Passionately Pursuing the Good Life

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

2010 Recipe Round Up

As the season of giving thanks (and pie!) approaches, I take a moment to reflect on some of the things I am thankful for. Health? Check! Love? Check Check! Good food? Well, thanks to some truly amazing food bloggers and reliable Food Network chefs, that gets a hearty check, too! I am truly thankful for the wealth of food bloggers and recipes at my disposal online. Where I may have felt that I couldn’t live without the Food Network a few years ago, it seems lately that a lot of my inspiration to try new recipes comes via the Interwebs!

Here are a handful of my favorites so far this year.

Recipes from the Pioneer Woman

Penne a la Betsy

Ahhh…this is my favorite kind of recipe – delicious, quick enough for a weeknight meal, and fairly healthy (depending on how much cream you decide to use). This dish is very comforting. Use the Barilla Plus pasta for an added nutritional boost and a side of veggies and you’ve got a really nice meal.

Modifications: Just a pinch of red pepper flakes (or more depending on your spice preference) to the onions as they cook. The sauce is fairly sweet so I like the dimension that the spice brings to it. Additionally, I live in fear of burnt garlic so I don’t add the garlic until after the onions have cooked down.

Olive Cheese Bread

You can definitely file this under the category of “Not Even Remotely Healthy.” Though, olives are kind of healthy…right? This is major decadent goodness, and works really great as an appetizer for a party, especially since you can mix the olive/cheese/butter spread a few days in advance.

Modification: I think you can actually cut the spread ingredients in half. I made the full recipe but wound up using a lot less of it on the bread and it was still very rich.

Recipes from Giada De Laurentiis

Asian Chicken Salad

I LOVE this salad! It’s perfect for an easy weeknight meal because there’s no cooking as long as you grab a rotisserie or other pre-cooked chicken from the grocery store. Just chop your veggies, slice the chicken, whisk up the dressing and assemble!

Modifications: A couple of ingredients here are not vital. I’ve made this salad a number of times without cabbage and I’ve never managed to acquire Thai Basil, but it’s still delicious. I also use regular white sesame seeds instead of black ones.

Lasagna Rolls

This is a great party dish for a couple of reasons – one, it’s vegetarian if you omit the prosciutto (which is not crucial to the recipe) and, two, you can assemble it the day before and put it in the oven an hour or so before your guests arrive. I also love the idea of lasagna "rolls" because it provides you with a perfect portion to dish out. Plus it was scrum-dill-iumcious!

Modifications: I followed a lot of reviewers’ suggestions and doubled the béchamel sauce so that there would be plenty to cover the bottom of the pan. I had a little left over but I agree that you need just a little more than the original recipe provides. As mentioned, you can leave out the prosciutto to make it vegetarian, or you can even add cooked sausage to it for a more classic lasagna taste.

Pasta Primavera

Here’s another great vegetarian meal. There is an unusual amount of chopping prep-work here, but once you get through that the recipe is very easy to complete. Since it’s fairly simple, this is one of those recipes where it’s really important to use good ingredients (i.e., fresh farmers’ market vegetables and really good parmesan cheese). Plus you can stray from the actual veggie ingredients here and use whatever is in season.

Modifications: There are quite a few changes here. First, I’m not crazy about raw tomatoes so at the halfway point when you stir the vegetables, I throw in the halved cherry tomatoes so they can cook down a little bit. I also add a couple of cloves of chopped up garlic at the beginning. In place of the Herbs de Provance, you can pretty much use any seasoning blend that, as Pioneer Woman says, makes your skirt fly up. I’ve been using a blend from Penzey’s called Paris Morning. A couple of crucial notes here – you really need to make sure your oven is HOT when you put in the veggies, or they won’t caramelize properly. Also, the Food Network link has a video which I found helpful to see the shape in which she chopped everything.

Recipes from Annie’s Eats:

Kitchen Sink Cookies

Many comments on this link claim that these are really “Monster Cookies.” Whatever they are, they are delicious and also gluten free as there is NO flour used in this recipe! I thought the use of pretzel M&Ms was quite genius (although in hindsight pretzles probably have gluten so omit those if your goal is gluten free). And this is the kind of recipe that can be a blank canvas to whatever you like or have on hand to put in…nuts, other kinds of candy, etc.

Modifications: I’m not a huge fan of raisins, so I used dried cranberries instead and was very happy with the result. Also, my cookies where a bit puffier than what Annie’s appeared to be in her pictures. I wound up liking them that way because they were kind of soft inside. But if you prefer a crunchier cookie I think you need to pat them down a little before they go in the oven.

S’Mores Cupcakes

Oh, man…if you are looking to impress, this is the cupcake to do so! Dramatic in design, and super delicious! There were multiple steps to this recipe, but honestly as long as you’re organized (and have a small kitchen blow torch) I don’t think it is too difficult for your average baker.

Modifications: None. It’s perfection!

Chicken Enchilada Roll Ups

I stumbled upon this recipe while looking for an appetizer for Fourth of July that could be served at room temperature. They were very well received, though I think the brand of chili powder I was using was extra hot because they came out a little picante! It takes a bit of practice to get the rolling technique down (go ahead and insert your adolescent “rolling” joke here). You want to make sure and roll them tight so that when you cut them they stay intact. Yummy, delicious, and overall a fairly low-maintenance appetizer. Win!

Modifications: If you have sensitive palates (or insanely hot chili powder like moi) you might want to halve the amount of spice.

