Book club

I think it was about a year ago some friends and co-workers started up a book club. Originally we thought we would rotate between reading books and watching classic movies, but we bailed on the movie part pretty early on. I guess we are true book nerds.

I’m glad we stuck with books, though, even through a couple so-so reads because having missed out on being an English major in college I am waaaaaayyyy behind on literature, both new and old. I am just now picking up on some great authors (“yeah, I totally know who that is”) and coming to realize that just because something won a Pulitzer doesn’t mean you’ll love it or even like it.

What we’ve read so far (and what I thought of the books):

“Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver
After reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Fast Food Nation” and having read some of Kingsolver’s fiction, I was curious about this book. I was curious generally about the idea of growing your own food and eating locally, something I am trying to do more of personally. So I loved the concept. The inclusion of recipes was great, and we made many of them for our book club meeting. If you’re not already a locavore I’m not sure this book will change your mind, just because the style of the writing kind of hits you over the head with the idea. In many places it’s hilarious, in others it’s just irritating. I did like this book, but probably liked Pollan’s approach better. I took it as inspiration and hope to have a great garden this year. Fingers crossed.

“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” by Michael Chabon
I think I appreciated this book much more after we discussed it than when I was reading it. The story he weaves is pretty intricate and somewhat confusing. At first I wasn’t sure whether the Jewish community in Alaska he talks about was real or not, so I had to look it up to make sure (it’s not). Once other people explained some of the confusing elements the story made much more sense, and I liked it. It was a mystery/thriller with some historical elements and a lot of suspense. Good stuff.

“The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov
I barely got through the first 50 pages or so before I lost interest. Translated from Russian, the book is thick with biblical references, looooong Russian names and a pretty weird storyline. I missed the discussion, but have since stowed the book in the bathroom and pick it up occasionally. It’s getting better – I think a certain portion of it will just fly over my head, but I’ll have to report back to you on this one.

“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy
This post-apocolyptic story is dark and really disturbing. I don’t even want to get into how bizarre our discussion turned out. But the way McCarthy writes flows really quickly and you can read this book easily in a weekend. Yes, it’s gimmicky (he doesn’t punctuate correctly or name the characters), but as I’m realizing a lot of beloved books are too. Some parts of the story left me wanting more of a back story, but overall I really liked this one. Just don’t read it if you’re feeling at all sad. Yeesh.

“American Pastoral” by Phillip Roth
I started off really liking the storyline of a middle-aged guy looking back on his grade-school hero and how that guy had turned out to have a real tragedy in his life. But when it turned to that character it just drug on and on harping on the same points over and over. I struggled to get to the end, expecting a big payoff and there just wasn’t one. The Pulitzer committee has me stumped on this one.

“The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz
Others disagreed, but this was my favorite book so far. It’s a bit strange, also gimmicky in parts (he uses a lot of footnotes and switches between narrators), but I love the story of an immigrant family from the Dominican Republic, and how each member went through a coming of age process and a lot of hardship. Diaz’s writing style is very colloquial with a lot of Spanish mixed in. I just loved that it wasn’t too serious, and it was often funny. I was pretty disturbed by the brutality, especially towards women, throughout the book, but I suppose if it’s true to the history, it is. Even if you have trouble following the narrators and the jumps in time, I still think you’ll like this one.

Also, we always caucus to choose the next book, which I probably shouldn’t admit. But hey, we’re Iowans and most of us work at the newspaper where we’re not allowed to caucus for real. Next up? “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Get yourself organized

In case you haven’t noticed, I am a person that likes things just so.

One of the things that both makes me laugh and has become so important to me over the last year is this idea of “keeping house.” And by that I mean that when your life is crazy like mine is, you have to come home to a house that works. You have to stay organized or a million little things will start to drive you absolutely crazy. (piles of dishes, piles of paper, piles of dog poop, you get the picture). You have to make time for it. Meal planning is one of those things I really need to work on, but for now my focus was on the house itself.

So when I got back from Chicago I realized I had four days with absolutely no work to do. Four days to evaluate everything in my house so that when I went back to the madness, I wouldn’t have to stress about things being messy and a mile-long to-do list I wouldn’t have time for.

Most people would think woo hoo! Four days to drink martinis and watch basketball and work on my tan! Well, I did a lot of that, too, but I am a freak so I also got organized.

