Thursday, January 26, 2012

Recipe Finds - January

Welcome to Recipe Finds, where I'll share and review recipes that we've tried.  Can't always do step-by-step instructions so I thought this would be the next best thing!  

Quinoa Mac N' Cheese

In lieu of my oat problem and a growing number of workers with gluten issues, I've been investigating other sources of whole grain. Quinoa is one of those super foods that's just too nutritious to pass up. It's best described as a combination of brown rice (nutty) and couscous (soft).

This recipe for mac n'cheese is a nice introduction.  I had a few personal mishaps with the recipe (halved it but forgot to do that with the water, didn't have any garlic on hand) but it was overall easy.  It is a little on the bland side, even though I added some sour cream and cream cheese I had laying around, so I would recommend boosting this with a flavored cheese like pepper jack or smoked cheddar.  Bacon, of course, makes everything taste better.

3 forks out of 5 - worth trying again.

Southwestern Pinto Bean Soup

Even though January hasn't been very cold, I've been experimenting with soups.  They're easy to make, cheap, and you can pack a lot of nutrients in them.  Plus they freeze and reheat well so you can make a big batch.

I've never worked with dried beans before, so I simply used one can of pintos.  Technically you should use 2 to equal the dry portion in the recipe, but it was what I had on hand.

This soup was really good!  Mike and I are leery of cumin but it blends well with the other flavors. Instead of a gob of shredded cheddar, use 1 tsp of grated parmesan for your cheese kick.

4 forks out of 5

Berry-Banana Smoothie

I heart this smoothie!!!  I always have these ingredients on hand, there's tons of fiber, and I never get bored of the flavor.  Don't be scared of the cinnamon - it adds a beautiful pop of flavor! 

As for the fruit, I've found that it's not necessary to have raspberries in specific.  I often use a berry fruit blend along with the 1/2 cup of blueberries.  You can also swap the apple juice for berry juice.

5 forks out of 5

Sweet Potato and Apple Casserole

Beware this recipe - 6 servings is a lie!

Mike and I demolished this casserole in one sitting, making me fear I had misread the ingredients or something.  But no, it's just. that. tasty.

The portions on this recipe are fine, but the cooking may need a little adjustment.  2 hours is a big time commitment. First, definitely roast your sweet potatoes - you cannot duplicate this flavor otherwise. 

The apples don't need to be cut in rings (I don't have a corer anyways) and will hold together just fine if you cut them up into toddler-sized chunks.  This way, they probably don't need as long as 45 minutes to soften.  Luckily I had another dish in the oven so no harm done and the potatoes soften to the point where they started to mash themselves, which I personally liked but you may not.

I imagine that this should take 30 minutes or less (after the 1 hr needed for potato roasting), depending on if you want any semblance of firmness.  Curious if you could do it in a crock pot as well.

5 out of 5 folks

Chorizo & Sweet Potato Enchiladas

Confession - I have never liked sausage.  Chorizo is making me sing a different tune.

This is a FANTASTIC dish, particularly if you love enchiladas.  It offers up a familiar taste with a refreshing spin.  I cannot get over the combination of sweet potatoes and chorizo!  Spicy and sweet = Jennie's comfort food.

Prep isn't difficult but will take up a bit of time between chopping and sauteing.  The bonus, though, is that this makes a huge batch.  Using corn tortillas, we got 15 enchiladas out of this.  9 went into one baking pan, which at 3 enchiladas per serving created dinner for Mike and I and leftovers for just me.  The other 6 were frozen for a one-night meal.   

5 forks out of 5

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Inspirations for Body Confidence

As part of my efforts to perceive myself more positively, I am exploring my inspirations for body confidence.  Given my love of movies, I often turn to actresses as role models for empowerment, independence, and sensuality.  

Setting a feminist discussion aside on the impact of emphasizing and valuing women's bodies, the leading ladies I look up to are rare exceptions in Hollywood. They display healthy bodies (no sticks here!), routinely play roles about strong women, and take a public stance about their looks.

