Friday, May 22, 2009

The Little Brother Graduates

Full album/bigger pictures here

This past Tuesday was my little brother's graduation from Western Nevada College with an Associate of Arts degree. I took Ayla and went up to my parents' place Monday morning to be there for the ceremony and spend some time with the family. Later Monday evening my Nana and Ted (grandparents on my mother's side) arrived too. We had a nice dinner of grilled vegetable, tofu, and shrimp (for the omnivores) kebabs, with my favorite quinoa salad on the side.

The following day Mom, Nana, and I headed into Carson to do a little shopping. And look who I got to see!!!!

Apologies for the crappy iPhone picture

Katie and Eric! Katie's parents live not too far from my parents, and they just happened to be visiting and in Carson for lunch. They came over to the store we were in to say hi, take a picture, and give me a chance to embarrass Eric by hanging out in the women's lingerie section. I'm so happy we got to see each other, even if it was for only a few minutes. I'm even happier that we'll be getting together soon with the other two members of the Four Musketeers. I love you guys! And by the way, nice catch Katie!

Tuesday evening we attended Clay's graduation. We got there an hour early and were lucky we did, because not everyone who showed up got into the auditorium. The ceremonies were about to begin when we suddenly hear a huge shout from the back. I thought it was some crazy dude, but then the bagpipes began. The shout had come from the major(?) of the Scottish band, and he along with the pipes and drums led the processional into the hall. An improvement on the usual Pomp and Circumstance, if a loud one. Anyway, I didn't get many good pictures during the ceremony since the lighting in the hall wasn't great and when Clay walked across the stage to receive his diploma I was yelling for him, which made my camera shaky.

After the graduation we went to dinner at El Charro Avita where we had yummy food and large margaritas. By this time it was late so we went back to my parents' place where Clay opened a few presents and then we sat around chatting.

The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast and then I headed home. Ayla managed to make everyone fall in love with her of course (Ted was referring to her as his dog after about ten minutes - she adored him!), but I know she was happy to head home where she could really rest. Its just so exciting up at my folks' house, with so many people to watch and play with, and so many cats to sniff. The drive home was uneventful, and Mac was more excited to see Ayla than he was to see me when we finally walked in the door.

Overall it was a great trip: I got to see both sets of grandparents, see my little brother graduate, and spend time with my family. Thanks everyone!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Bananas for Zin

Clockwise from top left: Souvenir wine glass; me sipping something-or-other;
my patio Princess lilies; wine glass and festival flyer.

Today Chris and I went to the ZinFest Wine Festival at Lodi Lake. I found out about this event a few months ago and had been looking forward to going for quite a while, simply because it was something new and I got a killer deal on the tickets. We arrived about half an hour after the opening, which I think was perfect. It was hot, being Lodi in the summertime so it was somewhere in the 90°s F, but we were on the lake and there was ample shade to help keep us cool.

After parking in the lot we walked to the entrance, rather than wait for the shuttle where we would just be riding pressed up against other sweaty people. There are very few people I want to be that intimate with, and the ten minute walk was probably just as fast with the added benefit of getting a little exercise. Then our IDs were checked, a little further down we handed over our tickets and they stamped our hand with a little red smiley face indicating we were of drinking age, then a bit more further down they slapped an orange wristband on us, I think it was for re-entry if we left. Another short walk and we were handed a souvenir glass and program, then a small loaf of bread to help soak up the wine that would soon be in our bellies. After the intricate entry procedures we were free to roam.

There were fifty local wineries present, pouring more than 250 different wines. I wonder if anyone tried them all? Or at least every winery? I ended up trying less than ten, but honestly I cannot recall how many. The standout wine from what I tasted was the Gnekow Family Winery Old Vine Zin: it was incredibly mellow and smooth. There were also a number of local restaurant booths with food, some arts and crafts (though far fewer than I would have expected), live music, and a few roaming entertainers. Some people came ready for the day with picnic blankets, camp chairs, and I even saw a tent. We ended up staying a few hours overall before heading back to the car; I can only sip so much wine in one afternoon.

