Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Late July

Sadly, Summer is halfway over already.  Luckily, I've been making good use of my days off.  This is the bright side of working around an academic calendar, even if it also means I run out of money by August.
Since returning home from Europe, I've been to northwestern upstate New York (even crossed into Canada for a few hours at Niagra Falls) and house-sitting for my parents.  I've been watching a lot of Netflix, reading a lot of books, spending a lot of quality time with my cat and unfortunately also eating a lot of food.  More on that later.  While traveling has been a pretty big highlight of my summer, some little things have also been a lot of fun.
Simple Midsummer Pleasures

1) Watching the first season of "Revenge"
Aside from making me jealous of the Hamptons home I will never have, this show is full of soap opera goodness.  Complete with bouts of amnesia, evil twins, secret plots, and love polygons (because triangles are too simple).  It's indulgent like the gooeyest, sweetest chocolate cake made from one part Gossip Girl and one part Kill Bill.

2) Semi-homemade pickles!
I've known for a while that I could re-use pickle brine to pickle my own vegetables, but I never actually tried it until now.  This makes it a little more worth it to buy a $7 jar of pickles from the farmers' market.  Actually, going to the farmers' market is a simple summer pleasure in itself.  Making your own pickles sounds fancy, but is pretty much the simplest thing in the world to do.  When you finish a jar of pickles, put fresh cucumbers, carrots, peppers, whatever in the brine and wait a week (or longer if you like a stronger flavor).  I'm not sure how many times you can use the same brine, but it will definitely stretch your dollar even if you only use it once, especially if you have some raw vegetables that you're not going to use before they start to go bad.  Just drop them into the pickle brine and they won't go to waste.

3) Summer movies
There's something special about going into a movie theater on a summer day, sitting in the dark and mooching some free air conditioning, then stepping back out into the heat and sunlight.  One benefit of not having a regular work schedule is that I can see movies on weekdays when most people are at work, so I end up with the theater mostly to myself.  I took advantage of this on Monday and went to see The Conjuring, which got pretty good reviews.  It definitely met all of my expectations.  It's a truly scary horror movie that also happens to be a decent film.  I think filmmakers are still struggling with how to properly end an exorcism movie, and this one has the same problem, but it's the best one I've seen since The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which was the best one I'd seen since The Exorcist.  I got scared all over again just googling pictures to post here.  On a lighter note, I might try to go see The Wolverine or The To-Do List sometime later this week.  

4) Summer activities - camping and canoeing
I grew up going to summer camp almost every year since age 4 or 5 (I'd have to check with my mom on that one), so there are a lot of good memories and feelings attached to being in a canoe.  Aside from being a great upper body workout, it can also be amazingly peaceful and relaxing -- assuming you don't try to go over some whitewater rapids and end up capsizing like my boyfriend did last summer!  We're going to find at least one or two nights before the summer is over so that we can camp near a lake or river and do a little canoe day trip.  Of course, I also get to be included in this year's family trip to Knoebels, so I'll get my campfire fix there as well, even if it's attached to an amusement park. 

Other honorable mentions are walking around barefoot, not wearing makeup, reading a book on the porch, fireflies, and cricket sounds at night.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Quick and Easy Food and Wine Guides

You guys, I just started using pinterest and now I have a new thing that wastes several hours a day if I let it.  I thought it was just for girls who shop all the time and need a place to remember all of the things they want to someday buy.  It turns out there is a lot of useful information out there.  I stumbled upon this infographic on different types of nuts and a whole new world was opened up to me.  If you need a quick reference guide to nuts, wine, or grains, this is the post you should bookmark.
This one is particularly useful because the serving size always says "1 ounce" and I'm like, "Ok, I'll just take out the food scale I keep in my purse at all times."
The Ultimate Guide to Nuts

I really wish I had this next one while I was in Italy.  If I had, I would have known to try the Soave!
If you know what you like wine to taste like, but you don't know anything about the wines themselves, this is for you!
Post image for Types of Wine Infographic

We all know that whole grains are better than processed/white grains, but (similar to the nut guide), this chart will introduce you to several grains you might not be using and tell you the nutritional benefits of each.  This one is kind of inspired by the recent information that as people have been buying more and more quinoa in the U.S., quinoa prices and farming have gotten out of control in South America.  Even if you're not vegan or gluten free, it's always a good idea to vary your diet -- both for environmental reasons and health reasons.  So here are some other options you might want to try...
Your Go-To Gide for Choosing Healthier Grains #infographic from @Greatist.  Find even more info, recipes, etc. on http://wholegrainscouncil.org/ and @Oldways Oldways

This has nothing to do with any of that, but the Best Use of Pinterest goes to this hilarious pin board:
My Imaginary Well Dressed Toddler Daughter
One time Quinoa escaped an attempted kidnapping. Police suspect the Kardashians were behind it, though there was no solid proof.
Tiffany Beveridge • 11 weeks ago

One time Quinoa escaped an attempted kidnapping. Police suspect the Kardashians were behind it, though there was no solid proof.



