Sunday, November 5, 2017

Labor Day

So, the year had gotten off to a great start. My kids this year are smart, and passionate. Sometimes overly passionate, and a bit argumentative, but I genuinely have been excited to meet and teach them. I felt confident in how I was approaching planning my lessons, and I was generally on track.

Then, on Labor Day, while we were visiting family in New York, my mom suddenly died of a heart attack. She did not have high blood pressure, or diabetes, as she had been to the doctor recently. She did not take great care of herself, but did not take medication for any ailment aside from basic aches and pains.

It has been hard. I am still doing well with my class, and teaching. I spent the first month largely eating takeout, but have started cooking again recently. I found myself tired all the time, and I now experience some struggles with attention. I imagine people with ADD feel this way, and I now sympathize. Focus  beyond 20 minutes is hard to come by. It isn't like I am crying all the time, thinking about her every second, but the effect has been a blanket issue.

Anyway, I plan to blog more, now that I am a bit more myself, but that's where I've been. It is fall, and fall temps are finally here in Virginia (took long enough!), which is my favorite. Things are definitely looking up!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

End of Summer Thoughts

Well, in what felt like forever and the blink of an eye at one time, summer is over. It isn't over for the real world, but I go back to school tomorrow for teacher inservice week! While I would NEVER trade in getting out of school in May when the weather is perfect, it is rough knowing that summer for us is half over soon after "official" summer begins.

All that said, I am ready. I have a new teaching partner, a couple new members of the team I am really excited about, and I am ready for a new batch of kiddos. This year, I am only teaching reading and writing, which both breaks my heart and excites me at the same time. I am excited for the simplicity, and the laser focus I will be able to have. I am planning to do a lot of mini reading lessons involving science and social studies books and related topics, so I can get my fix in. Science is the love of my life, reading comes second.

I am really proud at how I spent my summer. I really didn't travel at all, in the end. I thought I would go to North Carolina, maybe Pennsylvania, and definitely to the beach and to Lake Anna. Funny thing is, none of those things happened. Not one. Getting more focused about finances and changing my approach to that was a major reason, as my current car won't last forever and this time next year I am hoping to be in graduate school. Despite not doing these things, I still did a lot. I spent my time focused on myself, and after a rough school year, that was exactly what I needed. I rediscovered old loves and started some new ones, and I am very excited about how continuing them during the year will help me feel when things at school get overwhelming.

Reading - I used to be the most voracious reader as a child. Going through one book per day on a weekend was agiven, and often it was two. College kind of broke me of my love, as it does so many, and I only read lightly from then on. This summer I read most days for at least an hour, which sparked the book monster inside me, and I couldn't be more excited about it!

Podcasts - I admit, despite podcasts being so trendy right now, I never understood them. Then, as I was looking for a new outlook on weight loss, I decided to look at podcasts as an option. Now, I listen to podcasts of all kinds. I listened for at least an hour a day most days this summer, like reading. I listen when I cook, when I am wasting time playing freecell, and when I drive most often. 

Kombucha - I both fell in love with drinking kombucha as a soda replacement and brewing my own this summer. This one is major as it inspires a bit of creativity, has a "cooking" element, saves money, and is generally really cool. I have brewed 3 batches so far, and the carbonation has not quite gotten there yet, but I think that is largely because I got overexcited and increased my brews from one gallon to two very quickly, and my scoby is growing but still hasn't gotten big enough to brew strong enough yet to accommodate that. I also began making a kombucha sibling, Jun. Jun is a fermented tea as well but uses green tea and honey, supposedly is fizzier (which could be perfect!), loves colder temps (we keep it rather cool here), and brews faster! Updates on that after I brew a batch or two.

Cooking - I did a great job this summer at balancing ordering food (a constant temptation) and cooking. I made some very indulgent things, and they are things I plan to keep in my arsenal. Cooking has been an area I have worked to improve on since beginning this blog, so I am always excited when I realize how much more I have grown and how much growth I have yet to do.

