December 16, 2011

It's beginning to look a lot like...

...Christmas! Are you ready? Here it is only 10 days until Christmas and while it's been a crazy few weeks, I am really looking forward to the holidays this year.

For the first time I've convinced my family to come to Nashville and now we don't have to travel to Las Vegas. It will be a lot less stressful, but on the other hand, I have LOTS to do getting ready for guests and hosting Christmas Eve and Christmas dinners at my house. I can't wait.

To begin with, I've decorated more than usual. It has been fun to pull out things that were my mom's that I've collected over the years but never really used. Like all the pretty goose themed decorations --she had a thing for geese at Christmas that began sometime in the 80s--and her homemade felt ornaments which must be over 40 years old now. I love those. They have a special place on my tree every year. If you knew my mom you know that nobody loved Christmas as much as she did.

And, something I learned from my mom, I've been really frugal too. She was really good at finding great deals and didn't let lack of money deter her enthusiasm. I also didn't want to go out and spend a lot of money on things I use only once a year. So I've been thrift shopping a lot for my holiday gear and to great success. I found garland with lights already attached to go around my front door and on my fireplace mantle (okay so one strand out of three didn't work, but I only paid $2.99 for each), and enough wreaths to hang on all three doors and windows on the front of the house. With the icicle lights too it looks like a little winter wonderland out there.

The inside is cozy and warm and very festive too. We did a little dining room overhaul recently and repainted the walls the same color grey as the front room after Daniel tore down the wall that separated them and trimmed the opening exactly like the rest of our 1930s trim. Now it's a nice, big open space to entertain in. I got a new dining room table with an extra leaf so I can seat 10-12 people now. Four new chairs and gold seat cushions to match the damask curtains I already had and it's like a whole new room! Now everything looks a bit more elegant but still very warm and I love it.

I picked up these odds and ends at the Goodwill and spent next to nothing on them. I love the little tree with lights and the nutcracker and the old-fashioned ornaments look great on my tree. And how about this festive Benetton Fair Isle sweater that which cost only $3?

June had such a good time helping me decorate the tree. She kept trying to put ornaments in the same spot and then changing her mind and taking them back off and saying "ooh, pretty." We kept my mom's tradition of eating cookies and drinking egg nog (June drank soy milk) and listening to Christmas music while we worked. I loved getting to share this with her for the first time.

She also understands a little bit about Christmas and we've been reading books about Santa and all the fun things like angels and reindeer and treats under the tree. She can say "candy cane" and "Santa", "snowman" and "lights" and she's working on the idea that everyone is coming here to spend the holiday with us. I'm not sure she quite gets that part yet but she will soon and it will be so much fun to have everyone here to shower her with love and attention. Her uncles and her 'Papa' are thrilled to see her and both brothers are staying in our little house which should be like a big old slumber party.

In the homemade gift department which is usually what I work on in the weeks leading up to Christmas I have come up short as all of my attention has been on decorating my house and planning the menus for Christmas. But I did pick up these little Italian treats called torrone to give to June's teachers and use as hostess gifts. And the cute owl is one of a few little ornaments I found to give to friends' babies.

I've made only one batch of cookies but plan on making at least three more next week. My brother Greg, fresh from living on a farm in Southwestern France for four months, gets here on Monday and he and I are going to make pat├ęs and a roast pork and I'll make my cioppino for Christmas Eve. We plan to do a traditional Italian staple --braciole simmered for a long time in tomato sauce and served with pasta for Christmas day. My aunt Bev will make her delicious bread pudding and she'll be really helpful as well. I'm so glad I will have company in the kitchen.

This weekend is shaping up to be fun and busy --two parties, a night out to listen to a friend's music on Sat., plus helping a friend cook for her holiday staff party and somehow doing some baking of my own. It's a lot of work but, like my mom, I really enjoy the holidays and all the build-up too. As I know was true for her, for me the cooking and preparing and decorating is just the warm-up for the real fun: spending time with family and gathering around the table over delicious food. Let the fun begin!

November 15, 2011

Slow it down...

Have you ever felt like you thought you understood the passage of time and then something happens and it all goes out the window? Time, your understanding of it, how much you need, how little you have, how you wish you could stop the clock? Like how I thought it was September and was enjoying the onset of fall and now I look up and what?? It's November?! And it's halfway over! What is happening? People always say time goes by faster when you have children and I never got that. But now I do.

