24 January 2014

fiction; or a new venture

in an effort to work harder on fiction, I've a new space. I'll be publishing fiction, quotes, and links to interesting pieces I've seen in print or online. There could be new recipe posts here, when the occasion arises, but look for a major push to complete the novel and market it over at the new site. Thanks, as always, for reading.

02 November 2013

lady mary; or how natural reserve translates to a brilliant Halloween costume

yes, yes, yes. Halloween is over. Mid-week Halloween translates to parties before and parties after, and sometimes really late parties. For once, I didn't actually throw a Halloween party, but simply attended one at a dear friend's house.

I've been planning a turn as Minnie Mouse for years, ever since I got a red polka dot dress that's a bit too short and a bit too low cut to wear without some tights and covering layers. It, a black sweater, black tights, my favorite yellow patent leather flats, and some gloves would put me ninety percent to Minnie. It's my default costume. I even made ears and a bow on a headband. Everything was ready and hanging on my door.

but, I couldn't commit. I'm not fond of cutesy and Disney, and I am absolutely against Halloween as a way to encourage women to dress in a manner they'd be horrified to do any other day of the week. I'm all for an excuse to dress up, but I've a lingering disassociation with all things Disney. I don't quite get it, but there's a visceral dislike, for me, of the attendance of the parks and of the grown people putting on mouse ears. No matter that it might be the most easily recognizable costume I'd put on in years...I just couldn't feel comfortable.

Then, wonderfully, the night before the party {upon Halloween itself} it came to me: Lady Mary Crawley from Downton Abbey, played by Michelle Dockery. She's pale. I'm pale. she has dark hair. I have dark hair. The character is reserved, sometimes downright snotty. Believe me, I'm reserved and absolutely snotty. Stick my chin out, look down my nose, we're good to go.

I did go through quite the closet overhaul, looking to find just the right 1920's but not flapper sort of look. By the point in the fourth season {series, if you're British} the British audience is currently watching, Lady Mary is coming back out of herself after a horrific tragedy. She's got the dropped waist and boyish figure part of the fashion, but she's an aristocrat. There won't be flappers at Downton Abbey, unless we count her young cousin.

I wanted something immediately recognizable as Lady Mary, so it was an absolute stroke of luck that my mother has a cocktail dress in her wardrobe that is both the burgundy purple Lady Mary often wears, and boasts the sort of sheer overlay the character just wore in the most recent episode. Alas, it was far too short.

the internet led me to this photo, from S4, E6
After much creative pinning and cutting and fussing, I managed to overlay mom's dress, a chiffon ankle length dress, a sheer wrap, and numerous brooches. A bracelet masquerading as a tiara completed the effect, as did some marcelling of my hair...though I may possibly have wondered where my lady's maid Anna had gotten off to when I desperately needed help.

The only thing missing were black elbow length gloves, but I cut the legs off a jumpsuit from our Halloween bin and sewed up the insides for a fingerless variety. I was in such a tizzy to be off, only one good picture captured on my phone showed my complete effort.

Still, the party was most delightful, I was in a room filled with Downton watchers, and my costume made me feel like Halloween should: dressing up but as an awesome other version of me. It's why so many people dress as superheroes.

"Be well. Do good work. Keep in touch." - Garrison Keillor

17 October 2013

the grand Charleston adventure

have you ever floated on a cloud of bliss for three days, only for your hometown to rain buckets of tears upon your return? It felt fairly certain, or maybe that was the residual champagne feeling, that we were to stop at our houses only for larger suitcases and the dog before turning right around and returning to Charleston. The rain and falling leaves told us so, or so we told ourselves.

We arrived at the delightful French Quarter Inn Monday at noon, to find Bellinis readied and a place to hold our bags while we explored Charleston. It has been nearly five and a half years since I was last there, and the city seems to have crowded exponentially with visitors. We chose to eat at the bar at Poogan's Porch, a perennial family favorite when visiting, as even at two in the afternoon there was a fifteen minute wait for a table.

