Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

This cartoon is an oldie, but it still summarizes my feelings about Memorial Day - I'm afraid too many people think it's just an extra day off.

On Friday, I talked to 6 different coworkers about what their plans were for the weekend.  Various answers ranged from boating and camping to family get-togethers and just relaxing.  Not one mentioned attending a ceremony or stopping by a cemetery.

Perhaps they didn't because it's a private matter for them, but it makes me wonder if the day's meaning doesn't matter to them at all.  Or at least wasn't on their radar.

The military has always been a part of my life.  It has always been a part of Mike and I's relationship.  I'm sure I'm missing a few, but here are my family and friends who have put on the uniform:

Mike - on orders stateside, Air National Guard
Sister-in-law Kara - Army veteran 
Both of my grandfathers
Both of Mike's grandfathers
Honorary brother Adam - overseas, Army
A handful of great uncles, uncles, and cousins on each side
The husband of the folks who married us and several of their children
Two former college mates (former Marine, one Navy overseas) 

Civilians, even those with deep connections to the military, have a hard time honoring vets.  What does one say or do to acknowledge a lifestyle that we deliberately didn't choose but nonetheless respect the hell out of?

Most of the veterans I know find recognition awkward and even unwarranted.  They can give you a list of reasons why a "thank you" and "a God bless" is uncomfortable:
  • I'm just doing my job.
  • I volunteered for this.
  • It was my choice.
  • I'm just doing what felt right.

It is so easy for a well-meaning civilian to see a military member in uniform and come up and shake their hand.  I've watched it happen to Mike a dozen times. Which is probably why getting him to go out to dinner in dress blues is like suggesting a root canal. 

I understand their viewpoint.  They'd rather be off the radar doing their work than receive what they consider undue gratitude.

Despite knowing this, I still feel compelled to do something today.  Without a car or nearby cemetery, my options are pretty limited.

But what, after all, does 30 minutes of one's time at a memorial service or $5 for flowers really mean?  What does it do, what can it change?

I have been questioning this heavily the last few days.  There are two answers to that question.

The pessimists, the jaded, and the skeptics will answer that it doesn't matter. Compared to the grand scheme, flowers on a tombstone does not stop war, does not fund the VA, cannot bring back a loved one, cannot alleviate battle wounds.  Nationally, it almost looks pitiful to dedicate 2 days out of the year to our service members.

The watch at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier would disagree.  

For me, it's about how small acts add up together.  The sheer act of focusing one's mind and energies on honoring veterans, even though incredibly small, keeps an important national dialogue open.

There was a time when veterans came home not to parades but being spit on.  There was a time when you had a better chance of becoming homeless than dying on the war front.  There was a time when veterans didn't want to or couldn't acknowledge which conflict they had been in. 

I would much rather my military loved ones feel briefly uncomfortable from a thankful civilian than be called a baby killer or cursed in public. 

The gulf between civilians and the military continues to grow farther apart.  It's hard to access what they do, wrap your head around the commitment, or identify with their hardships.  

To quote Mike, "the military experience is alien anyone." 

To me, that is precisely why the rest of us needs to continue honoring our military.  30 minutes of time in a cemetery might be better served by 30 minutes volunteering, true, but it's an accessible way for civilians to fumble for common ground.  To make the alien more approachable.  To show that while we can't understand it all, we do care tremendously. 

Because you have to care first to take action.

I hate looking at this picture.  I don't pretend to know how she is feeling, only that I can imagine it better than most.

Today, I am thankful that I don't have to go to the cemetery to visit my husband.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Month Without a Car

As some of you may know, we have had only one car since last October.  Long story short, I totaled our car on a concrete overpass after being run off the road by an SUV who didn't stop.  That sounds a lot worse than it was - I was ok minus some whiplash.  Because the car was older and the entire suspension needed to be replaced, it was easy for the repairs to cost more than the car's value.

What ensued was a lengthy discussion about what our options were.  How would we replace the car?  Should we get another loan?  That didn't seem responsible given our current debt load.  Should we get another clunker for cheaper?  Been there, done that, only leads to repair after repair.


