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Monday, November 30, 2009

Kindergarten reunion

Thanksgiving is a time to remember what you're grateful for. And this weekend was filled with reminders, especially as I spent a lot of time with my family and old friends.

From dinner at a favorite high school haunt and homemade pie with my two best friends from high school to lunch with chums I've had since kindergarten, it was a weekend full of good food and great people.

I hadn't realized that my friendship with Tim, Kristen and Teddy dated back to kindergarten until someone mentioned it as we sat around a metal table at Chipotle. At first, I commented that it was like being back in high school until someone else noted, "No, we've known each other kindergarten."

It's such a cliche but time really does fly. To think that kindergarten was 18 years ago -- that's a high school senior! Tim and I have know each other even longer, since our days as wee tots at Franklin Montessori School.

Since high school graduation, we've moved around the country and the world. Between attending three different undergraduate universities (Indiana University, Boston College and two of us at University of Maryland), studying abroad (Tim in Sydney, me in London) and navigating the post-uni world, we don't spend as much time together as we once did.

Today, Kristen's getting her Master's at Georgetown in preparation for winning a Pulitzer (wasn't that your high school superlative?), Tim's at University of Michigan and getting ready to be the breakout star of the National Symphony Orchestra, and Teddy's living the life of a captain of industry in Manhattan. Hey, someone has to make some real money!

There's a constant ebb and flow with most friendships. I went a few years without talking to one of my best friends since elementary school -- the fact that we've reconnected brings me such joy. What's that cheesy Girl Scouts song about friendship? "Make new friends but keep the old/ One is silver and the other gold."

Now is when I'm really valuing old friends and new beginnings.

It's fun to connect with old friends because there's so much shared history. The three hours spent sitting at lunch passed in a flash as we gossiped about former classmates (thanks to Facebook for making stalking so much easier) and caught up on our lives.

Do you keep in touch with friends from the school years?

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, the Christmas season is officially upon us. Rejoice! Tomorrow is the first Sunday in Advent -- how fast the time goes. Already, I've seen cars with Christmas trees strapped to the roof and more than a few houses in my neighborhood have decked the halls with boughs of holly. (fa la la la la la la la la)

Between the recession, unemployment and a general realization that we all have too much stuff, my family is doing a semi-homemade Christmas this year -- minus the ├╝ber-perky Sandra Lee and the matching outfit/curtains/tablescape. (In kindergarten there was a girl named Cassie who, I told my mother, I hated because she smiled too much. Obviously too much happiness is a negative in my book.)

In the spirit of less is more and inspired by the Church of Stop Shopping, we're making our gifts this year. Although the Internet offers a plethora of good ideas -- and some not-so-good ones -- I'm turning to my faithful readers for some of your best homemade gift suggestions.

Have you ever gotten a cool homemade gift? Seen something interesting? Let me know!

What do you think about homemade gifts? Good? Bad? Makes you look cheap?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

What are you thankful for?

My life is way too full of blessings.

I'm thankful for a family that supports me no matter what, whether it's getting the crazy idea to move to the other side of the globe or take an indefinite hiatus from working to just be.

With Mom at Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska

I'm thankful for amazing friends. It's a gift to have a strong group of friends who I know from pre-school, middle school, high school, college and around the world.

I'm thankful to be healthy -- besides that little bout with what I'm convinced was swine flu over the summer -- and able to be active.

With Dad at the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, Belize

I'm thankful for the opportunity to see the world. So many people say, "I wish I could do what you do, just take off and travel." Let me tell you: YOU CAN.

With my sister, Kate, at the Mayan city of Chacchoben, Mexico

I'm thankful to keep learning all the time, whether it's through books, through conversations or through exploration.

I'm thankful for an abundance of good food.

I'm thankful to be home for Thanksgiving. You don't realize what an important holiday it is until you're thousands of miles away.

In a few hours, I'll be thankful for a delicious dinner. I can't wait!

What are you thankful for this year?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

For love of pumpkin #3

The house smells amazing today! Between the lentil and vegetable soup bubbling away in the slow cooker and delicious pumpkin spice cookies still warm from the oven, it's beginning to feel a lot like Thanksgiving!

