Girls’ Camp at Zion National Park

I’m still trying to figure out where June went!  E went to two weeks of a coding camp to learn how to use Scratch, a programing language invented for kids; I took Mimi to the annual princess party at our rec center; and I went to Zion National Park with our church girls group.

It was HOT (upper nineties) so our hike up The Narrows was a lot of fun.  The water was pleasantly cool and it was fun to pick our way along the river bed.  In some places the water was up to my hips!  We just had about a hour to hike up and back, but I’d love to come back with N and the kids and spent a few hours going further up the river.

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The girls had a great time swimming in the river.  I really enjoyed spending time with them.  I just got called to work with them at church a few months ago so it was a wonderful opportunity to get to know them better individually.  After spending a few days away from normal life tromping around in nature (and in the heat!) with them I’m happy to say I’m now rock-solid on all of their names 😉

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Cancun: Taco Tour

Things have been busy around here.  School ends really early in UT and E finishes next Friday (!)  Our schedule has been crammed with end-of-year stuff along with soccer games and gymnastics.

Before I moved on to other things I wanted to do one more post about our trip in April to Mexico in April.  We went on a taco tour in Cancun which was one of my favorite things from the trip.

I found the Taco Tour on TripAdvisor.  It seemed fun, it was only $15 a person for the tour plus a little extra for the tacos and tips, and the reviews were good.  So I submitted our info on the website and waited to hear back from them.

Merak, the tour guide, emailed me back within 48 hours to confirm and gave me his cell number if we needed to reach him and we (N, me, and 3 friends from N’s company) were set to meet him the following evening in front of a grocery store in Cancun.

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Merak demonstrating how not to eat a taco (with your pinky in the air–you want to use it to hold stuff in)

Merak was a great tour guide–friendly, knowledgeable, helpful, and passionate about Mexican food and tacos.  We set off on foot from the supermarket and arrived at our first stop for tacos al pastor.

Merak told us that al pastor was invented when Arabic immigrants came to Mexico and brought shawarma with them.  Locals adopted the method of cooking meat on a spit but incorporated local flavors and used pork instead of lamb and al pastor was born.

Merak recommended only ordering tacos al pastor if we were at a restaurant and saw their al pastor on a spit.  N0 spit–don’t chance it! He also said that tacos al pastor normally come with chopped onion, cilantro, and pineapple.  Our tacos were SO good (pictured at the top of this post)  I liked the pineapple.

After that we set off walking to our next stop.  We walked through town and saw locals out enjoying the evening. At one point before we walked down an alley Merak pulled us aside and said that they were remodeling the building on the side so the alley was especially dark right now but not to worry, he wasn’t leading us into an ambush and we we weren’t going to get mugged.  And we didn’t, the end.

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Men playing chess in a park. The chairs and tables were made out of painted tires.
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Hipster food trucks. Merak said they are just starting to appear in Cancun and haven’t really caught on yet.

The next place was a taco cart in another (better-lit) alley.

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Merak giving us his recommendations.

This taco cart was across the street from a modern, upscale restaurant which is where Merak said a lot of taxi drivers would take you if you said you wanted good tacos.  He also said that the driver would usually give you a card for a free margarita and then when you redeemed it he would get a kickback because the card had his referral number on the back.

As we walked past the restaurant he told us to look inside and see how many Mexicans were eating there.  There were only a few (mostly eating with tourists) but we went across the street and the tables by this taco cart were PACKED.

20160411_0090Merak listed his favorite tacos from this stand: chorizo, steak, and tripa (tripe).  As soon as he said the tripe taco was good I knew what I was having!  It was crispy and a little smokey like bacon and really good.

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Various tacos.
Various tacos.  I think those are the tripe tacos in front.

The next place we went was a seafood restaurant.  Merak said because the Cancun is only about 40 years old and developed as a tourist area there isn’t a fishing industry.  People realized they could make more money using boats to take tourist snorkeling and whatnot rather than fishing for a living–you can take tourists out to look at the same fish day after day but if you catch them to eat then that’s it.

Merak said that people also know that the tourists expect to be able to eat seafood in Cancun–so most restaurants bring it in frozen.  Just a few places get it fresh like the one he took us to.

When Merak described this as a "big jalepeno popper with shrimp" I knew what I was ordering. It was DELICIOUS.
When Merak described this as a “big jalepeno popper with shrimp” I knew what I was ordering. It was DELICIOUS.

We finished our tour by walking through town to a big town square.  There was a big thatched roof called a palapa over a stage where a singer was entertaining a crowd.  Merak said that people gather every night to hang out as families and enjoy the cooler temps.

