Friday, February 29, 2008

Vehicles

So right now Bobby and I have three vehicles - a 2005 red Honda Civic (automoatic), a 2005 silver Accord Hybrid (also automatic, as it is a hybrid), and a 2005 white Ford F-350 (deisel, automatic). The truck we have for the business, so that one isn't changing, but we are evaluating our options right now regarding the cars. As nice as it is having the extra vehicle, we are trying to reduce our monthly expenses, and eliminating a car payment is one of the most obvious options. I'd really like to be able to save money to buy a house in a year or so, as I think the market is going to keep dropping that long.

The Accord is great because it is has 4 doors, and I love having the XM and the navigation system. It's a beautiful car, with leather interior and little buttons that open my garage door. But it is starting to show signs of wear - it has a lot of miles, I've already had to replace one door actuator and another is starting to behave abnormally, I'm going to need new tires soon, etc. Minor stuff, but we still owe a sizable chunk on it. We are only upside-down on the loan by a couple grand, but the balance on the loan for that car is more than double the balance on the loan for the Civic.

The Civic is a great little car, has about 10K fewer miles than the Accord and runs awesome. It is a fun car to drive, and as odd as it sounds, the Civic actually gets better gas milage than the Accord, even though the latter is a hybrid (the hybrid engine in the Accord actually suplements the power of the engine, rather than improve gas mileage). We are right side up on that loan by at least a few grand, so between the two cars we about break even. The only problem with the Civic is that it is a coupe, and with Emma it really is preferable to have a car with 4 doors.

Both of cars have recenlty seen a little action and have some scrapes we need to get cleaned up before we sell one or both of them.

So I'm trying to decide which we should do:
Sell the Civic and keep the Accord
Sell the Accord and keep the Civic
Sell both cars and get a Honda Civic Hybrid
Sell both cars and get a Toyota Prius

In either of the latter cases, I think we should buy a newer used car, in an effor to keep our payments and debt ratio low. So what do you think we should do? Take the poll on the right and let me know.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sunny California

I just went downstairs to get a sandwich for lunch. It is absolutely lovely outside. This is one reason I love California. It can be the middle of winter, and you'll have days like these:


Makes me want to play hookey and head to the beach...

New Mission: Pilates in the AM

I purchased a Pilates video. My goal is to start waking up early and go through the 20 minute workout each day. Some friends have recenlty been raving about Pilates, and I need to do something to be more active. I would love to go back to the yoga studio near work, but it's quite pricey, and I'm really trying to be more fiscally conservative. So instead, we are adding me to Bobby's gym membership for 15% of the cost of the yoga studio, and I bought this DVD.

I'm hoping to feel an increase in my energy level, and I would, of course, love to improve my muscle tone. Sitting at a desk all day leaves me feeling a little drained, and it does nothing for my general physical health. Bobby and I really should both be up at 5am, but 7 seems to be more likely. I need a task, a motivation. Perhaps if we both need to wake up early, we'll be less inclined to stay curled up in bed. We'll see if I can stay with it.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Wine Tasting and a Sleepover

Wouldn't you know, as I was ruminating on who to hit up for an evening out, the perfect person sent me a random email about nothing in particular. I have only recently reconnected with this old friend from high school, but she's one of those people with whom I feel I never stopped talking to. We both have an interest in wine and traveling, and unlike most of my other friends, she lives relatively nearby. She has recently left her job in order to focus on finishing up with school, and so she is now adjusting to some extra downtime.

I replied to her email and asked what she was up to this weekend, mentioning that I was thinking about going wine tasting. We subsequently made plans to meet up at Twisted Vines Wine Bar in downtown Fulllerton, a place we've both been meaning to try out, since the tastings at Frogs Breath only lasted until 7pm or so. And since my friend was driving to LA in the morning and my house is closer to LA than hers, we planned for her to stay the night at my house as well.

On my way out the door, Bobby called to say that something had come up, and he needed to be on another jobsite in the morning, this one in Anaheim, so he would be coming home for the night after all. He would be there when we got home.

We had a great time, chatting for hours and trying one of the wine flights and a cheese tray. I had never had any of the six cheeses, but they were all very good. We had a kind of blue cheese that was served with honey - a combination I never would have thought of, but which was quite tasty. The wine flight we had included one white and two red wines all from a single producer. This is the flight we tried (description pulled from the Twisted Vines website):

Carina Cellars – Santa Ynez, Ca
Cost: $15, 3oz. pour of each
Founded in 2002 and located just north of Santa Barbara, Carina Cellars is dedicated to making the best Rhone style wines in California’s Central Coast. The wine making approach is traditional and minimalist, with the resulting wines rich in varietal aromas and flavors.

2006 Viognier – Central Coast
This lovely white is a blend of two separate vineyard sites and is aged for 6 months in neutral French oak barrels. Flavors of tropical pineapple, pear and a slight floral twist give this wine just enough weight on the palate. 990 cases produced.
By the Glass: $8; Take Home Price: $13.99
Eh, Viognier is not my favorite white wine, but it was still good. I wouldn't buy a bottle or choose it over another, though. My friend prefers sweeter wines, and didn't finish this one.

