucky that way) it gets a little monotonous after a while. Go to a café, on the other hand, and you can people-watch when you need a break from looking at the screen. Go to one café often enough and you start recognizing the regulars, exchanging nods of greeting with them when you come and go… kind of like when you work in a large office. The other patrons and the staff take the place of the colleagues you’d otherwise exchange a few friendly words with every once in a while. Plus, call me strange if you like, but I sometimes find total silence more distracting than a pleasant background buzz of music and conversation.

Of course, a café has to meet certain prerequisites if one is to comfortably work there. Most importantly, it has to have an atmosphere that’s friendly to patrons who come there to work. In other words, not every café owner wants quiet people with laptops camped out for hours, taking up space and not spending that much money over the course of the day. These types generally make it pretty clear by doing things like not making power outlets available to their customers or not providing free WiFi. It’s understandable and I can’t blame them for it. There should be different kinds of cafés, and some should be more conducive to socializing than working. In some countries there are no cafés where you feel comfortable pulling out a computer. Indeed, that’s one of the things I missed most when I lived in Italy – being able to go someplace and sit for a few hours out of the weather, reading a book, writing or just relaxing. Such a thing is a true boon, especially when you are traveling and need a place other than a hotel room to relax in for a little while.

The Hyperion offers the best of both worlds. The front room is furnished with big, communal tables and full of the noise of conversation and music. Once you go into the back room, however, you discover that the sound system hasn’t even been wired to reach there (I love that!). Even the largest tables there are small enough that you don’t feel rude taking a whole one for yourself, and nearly each one is equipped with its own power outlet. Ah! This is café-writer bliss, indeed. What makes it even better is that the coffee is actually really good. IMG_9615

I know, despite all that, you may think I’m nuts to make a round trip of a hundred miles just for a quiet day in a coffee shop with a cup of joe. This is why I’ve begun doing some exploratory excursions to find others closer to home. Don’t worry. I’ll be sharing my findings with you.

I’ll meet you back here for a cup of coffee soon.

Meanwhile, thanks for stopping by.

– Jennifer

Here is a link I stumbled across while writing this post. It’s to a post by a blogger in Singapore. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who has made the quest for ideal cafés into an international pursuit.

Tea on the Tiber, or, What to Do When It’s Raining (or Snowing) in Ellicott City, Maryland

IMG_7869 Having so recently moved from Rome, I was intrigued when, in December, some friends suggested an afternoon outing at a place called Tea on the Tiber… in Ellicott City, Maryland. My curiosity was piqued, not only because of the name, but because the place was billed as a Victorian Tea Room, and I do enjoy a real high tea – when it’s done right. I set out to see what I’d find. The first thing I learned was that Maryland’s Tiber River was a little different from its namesake, as you can see.

Tiber River, Rome, Italy

The Tiber River, Rome, Italy

Tiber River, Ellicott City, Maryland

The Tiber River, Ellicott City, Maryland

Apples and oranges, really. Pointless comparisons aside, I found Ellicott City, Maryland to be a charming little town. It felt a bit like a time capsule, with giant rocks looming like cliffs over Main Street and its 1950s-style shop signs. Here are some views of the town, snapped as we walked from the riverside towards our destination. IMG_7864 IMG_7865 IMG_7867 It was a busy Sunday afternoon, one of the last before Christmas, and the streets were a little too crowded with parked cars and the sky a little too grey to be as picturesque as it could be. With all the odd boutiques and specialty shops lining the main street, I could see why people would come here for their holiday gift shopping,but it was a little bit too much like rush-hour for my taste. IMG_7868 IMG_7878 Then, at long last (it was cold enough to feel like we’d been walking for much longer than we had), our destination came into sight. The last time I’d had “high tea” had been at the famous Babington’s tea room at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome. Could this little American town – beautiful and historic, yes, but nestled among encroaching tentacles of suburbia – offer anything that would compare? IMG_7884 The entrance was certainly inviting enough… now to see about the inside.

