Packing the perfect picnic basket

Picnicking is the ultimate summer pastime in Charlottesville. From live outdoor concerts at night like Fridays after Five in the Downtown Mall to lounging all day at scenic vineyards like during King Family’s Sunday polo matches, there are so many reasons to get together with friends and family for some al fresco dining. (TEASER: I’ll describe these events in more detail in later a blog post.)

Now that we’re about half-way through the summer, I’ve developed a tried and true method for packing the perfect picnic basket.

Find fun finger foods

Sometimes I’ll take the time to make sandwiches and salads, but oftentimes, I go with the most simple picnic meal – a cheese and/or charcuterie plate. It’s quick yet still filling, and obviously goes well with the usual drink of choice in this region and season – wine.

Here’s an example of an array of goodies that I usually have:

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  • Variety of cheeses (check out this article from Real Simple Magazine for specific suggestions). If you’re going to be outside all day and don’t have cooler, make sure to pack some hard cheeses like Manchego that can withstand the elements better.
  • Dried sausages or other meats like prosciutto and pate
  • Fruits that aren’t messy or fussy when cut or peeled like grapes and clementines
  • Mixed nuts that act as a healthier salt/crunch substitute for chips
  • Bread or crackers to pair with those softer cheeses that spread easily like goat cheese
  • Already cut-up veggies and hummus to sneak in a little more nutritional value

Shop till you drop

The best places to pick up the above foods:

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Just a glimpse of one line of tents set up at the Charlottesville City Market. It starts to get crowded around 10:30 to 11 a.m. so try to get there early if wanting to avoid lines.

1)      Charlottesville City Market – Fresh and local with unique items not in stores, plus you can usually snag a sample before buying so you don’t blindly commit to a purchase. There are also tons of tents serving cooked food like tacos, crab cakes and omelets so this also makes for a cheap and easy brunch option. Personal preferred pick for a picnic: I’m really into Everona sheep’s milk cheese because of its nutritional value and rich flavor.

2)      Feast – Such a fun store because they have so many samples and everything here is also local (including wine!) Personal preferred picks for a picnic: Port cherry and blue cheese dip (such a decadent combo) and just-sliced salamis sold in small portions.

3)      Foods of All Nations – Pretty convenient in the fact that it’s a small grocery store with lots of local products so you can pick up everyday merchandise, along with special picnic snacks. Personal preferred pick for a picnic: Slightly creamy Appalachian cheese in the local cheese case.

4)      Trader Joe’s – Even though it’s a chain, it still has a lot of unique and healthy options. The cheese case also offers more variety than the average grocery store. Personal preferred pick for a picnic: The cheese soaked in Syrah wine.

Pack with care

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My husband and I got this picnic “basket” (actually a backpack) for a wedding gift almost three years ago. We used it maybe once or twice when we first got it and then it went into storage, yet just in our past 10 months of living in Charlottesville, we’ve used it at least five or six times. Before all the summer events popped up, we liked taking it with us to picnic on the Lawn on Grounds of the University, or as we set out on a hike in the woods.

You don’t necessarily need something fancy like ours, but the essentials are:

  • Bottles of water
  • Bottle opener/corkscrew
  • Mini cutting board and knife
  • Drinking glasses/cups
  • Plates
  • Napkins
  • Hand sanitizer and/or wipes
  • Mat or blanket

What are your favorite picnic spots in and/or around Charlottesville?

Missing Michigan

Last week, I enjoyed the perks of Michal’s summer internship location in Dearborn, MI.

Yes, you read that correctly.

The Detroit suburb may not be as glamorous or appealing of an area to visit during the summer like Cali or NYC, but we were excited to simply be close to people we’ve missed while living in Cville and Chicago. In the week I visited Michal, I was grateful to be able to witness almost every type of life-changing moment within our circle of friends and family:

  • Helping Michal move into his apartment before he started his new job
  • Co-hosting a baby shower/going-away party
  • Dancing the night away at a wedding with friends from undergrad
  • Surprising a friend on her 30th birthday
  • Celebrating the engagement of one of Michal’s former college roommates
  • Visiting friends who just had their first baby
  • Checking out my parents’ and Michal’s sister’s newly renovated homes, as well as my cousin’s recently purchased home
MichiganVisit

Highlights from my visit to Michigan

In a stage in which there is so much transition and uncertainty, it is so reassuring to know some parts of life can still remain the same and that we can always “come home.” I’m looking forward to my next visit to obviously see my husband, but to also spend more time with all of our loved ones.

Not to mention, Michigan is best experienced in the summertime. (HINT: A topic for a later blog post.)

I appreciate any tips on how to answer the question: “Why come back to Michigan?”

 

Congrats to the students and partners of the Class of 2014!

Graduation

As I watched the Class of 2014 graduates walk across the stage while their partners snapped photos, I felt more emotion than anticipated yesterday.

On Saturday, when I volunteered at Darden’s 29th Annual Pig Roast in honor of the graduates, I briefly chatted with a few SY partners in the midst of running around and refilling trays and bowls of food. But on Sunday, I could actually take in what was being said as an onlooker in the audience of the Final Exercises in Flagler Court at Darden.

