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Ooty

I started out my India tale with the worst part about the trip, so let’s get to the best part now, shall we?

Ooty is about 60 km north of Coimbatore, up in the Niligiri mountains, but it takes about 5 hours to get there by bus because the road isn’t the best and there are lots of sharp twists and turns once it gets up into the mountains. Some of my coworkers got motion sick from the ride up there (mostly Indians, oddly enough), but I’ve never been motion sick and really enjoyed the ride. Our bus was air-conditioned, which helped. Also, my coworkers were blasting Indian music and having a dance party on the bus. It was fun. Also, there were monkeys all around, and we were actually told at one point to close the bus windows because they could jump inside and try to steal our snacks. Frickin’ monkeys. They were cute, though.

Anyway, on our one full day in Ooty, a few of us decided to take a walk from the resort down to the town. It was about 6 km round trip. Unlike much of India this time of year, which is still pretty warm, the weather was gorgeous – temps in the 60s and 70s during the day. Perfect walk weather. The pics below are from the walk, which was my favorite part of the entire trip.

A sign on the side of the road.

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The road took us past tons of fields of tea. You can seem the rows of plants in the background here.

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Eucalyptus trees. I’d accidentally shot this with the wrong white balance setting, but I kind of like it with the bluish tint.

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A better look at a tea field.

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Harvested wheat drying on the side of the road.

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Some kids were playing cricket in a yard as we passed. They saw some of us with cameras and asked us to take their picture. I realized later that they’d lined up in height order – I didn’t ask them to, but it sure makes the shot better.

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Here, they’re making a V for victory – I think the cricket team they root for had won a match recently or something. Katie and I watched a cricket match on tv one day and tried to figure out what was going on, to no avail. I got that there is something called a wicket keeper, but that’s about it.

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A swastika (I think they just say swastik), where it holds meaning beyond Nazis. It’s an ancient Indian religious symbol, one that’s everywhere there. Kind of sad that us Westerners instinctively cringe when we see it, when it holds such good meaning to millions of others.

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I have no idea what Funcity was supposed to be. Sounds like an amusement park, but there was nothing there, as you can see.

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Oh you know, just a cow on the side of the road, minding its business.

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A small temple set in the hillside.

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We came across a tea shop at a fork in the road, and one of the Indians with us helped us communicate with the shop owner, who brought us all masala chai. It came in these small metal cups that burned your fingers when you first held them. It was delicious. I bought a bag to take home.

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Coimbatore was what I think Westerners think of when they think of India – a hot, muggy, bustling city with tons of people, bad traffic, and funny smells. But Ooty? It was an oasis. We had no wifi in the hotel (even though it was a resort), and for a bunch of people who work at an agency and are used to being online 24/7, it was a much-needed break from connectivity and a chance to explore the culture my coworkers live in.

We may go back next year, and I just hope we head up to Ooty again. Also, India doesn’t have cedar, so I’d relocate there for the winter for that reason alone.

Leaving Mumbai

*Warning: this post is super long. There are lots of GIFs, though.*

Of the many, many things that have happened since I last posted, one of the most significant is that I started a new job Nov. 1. I went from a large company to a small, extremely fast-paced marketing agency. It has been a much-needed change in my life. On my second day on the job, I learned that I, along with all 170-ish of my coworkers, would be meeting in India in January. I’ve never traveled overseas, so visiting India was a baptism by fire of sorts into the world of international travel. While I have many pictures and stories from my trip, what I want to get written down now is what happened when it was time to leave India. It is a crazy story (at least, it will be to Westerners reading this) that is funny now, but was absolutely un-funny when it was happening.

My company is based in Singapore, but our biggest office is in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India. So, we all made our way to Coimbatore for a company meeting. No major airlines from the US will fly directly to Coimbatore (at least in economy class), as it is a relatively smaller city than the major ports. So, we had to fly to a major port (in this case, Mumbai) and then catch a domestic flight down to Coimbatore, which is in southern India. I had flown to Atlanta on the way out of the US to meet my colleague Katie, and she and I traveled together both going to and leaving India. Almost all North American employees of my company work from home, so most of us had never met each other before. The first time I met Katie was at the beginning of our trip, and we were travel buddies on our way into and out of India.