Yesterday, Melissa sent me this recipe for pumpkin spice cookies after raving about them on Gchat for a solid five minutes. A few modifications were made, subbing butter and applesauce for shortening and agave nectar for white sugar, and the result is just as good as Melissa promised. I've already enjoyed couple (full disclosure: 5) today -- and will maybe share with my family -- before bringing the rest to Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow night.

I guess a year of teaching cooking class to impatient, baking-challenged, 10-year-old Koreans paid off, because these cookies turned out pretty darn yummy if I do say so myself. More cake-y than crispy, just the way I like 'em.

Note: The recipe claims to make 36 cookies, but I ended up with almost 60! Could be the agave nectar and applesauce thinning out the mixture...? Whatever the case, these three-bite treats contain the perfect combination mixture of sweet and spicy.

Pumpkin Spice Cookies

1/3 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/4 cup butter
2/3 cup agave nectar
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp cloves
1 cup butterscotch chips

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Spray PAM on cookie sheets to prevent sticking.

Mix together wet ingredients, then sift in the dry ingredients. Butterscotch chips go in last. (Usually I'm not a big butterscotch fan but they're a fantastic addition here.) Drop spoonfuls of batter onto the cookie sheet and pop into the oven.

Check on the cookies after 15 minutes, but mine took 20 to bake thoroughly.

With 56 calories and 2 grams of fat per cookie, this is a pretty guiltless sweet treat. Served alongside an oversize mug of Trader Joe's organic Ruby Red Chai, it was a delightful afternoon snack.

This was my first experience baking pumpkin cookies; actually, I might never have even eaten pumpkin cookies before besides those sickeningly-sweet, iced, sugar cookies from Safeway. But as of today, these cookies may join the ranks of pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread as my all-time favorite autumn foods. Guess I'll have to sample a few more (and pie and bread) before making an informed decision!

What a girl has to do in the name of research... ;)

Now I just need to find my eating pants in preparation for tomorrow's festivities.

What's your favorite Thanksgiving dessert?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ghosts of Thanksgivings Past

Mashed potatoes and cranberries and pumpkin pie, oh my!

To say I'm amped for my first Thanksgiving in America in three years is an understatement. The lead-up to Thanksgiving is so exciting, even being subjected to the multitude of annoying Black Friday ads on television.

No, I won't be hitting the malls first thing Friday morning. I'll instead be relaxing in my house, wearing fleece pants and eating a big bowl of pumpkin oats. It might be a crazy life, but it's our life.

Last year, I reminisced about Thanksgivings past. Celebrating in London in 2007 was one of my all-time favorite holiday memories simply because of its extraordinariness and the pure joy of experiencing Thanksgiving, that quintessential American holiday, in stunning St. Paul's Cathedral. Thanksgiving lunch may have been a Starbucks sandwich and dinner an M&S chicken, but I was truly grateful every moment.

Thanksgiving in London, 2007

Last year's Thanksgiving day dinner in Korea was at On the Border -- we were all in dire need of some Mexican food -- but a dual Thanksgiving/Christmas celebration a few weeks later brought in turkey with all the fixings thanks to the USO and Yongsan base in Seoul.

Thanksgiving in Seoul, 2008

It wasn't exactly mom's home cooking, but it was certainly a nice change from the daily kimchi-and-rice menu. My Korean co-worker said she enjoyed the meal -- she'd had a big turkey dinner before in Australia -- but couldn't imagine eating like this every day. I tried to explain that it's not exactly every day we eat like this but then reconsidered the argument, thinking about America's startling obesity rate.

Turkey may not be an option since I went vegetarian, but everything else is a go. As I told my dear friend Erin today, "I want to dive face first into a pumpkin pie."

Ain't that the truth! Tomorrow's agenda includes baking some pumpkin spice cookies (thanks to Melissa for the recipe) and getting some exercise in before it's stretchy pants and pie time.

What's your favorite Thanksgiving memory?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Oh, SuBo...

