Everydayness and enjoyment

Sometimes I listen to Gretchen Rubin's podcast "Happier." I find some of her suggestions helpful in building my days with moments of joy, reflection, and choices that positively affect my mood. In one of the episodes she spoke about taking photos of everyday things. I caught onto that concept long ago with my photo-a-day blog, and years later it's such a treasure. It's a different feeling than looking at photos from a wonderful vacation or other big events. It's the everyday things you usually forget, but when you document them, it's surprising how much joy it brings, because that's how life actually was. At the time it may have seemed like nothing special, but years later, it sometimes has more meaning.

I found these first two photos on my camera, which I'd normally think are completely deletable - I think I was just testing exposure. But it truly doesn't get more everyday than this, so I'm including them along with the more thoughtful everyday photos I usually try to post here. Just for fun.

My craft/piano room. It needs work but it still gets good use and is a nice place to be because it gets so much morning and afternoon light, and I love the lamplight in here in the evening. We plan to do something about that wallpaper...
Cookies on a cooling rack with more in the oven in the middle of the afternoon. (Look to the right - they're hard to see.) I'd just made another great recipe from Flourless - oat-maple cookies with apricots and ginger. Oh my word. These flavors belong together.
I did not do anything to this sky photo. It was actually like this and I was in complete awe.
Luna loves to sit out here with us when we're out working. It's our happy place (until the dogs next door start barking).
More smoke, more gorgeous red suns.
Different exposure, same sunset.
It's been such a dry summer. The things that normally dry up each year around this time feel especially dry and I find it strangely beautiful, if a little scary.

A few other things I've been enjoying lately:

[PODCAST] Case #3: Belt Buckle by Mystery Show - This podcast is all about solving everyday mysteries, mostly without the help of the internet. This particular episode is the best yet of the few I've listened to. Years ago a kid found a really cool belt buckle, and the kid, now an adult, puts host Starlee Kine on the case to find its owner. The resolution nearly made me cry.

[ALBUM] A Date with the Everly Brothers - I'm not sure why I but I love these crystal clear young-man voices, slightly twangy in their swells, so in tune throughout. I really wanted to hear "Cathy's Clown" the other night but ended up listening to this whole thing to get there. The album is on Amazon Prime, if you do that sort of thing.

[TV SERIES] Catastrophe - I fell in love with this paranoid/risky/risque/hilarious couple after one episode.

[FOOD] Shrimp on the barbie. True confession: I had never ever cooked shrimp until 2 weeks ago. I put a handful in a foil packet with melted butter, lemon and garlic, sealed it up and put it on the grill. It's a big-time treat for me. But I'm still trying to figure out what deveining is all about. I quickly learned I had to peel them, but the veins are still a mystery to me. Perhaps I'll look it up on the internet.

[READING MATERIAL] The New Yorker. Finally re-subscribed after continually reaching my monthly online limit. Coincidentally, this article is in the latest issue.


It's not summer until...

The annual trip to Priest Lake. Last summer was the first in seven that I had to miss it, due to obligations that come with a new dog and not knowing what to do with her when you go away for a weekend. Fortunately, we've since worked that out, and last weekend was a glorious return to the place that has been so kindly shared with us by our hosts, the Phillips.

You can see by the color of the sky that it was a tad smoky this year from Washington fires. While it made for not-so-great air quality, it did contribute to beautiful sunsets. It was so nice to sleep in (i.e., anytime later than 5:45 a.m.) and spend most of the day in my swimsuit. It always makes me feel like a kid again.


Community cookbook recipe test: Isabelle Jones' Zucchini Lasagne

I brought home a 4-pound zucchini that was abandoned by some gardener I work with (who knows who it was - people leave things they don't want on the break room table). I knew that I could get a few meals out of this thing, so rather than just bake a bazillion loaves of zucchini bread, as is my tradition, I checked out a P.E.O. cookbook for inspiration. I found it in a recipe for lasagne, which today might be billed as gluten-free, but for me, all that mattered was that it featured my cast-off squash as the star. Best of all, it was a recipe from a member of my home chapter, Chapter BN in Boise.

