Wednesday, April 16, 2014

sick days

rumpled bed
There's something so inviting about afternoon sunlight on a rumpled bed.

Just when exercise was starting to become a habit and I actually began craving daily activity, I had to go and get sick. It's thrown a major monkey wrench in my #ayearofactive and April swimming goals, which is really frustrating. On the plus side, being sick has given me plenty of time to lounge around watching more documentaries and poring through a pile of new cookbooks (thanks, Amazon Rewards!).

Since I don't have the brain power to compose paragraphs, instead I'll compose a bullet-list of random things in between nose blowings:

+ I spent the weekend being a tourist in my own city. Friday night started out as an after-work happy hour and ended up turning into an accidental bar crawl to some of the diviest bars in DC that I used to frequent in my twenties. Fun times (that I regretted the next morning)!

+ On Saturday, we walked around Georgetown, watched the GW Invitational Regatta, and treated ourselves to cupcakes from Baked & Wired. I usually hate walking around Georgetown, but the weather was so delightful (blue skies and pink petals everywhere), it ended up being a fantastic afternoon.

+ Lately, I've been addicted to playing the game Dots on my phone, or as Larry calls it "Dots on the Pot" for obvious reasons...

+ This video of two Dutch grandmothers flying on a plane for the first time is the best thing I've ever seen.

+ The Food-Lover's Drive Along the Blue Ridge Parkway - this looks like an amazing local-ish road trip. Larry, let's go! Also, 30 Places to Eat in Virginia Before You Die. Oh, and there's a book, too: Food Lover's Guide to Virginia. I've been dreaming of travel lately, but it's exciting to know that we could take a fun and delicious trip in our own state.

+ Speaking of dreams, the other night I had a dream about TOFU. Our new eating habits are permeating my subconscious - yikes! Also, the other day, I ATE THIS:
i ate this
(Next thing you know, I'll just go out into our yard and start stuffing my mouth with fistfuls of lawn.)

+ This video of 2CELLOS has been going around the internet lately. If I had known stringed instruments could be so cool, maybe I would've stuck with the violin!

+ My childhood friend, Corinne's recent blog post, My Messy Beautiful, really spoke to me as a 35 year old self-employed person who is constantly questioning my life, my career, the decisions I've made, and where I'm going. (Oy!) Corinne perfectly articulated these shared struggles in her beautifully written piece.

And with that, I'm off to blow my nose again, attempt to get a good night's sleep, and hope to be in the pool tomorrow. Life really is messy (literally - you should see the pile of wadded tissues on my nightstand!) and beautiful. Right now I'm just hoping for less boogers.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

3 documentaries to watch right now

favorite documentaries
I'm a huge documentary nerd. Documentaries are pretty much all I've been watching over the past six months and I've watched over 20 since the beginning of the year. I've loved watching docs since the days of Spellbound, but ever since I moved in with a boy who insisted we get HBO (and I then gained access to HBO GO on my iPad) and since I splurged and subscribed to Netflix last year, I've been obsessed with watching all the documentaries that I missed during my years of living under a rock without technology. I've even forsaken watching the new seasons of my beloved House of Cards and Scandal because I've been so obsessed with watching documentaries lately.

I love documentaries because they are educational and a great way to learn about all sorts of topics, while being entertaining at the same time. Between working at home by myself and no longer being subjected to formal education, sometimes I feel like I'm getting dumb. (Dumber?) Education came so easily when I was in school, but as an adult I feel like I have to seek out opportunities to learn. I'm interested in many things and will watch documentaries about all sorts of surprising subjects. True, some docs can be propaganda-ish, but the best docs convey the facts and teach you something new through real-life stories of people who are vulnerable and imperfect and human.

It's hard to choose favorites since I've watched so many over the past year, but over the past few weeks I've watched a few documentaries that I can't stop thinking about. If you haven't seen these, I suggest logging on to Netflix ASAP:

BRIDEGROOM
An extraordinary and tragic love story - I cannot stop thinking about it. Have a box of tissues handy.

BLACKFISH
Breathtaking and fascinating and upsetting.

FORKS OVER KNIVES
I'm late to the party on this one, as it came out a few years ago and has been in my "To Watch" queue for a while. I'm glad I waited though because we decided to watch this a few weeks after Larry's dad had bypass surgery and we were working on changing our diet. I realize that nutrition can be a controversial, constantly evolving, and much disputed topic, but Larry and I both found the information presented to be extremely compelling and it's resulted in a lot of discussion about food, diet, lifestyle, and society in our household. This documentary along with several other sources have given us a lot to think about and have inspired a lot of changes in the Smoellke kitchen.