It didn't matter: they've revamped the menu from the traditional French-inspired plates I was used to, to a selection of modern Southern classics. The fried chicken sliders were no disappointment, nor were my oldest friend's crab cakes. In western PA, crab cakes are surprisingly easy to find: sad things made mostly of breadcrumbs and the occasional whisper of crab. Not at Poogan's. The sweet tea was delectable, as sweet as the bartender who kept us apprised of new places to go while spinning his way through the never ending drink orders.

I took Gina first to White Point Gardens, so named for the oyster shells used to line the paths, along the Battery and facing the confluence of the Cooper and Ashley Rivers, as they join to meet the Atlantic Ocean. It is a remarkable bit of green space in a city littered with gardens both public and private, sitting as it does on some of the most valuable real estate on the Eastern seaboard.

04 October 2013

pumpkin gingerbread bites; or how minor tweaks make all the difference

this time last year, just like everyone else, I was waxing poetic on the effusion of pumpkin flavored consumables before the weather even turned chilly. I had turned my grandmother's old fashioned gingerbread recipe into one with pumpkin, and the gingerbread into cupcakes. Just three days ago, I hit a jackpot in the recipe tweaking stakes.

As I approach thirty, I have become more aware both of a desire for sweets and my body's decision that sugar is a bad idea. I hate the idea of obsessing over calories. It seems preposterous and counter-intuitive. Still, I work on adding a bit more protein and a bit less sugar and fat and a bit less of processed, prepackaged foods to my life. As such, I eat a lot of Greek yogurt and add it to quite a lot of stuff {in maybe a marinade for movie-night chicken, or possibly an updated, moist chocolate cake, or a layer cake covered in almonds, pantry cleaning blueberry muffins, or as a replacement for sour cream on top of spicy chili or lentil soups}.

There's been a craving for something sweet and spicy and richly dark flavored happening at my house. I'm not insistant on pumking this time of year, but I picked up some apple cider and hit upon the perfect combination of flavors for the best hot cider I ever managed to make this fall.

That's the sort of to do lists I like: 1. figure out hot apple cider, 2. learn to make croissants, 3. take Pepper for hikes in the woods, 4. conquer contouring powder, 5. finally finish Shelby Foote's The Civil War trilogy, 6. moon over Tom Hiddleston in The Hollow Crown...but I digress.

Though I will sort out the proportions for a recipe here, the apple cider has led me down a rabbit hole of "what else can I add apple cider to?" Then inspiration slammed down on me like an anvil in a cartoon. Pumpkin gingerbread is lacking only one classic autumnal ingredient: apple cider.

Though I barely adapted my earlier pumpkin gingerbread recipe, this one is a bit lese dense, but with a wonderful almost custardy center. I have made some tweaks in mixing as well. I think it becomes simpler this way. As per usual, I mixed by hand but feel free to use a mixer if you need.

Pumpkin Gingerbread Bites
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup Greek yogurt
pinch salt
1 egg
1 {15 oz} can pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
1/2 cup molasses

1 and 1/2 cup white flour
1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
dash ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 to 1/2 cup apple cider

mix sugar and salt and yogurt, then beat the egg well into the mixture. Next, stir or whisk in the pumpkin, then the molasses. Top with the dry ingredients, then mix to combine. Add the appropriate amount of cider, in portions, to make the batter a traditional cake batter consistency.
For small bites, dollop {I like a cookie scoop, though a soup spoon or tablespoon measure will work just as well} the batter into a well greased tassie or mini muffin pan {will make about 48 mini bites or 24 regular cupcakes}
Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 10-15 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Once done, remove from oven and gently pick each bite out of the pan while still impossibly hot. For ease, feel free to use the appropriately sized paper liners, but I like the looks of the mini bites liner-free.
Allow to cool on a rack, then dust with powdered sugar or serve with a dollop of whipped cream, or eat with no garnish at all.

"Be well. Do good work. Keep in touch." - Garrison Keillor

03 October 2013

#the29project: end month 1

it's said that to imprint a new habit, one must perform the action for thirty successive days. In that, my mission with #the29project has failed. Today is October 3. The project began August 27. There haven't even been the appropriate four weeks' worth of update posts here to chart my progress.