2006 Clairvoyant – Santa Ynez
This Chateauneuf du Pape style blend is 55% Syrah, 33% Grenache and 12% Mourvedre. This refreshing red offers a mouthful of fresh red berries and a balanced acidity that makes this wine perfect with almost any type of cuisine. 600 cases produced.
By the Glass: $11; Take Home Price: $22.99
This wine was a very nice, light, balanced red. Very drinkable. I would buy it, and would recommend to anyone that doesn't drink wine often (and those that do).

2005 Syrah – “7 Percent” – Santa Ynez
Oddly enough, this northern Rhone styled Syrah is named after the 7 percent of Viognier that is blended into it. Beautiful characteristics of black currants, cherry and earth tones.
By the Glass: $14; Take Home Price: $27.99
This is a bolder, heavier red than the Clairvoyant. It was good, but I think it needed to open up a little longer. Syrah is not a favorite of mine, but the wine was enjoyable, especially alongside the blue cheese with honey.

While we were chatting and talking, Bobby called. He didn't want to worry me but explained that he'd just been in an accident on his way down the mountain. He explained that everyone was okay, and that although the front end of the truck was pretty banged up, it was perfectly drivable. Knowing those two things, I was not worried, and told him to just get home safe. The poor guy has had so much go wrong for him in the last couple weeks (including, among other things, his 4 month old phone breaking - the LCD screen is shot), that it seems the fates are against him. I tell him that it's just getting all the bad luck out of the way.

When my friend and I finally made it back to the house, Bobby was there playing Halo. We chatted for a little while longer, drinking some port and watching the Star Wars episode of Family Guy. But we were all tired and didn't last much longer.

This morning, Bobby left early, and I was feeling energized, and was up early with him and started cleaning the kitchen. When my friend woke up we had scrambled omlettes with mushrooms and onions and red bell peppers and chatted some more. We listened to music and got ready for the day.

Sometimes I forget how much I enjoy hanging out with friends, sleeping over, and making breakfast in the morning. It probably has to do with being from a large family, and the breakfasts my mom used to make when most of us still lived at home. Sometimes just eggs and pancakes, sometimes my parents would go all out and make German Pancakes with baked apples or lemon and confectioner's sugar, or jam and cream cheese... with sausage and bacon and eggs and potatoes of course. I enjoy the company of others in conjuction with eating. And I've always loved a good breakfast...

Friday, February 22, 2008

Aspiring Tech Product Reviewer

Remember the job that Tom Hanks' character gets in the movie Big? I need a job like that - but for tech products like smartphones and online services and stuff. I have way too many opinions about how products could be improved, but I'm not sure who to tell. I'd even review stuff for free, especially if I got to try it out for free.

Of course, some of my recommendations are going to conflict with the system in any case where the system benefits the producer or carrier at the expense of the consumer. For example - the whole business about cell phones tied to a carrier. I wouldn't mind if you were given the option of signing a contract in order to get a better deal on a phone, but the fact that the phone only works on a given carrier is absurd. If I bought it, I should have the right to decide how to use it, and I shouldn't have to find a way around the system to make it work. If I find I hate the service, I should be able to pay the severence fee and take my phone to a different carrier. I think all consumers want to be able to choose the phone and carrier they prefer, without the choice for one limiting the choice for the other.

But I personally think that in the long run, companies and products that best serve the consumer have a leg up in terms of competition. If the products and services were equal, the consumer friendly company should win out. (This is of course affected by the sheer size and resources of some of these companies, unfortunately).

My Blackbery Curve
After a little over a month with my Blackberry curve, I know a little about what I love about it, and what could use some improvement. For the most part, I love it and wouldn't trade it in right now, but there are a few things I would add or change.

Things I love:
  • The reasons people get Blackberries - having all my contacts, tasks and calendar entries with me at all times, syncing up with Outlook so I don't have to enter the information twice. Being able to check and send emails wherever I am.
  • I have a full time job, and on top of that I have some duties for Bobby's new business as well, so I have email addresses for both companies. I'm able to set up my email with his business on my Blackberry, and filter my sync so that only tasks marked with specified categores are synced. This allows me to keep my Outlook at work (which is where I sync, as Bobby has commandeered my laptop) focused on my job, and my Blackberry focused on my personal and side work stuff.
  • Blackberry Messenger and Google Talk. These work great - I wish everyone had a Blackberry because of the former, and I love that both show up in my Messages section. A conversation in either shows up as a single entry in Messages, so I can select it to open that chat window.
  • Google Maps with the GPS for this thing is fantastic. On our recent trip to Park City, I was the navigator. We were able to go anywhere without having to preplan.
    • But there are some little things I would change. Mostly little things that can be overlooked, but if fixed would drastically increase my satisfaction with the product. Some of it can be fixed with add-on software, but I'd rather it were great out of the box:
      • This is my first time with a screen this big, so I didn't realize how much I would love having the Internet available to me. The EDGE network is on the slow side, so 3G would be nice - the faster the better.
      • Also relating to the Internet - I wish there were a faster way to scroll down on some sites - a touch screen in addition to the scroll wheel would be lovely. I wouldn't want just a touch screen, because that makes it harder to use the phone single-handed when necessary. The addition of a touch screen would make games like solitaire easier too.
      • AIM. There is no Blackberry version of AIM available for this phone. I have to purchase additional software to use it, but then it doesn't show up in my Messages like BBM or gTalk do. I would rather it did.
      • I would change the way Tasks are displayed on the Blackberry. The sync is great, but I'd like to see the due date, or filter the view so that only current tasks show up, and a checkbox would be nice so I could mark them complete.
      • The way it acts with Microsoft Exchange (although after further research I think it may be the way MS Exchange acts with it). We've just switched to MS Exchange at work, and if I set up my work email address up on my Blackberry, then as soon as the Blackberry checks my email, then my Outlook marks the emails as read. So even if I don't read them on my Blackberry, they are read in my Outlook. I come in each morning, and I have no new emails, but that's not really true. I've given up, and my work email stays at work for now.
      • I wish I could set more than one alarm. At least two. I would like to keep my daily one the same, and be able to add an additional one for whatever reason.
      I don't care about having a camera on my phone - it needs good lighting and I never use it anyway. If I want to take pictures, I'll use my regular camera. I'd rather have resources directed at these other issues.