Recipes from Sing for your Supper:

Easy Mexican Casserole

Self designated food snobs (sometimes referred to as “foodie,” ack I hate that word), like to diss on the casserole as it’s an easy target. But you know, it’s darn hard to beat the comfort that comes from a good, solid casserole. And this is a good one. Really simple to prepare with good flavors and the added bonus that it seems to get better the next day! Perfect for a fall weeknight, or even a nice easy Sunday dinner.

Modifications: I made none, though I'm sure you could play with this a bit - use turkey instead of ground beef, use seasoned black beans, etc.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Book Review: "The Sea, The Sea" by Iris Murdhoch

The Sea, The Sea (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics)The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Oh, such mixed feelings about this book. Had you asked me my feelings about this novel half way through reading it, you would have seen my face scrunch up in frustration and I would say, “spare yourself from this novel which is strictly the ramblings of a completely self-absorbed and delusional idiot man for whom you will have no sympathy.” BUT…having finished it I can honestly say if you are able to get past the first two hundred pages (either for being a glutton for punishment or attempting to finish, in my case, for a book group), the “story,” if you can call it that, really does start to get interesting. It’s largely a novel about power…over others, over ourselves, and often, the power we relinquish to other people and ideas. The “sea” being the looming metaphor in this book is both majestic and enchanting, but also fatally dangerous. Such it is with our personal lives and whom we choose to love.

Not an easy read, but definitely one of those books that will stay with you for a while.

View all my reviews

Monday, August 9, 2010

Mighty Life List #31: I Played in the Mud!

Glen Ivy Day Spa in Corona is situated, well, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. But I suppose that’s part of its charm. You drive through a whole lot a nothin’ before arriving at a picturesque oasis with lush landscaping and friendly staff members ready to make you feel welcome and pampered.

On a beautiful summer Saturday morning, George and I fueled up with a quick breakfast and hit the road. Despite the early head start and no traffic, by the time we arrived at the day spa (about a half hour after they opened) there was a good 20 minute wait just to get checked into the spa. We paid, received instructions on where to find the dressing rooms, and proceeded directly to Club Mud!

Let me tell you, from personal experience and from simple observation, that playing in the mud is not only good for the skin, but good for the spirit. I watched several women transform into giddy schoolgirls as they helped each other get covered with mud and check out their goofy profiles in the outdoor mirrors. As I had George with me, I was also able to get the unique male perspective of this experience. After covering himself with mud, George proclaims, “Hey, it’s like ‘Predator!’ You know, where the guy covers himself with mud so the creature won’t see him?” Ha! Yes, I...suppose it is! To those of you who might be a bit squeamish, fear not, for this is not your average mud. It goes on smooth and actually feels really nice. The hardest part is washing it off. I was finding traces of mud for a good day and half afterwards!

After our mud session, our intention was to grab a fruity cocktail (OK, that part was really my intention) and find a couple of lounge chairs to relax in. Only problem was…there were none left! The vast sea of lounge chairs had all been marked as taken. Apparently if you plan on visiting this spa during the summer on a weekend, you need to arrive at the spa the minute they open and immediately mark a couple of chairs for yourself. Yeesh. Now I know.

Despite this minor setback, we still managed to find a little corner for ourselves to relax in. With drink in one hand and magazine in the other, I put two regular chairs together to form a make shift chaise. It worked out just fine.

I sipped on a delicious Peach Bellini and skimmed through a Real Simple, and George relaxed beside me while catching up on his Sunset magazine reading.

The rest of the day included a trip to the mineral baths for me, round two of mud for George (he really likes that mud!), and some lounging in a floaty chair in the shallow pool. With the beautiful landscaping surrounding us and the weather not a degree past perfect, it honestly felt like we were on a tropical vacation. I can’t remember a more relaxing few hours so close to home. I can’t wait to go back!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mighty Life List #15 – My Week Without Dairy: Reflections on saying “Ciao for now” to Cheese

My hellish cheese-free week starts off with a slight disadvantage because I hadn’t managed all the grocery shopping and prep work I envisioned when deciding to go a week without dairy (i.e. an entire seven days without cheese glorious cheese…did I mention no cheese???). George and I decide spend Sunday at Disneyland, and after a fun filled day in the sun at the Happiest Place on Earth my original plan of grocery shopping and making dinner turns into a “How do you feel about ordering Thai food?” conversation in the car. To my credit, there was no dairy in the Pad Thai, Spicy Rice, or egg rolls, so come next Sunday night I will be planning a full fledged dairy extravaganza! So it begins…

Monday: I’m finding dairy in all sorts of unexpected places, including the package of instant oatmeal I was planning on inhaling at work. I resist the urge to interrogate the woman at the café at my building on their oatmeal preparation. She tells me they don’t use milk, I take it on faith that she’s telling the truth. Which brings me to my first discovery: Not only do you have to investigate every label for traces of something you are trying to avoid, but you also have to trust complete strangers that they are being honest with you about your food prep. I never considered myself untrustworthy, but as the woman at the café was dishing out my oatmeal I found myself eyeballing the product with intense scrutiny. She wouldn’t lie to me about that…WOULD SHE?

Tuesday: I really miss cheese. And ice cream.

Wednesday: Second unexpected discovery - my temporary parting with said cheese and ice cream seem to have created some extra room in my pants. Nice!

Thursday: I inadvertently come close to falling off the dairy wagon. I remove what I thought was a pork tamale made by George’s mom out of the microwave. When I pull back the husk I am greeted with the unmistakable ooze of cheesy goodness. “This is a cheese tamale!!!” I stare at it. It stares back, daring me to consume it. I sigh. I find George. I hand it over to him.

