If at First You Don’t Succeed, You’re Drinking Coffee

I’ve never been a coffee person. It probably helped that growing up only one person in my family (my father) drank it, and I’ve never been a big drinker of caffeine to begin with, but coffee has always been some strange unexplored continent.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Sometimes I think coffee smells great. And so every now and then I’ll try it. And with one notable exception, the end result is a resounding, “Ugh.” But that one exception—at the wedding of my friends Rachel and Jeff—was such a pleasant experience that I have held out hope that the problem was finding the right kind of coffee. After all, I went from only drinking herbal teas, to green teas, to Chinese teas, and finally to black teas. I had to work my way up. So maybe I could do the same thing with coffee?

You might be asking yourself, “Why would you even care?” But there are a lot of times when coffee is the only caffeinated beverage available, and I do inevitably need that pick-me-up. And like I said, I do enjoy the smell of coffee. So I keep telling myself that out there, somewhere, is a coffee experience that would turn me around. Recently at work a discussion of different types of coffees came up, and in the process several co-workers were talking about the milder taste of Ethiopian coffees. I made a comment that this sounded interesting, and the next day Laura kindly gave me a sample to take home and try.

CoffeeWhile waiting for Charlie to come back from the gym this morning, I decided that now was as good a time as any to give it a whirl. I dug out the french press (which is normally used for loose-leaf teas, or the occasional visitor who does drink coffee), heated up the water, and consulted the Internet on how much coffee I needed to put into the device. I pulled out some soy milk and also a cube of panela from my Colombia trip, but held them in reserve. And then… the first taste.

It was definitely a lot less bitter than the coffees I’d had before, so that was a relief. None the less, even milder coffee was not something I was ready to drink black. So I added in some soy milk and the sugar, stirred it around… and I will give it credit, it wasn’t bad. At the same time, though, I found myself wondering how much was really me just drinking the milk and sugar, versus the coffee. One of the nice things about drinking tea is that, of course, if you don’t add anything to it the calorie count is a whopping zero. Switching over to coffee where you need the milk and sugar to make it good seems less appealing. I tried a second cup (I’d made far too much) with just the soy milk, and that was all right, too. So clearly, some coffee is not out of reach.

In the end, it’s nice to know that with the right coffee, it’s at least an option. But I think for now I’ll stick to tea. I know that coffee drinkers are thinking, “Greg! You just need to drink 48 more cups of coffee and your taste buds will be beaten into submission! One of us! One of us!” And I’m sure I could eventually create that taste scar tissue given enough time. For now, though, I’ll just stick with this as an emergency option. Getting to, “It’s not revolting” feels like enough of a victory that I don’t feel the need to jump immediately back into that breach.

Saturday in Takoma

While most of today has been allocated to school projects (having finished off a research paper’s first draft, next up are three chapters in the oh-so-riveting Reference and Information Services: An Introduction textbook), I decided I needed a quick break for an hour. It’s a beautiful day outside, and while I’d opened up all of the windows and turned off the air-conditioner, that simply wasn’t going to suffice.

So, I took a quick spin around my immediate neighborhood. Strolled down to the library and picked up my reserved copy of Canal House Cooks Every Day. I had a recent encounter with one of the Canal House Cooking books and while that’s a (hopefully) forthcoming post in its own right, it made me curious to see what their big cookbook was like. From there I headed the opposite direction down the street to Trohv, which is always worth a browse but in this case I was visiting specifically to buy the new issue of Kinfolk magazine. It’s always a pleasure to read, and knowing that this issue is all about weekends makes it even better. As I entered, I stopped and snapped a quick picture of the new construction at Takoma Central to send to Charlie. Not that I know much about building projects, but it certainly feels like it’s coming along nicely and should hopefully open on schedule next spring.

On the way home, I stopped in at La Mano Coffee Bar, which opened earlier this month. Ended up leaving with a mint rooibos tea, and two hand pies; one with peach and raspberry, the other with a spiced ground beef. Ran into one of my neighbors right as I was leaving, who was walking with her adorable daughter (who was on a sassy purple scooter).

Saturday Haul

And once I got home, I put everything down and thought to myself how much I love my neighborhood on days like this. Everyone’s out walking, there are adorable shops and businesses to visit, and there was a general air of friendliness. A couple that I saw leaving Trohv as I entered was buying a snack at La Mano, and as I walked from the library to Trohv I saw two other neighbors across the street run into one another and start chatting.