      Home Alone

      We were originally planning to take Bobby's Nana to Primm Valley this weekend - she loves going but it's too far to go by herself, so for her Christmas present we planned a trip out there. Unfortunately the job in Big Bear meant we were going to have to push the trip out a couple weeks, and that he'll be working out there all weekend. I'm going to be alone for the whole weekend, and now I'm trying to decide what to do with myself.


      It's really been awhile since I've had that much time alone with nothing planned. We've been so busy lately there has been no downtime, and what little free time we have has been spent together. Bobby's been working a lot lately, meaning a couple times so far in 2008, there have been stretches of weeknights that I've been home alone, but I usually wind up working late and only making it home in time to eat something before crashing for the night.


      I know that there is lots around the house that I should be taking care of - the usual laundry and filing, etc. But I have a little cabin fever at the moment. If Bobby was going to be home tonight I was going to suggest we hit up a wine tasting at Frogs Breath Cheese Store in Orange. I've only just learned of the place and have been meaning to try it out. But I don't really want to go drink alone, so now I'm thinking about which of my friends lives nearby enough and would be interested in wine tasting with me...

      Thursday, February 21, 2008

      Teapot

      Almost a year and a half ago, Bobby's brother went to Japan on a business trip and brought us back a sake set and a bottle of sake. The set is really nice, and reminded me how much I wanted a Japanese tea set.

      I'm the kind of person that goes to a restaurant and admires the dishes. In sushi bars, I love the little teapots and the teacups with no handles. On the cruise, I loved the little ramekins that the desserts were served in. I don't know what it is, but I'm drawn to the stuff.

      So with my desire for a Japanese tea set renewed, I started browsing the net for an appropriate set. I was thinking I would do what I always do - find a few I liked but not commit to any of them. Then I found it - a set that matched our new sake set almost perfectly. I had to buy it.
      When it arrived, even the boxes the two sets were packaged in were the same. Each with four cups. The only difference seems to be that one has white flowers, and the other white dots.
      But I didn't use it. Both sets have sat in the cupboard waiting to be used. I finally pulled out the tea set the other day, and made myself some green tea. I think I'll leave it out now...

      Wednesday, February 20, 2008

      Tuesday, February 19, 2008

      Truffles

      The most recent issue of Wine Spectator had a recipe for chocolate truffles, and I found another, similar recipe on a blog, so I decided to take some time out of my holiday to try it out. The two recipes were very similar - one called for semi-sweet chocolate, the other for bittersweet, and they had the same chocolate to cream ratio, although they were in different quantities. Where they differed was the type of chocolate used, the inclusion or exclusion of cognac or brandy, and what to coat the truffles in. I took what I liked out of each and came up with this:

      Chocolate Truffles
      8oz. bittersweet chocolate morsels (I used 63% - the highest I could find)
      1/2 cup heavy cream, heated (but don't burn it!)
      2 tbsp. cognac
      cocoa powder

      Put the chocolate and the cognac in a bowl and pour the heated cream. Mix well, but do not whip - you want it thoroughly mixed, but without air bubbles. The warmth from the cream should melt the chocolate. Chill for 2+ hours. Line a tray or plate with wax paper, and roll the chilled chocolate grenache mixture into balls, coat with cocoa powder. Chill until firm.

      Mmm.... very good.

      Sunday, February 17, 2008

      Disneyland!

      Unfortunately, Bobby had to work today, so Emma and I had a girls day. I'd been thinking about Disneyland lately - we haven't been in awhile and I was missing it - and I knew Emma is always down.

      She has a solid cough right now though (listening to her I can tell it's in her lungs, not her throat), so this morning I said that if the sun came out and it warmed up a bit that we should go to Disneyland, but if it stayed gloomy and cool we should stay in. We cleaned up in the event the sun would come out, and we were not disappointed.

