Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Weekend camping - Bandido Group Campground

Bandido Group campground is just 26 miles above La Cañada Flintridge, making it a pretty easy 1.5 hour drive from LA. We managed to get a rare two night trip in by leaving on Friday evening after work, hoping that we could juuuust make it while it was still light out, but naturally we didn't get there until 9 pm. Luckily we're pretty good at setting up our tent in the dark, although the first spot we chose was right on top of a giant anthill and I'm really, really grateful we noticed them just before we got started.

wake up

saturday breakfast


bandido campground

angeles national forest

sunset on the ridge

camp pancakes

new cooler

new cooler

On Saturday we visited the Chilao visitor center, a few miles down the road. It's a really nice station and the rangers were sweet and enthusiastic and recommended some good hikes just a couple miles from our campground. We ended up going on the Burkhart trail hike, and did about 5 miles round trip. There is supposed to be a nice waterfall (Cooper Canyon Falls) but the ranger warned us that it's been too dry lately so the creek is just a trickle. It was still a nice dog friendly hike (Circe didn't agree and made us carry her the whole way anyways). We went in the early afternoon and we were definitely feeling the heat, but it just made happy hour back at the campground that much more enjoyable.

I think I've mentioned that I've been drooling over the Camp Chef stoves, and we're lucky because our friends have one and we borrowed it from them this weekend so we could test it out. The verdict? So much nicer than our old Coleman one. The flames are stronger, they adjust really nicely, and it's easier to wipe down. We aren't planning on splurging on a new stove just yet, but when we're ready we'll get this one.

Other new camping gear - we tested out our new Kelty collapsible cooler that we purchased during the REI sale and I'm happier with it than I thought I'd be. It's a soft sided cooler that collapses down for storage. It doesn't get super tiny (my main beef when I first received it), but it is much easier to store than a hard sided cooler and it holds plenty with zero leaks. We loaded it up on Friday around 6 pm, and everything was still very cold on Sunday mid-morning (although most of the ice had melted by that point). I think that's pretty good considering how hot it was outside. We did keep it covered with a space blanket (shiny side out to reflect heat away) which helps. I wasn't sure if we'd end up returning this, but we're happy with it and we'll keep it.

Campground notes: 

Bandido is in the Angeles National Forest. This group campground is nice but since there is no camp host I think cleanliness is hit or miss. We had to clean up our campsite a bit when we arrived because the previous occupants had left some trash. The bathrooms were decent (for pit toilets - soooo, not at all nice, but you know what you're getting into and at least there was plenty of toilet paper provided) for the first night but a huge group came the second night and they were the type that inexplicably strews toilet paper all over public restrooms (I will never, ever understand why people do this, but I'm very curious to see what their bathrooms look like at home). This certainly isn't the campground's fault and it's pretty par for the course with large unattended campsites.

We stayed at site 1, which can hold up to 12 occupants (but in my opinion that would be a squeeze) and costs $24/night. We had four people and it was lovely and spacious, with two fire pits, two picnic tables and enough parking for three or four cars (we only had two, so we didn't test the limits). The obvious spaces for tents are incredibly close to the fire rings, but we were able to find a couple little tent-sized nooks in the hill right above our campsite that were much more pleasant the second night.

Bandido is dog friendly, as are all the hikes in the area. Circe was in heaven galloping around the large campsite. We didn't spot any coyotes here, but we kept her close anyways because it's rattlesnake season and she hasn't had avoidance training. We didn't see any snakes, though.

Amenities: This is a pretty simple campground (which is actually nice because it meant it wasn't overrun with RVs). No running water, no electricity, zero cell service, no camp host, the aforementioned pit toilets. Fires are allowed within the fire rings, just make sure you buy firewood in La Cañada because once you start going up the hill there is nothing at all. You are allowed to pick up wood and kindling from the ground (I always check with the rangers on this in advance, because this varies and for some environments it's really important that you don't disturb anything).

Worth noting: This is bear country but there are no bear boxes provided at these sites. I checked with the ranger and she said that the bears in this area haven't yet (!) started breaking into cars, so they recommend standard bear precautions (no food left outside, nothing scented or food related in your tent, don't wash dishes too close to your campsite) but just locking your food inside your car at night. We did that and made sure to take the extra precaution of covering the coolers, bags, etc. with a blanket so they weren't visible (bears are clever and often recognize coolers, so you don't want them to see anything that makes them think FOOD). I was a little worried that we'd wake up the next morning and find our windows smashed in, but everything was fine. Note - locking food in your car is really bad news in some bear areas, notably Yosemite, where bears have learned how easy it is to break into a car. But the rangers at any given campground should know their bears, so going with their recommendations is a good bet.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Reading, lately

Summer reading!

