Conversation with Pro Boxer and Caribbean Chef Julius Jackson

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. June 2018

At age of 30, Julius Jackson is a professional boxer, chef, cookbook author, model, and actor. He is a light-heavyweight Olympic qualifier and plays a boxer on the Telemundo series El Cesar based on the life of Julio Cesar Chavez. Born and raised on the beautiful island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Jackson maintains a delicate balance between his professional life, his passion, family and serving the community.

I met Jackson at the St. Croix Food and Wine Experience’s “The Giving Table,” a community-centric private gourmet dinner prepared by celebrity chefs to raise funds for the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development and rebuilding St. Croix after the destruction from two hurricanes in 2017. Jackson carefully plated about 40 servings of pumpkin fritter with a salmon croquette and micro-blended creole sauce, topped with a thyme and parsley garnish. It was an instant crowd pleaser.

How did you get involved with St. Croix Food and Wine Experience?

The St. Croix Food and Wine Experience works with a lot of nonprofits in the USVI, one of which I am closely involved with. I am the head chef and manager of the charitable café/ bakery called My Brothers Workshop which focuses on mentoring and job placement for at-risk youth. We help kids get diplomas online, provide job skills, counseling and mentoring and give them hope to overcome their situations and become better citizens of the island. I also spend a lot of time volunteering at schools and summer camps to talk about boxing and cooking.

What’s your history with boxing?

My dad, Julian “the Hawk” Jackson, was a 3-time world champion boxer and Boxing Hall of Fame recipient. Boxing was huge for our family, but I did not care much for it. I saw my dad get injured and go for surgeries towards the end of his career, which turned me away from the sport. I liked baseball better.

My brothers, on the other hand, did box and would come home and teased me for being fat and lazy. So, I decided to just go to the gym with my dad to get in shape, but I didn’t want to punch or fight anyone. When my brothers started competing in tournaments and needed a sparring mate, my dad asked me to do it. They would beat me up but I couldn’t hit them back, so decided to box. Soon enough, I realized that I was a natural at it and started liking it. I began my amateur boxing career at the age of 13, competed in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China and won the title of WBC (USNBC) Super Middleweight Champion in 2012. I am currently fighting with a professional record of 20-2 with 17 KOs (knockouts).

How did you get into cooking?

When I was a kid, I hated being hungry. I would stay in the kitchen to help my mom cook mostly because I wanted to be the tester and take the first bite. One day, when I was about 10, I was home and hungry, so I decided to cook myself fried chicken. It turned out nice but I remember putting too much Goya adobo! All my brothers wanted some, so I started cooking for everyone. I watched them enjoying what I prepared and it made me feel good. Then on, I would make pancakes, scrambled eggs and Johnny Cakes on the weekends for everyone.

Until high school, I never perceived a career in culinary arts. My counselor advised me to take home economic courses in 8th grade and after graduation, I went to Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach. I worked with a catering company, hotel, restaurant and did some pop-up dinners while maintaining my pro boxing career.

What’s your cookbook about?

Whenever I get a chance to talk with the women in my family, I am always learning how they cook certain Caribbean dishes. Keeping true to my roots, I wrote my Caribbean fusion cookbook focusing on traditional Caribbean recipes across the different islands, with classic French and Italian twists I learned through my training. Some of the recipes include Caribbean quesadillas with fresh mangoes and focaccia bread with avocados. I am Caribbean by blood but I love mixing with other people and cultures.

I wrote “My Modern Caribbean Kitchen” (releasing July 2018) through the two hurricanes Maria and Irma. It was dark everywhere and I had to look for light and internet. I dedicated the book to the victims, while I was also working through the time feeding people at the bakery.

To learn more about Jackson, visit  http://juliusthechef.com and follow him on Twitter.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine

 

Are You Brave Enough to Add This Festival in Mongolia to Your Bucket List?

For CheapOAir Miles Away. May 2018

Traveling to the remote country of Mongolia is no easy feat. While most adventure seekers trek through the rugged Tavan Bogd mountains of the west or venture onboard the Trans-Mongolian railroad, cultural enthusiasts can find Mongolia a fascinating destination to explore the historic Great Mongol empire and its people’s nomadic lifestyle.

For the best taste of Mongolian culture, you can’t beat traveling to the country during July to see the annual Naadam Festival that takes place for a week, with sporting competitions, music concerts, costume parades, food fairs, and family picnics held across the country. The Naadam Festival is considered an ancient Olympic-style competition and is registered with the Intangible Heritage Fund of UNESCO. It measures courage, strength, daring, horsemanship, and marksmanship through three sports integral to Mongolian culture — wrestling, horseback riding, and archery.

The main affair takes place at a stadium in the capital of Ulaanbaatar. Parades of mounted cavalry dressed in traditional costumes open the 3-day event ceremonially, while thousands gather to watch. Tickets are sold out months in advance, so make sure to get yours at the earliest.

Here’s what you can experience at this unique festival:

Get a Grip on Your Wrestling Skills

two mongolian wrestlers

Bare-chested muscular men dressed in bright-colored trunks and long sleeve capes known as zodog, intimidate their opponents by crouching and flapping their arms like eagles. In this traditional wrestling match, the only way to win is by getting the opponent’s upper body to touch the ground multiple times within 30 minutes. The winner receives the title of bird, hawk, elephant, eagle, lion, or Titan, depending on how many rounds he takes to win.

Ride Faster Than a 5th Grader

Mongolian children racing their horses

The horseback races take place at open-air venues in different aimags (provinces) around the countryside. In Mongolia, only 5- to 12-year-old boys and girls racehorses for a 6- to 18-mile sprint. These kids start riding at just the age of 4 and race at very high speeds through dusty deserted trails, testing their skill and endurance.

