Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Meal planning review - May

Still loving the monthly meal plans. I'm doing so much better with cooking on weeknights and we're barely eating out at all because we're usually well stocked with leftovers (part of that is that D has been working a lot of evenings, so there are more leftovers). I originally didn't think I'd continue this during the summer (because usually our summers end up being much less structured) but it's been so nice that I wanted to keep going. 

meal planning review - may

I mixed it up a lot more than usual last month! I'm barely doing anything new in June, though. so next month will be a bit boring. 

New recipes from May - 

Spiced red lentils with caramelized onions and spinach - This was pretty good, but in the May red lentil showdown the red lentils and spinach in masala sauce won out. That one is a definite keeper, and I'll be making it again. The masala paste is a little more effort but totally worth it. You do have to watch the spice, though. I'd start low and adjust up to taste.

Rainbow power salad with roasted chickpeas - New to me spiralizer recipe. Loved this one! The green sauce that you make for it is so flavorful that I kept snitching bites of it while I was cooking. It has an avocado base, similar to the avocado pasta sauce recipe that I love from Oh She Glows, but all the herbs take it up several levels. The veggie noodles are left raw in this recipe, so when I packed the leftovers I made sure to keep the sauce separate until I was ready to eat. The recipe says this is 2 - 4 servings but I think it's more like 2 generous servings or 3 side portions. 

Chicken korma + rice + saag - New to me recipe, recommended by a reader. This was very good, but fairly similar to the cashew nut chicken I already make regularly (although I did like all the extra cilantro). I tried this saag recipe and it was a big loser. Just sooo bland. It also wasn't the one I meant to try. Apparently there are two saag recipes on Chowhound and I looked at one and then printed the wrong one. I'm so over hunting for saag recipes at this point, so I'm going to stick with the one I liked from Food52 (note - there are also multiple recipes for saag on Food52, but I've only tried this one). 

Spicy shrimp with pesto zucchini noodles - Another spiralizer recipe from Pinch of Yum. I also loved this one. The pesto is amped up with spinach and kale, and it's amazing. It's also vegan, since it doesn't call for the traditional parm, and I like that it calls for almonds, since we always have almonds in the house. I will absolutely make this again. Also held up well for lunch the next day, I just put the noodles on one side of the dish and the pesto on the other and then tossed it together when it was time to eat. 

homemade naan

Bonus - I ended up making this naan recipe. I usually have a package of the Trader Joe's frozen naan, but I didn't realize we were out and I really wanted it. Waiting two hours for your naan to rise > braving TJ's during rush hour, right? Anyways, this was a very good recipe, and it was easy, but I still find that nothing beats that frozen stuff. We're so obsessed that if we're getting Indian take-out we'll often not order any naan and pull some out of the freezer instead. I'm not sure how they do it. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Desert camping - Anza Borrego

Anza Borrego is just a little bit outside our usual radius for one night camping trips (a two hour drive is our usual limit and this is more like three) but we had a group of friends going and we decided to join in. It's not the right time of year for the desert, but we checked the weather and it was gorgeous and since it was off season we could just roll in without reservations and still have our pick of the campgrounds.

borrego palms campground, anza borrego

borrego palms campground, anza borrego

desert happy hour

desert winds

Oasis

borrego palms campground, anza borrego

desert moonrise, anza borrego

slot canyon, anza borrego

It was such a refreshing trip. The weather was in the 70s during the day and then just chilly enough at night to need another layer. We were a little nervous when the wind picked up pretty strongly in the afternoon, but it died out completely the second the sun went down. The moon was so full that we didn't need headlamps and we sat around the fire until midnight.

On Saturday we hiked the Palm Canyon trail, which goes right out of the Borrego Palms campgound and ends in an amazing palm oasis and on Sunday we walked through the slot canyon on our way out of the park. If you come, don't miss the visitor's center, which is really well done.

Campground notes: 
We originally intended to stay in the Tamarisk Grove campground so we all met up there. It is a really nice, very small campground with the most adorable little cabins you can rent for $60/night (or regular campsites for $25). All the sites have shade structures over the picnic tables. The wind tends to be stronger here, though, so when we talked to the ranger and heard that Borrego Palm campground was nearly empty, we headed over there instead. We ended up staking out spaces 85 and 87, which are nice because they're on the outer ring. We had more than enough room for five tents.
FYI - the bathrooms at both Tamarisk Grove and Borrego Palm are nice. Running water, skylights, showers. It felt pretty luxurious.

