Sunday, August 26, 2012

"Alias Grace"

As I've mentioned before, I'm a pretty big fan of true crime novels. I recently stumbled across Alias Grace, a novel by storytelling genius Margaret Atwood. While the book is a work of fiction it is based upon the 1843 murders of landowner Thomas Kinnear and his mistress/housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. The story follows Grace Marks, who was accused as an accessory to the murders and sentenced to life in prison when she was just 16 years old. Throughout the novel she recounts her life story to Dr. Simon Jordan, a psychologist trying to determine whether or not Grace is innocent. 

While the book was published in 1997 it reads like a Victorian novel, plush with detail and well-drawn characters. Atwood (from the perspective of Grace) takes her time telling the story, leaving no stone unturned. While tedious at times, the detail is important to the reader as they are put in the place of Dr. Jordan as he listens to Grace tell her side of the story. The real-life Grace Marks claimed that she did not remember the murders taking place, and in a time when psychology is just being established as a science, those who become close to Grace struggle to understand her role in the murders. 

Like any great storyteller, Atwood manages to move seamlessly through time as Grace talks about her experiences before the murders and while in prison, and across characters, as Grace and Dr. Jordan share their points of view. Atwood also includes a good deal of tension between characters, with some obvious friction between the young but worldly Dr. Jordan and his rather ignorant peers in Kingston. And although the story holds several surprises for the reader, the main question of Grace's innocence is left just as ambiguous as it was in real life. 

Overall Grade: B+

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Beef with Broccoli

I can't quite remember where I got this recipe, but it's one of our top 10 dinners. It's easy and quick, and so delicious! You can modify this recipe to include your own stir-fry favorites--I'm just including our favorite veggies. 

Beef with Broccoli

For the beef:
2 T. soy sauce 
1/2 t. sugar 
1 lb. boneless sirloin (cut 1/4 inch thick)

Mix beef with soy sauce and sugar. Marinate for 20 minutes in the refrigerator. 

For the sauce:
1 T. cornstarch
1 T. soy sauce
1 T. apple cider vinegar
1/2 C. beef broth
1 t. sugar
1/8 t. sesame oil

Make sauce while beef is marinating. Add ingredients together; mix well.

For the stir-fry:
2 T. garlic, minced
1/2 onion, minced
1/8 t. red pepper flakes
3/4 C. carrots, julienned
1 bunch broccoli, florets cut into 1-inch pieces
1 can sliced water chestnuts, drained

Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet. Add onions and saute until soft. Add garlic and red pepper, cook until fragrant. Add beef and cook until almost done. Add carrots, broccoli, and water chestnuts. 

Saute for 2 minutes. Add sauce and cover until sauce thickens and broccoli is crisp. 

Serve over cooked brown or white rice. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Skillet Ziti with Chicken and Broccoli

It's been a long time since I've posted, so I thought I would celebrate my return with the recipe for one of our favorite meals. If there's one thing we love after a long day, it's a delicious dinner that can be cooked in one pot with leftovers to boot. This dinner answers all of those calls. 

Skillet Ziti with Chicken and Broccoli
*adapted from America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook*

1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts, sliced into 1-inch pieces
2 T. unsalted butter
1 onion, minced
1/4 t. red pepper flakes
1/8 t. dried oregano
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 C. uncooked ziti
2 1/2 C. chicken broth
1/2 C. heavy cream
1 bunch broccoli, florets cut into 1-inch pieces
1 C. oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1/2 C. Parmesan cheese, grated
2 T. fresh lemon juice

Pat the chicken dry, then season with salt and pepper. Heat 12-inch skillet with oil, add the chicken, and cook until lightly browned but not fully cooked, about 4 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a bowl. 

Melt 1 T. butter in the skillet. Add onion, red pepper flakes, oregano, and 1/2 t. salt. Cook until the onion is softened. Stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 15 seconds. 

Sprinkle the ziti evenly into the skillet. Pour broth and cream over the ziti and cover. Bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. 

Reduce heat and stir in the broccoli and sun-dried tomatoes. Cover and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the broccoli turns bright green, about 8 minutes. 