On our way home we stopped off in Tracy for lunch at The Olive Garden, to use up an ancient gift card that I think my parents gave us at least five years ago. It was a predictably bland meal: Chris said his lasagna tasted like Chef Boyardee, and my fettuccine Alfredo was passable. But free food always tastes better, we were hungry, and the service was actually quite good. The rest of the day has been spent relaxing, with a quick BBQ on the patio for Chris' steak and my double-stuffed wasabi "baked" potatoes. Its been very nice sitting here, playing on the computer with a Midori sour in my other hand, a dog or two at my feet, and enjoying the warm night. Everyone should be this lucky.

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The other night I had an insatiable craving for banana bread. My mom makes a great one, and I have her recipe, but I wanted to try something a little different so I opened my copy of How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman. With a few adjustments based on what I had on hand, I came up with this, and it was good.

Peek-a-boo, little chocolate chips!

Banana Bread with Macadamia Nuts and Chocolate Chips
adapted from "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian"

8 tablespoons (1 stick butter), plus more for pan
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 eggs
3 very ripe bananas, mashed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons half-and-half cream
1/4 chopped macadamia nuts
1/4 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Grease a 9x5-inch loaf pan.

Mix the dry ingredients together. In a separate bowl and with a hand mixer, cream the butter and beat in the eggs and bananas (I didn't bother pre-mashing my bananas; I added them whole here and used the beaters to mash them). Stir this mixture into the dry ingredients just enough to combine; lumps are okay. If your batter seems a bit too dry, like mine did, add the half-and-half at this point. Gently stir in the nuts and chocolate chips.

Pour the batter into the loaf pan and bake for about 45 minutes, until nicely browned and a toothpick inserted into the center of the bread comes out mostly clean. Cool on a rack for 15 minutes before removing the bread from the pan.

Enjoy slathered with melty butter and a good cup of coffee. I've had a thick slice of this for breakfast for a few days now. Its great to start off the day with chocolate!

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I think I'm about ready to curl up in bed with my newest read - The Lunatic Cafe, the fourth installment of Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series - and perhaps a slice of pie.

What, you don't eat pie in bed?

Monday, May 11, 2009


One of our favorite weekend snacks is Artichoke Dip. I probably whip some up every other weekend or so. It is very easy, very tasty, and a bit fattening, so serve it with veggies to dip and tell yourself that makes it healthier.

Artichoke Dip

6 oz. marinated artichoke hearts, drained
1/2 c. cream cheese
1/4 c. mayonnaise

salt and pepper
shredded Parmesan

Put the artichoke hearts (remember to drain them or you'll have a soupy mess, believe me) in a food processor with the cream cheese, mayo, salt and pepper and blend until its just a little chunky. I'll often add frozen chopped spinach, shredded mozzarella cheese, and other spices (garlic is good, as is basil) to this. And sometimes I'll use plain low fat yogurt instead of mayo. My measurements above are approximate, so if your dip is looking to thick add more mayo or yogurt.

Transfer to an oven-safe dish and top with Parmesan, or use breadcrumbs like I did here since I was out of Parmesan. You just want something to form a nice crust on the top. I also used three ramekins rather than one dish this time. Bake in a 375° oven for about 20 minutes, until hot and bubbly and the Parmesan or what have you has become golden.

Serve with fresh veggies (broccoli, sugar snap peas, baby carrots, tomatoes), crackers, or some good sourdough. Mangia!

And do yourself a favor: go to Costco and pick up the roasted garlic cheddar. Its a whitish cheese with a green rind, behind the dip in the picture above. If you like garlic, this cheese is fantastic (and stinking up my fridge). If you don't like garlic you probably don't want to come to my house for a while.

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I took the pups for a walk on Saturday, one we've done quite a few times in the past. Its only about two miles round trip, but I think Mac is turning into a real bulldog and this might have been his last big walk for the summer. The heat is just too much for the little guy, and on the return trip we were ambling along at a snail's pace. Its too bad because he loves to get out in the public where he can be properly adored by everyone who will stop to say hi.

We got to the park, got a drink of water at the dog fountain, and then sat on the hill under a tree for a while. I poured a water bottle over Mac to cool him down a bit, and I'm sure the cool grass felt nice. Check out that tongue lolling out the side of his giant mouth.

