Archive for the ‘My Life’ Category

I’m planning a seven week trip to Europe this coming spring, and as I sift through apartment rental listings in Italy, Switzerland, and France, I am growing ever more eager to learn some Italian and brush up on French before my plane departs in April.  One great resource I’ve discovered so far is Byki, a competitor of Rosetta Stone that offers a “lite,” instantly download-able version of its language software for free.  In two days, I’ve learned twenty-five Italian words and phrases!  I also downloaded their French program and have zipped through those lists a lot faster.  I’m trying to decide if I want to pay $70 to buy the full version of their Italian program.  I really like the Byki approach so far and think it could be worth it.

Have you ever used Byki?  Would you recommend buying it?

What about other language learning resources?  I still have my French texts, workbooks, and tapes, so I’m mostly concerned about Italian at this point.  If I could do this for free, that would be ideal.  Do you know of free downloads anywhere else?  Any other suggestions?  I’d appreciate all the help I can get!


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It seems I’m not the only one with lunchboxes on the brain.  Apartment Therapy dumped yet another super cool brown bag idea in my inbox this morning.  I suppose it’s the economy.  Everyone wants to save a buck these days and, and taking a bagged lunch is one of the easiest, healthiest ways to save a whole bushel of ’em.  And if you can pat yourself on the back for being green on top of it all, that’s even better.  But how about doing all of that in style?

oots1These lunchboxes by OOTS! marry good looks and practicality better than any I’ve seen so far.  I simply adore that blue and pink combo.  And look how my Klean Kanteen would fit on top!  I love it.  Love, love, love it.

Unfortunately, at $45 each when you by them with the inner lidded compartments (a must in my book), these boxes are a little harder on the budget up front than some other perfectly suitable options (exhibit a: the Laptop Lunch, which I reviewed yesterday).  The only catch is, this one is light years ahead of the Laptop Lunch in the cool quotient department, at least when it comes to adult usage.

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Oh dear.  I’m not sure I can justify spending the money on it right now, but I really want one.  Birthday fairy?  Santa Clause?  Easter bunny?  Are you listening?

Go check these out at the official OOTS! website. This design team has some really cool baby and child accessories too, by the way.

(Photos are from the OOTS! website.)

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If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may remember my anticipation as I counted down the days to Valentine’s this past February.  I bought my husband a pile of gifts and could hardly stand the tension with them sitting wrapped on the table for what seemed like forever.

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Do you know that feeling of finding the perfect gift for someone you adore?  One they aren’t expecting?  One they couldn’t guess even if they tried for weeks?  It’s thrilling and excruciating at the same time.  I begged J to open them early.  He refused, of course, but his reaction was worth the wait.

Perhaps not many husbands would ooh and aah over a new lunchbox, but J did.  He loves taking his lunch to work.  It’s healthier than buying a lunch, it saves us a ton of money, and I also think that it’s a way he feels loved and cared for.  So he was tickled pink to discover that I bought him an Americanized bento box called the Laptop Lunch.

closed laptop lunch box

I’m not sure why he felt compelled to deface his lunchbox with all of those stickers, but — alas! — he did, and sometimes we need to allow our husbands such childish expressions.  Sigh.  (I suppose it’s no secret now where he went to school and where he works.  🙂

Have you heard of bento?  According to Biggie, the author of the wildly popular bento blog, Lunch in a Box,

A Bento lunch is a compact, balanced, visually appealing meal packed in a box. Historically, it’s a Japanese box lunch, similar in concept to the Indian tiffin, the Korean dosirak, or the Filipino baon lunch. In Japanese, “bento” or “obento” refers to the packed meal, and “bento-bako” refers to the bento box itself. See the Wikipedia entry on bento for more details.

The Laptop Lunch contains multiple compartments that keep all of your food separated and even houses utensils.  I call it Americanized for a few reasons.  First, it’s bigger than most Japanese bento boxes.  Second, it’s made in America and contains no BPA, lead, or the other scary things that are coming out of China these days.  Finally, it doesn’t have a Japanese look, though, frankly, I’m a little relieved about that.  The largest authentic Japanese bento box I found online sported the slogan “Pleasure Supply” on top.  Yes, really.  I’m not going to go there, but suffice it to say I thought we might be asking for trouble if J actually toted something like that to work.

Here’s the inside of the Laptop Lunch box:

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Unfortunately, this one of the less visually appealing lunches I’ve packed for him, but I happened to have the camera handy this time.  As you can see, I was able to pack some leftover braised lamb and natural chicken sausage, bell peppers, cucumbers, and potatoes.  The fork and knife are tucked into the slot on the right-hand side.  Because the man burns through so many calories, he also had a little baggie of nuts to go with this meal.

