The Venezuelan Arepa Pelúa’s Flair

Weston Town Center is home to one of my favorite spots to eat Latin American food: Panna. Panna primarily serves Venezuelan staples, ranging from tequeños to cachapas to stuffed patacones. The arepa pelúa, though, is my go-to dish to order whenever I visit the restaurant. Biting into an arepa pelúa is always an enjoyable experience because it serves as yet another reminder of the unique and delicious nature of Latin cuisine. Though I am not Venezuelan myself, this dish has a comfortable familiarity because I grew up alongside many Venezuelans in Weston, Florida. An arepa pelúa from Panna has an unquestionable ability to reinforce my Latino pride.

Arepas are stuffed cornmeal cakes that can be a vehicle for a variety of flavors. They can be filled with cheese and nothing else, scrambled eggs, chicken, and even ham. But my favorite way to eat an arepa is when it is stuffed with shredded beef and gouda cheese, pelúa style. Nothing beats the juiciness of the beef mixed with the rich, melted cheese.

The cornmeal cake itself is, in my opinion, the most important component of an arepa because it should be both crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. At Panna, you have the option of ordering an arepa that is either pan fried or deep fried. To me, the deep fried preparation is ideal because it achieves a more consistent crispy texture on the outside of the cornmeal cake. Hearing the crunch of an arepa is such a pleasant sound, and the crispiness is so important because it enhances the one-note taste of cornmeal. The crunch meshes well with the fluffiness of the cake on the inside, which beautifully soaks up the flavors of the filling.

Shredded beef and gouda cheese pair deliciously in an arepa pelúa. Shredded beef can sometimes be dry and tedious to eat, but Panna completely avoids this issue, thankfully. The shredded beef from Panna tastes like it has been submerged in a savory broth and cooked to perfection with diced onions, garlic, and red peppers. Shredded gouda cheese brings a subtle note of sweetness to the dish, balancing out the beef’s salty punch. The creaminess of the cheese not only adheres to the fluffy cornmeal interior, but also engulfs the juicy shredded beef, making every bite of an arepa pelúa delectable.Arepas are one of those dishes that you can eat on-the-go or when you are sitting down with friends and family members at a holiday party. They are very versatile, making them such a hit among several Latin American communities. I am lucky to have been raised in a town where these communities were prevalent, as it allowed me to interact with both amazing people and enticing cuisines. The five-minute drive to Panna from my house is a blessing that I sometimes take for granted, but certainly not when I visit home. Shortly after ordering an arepa pelúa at the restaurant’s counter, they give me a wrapped up, stuffed cornmeal cake that steams with an aromatic scent that makes me so happy. I have found that Latin American cuisine has that effect: it embraces people through flavor, it lifts individuals up when they are down, and it invites reflection. To think that an ingredient as simple as cornmeal can act as the foundation of such a popular dish is indicative of the love and care that Latin people put into their food. An arepa pelúa from Panna reminds me of the skill and hard work it takes to execute an “everyday” dish in such a memorable way. Arepas are eaten so regularly in Latin American countries that they might seem ordinary at first, but they are so loved because they are flexible in preparation. They make a profound impact using relatively few ingredients, and they always produce a smile.

Cover photo courtesy of MyPanna


Ariana: Delightful Afghan Cuisine

It is not a frequent occurrence that I explore my culinary interests through schoolwork. Yet, one recent group assignment that I had for a class gave me just that opportunity. Before I even applied to Boston College, my parents traveled to Boston together. While in Boston, they explored different parts of the city and tried a variety of foods while doing so. During their trip, they happened to stumble upon an Afghan restaurant in Brighton, MA called Ariana. Intrigued by the novelty of Afghan cuisine in their lives, my parents returned to Florida with rave reviews of the Afghan food they had tried. Once I matriculated to BC a while later, my parents often suggested that I eat at Ariana, like they had during their trip. Since my freshman year, I have said I would go, but I’ve never carved out time to do so. However, the thought of eating there one day has never escaped my memory. I am always open to trying dishes that I am unfamiliar with, so I’ve always intended on eating at Ariana some day.