      As soon as we got there, Emma was drawn to a cart selling Disney themed pins. This has become standard with her - "Can we get something?" or "I want to get something for my sister/grandma...." If we tell her to stop asking for things, she uses a more passive agressive method: "I wish I had one of these." My favorite is when she says she's "always wanted" something she's just seen for the first time. She's becoming quite the consumer, and Bobby and I have discussed at length how we might go about teaching her how to recognize and resist all the marketing.

      So today I gave it a shot: "Emma, I'll make you a deal - at the end of our trip, I'll give you $10. You can buy whatever you want with that $10, but I don't want you to make a purchase until right before we leave, so we can look whenever you want, but I want to make sure that is what you want to spend your $10 on."
      "What if there is leftover?"
      "You can keep the change."
      "Can I buy two things?"
      "If you can buy two things with $10, then yes, it is your money, but that is all you get."

      Her face lit up with excitement - she clearly didn't recognize how little $10 is in a place like Disneyland. But she didn't ask to buy a single thing the rest of the day.

      I hadn't realized it was a holiday weekend, so we were a little surprised to see some pretty long lines for Big Thunder Mountain and Pirates of the Carribean. Being D-land regulars we skipped the lines and checked out Tom Sawyer's Island, which it appears has been renamed "Pirates Lair." Tom Sawyer's Island was never one of my favorites growing up, but even though I am a fan of the Pirates ride and movies, I was a little saddened to see that the commercialization of Pirates has consumed this old park standard. They had added a few more "pirate" stuff, but other than that the island seemed the same.



      The lines remained long, so we wandered over to Star Tours. When I was Emma's age, this was my favorite ride. In fact, I think it was my first favorite ride. As I sat there today I was thinking about how my perception is altered by the fact that Disneyland is so close and accessable to me. I know the sequence of events by heart - when to brace for which turns and accelerations - everything. It's a good ride, but how is that perception different from someone that doesn't live so close to the entertainment mecca that is Southern California? Was it a great ride when I was young because I was young, or because it was new? How has the repetition of Disneyland lessened it's impactfulness on me? Halfway through the ride I tried to look at it as if it were my first time, instead of my 100th, and it was even more fun.

      When we checked back at Big Thunder Mountain (Emma's favorite ride), it had been temporarily closed down, so we wandered over to the Golden Horseshoe to see the Billy Hill & the Hillbillies Show. This is one of my favorite shows at the park, and each time I see it it's a little different. You can see some of their antics here; this time they also did hillbilly versions of some Beatles songs, and finished with an enactment of Charlies Daniels Band's Devil went down to Georgia.



      After a trip on the Mark Twain, and learning that the Jungle Cruise is closed until spring, it was looking like time to get going. We still hadn't eaten, and I didn't really want to pay for overpriced mediocre food inside the park, so I asked Emma if she knew what she wanted to buy with her $10. She wanted to go back to that first cart.

      When we got there she started looking at the price tags. She could have purchased any of the pins, but she was hoping to buy two, or something larger for herself. She agonized over what to buy for about 30 minutes - anything within her price range wasn't good enough. After a bit, I mentioned that she didn't have to buy anything - she could save it and save up more money to buy something better the next time we came. She kept looking for another 10 minutes or so, but finally decided to save her money.

      On the way out of the park she asked, "Do you think I made the right decision?"
      I explained that I thought she had, because it is better to save up for the thing you really want (or even need), rather than spend money on something you don't want as much just for the sake of buying something. I also told her that I wanted this exercise to be a lesson of sorts - about the value of money, and how that relates to what you choose to spend it on. When someone else is buying everything for you, you don't think about it as much. That I want her to be smart with her money when she grows up, so that she can afford the things she really wants.

      Saturday, February 16, 2008

      Brewing Beer

      My brother is starting a brewery, and after nearly a year of planning and building and inspections, they are up and running. Bobby, Emma and I stopped by to watch and help with one of the initial brews.

      Friday, February 15, 2008

      Gorgonzola Stuffed Fillet

      I stopped at Stater Bros. on the way home today to pick up a meat for dinner, and Beef Tenderloin steaks were on sale. I thought about the Gorgonzola I had in my refrigerator, and though I've never had a black & blue steak, I know Bobby is a big fan so I thought I would give it a try. Two steaks - $10.

      When I got home, I cut a hole in the side of the steak so that it was still sealed on 3 sides. I stuffed as much Gorgonzola in there as I could, and then dredged the steaks in a mixture of very young olive oil, black truffle oil, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, and Montreal Steak Seasoning. I let them sit in that until Bobby got home - about 30 minutes - and then cooked them over medium-high heat to somewhere between rare and medium rare.

      It was yummy. Bobby said it was the best steak I've ever made.

      Thursday, February 14, 2008

      Girls Night

      Since Bobby and I had our Valentines dinner a day early, and he wasn't going to be home until late, my sister-in-law came by with her good friend for dinner and a movie.

      For dinner I made a Sweet Onion Soup, sauteed some green beans and shallots, baked some brined chicken, and warmed up my leftover Baked Orzo Pasta from yesterday.

      I found the soup recipe yesterday when I was looking for an Herbes de Provence recipe. My search led me here, and as I scrolled down, the picture of the soup looked so lovely I had to make it - especially now that I have some Herbes de Provence (although that I didn't make - I found some at Whole Foods). The soup came out amazing, and I may have a new favorite.

