Monday, December 31, 2007

#31 Reading

My trip to Half Price Books on 12/29 to catch their 20% off sale was somewhat fruitful--I found 3 of the books I needed for my book club, and was able to start reading one of them right away. (Good thing, since the meeting is coming up on Saturday.)

The book chosen for this meeting was "Triangle" by Katharine Weber. I would give it 2.5 out of 5 stars. I thought the topics the book focused on (specifically, a survivor's story about factory fire in 1911 and music) didn't really go together. The musician in the story creates songs based on genetic codes or chemistry or biology, and a lot of the explanations of how he did that lost me. I can see where DNA/genetic code fits into the story, but it seemed like a stretch. I got to the point where I'd have to force myself not to skim those parts of the book--and it was a short book! I did like finding out more information on a part of history I had no idea about, but I would rather have read more about the historical part that present-day composers.

The review from Publisher's Weekly:
"The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire killed 146 workers, most of them women, and galvanized efforts to reform working conditions in sweatshops. In Esther Gottesfeld, the last remaining survivor of the Triangle fire, Weber creates a believable and memorable witness to the horrors of that day. Esther managed to escape, but her fiance, Sam, and her sister, Pauline, both perished in the blaze. In 2001, Esther is living in a New York Jewish retirement home, visited often by her beloved granddaughter Rebecca and Rebecca's longtime partner, George Botkin. Rebecca and George's story and quirky rapport take up half of the book, and descriptions of George's music provide a needed counterpoint to the harrowing accounts of the fire and its aftermath. But Ruth Zion, a humorless but perceptive feminist scholar, sees inconsistencies in Esther's story and determines to ferret them out through repeated interviews with Esther and, after her death, with Rebecca. The novel carefully, and wrenchingly, allows both the reader and Rebecca to discover the secret truth about Esther and the Triangle without spelling it out; it is a truth that brings home the real sufferings of factory life as well as the human capacity to tell the stories we want to hear."

Thursday, December 27, 2007

#31: Reading

For Christmas, Santa brought me a few books on my Amazon wish list, including Ghost Hunting: True Stories of Unexplained Phenomena from the Atlantic Paranormal Society. Apparently, the authors have a show on the SciFi Channel--Ghost Hunting. I've never seen the show, but I love a good ghost story. Even though I'm a huge chicken! I definitely let my imagination run away with me, so when I was reading this book, I found myself hurrying up with the laundry when I was alone in the garage or making sure I turned on lights before I entered a room. But even though I was freaking myself out, this book wasn't really scary. It was more like a summary of some of the duo's jobs, and many of them were cases that they disproved. Not exactly what I was hoping for. I was expecting mysteries and spookiness, and instead got mostly clinical descriptions. I was surprised that the most emotional parts of the books were descriptions of the author's relationships with people on their team--in particular, one guy who was off and back on the team several times. I was least interested in that dynamic of their work, yet it was in the forefront of several stories.

At least the book was a quick & easy read. I was hoping for something like the spooky stories I'd read on the blog Somewhere on the Masthead, whose author lists "October Moments" among his greatest hits. All of his stories give me goosebumps. I've always been fascinated with the idea of the supernatural, and may have even seen a ghost or two in my life.

The book description from Amazon:

The Atlantic Paranormal Society, also known as T.A.P.S., is the brainchild of two plumbers by day, paranormal investigators by night: Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson. Their hair-raising investigations, fueled by their unique abilities and a healthy dose of scientific method, have made them the subject of a hit TV show: the SCI FI Channel's Ghost Hunters.
Now their experiences are in print for the first time, as Jason and Grant recount for us, with the help of veteran author Michael Jan Friedman, the stories of some of their most memorable investigations. The men and women of T.A.P.S. pursue ghosts and other supernatural phenomena with the most sophisticated scientific equipment available -- from thermal-imaging cameras to electromagnetic-field recorders to digital thermometers -- and the results may surprise you. Featuring both cases depicted on Ghost Hunters and earlier T.A.P.S. adventures never told before now, this funny, fascinating, frightening collection will challenge everything you thought you knew about the spirit world.

#61: Extra Mortgage Payment

I read an old article a couple of years ago about how making an extra mortgage payment each year will significantly reduce the amount of interest paid, and also decrease the time spent paying off the home loan. Like last year, in 2007 I've made an effort to follow this plan, even though we're planning to sell our house in 2008. At least we'll see some benefit from having more of our house paid off, so that will hopefully translate into more $$ from the sale to put towards whatever new home we find. Actually, I say that we followed the plan in that article--we didn't make two mortgage payments a month. Instead, we took the amount of one mortgage payment and divided by 12, then put that amount into savings each month. Thanks to ING, we were able to earn pretty good interest on that money while we saved throughout the year, and were still able to benefit from putting the amount of one mortgage payment towards our principal.

Unfortunately, I still have not made a lot of progress on the other items on my list that are financial goals: invest for retirement beyond 401Ks and review personal budget to increase savings. I know a lot of people recommend Dave Ramsey's books and I've also heard good things about a couple of other books (Smart Couples Finish Rich and The Millionaire Next Door, in particular). I think I may know and follow some of the key strategies in these books already, I just need to actually DO them. But, this is a good reminder to be proactive. I'll have to add those to my list of books to look for during my trip to Half Price Books this week--I heard this morning on the radio that they're having a 20% off sale through Saturday!