During this Fall 2022 semester, I am taking a course in the Carroll School of Management at BC called Managing Diversity. The course has provided me with a breadth of knowledge concerning the multifaceted benefits of diversity and inclusion efforts in the workplace and beyond. Recently, we were assigned to have an “inclusive experience” with our group members from class. This assignment was meant to show us that being an inclusive person requires intentionality, and sometimes discomfort for the sake of learning and growing. When brainstorming what inclusive experience to have with my group, it dawned on me that trying another culture’s cuisine at a restaurant is inclusive, especially if it also involves getting to know staff members of said restaurant. My mind immediately went to Ariana, which my parents had told me about for years at that point. As a current senior, I figured it was time to give this restaurant a try! When my three fellow group members agreed to go to the restaurant for our inclusive experience, I was excited to taste the flavors so memorable to my mother and father.

When I entered the restaurant on a Wednesday evening with my classmates, I was astounded by its vibrant yellow walls, the intricate dress hung up on the wall, and the drums on display. Our waiter approached us right away, and although we felt out of place, we were still eager to try the food. First, they served us naan bread with three dipping sauces before we ordered our entrees. The naan was soft, yet slightly crispy at the same time. In comparison to the pita bread that I had tried before, the naan was thinner. A tangy yogurt sauce paired wonderfully with the bread, which pleased my palette and elevated my excitement for the entree. I ordered an entree of the name Kofta Challow. Specifically, the dish features beef meatballs with Afghan seasonings, which are then sautéed with green peas, sun dried tomatoes, and hot peppers in a tomato sauce. Two meatballs were served to me in a small bowl on a bed of sauce, alongside a full plate of challow rice, or rice seasoned with cumin seed and oil and baked. The rice and the sauced meatballs worked in perfect unison together. Sporting a rich and well-seasoned taste, the tomato sauce mixed with the cumin-flavored rice to create a delightful explosion of warmth and pronounced flavor in my taste buds. With their moist texture, the meatballs were soft and not overpowering, and the warm tomato sauce amazingly enhanced their flavor. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the combination of spice and warmth that the naan and my chosen dish evoked.

When we conversed with the owner of the restaurant, my respect for those working in the culinary business rose to an even higher degree. The owner indicated a sense of happiness in sharing Afghan cuisine with the general public, which was heartwarming to hear as an individual who had been curious to try Afghan food for a long time. I am so thankful that this educational opportunity turned into an experience in which I could savor Afghan cuisine and celebrate the inclusion of a culture quite distinct from my own. We made sure to let the owner know that we would recommend the restaurant to others, so that is exactly what I am going to do. If they have not already done so, readers should go and try Afghan cuisine at Ariana. Greeted by friendliness the second you step into the restaurant, the rest of the dining experience at Ariana includes memorable spice, comforting warmth, and visual satisfaction at the sight of the restaurant’s neat plating.

Cover photo courtesy of Ariana


The Experience of Ceviche

Growing up, I was always surrounded by Latin American culture. There are a variety of restaurants in the South Florida area that serve a wide array of cuisines, from Colombian to Ecuadorian to Argentinian to Peruvian. Ceviche is a South American dish that I deeply enjoy, given how vibrant and fresh its flavors are. Even the science behind the dish is fascinating, so one can never go wrong with enjoying a mixed seafood ceviche.

Peruvian mixed seafood ceviche is my favorite. Fresh, raw fish is diced into small pieces and cooked in lemon juice, which I have always found so interesting. Paired with cut up octopus and juicy pieces of shrimp, this ceviche almost makes me feel like I am in the ocean when eating it. I immensely appreciate this, given my love for the ocean. The lemon juice not only cooks the fish in ceviche, but it also provides a pleasant acidity that fosters a refreshing culinary experience. 

Another component of ceviche that pleases the palette is sliced red onion. In general, raw red onion in any dish provides an awesome kick. In addition to offering ceviche a positively pungent flavor, the red onion slices also diversify the textures of the dish with their crunch and crisp texture. Also, it is undeniable that red onion strikingly cuts through the generally white-colored ceviche with notes of purplish-red. Furthermore, cilantro is an essential ingredient in ceviche. Grassy, bright green cilantro brings an herbaceous flair to ceviche. Essentially, cilantro accentuates the flavor of the lemon juice, the seafood, and the red onion slices.