Monday, July 22, 2013

First Step of Wedding Planning: Some Tough Stuff

When S and I first started talking about getting married, we may not have been thinking clearly... "We're only inviting ten people!" "We can do it in my backyard!" "My brothers will do all the cooking and photography!" "I'll bake the desserts myself... pie, not cake!"  "We have to get married at Saint John the Divine!"*  "And we won't spend any money on anything else!"
(*in case you don't know, this is a huge Episcopal cathedral in New York City that would be akin to some random person in London claiming that they want to get married at Westminster Abbey)

But then our list of 10 people grew rapidly to 15, then 20, then 30, and now we're thinking we might just try to keep it under 60.  If there are 50+ people, one person probably can't do all of the cooking and I would go crazy trying to bake enough pies in the days leading up to the wedding.  The more things we have to pay other people to do, the more expensive the reception becomes, which takes away from the budget we thought we were reserving for the church.  Also, because my father-in-law-to-be is an Episcopal priest, we really wanted him to do the ceremony, but if we get married at St. John the Divine, we don't know how much of the service he would actually be allowed to do.  It feels like we're having to rethink our whole idea, which is unfortunate because our original idea was very "us."

One aspect on which I will not budge is that I want the "reception" to be a casual barbecue in my parents' backyard.  I want it to feel like we're just hanging out and enjoying the company of our closest family and friends -- not a formal party with nightclub lighting, assigned seating, and elaborate table settings.  I'm not judging anyone else's wedding choices... if there's anything I'm learning from this, it's that weddings are deeply personal and everyone should do what feels right for them.  But when I watch wedding shows or think of other weddings I've been to, I just know that a big, fancy wedding is not what we want.  We're low-maintenance people, so why would we have a high maintenance wedding?

Well, it turns out even a low maintenance wedding has some high maintenance parts to it.  Right now, the biggest issue is that if we're trying to keep it small enough to be a [mostly] DIY backyard barbecue with minimal costs, there might be a lot of people who want to be invited (maybe even should be invited), but won't be invited.  We will inevitably hurt some feelings.  If we invite everyone who loves us and everyone we love, it would end up being a guest list of several hundred people.  This is a happy problem to have -- how nice to be cared about by so many people -- but of course it's causing some anxiety at the moment.

I've found a few links on the internet that have strengthened my resolve and confirmed that I'm doing the right thing by trying to keep it small and cheap.  If any of you are also considering a slightly non-traditional wedding or reception, these may be of use to you as well...

Offbeat Bride features quirky, independent vendors and real weddings that don't fit into the usual mold.  I liked reading the featured brides' stories because they all say that even though they faced some challenges, they ended up having a great day and wouldn't have done it differently.

The Sensible Bride is a personal blog that seems to have ended in 2009 when the couple got married, but I still love reading it because the author is really snarky and helps me keep things in perspective.

A Practical Wedding is kind of like "The Knot" for people who want to keep it simple and not be Bridezillas.  Like "Offbeat Bride," it features real, non-traditional weddings, independent vendors, and DIY craft guides.

This blog post on "The Billfold" is a mother's defense of her daughter's backyard barbecue wedding, thanking her for having such an economically reasonable wedding.  It makes me feel like I'm making the right decision myself.

In a perfect world, I would have a mansion with a twenty-acre backyard, private forest, and personal kitchen staff so that I could invite everyone I care about.  As long as I'm not living in the New Jersey version of Downton Abbey, I hope people will respect our decisions and still love us anyway.  In the end, a wedding is something that should ideally happen only once in a person's life, so we feel very strongly about doing it according to our tastes and values.  We apologize in advance for maybe being a little stubborn about basic things like the size, cost and location.

Friday, July 19, 2013

What a Pest!

All this talk of Italy and I feel bad for neglecting Budapest, which really put some valuable travel experience under my belt.  The language didn't look or sound like any of the Romance or Germanic languages I've studied and we couldn't rely on the Hungarians to speak English.  It was fun picking up new words and familiarizing ourselves with a new city.

It turns out that Hungary has more than 20 different wine-producing regions and I was able to sample some of their varietals at a cute wine shop near our hotel.

