Sunday, January 31, 2016

Meal Plan • January 31

• Monday: Creamy Avocado Pasta
• Tuesday: New Year's Noodle Soup, crusty baguette
• Wednesday: (leftover soup & bread)
• Thursday: Golden Bowl, brown rice, steamed kale
• Friday: Spaghetti with Fiery Marinara, lemon-basil bruschetta
• Saturday: Kale & Cannelini Bean Risotto
• Sunday: (I don't cook on Sundays)

Oh, friends.  I'm trying something WAY outside of my comfort zone, and I'm a little nervous even to speak of it.  Some friends and I have signed up for Wanderlust 108, and while that may not sound surprising (it is a yoga festival, after all)....


That's right.  A 5k.  Like, as in running.  With my own two feet.  Crazy talk, I tell you.

Y'all, I can do yoga all day long (and I have before, many times), but running is a whole 'nother thing.  It's just not in my wheelhouse at all.

I am determined though, and since the worst-case scenario is that I end up walking most of it, I think it's worth a try.  I have downloaded the Couch to 5k app, and I completed the first three days this week.  It was not easy, and each minute of running left me panting and red-faced and feeling like an idiot (not an unusual feeling for me), but it's also a little bit awesome, and I have learned a few things so far.

  1. My dog is way better at running than I am.
  2. The right music is crucial (right now, it's Beck's Midnite Vultures).
  3. I am going to need a better pair of sneakers.
  4. Doing a post-run-recovery yoga practice afterwards is the only thing keeping me alive (yogaglo has some that are perfect for this).
  5. I am going to need more calories each day.  More avocados, more nuts, more brown rice & whole wheat pasta...).
This week's recipes were chosen for their ease (Monday's pasta is super easy and extraordinarily quick), for their nutritional punch (beans & spinach in Tuesday's soup, beans & kale in Saturday's super easy risotto), and for the extra-healthy complex carbohydrates (every day).  Bonus: these are all family favorites as well.

Running may be absurdly difficult for me right now, but I'm stoked about having a new goal to work towards - especially with friends - and I feel fabulous.  Also, the cardio has ramped up my metabolism again, so that extra handful of pounds I gained over Christmas and that decadent trip to Savannah this month have already fallen off (yay), and I am once again sleeping like the dead every night.

Onward, I say.  One foot in front of the other...

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Quick Lit • January 2016

The post-Christmas lull was a glorious and relaxing time to fit in some good reading this year, and I took full advantage of every single luscious minute of it.  Included were a couple of books that knocked my socks off, a marginal book that made very little impression at all, the first in a very well-written detective series, more than one dystopian novel, and a children's book that I've been meaning to read for approximately a million years.

Today I am linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy to share short, snippet-like reviews of the books I devoured over the past four weeks.

Our Endless Numbered Days is an unusual and intriguing twist on the ubiquitous dystopian novel phenomenon.  In this novel, the eight year old narrator is taken into the wilderness by her father and told the world has ended.  For years, they live off the land, hunting and fishing, and living in a ramshackle off-grid cabin somewhere in the mountains.  Her father is a disturbed man, and the tale takes some disturbing turns.  Suspenseful and a little dark and twisty.

I wanted to love The Bookseller, because stories that present alternate lives for the characters usually float my boat, but this one was trite and predictable.  The protagonist, a single woman who owns a struggling bookshop with her best friend, begins to live a different life for herself in her dreams at night.  In this other world, she is married, has children, and is not involved in the bookshop.  The writing is just okay, and the ending - which I imagine is supposed to be the big twist - is unsurprising and ultimately disappointing.

Fates and Furies is such a breathtaking work of fiction that I am having a difficult time finding the right words with which to do it justice.  The writing is so stellar that each sentence begs to be savored, yet I devoured the 400-page novel in less than 24 hours.  It is the story of a marriage, yes, but also a tale of what lies beneath the carefully-composed surfaces, and of all that we hide even from ourselves.  There are twists, and the book is structured in a phenomenal mirror of the title itself.  This is easily one of the best books of 2015.  I will read it again.