 One should never overlook ceviche’s side dishes, as they are vital elements of the dish as a whole. Firstly, loose pieces of chewy corn called choclo are often served alongside ceviche. Bearing a light yellow color distinct from the mustard tint of corn frequently seen in the United States, pieces of choclo in ceviche absorb the citrus and cut through the dish’s acidity with starchiness. I cannot imagine eating ceviche without choclo, since it helps bring the dish together. Boiled and sliced sweet potato also brings much-needed starchiness to ceviche. Soft and orange in color, the sweet potato slices absorb acidity like choclo, yet they retain their original identity by maintaining a natural sweetness that balances the meal. I cannot emphasize enough how important each of these ingredients are to create the cohesive, unique, and delightful dish of ceviche.

Since moving to Boston, I have not had many opportunities to eat ceviche, which is upsetting to some degree. Sometimes, I am guilty of holding on to how dishes are prepared in specific places from home. For that reason, I abstain from trying them in new places for fear of being disappointed. Now, reflecting on how enjoyable it is to eat fresh ceviche, I realize that it is time for me to broaden my horizons and try places in Boston that serve ceviche.

 Whenever I eat ceviche in a Peruvian restaurant with my family, I feel so grateful that its simple ingredients come together in such a powerful way. This power is not, by any means, confined to South Florida. It is time that I recognize food’s ability to transcend certain places. As long as they retain their cultural authenticity, dishes like ceviche can be enjoyed anywhere. With its perfectly cold temperature, ceviche has a way of energizing me and making me feel like I am experiencing summer. I should give myself the chance to feel summertime anywhere I am, even if it is in Boston during the winter. Thank you, South Florida, for being a home base that exposed me to ceviche from a very young age. And thank you, ceviche, for showing me that simplicity in a dish is key and balancing acidity with sweetness is unforgettable when done correctly.

Cover photo courtesy of Cuisine With Me


An Ingrained Memory of Culinary Education

It goes without saying that certain experiences from one’s childhood can become so mentally ingrained that they directly influence one’s behavior later on in life. Food writing is a relatively new hobby for me. It was not until just a couple of years ago that I decided to start writing for Gusto as a form of creative expression. The hobby itself is somewhat fresh in my personal history, but the idea bloomed from a core childhood memory. When I was five years old, my mother enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Miramar, Florida. She chased after her passion in an educational capacity, which is something I have always admired. My mother studied at Le Cordon Bleu for two years, earning an Associate in Science degree by the conclusion of her culinary education. A significant memory that I have is attending my mother’s graduation ceremony at the age of seven, with my younger brother Daniel and two of my mother’s close friends.

Although distant from the stage, we held a clear view of the graduates as they received their diplomas. Families in the audience erupted with screams and cheers as they heard their loved ones’ names being called, one by one. Even though I was very young at the time, I understood the magnitude of my mother’s accomplishment. 

After coming home from school at around 2:45 p.m. every day for two years, I would watch my mother return from Le Cordon Bleu in an exhausted state. Sometimes she would even bring samples of what she learned how to cook during a specific lesson—I vividly remember her bringing home a container of freshly-made sushi one day. This exhaustion, however, never hindered her from devoting all that she had to being an incredible mother. I will never forget how proud I was of my mother as I waited for her to walk across the stage at a dimly-lit auditorium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida’s Nova Southeastern University.

When the name Denice Recupero was called, my mother’s two close friends, Daniel, and I shouted with excitement at the top of our lungs. We wanted our voices to be heard; we wanted fellow audience members to know that my mother had our utmost support. I recall making sure that I cheered for her as loudly as I could, since we were standing at such a far distance from her. When one meets a goal, it is understandable to desire support and admiration from people you love. Reflecting on the ceremony as a college student, I have further recognized the persistence and bravery it took for my mother to undertake culinary school while being an attentive mother. Throughout the years after she received her degree, I have asked my mother many questions about her culinary school experience. I’ve learned that the food industry is tough, to say the least. From critics, to stressful cooking environments, to time constraints, to long and strenuous hours in the kitchen, to extensive recipe memorization, being a culinary student is draining. I have watched shows on the Food Network for the majority of my life, and I thoroughly enjoy them, but they reveal that the life of a chef is far more complex than television glamor. Beneath the surface, the life of a chef is grueling, detail-oriented, and mentally taxing.

