Sunday, December 28, 2014

Book Review: The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

A Cultural Revolution Creates Pain and Suffering

Muddy River is a small town with regular everyday folks until a series of events lead to neighbors turning against each other, families ripped apart, and leaders being turned against.

The aftermath is felt years later when the government organizes a series of public events to execute a former Red Guard leader, Shan Gu, inciting violence and backstabbing once again, while others use this as an opportunity to fight for freedom.

This novel is extremely grim, following the lives of a few different members of the community, spanning generations, gender and philosophies. We learn more about the parents of Shan Gu, the shame they have felt and how once she is executed they cope in different ways and become polarized. We watch as a respected member of the community uses this event as a platform for demanding change. We see a young boy caught in the politics of the situation and how the school system works to control the lives and political leanings of the students and their families. We follow as a little girl named Nini who was born with physical challenges and learn how she is ultimately tied forever with Shan Gu.

Nothing is simple in this book, and all the lives of the characters are very intertwined. This story is ultimately a very sad one but with fascinating characters, that do their best to dream and love, despite the restrictive society that they live in. This is a very powerful book.

Book Review: The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Megestu

The "New Start" in American did not Live Up to the Dream


An Immigrant's Story

Sepha Stephanos is a shopkeeper in Washington D.C. who fled Ethiopia during the revolution. He came to America, away from the horror and memories of those horrors, to start a new life. His vision for that dream has changed over time, focusing at first on education, then on a shop to call his own. He settles in a poor section of the city that is slowly being revitalized and becoming more diverse.

Sepha is lonely, having only two friends, also African immigrants, who he meets with on a regular basis and reminisces about life in his old country. Each of them has a story of a past, in their prospective homelands, and each has a dream that has not turned out as they had originally envisioned.

All of this is a backdrop for the story of Sepha and his relationship with his new white neighbor who comes into the community with her biracial daughter. Judith restores a four story old home next to Sepha's apartment.

As the neighborhood begins to change and Sepha develops a relationship with Judith and Neomi, he begins to dream again of the potential in everything around him. But as he goes down this road, racial tensions begin to build and everything is threatened.

This story builds with alternate passages in the present and in the past, slowly revealing the layers of what has happened. Sepha is also discovering who he is and who he may want to be, working on freeing himself from the bonds he himself has created.

This story is powerful and displays raw human emotion. Often it is depressing and hard to read about the racial tensions but wonderfully written. I did enjoy it. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Restaurant Review: Johnny Noodle King

From the Fine Folks who brought us Green Dot

This isn't a burger joint if you couldn't discern that from the title. Rather this is a new concept from the owners of Green Dot Stables and is very close to their other restaurant.This place is much smaller than Green Dot but on a Friday night (about 10PM we were able to snatch a table right away). The inside was very cool, with kind of a diner meets industrial/retro look. Wood and concrete, inside with an awesome neon side outside.

Johnny Noodle King is about noodles. . . ramen noodles to be more specific. I love Asian inspired food in all sort of varieties - Thai, Vietnamese, Sushi, Chinese. . . , really all of it, but I guess Ramen noodles is not really my thing. Pho is also a noodle soup (and featured on this menu) but I don't want all my dishes to be the same noodles with a broth-like consistency. I think that the idea is good for some dishes but I think I was envisioning a little more of a "sauce" with some of the choices even if the menu was pretty upfront about the broth.

We tried Curry, which included red coconut curry broth (not sauce!) with pork belly, zuchinni, cauliflower, lime, shallot and fish sauce. The flavor of the broth was very good and the bowl was very generous (it's a rare occasion when I actually pack up something to take home for later). The noodles were a wonderful consistency - this isn't microwave ramen noodles. . . I just really would have liked a thicker broth/sauce for my dish and think I would have liked it better with rice than noodles. I know it's unfair to compare this to a Thai dish but I would ave liked it that way. By the way, the pork belly is awesome and I made sure to eat every last morsel. It was tender, with a nice balance between fat and meat, and just  a touch salty. Good stuff.

The other noodle bowl we chose was Shoyu. Again, noodles in broth but with this one I think the thin broth worked. The broth tasted like a miso soup and had pork belly, nori, egg, bamboo, scallions, kamaboko and bonito. This dish was lighter than the curry and featured the same wonderful pork belly. I should add that you have the option to add all kinds of additional ingredients into these bowls (like more pork belly!) such as extra noodles, rice, seafood, etc. You probably could customize your bowl to your exact liking.

There are other offerings on the menu, including a rice cake with shredded pork, duck egg yolk, kewpie mayo, scallion, tagorashi and garlic oil. The rice cake resembled a sushi roll to me and was a nice consistency but didn't really make me think I had to try it again.

We also tried the octopus cucumber salad which featured several generous pieces of octopus. I should say that I really like octopus and have had octopus salad at several restaurants and this did not taste anything like what I am used to. I really didn't enjoy it and left it behind. The octopus was not the chewy texture I really like and it seemed like it might have been cooked with a liquid to simmer for quite a while. It was also very fishy. The sauce was not the usual cucumber dressing. Maybe what I eat is typically more Americanized but this didn't do it for me.

I did enjoy a really great beer while we were there. They have several Hatichino offerings and I tried the ginger beer. Good stuff. Cool bottle.

