Where creativity grows

Category: Travel

International Foodie Potluck

When we returned from Spain I was craving new food experiences and conversation with new people who shared my love of food, new recipes and travel. I have belonged to a local Facebook foodie group for a few years. So when I conjured up the idea of an international potluck, I asked them first if they would be interested. The idea was that everyone would bring a dish to pass that was representative of their heritage. 

The response to our invitation was small, but after all we were total strangers inviting other total strangers to our home. I’m not sure that I would have accepted the invite from someone else. I invited a couple of other friends and voila we had a group of seven people ready to share in some foodie funness.

We ended up with Italy, Germany, Poland and Mexico represented by our guests. One of our guests traveled all the way from Indiana and brought pierogi from a local favorite in her area called Dan’s Pierogies.  They were amazing! My husband especially liked the plum variety and I loved the sweet cheese one.  One guest made pasta carbonara, which was SO good. Then another guest made traditional enchiladas with red sauce and also a poblano cream sauce that she served with tortillas. YUMMO! 

My friend Gudrun introduced me to Obdatzda when I lived with her in Munich and I immediately fell in love with it. I found this recipe on Pinterest and it is easy to throw together. My husband doesn’t like raw onions, so I usually leave them on the side and people can add them as they like. I have made it both with camembert and brie and both are yummy. I serve it with Snyder’s Dipping Sticks, but you could serve it with any pretzel or bread.

My first choice for my entree was currywurst and German potato salad, but one of my guests was vegetarian. So I scoured the new German cookbooks I recently purchased for a good vegetarian option. I found a recipe for a mushroom goulash with dumplings and decided to try it. This was my first time ever trying to make bread dumplings (or any dumplings for that matter). I mixed up the bread and seasonings, rolled the dumplings and boiled them only to discover they were VERY moist and soggy. We decided to throw them in the oven to see if we could dry them out a bit and for the most part it worked. The mushroom goulash was very thin, so we added a bit of cornstarch to thicken it up. That was fairly tasty– much better the next day! I don’t know that I would make that particular recipe again, but I did see this recipe that sounds similar that I will add to my list to try.

My German potato salad recipe is a long time crowd favorite and can easily be adapted to be vegetarian, by skipping the bacon and using vegetable broth. I just make two batches of the “sauce” one with bacon and one without. Then I divide the potatoes up and make one for my vegetarian friends and one for everyone else. It works out nicely.  I can’t remember where I found that recipe on line, but if you would like it, send me a message and I’ll send it to you.

I decided to try a new currywurst recipe this time around and my husband agreed that it was much better than my original recipe. Currywurst is traditional German street food. It is grilled sausage (usually a bratwurst) and then a curried ketchup sprinkled with curry powder. My original recipe was a quickie version that I use when making it for my students. This recipe is more authentic and has a more robust flavor. I also grilled the sausages instead of just cooking them in the sauce in a crockpot. 

For dessert, I shared something I have been doing for my students for years– Spaghetti Eis. This link will show you the basic idea, but I make some adjustments to the recipe. I use frozen strawberries with sugar that have been thawed for the sauce. I shave white chocolate with a microplaner for the parmesan cheese. Then I add whoppers for meatballs and Pirouette wafers for breadsticks. If you want to be fancy, you could use chocolate ice cream instead and say it is whole wheat pasta. Kids LOVE this recipe, but I was tickled by how much the adult crowd got a kick out of it as well. 

real edible ice cream, no artificial ingredients used!

The evening was in general a success. We would like for it to be a wider variety of new people, so that no one feels left out of the conversation. We definitely had more food than we could possibly have consumed. We tossed around the idea of just doing appetizers next time. Or perhaps appetizers and desserts. But we gave it a try and we had a nice time and we’ll do it again– just a bit different. Isn’t that the case for everything? You try something and then make adjustments and do it again? 

What recipe would you bring to an international foodie potluck?

Spanish doors

I wanted to immerse myself in every chance I could to explore creativity on our once in a lifetime trip to Spain. On our first walk through the quaint town of Bot, I immediately noticed the beautiful doors and windows. I made a mental note to take advantage of some free time to explore the area with my camera. The opportunity came one morning when I woke up early to go for a run on the via Verde near our hotel. Tom was still sleeping and we didn’t have plans until the afternoon. 

