Thursday, April 29, 2010

a momentous day

I just set up the final payment for the very last of my debt.

I paid off my credit card at the end of August, 2007. I haven't carried a balance longer than a month since then - I even paid for my entire trip to Ireland and Scotland out of money that I saved for it! (And I kept that trip as inexpensive as possible: $3,440 for three weeks in the UK (including all expenses) is pretty good.)

I paid off my car in March or April 2008. I've never been very proud of paying that off early, since I felt badly that I didn't have the $6,000 in the bank to buy the dang thing outright. But, my 20-year-old car was totaled and I needed a new-to-me car, and I *have* been proud that I got a year-old car for 6k, so I guess I can feel neutral about that, when all is said and done.

And tomorrow, April 2010, I am issuing the final payment for my student loans. I finished grad school in May 2004, so a six-year payoff isn't bad. The debt was never high in the first place - something like 17k, so including interest, I've paid just under 20k for my degree. (well.. it was a bit more, as I DID pay a little as I went.) The loan's rate was low, but I wanted to get it GONE and it feels really really really good. I've been funneling $267/month toward it, so it'll be like getting a raise!

My short-term plan is to save up to buy a bed frame & mattress. Long-term, I'll expand my emergency fund (from 2 1/2 months' living expenses to something more like 4 months). Then I'll save for a replacement fund for my car. Then I'll save for a house downpayment - though I really don't anticipate buying EVER, it would be nice if it was a realistic option. I've been funding travel already, so maybe I'll expand that a little, but all in all, I am in a good place. And I am furiously knocking on wood so that I don't jinx it!

Yay me!

Monday, April 26, 2010

straw-straw-strawberry goodness

I made strawberry-rhubarb jam a couple of weeks ago. I messed up, though, as it's way too sweet and not nearly tart enough. One of these days I'm going to get a digital scale for my kitchen endeavors!

Anyway, I decided to try to use the jam and add some rhubarb. I pulled a recipe for strawberry-rhubarb crumble from my copy of Joy of Cooking.
I've got some very cute little cookie cutters, and I tried to do a varying range of sizes of overlapping circles, going for a polka-dot look, but it didn't come out quite the way I wanted.

Then I had another strawberry disappointment! I got a bunch of amazingly beautiful berries at the Bowl, but they tasted like ... nothing. I guess I was deluded by their pretty faces. So, I sliced them, added a little sugar, pureed them, added a little cream, and froze the yummy results. It's not really ice cream, but it's not bad!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Exploring: Chicago!

I spent a few days in Chicago this week. It's too much to list (and I'm really tired from my travels and work) so I'll sum up. I had gourmet sandwiches from two different places. I joined friends to eat all manner of great food: Armenian, Italian, Tapas, and German. I watched the latest episode of Glee with friends (and have had Madonna songs in my head since), and got to meet in person with other friends I usually only see online. I also got to know a few coworkers better, and got to hear more about what some of them do for the company.

The niftiest part of the trip was walking in Millennium Park and getting to witness the most successful piece of public art I've ever seen. Most public art draws some attention, but the Cloud Gate was at the center of a buzzing ever-changing crowd of people. I loved it.

I've often wished I could see shadows of myself in places - at a guess, I've visited Chicago in 1994, 1996, 1999, 2002, 2005, and now 2010. I didn't visit all the same places each time, but I know I've overlapped over the years. Who knows how many more times I'll visit?

It was a bit chilly for me, even in April, but it was the first time I've left Chicago feeling like I could live there. I have absolutely no intention of doing so, though!

edited to add: aha!!!! It was really bugging me that I had no  memory of such an amazing (and prominently-placed) piece of art. The Wikipedia article explains it all. "It was unveiled in an incomplete form during the Millennium Park grand opening celebration in 2004, before being concealed again while it was completed. Cloud Gate was formally dedicated on May 15, 2006...."

yay, I'm not crazy, not this time.

edited again to add: check this link for lots of other pictures of the Cloud Gate

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

big plans, little time

Tonight I'm cooking for lunch group. I'm going to make something up, and clean out my fridge, too!

leftover romesco potatoes (a 16-oz-jar-ful)
leftover romesco sauce (4 ounces or so)
leftover diced tomatoes

... all over penne, I think. I may add caramelized onions to boot. What do you think?

In addition, my workplace is having a small fair for Earth Day, and I've agreed to stand around and answer questions (if anyone has any!) about preserving & canning. So I might try to squeeze in a batch of Meyer lemon jelly tonight, and since I'll be doing the work anyway, may get some limoncello started. I've still got my eye on making a batch of strawberry-rhubarb preserves, but I just don't know if I can get it all done after work this week - I'll be away starting Crack of Dawn Saturday.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

FINALLY a finished product

I don't know what I've been doing with my time, but there sure hasn't been a lot of knitting going on. It took me just shy of two months to finish these socks! It's true that I whipped out two insanely cute baby hats as well, but still - it felt like I was working on those socks for an eternity. I think part of the problem was that the heel was interesting, but the rest was just plain knitting, round after round after round. It was my first time using self-striping yarn, and it was cool, but in the end I think I'm going to stick to mostly doing patterns.