As usual, camping in state parks with dogs can be tough. They're allowed in the campgrounds but not on the trails. This is trickier during warm months when we won't leave Circe in the car. For the hikes, someone has to skip out and stay at the campground with the dogs (in large groups this often works out okay). We usually assess the hike and then we'll sometimes take Circe in her backpack. It's not ideal because we can't let her down at all, so I wouldn't do this for long hikes where she might get overheated or bored. I didn't mind doing it for the slot canyon hike because it was more of a short walk and partially shaded. It did get a little tricky in the narrow sections! This is definitely technically against the rules, so we're aware that we might get a citation for it at some point. Our goal is always to be respectful of the wildlife, so if there's a chance that Circe being present, even in a backpack, will disturb that, we opt out. But if the issue is her being down on the ground, then we'll happily carry her. She is such a great camping dog, super mellow and easy-going, and she did particularly well this trip.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Going digital (Good Budget app review)

We're still hanging in there with our budgeting system and it's been working wonders for us. I'm really proud of how much we've managed to sock away since we started three years ago and it made all the difference in the world when our car died unexpectedly last May (which meant purchasing TWO cars in one year, because we knew we were going to have to get a second car when we moved to our new place). Of course, it's really easy to get discouraged when I realize that odds are we will never, ever, be able to buy a house in LA no matter how disciplined we are. Note to self - remember to purchase a lottery ticket.

The money cards that I designed worked for us pretty well for a couple years but I've gotten so lazy with them over the last year. Instead of actually checking off as we go along I've been diving into our bank account and credit card statements twice a month and manually sorting things into categories to figure out where we stand. Not only is this time consuming (why I procrastinate on the cards lately is beyond me, because it would be easier in the long run) but it means it's harder to us to keep ourselves in check during the month. If I'm not seeing where we stand every time I enter an expense, it's much easier to accidentally blow past our limit.



So I went hunting for an app that would work for us and I found Good Budget. It's designed around the concept of cash envelopes, which makes it perfect for the allowance system I use. I can set up envelopes for each of our categories and set them to fill up at the beginning of each month. Each time we make a purchase, it's easy to open the app and add the transaction in the right category.

I have a couple "envelopes" that aren't really monthly. Circe gets $100/month, but we usually only use $15 for food and then let the rest rollover until we have a vet visit or a prescription refill or something. I track it in the app because I reimburse our checking account from her savings account at the end of each month (or when I remember).

It does not link directly to your accounts! I prefer this, although it means we have to enter everything on our own. I only track spending in certain categories anyways, and I feel safer not giving an app access to all my accounts (note - I have never heard any bad stories about Mint or other apps that link directly and I know people who have happily used them for years now. I'm just more comfortable not linking!). To get us caught up when we started I did download Quicken files from our bank and upload them on the Good Budget web interface. It was really easy to run through and quickly categorize our transactions that way, although since then we've just entered everything in real time on our phones.

It has way more options than I've explored fully. I'm using the free version, which is perfectly adequate for our needs. You get up to 20 envelopes and you can register two phones (plus log in to the web interface from wherever). That's all we need for now, although I'm tempted to try doing our entire budget through Good Budget because it would be fun to see all the data. As I've mentioned, I don't track most of our set spending categories. I usually do a general financial check every couple months and check on the balances in all our various accounts. It might be nice to be able to see all that in Good Budget, but I'm not sure if it's necessary.

The only thing that isn't ideal for us is that we're sharing everything. You basically set up a household and then everyone logs in using the same information. We aren't secretive about our finances, but one of our mainstays is that we each have a monthly allowance and how we spend it is entirely up to us. In this system, I set up envelopes for each of us with our allowance and we manage them ourselves, but if we're looking at the most recent transactions list, you will see what the other person is spending. This isn't a huge deal for us and the only time I can see it being an issue is when we're purchasing gifts for each other. We'd have to remember to enter those transactions later to avoid spoiling any surprises. It would be nice to have profiles within a household, so that you can have shared envelopes and individual envelopes.

I'm still using this basic budgeting system and I've mostly resisted the temptation to increase any of our discretionary categories over the last couple years, although last month I finally decided to give us an extra $50/month for groceries. I figure the longer we can keep living at our current level (which is a cut above grad school spending, but still fairly low for our area/age), the better off we are.

All of my extremely wordy budgeting posts here.

Good Budget App

What it looks like when you enter an expense. You just choose the envelope you want the money to come out of, where you spent it and how much. I love that there is a note section at the bottom, so I can enter quick notes to myself if I need to. I don't enter notes for every transaction, but it's nice for the ones that can be vague (i.e. I more or less know what I bought at Trader Joe's, but Amazon and Target could be almost anything). You can also choose to split between envelopes, which I looooove and use a lot (particularly at Costco, where we buy both groceries and household supplies).

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Reading, lately

The Next Time You See Me - Murder mystery in a small town, and one of the central figures is an adolescent outcast. I liked this, and thought the characters were interesting, but I didn't love it.

In Bitter Chill - Set in England, the story revolves around a cold case. Two girls are kidnapped, only one escapes. Thirty years later, the case is reopened and wreaks havoc on the survivor's life. I think I really liked the idea of this one, but the main character is a genealogist, which ties into the plot, and as a result the cast of characters started getting a bit unwieldy. Am I bad at remembering names? Yes. Do I think this mystery could have been a bit more compact? Yes.

All Other Nights - I really loved Horn's novel The World to Come and I was hoping that I'd love this one just as much. It's set during the revolutionary war and follows Jacob, a Jewish soldier in the Union army who becomes a spy. I liked this but not nearly as much as The World to Come.