I like Susan Boyle as much as the next person.

I mean, come on, it was pretty unexpected when that crazy little Scot opened her mouth and revealed a decent, operatic voice. Here we were, completely prepared to mock her, and instead she sounded pretty good. Proof positive not to judge a book (or a cat lady) by its cover.

But now she's traveling all over America -- makeover intact -- to promote her new CD and here's the thing: her voice isn't terrible, but she should stick to what she knows.

Case in point:

Really, SuBo? The Rolling Stones?! Who talked you into that and why did you let them? Show tunes and ballads suit your voice just fine. But leave the rock to someone with a little less vibrato.

On the other hand, she obviously has legions of fans sticking by her around beyond that first performance on "Britain's Got Talent," helping SuBo extend her 15 minutes of fame ever longer. Her debut album, "I Dreamed a Dream," has become the most pre-ordered CD ever from Amazon.com.

I'm not heartless. That first performance gave me chills and brought tears to my eyes. But I can't imagine actually paying money to see this woman, or buying her CD (although its release is perfectly timed for Christmas...).

My favorite SuBo moments aren't when she's singing. It's when she's acting like her usual wacky self. The best part of her "Today" appearance this morning wasn't the performance, it was the off-kilter little dance she did after finishing each song. And then I just shake my head and say, "Oh, SuBo..."

Susan Boyle: yea or nay?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"The view seems endless."

It may be more of a feature than a front page-worthy story, but I loved the latest installment in a continuing Washington Post series about the economic downturn's effect on Americans coast-to-coast. Today's story took readers to Missoula, Mo., and a recent college graduate who was poised to "have it all" -- until she couldn't find a job and returned home to live with her parents.

While I never even attempted finding a "proper" job after graduating from university in 20o8 -- instead taking the road less traveled and ending up in South Korea teaching English for a year -- Melissa Meyer's story resonated with me. She had followed the norm all her life, getting good grades, holding down jobs and impressive internships, being involved in extracurriculars and eventually graduating from a good university.

As the economy took a turn for the worse over the past year, more and more new college graduates are finding themselves un- or underemployed. Hiring for recent college graduates is down 40 percent in 2009 from last year, according to a new study.

Some of my friends have fantastic jobs that put them firmly on a fast-track career path and I definitely envy their security and freedom with money sometimes, but many others are stuck waiting tables or working retail -- not exactly where they expected to be after four years of hard work and thousands of dollars spent on tuition.

What Meyer realizes in the course of job-hunting is to embrace her newfound freedom after a lifetime of playing by the rules. Suddenly, she dreams of moving abroad and exploring the world. The article's final paragraph especially resonated with me:

All she sees are deep blue lakes, snow-capped mountains and clouds floating above dense forest. The view seems endless. So do the possibilities. She turns to Freihofer: "I wonder what our friends are doing right now in their cubicles."

Koh Samui, Thailand

That's pretty much how I felt one late January evening while walking down a beach in Thailand, having just finished an amazing plate of curry, without a care in the world. It may have been only a vacation from my 9-5 gig in Seoul, but I doubt I would have had the same opportunity for a week-long getaway working back in Washington.

I'm tentatively poised to enter the rat race -- or at least begin seriously job hunting -- in June. Be ready, corporate world.

Until then, I'm enjoying planning trips to Costa Rica in December, Australia and New Zealand from February, and Spain and Portugal in late spring. You can take your highly-paid job with benefits -- although I sure wouldn't mind having health insurance...

Would you ever take time off from work to travel? There are arguments on both sides and definitely something to be said for having job security, benefits, savings and a secure life.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Weighty Issue

When possible, I prefer walking to driving. Whether it's the grocery store, library, post office or restaurants, it's a blessing to be able to walk almost everywhere. The neighborhood values pedestrians, with sidewalks running along every street -- a nice contrast from Evansville, where I visited last week and noticed a sad lack of sidewalks, forcing the rare walker to the shoulder.

With iPod firmly in place and set destination in mind, it's usually easy to tune out the noisy streets. But occasionally, a honk from a passing car or truck captures my attention. More rarely, but more infuriating, are the shouts from quickly-moving autos.