I soaked up every detail, and in the course of a couple of hours, I felt emotions ranging from excitement and pride to sentimentality and nervousness. These emotions stood out the most to me:

    1. Anxiety – while getting advice about reserving hotel rooms and restaurant dinners as early as possible for out-of-town guests (some saying to even start now – one year away from when my husband will graduate!)
    2. Admiration – while seeing proud parents carry their infant children, born during the years at Darden, across the stage and knowing how much those students and their partners had to juggle with an already hectic schedule
    3. Awe – while listening to special recognition from faculty of students who contributed in a myriad of  ways to Darden, such as mentoring FYs and running different organizations
    4. Nostalgia – while taking a photo of the entire crowd of graduates in caps and gowns because the moment transported me back in time to when I used to work at the graduation ceremonies in my past profession as a high school teacher
    5. Mixture of sadness and gratitude – while watching students sing the Irish blessing “Until We Meet Again” and then while realizing that we are only one year away from this moment…
    • I grew tearful because not only was I finding it hard to say goodbye to certain SYs I’ve gotten to know, but I was finding it much harder to recognize that half of my time in Cville is now done.
    • Yet, I am grateful because this past year has truly made me a better person and because I at least still have one more year left in this place that has become my home.

(Summer) Separation Anxiety

Before Michal left for the summer last week, we spent our last weekend in Cville together enjoying everything we love about the area: gourmet food, local craft beer and the outdoors. I wanted some quality time because we were about to embark on one of the two hardest times during B-School for couples.

These times are:
1) Recruiting season during the first year (while balancing academics and social life)
2) Spending the summer apart (including classes abroad like the Global Business Experience, GBE, and internships in another state).

Side note: Check out this hilarious blog featuring gifs illustrating life as a partner of someone in B-school. This is not a Darden blog, but I did find it through an older Darden partner.

As soon as Michal’s spring semester ended, he began a class to prepare for his GBE in Israel. When he returns from traveling abroad, he will go directly to Detroit to begin working and will stay there pretty much until fall semester starts. In our eight years as a couple (three years married), we’ve never done long-distance. (I don’t count my student teaching year in Detroit while Michal was a senior at Michigan State in Lansing because that was only an hour and half apart.)  So you can imagine the trepidation I felt.

I tried to ignore the looming absence by making the best of the unexpected free time we had due to a rare weekend void of Darden-related activities by staying outdoors in the gorgeous weather and visiting places we’ve wanted to try: Charlottesville City Market, Know Good Beer Festival and Jones Run/Doyles River in Shenandoah National Park. Below are the highlights of each adventure:

Top row from left to right: Michal and I near the Starr Hill tent at the beer fest, tacos at the farmer’s market, popsicle stand nearby. Bottom row from left to right: Waterfalls in Shenandoah, Michal and Stephen admiring art at the McGuffey Art Center during the fest, Michal hiking

On Saturday morning, strolling through all the stalls and tents, we had to taste a little bit of everything at the farmer’s market from chorizo and steak tacos with freshly made tortillas to a Thai-style strawberry and coconut milk Popsicle. Everything we tried was yummy, but my all-time fav dish from our walking “brunch” was the hearty crab cake at only $8.

Later in the afternoon, we met up another friend at Darden who loves beer as much as we do, as he also brewed for the Three Notch’d competition that Michal participated in last month. We all agreed that this inaugural beer fest was one of the better we’ve attended as it focused on local brews – many that we had not tried or even heard of. Of the new ones I tried, I particularly enjoyed the smooth Wit at up and coming James River Brewing Company, the light 3 at the hip Flying Mouse Brewing Company and the refreshing Blonde Hunny at the slightly more established Wild Wolf Brewing Company. I prefer Belgian-style ales that are slightly sour, or session citrusy wheat beers that are perfect to sip and savor on a hot, sunny day. Bonus: Another unique aspect to this beer fest was the fact that it was at an art gallery.

The following day, we spent some time driving through scenic Skyline Drive and hiking through an incredible waterfall wonderland. The views, especially of the various falls throughout our hike, were breathtaking and reminded me our travels in Costa Rica and Thailand. It was a relaxing and peaceful hike, as we ran into other people sparingly. And on certain points in the mountains, we’d get respite from the heat with a cool breeze or dipping into ice water.

 

Part 2 of Family in Cville: What’s ‘Fun’ in Undergrad vs. Grad School

My cousin April and her husband Jake drove from Metro Detroit to Charlottesville the weekend after my in-laws visited. This family weekend had a different twist: April, Jake, Michal and I went through undergrad together at Michigan State University, so Michal and I were excited for them to experience another sort of college town.

The infamous Foxfield horse races could not have been better timed. We each anticipated this event as if we were preparing for Halloween by scouring for outfits we’d never normally wear, classified as “country club prep.” It was a total cultural experience for us to transform our usual, casual T-shirt and jeans combos to pastels and floppy hats.