It has been a super fun time with Junebug lately too. She is walking, running, talking a LOT (she has the vocabulary of someone twice her age we think) and is the world's happiest baby. We've done some really fun things with her over the last few months like trips to the Nashville zoo, a road trip to Kentucky to visit her great-aunts, a Dia de los muertos and scarecrow exhibit at Cheekwood, a fun Halloween party and kids' parade, taking her out on Friday nights for dinner and letting her eat everything we're eating (loving this), and lots of stories and puppet shows at the library. She loves books and her dolls and her "nuggy" (a sock puppet owl given to her by her uncle Chris that she takes to bed with her every night). Her teacher at her mom's day out program said she is doing great, she's very smart and also very visual.

She said, unlike a lot of the other children, June actually likes to sit still during story time and look at the book. Imagine that.

And as for the diet and I, well we broke up. But I did do the cleanse pretty strictly for two weeks and felt the effects of all the good it was doing. I should have kept it up but I felt like it was getting to be too hard. And, no excuses--I just didn't have the resolve. I solved one health mystery, though, and I don't think I am gluten-intolerant. And I discovered what can happen when things get out of balance so in the future I know when and with what things I need to tighten the reigns. I also know I can't live without coffee, at least not right now when I have a baby who naps little and likes to get up at 5:30. I know I can live on butternut squash and quinoa, brown rice and veggies and that anything sprinkled with Gomasio tastes a hundred times better. And I quit drinking beer every night and that in itself has made a huge difference.

I still have been trying to cook in a healthier way and to that end have made a lot of things with the produce of fall: squash and cauliflower, brussels sprouts, pumpkin and kale. Like this roasted cauliflower and butternut with bread crumbs; and a brussels sprout and cauliflower pasta recipe from Marc Vetri with toasted bread crumbs and anchovies. It was delicious. Find the recipe here.

Instead of pasta lately we've been eating more brown rice. I love it. It such a deep and nutty flavor that, unlike white rice, I could eat it just on its own or with a fried egg on top, some scallions and a dash of soy. Here is a great primer I just came across in the dining section of the NY Times on the many ways to prepare brown rice including some recipes.

Oh - and I almost forgot to mention one of the few things I baked last month, which was also one of the best things I've ever made: pumpkin whoopie pies from the Baked cookbook. OMG. They were sick. In a good way. No one could believe how moist and yummy and pop-four-in-your-mouth good they were. And pretty cute too, don't you think?

In other news, I applied for a job in a far away place --a place which I love and in which it would be amazing to live for a while. It's a long long long shot for me but I couldn't not apply. I'll be looking for more opportunities like this one in the coming months and, who knows? We could end up doing something really adventurous really soon which would be just what the doctor ordered.

October 17, 2011

roasted vegetable salad + a restart

This is a salad I made last week with all the veggies from the vegetable drawer in order to clean out the fridge. It had eggplant, peppers, yellow squash, golden beets and swiss chard, served over brown rice. I roasted the veg at 400 for about 45 min., then sauteed the chard with a little garlic and chicken broth and tossed with the roasted veggies, adding a few drops of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper to season. It was easy, healthy and really tasty.

I'm on week three of the cleanse now but really I'm starting over. Let me explain. I started this detox program/elimination diet with every intention of sticking to it for 60 days. That means 60 days of no caffeine, no alcohol, no sugar, no wheat/gluten, no dairy and no junk of any kind. It means eating mostly fruits and vegetables, brown rice and grilled fish, lots of good, clean water and that's about it. Let me tell you, it is hard.

The first week I did great but I felt like crap. I guess it's true that when you clean out your systems, stuff gets eliminated that is toxic and so the effects of that can make you feel sick. I felt tired and grumpy, hungry and like I had a mild cold. I had thoughts like "if this is what it feels like to eat clean, I want to go back to my old ways," and "Life is not worth living without coffee, alcohol, etc." These are exactly the kind of thoughts that I was warned were possible by the doctor* who says this diet is "not for irresolute wimps."

*the doctor is the creator of the program I'm following. I'm not going to recommend him or his site until this thing is over.

