• 2010 Reading List

    What I've read this year:

    "The Other Queen" by Phillipa Gregory (Rating: C)

    "The Welsh Girl" by Peter Ho Davies (Rating: A)

    "Mistress of the Sun" by Sandra Gulland (Rating: A)

Health Care Reform

I’ve been absent from this space for the past few days, but it has been for a wonderful reason. I’ve been marinating in some really great news, and have been giving myself the opportunity to soak it in. I will soon be making a career change, and couldn’t be more thrilled!

In just a few short weeks, I will be going to work for a wonderful, nationally influential not-for-profit, putting my talents and skills to use to help educate women about breast cancer, and hopefully doing a small part to eventually eradicate this disease. I’ve been wanting to “do more” for a long time, and my brain still can’t quite comprehend that this goal is being realized. I am still processing, but wanted to stop in today to share with you something very important.

"The Times They Are A-Changing" (but only if you take action!)

Today is the virtual march on Washington DC, in which we are demanding health care reform. Please, take a few minutes, and visit www.moveon.org. Through the website, you can fax, call, and/or email your Senators, and express your desire for reform. We all know how important this is, and I’m sure you are getting as frustrated as I am. However, today is the day to do something – to take action, and let our voices be heard.

For the (snow) birds

We had a beautiful snow on Friday, and for anyone in the northeast, I’m sure you are sick of it, but we are not! Just a few days ago, Charlotte saw snow, but on our side of town, we mostly got the sleet and ice. Friday night’s snow was of the  light and fluffy variety, and was beautiful to watch (even though it quickly melted and was practically gone the next day).

Eastern Bluebird

I had made chicken pot pie for dinner the weekend before, and it turned out to be the perfect evening for a hearty and classic dinner. Alan has always sworn that he didn’t like chicken pot pie, but I was convinced that it was likely due to the fact that he had only ever had store bought, not homemade. I’ll have to share the recipe I used, but the end result was a delicious, with a thin broth rather than a thick, pasty textured filling, which you typically find in many other versions. However, today’s post is not supposed to be about food – it should be about our birds!

Taking notes

We have officially submitted our results from the Great Backyard Bird Count, and had a great time sitting by the windows on Saturday, watching and counting.

House Finches

The Peanut began working on his own bird book, drawing pictures of the birds that frequent our yard. Overall, we saw a fair number of birds for our area. Unfortunately, very few of our neighbors have feeders or baths, but we are doing our best to bring the birds back to our yard.

Mourning Doves & House Finch

We saw 4 mourning doves, 5 House Finches (apparently there is a harem nearby…we have 1 male, but 4 females…hmmmm), 1 eastern bluebird, 2 mockingbirds (one of whom is a bit of a bully to the finches, which the Peanut does not appreciate), and 1 Carolina Chickadee whom I never caught on film. He seems a little skittish, and doesn’t linger long enough for me to steal a shot of him. I hope that you also participated in the count. The Peanut is learning more and more about birds every day, and if our small, urban backyard can be a venue

Chinese New Year

Gong hei fat choi!

(Roughly translated, that means “Congratulations and be prosperous!”)

This weekend is the festival of the Chinese New Year, and although my family has absolutely no ties to the Chinese culture, I adore this holiday. A few years ago I hosted an event for work including traditional foods, dances, and gifts for the holiday. It is an amazing tradition with a long and complex history, and an endless number of ways in which to celebrate the occasion. After that first encounter, I’ve kept Chinese New Year on my radar, and have looked forward to introducing the Peanut to the festivities.

Lion Dance

Just a few miles from our home is “The Peaceful Dragon.” This is a large facility that teaches Kung Fu, Tai Chi, along with a variety of other martial arts, and it is incredibly authentic to the practices and traditions of the Chinese culture. They hosted their annual New Year celebration last weekend, and we all bundled up and headed over to participate.

The celebration began with the traditional lion dance. Two kung fu students act out the role of the lion, dancing throughout the room, and eventually eating cabbage, then spitting it back out into the audience. If you are lucky enough to get hit with the cabbage, you are looking forward to a prosperous new year! Unfortunately for us, none of our clan got any cabbage…

Dragon dance

Next came the dragon dance, along with the firecrackers that were set off, startling the Peanut, and causing him to jump out of his seat and laugh hysterically!

The school’s students conducted some incredible demonstrations, including using bo staffs, broad swords, fans, and spears. It was incredible to see how they used these weapons in such a beautiful way. One of the things that I love about The Peaceful Dragon is their commitment to the idea that Kung Fu is a personal discipline, and not something that is used to teach aggressiveness. Throughout the demonstrations, they repeatedly mentioned that the students hope to never use their skills outside of the facility, and that the greatest lesson in Kung Fu is the development of self-control. “You cannot make me harm you – that is a decision that only I can make.” What a great thing to be heard in our society – let’s spread that one around some more, please!