Seeing the smile on my mother’s face as she received her diploma was nothing short of heartwarming. That image has been fixed in my memory since then, and it always brings up happiness and pride for my mother. This moment motivated me to start writing essays for Gusto, as it made me recognize the nuances of culinary arts that are often overlooked and underappreciated. I have no one else to thank but my mother for inspiring me to utilize stories as a medium to communicate my fascination with flavor and technique in the kitchen.

Cover photo courtesy of LeCordonBleu


The Nostalgic Effect of Gyros

While visiting my uncle, aunt, and cousin in Tampa, Florida, I had the pleasure of eating with them and other family members in a taverna called Hellas Restaurant & Bakery in Tarpon Springs, a town heavily influenced by Greek culture in central Florida’s Gulf Coast. Surrounded by bright blue and white buildings, the eatery serves authentic Greek cuisine with a gracious attitude. Eating a delicious gyro there with people I love was one of the highlights of my weekend trip. While browsing the menu, I felt a strong inclination to order something within my comfort zone that could transport me back to my junior year spring break trip to Athens. I had no hesitation in choosing the “Hellas GYRO,” which stood out to me as the first lunch special listed on the menu, indicating its popularity among the local population.

Before my main course was served, the whole table shared an appetizer plate of pita bread and tzatziki sauce, or a yogurt-cucumber dip usually made with garlic, dill, and lemon juice. The bread, cut into triangular pieces, was soft and warm. Complemented by the fresh and tastefully acidic tzatziki, the shared starter properly prepared us for our main meals. Soon after munching on this appetizer, our entrées arrived. My gyro (without tomatoes—a personal preference) was placed in front of me, and excitement and hunger radiated from within. This plate consisted of heated pita bread holding thinly cut beef and lamb, with sliced white onions on top and tzatziki sauce: what a smart menu selection! The first bite, to my delight, immediately reminded me of eating gyros in Athens. The dish truly accentuated the restaurant’s authenticity. Boasting a tender yet slight crispy texture, the sliced beef and lamb was pleasantly savory; the spices in the broiled meat perfectly elevated the meal’s warmth. The tzatziki sauce cut through the rich flavor of the protein, sporting a familiar vibrant tang that reflected the talent of the cooks in the kitchen. Lastly, the crisp onions provided an element of spice and freshness to balance out the gyro. All in all, the meal was packed with technique, simplicity, and heart.

Apart from acquainting yourself with unfamiliar sights and traditions, traveling, to me, is about making memories that I can revisit in my home country. The joy of experiencing a new culture should be transportable to faraway contexts. What is diving into a cuisine on its native soil without being able to recall, or better yet, feel the pleasure it brought you in the past? This aspect of traveling was definitely fulfilled when I ate a beef and lamb gyro at Hellas. Visions of the Acropolis, ancient art, and wonderful hospitality sprang up in my head while I indulged in the gyro; every bite tasted like the thrill of traveling in your early 20s. According to my uncle, Hellas is widely renowned in the area for its undeniably good food, which I believe entirely. Although my hometown is known for its delectable Latin American food, no Greek fare in the South Florida region even compares to what Tarpon Springs brings to the table. I’m so glad that my family up north brought me to such a spectacular spot with such scrumptious gyros.

As I exited Hellas, appreciation ran through my mind. Moments of nostalgia are hard to produce, especially when they involve specific flavor combinations. Culturally authentic food is difficult to transfer from one environment to another, as it is typically so nuanced and distinct. Therefore, it is ideal to dine at restaurants, like Hellas, that both honor and unabashedly represent the cultures whose food they serve. That being said, I am grateful that I got to spend time with my family while eating a dish that made me smile upon recalling such a memorable time in my life. I recommend that everyone from the United States, when they return from trips abroad, attempt to find a dish in their home states that will bring them back to unforgettable moments of foreign culinary intrigue.