Sure, it’s not the “everything is happening all the time” nature of being right in the heart of downtown, and there’s a lot to be said for living there. But there are definitely charms that exist here, too, if you take the time to look. And now, having eaten my pies (the crust was buttery and flaky and delicious, and the insides were great too), I’m going to sit out on the balcony with my textbook and my iced tea and enjoy the great weather.

Five Things That Make Me Happy (part 20)

Kinfolk Magazine
Kinfolk_Vol7_CoverOne of the things I like to buy at the store down the street (Trohv) is Kinfolk magazine, a slick squarebound quarterly publication. It’s about entertaining, about art, about photography, about cooking… It’s not really quite like anything else out there. I love reading their essays, as much for things that inspire me as things that are completely outside of my own personal wheelhouse. Even if the subject isn’t grabbing me in one particular piece, there’s almost always a great photograph that goes alongside it that makes it all work quite nicely. The latest issue had an ice cream theme, and it was slightly mouth-watering at times. Not that I minded to much, because…

Cinnamon Vanilla Ice Cream
One of the pieces in the latest issue was an interview with two ice-cream makers. When asked for their favorite flavors, one that both of them mentioned was cinnamon vanilla ice cream. “Hmmm,” I thought to myself, “I bet I could make that.” And so, I did.

Cinnamon Vanilla Ice Cream

As it turns out, adding cinnamon to my vanilla ice cream recipe is a big hit. I love the vanilla ice cream recipe (thanks Alton Brown!) but the touch of cinnamon makes it that much more amazing. I’ll be trying some new flavors of ice cream this summer, but I think this is one I’ll be keeping in my back pocket in general. Homemade ice cream in general is such a pleasure; over the winter I barely made any (which my waistline thanks me for, at least) but I’m going to try and break out the ice cream maker a bit more this year.

Ticket to Ride
Ticket to Ride is one of those board games that I’ve been seeing for years, now. I first encountered it at my friends Trevor and Matt’s house, when I saw some people playing it. It looks deceptively simple—collect colored trains to form connections between cities to earn points—but it’s the sort of game that clearly requires a lot of strategy and wits. I’ve held off on buying it (another huge box to store!) but I recently discovered that the game company also released a version for the iPad. Having now played it for a few days… it’s wonderfully addicting. Evilly so, in fact. And I haven’t even played it against other people (either online or locally), just against the computer. Absolutely loving it. Board or electronic game, this one is clearly a winner.

No More Amy Pond
Non-Doctor Who fans can just skip along to the next item. But I am genuinely happy that when Doctor Who returns in a couple of days, it will be without Karen Gillan, the actress who played the character of Amy Pond for the past two and a half years. I really didn’t like the character, but the bigger problem wasn’t the writing for Amy Pond but Gillan’s acting. She just wasn’t up to the level needed for such a major role, and she pulled down the show a great deal. So knowing that there are eight episodes ahead without Gillan? Well, I’m delighted. (Sadly her co-star Arthur Darvill is also gone, but it’s a fair trade.) Her replacement, played by Jenna-Louise Coleman, already feels like a real improvement.

A Great 40th Birthday
Cannoli CakeToday I finally hit the big 4-0, it’s true. And in celebrating it this year, the thing that’s struck me the most was that I’m really lucky to have so many great friends that it was actually difficult to make a guest list because I wanted to invite everyone I knew. I ended up having a medium-sized party over the weekend at the tavern on the ground floor of our building, and as much as I would’ve loved to double the guest list, my gut feeling on how many the facility could hold was more or less dead-on accurate. I had a great time talking with my friends, and the food and cake were both excellent, and at the very end the manager provided us with a nice champagne toast. Then today, two co-workers (and good friends) took me out to lunch and provided cake in the afternoon (with a cannoli on top!), followed by getting a massage in the evening.

