Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Four (ish) days in Mexico City!

D and I love to travel but it's been a while since we've made it out of the country. It's tough juggling vacation schedules and it never seems to fit in our budget easily. But when I saw that Southwest was having an international sale a few weeks ago I decided to forget about being practical and impulsively booked us a last minute trip to Mexico City to celebrate our five year wedding anniversary. I felt really spontaneous and fun until I realized that my passport had expired and I had to run around trying to get an expedited renewal. Womp womp. BUT it was wonderful and worth it and when you consider that Mexico City is closer to us than NYC (and a whole lot cheaper) it's kind of a no-brainer.

This was NOT a relaxing trip where we lounged around by the pool. I made an insane Google map with about three times as many museums, restaurants and bars as we could possibly visit in 4.5 days. I like to have options. We didn't even attempt to get to everything because feeling pressured on vacation is no fun, but we definitely kept busy and we were walking upwards of 10 miles a day, taking in as much of the city as we could. We decided we'll have to go back soon to tackle the rest of our list.

I'll share some details about what we did and where we stayed, etc. after the photos. (Whoops - this got insanely long - I should probably split it up, but I'd rather have everything in one place, so ....)

hotel casa nuevo leon
{hotel casa nuevo leon}
chicarron de queso at faron
{chicharrón de queso at el faraon}
trotksy's house
{trotksy's house}
frida's house
{frida's studio}
bonito frozen marg
{frozen margaritas at bonito}
barragan's house
{luis barragan's house}
cafe zena
{coffee at cafe zena}
national anthropology museum
{anthropology museum}
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{museum entrance}
Buna 42
{buna 42}
Buna 42
{coffee at buna 42}
palacio de bellas artes
{art deco details at palacio de bellas artes}
gran hotel ciudad
{tiffany ceiling at gran hotel ciudad}
mezcleria
{mezcal jugs at el palenquito}
avenida amsterdam
{walking on avenida amsterdam}
tout chocolat - condessa
{tout chocolat in condessa}
eno pastries
{pastries at eno}

Hotel: We wanted to stay in the Condessa/Hippodromo/Roma area. These are gorgeous residential neighborhoods with tons of great restaurants, coffee, etc, so I figured it would make a good homebase. After a lot of searching I found Hotel Casa Nuevo Leon, which is right on the edge of Condessa and Hippodromo. It's minimalist in a good way, and relatively inexpensive. We loved it and would absolutely go back. They include breakfast in the little cafe downstairs (just fruit, bread, coffee and juice, but it's more than enough food) and one of the highlights of the trip was the warm pan dulce every morning. Avenida Amsterdam, which is just a block away, has a gorgeous green walking loop lined with cute cafes. This neighborhood has great dog watching, which I loved.

Schedule: We gave ourselves a day each in a few different areas (Coyoacan, Chapultepec/Polanco and the Centro Historico). Traffic is rough, so you can't count on getting anywhere quickly. We "lost" a day because it was Mexican Independence Day while we were there and we knew museums would be closed. It worked out, though, because it gave us an excuse to explore Condessa/Roma and take a much needed afternoon nap.

Site seeing: Actual places we visited (as opposed to all the places we saw while we were out walking). I should note that we had already visited some museums and landmarks when we were in Mexico City years ago, so we skipped those this time (including Teotihuacan, which takes a full day but is amazing).

Museo Casa de León Trotsky (aka Trotsky's house) - just a few blocks from Frida Kahlo's house and it opens up a little earlier, so you can go there first and then walk over to Casa Azul.

Frida Kahlo's house - super crowded, even though it was a random Wednesday. But seeing her studio and living spaces was amazing, and they had a great temporary exhibit up with her clothes and her undergarments/braces.

Museo Dolores Olmedo - huge collection of Diego Rivera's work, along with rotating exhibitions. This is pretty far south but I was willing to trek out so that we could see the xoloitzcuintli (ancient Mexican dog breed) that live there. Sadly, you don't get to pet them, but it's fun to see them.

Luis Barragan's house/studio - Barragan, a visionary architect, used his house as an exploratory space and it's amazing. It's best to make a reservation well ahead of time.

National Anthropology Museum - this place is enormous and you can barely scratch the surface of it in an afternoon. We just gallery hopped to the subjects we were most interested in.

Palacio de Bellas Artes - gorgeous art deco detailing, amazing murals, and (while we were there) a great exhibition on Mexican architect Javier Senosiain.

