Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Random stuff...

Hope everyone is having a great July! This week has finally started to feel like summer here in Chicago. So I have about two and a half months of tank tops and summery dresses before I'll need to start layering more. One thing I've realized about living here is that each season is a welcome change from the previous one... because winter can be so cold and snowy, spring flowers are extra colorful; and because summer can be so hot and humid, the crisp autumn air will feel refreshing. But not for a few more months... I've only started enjoying the summer...

I just read that Crumbs cupcake shop is closing all of its locations because of a dramatic decline in sales. This makes me sad, because we have a Crumbs just a few blocks from here that I've been dying to try ever since we moved here. I mean, this place made giant cupcakes... GIANT CUPCAKES!
How can people not be buying these things?? (Never mind the fact that I haven't bought one myself... I don't want to think about the fact that I may have single-handedly contributed to the demise of Crumbs.)

So the weirdest thing happened a few weeks ago. Rick and I stumbled upon the last few minutes of one of the World Cup games when the U.S. was still playing. And the crazy thing is, we actually started getting into it. When the U.S. scored a goal, we were yelling and high fiving like it was the best thing ever. I think we came to the conclusion that because so much NOTHING happens in a soccer game, when someone actually DOES score a goal, it's super exciting. Now I understand why those soccer announcers get so vocal -- GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!! Anyway, now that the U.S. is out of it, Germany is my team... Deutschland ├╝ber alles!

They've been refurbishing all the elevators in our building the last couple months, focusing on one at a time so only one is out of commission while they work on it. One of the elevators in our building is just down the hall from our front door, and they've been working on it for the last few weeks. We're only on the third floor, so we usually just take the stairs anyway -- so it hasn't been a big inconvenience. About the only time we use the elevator is when we take recycling down to the basement, since we're usually hauling flattened boxes and lots of empty bottles, and the recycling bins are in the basement just outside the elevator. (Needless to say, since the elevator has been out of order, we have a lot of recycling piled up in the house... :)) But here's the weird thing: the entire time they've been working on the elevator just outside in the hallway, they've been HERE on the third floor. It hasn't been bothersome, really -- there have only been a couple days when the work was particularly noisy -- but I find it so strange. Why wouldn't they take the elevator down to the basement and work on it there? Or, if they wanted to work on a particular floor, why the THIRD floor? Why not the second? Or the ninth? Is there something special about the third floor? I've found this third floor elevator refurbishment so peculiar...

That's about all the nonsense I have today -- I have another recipe to share with you guys soon, so I'll try to get that up sometime this week! :)

Monday, June 23, 2014

Happy summer!

Yes, after what seemed to be an interminable cold spell, we've finally arrived at summertime! Although the season is finally official, I'm still not totally used to Chicago weather -- I'm used to "summer" just automatically being hot. In Austin, when you go outside on a late June day, you can be certain that shorts and a t-shirt will work. Whereas here, I'm never quite sure... the first day of summer we woke up to 60 degrees. Rick wrapped his hands around a hot cup of coffee that morning and proclaimed the day "too chilly," but it eventually warmed up into the 80s. We've also had some interesting storms the last few weeks -- including a bizarre little pop-up storm that was so insignificant it never showed up on the Chicago weather radar... but it still managed four flashes of lightning with their accompanying peals of thunder.

With the advent of warmer weather, Rick began reminiscing about our days in the suburbs when we always had a grill on the back porch. We had a pretty big charcoal grill that we sold as soon as we moved up here -- charcoal grills aren't allowed in most apartment or condo buildings, even if you have a big porch or balcony. We have a decent-sized balcony -- it's not huge, but it would be big enough for a small table and a few chairs (if we had any :)). Which means it's also big enough for a grill. So on Saturday Rick and I drove to Costco -- Rick had a membership there about a zillion years ago... he even still had his old Costco card (with a picture... where he had hair... that's how long ago it was ;)). But it had been so long since he'd been there that he had to sign up again and get a new card. But we finally walked out with a new, appropriately sized, gas grill. Along with a few other things... that Costco place is dangerous. Why yes, I DO need an inordinate amount of mayonnaise, thank you for asking:

(I didn't actually buy any mayonnaise -- I just took that picture for Eric, because I know how much he loooooooves mayo. :))

Rick spent yesterday morning assembling the grill in the living room (and was very happy to have "accomplished something before noon" :)), and then we moved it out to the balcony:

So of course we had to test it out last night. We bought some filets at Whole Foods... Faisal even braved the inevitability of severe cat allergies and joined us. (He also brought me an Indian movie AND burfi! Actually, I made jam-filled shortbread bars and traded him shortbread for burfi. Totally worth it. We made a pact to continue trading sugary carb for sugary carb on a regular basis... I think it's going to work out great. We're not addicts or anything.) Rick's team at work had an event at a cooking class a few weeks ago where they made steaks and potatoes and salad, so Rick got all Wolfgang Puck in the kitchen and showed me what he learned. And I have to admit, the steaks DID turn out pretty good (especially after experiencing a particularly disappointing visit to Fleming's Steakhouse last weekend).

So I think we'll get plenty of use out of the grill this summer -- at least if the weather will stop being unseasonably chilly. And since Rick is so good at preparing steaks now, I can just sit on the couch and watch baseball while he does all the work. Right? Right. :)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Time for a recipe!

When I first met Rick, I remember hearing him talk about his mom's chicken spaghetti. Having never eaten any kind of spaghetti except the kind with a tomato-based red sauce, I thought this sounded strange. I was picturing a plate of spaghetti noodles, covered in Prego marinara sauce, and topped with random pieces of chicken. And then I actually HAD chicken spaghetti and realized it was totally different than what I was thinking about in my head.

Not too long after we were married, I decided to try making Rick's mom's chicken spaghetti recipe myself. I'm not sure what I did -- too many noodles? too much cheese? not enough water? too MUCH water? -- but whatever it was, my version was horrible. And for years afterward, I left the chicken spaghetti-making to Rick's mom, and didn't even ATTEMPT to try it again.

Until we moved to Chicago, that is. Chicken spaghetti is one of Rick's favorite dinners -- when we lived in Texas, we used to eat dinner at his parents' house just about every week. And every now and then, chicken spaghetti would make an appearance on the menu. This would satisfy the chicken-spaghetti craving for a few weeks, until his mom made another big batch. But then we moved to Chicago, and no longer had our weekly dinners with his parents. So, after years and years of avoiding it, I finally pulled out the chicken spaghetti recipe, which was buried beneath dozens of other recipes in my pantry.

But this time, I had nearly two decades of cooking experience under my belt. I figured if I couldn't make it work, I'd have to assume that Rick's mom was using some form of magic to prepare her dishes, and I'd never be able to make it correctly. And then something amazing happened: my version actually tasted GOOD. I still don't know how I managed to destroy it so completely all those years ago... but now? I've got this chicken spaghetti thing DOWN.

I've made a few tweaks for my own version, but Rick's mom's recipe was absolutely the jumping-off point. In fact, if it weren't for all of our chicken spaghetti dinners at the Brooks household, I'm not sure I ever would've known that chicken spaghetti was an actual "thing." Thank goodness THAT ignorance was averted... :)

Chicken Spaghetti (or Rotini... or Penne... or Farfalle...)

(This recipe makes enough for about four smaller servings... or two large servings with enough leftover for lunch the next day)

*4-5 chicken tenders
*1 small bell pepper, chopped (red, green, orange, yellow -- whatever you like)
*3 stalks celery, chopped
*1/2 small onion, chopped
*4-5 cloves of garlic, chopped (if you don't like garlic, you can use less... but I love garlic, and I really think the garlic makes this recipe)
*4-5 mushrooms, sliced (you can use white mushrooms, or baby portobellos -- either one works well)
*1 2.25 oz can of sliced black olives
*About 8 oz chicken broth
*4-5 oz pasta of choice (I actually love using rotini for this recipe -- it holds onto the sauce and veggies really well)
*Shredded cheese (cheddar works well, but I've also used Monterey and Colby-Jack)
*Olive oil, butter, salt, pepper, cayenne