So final verdict? If you like ramen this probably is a good place for you. If you are looking for more variety and envisioning dishes with rice and sauce, it may not be. I will definitely go back to Green Dot instead when we are on that side of town. This didn't do it for me.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Book Review: The End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina

Two Deaths - One Journey

A savage murder in a wealthy Glasgow suburb has the locals afraid. As detective Alex Morrow begins to investigate she learns that there are many secrets including the victim's personal life that becomes relevant in looking for those responsible.

Simultaneously a billionaire commits suicide as scandal will strip him of his wealth and reputation. Ripples of damage hit his wife and two children who will have to come to terms with a new stripped down life.

Together these stories intertwine as not everything is how it seems on so many levels. Images are not always the truth.

The investigation itself is interesting as is all the characters. Detective Alex Morrow has her own story too as she is pregnant with twins and trying to remain relevant in a squad dominated by men.

Good book!

Book Review: The Art of Fielding: A Novel by Carl Harbach

College Baseball but so much More

I don't know much about baseball and I have never really been that interested in the game. There was even this one time where I went to Tiger's Stadium because I was invited to go with friends and I brought a book. . . All that being said, I thoroughly enjoyed this book which may have a baseball theme but really is more about people, their intimate relationships and emotions, rather than just about baseball.

Henry Skrimshander had every intention of giving up his passion for baseball after high school, and following in his father's footsteps to work in a blue collar job, never dreaming of going to college. That all changes when he meets Mike Schwartz, a baseball player and student at Westish College, who sees him play in a tournament and decides that he must recruit him, changing Henry's destiny in his single minded drive to bring the college to a championship.

This story focuses on Henry and four of the people whose lives become intertwined with his especially after one fateful game. For me the central question in regard to Henry was what happens when the drive, effort and discipline replace the original love or passion for something that was what brought you there to begin with? I think that this question really has nothing to do with baseball or could easily be applied to so many other activities or vocations, and is a question I often ponder in my own life when it comes to making art.

I really loved all the characters in this book and felt that I was with them as I heard about their dreams, their fears and their insecurities. Great book.

Restaurant Review: Mazza Indian Cuisine

Paneer is the Bomb!

What is paneer? Paneer is an Indian version of cottage cheese but don't envision curds. . . It comes in a brick and is very mild, with a consistency close to extra firm tofu. Most of the time it shows up in Indian food at restaurants in cubes that have been fried or cooked gently in the sauce of the dish (I prefer it a little bit fried) and is often featured in Mutter Paneer with peas and a creamy sauce. I am not a huge fan of peas and think that they taint the paneer. . .

Most people are familiar with Chicken Makahani or Butter Chicken as staples on an Indian restaurant menu but it's often more difficult to find similar dishes with paneer instead. My first exposure to Paneer Makahani was in Toronto, at a gem of a restaurant called 309 Dhaba Indian Excellence and it was heaven (on a completely side note, or semi related, I often dream of getting a passport just to go back and eat there - the best Indian I ever had and very romantic). When we returned home, I asked the local restaurant if they could make Butter Chicken for us but substitute the chicken with Paneer and we have been ordered our dishes this way ever since.

We have quite a few Indian restaurants in town but to find food just the way we like it we have it narrowed down to a handful and Mazza Indian Cuisine is really a treat. What's nice is that the food is consistently good. there is another restaurant in town that is sometimes incredible (and those are the days that you are glad you came) but often is mediocre, and sometimes just plain bad. There has been more than on occasion that we have opened up take out containers and after a quick taste had to throw it away. It's just not worth the gamble as it is not exactly cheap to eat, and I don't like to come away disappointed.

We visited Mazza yesterday and it was actually decorated for the holidays which was nice as it was already dark outside and the glow of the lights was festive and warm. Now I will warn you that this place in terms of ambiance is nothing special but it's damn good. I do get carry out from here as well but this food is so fresh and tastes so wonderful right after it comes out from the kitchen so I really do like to eat in the actual restaurant. I should also warn you about a couple more things: 1. We are often the only ones there in what I would consider peak time but don't be alarmed. I think their carry out/lunchtime buffet keeps them going and you don't have to worry that it's not going to be good. 2. It is going to take a while for them to take your order and a long time to actually get your food. Again, their carry out business is brisk and they don't have a lot of staff. The food is made to order I believe and it's going to take time but it's worth the wait.

Last night we had three different dishes. I am sure in the photo it's not very distinguishable but let's start at the twelve o'clock position. That is Lamb Koorma. It really is a mild dish with buttery soft cubes of lamb in a cream sauces with almonds, coconut and raisins. I really am not a huge raisin fan but in Koorma it works. Their koorma sauce has little shredded bits of coconut which is a nice touch and even my picky kids were surprised at how much they liked this dish. Vegetarian? Try a Vegetable Koorma with the same sauce but with mixed vegetables. I also enjoy that.

The dish next to the Koorma, clockwise is Paneer Tiki Masala. It won't be as spicy as the original Chicken Tiki Masala on the menu because the spiced Tiki chicken is absent from the dish but it has a hint of spice. The sauce is mild and creamy and the cubes of cheese are abundant. Across from it is the Butter Paneer and quite honestly, as there isn't chicken in this either, you really won't discern much of a difference from the Tiki but this is a bit milder. When you put chicken in these dishes the contrast is more pronounced.

All dishes come with a choice of naan or rice. We always order both as it's much better to put a layer of rice on our plate to catch all the gravy or sauce but then scoop it up with the Naan. Good stuff.