I had heard horror stories of trying to catch connecting flights in Mumbai when going domestic to international or vice-versa. I tried to avoid this when booking flights, but our options were limited so we went with a trip out of India that involved a flight from Coimbatore to Mumbai, a 2.5 hour layover in Mumbai, and then a flight out of the country. We were to fly to Amsterdam, then to Atlanta, then I was to leave Katie and fly to Austin.

But you know what they say about the best laid plans. When it was time to leave Coimbatore, I was worried that our flight would be delayed (because it was delayed on our way into Coimbatore a week earlier) but it was on time. Katie and I were flying with our colleague Julia, who was heading back to her home in Nuremburg. She, like us, had a tight connection in Mumbai. When we landed there I commented that this was going to be the hardest part of our whole trip. If we could just catch our connection to Amsterdam, we would be on an American airline (Delta) out of the country and things would be golden.

Here’s the thing. I want to back up and emphasize that while you hear that things in India never happen on time, it is all philosophical until you deal with it yourself. “Things rarely happen on time” is the frickin’ understatement of the year. The traffic is horrible and there are many, many people there, and lots of ways to get delayed. Which is something that sounds like it’s easy to understand, but you really don’t get how it affects your goings-on until you are there, living it.

Another important thing to note is that, unlike flights in Western countries, it is not uncommon to have to take a bus from the landing strip to the terminal in India. So instead of landing and disembarking directly into the airport, you land some ways away from the airport and then have to wait to catch a bus ride to the terminal. This also means that your checked luggage has to take a bus to the terminal. And, at least on the domestic airline we chose (Jet Airways) you could only carry a purse or small bag onto the plane. Anything else had to be checked, unlike in the States where we can carry on a purse and a small piece of luggage. So we had all checked at least one piece of luggage that we then had to wait for before we could catch our flights out of India.

SO. While a 2.5 hour layover in the States is tight, it’s usually doable. All we needed to do in Mumbai was get from the domestic terminal to the international terminal to catch our flight, and we figured we’d be rushing but would be ok.

LOL. This is me now responding to the me then who could say that last sentence with a straight face.

At this point I should mention that several of our coworkers told us to absolutely not go outside of the airport to get to the international terminal. This is because there are lots of unsanctioned cab drivers in India and you have to be really careful to catch legitimate taxis or other forms of transportation there, especially if you’re a woman. When we arrived in Mumbai, we immediately noticed that the line to catch the bus to the international terminal was incredibly long. Two of us waited at baggage claim while the other went to see what was up. For whatever reason our luggage took forever to get to the terminal on the day we left Coimbatore and landed in Mumbai and we waited at least 30 minutes to collect it. Katie came back with the bus report while we waited. Apparently there was a shortage of bus drivers, which was making the line extra long. The airport employee we talked to told us we should just take a taxi to the international terminal, which was exactly what we had been told not to do.

After debating a few minutes, Katie asked someone near the front of the line how long they’d been waiting. They said 15 minutes or so, and the bus ride itself would take around 10 minutes. Fine. So we decided to just wait for the bus. Katie held our place in line, and Julia and I grabbed our luggage when it finally showed up 30 minutes after we landed.

Another thing about flying in India: you go through security a lot. When I say a lot, I think we counted 5 security checks before we flew out. We went through security to walk into the airport, then to get on the bus, then after getting off the bus and going into the international terminal, then the baggage scan, and then through immigration. So this obviously adds to the time it takes to get on a plane. Julia asked an employee why there were so many checks, and they told her a big reason was that it gave more people jobs. (!)

After waiting about 20 minutes, we boarded the bus. This is where shit got real.

The bus ride took an hour. To get to another terminal. In the same airport. We went through the back of the airport, then past some fenced-off slums. We were nervous about the time, but I still held on hope that we would be able to catch our flight until we made a final turn and entered the regular traffic to the terminal. I didn’t take a picture but this is exactly what it looked like:

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Our faces when we saw this:

SO. It was 12:30 am. Our flight was supposed to leave at 1:15 am. There was absolutely no way we were going to make it. We sat in this traffic for at least 30 minutes. We were all like

When the bus finally pulled into the terminal, we shot out of it as fast as we could…and ended up on the curb with hundreds of people. The place was insane. Wall-to-wall people. Not what we were expecting at this time of night. It was hot and muggy. We didn’t know where to go or what to do, so we kicked into survival mode. First thing’s first – we just had to get inside the terminal. After plowing through crowds of people with our luggage to get to the correct entrance for our airline, we had to wait in another line to get inside. More security, even though we had JUST gone through it to get on the bus. So we were like

We finally got inside and Julia left to figure out her own flight info. We kept in touch via texts, as I was a little worried about her being by herself there. Katie and I found someone at the Delta counter.

