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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reading is Sexy

Last year, I stumbled upon an online bookclub that is filled with a bunch of cool chicks that love to read. While I've always loved books and always seem to have a book on my nightstand, my reading time has varied greatly through the years. At the end of 2008, though, I became pretty wrapped up in the enthusiasm of the book group and jumped on the bandwagon when the girls were setting reading goals for themselves for 2009. I didn't really talk about it here, but my original goal was to read 50 books in 2009, though after a stellar month in January, I upped it to 100.

I'm happy to say that I just completed my 100th book for the year! It's crazy to me that I've read that many books this year, but it's something that really brings a smile to my face. After the crazy end to 2008, burying myself in books last winter was the perfect balm for my battered psyche and a great way to regain my footing with life. I started reading not just at night, but sometimes at lunch, when waiting for appointments, while enjoying coffee on the weekends, etc. I let my gossip and fashion magazine subscriptions lapse because I rarely made time for them anymore. I rediscovered the library and the used bookstore because when you're reading 2-3 books a week, buying them retail gets pricey.

I've obviously kept my bookclub peeps informed of my progress and my close friends and co-workers know about my reading habits, but mostly this was a personal goal, something that was just for me. And I loved having that so much. Something that I was working towards all year that had nothing to do with work or family, that was just for personal fulfillment.

One of the results of reading this much in a year is that I've learned quite a bit about my reading tastes. I stepped out of my comfort zone and read books that I normally wouldn't even give a second glance. I "don't read romance novels", but dude, Nora Roberts sure can write one heck of a good love story. I don't consider myself a fan of historical fiction, but I couldn't seem to put Sacred Hearts or The White Queen down. And I sure wish that the Young Adult category has existed in it's current form when I was in high school because so many of these books are amazing reads - for both teens and adults.

In addition to reading a ton of books, I also made time to attend local author events and get my books signed. I met Jodi Picoult with Blondie and Sporty and Megan McCafferty with Jessica. Both of these women I really admire and would love to grab a drink with them one day and chat about life and stuff.

I also attended signings by Alan Brennert and David Levithan. Alan Brennert's wife is so sweet and is still in awe of his recent success from Moloka'i and Honolulu. David Levithan is one of the few authors that puts into words the emotions that I know I have, but can't seem to formulate into a coherent thought. If you ever have a chance to hear him speak, please go!

I've chronicled all of my reading for the year on GoodReads, along with short, spoiler-free reviews of each book, so I won't list all of the books here. The link to my page is on the right side of the blog, so feel free to browse there if you so choose. However, here are my favorites from the year, in no particular order:

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins
(The Hunger Games/Catching Fire)

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons by Lorna Landvik

Friday Night Lights by HG Bissinger

The Guernesy Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan

The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Jessica Darling Series by Megan McCafferty
(Sloppy Firsts/Second Helpings/Charmed Thirds/Fourth Comings/Perfect Fifths)

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

I think I'll shoot for 50 books in 2010 as there are some sewing and cooking goals that I have for next year. After this year, I don't think I could go back to just reading 1 or 2 books a month - it almost feels ingrained in me now, something that both relaxes me and provides a ton of enjoyment. Here's to another good year in books!

A Thomas Keller Christmas

As I mentioned in a previous post, Santa was very good to me and my kitchen this year. A new non-stick saute pan, several cookbooks, a chinois, some prep bowls, etc. But, what was most exciting to me was a certain baking pan and cookbook, both of which have Thomas Keller all over them.

Jim knows my obsession with the chocolate "bouchons" that are sold at Bouchon Bakery. I buy at least a half-dozen every time we're in Vegas and have never let him have one - oops! So, when he saw the bouchon baking pan and the accompanying mix at Williams-Sonoma, he scooped it up for me. I'm not ususally one to seek out and buy specialty pans, but in this case, I've made an exception. I was thrilled with this gift and last weekend I used it for the first time. Super easy to make and they came out beautifully - pretty and shiny and darn close to the ones sold in the bakery.
The other gift that had me swooning was the Ad Hoc at Home cookbook. Look, I freely admit that I love me some Thomas Keller. I like his philosophy about food and amazing dishes he creates. My French Laundry cookbook is lovingly kept in my kitchen, but while I love looking through it, I haven't made many recipes from it. This latest Keller cookbook, though, is so suited for me, that I almost don't know where to start first. The recipes are meant to serve 4-6 people, family style and are all dishes that are familiar, just kicked up a few notches. For example, there is a recipe for Chicken Pot Pie, but everything is made from scratch - the pie crust, the bechamel sauce, etc. The book is laid out in that beautiful coffee table book style that he is known for, but the content is so much more accesible for the home cook.

I was giddy to receive this under the tree and wanted to make something from it immediately. I thought I'd start with a softball - Roasted Chicken with Root vegetables - a one pot meal that required little prep time and sounded perfect for a cold Sunday night. Between the bouchons and the roast chicken, our house smelled like a million bucks last Sunday.
After Jim's first bite, the moan that he uttered was one of pure delight. I mean, I know it's "just" chicken, but it's like the best chicken you've ever had. And the vegetables? Really damn good. I don't even like turnips, but I like them in this dish. Follow that dinner off with a chocolate bouchon for dessert and well, we were some very happy little campers.

I have some ideas for this book that have me really excited for the upcoming year, inspired in large part by this post. No, I won't be blogging the book or anything like that. Let's just say that if you're local and we're pals, you might be seeing an email from me in the near future, with an invitation to dinner. ;)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Homemade Holidays

Every year I say I'm going to cut back on how many gifts I need to buy for the holidays and every year that goes by the wayside pretty quickly. This year, though, I really made an effort to make gifts for individuals that are part of the large groups that receive gifts from me.