Long strips of zucchini replace the pasta noodles, which already gives it the simplicity of no-boil noodles. This recipe calls for a meat sauce that you cook down with wine for an hour and a half, and then there's gobs of cheese.

Lasagne is not a particularly inspirational dish. It's more of a hearty family meal, a meal you throw in the freezer for when unexpected company arrives, something that's hard to mess up and sure to please anyone who's not on a strict diet. And let's not forget it was the favorite of Garfield the cat. I've never had bad lasagne, but still, it's never been something I dream about or order off a menu; I certainly never think to make it for a casual dinner at home, let alone eat the day it's made, with sauce that didn't come out of a can. So now I will admit that this was a fun treat, and the zucchini made it fancy. No, it won't go into a regular rotation, but I will gladly add it to my "what the heck to do with all this zucchini" file.

Zucchini Lasagne
Recipe adapted from Isabelle Jones, found in Kitchen Treasures: A collection of recipes from Idaho's 50+ year P.E.O. members

4 large zucchini (or, in my case, half a big honkin' one)
2 T. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 c. chopped onion
1/2 lb. ground beef or turkey (I used turkey)
1 15-oz. can diced tomatoes
1 6-oz. can tomato paste
1 4-oz. can sliced mushrooms (I used a big handful of fresh)
3/4 c. dry red wine
1 1/2 tsp. oregano
1/4 tsp. thyme
1/2 tsp. basil
salt and pepper to taste
8 oz. mozzarella, thinly sliced (I used part-skim)
8 oz. ricotta cheese (again, part-skim)
1/2. grated Parmesan cheese

Heat oil in skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, onion and ground meat. Cook until tender but not brown, stirring to keep meat crumbly (if using fresh mushrooms, add now). Add tomatoes, tomato paste, mushrooms (if using the canned variety), and spices and salt and pepper. Simmer uncovered for 1 1/2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350. Oil a casserole dish (I used a 9x13 pan). Cut zucchini lengthwise into strips 1/4 inch thick and place half of them in the bottom of the dish to cover. Top with one half the mozzarella and one half the ricotta. Add half the meat sauce. Repeat the layering. Top with grated Parmesan cheese.

Bake for 30 minutes. Serves 4-6.


Scenes from the weekend: July 25

At home: Got up early both Saturday and Sunday mornings to watch the final stages of the Tour de France, baked bread, made our very favorite pork tenderloin recipe on Friday night, mixed cocktails, tired my back out on yard work and washing the wood floors, played Mille Bornes while watching a Paul Simon concert and waiting for lasagne to cook.

Out and about: Sunday lunch at Veraci, ice cream at Brain Freeze Creamery and a walk with Luna on the Centennial Trail; Friday night drive (Joel was scouting out a bike ride for the next day) and froyo. We went to the movies and saw Mr. Holmes - I just want to give Ian McKellan a big hug. It was a sweet story, if at times a bit slow-moving.

Reading (trying, at least): Truth Like the Sun by Jim Lynch.

Making: I started on the Moss Landing hat from the Sock Yarn One-Skein Wonders book, continuing on the Using Up My Stash quest.

This weekend felt a little too much like fall for my taste. I can already feel these days getting shorter - the sunrise feels a bit lazy and our evening walks have been cooler. And rain! What? Still, you should see my tomatoes. I can't get over how much they've taken over the garden. And this next weekend - at the lake! - should be hotter and remind me that it is still most definitely summertime.