Friday, December 21, 2007

I'm Grinchy

I have been having a hard time feeling the Christmas spirit this week. This is the second week in a row that I haven't cooked dinner at home, the second week in a row that I've been too busy to even get home before 8pm. K has been working on a huge project for the last 6 or 7 weeks in the evenings and most weekends that's been stressing him (and therefore me) out, and I have been dreading our holiday travel to SE TX. I feel like I'm on the verge of an all-out Grinch Fest, and every little thing lately is setting me on edge.

So, what better time than to give to others? Finding a favorite charity is easy for me: Memaw's House. After my Memaw died in 2004, her house sat empty. Mom's two sisters and one brother all live near the house, but none could decide on a good plan of action. Their family had lived in that house since my mom was in high school, so the idea of selling it was difficult. Aunt B heard about a program a church in the area had started that operated homes for women who had just been released from jail--a place for them to live while they looked for jobs and got back on their feet, while also giving them a safe environment from their pre-inprisonment lifestyles. So Aunt B consulted with the rest of the family, and all were in agreement that they should explore the idea of turning Memaw's home into one of these houses. This idea was a huge step for Aunt B. She's always been a generous, loving person who attends church faithfully, but I've always known her to be racist. I know she grew up in a different time and place than I did, and that rural Alabama isn't exactly progressive on that front, but that doesn't excuse her use of derogatory terms. Because of this, I felt proud that she'd be leading a project that helped (mainly) minority women. I know she struggled with the idea because of that, and I am glad she made the decision to go ahead with the project. They began work on the house in 2005, working to make it liveable to as many ladies as possible. That meant clearing out furniture from bedrooms and adding bunk beds or twin beds where possible. There were repairs that needed to be done to old plumbing, etc., and several kind members of the family donated their time to the project. My uncle and one of my cousin's husbands shouldered a lot of the responsibility, and I'm so grateful for their time and energy. A housemother needed to be hired to act as a live-in contact for the ladies, and Aunt B found a wonderful woman who has been incredibly helpful. Finally, in 2007, the home had its grand opening celebration. Ten woman now live can now live in the home, and it is always full to capacity. Even though there have been some disappointments along the way, the successes of the ladies who live there and have been able to already move on are truly inspirational. My mom and her siblings provided the original funding for the home, and I know they still all make significant contributions. So each year at Christmas, it is my pleasure to send whatever I can to help support the home. I'm sending this year's check this weekend, and thinking about Memaw's House has really lifted my spirit.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

#26: New Underwear

I'm on a quest to find comfortable, cute new underwear to replace underwear that I've had. . .wow, since I started college? It's hard to remember when I started buying my own undies. Most of the oldest ones are from Victoria's Secret, but they're so comfortable. I think that I just go there out of habit, find something similar to what I have and buy them at the annual sales. It's time to break out of my VS rut!

Incidentally, why do I feel like a total pervert searching for underwear online?

I don't really want to discuss my panties in a very detailed manner online, but if others can benefit from my trials, I think the basic info I can provide might be helpful. My first test underwear have been Calvin Klein, from the Round Rock outlet. The pair I selected are supposed to eliminate a visible panty line, but the seam around the edges can get uncomfortable. I like the shape, and the fit s pretty good, but I'm not wowed.

So far my only other trial pair has been Maidenform Women's One Fabulous Fit. Part of my perfect underwear search led me to Sundry Buzz, a blog with product reviews & recommendations, and a panty rave about these. I found a pair at Kohl's for about $4-bargain! I'm really liking these, though the waistband seems like it gets a little loose by the end of the day. They aren't rolling down or anything, though. I like to think I'm just a slightly smaller size than the size I purchased. That must be it!

Anyway, I'm going to continue my experiment into the Hanes brand, and maybe do an informal underwear poll of my girlfriends to see if there's something I'm missing.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

#9 Dinner: Parmesan-Crusted Chicken

This weekend at the grocery store, I did my best to plan ahead for (I hope) cooking two dinners this week. We'll see how that goes, but I can already cross one dinner for the week off the list! Tonight I made Parmesan-Crusted Chicken, from my friend Melissa's recipe. No clue where she found the recipe, my best guess would be Cooking Light. She actually makes the recipe a little differently--she combines plain breadcrumbs with the parmesan (equal parts) and coats the chicken with that. She cooks on 450 for 20 - 25 minutes, which I did (on the middle rack). She said that 475 tends to make the cheese coating crispier than she usually likes.

Parmesan-Crusted Chicken

1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp chopped thyme
4 six ounce skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 475. In a small bowl, combine the mustard, olive oil, and thyme. Season the chicken breasts with salt & pepper, then brush them all over with the mustard mixture. Pat 2 tablespoons of the parmesan all over each breast. Transfer the chicken breasts to a rimmed baking sheet. (I used a pyrex baking dish.) Bake the chicken on the top shelf of the oven for about 15 minutes, or until just cooked through and nicely browned.

Oh, I didn't use dijon mustard. We have some delicious herb balsamic mustard that we bought a few weeks ago at Oakville Grocery, and have been enjoying on sandwiches. Since I knew we had that, I didn't bother with thyme, either. And I just plain forgot the salt & pepper step! But, it was still delicious and super easy.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

#31 Reading: Thieves of Baghdad

My book club's selection for this month was Thieves of Baghdad, by Matthew Bogdanos. I thought it was an interesting story, one that I was largely unaware of--the plundering of Iraqi artifacts before and after the current war. And the author (Bogdanos) is a really fascinating character, but the way the book is written was of-putting to me. Parts of it are very stream of consciousness, with Bodganos throwing in a lot of quotes and literary references from his extensive knowledge of a wide variety of topics. But, I think the book was worth reading, just to get an insider's perspective on a country and regime I know mainly through the media.