Friday: My skin is breaking out. What the hell? I thought going without dairy was supposed to improve your skin. I’m peeved. In retaliation for this I allow a modicum of dairy into my system at dinner in the guise of a fried zucchini blossom stuffed with a shrimp mousse. I feel no regrets. I am a dairy rebel! (ok not really)

Saturday & Sunday: The thing I was least looking forward to in this challenge? Weekend breakfasts. How many of my favorite weekend breakfasts have dairy in them? Pretty much all. But I work around it. And Sunday night, I make The Pioneer Woman’s quesadilla with BBQ chicken and grilled pineapple.

Welcome back, cheese. I missed you. Let’s never be parted again, ok? OK.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Book Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

The Particular Sadness of Lemon CakeThe Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel can be described much like the food that Rose survives on: superficially appealing but inevitably lacking in substance. The premise is captivating (she can “taste” the emotions/feelings of the person preparing the food), and the characters are endearing though often frustrating (especially the parents), but in the end you want so much more than what you are left with. And although I enjoyed the journey of the story, I’d be hard pressed to say what, exactly, was the whole point.

If you really love character driven stories (i.e., no plot), and are charmed by the “magical realism” genre, you might consider picking up this book for a decent, easy read. Otherwise, I would suggest discovering or revisiting “Like Water for Chocolate” instead.

View all my reviews >>

Friday, July 2, 2010

Mighty Life List #76: Martini at Musso & Frank

Ah, Musso & Frank! One of the last remaining in the endangered species of classic old Hollywood restaurants. If you have an appreciation for the old days of Hollywood, when movie deals were brokered over martinis instead of cell phones, you should definitely plan a trip here, if only to sit at the bar and nurse a cocktail while conjuring the spirit of Orson Welles. Many stories and legends surround this restaurant, which first opened its doors in 1919. My favorite being that Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, and Douglas Fairbanks would race each other down Hollywood Boulevard on horseback from the studio to the restaurant. Whomever lost had to pick up the tab!

The waiters here are possibly as old as the wallpaper, but so long as you treat them with the respect they deserve, they'll take good care of you. And how was my classic gin martini?

I'd say a lot like the bartender...a little rough at first but as the hour went by became progressively more smoooooooth. At first sip I honestly didn't think I would be able to finish it. I surprised myself!

We capped the night off with a walk across the street for a hot dog and chili fries from another Hollywood institution, Skooby's. I love my life...

I also love this guy.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Life List #51 – Making like Yogi Bear – It’s a Picnic!

It doesn’t take any great effort to come up with reasons not to like living in Los Angeles. Traffic alone will provide several pages worth of items to gripe about. But one thing we trump all other cities on is consistently beautiful weather. Which is why I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to pack a picnic and go in search of a beautiful place to enjoy it…of which we have many in LA.

Online research for good picnic places seemed a touch uninspired. All the usual suspects were there…Hollywood Bowl, Griffith Park, Hollywood Cemetery for their movie screenings, etc. All fine places but I was looking for something, I don’t know, a little more unique. On a whim I checked out The Getty’s website to see what time they close on Saturdays. I was sold when I discovered that not only do they stay open until 9:00PM, but that parking is free after 5:00PM on Saturdays. That’s a $15 savings! And considering there is no additional fee to get into the museum, the only thing it cost us were the drinks we bought to enjoy with our picnic food.

Check out our view. Not bad. Not bad at all!

Our picnic included an Antipasto Sub, chips and fruit salad.

This was a lovely way to enjoy the evening and time with my sweetheart. I think this may have inspired me to create my own list of “Best Places in LA to Picnic.” To be continued!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Life List #94: Jen, Jen, the Bread Maker!

I finally made a sandwich style bread from scratch! While I keep reading about all these uber simple “no knead” mix it and forget about it type breads, I wanted to conquer the basic first. And I wanted to keep it healthy. So I chose the Multigrain Bread recipe from America’s Test Kitchen (as of now they still have both the recipe and the video up on their website). They used a rather clever trick of using a 7 Grain (or in my case 10 Grain because that’s all they had at the store) hot cereal mix as the bread base. That way you don’t have to throw down like $80 to buy 7 different types of flour.

Here’s what I learned:

v If you follow this recipe, it really does take at least an hour for the hot cereal to cool down enough to proceed to the next level. I highly recommend using a thermometer but if you don’t have one, definitely wait for an hour. If it’s too hot it can kill your yeast. You don’t want to kill your yeast, DO YOU???

v The hardest part about this was the waiting. Your bread dough needs to nap. A lot. I would not recommend doing this on a beautiful, sunny day as the outside world will beckon and strongly tempt you to abandon your bread project and find a field of wildflowers in which to frolic.

v This may sound strange, but if you are like me and struggle with estimating values (i.e., inches, weight, yards), I would definitely use a ruler when it comes to forming/shaping your bread loaf. I had one beautiful looking bread and one that was a little, well, squat if you will.

v Homemade bread makes the most delicious and amazing cinnamon toast. For a primer on how to make cinnamon toast the “correct” way, please consult this lady.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Book Review: The Blind Assassin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Suicide? Check. Secret lovers? Check. Social, political, and emotional corruption? Check. An alien society on a fictional planet…wait, what?