They also did a brief yoga demo, which I found very interesting. It was so different than the yoga I am used to, and was amazing to watch.

Yoga demo - head stand - wow!

We are hoping that we will be able to get my two guys into their program over the next year. Alan is really wanting to get into the program, having studied martial arts as a child. And we both think that this would be a great thing for the Peanut as well. He is such a loving and happy child, but he tends to crumble when he feels like he has “failed.” We are continually trying to reassure him that mistakes are good and allow us to learn, but his personality is just so loving and sweet that he is terrified of disappointing others. I can totally identify with that one, and hope that we can help him work through it. We think that the confidence and discipline that comes with martial arts would be a huge boost for him. Hopefully we will be able to swing the fees in the near future, and maybe they will be able to perform at next year’s festival!

Great Backyard Bird Count

In just about a week, the 13th Annual Great Backyard Bird Count begins! This is the first year that my family will officially be participating, but I’m really excited about it. We’ve been keeping our yard stocked with special bird treats over the past few weeks, in the hopes of attracting some new feathery friends to our space. If you’ve never participated, or don’t know about the Great Backyard Bird Count, here are the simple things that you need to know, directly from the website www.birdsource.org/gbbc/howto.html.

Also, check out the Audubon Society’s website fora couple of great bird games for the kids (www.audubon.org/educate).

1. Plan to count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count. You can count for longer than that if you wish! Count birds in as many places and on as many days as you like—one day, two days, or all four days. Submit a separate checklist for each new day. You can also submit more than one checklist per day if you count in other locations on that day.

2. Count the greatest number of individuals of each species that you see together at any one time. You may find it helpful to print out your regional bird checklist to get an idea of the kinds of birds you’re likely to see in your area in February. You could take note of the highest number of each species you see on this checklist.

3. When you’re finished, enter your results through our web page. You’ll see a button marked “Enter Your Checklists!” on the website home page beginning on the first day of the count. It will remain active until the deadline for data submission on March 1st.

CarolinaWren_JimLockyer_CA09.jpg
Carolina Wren, Jim Lockyer, CA, 2009 GBBC

Other helpful tools and information:

  • Data form. Some people find it helpful to fill out the form before entering it on the website. By printing it off ahead of time, they know what information they need to be aware of, such as snow depth, for example.
  • GBBC Photo Contest rules

Playing hooky in the woods

Yesterday I played hooky. I needed a mental health day, so I took the day off, and spent it at home and in the woods. Over the past three or four days, my brain has been going into overdrive. I lay in bed at night, tossing and turning, thinking about a million different things, and willing myself to fall asleep, wanting to wake-up my husband just to say “I can’t sleep!” It is the most frustrating feeling in the world…

I’ve been looking for a new job for the past few months, with little luck. There have been a multitude of applications sent out for positions which I am over-qualified, and yet I don’t get a response. And then, last week, I got a phone call wanting to schedule a phone interview. It couldn’t have come at a better time. I had been in a meeting all evening, dealing with negativity, swallowing my pride, and realizing just how much my job has changed in the past 6 months. I walked out of the meeting feeling physically heavy, and emotionally broken. And then I heard a voice mail about a phone interview.

We talked for 30 minutes on Friday, and the conversation was incredible. The position is right up my alley, with a non-profit that I greatly admire. It would be an amazing change of pace, and something that I feel will reignite my passion for my career. Tomorrow I have an interview with the Director, and I am starting to get nervous. I don’t deal well with nervousness. It is something that I don’t feel often. I’ve interviewed for countless things before, and not felt the anticipation that I’m feeling now. This is the number one contributing factor to my restlessness this week.

Marco enjoying his freedom

So, I played hooky yesterday. I took the Peanut to school, came back home, and walked in the woods with Marco for most of the morning. It was great to just forget about the pressure I’m putting upon myself this week, and just walk and relax. Unfortunately, the relaxation did not remain until bedtime…I still ended up tossing and turning most of the night. However, I’m hoping and praying that tomorrow will go extremely well, despite the bags under my eyes, and that I will be called back in for a final interview with the board. So, I’m asking for good thoughts and prayers regarding this interview. I’m hoping that this is the right opportunity for me, and that I will soon find myself in a new, positive, and meaningful work environment. Fingers crossed!

Vegetables for breakfast & dinner

Last Wednesday I found myself off of work on a weekday, with the Peanut in school, and the house to myself. I had every intention of sitting back, reading, doing some light cleaning, and then making dinner, but that didn’t happen. Instead, I spent the entire day cooking – it was wonderful!