Many beautiful views of Budapest's historical buildings along the Danube

The Hungarians love their metaphors: the entrance to Gellert Hill has a waterfall to represent the downfall of its namesake saint

funicular going up to Castle Hill in Buda

Parliament and Szent Istvan cathedral on the Pest side

the most famous bridge connecting Buda and Pest

some guy had set up an archery game and I thought I would be cool because I used to do this at summer camp when I was, like, 10 years old.  It turns out archery is not like riding a bike.

The entrance to the underground tunnels of Buda

creepy, right?

S in front of St. Stephen (Szent Istvan) church, which houses the mummified right hand of St. Stephen

the Communist red star at the center of Memento Park, where they keep Budapest's Soviet-era statues... the red star is actually illegal in Hungary (because of Communism's dark history there) except in teaching instances

One of the aforementioned Soviet statues... the plaque reads "in gratitude to our Soviet comrades for our liberation."  It doesn't seem like the Hungarians actually felt very grateful or liberated.  They have a very interesting Museum of Terror which chronicles their years under Soviet rule, reproduces the offices of the secret police, and memorializes those who were detained and tortured in secret prisons as political enemies.  I'm inspired to learn more about how Memento Park and the Museum of Terror were established, because, from a Historical Memory perspective, they are unique.  Something like this wouldn't be possible in any of the Latin American countries I've studied, for example, because the populations there are still very divided in their feelings about what happened to them.

Once again, I neglected to take pictures of food, but I think I've eaten my fill of goose liver for the year.
One of my favorite parts was actually our hotel.  It was called Cotton House and it had a Jazz Age theme, with antique radios and pictures of American pop culture icons from the early 20th century.  We had the "Ernest Hemingway" room, which had a minibar, air conditioning, free wifi, satellite TV, and high ceilings.  It was one of the nicest rooms we stayed in during our whole trip and our three nights cost less than the price of one night at our crappy hotel in Venice, for example.
this is someone else's picture from Booking.com, but this is the room

This is the kind of thing that keeps me loyal to Lonely Planet guides.  I always find hotels and restaurants within my price range that have so much character, and I feel like I'm supporting small, independent businesses.

The rest of my adventures for the summer will be relatively local -- in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Food Experiments 2

As much as we miss the food in Italy, it's been fun cooking for ourselves again, especially because now we get to use all of the great local produce from the farmers' markets.  We're definitely not sick of pasta, but I do feel like I needed to eat something really nutritious to make up for all of the white carbs and meat I'd been eating while on vacation.  I'm a sucker for a good quinoa salad, so I gave one a try, based on something my boyfriend's brother made for Easter.
I used a mixture of red and white quinoa, cooked it according to the package directions, and then tossed it with a vinaigrette made from roasted garlic, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil.  I stirred in chopped green onions, kalamata olives, wilted arugula, feta cheese crumbles, and some salt and pepper.  This was wholesome and delicious.  Eat your heart out, Whole Foods salad bar!

With the rest of the roasted garlic, I decided to try making hummus.  It's one of those things that's been on my list for a while, and there's really no excuse not to make my own hummus since I have a food processor.  I probably should have looked at a recipe before I began, but I'm not disciplined enough for recipes.
I put in one box of chick peas (the same amount as a typical can, but I try to avoid cans when possible), three or four cloves of roasted garlic, some spoonfuls of tahini sesame paste, a couple of drizzles of olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and cumin.  I processed it for a bit, tasted, adjusted as necessary, processed again until it achieved desired creaminess, and put it into a jar in the fridge.
I think it could have used some more salt and lemon juice.  I also probably should have used more olive oil and less tahini, because it has sort of a peanut buttery texture to it.  Just a little too thick for chip-dipping.
Still, it's not bad... we obviously seem to have had no trouble making our way through it pretty quickly.  If not for how annoying it is to wash the food processor, I could see myself making this pretty frequently, so I'm sure I'll have plenty of opportunities to experiment with different ratios and recipes.
If you have a favorite hummus recipe that has worked for you, post it (or a link) in the comments below!

Unfortunately, S forgot to empty and clean our coffee pot before he left.  I'll spare you the details, but let's just say I had permission to buy a new one yesterday.
The best $15 I could have spent!  Ha... OK, so it's nothing fancy, but it is an upgrade from our previous coffee pot.  We had been working with a 4-cup carafe until now.  No more need to brew two pots every morning!  I still miss cappuccinos, but I do love the ritual and sensory experience of brewing a pot of coffee in the morning.