So we did something radical.  We decided to not replace it at all. 

In some places of the country, that's not radical.  But in Iowa, that's majorly crazy.  We're not a state set up for good mass transit or biking communities.  Not at least when you compare us to a metropolitan area.

But we made it work.  Since then, it's actually been surprisingly manageable.  With Mike still looking for work, I simply drive to the office every day and am mindful to let him have the truck every once in a while.  If something comes up, he'll either drop me off at work or I can come home lunch and switch.

This was all fine up until last week.  Turns out, Mike was called up on orders to work at the base in Des Moines.

For five weeks.

All of our "we're being awesome and have one car, save the planet!" ideas came to a screeching halt.  A month is a long time to not have a car.  Not at least when a grocery store and Walmart aren't within walking distance. 

So we considered the usual - rides with coworkers, navigating the bus system, or get a rental car.  All had some serious drawbacks financially or compatibility with my hours.

I then took a bold step and suggested that I just use the bike.  After all, one of the reasons we got them was so I could bike to work.  I had already done so a couple of times and was in the process of working my way up to doing every day.  This would just jumpstart that goal.

We agreed that was the most financially attractive option, as well as being good for my health.  We then set up some calls with friends and coworkers so I had backup rides in inclement weather and such.  

Now the problem with last-minute orders and a spouse without transportation for a month is that it generates some unexpected expenses:
  • A month's worth of groceries and supplies for me to minimize carrying any by bike (no saddlebags yet)
  • New/more professional biking gear for me.  Though I change into work clothes, I don't want to show up in the parking lot looking like a hobo.
  • Start-up groceries for Mike, like breakfast, snack items, and toiletries
  • An oil change and a full tank of gas.
  • Accommodations for Mike.  (Yes, they can call you up and not pay for room and board.   Or food for that matter.)
Break out the credit cards.  Sigh.  That's what they're there for, emergencies, but it puts us behind once again on reducing them.  Luckily, Mike gets paid for his time and we're going to be very mindful of making sure the extra income goes right back to the cards.

The week on my end was decent but energy draining.  My ride to work is about 40 minutes one way and on a hilly bike trail.  If it was a flat stretch, it'd be easy.  But my thighs are getting a beating on the inclines. 

I made it in 4 days this week on my own - combating cold weather (48 degrees in May!?), humidity, gnats, rain, and hissing geese.

On Thursday, I just couldn't do it.  I got out of bed and balked at the idea of spending any more time on the bike.  Plus, my body was full of new and old pains.  So I broke down and took a cab.

Physically, I'm glad I gave my body a day off.  Financially, I know calling a cab won't be happening often.  $20 for 12 minutes and 6 miles.  And that was only one way.  I've had cheaper rides in Chicago and DC!  Luckily a coworker was kind enough to give me a lift home.

So Week 1 is officially over for me.  392 minutes or 6.5 hours of biking.  It's definitely a shock to the system and I need to stay on top of stretching and drinking water, but it's doable.  

I'm hoping that after 5 weeks, biking to work will simply become a part of my lifestyle.  I hope my body will soon realize that I'm doing something really good for it and it should start treating me nicely in return.  At any rate, I feel a level of pride committing to this when we could have (albeit irresponsibly) gotten a rental car.  

Here's to the next four weeks!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Memphis Baby!

I can't believe Memphis was last week already!  Things have been crazy busy since (check back tomorrow for why) but thoughts of the Mississippi still linger.

Everything went off without a hitch - all my flights were on time, no socially awkward passengers, and lovely weather.  I do admit that I had a good case of nausea my first flight, but that settled down thereafter without any explanation.  Weird.  I swear I get altitude headaches, if those even exist.  Anywho ... 

Memphis isn't as big as I thought it would be.  They have a nice downtown, but it doesn't have a metro feel to it.  It's also northern Southern, so twangs are light but manners are heavy.  And just to emphasize their Southern charm, Memphisites will call you sug, babe, baby, hon, sweetie, and girl every chance they get.  

My hotel was a DoubleTree and right in the heart of downtown.  They even give you a warm cookie on arrival, how cool is that?!