I guess I felt sorry for myself because as soon as I started to feel pretty good, about day 5, with more energy and no cold symptoms, I cheated. First it was an innocent little coffee with milk. Then it was a whole lunch at Back to Cuba cafe with my Spanish conversation partner. I reasoned that it was "a special occasion" as I had never been there (!) and my partner would not want to eat alone and after all, I had invited her. I had a cubano (ham and cheese, pickles and mayo sandwiched between two pieces of crusty white bread) and a cafe con leche.

(image courtesy of Meet Me in the Kitchen)

Then this past weekend, we went out of town to Louisville, KY and I confess I went a little crazy. I ate like I would eat on any trip since for me, eating and exploring a city's food scene is one of the reasons I travel and I can't imagine going anywhere and not doing that. And it was so much fun and we had a great time. We ate dinner at the excellent Proof on Main inside the 21c Hotel. The next day we had brunch at a more casual place by the same owner/chef, Garage Bar. Both were great examples of restaurants showcasing local ingredients with lots of style and excellent, creative food--just the kind of places I love.

I'm not even going to get into what I ate. Suffice it to say I broke every rule.

And now, Monday morning, I am sitting here half thinking that I should just throw in the towel and forget about this diet thing. And then I remember that I am doing this for my health. It's not because I want to lose weight (though that wouldn't be the worst thing) or because I enjoy dieting. I am doing it because I have some real concerns about my health and I want to get to the bottom of them and find some balance.

My friend Judy sent me a stern but loving email last week when I told her I'd cheated (she is my "diet buddy" and very knowledgeable about nutrition and health). She reminded me why I was doing this, and said that it takes 7.5 weeks for a person's body to get mellowed out and quit reacting to gluten. So I guess I'm back to day one.

October 4, 2011

A new season, a new challenge

Somehow I got through the end of the hottest summer I can remember here in the South and I am finally breathing a sigh of relief. I really have a hard time in the hot and humid climate and every summer I find myself longing for other places, making grandiose plans to pick up and move far, far away. But then the sweltering, pent-up days give way to the cool, dry autumn season that I love and I get outside more, lighten up about moving and my mood has lifted.

I love the fall for all the reasons that are obvious: the cooler temperatures but still mild, sunny days; the anticipation of holidays and celebrations; the balancing act between getting outdoors on beautiful days, and hanging inside on chilly nights with a warm meal and a good movie. And, of course, I love the food: dark leafy greens, colorful squash of all kinds, beets and apples and pears and pumpkins and all of the possibilities and healthy meals that they imply.

Autumn for me also symbolizes new beginnings. Perhaps even more so than the new year, I crave new projects and plans every time September rolls around and I feel somehow like a new school year (without the school) is about to begin. I always loved the start of a new school year when I was young--eagerly looking forward to new teachers, new classes, new students and I still feel that way even now that I am no longer a student or a teacher. It must be ingrained in there for life.

So I have decided that what I need to concentrate on with renewed energy this fall is my health. It feels some days like I am 90 years old, too tired to do the things I love and too young to be feeling this way. Waking up feeling sluggish and running to my next cup of coffee like the savior that it is, grabbing a muffin or a scone along with it has always been my morning routine. I live for coffee--making it, smelling it, enjoying it before I do almost anything else in the morning, especially now that having a baby has forced me to be a morning person. (I used to love sleeping "in" until about 8 or 9. Our day starts around 6:00 am over here and has for over a year now and it doesn't matter what time I went to bed the night before. June is up and ready to roll and I have no choice but to roll along with her, coffee cup in hand.

Coffee isn't a health problem in and of itself, but I think it masks some of the more worrisome ones. I have had digestive issues and back pain for as long as I can remember. Exercise and yoga help but it always feels like a delicate situation ready to erupt. I've been laid up before, unable to walk, and right now I could not afford to be immobile. My little girl needs me to be active, now more than ever. She's walking --running really--and needs all kinds of activity and action. She is a whirlwind of fun and bubbly personality and I absolutely love being with her, but wish sometimes I had more energy. She recently started a two-day a week 'moms' day out' program which is great for both of us and gives me the time to finally focus a little more on myself.