If you are in the area, or even if it's a bit of a drive, I highly recommend Mazza. You will be glad you drove there and even will forget about the wait once they bring you the delicious food.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

There is Nothing Quite Like a Wood Burning Fireplace

The Gas Fireplace with a Remote Control Just Didn't Cut It


This article could also be known as "How to Convert your Fireplace Back to Woodburning" and "How to Replace a Missing Damper Knob for a 1920's Fireplace"

When we moved into this new home a year ago, we were greeted with a gas powered fireplace. Having had wood burning before we were hesitant but so many people talked about the benefits of gas. After a couple of fires, we still couldn't see it but thought we might be stuck with it. Sure, it's nice to just push a button and have the flames licking the logs but there wasn't the smell of wood char or smoke in the air. It was nice not hauling in logs (or stacking them on the porch) but I also had to figure out what to do with all those little boxes that kids' snacks came in, and how to recycle newspaper (let's not talk about all the twigs in the backyard after a thunderstorm). I also didn't like the idea of spending money on gas with the heating bill already out of control last winter.

Kindling Box
So this week we had an appointment with a chimney sweep and kept our fingers crossed. I should add that we had made the decision to at least have a consultation but it was actually pretty difficult to find someone that would look at the fireplace and tell us if we could burn wood in it. Maybe it's because of the time of year, but we also made this appointment over a month in advance. In fact this was the chimney sweep's only open appointment until the new calendar year so I actually booked it and worked from home for that four hour window.

We were very happy to find out that yes, this fireplace was indeed a woodburning fireplace originally. Now there are probably some of you who are saying, "Well of course it was you dumba$$, the house was built in the 20's so why would you think it was originally for gas?" Well that would make perfect sense but because of the small size of this fireplace we had been told it may have been originally to heat coal. So there! It turns out that our fireplace is a Class A fireplace, with a teracotta liner, and could easily be coverted back.

So on Thanksgiving Eve, we set upon the task of converting back. It really wasn't that difficult but it was messy. First we scooped up all the little rocks, fibers and sand and ripped the guts of the gas powered apparatus out of the fireplace and swept and vacuumed the remenants. We then pulled the gas line out, turning off the valve downstairs first, and capped it for extra measure. The hole that was drilled for the gas line was filled with furnace cement. That was probably the most challenging part as the first tub I purchased was dried out and I had to make a second trip for the exchange.

On Thanksgiving we went out in search of firewood. Now I know that it's probably not the most likely day to get it but we found a gentleman open during the holiday, as his workshop was also his home, and spent a good half hour loading a crate of wood into our truck, and then another half hour stacking it on the deck railing in our backyard. I would say we have enough for most of the winter. It may be a new holiday tradition because I can't imagine Christmas without a fire.

Damper Knob from Old Door Knob
Now that we had the fireplace in working order again, we began to focus on the little details. When we moved in we discovered that the damper knob was actually missing and the damper itself was seized. My husband is a pretty handy guy and used an old vintage crystal door knob for a temporary damper knob but it never quite matched the fireplace. The chimney sweep was able to free up the damper (it's now in working order - it just needs some "jiggling" when you open and close it as it has some grooves for the almost 100 years of turning it has experienced), but now we really examined the knob situation. We looked at vintage hardware stores but could not fathom spending a couple hundred dollars for a replacement. Instead we found a "new" vintage doorknob at a local antiques marketplace. It actually was a complete kit or set, with two knobs and the mechanism. Because it's a coppery metal and oblong rather than round, we think this is a better fit. For better control, my husband drilled a hold in the bottom of the knob (where the collar is) and then through the remaining stub that was attached to the actual fireplace and made a pin with a nail that was cut down to fit. It's now pretty secure.

Damper Box Lid Detail - Old Insulated Milk Box
We did also find a new box to hold kindling. When we moved we never anticipated needing a grate or a box, or a log holder for that matter, ever again so we are now on the hunt for all those tools again. This new kindling box is made out of a vintage insulated milk box and because it has a lid, seems like a safer way to store newpaper and wood near the fireplace without the threat of burning embers hitting those flammable materials. 

I plan on curling up in a chair tomorrow with a plate of homemade cookies and a good book, next to the fire. . . That has been on the list of necessary weekend activities for this long break. Now the only problem is that we are forecasted to have a Sunday on the last day of November close to 60 degrees?!!! I'm pretty sure it won't last so maybe next weekend!

Another Steampunk Candelabra!

I don't seem to like regular candlesticks.

Okay that's not completely honest as I do have some traditional candlesticks flanking both side of the mirror above our mantle.  I also have a few different arrangements for candles that range from items I have been coerced into buying from Partylite, to other items to display votives ranging from Ikea to Home Goods.

All that being said, I am a sucker for antique scales. Recently I did blog about a find from a local flea market that I called a twist on the candelabra. I will readily admit that this was inspired by a local restaurant called Local Kitchen that has rows of them on the back wall. There scales are more the traditional kind of scale you envision in an old kitchen with the single platform but I had found this double, more industrial scale that I thought would look great on our dining room table instead of you know, a traditional candelabra.

But I have been on the hunt, this entire time, for a single platform vintage scale. I have scoured countless flea markets, antique shops and garage sales to find the perfect one.

Well today was the day. We were on the hunt for a fireplace grate and stopped off at Eastern Market to explore the antique shoppes they have there and I found an assortment of old scales. I am a little particular, that's why it has taken so long, and I quickly discarded the cute one that must have originally been for formula or baby food, as well as the postage scales. But I found this beauty that I will keep in our kitchen, on a wooden buffet.