I didn't have anything scheduled for the evening that I was there, so I went exploring.  I wandered down by the Mississippi to stretch the legs and see how the flooding was going.

The river at the highest it's been since the 30s.  Locals told me how surreal it is to see this level.

A riverfront street that had flooded.  None of downtown was damaged aside from this and some parks along the river
Memphis is a city of many identities.  The Elvis influence is huge, the river culture is unmistakable, and old school charm lingers such as horse-drawn carriages and trolleys.

I was not brave enough to ride because I didn't know where it went.  Next time though.

My final destination for the evening was Beale ST.  A much quieter cousin to Bourbon ST, Beale ST is famous for blues, barbeque, and beer.  It's about 4 blocks worth of restaurants with music stages and sound gardens.  

Apparently the area fell into ruin back in the 80s and had to be rescued.  Beautiful old facades were literally falling off of buildings.  Some are even propped up to preserve them.  My hotel salvaged one and made it the centerpiece of their lobby.

Note that I am taking this from the 5th floor balcony, just saying ...
My favorite part of Beale ST is all of the neon signs.

That last sign seriously cracked me up!  I was so tempted to eat there, but I had one thing in mind that night: CAJUN!

I know, I know, go to Memphis and not get barbeque?!  Here's the thing - you can find barbeque in Iowa.  Finding cajun, however, is a serious challenge. 

Prior to going, I scouted out restaurants online and settled on the King's Place Cafe.

Let me tell you, it's been some time since I dived into a bowl of pasta with abandon.  It was worth every scrumptious, artery-clogging calorie.  Their cajun blend was amazing!  It had heat to it, but didn't burn, had good flavor, but didn't overwhelm.  I regretfully (but sensibly) was unable to finish this ginormous dish, but my mood went from pleased-as-punch to carb heaven.  

The glass of Barefoot Moscato and a soulful live musician probably assisted :) 

Next morning, I headed across the street to the AutoZone Park, where the AAA team the Redbirds play and my meeting was held.

My presentation was super well received and they even let me go over 30 minutes because everyone was asking so many questions!  It is so weird to go from teaching grumpy 18 year olds to having adults fawn over you.  Definitely a good ego booster!

After that, we caught a Redbirds game.  I left my camera in my host's car so I unfortunately don't have pictures.  At any rate, I spent most of the game chatting with everyone.  They were all so flipping nice!  

We also had an amazing feast of ballpark food Memphis-style: hot dogs, nachos, baked beans, pulled pork, sliced beef, and chopped chicken.  I don't believe vegetarians exist in Memphis.  My plate was piled high of deliciousness.  If only veggies could be made so tasty with just bbq rub ...

Eventually, it was time to exchange business cards, say the goodbyes, and get me to the airport.

But not without one last round of awesome food.  First up, Dinsthul's candies, a parting gift from ServiceMaster.  This locally-owed company boasts some of the best candies in the city.  

I was so consumed by the goodies inside that I neglect to take a follow-up photo, but underneath the fancy wrapping was Cashew Crunch.  If you love peanut brittle and have a fondness for cashews, this stuff was like crack.  It's just like peanut brittle but with cashews and covered in shaved coconut!  Since Mike hates coconut, I literally had to take this in to work to save me from myself.  Insanely good!

At the airport, this interesting candy also caught my eye - GooGoos.

For the record, I ate this one immediately and resisted Dinstuhls until the following day.  I don't know if this is true, but this candy is advertised as a Southern/Memphis favorite.  It also comes in pecan and peanut butter varieties.  

This one reminded me of a free-form Baby Ruth - the marshmallow was much more nougat-y than I expected, but it was soft and delicious.  I was thankful I only bought one instead of a box.  This was $1.25 by itself.

Then there was dinner courtesy of Interstate Barbecue.  If I hadn't consumed enough meat already, I tipped my hat to the city by pigging out on this bad boy (sorry, couldn't resist the pun)

This $8 sandwich was worth every mouth-watering bite.  I should have had something next to it for comparison, but that's not a hamburger bun.  That's one of those monster buns that you need man hands for. 