Me: We were supposed to be on the flight to Amsterdam. How do we get a new flight?

Airport worker: That flight is closed. Go talk to someone in the business office. *points to random corner of the terminal, where there is nothing but a wall that we can see*

We wander over to the general area where he pointed. There were a few people with name tags there, so we asked them.

Me: We were supposed to be on the flight to Amsterdam. How do we get a new flight?

Airport worker: That flight is closed. The Delta counter is there. *points to where we just were*
We go back. Repeat. They tell us again that the flight is closed and point back to the wall. My feeling toward the entire country of India at this point:

And in response, it seemed like the entire country of India was all

We decide to go back to the corner. Turns out that if you walk behind the last counter, you enter a long, dimly lit hallway that supposedly houses the business offices of each airline. If this had been a horror movie, the viewers would have been all

as we stood at the hallway entrance. It was exactly the type of place that two women should not enter after midnight in a foreign country, but it was our only choice. I initially balked, but Katie bravely went forth, so I followed her. We found the Delta office, which was mercifully not far down the hallway. We walked in, dragging our luggage, and three men looked up. One goes “You left your luggage in Goa.” (There was a bunch of luggage there; I guess that’s where people go if they leave it somewhere.) It was a statement, not a question.

Me:

We explained ourselves. Again. Thus started a bunch of back and forth about where we were going. Katie needed to go to Atlanta, but I needed to keep going to Austin after Atlanta. That we were heading to separate places caused some confusion. We handed over our passports and the guy started typing furiously at his workstation. After a few minutes he waved his hand at us and said “Go to the front; I’ll bring your passports.” Another guy grabbed our luggage and started to head out. Now it was Katie’s turn to balk, about leaving the passports.

Was it wise to leave our passports with random employee in a back office in the Mumbai airport? Absolutely not, but at this point my only thought was that after everything we’d been through, the travel gods had to do us a solid and get our passports back to us, dammit. Was this logical? Absolutely not. Go ahead and tell me how logical you’d be at this juncture. Also, we both had copies of our passport bio and visa pages, which would be acceptable if the originals disappeared. Unlike in Coimbatore, where our coworkers escorted us everywhere, we didn’t know anyone in Mumbai. We felt like we had no choice but to leave the passports. We made our way to the Delta counter. It had taken over three hours to get to this point from when we landed in Mumbai.

Shockingly, this is where things actually started to fall into place. After several minutes at the Delta counter wondering if we were going to see our passports again, the guy ran up to us with them. There was an Air France flight heading to Paris that we could possibly take, but we had to wait until the last minute to see if there were no-shows. He and the woman behind the counter started speaking in rapid Tamil. Katie and I were all

We had no idea what they were saying. They would interject every couple of minutes to ask us over and over again where we were heading. After a few minutes the woman started typing on her laptop and the guy who’d pulled our luggage for us started putting on the belt where you check bags. We had gotten spots on the Air France flight!

At this point, luggage man tapped me on the shoulder and goes “I’m leaving now.” I realized he was expecting a tip. I know it is what you do, but after all we’d been through over the last few hours I was annoyed. In India people will do things like take your luggage around without you asking them to (as in this case) and you still are expected to tip. We should’ve said no when he first grabbed them, but did not. This was still my face when he hinted about the tip:

I dug a 100-rupee bill out of my wallet (equal to about $2) and handed it to him. Katie did the same. He then had the balls to look disappointed in the amount, but he finally left.

The two employees helping us switched to English and started rapidly explaining to us what was going to happen. We could catch the next flight out to Paris (miracle #1), then go from Paris to Atlanta. Then I would fly from Atlanta to Austin. The catch was that the Paris flight was already boarding, so we would have to haul ass to get there on time. They handed us our boarding passes, each with an attached “flight coupon”, and said over and over again that we MUST keep track of the coupons. Turns out that we weren’t going to have to pay for the re-booking (miracle #2) which I found shocking because it wasn’t the airline’s fault that we’d missed our flight. Once we had all of our boarding passes/coupons, the woman helping us told us to go with her and took off across the airport.