A festive mantel decked for the holiday shoppers

A festive mantel decked for the holiday shoppers

Inside, attention had been paid to every detail. More than walking into café, it felt as though I were entering as a guest into someone’s home (and judging from the florals and pastels, the home of a well-to-do English woman or Austen fan) where every piece of furniture, every painting and decoration had been collected over a lifetime as opposed to chosen, each with a history – as such things are in a true home. The establishment took up an entire old house, and each room had been either furnished with two or three smaller tables or, in the case of the one we were given, one large table to accomodate large groups. Indeed, I believe that you can only attend Tea on the Tiber by reservation. So, the atmosphere was up to snuff. Now it was time to see about the menu. IMG_7886 We had come for afternoon tea. That meant we were each able to pick a type we wanted from an extensive list including various black, green and white teas, as well as a variety of herbal blends, coffee and chocolate. Anyone who knows me will know that I generally always go for the coffee. At tea (and I intend that as meal, not the beverage), however , that would be quite the heresy. I picked an almond-flavored black tea blend instead. The service it is served in is charming, and the contents are all I had hoped for. The menu was fixed, which saved me the pain of choosing (I always want to try everything when I’m someplace new). We had been promised a three-course meal divided into three parts. When it came, we realized that division was really quite literal. On the middle tier was the savory, consisting mostly of a variety of finger sandwiches, including the famous (and, in the American mind at least, quintessentially British) cucumber. On the bottom tier were what the menu listed as English Manor scones. These were served with two things I'd never tasted, although I'd read about them in books: clotted cream and lemon curd. All I can say is, despite their less-than-appetizing names, once you taste them, there's no going back. We had to ask the poor waitress to refill those dishes at least quite. The jam, though lovely, was forgotten. There were also sweet breads (not sweetbreads), fruit and cheese and, on the top tier, what me might call the crowning glory: the read sweets. I don't know what was more decadent, the rich chocolate cake or the shortbread (I'll go for the shortbread every time, if forced to choose, but that's just me. Any chocolate lover would consider me a madwoman for saying so). On the middle tier was the savory, consisting mostly of a variety of finger sandwiches, including the famous (and, in the American mind at least, quintessentially British) cucumber. On the bottom tier were what the menu listed as English Manor scones. These were served with two things I’d never tasted, although I’d read about them in books: clotted cream and lemon curd. All I can say is, despite their less-than-appetizing names, once you taste them, there’s no going back. We had to ask the poor waitress to refill those dishes at least twice. The jam, though lovely, was quite forgotten. There were also sweet breads (not sweetbreads, thank goodness), fruit and cheese and, on the top tier, what we might call the crowning glory: the desserts. I don’t know what was more decadent, the rich chocolate cake or the shortbread (I’ll go for the shortbread every time, if forced to choose, but that’s just me. Any chocolate lover would consider me a madwoman for saying so).

A nice cuppa

A nice cuppa

Well, I hope you all enjoyed that as much as I did. And, I don’t know about you, but I think I’m about ready for a cup of tea after all that, so I’m going to sign off here. Here’s wishing you all a lovely day. Toodle-oo and thanks ever so much for popping by! 😉 Cheers, Jennifer p.s. and if you should feel the need to try out those scones with clotted cream for yourself (and I highly recommend it), here’s all the info you need (of course, you could just clink on this link to Tea on the Tiber’s website if you missed the one at the top of the post, but I thought the business card was classier): IMG_7885

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The Great NYC Deli Dichotomy

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In a case outside the deli, healthy vegan meals to go. Pick what you like, open the fridge (there’s no attendant and there are no locks) and then take it inside to pay at the register. It’s the healthiest “street” food I’ve ever seen

The healthiest "street" food I've ever seen

A closer look…

Once you’ve been lured inside by the prospect of an innocent, guilt-free meal, you’ll find yourself ambushed by the largest variety of chips (that’s crisps for my British friends out there) you’ve ever seen. Temptation! Get thee behind me!

