Thursday, December 15, 2016

Mini Christmas

I took a three day weekend and went up to the Bay for some niece/nephew time. It was such a great trip and we tried to cram in our favorite holiday activities since we won't see each other for Christmas. We watched Prancer, made our grandmother's pecan ball cookies, and even tried to get my niece to decorate her first gingerbread house. Turns out 21 months is not quite old enough to understand the concept, although she quickly got on board with shoving as much frosting into her mouth as possible. These kids are the sweetest and coming home gets harder every time.

little helper
mini tree
casey, december 2016
gingerbread houses dec 2016
for the adults
gingerbread house

The adults ended up taking over the decorating duties when it became clear the kids weren't going to step up. Our candy supply was pretty limited this year because we were trying to stick with toddler friendly candy (we got snow caps, mini M&Ms, yogurt pretzels, mini marshmallows, mini candy canes, cereal and gummies) but we had a lot of fun anyways. I baked all the gingerbread pieces at home and added the stained glass windows, then wrapped them up carefully and packed them in a box in my suitcase so we could assemble them up north. In case you're wondering, yes, I totally got flagged for secondary screening at the airport because the scanner couldn't figure out what was going on, but it was worth it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Reading, lately

I figured I better get a small round up done before the holidays hit and things get busy. I'll try to get one in before the end of the year as well, since I usually manage to get a decent amount of reading done in December. 

heart of light - reading, lately

All the Missing Girls - This thriller has a bit of a gimmicky structure, with the narration starting two weeks after the disappearance of a girl in a small town and then working backwards. I was a little annoyed at first because I kept getting confused by who knew what and when, but it started to make sense as the book progressed. I ended up enjoying it.

Now You See Me - The first in a series about a female detective in London. The premise is a bit gory, but the twists were good and towards the end I didn't want to put it down. If you like the Maeve Kerrigan series, or the Inspector Lynley series (before it went a bit off the rails), then I think you'll like this. I have to see if I can get on the waitlist for the rest.

Extreme Prey - I've never read John Sanford, so I dove right into the middle of the Lucas Davenport series, on the advice of a reader. I didn't feel lost, so I think each book probably stands alone just fine. This really reminded me of the Jack Reacher series (large, testosterone filled protagonist, strange conspiracies, detailed descriptions of weapons). Of course, I love that series, so this totally worked for me. If you're a Lee Child fan, check it out.

The Girls - My well read friend recommended this book ages ago, and I finally got it from the library. It's fiction, based on the Manson family murders. Loosely, I assume, but I know basically nothing about the Manson family other than the bits and pieces I've somehow picked up just from existing. The book was good, really evocative of the time and place. Story is creepy and draws you right in. I felt like it had some gaps in it because the entire story takes place in a really short period of time and the relationship the protagonist develops with the cult, and then the eventual breakdown, felt a little too rapid to be believable (but maybe that's accurate?).  But I can think of at least three friends that I could confidently recommend this book to, so that's a good sign.

I'm Thinking of Ending Things - For the first third of this book I just wasn't getting the hype because it felt very, very slow. But then it gradually starts getting creepier and creepier and ends up feeling incredibly tense and stressful. Full disclosure - I guessed the twist a little early so I didn't love the book as much as others have.

Loner - I was disturbed by this book, as I assume you're meant to be. A nerdy kid gets into Harvard and becomes fixated on a girl who lives in his dorm. I wasn't sure who I was supposed to empathize with in this book, but it is certainly not the narrator, who gets weirder as the story progresses. I didn't really love this overall, although it's pretty absorbing.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Thanksgiving 2016

I haven't hosted Thanksgiving in a few years and I decided that this year I would be relaxed about it. I still made all my lists, of course, and I took a couple hours off on Wednesday to get some cooking started, but when I hadn't finished everything I was supposed to finish by Wednesday evening, I refused to worry about it. I showered and went out for drinks with our friends as planned and it was lovely. And then on Thursday morning we met up with friends and waited in a crazy line for holiday coffee at Go Get Em Tiger, and even though I knew that I was behind on my oven schedule, I refused to worry.

Which is a long way of leading into telling you that it all worked out, and being relaxed was nice, but I definitely had a moment in the early afternoon when I was running around the house and feeling like maybe I had been too relaxed and next time I'm going to try to find a better balance. Or at least set aside some time to polish the crystal and cut out the place cards early in the week. I think I just need to get back in a hosting groove.

veg stock in progress
glass turkey, podocarpus
Thanksgiving table 2016
the day after

The camera was definitely not my priority during this last minute craziness, but I managed to get a couple quick shots of our table (before we'd gotten around to cutting out the place cards or adding the silverware). I kept meaning to think about what to do for a centerpiece, but then it was Thursday and I hadn't picked up anything at all. I ended up cutting off some sprigs of podocarpus from the tree in our yard and I'm happy with how it turned out. Simple, free, done.