Eating/drinking: I think it was the altitude but both of us noticed our appetites were smaller than usual. This meant we didn't make it to a lot of the places on our list, but we still had some great snacks/meals/drinks. A few of our faves -

Al pastor tacos at El Huequito - so great. We also tried crowd favorites Tizoncito and El Faraon (both delicious, just not quite as good). All of these places have multiple locations across the city.

Frozen margaritas at Bonito Popfood (San Angel location, but there was also one right down the street from our hotel) - fancier than we were expecting, but this was a fun lunch.

Delicious quesadillas at Maria Isabel in Polanco - these aren't what we're used to calling quesadillas at home - they're more like pockets of fried masa with cheese and fillings. The bean and cheese one was the standout for us.

Hipster breakfast at Lalo! - avocado toast and flat whites are everywhere now. We stuck with the chilaquiles and the huevos rancheros, both were amazing. The servings are enormous and we agreed that it would be best if you had five people and could order 3 - 4 dishes (we really wanted to try the french toast, which came highly recommended, but we couldn't even finish the two dishes we ordered).

Perfect dinner at Fonda Fina - the homier cousin of Quintonil (we wanted to go there but they were booked up a month in advance). This was a wonderful, special meal in a relaxed setting.

Cocktails and aguachile at Huset - their patio is dreamy, but you need to make a reservation to get a table there for dinner.

Pastries - As far as pan dulce goes, I'm all about the conchas, so we tried a couple of the city's most popular versions. Panadería Rosetta (we went to both locations) had a great one, but their guava danish was the true standout. Eno's concha was delicious (and we grabbed sandwiches to take on the plane). I still think my favorite was the cafe at our hotel, where they baked them fresh every morning.

Ice cream at Nómada - best avocado ice cream I've ever had.

Mezcal tastings at La Botica (they have a couple locations and they do cocktails as well) and at El Palenquito, which wasn't on our list but we're so glad we stopped in our last night. They have a small but well curated list of artisanal mezcals and we also picked up a bottle take home.

Mexican craft beer at Taller de Cerveza la Graciela and El Deposito.

Delicious coffee at Buna 42, where we also picked up some beans to take home. Another great coffee stop was Cafe Zena, which we mostly picked because the space was so cute, but their coffee was good too.We window shopped at Distrito Fijo Club de Ciclismo, a combo coffee/bike shop, but we were maxed out on caffeine.

Shopping:

Chocolate - we wanted to bring home some candy so we visited Que Bo! (delicious showstoppers) and then later found Tout Chocolat, which was just around the corner from our hotel. They make the chocolates onsite at the Condessa location (not sure if they do the same at their other location) and we particularly loved the mezcal with sea salt and the maracuya (passionfruit). We brought a bunch home.

Custom made shoes at Goodbye Folk - D picked up a great pair of shoes here. They have beautiful designs and if they don't have your size in stock they can make a pair in about 10 days (and will ship to the US for $20 if necessary). I'm not a shoe person at all and I was sorely tempted by a pair of mint green quilted loafers.

Tourist shopping at Centro Artesanal La Ciudadela - this is a huge, overwhelming market and it's great. I think you're supposed to haggle but I hate doing it, so I didn't. We don't normally do much shopping on vacation but we couldn't resist picking up some kids clothes and then we sort of went off the rails and came home with a giant blanket, a scarf for me that might as well be a blanket, and a lighting fixture (!), along with various other trinkets.

Quirky prints from Macolen - we stumbled on this little shop and ended up buying two framed prints. The owner works with artists all over the world, makes prints of their work using a Riso printer (the full size version of the Gocco, basically) and then sells them out of this little shop/studio. There are some amazing pieces in here.

Logistics - not sure if anyone else is interested in my cell phone plan details, but I had to Google it before I left, so maybe one of you is wondering?

Uber: Lots of friends recommended Uber, which didn't exist the last time we visited Mexico City. There are safety concerns with hailing street taxis, so this was a great option and it also helps if there's a language barrier (I'm lucky because Dustin is fluent, but if I was on my own this would have been a huge plus!). We tipped in cash. I know Uber says tipping isn't expected, but that always makes me feel weird. I'm embarrassed to admit it but we didn't take the subway once. We planned to, but every time we checked Google maps it was faster to either walk or take an Uber. I think this is because our hotel wasn't particularly close to a subway station.