Saturday Sentimentalist: Things I Learned After Watching "Good News" a Million Times

Beginning in junior high, I developed a love for - nay, an obsession with - a lesser-known 1947 movie musical called Good News. It stars June Allyson and Peter Lawford on the campus of the fictitious Tait College in 1927, a year that many pop culture enthusiasts claim to be one of the best (Bill Bryson wrote a whole book on the marvelous events that happened just during that summer; worth a summer read). It's in Technicolor. There are lively, coordinated dance numbers. Mel Torme's vocals cast a velvety glow on the whole thing.

What I loved about it, especially in my teenage, boyfriendless years, was the portrayal of college, and of how a pretty but humble student librarian could win the heart of the most popular and attractive guy on campus, the star of the football team. I mean, young Peter Lawford, people.

Oh, but I also loved the idea of studying in old brick buildings, living in the grand mansions of sorority life, cheering with the crowd at a football game, and wearing cardigans with pearl buttons just like June Allyson's character, Connie. In my mind, I too could attend such a college, and with a big intellect and small waistline, surely I could just be myself and inadvertently woo a ladies' man to change his ways and devote himself to me. 

While I did go to college and owned two soft cardigans with precious little buttons, and though I lived in a dorm built coincidentally in 1927, in a room that overlooked the cheering crowds at the football field, I graduated without a jock hanging on my arm. By that time, I'd realized that most athletes I'd met weren't usually as eager to nerd out on indie music as I was, which was my primary extracurricular interest and the basis for most of my crushes. Needless to say, Good News was not my college story. But after watching this feel-good musical again recently for the first time in years, it became clear just how many of those things I internalized in some way, whether I intended them to or not. Here are the strange ways this movie has permeated my life:

1. A college campus makes me happy. My whole growing up life, I loved imagining that I was in the midst of a musical. Being on a college campus is the perfect place to feel as though a musical is about to happen, where you have hundreds of characters around you, witness dozens of impromptu interactions on a daily basis, and a beautiful setting for it all to take place. As a student, I loved being able to say that I lived in all of it, and as an employee, I love watching the predictable energy at various points of the year. 

2. Respecting my independent self. What I loved about the character of Connie was that she was a do-it-yourselfer. She could fix a sink, sew a dress, and work her way through college. And she had a healthy amount of pride: When asked to go to the dance by Tommy (Peter Lawford) after he was turned down by his first choice (the evil, gold-digger Patricia McClellan), she resisted because she knew that it would make her "second fiddle." But, of course those P-Law puppy-dog eyes convinced her otherwise. Like Connie, I worked in the library through my college years. I had financial aid and lots of help from my parents, but I also knew I needed to work and get started on my own. And I've also appreciated any chance I've gotten to learn how to do things myself. Because as long as I was single, it was fun to pine, but it wasn't fun to mope. Better to figure out what you really love and enjoy doing, regardless of your relationship status, and develop yourself.

3. Appreciating high brow AND low brow. The closing scene is a shocker when intellectual Connie attends the homecoming dance and leads Tommy and everybody else in the latest dance craze, the Varsity Drag. A delightful surprise to all! And maybe that's why on my Friday commute, I often turn the dial from NPR to the Top 40 station. Because in case people think I'm a total bore with all of my book knowledge, they'll change their mind and nod with approval when I recite all the lines to "Bad Blood" by Taylor Swift. It's about balance.

4. Learning French. Is it just a coincidence that, like the "French Lesson" scene (which, if you watch nothing else of this movie, you must at least watch this much) between Connie and Tommy that launched their romance, one of the first activities Joel and I enjoyed together was learning French?

5. Money can't buy happiness. "The Best Things In Life Are Free" is the anchor theme of this musical, and the song gets sweeter and truer as the years go by. People who chase money, like the aforementioned debutante character Patricia McClellan, are not worth investing your time in. Those who find joy in what's already around them will be set for life. I try to remember this every day.

You want to watch it, don't you?