From Publisher's Weekly:

In April 2003, Matthew Bogdanos was a long way from the courtrooms of New York City where, as an assistant D.A., he prosecuted hundreds of cases. After September 11, 2001, this Marine Corps Reserve colonel, lawyer and student of ancient civilizations, returned to uniform full-time to head counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and later in Iraq, where Bogdanos gave himself the mission of finding antiquities that had been stolen from the Iraq National Museum during the American invasion. Beginning with an Indiana Jones-like opening that finds him in the museum's bowels, Bogdanos chronicles a journey fueled by his passion for history and frustrated by erratic record-keeping and factionalism among Iraqis, not to mention the hazards of warfare. The son of Greek immigrants who went on to achieve advanced degrees in law and classical studies, Bogdanos weaves together a detective story, adventure yarn and history lesson, committing himself to the investigation of stolen artifacts and reflecting what he deems rumor and exaggeration among the media coverage and academics who claimed irrevocable archeological tragedy. Indeed, some pieces, he discovers, were moved and protected prior to the U.S. invasion, while others were housed by Iraqis for safekeeping until after the war. Bogdanos is a remarkable blend of warrior, academic and communicator, and he cuts through politics and hyperbole to tell an engrossing story abundant with history, colored by stories of brave Iraqis and Americans, and shaded with hope for the future.

We choose books 6 months at a time, and tonight was our night to pick books for January through June. Some of them I'm really looking forward to reading, others, not so much. But, that's one of the things I like about my book club--I would usually not pick any of the books we read on my own, but I've learned a lot and enjoyed books I wouldn't otherwise. For January, we're reading Triangle: The Novel, which is historical fiction about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire which apparently killed 146 workers (most of them women) and galvanized efforts to reform working conditions in sweatshops. Should be interesting!

Saturday, December 1, 2007

#9 Dinner: Calzones

This week I think I was still recovering from the long Thanksgiving break, so I wanted to make something really quick and easy for dinner. I went with one of my old easy stand-by options, calzones.

I buy two cans of low-fat Pillsbury crescent rolls, and open one can. I spread 4 rectangles (which is actually 2 crescent roll triangles) on a cookie sheet with a silpat pad on it, and add the fixin's. This time, I spread a thin layer of basil pesto, a layer of sauce (from a jar), a layer of shredded cheese, and then the meats. This time, I had peppered salami (thin sliced) and genoa. I open the other can of crescent rolls and added a rectangle of dough to each one. I seal around the edges (pressing them together) and pop it in the oven for 13 - 15 minutes. K and I can each eat one for dinner & have one for lunch the next day. (Or, he can eat two for dinner, whatever.) Easy, but good.

I want to start working on menu planning on the weekend, and going to the grocery store once, instead of every couple of days during the week. With all the busy-ness of December (holiday parties, shopping, etc.) I am hoping this plan will be more of a help and free up time rather than a hassle of having more "to do"s on the weekends.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

#4 November Nephew Time

It's already been a week since I've seen them (on Thanksgiving), but I wanted to post about this month's nephew time because I had such a good time with them that I had to remember the funny little things they did.

When K & I arrived at my mom's on Thanksgiving evening, Nephew 1 (30 months) greeted us at the door by saying Hi! and our names. I'm sure his mom and dad coached him on it, but it was just adorable. He immediately pointed to his little brother and said "That's (Nephew 2)!" I replied "I know!" and said "Happy Thanksgiving." He looked at the things we were carrying and asked about them. I told I had a pecan pie in one hand and cranberry stuff in the other. He looked at me for a minute--because I'm pretty sure he didn't know what either of those was--and finally said "yum!" haha!

Later, as we were all sitting down, he started playing by ducking under the table and peeking out at me. I would say "where's (Nephew 1)?" and he would pop out, while I acted surprised to see him. K wanted to get in on the game, and started saying "what's that under the table? it is a little bug?" N1 suddenly scrambled out from under the table and ran into the kitchen. Turns out at his house, there have been several crickets under the table lately, and they freaked him out. So my brother (his dad), pretended to catch a "cricket" and throw it outside. K felt bad because he was just trying to play, but the rest of us were laughing. He redeemed himself by asking silly questions about the "cricket" like "what color was it? was it purple? was it spotted?" etc. Funny!

N2 (8 months) was his usual jovial self. I got to feed him some fruity baby food, which he very much enjoyed. He only protested when I was too slow spooning it into his mouth. That kid loves the fruit. SIL says it's the sweetness, which makes sense--he wasn't at all interested in his turkey baby food. Although, it smelled like cat food, so I can't really blame him. I was even afraid to try it. I gave him a bottle a little later, and he kept touching and staring at my fingernails, which were painted red. His mom never paints her nails, so I am sure he was very interested in the color & texture. Just like his big brother when he was a baby.
The cranberry stuff I took to Thanksgiving dinner has become one of my usual contributions to the meal over the last couple of years. I got the recipe from Food & Wine (below), but I substitute a lime for the lemon and zest it before chopping it and adding it to the food processor. Lime rind always seems extra bitter to me.
Cranberry Relish

1 medium unpeeled orange – scrubbed, halved, seeded & cut into 2-inch chunks
1 medium Granny Smith apple – peeled, cored & cut into 2-inch chunks
¼ medium unpeeled lemon – scrubbed, seeded & cut into 2-inch chunks
2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries (1/2 pound)
½ cup sugar
½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts (about 2 ounces)

In a food processor, combine the orange, apple and lemon and pulse until finely chopped. Add the cranberries and pulse until the berries are coarsely chopped. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the sugar and walnuts.