Walking around: We walked and walked and walked. We actually walked from Chapultepec to Polanco one day (I don't recommend this - I didn't realize our route had us walking on a tiny strip of sidewalk next to the freeway). But other than that ill advised trip, the walking was great. We were really oriented in the city and we got good at finding our way around and stumbled on little places we wouldn't have seen otherwise. I always follow the same walking safety rules in cities I don't know - choose your route on Google maps before you leave your hotel, trying to find streets that seem nice (stores, coffee shops, etc) so you don't accidentally end up in a weird deserted area. Once I have my route set, I turn on navigation, put one earbud in discreetly and then tuck my phone in my purse or pocket. That way I'm getting step by step instructions but I look like I know where I'm going.

Cell phones: Of course, in order to use Uber or maps we needed our cell phones to work. We have Verizon, so I added an international travel pass to our phone plans before we left. The travel pass is activated as soon as you use your phone in a different country, and they charge you $2 per 24 hour period (in Mexico, it's higher on other continents) to use your regular data/minutes/etc.

Cash: I ordered pesos from our bank before we left and I'm really grateful for it. They let me specify small bills, which meant I had a big wad of 20s, 50s and 100s. If you get money from the ATMs in Mexico you mostly get larger bills which can be hard to break. We did use credit cards for some meals and our hotel, but we needed cash for almost everything else, especially tips.

And one last note on the altitude - Mexico City is pretty high up (just under 7500 feet) if you're used to sea level. Last time we were there I was really affected by it and felt crummy. I was determined not to let that happen this time so I read up on what you should do to prevent altitude sickness and found this article about a study that showed taking Ibuprofen could help stave it off. The day before we left I made sure to drink a ton of water, and then I followed the general recommendations of the study, taking three 600 mg doses of Ibuprofen the day of travel (one when I woke up at 5am, one on the plane around middday, one in the evening when we had arrived). We were also really careful about hydrating while we were there, basically picking up bottles of water anytime we passed a mini-mart (so, all the time). Not sure if it was the pills or the water, but other than a little headache the second day I felt great and we were able to walk a ton and get a lot done.

Huge thanks to those of you who reached out with tips and recommendations - so sweet of you all!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Meal planning apps - Pepperplate and Big Oven side by side reviews

As I mentioned last month, I wanted a meal planning app that would help me make grocery lists. I googled a bit and found Big Oven, and tested it out. I was pretty happy with it and you can read more about my experience with it here.

I was planning to go on with Big Oven but a couple commenters mentioned Pepperplate and I decided it seemed only fair to try that as well so I started playing around with it right away and used it to help plan meals and grocery shopping while I was up north with my sister (I was cooking meals for us and trying to get their freezer stocked up a bit, so there was a lot of grocery shopping!).

Pepperplate is similar to Big Oven in the sense that it's a meal planning app that syncs across your desktop and mobile devices. You enter recipes (or clip them from websites) and then Pepperplate allows you to choose which recipes you want on which days, and creates a shopping list for you.

Let me admit upfront that I've only scratched the surface of these apps the last couple months, so if you have been using them for a while and have feedback, feel free to correct me! Here's my impression of the two apps (sorry this is so long winded but you know how seriously I feel about meal planning!).

Big Oven vs. Pepperplate

Big Oven vs. Pepperplate

Entering recipes: Both apps have a large upfront time cost. You have to get all your frequently used recipes uploaded and it takes a while. I did all this upfront work on my desktop computer. Both sites claim that you can clip recipes from websites with compatible formats, but I found that most blogs aren't compatible, so you end up entering recipes by hand a lot. Big Oven has the edge here - I found that they can pull from more websites and if they can't pull, they have a nice feature that pulls up the text from the page you're looking at and places it side by side with a manual entry screen so you can quickly copy and paste everything for entry. Pepperplate just gives you an error if it can't pull the recipe, so you have to go back and forth between the page with the recipe and their manual entry page, copying and pasting. For both apps, once you get your most frequently used recipes entered, life gets a lot easier. Anytime someone mentions a recipe I should try, I can quickly enter it and then it'll be there next time I'm meal planning. Previously I would usually forget about recipes people had recommended by the time I was planning the next month's meals and it was easy to end up in a rut. Edge: Big Oven

Meal planning: Both apps have a calendar function that allows you to choose recipes from your collection and add them to a particular date. You could plan breakfast, lunch and dinner if you wanted (I generally only plan dinner). Which is better for meal planning? Pepperplate's interface looks nicer, but you can only see one week at a time, as far as I can tell. This is frustrating to me since I want to plan a month at a time and I'd like to see all four weeks on my screen at once. Big Oven allows you to see the full month, which I love. Big Oven also has a nice feature where when you look at the meal planning calendar all your recipes show up in the side bar and you can quickly drag them over to the calendar. Pepperplate, on the other hand, has you click on a calendar date and then start to type the name of the recipe you want. As you're typing it quickly pulls up any recipes that match the name (so you don't usually have to type more than a few letters). This looks much sleeker but because my biggest issue during meal planning is thinking of what recipes I want to use, it would be nice to have them all laid out on the sidebar. I use a little workaround and have my recipe list open in a new tab and I scroll through it to choose recipes and then go back to the calendar tab to enter them. Edge: Big Oven