I like to chop up all my veggies first, since that's the most time-consuming part of this recipe. Once you have neat little piles of vegetables scattered all over your kitchen, cook the chicken. The original recipe calls for poaching, but I usually fry mine in a little olive oil, seasoned with salt, pepper, and cayenne. I'm sure you could also bake it, broil it, whatever you like best. Once the chicken is cooked, chop or shred into small pieces, then cover with a plate or some aluminum foil to keep it warm and/or to prevent cats from snacking on it...

In a large pot, heat about a tablespoon of butter and about half the chicken broth on medium-high heat. (The butter is really optional in this recipe -- but I am of the opinion that butter makes everything better.) Add the chopped pepper, celery, onion, and garlic, and season with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Cook until veggies begin to soften... about five minutes.

I like using red pepper because the color is so pretty... that's a totally legitimate reason, right?

Add the pasta to the pot (if you're using spaghetti, I suggest breaking the noodles in half so they fit into the pot more easily), and then add the rest of the chicken broth. The noodles don't have to be completely submerged in liquid, so don't worry if they're not covered. Bring the mixture just to a boil, then turn the heat down to around medium low and let it simmer, uncovered -- the noodles will take longer to cook than if they were submerged in boiling water, but as long as you occasionally stir the mixture to keep the heat even, they'll turn out fine. If it starts to look too dry, you can add some water (or more chicken broth, if you have some on hand) -- I usually end up adding about a quarter to a half a cup of water throughout the cooking process. (If you add water, you may have to turn the heat back up temporarily.)

After about ten or fifteen minutes (depending on your pasta), the noodles should be done (you can fish one out and test it for doneness every now and then). At this point, turn the heat down to low, and stir in the olives and mushrooms. Keep the heat on low (or you can even turn it off) and stir in some shredded cheese until it's melted -- I usually add about half a cup, but you can add more or less, depending on your love of cheese. And finally, stir in the chicken that you've been protecting from the cats.

Serve and eat!

I love this recipe because it's really customizable -- you could leave the chicken out and use vegetable broth, and make it a vegetarian recipe... you could leave out the cheese if you hate cheese (DAD), or add more if you love cheese. Sometimes I add a jalapeno pepper if I have one lying around. And I'm betting you could throw in some broccoli florets or chopped asparagus or some sliced radishes or any number of different vegetables to give it an extra veggie boost. And Rick swears this is even better heated up the second day -- so if you like leftovers, make some extra!

Monday, June 2, 2014

I don't even have a guest room...

Happy June, everyone! (How is it already June?? We're literally almost halfway through the year... I honestly don't understand how each year seems to move more quickly than the last. It's rather disconcerting...)

At least we're finally firmly planted in the middle of spring now. It was touch and go there for a while... winter kept attempting to creep back into Chicago, but Chicago was having none of that. I haven't had to use my heater in weeks... and I've been running the A/C every night -- because as Rick will tell you, I like it to be "freezing" in the house when I sleep. (In reality I keep it around 69 or 70... apparently that passes for "freezing" in Rick's world. :))

Spring usually brings an influx of uninvited guests of the six- or eight-legged variety. In Texas, this usually included weird little unidentifiable creepy-crawlies (which would be quickly dispatched with a cloud of Raid or a handful of paper towels), and the occasional hand-sized spider (the removal of which would involve a carefully choreographed "argh, it's a spider as big as my hand" dance, plus some sort of hazmat suit and an unbreakable, airtight container).

But we've been really lucky in Chicago -- MOST of the bugs stay outside, where they're supposed to be. Every spring, spiders start to appear in the corners of our windows -- but always on the OUTSIDE of the windows, where they spend lots of time and effort creating intricate webs... and then they sit back, take a break, and wait for the food to come to them. (Until the first good thunderstorm of the season washes away all their work... then they start the whole thing over.)