It really was hard to resist buying more than one, and lining the whole buffet with them, but really I have to be a little practical. We actually use the surface of our buffet as storage space, with a burled wood basket for things like garlic and ginger, as well as the occasional avocado, and have a basket for breads and other fine baked goods. I also believe in keeping that Kitchen Aid mixer out so I don't hesitate before baking because I have to do weight lifting and weird yoga poses to pull it out from a bottom cabinet.

I'm thinking that this weekend has a "fire" theme. We also collected firewood and stacked it in the backyard, after converting our fireplace back to wood burning. Our other purchase today was an old vintage dairy box to keep kindling in. Hmmm. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Gnocchi Made in a Skillet!

Yes, it's true! You don't even have to boil it ahead of time.

I found this recipe in my travels on Pinterest and pinned this to make when I had time. Really, it's a super simple recipe and came from the Food Network here as "Cheesey Gnocchi Casserole".  What makes this so interesting, at least to me, was that I didn't have to boil the gnocchi in water. Every time I add the pasta to the boiling water in the pot it's an adventure as I try to avoid scalding myself with the droplets of water that bounce back at me! This recipe has them simmering gently in a skillet with chicken broth.

I did find that the original recipe called for water in the narrative but was not listed in the ingredients. I followed the recipe besides that to a "t" except for reducing the amount of onion. Truth be told, the family would like to see even less onion next time. They are not big onion fans and seem to detect it even in minuscule amounts. I suppose I should also mention that I did not have fresh Thyme and used some dried herbs

I started by melting the butter in a heavy duty skillet I have that is oven proof. I bought this pan years ago on clearance at Williams Sonoma and it has served us well. To the butter I added the chopped onion and let it cook for a good five minutes or so to really soften it.

Once the  onions were softened (next time there will be less of them), I added a slice of deli ham that I diced into even little cubes, along with the Thyme. I let this cook until it was a little bit golden. Boy did it smell good. The chicken stock was added (courtesy of a box from Trader Joe's) along with the water mentioned in the recipe but not in the ingredient list.

Once all these ingredients were added and combined, I raised the heat a bit and then added the gnocchi. If you are a Trader Joe's fan, you know that they have some great gnocchi that is both tasty and cheap. I highly recommend it. I typically make it with a cream sauce and some pancetta but like I said before, the idea of putting it in a simmering skillet instead of boiling it was very intriguing. I may do this from now on with my own sauce.

I was really unsure if this would work but once I put the lid on the simmering pan the gnocchi really did cook quickly without getting overdone. I would say they were fork tender in about five minutes or so. Once that was done, I added the cream (it called for a 1/4 cup but I probably added closer to a half cup) and the peas. I probably should not say I followed the recipe to a "T", huh?

I used shredded cheese from Trader Joe's for the top (a combination of Swiss and Gruyere that they sell prepackaged). I really don't have stock in the company. I promise. I placed the skillet in the oven with the cheese and broiled it on low for about five minutes, until the top was golden brown.

Final verdict? Yes, I'm making this again with the following revisions: 1. Less onion, way less onion, 2. Bacon instead of deli ham, 3. A little less cheese, maybe switching to Parmesan.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Vintage Style Apothecary Cabinet Updated with Colored LED Lights

Thank you Ikea for once again bringing it all together

A few months ago, I purchased an apothecary style cabinet from Ikea. I should really clarify that. . . I should say "my dear husband purchased this cabinet for me because I was too cheap."  It really was the perfect fit for this little area in our foyer and because that was really the first place you would look when you entered our home, it was pretty darn important it was the right piece. However, while Ikea had this item at a phenomenal price (especially when you compare this to similar items at Restoration Hardware or true antique sites), originally you could not just pick this item up at the store. For that matter, you couldn't even order it and then pick it up at the store. It had to be delivered by a truck company and it was an extra $100 dollars. This ended up being the best Valentine's Day present ever.

That was, of course, in February. My husband had it shipped directly to his office and transported it home for me very carefully as there were four glass panels for the interior as well as two glass shelves for us to assemble. don't think for one minute that just because it was delivered that it came preassembled because anything you buy from Ikea should have to be built. It's a rite of passage.

Now the fun part of the story is that I recently went back to Ikea and you can just walk in there and pick one up. No more shipping charges. If you decide that you want this look you will simply be able to walk in there and go home with it for the flat rate of $199! You can see it here for yourself at Again, this really is a steal at that price. The cabinet comes in "dark gray" (think charcoal and industrial objects), "beige" (think dirty off white) and a "light green" (think really cool industrial retro 50's mint color). I really would have liked the light green but because our house has so much green in it (including the wall right behind the cabinet, I chose the gray. While one day I may have repainted every wall in this house, choosing to cover up some walls with a new paint color strictly to purchase a cabinet seemed a little ridiculous. Additionally I should add that I am not the best painter and I will leave these walls alone as long as possible.

Because this cabinet is such a focal point, I have been very selective on the items we have put it it. They have definitely evolved over time but a constant has been these K'ah Tequila bottles shaped like sugar skulls. We have also been searching local flea markets and garage sales for vintage bottles and recently added a very cool old seltzer bottle that has an almost electric blue glass and a chrome dispenser on top.

I have wanted to add lights to this cabinet for quite a while (Day One) but it really was something that had to be thought out and the challenges addressed. First challenge: No power on the wall over there. We solved that by tapping into a junction box in the basement, threading wired across the rafters in the basement ceiling, and then drilling a hole in the floor off to the side of the little nook where the cabinet resides. I am proud to say that I personally (with guidance) put in the new outlet on that wall!