I had been asked told to make more pancakes for breakfast, so those were first on my list. I always make sweet potato pancakes.  They are incredibly tasty, much more flavorful than the standard pancake, and I get to feel good about sneaking in a veggie for breakfast. About once a month I make a batch, freeze them, and – voila! – a quick and satisfying weekday breakfast option.  These happen to be one of the Peanut’s favorites. First of all, they are orange, and he loves anything orange. Add a schmear of Nutella, and then folded in half like a taco, and he is a happy kid!

My second task was making some vegetable broth to be used for that evening’s dinner, and some extra for freezing.I tried out a new combo, and it came out really rich and hearty. Here is what I used…

1 red bell pepper

1 green pepper

1 onion

1 lb carrots

1lb celery

1lb tomatoes

1 lb turnips

I roughly chopped them (large chunks work well and save time) and put them in a roasting pan with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, 3 bay leaves, 6 cloves of  smashed garlic and some black pepper. I let them roast at 450 for about 2 hours (maybe a little less), until everything was nicely browned. After quickly running a knife over some of the larger pieces, I added the veggies to a stock pot with water, and let them simmer for about another 2 hours. I scooped out about a third of the veggies to freeze for a future soup, removed about a third of the broth to freeze, added some pre-soaked beans for dinner that evening. The flavor of this broth was really flavorful, and much deeper than your standard vegetable broth. I could have eaten a bowl of this with a piece of bread by itself – it was really that good.

I also made a batch of cream biscuits, sugar cookies, and chocolate chip cookies as well. It was a day of cooking, freezing, and eating cookie dough…what can I say – I can’t resist licking the spatula!

Yummmm…they’re Swedish!

What is the one thing in your life that makes you smile when it seems to be just out of reach? We all have those days when things are just too much. We feel weighted down, exhausted, over-whelmed, and broken. I’ve had a few days like that recently. Work has been exceptionally tough these past few weeks, and I am in need of a change. Unfortnately, the job market has yet to regain its momentum, we don’t have the financial freedom for me to go back to school, and I’m feeling  pigeon-holed. An opportunity may have presented itself, but I am trying very hard to not get my hopes up or put too much pressure on this one thing. So, this week, I’ve not been sleeping soundly, eating more junk than I should, and just feeling down. Until, I see this…

That is, hands down, the cutest and funniest kid on earth – and don’t you dare try to contradict me! 🙂 He brightens our days, and never fails to keep me entertained. Last night, as I sat trying to get our new camera and Skype to communicate with one another, he was in his room playing veterinarian, and singing his own version of “Marvelous Little Toy.” It was adorable, and made me step back for a moment and not worry about work, let go of the frustration with the computer, and just absorb the love that is my little Peanut.

A short while later, we were having a family movie night, and while Daddy was making popcorn, I surprised him with some Swedish Fish as a special treat, which he had not previously tried. He popped one into his mouth, started chewing, and looked at me and said, “Yummmmm…they sure are Swedish, alright!” And that is was the greatest moment of my week!

Book Review: “The Other Queen”

I recently finished reading “The Other Queen” by Phillipa Gregory. Last year, I kept a list of the books I’d read conveniently available in the margins for those of you who care about that sort of thing. This year, I’m uping the ante, with…wait for it…a rating system! Impressive, I know! 🙂 Let’s keep in mind that opinions on books are like food reviews. This is entirely subjective, and easily disagreed upon. Something that I love can be utter garbage in your eyes.  Keeping this in mind, here are my thoughts on “The Other Queen.”

I have read almost every book Phillipa Gregory has written. I enjoy historical fiction immensely, and her novels tend to be a good combo of light-hearted story telling and historical accuracy. This was the first book by her that has truly disappointed me. Overall, I’m giving it a C-, which may actually be generous. Had she been an author who was unknown to me, I probably wouldn’t have finished the book. I kept reading, though, waiting for the story to pick-up. Unfortunately, it never did.

This book should be incredibly interesting. It is the story of Mary Queen of Scots, and her life has enough drama for multiple novels. She was crowned Queen of Scotland at the age of 9 months, married at the age of 16 and crowned Queen of France shortly thereafter.When her French husband died, she returned to Scotland and married her 2nd husband, Lord Darnley. Eventually, he was found dead after an explosion at his home, and many rumors circulated that Mary was part of the plot to kill him. She then married the Earl of Bothwell, who was the likeliest suspect in the death of her previous husband. It is possible that she was forced to marry him, but we really don’t know.

Mary was soon  forced to give up her throne to her 1 year old son, and flee to England, seeking protection from Queen Elizabeth. After arriving in England, she was held captive for close to 20 years. Eventually, Mary was executed after being caught plotting to have Queen Elizabeth murdered so that she could take the throne of England.