      Sweet Onion Soup for Two
      from: French Kitchen in America

      Three of the sweetest onions you can find, peeled and sliced
      Two tablespoons unsalted butter
      One-tablespoon flour
      Two cups beef bouillon
      Two cups chicken bouillon
      ¼ cup warm milk
      Dash ground pepper
      Dash sea salt
      Dash herbes de Provence

      After you've sliced the onions, brown them slightly in butter in a heavy stockpot or skillet. Add flour and brown, until the onions turn golden.

      Add hot beef and chicken bouillon and allow the soup to come to a boil. Lower the heat and allow it to simmer for 20 minutes.

      Next, add the milk and allow it to simmer a bit longer. Add pepper, salt and herbes. Optional: Top with cheese, like a blend of Mozzarella and Parmesan.

      Oh, it was so tasty. OK, next I wanted a vegetable, but nothing too heavy. So I made some green beans the way my mom makes them.

      My Mom's Green Beans
      In a medium pan (not a pot, the more surface area the better), melt some butter, throw in some fleur de sel and freshly ground pepper, and added in 3 sliced shallots. Let those sweat a little, and then add in the green beans.

      I used the bagged, frozen french green beans I get from Trader Joe's, because they always come out tasting fresh, but if you use fresh, add a little water too so they don't dry out. I only like to cook my beans a little so they are still crisp.

      Finally the chicken. I started brining last night after Bobby and I finished dinner. I don't know where my mom got this, but I have it written on a post it.

      Brined Chicken
      for 32 oz. of chicken. In a medium stockpot, mix together:
      1/4 cup course/kosher salt
      1/4 cup brown sugar
      1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
      20 whole peppercorns
      1 cup hot water
      Mix that around a bit, letting everything dissolve

      Add in 3 cups of cold water
      1 onion, sliced
      1 lemon, sliced
      2 cloves garlic
      Mix it all up and add in your chicken. Stick it in the refrigerator for 4+ hours.

      I doubled that, and used 4 leg quarters. I brushed the top with some butter, and then baked it at 325 for 1 hour 30 minutes or so. I covered it the first 30 minutes, but it probably could have gone without the cover, or cooked longer so the skin could crisp up some more. But the meat was super juicy and flavorful. Props to me.


      After our tasty meal we watched Gone Baby Gone. This is the synopsis from RottenTomatoes.com:
      Based on the novel by MYSTIC RIVER author Dennis Lehane, GONE BABY GONE marks the directorial debut of actor Ben Affleck. Featuring a solid cast that includes Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, and Affleck's brother Casey in the lead role as a private detective, GONE BABY GONE centers on the disappearance of a young girl in the working class neighborhood of Dorchester in South Boston. With plenty of twists and turns, the movie works as a solid crime thriller, but it's as a study of a place--and one's ability to either accept and embrace or ultimately break free from it--that the film flowers. Beneath the movie's street-tough justice and cop shop politics sits a very complicated view of the world, which Affleck delves into unflinchingly, thanks in large part to his ability to extract some excellent performances from his cast. Casey Affleck offers a nice mix of both steely resolve and vulnerability, while Harris presents a strong performance as a conflicted, emotionally tortured cop. Of particular note is Amy Ryan as the mother of the abducted girl. Her character's outrageous foul-mouthed demeanor ultimately ends up feeling both tragic and pathetic, with the only appropriate reactions being either pity or rage. It makes for an uncomfortable but affecting dichotomy. GONE BABY GONE signifies a confident and impressive turn behind the camera for one of Hollywood's more contentious stars. A Boston native himself, Affleck takes great care in evoking his city's entirety, from its undeniably ugly underbelly, to what feels like an almost primordial sense of community. It speaks to Affleck's substance as a director, and of good things to come.

      Great film. I can't say I would have made the same choice in the end, but I have to agree that Affleck's direction was quite good. Not a feel-good film, but very well made, and a powerful story.

      Wednesday, February 13, 2008

      Early Valentines

      Valentines Day falls on Thursday this year, and Thursdays are Bobby's weekday with Emma. I was fairly certain I would be too busy to leave work early to meet him out there, so it was decided that we would have Valentines Day a day early.

      I've been in the mood to cook something new, and Stater Bros. had a sale on "Sweetheart Ribeye Steaks" so I searched around for an interesting recipe along that line. FoodNetwork.com led me to a ribeye recipe by Giada, accompanied by this side recipe:

      Baked Orzo with Fontina and Peas
      4 cups chicken broth
      1 pound orzo pasta
      3 tablespoons butter, plus more to grease the baking dish
      1 onion, chopped
      8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
      1 cup Marsala wine
      1/2 cup heavy cream
      4 ounces shredded fontina cheese (about 1 cup)
      4 ounces diced fresh mozzarella cheese (about 1 cup)
      1 cup frozen peas, thawed
      1/2 teaspoon salt
      1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
      1/2 cup bread crumbs
      1/4 cup grated Parmesan
      1 teaspoon dried thyme

      Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Butter a 9 by 13-inch baking dish.