A haunting, unforgettable debut novel.  In Did You Ever Have a Family, the story begins as four people perish in a house fire.  The point of view changes multiple times, as the aftermath is told by different people who were either peripherally or integrally part of the lives of those who died.  The intertwining lives and the ties that bind a community are both lovely and bleak, and while you might expect the book to be filled with nothing but overwhelming grief and sadness, the story itself unfolds slowly, expertly, and with remarkable restraint.

Book One of Kate Atkinson's Brodie detective novels is decidedly different from her most recent and deservedly best-selling novels, less epic in scope and not quite as mind-blowing in structure, but no less delightful.  Case Histories is more literate than many in its genre, even though it sticks to the relatively formulaic flawed protagonist, and it effortlessly juggles a handful of story lines that neatly converge as the tale progresses (maybe too neatly, but I was enjoying the book too much to quibble with its neatness).  Witty and fun.  I will definitely seek out the next books in the series.

The Dog Stars (yet another post-apocalyptic novel) takes place nine years after a flu has killed off much of the country's population (possibly the world, but that is unknown).  Hig, a former carpenter and hobby pilot, lives out West with one companion in an old small airport, and spends his time fishing, hunting, and flying his plane around the area on scouting missions.  The narration is unusual and almost diary-like in that there are incomplete sentences, missing commas, and inconsistent verb tenses at times.  This is clearly intentional, and the book is imminently readable, though the action is very slow at times (also intentional, it seems).  The ending felt a little abrupt, but I enjoy end-of-the-world fiction and found the restrained style of this novel to be intriguing.

Gloomy, funny, and completely ridiculous, The Bad Beginning had both me and my eight-year-old enthralled from the start.  Very fun read-aloud, but perhaps best for children who don't take things too seriously.  This is a tale of absurdly terrible things that happen to three siblings whose parents die tragically on, like, page two, but it is narrated with lightheartedness and acerbic wit.  Fabulous.  Can't wait to read the next one to my daughter.

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Sunday, January 03, 2016

Meal Plan • 1/4/16

January is coming on like a freight train, friends, and I'm eking out the last couple minutes of relaxation before jumping in head first.  We have had the loveliest of holiday seasons, restful and rejuvenative, and oddly productive as well, but the busy time starts in five...four...three...

Actually, I think I've gotten pretty good at juggling the January madness in recent years.  A confluence of work deadlines happens for me at the end of this month, but rather than panicking this year, I happily agreed to a little five-day getaway that will fall right in the middle of the busy month, and I'm feeling pretty good about it all.

Don't get me wrong.  By the 20th, I will be in the middle of a full-on panic, but I don't think that's a good enough reason to miss out on the fun.

For now though, I am stoked about putting the pedal to the medal next week and Getting Things Done.  The meal plan and grocery list are ready to go, my brain is rested and excited about getting back to work, the lesson plans are ready for the kids to return to their own work, and I have even idiot-proofed my daily yoga practice by choosing to practice along with the daily featured online classes at Yogaglo at least until the payroll tax deadlines have been met.

Like I said,  I'm feeling pretty good.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Meal Plan • 12/28/15

The wheels came off over the past few weeks, as they do this time of year.  With everything on our schedule during the month of December, even bothering with a meal plan seemed overly ambitious, and so on the few nights each week in which we found ourselves all at home for dinner, I went for the quick and easy.  The kind of meals that can be made from pantry ingredients or that can be thrown together with whatever happens to be in the vegetable crisper.  It was exhausting and not as nutritious as I might have liked, but the meal plan just wasn't the mountaintop I was willing to die on.

Now though, it is Magic Week, those lovely days between Christmas and New Year's when work is easy, obligations are few, and time seems to be irrelevant.  Most of my clients are out of town or have gone quiet, I have suspended the kids' homeschool lessons for a few weeks, and my car is in the shop (again) so we are mostly tied down to the homestead for a little bit anyway.