They're ankle-down, use a very interesting  heel which I talked about a bit waaaay back when I started this project. I finished the toes with Kitchener, and is it just me, or does everyone have a weird little lump at one end of that style of bind-off? you can kind of see it on the left side of the foot in the left of the picture.

 To sum up: the heel turn/gusset business really was awesome. The directions were great. I look forward to doing the full-blown version of that pattern, called Sleepy Hollow.

The yarn was fine to work with, and I DID like that the socks became a pattern all because of the yarn changing colors at regular intervals. One sock is slightly longer than the other, because I wanted to start the heel turn at approximately the same spot in the color pattern, to make sure the stripes lined up pretty well. I think I hit that really closely! 

It was also a first doing Magic Looping - I did most of the first sock on one 40-inch needle. At some point I switched to two needles, and liked that best of all. I think if I decide to do more Loop work, I'm going to buy matching-length dpns. In this case I was using one that was 16 inches and one that was 40 inches, and the superfluous cord was annoying. 

I don't really have a burning  urge to knit anything in particular, but I do have some pretty springy yarn, so maybe I'll just cast on some different socks! It wouldn't do to be NOT knitting, you know.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Cooking for wine group

Tomorrow is the 2nd Friday of the month (YES, already. shocking), so it's wine night. We're having Rioja, and so decided to have the participants bring tapas-style offerings, rather than structuring the evening as a typical meal.

I'm bringing two things:
Smitten Kitchen's Romesco potatoes, and David Lebovitz's Involtini. Believe it or not, I have (so far) stuck to the recipe in the case of the former; the latter - not so much.

The romesco sauce for the potatoes can be made in advance, so I made mine tonight. I have only a photo of the finished product! 

The sauce is comprised of dried chilis, rehydrated a bit; roasted almonds & hazelnuts; diced tomato; a bit of garlic; a slice of bread; some lemon juice, vinegar, and fresh parsley. Then you puree it all with a lot of olive oil. Isn't it gorgeous?! Tomorrow I will roast the potatoes at home then bring them, still hot, to the wine gathering. I'll finish them by smashing them a bit, crisping them up a bit, then dousing with sauce.

I don't feel badly about changing the involtini recipe - it's a suggestion more than a rule. I used prosciutto, some kind of Spanish cheese that is not Manchego, and fresh sage from the garden (I only recently realized it was growing there!). Right now the little packets are marinating in olive oil. Yum!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Hiking the Mt Tam watershed

This weekend I did a 9.6-mile hike. Yes, longer than any walking I've done in quite a while, but it was on a lovely and gradually-graded fire road, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, Marin County.

We started at Alpine Dam, hiked down to Kent Lake, and then returned to dam-level.

I took tons of photos of flowers, and even of a banana slug, but the most interesting feature of this hike were the cement trestles, about which I can find no information online, clearly built to support a now-worn water pipe when the bend in the trail was too sharp for the pipes, and which now are covered in moss.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy lovely springy Easter!

I was delighted to be invited to celebrate Easter with lots of yummy food with friends. The hosts made a turkey AND a ham, and pound cake (with strawberries & whipped cream), coconut cream pie (from a real coconut), rolls, and hot cross buns. What wealth! And then the rest of the guests brought equally delicious offerings: Caesar salad, hot slaw, Waldorf salad, potatoes au gratin, bruschetta with a fava bean topper, biryani, deviled eggs, small cakes that look like deviled eggs, pannacotta... I may well be forgetting something. You know it's a lovely party when you are sent home with a bag of ham - I just had some as a late-night pre-bedtime snack . I hope my dreams aren't TOO weird.

I made beet hummus and served it with blanched sugar snap peas. It was lovely, and tasted great, even though I didn't include the garlic or pepper that the recipe called for. I got distracted! I brought more than half of it home again; I have the feeling I know what lunch group is having this week!

Also: I cooked the beets in a slow cooker. What a revelation! I scrubbed & quartered them, covered them with water, and left them on low overnight. Drain, cool, peel, and you're ready to work with them. So much more satisfying than fussing at them in the oven or on the stovetop for an hour or more.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Report from the kitchen: CEM, part two

Previously on this blog: I decided to cook two recipes from Cooking Light Annual Recipes 2006, my choice for Cookbook Exploitation Month. I already wrote about wandering vigorously off-course for the broccoli soup. Well, I also had to punt for the other selection: Sour Cream, Cheddar, and Green Onion Biscuits (page 63).