The second challenge was maybe not as difficult but it was finding the lights. Ikea was able to help with that. During our last trip there they were really showcasing these LED lights in a variety of applications and had them behind television sets, as strips under shelves, and of course in cabinets. I settled on this Dioder 4 Piece Set which has 4 strips of LED lights that can either cycle automatically through a series of colors or can be set to one of an array of colors. As you can see from the picture at the beginning of this article right now I have it on a red shade but have also had it on a stark white and a cool blue. It's all about mood.

I originally envisioned these lights running in all four corners of the cabinet but once we began mounting them I decided to run them along all the four sides of the ceiling of the cabinet. The lights then radiate the color downward and add a glow to the area as well as the items in the cabinet, without blinding you as  you walk by. Putting the lights in was definitely part of the challenge. The 3M tape did not do a good job of holding the strips in place. I replaced them with Velcro and used longer pieces to really hold the strips in place. Additionally we used zip ties with these "sticky backs" to mount the cords out of sight that had to run down the cabinet to the outlet.

I think the lights really add to the piece and they add an extra bit of ambiance without being overly distracting. My piece is now complete and real showcase.

Update 11/29/2014: The velcro didn't cut it either. I used Crazy Glue on the back of each LED strip to attach a small cubed magnet. Those strips will not fall down again!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

New Address Sign

Sometimes Plain Numbers are just Boring

Yes, when we moved in there were some conventional metal numbers fastened on to a wood strip. Boring, boring, boring! I went to Michael's and bought a wood plaque and sketched our street numbers on the board, in a style that would be reminiscent of Arts and Crafts (I do love an Arts and Crafts style "8"). I used Venetian Glass Tiles that I cut, and then glued them on the board, leaving gaps between them, to create the mosaic.

You can't see it here, but I also put Hematite stars into the background so there is some cool little glints that catch the light. Black grout was used to finish the piece.

A Twist on the Traditional Candelabra

Inspiration Found at a Local Restaurant

But we Made it our Own

I really like Local Kitchen and Bar Restaurant in nearby Ferndale, Michigan. Wonderful food and a great atmosphere. It really does feel homey, like you really may be in someone's kitchen with all the wonderful vintage knick-knacks and distressed wood that I adore. One of the things that I really admired there was there use of old vintage scales that they had scattered among the place as candle holders. These were the old vintage kitchen scales, with a candle sitting on top of the tray used for measuring and I've been looking for just the right one for about a year now.

However, today, I found this gem at the Royal Oak Farmer's Market and decided that I liked it even better! I visualized it with two red pillar candles on it. Now you can see these are brand new candles but over time, there will be wax that have melted down the sides and pooled on the two platforms. I'm helping that process along now.

Banister Update

I Should Have Taken "Before" Photos

...But you can use your imagination.

Picture this. A banister painted semi gloss white with grooves in the surface from years of wear. I'm sure that my rings weren't really helping at all at maintaining any semblance of smoothness. The grime from dirty fingers was really ground into those rough areas.

Honestly, I was using cleaner on the surface of the banister to keep the dirty ground in stuff at bay, but then we met our tipping point and realized it had to come down. See the brackets holding the banister in place were not put in very well and were starting to separate from the wall. There was damage around the original plastic anchors that were used to secure the screws and the banister would actually rock back and forth if you put any weight on it and it was only a matter of time until it came out of the wall.

I should mention that the wall is plaster. I know my limitations and I can say with certainty any patching I would do would make it worse. So we found these cute little decorative wood blocks that we used to cover up the mess that was our wall in these areas. Now, of course that involved new holes and anchor points but you can't see them.

We also took the easy way out with the paint. A light sanding of the whole surface and a can of spray paint fixed our problem. I actually picked a satin finish with a Krylon called "Vintage Red" and painted both the banister and the decorative wood blocks with it. I think it was a quick easy fix and the banister in this new color actually pops. We seem to have a lot of red accents in our house despite the base colors of green all around. So far, it's worked for us. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sunday Cocktail: Should I call it a Cucumber Slurpee?

It's Definitely an Ode to a Single Cucumber

I tried my hand at container gardening on the deck this year. All I wanted was cucumbers. See, cucumbers were essential for cocktails with Hendrick's Gin. But alas, the crop of cucumbers were not bountiful. It was rather, ahem, pathetic. The first cucumber had promise. It was beautiful and actually made the vine that had attached to our chiminea sag under its weight. However, a small varmint (squirrel, chipmunk, or?) took a huge bite out of it and I'm not sharing with rodents. The second cucumber also suffered a similar fate. But yesterday, we found one that was untouched and it was beautiful. Yes, tiny, but perfect!

A last hurrah to summer, right? It actually was a beautiful day for very late September, with a high reaching almost 80 degrees and bright sunny skies. . . I really couldn't resist. My Sunday Cocktail Buddy is out of town today and I had to carry on without her but I persevered. 

I muddled some slices of cucumber right into a Ninja cup. No need to mess up extra glasses (come to think of it I could have just drank the drink in the Ninja cup too but that was where I drew the line. I like a cocktail in a pretty glass at the end. To the muddled cucumbers I added about 1.5 oz of Hendrick's Gin and the filled the glass up to the maximum level with ice, adding Canada Dry Ginger Ale and a squeeze of lime juice. I placed it on top of the blender and it came out as a frothy Slurpee. A refreshing cucumber version of a Slurpee.

I think the glass does make it look festive. . . garnished with a fresh slice of cucumber.