I'm a lover of bbq.  I am always on the hunt for the best pulled pork and the right sauce.  And I like my meats wet.  I mean, slather it on baby and get me messy!

But after this sandwich, I realized I only use so much sauce because the meat itself isn't flavorful.  You've heard of Memphis rub for a reason.  They know how to season their meats so you only need a gentle touch of sauce.  This was all I needed.  

And a fork, a wet wipe, and some napkins ;)

All in all, Memphis was a great trip.  I made some awesome connections, got a breath of fresh air, and saw a part of the country I've never been to before.  And I even brought back a little of it with me so I can sprinkle it over my next bbq. 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

We Have Bikes!

It's official - we have bikes!

We spent months researching and gathering advice from friends on the best way to purchase bikes.  We had tons of great suggestions and now feel really good about what we selected.

We felt the most comfortable buying brand new bikes at a local shop.  Though it was tempting to buy department store bikes and upgrade the parts, I realized I would always question their quality or wonder if we had gotten the right models. Because the bikes are in place of a second car, it was apparent that we needed a long-term solution.  No cheap bikes need apply.    

We visited several shops, but settled on Northtowne Cycling & Fitness.  The service was so informative and it was clear they wanted to make sure we had the right bikes for our needs.  We really appreciated that.

JENNIE: I got a Specialized Crossroads.  My one requirement was COMFORT!  Nice wide seat, step through, and upright seating position (which my back is very thankful for!).  It's a very proper bike but not aerodynamic at all, haha.

I am using my bike for commuting.  We live right off the Cedar Valley Trail, which runs downtown behind my office.  I am impossibly slow, so a one-way trip is about 40 minutes.  

Due to crazy weather and being out of shape, I've only biked to work 5 times so far.  But climbing gas prices and a wedding in July are supplying me with a ton of motivation. 

His radical dudeness prepares for the casting call of Pacific Blue: Iowa.
(note GI Joe shirt, agents love that 'down to earth' stuff...)

MIKE: My black, 24 speed, police-tacular looking piece of bicycle awesomeness is a 2011 Giant Escape2.  I was originally looking at a Specialized Sirrus, but the extra $150 was not worth getting an aluminum fork over the Giants' CroMoly steel piece of colossal black magnificence. 

As you may note it is mostly black in color, has two bicycle tire rolling things, and a seat that you place your manly (or womanly) rump roast on. You can also see that I am wearing my helmet sexy-man-backward-style.  Don't do that, it only works for me. And even then it doesn't actually work for me.  

I am planning on eventually replacing the stock plastic pedals with clips and getting some of these tires:  The set it has now are all condition trail tires from Giant, but when you're trying to maintain a 25MPH clip for 10-15 miles every little bit helps. 

I would go down to 28 width tires, but at the moment I do kind of like having a butt that isn't sore and a complete set of permanent teeth at the end of a ride. I also REALLY need to get a light set to avoid getting mowed down by other bikers during low viz and to let the morons who take up both lanes of the trail know that I'm coming to get all up in their shiz-ma-tizz. 

Did I mention it looks like a police bike?
So far, the only drawback has been storage.  We don't have a garage ($50 extra a month!) so the bikes currently reside in the living.  It's a little awkward, but hasn't been too inconvenient.  I'm not sure what we're going to do come this winter.  

So the embarrassing thing about the bikes is that we could not purchase them out of pocket.  Because of dental bills and taxes, we just haven't been able to save for them.  

I was sooo reluctant to put them on the credit card.  I mean, here we are trying to reduce our debt and we're adding to it!  But at the rate we could save for them, it would have been Christmas before we could do it in cash.

Total Cost:
Jennie's bike     $419.99
Mike's bike        $399.99
Two helmets      $89.98
Tax                    $63.70
Total                 $973.66

The way Mike reasoned the expenditure was that it's a good investment.  First, gas prices here are $3.89 and climbing.  With a truck, we don't get the greatest fuel economy. 

Then with the one car, Mike is typically stuck at home all day.  Now he has the mobility to get outside, visit neighboring towns, and get back into photography.  It's a much needed outlet for him.