So those are my recent favorites. Here are some other docs that have fascinated me over the past few years, ranging from entertaining to inspiring to nerdy:
FIRST POSITION
FAME HIGH
HAPPY
LIFE IN A DAY
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN
STRESS: PORTRAIT OF A KILLER
FAGBUG
LIFE ACCORDING TO SAM
FIRST COMES LOVE
MISS YOU CAN DO IT

Monday, April 7, 2014

cooking tips with larry & rachel

I found this blog post that I wrote last summer in my Drafts folder and thought now would be a good time to publish it. Larry and I are currently making some major changes to our diet, so it will be interesting to look back on this and see how our cooking style has evolved as we integrate healthier ingredients and techniques into our kitchen.
Untitled
Recent experiments from the Smoellke Test Kitchen.

Larry and I have been cooking together for nine ten years. The first year we were dating, I'm pretty sure we survived solely on bar food, but after that we ventured into the kitchen. We started with uninspired and easy things like baked chicken breasts and pasta. But we quickly found this diet to be boring, so we stopped shying away from unique ingredients and started cooking more challenging recipes and exploring new flavors. And what a delicious adventure it has been!

Nowadays, we try between 100 and 150 new recipes a year. Our pantry contains 11 types of vinegar, 13 flavors of oil, and ingredients such as pomegranate molasses, gochujang, and sumac. Our spice collection is up to over 60 different spices. I have thousands of recipes cataloged in three-ring binders. We spend our free time flipping through cookbooks, Food & Wine magazine, and watching Top Chef for inspiration. This is not to say we are food snobs (I love a greasy piece of pizza or a taco from a food truck!), or that we are experts (we definitely have recipes that flop), just that we have learned a few things along the way:

ENGLISH MUFFINS MAKE THE BEST HAMBURGER BUNS.
So, I'm really not a fan of the tasteless, mushy, wet-kleenex style hamburger buns from the grocery store. But what irks me more than their lack of taste, is that they always end up molding or getting stale before we can use them all. Years back, we switched to using English muffins as hamburger buns and have never gone back. They're thinner so there's a better meat-to-bread ratio, they don't turn to mush when slathered with ketchup, and bonus, you can eat any leftover muffins for breakfast!

THE BEST PIZZA IS COOKED ON THE GRILL. (AND FRESH MOZZARELLA IS A MUST!)
I still struggle with making a decent pizza in the oven - the crust never cooks evenly and there are usually tears and/or curse words involved when trying to transfer the pizza to/from the pizza stone. But who cares about oven pizza when there is grilled pizza? Roll/pat out the dough into a pizza shape and toss it directly onto the grill (that's right, you don't need oil or cooking spray to keep it from sticking and you don't need a pizza stone, baking pan or anything - put the dough directly on the grill). Don't fret that the dough stretches out when you're putting it on the grill - grilled pizza will never have a perfectly round shape. (One of mine came out in the shape of Florida - not the prettiest, but still delish.) Once the dough cooks enough on the bottom side so that it is no longer sticky/is flippable/has grill marks, flip the crust and add sauce, FRESH mozzarella and toppings. (This pizza is best kept simple, so don't overdo it with a load of toppings.) Close the grill and wait just long enough for the bottom side of the crust to cook and the cheese to melt. Take it off the grill and enjoy. The pizza is made even more flavorful if you brush the dough with garlic oil before cooking. (See below.)

Update: I like to dust the dough with cornmeal - keeps it from sticking to your hands and adds a little texture to the crust. Also, I typically use a pre-made ball of dough from the grocery store and divide it into two portions, which each make a large personal sized pizza - this is the right size for ease of flipping on the grill.

GARLIC OIL MAKES EVERYTHING BETTER.
Pour a little olive oil in a ramekin. Stir in some crushed/minced fresh garlic. Let it sit for a bit while you're preparing diner. Now before you throw that pizza dough on the grill, brush on some of that garlic oil. Same goes for those English muffins you were going to toast on the grill for hamburger buns. So easy and takes the flavor of your pizza and burgers to the next level. (Also, the Garject garlic press is the best I've found - it's self-cleaning and has a PEEL EJECTION BUTTON!) Now does anyone have a tip for getting the smell of garlic off your fingers? My hands constantly smell like garlic no matter how many times I wash them!

GROW YOUR OWN HERBS. (Especially oregano and thyme!)
I have a little container garden of kitchen herbs on my patio. Throughout the years it has contained many different herbs. It has also been neglected at times. But the two herbs that I use the most in my cooking are the two herbs that come back year after year and don't seem to mind my neglect: oregano and thyme. These two herbs, along with the huge rosemary bush (now dead - wahhhh!) in our backyard make up the three primary herbs we cook with. They are so universal (pizza, pasta, meat/chicken, potatoes, fish!) and taste so delicious when picked from your backyard that you'll never go back to using the dried stuff. I've also grown marjoram and sage (don't use them very often), parsley (kind of boring), chives (easy to grow and delicious on eggs!), basil (bugs always eat mine, but I still manage to get a batch of pesto every summer), and cilantro (cannot grow this at all - always dies). The New York Times recipe for Oregano Marinade is our favorite marinade for all meat. P.S. Save time and dishes - don't make it in your blender, use an immersion blender instead...