Stir in the chicken and any accumulated juices. Cover and continue to simmer until the chicken is cooked through, about 3 more minutes. 

Stir in the remaining 1 T. butter, the Parmesan cheese, and the lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Enjoy!

Friday, July 27, 2012

"Ready Player One"

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is one of the most engaging books I've read in some time. I have always been a borderline sci-fi fan, thoroughly enjoying the Ender series by Orson Scott Card and the mega-hit Dune by Frank Herbert, but I've never delved much deeper than these bestsellers. Steve, however, is a huge sci-fi fan and when he managed to polish this one off in only 2 days (maybe a personal best), I knew I had to check it out. The cover of the hardback edition alone is exciting, described by my friend and fellow blogger Patrick as something "straight from an 80's video game." (Okay, that was pretty loosely quoted-I don't remember exactly what he said, but it was definitely something like that.) 

Which, of course, is exactly what it's meant to look like. The premise of Ready Player One is fairly simple: the world is in a sort of pre-Apocalyptic, post-major disaster/energy crisis that makes reality fairly unpleasant. The solution? An awesome virtual reality world that allows a participant to be entirely immersed in the (made up) world around them, from sight to smell to touch. And the best part about this world, known as the OASIS, is that it's completely free for all users, which is why it is so widely used by the mostly homeless, slightly starving population of Earth. The world of the OASIS is based around 1980s pop culture, which takes the reader back in time to the days of Pac-Man and Blade Runner. Awesome. 

Okay, that's the simple part. It gets ever-so slightly complicated once you get over the fact that the majority of the human species is running around making wild hand gestures and talking to themselves for most of their lives, believing that somehow this virtual world is more important than their own crappy reality. The co-creator of the OASIS and the world's richest man, James Halliday, has died and revealed to the world that he has hidden an Easter Egg inside the OASIS. Whoever finds three hidden keys and three hidden gates first will discover the Easter Egg--and become the sole heir/heiress to Halliday's ridiculous fortune. Most of the world becomes obsessed with the search, but many fall out of the running pretty quickly. Only those who dedicate their lives to the search, people known as gunters (for some reason I can't remember), are still looking for the Egg five years later, when the readers are introduced into the plot. 

Wade Watts (known as Parzival in the OASIS) is a full-time gunter and 18-year-old high school senior who has spent the past 5 years searching for the Egg. He knows more about the 80s than probably anyone who lived during that time period. He considers himself a pretty average person, both in reality and in the OASIS, until he does what no one else in history has...he finds the first key. Suddenly, Wade is the most famous person in the world, heralded by gunters who were losing hope and hunted by those who will do anything to find the Egg. Wade must solve the rest of Halliday's puzzles before time runs out and he is dead...either in the game or in the real world. Once the action begins the story races by until the reader can scarcely believe that they've reached the end. 

Ready Player One is by far one of the best sci-fi books I have ever read, and maybe one of the top 30 books I've ever read. And the best part? It's being made into a movie...

Overall Grade: A

Friday, July 20, 2012

Weddings, Working, and...Moving a lot of crap

If you've been tossing and turning at night, wondering what in the world happened to your favorite blog, I finally have time to write an explanation:

Blame it on Murphy's Law (the good version)

Most of you who read the blog regularly know that we have been preparing to move, which happened last weekend. I also got a call for a job interview about a month ago and a week later I had myself a full-time job! So, to celebrate our new busy lives, we decided to take a restful little drive halfway across the country to Arkansas (for the second time this summer) to visit family and attend a wedding. After 8 glorious days in 5 states we made it back just in time for me to start my job. And then we moved 3 days later. In that 3-week time span we also managed to pack our home, buy me a new professional wardrobe, and not have any fights or lose our minds. 