Hit the Mark at an Archery Contest

archers take aim

Archery is one of Mongolia’s oldest sports and now allows women to compete as well, though with different rules. Bows are made of sinew, wood, horn, and bamboo and are strung with bull tendon. They deliver 20-40 arrows in every contest, as cheerleaders egg on the competitors with traditional folk songs.

Drive Through One of the Most Deserted Places on Earth

the Gobi desert

Driving through the bare Mongolian countryside is an adventure on its own. Without much cell reception, GPS signals, or street signs, you’ll often find yourself to be the only person on the road. Chances are you will see more camels and horses than people during long road trips, as Mongolia has about 3 million people and is twice the size of Texas.

The landscapes change as you go from the Siberian Altai mountains in the west and the planet’s oldest lakes in the northwest, to the vast expanse of the fossil-rich Gobi Desert in the south. The Bayanzag (Flaming Cliffs) area of the Gobi is home to some of the largest dinosaur fossils discovered in the world. Temperatures drop to −40°F in winter and rise to 122°F in the summer, making it hostile for human life.

Sleep Like the Nomads

a traditonal mongolian yer

Over 30% of the population of Mongolia still live like nomads, dwelling in traditional nomadic tents called gers, herding sheep and camels and moving every few months. Gers (aka yurts) are made from felt, poles, lattice, and cloth.

Outside of Ulaanbaatar, tourists can only find accommodations in ger hotels or camps. You may choose to carry your own camping gear as most locals do and set up tent along the way, or stay in one of the more luxurious individual gers that are equipped with comfortable beds and private baths equipped with rain showers and flushing toilets. They also have international restaurants, bars, and meeting rooms on the premises.

Eat Like a Carnivore

traditional mongolian dish

The Mongol diet is based primarily on the meat they raise. Fruits and vegetables are very rare. Enjoy hearty full-fat meat soups with noodles, steamed or grilled meats (known as Khorkhog and Boodog), as well as Khuushuur — fried dumpling stuffed with beef or lamb.

It is customary for guests to be offered Süütei Tsai (hot tea made with milk and salt), along with Aaruul (fermented dried cheese) when they enter a home or shop. The milk may come from camel, horse, sheep, yak, or cows. At special events, they may offer Airag, fermented mare’s milk that’s also the national liquor of Mongolia. Remember, it’s rude to refuse any food and drink offered by the host!

Make Some Tunes with Your Throat

a mongolian throat singer

The first time you hear Mongolian throat singing, it may sound like an angry animal growling. Mongolian musicians are especially talented using deep throat singing like Tibetan Buddhist monks do, and use local instruments such as the horse head fiddle, drum, and gong to create all kinds of music. The Naadam Festival is especially good time to enjoy the local songs and dances as performers open and close the games.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away

 

This Is How to Do Your Weekend Getaway at Yosemite

For One Travel. May 2018.

Whether you are a thrill-seeking mountain climber, long-distance biker, or just like to relax outdoors with the family, chances are that you will be able to find an amazing vacation that will satisfy your mind and body in the expansive 1,200 miles of Yosemite National Park. While the best time to visit Yosemite is during spring when the snow is melting and the waterfalls are at their full gushing glory, its massive granite mountains covered with glaciers, ancient giant sequoias, and vast meadows are spectacular year-round.

Start at the Gold Rush in Downtown Sonora

yosemite_-_sonora

Tuolumne County, California, acts as a gateway to Yosemite and High Sierra. In its heart lies the town of Sonora, which is famous for being a gold rush mining camp until the mid-1800s. This historic downtown is a good place to take a nostalgic stroll through time, imagining Mexican, French and American miners passing through the yellow Roman-pressed brick courthouse, the iconic Red Church, and the 19th century Opera House. The few walkable blocks are full of antique and country western shops, small international restaurants, and a few museums.

Sip on Fresh Hard Cider

tasting indigeny hard cider

Take a pause for a hard cider tasting at Indigeny Reserve for free. This family-run 160-acre preserve and apple orchard set in the breathtaking hills of Sonora grows 51 varieties of apples. Indigeny Reserve makes hand-crafted hard cider and apple brandy in oak barrels. You can taste hard ciders on tap and unique flavors of infused vodkas such as figs and tomatoes. Take a tour of the distillery or enjoy a bottle while sitting outside at the picnic tables under apple trees dating back as far as the early 1900s.

Fill Up on California Country Cuisine

yosemite_-_standard_pour

For dinner, head away from downtown Sonora to the Standard Pour for local and sustainable fresh casual food and brews. The restaurant sources all their cheese, meat, and honey from California farms and offers tasty dishes such as fried Brussels sprouts, salt and pepper rock shrimp, and avocado toast with cheddar and chili. Watch a baseball game on the big screen, enjoy the open-air patio, or mingle with fellow travelers.

Take a Snooze at Lazy Z

At night, stay in one of the spacious family cottages and cabins at the Lazy Z Resortnestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Rooms come with private kitchens and decks, while common areas include a rustic clubhouse filled with family heirlooms and a relaxing swimming pool surrounded by woods. The mountain retreat is great for nature lovers looking for peace and tranquility.

Soak in The Landscapes

yosemite_-_rush_creek_lodge

One of America’s most popular national parks, Yosemite Valley is home to deep valleys, rocky cliffs, and cascading waterfalls. Wake up early and plan to spend at least an entire day in the park unless you are camping overnight, but make sure to book your campsite months in advance. Make stops to see Sentinel Falls, El Capitan Meadow, Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and Merced River to capture some stunning photographs.

