Keeping It Real On The Road

If you’ve been hanging around here for very long, you know that my husband, whom I affectionately (and sometimes sarcastically) refer to as “Beloved” and known to my readers at large as “BE”, travels a great deal for business.  Before we changed our diet nearly three years ago, he pretty much ate out wherever it was convenient.  That’s not so easy now; even if he weren’t so mindful of what is in his food, where it came from and how it was prepared, his tastes have changed – it’s hard to find good quality, well-prepared food in restaurants – and when you can, it’s apt to cost an arm and a leg.

Over the last year, he’s found a somewhat workable solution for this dilemma.  Here’s what he has to say about it.

Anyone trying to eat real food, let alone those with food allergies, knows how difficult it is to navigate the waters of eating out, even occasionally.  But as a frequent traveler, I can attest that it gets old in a hurry. So I changed the way I travel so I can eat real food and save a lot of money.

Sure, you can eat reasonably healthy at restaurants, even fast food joints, if you are careful of what you order.   Short trips necessitate eating out as time is dear. For bun-less burgers I suggest one of the better burger chains like Wendy’s, Whataburger or Culvers, and if you can still tolerate MSG, add bacon.  But why is it that you need to remind the clerks that when you don’t want a bun, you still want the veggies?  Salads are always a good choice, but dressings (on the side) are always suspect; oil and vinegar is my choice if the oil doesn’t look like it’s been sitting on the counter since 1970.  Worst case breakfast at a diner any time of day can be worked around. But if you have to eat out all the time, invariably you end up at the higher end places, and you can find some gems out there specializing in local and clean foods.  Of course, the high end places are much more accommodating than the “have it your way” Burger Kings of the world.

But it’s expensive and it still gets old.

Frankly, when travelling alone on business, the last thing I want to do is to go out to dinner. I want to get back to a desk, catch up on the emails of the day’s regular business, and talk to the loved ones.  Sure, you can join the minions of lonely business travelers sitting in bars and cafés talking on their cell phones, but I’d rather enjoy my meal.

A couple of years ago I cracked this nut and learned how to travel and eat real.  I book rooms that have kitchens, although you have to be careful to avoid rooms with “kitchenettes”   that only provide a mini fridge and a microwave.  Sadly, as far as I know, none of the on-line hotel search sites include a decent amenity search for a kitchen (let me know if you found one), but there are several chains that specialize in these kinds of rooms.  Beyond a doubt, my favorite is Staybridge Suites.  They are invariably the nicest with the best equipped kitchens.   I also recommend  Homestead Suites by Hilton, SpringHill Suites and TownePlace Suites by Marriot (the SpringHill Suite in Gaithersburg, PA is my favorite place when visiting D.C.)

There are other, usually cheaper, chains like, Homewood Suites, Extended Stay America, and Candlewood Suites (which I frequent because they, along with Staybridge, are affiliates of the Holiday Inn Priority club).   However, you need to be prepared for the possibility of needing to buy cookware if it is lacking – and the cheaper the place the more lacking.  Can you believe I was at one of these (a Holiday Inn) where they had all kinds of great amenities but didn’t issue any skillets to any of the rooms.  I’m supposed to make eggs in a sauce pan?  I have donated more than a few cast iron skillets to extended-stay hotels in strange towns. Darling Daughter is going to have a whole set if I keep going to Vegas (by the way, home to my absolute all-time favorite hotel suite with a kitchen – not only is it highly equipped, including an oven, it has a salt water pool and cabanas).

Honestly, I am convinced that most of these chains really don’t like you cooking in and messing up their kitchens, to say nothing of the billows of smoke in the hallways and the goat sacrifices you know are going on down the hall (and I have yet to be invited to the barbecue.  Bastards.).  Sadly, I suspect a large percentage of the guests cook nothing more complicated in their rooms than coffee and Pop Tarts – which are conveniently sold in the lobby pantry and billed to your room.  Ewwwww.

That brings me to the next point. Hotel eating requires some careful planning. Just like booking flights, cars and hotels, I scope out the healthier food stores in an area. Whenever possible I keep it local, but often do have to endure Whole Paycheck, which continues to disappoint me by carrying industrially processed and GMO products (of all companies, right?).

Of course you need to remember that even the better hotels have limited utensils. Always try to stop at the suite before shopping.  You need to know what you have to work with. Check out the utensils, knives, cleaning supplies and storage containers. Does the hotel have a grill? Does it work? Do they have utensils (you usually have to clean)?  It appalls me that every flea-bag hotel doesn’t have at least one grill.  Again it’s hard to search for and if you ask the front desk you may not get a truthful answer.   If you know there is a functional grill, even discount hotels can be made to work – at least in the summer.