If that isn't a good enough reason for my hiatus, I don't know what is. Before I pass out from exhaustion I thought I would leave you with my latest project:

Yeah, I made that. Our wonderful friend Robert loves tigers and he just got married (I can't believe I just typed that sentence and everything about it is true), so when I found this hilarious kit for a cross-stitched tiger in the clearance aisle of a craft store about 6 months ago I thought to myself, "I absolutely want to take this project on for his wedding present." I'm sure his new wife is thrilled. This, by the way, took me 4 months. Which means they better keep it for at least that long before it ends up in the garage sale pile! 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Foodie Love Affair

One of our favorite things about living in Durham is the foodiness of the town (check out the proof here and here). I am a girl who loves to eat no matter who is doing the cooking and our new home really reflects this trait. This weekend Steve and I had a very foodie weekend, which in our opinion is the best kind. One of our good friends from Arkansas is living in Durham for the summer and we have taken it upon ourselves to take her to the best places to eat in town (we know, what a hassle!). Friday night we went to one of our absolute favorites in downtown Durham: Dame's Chicken and Waffles. When we first moved to Durham we had no idea the city was so diverse in its culture and it's cooking. Growing up in the Midwest we were exposed to totally different kinds of restaurants; date night would be spent at Chili's and a really fancy occasion would be celebrated at P.F. Chang's (for friends back home, here's a mind-blower: Durham doesn't even have an Olive Garden!). Since we've been living here we've tried everything from Singaporean to Mediterranean to Harlem's own chicken and waffles, a delicacy that is loved by many in our food-obsessed town. Dame's is always packed when we go but we will gladly wait the half an hour for the BEST macaroni and cheese I have ever had, accompanied by juicy fried chicken atop a moist sweet potato waffle. I know, sounds terrible, doesn't it? Steve had been asked to judge Durham Central Park's Chili Challenge this year, which I gladly tagged along for on Saturday morning. For $4 I got to try 5 different kinds of chili, along with some of our favorite salsa they decided to throw in the competition as well. Waiting for Steve to finish his judging duties I was given the opportunity to hang out in Central Park while the weekly Farmer's Market was winding down. Durham is surrounded by small farms and many of the restaurants around the area are committed to using local ingredients. Living in Durham has given us the opportunity to really think about what we are eating and where it is coming from, and while we can't always afford to eat local and organic the Farmer's Market at least gives us the chance to substitute some of our store-bought choices with locally grown ones. Again, this is something that we did not have the chance to do where we grew up. While the small farming community I grew up in had some roadside stands selling corn and peaches in the summer, almost all of our grocery shopping was done at the local Wal-Mart. We did the best we could with what was offered, but we had no clue that all of your food shopping could be done outside of the grocery store until we moved to Durham. Today we culminated our foodie weekend at the Food Truck Rodeo, another popular event that is hosted by Durham Central Park. About 5 times a year the food trucks from around the area line up in one place and visitors to the Rodeo are offered just about every kind of food you can think of (except funnel cake). Steve and I always find out about the Rodeo the day after it happens, so we were very prepared for this one. It was like the best State Fair you can imagine, without all of the deep-fried milkshakes and weird stuff served on doughnuts. At first we just walked from truck to truck checking out the menus and enjoying the smells that were wafting from the windows, but then we really dug in. First we tried a chocolate chai doughnut from Monut's Donuts (divine), followed by a pepperoni pizza slice from Pie Pushers (delectable) and a meatball hero from Valentino's (delicious). We couldn't decide on where to round out our meal with dessert, and by the time we got in line for The Parlour ice cream the line was stretched a half mile long and Cafe Prost was out of pretzels. So we drove to Cook Out and got some Coke floats instead (dang good). At this point Steve and I would prefer not to eat for a good long while (probably at least another hour or so), but it was an excellent weekend celebrating what Durham does best--cooking and eating! 
A look at Durham's Food Truck Rodeo

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Moving Out: Four Weeks Before

Quick clarification for these moving ideas before we get started: I realize it is possible to move in one day. I just happened to start our moving process 5 weeks before we move to make the process as painless for us as possible because, like most of you out there, we are busy people and we would rather not spend a lot of time stressing out about packing and breaking stuff. I have moved houses and dorm rooms, and once we moved halfway across the country without breaking or losing a single item. The move coming up with be my 12th move. Feel free to leave comments with suggestions and your experiences, but also remember you don't have to listen to anything I have to say. These posts are strictly about how I am approaching this particular move. And I'm choosing to be as OCD as possible for small bursts of time because I feel that's easier than throwing things in boxes willy-nilly, and we have the luxury of time on our side. So, without further adieu...