AN IMMERSION BLENDER IS YOUR BEST FRIEND.
My favorite kitchen gadget by far is my immersion blender. In fact, I haven't used my regular blender in over six years. I hated cleaning/assembling that thing anyway, so it might be time to donate it. The immersion blender on the other hand - easy to use, easy to clean, and you don't have to transfer foods to a blender, dirty up another dish, or risk spilling your vat of soup everywhere since the immersion blender can just blend in the same vessel you cooked in. I use my immersion blender for smoothies, milkshakes, and frozen cocktails (it crushes ice, no problem), pureed soups, sauces, marinades, and dressings.

SHRED YOUR OWN CHEESE.
This might have to be filed under Things That Make Rachel Weird (according to Larry!), but I am personally offended by pre-shredded cheese. Here's why: Those bags of shredded cheese at the grocery store contain ANTI-CLUMPING AGENTS. Yuck. And yes, I realize that anti-clumping agents are found in a lot of processed foods, but it particularly bothers me in shredded cheese, because it make the cheese dried up and crusty and gross. Shredding a block of cheese yourself only takes a few seconds and the texture of the cheese and your dish will be much improved...and not contain chemicals.

HOW TO CUT A BELL PEPPER:
Do you cut bell peppers in half and then fuss with cutting out the core and getting rid of the seeds and then struggle with dicing the weird curved pepper halves? I did that for years, until I discovered this technique a few years ago - it leaves you with four flat rectangular sections of pepper and no stray seeds.

CHIPOTLES AND SMOKED PAPRIKA MAKE EVERYTHING TASTE BETTER.
Every year it seems that we discover an ingredient, become obsessed with it, and then start mixing it into everything. Four-ish years ago, we were putting chipotles into everything and I still love anything chipotle-flavored. The next year, we discovered Smoked Spanish Paprika (also called Pimenton de la Vera). Both of these ingredients pack a potent spicy punch. A few favorite recipes: Chipotle Ketchup, Chipotle Mac and Cheese, and Catalan Fish Stew with Pimenton Mayonnaise.

Bon appetit!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

#ayearofactive

#ayearofactive
I mentioned a few days ago that I've been making some changes in my life, and my fitness goal is one that I'm comfortable talking about now, even though it's something I'll be working on throughout the year (and beyond, as I'm hoping this leads to a permanent lifestyle change).

In December, I completed #ridefive and it was my most successful fitness challenge. I hoped to continue my new exercise habit in the new year, but I needed a new, more flexible goal - something that would keep me moving, but encourage other activities in addition to riding the bike. I also wanted to be able to document my progress on Instagram - I love having a creative/photography challenge that complements the physical challenge. So in January, I started #ayearofactive. The plan was to just be as active as possible in 2014 - to walk more, hike more, get outside more, and move more in addition to activities like swimming, biking, and kayaking.

The challenge was a bit of a bust during the first three months of the year, which is why I'm writing about it now. Let's just call it a slow start. It wasn't easy (or desirable) to get out and move with all the snow we had. That's a lame excuse, but that's what happened and I'm moving on. I'm calling January though March #ayearofactive practice and now that it's warming up, I'm declaring April the official start of #ayearofactive.

I'm extra motivated after witnessing my father-in-law recovering from open heart surgery and wanting to do everything I can to try to prevent that from happening to me. I also saw Michelle Obama talk about the Let's Move campaign on The Tonight Show in February (Also, this is hysterical. Michelle, you're such a good sport. "Exercise is NOT Ew!") and recently watched this video by Designed to Move that predicts today's generation of ten year old kids is the first generation expected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents. (Presumably because we're all sitting on our butts looking at our phones/computers/video games instead of getting out and moving. Shocking and disturbing.)

So, I'm inspired. And I'm kicking things off with a swimming challenge. I have 15 pool passes that expire at the end of the month, so my goal is to go swimming 15 times in April.

So now, I'm off to the pool. One swim down, fourteen to go...