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay - Moving on with the Ferrante series. I like these but I need a break after each one. So much melodrama! I enjoyed this one quite a bit and felt like maybe Elena was finally showing a bit of self awareness.

Into the Darkest Corner - Several online and IRL friends were reading this, so I jumped on the bandwagon. If you're looking for a seriously creepy thriller, this should do the trick. It's solidly written, you feel for the main character, and the tension is high.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair - I almost loved this book. It's a mystery/novel and the writing and the plot are engaging and darkly comedic. The basic premise is that a young writer gets caught up in a cold case investigation involving his favorite professor/longtime mentor/pseudo father figure. I have to say, though, I could not get over the central plot point, which is a love affair between a 30-something man and a 15-year-old girl (sorry if that's a spoiler, but it is included in the summary text, so fair game?). I never stopped being icked out by it, and it made it impossible for me to really lose myself in the book.

The Wonder Garden - A collection of short stories set in the fictional small town of Old Cranbury. The stories don't really intertwine but the characters keep brushing past each other. I really enjoyed this book and it felt like a voyeuristic chance to peek behind all your neighbors curtains.

If I Loved You I Would Tell You This - And here are some short stories that are not at all connected. They are highly detailed, and mostly sad, and so well written. The titular story made me tear up multiple times.

The Hand That First Held Mine - I think I've already recommended this novel to at least three friends. I loved it. The plot revolves around two women living in London during different time periods and it touches on love and motherhood and loss and relationships and there's a nice dash of post-war Soho descriptions that I loved.

The Kind Worth Killing - Billed as being a contender for the title of next Gone Girl (but what thriller isn't?) and it actually is closer than some of the others I've read. It's got a bit of everything - love affairs, multiple murder plots, psychopaths. Add this to your list of page turners, if you're into that.

The Boys of My Youth - Looooved this. It's a beautifully written collection of autobiographical short stories that are tender and funny and sometimes very intense. Her voice is perfect, I never wanted to stop reading, and I cried multiple times. Winner.

You Are One of Them - This novel explores that question lingering of every child of the 80's - what if your best friend was actually a Soviet spy? Joking, obviously, but I did enjoy the plot premise for this novel and the writing was good. I think it fell apart a little bit towards the end, but overall I really enjoyed reading it.

The City of Mirrors - The final book in Justin Cronin's trilogy and it got off to a slow start but was ultimately satisfying. I recommend this series all the time and will continue to do so, but I have to admit that it gets wonky sometimes. I realize it might sound odd to claim that there's a lack of believablity in a series about a pathogen that turns people into vampires, but that's my main quibble here. Most fantasy novels have strict internal rules, but I feel like Cronin sometimes tweaks the rules he's created to suit the plot. Just me? I think I need a book club for this one because I still don't fully understand the logistics of what happened near the end of the second book and I don't want to spoil anything here. Regardless, this trilogy is fun, has lots of well detailed descriptions, and is totally worth reading.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Around here

I've been spending a lot of time in the kitchen lately, and it's been nice. I know that soon the weather is probably going to get nuts and I won't even want to turn on the oven, so I'm taking full advantage now.

meal prep weekend

 Over the holiday weekend I prepped a few things for the month (pizza dough that I could freeze for quick weeknight dinners, chicken stock in the crockpot so I could portion it out for the recipes I'm using this month and freeze it).

vanilla cupcakes

Last Saturday I spent most of the day baking cupcakes and arranging flowers for my grandfather's 100th birthday party. I was just supposed to do the flowers, but while I was browsing Pinterest for arrangement ideas I kept seeing sunflower cupcake tutorials and couldn't resist.

sunflower cupcakes

Sadly, I forgot to get a picture of the best ones since I took them to the party, so I only have the rejects left but I'm sharing them anyways. I'm so far from an expert cake decorator and sometimes I think I should take a class or something but I'm pretty sure I'm doomed to failure. I always have trouble piping buttercream because my hands are so hot that they basically melt the frosting instantly so for this project I had two bags of frosting set up so I could rotate them in and out of the refrigerator and it kind of worked. I used this tutorial for the decorating, because it doesn't require any special tips (although I cut the hole in the bag a little small which made for a less polished result). I went back to my old school favorite frosting and it didn't disappoint. It's the creamiest, fluffiest, lightest frosting - similar in taste to a whipped cream frosting. It does get really soft at room temp, so I knew it wasn't the best choice for decorating but I'll always take taste over aesthetics. I didn't have superfine sugar but I just blitzed some regular sugar in the food processor and it worked just fine.