Anyway, I realized that the best way to get organized is to ask yourself some questions:

1. What do I have?
Go through everything. The back of your cabinets, the depths of your closets, the boxes in the basement. Everything. I guarantee you’ll find stuff you never knew you had. Then trash the trash, start a pile to take to Goodwill so someone else can benefit from it, and if there are things you found that you can use, rotate them back into your home. (Ahem, this is also a great way to save you money on things you might have bought new without realizing you already had.) Put things where you can see them. Frame your favorite photos, hang up clothes, make a display for your jewelry, etc.

I found that this over-the-door hanger was a godsend because now I can see all the accessories I have and make sure I wear/use them.

2. Does the way things are arranged make sense?
This one was huge for me. Over the last few months I’ve started noticing where things pile up (which drives me crazy) and buying organizers to tidy up those spaces. I got two of these shoe trays, one for each door, so that dirty shoes aren’t strewn everywhere. And any time someone needs to go outside to drop something in the recycling or whatever, there’s always a pair of shoes handy.

I go nuts over little organizing bins. But they really do give those inevitable piles of stuff a place to go.

And I really went bananas over the kitchen when I realized just how out of whack our arrangement of things was compared to how we use them. I had all kinds of things I never use at eye level while the bowls and measuring cups I use almost daily were in a cabinet almost at floor level. So, easy enough, I moved them.

In fact, I moved almost everything. After having lived in our house for two years I know how we use the kitchen so it was easy to figure out where things should go. I can’t tell you how much better I felt after that.

3. What simple, inexpensive items could I buy that would make everything function better?
Make those items a priority. Is it a shelf in the bathroom? A chest for soccer balls and water bottles that could also be used as extra seating (yes! yes!)? Storage bins? Cup hooks? Rubbermaid tubs? If a $10 or $20 or $30 item will save your sanity over and over because it makes your house work for you, just buy it. I am the queen of penny pinching lately, but I can tell you that when you have a busy life, these things are worth it. When you have 20 minutes to walk a dog and the leash is hanging right there, you are a happy person. Simple as that.

Dogs in their usual spot? Check.

Maybe I’m just stating the obvious here, but answering these questions has really helped me figure things out the last few days. I feel SO MUCH BETTER going back into the work week. And for once I feel like the house is working like it’s supposed to.

As for spring cleaning? Well, let’s just say I don’t get as excited about dust bunnies.

Loving: nesting bowls


I think these might be the perfect baking bowls. I’d been wanting a set for a while, but when they came out with the blue/brown/orange combo set I was sold. I got this Kitchen Aid set of nested mixing bowls for $25 at Target.

I love them for two little features that have already come in handy:

A pour spout.

And a rubber bottom that keeps them from sliding around on your countertops.

Deviled eggs


It took a while to seal the deal but I think deviled eggs are officially a thing. I’m starting to see them as appetizers on local menus, even fancy restaurant menus. And that is awesome, in the same way people think bacon is awesome. I get it.

So, here you go. The only recipe you’ll ever need for deviled eggs. It’s incredibly simple, just like my egg salad recipe. If you want to change it up a little, sprinkle a little curry powder on top, add a couple of sliced scallions – go crazy. You have my permission. Just please, pretty please, buy the good eggs.

But first! Get yourself one of these.

You must serve your eggs on a vintage egg plate. There’s no other way.

Start by hard boiling 7 eggs. Whatever method you love will work. Once they’re cool carefully peel each one.

If you get a dud, don’t panic. Steal the yolk and you’ll just have a little more yummy to mix in with the rest.

Slice each egg in half, put the yolks in a bowl and arrange the whites on your plate.

Using a fork or the back of a spoon, start to mash the yolks into a fine crumble.

To that, add 1/3 cup mayonnaise (ahem, the real stuff), a couple squirts of your favorite mustard and half a teaspoon dry mustard. I don’t know what it is about that dry mustard but it seems to make all the difference. Then sprinkle just a little bit of salt and pepper in the mix and stir it all up.

How you get this mixture into each egg white is up to you. A spoon works just fine for me, but you could certainly use a pastry bag or something like that. Try to fill them as easily as possible.

And then, because we’re doing this the most retro way possible, sprinkle those suckers with paprika.

You may notice that this egg plate has 15 slots and only fourteen eggs in it. That doesn’t seem logical when you consider eggs will always make two halves. But I think I have it figured out. When you go to present that lovely plate to your guests, carefully balancing each jiggly half in its assigned spot, you’re gonna need somewhere to put your thumb.

