Friday, September 30, 2011

New Zealand trip, day 1: It begins

Friday, September 30

Normally traveling is exciting to me. Sure, there's always the last-minute-prep-induced stress and tiredness. But it's exciting to me to print off my itinerary, connecting information, etc., highlighting key passages, and organizing it all in a nice, crisp folder. It's exciting to get a ride to the airport, to bid that close friend farewell, to approach the check-in counter with photo ID in hand, even to go through security. And of course, it's exciting to board the plane, to settle into my (hopefully aisle) seat, to listen to the safety instructions I've heard literally hundreds of times, and to watch the ground grow smaller and smaller beneath me until it's enveloped in clouds.

This trip, though, I'm just plain exhausted. Don't get me wrong--I'm incredibly excited about hanging out with my brother in New Zealand. But right now my excitement is muted by my exhaustion. It probably has something to do with how busy things have been at work lately--start of the semester, training two new student employees, helping with a large event on campus, and using every spare moment to teach my three student workers--two of whom have only been here a month--how to do my job in addition to theirs. Also, this is the only time I've traveled internationally by myself. And, while I was focusing most of my energy on getting my boss and student workers ready for me to leave, I was doing very little to get myself ready to leave . . . until a few days ago (so mostly last night and this morning).

Then as I was in line today to check in for Flight #1 (of three), I got a voice message from the airline to tell me one of my flights had been cancelled. And right before I heard that message, I learned at the check-in desk that I have to abide by Qantas' more strict weight allowances even though I booked through American and thought I was only bound to their restrictions. Awesome. (In case you're wondering, American's weight limit is 30 lbs. for the carryon, so that's what I was aiming for, rather than Qantas' 16 lbs.) I'm pretty sure that my carryon and personal item are each over 16 pounds, so I'm not sure what's going to happen when I check in for my LA-to-Auckland flight. Tears might be shed. Flight #2 had been cancelled, so they stuck me on an alternate flight. The voice message ended with, "Your connecting flight to Auckland is experiencing delays, and the new departure time is--please wait while we connect you to a representative . . . [silence; end of message]" Are you kidding me? So I called American, got transferred halfway through, only to learn that LAX-AUK is not delayed (yay!).

On Flight #1, I was excited about getting some orange juice, but they didn't give us drinks. Granted, it's only 35 minutes long, but usually they manage to throw drinks at us and give us about 49 seconds to chug them. I feel jipped.

Then I got to Airport #2, and Alternate Flight #2 was delayed. Woohoo. Which I knew would be fine, because I have like 7 hours in the LA airport, but it's still a little nerve-wracking. While in Airport #2, I noticed that American had given me a boarding pass for my LAX-AUK flight and assigned me to seat J-something. So I looked up a Qantas seating chart, and seat J is in the middle (as in, between the window seat and the aisle seat). Middle seats should not be allowed. Maybe on a one- or two-hour flight. But on a 12-hour flight? That's just mean. Just sayin'.

The guy beside me on Alternate Flight #2 appeared to be flying for his first time. He had the window seat and probably took 100+ pictures of taxiing and takeoff. I'm pretty sure he also took photos or video of the surrounding passengers, because a couple times he held up his camera and slowly rotated it to get a good 360. When we landed in LA he turned to me and asked, "Los Angeles?" I was so glad to answer him, "Yes," and I'm not sure what would have happened had the answer been, "No." Can you imagine?

Now I'm hanging out on the floor of LAX, waiting for my 11:40 p.m. departure. I spent almost $6 on a chicken sandwich from Burger King and have 4 more hours to burn before boarding the flight to Auckland. After that, I get to find my luggage, then the bus station, hang out for a couple hours, take a bus for six hours, then find (or be found by) my brother. Oh yeah, and enjoy being in New Zealand!