Balloons for sale
Balloon seller
The couple is letting their little girl ride in a car they are driving by remote control.
The couple is letting their little girl ride in a car they are driving by remote control.  People rent them for 20-minute sessions.
Dessert!
Dessert!
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I love street food vendors.

Merak told us which vendors to avoid (he had eaten at one of them and gotten sick the week before) and which to consider for dessert.  Everyone ended up getting ice cream at this stall he recommended.  It was all made fresh and there were several local flavors that Merak tried to explain…”it’s a green fruit about this big…the inside is salmon-colored and it tastes kind of a melon but not as sweet.”  The vendor was happy to give everyone lots of samples and everyone ended up with something they liked.

Papaya ice cream with this spicy salty stuff on it. Really good!
Papaya ice cream with this spicy salty stuff on it. Really good!

It was such a fun experience.  Merak was a fantastic guide and such good company.  I felt privileged to be able to eat such delicious food and to learn more about locals lives and eat in Cancun.  Everyone in our group was so happy afterward and agreed that we would have paid more than $15 USD for the experience.  Merak said he knew he could charge more but that he didn’t want to, that he felt blessed to get to eat good food and share his love of Mexican food with tourists.

If you go to Cancun, please try to go on Merak’s taco tour!  You won’t regret it.

Merak

Thanks for the memories, Merak!

And no, I didn’t get food poisoning.  Even from that tripe taco 😉

Cancun: Cooking with Felipe

After we finished shopping for produce and chicharrón (fried pig skin) at Mercado 23 with Felipe, we went to his restaurant to cook our 3-course lunch with him.  I was impressed with his restaurant.  While small (it’s in a converted apartment) it was bright and modern and the kitchen was well-organized and impeccably clean.

The first thing Felipe did was make a drink by blending the chaya leaves he had bought at the market and mixing it with sugar water.  The resulting punch was a bright vivid green, herbaceous, and very refreshing.

Then we got started on our guacamole appetizer.

guacamole with chicharrón
Our first course, guacamole with chicharrónes (I took the picture before Felipe added fried crickets which were as crunchy as you might expect).

Felipe told us about a traditional snack he would have with his family when they went to the market when he was a kid: they would buy ripe avocados, roll them around to mash the insides, slice them in half, and then use chicharrónes (fried pig skin) to scoop out the avocado.  Delicious!

Next we worked on the pork dish.  We cut a pork loin into thirds and then marinated it in oil, garlic, salt, and Mexican oregano. We put the scraps from the loin into a pan with oil and I browned them on the stove to make a base for the sauce.

Me browning pork scraps for the sauce
Working on the creme brûlée so it can simmer while we work cook the pork

Then Felipe put a plancha (a traditional griddle) on the stove to toast ingredients for the pippin mole sauce.

Toasting torillas, onions, and dried peppers on the plancha.
Toasting torillas, onions, and dried ancho peppers on the plancha.
Felipe toasting pepitas on the plancha--once they warmed up a few popped right off the stove!
Felipe toasting pepitas (pumpkin seeds)–once they started popping a few jumped right off the stove

Then Felipe put all the sauce ingredients into his fancy Thermomix and it blended everything up.

We browned the pieces of pork loin on the stove and then Felipe put them in the oven to finish.  And then he plated it up and N and I ate what was probably the best pork dish I’ve ever had.  The pork was so tender and juicy and the pipian sauce was bursting with flavor.  The powder on top was ground toasted tortillas which added a nutty flavor.

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In between working on the other dishes we had also been working on a rosemary creme brûlée for dessert.  It seemed like a normal creme brûlée receive but we added rosemary and scraped half of a vanilla bean into the egg yolk/cream mixture.  After simmering it on the stove Felipe strained it twice before pouring it into small mason jars (which are apparently beloved in restaurants worldwide).

N and I working on the rosemary creme brûlée
N and I working on the rosemary creme brûlée

After the little pots of cream mixture were finished simmering in their water bath on the stove we used a torch to carmelize sugar on top.  And then Felipe picked up pieces of rosemary with tweezers, lit them on fire and then blew them out, and then held the smoking rosemary inside the mason jar, shutting the lid to trap the smoke inside.   So when we opened the mason jars you got this whiff of smokey rosemary before you started eating.  It was SO GOOD!

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Our rosemary creme brûlée–there’s rosemary smoke inside that lid! ;)

I love creme brûlée in general and this was the best I’ve ever had.  It was so creamy and smooth without any air bubbles because Felipe had strained it twice and the rosemary added this slight herby savory note so the sweetness was even more noticeable in contrast.  Yum.

We had a great time cooking with Felipe.  It was fun to see a professional chef at work.  I noted how he was always cleaning and tidying as he worked and am trying to pick up the habit myself at home.