Meaningful Sunday Coffee Runs

Something I dearly miss about being home is my family’s weekly coffee run on Sundays. After attending mass at St. David’s Catholic Church, we make our way to Tarantella, our favorite Italian restaurant in Weston Town Center. For us, it is a tradition to eat lunch there and then walk over to Starbucks, right next door. My dad and I particularly bond over this practice, as we are coffee enthusiasts(as proven by our ability to drink it at any time of the day). This specific Starbucks is right across the street from my dad’s old work office, so he used to be a daily customer there, which explains why my family frequents this establishment in particular. As a whole family, we generally consider our Sundays incomplete if we do not fulfill this custom.

When my dad and I enter the Starbucks, we are cheerfully greeted by a barista who is ready to take our order. Although I typically ask for the same drink every time, I still glance upward and review the menu, as I am curious about the new caffeinated inventions offered throughout the year. My dad usually orders first, requesting a grande Americano. I have never seen him order coffee in any other way, since he thoroughly enjoys the rich simplicity of plain espresso. After the barista jots down his order, I habitually ask for a venti vanilla sweet cream cold brew. Preferring iced coffee over hot, unlike my dad, I find that this drink skillfully blends the pungent bitterness of cold brew and the luscious sweetness of vanilla sweet cream. Then, I remember to order a vanilla frappuccino for my youngest brother and two birthday cake pops for both of my brothers. Hence, the family order is complete and we shift leftward towards the front of the pick-up counter, where we wait for a few minutes.

These few minutes mean a great deal to me because it is when we update each other on our individual lives. Attending college in Boston means that I typically do not have that much time to meaningfully converse with my dad, who lives in Florida with the rest of my family. Although we keep in touch over conversations on WhatsApp and occasional FaceTime calls, this is the time where we are truly able to reflect and share our emotions. Whether it be about school, work, family, goals, or the future, we always convey what is on our minds in a vulnerable way while the drinks and cake pops are gradually handed to us. My dad grabs an extra cup to pour some of his coffee into for my mom and I secure a few straws and napkins before we exit the Starbucks together, thanking the barista as we walk out. Approaching the parked family car with my mom and brothers inside, we continue our conversation and sip on our respective drinks, feeling immediately energized and delighted.

Our coffee choices are vastly different but we drink them with similar enthusiasm. Simple moments like ones in which my dad and I order Starbucks drinks on Sundays are important in my life because they illuminate how valuable family customs can be. Weekly-bought caffeinated drinks from Starbucks ground my dad and I to the present moment, allowing us to think about and communicate the life updates which are worth sharing with those we love and respect. On the short drive back home from Starbucks, everybody in the car is content and appreciating each other’s company. While I’m away from home, I look forward to partaking in this tradition on Sundays, as one never knows how long practices like these can last. Unfortunately, as I get older and pursue post-grad opportunities, I might not be able to visit home as often as I would like anymore; perhaps I will be occupied by a job opportunity in a different state in a few years. Whenever possible, it is crucial that I relish quality family time when I am home in Florida, just as I savor chilled, flavorful sips of Starbucks’ vanilla sweet cream cold brew.

Cover photo courtesy of batoryfoods


Stella’s Stuffed Grape Leaves

Out of all of my mother’s wonderful dishes, the one I long for most in this present moment is stuffed grape leaves. While living in Europe, I have had more time to reflect on my family history. My great-grandmother Stella was a caring Romanian woman with Northern Greek ancestry who taught my mother how to make stuffed grape leaves, or dolmades, and for that I am very thankful. Every time my mother cooked this dish for my family growing up, she would recall her grandmother’s detailed instructions and serve it to us with love. Having learned this recipe from my mother, I hope to pass this culinary treasure on to my own family in the future. Stuffed grape leaves cannot be forgotten; they must be enjoyed by future generations.