Swimming - I might not have gone to Lake Anna or the beach, but I did find a little place to swim on the river, and went swimming a few times. As it turns out, I don't necessarily care how I get to swim, as long as swimming is an option!

Now, on to some surprising things I did not do this summer. Well, not surprising that I did not do them, but very surprising that I do not mind.

Walk, bike, or exercise much - Despite having all the time in the world, I really slacked off here. I am 100% ok with it. I started the summer walking like a fiend because the weather was amazing. Then I got attacked by a snake, saw the scariest spider I have ever seen in my life, and it got hot. I am very sensitive to heat, and I began resenting exercise. An activity I normally love and need to function was causing me such negative feelings, I gave myself permission to take a break this summer. I am now excited for the weather to cool down so I can get back to it. My fitness level has gone to the crapper, but it doesn't take long to get it all back!

Lose weight - I spent all summer trying to get back on track, and failed. I would be on track for a few days, then blow it, and the cycle would continue. I just have such a hard time sitting at home all day, being able to cook, and not going over calories! During the school year, all physical needs (including hunger) tend to be on hold from 7am-4pm. I eat breakfast, lunch, and a snack, but the calories are a lot more limited, and give me more freedom for dinner. Combined with my lack of exercise, I maintained my weight for the most part. I am pretty proud of that. I think everyone needs a break sometimes. I have a lot of weight to lose, so really, what rush am I in? As of this past Wednesday, I have been tracking my food again, and starting next Wednesday plan to be back on plan because school will have begun.

In all, a great summer. Very few to no complaints. Next summer, I am hoping to have the financial freedom to travel a little more, get my ass to the beach like I have been trying to do for the last five years, and maybe start graduate school. I feel rested, prepared, and generally excited for the new year!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Recipe: Kombucha!

I began drinking kombucha as an effort to replace my occasional soda cravings. I never keep soda in the house, but felt free to drink it at restaurants. That way, I was drinking one per week at the most, excepting vacations. That said, in the summer, I sometimes crave the fizz. I had tried it several years ago and found it pleasant, but intense, so I would drink maybe a couple of ounces at a time. Fast forward to six months ago, when I restarted Weight Watchers, and wanted a go-to that was reasonably healthy but did not use fake sugar. Fake sugar always makes me feel off, and it was hard to find sodas that were fizzy but low in sugar. I began buying kombucha from the store, and drinking it more and more. Now, I am drinking about 5 bottles per week, give or take.

Anyone who has purchased kombucha regularly knows that the stuff is PRICEY! Between $3-5 per bottle on sale. I realized that there was absolutely no way I could keep on purchasing it at the rate I had been, and my roommate had asked me before if I had ever looked in to brewing it on my own. I had scoffed at the thought, assuming it would take tons of supplies, money, space, and involvement. That was when I happened to come across two YouTube videos describing kombucha, and how it is madeKendra explained it in such a simple, direct way and upon seeing it, I realized that it really wasn't difficult or overly time consuming at all, and the supplies are surprisingly basic.

To summarize for anyone who might not know, kombucha is a fizzy drink made from fermented sweetened tea. It is made by introducing a bacteria and yeast culture, known as a scoby, to the sweet tea and letting it ferment. The result is a slightly sweet, sour, fizzy concoction that is easily flavored with fruit, herbs, or juices.

To begin my adventure, I ordered a Kombucha Kit off of Amazon. It came with the vast majority of the supplies Kendra suggested, and I had the few other items at home that I needed.

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After that, I made the sweet tea mixture. I steeped the tea in four cups of filtered water. I used their tea and their teabag, but plan to use a metal strainer in the future. I do not think this fabric one is as reusable as they describe. I also have so much loose tea that I have an entire stash I use to cold steep for iced tea, and there are some I do not like iced. I plan to try to use them for kombucha in the future. Waste not, want not!
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The oddest part of doing all of this is handling the scoby, the blob of bacteria and yeast responsible for creating the drink. I got one with my kit, though I know it reproduces and grows in such a way that like sourdough, you can easily pass the excess between friends. The one that came in my box was hockey puck sized, in about a cup of starter liquid.