Grocery lists: Both apps will generate a grocery list for you based on your meal planning. Big Oven has a nice feature that allows you to scale recipes up or down and then has you review each recipe to deselect ingredients if you already have them. However, Pepperplate is the big winner here because of one crucial feature - you can create custom "aisles" for grocery items. This makes Pepperplate a million times better for me because I shop at different grocery stores for different things. I only buy meat at Whole Foods, I get most of my cheese and frozen stuff from Trader Joe's, I get fresh produce from the local ethnic market. With Big Oven, I would have the app generate the list for me and then I would write it all out again on paper so that it was categorized by grocery store. This still saved me time and headaches, but with Pepperplate I can do that all virtually. I created my custom "aisles" and then specified which categories should go in those aisles. This gives me a pretty well categorized shopping list right out of the gate and then I can quickly move items around or add in items the program couldn't categorize. It's really lovely, especially because it means I can just use the list on my phone instead of carrying around the paper one. Edge: Pepperplate

Cost: Pepperplate is free (they have ads on the desktop interface but I've found them unobtrusive - I had to check to confirm that they did because I couldn't remember noticing them and I couldn't figure out how they are making money - still not really sure what their business model is). Big Oven is free with ads and certain limitations on how many recipes you can upload. Upgrading to a Pro membership is inexpensive ($2/mo or $20/year) and gives you no ads + unlimited uploads. Edge: Pepperplate

Again, I do all the set up and actual meal planning on my desktop computer and use my phone for pulling up the grocery lists or the recipes.

Small feature that Big Oven has that I really appreciate - when you're looking at a recipe in the app, your phone doesn't go to sleep. It drives me a little nuts when I'm cooking and constantly having to unlock my phone because it times out while I'm chopping something. I don't want to tinker with my lock screen settings all the time so I just live with it, but it's so nice not to have to deal with it.

So after all this, it seems like I should be choosing Big Oven, right? Actually I'm leaning towards Pepperplate. The main reason I wanted a meal planning app was to generate my huge grocery lists and the advantage of being able to customize my list outweighs the fact that I can't see a whole month laid out at one time (and who knows - maybe they'll update that at some point in the future?).

If you have any questions, or feedback of your own, leave it in the comments!

FYI - I'm not doing my standard monthly meal planning post this month because it's going to be a little nutty for us and I'm taking it week by week and being flexible (and acknowledging that September can be our hottest month and I might not want to cook much). But I'm going to be excited to get back into it as the weather cools down (fingers crossed) in October.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Reading, lately

I dropped off the face of the earth for a while and I'm still catching up. My new nephew decided to arrive a few days early, so I booked it up north for two weeks of baby bliss (and exhaustion - 17 months + a newborn is a special form of crazy, a fact we had all suspected but had brutally confirmed). My sister and her husband handle parenting so gracefully and I feel honored that they've let me be there for the beginning of their kids' lives. Every time I leave it gets harder, though. I started crying before we pulled away from the curb this time around.

This is approximately what our lives looked like - wild toddler running around and bestowing kisses at random, placid baby just soaking it all in, burp cloths everrrrrywhere.

Untitled

Oh wait, is this supposed to be a long overdue post about books? Let me get to that. As I was writing this I realized that I thought I'd already posted about the first half of these, but apparently I didn't get around to it before I left. Whoops. Gear up for a long post.

The Wilder Life - I thought I loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books but compared to the author of this book I barely qualify as a fan. She sets out to recreate some prairie life experiences and makes pilgrimages to various sites. I have to say, I expected to love this book more than I did. It's a little meander-y and introspective and I think I was expecting Ingalls bootcamp. However, it's a fun read if you're a big fan of the Little House series.

Pretty Is - This is supposed to be a thriller but it's just strange. The premise is that two young girls are kidnapped and held together for a summer, eventually released, and then their lives intersect many years later. I kept thinking it was going to get interesting, but it's impossible to get over the fact that you never get any explanation for the kidnapper's (totally bizarre) actions. It felt unfinished, somehow. As I write this I'm wondering if that was a conscious choice, because it's true the girls would have had no way of knowing his motivations, but it felt more haphazard than intentional. It left me very unsatisfied, either way.