D was busy with a client project so we didn't see each other all day but we reconvened to admire our work and share a beer in the evening. I know I'm biased right now because the weather has been so great, but I'm kind of wishing summer would last forever. I'll be singing a different tune in September, I'm sure.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Monthly meal planning - July

So I wasn't going to meal plan this month because it seemed like it might be nice to have a break for summer. But then that's exactly what I had the last week of June, since I'd left the schedule open, and let me tell you - it wasn't fun to go back to figuring out meals on the fly, especially when we'd just come back from vacation and I was feeling tired.

And so I'm back to it for July, with even more meals. I'm going to be cooking four nights a week this month instead of three, because D's little brother is staying with us for a bit and I'm hoping that this will be the correct amount of scaling up for us. If we're ending up with too much food, I'll readjust partway through the month and start deleting meals. If it isn't enough food then I'm moving out and everyone can fend for themselves. Kidding. Sort of.

July monthly meal planning

I am making it easier on myself because I'm sticking with tried and true recipes and not doing anything new.

Recipes for July: 

Chicken tikka masala + saag - Made this for the first time last month and D requested it again immediately.

Brown rice noodle bowls with stir fried vegetables (x2) - no recipe, I just stir fry a bunch of veggies with some ginger and garlic and the extra firm tofu from Trader Joe's (it has the best texture!) and toss with some Soyaki marinade (also from TJ's) and the cooked noodles. 

Farro salad with roasted vegetables and fontina - Haven't made this in a long time but we used to make it a lot.

Coconut, tomato and red lentil dal - Always popular around here.

Spicy sloppy joes + salad - This is my go to recipe for sloppy joes and I'm figuring these will be a hit with the teenager. I'm not really modifying our regular meal planning much, but I thought it might be nice to add in a few recipes for him that aren't lentil or vegetable based.

Spiced butternut squash salad with lentils and goat cheese (x2) - Apparently I make this every month now. I'm lazy and always buy the pre-cubed squash from TJ's. It's only a tiny bit more expensive than buying whole squash and it saves a lot of time.

Rainbow power salad with roasted chickpeas - Solid spiralizer recipe, should be good for summer weather.

Red lentils and spinach in masala sauce - My current favorite red lentil recipe.

Spicy shrimp with pesto zucchini noodles - I would eat this all the time if the cost of shrimp (and the guilt associated with it) weren't so burdensome. Last time I made it I doubled the pesto recipe and put the extra in the freezer, so this time around it will be super simple.

Sweet potato bolognese + salad - again, no real recipe. It's just 1/2 lb ground beef, 1/2 lb hot sausage, 1 jar marinara and 2 large sweet potatoes that have been spiralized. (spiralizer post is here)

Indian dal nirvana + saag - Love this recipe and it's a nice change from all the red lentil recipes.

Grilled shrimp and vegetables with pearl couscous - One of our favorite summer dishes. Holds up so well in the fridge, good cold, also great on top of kale salad.

Homemade pizza night - I prepped for this over the holiday weekend by making a batch of my favorite pizza dough and then freezing the portions. That way I just have to defrost and it's a quick weeknight meal. One batch makes enough for four pizzas, so we'll probably get two meals out of it.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Monthly meal planning - June wrap up

June was a little hit or miss because of guests and traveling, but I made it through. I skipped a couple meals and then moved a few things around to make it work.

June monthly meal planning wrap up

New recipes this month - 

Broccoli rabe with spicy Italian sausage and zucchini noodles - Ugh. I really, really didn't like this. I like broccoli rabe, but this just didn't come together for me. We ate it, but I ended up tossing out the last serving because I just didn't want to eat it as leftovers again.

Chicken tikka masala + saag - New to me recipe recommended by a reader. This recipe is a bit more work than the slow cooker version that I've used in the past but it is 100% worth it. The flavor is so good. I made this while my sister, brother-in-law and niece were here and everyone loved it. I'll probably keep both versions in my repertoire, since you do have to devote a fair amount of time to this one so it's best suited for weekends. Note - you can prep the sauce ahead of time, which would make it doable for a weeknight meal.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Two days in Austin

Austin is such a vibrant city and we had wonderful recommendations from friends (thank you!!!) which helped a lot. As I mentioned, because we didn't have the option of Uber or Lyft we walked a lot more here and I was surprised to realize that the central part of the city really isn't that big. Walking is definitely doable in a lot of places, although it's rough during the day when it's hot and humid. We made sure that both our hotels had restaurants that were walking distance and it worked out really well.