Just outside the park entrance is a new hotel called Rush Creek Lodge, which offers luxurious accommodations, a relaxing spa, saltwater swimming pool, game rooms, and event facilities. Even if you are not staying overnight, you can stop by for a casual dinner and crafted cocktails at The Restaurant at Rush Creek, overlooking a forest sunset.

Explore the Lesser Known Valleys

yosemite_-_hetch_hetchy

While most people head straight to Yosemite National Park, the adjacent Hetch Hetchy Valley has one of the longest hiking seasons of any of the park attractions due to its relatively low elevation, and is often not as crowded. Besides hiking, you can go backpacking, bird watching, fishing, or visit the spectacular Wapama Fall. If you are up for a bigger challenge, hike the 16-mile round trip trail with 3,300 feet in elevation gain to reach Smith Peak. It’s the highest point on the Tuolumne side of the park and offers unparalleled views.

Written for One Travel. Published in May 2018.

 

Myths & Facts About Voluntourism: The Real Deal About Your Next Volunteer Trip

For CheapOAir Miles Away. April 2018.

You may have heard the terms “volunteer vacationing,” “volunteer travel,” or “voluntourism” and wondered what they are all about. While there is a wide spectrum of journeys from mission trips to homestays and long-term projects to few-hour stints that fall under these terms, they all basically involve some sort of charitable give-back from your travels. Volunteer traveling is especially popular with young adults and retirees, but a lot of professionals and families are also realizing how rewarding such experiences can be.

Volunteers_working_at_Alamar_coop_farm_in_Cuba

While there are a lot of sites out there offering advice on how to go about using travel for good, there are also a lot of misconceptions about what it’s all about and what you can expect. With the years of experience gained through my nonprofit volunteer travel organization Go Eat Give, I’ve put together a few myths and facts you must come to terms with before you embark on your journey.

MYTH: A Week is Too Short to Volunteer Abroad

Most volunteer vacations range from 1-6 weeks depending on the project. Even if you can take out a day or a few hours from your trip, you can still make them count towards fostering community efforts. During Go Eat Give’s 1-week yoga retreat in Bali, Indonesia, we spend a day doing sanitation, nutrition, and exercise workshops at schools, and have lunch with the staff of Bali Children’s Project. These kind of activities can give travelers insight into social issues in the community that they probably would never know about otherwise.

FACT: Volunteer Travel is Suitable for All Ages

A volunteer trip can be a great bonding experience for a multi-generational group as you work together towards a common goal. Kids as young as 8 years can help with cleaning animal habitats, picking up garbage on park trails, or taking part in arts and crafts with other kids their age. When they see how children in other countries live, most of them without iPhones and video games, they learn to understand different cultures and grow up to be informed global citizens.

Tip: Always check with the program to see what is the minimum age requirement for volunteers.

volunteers in Bali school

MYTH: Volunteer Opportunities Only Exist in Third World Countries

While touring rural areas and helping the poor is often highlighted in voluntourism, volunteer opportunities are everywhere in the world. In Spain, you can teach conversational English to professionals while residing with them at a resort in the countryside. In Italy, harvest olives in the fall while staying at a sustainable “agrotourismo” farmhouse outside Florence. In the Caribbean island of Bonaire, your resort could be the perfect place to dive off to lend a hand at a coral nursery.

FACT: No Special Skills Are Required to Volunteer

Most volunteer projects are quite generic in nature and don’t require special skills. For example, you don’t need to be a farmer to plant trees in Cuba, or a computer programmer to teach how to draft emails and surf the internet in Kenya. However, skill-based opportunities for doctors, nurses, teachers, and business consultants also exist. Be selective about not embarking on activities that take jobs away from locals, such as construction work and those involving manual labor.

Tip: Do you enjoy making a difference to wildlife, marine life, nature, the elderly, kids, or women? Select a program based on who or what you’re passionate about.

Volunteer teacher helping schoolgirl at her desk

MYTH: It’s Better to Volunteer Through a Well-Known Large Organization

Empowering the local community means understanding their needs and aiding them in fulfilling their mission. At Go Eat Give, we always partner with small established local NGOs that already exist and have an experienced staff. These organizations generally have a better feel for what the immediate needs of their communities are and how best to fulfill them while being culturally sensitive. You’ll find that larger global organizations often have a one-prong approach across countries and are more focused on doing highly visible work that can generate funding.

FACT: Travelers Pay to Volunteer

Yes, travelers are required to cover the cost of their trip, as well as any fees associated with staffing, guiding, and operating the volunteer projects. In many cases, there will be a dedicated staff person and/ or translators coordinating the efforts, which most nonprofits don’t have a budget for.

Think of volunteer travel as a meaningful vacation you would book through a travel agent. Check what the tour operator offers you in terms of lodging (5-star hotel, homestay, hostel), meals (nice restaurants, home cooked, prepare your own), sightseeing (destination highlights, entry tickets), activities (cooking classes, dance lessons, live music), and transportation (airport transfer, tours to other cities), then add the cost of guides, translators, and coordinators to get a better idea of how much you should pay for your tour.

Young volunteers with boxes of donations indoors

MYTH: It’s Hard to Make an Impact in Just a Week

You may not be able to teach someone fluent English or build a new school in one week, but it is a start. When Go Eat Give volunteers teach job skills at a women’s shelter in India, they share ideas across geographical and cultural backgrounds. The women may only spend a day or two with the visitors, but the fact that someone traveled halfway across the world and took time out of their vacation to teach them something makes a long-lasting impact. It makes them feel loved and encourages them to learn new skills.

Tip: Make sure the charity you volunteer with carries on the mission throughout the year and not just for the time you are there.  