Monday, March 31, 2014

in like a lion, out like a lion

march 2014 - more snow
During my third year at Syracuse University, it snowed every day for three months. Every day from January through March, I made a tick mark on my calendar when I woke up each morning (er, or afternoon...I was a college student after all...) and saw flakes falling from the sky. After graduation, I was happy to escape that frozen hell.
march 2014 - more snow
February and March 2014 in Virginia have felt a bit like that. Snowflakes falling from the sky seemingly every day. And yet, I didn't really mind. Oddly enough, this was the first year since childhood that I didn't hate winter. In fact, it was kind of cozy and really quite productive. Most of this is because winter has made me really appreciate the fact that I work from home when the weather is cold and snowy. If I had to scrape ice off my windshield/shovel snow/commute on frozen roads/freeze my ass off at the bus stop, etc, I would be back to my old winter-hating ways. But this year when it snowed, I could just stay home. I'd turn on the fireplace, drink hot chocolate, and work on projects from the comfort of the inside of my house.
march 2014 - more snow
The first day of spring was March 20th this year, but winter wasn't over yet. We had several more snowstorms after the equinox. The snow-covered trees are really quite pretty and I finally pulled out my camera to capture a few of these last snowy days. True to my commitment to stay inside and my tendency to be lazy, all the photos were taken looking out through our windows. Thank goodness for my 200mm lens:
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
Now that the world outside my cozy lair is finally starting to thaw, I suppose I'll have to come out of my introspective hibernation. I'm looking forward to reuniting with friends and living a more active lifestyle in the warmer months.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

perspective + changes


March was a difficult and introspective month. We spent some time visiting Larry's dad, who was in the hospital recovering from somewhat unexpected triple coronary bypass surgery. Scary, eye-opening stuff. As Larry and I were driving home to Virginia after several days spent in the hospital, we turned to each other and said "Life is f***ing brutal." It was a difficult thing to witness and it was definitely a thought-provoking weekend.

Larry and I have been making some pretty drastic changes to our lives since the beginning of the year, and the events of this month have further fueled our desire to change many aspects of our lives. We've been keeping to ourselves a lot lately, which has given me a lot of clarity and time to evaluate the choices we make, our health, and our relationships. My perspective on so many things has changed for the better over the past few weeks.

Between the quiet post and the productivity post and the changes we are currently working on, I feel like I'm going all self-helpy and inspirational, but never fear, my sarcastic potty-mouthed self is still alive and well. I'm just really liking this new direction and the new priorities in my life, and I'm feeling way more relaxed and motivated, which is an unexpected reaction to such a stressful event.

The changes we're making aren't things I'm ready to write about yet, as I feel like I set myself up to fail whenever I make set-in-stone lists of goals to accomplish. Instead, we're adapting and evaluating the choices we make as we go to achieve what we're comfortable with. Changing our lifestyle is bigger than crossing things off a list, so I'll share what we've accomplished if/when I feel confident that we've succeeded at making permanent changes. (Does that sound cryptic? I didn't mean for it to - we're simply trying to live healthier, smarter, happier and more aware.)

As for Larry's dad - his surgery was a success, we were impressed by the care he was getting (big thanks to all the hardworking and compassionate nurses out there!) and he is now finally home from the hospital. He has a long road of recovery and change ahead, but then again, don't we all?

Friday, March 28, 2014

first anniversary

first anniversary
On March 4th, Larry and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary. It felt a little strange to be celebrating a first anniversary considering we've been together for over ten years. We're typically pretty lax (or lazy) with the celebration of special occasions, but ever since our wedding, I'd been thinking that we needed to start a few anniversary traditions that we could look forward to every year:

1. A March beach trip. 
Since we got married on the beach and since March is a great time of year to escape winter with a warm weather vacation, I thought it would be fun to take an anniversary trip to a different beach each year. (A few suggestions for future reference, Larry: Florida, California, the Bahamas, any Caribbean island, Canary Islands, Fiji, Costa Rica, Belize, Kauai, Mexico, Turks & Caicos...no we can't afford all these trips, but I can dream...)

2. Coconut cake.
After we eloped on Waimanalo Beach, we drove to Oahu's North Shore and grabbed a celebratory slice of coconut cake. As an anniversary tradition, I'd like to eat a slice of coconut cake (or a cupcake) from a different bakery each year. (Preferably from a bakery in a beach town - see #1.)

3. Anniversary photo.
A picture of the two of us each year, taken on March 4th. (Preferably on the beach and maybe with cake - see #1-2.)

Hopefully our first anniversary isn't an indicator as to whether these will become yearly traditions, because I give us a score of 1.5 out of 3. We hoped to take a trip to Florida, but this wasn't feasible due to a family emergency. So we made the best of it and made reservations for a lovely dinner at Restaurant Eve. We were too stuffed from the five-course tasting menu to go out for dessert after dinner, but we did get coconut cake a few days later from Society Fair in Alexandria, Virginia - not on the beach, but still delicious. As for the anniversary photo, I set up my tripod when we got back from dinner and Gravy proceeded to photobomb 30 timer photos in a row. The lighting sucked, we were tired, and Larry was over it, so this will have to do:
first anniversary
It may not be on the beach, but sometimes life gets in the way. Marriage is full of compromises. I had meant to write a post on my thoughts on marriage after the first year, but I'll just sum it up like this: Being married is awesome.
first anniversary
It's even better than cake.