All photos are courtesy of my cousin April (except for the group photo on the top left that a friend's husband took on my phone).  My husband Michal and April's husband Jake had actually bought the same shirt. Michal found a new pink one to match my searsucker dress.

All photos are courtesy of April (except for the group shot on the top left that a friend’s husband took on my iphone). Fun fact #1: My husband Michal and April’s husband Jake actually bought the same shirt in different stores. Michal later found a pink shirt to match my searsucker dress!

While we embraced the wardrobe change, we were a bit more wary of the actual event as we heard it would be similar to all-day tailgating. In the end, we were grateful to experience the races from the more civilized grad student area tents where Darden and the Law School were side by side in front of the tracks. The backdrop was breathtaking in the sun, the food was classic Southern BBQ, the bartenders made drinks to our liking, the music started with a live band, there were no lines to the bathrooms, and the tables had fresh, floral centerpieces.

Needless to say, the atmosphere was a lot different on the undergrad side.

Again: All photos are courtesy of April. Fun Fact: Michal worked with Three Notch'd this school year as a member of the Community Consultants of Darden.

All photos are courtesy of April. Fun Fact #2: Michal worked with Three Notch’d this year as a part of the Community Consultants of Darden. Jake enjoyed the beer there so much that he bought a growler!

Michal and I also spent some time showing Jake and April the differences between undergrad nightlife at the dive bars on The Corner vs. the local breweries in the more upscale Downtown Mall area. Although it was fun to be outside at the picnic tables at The Biltmore on a warm night, we decided relaxing in lounge settings with board games and higher quality craft brews at Three Notch’d, Champion and South Street was overall more enjoyable. We’ve each definitely grown more discerning with two home-brewers, Michal and Jake, at our side.

Ultimately, what we discovered is that we still like to have good time just like in the glory days … but now we just have higher standards.

All photos courtesy of April. We managed to include a hike to Elliott Knob and a walk around Grounds. Fun Fact #3: We purposefully picked out one of the highest peaks in Virginia to tackle with April and Jake because they're so adventurous!

All photos courtesy of April. We managed to include a hike to Elliott Knob and a walk around Grounds. Fun Fact #3: We purposefully picked out one of the highest peaks in Virginia to tackle with April and Jake because they’re so adventurous! At the top, Michal and Jake started a fire right before the rain hit.

Part 1 of Family in Cville: Blending past with present

When Michal's parents visited, we had a lot to celebrate: the Easter holiday, Section B's back-to-back Darden Cup win and Michal's first time in a brewing competition.

When Michal’s parents visited last month, we had a lot to celebrate: the Easter holiday, Section B’s Darden Cup back-to-back win and Michal’s first time to enter his home brew in a competition.

With Polish and Filipino heritage, my husband Michal and I have religious and cultural traditions associated with Easter. However, with limited vacation days for me and the onslaught of final exams for Michal, we decided to spend yet another holiday away from home.

Thankfully, my in-laws made the approximately nine-hour drive from Metro Detroit to Charlottesville with maintaining tradition as the major motivation.

In addition to celebrating Easter Sunday with a Polish brunch of kielbasas, stuffed/fried eggs and pastries, we celebrated Section B’s back-to-back Darden Cup championship with a crab feast.  My in-laws and I also supported Michal in the first home-brewing competition sponsored by Darden’s Wine and Cuisine Club. It was the perfect blend of old and new, family and friends, as my in-laws attempted to understand our daily life with Darden, with a reminder of where we come from.

Charlottesville offers nearby hiking, biking options

Hiking (or biking) doesn’t have to be a hassle.

When the weather is way too gorgeous to pass up, but we don’t feel like making an hour-drive to Shenandoah, Michal and I find some nearby nature preserves, parks and trails that serve as a quick, outdoor workout or a convenient date. Below are the three best options for us – all within a 20-minute drive of Darden/Charlottesville.

Side note: Personally, I prefer the relaxed mode of hiking over intense mountain biking!

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Rivanna Trails <5 minutes of a drive from Darden

Located all throughout the city of Charlottesville, we found one entrance across the street from our apartment complex. We’ve tried walking as well as biking. It can actually pretty tough terrain for biking with some steep inclines. The scenery varies depending on where you start, but these are a few fav views near the river where it’s a little more flat.

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Walnut Creek Park ~20 minutes of a drive from Darden

Trails surround a huge lake with lots of people kayaking, canoeing and fishing on a warm day. Michal and I have only done mountain biking out here, which I found a bit easier than Rivanna Trails as there were longer runs that were not so steep and winding. (I am definitely not an expert biker!)

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Ivy Creek Natural Area ~10 minutes of a drive from Darden

This is my highlight as it earns points for close location and scenic views. It’s really unique in the fact that beavers used to overpopulate the area, as evidenced by trees with missing chunks of trunk. I appreciated how there were placards that we could take with us to help us note interesting flora, fauna and wildlife.

What are your favorite Charlottesville area hikes or outdoor workouts?