These women are gorgeous not because they conform to some standard of beauty, but because they radiate confidence and that is beautiful in any culture. 

Kate Winslet

First of all, ridiculously talented - love all of her movies.  Second of all, 5'6" and averages a size 8!  There shouldn't need to be an exclaimation point with that sentence, but Hollywood does love its waifs.  This woman glows with a confidence that a Keira Knightly-type must envy as she eats her one grape for the day.

Kate's been quite vocal over the years about her weight and giving the Establishment a very British middle finger about her curves.  Back in 2003, she raised hell with GQ magazine because they airbrushed her so ridiculously. 

Favorite quote: "I wanted women to be able to look at my character and say, 'Oh, that could be me.' Not perfect or starved or any of those things, but like someone who has had a child — and, once you've had children, your body changes forever. For good." 

Meryl Streep

This woman can do no wrong.  She is a living icon and classy through and through.

I love this photo of her.  She is the epitome of joyful.  Don't you just want to sit down with her and chat over a glass of wine?

This is a woman over 60 who has embraced her age to the fullest.  She was never a hot young thing on the red carpet - her first major role was close to 30!  Now she's off playing characters like Julia Childs, Margaret Thatcher, and still acting in rom-coms.  The Hours is one of my favorites.  

What I love about her is that through all of these years, she has kept the focus on her body of work, not her figure.  It's never about how she looks, but how she acts.

Favorite activism: campaigning for a National Women's History museum in D.C.   

Angelina Jolie

I've been a Jolie fan for years.  She is undoubtedly a star who's occasionally allowed to have good acting roles.  At least her movies have one thing in common: she always portrays a powerful woman. 

I admit that Angelina's become too thin as of recent, but who am I to criticize?  I admire that she has been fuller in the past, never been bashful about her sexuality, and she has always displayed self-assurance.

Perhaps that's why I chose this picture of her.  I love the one of the left.  There's something very powerful and intimate about that big smile with her eyes closed, like she's laughing at a joke.  

Favorite project: her first directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey.  The story is set in war-torn Bosnia in the 90s.  Jolie had only Bosnians for the actors and ran the script by the Ministry of Culture.  I haven't seen the film (doubtful it will come to our area), but women directors are few and far between. 

Helen Mirren

Much like her younger counterpart in Kate, Dame Helen has a long history of playing interesting and brave roles.  Hollywood may have only discovered her recently, but she's no stranger to acting. 

Her performance in The Queen was riveting, her character is hilarious in Red and Calendar Girls is most excellent.  I haven't caught some of her recent movies, but I certainly want to check out The Debt, Love Ranch, The Tempest, and The Door (when it comes out).

Mirren may have been nominated for Body of the Year at age 66, but it's her intellgence that I admire.  A smart woman is sexy and this silver-haired lady is a minx.  I especially admire that she embraces her age and hasn't pursued the Fountain of Youth with Botox and surgery.

Favorite quote about being childless by choice: "It's not that I don't love children. They are funny, and I just love them, but I never wanted to have them. I really tried to want it at one point … I thought maybe I should. But I never convinced myself.  I think still it is very fine not to want children.  There are far too many people in the world.  It is my contribution to ecology."

Christina Hendricks

Admittedly, I've never watched a single episode of Mad Men.  But for the brief moments she appears in Life As We Know It and from what I can see of the trailer I Don't Know How She Does It (Christina being the only reason to see that movie), Hendricks is engaging all on her own.

Sure she's a throwback to a different era in Hollywood.  If you've ever seen her in lingerie (Google "Christina Hendricks" + "New York magazine cover"), you'll be be bowled over.  

But this is a woman who revels in being happy and healthy.  She's a big believer in exercise, vitamins, and everything in moderation.  She has a pretty groovy self-care routine of knitting, baths, and sleeping in.   

Favorite quote: "Be nice to yourself!  We all need to look in the mirror and see the things that are beautiful in ourselves, and to remind ourselves of what those things are." 