Another wake-up call to finally get clean with my health and diet is that I developed a weird rash about a month ago that won't go away, its cause undetermined. The research I've been doing leads me to believe that it, along with the other symptoms I just listed--sluggishness, digestive problems, muscle and joint pain, like other immune-related disorders, all point to one underlying cause: Candidiasis, an overgrowth of yeast in the body. I am not certain that this is the culprit but I have a hunch that it could be. So I am starting an elimination diet of sorts to try and figure it out. It's a cleanse that will have me giving up almost everything I love: bread, pastries, anything with white flour or wheat, pasta, dairy, sugar (of course) and my two close friends of late, caffeine and alcohol (I've been hitting the beer pretty hard --not so much in quantity (I usually don't have more than one), but with a frequency that is not healthy, like for a while there almost every night. I would put the baby to bed and after a long day, I felt like I had really earned that beer and I enjoyed it.

But I think things have gotten out of balance and even if I don't discover that I have a sensitivity to gluten (please, God, let that be the case) I will at least get my systems cleaned out and take a break from the most obvious toxins if only to be able to eat and drink more moderately again when it's over. Don't worry, I'm not giving up the things I love forever - I could not live that way. But I just need to get back into balance and maybe learn some new ways to enjoy healthy, nutritious food.

So I will try to blog about how this process is going for me, what I am making and how I'm dealing with a whole new way of eating. Actually, it's not that different from how we usually eat, except we will no longer resort to pizza or junk food when we're too tired to cook and I am going to have to find a whole new set of gluten-free options for almost everything. I used to make fun of the whole "gluten-free craze" thinking that mostly those people are just trying to lose weight and this is the new fad of the moment. But I realize that there really are people for whom this is a real dietary issue and I'm thankful that there are so many options out there now for gluten-free diets--everything from cupcakes to pizza dough to cereal and pasta. I may even finally break out the "Babycakes NYC" cookbook I bought a couple of years ago and try some of those complicated recipes from the best gluten-free bakery in the country.

So stick with me and somehow I will get through this new challenge and be feeling better on the other side!In the meantime, it's only day two and I've already caved and had a cup of coffee (which really only made me feel worse) but I have managed to make some really healthy and tasty dishes with all of the beautiful fall produce available in the farmer's markets right now.

fall vegetable sautee with brown rice

kale and beet salad

July 12, 2011

a bathroom remodel

This bathroom is everybody's new favorite place to hang out in our house. It is the second bathroom remodel we've undertaken since we moved in. Before the remodel, it consisted of a large room with lots of unused space with a ridiculously narrow closet. Last year, in anticipation of June's arrival, Daniel knocked out a wall and turned the space into a nursery with the bathroom adjoining it. He created beautiful built-in closets along one wall in our bedroom to make up for the lack of a closet. The nursery turned out great and was finished just in time. The bathroom took us a year.

Since my husband does literally all the work himself I have no place to complain about the pace that it gets done. Of course, sometimes I nudge and try to 'project manage' to keep things going, but I realize he has a lot on his plate. And now that we have a baby, the work is even slower, making it all the more gratifying when it finally is done.

I am proud of myself for doing things on a tight budget. Just like our nursery which I decorated all for about $500 using flea market and garage sale finds, this bathroom was done on a similar budget using some items we salvaged from job sites and some we kept from the old bathroom.

I wanted the room to have a light, airy beach feel to it since it is always bathed in sunlight, the brightest room in our house. I went with mostly white --on the bead board as well as on the hard wood floors, the shower tile and the fixtures, and chose a light minty blue-green for the walls.

The great pedestal style bathtub was given to us by a friend in exchange for Daniel's time working on his house. All we had to do was paint it.

The sink was my favorite project. We had a pedestal sink from the old bathroom which could have worked and is usually a better choice for a small bathroom. But then we would have no storage for towels and supplies so the vanity seemed like a better choice. I think most bathroom vanities look bulky and boring so I thought I'd look for a piece of furniture that could be re-purposed. Daniel had brought home a nice oval sink and chrome and brass faucet from a job earlier in the year (people throw so much good stuff away!) and so all I had to do was find the piece.

I found it at the first place I looked - Gaslamp Antique Mall. Man, I love that place. If there is one area in which Nashville never disappoints, it's antiques. I knew it was perfect the moment I saw it and it happened to be on sale that day. It didn't even need painting, having already been given that 'distressed' look with white paint over black. A sturdy Ethan Allen buffet, I knew it could hold the sink with no problem. And the dimensions were just right.