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I got my setup together, added the water and made sure the temperature wouldn't kill the scoby before putting it in, and covered it with the cloth. I love the temperature gauge taped to the side of the container because it is cheap, easy to see, and easy to monitor.

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Over the course of this process I was convinced I had screwed things up somehow, it couldn't possibly be this easy. Setting up the brew took maybe 20-30 minutes tops. Again, it all just seemed too easy. So I checked my brew many times per day, waiting to see if the scoby would grow or if somehow it would all go wrong. I watched enough different YouTube videos on the process to know that the scoby should grow much bigger, have no mold, have some bubbles, forming near the top, and be whitish gray in color, maybe a bit tan, with strings all over the place. One day, I started seeing the scoby suddenly appear over the entire top of my container! It was very thin, but it was white, and looked healthy.

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By the end, it was thicker, and clearly visible from the top. I started tasting it at seven days, decided to flavor it on the eighth day. It smelled and tasted somewhat sour and vinegary, as it should, but had some sweetness left. I dislike kombucha that is too sour, so I was worried to let it go very long on my first go.  I had decided already to invest in a second gallon sized glass jar, so I could get a new batch started more quickly while the other flavored. I got one with a spigot so I wouldn't need to handle the scoby each time. The scoby is firm, rubbery almost, and not fragile, but it is still an odd texture.

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After getting the new batch started, I took the remainder of the old batch and added a few tablespoons of lemon juice and about two cups of cut strawberries to make a strawberry lemon flavor. Recipes seem to call for one cup of fruit, but I was worried it wouldn't end up fruity enough.
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Silly me! After letting it sit for maybe 15 hours, it was super sweet and strawberry flavored! Note for next time, crazy amounts of fruit not needed. I put the liquid in bottles using a funnel from home and a ladle, and they are carbonating on my counter as we speak!

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I let the air escape every 12 hours and pour a sip from one every day. This produced five 18oz bottles. I had left a fairly generous amount of starter liquid for the new brew, because I felt like it was better to be safe than sorry on that! So far we are on two days and it is not ready for the fridge yet, but it turned out very juicy and tasty!

I am excited for the final product, and have ordered a third glass jar to brew in, two gallons this time. Both my roomie and I drink enough kombucha that we could use a larger supply, and this will leave two jars available to make two separate flavors per batch, and hopefully 10-11 bottles per batch. I am sure we could accommodate more, but I have no idea if I will continue to consume it at this rate in the fall. I ordered more glass jars to accommodate more brewing as well. All of these supplies are completely reusable.

I am planning to let this next batch get a bit more sour. As you could see in my picture of the new batch, the puck of original scoby is still there, but a wider pancake is now also there. I can only assume that this means it will ferment faster. So, I will taste at seven days like I did the first brew, and taste every day after until it gets a little more sour. I am thinking of doing a fruit with mint combination for the flavoring. I used an oolong tea that is more mineral-y tasting than I prefer for hot or iced tea.

Thank you to everyone who actually made it here to the end of this very long, very involved post. I am excited about what kombucha will mean to help me make healthier, happier choices than soda! If you have ever made kombucha, please share any tips/tricks/comments you may have!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Recipe: Butter Chicken

I am the absolute worst at controlling my spending when it comes to ordering Indian food. I love everything about it. Given that I am trying to not throw away all of my money, particularly over this summer, I jumped at the chance to try to make it on my own when I came across what seemed like a really manageable recipe!

Here is the recipe I used (mostly correctly, which is also a surprise when I make anything for the first time): The BEST Butter Chicken

So, the first step involves marinating chicken, and I marinated mine for 24 hours.

 I messed up and added ghee to the marinade because I misunderstood the written recipe, but it didn't hurt anything.