Who do you admire for their body confidence?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (review)

Do you remember the Murry children from A Wrinkle in Time?  The creation of Madeleine L'Engle, Meg and Charles Wallace are descendants of the Pevensie siblings from The Chronicles of Narnia but ancestors of Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

I read this as a kid but failed to connect with it. I picked it up again when my book club at work turned to the fantasy genre.  Unfortunately, my adult reaction was no different than my preteen self. 

This is the cover I remember
My entire objection to the book is tied up in the main character, Meg. Great pains are taken to emphasis that Meg is the black sheep of her family, incompetent at school, full of unbridled angst, and mousy to boot.

Told from Meg's viewpoint, the story is full of outbursts, tearful declarations, and constant frustrations. This goes far beyond what we would expect from a gangly teenager girl.  Meg isn't just made to feel unattractive - she has an unattractive personality.

What irks me about Meg is that L'Engle left her without any gifts. She is thoroughly unlikeable and untalented.  Daughter of two scientists, sister of a child prodigy, and friend to a math whiz * (reader correction below), Meg doesn't have anything to bring to the table.

I nearly threw the book at the end when Meg saves her brother with her love.  Yes, the girl who fails her classes, wanders around clumsily, and constantly complains saves the day with her love.

I know, I know, it was the 60s.  It was unusual to have a female main character in a sci-fi book.  But still, sigh.  It reinforces that girls are only tagalongs with domestic gifts in adventure stories.

Despite my objections, I'm glad this book exists.  It's very alternative to something like Narnia or LOTR, even though it similarly mixes religion, fantasy, and science freely.  In fact, that's precisely why it was on the list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenge Books during the 1990s.  That's an automatic plus in my book.

Depictions of women aside, the master theme of the book is the dangers of conformity.  It shows that a world that has removed the individual for simplicity's sake is one full of people easy to control.  

Favorite Quotes

"Just because we don't understand doesn't mean that the explanation doesn't exist."

"You're given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you."

Do you remember reading this book?  What did you think? 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Confessions about My Weight

My history with body confidence is a checkered one.

As a kid, I was constantly underweight and this apparently caused concerned for my mother.  I was an active tomboy so I'm sure hours of running around the neighborhood was a factor.  I was simultaneously made fun of my chicken legs at school and praised for my svelte figure by relatives.  

In high school, I barely made it over 100 pound by the time I was 16.  I did basketball and tennis and loved gym class.  I ate like a wolf.  Despite being thin, I had acne so bad it was painful to wash my face.   

I constantly fretted about how I looked.  My hometown was pretty superficial and even in my church looks were important.  I never had confidence that I was attractive and it was easy to dismiss my looks compared to the popular pretty girls.

Mike came along and was most helpful in telling me otherwise, but it takes a long time to unwind long-standing behavior.

I filled out more in college and achieved what I consider a healthy weight for several years (150lb at 5'6").  I was confident, felt care-free about my body, and made efforts to dress it appealingly.

During grad school, I became less active and the scale started climbing.  My confidence began to slip.  Teaching completely destroyed any exercise plan and I officially became overweight. 

Now a year and half into a sedentary desk job, I am 191 pounds.  That's really embarrassing for me to admit, but I'm doing this publicly to move past being ashamed of my body.  

Yes, I used the word ashamed.  I feel self-conscious about the excess I carry, how clothing fits me poorly, and that I still have acne at 27. I deliberately dress in ways that cover my figure.

I was recently in a Victoria's Secret with a friend and thinking back on the days when I was a VS junkie (they don't carry a bra size that fits me anymore ... big boobs are not a blessing).  It dawned on me that it's been a long time since I bought something for myself.  Afterall, sometimes lingerie is for the wearer, not the viewer.

As we continued to shopped, I realized this wasn't just an issue of sexuality, it was a problem with body confidence in every aspect of my life.

In recent years, I have consciously denied myself anything that would draw attention to my body.  I have no fun tops for a night out on the top, no dresses that I would wear to a bar but not work, no outfit that makes me feel like a million bucks.