Monday, July 15, 2013

So, I'm Getting Married...

As most of you already know, I got engaged in Italy.  My boyfriend went to Siena with his father ten years ago and had decided that it would be the place where he would propose to his future wife.  It just so happened that we stopped in Siena while traveling around Tuscany, so I'm happy to have fulfilled that dream for him.
This is the main piazza of Siena.  My mom took this picture from a distance, so that's him getting down on one knee in the little red circle in front of the fountain.  I won't tell you what his proposal speech was, but I will tell you that it was sweet.  I kind of knew what was about to happen as he led me over to the fountain, and even though we talked about getting married before, I still had butterflies in my stomach and got lightheaded in surprise/shock/excitement.  It was a little bit of a blur, to be honest.  I feel like it was over so quickly, so I'm glad we have some pictures.
at least we have an after-shot!

We had discussed getting engaged, so it wasn't a complete surprise.  He wanted to make sure that I would get a ring that I would love and be proud to wear, so he talked to me about it beforehand.  I tried to get him to buy me a $30 bat skull ring from Murder Jewelry, but he said that wasn't good enough.  I think I might be the only girl in history to argue against buying me expensive jewelry.  We had a little bit of trouble finding the right ring because both of us are wary of conflict diamonds and I wanted something a little more personal and unique.  I searched through pages of vintage rings on etsy, but nothing really appealed to me.  When he told his mother the news, she suggested we use his grandmother's ring, and we both immediately felt that it was exactly what we had been looking for.
It's been a little weird thinking of myself as being engaged, but being engaged to him feels completely natural.

Of course, my happy life event can also be of use to you, readers.  Now you'll get a behind-the-scenes look at wedding planning, including trying to slim down for it.  We've decided to have a small, DIY, rustic backyard barbecue type of thing, so I'm sure that will come with a set of challenges that should be some interesting reading for anyone who might be planning a wedding in the future.  I won't be doing engagement photos, a bridal shower, bachelorette party, or any of that usual stuff, but don't worry -- I'll find other ways to be annoying about getting married.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Best Moments of Italy

This post is actually a lie.  Most of my favorite things from my trip around Italy were things that I either couldn't or didn't take pictures of (mainly food, but also things like the Capuchin Crypt).  Still, I was able to capture some parts of the trip that I definitely want to remember.

walking around on top of Milan's "Duomo"

this apertif cocktail, which I will be making at home

a gondola ride around Venice with my family

visiting the "Bridge of Sighs" at the Doge's Palace in Venice

strolling along the Arno River with a view of the Ponte Vecchio at night in Florence

being proposed to (!) in the Medieval city of Siena

the private terrace at my hotel in Rome, which made me feel like Sophia Loren in Ieri, Oggi, Domani

seeing Bernini's "Ecstasy of Saint Teresa" in real life

Seriously, though... I should have taken more pictures of food.  I think that is what I will miss most.  I might need to get an espresso machine so I can have cappuccinos in the morning (and then a dishwasher to clean all the little parts).
Now we're in Budapest for a couple of days, but we just got in last night, so my favorite things so far are my unique hotel and how cheap everything is (compared to Italy).  I'm both scared and excited because Hungary is so different from anywhere else I've been.  This is probably the first time since childhood that I've gone someplace where I don't understand a word of the language and have no idea what to expect.  But isn't breaking out of your comfort zone sort of the point of traveling?






Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Let Your Freak Flag Fly

I declare today National Embrace Your Weirdness Day.  Here are some really weird things about me:

I sniff books.  And newspapers.  I just love the smell of paper and ink... I can't help it!

I constantly twirl my hair and tie it in knots... have done so ever since I grew hair!

Whenever I go through a yellow light, I kiss the fingers on my right hand and tap them on the roof my car.  For good luck.  Or something.

Now it's your turn!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Karaoke

I love karaoke (anyone who says they don't is a liar).  It was one of my go-to night out activities when I lived in Iowa City.  Now that I'm back in the northeast, in a suburb of New York City, you'd think that I would have awesome karaoke nights on the regular, but alas... all of my pro-karaoke friends live elsewhere.  Every once in a while, I still hear a song and think, "This would be perfect for karaoke!"  When you sit down to pick a song, it's good to have a few in mind that you know you can sing well enough not to give up halfway through.  I once thought it would be a fun idea to try singing "What's Up" by 4 Non Blondes, only to realize that my "joke" terrible singing was really just terrible.  Here are some of my usual songs, plus a few I've been dying to try out...

1) "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" by Pat Benatar
You just can't go wrong with this one.