The relish can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

New Experiences

In the spirit of The List, I am trying to generally be more open to new experiences. In my regular life, I crave stability, normality, and routine. Although my job gives me plenty of opportunity to never experience the same day twice in a row, I still shrink from a lot of change in my personal life. But, I'm trying new things on my list of 73, so why not jump on other new experiences?

Last Wednesday, K's good friend R and his new girlfriend E came over for dinner. E was visiting Austin for the first time from London, so R decided part of her visit should include a trip to a country bar. Never mind that none of us regularly (or ever) hang out in country bars, it would be one more opportunity for her to take some fun "Texas-y" pictures. R decided the place to go should be the huge six bars-in-one Graham Central Station, in Pflugerville. He'd been there a couple of times for happy hour to one of the non-country themed bars, so he had some idea of what the place is like. K & I had never been there, but K got in the spirit by wearing his boots & cowboy hat, and I wore my new brown boots.

We realized upon arrival that visiting GCS the night before Thanksgiving was not the best idea--the parking lot was packed. We saw a girl walking to her car, so we pulled into her row and waited for her to leave. She had other plans. She got in her car, started it, and appeared to make a phone call. (Maybe she was just checking her messages.) Then, she either changed her shirt or put on a coat (it was difficult to tell which, since we were several feet away, in our own car). By now, about 5 minutes had passed. K flicked his lights, in case she somehow couldn't see us waiting for her. I don't know if that irritated her, or she just still didn't notice, because she got out a camera and began taking photos of herself. By my count of the flashes, she took six photos of herself. Six photos of herself sitting in her car. Finally, after a ten minute wait, she pulled out and left us her space.

There were two long lines to get into the main entrance, but we luckily picked a short one. Once inside, we headed for the country bar, which had a huge dance floor. E was not impressed by the huge crowd (nor was I) or by the loud volume (which made it difficult to hear each other), but we found a space along the railing of the dance floor to watch. I love to watch people dance. Whether they really know how to dance, or are just flailing along, (and honestly, if they have some crazy moves, all the better) watching people dance never fails to cheer me up. R & E took a couple of turns around the dance floor, and dragged us out there when a fast song came on. K almost never dances, so we enjoyed being silly.

From there, we moved to a smaller room that was playing 80s music, but even though we found a table, we didn't stay long. E kept saying the place made her feel old, and I could definitely empathize. A large marjority of the people there were in the 18 - 21 age range (we could tell by the X on their hands) and seemed to be there to pick up people and/or get hammered. Neither were on our agenda for the evening, so we left. I don't think any of us are eager to go back to GSC, but at least now we know exactly what we're missing!

Next on the new experience list was holiday shopping. The only time I've been shopping on Black Friday was a couple of years ago when K & I went to his home town for Thanksgiving, and I went shopping with him mom, two sisters & SIL at 8am to the local mall. They live in a smaller town, really a small town in a triangle of small towns, so the mall wasn't as crazy as I would expect an Austin mall would be. But last week I got an email about the Thanksgiving Midnight Madness sales at the Round Rock Outlet, and I thought it might be fun to check out. We're night owls anyway, so it was likely we'd still be awake after having Thanksgiving dinner with my family, and the outlet is only about 10 minutes or so from our house. I checked the list of sales before we headed out, and determined a few places to shop. I suppose it might have been a good time to shop for people on my Christmas list, but I couldn't think of anything I wanted to buy that would be at the outlet. Well, I couldn't think of anything I wanted to buy for anyone else at the outlet. ha! But I thought it would be a good time to score a few deals for myself, and K always appreciates a bargain.

We arrived a couple of minutes after midnight, and drove to the back of the shopping center to park. It was filling up quickly, but there were still a good number of spaces open in the far back. Once we started walking around, we quickly realized that it was going to be very very busy, and that many of the people shopping were pretty serious about their goals for the evening. I was surprised to see a line snaking out of the Coach outlet--at 10 minutes after opening--with at least 25 or 30 people waiting to enter the completely full store. I guess the store was at the limit of their fire code shopper allowance? I have no idea what people were looking for because Coach wasn't on the list as one of the shops doing a special sale. As far as I know, they were just selling items at their usual (outlet) prices. K left me in Nine West, where I scored a cute pair of brown dress shoes for $35. (I'm trying to incorporate brown into my wardrobe more, and only had open-toed brown summer shoes & brown boots.) We met and walked over to Ann Taylor, where he dropped me off to head to Nike Town. It was busy, but I knew what I was looking for ($40 100% cashmere sweater), so I found it quickly, looked around a bit, and then waited in line for 20 minutes to pay. K found a couple of things at Nike, but was so discouraged at the huge line that he decided the sale price wasn't worth the wait. On the way out, we walked around a little bit more and saw a line almost as long as the Coach line at Starbucks, and saw several people walking around with small children or babies in strollers. I was most surprised at that--just from knowing how my nephews do when they're out of their usual sleep pattern, I couldn't believe people would be dragging kids around at midnight or 1am just for stuff like half-priced sweaters! We were home just after 1am, and I think K is at least satisfied that he never needs to Black Friday shop again. I might go again if there's a midnight opportunity, and if I can get my act together enough to actually shop from my Christmas List instead of just for myself. I kind of got swept up in the sale excitement!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

#47 Car Maintenance

Car maintenance is on my list because I am horrible at finding time to get my car inspected and take it in for regular maintenance. I keep the registration up to date easily, since that's done by mail, but I'm still pretty lazy about actually replacing the sticker on the car. I am a little ashamed to admit that the sticker for my inspection expired in March. March 2005! I can remember taking my car to get inspected three times since then, but one time I left because the line was too long (and I was on my lunch hour at work), once the people told me it was too wet outside to properly check my brakes, and the last time I'd had my car in for maintenance, they forgot to do the inspection. I've paid one ticket on the expired inspection, and I know I'm lucky not to have more.