Yes, while the bulk of the novel involves the story of two sisters in World War I era Canada, there is also a subplot intertwined throughout the novel that involves, among other things, an alien planet. If that doesn’t make you flee for the hills, and you’re willing to suspend your assumptions and just “go with it,” I promise it’s worth it. “The Blind Assassin” is a beautiful novel about human frailty, and how with a simple word or action you can set the course of another person’s destiny…and usually not in a good way.

The actual blind assassin of “The Blind Assassin” appears in a science fiction-esque story that two anonymous lovers are crafting together. On a fictional planet that is brimming with all kinds of social corruption , a certain class of children are blinded and abused, and, oh, they weave the most remarkable carpets! But before you feel too sorry for them, their other senses evolve on near bionic levels and they soon make a niche for themselves as assassins. One such assassin is on his way to complete a job, but manages to fall in love with his target who, wait for it, has had her tongue removed so that she cannot scream while being sacrificed to one of the gods. Cheery planet! Can their love overcome the odds of escaping and surviving in such a troubled society? Depends on which lover’s ending you want to go with.

Largely, though, The Blind Assassin is a story about an old woman who is attempting to set the story of her life straight, and to hopefully right some wrongs in the process. She is portrayed as both victim and assailant in the events that unfold. And in the end, the novel is largely about accountability. Even though we are shaped by our society, our upbringing, and our overall station in life, at what point are we responsible for our actions? At what point should you stop listening to what everyone else says is “the right thing to do” and start trusting in what you believe truly is right?

This novel is hardly “breezy,” but if you are up for a challenge and love great writing, you won’t be disappointed with “The Blind Assassin.”

Monday, May 10, 2010

Life List Number 93: Make Chicken Stock – Those sensitive to chicken parts are advised to look away

Homemade chicken stock has been on my “to do” list for quite some time. Problem is, just like any basic recipe, there are a thousand different variations and schools of thought on how to do it. Do you start out with raw or cooked chicken, for example? Whole chicken or just parts?

Frequently, I consult Ina Garden (aka “The Barefoot Contessa”) for standard recipes. But my jaw dropped when I saw that she required three whole chickens to make her chicken stock, and that the chickens would all be discarded afterwards. That’s damn expensive chicken stock!! Not to mention wasteful. Isn’t one of the essential premises of making stock to extend the life of your “scraps?” But I guess if you have the cha-ching to live in the Hamptons, then your reasons to make stock have little to do with economics.

Recently I stumbled upon a delightful little blog called “Foodie With Family,” and was instantly impressed by her post about chicken stock. She touts the value of boiling chicken parts that have bones in them not just for the flavor but for the nutrition that comes out of them. She’s also a big believer in using (shudders) chicken feet.

So on an errand day we stopped by my favorite place in Los Angeles to buy poultry, Puritan Poultry at the Original Farmer’s Market at 3rd and Fairfax. I bought two pounds of chicken backs, but I chickend out (ha ha..get it????!) and decided to forgo using chicken feet this time around (baby steps). As for the economic part of this project I already felt miles ahead because two pounds of chicken backs cost me right under $4. That’s almost the cost of just one carton of the store bought stuff. Sweet!

I followed her recipe pretty much to the letter. I cut a few of the backs in half before I put them in the pot, which turned out to be completely unnecessary as they virtually disintegrate after cooking for four plus hours. You throw in the chicken, cover it with water and turn on the heat. After it comes to a boil you take a big spoon and skim off the, er, scum. Just for you, here’s a scum shot:


After you complete the de-scumming, you throw in some lovely veggies and a few peppercorns:

Then you just let it perk away on the stove for at least four hours. It may have not looked like the prettiest thing, but it definitely smelled good!

Not winning any beauty contests...

Once everything has had ample simmer time, you strain it and either put it in containers or back in a pot. Once it sits in the fridge overnight the fat will solidify and you just pop it out. And, just for you, here’s a fat shot:

I packed them up in various sized containers and tucked them in all snuggly into the freezer for future use. My first use for it was in my favorite carrot ginger soup. I forgot to defrost the stock ahead of time, but a couple minutes on defrost and a couple on full power in the microwave and it was just fine.

Overall I’m really happy with this technique. I may, just for posterity, try an added technique which involves sautéing the chicken parts for a few minutes before adding the water to give it a little more depth of flavor. In any case, what resulted was a clean, fresh tasting chicken stock that works very well in whatever you are adding it to. And the cost can’t even compare to the store. Four dollars worth of chicken backs got me the equivalent of about five of the cartons from the store. Woo hoo!

And for putting up with the chicken backs and scum and fat footage, here is the recipe for my favorite carrot ginger soup. Just for you!


3 cups chicken stock

1 1/2 pounds carrots, peeled and chopped (about 5 cups)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 onion, minced

salt and pepper

2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger

3/4 cup of whole milk

1/4 fresh orange juice

Bring broth and carrots to a boil, covered, in a large saucepan (this will streamline the process once you add it to everything else). In a large saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and a little salt and cook until soft, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the ginger and cook until "fragrant," about a minute. Carefully add in the hot broth and carrots. Simmer until the carrots are tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. In batches, puree the soup in a blender until it's nice and smooth. Return to pot and add the milk and orange juice. Simmer briefly, and then taste for salt and pepper.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Life List #20 – I made a quilt! Just don’t look too close

Perhaps one of the lessons learned in crossing things off of a life list is that not all pursuits of life-long interests are going to be a smashing success. And while I’m doing my best to reserve final judgment on my potential role as a quilter after only making one baby quilt, let’s just say this wasn’t a triumphant experience.

After having a great time at the basic sewing class at Home Ec in Silverlake, I decided to enroll in their three part beginning quilting class which involved the making of a baby quilt.