Plus, I could use a little time to regroup.  I'm not much for New Year's Resolutions, but I do like to take the time every four months or so to tweak and adjust our schedules and our commitments, and to do a little planning.  New Year's is a natural time for this sort of reflection, but since I operate on more of a school-year kind of calendar (can't help it - I live in a college town) than a traditional calendar, I look at this particular time as a mid-year chance to pull in the reins and idle for a bit to evaluate what's working and what isn't.

One of the first things that jumped out at me that is working is the meal plan.  January is the beginning of my busiest season of work of the year, and that means I need to idiot-proof as many things as possible in order to avoid meltdowns (because sometimes, the center does not hold).  Re-instituting the plan now that Christmas is behind us was already on my radar, but it is nice to recognize the absolute importance of such a seemingly trivial activity in our lives.

Interestingly though, one of the things that isn't working is my list of reliable recipes.  Many have become boring to me, and boredom in any aspect of my life generally spills over negatively into other aspects, so clearly it's time to restore a little adventurousness in the kitchen.  Obviously, busy nights are not always terribly conducive to trying new recipes, but sometimes, changing my focus from numbers and reports to some time spent piddling in the kitchen with new flavors and techniques is just what I need to decompress from work.  As well, exercising a little creativity helps to remove blocks when I am struggling with a troubling desk project.

With those things in mind, and with the free time stretching so luminously ahead of me this week, I happily spent the better part of the day yesterday seeking new recipes.  Thus, five of the evenings this week have been filled with recipes I am excited to try, and it looks like we might actually be home together every night to enjoy some unhurried time at the table.

Magic Week is bliss. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Quick Lit • December 2015

(from Book Character Day at their homeschool academy)

This time of year, the evenings and weekends always seem so busy with holiday parties, the kids' performances, Christmas family gatherings, and (in my case) end-of-year accounting duties.

These activities, while (mostly) fun, seriously cut into my prime reading hours.

I was a little chagrined when I realized I only read three books in the past four weeks (a clear sign that my priorities are out of whack), but we are carefully setting aside some staycation time between Christmas and New Year's, and I am actively putting together a stack of books along with some good teas and snacks.

Today I am linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy to share short, snippet-like reviews of the books I have read over the past month.

Big Magic is a joyous celebration of creative living.  While it isn't exactly a roadmap for becoming creative, it is an informal invitation to jump headfirst into a life that is more open to artistic expression.  Through delightful anecdotes and an irreverent view of Important Art, Gilbert essentially invokes the reader to just get to it.  The book is entertaining and imminently readable, and ultimately inspiring.  My favorite takeaways from the whole thing are the ideas that we should take our creativity less seriously, work more diligently, and simply follow our curiosity.  Because it is presented in one-to-three page vignettes, I think Big Magic would make for delicious daily devotional reading.

Black Chalk was very nearly un-put-down-able.  The novel is described as a psychological thriller, but it isn't of the heart-racing variety one might expect by the use of the word 'thriller.' The author is a puzzle editor, and that shines through so well in both the expert pacing of the action and the slow and steady way in which secrets are revealed.  It takes place on campus at Oxford, and the tightly-drawn characters are both highly intelligent and a little dark-humored (think The Secret History, but not in a derivative sense).  Excellent debut novel.

What a luminous, phenomenal, rich work of narrative art.  Rare is the contemporary novel that reads like an epic tale, but this one seems destined to become a beloved classic.  Peace Like a River is narrated by an eleven year old sickly child who travels with his highly-literate little sister and his God-fearing gloriously-drawn father to the Badlands of North Dakota in search of his fugitive teenaged brother.  The story is laid out with such restraint that the reader scarcely notices the suspense and the slowly-building tension.  It reads almost like a literary Western, though that description does it little justice, and ends with some of the best-crafted sentences I have had the pleasure of reading.  Highly recommend.

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Monday, November 30, 2015

Meal Plan • 11/30/15

It happens every year after Thanksgiving.  I lose all interest in cooking for a few days, and I am still so traumatized by the crowded grocery stores from the week before that I refuse to shop until the kitchen has been completely laid bare.  