One Step Too Far - A mom steps out of her life and reinvents herself completely and we're supposed to try to figure out why. Look, I love suspense stories with twists, but I hate the gimmick of teasing the audience with the promise of a big reveal. This book does it in almost every chapter (just the publisher's description does it three times!). If suspense is done well enough, you can keep your audience interested without dangling the reveal in front of them constantly. I think the only redeeming quality this book had was that the reveal was actually pretty shocking, but even that wasn't enough to make up for the lead up.

Before the Fall - This novel about the aftermath (and lead up to) a small plane crash is written by the creator of the TV show Fargo, which I love. I heard the author interviewed on NPR and filed this away in my "to read" category. I really enjoyed the book, which has a little bit of mystery and a lot of human interest. It's a quick read.

Bastard Out of Carolina - I read Dorothy Allison's Cavedweller years ago and still remember it as one of my favorite books, but somehow I hadn't gotten to this one. This book touches on such deeply depressing subject matter (child abuse, poverty) that it should be almost too painful to read, but I just loved the main character so much that I didn't want to put it down no matter how heart wrenching it got. Bonus - I checked out the 20th anniversary edition and there is an afterword by Allison that is really interesting and wonderful. She discusses her feelings about the book being banned by some school boards and also has some really thoughtful things to say about memoirs vs. fiction (I am a huge memoir fan, but reading her take on the genre does make me think about it a little more critically).

This Life Is in Your Hands - Ironically, perhaps, the next book I picked up was a memoir. The author was raised by parents who were deeply involved in the back to the land movement in the 70s and she traces their family experience. I really enjoyed reading about the back breaking labor that goes into making a successful homestead but this book felt just a little off to me. I was hoping there was an afterword that explained what sources she was using as she wrote (I assume she spoke to her parents extensively, and she mentions reading her mother's journals, but I was wondering if she also tracked down some of the other people who lived with them). The memoir picks up shortly before the author was born and so for a good portion of it she's describing events that happened before she existed or when she was too young to remember them, but she describes emotions, motivations and backstories of many of the adult characters. And one tiny quibble - it drove me a little batty that Coleman refers to her parents as Mama and Papa throughout the book, which meant I kept forgetting their actual names and getting confused when they would occasionally get used.

The Monsters of Templeton - I loved this funny little almost fairytale about home and family. It centers around a young woman, reeling from an ill advised love affair, as she comes home to the small town she grew up in and begins a search for her father. There is a giant sea monster involved and a sort of Greek chorus comprised of an elderly male running club, so how could you not enjoy it?

Make Me - Ah, Lee Child. I will read every new Jack Reacher book that comes out, even though I know they are hit or miss, with the misses being insane enough to make you roll your eyes. Luckily, this one was good! If I'm ever caught up in a completely bizarre and highly dangerous conspiracy, Reacher is who I want to have my back.

The First Time She Drowned - An 18 year old girl checks herself out of the mental institution where she's been forcibly committed for three years and tries to build a life for herself, despite continuing interference from her narcissistic mother. This book was, unsurprisingly, very depressing. I also didn't realize it was YA when I checked it out, not that that would have stopped me. For a debut YA novel, this is pretty good.

A Spool of Blue Thread - I felt like I needed something a little more literary, so I moved on to this novel, which was short listed for the Man Booker Prize. This is one of those books that's easy to fall right into. It's about a family, and the house they live in, and the stories they've created to explain their lives. It's lovely.

Wondering Who You Are - I almost left this book off the list because I'm not sure how to talk about it, or if I'm even the right person to talk about it. It's a memoir written by a woman whose husband suffered a brain injury (always a topic I'm interested in hearing about, for obvious reasons) and while there were parts that I related to and understood so well that my heart hurt, I had a really hard time with the writing, which never quite hit a natural tone and felt laboriously poetic. There's also an upbeat finish to the ending that I had a hard time believing, since the author explains that at times over the years she had misrepresented her situation to friends, claiming to find meaning and positivity when that wasn't actually how she felt at all. That left me wondering if she was being honest at this time, or if she just wanted to pull everything together neatly for the book. It's also possible that I'm just bitter that her journey through brain injury involved a whole lot of house sitting at foreign villas, which is entirely my issue and not hers.