With rare exceptions even full kitchens don’t have ovens, so cooking is primarily on the stove top.  Besides, I am only cooking for one. I want it to be quick, convenient, and not too complicated. With my gourmet at home, I am flying without a net.   So what do I shop for?

Eggs, greens, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, some salad, some nuts and a little fruit and cheese, if you can handle it, are good staples for the week.  While you can often find salt and pepper packets, I usually buy some each week (at least they can be packed and taken home).   Depending upon the proteins I pick up a spice medley or Adobo chili powder can be used in several meals.

I usually grab a bottle of spring water and can often raid the hotel’s breakfast pantry for tea to brew.  As for coffee, you need to check the room. There will probably be a pot, but often only one self-serve pouch unless you go down to the buffet.  At times, coffee needs to be on the list – don’t forget appropriate filters.

Always buy a scrubby pad for the cheap hotel cookware.   This may require a trip to a regular grocery store because if Whole Paycheck has one it is made out of recycled vegetarian raised ocean sponges that won’t work any better than the white face cloth provided by the hotel. And be prepared:  They never have appropriate cleaning supplies.

Breakfast is somewhat easier.  Even with a “free” buffet of powdered scrambled eggs or (at best) hard boiled battery eggs with processed meats, it’s far easier to throw on some bacon and eggs while getting ready in the morning.  Bacon is one of the first things I cook when I get to the hotel because bacon fat is so useful with all range top cooking, but even more important when using cheap stainless steel.

Whenever possible, I eat lunch in my room; I often make up a handful of burgers the first day to have for the rest of the week.   Like cooking for one, portions have to be balanced and reused when possible. I usually have onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, lettuce or an avocado for a nice quick burger meal  and they can be used to compliment  other meals.

Dinners are primarily based on whatever good quality protein I can gather at the store: steak, ground beef, chicken, fish or pork chops.   I no longer enjoy grain-fed beef so sourcing meat is the primary mission when arriving in town.  Even Whole Paycheck has good bison and usually grass fed beef. However, I have noticed that some locations, especially in crunchy (read: vegetarian) areas, the selection can be very limited and grass fed beef is almost always imported from New Zealand.

I almost always rely on leafy greens like spinach, collards, etc. as they are easy to sauté with some mushrooms and onions (and also easily repurposed for  a nice omelet) and taste great.   One of my favorite snacks, especially if there is a grill, is prosciutto wrapped asparagus with a sliver of pear in the middle – drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette if you want to be fancy, but those bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar will stay behind unless you check your bags.

This week is a bit of a treat because I can drive to my destination and will be able to take staples with me. I will have decent utensils and take a cast iron skillet.  More importantly, I was able to shop locally for my food: Whitefeather Meats (for bratwurst, sausage, ground beef and a nice 6 week dry-aged rib eye) and Mustard Seed for $20 worth of veggies (collards, spinach, zucchini, mushrooms, an onion, some green beans, and a few cashews).   Sounds horrid, huh? My total bill for four days is under $75 – about a day and a half if eating out.

Is my road diet a bit humdrum? Maybe, but it works for me with my limited resources and culinary abilities.  I do confess that I tend to lose weight when I travel, but that is the opposite experience of most travelers and, as far as I can tell, a good thing. I welcome suggestions and hearing how others cope in such situations.

The truth of the matter is that travel has become much more enjoyable since I started cooking for myself in the room.  I can come “home,” relax, check my emails, talk with my loved ones, iron my shirts all while preparing what I know will  a good meal, knowing what’s in it. I don’t have to go out and explain my diet to servers when I really need to get back to the room to finish my day and prepare for the next one.   As Jan and I enter the new phase in our lives as empty-nesters, I am hoping she will accompany me on more trips. I will be anxious to see what she does with this “mystery basket” of limited ingredients and even more limited equipment.  In a couple of weeks we are driving a cooler full of real food to New York City for a few days.

If we can make it there, we can make it anywhere!

 

Valley of Fire State Park

So, I went to the doctor yesterday only to have her tell me what I expected to hear:  it’s allergies combined with something “viral” so they can’t give me anything to make it better – I just have to ride it out.  She did give me Nasonex (makes NO difference that I can tell), some Zyrtec D (so I can have the effing jitters all day) and some cough syrup with codeine that I will hardly take at all, because I am fully aware of the nature of my, ahem, addictive personality.

::sigh::

Anyhoo, I know I promised a recipe for today, but I’m saving that tomorrow so I’ll have something for Fight Back Friday.  Also, it’s Travel Tip Thursday over at Pseudo’s place – and the one thing I took boocoos of pictures of over my extended “vacation” was of this place:  Valley of Fire State Park, just north of Las Vegas.

I apologize for the lack of commentary (I’m still feeling like doo doo), but if you’d like to learn more about this beautiful, fascinating and HOT state park, go here.