Allow me the small digression to point out the irony that economics were a large part of my interest in quilting. In theory, I should be able to make a beautiful, full size quilt at a fraction of the retail cost. But learning is apparently expensive. Given the cost of the class itself PLUS all the materials…let’s just say I easily could have purchased a new full sized quilt.

Ouchie money part aside, I proceed to gather the materials I need and prepare my fabric strips for the first day of class. This part was actually fairly easy (especially with a handy dandy rotary cutter) and kind of fun! I feel I’m off to a good start!

Class Number One: Sewing Machine from Hell, Anxiety and a Hangover

I start off on the wrong foot by overindulging in a few hefty glasses of red wine the night before and arrive to class with a naggy wine headache. Despite that I’m excited to be there and ready to start. We are instructed to lay out our pieces of fabric in a design we want the finished product to be. Easy enough. Quilting is easy! Then we are sent off to our sewing machines. This pretty much marks the end of my free ride. I’ve only taken one class and I can’t recall how to properly thread this retched machine. I anxiously await help from the instructor which sets me behind my fellow classmates. Finally, the machine gets set up and I’m back on track. I start sewing and….JAM. Argh. Remove fabric, untangle mess, try again. Sewing, sewing…JAM. This happens repeatedly. I again attempt to flag down the instructor who is busy chatting about her day job. It doesn’t help that I can’t remember her name. “Um….teacher?? I decide maybe I should rethread my machine. Again…setting me behind and making me nervous (which is agitating the wine headache). Rethreading works and I complete my first sewing task.

Our next step induces such anxiety that it literally makes my hands shake. We are supposed to cut our fabric pieces to an exact length and width. Which sounds easy enough until suddenly you are faced with rulers and lines and flashbacks of high school geometry (which I definitely did not excel in) and all you can think is OMG WHAT IF I CUT IT WRONG AND RUIN IT??? At this point I start to think maybe quilting isn’t for me. I thought this was supposed to be a relaxing experience? I cut the strips to the best of my ability, am sent back to the evil machine to sew the strips together, and mercifully, our first class comes to an end. I go home. Drink more wine.

Class Number Two: Survival and Success!

I approach the second class in sheer survival mode. I do something that isn’t very nice…I sit at a different machine. While everyone else is gravitating back to their spots from the previous class, one poor girl is forced to sit at the evil machine because I got there first. But did I have jamming problems? Nope. Not once. I spent the remainder of class avidly avoiding eye contact every time I heard her machine sputter and cough.

Our second class is all about quilting! We sandwich the top of the quilt to the back with the batting inside, and smother it with pins to keep it in place. Then away we go! This is what I was most looking forward to. The whir of the machine, the fabric moving beneath my hands, and line by line the pieces of fabric magically turning into a quilt! My confidence restored, I stop short a few inches once our time runs out but our instructor assures us that we can finish the quilting part the final week. We have lots of time! Phew…maybe I’m not the Quilt FAIL I was worried I would be.

Class Number Three: Disappointment

I arrive at the final class feeling good about my work and excited to walk out later with a fully completed quilt. My first setback comes when the instructor looks at my piece and says “Oh, you need to finish quilting? Um, OK…” But Stupid Lady you said we could finish this week!!!! Aw, hell. Now I’m feeling rushed. About a half hour later I finish and…DRAMATIC THUNDEROUS MUSIC…we have to cut. AGAIN. Lord help me. If I had anxiety with cutting the pieces imagine now the anxiety of cutting a fully quilted….quilt. My shakes return. I cut as instructed but my inferior geometry skills have slightly reduced the intended size of my piece. Oh, well. I repeatedly remind myself that this is my first quilt ever, so maybe I should go easy on myself.

Finally we reach the last part of the quilting process: the binding. And, I am not kidding, but the use of a calculator was required in this step. Did I miss something? Should I have taken a refresher math class before attempting to quilt?? Apparently math is needed in order to equate exactly the length and width you should cut your binding pieces. OK. I compute, I cut, I iron, I bind. But something is amiss. Even the teacher is confused when I bring it to her. When I cut my binding pieces I had two strips of the right size and then the leftover fabric. Any guesses as to what I sewed onto my quilt? Uh huh…one correct size and one friggin’ scrap. So my only option was to rip out the scrap and sew on the correct piece. I’m miles behind everyone else and at this point I just can’t wait for it to be over. Binding is sewn on and now I’m told that the quilt has to be finished by hand. Basically, the binding is machine sewn around all the edges of the quilt and then you pull it back with your fingers and hand sew it into place. AT HOME. I leave class with mixed feelings and an unfinished quilt. Boo.

Two Months later: Finished yet Flawed

After mostly ignoring the quilt for a few months, I finally finish it! And, in the process, discover a multitude of additional mistakes. One of them being that I hadn’t quilted far enough up on a few spots so the quilting ends before it reaches the binding. And one part of my binding didn’t get quite sewn on all the way. None of this is detrimental. But I can’t help feeling like I didn’t get a solid educational experience from… “Teacher” (I still can’t remember her name). She repeatedly joked that she was what the quilting community refers to as a “Lazy Quilter,” which is funny and cute when you’re messing about but when I take home a quilt full of mistakes it makes me kind of mad.

So, will I ever quilt again? I honestly don’t know. I guess I took away enough of the basics to fiddle with it later if and when the next crafty mood strikes.

But in the mean time, check out my cute little TV cozy:

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Product Review: The Bar Method v. Tracy Anderson Smackdown!