After a While You Just Get Used to It - And another memoir, this one about a woman growing up in a family of dysfunctional packrats. This is mile a minute funny, and at first I thought it might be trying too hard (the 90s cultural references aren't sprinkled in so much as dumped by the truckload) but once I accepted it and settled in I really, really enjoyed it. Note - probably not nearly as funny if you didn't grow up in that era. It felt a little David Sedaris-y to me, in a good way. She has a similar way of presenting her family fairly (although obviously emphasizing the crazy for comedic effect) but lovingly, and it's hard to resist.

Book club question of the day - do you feel like an asshole for criticizing someone's memoir? Y/N

Bonus - if anyone has read the afterword from Bastard Out of Carolina and wants to have an lit class style deep discussion about memoir vs. fiction, I want in. I tried to get D into it, but he reads non-fiction almost exclusively so it was really just me talking to myself.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Monthly meal planning - August (and Big Oven!)

I'm playing August almost completely by ear, hence the very few planned meals. My sister is expecting her second baby in early August and I'm just waiting for the call. It would be very sweet if my new nephew decided to hang in there until I'm scheduled to arrive (his sister was really accommodating this way) but I'm prepared to head up earlier if need be. So this is really just 1.5 weeks of meal planning, but I am using a fun new tool that I wanted to share.

Untitled

Meals for August:
Miso salmon + Asian chopped salad - both new to me. The salad recipe is for mason jar portions, but I'll probably just make one big salad and maybe set aside one (undressed) serving for lunch.

Meat and veggie balls (in marinara sauce) + green salad - I love these meatballs and haven't made them in forever. They're a great summer dish.

Farro salad with roasted veg - Another tried and true. I made this last month and it was a hit with D's brother, so I'm repeating it.

Coconut, tomato and red lentil dhal - Almost every month. Not sure I'll get up the energy to make saag to go with it.

Modified version of Heather's quinoa salad - We ate this a lot two summers ago but I haven't made it lately. It holds up well in the fridge so I figured it was a good dish to make right before I leave (assuming the timing works out!).

I also got us a couple packs of veggie burgers for quick meals. Trader Joe's has the best veggie burger options and I'm tempted by all of them but we usually end up with the veggie masala burgers, because potatoes are the best.

In meal planning news - I'm experimenting with using Big Oven for meal planning. The actual monthly meal plan is easy enough for me to do on paper. Usually I shuffle through my recipe binder (or the stacks of recipes I haven't put away) and then just sketch out the grid. The sucky part comes next - doing the shopping list. I have to look at each recipe and write down the ingredients, then go back again to compile them into a single shopping list. It usually takes about 5 sheets of paper and I forget at least one thing. It's not a huge deal, since it's basically 30 minutes out of my entire month, but last month it finally annoyed me enough that I went looking for a better option and found Big Oven.

The premise is pretty simple. You can search for recipes directly on Big Oven, or "clip" them from various websites (how simple this is depends on whether the site is using formatting that is compatible - my blog is 100% not compatible because of my formatting, sadly, but it's still fairly simple to enter the recipe), or enter it by hand. Then you can use the meal planning feature to drag recipes from your collection to the calendar and (this is the part I'm excited about) export a grocery list.

This is what my meal planner looks like for August on the website (yes, I still write it out by hand because I like having something to stick up on the fridge).

Big Oven interface

They offer a two month trial of the Pro membership, which gives you an ad-free experience, unlimited recipe uploads (although I can't figure out how many recipes you can add with the free membership) and custom folder sorting. I've been using that so far and I think I might go ahead and pay to keep using it, since the cost is pretty reasonable ($1.99/mo or $19.99/year).

There was a fairly big time investment to start, since I had to add my most frequently used recipes. I ended up creating a folder that is just called "All my recipes" in addition to my category folders, since sometimes I just want to see everything at once. I'm still getting used to the interface but sometimes I find things a bit wonky. One small example - you can organize your recipes by dragging them into folders (love), but unfortunately the Pinterest button shows up almost exactly where you need to grab the picture and sometimes makes it difficult.

The grocery list feature works really well in general. You can specify what time frame you want to buy groceries for and then the program pops up each recipe to give you a chance to uncheck ingredients you already have. Once you've done that for each recipe in the time period, it will compile everything (sort of - it won't add up how many carrots you need, but at least it sorts everything so that each type of item is grouped) and you can have it emailed to you or just access it on your phone. I end up re-writing my grocery list on paper at the end, because I like to split it up by store. But having everything from each recipe automatically pulled together is amazing.