I also knew I was overdue for regular maintenance. On the recommended Honda schedule, I had missed my 70,000 check-up, and am now approaching my 100,000 check-up at 96,000 miles. So I took advantage of a quiet week at work and took my car in on Tuesday. I was a little irritated with the process; I went online to make an appointment through the dealer's website, but the form said my appointment wasn't confirmed until I heard back from them. I hadn't heard by Monday afternoon, so I called them. The person I spoke with told me no appointment was necessary, that they worked on a first-come, first-served basis. Yet when I pulled in on Tuesday morning, there was a seperate line designated for "Appointment Only." Argh! I'd hoped to pick my car back up at lunch, but they told me it wouldn't be ready until the afternoon. I called at 3:30, since I hadn't heard from them. Nope, not ready yet. I finally got a call at 4:45 telling me they were working on my car and it would be finished in 30 minutes. So I rushed out of the office at 5 to make my way North, knowing they close at 6. I made it with 10 minutes to spare.

While I was there, my service manager told me they recommend a timing belt change at 105,000 miles. He thought I might reach that by summer, and wanted to warn me that it usually costs $750. Yikes! Now I'm wondering if I'll actually get it done. I'm hoping to sell my car & buy a new one next fall, and I'm not sure if it makes sense to shell out so much money on a car I'd be getting rid of. I wonder if it would affect the resale value at all? Not that I'm expecting much, on a car that's 7 years old!

#31 Reading: The Thirteenth Tale

This weekend has given me a good chance to do some reading, and I finished The Thirteenth Tale.
I liked it--I usually read mysteries, and this one had several twists throughout. I didn't like some aspects of the story that were implied, but luckily that part of the story wasn't fully discussed.
From Publisher's Weekly:

Margaret Lea, a young bookseller and amateur biographer, is chosen by recluse writer Vida Winter as the recipient of the secret of her tragic past. She reveals, layer by layer, the mesmerizing tale of the Angelfield family that includes murder, insanity, feral twins, a ghost and a fire. Margaret's own past in some ways parallels Miss Winter's, leading them both through the blaze of memory into the truth.

Friday, November 23, 2007

#9: Weeknight Dinner: Fajita Night

Sunday when we met K's friend R and his new girlfriend E for drinks, I invited them for dinner on Wednesday night. I almost immediately regretted my impulsive invitation; when was I going to have time to really clean house & make dinner for 4 the day/night before Thanksgiving? They weren't sure of their plans, since they'd already decided to take a short day trip to Fredericksburg. But R called on Tuesday to accept, and a plan was in place. Luckily my office closed at noon on Wednesday!

I gave K 3 suggestions for dinner, which he allegedly talked over w/ R. They ended up choosing fajitas, which weren't even on the list! Not sure how that happened--I guess it was a combination of my make your own tacos bar and chicken enchiladas choices. The last time we had fajitas at home, K cooked them on the grill. Well, now was not the time to take on that part of my 73 in 730 list (learn how to use the grill and actually make dinner using it), so I got the pre-seasoned chicken fajita meat from HEB & cooked it on the stove. It was good, but fairly fatty. I didn't think to trim off the fat before I cooked it, and regretted that when we were eating leftovers for lunch the next day. Rubbery! I also made corn, black beans, queso and guacamole, and bought pico de gallo and salsa. E (who is visiting from London) had never had fajitas before, and loved them, especially the guacamole. Apparently, avacados aren't very common in England. She said she thought guacamole was mashed up peas!

For dessert, I made a cake from Smitten Kitchen--Chocolate Chip Sour Cream Cake. I halved the recipe, since there were only 4 of us, and cooked it in my 8x8 pan. It was delicious. I love cinnamon, and the cake tasted deceptively light from the folded-in egg whites. Yum!

This had been a busy week of working on my list, so I will have several updates when I have a chance. I've spent time with the nephews, gotten my car serviced, and K & I crossed something big off our house "to do" list. I'll also report on our midnight shopping at the RR Outlet, which only barely corresponds to the list, but was a new experience to record.

Monday, November 19, 2007

#9 Weekday Dinner: Stuffed Shells

True confession: last week I didn't cook dinner.

I was planning to cook our Bacon of the Month delivery, a la breakfast for dinner, but it didn't arrive until Friday. K got the package when he was home for lunch, so I told him I'd make it for dinner. Well, that afternoon he called me to let me know that a former co-worker of his was performing a birthday gig from 7 - 9. He wanted to just grab something quick for dinner and then see his friend's show. So, breakfast for dinner waited until Saturday, and I missed my first weekly homemade weeknight dinner. I'm planning to make it up with two weeknight dinners soon.