In my younger days of working out, I never thought I could be the kind of person who exercised at home. There was always an inherent need to get out of the house and into a designated “Sweat Here” structure. But…people change. After being a frequent gym member for the better part of ten years I may have achieved Gym Burnout. I also think living and working in Downtown has a lot to do with it. By the time I walk home, I have absolutely no desire to change my clothes and then get into my car and fight my way through traffic to go work out. If you’re already in your car after work, it’s just easier.

I’m also willing to accept the fact that maybe I’m just plain lazy.

Laziness aside, the possibility that I could achieve a high level of fitness in the comfort of my abode had an obvious appeal. So I made the switch from gym rat to home fitness extraordinaire, and without further ado, I present to you my breakdown and ratings of two fairly popular fitness DVDs.

The Bar Method: “Change Your Body” and “Accelerated Work Out”

Length of time: About an hour

Special Equipment: A bar or chair (I use a Fluidity Bar…thank you Craigslist!), a mat, three to five pound weights, and a stretching strap or towel

Level of Difficulty: Moderate to High

Overall Rating: A+

I’ve been using these DVDs consistently for about six months. If you are at all familiar with The Bar Method, then you probably know that this workout can be DANG HARD. The standing thigh work makes your legs shake like they’ve never shaked before! After a couple of months I started getting strong enough to make it through (most) of the exercises without stopping. Even after using them consistently for six months, they are still challenging and I often experience some muscle soreness the day after. All the moves are highly concentrated and low impact, and in fact you don’t wear athletic shoes at all during the workout. The two DVDs are fairly similar in their level of difficulty, except for the arms which are much more challenging in the “Accelerated” workout. The founder of Bar Method, Burr Leonard, who is OMG-fantastic-amazing-looking for a woman in her 60s, leads both DVDs. I appreciate her calm demeanor (I’ve never been one for the overly enthusiastic or Drill Sergeant hosts). She occasionally throws in a couple cute little notes of encouragement like “This makes you look great in jeans!” during some of the tough parts. The two areas I feel I’ve seen the most change are my legs (mainly from the hip to the knee) and my abs. While during both workouts your heart rate does get elevated frequently, I would recommend you still supplement alternative forms of cardio a couple days a week. Overall, an exceptional work out DVD!

The Tracy Anderson Method: Mat Workout

Length of time: About an hour

Special equipment: Chair, mat, one to three pound weights

Level of Difficulty: Moderate to High

Overall Rating: B+

I’ve been flirting with buying this workout for a while. I’m usually wary of anyone or anything that is heavily celebrity endorsed (Madonna and Gwyneth and Oprah, oh my!). And her DVDs aren’t cheap. But I didn’t want to burn out on The Bar Method DVDs and figured I best bring something new into the rotation.

This is a pretty challenging routine. You start with a series of standing leg work, which seems to work the standing leg almost as much as the working leg! Then you do some funky “standing abs,” which involves moving your ribcage around in various movements while keeping your hips still. It’s…interesting. This is followed by the arm workout, and O…M…G, THE ARMS. The arm segment of this workout is probably worth the entire price of the DVD. The first half of it uses absolutely no weights, but involves following Tracy in a routine that has you sort of flapping and moving your arms about. If you can get through this whole thing without your arms collapsing like sad little noodles, you are superhuman! She does a second arm routine (are you kidding?) with light weights, of which I usually have to put down a couple of times and follow along weight-less. Seriously, I’ve never seen an arm workout like this before, and I’m impressed! The workout is rounded out with a second leg routine on the mat (finally the mat appears in this “Mat Workout!”), some ab work and a cool down. The abdominal section is probably my least favorite part of this entire DVD. I feel like the moves hit mostly the upper portion of your abs, when most of us feel that the belleh area on the lower side is what needs the most attention.

While I like this DVD, I have a couple of major beefs about it. First, she has virtually no audible cuing (kind of important when your head is between your knees and you’re supposed to know that we’ve moved on to side stretching) and almost no guidance on form. The cuing I can get over. After a couple of times you get used to the flow of the movements. But without a reasonable amount of guidance on form you can be at risk for not doing the exercise properly, causing you to either not get results from the workout or, even worse, injuring yourself. Even the angles of the camera work supply rather vague clues as to what she’s doing. So my advice to beginners of this workout is to pay acute attention to her body and the movements, and to stop if anything feels wrong.

So, in a head-to-head competition between The Bar Method and Tracy Anderson, Bar Method definitely wins. That said, I’m still happy to have Tracy in the mix for a little variety and challenge.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Book Review: The Good Earth

My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Oh, wow. WOW did I not enjoy this book. Like. At all.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and ask, why? Why for the love of Pete is this book considered a classic? Ok, I get that the concept of a white woman giving voice to a Chinese man in the 1930s is fairly ground breaking. And maybe there are a handful of people out there who thought all women were treated nicely by their male counterparts in China (Spoiler: They Aren’t). But apart from those two possibilities, I see no reason for this book to be included in any kind of must-read list of literary classics.

For those of you looking for a truly depressing story and plan on reading it, allow me to offer a few pointers. First, just approach it knowing that the story is not uplifting. And by not uplifting I mean astoundingly amazingly unbelievably depressing. If you read along hoping for somebody in the end to leap out and give every nasty person their comeuppance, you will be disappointed. There may even be some scratching of the head and furrowing of the brows. Secondly, be advised that if you read this book before you go to bed and then wonder as to why you are inexplicably livid with your boyfriend/spouse/partner the next day, it is probably the book (especially when you get to the part with the pearls…oh, don’t even get me started). As a strong, independent woman, you will want to hunt the fictional male character down and hurt him. Hurt him bad.