Barton Springs

Whip in




Flat Track coffee

Bat viewing

We stayed at the Best Western Plus for Saturday night. There are so many adorable boutique hotels in Austin but we waited way too long to book and nothing was free for Saturday night. I was a little bummed, but ended up picking the BW because it was walking distance to a bar and most of the other chain motels weren't close to anything. This turned out to be a stroke of luck because the Whip In is not just a bar, it's a fabulous little market/restaurant/bar with an amazing beer selection and the most delicious Indian fusion food. Major score. The hotel also has a pool, and we definitely took advantage and did some night swimming.

We stayed at the Heywood Hotel on Sunday night and it was the sweetest little place that's impeccably furnished and the people working there were unbelievably friendly. It's a converted house with just seven rooms and it's in East Austin. We loved it because we were able to walk to bars, taco trucks, Launderette, and we even walked to see the bats in the evening (that isn't the most scenic walk because you have to go under the highway, but it is totally doable - less than two miles each way - and only felt mildly sketchy at points). They do not have a pool but will happily lend you beach towels if you are going to Barton Springs.

Things we enjoyed in Austin: 

South Congress - drinks at Hotel San Jose, shopping in hipster boutiques. There is also so much food here and we're sad we didn't get a chance to try it.

Beer at ABGB, which has a great outdoor space and you can order swiftys, which are half pints. Much appreciated.

Dinner, beer and live music at the Whip In. Excellent vegetarian options here too. The food is Indian-Texas fusion and amazing. The nachos with Kashmiri pepper queso were crazy good.

Coffee! There are so many great coffee places in Austin that we ended up having coffee coffee twice on both Sunday and Monday. I couldn't resist and luckily it seemed like all the walking and general relaxation was enough to offset it. We tried Houndstooth, Seventh Flag, Flat Track and Cuvee. They were all delicious but Flat Track was our favorite - you can order espresso and and then choose the volume of steamed milk you want to go with it. I got a 5 oz (~2 oz espresso + 3 oz milk), which is roughly equal to a cortado, my favorite ratio lately.

Dinner at Launderette - We were able to walk from the Heywood Hotel and by this point in the trip we were feeling ready for some vegetables. The food here didn't disappoint. So refreshing and delicious.

Happy hour at Whislers with waterfall pork from Eastside King's Thai Kun food truck. This bar is also walking distance from the Heywood.

Watching the bats under the South Congress bridge. The huge outpouring doesn't really get going until mid-August, but it was still pretty cool. Fair warning - bats on on their own schedule, so we got there a little before sunset (8:20pm) as recommended but they didn't emerge until a little after 9pm. Patience is required.

Breakfast tacos at the Veracruz All Natural taco truck. Very good, although I think I've been forever ruined by the flour tortillas from Laredo Taqueria and now nothing else will be as good.

Doughnuts at Gourdough's - Everyone recommended this place and it is pretty intense. I'm a doughnut purist so I couldn't get on board with the crazy flavor combinations, but we shared a cinnamon sugar and it was so good. You should take a look at their menu just for fun. It's insane.

Swimming at Barton Springs. I almost didn't go in when I realized the water was 68 degrees (I'm a huge baby and basically only like bathtub temperature water) but it was super refreshing and luckily we had already hopped out before a water snake popped up and started bobbing around. You really are swimming with nature, guys.

We could have easily spent more time here, but the whirlwind aspect of the trip was fun in it's own way. Maybe we'll make it back someday for a longer stay.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Texas mini getaway - Houston

I was attending a conference in Houston last week and neither D nor I have ever been to Texas, so he decided to meet me there so we could tack on a little vacation. The weather was a bit of a shock, since it was the same temperature as LA, but a million times more humid. I just don't know how you guys who live in humid climates survive. I mean, my skin loved it, but I was basically a ball of sweat for the entire trip, despite showering three times a day. But we had so much fun! We decided to drive to Austin as well and we solicited recs from friends who knew the cities (thanks, guys!) and then I did some of my own research (my method is a strange combination of zooming in really close on Google maps and then Yelping anything that sounds remotely interesting based on the business name - it sounds weird but I swear I strike gold a lot). We had from Friday evening to Monday evening and we packed in as much as we could while still trying to keep it relaxed. We basically ate our way through two cities and it might be a while before we recover. Four days of being a tourist in no way qualifies me to give advice, but I'm going to share what we loved anyways, for posterity. I was going to do one long post but it got completely out of hand, so I'm splitting it into two and I'll share Houston today and Austin next week.