From yellow to blue, from salt-'n'-vinegar to Sriracha, this aisle had more colors and flavors of chips than I'd ever dreamed could exist

From yellow to blue, from red to purple, from plain potato to sweet potato to corn and more, from salt-‘n’-vinegar to Sriracha and from mesquite to that horrible American imposter called “parmesan,” this aisle had more types, colors and flavors of chips than I’d ever dreamed could exist (not to mention pretzels, popcorn and cheese puffs galore).

Of course, New York City is full of such paradoxical delis. No East Coast city embraced organic food or the vegan movement as early or as whole-heartedly as NYC but, at the same time, ask any Midwesterner what they know about NY cuisine and the first thing that pops into their heads will be the famous New York pizza slice (which no Italian in their right mind would equate with pizza as they know it). Ask most Europeans, and pretty much all they’ll know about eating in New York will boil down to cheesecake and the dubious offerings of those iconic hot dog carts. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time in the Big Apple knows better. In New York you can find pretty much any kind of food imaginable: the very best… and the absolute worst.

For more on this same Lower East Side deli of infinite variety, you can check out my two previous posts about the incredible shelf of Spam and what might be Manhattan’s largest assortment of hot sauces.

More NYC images and adventures coming soon.

Thanks for stopping by!

– Jennifer

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Some Like It Hot

I think the contents of these two shelves are not so much inventory as they are arsenal. There’s enough hot sauce here to burn the last taste buds off of a vindaloo addict, to break the fifth alarm on the five-alarm-chili machine, to permanently disable the noses of an entire K9 unit. Looking more closely, I think we could probably find the proper hot sauce to fit any recipe in any ethnic cookbook you could buy in New York City, which is where I found this shelf. Indeed, it is right next door to the shocking-variety-of-Spam shelf you might have seen featured here a couple of days ago.

Not enough spice in your life?

Not enough spice in your life? Sriracha, Tabasco, Red Devil, Cholula, Chili Sauce… this deli has got it all

Making a quick calculation and figuring that the bottles go back about 3 deep, I estimate there are a minimum of 18 varieties of hot sauce on these two shelves, for a total of approximately 54 bottles. I do believe that such a stock would keep my family happy for at least, say, 3 or 4 generations. That is, if no one accidentally knocked down the shelving in the interim. That might result in the destruction of the world as we know it – which, come to think of it, we might survive. After all, we would have the Spam shelf.

  • Here’s the hard science behind why people like hot sauce… and why, once they start, they want it hotter and hotter (and no, it’s not because they burn off all their tastebuds, although there must be some truth to that, too: The Science of Sriracha’s Good Burn (theatlantic.com)
  • Did this post make you hungry? Are you in need of a handy recipe? Then try this one out: How to cook the ultimate vindaloo (metro.co.uk)
  • And now for something completely different:” 12 Gifts For The Sriracha Addict (thoughtcatalog.com)

And if you survive all that, we’ll see you next time.

Thanks for dropping by!

Jennifer

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Spam, Glorious Spam!

Most people on the Continent have never heard of it. Still, every culture, even the most fine, produces some version of it: pressed meat in a can. Even the Italians have their own version: Simmenthal (which is shredded and encased in aspic rather than pressed, and tastes much better than it sounds). The British, of course, have their famous corned beef, which can be purchased in a can in a tin. Perhaps the French are above such things, but somehow I’m sure they have their own version as well (well, of course they have their tins of fine pâté that go for €50 a pop, but I’m talking about the kind of  tinned (or canned if you’re American) meat that makes the gourmands out there turn up their noses, so we can’t really include pâté in our list). No, I’m talking about the stuff we Americans know as SPAM. It’s the stuff that was used as rations during WWII (and, to this day, remains a kind of regional delicacy in Hawaii as a result… yes, there is such a thing as Spam salad, Spam pizza…). All these years I’ve been under the impression that Spam was, simply, Spam. Au contraire! However, I had to go to an NYC deli on the Lower East Side to discover that this historically  (and often affectionately) maligned American delicacy food item has branched out quite a bit since the 1940s. Who would have guessed? If you’ve been worrying that food might get boring after a hypothetical ice-age/nuclear/zombie/asteroid-provoked apocalypse, you can breathe a sigh of relief. The good old Spam company has ensured that we will not lack for variety for quite a few decades after the end of the world as we know it.