But there's ONE type of unwanted visitor we've been struggling to eradicate -- moths. We started noticing them last year, when every now and then one would flit past our field of vision when we were watching TV... or we'd see one of the cats batting the air with reckless abandon, and know they'd found one. But then I started noticing them more and more frequently -- especially in the closet. I would frantically riffle through my clothing, fearful of finding random holes in my favorite outfits... and then chide the cats for not catching enough of the little annoyances.

I bought cedar blocks and hung them all over the closet. I researched "natural moth repellants," since the idea of spraying my clothes with any kind pesticide was extremely unappealing to me (although at one point, Rick, in a fit of frustration, sprayed some of his own clothes with Raid). I read that lavender oil was a good repellant, so I hung up about ten little lavender sachets in the closet -- this succeeded in nothing more than making the closet smell like lavender for about a day and a half. The moths would still dive bomb my head in a mocking display of superiority, and since the smell of lavender wore off so quickly, I wasn't sure it even had to time to have an effect.

And then as I was perusing Amazon one day, I found moth pheromone traps -- they're non-toxic, and filled with sticky glue to trap the moths. No pesticide spraying necessary. Still, I was skeptical, so I only bought a few of them. I set up a couple in the closet, and waited to see what would happen...

Within 24 hours, there must've been ten moths in the traps... in another 24 hours, there were ten more. I was actually a bit shocked by just HOW many moths these things were trapping -- because I'd never seen more than one moth flitting about at a time. Confident that they actually WERE working, I placed a few more around the house -- the one I set up in Rick's office caught about a dozen of them... the others around the house caught a few stragglers, but not many. So the closet and Rick's office are definitely moth hot spots.

Now, between the pheromone traps, the cedar blocks, and the pest control services of two very agile cats, the moth population has been greatly reduced. I'm slightly less worried that the next time I get dressed I'll look like an extra from "Oliver," but I still go through the clothes in the closet on a regular basis to make sure the moths haven't elected a president to help them oversee their tiny little moth community. So temporarily, anyway, things seem to be relatively under control...

And by the way, I'd take moths over hand-sized spiders ANY day. :)          

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Some random thoughts:

1) OMG, Kim and Kanye got married over the weekend! Oh wait... I don't care.

2) The Yankees were in Chicago all last week -- I saw more people walking around dressed in Yankee shirts, jerseys, and hats than people wearing Cubs or Sox gear. It was great -- I almost felt like I was back in New York, except there's no place to get a giant pretzel around here...

3) Rick and I have discovered the best cappuccinos in the city (according to our subjective caffeine-fueled opinion) at Eataly. They also have a plethora of much-too-delicious-looking imported cookies, chocolates, pasta, bread, cheeses, and other foods and drinks. I'm amazed that I've been able to stop with a cappuccino purchase every time we've been there... but it's only a matter of time before some of that Italian chocolate comes home with me.

4) So I never did finish telling the tale of my temperamental teeth. And yes, this was partly because I took a blogging break -- but it's mostly because what should have been a simple, routine fix turned into a months-long saga. First, my crown fell off... when I went to the dentist to have it re-cemented, I found out it was fitting incorrectly and I needed a new one. So I went back to be fitted for a new one, and had a temporary one cemented on in the meantime. The new one arrived the week before we left for Hawaii -- I was so happy to know that I'd have a new crown and not have to worry about what I ate when I went on vacation. But when the dentist tried to affix the new crown, he discovered that, once again, it didn't fit correctly! So the temporary went back on, and I went to Hawaii and worried about everything I ate (but at least I was worried in Hawaii :)).