Snickerdoodles


You really can’t go wrong with this recipe unless you overbake. Too many minutes in the oven and your cookies will still look good, but they’ll be too hard. And the whole point of a ripply, cinnamon-sugar-y Snickerdoodle is that signature chewiness.

I used to bake these for a co-worker who insisted they were the best ever, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.

This recipe says it makes 36 cookies, but that’s only if you make them teeny tiny, and who wants a teeny tiny cookie? If you want bigger cookies, I’d say double the recipe and make them as big as you like.

Snickerdoodles

from BHG.com

1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Roll the dough in:
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Beat butter with an electric mixer on medium to high speed for 30 seconds. Add the sugar, baking soda and cream of tartar. Beat until combined, scraping sides of bowl occasionally (or better yet, get a beater blade!). Beat in egg and vanilla. Beat in the flour in 1/4 cup increments. Cover and chill in the refrigerator for 1 hour.

In a small bowl combine the 2 tablespoons sugar and the cinnamon. Shape dough into 1-inch balls.

Roll balls in the sugar-cinnamon mixture to coat. Place 2 inches apart on an cookie sheet (I’m also a devotee of the Silpat to make any old cookie sheet non-stick)

Bake in a 375 degree oven for 10 to 11 minutes or until edges are golden brown. Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool.

Chicago wrap-up

We had so much fun in Chicago. And we ate. so. much. I can highly recommend:

Ethiopian Diamond
Burt’s Place
Half Shell

They were all recommended by friends and/or Anthony Bourdain, and all places I would most definitely visit again.

My favorite has to be Burt’s Place. Best deep dish pizza I’ve ever had. The secret from what I hear is that Burt puts a little cheese under the pizza so it makes a caramelized, crunchy crust as it bakes.

We almost didn’t have dinner there because we were told at the door that we should have called ahead and it would be at least an hour and a half before we could eat pizza. But feeling travel weary, we sat down with drinks and the time flew by. Why? Because this place is an amazingly quirky gem. Tucked in a residential street it’s dive bar tiny and covered wall-to-wall in old radios, newspaper articles, toys and other random items like a gigantic whisk. Because, according to Burt’s wife, he collects this shizz and has to put it somewhere.


While we waited over garlic bread and salad, a slew of people came in to pick up orders, including a woman three sheets to the wind who harrassed Burt’s wife to no end because her order wasn’t ready. Finally she sat down and had a beer, but even our pizza came out before hers. When she left, I thought maybe the whole restaurant would clap.

Anyway, when our spinach pizza arrived it was fantastic. Just full of all the simple flavors that make pizza taste so good, and not as much bready crust as other deep dish pies have. We also tried Gino’s East, for the record, and it was wonderful. But I think Burt’s wins.

As for the other two places, Ethiopian Diamond is a pretty good sized Ethiopian restaurant serving the traditional injera – shared meals of curries on top of what I would call a huge, bubbly crepe. We ordered a sampling of different ones, and found that some were better than others, but we found plenty to love.

Half shell is a basement bar in Lincoln Park with a gruff bartender, gruff waiter and incredibly fresh, tasty crab legs. I’ve never seen so many crab legs on one plate (for less than $20 at that). It was another one of those places Mike and I agreed we never could have found on our own.

So what else did we do? Oh you know, everything.

A little Wrigleyville.

A little Sears tower. (A helicopter flew by while we were up there).

We saw Sue. Hi Sue!

Tired feet. TV in bed. Wasn’t our hotel room nice? We stayed at the Knickerbocker.

Familiar faces…

Nerds.

Sisters.

For me it was a getting to know Chicago trip because with a sister in residence I am sure I will be back again. Now that I’ve checked a lot of touristy stuff off my list, I can focus on the rest, and I really look forward to that.

Butter says…

Some of you may recognize this guy from another blog.

He’s my friend Julie’s dog, Butter. Isn’t he cute? I think he was saying, “let me out of here so I can go back to my window and look for the mailman.”

Butter has it out for the mailman. Luckily he liked us. We gave lots of belly rubs.

Off to Chicago

I won’t be posting for a few days as I’ll be in Chicago visiting my sister and some other friends. I really haven’t been to the city since high school, and being this close I find that ridiculous! Airports and airport hotels where one is stranded overnight don’t count.

So, check back in a few days and hopefully I’ll have some new photos and stories to tell.