Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Reading, end of the year wrap up

Hope the holidays are going well for all of you! I'll have some pictures to post, but I'm still sorting through my thoughts. I figured I should slip this post in before the New Year. I've still been going heavy with the mysteries, but I at least broke it up a bit this time. I'm splitting it into two sections, so that it's clear which ones are which.


Last Night in Montreal - I expected to love this book immediately, because of Station Eleven, but I have to admit I was irritated with the main character for at least half of it. I hate, hate, hate "quirky" female characters that are mysterious and not quite functional. I plowed through and gradually ended up falling into the writing and getting caught up. I still have issues with it, but I enjoyed it.

The Truth According to Us - A charming little novel set in 1930's small town West Virginia. This is charming, funny and sweet and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The only quibble I have with it (is this even a quibble?) is that while it's a period novel it has a very modern sensibility, somehow. I never felt like I was reading something that was actually written in the 30's, but that was okay.

My Brilliant Friend - Another reader recommendation, which was so popular at the library that I had to wait awhile! This is an immersive, detailed exploration of a friendship in 1950's Italy. If you like a saga, you'll love this. There are more in the series and I need to get on the waiting list.

All the Birds, Singing - A haunting, beautiful, little novel about isolation and fear. I was surprised by how much I loved this book. It sucks you right in. Word of warning - there is a lot of animal death, which normally I wouldn't be able to handle but somehow it works right in with the wildness and desolation of the story.

And the mysteries: 

Disclaimer - Touted as the next Gone Girl, which always makes me skeptical. This twisty thriller is absorbing and the plot premise is interesting, if far-fetched. If you're into this genre, I'd say try it but keep your expectations in check.

The Lake of Dead Languages - For some reason (sheer stubbornness? lack of reading material?) I keep trying Carol Goodman's books even though I'm always only half on board. I'm happy to say that this is the best one I've read so far! The plot is dark and creepy, and it plays out well. I feel comfortable recommending this one to anyone who likes this type of book.

The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next series) - Bridget recommended this series and it was promptly seconded by a couple of you, so I had to try it. Unsurprisingly, I loved it. I'm not sure how to describe it other than completely odd ball and I love a screwy, comedic, surreal mystery. Time travel? An evil villain bent on destroying a literary masterpiece from within? Sure, I'm in! It probably helps that Jane Eyre is one of my all time favorite books.

The Last Girl, The Stranger You Know, The Kill - Books 3, 4 and 5 in the Maeve Kerrigan series and going strong. I highly recommend this one, if you enjoy detective thrillers.

Let the Dead Lie - The second in the Emmanuel Cooper series set in apartheid South Africa and I didn't love it as much as the first, just because the particular mystery didn't grab me. This is par for the course with mystery series (and very individual!), so I'll still be picking up the next one.

Murphy's Law - A period mystery featuring a young Irish woman who has just arrived in America. This is the first of a series and I can see myself checking out more. It's more cutesy than realistic, but sometimes that's what you want.

X -  I had been on the wait list for Sue Grafton's latest for so many months that I was starting to get antsy. It arrived on Christmas Eve, just like a gift from the library. I continue to be impressed with how this series has held up. This wasn't my absolute favorite, but the writing was good, the plot and side plots were interesting and I still love all the characters.

Burn Out, Locked In, Coming Back, City of Whispers, Looking for Yesterday, The Night Searchers - I've always enjoyed the Sharon McCone series from Marcia Mueller, so I was excited to suddenly discover that I was several books behind. I caught up in a binge over the holidays. I will say that I think this series is going downhill just a little bit (didn't love the premise of Locked In, which also made Coming Back a bit tiresome) but it's still a fun read.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Spiralizing everything


My meal planning has been somewhat sporadic this year but I've been picking it up a bit the last few months. I've been trying to eat fewer grains* for a long time and not succeeding terribly well, mostly because I was having a tough time figuring out how to bulk out our meals without using them. While I love vegetable side dishes and I know those would work well, I'm just too impatient to make multiple dishes for a week night meal. Honestly, adding a side salad is pushing it some nights. I just want everything in one bowl and that always seems to lead me back to pasta dishes or grain salads. For a while I tried focusing on a protein + a vegetable, and that worked pretty well but, side dishes - I don't like making them. And I'm picky about our meat, so eating it more than a couple times a week blows up our entire food budget.