Because I like to do one massive shopping trip at the beginning of the month for any non-perishables or hearty stuff, and then just purchase vegetables weekly, I do need to figure out a way to modify it a little. Because you have the option to make edits when you are checking each recipe's ingredients (while Big Oven compiles your grocery list) I've just been adding a note to the "notes" section next to the ingredients that I want to buy during a specific week. That note will show up on your grocery list.

Overall, I'm feeling really good about this and I think it will make it easier for me to try out new recipes. In my paper system the most often used recipes tend to rotate back into the top of the stack, and if I lose a recipe sheet then I forget about it for ages. With the online system, I can quickly add in any recipe that catches my eye, even if I'm not meal planning right at the moment. You can flag recipes as "want to try" and scroll through those first.

Anyone already using Big Oven care to chime in? I'm still so new to it that this is all first impressions.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Meal planning - July wrap up

Whew.

Meal planning - July

It was a busy month. As I mentioned, I bumped up my planning to four meals a week, to accommodate our slightly larger family last month. As it turns out, four meals a week is pretty much perfect for three adults on a good week. We had two weeks where we were all at home for dinner almost every night and it was nice. But then everyone got busy at work and the last two weeks were pretty unpredictable and we all seemed to eat at different times. I cut out a few meals to accommodate this and it was fine.

I didn't try anything new last month, so this is going to be very short.

But, I do have the PDF of the monthly meal planning template for you, in case you want it! It's very simple, but I much prefer using the grid to hand sketching one every month, so hopefully it'll be useful for some of you. You can download it right here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Weekend camping - Bandido Group Campground

Bandido Group campground is just 26 miles above La Cañada Flintridge, making it a pretty easy 1.5 hour drive from LA. We managed to get a rare two night trip in by leaving on Friday evening after work, hoping that we could juuuust make it while it was still light out, but naturally we didn't get there until 9 pm. Luckily we're pretty good at setting up our tent in the dark, although the first spot we chose was right on top of a giant anthill and I'm really, really grateful we noticed them just before we got started.

wake up

saturday breakfast

essentials

bandido campground

angeles national forest

sunset on the ridge

camp pancakes

new cooler

new cooler

On Saturday we visited the Chilao visitor center, a few miles down the road. It's a really nice station and the rangers were sweet and enthusiastic and recommended some good hikes just a couple miles from our campground. We ended up going on the Burkhart trail hike, and did about 5 miles round trip. There is supposed to be a nice waterfall (Cooper Canyon Falls) but the ranger warned us that it's been too dry lately so the creek is just a trickle. It was still a nice dog friendly hike (Circe didn't agree and made us carry her the whole way anyways). We went in the early afternoon and we were definitely feeling the heat, but it just made happy hour back at the campground that much more enjoyable.

I think I've mentioned that I've been drooling over the Camp Chef stoves, and we're lucky because our friends have one and we borrowed it from them this weekend so we could test it out. The verdict? So much nicer than our old Coleman one. The flames are stronger, they adjust really nicely, and it's easier to wipe down. We aren't planning on splurging on a new stove just yet, but when we're ready we'll get this one.

Other new camping gear - we tested out our new Kelty collapsible cooler that we purchased during the REI sale and I'm happier with it than I thought I'd be. It's a soft sided cooler that collapses down for storage. It doesn't get super tiny (my main beef when I first received it), but it is much easier to store than a hard sided cooler and it holds plenty with zero leaks. We loaded it up on Friday around 6 pm, and everything was still very cold on Sunday mid-morning (although most of the ice had melted by that point). I think that's pretty good considering how hot it was outside. We did keep it covered with a space blanket (shiny side out to reflect heat away) which helps. I wasn't sure if we'd end up returning this, but we're happy with it and we'll keep it.

Campground notes: 

Bandido is in the Angeles National Forest. This group campground is nice but since there is no camp host I think cleanliness is hit or miss. We had to clean up our campsite a bit when we arrived because the previous occupants had left some trash. The bathrooms were decent (for pit toilets - soooo, not at all nice, but you know what you're getting into and at least there was plenty of toilet paper provided) for the first night but a huge group came the second night and they were the type that inexplicably strews toilet paper all over public restrooms (I will never, ever understand why people do this, but I'm very curious to see what their bathrooms look like at home). This certainly isn't the campground's fault and it's pretty par for the course with large unattended campsites.

We stayed at site 1, which can hold up to 12 occupants (but in my opinion that would be a squeeze) and costs $24/night. We had four people and it was lovely and spacious, with two fire pits, two picnic tables and enough parking for three or four cars (we only had two, so we didn't test the limits). The obvious spaces for tents are incredibly close to the fire rings, but we were able to find a couple little tent-sized nooks in the hill right above our campsite that were much more pleasant the second night.