Can man live on Spam alone?

Can man live on Spam alone? Perhaps it’s not so far-fetched of an idea after all (well, provided the man in question isn’t a vegetarian).

Thanks for coming along to NYC! I saw a whole lot more than Spam on a shelf, but let’s take things one at a time. There will be more NY adventures coming soon.

Until next time, bon appétit!

– Jennifer

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Where the Bike Trail Ends (and an Epilogue of Turnip Soup)

On the weekend before Thanksgiving, just before the temperatures dropped to freezing and the rainstorms hit,I braved the first winds of winter to follow my favorite trail farther than before. It was clear from the first that, despite the deceptively bright sun, winter was well on its way.

The stream runs cold under bare boughs, and I follow it down through the woods towards the old mill

The stream runs cold under bare boughs, and I follow it down through the woods towards the old mill

Ragged yet radiant refugees of autumn

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This time, when I arrive at Cadell’s Mill, I decide to cross over Surrey Road and see where the path leads on the other side. I’ve been leery of crossing on my bike, but the park map shows the trail continuing. My curiosity leads me on.

On the other side of the road, what was a paved path becomes a dirt track ridged with roots and strewn with stones. Remembering the map’s advice, I take the left fork. My trusty steed is no mountain bike, but she gets me as far as Walney Pond, which the map had told me was only a short distance away. There are no cattails or water lilies in this season, but the reflections of the bare-limbed trees on the water have a strange, stark grace.

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There are benches, and I’m sure this place will be lovely, come spring, but it’s no place to sit and pull out a book today. The only reason I’m not freezing is because I’m not standing still very long. I get back on the bike and go back to the fork to see where the other trail leads. I come to a bridge…

A tantalizing bridge leads to an unknown forest

A tantalizing bridge leads to an unknown forest

…and I am thwarted.

The end of the trail for my trusty steed

The end of the trail for my trusty steed

Definitely for feet only

Definitely for feet only

A lovely place for a picnic, just not in November

A lovely place for a picnic, just not in November

My trusty steed can go no further on this road

My trusty steed can go no further on this road

It’s been a long, cold ride. Once my bike is safely back in her cozy garage, it’s time to think about how I’m going to warm myself up. What’s in the fridge? Hmmm… turnips. I know just what to do with those.

When peeling turnips, make sure to cut off the darker ring beneath the skin, leaving only the white inner flesh to cook with

When peeling turnips, make sure to cut off the darker ring beneath the skin, leaving only the white inner flesh to cook with

Peel and cut turnips and potatoes into rough chunks (I used one potato per turnip as a ratio).

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Chop one onion and put it in a soup pot with about 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Simmer onion until transparent.

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Then add the turnips and, a few minutes later, add the potato as well as some rosemary. I used about 3 tablespoons worth of fresh rosemary from my herb garden.

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I added four cups of water. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a fan of pre-prepared stocks. If you salt and season generously, water is all you need, and this way you never end up covering up the delicate flavors of your own ingredients with the stronger taste of a soup stock.

Bring to a boil and then simmer both the turnips and the potatoes are tender. Once this is done, let the soup cool a little, and then put it in the blender and puree (you’ll probably have to do it in two parts).

Once the soup is pureed and back in the pot, add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, as well as a generous shake (or four) of ground nutmeg.

Let it sit covered on the stove for a few hours to maximize flavor, then reheat before serving.

Below you can see it on the table, garnished with a sprig of fresh rosemary and served with my new favorite spinach salad on the side (recipe coming soon).