We hustled after her and got to the immigration line. We convinced the woman at the front of the line to let us go before her. When we got through immigration, our escort led us to the next security line where they scan your baggage and make you walk through the metal detector, and all that jazz. She brought us to the front of the line and we cut in front of about 50 people (miracle #3). Once we got through that line, our escort pointed us in the right direction and we sprinted to the gate.

I was dripping sweat at this point. When we arrived at the gate, there were still people waiting to board. I’m sure I looked like a crazy person. We stood next to a French couple and although I don’t remember all of the conversation, I remember mentioning something about the nightmare of getting from the domestic to the international terminal, shaking my head desperately, and saying “Don’t do it! Don’t ever do it!” I also spotted someone with a bottle of water and may or may not have told Katie that “I would do illegal things to get that bottle of water.” I was obviously a little loopy.

I don’t think either of us believed we had actually done it until we boarded the plane to Paris. We’d made it!

And

When I got settled on the plane and was able to breathe, I realized that the fact that we were actually leaving then was nothing short of miraculous. The two airport employees were angels. They got us flights all the way back home, without us paying anything extra, escorted us through the airport to help us get through the lines faster, and our luggage actually showed up when we arrived in Atlanta. Plus, we got to lay over in Paris, which was kind of cool. I was no longer angry with the entire country of India. When we arrived in Paris and I took out my phone, I saw that Julia had texted. They’d gotten her on a flight to Germany, so she was safe.

Moral of the story: for the love of God and all that is holy, do not attempt a domestic to international transfer at the Mumbai airport. And if you absolutely must, make sure you have at least 5-6 hours between flights.

All in all, by the time I arrived home last night, I had been traveling for around 30 hours. My feet and ankles were extremely swollen. I was tired. But I was home.

I got your meal planning right here

I’ve been meaning to do a post like this for a long time, and I’ve finally gathered together all of my meal-planning tips and resources and organized them into one place. This will hopefully be helpful for those of you who would like to show up to the grocery store with a list and a plan instead of a wing and a prayer. This post is loooong, so bear with me.

First, a couple of reasons why you should plan your meals.

1. You will save money. You’ve probably already figured this out. If you get to the grocery store with a list and stick to it, you will be less likely to succumb to random “deals” and shiny objects. When I go to the grocery store without a list my attention span is like that of a dog taking a walk in an unfamiliar place.

Bread! No, THAT bread! Wait that one’s on sale! But we should probably get so-English muffins!

You get the idea. Also, you will eat out less when you have a plan for what to cook at home.

2. You will eat healthier. Eating out less doesn’t just mean saving money – you’ll eat more homemade food, which is generally better for you.

The Process

There are a million ways you can do this. I’ve experimented with many methods and tools over the years and landed on a pretty good system. I use a few different desktop and iPhone apps to streamline the process, which I’ll detail here. I plan meals on a weekly basis and do a big HEB trip on Sundays. We sometimes have to pick up odds and ends during the week, but try to limit grocery store trips to once a week. Here goes!

Recipe Gathering

On Saturday or Sunday, I start flipping through cookbooks and digging through websites to find recipes to make for the week. Hands down, the resource I use most often is Cooking Light magazine. I’ve been a subscriber since 2004 and love the magazine, which includes healthy recipes that range from fast and easy to Sunday-afternoon-lengthy. If something from a recent issue has caught my eye, I put that on the list for the week. If I’m not sure what I want to make, I dig around their website till something strikes my fancy. You can access most of their content without being a subscriber. Other sites I use often are Skinnytaste and Kalyn’s Kitchen. All Recipes is good if you have a few ingredients you want to use and want to search for recipes using those ingredients.

Food Network is a good site too, but keep an eye on the nutritionals, as not everything there is the healthiest. Of course, not everything we make would make your doctor happy, but I do try to keep most of our food on the healthy spectrum.

When all else fails, there are tried-and-true family favorites that often make it on the list for weeknights. A few of these include:

  • All-beef hot dogs (Hebrew National are my favorite)
  • Whole wheat spaghetti with meat sauce
  • Chili (I use Wick Fowler’s 2-Alarm kit). Leftover chili can also go on hot dogs or Fritos.
  • Chicken fajitas (HEB has great frozen preseasoned chicken breast fajita strips that heat up quickly)
  • Baked pesto chicken
  • Thai coconut curry shrimp
  • Shrimp creole

How much to plan on making for the week? Well, I usually like to make things that have leftovers to take for lunches and to eat a few nights per week so I’m not cooking every night. Ideally, I try to make a big pot of something like lentil soup (this is a great recipe) solely for lunches, and 4 weeknight recipes. We eat out a few times during the week so I’m not trying to cover every single meal in my plan. On Sundays, I make something more time-consuming since I’m home, and the leftovers from that meal give us lunch for the first day or two of the week.