      Bring the chicken broth to a boil over medium-high heat in a medium saucepan. Add the orzo and cook until almost tender, about 7 minutes. Pour the orzo and the broth into a large bowl. Set aside.

      Meanwhile, melt the butter over medium heat in a medium skillet. Add the onions and saute until tender, about 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and continue to saute until the mushrooms are beginning to turn golden around the edges, about 7 minutes. Add the Marsala. Scrape the brown bits off the bottom of the pan and cook until the Marsala has reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Add the mushroom mixture to the orzo in the large bowl. Add the cream, fontina, mozzarella, peas, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine. Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish.

      In a small bowl combine the bread crumbs, Parmesan, and dried thyme. Sprinkle the bread crumb mixture on top of the pasta. Bake until golden, about 25 minutes.

      Mmm... It all sounded so tasty, I had to try it. The recipe was supposedly for four servings, so I halved it and used a bread pan instead of the 9x13. My half recipe was a full bread pan though, and as a side, that wound up being more like five servings.

      The recipe for the steak called for Herbes de Provence. I'd never used it before, but my parents occasionally cook with it, and I know they mix theirs from individual herbs. So I looked online and found a recipe on a blog, French Kitchen in America.

      I was intrigued by the blog, and found myself perusing the rest of the posts looking for tasty things to make. It was there I found my vegetable for our Valentines meal:

      Warm Brussels Sprout and Shallot Salad with Pecans
      16-20 large Brussels sprouts

      3-4 large shallots
      tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
      tablespoon unsalted butter
      dash freshly ground pepper
      dash fleur de sel (that's a gourmet sea salt, but you can use regular salt too)

      Wash and trim Brussels sprouts, removing outer leaves and base. Cut into thin slices. Drizzle with olive oil, toss, and place in a skillet or sauté pan. Brown slightly over medium heat until sprouts are just a bit limp. Remove from pan and set aside, covering to keep warm. Peel and slice shallots; using the same pan, brown shallots slightly in butter. Add pecans. Toss shallots and pecans with Brussels sprouts, adding a dash of fleur de sel and pepper.

      Dinner took me about an hour and 15 minutes to make, but it was all quite good. The steak was just a steak - nothing too exciting - but the sides were very good. I halved the Brussels Sprouts Salad recipe as well, and used a hot bacon dressing. Yummy, yummy.

      The New Whole Foods Market

      I finally stopped at the new Whole Foods market they built in Tustin after work today. I planned on making a nice Valentines Day dinner, and was in need of some Fontina cheese. I had heard that the new Whole Foods had an impressive selection of vegetables and meats and cheeses, so I decided to check it out.

      OMG. I was in heaven. All the things I can never find at the grocery store or Trader Joe's - two different kinds of radicchio, broccolini, loose oyster, shitake, and other wild mushrooms so you can pick out the ones you want. And they must have had over 100 different cheeses - including my needed Fontina.

      They have an amazing salad bar inside, and prepare food right there in the store. I'm definitely going to have to swing by for lunch one day.

      I think I may leave Trader Joe's now, unless I just need something minor. I'm definitely hitting up Whole Foods for all my veggie and cheese needs from now on...

      Monday, February 11, 2008

      Cruise to Ensenada

      Bobby's baby sister turned 18 last week, and to celebrate, we all went on a cruise to Ensenada, Mexico. One of Bobby's good friends, Jon, shares that birthday, and since he's part of the family too, he joined us on the cruise, and brought some of his pals along too.

      This was my first cruise, and only my second trip to Mexico as an adult (I went with my mom once when I was young - our church was building an orphanage and I helped by putting the little Ts between the tiles to space them properly for the grout - but I don't really remember very much). My only other trip to Mexico was an evening in Tijuana with my siblings. I just remember it being dirty, and making the mistake of giving a couple of the kids some spare change and being overhwelmed by children.

      Although I'm a planner by nature, I always seem to leave packing until the very last minute possible, and this time was no different. Everyone was meeting at our place at noon, so at around 10am on Friday I started my packing.

      Like I said, this was my first cruise, so I wasn't sure exactly what to bring. I'd learned that morning that one of the dinners was going to be formal attire, so I needed to pack something to wear to that, but other than that - what should I bring?

      I did my best, and since Bobby was working, trying to make sure his guys knew what needed to be done while he was gone, I packed for him too. I was told that we could bring a certain number of wine bottles with us, so I pulled some nice ones to bring along.

      Once we made it onto the boat, we all checked out our rooms, and headed to the restaurant. We'd all had a minimal breakfast, and only snacked for lunch, so when confronted by the buffet we all piled our plates quite high. We weren't really thinking about the fact that our scheduled dinner was in just a few hours.

      Bobby and I wandered the boat for a bit, checking out what there was to do. I found that there was a spa onboard that offered massages and facials. I was tempted, but the prices were fairly high so I passed, and after the emergency drill we met up with the family at the restaurant we were scheduled to have dinner at. Dinner was lovely each night, and I especially loved ending each meal with desert, a glass of port, and a cup of tea. I also enjoyed that the meals came in smaller courses and took about 2 hours - it makes the meal more of an event, and I find I enjoy the food more.