Lastly, we need to improve my health.  There's a reason you never see me in pictures on here.  I know that where I carry my weight + my family history is one giant formula for heart disease and diabetes.   Every ounce of preventative care is paramount.

We're super happy with our bikes.  A grand looks like a lot on paper, but when we think about the positive energy and good health they're bringing, we know it's worth every penny.

Side note to the moms and worrywarts out there - yes, we have helmets, locks, sunscreen, IDs, cell phones, and water at all times :)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Memphis, Here I Come!

Leaving, on a jet plane, don't know when I'll be back again ...

Actually, that's not true.  For just under a day, yours truly is Memphis-bound.

My hotel is across from the baseball park.  Isn't the river gorgeous?  No idea about that pyramid ...

ServiceMaster, a company that also owns Terminix and Merry Maids, is flying me out to this bluesy city on the Big Muddy.  I've used a couple of their sources for several articles and they requested me for a presentation on trade media relations.  They're doing a "best practices" conference for all of their employees and want a real live editor to give the do's and don'ts of making a story pitch.

The whole set-up is pretty cool.  First of all, I'm supremely flattered to be asked as a speaker.  Second, I've only driven through Memphis, and only after escaping the numbness that is Interstate 55 of Mississippi.  Lastly, my airfare, accommodations, and a AAA baseball game are all complimentary of ServiceMaster.  Not bad for an hour-long PowerPoint!

Personally, I can't wrap my head around justifying the cost of getting me there and back just to do a little chatting!  But then again, I'm not in PR.  Advertising is crazy important to any company, much less one with a national presence.   I feel a little guilty.  But only a little ... :)

It's just weird to think that I get to go to a cool city on someone else's dime.  I've been practicing my presentation a lot so I hope I'm worth every penny!  No pressure or anything ... eecks! 

Beale ST - gonna find me some bbq!  Or Cajun.  Or southern.  So ... many ... choices!
Aside from representing the magazine, which is cool enough in itself, I'm excited to be staying on Beale ST.  It's home to blues, history, and barbeque.  It looks like a vibrant place and I've already scouted out restaurants I want to try once I get into town.  

Then it's a full morning of my presentation, doing the "business small talk dance," and being treated to my first baseball game with more of said dance before darting back to the land of corn and soybeans.  

So with tickets and reservations in hand, I'll be hitting up the skies tomorrow!  Bon voyage!     

Friday, May 13, 2011

April Vegetarian Recipes

April was a successful month for vegetarian recipes.  March, on the other hand, was full of learning experiences.  We had several recipes completely bomb.  Lessons learned:
  • Don't try a recipe with an ingredient you've never had.  You will have no way of knowing whether it tastes like it's supposed to or not.  Case in point: we tried eggplant parmesan yet neither of us had ever had eggplant.  Tasted bitter and moldy.  Will be one to try in a restaurant or at a friend's before we attempt again.

  • The more ingredients, the more expensive a meal will be.  I'm not talking about a butt load of spices, but sheer number of items that must be used.  Particularly if they are not pantry items, are expensive products, have short shelf lives, or ones you simply don't use them often.

  • Don't schedule new recipes on nights you know are busy or after a hard day.  Experimenting with new dishes is fun, but not when you're completely depleted of energy.  We've found it's better to do "Meatless Monday" on the weekends, when there's more time to prepare (or make a second meal if it's a bust).
Here are our recent successes (click on titles for recipes).

1. Quick Bean and Veggie Couscous or Bulgar Pilaf

We made this after a lazy morning of sleeping in and not getting lunch started until 2pm.  We have couscous often, but usually plain and with marinated meats.  This was a new venture to make it into a pilaf.  We made this as directed but replaced the onion with onion powder and skipped the carrot.

  • Pantry ingredients with long shelf lives
  • Good source of whole grain and protein
  • Easy to customize (ie: vegans can skip cheese)
  • Good two-person recipe with leftovers, or nice side
  • Reheats well 
  • Recommend a mild cheese, not aged as suggested.  Havarti was delicious!
  • Canned tomatoes were a little too sweet, will use fresh next time. 