Now, for some important life questions:
1. Why is ginger ale only available at the store or on airplanes?
2. What is the purpose of the sheer curtain between first/business class and the rest of us? I can see straight through it, and I guarantee it blocks no sound. Why is it there?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The story of a paintbrush

Every paintbrush, I believe, tells a story. Because no matter how well one cleans a paintbrush after using it, stains from the paint inevitably remain on the brush. Recently I took this picture of my paintbrush, and paused for a moment to listen to its stories.
There were tan and white remnants from painting my living room last summer. Those walls looked terrible when I moved into this house three years before, but I thought I’d only be here short-term, so it took me three years to A) decide I would be here for awhile, and B) work up the courage to ask permission from the people I rent from. That summer, I bought my very first brushes, roller, trays, drop cloths, and painter’s tape. I felt like I’d reached a whole new level of adulthood! Naomi and Olivia came over to help paint, and it was (I believe) one of Naomi’s last days in town before moving across country. Our conversation ranged from theology to boys to feminism to jobs to our future plans. We ended the day with Sonic, Naomi going to a final house church gathering, and Olivia going home to take care of her new puppy.

A couple weeks later, my paintbrushes took a trip to Lauren’s new house and put on some purple and teal accents. Lauren had just bought a house, which was obviously exciting, and we had some work days to help celebrate and get the house ready for her to move in. I chuckled when Lauren’s dad told us to disregard several pieces of (key) instruction on the spackle and paint labels, and enjoyed learning his new tips that I had never heard in my lifetime of painting things. That day, Amy and I had some good, kind of deep conversations while carefully painting along the ceiling and around the windows on opposite sides of the bedroom. We later joined more people in painting the living room, and it was that afternoon that I got to know Josh and Morgan a little better.

Weeks (perhaps months) later, I brought out the brushes again, along with white paint left over from my living room trim, to brighten my kitchen windowsill. Since before I had moved in, the sill was hopelessly dingy, no matter how much I scrubbed it. Which felt like a sort of insult to my domestic skills. That simple, fresh coat of paint did wonders for the brightness of my kitchen—and made the kitchen feel so much cleaner!

And now my paintbrushes have donned black paint from a recent coffee table makeover. At least a year or two ago, Stephanie gave me a hand-me-down coffee table from her uncle. The finish was in bad shape, but since I didn’t have a coffee table, I gladly accepted the offer and planned to sand it down and stain or paint it. Then I just never got around to it. And whenever I thought hard about it, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to paint or stain, I’d get tired of trying to figure out which would be better, and would put off the decision for another day. Finally, I settled on a dark cherry/mahogany stain to match my dining set, went to Lowe’s with determination, promptly changed my mind, and came home with gray primer and black paint. That Saturday afternoon I enjoyed the solitude while listening to music and a couple episodes of This American Life. I thought about Stephanie and our running jokes that I should marry her uncle (who is now happily married to someone his own age), and anticipated hosting Mollie, Wade, Mattie, and Naomi the following evening and enjoying their company.

In my paintbrushes’ short lifetime, we have made good memories with some dear friends. Today I appreciated the reminder of those sweet memories, and I look forward to writing new stories with my paintbrushes.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Pumpkin soup

Yesterday's weather was glorious. The high was somewhere in the 70s (I think). It rained a tiny bit. It was even chilly enough to warrant going home to get a jacket during my lunch break. Yesterday felt like fall. So, naturally, I needed to cook a dinner that also felt like fall. And what could be more fallish than pumpkin soup? I hadn't made pumpkin soup since a somewhat failed attempt sophomore year of college, so I glanced at a few recipes to get an idea of what flavors would go well together, then threw something together that combined elements of all of them. If I may say so myself, it was delicious--and a vast improvement on that pumpkin soup from sophomore year!

Pumpkin Soup

1 leek, white and green parts, rinsed well and chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
Olive oil
1 smallish sweet potato, peeled and cubed
1 (15 oz.) can pumpkin puree
3 cups vegetable broth
Pepper, paprika, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger to taste
1/2 (13.5 oz.) can coconut milk

Heat olive oil in soup pot over medium heat. Add leek and cook for a couple minutes. Add garlic and cook for a couple more minutes, until leek is soft and garlic is fragrant. Add sweet potato, pumpkin, vegetable broth, and spices; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes or until sweet potato is tender.

Puree in a blender or food processor until it reaches desired consistency (I made mine a little chunky), and return to pot. Add coconut milk and heat over medium heat until warmed through. Taste; adjust spices if desired. Serve!

I served myself 1 cup of soup, with a side of a whole wheat pita. It was filling enough that I had to eat it in batches over the courses of a movie.

Yield: Approximately 5 one-cup servings as a main dish; more servings if served as a side dish.