Add in the over 200 birthday greetings on Facebook (no, seriously, we’ve crossed the 200 mark), and it’s been a very pleasant way to enter the new decade. Fortunately, I’m not one to get freaked out over those milestone ages, but still, a good way to do so. (Now ask me again when I turn 70 and that might be another story entirely…)

40th birthday toast

Five Things That Make Me Happy (part 19)

My Abuela's KitchenMy Abuela’s Table: An Illustrated Journey into Mexican Cooking by Daniela Germain
I found this cookbook at a great home goods store just down the street (Trohv) and even though the last thing I need is another cookbook, I had to take it home with me. The recipes appear to be nice and good, but what really caught my eye were the illustrations by Germain. They’re gorgeous, with delicate watercolors that occasionally bleed out of their borders and onto the page around them. I’d flipped the cookbook open to the illustrations of the different chili peppers and I just fell in love with Germain’s art; the deep, rich colors make those oranges and reds and greens just call out to me. I may never make anything from this cookbook (although I plan on doing so!), but I feel like I’ve devoured the art in it enough that it was a worthy purchase.

Oscar-Nominated Shorts Compilations
Every year, Charlie and I go to see two of the Oscar-Nominated Short Film compilations (the Live-Action and the Animated categories). These are pieces that chances are you’d never be able to see otherwise, unless you hit the film festival circuits. And while I don’t think there’s ever been a year that I was crazy about all the nominees, there’s always something to recommend about each one. This year I was especially taken by Death of a Shadow (a strange steampunk tale about a man who captures the shadows of people about to die all throughout time) and Asad (a Somali boy struggles to become a fisherman) among the live action pieces, and Adam and Dog (the story of the Garden of Eden through the eyes of the first dog) and Paperman (the start of a romantic relationship with the help of paper airplanes; you may have seen this before Wreck-It Ralph). But like I said, there’s something to recommend for all of them. 

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
I’m coming to this one a little late. I’d been hearing recommendations about it for ages (and first and foremost from Linda Holmes on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour), but I knew very little about it. That’s a good thing. I hate to do this, but it’s a book that the less you know about, the better; all I’ll say about the plot is that it’s about a woman who vanishes under mysterious circumstances. It’s a book that digs down deep and gets you at just the right moment, and it’s also a very fast read; I think I read it in two days. It’s not high art, and in a few places you’ll scratch your head and say, “Really? Really???” when it’s over. It doesn’t bear too much thinking about it afterward, to be honest. But it’s a classic example of the pageturner, and I’m glad I read it.

“Candy” by Robbie Williams
I know this song is a few months old (and I’ve talked about it on Facebook before, in fact), but every time I need to grin I just listen to it. Seriously, I defy you to not be happy after listening to “Candy.”

Great Friends Every February
Every year in February I head out to Los Angeles to attend the Gallifrey One convention, which is all about my all-time favorite television show Doctor Who. And yes, a lot of the attraction is the convention’s guests and programming; this was my 13th straight year of attending, after all. But just as much of an attraction is going to see all the friends that I’m reunited with every year because of Gallifrey One. There are too many to list—over the years I’ve met so many great people there—but let me just say that if none of my friends were going one year, I might stay home too. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of friends there every time I go. My friends? They’re the greatest. Just what the doctor ordered to perk up what could be a cold, grey month.

Gallifrey 2013

Five Things That Make Me Happy (part 18)

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Unreal and the Real
One of my all-time favorite authors is Ursula K. Le Guin. I fell in love with her books ever since I first bought a copy of The Wizard of Earthsea at our library book sale in 4th grade (and read it so quickly I managed to buy copies of The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore before the week-long sale ended), and that enjoyment of her writing hasn’t ceased. Now, one of my favorite small publishers (Small Beer Press) has issued a two volume collection of her short stories. And while I buy ebooks more often than print ones these days, I had to make an exception for this handsome volumes.

I also appreciate that they even came up with a way to theme the two volumes in terms of location (the titles should give it away) rather than just an arbitrary “these are two volumes worth of stories” division. Oh, in case you’re wondering, there are ebook editions too. But for now, I’ll be reading these copies, just calling my name. Good times ahead.

SiTea: The Spice Boutique
Just down the street from me is SiTea: The Spice Boutique. Now, in the back of my head it’s always been a place to buy dried teas and supplies. They have an amazing selection, lots of original mixtures, and in general it’s a great place to visit. But it was only recently that my friend Randal reminded me that it’s also a place you can go to sit, have a pot of tea, maybe a snack or two (cupcakes, samosas, and vegetarian chili are a few of their regular offerings), and relax. On a stressful day, it was a real delight to stop and hang out with Randal for an hour. We both had a wonderful tea, enjoyed the quiet music and inviting surroundings, and each other’s company. I won’t forget about SiTea’s option as an oasis of enjoyment again.