I hate to say “Don’t read this book.” Instead, I’ll just say, “Approach at your own risk, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Mighty Life List #8 - Budgeting: Month Four and Still Figuring it Out

Budgeting. Does it suck? Yeah. Is it hard? Yeah. But like taking vitamins and flossing, you kinda need to do it.

There are several different ways of putting a budget together. My own approach to it was to use large percentages (i.e., 60% of your income toward life expenses, 20% Savings, 20% Fun Money), and then break each one down into subcategories. If you’re looking for help and some solid advice, I highly recommend They will literally walk you through the process of putting a budget together.

Here are some things I’ve learned so far:

Take Advice but Modify Accordingly If you live in a big city, just be aware that some financial advice out there may need to be tweaked for your own living situation. Some suggested goals for rent and transportation can in no way be met if you live in LA or New York, especially if your job title doesn’t involve the letters “V” or “P.” So don’t give up. Just modify as much as you can.

Mini Monthly Goals Having a budget is like having mini-monthly goals. And that’s just what they are. Goals. So if you don’t quite meet your expectations for saving on your first (or second, or third) month, cut yourself some slack. Even if you only manage to stick $20 into that savings account, it’s better than nothing, and certainly better than being in the red.

Track Every Penny Tracking your expenses is a lot like counting calories. The effect of which can be extremely enlightening (har har no pun intended). You’ve probably heard of the “latte factor,” but it’s true that those little $2 to $3 expenditures can add up to a good chunk o’ cash over a month’s time. By writing down each and every penny you spend, you will become acutely aware of anything you’re spending money on. If you have a habit of looking back on your monthly statement and thinking “Oh, yeah, I forgot about that” (ahem), then tracking your spending will definitely take care of your financial amnesia.

Get Creative and Assertive Budgeting is a perfect opportunity to get creative, to become an active consumer, and to not let companies bully you. I went through a couple different phone calls with a spawn-of-the-devil cable company which shall not be named, eventually having to play the “I’m gonna have to cancel my cable because I can’t afford it” routine before they lowered my monthly cost to something halfway acceptable. Nearly everything is negotiable.

Your Personal Trouble Zones If anything, budgeting will help you zero in on your trouble areas. For me, it’s definitely food. If I cooked at home every single night, then it would make sense to spend lots of cash at the grocery store, and those random bits of parsley and wedges of onion in the fridge that were used for one home cooked meal wouldn’t get tossed out. But cooking every night isn’t really feasible (I have some semblance of a social life and a Mighty Life List to conquer!). So I’m still figuring out the tricky balance of spending just enough money on food, without going over budget and without wasting. Point being, budgeting is and should be viewed as a constant work in progress. Challenge yourself to meet and exceed the goals in your budget!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Book Review: The Book Thief

The Book Thief The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a stand-out novel in the World War II genre, Young Adult or not. The story is not something we haven’t heard (many times) before, but the presentation is truly unique and I dare you not to fall in love with each and every character. If I had one criticism, it might be that Zusak attempts to employ one too many creative devices, which occasionally distracts from the beautifully crafted storylines and the people in them. But for such a delicate yet heavy subject, Zusak artfully balances sensitivity and reality, creating a beautiful, haunting, and deeply moving story.

View all my reviews >>

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alton Brown’s “The Chewy” Chocolate Chip Cookie: Get off your butt and make these NOW

  • In pursuit of my “ultimate” recipes a la Mighty Life item #92, I’ve been perusing the interwebs for some time in search of the best chocolate chip cookie. And I mean, not just a good cookie, but the kind where you take a bite and you get a little weak in the knees. This, my friends, is that cookie.

    I’ve done the tried and true Nestle back-of-the-bag recipe a number of times. And it’s good, to be sure, but a little flat and a little greasy in my opinion. I’ve tackled the
    NY Times famed chocolate chip cookie recipe a few times, which includes the rather unorthodox use of a cake/bread flour combination, in addition to a minimum 48 hour rest time in the refrigerator. I really liked the texture of this cookie, but I found the recipe to be somewhat inconsistent, not to mention the annoyance of having to plan your cookie baking two to three days out. Who does that?

    Enter the lovely and talented
    Joy the Baker, who pointed me to the path of chocolate chip cookie enlightenment. Alton Brown’s “The Chewy” chocolate chip cookie (he has “The Thin” and “The Puffy” alternatives in case you were wondering). These cookies are damn good.

    A couple of notes regarding the recipe:

     Because you begin the recipe with melted butter, it’s important to let the dough chill for a couple of hours. So watch a movie, go for a walk, or work on that novel you’re writing. But don’t rush this process.

     Don’t be afraid to pull them out when they look slightly undercooked. The time frame between perfect and over-cooked in this recipe is pretty slim. You can always pop them back in for a few seconds. The saying goes, if they look cooked when you take them out, they will be overcooked.

     These cookies are EVEN BETTER THEN NEXT DAY. I love the taste of warm, fresh cookies but something about the texture and flavor really shines after these have sat overnight.

    Next time…I’ll get all crazy and add some nuts.