Why I Love the Bento Concept:

  • Bento boxes reduce waste.  No more zippie bags or disposable tupperware!
  • It encourages healthy choices.  The food we make at home is far healthier than almost anything you can buy at a lunch spot.
  • Bento boxes simplify what you carry.  Because I avoided zippie bags, J used to juggle a slew of little glass Pyrex containers on his way to and from work.  Don’t get me wrong; I love my Pyrex, but bento allows me to put it all in one box without all the foods touching each other.
  • No breakage.  Again, better than the Pyrex.
  • It saves money.  Although the boxes are a moderate investment up front (e.g., approximately $23 for the Laptop Lunch), the ability to pack a good, healthy lunch quickly and efficiently every day adds up to major savings over time.
  • I love the idea of making lunch visually appealing.  I think all of our senses are important in our experience of food.  If you want to go the extra mile in this department, there are lots and lots of guides and gadgets out there for making everything from themed lunch boxes to fashioning crabs and octopus out of sausages or piglets out of rice (to see more examples of elaborate bentos, go to Google Images and search for “bento”).  That’s not how I want to spen my time, but I can certainly appreciate those who pour their creativity into their children’s lunches.  I prefer the appeal of different colored fruits and veggies.
  • Compact.  J puts his lunch in the fridge when he gets to work, and taking up less space is definitely desirable.  This is all on top of making it easier for him to tote to and from the office.
  • I find it motivating.  I want to pack lunches for J now.  It’s just plain fun!

Pros of the Laptop Lunch:

  • Made in the USA
  • As safe as plastic can get
  • High quality construction (the plastic is thick and sturdy)
  • Fun to look at, though I do wonder that J never batted an eyelash over the bright purple exterior!  All the fun colors could be a big plus for enticing children to eat healthy lunches.  (By the way, other colors are available at http://www.laptoplunches.com)
  • The size is perfect for older children, women, and men with smaller appetites.  This does depend on what you put in the box, of course.  We try to go heavy on the veggies, and they take up a lot of room without providing many calories.  The picture I showed above has a lot fewer vegetables than we try to eat at each meal, which bothers me.  If your family goes mostly meatless or likes a lot of starches, this size box might be  just right even for dad.  That’s just not how it works in our home.

Cons of the Laptop Lunch:

  • All the tiny compartments can be super annoying to clean all the time.  I highly recommend buying a second set of “innards.”  I caught a sale and was able to do this.  It helps a lot!
  • Too small for really big appetites.  J stands 6’5″ tall, has a naturally high metabolism, and works out on top of it all.  He burns through a lot of calories.  Plus, we like to eat our biggest meals at lunch time, so the Laptop Lunch doesn’t really suit his needs.  He always has to take lots of snacks with him when he uses this box.

Overall, I highly recommend Laptop Lunch boxes.  They are safe, well-constructed, and well-designed.  My only real complaint is the availability of only one size.  I’d love a larger one for my husband, but this size probably works beautifully for most people.

I have since bought something that suits J’s needs even better, so I’ll share about that next time.

Definitely check out the Lunch in a Box blog if you want to learn more about all of this.  I find it all quite fascinating, though I’m happy to enjoy bento at far less sophisticated (and time-consuming!) level.

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Adventures in Montrose

Life is finally approaching a sense of normalcy around here.  After two and half months and countless games of merry-go-round with the couch in the living room, all the public areas of our apartment — living room, dining room, kitchen, and bathroom — are finally decluttered, organized, and properly arranged.  Just having clean, orderly space to breathe in has done wonders for my sanity.  Our bedroom and the sunroom remain war zone-esque, but I’m slowly conquering that territory too.  At least now I can retreat to safer ground when I need a break.

We’ve been enjoying some of the special features of our area too.  I am now toiling through my third week of art classes at the Glassell School of Art, which, along with the Museum of Fine Arts, is all of 5 minutes from my apartment.  I’ve wanted to take art all my life, and I finally get the chance!  Unfortunately, “life-long art interest” doesn’t translate to “instant art genius.”  Imagine that.  It turns out I have to live by the same rules as everyone else.  Why are we humans surprised when we run into, um, human limitations?  Tears of frustration aside, I think I’m enjoying the experience (dare I sign up for another in the fall?), and, if nothing else, it’s a wonderful opportunity for exploration and self-knowledge.  I just don’t always like looking in the mirror.

J and I have been exploring other art forms as well.  We’ve hit up Miller Outdoor Theater several times for free, top-notch performances of various kinds.  Here we are hanging out on the green, eating our picnic dinner with friends, waiting for the Houston Ballet to begin a mixed repertory program:


It was fabulous!  They performed a heart-stoppingly beautiful pas de deux to Tchaikovsky, as well as a contemporary piece set to the music of Mediaeval Baebes that I loved and a stunning all-male piece called Solo.  I’m amazed that we can see this quality of performances for free.  Unfortunately, we missed the Houston Grand Opera’s night at Miller, but we did catch Nrityagram Dance Company, an Indian dance group that performs Odissi, one of the world’s oldest dance forms.  That was a fascinating show.