      At dinner that first night, Bobby and I bought a bottle of wine for the table. The most I've seen his parents drink before this cruise is a glass of champagne on one of their anniversaries, so I selected a light Pinot Noir that I thought would be very drinkable. It was a good choice - they liked it a lot. Bobby's mom surprised us all by ordering a Courvoisier at dessert - we had no idea she liked cognac.

      Bobby and I were pretty tired, so we meandered a bit after dinner, but we turned in relatively early. When we returned to our room, we found our covers turned down for us, and what looked like a dog folded out of towels looking back at us. We crashed fairly hard - we both passed out and the next thing we knew, it was pitch black (we had an inside cabin), and we were checking the time to find it was nearly 8am. The ship was already docked in Ensenata.

      I started looking through the ship schedule for the day, and was disappointed to find that they had a yoga class. Not disappointed that they had one, but that I was unprepared for it. I had no idea there was a gym onboard - if I had known I would have happily brought some clothes to work out in and joined both the yoga and pilates classes each morning. But alas, all I had were jeans and a dress. So instead I made an effort to take the stairs each time I went anywhere on the boat.


      After breakfast we washed up and met up with everyone for a little excursion, and at around 11am, we all went to Pappas & Beer together and ordered big margaritas and some snacks for lunch. After a bit, most of Bobby's family left to shop around while we stayed with Bobby's friends. The music was good, but bars like that aren't really my scene, so after a few hours, when I could tell Bobby had had more than enough tequila, I suggested we head back to the boat. It turned out that I was right, and many of the locals on the way back to the boat smiled at Bobby and said "Tequila!"

      When we made it back to the boat, I gave him some water and let him take a nap before dinner. When his brother and Jon made it back to the boat a few hours later they came to check up on him. I had been just about to wake him up, so I let his brother do it instead. He surprised us by mumbling "Linkin Park," to which we both burst out laughing. He doesn't remember any of this.

      The eventually left us so I could wake Bobby up and get him up and ready for dinner. Again a lovely meal (lobster!) and a was extra pleased when the desert menu included a Grand Marnier Souffle - one of my favorite deserts! (I must learn how to make one of those)

      After dinner we went to one of the Las Vegas-style shows. Although I can say the band and performers were all quite talented, Bobby and I agreed later that that style of show is not really our thing. We gathered together again after the show to take a couple group pictures (some of which came out very nice), but again we were tired and turned in early (this time to find a towel bunny rabbit on our pillow).

      Sleep wasn't as easy this time around, and Bobby and I both found ourselves tossing and turning. (Strange that we slept the same each night.) In the morning we all decided to have a more formal breakfast, rather than the buffet, so we met in the room we had been having dinner in. We sat next to a window with a view of the ocean, and had a lovely breakfast.

      We spent the day wandering the ship, played a little mini golf, met the family for lunch, sat in a jacuzzi. Soon it was dinner yet again. I found myself wishing I had brought more dressier clothes - I had enjoyed dressing up for dinner the previous night. Bobby and I don't often have an excuse to wear our nicer clothes, but I really enjoy when we do. I mentioned this to him and he agreed. We decided we need to do things more often that require dressing up - even if it's just going out to a nice dinner more often.

      I did what I could with what I brought to look nice, and since it was the last dinner on the boat, we brought the wine we'd packed with us to dinner. We spent less on the corkage for the two bottles we brought than we did on the bottle of wine we bought the first night - and the bottles we brought were better wines too! The meal was lovely, and I had the Warm Chocolate Melting Cake for the second time... with a glass of port... Mmmmm....

      After dinner we saw another Las Vegas-style show, and though this one was better than the previous night, it still didn't do it for me. We played blackjack for a little while, but I was losing so I gave Bobby what remained of my chips and went up to our room to read. He wound up doubling our initial money, and came up to bed.

      We woke in the morning to find we needed to be off the boat by 10am, so we packed up and got in the line to get off the ship. I'll admit I was a little irritable going though the customs line - I wasn't really looking forward to going back to the grind.

      Overall it was a good time. I think the next time I go on a cruise I would choose a different destination, and preferably a longer trip. I'd bring clothes to work out in, and would budget for some spa treatments. And I'd probably go with a much smaller crowd - sometimes with that many people it seems like you spend a lot of time hearding cats.

      Saturday, February 2, 2008

      Park City, Utah

      To celebrate the closing of our last two deals of 2007, and reaching 100 deals total, my company took us on a trip to Park City, Utah. The company president is part owner of a cabin there (a big, beautiful 5-bedroom cabin complete with a spa), so we stayed at his place.

      Other than driving through Southern Utah on my way to Colorado, the only time I've been to Utah was about 15 years ago when my family went camping in Zion National Park. I've also had very few trips to the snow (I can count them on one hand) and have never been skiing or snowboarding. As a firm, we were scheduled for skiing and snowboarding (with a snowboarding lesson for me and the other newbies).

      Wednesday night I drove up to Big Bear with Bobby so I could spend some time with him before my trip. We didn't make it back until 1:30am, and I still had to pack. I was up peparing for my trip until nearly 4am, and had to be up at 7:30 to make my flight. But no worries, right? - I'm going on a little vacation - I can sleep later.