Bandido is dog friendly, as are all the hikes in the area. Circe was in heaven galloping around the large campsite. We didn't spot any coyotes here, but we kept her close anyways because it's rattlesnake season and she hasn't had avoidance training. We didn't see any snakes, though.

Amenities: This is a pretty simple campground (which is actually nice because it meant it wasn't overrun with RVs). No running water, no electricity, zero cell service, no camp host, the aforementioned pit toilets. Fires are allowed within the fire rings, just make sure you buy firewood in La Cañada because once you start going up the hill there is nothing at all. You are allowed to pick up wood and kindling from the ground (I always check with the rangers on this in advance, because this varies and for some environments it's really important that you don't disturb anything).

Worth noting: This is bear country but there are no bear boxes provided at these sites. I checked with the ranger and she said that the bears in this area haven't yet (!) started breaking into cars, so they recommend standard bear precautions (no food left outside, nothing scented or food related in your tent, don't wash dishes too close to your campsite) but just locking your food inside your car at night. We did that and made sure to take the extra precaution of covering the coolers, bags, etc. with a blanket so they weren't visible (bears are clever and often recognize coolers, so you don't want them to see anything that makes them think FOOD). I was a little worried that we'd wake up the next morning and find our windows smashed in, but everything was fine. Note - locking food in your car is really bad news in some bear areas, notably Yosemite, where bears have learned how easy it is to break into a car. But the rangers at any given campground should know their bears, so going with their recommendations is a good bet.


Thursday, July 14, 2016

Reading, lately

Summer reading!

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay - Moving on with the Ferrante series. I like these but I need a break after each one. So much melodrama! I enjoyed this one quite a bit and felt like maybe Elena was finally showing a bit of self awareness.

Into the Darkest Corner - Several online and IRL friends were reading this, so I jumped on the bandwagon. If you're looking for a seriously creepy thriller, this should do the trick. It's solidly written, you feel for the main character, and the tension is high.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair - I almost loved this book. It's a mystery/novel and the writing and the plot are engaging and darkly comedic. The basic premise is that a young writer gets caught up in a cold case investigation involving his favorite professor/longtime mentor/pseudo father figure. I have to say, though, I could not get over the central plot point, which is a love affair between a 30-something man and a 15-year-old girl (sorry if that's a spoiler, but it is included in the summary text, so fair game?). I never stopped being icked out by it, and it made it impossible for me to really lose myself in the book.

The Wonder Garden - A collection of short stories set in the fictional small town of Old Cranbury. The stories don't really intertwine but the characters keep brushing past each other. I really enjoyed this book and it felt like a voyeuristic chance to peek behind all your neighbors curtains.

If I Loved You I Would Tell You This - And here are some short stories that are not at all connected. They are highly detailed, and mostly sad, and so well written. The titular story made me tear up multiple times.

The Hand That First Held Mine - I think I've already recommended this novel to at least three friends. I loved it. The plot revolves around two women living in London during different time periods and it touches on love and motherhood and loss and relationships and there's a nice dash of post-war Soho descriptions that I loved.

The Kind Worth Killing - Billed as being a contender for the title of next Gone Girl (but what thriller isn't?) and it actually is closer than some of the others I've read. It's got a bit of everything - love affairs, multiple murder plots, psychopaths. Add this to your list of page turners, if you're into that.

The Boys of My Youth - Looooved this. It's a beautifully written collection of autobiographical short stories that are tender and funny and sometimes very intense. Her voice is perfect, I never wanted to stop reading, and I cried multiple times. Winner.

You Are One of Them - This novel explores that question lingering of every child of the 80's - what if your best friend was actually a Soviet spy? Joking, obviously, but I did enjoy the plot premise for this novel and the writing was good. I think it fell apart a little bit towards the end, but overall I really enjoyed reading it.

The City of Mirrors - The final book in Justin Cronin's trilogy and it got off to a slow start but was ultimately satisfying. I recommend this series all the time and will continue to do so, but I have to admit that it gets wonky sometimes. I realize it might sound odd to claim that there's a lack of believablity in a series about a pathogen that turns people into vampires, but that's my main quibble here. Most fantasy novels have strict internal rules, but I feel like Cronin sometimes tweaks the rules he's created to suit the plot. Just me? I think I need a book club for this one because I still don't fully understand the logistics of what happened near the end of the second book and I don't want to spoil anything here. Regardless, this trilogy is fun, has lots of well detailed descriptions, and is totally worth reading.