I don't post a picture each day; I forget to note what actions each day were for which category of kindness. My ability to shout to the rooftops of my good deeds is a miserable failure, as my good deeds are often unperformed or forgotten by the time I might remember to record them at the end of each day.

Even with all of this failure, I do not think the actual mission behind #the29project has yet failed. I do find myself more considerate of others. I take deeper breaths. I remain more aware of how my actions affect others. and, more importantly, I do not view the idea of small kindnesses as something to shout about.

I am continuing the project, and I am planning on being vocal...just not about what I've done. It is more important to do something kind than to be known to have done something kind. #the29project is about a reorganization of thinking. Performing kindnesses for the sake of telling others that you have done so is no kindness at all.

To that end, look for continued reminders of #the29project's existence and mission {and more attention to daily photos}, but no specifics. Be kind to yourselves and each another.

my daily photo from September 26: a one woman Rush premiere

"Be well. Do good work. Keep in touch." - Garrison Keillor

02 October 2013

winning; or how my autumn vacation became impossibly better

the Monday after next, my oldest friend and I will be winging our way to Charleston, SC. We've been talking about taking a vacation together for ages, having traveled no further than a couple hours together since we were in junior high and embarking on club field trips to Virginia and Boston. Our schedules simply have not meshed, as she's a lawyer with her own firm to partner and run, a business venture not too old.

Then, I entered the #TakeMeToCHS sweepstakes. I did so on a whim, since my previously planned trip to the city this spring fell afoul of family issues. I adore Charleston and have not been there since my best friend and I went while she was still in law school, in 2008. It's been a long five years.

This year, Travel + Leisure named Charleston the best city in the US & Canada in its World's Best awards. Between that distinction and the six hotels in the small city named to the Best Hotels List, the Charleston Vacation and Conventions Bureau put together the sweepstakes: one winner per month of a featured package from one of the six hotels through 2013.

I filled out the form, tweeted, tweeted some more, Instagrammed some pictures from when I last was there, tweeted, then rapidly forgot about entering.

Imagine my surprise when the kind folks at CVB tweeted, Instagrammed, and emailed me to announce I'd won the Charleston Perspective package from the French Quarter Inn. My parents immediately began groveling, wondering which of them I would be taking. Unfortunately for either, I already knew my oldest girlfriend {we've known each other since we were 7, and she knows all of my embarrassing stories...mostly because she was present for a good portion of them} would be the best choice.

Just yesterday I finalized our flights, and we received the most wonderful itinerary from the nicest hotel staff. There's champagne upon check-in for our two night stay, a three hour sunset harbor cruise, a private carriage tour with snacks, a helicopter tour {with more champagne}, dinner reservations, and someone to pick us up and drop us off at the airport.

Tomorrow morning, I'm off to my travel companion's office to celebrate, then Monday the 14th we're on the plane and off to Charleston. I imagine there will be excessive amounts of tweeting and Instagram posts {there always seems to be something photogenic around every corner in Charleston}. Watch this space for a complete recap of our adventures...and don't forget to add your own entry to the #TakeMeToCHS Sweepstakes.

10 September 2013

#the29project: end of week 2

this week hasn't been much easier than the first week {frankly, it's been a bit harder as I've come into less contact with strangers}. Still, I am thinking about how my actions impact others. That's really what this project is about: considering others. There have been choices that I would have made without a second though that I have not made, pausing to consider more outcomes.

There is also what I'm learning about myself. It seems that the choices I make in the "me" action are often in taking the time to clean my house or organize something only moderately organized. I'm not yet sure if I am taking the easy way out & not making a  choice for me, or if I often feel that I should be doing something other than, say, cleaning my home.