Book Review: The Alchemist by Donna Boyd

Immortality Comes at a Price

This book is sweeping in that it covers the story, a personal account, of one man's life as an immortal. He unburdens himself of his history in present time, to a psychiatrist in Manhattan, confessing to a murder that has shook the world.

Sontime traces his life back to the training as a Practitioner at the House of Ra in Egypt, with two other children who find a way to bind themselves together to practice magic. Together they are more powerful than the sum of their parts and they soon question the rules in place and dabble in things that are forbidden.

Through a series of events, they destroy the world they live in and then try to use their powers to create a Utopian world for the masses. Balance is important and the three of them are often too cocky to realize the flaws in their magic, that may appear to be perfect but often unravel once the illusions are put into practice.

Sontime evolves from a young boy who is sure of himself and only regards his personal interests, to a man who is often tormented by a life that is so long that it is impossible to appreciate the small moments or have bonds with the people around him. After 3000+ years he is weary.

This is a wonderful book that is very descriptive in both its descriptions of the world of Ancient Egypt but also about the magic. What is so interesting is hearing the perspective of a man who has come from a world without technology to present time, where science and machines often mimic the magic he once had to use for simple things like lights and refrigeration.

This really is a wonderful story. Highly recommend.

Book Review: The Maze Runner Series by James Dashner

Three Books - 1 Review

You wouldn't just read the first one anyways. . . 

Perhaps I did go into this thinking I could read the first one and be done. My thirteen year old was excited about the moving coming out and wanted me to go with him. That involved reading the book as I always try to get the read on before the view. I had about a week and a half to get through it but I was done way before that and then immediately went on to Book 2. Why? Because Book 1 really left me hanging. There was really no resolution (not enough to leave it neat and tidy) so I really felt obligated to continue. In writing this, I have finished all three books in the original series but still have the prequel to read. From what I understand (as my son has read all of them) the prequel will give me some background history and the main characters in the Maze Runner will make a brief appearance but I don't have to necessarily read it right away.

Of course, there's no denying that this is a series designed for young adults (aka preteens and teenagers). That being said, I have found several books targeted for that age group wonderful reads. Top on that list is Harry Potter, of course, but I also enjoyed the Hunger Games series and The Fault in our Stars. What is a little peculiar to me is that recently the books that the kids are reading and are popular are in the dystopia genre. The world is always a horrible place and I find it depressing, even if the kids in the books (our protagonists) do end up triumphing and creating a brave new world. I am not so old that I don't remember books from my time at the same age and the world wasn't completely screwed up in terms of environment. Books like The Outsiders examined society and classes but the kids could still breathe the air without dying or worry that the government was going to kill them.

The story starts with The Maze Runner, Book #1. Thomas wakes up in a metal box that propels him into the Glade, a world filled with other teenage boys who have created order and built a society. Every 30 days the box comes up with supplies and a new boy to join the group. Thomas can't recall where he came from or anything beyond his name (typical of all of the boys) but quickly becomes part of this new world. The boys live in the Glade, surrounded by a maze and are determined to find their way out and escape and have struggled with figuring out the code for over two years. While the Glade is relatively safe, the world outside in the maze is not. There are many jobs within their society but Thomas wants to be a runner (one of the boys who maps the maze in an attempt to find a way out) although he can't figure out exactly why it's so important to him. Soon the relatively ideal world of the Glade is disrupted, almost immediately after Thomas' arrival, by a series of events that make the need to find a way to escape all the more urgent.

Escape from the Maze won't necessarily mean the end as there are many motives in play here. What if the world isn't what they think it is? Why were they sent to the Maze in the first place?

I don't want to give anything away but the book continues with two more books filled with challenges as the group discovers what is outside the protected environment of the Glade and beyond the Maze. The world may not be how they recall it and there may have been reasons that they have gone through what they have. 

This series was interesting and if you have a child between the ages of 12 and 16 this may be a good book to read so you can interact with them. I would recommend this one. It kept my attention.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Restaurant Review: Poppycock's Traverse City Michigan

Thai Sweet Corn Cakes

That's what it's all about.

Years ago, Poppcock's was part of the annual fall pilgrimage to Traverse City. On my very last trip there (more than a decade ago), there was a dish listed on the specials that I have thought about over the years. Now for some, the idea of thinking about a dish for that long may seem strange, but I blog about food so clearly I really love it. There were these wonderful corn cakes (think fritters) with a spicy peanut sauce. This was years before I fully developed my love for Thai food but I thought these were the bomb.

When I found out I was going back to T.C. for a work conference, I checked to see if Poppycock's was still around. I was pleasantly surprised to find out not only was the restaurant still there (and a fixture to locals) but the Thai Sweet Corn Cakes were now a regular dish on the menu!!!! While we tried many different dishes (that's the joy of going with a large group, I am starting off with this one because it did not disappoint after so many years! It was just as good as I remembered it. Sweet corn friend in light fritters, with a spicy peanut sauce, over a bed of field greens. They also paired it with fried zucchini and yellow squash. I hope I don't wait another ten years to have it again!

Well, you know I didn't start with these corn cakes. Of course there was an appetizer. Bahn Mi Dirty Fries. Oh yes, they were decadent. Sweet potato fries, with pork belly (and you know I affectionately call that "meat candy"), with daikon radish, carrots, jalapeno, julienne cucumber, cilantro, and Siracha sauce. Oh, it was good. The fries were on the soft side but the crispness of the carrots and cucumber balanced it out. And the pork belly was extra uber yummy.  Good good stuff.