Baked falafel: attempts at vegetarian-ish-ism

When some dear friends visited us from Petaluma - vegetarians, all - earlier in June, they presented us with a jackpot of Rancho Gordo beans. I was so thrilled to try these for myself after hearing so much about them. Between that gift and thinking only in terms of non-meat dinners that week, I felt myself get back into the veggie groove. Sometimes I forget how many flavors I have at my disposal when meat is out of the equation. To be honest, I would be perfectly happy eating a plate of beans, Rancho Gordo (which are, in fact, all they're chocked up to be) or otherwise, with a smattering of herbs for dinner, or fresh tomatoes and cheese on toast, but I also know someone else in this house might not find it substantial enough. A vegetarian dinner that both of us can enjoy definitely is not impossible, but right now it's mostly limited to pasta and soup. And hot soup loses its appeal when the temps are in the upper 90s (i.e., mid-80s in the house).

Aside from the ethical and health reasons I've believed as good ones for eating less meat, the thing I'm realizing as one of the best things of vegetarianism is the economy of it. A pound of dried beans is enough to feed a couple people for at least two nights with leftovers for a lunch or two.

Feeling inspired and well-equipped with bean varieties, I charged on in my quest to build my vegetarian-for-two repertoire. My latest inspiration came from a Mark Bittman recipe for baked falafel - something I'd only made for myself until now - which I presented with confidence to my dining companion. "Do I like tahini?" he asked. There was only one way to find out, I replied. To my delight, we both enjoyed this dish and the tahini sauce that accompanied it.

The link to the Bittman recipe is here, though I must note that I un-veganized his tahini sauce. When I whisked the tahini paste with the water, there was just too much separation and I had trouble emulsifying it without a spoonful or two of Greek yogurt. I also added lemon juice for flavor. You can use this sauce - my version - as a yummy vegetable dip or dressing on hearty romaine salads, too.

We made pita sandwiches with lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Are you as frustrated as I am by store-bought pita bread when it comes to actually using the pocket function?  The only time I got a pocket was when I made them myself (and I wasn't about to do that this time around). These were too gummy to wiggle a knife into without ripping, so we just split the whole thing in half and made a sandwich that way. Still good.


Monique's Orzo Salad Formula

In a resourceful, conscientious effort, I have spent many a Sunday afternoon putting together a new recipe for a grain salad to enjoy during the work week - mostly to take the frantic lunch assembly out of my morning routine. On Monday, I pat myself on the back during the lunch hour because this looks so much better than peanut butter and jelly. By Wednesday, though, things change. I don't always know why exactly, but I slightly cringe at the thought that I've got this thing for two more days.

So a month or so ago, after enduring another revolting but lovingly made lunch, I made myself a list of the tastes and textures that always taste good to me, things I always look forward to come lunch time. Through that process, I made the freeing decision that I should not put onions in things, because they were one of the primary culprits in making my salads less desirable as the days went on, as were grains pre-dressed in vinaigrettes. From there, I made a list of things that I will actually eat after four days, like taco and greek salads, or a tomato soup with chickpeas. This sounds really basic, but I can't tell you how much it's helped. While my grain salads have always been aspirational - the things I should be eating - I've decided that most are best left as one-offs, or better yet, side dishes, complements to what I REALLY want to eat.

Hooray, this orzo salad made the cut. It's great as a side, but I also love it as my main sustenance, sometimes on a bed of greens and/or with an orange. My friend Monique brought it to a party and when I asked her for the recipe, she just gave me a basic formula that can be altered to whatever I have on hand. That's what makes it impossibly easy and almost always doable.


Toss in a large-ish bowl:

1 c. orzo, cooked al dente
Olive oil - just enough to keep the orzo from sticking together
Salt and pepper to taste

Then add, in quantities that look reasonable to you...

Goat cheese (or another soft/salty cheese, like Feta or Gorgonzola)
Dried cranberries (or raisins, currants, cherries, sliced grapes, even)
Chopped parsley (or even basil)
Toasted almonds (or pine nuts, pistachios, walnuts)

Stir well and enjoy over however many days you need!