I grabbed my gear and headed out to explore. I roamed the city streets listening only to the sounds of the town coming to life— roosters from a local farm crowing in the distance, vans and trucks making their morning deliveries and the occasional Buen dia  as someone strolled past me. I could truly get used to this way of life! 

The variety of doors was staggering. Every single door was different. Most of them were wood, but they were in no way cookie cutter. Some were arched. Some were wider. Many were very colorful. A lot had ornate metal details or unique handles/knockers. Each entrance had its own unique personality. 

I know it is easy to say that something is better because you are in a far-away location. Coming from suburban Chicago where everything looks exactly the same, the variety was truly refreshing. 

This was an excellent exercise to find the beauty in the everyday. 

When in Spain…

One of the tenants of a creative mindset is learning new things. What better time to do this than while on vacation in Spain? For as many times as we have stayed in an Airbnb, we had never tried out an Airbnb experience. I think that in my heart I knew that Barcelona was not going to hold the magic charm for us that it did for many others. So I started poking around for ideas of things that we could do— experience. My eye caught on a paella cooking class. It had amazing reviews and it was ridiculously cheap given what we had paid for cooking classes here in the States. I clicked “book it” and told Tom we would end our trip with a paella class in this guy’s backyard. Cool. 

There was something more that stoked the creative fires in both of us than just learning something new. Our host, Miguel, made us feel incredibly welcome in his beautiful home. The ambience was magnificent. We immediately noticed all the little extra details that made the space special. The garden was stunning— a true sanctuary from the world. Inside, he went above and beyond to set the scene. The music, appetizers and sangria made learning and conversation easy and lighthearted. Before we even started cooking, we were relaxed and felt like we were visiting an old friend instead of a total stranger. 

Everything about the experience tickled our creative juices. Music played in the house and garden. Miguel was a fellow creative. He was a police officer by day and shared his love of cooking with strangers from around the world on his days off. He has found a way to be creative, meet new people and make a bit of extra money. Almost all of the ingredients in the paella were items we had never cooked with. We prepared four different types of seafood and vegetables as well as a sauce for the paella. Left to our own devices we probably would not have cooked with all these different types of seafood, but we LOVED trying them all. We were forced to try something new and unexpected. We were absolutely in a new and stimulating environment that made us want to learn more and try more. And of course while we were engaged in all this fun and stimulating learning we were not attached to our phones and social media. 

I don’t know that we would have gotten all of this creative jolt from just any class. This was something special and we knew we were very lucky to be there experiencing it. If you find yourself in Castelldefels, Spain (or you want to get out of Barcelona), I highly recommend you check out Miguel’s class. You won’t regret it.

Magical Paella with Miguel in Castelldefels

A staycation

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, not everyone can just pick up and spend eleven days in Spain. However, one of our most memorable days in Spain was when Matt and Cassandra shared their favorite places and experiences with us. It gave me the chance to look at our hometown with different glasses. What would I put on such a list if I had to share our hometown with guests? 

Coffee and a pastry at Arabica Cafe. Although Diane and Chef Brian are currently trying to sell the cafe so that they can start chapter two of their retirement plan, it is still one of my all time favorite spots. I did almost all of my interviews for my book The Many Faces of Elgin there. The coffee is good and the pastries are amazing (or go later in the day for lunch- wowza). 

Check out the dam at Kimball Street. It is one of my all-time favorite spots in Elgin. If it’s freezing cold out, you might spot an eagle. If it’s summer, you’ll probably see a line of people fishing. Either way, it’s a very peaceful and beautiful spot to see the Fox River. Stroll down a bit and check out Walton Island.

At Kimball Street Dam
Eagles over Kimball Street Dam

Enjoy a bike ride, run or walk on the Fox River Trail. You can park at the Gail Borden Library in downtown and head north toward Algonquin or head south toward Aurora. 

Enjoy a martini at The Martini Room. Each month the lounge hosts the art of a local artist. Although they do not sell food, their cocktails are outstanding.

Martini Room

Get a bag of popcorn at Mama Lee’s to snack on while checking out the shops around downtown. Meraki Market features the work of local artisans. Elgin Knit Works is a beautiful yarn shop. Steep ‘n Clay is a tea and pottery shop. There are a variety of antique shops scattered around downtown as well.