Turnip and potato soup

Turnip and potato soup – less humble and much more delicious than one might expect

I really felt like I was bringing out my Slavic peasant roots while preparing this. It seemed like something the infamous Russian witch Baba Yaga might have served to unwary visitors in her hut in the woods. I must say, considering the humble nature of the raw ingredients, the end result was, indeed, magically good.

I can’t take the credit for this one, though. I adapted it from a recipe on the lovely website Tales of a Kitchen. Here’s a link to the original recipe.

Well, this post was scheduled to go up this weekend but I didn’t expect the weather to change so drastically when I was preparing it last week! It’s going up now, even though the first snow is falling. Those last traces of autumn may be gone now, but the turnip soup is as apropos as ever.

See you again soon! Thanks for stopping by. Stay warm and don’t scorn the turnip.

– Jennifer

A Soup for the Season

Mr. Fuzzy dons his winter finery before heading outdoors. All the chic poodle chicks love it.

Mr. Fuzzy dons his winter finery. All the chic poodle chicks love it.

When it’s cold enough that my faithful pooch has to start wearing his coat, and I come back from my bicycle ride feeling like somebody dipped me in ice-water, I know there is only one thing to do. It’s time to put on a cozy sweater, pick out some music (I usually find myself in a Nick Drake mood come November) and set about making some warm soup to suit the season.

The only way it could look colder outside would be if there were already snow

The only way it could look colder outside would be if there were already snow

As my former flatmates in Rome know, I am a big fan of winter soup. On a Sunday they would follow their noses into the kitchen to find me cooking up a couple different kinds at a time – enough to share and then to freeze in one- or two-portion jars for those days when I didn’t have time to cook anything (which was most days, since I happened to have three paying and one non-paying job at the time).

View from the balcony outside my room in Rome on a rare, snowy morning. A good day for soup making.

View from the balcony outside my room in Rome on a rare, snowy morning. A good day for soup making.

One of my flatmates, who became a close friend over the nearly four years we shared an apartment, and who also happened to be a psychologist, would wander into the kitchen on those afternoons and sit down at the table for a snack (and a sample). We’d end up talking about our week, our jobs (he had three or four as well) and everything else from romance to society’s ills. As afternoon crept into evening and dinner time rolled around, we’d end up eating together, he sharing my soup, and I sharing the his cheese and cold cuts or the vegetables and fruits he’d brought down from his parents’ land in Tuscany. I forget whether it was he or I who first coined the term compassion soup, but that is what we began to call it.

On a cold Sunday morning I’d come back from the supermarket laden down with grocery bags, shrug off my coat and tap on his bedroom door, behind which I’d find him hunched over his computer, as usual, no matter the day of the week or the time. “Nico,” I’d say, “I’m making compassion soup today. Come in and have some later.” And so he would. Other flatmates would join us sometimes, but he’s the one who started the tradition, and every time I make soup I think of him. Nico, this post is dedicated to you.

A Soup for the Season

Sweet potatoes, carrots and a fennel bulb: the unlikely companions fate tossed my way on soup-making day

Sweet potatoes, carrots and a fennel bulb: the unlikely companions fate tossed my way on soup-making day

There I was, with a kitchen full of seasonal roots, tubers and vegetables and not much of an idea where to start. However, cooking is a bit of a hobby for me, plus, I love to improvise. This was going to be fun. Here’s the seasonal soup recipe I came up with:

Ingredients: 

  • 1 large onion
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • Approximately 4 tbsp. of extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 sweet potatoes
  • 6 carrots
  • 1 fennel bulb
  • 1/3 tsp. powdered ginger root (you can use a few slices of fresh ginger root if you’ve got it)
  • 1 tbsp. fennel seeds
  • 1 tbsp. fresh thyme, removed from woody stem
  • 6 cups (1.5 liters) water (the flavors are great without the need for soup stock, believe me)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Secret ingredient (all will be revealed in good time)
Coat the bottom of a large soup pot with extra virgin olive oil. Add a roughly chopped onion and 2 finely chopped garlic cloves. How else to start a winter soup?

How else to start a winter soup?