So that was the sum of my meal, with the addition of dessert that I also partook in. Milk Chocolate Mousse with Coconut Cookie Crumbles. A light and airy dessert because frankly, I should have been done eating.

So that being said, remember I went with a large group? Oh the joy of passing dishes around! And people really got into the picture taking of all the food. Here are the stars:

1. Oahu Fish with bacon wrapped shrimp. I can't recall the sauce but it also came with green beans. Isn't it pretty! The diner raved.

2. Parmesan crusted whitefish. Fingerling potatoes. Grilled Asparagus. This was also delightful.

3. Grilled Sea Scallops with a sauce/glaze with root beer! Over potato croquettes. I would have never thought of all that but wow!

 4. Honey Chipolte Brisket with more sweet potato fries. Topped with Honey Chipolte au jus and red pepper pesto. Another winner.
5. Ninja Flat Iron Steak, marinated with ginger and sesame. Drizzled with soy and plated with an avocado salad, along with some more squash. Delicious!

There was also a Greek Quinoa salad and a hamburger. Those were also polished off.

And yes, I have to admit I tried several desserts besides my own. They were all delicious but by that time I couldn't even think about more photos of food.

There's a reason this is a staple in Traverse City. Yes, you should go there.

Restaurant Review: Pearl's New Orleans Kitchen Elk Rapids, Michigan

Down South Creole Food in Northern Michigan


Did that sound like a contradiction?

It isn't. It's really true. Good southern comforts offered near Traverse City for those who need a landmark. A couple of weekends back, I traveled to TC for a conference. I haven't been to Traverse City, sans kids or a husband, for quite a few years (think a decade or more) and I created a mental checklist of the places I would like to revisit after all these years. This was one of the top ones on my list and I was happy to hear it was still there.

For years, I had an annual pilgrimage to Traverse City because a dear friend lived there. I usually went in the fall, after tourist season, for a long weekend. There was always a trip to Poppycock's, dessert at Amical's (which I didn't have time to hit this time) and brunch at Pearl's. Eggs Benedict. Mmm, highly recommend it. It was always my last dish on my way out of town. I typically also took a Bananas Foster home for later. . . But I digress. This time we were able to do dinner. Dinner is always good, right?

It was a beautiful evening, a last hurrah for summer, especially up north in early September. We had the patio to ourselves, despite the sunshine and started with drinks. For my friend, it was a bottle of beer. For me, despite my own good sense, a Pearl's Cajun martini. Why would I say "despite my good sense"? Well because I simply have a vow not to drink them after a bad experience with my very own bachelorette party. . . But I couldn't resist the idea of a blue cheese stuffed olive, and a jalapeno spiked vermouth. Oh it was strong but good! I only drank half (common sense eventually prevailed).

We shared a Caesar salad before our mains. Instead of croutons there was fried okra and it was delicious! Then the mains came in the form of Po' Boys!

I do love a good Po' Boy and these did not disappoint. Crispy fried shrimp on mine with remoulade sauce and yummy sliced pickles. Cajun close slaw (nicely chilled and crisp) on the side. The roll was perfectly crusty without being dry and the shrimp had a tasty batter that wasn't overly spicy but had a lot of flavor. My friend had a beef brisket Po Boy complete with a wonderful barbecue sauce, and slice onions. The meet was so tender and soft, good stuff!

No dessert; we were stuffed! Pearl's was as good as I remembered it and did not disappoint. If you are in Traverse City, or anywhere near there, it's worth the drive!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Book Review: So Much For That by Lionel Shriver

A Message to Make the Most of What You Have and Don't Waste Time

I have read books by this author in the past and for me this seemed like a gamble. I have loved books from her such as A Perfectly Good Family (recommend) that featured three quirky siblings caught in an impossible dilemma. But I have also read books by the author that have made me angry like Double Fault that sucked me in and had such a disappointing ending (as well as characters that I felt no sympathy for).

I wasn't sure if I could like these characters in So Much For That but ultimately I did even if the author's portrayal of them was often honest and brutal. Death is never tidy and a terminal illness being one of the central themes of the story didn't always bring the best of out of people. The author did not sugar coat any of it.

Shep Knacker always had a plan to get out of the rat race in what he dubbed "The Afterlife", scrimping to save what he could for the ultimate goal of moving to a third world county and living in relative luxury due to the low cost of daily living. Every action along the way was in some way an investment for this ultimate goal which included some sacrifices along the way such as selling his successful business, renting vs. owning a home, etc. etc. Somehow the plan became more of a dream and Shep finds himself in a job he hates, working for the new owner of the business he developed and living in a house with a remote wife and an unreachable son. He decides that if he doesn't leave now, he might never do it, so he gives his wife an ultimatum to join him. His wife, Glyn, informs him that she has cancer and needs his insurance. Shep stays put to take care of her.

Even with insurance, Shep finds the savings he has worked his whole life to save for the plan quickly diminish. As a man with some funds, he also has a sister and a father who have come to depend on him and his relationships with them change as he becomes a devoted caretaker for  his wife. A gamut of emotions and trials find Shep transforming as he still struggles to keep it all together as he watches his wife in the struggles of staying alive. Glyn was feisty and a strong woman before she became sick and that doesn't change, and the natural supports that they may have envisioned become alienated quickly.

There are several other story lines in this book but there is definitely a social commentary on the medical system we have in America where even with money one can become bankrupt. Then there is the question about prolonging someone's life and at what cost from an emotional level as there is also suffering.

