Monday, March 30, 2009

Jobs and Houses

I've been a bad blogger lately. I realize this, and I'm sorry. I generally try to post a couple of times a week (some food and some non-food posts for a good variety) and I haven't been keeping up on that. In fact, I missed a Food Friday a couple of weeks ago and I just quietly let it pass. And while I appreciate that no one threw me under the bus and called me out on it, your silence has been killing me. Adding to that, I just sort of feel like I've lost my sense of humor lately. I've never considered myself a "funny" person at all, but I have been feeling especially boring the last few weeks. As a result, I think I have some approach avoidance with writing posts, fearing they won't be any good.

But I have excuses! My excuses lead me to another apology, though... from the beginning I have tried to be open and honest with you about my life's dilemmas (i.e. no job, apartment living, missing friends, etc.) but not so forthcoming with updates on those dilemmas. So here goes... I'm ready to fill you in on what's been happening the last couple of months.

First and foremost, I got a job!! I've been there almost a month. I know, I know... I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner. I made such a big deal about not having a job, that I at least owed you that much. I actually had been volunteering there since September, so when they realized they needed to hire someone, I already had a foot in the door. The bad news is that it's only part time, but the good news is that I absolutely love it, and it could easily grow into a full time position. It's just exactly the kind of fulfilling work I was looking for. I get to work with kids, teachers and community leaders, and really make a difference in peoples' lives. It's amazing what a difference a new career path can make, and I truly think that this is the kind of work I was meant to do. I'm sure I still have a lot of growing pains to go through, since this is my first time working for a non-profit, but I am really looking forward to it. Plus, I feel incredibly lucky to have gotten a job in this shitty economy. (P.S. - Thank you, New York Times, for making an already horribly depressed city feel even worse.)

Okay, next up: Justyn and I bought a house! We started "casually" looking at houses (if there is such a thing) in early January. I'm pretty sure we saw close to 30 houses before we decided it just wasn't quite time yet. We literally told our realtor one evening, "Well, we think we've seen most of what's out there so far, so let's take a little break and just let us know if anything interesting comes on the market." No kidding, the next day she sent us a new listing in a fabulous neighborhood that had just been repossessed by the bank. (By the way, buying a house from a bank is a whole new ballgame... maybe I"ll tell you about it sometime.) We went to see it the next day, and it was completely trashed. I guess the people who had been there before left in a hurry, so there was still a bunch of stuff all over the house - mattresses, kid's toys, trash, food, you name it. I guess they were sorta mad, too, when they left because the front door was kicked in, and a couple of windows were broken. But, it was really inexpensive for the area and Justyn and I are good at looking past the surface and seeing the potential of a place. It has a ton of potential and even while we were there, people were sort of flocking to it to check it out.

We knew there would be a lot of interest, so we rushed to get a home inspection and put an offer in the very next day (2 days after it went on the market - the sign wasn't even in the yard yet!) Ours was the first offer in (yay!) and they tell us there are about 15 other people waiting in line just in case our deal falls through. Yikes... talk about pressure. Anyway, I'm pretty nervous about the whole thing. Underneath all the trash it looks a lot better, but some things must be done before we move in. Justyn's step-dad is a builder and their house was always under construction when he was growing up. Me? Not so much. For example, when our linoleum kitchen floor started looking too rough, my dad brought home a bunch of carpet tiles from his office to cover it up. So, the whole remodeling/renovating thing is pretty new to me, aside from the disastrous bathroom remodel at our other house (yes, the one we still own). One day I'll tell you about that, but not now. I have to been in the mood to get pissed off all over again, and now is not that time.

Anyway, while I am nervous about it, and dreading packing and moving all over again, I am excited too. It is such a great house, and a place I can see us living for a really really long time. It's big enough for us to grow into, and the neighbors we have met so far are totally awesome. They appear to be mostly young, successful couples and there is a really great neighborhood atmosphere. They already told us they all have drinks together once a week, each time at a different house. Isn't that cute??

I have been saying for months that if I could just find a job, I could honestly say that I liked it here in Portland. Then, when that happened, I still didn't feel quite settled. I don't think you can feel settled when you're renting a place... at least not when you know what it feels like to own, you know? So, the house comes at a good time. Hopefully we'll be able to get most of the work done quickly so we can actually relax a bit when we get there. We don't have our closing date yet, but I think it will be within another week or so. After that, we have to sand and refinish all the hardwood floors, paint, and be out of our apartment all within 2 weeks. So I'll do my best to keep up on the posts while all this is going on! I'm sure I'll be talking more about our remodeling adventures as things progress, but first we have to pack and move.