Do your kids eat everything you make? Sure, and I also have a pet unicorn that lives under a rainbow in my backyard. No, my kids don’t like everything I make. Nor do I search for explicitly “kid-friendly” food. My five-year-old hates pretty much everything and my 19-month-old will eat anything that’s not still moving, so we have both ends of the spectrum. Generally, I’m not a short-order cook and don’t usually make separate things for the kids and for the adults. However, if I’m making something really spicy, I will usually make PBJ or something like that for the kids since their taste buds aren’t deadened to spice like mine are. This doesn’t happen often, but I’m not going to not make spicy food for the next 10 years because of their sensitive palates. If it’s not a spicy food night, I do make them eat what I eat. With Ryan this takes forever since he has to tell me after every bite that it tastes funny, but whatever. He won’t starve himself so if he only eats a few bites that’s fine. I just tell him that he isn’t allowed to tell me he’s hungry later if he doesn’t eat much.

What about breakfast? Except for me, my family eats Honey Nut Cheerios for breakfast, so that’s easy. My breakfasts change every few weeks, but my go-to meal is steel-cut oats in the rice cooker. I will post about my favorite appliances soon, and the rice cooker is in my top three. I add my ingredients at night and my oatmeal is ready for me in the morning, ready for whatever mixins I want. I’ve also done homemade breakfast sandwiches on English muffins with egg, cheese, and Canadian bacon. These freeze really well. I’m not averse to protein shakes for something grab-and-go, but I haven’t found any whose taste I love so I don’t drink them often.

What about sides? Sides are usually a grain and a vegetable. Bagged, frozen, unseasoned vegetables are great choices. If you want to spend a tad more, get the ones that come in the steamable bags. You just stick the entire bag in the microwave, cook, then season as desired. Frozen veggies are usually frozen very soon after harvesting, so they retain their nutrients, and don’t have the mushy texture of canned vegetables. For the grain, I keep big bags of quinoa and rice around that I just pop into the rice cooker.

How do you remember what you are planning on making? This brings me to my first tool: Evernote, a free note-taking desktop and mobile app. I’ve used Evernote for a while for organizing work notes, but about 6 months ago I had a lightbulb moment and realized it would be perfect for meal planning organization. Every week I make a note for that week’s menus and write down the name of each meal, and, if it’s a recipe, link to the recipe or note which cookbook it’s in and which page it’s on in said cookbook. Then I just refer to that week’s plan during the week. I can also look back on past weeks’ plans to get ideas. Here’s what it looks like this week:

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How long does this process take? Maybe an hour? Sometimes less. It goes slower the first few times you do it, but soon you get the hang of it and get into a rhythm.

Making the List and Shopping

Enter tool #2: ZipList. How I love ZipList. Once I have my meals figured out, I start adding things I need to buy to ZipList online. One cool feature of this site is that you can add a button to your toolbar that, if you click it on a site that has a recipe you want to make, will automatically add all of the recipe’s ingredients to your shopping list. You can make different lists for different stores, and ZipList automatically categorizes the items into different groups (produce, dairy, frozen, etc.). If you’re especially organized, you can sort the categories into the order of the store you shop in. So if you do produce first, then dairy, then frozen, etc., put the groups in that order.

Here’s the toolbar pin.

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When you click the clipper button, it adds it to your recipe box on the site. Click Add to List to add individual items to your shopping list.

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ZipList tries to figure out what items you’ll need and what you may already have. Just check and uncheck as necessary:

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And you’re done:

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ZipList also has a free iPhone app, which syncs to the website. When I get to the store, I open the app and there’s my list, including a handy checkbox by each item. When you tap the checkbox after you’ve gotten each item, the item disappears, making it easy to see what all you have left to buy. This screen cap is tiny but you get the idea.

You can also use ZipList to find recipes, and it has a pretty extensive library of them. I don’t use this much, but it’s there if you want to check it out. It does save the recipes you clip into the aforementioned recipe box.