We’ve also bought tickets to a few shows, and even though I chose the cheaper tickets, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by our views.  It seems the Wortham Center’s theaters are well-designed.  Here we are right before we crashed a preview party of a new exhibit at the art museum, which I totally didn’t “get,” and then moved on to see a splendid program called the Power of Movement:

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The Houston Ballet’s Swan Lake last Friday rounded out our dance marathon.  Next up is the Houston Symphony’s free performances at Miller.

Seriously, if I hadn’t been so sick, I don’t know how I could have survived in the suburbs.  We couldn’t be more thrilled with this move, even though it’s been a tough one.

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Well, this is about as anti-climactic as news gets, but that $50 Craigslist freezer does, indeed, work — and beautifully at that.  Sixteen half gallons of raw goats’ milk from Miabella Farm line the top shelf, cooked quinoa in hubby-sized portions waves from the door, and I’m chewing my lower lip over the exact composition of the fifty pound grass-fed beef and lamb order I’m about to place with Paidom Meats to fill up the bottom of the freezer.  What next?  I must say, life with a deep freeze suits me just fine.

On another note entirely, here’s a quick and easy recipe that I’m totally digging right now.  I love the lemony zing, and basil always seems just right in the summer.  It’s also a great way to use up the summer squash spilling over the farmers’ market stands — an annual dilemma for me (I wrote a whole post on the subject here).  Costco’s frozen wild-caught salmon filets keep the dish reasonably priced.  I eat it alone or with hemp seeds because my body still doesn’t love grains, but J enjoys it over quinoa or brown rice.  If you keep individual-size portions of cooked quinoa or rice in the freezer, this dish becomes a one pot meal.  Nice!

Baked Lemon-Basil-Garlic Salmon and Vegetables

4 pieces of salmon filet (4 to 6 oz each)
2 large zucchini, shredded (yellow summer squash would work too)
4 medium-large carrots, shredded

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (if your lemons have a dull flavor, you’ll need more juice)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine (e.g., chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, not riesling or zinfandel)
10 medium cloves of garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon dried basil or 3 tablespoons fresh basil
sea salt
freshly-ground black pepper (I like to pepper pretty generously)

Preheat oven to 450.

Spray a 9×13 glass baking dish with olive oil and strew shredded zucchini and carrots in it.  In a measuring glass, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, wine, basil, salt, and pepper.  Pour half the mixture over the vegetables and stir to combine.  Cover tightly with foil and bake for 12 minutes.

Remove the foil and lay the salmon filets on top of the vegetables.  Pour the rest of the lemon juice mixture over the fish and veggies.  Recover and bake for 10 to 15 more minutes, depending on how done you like your salmon.  Serve with hemp seeds, rice, quinoa, potatoes, or all by its sweet self.

Serves 4 to 6, depending on size of salmon filets and appetites.

*Note: If you don’t want to deal with adding the salmon later, you can put everything in the dish at the beginning and cook for 25 minutes.  The downside is that you’ll get overcooked fish.

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So, I’ve been busy — busy with the best and worst move of my life. 

On the best side:

I adore our new neighborhood!  We have beautiful tree-lined streets, bookstores, scores of antique shops, a dozen or more restaurants, two grocery stores, and several speciality shops within easy walking distance.   J even picked up our dry cleaning on foot on Friday.  Furthermore, we really are within biking distance of the museums, library, post office, and farmers’ markets.  The people are friendly (how is it possible that people are friendlier in the heart of the city than in the ‘burbs?), and, what’s more, there are people like me living here.  I really hope we can make some friends.

I bought a fabulous vintage Schwinn bicycle, painted red and named “Dorothy” by the man who refurbished her.  She has a bell, a rear-view mirror, and even a basket on front.  I promise to share photos soon.

Now this one’s big.  Hold your breath.  My husband has agreed to go look at a scooter I found on Craigslist.  Shocking, no?  Wait, here’s a photo:

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And how about another?

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Be still my heart.  She’s a 2007 Stella, already decked out with a front and rear rack and a sissy back (I think that’s what that extra cushion thingy is called). 


More to come…

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My new apartment has a ledge over the kitchen sink that’s simply begging for cheerful houseplants.  Combine that with my desire to keep growing fresh herbs after the move, and you can understand why I was so thrilled that The Kitchn blog pointed me to a fabulous Chow article on growing herbs indoors.  The article explains why peppermint, lemongrass, and chives are easiest, while basil and sage are best avoided by the indoor gardener.  The author also details proper watering and feeding protocol, which, as a total gardening nincompoop, I really appreciate.  If you’ve ever wanted to grow herbs indoors, or — from one brown thumb to another — if you’ve ever killed herbs indoors, you might check it out.

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