FACT: Travelers Get More Out of Volunteer Vacations than Receivers

You can see the good and the bad things experienced by citizens of the country, form meaningful relationships with locals, and get out of your comfort zone. Most travelers return with a broader perspective on life, are grateful for what they have, and share interesting stories with their friends.

~Written for CheapOAir Miles Away. April 2018.

Where Did Hummus Really Originate?

~ For Chowhound. April 2018.

The brownish paste has become a staple appetizer on most menus, often served as a dip with a side of pita and veggies. It can now be found at American, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern restaurants, but do you know where hummus really comes from?

The Invention of Hummus

Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptian Arabs, Greeks, and other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries all claim hummus as “their” dish. Some historians say hummus can be dated to 13th century Egypt, others identify it as hometz from the Hebrew Bible written 3,500 years ago. The truth is, chickpeas have been growing in Turkey and surrounding areas for 10,000 years, which most likely gave way to some form of this dip.

Hummus Wars

Naturally, ownership of the popular chickpea dip started a war between Lebanon and Israel in 2008. Lebanese Industrialists and the government petitioned to recognize Lebanon, not Israel, as the appropriator of hummus, and waged an unconventional war of lawsuits, cook-offs, and competitions. According to CNN, in 2010, Lebanon set the record for the largest plate of hummus at 11.5 tons!

Chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author, Yotam Ottolenghi, writes about the hummus wars in his book “Jerusalem: A Cookbook.” “The arguments never cease. And even if the question of authorship is somehow set aside, you are still left with who makes the best hummus?…It is like the English fish-and-chips shop, a savored local treasure.”

What’s the Difference?

Most recipes for hummus contain the same basic ingredients: chickpeas, tahini (sesame paste), lemon juice, garlic, and salt. Yet a hummus aficionado has preferences of consistency—smooth and fluffy vs. chunky and spicy; temperature—warm, cold, or room temperature; and which condiments to serve alongside—cooked whole chickpeas, rehydrated dried fava beans, spice paste, chilisauce, or just plain. “It’s sort of like Minestrone soup,” says Paul Nirens, founder of GalilEat that runs culinary tours in Galilee. “Every cook has his/ her own recipe. I personally like it not too heavy, with a good amount of tehina, no garlic, and with very little lemon,” following a family recipe of a Christian-Arab grandma of 17 kids in the village of Dir Hanna in Israel.

Turkish, Greek, Israeli, or Lebanese—each culture has their own twist on the recipe. The Turkish chef and owner of Sivas Turkish Restaurants in Atlanta, Georgia adds ice cold water while blending the chickpeas and a little white pepper to flavor his hummus. Sometimes small amounts of Greek yogurt, cumin, and hot peppers can be added, and toppings range from foul (fava beans), to eggs and minced lamb. Hummus has even surfaced to dessert menus. New York-based franchise The Hummus & Pita Co. serves chocolate hummus, cookie dough humus, and cake batter hummus with cinnamon toast pita chips, while Delighted by Hummus’ Snickerdoodle hummus has become all the rave after appearing on the hit TV show Shark Tank.

Cake batter hummus, The Hummus & Pita Co.

The Best Way to Eat Hummus

At the famous Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, you will find a row of hummusias, dedicated hummus cafes open for breakfast until late afternoon, typically run by Mizrahi Jews and Arab-Israelis. These are packed with locals starting at breakfast and crowded out by tourists. Masabacha (or hot hummus) is a full hummus-based meal eaten for breakfast or lunch. A huge portion of hummus is served individually, topped with shakshouka, chickpeas, cumin, paprika, chopped fresh parsley, and a whole brownish looking egg which is boiled in black tea. Custom dictates using raw onion scales to scoop the hummus and biting into long green peppers that are served on the side.

One thing to note is that hummus is traditionally served in a red clay bowl with raised edges, allowing for convenience of scooping. Also, for proper eating etiquette, twist your wrist in a clockwise motion instead of dipping right in.

Make it at Home

No matter where hummus comes from, the important part is using good quality ingredients and making it from scratch. Soak dried chickpeas or garbanzo beans with baking soda overnight to soften them instead of using canned preserved ones. Squeeze fresh lemon juice, mince whole garlic cloves, blend in tahini paste, extra virgin olive oil, and kosher salt. Balance the measure of each of the ingredients based on your personal preference. The result will be wholesome hummus that is rich in protein, iron, vitamin C, vitamin B6, fiber, and potassium.

~ Written for Chowhound. April 2018.

From Tunisia, with Love

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. April 2018.

Chef Lotfi Chabaane spends each day at a retirement community called Parc at Duluth. At 60, he’s the place’s de facto spring chicken, telling stories, dancing, and cooking for the seniors who live there. What he’s cooking are Tunisian, Indian, French, Malaysian, and German dishes, but his patrons often don’t know that. Chabaane disguises so-called “ethnic” foods with familiar descriptions, and serves them to people who may never have eaten international food before. That’s his mission: to expose retired folks to brand new cuisines in the most accessible way possible. And thus, to share a bit of his own life.

Born in the small coastal town of Menzel Temime, Tunisia, located on Africa’s northernmost tip, Chabaane began working from a young age in order to help support his family. He lost his father at just five years old, and, as the eldest son, had to step up and hustle his way through busy markets selling his mother’s lemonade and brik, a traditional stuffed pastry wrapped in phyllo dough and deep-fried.

“I would work from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and bring home 50 cents every day,” Chabaane recalls. His other chores included fetching water from a hand pump and buying food at the markets for his mom to cook. “She would send me back if I did not get the right cut of meat, which is why I came to know so much about food.”