Dolmades embody a pop of multiple flavors that fuse together to make a wonderfully hearty dish. Lying within the grape leaves is a ground beef, onion, and rice mixture that is seasoned with dill and parsley, sporting an herbaceous kick and soft texture. The meat flavor does not stand alone, though, as the tender grape leaves provide a sharp note of acidity. Sold in a vinegar brine, the tangy grape leaves are complemented well by the citrusy and grassy dill in the filling. Tying the dish together is a smooth lemon yogurt sauce that enhances the acidity of the grape leaves, making every bite fresh and captivating. Wrapped individually with much patience, stuffed grape leaves are a savory and zesty delicacy that I never fail to enjoy.

Gazing into a pot of steaming, dark green stuffed grape leaves makes me feel connected to my great-grandmother Stella. Although I met her when I was a baby, she unfortunately passed away when I was very young, so I do not hold vivid memories of spending time with her. This saddens me, but the phenomena of legacy brings me comfort. My mother deeply resembles Stella in both appearance and generosity. My great-grandmother expressed love and affection through cooking for her family, just like my mother does. From what I have been told, it was always a priority of hers to ensure that her husband, children, and grandchildren were well fed and genuinely enjoying whatever they were eating. Holidays and celebrations were opportunities for her to prepare a variety of dishes and express her talents in the kitchen. I often see my mother reflect this behavior, since she herself views food as a creative outlet.

As I think about my Greek roots, I look forward to spending my Easter Break in Athens. I have never traveled to Greece before, and I cannot wait to immerse myself into its historical beauty. Walking through ruins of Ancient Greece will be surreal, but it will not be the first time I connect with part of my heritage. Eating stuffed grape leaves with my family reminds me of Stella’s ethnic background, and how she channeled it into her home cooking that touched the lives of so many. I wish my great grandmother were in my life right now, and I still get upset by the impossibility of this wish. But family traditions are more alive than one might think. They travel from one family to another, from one time period to the next, from one’s heart to another’s stomach in this case. Through my mother, I see Stella’s wisdom and generosity. The combination of tender rice, savory meat, acidic grape leaves, and vibrant lemon sauce transports me to a place I cannot easily define—or even see—but can certainly feel. Here, I am engulfed by the aromatic scent of stuffed grape leaves alongside my mother and my great-grandmother Stella, feeling safe and appreciated. This is a timeless memory.

Cover Photo Courtesy of deposit photos


Kremšnite: A Croatian Classic

For the spring semester of my junior year at Boston College, I decided to study abroad in Zagreb, Croatia. Before arriving in late February, I knew very little about Croatian culture, including its cuisine. I wanted to step outside of my comfort zone and explore a country that I had never been to before, as I felt that doing so would broaden my horizons. Although I have been in Zagreb for a very short amount of time, I can already say that the city is invigatoring. As trams zoom through the central square of Zagreb, Croatia, you can see people reuniting, restaurants standing at every corner, and multicolored buildings towering over you. Complementing glorious sightseeing, the most impactful culinary moment I have had during my stay at Zagreb so far was trying kremšnite for the first time, a classic Croatian dessert.

After having lunch with my peers at the European Center for the Study of War and Peace, the location where I take my classes, we were offered a piece of kremšnite for dessert. This dish is best described as a slice of custard with two layers of puff pastry: one layer on top that is delicately sprinkled with powdered sugar and another layer below the custard. I eagerly took the opportunity to eat a piece of kremšnite because it simply looked delicious, with the custard in particular sporting an inviting soft yellow color.

Every aspect of the kremšnite I tasted was outstanding. The custard was simultaneously rich and light textured, melting in my mouth. It had a wonderful vanilla flavor that invoked a great amount of comfort, without being overbearing. Mimicking the vanilla custard’s light texture, the layers of puff pastry introduced a buttery element to the dessert. The subtle hints of butter from the puff pastry contrasted enough with the custard so that the pastry was skillfully balanced in flavor. Finally, the powdered sugar on top tied the whole dessert together, ensuring that every bite was graced by finely-distributed sweetness.

I appreciated how this dessert deviated from the ones I usually eat, like cake or pie. Kind of resembling a thick pudding, the custard was the dessert’s foundation and it held up quite nicely. It was sturdy enough to support the puff pastry, giving each slice a uniform cubic shape. The creaminess of the custard provided the satisfaction that dense desserts like cheesecake give me. Yet, its texture also possessed the airiness of whipped cream. I ended up finishing my piece of kremšnite within minutes, as I was so impressed by its clever use of texture and careful use of flavor.