Ayla hopped around us, since she's the Energizer Bunny. She loves running in the grass, even when she tries to corner and wipes out, skidding along on her face. She's... special. I like this picture where she's running because she looks rabid, vicious, and insane. And you can see her pretty teeth.

She's really just a big scaredy-cat, sweetie of a goofball though.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Flower Walk

I took Ayla on a walk this afternoon, along with my camera and a resolution to focus on the small things. There are so many different plants along our usual route, and I could hear little creatures rustling in the hedges along the sidewalk. While the grasses are browning out with the coming of summer there are still a wide variety of flowers begging to be noticed.

It was a nice reminder to slow down and be present more often.

Silly Tests

I ran across a few silly tests today. Are you smarter or worth more than me? - How Smart Are You?

Free IQ Test - Free IQ Test - Look Younger - How much is your cadaver worth?

Monday, May 4, 2009


Mac is a pretty big little guy. He's short, but his chest is as big around as mine. Chris often comments that Mac looks like he's the same size as me, and this weekend I pulled out my flexible tape measure and proved it. That just makes him great for hugging!

Mac also has a new best friend: a glow-in-the-dark Chuckit! ball I picked up at Whole Foods a few weeks back. He takes the ball everywhere with him in the house and outside; he even sleeps with it. When he takes it outside the glow factor recharges in the sunlight, so when he brings it back in it glows green in his mouth. The ball is a little soft so we thought for sure he'd destroy it (tennis balls, stuffed animals and the like don't last too long in our house), but it has stood up to his chewing quite well. I have to give it a glowing review...


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I made biscotti yesterday - dunking a crunchy biscotti in my morning coffee makes Monday mornings a bit more tolerable. Baking Bites recently talked about the Cook's Illustrated review of chocolate chips, and Ghirardelli’s 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Chips were the winner. I picked up a bag, and I have to say I really like the large size of the chips:

They are flatter and more disc-shaped than the Nestle's I generally buy. The Ghirardelli chips also melted very smoothly. I went with a recipe off of the Ghirardelli site for my biscotti, with a few changes to accommodate what I had on hand.

Marbled Biscotti
yield: 4 dozen cookies

3/4 cup chocolate chips (original uses semi-sweet)
1/3 cup butter, at room temperature (original uses unsalted)
3/4 cup granulated white sugar
2 teaspoons baking power
1 pinch of salt
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup macadamia nuts, finely chopped (original uses hazelnuts)
(1 1/2 teaspoons grated orange zest)

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Lightly grease two cookie sheets. Melt the chocolate chips in a heatproof bowl over barely simmering water, stirring occasionally until smooth (or use microwave). Remove from the heat and cool. In a large bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer on medium speed until it is creamy, about 1 minute. Add the sugar, baking powder, and salt; beat until blended. Beat in the eggs and vanilla until combined. Stir in the flour with a wooden spoon.

Divide the dough in half and transfer one half to another bowl. Stir the melted chocolate and ¼ cup of the macadamia nuts into one-half of the dough. Stir the orange zest (I used about a teaspoon of lemon juice instead, but didn't taste it in the end cookie) and remaining nuts (I omitted these) into the other half. Divide each half into four equal parts. Using lightly floured hands, shape each portion into a 1¼-inch by 10-inch rope. Place a rope of each color side by side on one of the prepared baking sheets. Twist the ropes around each other several times. Flatten slightly to make a 2-inch-wide log. Repeat with the other ropes (I twisted two sets, and just placed the regular dough on top of the chocolate dough for the other two), placing the resulting logs about 4 inches apart on the baking sheets. Bake for 25 minutes or until the logs are firm to the touch. Cool on the baking sheets for 15 minutes or until cool enough to handle. Lower the oven temperature to 300ºF

Transfer one log to a cutting board and, with a serrated knife, cut the log into twelve 1-inch-wide cookies. Repeat with the remaining three logs. Remove one oven rack and place the 48 cookies directly on it. Return the rack to the uppermost position in the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until crisp. Transfer the cookies from the oven rack to a wire cooling rack and let cool completely. Store at room temperature in a tightly covered container.