Sometime in March, I finally got the permanent crown... and for three weeks, everything was fine. And then one day I was eating a very non-crunchy, non-chewy, perfectly normal square of plain chocolate, and felt a horrible, familiar crunch -- it was the NEW crown, loose in my mouth. It fell off after only three weeks! So back to the dentist I went (where I was told that it's extremely rare for a new crown to fall off, even if you've been eating nuts and caramel and Tootsie Rolls and ice chips), and the crown was re-cemented onto my tooth. At this point, I decided that it might be a good idea to go ahead and get fitted for a night guard -- I've known for years that I grind my teeth at night (and I've always been suspicious that this might also contribute to my "teeth falling out" dreams). And after the brand-new crown fell off, I couldn't help but wonder if grinding my teeth contributed to that, as well. So once again, I went back to the dentist, and had the impressions taken for the night guard. It was ready to be picked up about three weeks ago, so I went for what was supposed to be a five -minute appointment. But guess what? When the dentist snapped the guard over my teeth, IT DIDN'T FIT CORRECTLY. That seems to have been the theme of my dentist visits this year...

So today I'm going back for what I hope (I really, really HOPE) will be the last time for a while, to pick up my (refitted) night guard. I kind of feel like I should just automatically have an appointment set up at the dentist's office every three or four weeks, since that's about how often I've been going this year. I mean, it's practically time for me to go back for a cleaning... but I think I'll hold off for a while.

5) We're supposed to get thunderstorms in Chicago today, but I'm hoping they won't show up until after I've walked to and from the dentist. Right now, it is deceptively sunny and warm, and appears to be a perfect late-spring day. But I have this bad feeling that as soon as I'm ready to go outside, the clouds will converge over downtown and the threat of imminent lightning strikes will loom large. My only comfort is knowing that I can see both the Sears Tower and the Hancock Building from this location, so any lightning worth its salt will know that the best way to unleash its fury is to attack one of those buildings (instead of some random person running towards a dentist's office).

6) That's it for today. I'm off to eat my usual lunch of nuts, caramel, Tootsie Rolls and ice chips. ;) Have a great week, everyone!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Carb loading...

Bananas have never been my favorite fruit. That honor (is it an honor to be someone's favorite fruit??) belongs to the cherry. I have great memories of picking cherries off the tree behind my grandparents' house... my grandmother would make stewed cherries and we'd eat them for breakfast, or over vanilla ice cream... and cherry pies were always on the summer menu. Nowadays, I love frozen cherries in smoothies... and cherries combined with chocolate? Well, that's just deliciousness on top of perfection...

But bananas? Eh... I mean, it's not that I outright HATE bananas (although I do hate anything with banana flavor, like candy or gum). I'll eat one if I'm really hungry and there's nothing else around... and I keep sliced bananas in the freezer along with my frozen cherries for the aforementioned smoothies. (But don't be fooled by the concept of "banana soft serve" that's been touted all over the internet as a healthy substitute for ice cream. It's nothing like soft serve ice cream -- what it IS like is pureed frozen bananas. If you love bananas, go for it. But if you love soft serve ICE CREAM, just go to Dairy Queen... because pureed frozen bananas are really disappointing if you're craving ice cream.)

But something magical happens if you combine bananas with butter, sugar, eggs and flour. (Of course, "butter, sugar, eggs and flour" is pretty much the template for the creation of all KINDS of carby magic.) I may have never been a fan of bananas, but I love banana bread. Especially the banana bread recipe my mom always made when I was growing up. I would sneak a slice before bed, and then look forward to another slice for breakfast the next morning...

And it took me YEARS of making this recipe myself before I finally got the idea to add chocolate chips (seriously, what took me so long??), which makes it less of a breakfast bread and more of a dessert... although you could still eat it for breakfast, if you want. Not that I'VE ever done that. ;)

Since this stuff is so good, I don't make it very often... a loaf of banana bread lasts about a day and a half around here. But when Rick came home from work the other day and told me that a colleague had brought in some banana bread that his wife had baked, I immediately responded with, "challenge accepted!" (Never mind the fact that no challenge was actually issued...) So about 15 percent of this loaf stayed here in my house... the other 85 percent went to the office with Rick. Good thing, because it has been requested that I bake cupcakes for Eric's birthday this weekend (challenge accepted!), and I wouldn't want to exceed my chocolate quota for the week...