Our Spanish isn’t very good and while his English was a little better it felt a little awkward at first since it was just N and me, Felipe, and a guide. But as time went on it became easier and easier to understand each other. Funny how that happens 🙂

Selfie with Felipe
Selfie with Felipe

Felipe told us about how he met his wife when he was the chef at a prominent vineyard in Mexico and she was a sommelier there.  About how he learned to love food from his grandmother and how the name of his restaurant Lu’um means “earth” in Mayan and about how he hopes to share his love of creative food with people through his restaurant.  After a few hours together we swapping pictures of our families on our phones and listening to one of N’s K-pop mixes through the speakers in the kitchen.

It was warm in the kitchen and while it didn’t seem to bother N or anyone else I got hot and sweaty (as I am prone to be–it’s my curse to bear) and Felipe kept aiming the air conditioner at me and pouring me more and more cold chaya to drink which was super refreshing.

My only regrets about the experience were that we didn’t get the recipes written down and I’m already getting fuzzy on the pipian mole ingredients, and that it was our last day in Mexico so we didn’t have time to come back to Lu’um for dinner.  Felipe does a 6-course tasting dinner that sounded fantastic and we would have loved to tried it.  It is now one of my biggest reasons for wanting to go back to Cancun 😉

You can follow Felipe’s restaurant Lu’um on Instagram and Facebook.  If you’re going to Cancun and love food I wholeheartedly recommend eating at his restaurant or the market tour/cooking class we did.  It was one of the highlights of our whole trip.

Cancun: Mercado 23

A few weeks ago N and I were able to spend a week at a lovely Mexican resort on the coast between Cancun and Playa del Carmen in the Riviera Maya area.  N’s company had invited us on the trip and graciously took care of the resort and airfare.  That, along with my mom coming down from WA to stay at home with the kids, made it a real treat.

We mostly just wanted to relax on this trip so we didn’t tour any ruins or go to the big amusement parks.  But we did go on two great local Cancun tours.  They were both aimed at letting you experience the local food culture  🙂

We booked this combination market tour/cooking class.  It was one of my very favorite things from the trip.  I’ll post more about the cooking class but here are photos from when we met the chef, Felipe Morales, at Mercado 23 and shopped for lunch ingredients together.

Fruit market Mercado 23 Cancun Mexico

Shrimp for sale. Mercado 23 Cancun MexicoChicken butcher. Mercado 23 Cancun Mexico

Herbs for sale. Mercado 23 Cancun MexicoFood court Mercado 23 Cancun Mexico Habanero peppers Mercado 23 Cancun Mexico

Chicken butcher. Mercado 23 Cancun Mexico

Bananas at Mercado 23 Cancun Mexico Butcher Butcher Mercado 23 Cancun Mexico

The market was fascinating!  It was mainly locals doing their grocery shopping.  When I travel I love getting a look at how people really live in a place.

Hasta Luego


The last couple of weeks I’ve been frantically preparing to leave the kids with my mom and go to Mexico with N on a company trip.  Getting the kids (and E’s food allergy stuff) all set up for us to leave was pretty stressful.

But–we’re here now and it’s amazing!   I’ve put a few photos up on Instagram so far and will post when I get back. Xoxo.

Lattin’s Cider Mill

I’ve been going through photos from the last year and came across some I never posted here.  These are from our visit last summer to see my parents and brother.  I loved growing up in western Washington and really enjoy going back for visits, especially in the summer.

While we were in Olympia my mom and I took the kids to Lattin’s Country Cider Mill.  I had never been there before but I was totally charmed.  The cider and doughnuts were tasty and walking around to look at the animals was free.

My mom and the kids.
My mom and the kids.
We tried a couple fritters fresh from the fryer--delicious!
We tried a couple of fresh fritters–delicious!

Washington Grown

Mimi with an assertive goat.
Mimi with a very assertive goat.
Checking out the huge garden
Checking out the huge garden

I hope we get to go back for another visit this summer 🙂

Cayonlands National Park

20151017_0075_zpsltjjuvkq-1Here in Utah we get an extra long weekend off of school in October so teachers can attend training. It’s called UEA or fall break. Half of Utah takes the opportunity to go to Disneyland and the other half heads down to southern Utah which is what we did.

We rented a cabin in Moab and spent a few days exploring Canyonlands National Park.  The scenery was amazing and it wasn’t too crowded.  At times it felt like we had the place to ourselves.

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Hiking to the top of Whale Rock
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E using his binoculars at Mesa Arch.  They came with a Junior Ranger backpack we checked out from the visitor center (for free!)
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Taking a break on the Aztec Butte hike.
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The kids in front of an ancient Aztec grain pantry
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E was enamored by the texture of this shrub and requested a photo 🙂
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E climbing around and making me nervous.