The next day, I just charred the edges of the chicken in a pan with ghee, removed it, and cooked down the tomato as directed.

I tend to have the hardest time being patient and I jump the gun in recipes and they don't turn out quite right but this time, I succeeded at resisting that urge! The tomatoes cooked for probably 25 minutes.

Such buttery goodness. Then, adding heavy cream told me what I always suspected but never REALLY understood: butter chicken is terrible for you. Next time, I would not add the full two cups though, I would try it with a cup and a half to make it a bit more tomato-y.

Once stirred together, the sauce becomes so silky and smooth! I added the chicken and let it simmer as the recipe instructs. It looked SO good and smelled absolutely amazing.

I couldn't find fenugreek leaves at any store around here, and ended up having to make a few changes. I used about a tsp of the ground seed, even though I know the taste is not quite the same, and instead of sugar I used plain maple syrup as the sweetener. At the end, the flavor was a hair flat, so I added another tablespoon of maple syrup and it turned out delicious. That being said, I plan to order fenugreek leaves so I can do this recipe properly soon!

It tasted so completely amazing. Not exactly like my local restaurant (unsurprisingly), but it was definitely as delicious. The flavor was just a bit different. I highly recommend trying this recipe if you love Indian food. I am trying chicken tikka masala next!!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Homemade Chai Update!

I woke up today, saw clouds in the sky and rain in the forecast, and despite it being summer my brain screamed "CHAI!!!!!!!!" and I knew today would be a homemade chai day. I shared a recipe a long time ago, and I still use that, but have made a few alterations to brewing to help things go a bit more smoothly.

As a recap, my ingredients have not changed but I do not measure them anymore. I use a bit of ginger powder (this dissolves quickly in the liquid) because I do not have fresh ginger in the house most of the time, four cinnamon sticks, a teaspoon of cloves, a tablespoon of black peppercorns, and maybe ten pods of green cardamom. Before, I bring about three and a half cups of water to a boil, then turn off the head and steep all of these whole spices for about 20 minutes. Then, I would bring the water back up to a boil and toss in about four tablespoons of loose darjeeling black tea and let it steep for 5 or 6 minutes like I would a strong cup of tea. Then, I would strain the mixture, return the strained liquid to the pot, stir in honey, add about a cup of dairy (anything from fat free milk to half and half, depending on how rich I wanted it to be), and heat it up on low.

A major change in procedure was containing my steeping ingredients in a strainer. I used to just steep them all freely in the pot, then I added the tea loose, and then had to strain my final product into another container and then return it to the original pot so I could reheat it and add the dairy and sweetener. It was messy, it dirtied up another pot, and I am not graceful enough to not pour the hot liquid all over me during the process. 

Since then, I have acquired several teapots that come with their own strainers. I love these not just because I love the pots, but because I often take out the strainers and use them for other things, such as this. This way, I can steep the spices and quickly remove them, refill the strainer with tea while the liquid heats back up, then steep that in the same strainer. Once everything is steeped, I can remove that quickly too. Then I can just put in sweetener, honey is my usual choice, let it dissolve, and add dairy without the extra steps.

However, using the strainer meant that my favorite ingredient, cinnamon, wouldn't be totally submerged. I knew I could probably stick those in the water outside the strainer and get them out with a fork, they are bigger and easier to fish out, but in a flash of g̶e̶n̶i̶u̶s̶  basic logic, I realized that putting all of them in a plastic baggie and pounding them down would not only make them all smaller, but would open the spices and intensify the flavors! I used the base of a bottle of strained tomatoes as my mallet, but any firm jar will do, you don't need to hit any of it hard.

If you have a spare strainer, and a plastic baggie, take that extra step. It is SO much easier to clean and contain! 

Additional pro tip that normal people wouldn't need to be told: don't try to just dump your mixture from your pot to a mug, because you will spill everywhere. I have literally two years of experience attempting this. Just use a ladle. Easy peasy, no mess. Yes, it took me two years to have that flash of g̶e̶n̶i̶u̶s̶ basic logic as well. 