Houston skyline

Houston scenery

Happy hour at Hay Merchant


Axelrad taps

Cortado and breakfast tacos

Pit stop

Louie Mueller

Turell at night

Getting around: 
We rented a car (booked through Spirit Airlines with D's flight) and it was practically free at $10/day and the best choice for this trip. Both Houston and Austin are driving cities, probably because it's so hot. There was abundant parking almost everywhere, which was a major shock coming from LA. It took us a day to understand that pretty much everywhere was going to have a free parking lot and we didn't need to jump on the first street spot we found. We did take advantage of Uber/Lyft in Houston in the evenings so that we could both drink. Austin doesn't have Uber/Lyft, so we planned our drinking more carefully (i.e. having just one drink then walking/shopping/exploring for a few hours) and we walked a lot more in the evenings and chose places to stay that had restaurants/bars within walking distance. Typing this all out makes me feel like we plan our vacations around drinking, but I swear we did lots of other things too!

Where we stayed: 
I had a hard time finding hotels in Houston. We wanted to stay near Montrose but couldn't find anything we could afford other than the Modern B&B which looked sketchy to me online (note - our friend who is in Houston a lot for work later told us that Modern B&B is quirky but very clean and actually a great choice, so I'm very sorry we didn't try it out). We ended up at the Hilton on UH campus on Friday night and it was actually pretty great and still close enough to everything that we could Uber cheaply. It's part of their hospitality school, so it's student run but everything was perfect while we were there. On Monday night we stayed at the Best Western Plus near downtown and it was decent but not as nice (and more expensive, oddly!).

Things we enjoyed in Houston: 

Amazing happy hour at The Hay Merchant ($3 select beers and ciders and good bar food).

Pretty crazy Friday night scene at Axelrad, which we stumbled upon randomly while driving past it earlier in the day and admiring their neon sign - it's a bar in a converted house, but when you walk out the back door with your drink there is an enormous yard with hammocks and picnic tables and live music. There is a pizza place and a food truck, but next time I would eat before I got there because the pizza was just okay and there is a lot of food to choose from in Houston.

Delicious breakfast tacos at Laredo Taqueria, where there was a bit of a line (20 minutes, maybe?) but it is 100% worth it once you get a bite of their flour tortillas.

Interesting Cuban breakfast taco at El Rey Taqueria (plantains and black beans) + wonderful (and cheap!) coffee.

A little bit of window shopping on Washington Ave at Reserve Supply Company and some drooling as we walked past Catalina Coffee.

Super casual late night drinks at West Alabama Icehouse with a friend who was in town. They had a great selection of bottled beer and a huge dog-friendly patio that made me miss Circe even more.

A tasting flight at The Ginger Man, which has a beer menu so extensive it will make your eyes cross.

The Menil Collection and the Rothko Chapel, duh. I feel evil admitting it, but I did not love the Rothko Chapel. I think maybe my brain is broken, but it just felt oppressive to me. Still, everyone else loves it and I'm glad we stopped in. The Menil is absolutely gorgeous, of course.

On our last night in Houston we spent the sunset at the James Turrell "Twilight Epiphany"skyspace on the Rice campus and it was pretty magical (free, but reservations are "required" - we reserved but no one was checking so I'm not sure if they ever enforce it).

Driving between Houston and Austin was fun and there was a lot of great scenery. The drive took about 2.5 - 3 hours. On the way to Austin on Saturday we basically shot straight through with a quick stop in Brenham for Blue Bell Creamery shakes from Must Be Heaven, but on our way back on Monday we detoured so that we could hit up Louie Mueller BBQ for some epic brisket and beef ribs. Franklin's in Austin is supposed to be amazing, but always has a super long line. We were not willing to waste any of our time waiting in line so we were thrilled when we realized that Mueller is just 40 minutes outside of Austin and is consistently rated in the top ten by Texas Monthly.

And not quite in Houston but worth a small detour if you're driving in on the 290: Connie's frozen custard was a pretty delicious treat on a muggy day. Frozen custard is not a thing in California, so I get excited about it every time we travel.