Monday, February 28, 2011

Beach Weekend

February is not the most cheerful month in Oregon. What better way to break the February doldrums than with a Book Club Beach Weekend? Nothing like some sand, surf and sun to get in a better mood. Okay, this is February in Oregon-- make that just sand and surf. My friend Ranell was awesome enough to host our book club at her beach condo for a kid-free weekend.(That's all it really takes to get in a better mood, right? :) )
The majestic Oregon coast
Several nights spent talking with friends until the wee hours of the morning-- check. Viewed chick flicks with all due diligence-- check. Large quantities of hummus consumed-- check. General admiration of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy observed-- check. Drank herbal tea and hot chocolate in pajamas and slippers-- check. Shared treats and gripes and at least a couple of birth/pregnancy/child horror stories-- check. Nothing like some time away with friends to get a fresh, more cheerful perspective on life, even if the weather is stubbornly gray. (I only snapped a few pictures before I left so most of my friends don't appear-- although maybe it's better to not be documented on camera in pj's and slippers. :)

The beautiful gloom.

A solitary walk on the beach in the rain warrants a self-portrait with the cell phone, right?

Another self-portrait with the cell phone camera.

Ranell and I
Ranell and Sarah

Friday, February 25, 2011

Karam Lebanese

A while ago, Dave and I decided to do something outside the box for dinner, so we decided to try Lebanese food. We went to Karam Lebanese in downtown Portland. My past experience of Middle Eastern food was pretty much limited to Americanized hummus and a couple of fantastic experiences tasting the home-cooking of an Iraqi neighbor at a neighborhood picnic. (Seriously, best. tabbouleh.ever! And her hummus... so good! Don't get me started.)

We ordered Meat Mazzawat and a braised lamb shank, although if we'd had any idea how enormous the Meat Mazzawat was going to be we would have just ordered that. For $21.95, the Meat Mazzawat gives you a huge assortment of Lebanese dishes: Tabouleh (a salad made of bulgur, parsley, mint, tomato and onion), Hummus (chickpea dip), Dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), Babba Ghanoush (a dip similar to hummus but made with eggplant), Falafel (fried chickpea balls), Kafta Kebab (think Lebanese meat-loaf-on-a-stick), Veggie Kibbee Nayee, Labne (cream cheese/yogurt dip), Baleela (a chickpea dish), Lamb Shawarma and Chicken Shawarma. All of this and it came with a salad and unlimited fresh-baked pita bread. Dave and I could have easily split just this and had plenty to eat. The lamb shank was lovely too, but whoa, it was a lot of food.
Chicken and Lamb Shawarma

Meat Mazzawat- quite a spread!
Meat Mazzawat

The chicken and lamb shawarma were delicious and the fresh pita bread was addicting. I wasn't a huge fan of the dolmas (but I don't tend to be in general) and the veggie kibbee nayeh was a bit grainy for my taste, but for the most part it was all delicious. My favorite thing was a toss-up between the Baba Ghanoush (the roasted eggplant dip) and the Labne (the cream cheese/yogurty dip-- it's the white stuff with the olives to the left of the big meat dish). But honestly, there were so many dishes that it was hard to remember which was which. The lamb shank was fall-off-the-bone tender and delicately flavored, but by the time it (the main course) came out we were pretty much already completely full. It was a delicious meal (and the Meat Mazzawat was a fantastic deal). When you top it off with a complimentary slice of perfectly crisp but not-too-sweet Baklava, what more do need?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Chocolate Parisian Macarons

A few weeks ago I was having a hankering for Parisian macarons-- no, not the American coconut cookies. Parisian macarons are similar to meringue cookies except they also have ground nuts in them. To complete the equation, you sandwich two of them together with frosting or ganache. 
I searched around for a reasonable recipe and landed upon this one. (I also decided to make some Macadamia Nut Bars while I was at it.) You may be tempted to skip the final step of letting them stand for at least one day, but don't. Trust me, it's worth the wait.
Macarons in the making
Chocolate Macadamia Nut Dream Bars

Parisian Chocolate Macarons

Chocolate Macarons
Makes about fifteen cookies
Adapted from The Sweet Life in Paris (Broadway) by David Lebovitz
Macaron Batter
1 cup (100 gr) powdered sugar
½ cup powdered almonds (about 2 ounces, 50 gr, sliced almonds, pulverized)
3 tablespoons (25 gr) unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
2 large egg whites, at room temperature
5 tablespoons (65 gr) granulated sugar
Chocolate Filling
½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream
2 teaspoons light corn syrup
4 ounces (120 gr) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 tablespoon (15 gr) butter, cut into small pieces
Preheat oven to 350º F (180º C).
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and have a pastry bag with a plain tip (about 1/2-inch, 2 cm) ready.