To recap, it was a cruddy rainy night and I was commited to NOT going out to the store. I almost immediately realized that I didn't have any green onions, but that was easy: I kept a quarter-onion out of the soup, and sauteed it to add sweetness. I already knew I was subbing yogurt for sour cream: Yogurt, Cheddar, and Sauteed Onion biscuits were a BIT off course but not too bad. Only after I finished making my Broccoli (-spinach) Soup did I realize I'd used up all the milk... and remember that my recipe called for 1 cup of buttermilk as the main liquid source! (I'd intended to cheat and sour it with lemon juice.)

I'd already measured out the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda). I didn't have milk. I didn't feel like cutting butter into the dry ingredients anyway, AND I'd loaned a friend my cookie cutters. All in all this recipe had to be scrapped.

I got lucky on the first shot, pulling out my trusty old Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home (the absolute best in their series). There was a recipe for Savory Scallion Biscuits, which did NOT use milk or butter! Of course their recipe didn't call for onions or cheddar, but I stuck 'em in anyway. Once you have a feel for muffins and biscuits, you can fake them pretty well (witness my Company-Worthy Muffins!).

In the end they came out GREAT. In fact I had trouble eating only one!

Semi-Improvised cheddar-onion biscuits
Preheat oven to 400
2 cups flour
1 T sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
2 T oil
3/4 c shredded cheddar
1/4 onion, sauteed until soft
~3/4 - 1 cup non- or low-fat yogurt

Mix the dry ingredients; add the wet ingredients. I added the yogurt in 1/4-cup increments until the dough hung together without being too wet and used a bit less than one cup.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, put the dough on it, pat into about 1 1/2 inch thickness, cut into 8 pieces, and separate the pieces from each other. Bake for 20 minutes.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Report from the kitchen: CEM, part one

Reader, I tried. I have a really hard time sticking to recipes!

As I noted earlier this week, a few years ago a blogger decided to call April Cookbook Exploitation Month (hereinafter referred to as CEM). I decided to play along this month, and chose Cooking Light Annual Recipes - 2006.

Tomorrow is my day to bring lunch for lunch group (by the time I finally write about that, anyone with half a brain will have figured it out, and indeed it's no secret). I decided I'd get a jump on this CEM-thing, and picked not one but TWO recipes: Broccoli Soup (page 13) and Sour Cream, Cheddar, and Green Onion Drop Biscuits (page 63).

It's a rainy, drear evening and I wound up running a wine-group-related errand with a friend after work. I was home by 6:30, not terribly hungry but low on fuel. I'd planned to roast asparagus for dinner, but I don't feel like asparagus in weather like this, and I ignored the fact that I had no Plan B. Instead, I started cooking!

 The recipe calls for 6 cups of small broccoli florets. I immediately discarded that as a suggestion: I had leftover roasted broccoli from last night (perhaps 3 cups). I also had a bunch of uncooked broccoli, and wasn't about to throw away/compost all those stems when I could sneak them into soup that was going to be pureed anyway. I suspect the recipe calls for small florets to make it a faster-cooking meal.

The recipe also calls for 2 cups chicken broth; instead, I defrosted 32 ounces of home-made chicken stock, then also put in maybe 4 cups of water and some concentrated chicken flavor made after I roasted a chicken. Slowly my food-deprived brain let me know that I was WAY off-course with this recipe - I'd used at least double the broccoli and triple the liquids called for. But, by the time I figured that out, it was too late, so I figured I'd fudge it. Once the liquid was hot, I cooked the broccoli for a total of maybe 10 minutes (cleverly putting in the stems for a while, then the florets, and then the already-roasted broccoli!) before using my immersion blender to puree the heck out of it.

The next part of the recipe calls for 2 cups of milk with 2T flour; I emptied the carton into a measuring cup and found I had about 2 3/4 cups, so I boosted the flour a bit. Finally, I realized I could eat soup for dinner (duh.. told you I was short of brain power) so I chucked the spinach I'd been wilting into the soup and pureed it as well. I added a dash of nutmeg and called it good.

So, my take on the Broccoli (+spinach!) Soup:
~6 cups liquid, at least some of it broth of some sort
~8-12 cups broccoli, chopped - put the stems in first to give them a head start cooking
~3/4 of a medium-sized onion, diced
~1/2 pound spinach, sauteed/wilted 
cook the broccoli & onion in the borth until the broccoli seems done; puree; add the spinach.
In a separate bowl, combine:
~2-3 cups milk
2-3 T flour
then add them to the soup and let it cook a while longer. Sprinkle in just a bit of nutmeg. I used about 1/4 tsp for my monster vat of soup. Consider adding salt and pepper. Tonight I added Cheddar cheese.

I have been dying to find a use for some really interesting toasted pumpkin seed oil I found, so I may bring that for people to use as a little topper.

 Stay tuned for part two of my attempt to cook from a recipe!