But in my dogged searching for plant based recipes I keep seeing this gadget pop up and I finally gave in. Enter the spiralizer. This is possibly the most gimmicky, as seen on TV purchase that I have ever made, but I love it. It turns vegetables into noodle shapes and it is amazing. I previously had a julienne peeler that I would use for this purpose, but it's annoying to use, you get short noodles, and the risk of shredding my hand was so high that I almost never used it.

I got the spiralizer a few months ago and use it two to three times a week. When we were in the midst of a violent heatwave, I used it for raw veggie salads, which are delicious but admittedly not very hearty. As soon as the weather cooled down I became deeply obsessed with sweet potato noodles and now I make a big batch of them at least once a week. They're perfect because I can get all the carbs I need (my legs go totally dead and refuse to run on a low carb diet, which is part of why cutting out grains is a challenge for me - I like my hobby jogging!) but not wake up with a wheat hangover.

So basically - sweet potato noodles for carb loading, zucchini noodles for lighter days or side salads (I know - I just said I hate side dishes but if all we're doing is grilling I'm willing to put one together), and then a whole world of other options that I'm slowly exploring. There is a ton of information and recipes over at Inspiralized although I'm not using her spiralizer. I have the Paderno brand which had really good reviews and so far I'm really happy with it.

{zucchini noodle salad with miso ponzu dressing}

Recipes that I've been using: 

Sweet potato noodle bolognese  - not actually a recipe. I just use sweet potatoes in place of pasta for a super quick weeknight bolognese. Jar of pasta sauce, 1/2 lb ground beef, 1/2 lb hot sausage, 2 large sweet potatoes spiralized. Cook the beef, add the noodles, saute until just tender and then add the sauce. I make this almost every week because it is delicious, fast, and it's a great way to stretch a relatively small amount of meat. Sometimes I'll use more sweet potatoes and pasta sauce to get more servings and it's still great. Leave out the meat (or sub in mushrooms) for a veggie version.

Sweet potato noodles with mushrooms - this is a great recipe and I added extra mushrooms, chopped sage and then dumped half a bag of Trader Joe's Cruciferous Crunch mix (shredded kale, brussels, broccoli and cabbage) in there for some added green. The sage and sweet potatoes make it taste like Thanksgiving to me.

Sweet potato noodle pad thai - still working on tweaking this one. As written, the sauce needs some punch and you end up with WAY more than you need, so I either need to up the potatoes or scale down the sauce. On a trial run I added chili paste, fish sauce, extra soy and again used Cruceriferous Crunch for some extra veg. We're getting there.

Sweet potato dirty rice - love this concept, but it really relies on good Cajun sausage, so make sure you find one you like. I didn't love the one I got from Trader Joe's, shockingly.

Butternut squash noodles with onions and brussels - I'm now always on the lookout for good spiralizing candidates. If I see smaller, skinnier butternut squash (the less of a bulb on the end the better!) I'll pick a few up and keep them around. They're a little more work because you roast the noodles rather than saute them, but they're delicious.

Zucchini noodle salad with miso ponzu dressing (pictured) - tasty, especially with some well baked tofu. I used extra firm tofu and marinated it in ponzu and a bit of sesame oil for a few hours before baking. This salad is pretty light so it's well suited to hot days. The leftovers hold up okay but not great, so maybe wait to dress the whole thing if you're planning to eat some the next day.

Mediterranean zucchini noodle salad - the best zucchini noodle salad I've made so far and it held up beautifully for leftovers the next day. I didn't follow the recipe exactly because I made my own dressing in my tiny blender but it was pretty similar to theirs.

There is a learning curve associated with cooking vegetable noodles. At first I wasn't sure when they were done so I was overcooking them a ton and usually ending up with sweet potato rice instead of sweet potato noodles. Still tasty, not as fun to twirl on a fork. You can read up on tips here, but I still think you just have to feel it out on your own and figure out your preferences.

I know it's still early to say, but I can see myself continuing to use this on a really regular basis. I feel so much better getting my carbs from vegetables and it's worth the tiny bit of extra prep work. I'm being especially diligent about it this month because December can so easily go completely out of whack.

Oh, and you'll notice when you spiralize that you end up with these funny bits of vegetable left. At first I was throwing them away but now I chop them and put them in the freezer (separate bag for each veg) and use them in soup once I've accumulated enough. It makes me feel extra virtuous.