2) "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" by Cher
Old Cher is really the best Cher.  I also love "Dark Lady."

3) "Dream a Little Dream of Me" as performed by Mama Cass Elliot
This is perfect because it's completely within my comfortable vocal range, but it's also cute, catchy, and most people have heard of it before.

4) "Killing Me Softly" as performed by the Fugees
A crowd-pleaser, nostalgia-inducer, and not too high for me.  No matter how crazy and tax-evading Lauryn Hill gets, I will always love her.

5) "Mack the Knife" by Bobby Darin
When I used to do karaoke in Iowa City, this little old Asian man would come in wearing a fedora and sit at the bar by himself sipping a glass of red wine, every once in a while performing spot-on Rat Pack classics.  One time I actually got to talk to him because we both wanted to sing this song, but he let me have it and then threw me a "good job" after I was done (even though it's kind of low for me).  This was one of  the highlights of my time in Iowa... in case that gives you an idea of how fun it was to live in Iowa.

6) "The Warrior" by Patty Smyth and Scandal
If I don't get to perform this song at karaoke before I die, I will leave this world an unsatisfied human.  I have yet to find it on a karaoke list, but I'll never stop looking.  The video is also ridiculous in a good way.

7) "Heat of the Moment" by Asia
I think pretty much any '80s synth-rock is going to be a good choice.

Some tips:  Don't do a rap song unless you're really going to commit to it and you're comfortable enough with the song to stay on tempo and not get awkward... and never ever say the n-word even if it makes the song less authentic to leave it out.  Don't choose a really slow, emotional song unless it also has a high cheesiness factor (like "I Will Always Love You" or "My Heart Will Go On")... no one goes out on the weekend because they want to be sad.  And for the love of god, stop trying to impress everybody so much... this isn't American Idol!  DO be silly.  DO sing as un-self-consciously as if you were alone in the shower or car.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

How Does Your Garden Grow

I've never had much of a green thumb, but I've always wanted to grow my own herbs and vegetables.  Even as a kid, I would watch my mom gardening in the front lawn and beg her to let me have my own patch.  Her confidence in my gardening abilities was never very high, so she would give me a little plot in the side-yard where there wasn't enough sunlight and of course nothing would grow.  There was one year when I bought a sunflower growing kit from the $1 bin at Target and it miraculously blossomed and grew so tall that I had to re-plant it in the backyard.  Unfortunately, the landscapers must have mistaken it for a weed because one day I came home to find my sunflower missing and a little mound of dirt in its place.

This summer, I bought some planters, dirt, and seeds and had one of the kids from work help me start my own miniature potted garden.  I've been keeping them on the very sunny stoop in front of my apartment and two out of my three plants seem to be growing well enough so far.  I'm constantly afraid that I'm either over-watering them or not watering them enough.  They haven't grown much since they sprouted out of the ground, so I'm thinking the huge rain storms we had two weeks ago might have caused some problem at root level, but my boyfriend says that as long as they're still green, they're probably fine.  I guess I'll have to wait and see if they've bloomed or died when I get back from Europe.  In the meantime, I've left them in my parents' garden to take advantage of their automated sprinkler system (must be nice).

this is supposed to be half basil, half parsley, but it looks like only the basil is growing

these will hopefully be heirloom tomatoes

I'm trying to measure their growth by how high over the edge of the planter they are, 
but it's hard to tell.  It looks like there's one that's sprouting really big and the others are kind of just hanging out at the same level they were before.

I'll track my progress when I get back and let you know how they turn out (if at all)!


Monday, July 1, 2013

Tips for being an adult (which I should probably follow)

1. I should probably stop throwing away dishes just because I don't feel like washing them.  (Yes, I really did this once when I let a bowl of black beans sit in the fridge for too long)

2. I should probably start doing laundry more than once a month.  If my dirty clothes don't fit in the laundry basket, I should take that as a sign.

3. I should probably change my sheets, for that matter.

4. I should probably get back into the habit of washing the coffee pot instead of buying coffee from 711 every day.

5. I should probably own a vacuum cleaner... oops.

6. We should probably just change the toilet paper roll when it's finished, rather than keeping a roll of toilet paper sitting on the edge of the sink.

7. I should probably definitely start keeping a budget.

8. I should probably just come to terms with the fact that I am never going to look the way I did when I was 18 years old, but that it also doesn't mean I should just go ahead and eat pizza and donuts every day (only some days).

9. I should probably start feeling happy for other people's success, rather than jealous of it.

10. I should probably schedule a dentist appointment now instead of waiting around for a job that provides dental insurance.