Growing up in a house full of women, Chabaane learned to cook by watching them. He would dry pasta, tomatoes, and olives; cure meats; preserve lemons. He also made some money shelling peanuts, seeding peppers, and plucking chickens for the neighboring farmers. Life was not easy, but it laid the foundation for his future career.

After attending a presidential sponsored high school in Tunisia, Chabaane went on to earn a degree in engineering but could not find a job in his field due to the country’s unstable economy. Instead, he worked at a resort doing anything he was asked — busing tables, serving drinks, folding chairs. Then one day, he met an English couple who invited him to work at their hotel in the seaside town of Devon. Starting as a bartender, Chabaane trained at the Imperial Hotel in Torquay as a waiter, and then a maître d’. He enjoyed entertaining people with food, and became particularly fond of tableside cooking — flambéing steak Diane and crêpes Suzette, carving lamb, tossing Caesar salads. “That’s when I realized I could cook!” he says, with a laugh. He also realized that his new skill set could act as his ticket around the world.

Leaving Tunisia and moving to the UK had already been a culture shock of sorts. Chabaane didn’t speak English fluently and eating fish and chips didn’t satisfy his Northern African palate. But the cooking skills he’d developed, coupled with a strong ambition to learn about the world’s cuisines, got him a job on the Queen Elizabeth II cruise ship. As an onboard sommelier and maître d’, he sailed around the world three times. “I tasted caviar, foie gras, and smoked salmon for the first time,” he recalls. “I was the happiest person in the world!”

While Chabaane worked hard on the ship and was often seasick, he looked forward to tasting the cuisine at each port city along the ship’s route. “I would go to small local restaurants and eat the best paella in Spain, grilled octopus in Lisbon, tamales in Acapulco, and tandoori chicken in Mumbai,” he says. “I was building my knowledge of food and realized I wanted to open my own restaurant someday.”

Chabaane finally got a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, in 1992. From there, he snagged gigs at the Department of Defense in Germany, then a French restaurant in Florida. He catered alongside Oprah’s former chef Art Smith in Tallahassee, and headed the dining room at Cherokee Town and Country Club in Atlanta. Eventually, he’d made a big enough name for himself to open two Atlanta restaurants: Couscous, a Tunisian bistro in Morningside, and Perla Taqueria, a Mexican taco joint on Piedmont Road. But after five years of running the two restaurants, Chabaane decided to close down both. There was a revolution going on in Tunisia, one that would eventually mark the start of the Arab Spring, and he needed to go back there to be with his family.

TUNISIAN CHEF: Chef Lotfi Chabaane of Parc Duluth. Photo by Erik Meadows.

TUNISIAN CHEF: Chef Lotfi Chabaane of Parc Duluth. Photo by Erik Meadows.

But eventually, Chabaane returned to Atlanta, a city that’s become his second home. As dining director and executive chef for Parc at Duluth, he spends his days conversing in multiple languages with the retirees, creating eclectic menus using fresh and often unfamiliar ingredients, and telling stories of his world travels over platters of chicken satay, French ratatouille, chicken curry, and black truffle risotto. “I am no longer a chef,” he tells me as he prepares to give the residents a spirited lecture on legumes. “I am an educator and an entertainer.”

In February 2018, Chabaane hosted a fundraiser for my Atlanta-based nonprofit, Go Eat Give, where he cooked homestyle Tunisian dishes such as spicy carrot salad, chicken tagine stew in a traditional clay pot, and vegetable couscous. In this way, the chef was able to recreate his childhood memories of eating big weekend lunches, sharing stories, and surrounding himself with people. Though some of the attendees were generally familiar with the region, none had ever tasted  traditional Tunisian food before, which stands apart for its European influences. Chabaane was proud to serve it to them.

“I have been cooking for over half a century,” he says. “Now I want to share what I have learned.”

How You Can Enjoy AND Make a Difference in Guatemala in Just 1 Week

~ For CheapOAir Miles Away. April 2018

Guatemala is the heart of the Mayan civilization. From ancient ruins and colorful villages, a charming UNESCO city, to beautiful lakes surrounded by volcanoes, there’s a lot to see and savor in this Central American country. Besides being a popular tourist destination, it’s also emerging as a place that engages eco-travelers, Spanish language students, and offers plenty of opportunities to give back to the community.

Do Good in Antigua

Most travelers fly into Guatemala City and take a shuttle or taxi to the colonial capital of Antigua. Explore the World Heritage sites by walking the quaint cobblestone streets at your own pace for a couple of days.

Guatemala_people in central park

Wander around the 26 churches, ruins and monasteries, pop into a bar for a drink, shop for handicrafts from all over the country at Nim Pot market, and watch families gather in the evenings at the Parque Central.

Guatemala Travel

With a backdrop of three volcanoes, there are dozens of historic and modern hotels, hostels, and restaurants in the city. Tucked away on a quiet street is The Good Hotel, a contemporary European-style mansion where 100% of revenues are invested in the local community. They provide hospitality training to unemployed and single moms, educate low-income kids, and source locally produced food, including crafts, food, and coffee. The central coffee shop and garden is a cool place to hang out, catch up on emails, and meet fellow travelers.

Take a Day Trip to The Pueblo

To see the true Guatemalan way of life, get out of the city and visit the mountainside villages by local transport (called chicken bus) or taxi.

Woman weaving textiles in Guatemala

Stop to see local women weaving colorful Mayan handlooms in San Antonio Aguas Calientes. Here you can purchase tablecloths, cushion covers, bags, and stoles directly from the women who make them. At San Pedro las Huertas, watch as the locals bring their clothes to a communal laundry at the main square. It provides everyone access to clean water and helps conserve it too. People watching and photo ops are abundant at Santa Maria de Jesus, one of the bigger villages, which is also a starting point for treks to Pacaya volcano.