This has all of the makings of a great story, however, in this novel, Gregory’s story-telling is weak and fragmented. The story is told from the perspective of Mary, and her ‘keepers,’ George & Bess Talbot. The chapters rotate from one character’s narration to another. The reader is unable to get immersed in the story because of the constant change in perspective. Also, Mary is incredibly whiny (which could very well be accurate, but is annoying nonetheless).

It seems like Phillipa Gregory focused more on switching from one character to another, rather than writing a compelling and engrossing story. Overall, it was a disappointment. However, given the fact that I’ve read many other of her novels, and enjoyed them, I will be reading “The White Queen” soon, and hoping that she redeems herself in that one!

Spring, vintage & humility

I’m loving the touch of spring that is in the air this week! Yesterday was a beautiful day, with blue skies and temperatures very comfy, and today is looking to be more of the same. I’m not quite ready for the end of winter, which is one of the benefits of living in the Carolinas. We know that the seasons like to dip in and out around here. One day it is winter, the next it is spring, and then we are back to winter for a few more weeks. However, the sunny skies and warm air are giving us some much-needed outside play time (the sidewalk chalk and bikes were out in full force yesterday).  When the weather starts flip-flopping like this, it makes me start planning ahead, looking forward to the things that the next season brings, and building excitement. We’ve started discussing what we want to plant this year in our garden; I’m staring out of the window while cooking, picturing where I want to plant additional flowers; I’m starting to see more birds visiting our yard, and snacking on the treats we’ve left out for them. It is a very exciting time!

And, to top off my desire for spring, this weekend a friend and I went shopping, and I found the cutest dress at Hong Kong Vintage & Recycled.(They do have an ebay store if you are interested – the link will take you there.) It was the first store we went in, so I had to hem & haw for a little while. I ended up getting them to hold it for me while we continued shopping, but I didn’t find anything else, so the dress came home with me! Now I’m just waiting for the weather to be consistently warm so that I can rock my new dress! We also had lunch at The Penguin (a Charlotte tradition), but that place really deserves a post all to itself.

And, even though the week is officially half-way over, here is the thought of the week…

(I’m still working on that part about humility…it’s not so simple.)

I hope it is warm and sunny in your neck of the woods!

Make ahead (yummy) meals

Today Stefani, from Blue Yonder Ranch, was sharing her recipe for Chicken Noodle soup, using a rotisserie chicken. This made me think of one of my favorite recipes, which happens to use a rotisserie chicken, and creates multiple meals for my family with easy prep on my end. I’m sure some of you are always on the prowl for a simple (and inexpensive) meal for your family, and this one certainly meets those requirement.

I make this recipe every month, and we get at least 4 meals out of it, if not 5. The original recipe is from America’s Test Kitchen. As usual, I followed their directions to the letter the first time I made the dish, and then have adapted and simplified it afterwards. I love this recipe for many reasons. 1 – It is YUMMY! 2-It is easy 3-It can be made ahead 4-All three of us love the dish, making it a crowd pleaser (If everyone is happy, then mama is happy!)

Here is my modified version of ATK’s Make Ahead enchilada’s

Ingredients:

olive oil (1-2 T)

1 onion, diced

1-2 T chili powder

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 t ground coriander

2 t ground cumin

1  rotisserie chicken, meat off of the bones, skin discarded

10 oz shredded cheese (we use a combo of mozzarella & cheddar)

1 can black beans, strained

corn tortillas

2 8 oz cans tomato sauce

1/3 c water

Sautee onions in olive oil until soft and lightly brown. Stir in chili powder, garlic, coriander, cumin, and cook 30 seconds – 1 minute, stirring constantly. Stir in the chicken until thoroughly coated. Add tomato sauce and water, and bring to a simmer for 8-10 minutes.  Strain out excess liquid into a bowl, and allow chicken mixture to cool. Add black beans and mix.

Spritz tortillas with olive oil and place in 300 degree oven spread out on a cookie sheet, 2-4 minutes until pliable. Fill tortillas with chicken and black beans mixture, roll, and place seam side down on a cookie sheet. Once you’ve assembled all of the enchiladas, place the cookie sheet in the freezer for 30 minutes until slightly frozen. Store one meal worth of enchiladas in a freezer-safe container. Save the liquid that you strained from the chicken, and keep as your enchilada sauce, or you can use store bought in place of this.

To Serve: Move enchiladas to a casserole dish, place in oven set at 350 degrees (no need to preheat). Bake uncovered 25 minutes. Remove, cover with sauce (1 cup +/-), and sprinkle tops with cheese. Bake 10 more minutes until cheese is melted. Serve with rice.