I've always been a believer that attractiveness radiates from within.  But I'm beginning to think that playing down the outside isn't a solution to body dissatisfaction.  

The crazy thing is, I would be horrified if one of my girlfriends confessed to me the same thoughts that I have about myself. 

Most people make a New Year's resolution to lose weight.  And while I'm certainly keen to see that number go down, I'm going to start working on my confidence.  I'm not sure how I'm going to reclaim it, but I need to work on.

My 10-year high school reunion is this fall.  I want to walk into that room and own it.  The last thing on my mind will be my body.  Let's see what I can do in 9 months! 

Do you struggle with your appearance?  How do you chase away negative thoughts?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Biscotti Bonanza

Either I have amnesia or holiday baking this year was much harder than last.  Several test recipes were duds, a few bombed due to rookie errors, and some were just destined to fail.  That's the tricky thing about homemade gifts - there's a higher chance for complications. 

At any rate, several recipes made it into gift boxes and brought smiles to the receivers.

Biscotti is one of those stealth desserts that is totally easy to make yet looks impressive.  If you're not familiar with these Italian cookies, they're a crunchy biscuit that's great to dunk into coffee, tea, or hot chocolate.  

After combing through dozens of variations, I've found that most biscotti recipes start with this base: 2 cups flour, 1/3 cup butter, 2/3 cup sugar, 1 tsp vanilla, 2 eggs, dash of salt, and 2 tsp baking powder.

From there, you simply dump in your desired goodies, mainly nuts, berries, or chocolate. 


 What you essentially have here is cookie dough.  Since I had all the chemistry components in place, I simply eyeballed the mini-chocolate chips, though I bet it was around 1 cup. 

I chill the dough for 15-30 minutes and then form it into loaves on an greased cookie sheet.  They're about 8-10 inches long, 3 inches wide, and you flatten them slightly with your fingers. 

These bake for 30 minutes at 375* and then cool for another 30 minutes.  I neglected to document this step, but you then cut the loaves into the biscotti fingers.  The crunchiness of the cookies comes from the second bake, which involves 7 minutes on each side at 325*

The end result is tasty little morsels just waiting for you at breakfast.  One recipe will yield around 35 cookies, depending on how big you cut them.

After they cool, you can coat them with a powdered sugar glaze or drizzle them in chocolate.  After my chocolate-covered cherries bombed, I had no desire to work with chocolate again.  Instead, I simply made two varieties: chocolate chip and lemon-lavender (1 T lemon juice, lemon zest from 1/2 a lemon, and 2 tsp lavender).

Not only can biscotti be completed in less than 2 hours, but they also freeze beautifully.  I completed my batches on various weekends in December and each went into the freezer (if you use glaze/drizzle, you would do that after they've dethawed).

The chocolate chip turned out to be the most popular.  I'm not sure if I'll do these next year, but I know they'll be a go-to receipe for any forthcoming potlucks!

What successes did you have with DYI holiday gifts?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Dream of Owning a Home

It's no wonder that home ownership can become a burden in the US: stagant salaries, the burst of the housing market, foreclosures, changes in loan approval, rising energy prices, the value of mobility.

Despite the turmoil of said markets, Mike and I still want a house one day.  I've never thought of renting as "throwing money away," especially now that we have a wonderful place to rent with no headaches.  However, a home provides a certain level of permanency that a rental contract does not. 
I'm not here today to talk about the intracacies of buying a house, something we condo-dwelling leasees have no experience in.

Instead, I want to talk about whether the benefits of a home outweigh the disadvantages.
When I look at our finances, I see no room for saving for a down payment.  We're still struggling to clear off some older debts and not use our credit cards for gas and groceries each month.  At this point, the discussion of a home is more of a philosophical one, even though it's on our minds as we think about the future.

But I increasingly wonder whether owning a home is really worth it.  

We have friends whose children are our age and have happily rented their whole lives.  People abroad live like this. Virtually everyone our age rents. Turn back the clock some and you'll find it was trendy to live out of a hotel.  