Touring Guatemala

The Valhalla Macadamia Farm is a great place to enjoy a relaxed afternoon learning about the organization that sustains local families by providing an income source through macadamia trees. They focus on reforestation, sustainable agriculture, and organic farming, and have donated over 250,000 macadamia trees to indigenous communities in Guatemala. Sit down for lunch to try their legendary macadamia pancakes, macadamia-crusted eggplant sandwiches, and hibiscus juice. Then take a nap…under a macadamia tree.

Be Eco-Friendly in Atitlan

Lake Atitlan is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Guatemala. To soak in the scenic beauty and authentic culture of the lakeside, it is advisable to spend at least 2-3 nights at Laguna Lodge.

Guatemala_Laguna Lodge

The luxurious boutique hotel constructed with volcanic stone, adobe, and palm, is tucked away from the city and has rooms overlooking clear blue waters.

Guatemala_Lake Atitlan

Practice morning yoga on the deck while watching the sunrise over the volcanoes; have an authentic campesino breakfast of mashed beans, scrambled eggs, tortillas, and plantains, hike through Laguna’s private nature reserve, and have a romantic sunset dinner at Zotz, the hotel’s vegetarian restaurant. The proprietors, Miyah and Jeffro, make a conscious effort to ensure all aspects of the hotel are sustainable and you are encouraged to read about their conservation efforts at their explorer room.

Explore Lakeside Villages

While most tourists end up in the town of Panajachel, it’s worth exploring some of the smaller towns located along Lake Atitlan via affordable public water taxis. Santiago Atitlan is the largest lakeside Maya Tzutujil traditional village with incredible views of the volcanoes, and tons of places to shop for paintings, beadwork, wood carvings, and jade jewelry. Here you can visit the statues of Maximom, the famous Catholic pagan saint who drinks and smokes.

Guatemala_Coffee co op

San Juan La Laguna is a small farming and fishing village home to textile and coffee cooperatives. Learn how coffee is harvested at La Voz Coffee Cooperative, taste raw cacao at Licor Marron chocolate factory, and stock up on handmade handicrafts and textiles using traditional techniques and natural dyes from Casa Del Tejido.

Guatemala_an artist at work

Guided tours are generally available for a voluntary donation and friendly tuk-tuk drivers are happy to practice their English along the way.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away. April 2018

How This American Woman Is Changing People’s Lives Through Travel

For CheapOAir Miles Away. March 2018

Kelly Campbell is a native of Indiana and founder of The Village Experience, a responsible tourism company. Kelly travels year-round taking groups of people to fund projects in Kenya, India, and Guatemala, improving the lives of women and children, and providing water to remote villages.

I caught up with Kelly at her home base in Lamu, Kenya, where she has been living since 2016. Lamu is a small island town northeast of Mombasa, best known for being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

a street in Lamu

Away from the bustling cities, as a resident there is not much to do in the Arabic-influenced town except feeling the cool ocean breeze, watching picturesque sunsets while sailing in a dhow, walking through narrow historic streets alongside donkeys, or eating fresh seafood at local restaurants. Here’s what she had to say about using travel to help people, life in Lamu, and how she spends her downtime. 

What made you move to Lamu?

I first discovered Lamu in 2011 and immediately fell in love with Shela Village, a small beach community located at the end of Lamu Island. It has become the perfect sanctuary for me in between the many trips I run all over the world. I return to a haven of healthy vegetables, freshly caught seafood, flavorful cappuccinos, daily massages, and lots of downtime to read and sail to my heart’s content. This is exactly the setting I need to keep my sanity in between travels.

kelly at Shela_Village

What’s your favorite part about living in Lamu? 

Having the fisherman knock on my door asking if I’d like fresh caught lobster, calamari, fish, prawns, or crab. The answer is always YES!

What was your inspiration for founding The Village Experience? 

It’s my opinion that Americans need to get out into the world more and experience the richness, diversity, and beauty of cultures outside of their own. This leads to better understanding, breaking down of barriers, and tolerance towards different religions, among other things.

How are you supporting the local community in Lamu?

Since I first traveled to Lamu when tourism was at an all-time low, I connected to the local dhow captains, fisherman, hotel owners, and families that were all struggling with how to survive on an island dependent on tourism dollars. I heard from them about the difficulty of keeping and maintaining their Mozambique-style dhows when there were no people coming to the island for sunset cruises or Manda Toto snorkeling trips. I met fishermen who would go out to the sea and catch an entire boat full of tuna, snapper, and king mackerel, but have no one to sell it to. I spoke to the director of the Lamu Marine Conservation Trust (LAMCOT) about the obstacles the schools in the areas were facing since parents no longer had the income needed to pay school fees or provide nourishing food to their kids.

These encounters inspired me to work my hardest to promote tourism to Lamu. Lamu is a magical place where donkeys and dhows rule the transportation lanes, where Swahili architecture inspires visions of a bygone period, and where people are still genuine in their efforts to meet you and get to know you. They want you to love Lamu as much as they do. This was the safest and most peaceful place I had ever encountered in all my travels to over 60 countries in the last 15 years.

kelly on the Hippo_Dhow

I was determined to showcase Lamu in a positive image through multiple social media channels. The Village Experience offered several trips every year and word spread that Lamu was indeed as magical as I portrayed it to be. Now in 2018, we are sending people to Lamu almost every week — whether it’s individuals coming for vacation, couples wanting a romantic getaway, families looking for beach time, or groups of friends wanting to explore the islands. We work with local hotels, boat owners, women’s associations, boutiques, artisan workshops, and projects to support their development.