2. Vegetable and Black Bean Enchiladas

Every quarter, my insurance company (Wellmark) sends out a newsletter.  They always include several recipes, and they recently offered some vegetarian ones.  As a chronic meat eater, I was skeptical of this recipe.  So many veggies, plus prep time.  We'd also never used zucchini before but took the risk since the amount was small.  Surprise of all surprises, this is entirely delicious!  I loved everything about this dish.

  • Don't let the amount of ingredients deter you.  The even quantities ensure a great blend of veggies without being overwhelming.
  • Anything smothered in enchilada sauce is tasty.
  • Leftovers taste virtually the same and will make your coworkers jealous.
  • Prep was surprisingly fast.
  • Roasting corn is the best thing ever!  Take the extra 10 minutes for this step.  It's well worth your time!
  • You will have leftover ingredients.  You need to plan a companion dish for them to not waste food.  Thankfully, they all keep well in the fridge.
  • Corn tortillas always tear on me when rolling.  Gotta find a way to make them stay pretty.

3. Chilaquiles Casserole

This casserole is the perfect medium for the leftovers mentioned above.  We made it three days later with no spoilage of ingredients.  Made as directed but skipped onion, added onion powder (yes, I'm an onion hater, Mike deals).  Overall decent.  Much more of a corn and zucchini presence in this one, something I personally just need to get used to.  

  • Great way to use leftovers
  • Pantry staples
  • Speedy prep
  • Can be made night before
  • I actually preferred the leftovers better, but that's just me.  
  • Could roast corn for this one too
  • Massive amount of leftovers for two people
  • Too much cheese, or maybe needs a mix of mozzarella and cheddar 

4. Souffled Pumpkin Pancake

Pumpkin is awesome.  I don't know why the majority of people only eat it in the fall.  Well, I do, seasonal ingredient and the holidays, but I love it year round.  Pumpkin smoothies, muffins, breads, pancakes - I'll eat it all.  This recipe combines my love of pumpkin with my joy of egg dishes.

  • Mouthwatering awesome yet completely filling
  • Great for two people with leftovers
  • Not too much sugar and doesn't need to be drenched in syrup
  • Uses all pantry items
  • Leftover pumpkin freeze well, in case you didn't know
  • Beware, you need a 10" oven-proof skillet for this dish.
  • It's a Paula Dean recipe, which means it's more decadent than it should be.  We skipped the pecans, which eliminates the fat from the nuts and the 2 T of butter and 1 T of sugar they're caramelized in.
  • Calls for buttermilk.  First of all, infrequent ingredient in our house, meaning special purchase.  Second, infamous for high fat content.  Here's the waist- and budget-friendly alternative: Mix 1T of white vinegar with 1 cup of skim milk.  Stir and let sit for 5 minutes.  Voila, a chemical reaction has produced something akin to buttermilk but will not kill you.
  • Prep is ok, but getting your egg whites to peak is an extra step.  Just plan accordingly.  Also, there is a difference between soft and stiff peaks - overbeating will change the texture.  
  • You don't need to buy pumpkin pie spice specially for this.  A combination of cinnamon, allspice, ginger, or cloves usually does the trick.  We used chai spice and enjoyed the mellow flavor.  Next time, I might use just cinnamon.

5. Plain Yogurt in Smoothies

A great way of getting in fruit is to have a smoothie.  Frozen fruit is cheap, there's many varieties or blends, and yogurt is inexpensive.  We've been experimenting with smoothies lately, partially with the help of the last Food Network Magazine issue, which included 50 smoothie recipes.

One thing that can kill a healthy smoothie is added sugar.  Fruit and juice already have a high sugar content, which can be of concern to some.  Then if you add a flavored yogurt, honey, or flavored milks, your intakes goes up.  I've even seen some recipes call for adding straight sugar.

We enjoy smoothies with yogurt.  The extra protein is helpful, and they also go great with any of the above veggies recipes or as a light meal.  We've been using vanilla yogurt but wanted to find an alternative.  Part of this was added sugar, the other was that it's hard around here to find a natural yogurt that won't cost you an arm and a leg.  I just don't want to be eating a bunch of dye and artificial flavor.