The first group is my besties at work. I have a group of about 8 women that I'm close with and they help keep me sane and happy at my job. We always exchange small tokens of appreciation with each other during the holidays to say thanks. They are all pretty avid readers (it's no wonder I'm friends with them) so I opted to make beaded bookmarks for them. I LOVE the way they turned out! While they are popular items on Etsy, they aren't usually sold in regular stores, so everyone was very pleased with them. They are really easy to make, the materials are inexpensive (especially if you're making them in bulk) and they are so pretty. I work in a really large office and even aside from my besties, I have interactions with a large number of fellow professionals as well as support staff each day. While I don't feel compelled to buy some large for each of these people, a small token of appreciation goes a long way to building goodwill in the office... and helps to ensure that when I need something done in a rush job, they are willing to help quickly. :) This year I opted to make the Martha Stewart Gingerbread Snowflake cookies. I made them last year for a holiday cocktail party and they were a huge hit. They're not technically difficult to do and they taste so yummy, but good grief are they time-consuming. I doubled the recipe because I needed 3 dozen cookies, but I forgot that my cookie cutter yields more cookies per batch than the recipe states. Which meant I made 4 dozen. Yeah, I'm tired just thinking about it. But, they turned out great and everyone that received one was very happy with them. My last big batch of homemade gifts was for the girls that I met 4 years ago while planning my wedding. We do a big holiday get-together every year and several people usually bring "party favors" for everyone - a holdover from the wedding planning days. Almost all of these girls have DSLR cameras, which made my choice of party favor pretty easy - a padded camera strap cover to add a little pop of color to the camera. I used the basic template here, modifying to add a lens cap pocket on each side of the strap cover. I tried to pick fabrics for each girl that fit their personality and style, so there was a wide range of colors and prints. I like how they turned out and am excited to make one for myself. :)

And now it's time to start trolling Etsy again so I can figure out what in the world I'll be making next year!

Merry Merry

I hope everyone had a very merry end of the week. While our Christmas plans encountered a few snafus, we still had a really lovely Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. My mom had been planning to come down and spend most of the week with us, but her back decided to go out on her the Saturday before Christmas. Oy. Multiple trips to the chiropractor didn't seem to help much and the decision was finally made to put her on muscle relaxers to help the back spasms. This basically meant she was at home for the rest of the week as even without the pills that made her sleepy, driving wasn't really an option. :( My brother and I decided to skip our plans to get together for Christmas Eve since my mom wouldn't be there to join us and his work schedule made it easier to just meet up on Christmas for dinner.

This left Jim and I at home, with a very mellow Christmas Eve day and night - something that both of us really enjoyed. We drove around to look at lights as soon as it got dark and then headed home to make our normal Friday night dinner of steak and potatoes. Add a bottle of red wine and we were ready to tuck in for a quiet night at home.

After dinner we opened our gifts to each other - something that we always do just the two of us. I got some awesome kitchen goodies inspired by Thomas Keller, some CDs (Glee Vol. 2 baby!!) and a beautiful necklace that was a total surprise. He did good! Jim got some new sports binoculars, assorted tee shirts (his favorite being the Three Sheets Drunken Monkey shirt) and new golf stuff. Needless to say, we both felt very spoiled. The next morning had us up early to head out to my in-laws house for breakfast and to celebrate Christmas with them. This is a tradition we've had going for several years now and I love it. It's loud and chaotic, but it feels like something out of a movie. The food was awesome, as always, and the company was even better. After breakfast, it was time to open (more) presents. I got some cute clothes (including a really adorable retro print lady coat), a gift certificate to Barnes and Noble and some more fun kitchen stuff. Jim made out with more golf stuff and some assorted clothing. Hilarity ensued with he opened two sweaters back to back and they were practically identical. His mom had completely forgotten what she had bought earlier in the month and accidently bought a twin to the original sweater. Too funny. A flurry of other gifts were exchanged and everyone was very happy by the time the tree was bare. It was then a mad dash to shower and get ready to head down to Orange County for Christmas Dinner with the big 'ol extended family - approximately 40 people this year, kinda on the small side actually. :)

Dinner was a loud and chaotic and full of food and booze. Basically, a great night. I was really happy that my brother was able to make it down to dinner - it was nice to spend Christmas with him and catch up a bit on what he's been up to recently. I also got to finally meet Patty, Jim's uncle's Glen of Imaal terrier. OMG! She is just too freaking cute! Such a sweet little pup. Instead of exchanging gifts with everyone, the family does a men's and a women's grab-bag. Folks put in a gift around $25 and then we use similar rules to a White Elephant exchange to determine how the gifts are passed out. The women's side is always very tame and gifts are typically clothing giftcards, scarfs, CDs, etc. The men's side, however, is just crazy! Almost every gift includes booze of some sort and each family trys to work together to hoard the good stuff. It's hard to explain, but absolutely hilarious to watch. This year Jim put in a Snuggie with a bottle of Maker's Mark in the bottom of the box. My brother ultimately got it and was very pleased with his win as you can see. :)
At the end of the evening, we took Jim's youngest brother back with us to my in-laws house and had a traffic-free ride back, filled with lots of chit chat. The next day found Jim and I at Disneyland. It was crowded, but we've definitely been there on far crazier days. We missed our annual holiday trip to the park last year, so it was nice to squeeze a trip in this year.

As you can probably tell, we really had a great Christmas this year aside from my mom not being able to join us for the festivities. I'm very lucky to be have married into such a warm family and that I've been able to meld my family with my husband's big old extended one. I hope you all had a wonderful weekend as well and that it was filled with food, family and love.