And, trust me... we're doing it ourselves this time.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Food Friday: Breakfast Banana Split

I've never been really big on breakfast. I tend to sleep as late as possible, thus my breakfast routine is usually rushed and made up of "grab-n-go" food. If I do have time to make breakfast, it's usually cereal, an english muffin, or instant oatmeal. As a result of this limited repertoire, I get tired of my breakfast options all the time. The problem is that I cannot skip breakfast. If I do, I'm a cranky mess by 10:00 AM.

I also have a mean sweet tooth (in case you couldn't tell already), and up until a few months ago I preferred a sweet breakfast rather than a savory one. Justyn always wants spinach and feta omelets for breakfast, and I can't resist some french toast and/or pancakes. Mmm. But these sweet options aren't so healthy, and don't really go well with the whole "getting healthy and eating fresh food" thing I've got going on. So, I've been taking a break from sweet starts in the morning, opting for eggs, breakfast burritos, etc.). So naturally, when I saw this recipe for a Breakfast Banana Split I had to try it.

It can take a little extra time to prepare, but is so worth the extra 5-10 minutes. If you wash your blueberries and wash/chop your strawberries the night before, all you really have to deal with is slicing the banana which takes no time at all. This is such a great breakfast, and a wonderful way to get some calcium and fresh fruit first thing in the morning. Do it! I, personally, can't wait until summer when these particular fruits reach their peak season. Oh my gosh. It will be heavenly.

One small note about the kind of yogurt to use: I would recommend a slightly flavored yogurt, like vanilla or honey (The Greek Gods brand has a fabulously delicious honey yogurt, and their vanilla isn't bad either) and of course go with non-fat if you can. Anything super-flavorful like strawberry, cherry, blueberry, etc. will compete too much with wonderfulness of the fresh fruit. Avoid anything that has a lot of extra sugar added, too. Remember you're getting quite a bit of sugar in this dish anyway (the fructose from the fruit).

Breakfast Banana Split

1 banana, sliced
1/2 cup puffed wheat cereal
1/2 cup puffed rice cereal
4 oz container of lightly flavored yogurt
1/4 cup fresh blueberries
1/4 cup sliced fresh strawberries

Place the yogurt in a cereal bowl, and smooth it all over the bottom. Place the sliced bananas around the edge of the yogurt. Sprinkle the cereal over the yogurt, then top that with the strawberries and blueberries. (You really can do this however you want...this is just how I do it.)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

License to Fill

I can't pump my own gas anymore. Why not, you ask? Because it's against the law, that's why.

Oregon and New Jersey are the only two states in the country where you can't pump your own gas. New Jersey started this practice in 1949, and they keep it in place for two reasons: safety and jobs. Oregon, on the other hand, lists a whopping seventeen reasons for the ban. Included in these reasons are that the fumes are toxic, the risk of crime when customers leave their vehicle, as well as safety (flammability) and jobs. Apparently, Oregon citizens like the ban, because it came up on the ballot in 1982 to reverse it and allow self-service. It didn't pass. Incidentally, you CAN pump your own gas if you own a motorcycle, or if your car runs on diesel fuel. Apparently diesel isn't quite as flammable as regular gasoline, so it's okay. But considering the other 16 reasons still apply, I'm thinking things aren't making much sense anymore. I mean, you're still leaving your vehicle and breathing in the fumes...

Anyway, when we moved out here, we did not know about this law. So we were driving across I-84 and somewhere in eastern Oregon we needed gas. So we stopped, got out of the car, and proceeded to pump the gas. This guy came running out in his little orange vest, yelling, "Excuse me, Sir??? Excuse me!!!" We were like, "WTF is this guy's problem?" and looking around to see if something was on fire. It was far enough inside the Oregon border that he probably wasn't used to people not knowing the law, and he was not amused. This is serious business, apparently, and you can be fined up to $500 bucks if you get caught. And of course, now, when we go through Washington, we forget and then end up sitting our car at the pump for a while until we remember where we are.

Some people in Oregon are really upset about this law, like this guy who comments, "in Oregon, the legislators think you ought to be able to kill yourself, but not pump your own gas." (For those of you who don't know, assisted suicide is legal in Oregon.) I, on the other hand, don't really care all that much. I think it's kind of nice to have someone pump your gas for you, and you don't even have to get out of the car. I don't even have to turn my car off, actually, because it's a hybrid and the engine cuts off when it's in park anyway. It's especially nice when it's really cold out, or raining, though it hasn't been doing much of that anyway.