Studying abroad was something I always wanted to do, but I never knew exactly how it would turn out for me. Since I had never traveled to the Balkans before, Croatia was a country I did not even consider going to before stumbling across the BC in Croatia: War, Peace & Reconciliation program online. Due to my lack of prior familiarity with Croatian culture, I tried to not set too many expectations for my semester abroad. Although far away from home, I have felt safe and fulfilled in Zagreb so far. While being intellectually challenged by my classes, my mind has also opened up to an entirely new set of customs and practices in this eastern European country. I am learning something new about Croatia every day, and enjoying every second of it. What better way to kick off my semester than trying a tasty dessert like kremšnite? Living in a foreign country for over three months is certainly intimidating, but being received by the splendor of your host country’s cuisine is a great feeling. I will always remember kremšnite as a staple among Croatian sweets and as a dessert that broadened my culinary horizons. I am ready to undertake the inevitable ups and downs of the remainder of my stay here in Zagreb, as I know that moments like the one in which I first tried kremšnite are forthcoming.

Cover photo courtesy of KitchenNostalgia


Mata Family’s Homemade Mac n’ Cheese

Few foods generate as much nostalgia for me as mac n’ cheese. The tenderness of the noodles and the creaminess of the sauce always transport me back to elementary school dinners, where my mom would make Kraft mac n’ cheese to my younger brother and I’s delight. Although I have always enjoyed eating mac n’ cheese, it wasn’t until about five years ago that I started preparing it from scratch for Thanksgiving. During my childhood, no one in my Ecuadorian family ever considered incorporating this dish into our Thanksgiving menu. I found this odd at one point, since we always prepared American classics like turkey, mashed potatoes, and sweet potato casserole. After researching several mac n’ cheese recipes on the Food Network website, I finally suggested that this delicacy become a new Thanksgiving staple in my household. Since then, mac n’ cheese has sparked multiple smiles and intense satisfaction among my close friends and family members every year on the fourth Thursday of November.

I believe that the key to crafting a perfect holiday mac n’ cheese is starting with a roux. A roux is a thickening agent that combines flour and butter to form the base of sauces. Hence, I begin cooking mac n’ cheese by melting butter in a saucepan on low heat and gradually adding spoonfuls of flour, mixing the contents of the pan continuously with a whisk. Once the roux has turned into a paste, I add heavy whipping cream and stir vigorously until all clumps of flour have evenly disintegrated into the mixture. Next, I generously season the thick heavy cream with salt, white pepper, garlic powder, and a hint of paprika or chili powder for a subtle kick. I then add multiple types of cheese to the seasoned sauce. Shredded cheddar is a must, given its strong flavor and memorable contribution to mac n’ cheese’s orangey-yellow color. Integrating the cheddar cheese never fails to excite me because it brightens up the sauce’s initial plain white shade. In the past, I have also stirred in gruyere, parmesan, gouda, and even pepper jack cheese for an additional savory bite. The sauce is ready to firmly stick to the pre-boiled macaroni noodles once its consistency is not excessively thick, but also not runny: When poured over the macaroni noodles in a baking dish, the cheese sauce ought to smoothly descend from the saucepan at a medium speed, indicating proper thickness.

Before beginning to make the bread crumb topping, I allow the sauce-coated macaroni noodles to cool down, after which I sprinkle more shredded cheddar cheese on top. After forming a layer of shredded cheddar cheese on top of the noodles, I combine panko bread crumbs, melted butter, salt, pepper, parmesan cheese, and red pepper flakes to create the topping in question. After finalizing this mixture, I ensure that every inch of the baking dish’s top layer is covered by seasoned bread crumbs and parmesan cheese. Following this final addition, I enter the mac n’ cheese in the oven, leaving it in at 350 degrees until the shredded cheddar and parmesan cheese on top have fully melted and the bread crumbs have turned golden brown. Although numerous peeks at the oven are somewhat required to prevent burning, the finished product is such a glorious sight that my hard work invariably feels worthwhile. 