It was a great trip.  I think Canyonlands might be underrated as a national park.  We only visited the Island In The Sky district (there are 4 different ones) but it was gorgeous.  I’d say it’s on par with the Grand Canyon.  Check it out if you get the chance.

Disneyland: Residence Inn Anaheim

The kids watching TV in their room
The kids watching TV in their room

After talking to friends and literally spending a few hours checking out hotels online (because I like to stress myself out) I booked us at the Residence Inn Anaheim Resort Area/Garden Grove.

I wanted a suite so the kids would have their own room and we would have a fridge for E’s food.  Our suite was spacious with two bedrooms, each with their own TVs and adjoining bathrooms, a living room with another TV, a dining table for 4 and a full kitchen (full-sized fridge, dishwasher, stove/oven, and microwave).  Having all that space was great and meant we could easily separate the kids when they got cranky/or when Mimi needed to take a nap.

Pros

  • Good price for the space (I booked our plane tickets and hotel together and saved money).
  • Friendly and helpful staff (I was trying to find a vending machine with something other than soda in it (which they didn’t have) and when I asked the front desk they gave me a couple bottles of Snapple from their break room and wouldn’t let me pay or tip them for them)
  • Decent complimentary breakfast with hot items like waffles, eggs, oatmeal, and sausages in addition to bagels, fruit, and cereal.
  • Grocery-shopping service: In the morning you can fill out a card requesting the items you want and they will shop for them and drop them off in your room in the afternoon along with a photocopy of the store receipt.  We had a rental car but were always too tired to go out by the time we got back to the hotel so this was a nice option.
  • It’s the first stop of the shuttle going to Disneyland which only stops at one or two other hotels so we always got seats and the ride was fairly short.
  • Quiet rooms and good water pressure even on the 17th floor.

Cons

  • It’s further away from Disneyland than several hotels and walking with kids isn’t really an option. (But the shuttle was easy to use).
  • The shuttle stop at Disneyland was out by the street and a long walk from the park gate but it wasn’t a huge deal.
  • The hotel is a little older and showing some signs of wear–it didn’t really bother me though since then I wasn’t worried about my kids damaging things 😉
  • Housekeeping’s routine was to clean our room in the mid-afternoon which was when we were back in our hotel room for some down time so we missed them two days in a row.
  • There are only 2 elevators so in the morning rush they get crowded.
  • Parking costs about $14 a day and the lot was crowded and the spaces were tight.

Overall, we really liked the Residence Inn Anaheim Resort Area/Garden Grove.  I think it’s a good place to stay if you’re going to Disneyland and you don’t mind not being able to walk to the park.

Disneyland: Meeting Mickey

KidsMickey_zps8azfyqzu-1We’re in the home stretch, friends!  School gets out for us tomorrow and it’s probably a toss up as to whether E or I are more excited about him not having any more homework.

The weeks have been whipping by in a blur (per usual around here) and I wanted to blog about a trip to Disneyland we took at the end of April before the details escaped me.  We haven’t been on a family vacation in a few years and thought the kids were good ages to go and it turned out wonderfully.

We wanted to limit the time N and the kids missed work and school and so we flew into the Long Beach airport instead of driving.  It was our first time using this airport and we loved it!  It’s small, relaxed, and very easy to get around.  We picked up our rental car, stopped by a Whole Foods to get some food allergy-safe food for E, and then had dinner at a fun Korean fusion burrito place we found online.  After dinner we drove to our hotel and as we got to our room and started unpacking we watched an impressive fireworks display from our window.  And then we put the kids to bed in their bunk beds and closed the door on their separate bedroom and it was awesome 🙂

The next morning we headed into Disneyland for the first of our three days at the parks.  It was a Wednesday and busy but not crazy crowded.  As we walked into the park we were checking out Main Street when we saw Minnie pop out of an unmarked door.  Mimi loves Minnie but before we could approach her Minnie grabbed a couple of kids by the hand and booked it across the square to where a long line immediately formed.  The kids were a little dejected at having missed Minnie but then Mickey popped out of the same door!  E and Mimi ran up to him and he grabbed their hands and immediately started hauling it out of there.


As soon as people saw Mickey they joined the quickly-growing crowd following him and the kids.  N and I had to weave in and out of the crowd and scramble to keep up with them.  Mickey took the kids to what I’m assuming was his assigned meet-and-greet spot, I quickly snapped a pic of them with my phone, and we said goodbye.

It was a surprising and memorable start to our Disneyland trip 🙂