Only one time have I actually been frustrated at the gas station, because there were tons of cars waiting and only 2 attendants. I was in a hurry, and they were slow. But, being frustrated one time in over 9 months isn't too bad. So, I'm happy. I get a free service that I don't have to tip for, and I'd rather not be breathing in the fumes anyway. Plus, with the unemployment rate in Oregon now up to 10.8%, I think it's great that those people have jobs. So, more power to 'em. (Although I do watch them in my side mirror to make sure they pick the right fuel grade and they don't copy my credit card number.)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Food Friday: Sautéed Plantains

Ladies and Gentlemen, please allow me to introduce you to... the plantain:

Looks kind of like a green banana, yes? Well, it is sort of like a banana, but a heck of a lot bigger (I know, I should have added a quarter or something to the picture so you'd have a size reference.) This one I bought was probably about 12-13 inches long. Plantains are often eaten more as a vegetable than a fruit. They're not sweet at all, unless you let them get really over-ripe, like almost black. You usually buy them when they're really green (like the picture above) and you can do different things with them at different stages of ripeness.

For example, you can eat them when they're still green like this, but they absolutely have to be cooked. At this stage (green to greenish-yellow), people often cook them more like a potato. They're pretty bland, but starchy, and must be cooked before eating. As it ripens, it will turn from green to yellow, and then from yellow to brown or black. The only time you can eat a plantain without cooking it, is if it's black. For this recipe, you want it sort of in the middle stages of ripening, like this:

See? mostly yellow but starting to get a few black spots. The peel of a plantain is really thick, much thicker than a banana, and they're not quite as easy to peel. (Mine came of more in pieces, than long strips like a banana.) The inside smells a lot like a banana, but don't be fooled. It's still not sweet!

I wasn't so sure how I was going to like these, to be honest. I have only had plantains once before, when Justyn and I went to Costa Rica, and I didn't really remember them too much. (Which I figured was good... if I hated them then I would certainly remember that!) So I was browsing the produce section one day and saw these and figured I'd give it a shot. (This is what I have started doing... going to the store with no real plan, and just buying what looks fresh and good. It's a great way to learn about new fruits and veggies!) Anyway, like I said, I was a little nervous about how these were going to turn out, especially because they look and smell so much like a banana. But I was so pleasantly surprised! They were very tasty and super quick to make. So tasty, in fact (and easy!) that we are definitely keeping this one in the arsenal. It makes a great side dish for anything Mexican, South American, or Caribbean. Plus plantains are an excellent source of potassium, vitamins A & C, a good source of vitamin B6, they're high in dietary fiber, and an energy booster. Yum!

Sautéed Ripe Plantains (Plátanos Maduros)
from The New York Times, by Mark Bittman

3 or 4 yellow-black or black plantains, peeled (I just used one big one, and it was plenty for 2 people)
Neutral oil, like grapeseed, corn or canola, as needed
Salt and pepper to taste
Lime wedges (I used lemon)

1. Cut plantains into 1-inch pieces. Film bottom of a large skillet with oil and place over medium heat; a minute later, add plantains.

2. Cook, turning as necessary and adjusting heat so plantains brown slowly without burning, 10 to 15 minutes. Serve hot and crispy, sprinkled with salt, pepper and lime juice.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Happy! Happy! Joy! Joy!

You may have heard in the news last week that Portland was voted the unhappiest city in the U.S. by Business Week. Which surprised me, actually, because since we moved here I am happier than I have been in years. So, naturally I was interested to learn why the bozos at Business Week came to this conclusion, and which other cities were moping alongside Portland in their unhappiness. Here's the scoop:

Portland, Oregon
Overall Rank: 1
Depression Rank: 1
Suicide Rank: 12
Crime (property and violent): 24
Divorce Rank: 4
Cloudy Days: 222
Unemployment Rate (Dec. 2008): 7.8%

If you ask me, Business Week's methods are less than scientific, and needless to say, this "award" isn't sitting too well with the locals. In order to get the depression ranking, they polled pharmaceutical companies to see where sales of antidepressants are highest. Apparently it's Portland. But, as Oregon journalist Kari Chisholm argues, doesn't that mean that Portland is less unhappy? I mean, at least there aren't a bunch of depressed people walking around without medication, right? Chisholm makes quite a few good arguments, actually, namely by listing all the other awards that Portland, as a city, has won. Here's a sample of what Chisholm has to say:

Portland is the #1 greenest and the #2 most enlightened city in the nation. It was also rated by Travel & Leisure as one of their readers' favorite places to visit (including a #4 rating for an active/adventure vacation and #5 for relaxing/retreat vacation.) T&L also ranked Portland #1 for pedestrian friendliness, #4 for public safety, #5 for the underground arts scene, #6 for "friendly", #8 for "fun", #9 for dining, #10 for theatre, #12 for live music, the list goes on...