Some of my friends have begun participating, which is possibly the best feeling I could have from this project. How are you doing? Have you noticed any trends in how your daily actions follow a pattern? Don't forget to tweet or Instagram #the29project or keep an eye out for pictures on the Pinterest board.

made rabbit for the first time: tasty!
rabbit braised in white wine & mustard

took Pepper for a walk along the Clarion River

"Be well. Do good work. Keep in touch." - Garrison Keillor

09 September 2013

pretzel-crusted chicken, or grown-up kids' food

the other night one of my friends came over, and we re-created a movie theater smorgasboard right on my coffee table. We had Milk Duds, Twizzlers, m'n'm's, Whoppers, Bit o'Honeys, sour watermelon gummies, Tootsie Rolls, homemade popcorn with butter salt...everything a kid could ask for at the movies.

Because we are also adults who cannot subsist on candy alone, I wanted a protein that doubled as something fun. Trolling through Pinterest and Googling "movie snacks," I came across the idea of chicken baked with a pretzel crust. Not only did it sound rather like fried chicken tenders, the baking felt more healthy and allowed me to pop something in the oven and forget about it without much hassle.

Some of the recipes called for a mustard salad dressing style marinade, but I wanted something a bit more oil-free. Instead of putting the chicken strips into essentially oil with mustards, I tossed together my favorite mustards and stirred in some Greek yogurt. The same friend who came over has made a mayonnaise dressed chicken, rolled in crushed corn flake cereal and baked. It's crunchy and delicious.

This riff on pretzels and mustard and her mayo chicken brought me to a tender, juicy, crunchy, grown-up kids' version of chicken tenders. It was exactly what I wanted, and really quite easy, the two things best found in a recipe.

Pretzel-Crusted Chicken Strips
2 chicken breasts (or more depending on the number to be served), cut into 1.5" strips

2 tablespoons sweet mustard (I used Bavarian sweet, but choose the mustard in your cupboard)
2 tablespoons spicy mustard (preferably whole grain, again choose the mustard in your cupboard)
2 tablespoons standard yellow mustard
3 tablespoons Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons water

1 cup crushed (by hand or with rolling pin) pretzels, large stick or sourdough

mix together the mustards and yogurt, then remove two or three tablespoons of the mix into a small bowl for later dipping. To that bowl mix in the honey and keep the dipping sauce in the refrigerator. Add the water to the remainder of the marinade mix, then add chicken. Ensure the mix coats the chicken entirely, then remove to the fridge for at least a half hour but up to four hours.
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Crush the pretzels into small and fine pieces and place into a shallow dish. Dredge each chicken piece in the pretzels for a fairly even coating of pretzel breading. Place the chicken strips on a cooking rake, which is set in a greased cookie sheet. Bake for 10-20 minutes, until the outer coating is crisp and the chicken's internal temperature is 165 degrees (as per the directions of US FDA).
Serve alongside the dipping sauce and enjoy.

  "Be well. Do good work. Keep in touch." - Garrison Keillor

05 September 2013

movie night; or how a coffee table turns into a drive-in

movie nights are awfully fun. Movie nights become even more fun when turned inside out, from the idea of going to a theater and spending a decent chunk of money for just a ticket let alone snacks into the idea of a night at home with as many snacks as one might want.

Sometimes, especially when it's a movie I've never seen before, I turn out all the lights and light a couple of candles, make sure the dog is sleeping, and focus entirely on my television. Other times, movies are something that's running in the background while I do something else. In the middle lie movies watched when a friend or two come over and we watch and chat and snack.

Typically, generally lighthearted and easy-to-follow movies fall under that latter category. I especially love classic movies from the era of big studios, beginning with the advent of talkies in the late 1920's through the early 1960's.

Don't get me wrong, fascinating French New Wave films are great, but if a person has to spend all her time paying attention to the movie, it's not a time to catch up and hang out with friends. Just last Christmas, my Book Club girlfriends and I brought in the holiday season with a British romantic comedy triple feature and sleepover. Currently, I'm planning a classic unknown holiday films repeat for this holiday season. {think Christmas in Connecticut, The Man Who Came to Dinner}

That still doesn't say anything about one of those nights where you and a couple others just need a fun-filled pick-me-up movie and snack night. That's alright, because that is exactly what happened last night. One of my oldest friends has yet to watch a widescreen version of the Warner Brothers classic musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

It's glorious Technicolor and sort of hokey, with seven burly and unshaven backwoodsman brothers on the hunt for wives. There's plenty of inappropriate sexism, and plenty of women who push their men right back. I've a soft spot for Howard Keel in just about anything, and all I need to make my night is grown people breaking out into fantastic song and dance. and the song and dance is fantastic, with director Stanley Donen best known for directing and co-choreographing movie musicals starring Gene Kelly.