Thus, this week's menu is based entirely on (1) what gets me out of the kitchen in the least amount of time, and (2) what can be thrown together with what's already in the fridge & the pantry.  Frittatas are great for using up things like the last bell pepper in the crisper drawer, the single potato that didn't get roasted last Thursday, the last 2 ounces of mozzarella, the single stalk of fresh chives, etc.

And then there is that lonely bag of fresh spinach still in the refrigerator from the night before Thanksgiving.  That was the evening when I was too busy baking pie and chopping fruit for the next day's feast to make the pasta salad I had planned, and so I sent The Musician to pick up pizza instead.  That spinach will be perfect for the creamy spaghetti with blue cheese recipe.

Recipes that clean out the fridge are my faves.

The Musician will be staging as the guest chef on Fridays for the next few weeks while I teach a dinner hour yoga class, but he prefers the creative leeway to surprise us at the last minute doesn't plan that far ahead, so details are scarce for that night.  

Is anyone else even bothering to cook this week?  I'm not even all that hungry...

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thanksgiving Menu Planning

Thanksgiving meal planning can be a bit of an ordeal, but our family has inexplicably turned it into a rather stress-free affair.  Our family is LARGE, you see.  Rather absurdly large, as a matter of fact (ahem, large in terms of numbers, that is, not weight).  And Thanksgiving is quite literally the only thing we do en masse that is mostly without stress.  We have learned some tricks.

Some very valuable tricks.

Grandma roasts a couple of dead animals, and Preston fries one.  The bird does not at all interest myself nor my mother (at whose house we hold this affair), but the sides, well, that's where we excel.

When you have a family as large as ours, it is par for the course to have at least 50 guests (some years, it's more like 75 or so), and so a few of us go a little crazy with our contributions.  Mom will make a restaurant-sized pot of rice, and will throw in more rolls than you can shake a stick at.  Then, depending on the year, she'll also make a few spinach quiches (my favorite) and/or a big pan of macaroni and cheese.  My sister will make the biggest broccoli casserole you've ever seen, a few pumpkin pies, and a plateful of peanut butter fudge that will virtually vaporize before the main course has been consumed.

Grandma, even though she will have already worked herself to the bones over a couple of turkeys, will also make the gravy, the sweet potato casserole, the green and the red jello casseroles, and, if I've been a good girl, The Carrot Cake to End All Carrot Cakes.

And someone will open a can of cranberry stuff and squirt it out onto a small plate, with the can indentations still proudly showing off.  I have tried valiantly to break us of this habit.  I have made a cranberry chutney, cranberry preserves, and even a cranberry conserve, but it doesn't matter what I do.  Someone will still slide out a can-shaped mound of canned cranberry stuff.  So I have given up.

Over the years, I have tried all sorts of recipes, including slaving away for literally half a day making my own cream of mushroom soup FROM SCRATCH, and then FRYING MY OWN ONIONS in order to make the BEST GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE EVER, but I have learned my lesson.  No one liked that casserole any better than the one in which I used Campbell's and Durkee's, so, you know, screw it.

A few years ago, I made a mushroom and wild rice pilaf that I thought would be a flop (but which I was willing to make because I thought I would have leftovers to live on for the next week) and it was a hit.  The pan was scraped clean.  I made it again the next year, and I'll be making it again this year.

Last year, I roasted three or four giant sheet pans worth of vegetables, and in another shocking turn of events, I watched my siblings snack on the brussels sprouts and turnips like candy.  That one will make an encore appearance this year as well.

Oh, and then there's my very favorite fall fruit salad.  I don't know if anyone besides my mother, my children, and I like it, but I cannot imagine a Thanksgiving without it now (and it is splendid for breakfast the next morning).

I will also be baking a new pie this year.  As much of a success as the chocolate-espresso pecan pie has been, David Leibovitz recently posted a recipe for a bourbon-ginger pecan pie, and that recipe was quickly moved to the top of my list for this year.  It will be the only unproven recipe in my repertoire though, because frankly, the tried-and-true family favorites are the easiest to pull off.