Serving this mac n’ cheese every Thanksgiving dinner always attracts a plethora of compliments, given how delightfully creamy the noodles are and how perfectly crunchy the bread crumbs are. The flavors of the cheeses blend together seamlessly, allowing one to appreciate the savory punch that freshly shredded cheese provides to the dish, in comparison to the artificial cheese found in the Kraft product I grew up consuming. Apart from watching my close friends’ and relatives’ faces light up while eating this mac n’ cheese, I myself enter a state of elevated happiness when I indulge in it. Every single bite of this mac n’ cheese reminds me of the culinary sophistication I can accomplish by taking the time to make it. Further, I think about how this Thanksgiving side dish continues the satisfaction I used to feel when eating Kraft mac n’ cheese, though its flavor and texture profiles are astronomically more impressive. Overall, my loved ones and I are highly content that this form of mac n’ cheese graced our collective Thanksgiving experience, since it successfully builds on the wonder of a beloved store-bought product.


The 12 Grapes of New Year’s Eve: A Symbol of Luck

The approaching holiday season reminds me of a tradition that my family celebrates every New Year’s Eve: eating twelve grapes as the clock approaches midnight. While at social gatherings with close friends, my family always fills up champagne glasses with grapes and distributes them to people, inciting the excitement that underlies this custom. I once considered this family tradition odd, even a little superstitious, but now through reflection I view it in a new light.

My parents always told me that eating each of the twelve grapes symbolizes good luck for every month of the year, so it is imperative that you do so while people are counting down the seconds before the ball drops, the clock strikes twelve, and the metaphorical “fresh start” begins. Now that I am older, I understand that grapes symbolize good fortune in some ways. Both red and green grapes, in their crispest form, are one of the most pleasantly sweet types of fruit. Upon biting into them, their juices burst in your mouth, quenching hunger and thirst simultaneously. All of these wonderful qualities make grapes improve my mood. It really is the small things that can significantly shift your appreciation for life. Beginning the new year with a positive state of mind is probably the biggest guarantee that you will accomplish your goals, or at least put forth your best effort to do so. What can possibly produce better luck than eating grapes on New Year’s Eve?

Apart from its tasty benefits, eating twelve  grapes before midnight every 31st of December builds togetherness among friends and family, fostering happy beginnings as we enter the new year. Bags of produce are opened, stems are emptied, and grapes are counted in a rushed but exhilarated manner. Passing along the fruit-filled champagne glasses is also a collaborative effort, as it is very important that every partygoer partakes in this tradition. Amidst this chaos, my family usually takes a moment to reflect on our blessings, which prepares us to receive the new year with gratitude. Furthermore, with glasses in our hands, we FaceTime family members that are not able to celebrate the holiday with us. This usually involves calling relatives in Ecuador, whom we miss dearly and want to wish a Happy New Year.

11:59 p.m. approaches and everyone starts popping grapes into their mouths. As I look around at this time, I see people pause briefly for each grape that they ingest, wishing for something. Some may think that grapes are just grapes, and they do not promote good luck at all. However, witnessing earnest hope on family and friends’ faces while they’re eating grapes at a New Year’s Eve party really broadens my perspective about the power of collective belief and the wonder associated with hoping for good fortune upon entering the new year. Putting power into the grapes is an act of faith itself, as all of our hopes for the future reside in these small and crisp pockets of sweetness.

Once the clock strikes midnight at the gatherings I attend, everyone starts hugging each other and wishing their family members and friends a Happy New Year. With their palettes permeated by the sweetness of grapes, people bask in the joy of celebration with those they love and cherish. This spectacle is beautiful to watch, but even more enjoyable to partake in. Every New Year, I make a mental note to not only be grateful for the people in my life, but also for the drive within myself to pursue my goals. In some strange and yet beautiful way, frantically eating grapes before midnight approaches on New Year’s Eve orients my thoughts toward this thankful outlook. Perhaps this culinary tradition is considered lucky because it yields a force that motivates individuals to channel their inner determination. People might subconsciously honor this tradition because it sparks improvement and growth within them at the beginning of every year, which is a gift never wasted when entering new chapters in their lives.