Daniel easily cut a whole in the top for the sink to drop in, then the faucet and cut out the pieces on the side for the plumbing pipes. It was fun to watch it take shape. It took just a little bit of tweaking to make it the perfect vanity. I love how it looks in our little nautical bathroom.

I'm very happy with the way this little bathroom turned out. And it really is the new fun room of the house. Our house guest, Vlad, really likes it and so does June. Her bath time is one of her favorite parts of the day. And, after she goes to bed, I love to relax in my little dreamy white refuge. It may have been a long time in the works, but it was worth the wait.

July 5, 2011

a bang up holiday weekend

This weekend was the most fun weekend I've had in a long time. I did something I've never done before (participate in a neighborhood bike parade) and something I have not done in way too long: I went out to see live music and not just any live music, but the U2 concert at Vanderbilt stadium.

On Saturday night 45,000 fans convened on a hot and muggy Nashville night to see and hear a spectacle of greatness, talent and sincerity that left us practically skipping all the way home. For me, it was an extra special concert, as I've been a U2 fan for most of my life. Well, for as long as I remember being able to really love music. The band have been together now for 35 years which makes me feel really old.

I first saw them in concert in high school, though I followed them for long before that. I actually got to meet them when I was 17 and they were on tour and played in Las Vegas, where I am from. Through my dad's friendship with one well-connected man, my friend Erica and I got to deliver tickets for a boxing match, a gift from the concert promoter, to the band at their hotel (!!!). Imagine the excitement. It was a dream come true. Somewhere I have a photo of that meeting - my friend and I sandwiched between Bono and the Edge, looking every bit as nervous and elated as you would imagine two teenage girls meeting the famous rock stars of their dreams would look. I would post that photo if only I could find it.

We had not been planning to go on Sat., but I got a wild hair and decided to look for tickets on craigslist. I found them, we found a babysitter last-minute and off we went!

The concert was wonderful and special and Daniel and I had a really fun time. I loved the opener too: Florence and the Machine, an ethereal and stunning British woman in a long green chiffon costume who sang beautifully and skipped around the stage barefoot. I had heard only one of her songs before and knew she was a fashion icon so it was cool to see her perform live.

When U2 came on the stage Daniel joked, "Look at them - they're like Gods." And that's how it felt. They looked great too. Time has done nothing to diminish their god-like rock star status. Bono kept talking about how much they loved Nashville and how great it was to be playing here for the first time since 1981. It was also their 100th show on this "360 Tour." He sang a song that he wrote and performed with Johnny Cash called The Wanderer. And they played a lot of old hits as well as newer material. There were about 10 years in there when I was in grad school and not listening to much music and I lost track of them (around the time Zooropa came out). But since then, I've managed to catch one other U2 concert --in 2004 in Denver, in addition to the couple of times I saw them in the 80s-- but none was as great as this show. Maybe it's because, like the band, I am aging and living in a new phase of life, one that is amazing and beautiful, but which contains too few opportunities to rock out. And it was all so nostalgic for me. Hearing them perform "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "I Will Follow" and "In the Name of Love" will always tug at my heartstrings and remind me of my younger days.

Here are some photos from the show, not the best because shot from afar with my phone, but nonetheless they capture the drama and impact of the rocket ship stage framed by hundreds of very sophisticated moving video screens in a 360 degree ring above the stage. From this the concert was projected spliced with cutting edge video graphics and special effects, old footage of the band, and even recorded transmissions from Desmond Tutu and Gabrielle Gifford's astronaut husband from outer space telling us that "It's a Beautiful Day." Pretty cool.

It was all so spontaneous and that added to the fun of the evening. I am so glad I got that wild hair and that it all worked out so perfectly. I was meant to rekindle my love affair with U2 here in Nashville on this 4th of July weekend.

The other thing we did that was super fun was participate in this cute little bike parade that our neighbor Zella, age 6, organized.

I thought her poster was really cute, and the parade was even cuter. The kids all decorated their bikes and wagons and we took June along in the trailer behind my bike. Zella's dad and another neighbor blocked the traffic on our street at each end of the block and we all paraded down and back complete with accompanying drum and saxophone and a live Statue of Liberty. It was really very sweet and reminded me of what a great neighborhood we chose to live and raise our child in.