The Story of a New Name -  The second in the Ferrante series. I waited a while before checking it out. I enjoyed the first one quite a bit but didn't feel like diving back in there right away. The storytelling is deep and beautiful, of course, but I feel like I'm the only one who gets extremely annoyed with Lila. I could never read this series straight through because I always need a break from her character by the end of the book.

The Argonauts - I had seen this recommended but had no idea what to expect and it was lovely and moving. It's a combination of memoir and musing on gender identity and love and parenthood that I tore through in almost one sitting. Bonus (for me) - it's set in LA and I always catching glimpses of the city through other people's eyes.

The Flamethrowers - The prose in this book is beautiful. And who can resist a female motorcycle racer who wants to set a speed record on the desert salt flats? However, the book is fairly long and I got irritated with the narrator's naivete part way through (specifically, all the parts set in Italy - it isn't a tiny section of the book). It ended up pulling back together for me, but there was a bit of a rough patch I had to struggle through.

Money: A Love Story - Oh. my. god. I can't believe I read this and I can't believe I'm admitting it publicly. I heard someone mention it and I'm always up for a personal finance book. This is .... not good. First of all, the intro is written by the author's mother, which I'm willing to accept (barely) because the mother is also a published author. But when the mother started including multiple sentences with multiple exclamation points (not kidding - there are at least three sentences in the intro that each have three exclamation points each. I can't see any situation, barring a hyperbolic email to a good friend, where a triple exclamation is warranted) and also happens to be a doctor who believes that menstrual cramps are caused by financial issues (not kidding - it's all about your second chakra, apparently) I knew I should back out gracefully. But none of my other waitlisted books had come in, so I barged ahead. The author is a big believer in manifesting abundance, which as far as my pessimistic brain has always understood it, means believing that money will come to you if you let it. I know, I know, it's more nuanced than that, and I am deeply cynical and could probably learn a thing or two about optimism. So I will just leave this by saying that I don't want to take financial advice from someone who has made most of her money in a pyramid scheme (sorry - network marketing business) and also managed to get herself into debt while living rent-free in Manhattan. Because I am trying to be fair I will tell you thought the section about passive income was good, other than the MLM stuff. But really, there are so many wonderful finance books out there with much more practical advice. The first one I read was Smart Women Finish Rich and it convinced me to set up an IRA right out of college, for which I'm very grateful.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Friday flowers

Ranunculus and peonies and hypericum, plus filler.

peonies, ranunculus, hypericum

peonies, ranunculus, hypericum

mother's day brunch

D is in a major time crunch right now and needed to block out most of Sunday for work, which meant no trip down home for Mothers' Day. But luckily our moms were willing to drive up here and I put together a simple brunch (which ended up looking a little formal once I set the table). I love, love, love our wedding china and my dad's beautiful crystal together. We're still on the hunt for a good set of vintage silver for big gatherings, because we only have eight settings of our silverware and we never remember that's an issue until we're setting the table for a big party and suddenly start scrambling for forks.

I made these biscuits, these eggs (which I overcooked to an embarrassing degree - lesson learned) and this citrus salad. Plus coffee and bacon, of course.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

Preparing for summer

If it's summer, we are drinking rattlers around here. Which means we needed to re-up our habanero tequila supply in preparation.

habaneros

Costco was having a crazy sale on booze a few months back, so we picked up an enormous bottle of reposado tequila and I finally got around to infusing it a couple weeks ago. The bottle was so big that I had to make it in multiple batches, but it's getting me excited for warmer weather already. This is the easiest cocktail, just spicy tequila and grapefruit juice over ice, no shaking or fussy measuring required. We're now officially ready for long afternoon barbecues. Bring it, summer.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

White chocolate chip cookies

No idea why it took me so long to do this ...

white chocolate chip cookies

I usually make white chocolate chip cookies for Em's birthday, but since it's the only time all year that I make them I'm always scrambling for a recipe. I think I've tried a different one every year, and they've all been good (when are cookies bad, really?) but I keep thinking I'll find the perfect recipe to stick with.

And then I realized I already had the perfect recipe - the famous NYT chocolate chip cookie recipe, but with white chocolate subbed in for semi-sweet. They were so good that I couldn't stop eating them, and I'm not really a white chocolate person. This year I used the mini white chocolate chips from Whole Foods because they were decent quality and readily available, but next year I might try getting a high quality white chocolate bar and then breaking it into chunks. Hopefully I remember that a year from now.

I have to say that the last few times I've made this recipe I've made the cookies a more realistic size so that people are less intimidated by them. The original recipe calls for using a huge scoop of the dough for each cookie and you get massive, bakery sized cookies (a #12 scoop works well). Perfect for a special treat, but a little much for putting out in the break room. This time I went big and of course, they are so much better this way. The texture is just perfect, soft in the middle and crisp at the edges. So I'm back with my old debate - make enormous cookies and hope people will just split them if they want less cookie? Make normal sized cookies and accept the not-quite-as-perfect texture?