As for snacks, I went a little nutty. With a general classic movie mood, I picked out all sorts of traditional movie theater candies and made some popcorn on the stove. Since we needed to pretend we were eating supper, I tossed some Pretzel-Crusted Chicken Strips {recipe soon!} in the oven and sliced some cucumber chips.

With just a few fun bowls and serving vessels, my coffee table went from magazine rack to drive-in food stand. It's easy peasy and tons of fun.

"Be well. Do good work. Keep in touch." - Garrison Keillor

03 September 2013

the 29 project; or how a birthday is an inspiration for kindness

we could all use to be a bit kinder to each other. There's no suggestion here that we all have the time or wherewithal to be Bill & Melinda Gates or that we occupy the platform George Clooney or Brad Pitt use to their charitable advantage. In far simpler ways, we could all use to be a bit kinder to each other.

Hold a door, help a stranger, take a tiny bit of your day to brighten a friend's day. Not because we are looking for thanks, but just as a moment of kindness. We could take a moment for ourselves. Say "no, I have to do this for me." I'm not talking about weekly expensive facials {though, that certainly isn't the worst idea of me time}, but what I mean is carving out a bit of time to think about strangers and how you impact them. Think about your actions, think of a little way {or a big one} you can be kind to family or friends and to yourself.

I had a lovely birthday party, and a lovely birthday. It's tradition in my family, especially because we never know what will walk into the door from day to day in the store, that on a person's birthday, if nothing else, that family member need not do the dishes or cook unless he or she wishes to do so. On my birthday, I ran off for an espresso & gelato lunch, picked up a movie for us to watch {is there a better birthday than The Great Gatsby & blackberry martinis?}, and bought a couple new pieces of clothing.

That bit of time to myself got me thinking. I turned 29, and while I am valiantly attempting to throw away the societal timeline of what a woman has to do before 30, I do think a bit of self-thought is in order. Hence, The 29 Project. Every day until I turn 30, I will attempt to do a kindness for strangers, something for family or friends, take a moment for myself, and take a single photograph that encompasses something about that day.

It's been a week. I've failed entirely for a single day, and I have not managed to check something off the list everyday. But, this is not about making another to do list. The 29 Project is about reordering one's thinking, taking the time to think about the little things. I'll be posting a short note here each Tuesday, letting you know how I'm faring and to see how you're doing as well.

The 29 Project has also inspired me to increase my correspondence. We don't write letters anymore. We send texts, or post on Facebook walls or tweet each other. Maybe, we write emails. That is not a letter or a card that is physically delivered. It lacks a bit of the thrill received when holding something another person held, reading their handwriting, feeling their love. As a personal part of The 29 Project, each Wednesday I'm writing a note to a friend I do not get to see often. This is not about getting mail back, but about sending a bit of myself out there.

With this in mind, I am encouraging everyone to get involved. I post my daily pictures on Instagram with #The29Project hashtag, and will begin to tweet inspiration {@VMRvictoria} for my little helpfulnesses with the same hashtag on Twitter. I've also begun a Pinterest board with each of the daily photos. There will be 365 images there when I've done, though I hope that I won't need the reminder at the end of this year. Personally, I'm also keeping a notebook with a daily log, just to see what comes from The 29 Project.

Join me, even if you do not talk about it, in a reorganization of thinking. If you'd like to join my correspondence, send me your address {vmrvictoria@yahoo.com}. If you want to join The 29 Project, tweet or Instagram with the hashtag, or simply take a bit of time for others and for yourself. Less than five minutes is enough.

"Be well. Do good work. Keep in touch." - Garrison Keillor