Our groups have raised money to support Safari Doctors (medical volunteers in rural communities) medical sails, build classrooms at Twashukuru, provide desks for Shela Primary School, distribute burkinis at the local women’s pool, install new mattresses at the girl’s orphanage in Lamu Town, and conserve sea turtles throughout the archipelago.

What other projects do you work with?

Women’s Interlink Foundation in Kolkata, India, works to root out human-trafficking, prostitution, and abuse against women by working on prevention, rescue, rehabilitation, and repatriation back into the community. The Village Experience has provided Women’s Interlink Foundation with dormitories and new playgrounds for the rescue centers, sewing machines for their tailoring program, administrative support for the entire street kids program, funding for their artisan development program, and we even built the entire Tribal Village Home Stay for their community-based tourism program in Shantiniketan.

Vamos Adelante in Esquintla, Guatemala works in 24 rural villages along the slopes of Volcano Fuego. Most of the communities survive on seasonal work from the coffee plantations and sugar cane fields, and employ children in their families to help bring in extra income. The Village Experience has assisted Vamos Adelante in building new classrooms, renovated current schools, constructing a recreational center, starting a women’s tailoring program, installing concrete floors/tin roofs/rain catchment systems for families in the program, and even providing a new cement mixer for the construction teams.

kelly working with the Safari_Doctors project

What do you do for fun when not traveling? 

I pack up my cooler with chilled white wine, fresh pasta salad, locally made bread, and imported chocolate, and go sailing with my friends on Hippo Dhow or The Gypsy Catamaran. There is something so relaxing and therapeutic about being on the water, especially the Indian Ocean. We sail through the channels, anchor the boat on Manda Beach or one of the local sand bars, and then swim, walk the beach, and enjoy our cooler.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away. March 2018

An Official Guide to the Unofficial Starbucks Secret Menu

For Chowhound. March 2018. 

Tired of ordering the same few drinks each time you visit Starbucks? What if you could invent your own pick-me-up at your favorite coffee shop? What if all your favorite desserts were made into beverages?

No need for a magic wand to grant this wish! Starbucks has a secret menu, unofficially created by consumers, that gives you a choice of ordering thousands of drinks you probably never even heard of. The next time you enter a Starbucks coffee shop, order your own secret recipe and sip away.

According to Starbucks’ Media Relations, “Starbucks does not have an official ‘secret menu.’ However, in addition to the beverage options listed on our menu boards, there are more than 170,000 ways baristas can customize beverages at Starbucks, including selecting from a variety of milks, syrups, coffee/espresso options, and toppings. If customers would like to order a beverage that is not listed on our menu boards, we recommend they know the recipe so that their barista can handcraft the beverage perfectly for them.”

Many secret recipes have become popular through Instagram feeds and Starbucks has even incorporated them into their “official menus” for limited times. For example, the Christmas Tree Frappuccino spread holiday cheer for a few days in December, while the Zombie Frappuccino played a tribute to the goriness of Halloween.

Check out some of the under-the-radar creations from Starbucks’ Secret Menu.

Colored for Spring

Pink Drink, via Starbucks

Referred to simply as the Pink Drink or Purple Drink, these strawberry acai refreshers with coconut milk and scoops of berries will get you in the mood for spring.

If you have seen people walking out with drinks that have pink and blue swirls or topped with glitter, that is a Unicorn Frappuccino, a jazzier version of the Dragon Frappuccino made with green tea Frappuccino, vanilla bean powder, and berry swirls.

The baby pink Raspberry Caramel Macchiato tastes as good as it looks. Have it with raspberry syrup, ice, milk, espresso, and caramel.

Drink Your Candy Bar

Twix Frappuccino, via Starbucks Secret Menu

The possibilities are endless when it comes to having your favorite candy created into a blended beverage. The candy bar-inspired Twix Frappuccino is a scrumptious mix of caramel Frappuccino, caramel syrup, hazelnut syrup, java chips, and a drizzle of mocha.

Chocolate connoisseurs will love the Ferrero Rocher Frappuccinowith double chocolate chip Frappuccino, mocha syrup, hazelnut syrup, and hazelnut drizzle.

Even if you can’t eat the real thing, this lactose-free Caramel Snickerdoodle Macchiato will surely perk you up. Ask for an iced soy caramel macchiato and add vanilla syrup and cinnamon dolce syrup.

Pick up an after-dinner indulgence in a Thin Mint Frappuccino, made with chocolate syrup, mint syrup, java chips, and honey mixed into a Tazo Green Tea Frappuccino.

Character Rich

Butterbeer Latte, via Starbucks Secret Menu

The Pokemon-Go inspired Pokeball Frappuccino was so popular that some Starbucks locations put it on the specials board. Made with vanilla Frappuccino, strawberries and crème Frappuccino, and topped with strawberry whipped cream, this pink-white and creamy drink is made to look like the ball’s opening.

Harry Potter fans invented the Butter Beer Latte, a milk steamer with caramel syrup, toffee nut syrup, cinnamon dolce syrup, whipped cream, and salted caramel bits. There’s also an iced version of it.

Sweeten the Deal

Banana Cream Pie Frappuccino, via The Odyssey

No need to bake your favorite dessert recipes. Just ask your barista to add sweet ingredients of your choice to a cup and drink away. Order a Vanilla Bean Frappuccino with a pump or two of vanilla and hazelnut syrups, plus a whole banana to make a Banana Cream Pie Frappuccino.