Plain yogurt is the answer.  It adds protein and a nice creaminess that allows the fruit to come through.  We've tried two brands so far: Stony Brook has zero sugar and is very tart, but A&E only adds a subtly tanginess.  

Question of the Day: What are your staple vegetarian dishes?  

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

An Epicurian Photo Blog

Our dishes, recipes, and food shenanigans as of late.

1. A Christmas Gift Claimed

At Christmas, we offered my sister and her boyfriend a homemade, 4-course dinner of their choosing.  They decided to do Italian and recently claimed their gift.

The gang in midst of chowing down.

Pizza fondue.  Heat one jar of pizza sauce and choose dippers.  I made homemade focaccia, and added cubed fresh mozzarella, pepperoni, and tortellini. 

Cheese, bacon, and chicken pasta bake.  This recipe has been modified, but check out the original here

Chocolate Lava Cake.  The recipe is super easy.
2. Mardi Gras

I love food and holidays.  You can learn so much about culture and history just by eating.  I enjoy learning how people celebrated events with food.  It's such a fun way to honor and respect the traditions of others. 

We don't celebrate Lent, but Mardi Gras has been a staple since I started taking French back in high school.  Our teacher would always make crepes the whole day while we decorated masks with glitter and feathers.  I'm pretty sure the janitors loathed this day.

I almost missed Mardi Gras this year.  Wasn't paying attention until I saw an article online for recipes.  The night before, I ambitiously tackled King Cake.

If you're not familiar with this fun tradition, check it out here.  Long story short, it's a large pastry that's made using the traditional colors of Mardi Gras (green, yellow, and purple) and has some religious connotations.

I actually enjoy making breads, so this was a fun prospect.  I used this recipe on All Recipes and added the cream cheese as suggested by a reviewer.  I also used a green gummy bear in place of a plastic baby to avoid a choking hazard as I took this into work.  Unfortunately, it must have melted as no one found it!

This is supposed to be a ring.  Guess I didn't have it stretch out enough.  Still tasted delicious!

Took the time to dye my own colored sugar (much cheaper) though I had to buy blue dye.

Yummy, sugary goodness.  I enjoyed making my coworkers swoon over my creation.
3. The Amanas

The Amanas are an Iowa favorite.  They are a historic community of 7 villages once populated by German immigrants, now home to excellent shops, restaurants, and spirits.  Only a 20-minute drive from us, we hop over once every couple of months.  

Our favorite activity is to eat at the Colony Inn, which serves its meal family-style.  Which means big portions and generous bowls of mashed potatoes, bread and butter, salads, and cottage cheese.  Oh yes, and sauerkraut. 

Mike is ready and alert for copious amounts of food

Knackwurst and bratwurst for him.

Amana ham for her.

This is from last summer, but gives you an idea of the spread a $30 meal comes with.

4. My Birthday

In April, I turned 27.  Mike had drill that weekend so my plans were a little limited, though I went out with a friend for my first mani- and pedicure.  I was just going to take myself to Dairy Queen and get a hot dog and a blizzard (which I love), but Mike decided that was the saddest thing in the world.  So we got gussied up and went to Biaggi's, an Italian restaurant we've been eying ever since we moved here.

Biaggi's is priced like Olive Garden.  But we threw out every budget-conscious dinning rule.  We got wine, appetizers, salads (not included) and dessert, which doubled a normal bill of $35 to $75.  It's ok to splurge on birthdays.  Especially when we both had lunch for the next day and we believe in tipping well.

Onion focaccia and olive oil/Parmesan for dipping

Caprese salad: tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, onions, and balsamic

Mike nearly died when they brought out a separate boat of blue cheese crumbles to go with his blue cheese dressing

Huge bowls of pasta.  For him, a roasted pepper/sausage dish.  For her, bow tie alfredo with chicken.

The birthday girl with her Zinfandel.  I'm not yet brave enough to try new wines at restaurants.

Dessert cannelloni filled with sweet cream.  

Question of the Day: Tell me about amazing food you've had recently!