Portland has been called one of the "new American dream towns" by Outside magazine, citing impressive statistics on Portlanders' preference for reading, indie films, gardening, and superior beer selection. (Portland has more breweries than any other metropolis in the world in case you didn't know.) It's also been called "America's indie rock mecca,"which is actually a nice change from the "country music capital of the world." Not included in Chisholm's list (why, I don't know) is that Portland was recently ranked the #1 best city to have a baby by Fit Pregnancy magazine.

It seems to me, based on the above, that Portland has a lot going for it. But, since I am still new to Portland, I tend to take these things pretty seriously. I don't want to live in a place that has a reputation for being depressed, you know? That sucks. So, of course I wanted to see what other cities were on the list. And, guess what? Yep, Nashville is on it, too, at #8, and with a much higher crime rate than Portland. So, that makes me feel better in some ways. Like, if Nashville had been listed as one of the happiest cities, then I would be bummed.

Oh, and by the way, I mentioned a couple of months ago that it hasn't rained much here this winter. In case you're wondering, the sun is still shining its little heart out. I heard on the news that we're about 8 inches below normal rainfall for the winter. (Yeah, right. They're just saying that, like I said they would.)

But really, all these statistics don't matter. I mean, I'm a numbers person, so I find it interesting. But, what really matters is how you feel. And I feel awesomely happy.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Food Friday: Broccoli, Chili and Artichoke Pasta

Mmm... pasta. I used to absolutely LOVE pasta, and I probably ate entirely too much of it at one point in my life. I probably had pasta at least once a week up until about a year ago. It was a quick and easy fallback meal on regular rotation at our house. Boil some pasta, heat up some red sauce, and voila! Easy meal. But, pasta and red sauce gets pretty boring, and considering how often we were eating it, it's no surprise I got burned out.

Another thing that I got tired of is broccoli. Broccoli was our token "green veggie" back before I started to get creative with cooking. And, I'm sorry, but steamed broccoli with NO seasoning gets pretty darn boring after eating it a couple times a week. (Although, if I can just mention one thing really quickly: have you ever eaten the inside of a raw broccoli stalk? Oh my goodness. So. Good.)

I only discovered the wonders of gnocchi until a few years ago, and man, oh man, have I been missing out. Potatoes and pasta, all rolled into one? As PW would say, Fugghetaboutit. If you have never had gnocchi, please please try it. They are puffy little packets of potatoe-y goodness. I have never had trouble finding vacuum-sealed gnocchi in the pasta aisle, but if you can't find it for some reason, regular pasta will work just fine for this recipe.

Even in the midst of my pasta burnout, I still always considered myself a pasta lover. And, given my recent broccoli burnout, you can imagine how excited I was when I found this recipe for Broccoli, Chili and Artichoke Pasta. I have also been on a real artichoke kick lately, so I was totally stoked to try this out.

This recipe was a definite keeper. It doesn't require a lot of chopping, and it's super fast to make. Plus, the combination of garlic, chili and broccoli are good for your heart, blood and immune system! A couple of changes I'll make for next time: more broccoli. I don't think there was quite enough compared to the gnocchi. And, depending on what kind of artichoke hearts you use, I would advise chopping them into smaller pieces (quartered or even smaller). And, make sure you cut off any tough petals that may still be hanging on. Just because they come in a can/jar doesn't mean you shouldn't groom them a little. I served this with a simple salad and some homemade tomato soup with fresh basil (a nice addition to add a little color to the meal).

Broccoli, Chili and Artichoke Pasta
3 cups dried gnocchi pasta (if you use another type of pasta, make sure you adjust the quantity to equal 3 cups of cooked pasta. Gnocchi is already puffed up when you buy it.)
1 1/2 cups broccoli florets (I'll probably up this to 2 or more)
6 tbsp olive oil
1 large garlic clove, crushed
1/2 - 1 tsp dried chili flakes (depending on how hot you want it)
1 1/2 cups artichoke hearts in oil, drained
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tbsp chopped fresh flat leaf parsley, to garnish (I skipped this)
grated Pecorino cheese, for sprinkling (optional, but definitely don't skip it!)

1. Cook the pasta in a large saucepan of boiling, salted water according to the instructions on the packet until it is al dente. Add the broccoli for the last 3 minutes of cooking time. Drain, reserving a little of the cooking water. Note: Gnocchi usually only takes about 3 minutes to cook once the water starts boiling, so make sure you note the package instructions. You may end up putting the broccoli and the gnocchi in at the same time.

2. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large heavy-based saucepan and saute the garlic and chili flakes for 1 minute.

3. Add the pasta, broccoli and artichoke hearts and cook for 2 minutes until hot. Add a little of the reserved pasta water if the mixture seems a little dry. Season and sprinkle with the parsley and Pecorino cheese, if using.