The holiday was wonderful and it cooled down just enough in the evening that we were able to have a fire and sit around talking for a bit before people rolled themselves home. It felt good. And the next day I washed dishes for a couple hours and got two batches of turkey stock made and drank some holiday tea. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Giving thanks

the table

I took a break from Thanksgiving for a couple years, but we're hosting again this year and it feels like a particularly crazy time to step back into it. For me, Thanksgiving has always been about family and friends, and acknowledging the joy in your life. I have so much to be thankful for, and yet there's so much fear and uncertainty right now. I have so much privilege, but I'm well aware that not everyone does. D is the son of an immigrant, and it's terrifying to realize that if this current political situation was taking place back in the 80s that everything could have looked very different for their family (and our future lives).

I'm excited to get into the kitchen and start cooking and baking. I'm looking forward to gathering with our families and celebrating. But last night I spent some time poring over our budget and freeing up enough space for some recurring monthly donations (I settled on the ACLU, the NRDC and the SPLC). The monthly amounts aren't huge, but it's something.

I made a few one time donations as well, to the Sacred Stone legal defense fund, democrat Foster Campbell's runoff campaign in Louisiana (could give the democrats one more senate seat), and the Health Care Rights Initiative (heard about this organization on the Moth last week and it broke my heart in two - they provide legal assistance to people navigating the often incomprehensible health care insurance system, a cause that feels very personal to me since Dave's accident).

I also signed up for weekly emails from Each week they send you four specific action items, along with all the information you need (phone numbers, scripts, etc). I know that making phone calls is important, but to be honest, I hate doing it. This has made it so much easier.

And I did a quick search and found all the contact info for our senators and our representative, made a quick cheat sheet, printed it out, and hung copies both in my office and on our fridge at home.

I don't know exactly what I should be doing right now, and I'm not sure what will make an impact, but I know that doing nothing is the worst thing. We fumble forward, we come together, we give thanks for our blessings and we work to make sure that those blessings are extended to everyone.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Right this minute

I'm getting excited for Thanksgiving. We're hosting this year and I haven't had time to sit down and do my usual planning process, but I'm looking forward to getting all my lists done tomorrow morning.

Also looking forward to decorating the weekend after Thanksgiving. It's the first time we've been in a real house for the holidays and I've got a few bits of decor squirreled away.

I've been reeling since the election and just feeling overwhelmed a lot. I think I'm a pessimist at heart (I try not to be!) and I tend to just feel like giving up when things get heavy politically. We took last weekend and drove up to see my niece and nephew and it made a huge difference and reminded me that I have to keep contributing. I'm plotting my next steps (hoping to find a good fit volunteering, since we aren't really in a position financially to give much money) but for now I'm trying to focus on doing small nice things daily, even if they are in no way political, just to get some good karma out into the world. Donate blood, participate in a toy drive, give to the local food bank, call our local politicians. I just feel really helpless and I'm not sure what I should be doing, to be honest.

On a lighter note, I'm embarrassed to admit that I just can't get into Wolf Hall, even though so many of you have recommended it! What is wrong with me? I was pretty confused in the beginning and it helped once I figured out that "he" basically always refers to Cromwell. My Tudor history is only so-so at this point, which I guess might be making it more difficult. I pushed through a full 50% of the book and then had to take a break. I feel like a failed reader because I never quit books, so I'm telling myself I'll come back to it when my mind is clearer. But really, what am I not getting?

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Sycamore Canyon Campground - beach camping!

Last weekend we had a one night stay in Sycamore Canyon campground, in Point Magu state park. It's a small campground with amazing beach access and I think we'll put this place on regular rotation. I can be a little grinch-y about the beach in summer (crowded, hot, hard to park, high risk of sunburn) but I love, love, love going in the off season. The goal was to hang out on the beach on Saturday afternoon, then get up early on Sunday so D could surf, but Sunday ended up being rainy so we slept in and read and made breakfast between rain showers instead. This sounds wimpy, but it isn't the rain itself that's the problem, but rather the contaminated runoff that results from the rain. I know, lovely. Here are some nice, non-contaminated photos.

sycamore cove beach
wave chaser
sandy dog
Sycamore Canyon campground

Sycamore Canyon details - This is a great little beach campground. My standards are a little lower for beach adjacent campgrounds because you know what you're getting into when you reserve one - you're paying for amazing beach access, and the campground itself is often beside the point (San Onofre is a great example of this). This campground is pretty nice, though. There is running (potable!) water, with hot showers (bring cash for the shower tokens) and flushing toilets. Sites are arranged in a little loop and several of them are nestled into nooks that feel semi-private. You can't reserve your site ahead of time, but check-in is at 2 pm and you can show up and see what's still available. We ended up with site 23, which would be an amazing group site because it has plenty of space, although it doesn't have any tree cover (totally fine for this time of year, would suck in summer). Sites 33 and 42 looked nice and shady, but smaller. You can have three cars per site, and this would be a fun place for group camping. Sites are relatively pricey at $55/night ($45 + $10 for reserving online), but totally worth it. You can buy firewood from the camp host on site ($7/bundle while we were there).