Grandpa’s Meatballs
My grandfather’s meatballs were the stuff of legend. Seriously, they were that good. There was something about the way he cooked—no doubt taught by his Italian immigrant parents—that just made everything taste a little better, but especially when it came to the meatballs. My aunt Jackie once sat down with him and dutifully recorded everything he did, step-by-step, to try and replicate them. And while we still can’t get them quite as good as his… they’re awfully close. In November I ended up making about 600 cocktail-sized meatballs using his recipe, more or less. (I drew the line at pan-frying all of them, due to the sheer number, so they were baked in the oven instead.) And while they were indeed absolutely delicious, what really made me happy… was just the act of making them. It was a very calming, pleasurable experience. I put some music and podcasts on, rolled up my sleeves, and just cooked for about five hours. A great way to spend an afternoon, and a way to remember what a wonderful guy my grandfather was in all aspects of life.

“Get Myself Together” by Robyn
Seriously, I can’t stop listening to this song. Why was this not released as a single? So good.

Unseasonably Warm Weather
For a couple of days this week we had crazy warm weather for December in the DC area. Monday and Wednesday morning involved wearing shorts (with a long-sleeved shirt) while running outdoors at 6am. That’s not normally something that happens again until March. A cold front has since swept back in—and to be fair, this warm weather is probably not a good thing in terms of the future for the planet and things like that—but it was great to break out some polo shirts to wear to work and just enjoy a couple days of semi-warmth. But now, back to the winter gear it seems…

Minestrone

Most of the times, when I find myself thinking, “I know what food would be perfect right now,” it involves the next thought being, “But then I’d have to go to the store and buy a lot of ingredients that I don’t have at hand.” Every once in a while, though, I have actually thought things through slightly in advance. So when I stayed home from work today because I wasn’t feeling well, I was already in luck because earlier in the week I’d bought the few items I needed to make some homemade minestrone soup.

Now to be fair, it helped that I had a lot of the ingredients on hand. I made some homemade vegetable broth last winter and then canned it so that I would have it available for moments like this. And I usually have staples like onions, garlic, italian seasoning, beans, and pasta on hand. So I had a leg up for a change.

But still! I don’t normally have carrots or celery on hand, which along with some onions and garlic got cooked for a few minutes in my soup pot. Once that was done it was time for almost everything else. At the center of it all was this weekend’s farmers market purchase of a savoy cabbage and chopped it up finely and added it into the mix as well.

Also added at the same time were some white beans, a can of crushed tomatoes (I almost always have them on hand, although I was half-tempted to use some of my self-canned roasted tomatoes from this summer), the vegetable broth, and my italian seasoning herb mix. This is really a fairly simple soup to make when you think about it. I let it simmer for about half an hour, then threw in two cups of bowtie pasta. Any small pasta would do, but why not make it a fun-shaped one?

And now? Our kitchen smells like delicious, delicious soup. The perfect way to give yourself a little pick-me-up when the weather gets cold.

(As an added bonus, I think in a couple of weeks I’ll make another big batch or two of homemade vegetable broth and can it for usage throughout the rest of the year. I’ll always find a use for it.)

Can-Can

I’ve been wanting to start canning for several years, but this August was when I finally took the plunge. My recent interest in canning began in 2009, when my friend Julie and I bought a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) share at a local farm. Suddenly I was getting all sorts of exciting, fresh fruits and vegetables, and sometimes at a rate faster than I could use them. It was a different experience than shopping at the Arlington Courthouse farmer’s market, where it was easier to make sure to only buy what I would absolutely be using over the next few years.

I was familiar with the idea of canning well before then, mind you. My mother has made and then canned her homemade preserves every year for as long as I can remember, and it’s always a joy to open up a jar and dive into those delicious tastes of summer no matter what it’s like outside. My grandfather on her side of the family was also into canning, using the jars to hold his applesauce, tomato sauce, and green beans.

Butternut Squash ChutneyWhen Charlie and I moved to Takoma, some sort of switch finally flipped in the back of my head, and I took the plunge: I bought a pressure cooker that could be used for canning, as well as some supplies, and checked books out of the library on how to can.