What about Costco/Sam’s Club? We do have a Costco membership. I go about once per month for a few staple items: coffee, flour (I make most of our bread products so I get the giant bags there), paper products, some meat/poultry/fish, and a few other things. I keep a pretty well-stocked pantry and add to it as necessary with bulk items that make sense.

So, that’s about it! It sounds like a long process, but it really isn’t once you get the hang of it. If anyone has other meal-planning tips or questions, let me know!

Homemade popcorn in a paper bag

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This post might make you sad, because you’re about to realize that your entire life you’ve been hoodwinked by Big Corn. The popcorn industry has led us all to believe that we either have to buy prepackaged bags of popcorn or buy popcorn machines to make popcorn at home.

Or maybe you all know this and it’s just taken me 30-ish years to figure it out. Anyway, for the similarly unenlightened, I’m about to show you how to make popcorn at home the super cheap, no-frills way. All you need is a microwave, a bag of popcorn kernels, and some basic brown paper lunch bags. Minus the microwave, which I’m assuming you already have, the popcorn kernels and paper bags will cost you around $2 total. This makes approximately a crapload of popcorn. I’m not so much for the math so that’s an estimate, but that $2 will get you far more popcorn than a box of microwave popcorn bags. I store the extra kernels in a quart-sized Mason jar.

Since I learned how to make homemade popcorn, Ryan has been requesting it pretty much every night. Here he is stuffing his face with some during tonight’s movie night (which was The Amazing Spiderman, if you’re wondering).

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For a normal, family-sized bag of popcorn, you’ll need 1/4 cup of kernels. For a snack-sized bag, you’ll need 2 tablespoons. Once it’s popped, season it with whatever you like your popcorn seasoned with. I’ve been using I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter spray and Kernel Seasons popcorn seasoning, but once I’m finished with the spray I’m going to start using olive oil sprayed from a Misto. You can get fancy with a little chopped rosemary or other herbs and spices. The popcorn world is your oyster, people. Go forth, and enjoy many movie nights in your living room knowing you saved money and aren’t eating all the trans fats that usually come in store-bought popcorn. Happy Friday!

Homemade Popcorn

Ingredients

  • Popcorn kernels
  • Seasoning of choice

Instructions

Place popcorn kernels in brown paper lunch bag. For a family-sized bag, use 1/4 cup of kernels. For a snack-sized bag, use 2 tablespoons.

Fold up the bag tightly 2-3 times. Place in microwave and set the timer for 3 minutes. You will likely not need this whole time.

Pop until the popping slows down to 1-2 seconds between pops. I cannot overstate enough how you must stop the microwave AS SOON AS you get to this point. You WILL burn your popcorn if you let it go past this point. Take it from one who has burned many a bag of popcorn in her day.

When popcorn is finished popping, season as desired. I find I get the best results if I put the seasonings in the bag with the popcorn and then shake the whole thing up.

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The Best Whole Wheat Tortillas

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This weekend I got out a nice-sized hunk of marinated skirt steak, heated up the grill, and sliced up some fajita veggies before I realized we were out of tortillas.

Sad face.

Not to be deterred, I figured I’d just make some. I’d done it before, with ok results, and I knew I could do better. I also happened to be alone in the house and it helped my resolve knowing that I could at least have an hour or so to experiment in peace. The experiment, I’m very happy to say, was a resounding success.

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I don’t know if you’ve ever tried, but it’s hard to make great tortillas using 100% whole wheat flour. The flour tends to make the tortillas dense and stiff, lacking that nice pliability you want in a tortilla. To help remedy this, I used whole wheat pastry flour, which tends to give baked goods a lighter texture. Also,  I decided to just go whole hog (ha) and use lard as my fat.

People tend to get grossed out by the idea of lard, but it’s actually healthier than butter and has a cleaner taste. There’s nothing like it for adding tenderness to pastries and similar baked items. Also, if you render your own, you don’t end up with any trans fats AND you get cracklins as a by-product. As by-products go, you can do far worse.

Anyway, I happened to have rendered some a while back and recently defrosted a jar, which was sitting in my fridge waiting for such an occasion. The resulting tortillas were exactly what I was hoping for: sturdy but soft and pliable, full of whole-grain goodness and able to hold a whole mess of fajita beef, veggies, and fixins. Nom nom nom indeed.