Week 4: Get Rid of Your Junk...Seriously

I study in the school of "throwin' out your crap when you don't know what to do with it anymore." I am all about purging our household of unnecessary items, and about twice a year we will go through closets and find items to donate. I find that sometimes people are offended by my lack of emotional attachment to physical objects. BUT I do save things that are meaningful to me. I still have the teddy bear from before I was born, pictures from my childhood, my preschool graduation robe, and toys my grandfather made for me. And they are well-preserved in labeled storage containers. I just choose what objects mean the most to me physically (most of the aforementioned items are being saved for my children) and keep those around. The rest get tossed unless they serve some useful purpose. For example: I loved my Barbies growing up. I had BOXES of Barbie crap. I remember the great times playing Barbies with my mom and my friends, and how jealous they all were of my awesome stuff. However, I have none of those Barbies left because the memories are more important than the physical objects. Books, on the other hand, are always useful. Unless they are turning to dust I will hold on to those suckers for as long as I can (thanks for the new bookshelf, Dad!).

This week Steve and I are tossing out the junk and replacing some of it with new junk. In case you have problems with this step, here are some of the guidelines I like to follow:
  • For clothes: If you haven't worn it in the past season (for example, if you didn't wear a sweater this past winter) you probably won't wear it next season (unless you're pregnant, then ignore this). If it doesn't fit you anymore, get rid of it. If you're keeping something because it was a gift but you actually hate it, get rid of it. Clothes are some of the best items to donate, but they're useless if they've been sitting in closets forever getting nasty. Give them to someone in need instead of making your closet look more full.
  • For kitchen supplies: If you've never used it and have had it for more than a year, you'll probably never use it because you probably forgot about it. If something is melted or rusted, it's probably time to replace it. Some kitchen gadgets are totally useless. Alton Brown says that a flour sifter is the most pointless kitchen tool because a fine mesh strainer can be used with the same results, and it's useful for other things (like straining). If you are missing enough of a set of something for it to be embarrassing, replace it. Steve and I only had four glasses left after busting the rest of them in the dishwasher. So we bought some beautiful new ones to replace the old! This is also a great way to make your new home feel really new without spending a bunch of money (Bed, Bath, and Beyond 20% coupons are THE. BEST. EVER.).
  • For books, movies, CDs, electronics, etc.: Use the same rules as above. If you forgot you had it, it's time to go. pays pretty good money with their trade-in program and it's free to ship items. Powell's Books is my go-to place for selling books, and they pay more if you get virtual credit to their store instead of real money (which I'm all about). Most public libraries take donations of books, DVDs, and CDs for their book sales. Electronics can also be recycled at Best Buy if they are no longer in working order.
Last week you should have gotten a pretty good idea of what you have. You may even already know what you want to get rid of. This week is the week that everything you won't be packing up and moving needs to get out of the house. Start going through your items again, this time with boxes in hand. If it needs to be trashed, throw it away. Separate items that you are planning to donate and sell. Go through one room at a time, one section at a time. Steve and I are doing one room a night to make it less stressful. At the end of the week we will take everything that needs to be donated to Salvation Army and ship out everything that will be sold. Plan a garage sale for the weekend if you have a lot to sell. This is also a good time to figure out if it's time to put certain things in the attic or in storage. Steve and I will have an attic for the first time in our new place, so we've also been determining what will be stored and packing those items in (labeled!) plastic storage bins. When all of your unnecessary and unwanted items are out of your house it will be so much easier to pack the rest of your belongings.

Goals for Week 5:
  • Rid your house of all unwanted belongings (sell, donate, or throw away said belongings)
  • Continue to prepare for packing by collecting packing materials and supplies

Next week: Pack, pack, pack!