Today's exclamation? "Fat ass!" from a speeding pickup truck.

Now, maybe the massive Chipotle burrito bol that I inhaled for lunch was hanging off my rear. I could certainly feel it stuffing my stomach as I attempted some sunny afternoon exercise.

But the thing is -- I know I'm not fat. It's not something on my radar screen. What even makes calling a woman "fat" the ultimate insult?

What compels people -- okay, let's face it, it's always men -- to yell out car windows at women on the street? I think they know that many women are self-conscious about their weight and believe that the best way to insult a woman is to comment on her size.

So the bottom line: what's the point? What's the benefit to the cat-caller from his comment?

Personally, I'm just letting it roll of my back. There are certainly worse things to be called than fat! Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to eat a snack (mmm cereal and yogurt) and plan my dinner menu.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Blogger Vegan 4 A Day

When I first heard about Michelle and Katy's Blogger Vegan 4 A Week challenge, it never occurred to me to participate. But the more bloggers I saw getting amped about the idea -- some doing it for a week, many more for just a day -- the more I thought, "Well, I could do it, too, if it's only one day!"

Breakfast: oat bran, a banana, flax, cinnamon, nutmeg and peanut butter.

Caitlin and Leslie both wrote thoughtful posts today summing up my thoughts on vegetarianism and veganism. Whether you're an omnivore or vegetarian/vegan, the most important thing is to be a mindful eater, knowing where your food comes from and how it got from the farm or factory to your plate. The more educated I become about food, the less I can imagine going back to eating conventional meats or dairy. (Just call me John Kerry when it comes to seafood because I keep flip-flopping.)

Lunch, inspired by a similar lunch I had in Sydney: locally-grown butternut squash, cucumber and chickpeas with balsamic on pita, with pita chips and carrots.

Even a tiny change in your diet can make a difference. Whether it's committing to eat less meat -- hence the Meatless Monday campaign --, buying organic and locally-grown produce, meat and dairy (as much as possible) or spreading the word about documentaries like Food, Inc., any small change you can make does send a message.

Snack: Mary's Gone herb crackers, grape tomatoes, cucumber and Trader Joe's tahini-free hummus.

I think being aware is the most important thing -- for instance, I eat seafood knowing both the consequences and benefits, and try to be educated about sustainable seafood.

Tea time: Harvey Nichols' Afternoon Delight, brought back from London.

Going vegan for the day wasn't as difficult as I anticipated, besides having to read ingredient labels more closely. It would be much harder eating at a restaurant but overall, for a day, it was a good experience. I'm certainly not planning to go vegan anytime soon but it certainly provided some food for thought.

Dinner: black bean chili with corn, tomatoes and butternut squash, and homemade cornbread -- both with a few modifications from the original recipes.

Would you ever go vegetarian or vegan? Why or why not? Going vegetarian last spring was a lot easier than I expected; it's only difficult occasionally at restaurants where the only veggie options are pasta or salad.

Dessert: frozen mixed berries.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Green Guide is a GoodGuide

My family loves Burt's Bees products. Lip salve, hand lotion, face wash, body scrub, cuticle cream -- you name it, we have it.

Walking into stores these days, we're bombarded with products advertised as "natural." Even reading the ingredient list can't always help, as a perfectly natural supplement might have an unfamiliar name.

Enter websites GoodGuide and Green Guide, which help consumers make informed shopping decisions on everything from food and makeup to cleaning supplies and toys.

GoodGuide ranks products using a 1-10 scale. For example, I constantly use Burt's Bees Beeswax Lip Balm and decided to check its stats on the site. The ranking is broken down into three broad categories: health, environment and and society.

After seeing the initial ranking (8.6 overall, with a 10 for health, 8.1 for environment and 7.6 for society), the product is examined even more closely using 46 factors like ingredients, product certifications from organizations like PETA and philanthropy.

What did I learn? Burt's Bees still looks like a great product in my eyes. Although there has been some controversy upon learning that Burt's Bees is now owned by Clorox, that doesn't necessarily change the product itself or its benefits.