We didn't have time for hiking this weekend, but there is a trail that leads right out of the campground. Since this is a state park, dogs aren't allowed on the trails (sad). In the opposite direction, you can access the beach through a pedestrian tunnel that goes under PCH. The beach allows dogs, which is a huge plus because dog friendly beaches are few and far between around here. Circe was in heaven and kept breaking into a sprint out of sheer joy. Seeing her bounding across the beach almost makes up for the 10 lbs of sand that she managed to bring home with her.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Fall camping - Marion Mountain Campground - Idyllwild

We didn't make it out camping in August or September, due to tight schedules, but we managed two trips in October and it felt good. I'm terrible at sticking with resolutions, but last year we set a goal of always having a camping trip on the calendar, and we managed to make it out quite a bit in 2016 (just counted - I think we got in six trips, which isn't the one-per-month we were aiming for but is still decent).

At the beginning of October we went back to Marion Mountain campground for a one night stay. We've stayed here before and it's quickly becoming one of my favorites. Our goal is to schedule a two night stay at some point so that we can actually summit the peak, but this trip was a particularly lazy one. Just getting out of the house took about all the energy I had left after a long week, so we mostly napped and read and played a million rounds of Boggle while sipping rattlers (pretty much the best camping cocktail, in my humble opinion, although bourbon and hot cocoa is pretty nice once it starts to get chilly).

camp happy hour
marion mountain view

Campground details in previous post. Worth noting - both times we've been here there's been a complete ban on campfires (you can still use your portable stove, but no other flame is permitted). I think this will probably continue until the drought ends. I was realllly bummed about this the first time, because it was cold and rainy and we had assumed that campfires would be allowed in the rings so I'd brought hot dogs and s'mores. The second time I was prepared and we made sure to bring games and plenty of layers and I only missed the fire a little.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Reading, lately

Whew. We got home from vacation and then everything got crazy. There's been a lot of good stuff (parties with friends, a short camping trip, a bit of actual cooking) and some not so great stuff (two colds in three weeks = thumbs down emoji). There has also been some reading ...

reading, lately

Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating - I found this really interesting and chock full of trivial pursuit type facts that go over well at dinner parties (did you know that TGIF's used to be a hip singles bar?).

Breathing Lessons - This novel won a Pulitzer, but I had a hard time loving it. It's easy to read, the writing is good, but the characters are so darn frustrating. I don't really love reading about contentious marriages (listening to people bicker is my number one peeve), even when it turns out they really do love each other.

The Girl Before - This book has a really unusual premise (it's tough to say much without giving everything away), and it's done fairly well. I wouldn't really call it a thriller but it's tense and interesting. The ending is the weak point for me, but it wasn't a total deal breaker, it just felt a little simplistic. But who knows?

Gilead - So, so lovely. Marilynne Robinson is one of my favorites. I had avoided this book for a while because years ago I heard that it was all stream of consciousness and difficult to get through. I found that to be not the case at all, and I loved it. It's the partner book to Home (Gilead was written first, but I read them in the opposite order).

Headhunters - Don't hate me, but I usually shy away from Nordic thrillers because they tend to be so dark (often literally, there is very little sun and lots of descriptions of winter). But I've read a couple of Nesbo's Harry Hole books and enjoyed them, so I picked up this stand alone mystery to take on vacation. It is ... weird, but good. Very gripping, lots of tense action. There is a dog death that I could tell was coming (spoiler, sorry, but it isn't super integral to the plot and I think fair warning is required on animal stuff) and I almost quit before it arrived, but I pushed through and just tried not to think about it.

Left For Dead - This is just a novella, but it's a prequel to the wonderful Maeve Kerrigan detective series. If you love the series, you'll want to read this.

You Will Know Me - I have tried a couple of Megan Abbott books and they just don't do it for me. The writing feels like it's working too hard, and as much as I love movies about cheerleaders or gymnasts (nothing will ever match my love for Drop Dead Gorgeous), apparently I don't love reading about them. That said, this is a well plotted thriller that lots of people loved, so I might be an anomaly.

Pretty Girls - Karin Slaughter's mysteries are always gruesome (p.s. - do we think she was born with that name and if so, did she have no choice but to start writing thrillers? Emily and I were talking about this the other day and we think it must be a pen name) but I generally like her series. This is a one off and it was a bit too much for me and the payoff wasn't good enough.

Re-read - The entire Hitchhiker's series. Every time I read this I marvel at how much I love it all over again. It just doesn't get old to me. I have tried to tell Dustin the train station biscuit story at least a dozen times, because I laugh every time I think about it. (The story is here, Adams claimed it actually happened to him and he then wrote it into the book, and interestingly, when I googled it to find a link for you, there is a whole Snopes page about it. Whether or not this is true, I will always remember reading it at 13 years old and nearly crying with laughter. The version in the book is better because you know Arthur Dent so well you can picture it happening.)

I'm currently on the wait list for a bunch of stuff, including a few thrillers (particularly appealing in Fall, I think) and I'll report back once I get them. Anything I should be adding to my list?

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}
{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}
{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.


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.


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.


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


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


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.