Apparently, I'm still a day behind, because I planned to make Giada's Turkey & Artichoke Stuffed Shells with Arrabbiata Sauce on Sunday night. But a Sunday afternoon meet-up with friends kept us out until practically dinner time, so after we ate, I prepped this dish to cook tonight. I actually split the dish into two, and froze half of it for another time. (Think I can still count that as cooking one night? ha!) K declared this the best entree I've ever made. Wow!

Turkey and Artichoke Stuffed Shells with Arrabbiata Sauce
Recipe courtesy Giada De Laurentiis
1 (12-ounce) box jumbo pasta shells (recommended: Barilla)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 large yellow onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 pound ground turkey
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus 1/2 teaspoon
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus 1/4 teaspoon
1 (8 to 10-ounce) package frozen artichokes, thawed and coarsely chopped
1 (15-ounce) container ricotta cheese
3/4 cup grated Parmesan
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
5 cups Arrabbiata Sauce, recipe follows
1 1/2 cups grated mozzarella (about 5 ounces)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and partially cook until tender but still very firm to the bite, stirring occasionally, about 4 to 5 minutes. Drain pasta.
Meanwhile, in a large heavy skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and the garlic and cook until the onions are soft and starting to brown, about 3 minutes. Add the ground turkey, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is slightly golden and cooked through. Add the artichoke hearts and stir to combine. Remove from heat and let cool.

In a large bowl combine the cooled turkey mixture with the ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese, eggs, basil, parsley, and the remaining salt and pepper. Stir to combine.

To stuff the shells, cover the bottom of a 9 by 13 by 2-inch baking dish with 1 cup of Arrabbiata sauce. Take a shell in the palm of your hand and stuff it with a large spoonful of turkey mixture, about 2 tablespoons. Place the stuffed shell in the baking dish. Continue filling the shells until the baking dish is full, about 24 shells. Drizzle the remaining Arrabbiata Sauce over the shells, top with the grated mozzarella. If freezing, cover tightly with plastic wrap and place in the freezer for 1 day and up to 1 month.

To bake, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Bake until the shells are warmed through and the cheese is beginning to brown, about 60 minutes (20 minutes if shells are unfrozen.)

Arrabbiata Sauce:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 ounces sliced pancetta, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
2 garlic cloves, minced
5 cups jarred or fresh marinara sauce

Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the pancetta and saute until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saute until tender, about 1 minute. Add the marinara sauce and red pepper flakes and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and let cool until ready to use.

Yield: approximately 6 cups

Saturday, November 17, 2007

#46 Clean out Purse

I have pack rat tendencies in many areas of my life, but they are particularly evident in my purse. I tend to cram all sorts of things in there, and not clean it out very often. I'm trying to get into a habit of cleaning it out regularly, instead of waiting until it starts getting really heavy.

This last cleaning is the first time I've cleaned out my purse since starting the 73 in 730 project. I think the last time I cleaned out it was prior to our trip to NYC in mid-August. At least, that's what I'm assuming based on the items I took out, which included:

-- Two NY Subway Maps

-- Ticket stubs to Putnam County Spelling Bee

-- Receipt for the guitar K bought at Rivington

-- Map & entry pin from the Met

I also cleaned out 14 recipes (and left 3 in for the next time I get to the grocery store), an invitation for a baby shower long past, a print out of my list of 73, and a bunch of receipts. My purse feels so much lighter now!

Monday, November 12, 2007

#31 Reading

I picked this book up to read on our August trip to New York, and never ended up getting to it, so I tried it again last week. It's not a book I would normally choose for myself--I usually lean towards mysteries rather than bestsellers. (I particularly avoid bestsellers with the word "romantic" in the description.) But, it had good reviews, and I ended up liking it quite a bit. The main character is a 93-year-old man who is thinking back seventy years to the time he joined the circus as a vet during the Depression. His stories about circus life and the time period really held my interest, even though some of the descriptions of his romantic interludes were pretty cheesy. The book has an interview with the author & book club discussion questions at the end, but I can't see myself recommending it to my book club because I don't think the story lends itself to a lot of discussion. Still, I enjoy a well-told story.
Here's the book description from Publisher's Weekly:
The novel, told in flashback by nonagenarian Jacob Jankowski, recounts the wild and wonderful period he spent with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a traveling circus he joined during the Great Depression. When 23-year-old Jankowski learns that his parents have been killed in a car crash, leaving him penniless, he drops out of Cornell veterinary school and parlays his expertise with animals into a job with the circus, where he cares for a menagerie of exotic creatures. He also falls in love with Marlena, one of the show's star performers—a romance complicated by Marlena's husband, the unbalanced, sadistic circus boss who beats both his wife and the animals Jankowski cares for. Despite her often clich├ęd prose and the predictability of the story's ending, Gruen skillfully humanizes the midgets, drunks, rubes and freaks who populate her book.

Weekend Dinner

I'm not counting last night's dinner towards my goal, since I'm working towards cooking dinner during the week consistently. But I did make dinner last night, and wanted to record it in case I make it again.

I found a recipe in Real Simple (November Issue) for Cheese Ravioli with Toasted Walnuts. According to the magazine, the total time/hands-on time was only 20 minutes, so I thought I'd give it a test run in case it could become a quick weeknight favorite. Here's the original recipe from the magazine:

Cheese Ravioli with Toasted Walnuts
1 14- to 16-ounce package cheese ravioli (frozen or fresh)
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup (2 ounces) walnuts, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, sliced
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Kosher Salt & Pepper
1/2 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1/4 cup grated parmesan

Cook the ravioli according to package directions. Drain, reserving 3 tablespoons of the cooking water.

Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the walnuts & garlic. Cook, stirring, until the nuts are lightly toasted and fragrant, about 5 minutes.

Stir in the lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper, parsley & the reserved cooking water.

Add the ravioli and toss to coat.

Divide among individual plates and sprinkle with the parmesan.

I found fresh beef & parmesan ravioli at the store, so I decided to use that, instead. And I like basil better than parsley, so I used fresh basil, and added it at the end (during the toss to coat portion of the directions). Since the ravioli had parmesan in it, I decided to go with mozzarella for the cheese. I wasn't very impressed by how it turned out. K really liked it, but I thought there was too much olive oil, which made it seem greasy. The store-bought ravioli didn't have a very strong parmesan flavor, and mozzarella doesn't have a very strong flavor, so I mainly tasted basil. I do love basil, but overall the dish was just ehh.

Friday, November 9, 2007

#9: Weeknight Dinner

Last night I made an old favorite for dinner that I adapted from the cookbook Mad At Martha. Despite my lack of time for weeknight cooking--and general laziness--I do love cookbooks. Mad At Martha was a Christmas gift from a friend who met the authors at a book signing.

K has been talking about sweet treats this week, so I decided last night would also be a good time to try out the "Balls of Goodness" I'd been drooling over on another nestie's food blog. Mmm, they were as tasty as they look on MrsFroggiana's Blog! Mine weren't as pretty as hers, and I was rushing to get dinner on the table after starting late, so no photos of cranberry chicken or oreo truffles here. K liked them so much that he managed to gulp several down, even after proclaiming he was stuffed from dinner. And I happen to know he ate at least two of them for breakfast this morning!

Cranberry Chicken
1 lb of chicken breasts
1/4 cup butter (half a stick)
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 cup italian bread crumbs
1 can whole berry cranberry sauce

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt the butter in the microwave while you pound the chicken flat. (I set each chicken breast on a piece of foil, covered it with saran wrap, and pounded away.) Mix butter & vinegar, soak each chicken breast in mixture before dragging it through bread crumbs. Scoop a mound of cranberry sauce into the center of each chicken, then roll the chicken up and secure with a toothpick. Place each roll in a cooking-spray coated baking dish. Drizzle leftover butter/vinegar mixture & cran juice from can over chicken rolls. Cook 45 minutes.

Note: The original recipe calls for 1/2 cup of butter and no balsamic vinegar. 1/2 cup of butter doesn't sound like a lot, but I balked at using an entire stick. I remembered seeing a dessert recipe for berries that called for balsamic vinegar, so I thought that would be a good way to bring out the tartness of the cranberries in this recipe. Since I haven't made the dish using the original recipe, I can't say whether it's very different, but we certainly think this is delicious.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

#4 Nephew Time

One of my nephews is a very good sport.

My dad's birthday is 3 days after mine, so we usually have a combined celebration with the family. This year, it was lunch a week after our birthdays--he spent his birthday sick in bed with a cough & sore throat. My family kept asking what I wanted for my birthday, but there isn't any stuff I really wanted. I just wanted to spend time with everyone, enjoying ourselves. And what better way to enjoy ourselves than with fake moustaches?
I bought the moustaches a couple of months ago, thinking K would get a laugh out of them. (And needing a few bucks to add to my order to get me past the free shipping threshold.) He thought they were more creepy than funny. Understandable, especially when I was wearing one. But the idea of my family in moustaches? Hilarious!
Mom & Dad were ready to sign up as soon as I told them. Well. . .my mom shares my sense of humor, and my dad goes along with things. But I knew nephew #1 (N1) would be a tough sell--he's two (30 months, actually) and he's in a phase of hating costumes and masks and, really, wearing anything that doesn't specifically belong to him. My mom had bought one of those glasses/fake moustache/bushy eyebrows combo things, and he told her to take it off because it wasn't funny. I thought I'd be able to convince him to wear just a moustache, but no such luck. My brother and SIL both tried to win him over (wearing their moustaches), but he would have nothing to do with the moustache.
His little brother, however, was an easier mark. Nephew #2 (N2--nine months old) is such a happy, easy-going little fella, that I thought he would be a good moustache candidate. . .as long as he didn't try to eat it! He was hilarious as soon as S put it on him. He kept wanting to pet the moustache with one finger, which led to some very funny photos. Of course, all of the pictures of Family Moustache Day are funny--it cracks me up to see the different expressions we all made while wearing the moustaches, and how similar our expressions were. I wonder how we'll spice up our family birthday celebration next year?

Monday, November 5, 2007

#21 Pantry: Done!

My official start date for my 73 in 730 was my birthday, October 19th. Part of my birthday fun that weekend was cleaning out the pantry with K. Yep, we were truly partying like rock stars that day.

I wish I had thought to take before pictures, but instead I can just remember the back half of the closet full of paper bags & boxes, the shelves overflowing with outdated cans, pasta and assorted non-necessities. We had to throw out pasta that K had moved in from his duplex three years ago. He'd also been hanging on to a bag of hot chocolate packets since his apartment--the place he lived when I met him practically ten years ago. Bleah! I don't think I've ever even had hot chocolate since we've met. . .and yet, he wanted to keep some of the hot chocolate. If he hasn't had any in the next six months, we agreed that I could throw it out. Like he'd even notice!