Do you think it's worth spending money on natural products? I'd rather spend an extra dollar or two and know that I'm not putting harmful chemicals into (or onto) my body.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Fireside at la Madeleine

When the weather gets cool and my stomach starts growling, one of my go-to restaurants is la Madeleine, a French cafe-bakery with locations throughout the DC-area. Serving up good French country fare -- hearty soups, crusty breads and a range of pastas, salads and quiche -- la Madeleine appeals to me mostly because many of its locations feature a huge, roaring fire.

Sitting fireside with a huge bowl of creamy tomato basil soup, accompanied by chewy whole wheat bread for dipping, is one of the coziest locations imaginable. The tables are often crowded with groups of students studying, taking advantage of oversized tables and ample space to spread out books and papers.

(My dad has a theory that only women -- or men dragged there by their wives -- eat at la Madeleine. He may be right...)

Not-so-secretly, I want la Madeleine's decorators to fix up my future home in a French country style. Every square inch of the restaurant is covered with heavy wooden furniture, old books and artwork.

During my last visit, it was cold and drizzling outside. But inside by the fire, I was happy. There's no better feeling than being warm and having a bellyfull of delicious food. If I can't be back in France, this may be the next best thing.

Vive la France!

Have you ever been to France? I've been twice and can't wait to go back -- there are just an endless number of things to see and do in Paris alone, let alone the rest of the country.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Spring in November

What do you do when it's nearly 70 degrees and the middle of November?

Spend as much time outside as possible, that's what. After lazing away the early morning in my pajamas reading the Washington Post and New York Times online, I headed out at 10 for a long loop around the neighborhood. Nothing better after spending hours on an airplane than stretching your legs and getting the blood flowing again.

Yes, it was back to the airport and back to DC for me yesterday. Originally, the plan was to drive home with my mom (12ish hours in a straight shot) but as Indiana bureaucracy forces her to stay in the state longer to sort out issues with the estate, she decided to send me home to "babysit" my 20-year-old sister. Ah, the joys of family.

Coming home to a totally empty refrigerator required a big stock-up at Trader Joe's after lunch (only my second Chipotle visit since moving back to the United States!).

New TJ's find: Ruby Red Chai Tea. Holy yum!

Time to enjoy this unseasonably warm day before temperatures start dropping again: me, iced tea, Ruth Reichl and a sunny seat on the patio.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

It's a small world after all

Walking through Petersburg yesterday, a woman came running out of a secondhand shop after noticing me taking photos on the street.

"Are you taking pictures for a book?" she asked.

No, I told her, just waiting for my family to get out of a meeting with a local attorney. I explained that my mom had grown up in Petersburg.

When the woman asked my family name, I told her and she immediately said there was something in her store I had to see.

She led me inside the packed shop, filled to the brim with antique bottles, vintage clothes and old books, to a shelf in the back corner where a red sweater was folded. The sweater, from Petersburg High School marching band, had my mom's name inscribed inside.

It's certainly a small world that this storekeeper happened to flag me down on the street and then recognized the last name.

When my mom's meeting finished, we went back to the store to look at the sweater. Maybe it wound up there when my grandparents had an estate sale before their move to Evansville... but however it happened, it's certainly a cool coincidence.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Small town USA

It must be fun to grow up in a small town where you know everyone and they know you. A place where you can walk into stores and be greeted by name, and feel a true sense of community that living in a larger city just doesn't allow. Many planned neighborhoods, like the one I live in, try to recreate this lifestyle but can't quite capture the close-knit community fostered in small towns across America.

Visiting my grandparents in tiny Petersburg, Indiana, always involved spending a lot of time outdoors. My grandparents had a farm and grew various fruits and vegetables -- I remember picking tomatoes and blackberries in their backyard and enjoying them that night for dinner.

Going back to Petersburg today to complete more paperwork following my grandmother's death, we (mom, aunt, I) were amazed to see how much the town as changed. As goes the economy, so goes the town, especially one that relies heavily on power plants and coal mining.