Coat the bottom of a large soup pot with extra virgin olive oil. Add a roughly chopped onion and two finely chopped garlic cloves. Cover and cook over medium-to-low heat until onions are transparent. Then, while the onion and garlic are cooking…

Bright orange from beneath the earth

Bright orange from beneath the earth

Carrots, rustically chopped

Carrots, rustically chopped

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One bulb goes a long way

Wash and peel your carrots and sweet potatoes. Cut the carrots into slices and the sweet potatoes into cubes. Keep in mind, they don’t have to be too fine or too pretty. This is all going into the blender later. Put the sweet potato cubes in a bowl and cover them with water while you finish prepping. This will stop them from oxidizing and going brown from exposure to the air before you’re ready to use them. Now rinse off your fennel bulb. Chop off the leafy bits, slice and dice the bulb and slice the stalks. You can prep these ingredients before starting to cook the garlic and onion, if you think you’ll need more time. Once everything is prepped, check that your onions are ready, and put your chopped sweet potatoes, carrots and fennel in the pot. Make sure the heat is at medium, cover and let simmer. After the mixture’s been cooking for about five minutes, add the ginger and fennel seeds.IMG_7765
And don’t forget the thyme. I nearly lost track of it myself (wink, wink).

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Now it’s all in the pot, even the thyme

IMG_7771Brown the vegetables for another five minutes, stirring occasionally, and then add the water. You can use vegetable or chicken stock if you want, but I find that any stock I use tends to overwhelm the distinct tastes of the ingredients I’m using and subtle flavors can be utterly lost. If your ingredients are fresh and you are not adverse to using a little extra salt, water is all you need to make a good and flavorful soup. Once you’ve added water, bring it to a boil, then lower the heat and let the soup simmer until all the vegetables and roots are tender. This should take no more than twenty to thirty minutes. Sometime towards the end of this process, add your salt and pepper to taste. I use the large crystals of sea salt in my soup recipes, as they dissolve quite nicely. I used about a tablespoon of them in this soup, which calls for a liter and a half of water. While the soup is simmering, get out your blender. Then prepare the last, secret ingredient:

What makes this soup special: two apples, one Granny Smith and one Honey Crisp for sweetness

What makes this soup special: two apples, one Granny Smith and one Honey Crisp for sweetness

Secret ingredient on top

Secret ingredient on top

Peel and core the apples and cut them into chunks. Then put  half the contents of the pot (make sure the glass is heat-safe first!) into the blender, add the apple chunks, and puree until smooth. Put the resulting creme into another heatproof container while you puree the second half of the soup, then pour it all back into the pot. Let it simmer for another five to ten minutes, stirring frequently, and then serve. If you want to let it cool then reheat it later, it will taste even better. The longer it sits, the stronger the flavors get and the better they meld with each other. Serve it with a garnish of fresh thyme.

Now, you may wonder what one could serve as a side dish with this soup. Well, I like my meals to have a unifying thread running through them. In this case, I decided that thread would be apple. I consulted my collection of cookbooks and came up with a spinach and apple salad recipe that I thought would fit the bill quite nicely (recipe coming soon).

Set the table just how you like it. I’m a big fan of presentation. Always remember, you work hard on your food, and every gem needs a setting, right? Your dinner deserves a well-laid table for its debut. Here’s what mine looked like when dinner was served.

The soup, garnished with thyme, takes center stage. The apple theme runs through the whole meal, with apple and spinach salad on the side and a spiced, hard apple cider as the beverage for the evening.

The soup, garnished with thyme, takes center stage. The apple theme runs through the whole meal, with apple and spinach salad on the side and a spiced, hard apple cider as the beverage for the evening.

It could just be that it was really cold outside. It could be that the winter vegetables (with a little apple for sweetness) were what everyone was really craving. On the other hand, after a very long week, it could be that maybe we all just really needed some compassion soup. The fact remains that this was one of my most well-received culinary inventions. I hope it will warm you all as well.

Happy cooking and, until next time, buon appetito!

-Jennifer