Check out the public art throughout town. Elgin has amazing murals and sculptures. Most of it is accessible on foot from downtown. 

Get a German pretzel roll at Herb’s Bakery. These are the real deal and they sell out very fast. Call ahead and order a half-dozen…or go crazy and order a dozen. You won’t regret it. 

Have an iconic meal at Al’s Cafe (lunch or dinner- you won’t be disappointed). 

Elgin has a large hispanic population and as a result some excellent options for authentic food. One of our favorites is Taqueria Chapala on the far east side. 

Elgin Symphony Orchestra at the Hemmens Center. We are crazy lucky to have three amazing orchestras in Illinois. If you want to skip the major hassle of traveling downtown to see the CSO, you won’t be disappointed with free parking, ample dining options within walking distance and world class talent at the ESO. 

Discover the amazing architecture throughout Elgin. Whether it is a walking tour of the famous painted ladies and other historical homes or the various churches and temples, Elgin has it all. 

Painted Lady

Bluff City Cemetery is a stunningly beautiful historic cemetery on the far east side of town. Wander the grounds and then go for a hike in Bluff Spring Fen, which is accessed at the far end of the cemetery. 

What would be on your Staycation Itinerary if I were to visit your area? 

The Invitation of a Lifetime

We knew as soon as we received the invitation to Matthew and Cassandra’s wedding we would do everything possible to attend. After all, how often do you receive an invitation to an intimate wedding in the rolling hills of Spain? Once we negotiated all the chaos of traveling internationally near the tail end of a global pandemic, we were ready to get our fiesta on.

Everything about this wedding fits the challenges I set forth in my post about a creative mindset

Listen to music. Nine different countries were represented at the wedding. The bride and groom asked everyone from outside the US to share a few songs for the DJ to play during the reception. It was so unique to hear songs from India, Sweden and Ukraine. I never would have heard these songs otherwise and I’ll always smile when I think back on the reception and dancing to them.

Keep an idea journal. The food at the reception was out of this world and it had me making notes to try and find recipes to try back at home. From the camembert bites in blueberry sauce to the vegetarian paella and quinoa salad, my creative juices were flowing! 

Talk to other creatives. This was a very small wedding- only 38 guests. When we talked to the bride and groom about the guest list they admitted that they were drawn to the same types of people— people with a sense of adventure and creativity. After all, most of the guests were traveling thousands of miles to attend the festivities. 

Embrace failure. The bride and groom were extremely thoughtful in how they arranged guests at each table. There was a mixture of people who spoke only Spanish, only English and both English & Spanish at each table. Pedro, a local farmer at our table, tried to engage the Spanish learners at our table with children’s riddles using farm animals. The three non-Spanish speakers at our table stared at him with zero comprehension of what he was trying to communicate. The bilingual guest translated, we laughed and postulated an answer. Time after time our language and creativity failed us. We laughed it off and kept trying. 

Be a lifelong learner. I knew as soon as we decided to make the trip that I was going to do everything to learn at least basic Spanish. I spent countless hours and gave up daily lunch periods to practice on Duolingo. There was no way that I would be fluent in time for the trip, but I did get a healthy dose of creative use of my limited language skills. 

Expose yourself to new environments. The entire wedding fit this challenge. When most people travel to Spain they go to the big cities— Barcelona, Madrid, Sevilla, Valencia, etc. The ceremony was held in the middle of the Spanish countryside in Arnes on a stunningly beautiful vineyard that no one has ever heard of. It was an all vegetarian/vegan menu that tantalized our taste buds with each bite. We knew the bride and groom and none of the other guests- which forced us to meet and interact with new people. 

Have new experiences. The wedding festivities continued well into the night. We danced and laughed and celebrated the beautiful couple like it was the last thing we would ever do. The joy carried into the next day when a couple from India shared the Holi festival of color with the wedding guests. We piled into cars and headed into the mountains with huge packets of colored powder. After a short hike down to the river, the color madness started. Everyone grabbed packets of powder and smeared them all over anyone within arms reach. Joy and laughter was radiating from every single person. Before we knew it everyone had jumped into the river and the colors were just a memory. 

I know that traveling to exotic destinations is not an everyday (or in our case even an every year) occurrence. We did embrace every chance we could to make the most of this special opportunity and to recharge our creative batteries as much as we could.

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