The Best Whole Wheat Tortillas

by Stephanie Logerot

 

Ingredients (12 tortillas)

  • 2.5 cups whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1/2 cup lard
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup water

Instructions

Combine flour, lard, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Mix with a whisk until the lard is blended in and the dough has the consistency of small pebbles. With the mixer going, slowly add in the water and beat until everything is well-combined and you have a ball of dough.

Divide the dough into 12 balls. If the dough is sticky, refrigerate the balls for an hour or so to let them firm up. Don’t try to roll out the sticky dough – you’ll just get mad and end up yelling at it. Ask me how I know.

Heat a dry skillet over medium-high heat. On a heavily floured surface, roll out each ball into a thin circle, about 7-8 inches across. You want the tortillas about as thin as you can get them and still pull them up from the surface in one piece.

Place one tortilla at a time in the hot skillet. Let it bubble up (45 seconds – 1 minute), then flip over for another 30 seconds or so, till the surface is blistered. Repeat with each rolled-out tortilla. Store extras in the fridge.

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Haircut day

I’ve missed blogging. Between the holidays, my job, and having two kids, I had to put Steph Cooks on the back burner for a while. We’ve been busy over here! I’ve been doing tons of bread baking (I hope to be able to write more about that soon), made it through Christmas, (when I took the longest vacation I’ve taken in several years), Henry’s first birthday, and now, today, his first haircut.

We’ve been looking at this for a few weeks now.

It was time for a trim. We headed over to the kids haircut place near us. We haven’t taken Ryan there in several years (he gets his hair cut by Mason’s barber), but I do like it for really young kids – they cut quickly and know how to keep them distracted long enough to get the job done.

We set Henry up in a truck-shaped chair.

He wasn’t a huge fan of the process, but bubbles helped.

After about 10 minutes, we had a little man!

He was obviously not as excited about this as I was.

And yes, I saved a few locks of his hair for his baby book because I have become that person. We are moving quickly toward toddlerhood – I’m waiting until he walks before I declare babyhood gone forever.

A package in the mail

I may not be the most active member of the Austin Food Blogger Alliance, but I try not be a complete dud. I participated in this year’s food swap with the Boston food blogger association, where we swap local goodies with each other to show off local fare. Who doesn’t love getting packages in the mail?

At the risk of getting sappy, I want to mention another reason I’m glad I participated in this. The one time I visited Boston I had a fantastic time, but a few days after I got home, this happened. So, while I enjoyed my trip, I will probably always associate Boston with a little sadness. While nothing’s going to change that, it was nice to get some new, good things to associate with the city.

Anyway, enough Debbie Downer stuff. I had a ton of fun putting together my package for my swap buddy, Aileen of 300 Threads. We had a $30 limit and I worked it right up to the last dollar. We shipped out our packages Monday, and mine arrived Wednesday. It took all of my restraint not to just house all the goodies at once, but I made Mason and Ryan back off long enough so I could take some pictures. They were none too pleased.

I realized through the process of trying to take photos for this post that I absolutely suck at product shots. I mean, check out the top photo (which I did Instagram, but still). Holy blurry, Batman. Then I thought I could camouflage some of the suckage by making little collages in Photoshop Elements. This one isn’t too bad:

But then there’s this one.

Me and PSE were fighting. Fighting. And it won. So, I’ll spare you my lacking photography/editing skills and just tell you about my New England goodies. They were all simply delicious.

First, we have Fat Toad Farm goat’s milk caramel. Oh my. This should be drizzled over ice cream or pound cake or banana bread, but as I had none of those things, I may or may not have just dipped a saltine in the jar and went to town. Heaven in a jar, I tell you. It’s rich and perfectly creamy. If I’m ever in Vermont I’m hitting up this place.

Then, there’s red pepper jelly from Bonnie’s Jams in Cambridge. I love a good spicy-sweet treat, and this jelly was just what I was hoping it would be – just the perfect blend of sweet and spicy flavors. It would be best with a good stinky cheese, but I already had those saltines out, so….yeah. I think I have some shopping to do tomorrow.

Aileen also sent over these amazing salted rosemary shortbread cookies from Lark Fine Foods. Wow. A completely unusual treat – just salty enough, just sweet enough, with just the right amount of herbal flavor from the rosemary. They’re so buttery that they crumble when you pick them up, which is a plus in my book. I got these on Wednesday and the bag is just about gone. I think these are my favorite of all the things she sent.