Mom's Banana Bread (plus chocolate chips!)
1/3 cup softened butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 and 3/4 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup mashed ripe bananas
chocolate chips (I never really measure my chocolate chips -- I use the "add until it looks like there's enough chocolate" method. But I'd guess about half a cup?)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and grease a loaf pan with butter.

In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar together, then add eggs and mix well. In a smaller bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt, then alternate adding the dry ingredients and the mashed banana to the butter/sugar/egg mixture. Fold in chocolate chips until there's no doubt that the healthiness of the banana is cancelled out by the decadence of the chocolate. Add the whole beautiful mixture to the loaf pan, and bake for about 40 to 45 minutes. (Tip: definitely check for doneness with a toothpick -- this bread has a tendency to LOOK done before it IS done.)

Whether you eat it for breakfast or not is up to you...


Monday, May 19, 2014

The lost Hawaii pictures...

Okay, they weren't REALLY lost. I just never posted any after our trip this past winter. So without further ado:

We stayed at the Hyatt on Kauai. This was the second time we've stayed at this hotel -- highly recommended! This is some of the landscaping at the hotel, looking back towards the lobby...

And facing the other way towards the ocean.

We took a boat tour one day to go whale watching. The whales were being quite coy -- we mostly just saw water from their blow holes. But we DID see this pod of spinner dolphins.

Whitest girl in Hawaii searching for whales... and sunscreen...

Waimea Canyon -- one of the coolest places on the island. It was a little rainy and cloudy at the very top, but we still saw some amazing views like this one.

One of the ubiquitous Kauai chickens. Even though these guys are all over the island, according to locals they're not good for eating -- apparently they're very tough and stringy, on account of their hard knock lives on the streets...

Rick's sister Donna and her husband Dean were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary when we were in Hawaii, so Dean organized a surprise vow renewal on the beach. (All those rocks around them were in the shape of a heart. :))

 Nearing sunset...

The whole group on our last night -- dad, mom, me, Rick, Rick's mom, Aunt Carol, Donna and Dean. We may have been smiling, but we were all crying on the inside because he had to leave the next day. ;) But I was so grateful to have the chance to travel to an amazing place with some pretty awesome people! :)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Well, fancy meeting YOU here...

Hey everyone! Remember me?

I know, I know... you thought I'd dropped off the face of the blogging world, into the vacuum of the abyss... like George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in "Gravity." (Did you guys see Gravity? When I first saw it, I thought it was a decent movie... but then I started thinking more about the science behind the entire scenario, and I liked it less and less the more I thought about it. Perhaps it's one of those movies you're not supposed to THINK about too much... like the Transformers franchise or superhero movies or pretty much anything James Cameron has ever directed...)

But where was I? Oh yes... my neglected blog. I don't know if it was our long, cold, cloudy winter (so many clouds... so much cold... so... long...) -- or if I was just stuck in a particularly tenacious bout of writer's block -- but whatever the reason, I couldn't seem to find the motivation to sit down and write anything for my little corner of cyberspace.

And then one day I started thinking that perhaps, maybe, I just needed to start OVER. Well, not literally... I mean, my old blog still exists. I love that old blog... in fact, I love it so much that I didn't even choose a new name for this one. Because let's face it -- I will probably never be one of those people who has a focused, single-topic kind of blog. Random tangents are my specialty. (Please refer to the above "Gravity" tangent.)

But I DID feel like I needed a bit of a new start, just to jostle my brain back into blogging mode. I'm also hoping to post a bit more often about cooking and baking, and maybe a little more about working out... with, hopefully, the occasional travel musing when I have a chance to get away. Of course, I'm sure my usual random thoughts will occupy more than their fair share of space in this blog...

I'm hoping that this newness -- coupled with the fact that warmer weather and sunshine have FINALLY arrived in Chicago (I seem to be a bit solar-powered) -- will give me the incentive I need to launch myself back into the blogging world. Welcome to the new space -- if I don't post again soon, someone yell at me, okay? :)