On the other hand, we know people who feel saddled by their homes.  Empty nests once perfect for multiple children now too large to take care of, mortgages out of control, property taxes doubled, great houses untouched on a dismal market. 

When I look at the advantages of owning our own place, I see:
  • A place that isn't subject to the rules of a lease, such as the number of nail holes put into the wall or how many pets we can have.
  • Having a space that can be modified if we wish - walls taken out, upgraded appliances, colorful paint, different or no carpet.
  • The advantages of better controlling our energy consumption, such as programmable thermostats, dimmable light switches, and maybe renewable energy.
  • The potential for more square footage and storage space.
  • The ability to pay a mortgage that's lower than our currently monthly rent.

However, I see some drawbacks that make me wonder:
  • A house means lost mobility - you can't just pick up and move anymore.  In this economy, being mobile is a huge boom and I'm not sure if I'm ready to lose that.
  • Maintenance costs are higher - no landlord to take care of it.  
  • Same with updates, both cosmetic and structural.  A roof replacement, for example, will easily set you back thousands of dollars
  • You have property taxes to deal with.
  • You're investing in something that you may not see a return on.
  • Rent doesn't have interest - mortgages do.
Right now, it's hard for me to look at these lists and think that owning a home is worth it.  Maybe it would be more attractive if we were in a better financial situation.  All I know is that owning a home is a major expense - one that should never been taken lightly.  We could never swing it as is.   

Perhaps it wouldn't be such a bad thing to rent into our late 30s - the time frame I imagine it will take for us to stabilize our income and save for a down payment.

What are your thoughts on home ownerships -- thumbs up or thumbs down?  What are your housing plans for the future?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Planning for Deployments

Did you know only 1% of the country serves in the military?  Statistically speaking, you're more likely to know someone who's black, Mexican, or gay than someone in uniform. 

I spent this past weekend in family readiness briefings.  Yes, that means Mike is deploying.  To keep national security in check, I cannot say when or where.  Let's just "far away" and "soon."

Preparing for the financial end of a deployment involves rather long checklists.  I feel lucky that I'm already in charge of our finances and bill paying, so in that regard, it's a smooth transition.

However, many items have to be arranged ahead of time so there's aren't hiccups while he's gone for the majority of the year. Some of these are easy and I can do by myself, others we need to do together:
  • Reduced car insurance by moving one car to a "storage" rate
  • Suspend Mike's cell phone line
  • Obtain Power of Attorney (PoA)
  • Renew lease prior to deployment
  • Figure out taxes, will likely get extension
  • Develop a plan for the extra income
  • Get passwords for any financial accounts of Mike's I'm not on so I can pay bills
I find that many people are surprised by what a deployment involves on the home side.  You have to remember that one person is left behind to deal with it all. Couples have to have a lot of trust in the remaining one to manage everything, but good planning will take care of most of that. 

This certainly isn't our first rodeo and I've got few worries about what lies ahead.  As a spouse with no children, a busy career, and family in state, I have little to take care of but myself and the cats.

In many ways though, after attending the briefings and having a concrete to-do list in hand, this deployment is starting to feel more real. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Price of Being Sick

Anyone else ready for this week to be over?  After my little adventure to the ER, I've been fighting with a cough and sinus ickies.  I am so ready to just sleep this stuff away!  

There are a lot of costs associated with being sick.  Most people are troubled by the expected ones: how much you lose if you miss a day of work unpaid, co-pays for office visits, or the price of medication.

But there's a mountain of incidental costs that are often overlooked, partially because being sick is unexpected and you're often too tired to notice or care about your bank account. 

These purchases tend to be small and seemingly insignificant, but when you stack them up together or you don't have much wiggle room in your budget, they can be a problem.

Extra Food Purchases
We all have our comfort foods when we're sick.  Mine are 7-Up or ginger ale, goldfish crackers, toast with cinnamon sugar, and Lipton chicken noodle soup (just broth and noodles).  This week, jello was added to this list because that's literally all my stomach would accept.