Verdict: Delightfully fallish! It was mostly savory, with a hint of sweet with the cinnamon, nutmeg, and sweet potato. The coconut milk made it creamy without being too heavy. I am very happy with the outcome, and I will definitely plan to make again. The only thing I might do differently next time is use a fresh sugar pumpkin rather than canned pumpkin puree. The soup's flavor didn't suffer from being made with canned puree--it just sounds more exciting to make it with a real pumpkin!

Calories: Approximately 160 per one-cup serving.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Celebration of peaches

Last weekend I co-hostessed a peach party—basically, a dinner gathering to which everyone brought a dish that showcased peaches. Fortunately, many of my friends are adventurous in the kitchen and always up to try new things! We ate everything from peach quesadillas to grilled peaches with berries. My contributions: peach curry soup and gingery peach punch.

I later took a bunch of pictures of a serving size of
this soup. But I neglected to retrieve them from my
camera before leaving the house in search of internet.
Peach Curry Soup

Olive oil
1/4 cup curry powder
1 Tbsp. chili powder
2- 1/2 large onions, minced
7 cloves garlic, minced
2-1/2 (15 oz.) cans chopped peaches in lite syrup (not drained)
2-1/2 tsp. ground ginger
2-1/2 cups coconut milk
2-1/2 cups chicken broth
Salt and pepper to taste
Cinnamon and nutmeg to taste
Cayenne to taste (optional)

Pour oil into a large pot over medium heat. I didn’t measure the oil, but I probably used somewhere between 2 and 4 Tbsp. Add the curry powder and chili powder and heat for about a minute. Add the onion and garlic and cook until the onions become transparent, about 8-10 minutes. This is when it will start to smell amazing!

Add peaches, peach syrup, ginger, coconut milk, and broth. Simmer on low for 45 minutes, adding salt, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cayenne as needed. I left out the cayenne entirely and thought it had plenty of kick. If you have more than my miniscule heat tolerance, though, you’ll probably want to add some cayenne.

Yield: 10 servings

Verdict: Good! I wasn’t sure what to expect, having never made peach curry—or any sort of peach soup—before. But I thought it turned out well. My only real dissapointment was in the lack of creaminess. The coconut milk I bought initially was much more watery than I expect from canned coconut milk. It actually reminded me of the coconut juice (for lack of a better term) that characterizes soups in Papua New Guinea. They grate fresh coconut flesh into a bowl, add water, spend some time squeezing out the milk into the water, discard the coconut flesh, and use the milky water as a base for soup and/or to cook rice. It’s delicious—and the next time I want to make coconut rice, I’ll buy Goya brand again. But it was not ideal for adding lots of richness to an Indian-inspired curry. But I digress. I used about a cup of Goya coconut milk, then ran to the store in search of a thicker brand. Unfortunately they only had the reduced fat kind. Which was creamier than the Goya coconut milk but still not what I wanted.

Changes to make next time: I might puree a portion of the soup to make it thicker. And if I can find some cardamom here without paying an arm and a leg, I would love to add that next time. This soup would be good over rice, and you could easily add chopped chicken at the beginning or cooked shrimp at the end.

I forgot to take a picture of the punch until after most people had
gotten a glass. So it actually made a lot more than this!
Gingery Peach Punch 

1 carton Tropicana Peach Orchard Punch (I think it was a half gallon), chilled
2 liters ginger ale, chilled
12 oz. orange juice, chilled
Fresh ginger, peeled
1 orange, sliced

Dump the liquids into a large bowl and stir to combine. Either slice or grate the ginger and add. Grating will add more intense ginger flavor; slicing will make it easier for guests to not get ginger floaties in their cups. Top with orange slices for garnish. Depending on how big a bowl or pitcher you own, you may need to start with half of the liquids and replenish as needed.

Yield: A lot. There were 9 of us at the peach party, and there was punch left over at the end.

Verdict: Tasty, cool, and refreshing! The combination of peaches and ginger is a classic winning combination. The orange juice added a lovely complementary flavor without competing. And the ginger ale created a slightly subtle sparkling effect. Going into the party, I was more excited about the soup, while the punch was an afterthought—and an experiment! But I got more compliments on the punch than the soup. I’ll definitely make it again.

Changes to make next time: The only thing I think I will change is to grate the ginger instead of slice it. The slices were fine, but grating the ginger would have infused the punch more with ginger.