So, here's to Thanksgiving, my friends, the only holiday in which we gather together to do nothing but share a meal, count our blessings, and revel in each other's company.  We give thanks for the food before us, for the friends & family who are with us, and for the love between us.

Our Thanksgiving Favorites:
Preston's favorite fried turkey brine and technique (I don't eat meat, and cannot vouch for this)
Wild Rice and Mushroom Pilaf
Simple Roasted Vegetables for the win
Chocolate-Espresso Pecan Pie
Autumn Fruit Salad (I like to add in a few handfuls of pomegranate seeds)
David Leibovitz' Bourbon and Ginger Pecan Pie

Monday, November 23, 2015

Meal Plan • 11/23/15

It can be so easy to forget to plan healthy meals for the week of Thanksgiving (or even to cook anything at all, frankly).  All thought seems to go into Thursday's feast, but I try to take a bit of an opposite approach.  I love Thanksgiving - it's one of my favorite holidays - but I always feel a little overstuffed afterwards and kind of can't wait to get back to my normal way of eating.

We have a ginormous feast at my mother's house, with millions and millions of side dishes and way too many desserts.  Sometimes Grandma even makes my favorite carrot cake, and after that, I go right ahead and eat a few too many pieces of my sister's peanut butter fudge.  Then I sit around until I feel a little less roly-poly, and that's when I belly back up to the counter for another plateful of vegetables that didn't find their way onto my plate the first go-round.

It's embarrassing.  And I never learn.

What I have learned though, is that there is nothing I crave quite so much as fresh vegetables the next day.  Crunchy, leafy, glorious raw veggies.  Thus, the great big salad (you know, to go with whatever other leftovers I managed to steal home with).  

By Saturday, I will be craving foods that have nothing to do with holidays, so I'll break out the bread machine to make some pizza dough, pull out some fresh mozzarella, defrost some marinara, and we will clean out the fridge to find toppings.  

Tomorrow, I'll pop back in to share my favorite Thanksgiving recipes.  I don't make turkey, of course, but I have a tried-and-true short list of side dishes and desserts that I can't wait to make again this year (along with a new recipe that has me all sorts of excited).

Monday, November 16, 2015

Meal Plan • 11/16/15

  • Monday: Crunchy black bean tacos
  • Tuesday: Moroccan Chickpea Stew, served over brown rice (Whoa - I've been cooking this stew for years, and I've never posted the recipe online.  Will rectify this oversight, stat.)
  • Wednesday: leftovers
  • Thursday: Take-out pizza from our fave local spot (no time to come home)
  • Friday: Creamy Dreamy Cheddar Grits, Blueberry-Pecan Pancakes (upside down day)
  • Saturday: it's somebody's birthday, and we're going out to eat
  • Sunday: I. Don't. Cook. On. Sundays.

I almost didn't come to share our menu this week.  There is a ridiculous (and highly unusual) number of evenings in which we will not be eating at home, but since I figure that happens to quite literally ALL OF US, sharing our own goofy reality seemed valid.

Our family's crazy-busy Wednesdays are finally coming to a close (for the next couple of months, that is), so that one day a week will become a little more manageable, but the holiday season begins now, it seems, so there will be all sorts of other blips in the schedule for foreseeable future.  The kids have their end-of-semester performance on Thursday evening which will preclude any time at home for dinner, and a certain someone in our household is beginning a new trip around the sun this weekend, so a dinner out seems in order for that evening as well.

These are good days, these full and funny, ever-so-slightly-too-busy days of ours.

And Thanksgiving is coming, so next week will be another time for funny little tweaks to the menu.  I am already planning and re-planning the small list of side dishes and desserts that I and The Boy Wonder (who will be bringing his own specialty for the first time this year) will be contributing to our family's feast, and I'm looking forward to revisiting some old holiday favorites and discovering some new treats.