Valley of Fire State Park Entrance
Long and Winding Road
Blue Sky, Red Rock
"Beehive" Rocks
Faces in the Rocks
Rainbow Vista
Beloved Takes In the View

The Harder They Come, The Harder They Fall, One and All

So.  I wasn’t going to post while in Vegas, but I’ve got too much stuff to talk about.  So here I am.

Saturday was endless – we were up at 4:00 a.m. EDT to catch our 6:40 flight.  (If it had occurred to me that Beloved, as a frequent flier, has all sorts of “premium” and “platinum” status and can bypass all sorts of lines in airports, we’d have slept until at least until 4:30.)  We flew from Cleveland to Minneapolis, then from Minneapolis to Las Vegas, arriving at 10:40 a.m.  Which means we’d been up for 9 hours.

We then rented a car and drove out to Darling Daughter’s Elks lodge, since we couldn’t check into our hotel for another 4 hours and met all of her friends there – as well as her beau, Mr. Fix It (he supposedly can fix anything).  After a few hours, we checked into our hotel, then took Darling Daughter and Mr. Fix It to dinner, then we went back to our room to pick up our tickets to see Jimmy Cliff, who was performing at our hotel.

We were about 45 minutes late for the concert at that point, and Beloved and I had been up and running for nearly 20 hours straight.  As we rode the elevator down, it stopped a couple of floors below us and a young Caucasian man in a Jimmy Cliff t-shirt and a camera slung around his neck got on, accompanied by a small, thin African-American man with a goatee and the shiniest gold shoes we’d ever seen.

Beloved cracks, “Oh, good – we’re late to the show, but so is Jimmy Cliff.”

We all chuckle.  We all know Jimmy’s already down there – these guys are photographers for the show or some such.

We go down to the concert – a very nice venue at the “beach” and wave pool at the Mandalay Bay – and catch the very last of the opening act.  They leave the stage, and preparations for the main show begin.  The band files out and a very elaborate introduction begins when Darling Daughter and Beloved look at each other and both say, “Wouldn’t it be funny if the guy in the elevator really was Jimmy Cliff?”

And out on stage bounced a small, thin African-American guy with a goatee and the shiniest gold shoes you ever saw.

I don’t think it would be inappropriate to say that we all began to squeal like a bunch of teeny-bopper fan girls at that point.  Well, except for poor Mr. Fix It, who probably wondered what the hell he’s gotten himself into with this family.

Z’s Fusion and the OH!-tini

blueberrymartiniOn our way back from Indiana (and a week full of “Hoosier Daddy?!?!”), we stopped for a night in Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville is a really lovely city, and our hotel was right next to the famous Fourth Street Live! area.  When we checked in, we asked the pimple faced little git nice young man at the desk about the restaurants, since Fourth Street is quite renowned for them.  He told us the name of some restaurant he liked (I don’t remember what it was), and when we inquired further about the type of cuisine they served, he shrugged and said, “American.”

He must have interpreted our blank stares correctly, because he then qualified it with, “You know, just good American food.  You’ll like it there – TGI Friday’s and the Hard Rock Cafe can be so noisy and this place isn’t.”

We were too polite to tell him he was out of his ever-loving mind, and immediately started to research restaurants when we got to our room.  We soon found a place that said it served Pacific Rim cuisine about two blocks from our hotel – I don’t remember the name of that place either, only that it sounded vaguely Japanese – and proceeded to stroll down Fourth Street (in the opposite direction from Fourth Street Live!, incidentally).  About halfway, we stopped and peered into the windows of another restaurant; the interior was subdued and immaculate, the tables were well-set, and  – more importantly – the menu posted on the door immediately made me begin to drool.

“Let’s go in here,” I insisted, pulling on Beloved’s arm.

“No, let’s go on down to the other place and take a look,” he replied, so we walked on down the street, much to my disappointment.  We got to the vaguely-Japanese-sounding restaurant and immediately turned back around – the place looked like an upscale Chinese take-out joint – and made a beeline for the other restaurant.

It is named Z’s Fusion and is the sister restaurant to the well-established Z’s Oyster Bar and Steakhouse.  I also have to say it was one of the best meals I’ve had (in a restaurant) in a very, very long time.  Of course, I may be a tad biased, because they serve the very kind of food that Beloved and I love best – fresh seafood with a Hawaiian/Japanese/Pacific Rim flair – but that doesn’t detract a bit from the fact that the quality of the food we were served was absolutely impeccable.  How can you not love a place that flies its fish in daily from Hawaii?

If you ever go there, try the sea bass.  I cannot emphasize that enough.

TRY THE SEA BASS.

Of course, Beloved said the Butterfish was darn tasty, too.  Our appetizers were also excellent (the Asian pear salad was so yummy) and the banana cheesecake we had for dessert was one of the creamiest I’ve ever had (they make it in-house).

So, if you should happen to find yourself in Louisville, go go GO to this restaurant.  It was just wonderful.