We bought some bins from the Container Store to help collect similar items--K insisted on open, clear bins. I think we ended up with seven or eight bins, total. I've been so spoiled with this enormous pantry, I just hope we can find another big walk-in when we move.

#31 Reading

This weekend I finished reading The World To Come, which was one of my book club selections. Actually, it was a selection that I suggested, thinking it would be a fun detective story with some art history. I was so wrong!

Here's the description from amazon:

Following in the footsteps of her breakout debut In the Image, Dara Horn's second novel, The World to Come, is an intoxicating combination of mystery, spirituality, redemption, piety, and passion. Using a real-life art heist as her starting point, Horn traces the life and times of several characters, including Russian-born artist Marc Chagall, the New Jersey-based Ziskind family, and the "already-weres" and "not-yets" who roam an eternal world that exists outside the boundaries of life on earth.
At the center of the story is Benjamin Ziskind, a former child prodigy who now spends his days writing questions for a television trivia show. After Ben's twin sister Sara forces him to attend a singles cocktail party at a Jewish museum, Ben spots Over Vitebsk, a Chagall sketch that once hung in the twins' childhood home. Convinced the painting was wrongfully taken from his family, Ben steals the work of art and enlists his twin to create a forgery to replace the stolen Chagall. What follows is a series of interwoven stories that trace the life and times of the famous painting, and the fate of those who come into contact with it.
From a Jewish orphanage in 1920s Soviet Russia to a junior high school in Newark, New Jersey, with a stop in the jungles of Da Nang, Vietnam, Horn takes readers on an amazing journey through the sacred and the profane elements of the human condition. It is this expertly rendered juxtaposition of the spiritual with the secular that makes The World to Come so profound, and so compelling to readers. As we learn near the end of the beautiful tale, "The real world to come is down below--the world, in the future, as you create it." --Gisele Toueg

The second chapter of the book is told from the perspective of a boy who has been orphaned during the Russian Pogroms of 1919, and I nearly had to put the book down and stop reading during that chapter. The descriptions of this child's experiences when he loses his parents and lives in an orphanage are terrifying. I am glad I stuck it out through the book, though, because I learned about a time in history I had no idea had ever happened. I didn't like the ending, but I did like several of the chapters towards the end of the book.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

#9: Chili Dinner

I'd bought two pounds of lean ground beef over the weekend to make chili this week. Of course the day that ended up working best was yesterday--Halloween and 80+ degrees during the day. But I was able to get home early, and immediately got to work on dinner. My chili recipe is so incredibly easy--but delicious. Plus, it only took me about 20 minutes, and that was including answering the door a few times for trick or treaters.

I usually keep packets of McCormick's chili seasoning in our spice cabinet. It used to come in mild & hot flavors, but on Sunday I was only able to find original & hot, so I bought original. I bought about two pounds of ground beef, thinking that I would freeze the leftovers after today for an even easier dinner some other night. I cooked the meat, added the spices & about 1/2 cup of water (per pound) and let the water cook off. Then, the secret ingredient--salsa! The spice packet suggested adding a can of crushed tomatoes, but K usually has some salsa around for snacking, and I think that gives even more flavor. If we don't have any salsa, I use a can of Rotel. We don't like beans in our chili, so after everything is stirred up and simmered for 10 or so minutes, it's good to go. K put his on a soft roll like a sloppy joe, but I ate mine from a bowl with shredded cheddar.

On the side: I had a package of frozen veggies that I steamed. I've got to take baby steps on the side dishes--usually the most I can ever get together is a salad, or a veggie from a can. We're trying to eat more vegetables, so I bought a few packages of mixed frozed veggies that can be steamed in their own bag. I like to sprinkle them with mixed spices, depending on what else we're eating.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Updates Coming!

I have a bunch of updates from list items I worked on this past weeked, just need to get the photos off my camera!

Coming Soon:
* Clean Pantry
* Quality Time w/ Nephews

And tonight I'm making chili for my (at least) one home-cooked meal of the week. Of course, today is the one day of the week that it's going to be up past 80 degrees, but whatever.

I'm getting closer to finishing my list, too. Coming up with these last 15 or so items has been much harder than I thought. I'm trying to be deliberate about what I add to the list--I don't want to add things just for the sake of reaching 73. I want to be sure these are items I really want to complete, and that will help better my life in some way. I think I'll re-order the list to put similar items together. Maybe that will help me brainstorm.

Friday, October 26, 2007

#9: Cook Dinner

K's family has a Christmas Eve tradition of eating Italian Sausage in rolls for dinner. Last Friday night, after dinner at Mandola's, we looked for some of their "homemade" spicy italian sausage, but they had sold out for the day. We happened to stop in at Oakville Grocery when we were walking around The Domain the next day, and found some pre-packaged Niman Ranch spicy italian sausage. I cooked up two of the links that night, and made the other two last night. Served with mustard and cheese on the Pepperidge Farms soft rolls we bought, they were delicious. K even proclaimed them better than his mom's Christmas Eve dinner. Score one for Mrs. Monkey!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Jumping on the Bandwagon

I'm jumping on the bandwagon to join others participating in the 101 in 1001 Project. Reading over a few lists from some inspiring ladies--plus the realization that I have a big birthday coming up in a little less than two years--urged me to create my own list. Since that big birthday will arrive in 730 days from what I'm considering my starting point, I decided to do 73 in 730.

I have already started working on the list, despite not having a full list of 73 goals, plans, and dreams yet. I just can't resist a good list!