It is difficult right now to find gratitude when horrific acts of terrorism are happening around the globe, but I do not think any of us will survive the darkness without appreciating the little things, the small moments, the time spent together around the table with loved ones.  So we will celebrate each other, and we will remain happy, and we will take a minute to be absolutely thankful for the people we cherish, because we never know what tomorrow may bring.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Quick Lit • November 2015

More than once recently, I have closed a just-finished book and signed dramatically, saying something along the lines of, "Best book ever," or "That was so incredible that I am afraid to begin anything new since it cannot possibly live up to this one," or "From now on, I will only read the best literature available because life is too short to read anything not on caliber with this author."

It is a glorious problem to have, of course, and happens more often now because I collect book recommendations from people who know of what they speak, and I read reviews like my life depends on it.  If it were not for the library and their willingness to truck in books from all over the state upon request, I would go broke.

As it is, there are a few book subscription services that I have contemplated joining (namely Book People Trust Fall and Indiespensable - mostly because those two send out such phenomenal books), but I am put off by both the cost and the clutter that would ensue.  I just do not have much interest in collecting signed first editions with slipcases (as with Indiespensable) and typically pass on just-finished books to the very next person I see.  Instead, I tend to visit the websites of each of those services and fill up my reading list with the newest titles in their subscriptions.

I know they curate these subscription boxes to make money, so it seems a bit cannibalistic of me to then take the title and put it on hold at the library instead of supporting the independent bookstores from which I obtained the title, but I read at the rate of approximately 50-60 books per year, and money doesn't exactly grow on trees...

Today I am linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy to share short and casual snippet-like reviews of the books I have read over the past month.

Pretty Girls is straight-up psychological thriller stuff, the kind of book you might pick up at the airport and take to the beach, but I do not mean that in a derogatory way. Karin Slaughter is an absolute master in this genre, and her novels never disappoint. As always, the characters are flawed and well-drawn, and the setting itself seems part of the story. This one takes place in Athens, GA (where I live) and it is spectacularly eerie to see the streets, restaurants, and bars that are *my* stomping ground used as the sites for these (fictional) events. The plot is centered around the disappearance of a college student in 1991 (when I was a student at UGA), though it takes place 20 or so years later, and it has all the elements of a good suspenseful page-turner. As with many books of this type though, the highly sensitive reader might not be able to stomach the violence.

The Thirteenth Tale reads like a love letter to bookworms. The novel is, in fact, a story about a story, and though there is suspense, it is nearly secondary to the characters and to the setting. I lost myself in this glorious book, and walked around in a daze when it was over. To say more would be to spoil the depth and the magic.

Ann Patchett is in top form with Bel Canto, a novel in which a large party of diplomats, politicians, and corporate heads (and one world-renowned, beloved soprano) are taken hostage by a group of terrorists. The entire action of the book takes place within the walls of the compound (somewhere in South America), and though the story is told from many different points of view, never is the reader given a glimpse of what is going on in the outside world. The hostages and the terrorists are bound together by proximity and by their own humanity during the months-long standoff, and while the story appears light-hearted through much of the daily goings-on, there is a sense of urgency as the book comes to a close and the reader is tormented with the sense that each and every one of the characters cannot possibly ride off into the sunset.

The Art of Memoir is a master class in both writing and reading the memoir genre. Karr has written three top-notch memoirs of her own, and heads an award-winning graduate seminar at Syracuse on, you guessed it, the art of writing memoir. The first part of the book was a little slow, but it didn't take long before it was so engrossing that it became hard to put down. The author takes apart and analyzes both well-known and obscure memoirs, and even spends a lot of pages (so many pages) writing about her own process of writing about herself. Were she anyone else, this might seem self-serving or cringe-inducing, but as she is a phenomenal writer in her own right, it made me want to go back and re-read her earlier books. At the end is a fairly exhaustive list of memoirs which has turned my library hold list into a behemoth. The book may sound a little dry, but if you have any interest in writing (whether memoir or not), the insights are invaluable. As well, reading this has changed the entire way I read and think about autobiographical works. Highly recommend for those who want to hone their own writing, who enjoy reading, and/or who would like to better examine their own life.

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