Grind together the powdered sugar with the almond powder and cocoa so there are no lumps; use a blender or food processor since almond meal that you buy isn’t quite fine enough.
In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, beat the egg whites until they begin to rise and hold their shape. While whipping, beat in the granulated sugar until very stiff and firm, about 2 minutes.
Carefully fold the dry ingredients, in two batches, into the beaten egg whites with a flexible rubber spatula. When the mixture is just smooth and there are no streaks of egg white, stop folding and scrape the batter into the pastry bag (standing the bag in a tall glass helps if you’re alone).
Pipe the batter on the parchment-lined baking sheets in 1-inch (3 cm) circles (about 1 tablespoon each of batter), evenly spaced one-inch (3 cm) apart.
Rap the baking sheet a few times firmly on the counter top to flatten the macarons, then bake them for 15-18 minutes. Let cool completely then remove from baking sheet.
To make the chocolate filling:
Heat the cream in a small saucepan with the corn syrup. When the cream just begins to boil at the edges, remove from heat and add the chopped chocolate. Let sit one minute, then stir until smooth. Stir in the pieces of butter. Let cool completely before using.

Spread a bit of batter on the inside of the macarons then sandwich them together. (You can pipe the filling it, but I prefer to spread it by hand; it’s more fun, I think.)
I also tend to overfill them so you may or may not use all the filling.
Let them stand at least one day before serving, to meld the flavors.
Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days, or freeze. If you freeze them, defrost them in the unopened container, to avoid condensation which will make the macarons soggy.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Paris: Day 3

Today we started out by hopping on "l'Open Tour" bus and going to the Louvre. This was after I ran into a shop to get a pain au chocolat and tried to ascertain in my best Franglish whether the tub of white stuff with berries on top was yogurt. (It was-- although I ascertained that from purchasing it and tasting it, not with my excellent Franglish.)
Palais de Louvre
The bridge nearby
The main courtyard
We basically spent all day at the Louvre and it was AWESOME! The palace itself is beautiful and well worth a visit. There was a huge indoor courtyard full of amazing French sculpture, endless rooms of beautiful Greek and Roman sculptures, halls full of Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Raphael, and more and more and more. I saw Venus de Milo (although technically, because it is Greek, it should be Aphrodite de Milo). I saw the Mona Lisa and liked it much more than I thought I would-- I had heard it was small, but I was picturing "Ginevra di Benci" small (the only Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery in D.C. is about the size of a human head). It was actually really great in person. I loved the Botticelli frescoes when you entered the Italian wing. There were tons of random things that I loved, most of which the names have escaped me. At the end we visited the part of the Louvre that served as the apartments of Napoleon III-- it was totally over-the-top.
The giant indoor sculpture courtyard

The apartments of Napoleon III

Sweet digs!
I suppose one could live with this....

We ate lunch at a small outlet of "Paul" (the Parisian boulangerie equivalent to McDonalds or Starbucks) in the Louvre. I finally got vegetables in Paris!!! I ordered a salad, which was delicious, but the bacon on it seemed nearly raw, so I ended up picking it off. (Which is truly astonishing, considering how much I enjoy bacon.) Then we went back for more art-till-you-drop. I even had Ranell take a picture of me chasing a pigeon in front of the Louvre today, just for my husband and his friend Jared. (It's an inside joke from when they were in high school.) :)
Chasing pigeons (inside joke).
Under the glass pyramid.

Ranell in the main courtyard.

We finally finished at the Louvre about 3:00 pm. We were both exhausted from being on our feet all day- the Louvre is huge- and just needed to sit. We hopped on a different line of our tour bus, but ended up on a different bus than the one that we had originally intended to get on. A lot of the tour was quite boring. The Place de la Bastille, as Rick Steves puts it, is the biggest non-site in Paris: the Bastille isn't there anymore. Then we got exciting views of some stadium and a building where 4000 people work per day. (Definitely the Paris I've been dying to see....)

And while the open bus tours in London had awesome live narration telling you about the sites you were seeing, on "l'Open Bus" the narration was pretty marginal. The narration itself wouldn't have been so very bad except that it had about a minute of monotone talking punctuated by three or four minutes of horrible French jazz. There was one song in particular that had the French equivalent of Neil Diamond growling in wounded tones, "Mon couer! Mon Couer!" with the back-up of a wailing muted trumpet. Tres terrible! And pretty much every time we got on the bus, guess which song was blaring on the audio headphones? You guessed it, Mr. French Neil Diamond. (No offense to Neil Diamond lovers. Neil Diamond is great... just not in French... or with a jazzy muted trumpet.)
Ranell at Place des Vosges
Place des Vosges
We got off the bus at the Place des Vosges: a small, but beautiful Parisian park in a square surrounded by buildings (including Victor Hugo's house). Then we walked through the Marais district. This was a lot of fun. There were winding narrow streets filled with cute teeny shops. We stopped at L'As du Falafel and got my very first falafel for our dinner (super yummy!). I popped into a shop to try two mini-macarons. If I'd had any idea how good they were going to be, I would have bought a whole box of them, but we'd already walked away before I took a bite. From my Franglish conversation I knew that one was vanille (it was AMAZING) and I thought the other was "pumpkin almond." Since the cashier didn't speak much English, I didn't want to spend 10 minutes trying to figure out what the flavor was. I figured as long as the flavor wasn't "cafe" I was fine. My "pumpkin almond" cookie turned out to be caramel. Seriously, so delicious-- it was the best thing I ate in France! We finally got back on board our bus and tried to head out to get a different tour on another line.