I really recommend this one. Powerful book without being preachy and the characters are well formed. I enjoyed this one despite the subject matter. 

Book Review: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

An Epic Tale of Slum Life (and Gangster Life) in India


944 Pages of it!

I was really excited to find a book with so many pages that had so many positive reviews because there is something to be said with being totally immersed in a novel. This one was so engrossing and I would look for little breaks in the day to sneak off and read more. There were a couple of days that I snuck outside, away from the children, just to read undisturbed.

That being said, at about half way in, something changed and I'm not sure exactly what it was. The last quarter of the book was even less interesting and I have been trying to put my finger on exactly why I felt that way. I have come up with a list of potential reasons although it's probably a combination of all of them:

1. At the beginning of the story Mr. Lindsay arrives in Bombay to start a new life. It turns out that Mr. Lin, as he becomes once settled in, is really a fugitive from Australia after escaping from prison and a 19 year sentence for robbery when he was addicted to heroin. He meets a variety of characters along the way but one of the first is Prebaker who serves as a tour guide as he becomes acclimated. Through a series of events, Prebaker truly befriends him and eventually takes him back to his familial village and helps him transition to a slum village that he himself lives in when Lin has exhausted his funds. Lin becomes an integral part of the community, providing medical services to the overcrowded population who can't afford or access health care. To me, this story had an underlying theme of redemption, showing us another side of a hard and cynical man who could truly change. At that point, the story could have ended for me but over time Lin also becomes entangled with the Bombay Mafia. That in itself was fascinating and added another layer of depth to the story but soon Lin goes beyond some of the lesser crimes and becomes a full fledged member of this group. For me, something changed and Roberts could provide all kinds of justification for Lin's actions but I no longer felt sympathy for this man who seemed more interested in cash and that life. The conversations with other mafia members often seemed like trials about philosophy and it did not seem genuine to me but justification for their behaviors. The author lost me.

2. This book is based on the actual life of the author and is a semi-autobiographical account of his life. Roberts did indeed escape from prison. Roberts did actually flee to India. Roberts did frequent Leopold's, the local hangout for the foreigners that settled in Bombay. Roberts did establish a free clinic and operated it for ten years in the slums. Roberts did indeed work for the Bombay Mafia, engaging in activities such as being a gun runner, a counterfeiter, and a street soldier. I say all of this because so much of this is based on his life that I assumed some of the characters were real and did a little research while I was reading the book. I came to find out that most of the characters are fictionalized or are a combination of people that Roberts accounted. When I tried to find out about Prebaker and found out he didn't really exist I was (probably unjustified) disappointed and learning that none of these people were real, felt that the book fell flat. Saying this out loud makes me feel kind of guilty because most books I read are fiction anyways but I felt like I was sold a bill of goods that was false. Counterfeit. Maybe that's a theme too?

3. Towards the end of the book Lin goes to Afghanistan to fight in the war, supporting the rebels, following the mafia boss he admires/idolizes. The book just lost me. It wasn't Lin's war and it did not make sense to me that he went on a mission that had nothing to do with him.

So the question is do I recommend this book? I really could go either way. I found it fascinating to learn about life in India, especially in the slums where the community really banded together and made the best of what they had. The descriptions were so layered and detailed and I really liked a lot of the dialogue. I could have done without the mobsters who tried to justify their lives and sounded like philosophy professors in a lecture hall and the author's preachy tone that somehow was meant to make all of their actions somehow okay.

I don't think I'm going to recommend this one because the end just didn't do it for me and I had to trudge through about 400 pages to get there that left me disappointed.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Paloma Cocktail with Kah Blanco Tequila

We will call this a "preview edition" as it is not a regular installment of "Sunday Cocktails". . . 


Let's call it "End of Summer Extra Cocktail Edition"!

I was really checking for updates on newsworthy stories when a thumbnail on the Yahoo Homepage boasted about a Mexican cocktail more popular than the margarita. I guess I can be easily distracted, especially by a cocktail recipe.

Well I love a margarita so I was very interested. It took me to this link for a video on how to make a Paloma which they dubbed the "anti-margarita".

While I'm not about to give up margaritas anytime soon because of a new drink, I was interested in the grapefruit soda that they included with this. You see, it's rare that I actually have ingredients in the house but I have a huge case of Izze soda from Costco that has just been sitting behind the door (who has storage for bulk purchases?) and I knew for a fact that there were grapefruit soda bottles in that case. 

Maybe more important was that the recipe specified blanco tequila. While I have some run of the mill tequila I have been using for some time, I do have some reserve tequila as I have all of the Kah varieties (because I really just wanted the sugar skull bottles and really didn't care what was in them). So this was a perfect excuse to finally open the white skull. The video did give a brief overview of all three flavors of tequila and apparently the white is the one that has not been aged and is, well, white.

The video narrator mentioned that he does not rim the glass with salt, preferring just a pinch but I am all about the salty rim. I love getting a little bit with each sip and I wasn't about to give it up. Based on the rest of his video this is what I did.

Paloma Cocktail


2 oz Blanco Tequila
Lime Juice
4 oz Izze Grapefruit Soda
Lime Wedges



Pour 2 oz of tequila over ice in a salt rimmed glass. Add a good squeeze of lime. Add 4 oz of grapefruit soda and lime wedges.


I found this drink light as promised and I might be using this blanco tequila more often. I don't think I appreciated how smooth and light this stuff was going to be and I may be converted to good tequila from now one. I might just open another one of these bottles I have been using as decoration in my house! Maybe Reposado next?