Problem is, we rarely have these foods in stock.  That meant an extra trip to the grocery store after we'd already gotten groceries.

Cost: $13

Medicine and Supplies
After the stomach flu, I was prescribed an anti-nausea medication.  To chase away my cough, we got a humidifer and Alkaseltzer. 

Cost: $9 for anti-nausea, $7 for cold relief, $16 for humidifer ($30 total)

Wasted Food
One of the risks with doing all from-scratch cooking is that sometimes you don't feel like cooking.  That would definitely be the case in point this week as both of us are under the weather (Mike has something cold-like too). 

While we try to be good about our food use, several things have gone to waste, including a pound of beef, an avocado, two pomogranetes, half a bag of lettuce, and some bread.

Possible cost: $10

Kerfuffled Meal Planning
Though I'm still learning how to do it efficiently, meal planning is big at our place.  I often do a supper that has leftovers for lunch the next day and if it doesn't, I budgeted time to whip up pasta or eggs the night before. 

Well, in a week like this, neither one of us has really touched the oven.  Meals at night haven't been an issue, as we've been using boxed risotto mixes or bags of frozen veggie/pasta blends to pick away at.

It's lunch for me that has been lacking.  One day I simply drove home for toast and sugar.  Yesterday I took myself out for soup at Panera.  Unsure what I will do today and tomorrow. 

At any rate, this kind of meal uncertainly leaves me open to unnecessary spending, whether it's buying a meal out or using gas to fetch something from home.

Possible cost: $8 at Panera, $5 in gas ($13)

Adding It Up
Without any outrageous purchases, I've already spent over $65 this week without much thought! 

I haven't found many good ways to counter this situation, other than to keep some of these things on hand always.  

Just remember how easy it is to lose track of your budget when something catches you off your guard!  

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Morphine Drip and the ER for New Year's

Lest you jump to any conclusions -- no, I didn't drink myself into oblivion to ring in New Year's.  At least I would have had fun that way ... j/k.

It all started innocently enough.  We made easy plans for New Year's.  After all of our family events at Christmas, we never feel like doing anything big the following weekend (and our wallets thank us for that).  So we made a date with another couple for fondue, wine, and games.

Should have been a great time, except for getting the chills at 9pm.  Decided to leave the foray and try to sleep it off, not knowing I was at the start of a fast moving bug.  Let's just 12 hours later of little sleep, waking up with either chills or being too hot, 100+ degree fever, nausea, feeling like I had been run over by train with the worst joint and stomach pain of my life, and several offerings to the porcelin god, I was in poor shape.

When I got to the point where I couldn't keep down water, I knew it was time to go to the ER.  I was admitted swiftly, expertly hooked up a saline drip, had a swab shoved up my nose to test for flu, and got some morphine to help with the pain.

I've never had morphine before.  I'm pretty sure it was just memory association, but I kept thinking of those singing flowers from Alice in Wonderland.
Turns out I had the stomach flu or viral gastroenteritis.    

Oddly enough, I had a good friend and fellow blogger catch this same crude over Christmas.  While I certainly don't wish this on anyone, I'm so glad she posted about it because I recognized the symptoms.

For the record, most people don't have to go to the hospital for this stuff.  It's only when you can't get in any water or you've started hemorrhaging that you need to turn yourself over to medical professionals. 

After being patched up at the ER and aided with some anti-nausea pills and a good night of sleep, I'm doing much better today.  I still feel like I've been run over by a bus and I've got a bit of a fever yet, but I feel alert and relaxed.  I'm sticking with simple food too - jello, crackers, ginger ale.  Maybe I'll work myself up to pudding and broth later today, oh boy!

It's a little dicey how you can prevent getting the stomach flu, but good hand washing and general hygiene seems to do the trick.  We had Mike sleep on the couch last night since I was still burning a fever.  I'm not surprised he didn't pick anything up - he's been inoculated against everything - but it never hurts to be prudent. 

At any rate, I hope your New Year's was less dramatic than mine!  XOXOXXO

What did you do to ring in 2012?