As you drive into Persburg, the billboard declares former Dodgers player Gil Hodges as a proud local son. (Interestingly, my mom was once featured on that billboard. I need to scan that picture in!)

What was once a vibrant, bustling downtown is now a collection of secondhand stores, a Chinese buffet, a bar and a whole lot of empty storefronts. There was one cute, new-looking cafe/bakery, but besides that, options were limited.

My mom and aunt remember when the downtown strip was a one-stop location for all your needs -- dentist, drug store, restaurants -- but the economic downturn has obviously hit Petersburg hard. Many of the houses they remembered from childhood, where friends used to live, now appear completely abandoned and dilapidated, overgrown with weeds.

It was a quick walk around downtown, one that leaves me wondering what this town will look like in another five or 10 years. As jobs leave, so do young people and the future of Petersburg. Are small towns in America dying off?

Would you want to (or do you) live in a small town? It's easy to see why young people leave and never look back -- lack of opportunity, for one.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A few laps before dinner

When the sun is shining and the November temps still hover in the high-50s, it's hard to stay inside all day. Whether working a desk job or stuck packing boxes in a cave-like apartment -- my grandmother collected aluminum and I've packed so much that last night, I dreamed about it! -- getting outdoors even for a brief time can be a lifesaver.

Taking a few laps around the apartment complex every afternoon completely rejuvenates me, whether it's the sunshine or stretching my legs. It was peaceful after a long day of running errands today to get out into the crisp weather. I ended up doing some strength moves by the lake, under a cloudless cerulean sky, as Kate Rusby played on my iPod. Very relaxing.

The day's biggest excitement involved a trip to a coin dealer to find out the value of a number of antique coins discovered around the house. These days, many coins are worth more for their junk metal value than rarity but a collection of silver half-dollars, quarters and dimes brought in a nice $520 cash value. Not too bad for found money.

We'll see what happens at Coinstar when we cash in the rest of the change discovered in various envelopes, tins and jars around the apartment. It's amazing what you can put aside and forget about.

Tomorrow it's off to Petersburg, the tiny town where my mom grew up. Growing up, it was always fun to visit my grandparents there and enjoy banana splits at the now-closed Dairy Queen. It's been years since I was there...

How often do you visit out-of-town relatives?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

YWCA Tea Room

Watching Food Network a few years ago, I took notice when host Alton Brown rode his motorcycle through Evansville. This small city -- the third-largest in Indiana -- isn't exactly a tourist mecca, so it was exciting to see Brown visit somewhere so random where I'd also been. (Many travel shows come to DC, the best being Anthony Bourdain's visit and confirmation of Busboys & Poets' amazingness.)

Before enjoying a brain sandwich at the Hilltop Inn, Brown lunched at the YWCA Tea Room, located in Evansville's historic district. The tea room serves lunch Monday to Friday and offers a selection of fresh salads, sandwiches and soup, along with homemade baked goods.

With cheap prices (lunch for three, including drinks, came to under $20.00) and a casual atmosphere, the tea room offers nothing fancy but provides good, homemade food.

Keeping with my autumnal love of all things pumpkin, I ordered a pumpkin bread sandwich -- two pieces of pumpkin nut bread with cream cheese filling. After peeling off the cream cheese, it was a tasty, dessert-like lunch.

The dish came with "fruit": two maraschino cherries and canned peaches. Okay, not exactly organic or gourmet, but it, along with the tables of older women playing bridge, added to the quaint atmosphere.

(I supplemented this lunch with a cup of fantastic vegan spinach lentil soup from Penny Lane Coffeehouse, Evanville's liberal enclave and the only place where "vegetarian" doesn't mean "chicken".)

Are you going to get an unforgettable meal at the YWCA Tea Room? No, that's not what it's for. But in terms of a quality, freshly-made, affordable lunch in Evansville... it's an excellent choice.

(Plus, all of the employees are really friendly, the type of women who call you "hon" and "dear." And men are welcome, too.)

Have you ever visited a restaurant after seeing it featured on TV?