Better late than never, right?

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Swimming Day!

So, a friend came to visit this weekend and I promised them a trip to Lake Anna. I went a couple of times last year and it was a really fun place!

Alas, upon arrival, they were turning cards away because the parking lot was full. We were heartbroken, neither of us have been swimming yet this year. Luckily I remembered there was a little beach area along the Rappahannock, but I really didn't know if it was a swimming area or a wading area.

Luckily, turns out, it is deep enough to do some good swimming! Free, not as far from home as Lake Anna, and free to park. We couldn't get a space in any of those lots either, but we got creative and found a place to park and had an awesome afternoon. Thank you Falmouth Beach!

This is what summer is all about!

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Tea Setup

One of the best parts about this move and moving in with my roommate is discovering a new option for storing my tea and other hot drink stuff. She is a primarily coffee girl who loves tea, I am a primarily tea girl who now also loves coffee, so we balance. She had this amazing cart that I just knew would make an amazing drink station!

Behold! I feel so grown up.

Now, it has taken this over a year to get this awesome. The cart and the way it is organized was one of the first things we set up in the new place, before we even had a couch for our living room. We always envisioned having shelving to display teaware and coffee items, but only had one smaller bookshelf that didn't really "go" with the color of the cart. In a stroke of luck, earlier this spring, some people were moving out of their apartment and put these two heavy duty bookshelves by our dumpster! My roommate and I ran out in the beginning of a hail storm to get the first one and when we saw the movers with the second, we directed them straight to our place. Given the age of my building and how most of my furniture is hand me downs, the old school shelves fit right in!

We still use the little kitchen cart, mostly to store my steeper on so it doesn't mess up the wood of the other cart if it drips, and our honey stash. I LOVE lavender honey and rose honey!

We use the lower shelves as a hodgepodge. I store the teas I am reaching for most often to ice, as I am trying to mostly whittle my collection down to near nothing before I rebuild with less old teas. I also store coffee filters, empty tea canisters of teas I plan to replenish in the fall (hello chai!), and we store coffee, the occasional coffee travel mug, and random teapots that don't really "fit" on our more nicely curated shelves.

We have a Chinese themed shelf, with a lot of red tones, and a brown/black coffee shelf with our most loved coffee preparing devices. A red stovetop espresso maker was in use at the time of this picture, but it usually lives here.

The top of the cart includes my mug of the day, the tea I am brewing, cups, Keurig, kettle, sugar, and the teas I am working on at the moment to finish. The cups are adorable, but really are so small I never personally use them. I have used them when we have guests who all want tea at once.

The bottom of the rack holds 95% of the tea in these baskets. The upper right hand basket holds scales mostly, and a few teabag teas I save to use at school. The middle top shelf are my absolute favorite teas, most of which I am working on finishing because they are getting old, and the companies no longer exist. The teas on the upper and lower left have not been tasted yet. The teas on the bottom right are teas I have tried before and enjoy, the basket in the middle contains tea I have designated as iced.

Ultimately, I would like to reduce the tea to one row, so I can keep extra containers and such on the bottom, and just have higher tea turnover.

These are my favorite shelves. A blue/purple focus, and a green/yellow/aqua focus. These items are a combination of mine and my roommate's. Temporarily, there are also green and yellow tea tins that will ultimately go live in my bedroom once I drink all the tea inside!

These shelves are the remainder of the bunch. Leftover tea tins, tea brewing supplies, my roommate's stash of teabags, as most of the tea she drinks is in teabag form, and our handful of cookbooks.

Overall, I love our setup. I love the teaware being decor, I love having a dedicated brewing space, and storage that for the first time ever actually works for me! The kitchen cart was from IKEA back in the day. They have a similar cart, but it is not the exact same. The new version is a bit slimmer and shorter. That being said, if my roomie moved out tomorrow, the first thing I would do is go buy it! It looks great, fits baskets super well, and is a great size!