Skip breakfast for a Nutella Frappuccino, a coffee Frappuccino with mocha syrup, hazelnut syrup, and blended whipped cream, topped with caramel drizzle.

Winter may be almost over, but you can still enjoy a Starbucks S’mores Hot Chocolate with chestnut praline syrup, whipped cream, and mocha drizzle added to a regular hot chocolate.

Add one to three pumps of raspberry syrup to a White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccino to make it a Raspberry Cheesecake Mocha Frappuccino, or ask your barista to blend a biscotti into any Frappuccino for an impromptu Biscotti Frappuccino.

Drink to Your Health

Iced tea, via Starbucks

If sugary drinks are not your thing, order an Iced Matcha Latte that boasts antioxidants and has a lot less calories. Just mix matcha powder, vanilla, cinnamon, and ice.

Detox with a healthier option of blended drinks with a Superfruit Tea. The green tea with limes and strawberries packs flavor and is good for you too.

Feeling under the weather? Get the Passion Coldbuster Tea with passion tango tea, emperor cloud and mist, half steamed lemonade, half boiling water, and a bit of honey. It helps reduce inflammation, suppresses cough, boosts immunity, and relieves stress and insomnia.

There is an unofficial website dedicated to drink recipes (which is not Starbucks affiliated) where fans can post recipes and pictures of their own creations.  They recommend noting down the recipes as not all baristas will be familiar with the creative drink names.

Also, a ‘Secret Menu for Starbucks’ app available from iTunes provides a database of recipes on your fingertips. Search hot, cold, blended, and tea-based drinks, learn how to order, and rate your drinks.

~ Written for Chowhound. March 2018. 

Breakfast Casseroles from Around the World

For Chowhound. March 2018. 

You don’t need a plane ticket to enjoy food from different countries. Brighten your morning routine with these internationally inspired casserole dishes that can be made ahead. From Mexico to Nigeria, expand your breakfast culture knowledge one egg at a time.

Mexico: Huevos Rancheros

Meaning “rancher’s eggs” in Spanish, these are sunny-side up fried eggs served on lightly fried corn tortillas smothered in tomato-chilisauce, accompanied by refried beans and rice. Top with diced avocados, fresh cilantro, sour cream and salsa to make this hearty breakfast dish that will transport you to a hacienda in Mexico. Get our Huevos Rancheros recipe.

Israel: Shakshuka

Shakshuka is a staple found in the Middle East and North Africa. The name aptly means “all mixed up” as it is a blend of poached eggs, onions, bell peppers, minced meat (optional), and spicy tomato sauce flavored with smoked paprika and oregano. Melt feta cheese on top and serve the casserole with a hearty baguette or fresh warm pita bread. Get our Shakshuka recipe.

Spain: Tortilla Espanola

Fine Cooking

Found at cafes and bars across Spain and in many countries in South America, tortilla espanola can be eaten for breakfast, snack, or as tapas with a glass of wine. The vegetarian and gluten-free baked omelet is made by layering sliced potatoes with eggs, onions, and garlic. To serve, slice into pie size pieces at room temperature. Get the recipe.

Germany: Hoppel Poppel

Journal.hr

What better way to use leftovers than to toss them into a breakfast casserole? Hoppel poppel is a traditional breakfast/ supper casserole from Berlin which includes meat, potatoes, onions, and cheese, flavored with heavy cream, dill, salt, and pepper. Feel free to use whatever you have in the fridge—cooked meat, bacon, salami, or even hamburgers. Get the recipe.

Portugal: Bacalhau a Bras

Melepimenta

Travel to the Iberian Peninsula through Portuguese comfort food. Salted cod is the national dish of Portugal and it shows up at breakfast time too. Soak dried cod in cold water overnight and layer the casserole with fried shredded potatoes, onions, black olives, garlic, and beaten eggs. Get the recipe.

France: Oeufs au Plat Bressanne

Coley Cooks

Maybe you haven’t made it to the Alpine region of France yet, but you can still brag about your talents when it comes to French cooking. The countryside version of eggs benedict baked with runny eggs makes for great presentation. Fry pieces of toast in butter, add heavy cream seasoned with garlic, tarragon or chives, carefully top the eggs, and bake until the egg whites are firm. Get the recipe.

Pakistan: Khagina

Spice Spoon

Known as egg bhurji in India, tukhum-bonjam in Afghanistan, and khagina in Pakistan, the stovetop scrambled eggs are delightful if you like your breakfast spicy. Cook beaten eggs with onions, tomatoes, chilies, lentils, and turmeric. Serve with chapatti (flatbread) and cardamom-spiced chai. Get the recipe.

Italy: Frittata

Frittata meaning “fried” in Italian is a crustless quiche that is cooked in a cast iron skillet. You can use leftover ingredients, any combination of vegetables, cheese and meats—the possibilities are endless. The key to making a good frittata is beating the eggs vigorously to allow for air to incorporate, and cooking them very slowly on stove top and in the oven. Get our Kale and Roasted Red Pepper Frittata recipe.

Iraq: Makhlama Lahm

This one-pot dish will satisfy the meateater in you. Saute ground lamb with onions, tomatoes, parsley, yellow curry powder, and red chili flakes, then top with soft-baked eggs. The Iraqi breakfast dish dates to the 10th century! Get the recipe.

Nigeria: Egg Stew

Nigerian Food TV

Nigerian egg stew is a staple breakfast at every home in Nigeria, especially on the weekends. Blend red bell peppers and tomatoes to make a sauce, and season with garlic and scotch bonnet for heat. For proteins, add eggs, corned beef, and fish. Serve with boiled yam, potatoes, or chunky plantains. Get the recipe.