* I am not, at all, allergic to gluten. But the older I get the more I notice that if I eat too many grains of any kind, but gluten in particular, I wake up with all my joints swollen and I feel uncomfortable. This probably means something but rather than fall into a Google black hole I've just been trying to reduce grains in my everyday diet. I still have something grain-y a couple times a week and accept that I will look like a marshmallow the next day. I think that's what they call balance?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Around the house

Tiny bits of holiday cheer are accumulating around here.

christmas lights




candy set up

GB party 2015



I put out a single strand of Christmas lights (purchased these old school ones and love them) and hung up the wreath that I made several years ago. We don't have room for a tree but I picked up a few tree trimming scraps from Whole Foods and made a tiny arrangement to hang on the wall.

We had our 16th annual girls' Christmas party and I baked some pies. Specifically, this apple slab pie, this berry pie with ginger-citrus streusel (I used fresh ginger instead of crystallized) and my favorite ever pecan tart. I don't even like pecan pie because I find the jiggly sweetness overwhelming but I loooove that tart.

My sister and niece came for a quick visit and we soaked up as much baby time as we could. Which was a lot, actually, since three adults, one baby and a terrier were sharing a 400 square foot house. We were worried that Circe might not respond well to sharing her space with an extremely active 9 month old but she took an instant liking to the baby and seemed to decide that we had brought her a human pet. She was gentle with Casey, shared her favorite ball, and even nibbled the back of her head corn on the cob style, which is what she does with her beloved stuffed squirrels. I melted, basically.

On Sunday we introduced Casey to the gingerbread house decorating tradition, although this year her responsibilities were limited to looking adorable and keeping her hands out of the candy.

It was so good to get time with them and it feels properly festive now. I have a few more projects that I'm working on and I have high hopes of dusting off the camera and getting shots of them. (I took a few photos at the gingerbread house party and as I was pulling them off the camera I realized that I've taken fewer than two dozen "real" photos all year. I love my iPhone, but it just isn't the same.)

Quick post tomorrow about what we're eating lately (besides cookies).

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Thanksgiving camping in Ojai

Thank you for the sweet comments on my last post - I really, truly appreciate all your well wishes and my heart goes out to all of you who are negotiating a holiday season in the midst of loss. Getting away for Thanksgiving was the right choice this year. Our campground was far enough out that it had zero cell service, which made it easy to disconnect completely (I usually put keep my phone on airplane mode anyways during camping trips but fully admit I'm guilty of turning it on briefly to upload Instagram pictures). We had a bit of a lazy trip and spent almost all of Friday afternoon napping instead of hiking, but it was a nice change of pace.








We splurged last month and got ourselves a fancy tent. Our old backpacking tent is starting to show its age and we decided that it would be nice to have a bigger one for car camping trips. I have to say, being able to stand up while changing your clothes is pretty amazing. And we had room to put Circe's food and water out at night without kicking it over in our sleep.

Speaking of Circe, we forgot her backpack and tried to make do with this simple drawstring one we happened to have in the car. I wouldn't call it an utter failure, but it definitely curtailed our hiking a bit and we won't make that mistake again.

We're working on streamlining our camping prep so that we'll mostly just have to toss a couple bins of equipment in the car and make a quick stop at the grocery store on the way out of town. Right now we have things sort of organized, but sort of means that we forget something important almost every time.

Campground details: We stayed at Wheeler Gorge campground, about 7 miles outside Ojai. It was beautiful and remote but I'm undecided on whether we'd go back. Our campsite was pretty good (67) and we were able to put our tent on a little bluff above the picnic area, which made it feel more private. The campsites in general are close together and not too well shielded, so you definitely feel like you are hanging out with your neighbors. There are a couple that seem more private (61 in particular looked great). This campground is privately operated, which means it's a little more pricey than some ($20/night). There is no running water, so pack accordingly! The main downside in my opinion is that there aren't many trails that you can easily walk to from the campground, so you will have to drive in order to hike. Not a huge deal, but I really love a campground with more walking access. This one is right off the 33, which is a beautiful, windy highway and very popular with motorcyclists and cars alike (i.e. didn't feel super safe to walk on, even though I did see people doing it). Because we couldn't walk much outside the campground I felt a little claustrophobic. We drove further out to Rose Valley for a bit of hiking but next time I think we'd try the Cozy Dell trail and D really wants to do some backpacking on the Matilija Canyon trail at some point, which I'm excited about in theory, although uncertain about how we would go backpacking with our aging dog (front carrier for her?).