    The Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie

    Recipe by
    Alton Brown

    2 sticks unsalted butter
    2 1/4 cups bread flour
    1 teaspoon kosher salt
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    1/4 cup sugar
    1 1/4 cups brown sugar
    1 egg
    1 egg yolk
    2 tablespoons milk
    1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
    2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

    Melt the butter in a heavy-bottom medium saucepan over low heat.
    (I actually did this in the microwave…just don’t overheat it)
    Sift together the flour, salt, and baking soda and set aside.
    Pour the melted butter in the mixer’s work bowl. Add the sugar and brown sugar. Cream the butter and sugars on medium speed. Add the egg, yolk, 2 tablespoons milk and vanilla extract and mix until well combined. Slowly incorporate the flour mixture until thoroughly combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.
    Chill the dough for a few hours, then scoop onto parchment-lined baking sheets, 6 cookies per sheet. Bake at 375 F for 14 minutes or until golden brown
    (mine took about 10 minutes), checking the cookies after 5 minutes. Rotate the baking sheet for even browning. Cool completely and store in an airtight container.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Book Review: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Speak Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Subject matter aside, I thought this was a very enjoyable book. Anderson's depiction of the hellish world of high school with its amusing teacher and student players was honest and entertaining without being too much a caricature of itself. The "secret" wasn't a surprise, but I don't think that's the point. The story has more to do with her journey back from silence and shame and finding her voice again. The parents drove me crazy. It seems absurd that any parent could be so completely clueless, but I know in reality it does happen. An easy read, with a very unique style of narration and an overall uplifting story. I highly recommend it.

View all my reviews >>

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Life List #22 - Shuffle-Hop-Step!

Every December, when "White Christmas" starts making its rounds on cable, regardless of what I'm doing I stop in awe of Vera Ellen and her amazing dance skills (and legs), and I always get the urge to dust off my tap shoes and start taking classes. And this year...I did it!

There was, of course, the initial trepidation and anxiety accompanied by trying something new. This was heightened by a disastrous previous attempt at taking a dance class several years ago in which, despite calling ahead to confirm that a beginner could participate, I wound up spending most of the class standing awkwardly at the back of the room because I simply couldn't keep up.

This time around, however, it was nothin' but good! I found a great dance studio called Edge in Hollywood that offers an impressive amount of dance classes for beginning adults. I got myself up early on a Saturday, dusted off the tap shoes I've kept since college, and jumped right in. The verdict? I had a blast! And I've been back three times.

While I don't have visions of "making it" to Broadway, and I probably won't ever be able to do that thing Vera Ellen does where she's tapping but it looks like her foot isn't moving (how does she DO that???), I think I may have discovered a new outlet for fun and creativity. Which is really the whole point of Jen's Mighty Life list.

Edge Performing Arts Center
1020 Cole Avenue, 4th Floor
Los Angeles, CA 90038
(323) 962-7733

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Book Review: French Women Don't Get Fat by Mirelle Guilano

I know, I know. For the past few years since its publication, I too regularly rolled my eyes at the title. How useful can this be? Isn't the core of maintaining a healthy weight all about balance? And isn't every single new book published on the subject just another way of explaining balance?

Still...I was curious. And my curiosity was enhanced by a recent budding interest and fascination of all things French. A curiosity which I primarily blame this absurdly beautiful woman:

I mean, come on. There's just something about French women. When I see a photo like this of Audrey Tautou, I want to spill my life story to her over a luxurious and lengthy lunch at a bistro or cafe. When I see a photo of most Hollywood actresses, I want to give them a donut. Maybe two. French women may be thin, but not overly so. And there is a vibrancy to them which is often lacking in their American counterparts.

So, I picked up the book. Did I learn anything life shattering? No. But it was a fairly entertaining and moderately inspiring read. Here are a few highlights that I took away:

  • Eat produce that's in season, but also seek ways, rituals, and traditions that allow you to relish in how good fruits and vegetables are at the peak of their season. Connecting with your food starts by finding ways to truly get the maximum enjoyment from it.

  • Think outside the gym. French women don't (or rarely) slave away on heavy machinery at private gyms. They generally find the idea preposterous (time taken to get there, change clothing, wait for a machine...AND you have to pay for it!). Guilano observes that Americans tend to be either "sitting or spinning," and suggests we take a more French approach by finding ways to be active all day. And she swears by taking the stairs.

  • Drink water. Lots of it. This is a special challenge for me, as my favorite form of liquid comes from either coffee or wine. The book offers some helpful suggestions to making water a little more tolerable.

  • Eat, enjoy, and savor real food! Again, nothing shocking, but a simple reminder that just because something is packaged as "healthy" (hello, 100 calorie snack packs) doesn't mean they are good for you. French women don't eat a lot of processed foods.

  • No foods are forbidden. Forbidding food is very un-French. Eat the foods you love, take time to savor them, and make allowances in the meals that follow.

So there you have it. Now go get yourself a baguette!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Discovering L.A. - Tom Bergins (aka My New Favorite Bar)

At the risk of pulling out the uber-cliche Cheers comparison (especially considering the Irish factor), measuring the worth of a bar can often be assessed by how likely you can envision your name being shouted out a-la-"NORM!!" style. If I lived closer to Tom Bergin's Tavern (my liver and waistband thank me), I could totally see "JEN!!!" being bellowed out by my friendly bartender and fellow patrons.

This Tavern is soooooo comfortable. From the extra large stools built for two to the no-attitude service, I would happily recommend this place for group or solo drinking/dining. Tom Bergins is officially one of my top favorite LA bars.

Or maybe it's just the one-quarter Irish in me talking.

Tom Bergin's Tavern

840 S. Fairfax Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 936-7151

Monday, January 25, 2010