Since then I’ve made quite a few batches of tomato sauce (each batch tasting slightly different than the one before), hot pickles, pickled okra, and most recently—my favorite—butternut squash chutney, which with its cinnamon and cardamom and cumin flavors just screams autumn to me.

I can see why people do it. Not just because of being able to preserve an excess of produce, but because of getting the pride and joy in grabbing a taste and smell of a specific seasonal food and getting to halt it until later, and inevitably share it with someone else. There’s a great article on NPR right now about a woman who decided to make and can blackberry jam for everyone at her upcoming wedding. Reading the article, not only did I understand her happiness in doing so, but it brought back my own memories of picking blackberries for my mom in exchange for both blackberry preserves and pie.

I’m already plotting out my next canning ideas, as well as planning on making some more butternut squash chutney (it’s amazing as a condiment on sandwiches!) quite soon. And if I run out of room in the pantry? Well, half the fun is giving the finished jars to other people. I don’t think that’ll be a problem either.

High-Quality Tools

Earlier in the year, I bought from Woot.com an expensive high-quality cooking knife. It was such a great deal that I couldn’t resist. When it showed up, I remember being entranced just by the patterns in the steel.

When I finally got my kitchen rearranged, I put the kitchen knife up on a magnetic wooden block on the wall, where it’s been just staring at me, waiting to be used. As silly as it sounds, I’ve been holding off, waiting for some sort of special reason to do so. Fast forward to today, when I was preparing to chop up a huge butternut squash for dinner. And suddenly I thought, “Why am I waiting to use this knife for ‘something special’ when I could use it now?”

And oh, was it a lovely experience. That knife cut through the squash like it was butter, not butternut. Totally in love with the knife. Probably the best Woot purchase I’ve made to date. And now I totally want to chop up more things with it! I also feel slightly silly for not having used it up until now. A good knife really is worth its weight in gold.

Drive-By Blog Update

Been awfully busy lately, and that means the blog is the first thing to not get updated. I then tell myself, “I’ll have to update my website with all of the interesting things I’ve been doing.” Except, of course, it’s not terribly interesting, really. But a few things of note as of late…

Worst Open House Ever?

Probably not. But Charlie and I did look at some open houses over the weekend (not that we’re buying in the near future, but to get an idea of right now what is available in our suspected price range) and there was one house that stood out in particular for being unwelcoming. First, when we got there, the front door was locked. As we were standing right next to the front window (with the realtor slumped on a couch), he saw us trying to open the door and hopped up and opened the door. “I don’t know how that happened,” he said. Because of course the door locked its own deadbolt.

But then, we stepped in and were greeted with an overwhelming smell of cigarette smoke. As we gasped for air, then realtor dealt the final blow. “When I got here for the open house I found out that one of the contractors working on the house is not feeling well and he’s lying down in the master bedroom, so I’m going to have to ask that you not go in there.”

“We’ll just come back,” Charlie said, as he and I scrambled towards the door. Which of course, meant, never. Talk about three strikes and you’re out…

Small Press Expo 2010 A Success

This year’s Small Press Expo (a show I first attended in 1995, first volunteered for in 1997, and have helped run in some capacity since 1998) was a huge success, hurrah! It was also my last year as the grand poobah of the Ignatz Awards, so having that off my shoulders (more or less) was also a big relief. I finished up my wine sketchbook, which I started back in 2001. I am determined to buckle down and scan the rest and start posting those sketches here… soon… honest.

Autumn = Soup Weather

I love making soup in colder weather, both on the stove and in my crock pot. I also finally decided to give Soupergirl a try, a local chef who sells her homemade soups that you order in advance. I’m going to keep making my own soup, of course, but I’m dying to see how hers taste too. Especially since hers is a zucchini pear soup, something that sounds strange at first and then intriguing, and more importantly I’d never have thought to try it on my own.

Upcoming Documentary I Can’t Wait To See

Waiting for “Superman” is opening this weekend in the DC area, David Guggenheim’s new documentary on the public school system in the United States and its decline over recent years. Part of the focus is on the DC school system and DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and I’m looking forward to seeing it for myself. For the record, while I don’t think she was perfect (and made some mistakes along the way), I do think that Rhee was one of the best things to happen to DC public schools in the past few years.