      I met up with the rest of the "Advance Team" (the people on the earlier flight, everyone else was flying after work on Thursday) at the airport, and after a quick trip, we were in a freezing cold, snowy Salt Lake City. After trips to the liquor store, the grocery store, and the cabin to unload, we were set up and all starving. It was now close to 4pm, and none of us had eaten all day. We found a (mediocre at best) teriyaki grill, and a local inside told us that this was the worst blizzard she'd seen since she moved there 12 years ago.

      When the rest of the crew arrived at round 10:30pm, they were ready to party. Soon the spa was being uncovered, the drinks were being poured, the pizzas were arriving, and the poker chips were coming out. Exhausted from my late night the night before, I tried to decline the invitation to play poker, but one of the company directors offered to pay my buy-in and insisted I play. I agreed, thinking that I could play a little more aggressively than usual, and I'd probably be out early anyway. Then they decided to allow re-buys until 12:30am - this was going to be a long game.

      Hours later, our two tables of eight and nine players had been condensed to one table of eight. The other table had more re-buys prior to the cutoff, so players from that table had a bit of a chip lead, but I was doing very well. The director that had paid my buy-in was thrilled to see me at the final table. Shortly afterwords, I took out 4 of the players. I was exhausted; my eyes were dry and my contacts were irritating my increasingly bloodshot eyes. I started calling just about anything, just trying to rid myself of my chips so I could go to sleep. I think I doubled everyone at the table up at least once, though most of the time I had the better hand until the end. I took out one more person, and then at 3:30am I was finally taken out. (I was favored to win that hand too, until the river card.) As soon as the hand was decided, I said goodnight and tried to go to sleep.



      The boys were a little loud, though. OK, they were really loud. The girls were in the master bedroom, so I closeted myself in the walk-in closet so I could have some quiet. I think I finally fell asleep around 4am.

      But I had to be up around 7:30am - my snowboarding lesson was at 9:30am, and we needed to get there early. Unfortunately, by the time we (the group getting a lesson) made it to the resort and found where we were supposed to check in - it was 9:30am. We didn't even have our gear yet, so we rescheduled for the next available appointment - 1pm. Unsure of what to do with ourselves until then, we rented our snowboards and found somewhere to eat something warm and relax. After two nights of so little sleep, I was useless.

      When it came close to the time of our lesson, we gathered our gear and headed to the meeting place. There we ran into a co-worker that gave us a short lesson on how to stop yourself on a board - figuring that was one of the most important things to know. Finally it was nearly 1pm, and we were standing at the designated meeting place when our instructor met up with us.

      Our instructor was from New Zealand (all of the employees at the resort were from another country - Brazil, Peru, etc.), and had a lovely accent. He was very patient with all of us, and I felt like I really did pick up some things. After a little practicing we got on the lift to the "First-Time" run - and I didn't fall getting off the lift - yeah me!

      Snowboarding was fun, and something I would definitely like to do again. I felt I was picking it up pretty well, and all of my falls were controlled and more because I needed to stop than from losing balance. As fun as it was, I could feel my exhaustion catching up with me, and I could see that the other girls (who were havinga tougher time than I was) were quite tired. When we got to the bottom of the run, we decided to pass on the second run, returned our gear, and headed back to the house.

      It was already after 4pm, and we had dinner reservations at 6:15pm (although it was later pushed until 8pm), so as soon as we got back to the cabin we took turns showering and getting ready for dinner. When I learned dinner had been pushed off, I decided to join some of the others in the spa. A hot spa when you are sore from the day and it is 28 degrees outside is amazing. Something about sitting in hot water, drinking hot cocoa, and feeling the cold air on your face is divine.

      Dinner was at Blind Dog, and I had possibly the best clam chowder I've ever had. The wine - lovely; the fillet mignon - the most perfect medium rare I've seen. We also had an array of wonderful appetizers and finished up with a few deserts that we shared - including a wonderful chocolate fondue.

      The meal was wonderful, but the service not so great - we had to ask for drinks numerous times before they would actually come, and the port I ordered never actually showed up. The waiter never actually brought anything himself, and whenever we would ask again for a drink we had ordered, he'd respond with "It's on its way." The bar is right there, it's just a beer, can you just go get it! He's lucky his tip was already included in the bill, because I suspect he would have received less.

      At least one of my co-workers was actually falling asleep at the table. After dinner, some were going out to a bar, others were heading back to the cabin. I joined the latter in search of sleep. I crashed around 11:30pm, and didn't wake up until 9:30am. Finally, sleep.

      When I woke up many people were getting ready to head out the door. I decided to stay in for the day - read my book, drink hot cocoa with Bailey's, and relax. Most everyone else headed out at one point, so it was a relatively peaceful afternoon. Some came back early from skiing/snowboarding, tired and sore from the unusual activity. There were lots of nappers that afternoon.

      Shortly after everyone finished trickling in, it was time for the "Advance Team" to head off to the airport. As nice as the trip was, I wished Bobby could have been there with me, and was eager to get home to see him.