Wandering the Marais district
L'As du Fallafel

Yummy falafel!

Ranell in the Marais district
We walked across the bridge to the Ile de la Cite, got sidetracked buying some souvenirs, walked past Notre Dame and crossed another bridge onto the Left Bank of the Seine. We got to the bus stop only to realize that the last tour of the day had already left. So instead we ended up wandering around the Latin Quarter. We saw a cute shop with kitchen gadgets so we spent a few Euros to get the crepe batter spreading tool that they use at the crepe shops here. We also stopped at Starbucks-- only to use the restroom. It would have seemed like a travesty to eat at Starbucks in Paris-- even though they had a serious selection of pastries.
Beautiful bridges on the Seine
By this time we were really tired, so we tried to find a cafe to sit down and rest. We found one the guidebook recommended, but got seated outside under a tent- which while great at protecting you from inclement weather is also great at keeping in all of the Parisian cigarette smoke. (Seriously, Parisians smoke so much. I've probably inhaled a whole pack's worth of secondhand smoke on this trip. Yuck!) It was very crowded, I was practically sitting on the lap of the guy sitting at the table next to us and the girl at the table on the other side of us was glaring at Ranell (maybe she was trying to save that table for friends). So we got up and left and wandered around some more until we got really, really, really tired.

We had wanted to spend the evening going to Sacre Couer or l'Arc d'Triomphe, but we decided we were just too tired. We got crepes (this time I got "citron et sucre"- lemon and sugar) and took the city bus back to our hotel. We met a girl at the bus stop who was also an American- she is in Paris for school, studying to be a French teacher. We had a fun conversation with her and got her recommendations on how to spend the rest of our limited time.Then we stopped at a mini-market outside our hotel on the way home. I got a European-style drinkable yogurt (yum) and entertained myself by checking out Parisian candy, cookies and breakfast cereal. I have to say, only in Paris would you find fresh ginger, 25 kinds of cheese and 10 different kinds of butter at an urban mini-market!

So here I am, back at the hotel. It was an exhausting but fantastic day. My feet and legs are SO SORE! You know how your legs feel when you've spent a whole day of skiing and you haven't been in a couple of years? That's similar to how my legs feel right now. I wish I had thought to wear a pedometer on this trip: it would have been fun to see how much we've walked.

A New Record

February 2011 may go down in history as the least blog-posted month in the history of my blog. (Yes, I'm sure that the Guinness Book of World Records has a whole category devoted to most and least-posted months on "Life According to K.") I last wrote on February 1st, and now-- a full 22 days later-- I am finally writing my second post of the month. (Phew, don't wear yourself out there.) I have a list of at least eight blog posts that I want to catch up (including writing about the last few days of my Europe trip-- after all, it was only four months ago).

So the big question is, do I start writing again and catch up? Or do I go for the record? (And the glory?) ;)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

My Jedi Book-Saber

This January I finally opened the Snuggie that Dave bought me for Christmas-- in 2009. Yes, I'm embarrassed to admit that I waited over a year to take one of my Christmas presents out of the box. (Don't worry, it wasn't my "big" present-- I don't have that many issues with being cold.) I'm wasn't sure why Dave bought me a Snuggie. He said he got it at the last minute because it was a really great deal-- so maybe I'm not the only impulse shopper in the family. :) It probably was actually inspired by our frequent temperature disagreement issues. Dave wore shorts and a T-shirt while hiking through the snowy Alps in high school and has lived through two Siberian winters. I, on the other hand, can feel a light California breeze blow by and insist that I need a jacket so I won't die. So maybe the Snuggie was a smart idea after all.

Regardless of the smartness of the idea, the Snuggie box got put in my office and instantly disappeared in the piles of papers and random junk to be sorted. When it finally surfaced months later it was summer and the urgent need for a blanket with sleeves was somewhat less pressing. But now it is winter again and I finally decided to give it a try. My Snuggie is a nice camel color, so not only does it warm me up and keep my hands free, it gives me the appearance of a cozy-warm Jedi knight.

However, I didn't realize that there was another fantastic surprise waiting for me inside the box. When I opened it, I found that the Snuggie included a free gift: a booklight. And not just any booklight-- a booklight that dramatically unfolds with the press of a button, one that smolders with the eerie blue glow of a lightsaber. Seriously! Coolest. Christmas. Present. Ever!!