And while you’re at it, order this martini – it is one of the most original and tasty I’ve ever had.  They call it the “O-tini” – I call it the “OH!-tini” and they were gracious enough to give me the recipe.  Don’t skip the fresh blueberries; they make the drink (and that’s what the bartender says, not me!).  I believe a “part” consists of roughly half an ounce for one serving.

OH!-tini

serves me, but Beloved will fight me for it

4 parts Stoli Blueberry vodka

2 parts Cointreau

2 parts Pama pomegranate-flavored liqueur

Dash of soda water

Fresh blueberries

Combine all the ingredients except the berries with some ice in a cocktail shaker.  Shake vigrorously; strain into a chilled martini glass.  Garnish with fresh blueberries.

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Travel Tip ThursdayFor more Travel Tip Thursdays, head on over to Pseudonymous High School Teacher‘s blog.   She’ll tell you all about Oahu.  You’ll sigh with longing.

Hocking Hills State Park

Travel Tip ThursdayLet’s be up front with one small fact about me:  I do not like hiking.

Beloved adores it.  And since I like to take pictures and spend time with my husband, I occasionally go hiking.

Against my better judgment.

At any rate, July 23, 24 and 25 found us in Hocking Hills State Park in southern Ohio.  While I was there, I found I much prefer it to northeast Ohio; because the park practically borders Kentucky, southern Ohio is much more, well, Southern than the rest of the state.  (Click on any picture to enlarge)

Click to enlarge

Hocking Hills State Park adjoins a state forest by the same name and is a popular destination for families camping.  The park itself is home to several campgrounds for RVs or those who prefer to “rough it” with a tent.  They also have 40 “cabins” which are really just small homes with all of the amenities.  Directly outside of the park are several privately owned properties with similar cabins; some are commercial properties – “Inns” if you will – small, hotel-like properties with additional individual dwellings.  Most of the rental properties are owned by individuals; people who bought sizable tracts of land, built small homes on them (some of which are quite isolated) and rent them out.

Moss and Fallen Trees

Since my idea of “roughing it” includes indoor plumbing and a coffee maker, we chose one of the latter for our extended weekend away.  The fact that there was a fully functioning kitchen and a charcoal grill out back was just a boon (oh, if only it had been clean…).

Bridge Steps

It rained a great deal of the time we were there, but Friday was quite nice so we decided to put on our hiking boots and go hike two of the nine trails available in the park.  Neither was very long, although the first, to Old Man’s Cave, was marked “moderate”, as most of the trails are.  The second hike, shorter and much easier (and handicap accessible) was to Ash Cave.

Entering Ash Cave

Composed mostly of shale and limestone, calling either of them a “cave” is a bit of a stretch – both are more honey-combed depressions in the sides of moderately-sized cliffs.  Glaciers never reached that far south, but they did turn Ohio into a very cool, very moist environment and in the valley and gorges of the park, those conditions remain today, making it quite lush and green.  There’s a lot of moss growing there, which I found quite novel – moss simply does not grow in northeast Texas; it’s far too arid and hot.  The hike to both caves had a very “primordial” feel to them, despite the very well-maintained paths and numerous visitors.

Old Mans Cave

Old Man’s Cave is so named because a hermit apparently made it his home in the mid-late 1800’s.  There are a lot of steps going up and down, and places that require care when walking – as I mentioned before, it’s cool, damp and moss-covered – and can get rather crowded at times, but it’s a marvelous hike all the same.  Not too easy, not too hard.  Well, at least not for me, anyway.

Shadow and Light

The feeling that you’re wending your way through a primordial forest is even more apparent on the easy hike to Ash Cave.  Again, it’s only a cave if you consider an overhang of limestone in the side of a cliff a cave, but it’s still pretty impressive.  The entrance and interior floor of the cave is covered in the kind of sand you’d expect to find on a beach, making me wonder if it occurs naturally or was imported (and why, if it’s the latter), making it a nice place to sit and relax for a bit.  In fact, more than one family was having a picnic lunch while we were there.  The main attraction to the cave is the waterfall, but despite the rain over the previous day or two, was more like a water dribble.  Still, the light and vegetation made it worth a picture or two.

Waterfall

Waterfall 2

There are lots of activities in the park – camping, hiking, fishing, swimming, archery – some of which are available year round.  Part of the park is a nature reserve, and there is a family-style restaurant available, as well as the requisite visitor’s center with knowledgeable employees and a souvenir shop.  All in all, it was a very pleasant day and we wished it hadn’t rained on Saturday so we could have gotten out and gone on a couple of the other hikes.

Ferns

Shadow and Light 2

For more fun Travel Tips, head on over to Pseudonymous High School Teacher.  Tell her the crazy lady from the Sushi Bar sent ya; she’ll treat you just fine.