Finally, I got Flaming Cashews from Q’s Nuts. Being a native Texan, I appreciate a spicy treat and these did not disappoint. Between Mason and I, there are about five nuts left in that bag. Yum.

So, there you have it – a successful swap! What a great way to try some new food and make a new friend. If any other AFBA food bloggers out there haven’t participated in this yet, I really encourage you to get on board next year. In the next few days, I’ll post about what I sent to Boston.

Thanks, Aileen!

Dinner this week: quesadillas, blackened catfish, and more

The lack of posts this week doesn’t mean we’ve been eating out every night. In fact, we haven’t eaten out on a weeknight in quite a while – go us! But Henry got a cold, which turned into a sinus-infection, which resisted his antibiotics, which turned into an ear infection, which led us to bring out the big-gun antibiotics, which he is currently taking. The illness gave him an impressive cough, which of course wakes him up around 4 am and keeps us up for at least an hour. Oh, I also caught his cold.

So all of that, on top of working, on top of Mason being gone most evenings because of tennis, means I’ve been kind of wiped. I’ve still been cooking though! My house may be a sty (you should see the pile of laundry on my couch), but by God we’ve eaten well.

I didn’t get pics of everything, but I’m still going to post a round-up of what I’ve made in the last week because it’s all good stuff. Above, you can see bbq chicken quesadillas. I shredded some chicken from a rotisserie and put it on top of a BonSavor wrap-sized whole wheat tortilla. I was out of shredded cheese, so I tore up some colby jack and put that on top of the chicken, and drizzled the whole thing with bbq sauce.

Folded the top and cooked for a few minutes on each side in a skillet coated with cooking spray, and voila. Quick, easy dinner. Fat-free refried beans made a great side. I really liked the BonSavor tortilla here – it cooked up nice and crisp, and it wasn’t mealy, like some whole wheat tortillas I’ve tried.

This meal made me think about a recipe for slow-cooker bbq beef quesadillas with mango I’d come across recently, so that is what I made the next night. And it was divine. You should check out the rest of the blog I just linked to, Can You Stay For Dinner?, especially her sidebar links about weight loss. She lost 135 lbs and has kept it off for several years, and her writing about weight and maintenance is beautiful.

We also had blackened catfish. Catfish was on sale again, so I wanted to do something different than the oven-fried version from the other night. I made a quick remoulade for dipping (the recipe is included in the link above) – this is a mayo-based Cajun sauce that I really love. Which is saying something, as you know how much I hate mayo. If you aren’t used to generous Cajun spices, you’ll want to at least halve the pepper in this recipe. If you’re one of those folks who thinks ketchup is spicy, cut it down more than that. I made grits in the rice cooker as a side.

I also made a version of this recipe for ground turkey with potatoes and spring peas, with several variations, and it was REALLY good. Absolutely a crowd-pleaser. I mean, it’s hard to go wrong with meat and potatoes. I used lean ground beef and diced red pepper instead of peas, and parsley instead of cilantro. Served the whole thing over quinoa for a bowl of starchy goodness. I actually made this two nights in a row. It was that good.

Finally, tonight we had Hebrew National 97% fat-free hot dogs with turkey chili and cheese, with baked chips on the side. I know low-fat hot dogs are anathema to hot-dog lovers, but I am not one of those people. I like hot dogs if they’re grilled, not boiled, but see them mainly as a vehicle for the chili and cheese.

This gets us all caught up on weeknight dinners. Here’s hoping Henry gets better and we all get more sleep in the coming nights.

Dinner tonight: carnitas, and a few notes on ingredient labels and food marketing

Another slow cooker meal tonight – carnitas. This is one of my go-to meals. The meat requires three ingredients (or two, if you forget the OJ like I did), cooks while you’re at work, and requires less than 30 minutes of prep once you get home. You don’t even have to shred the pork – it falls apart as it’s cooking on the stove when you start stirring it. Chop up some cilantro and serve on tortillas with salsa verde with some fat free refried beans on the side, and you have yourself one tasty weeknight dinner.

Since I still had a bunch of BonSavor flatbreads to try out, I decided to serve these on their Wheat Flour Soft Taco tortillas. They were about on par with Mission tortillas in terms of flavor, but I’d put them slightly above in terms of functionality, as I find Mission ones tend to get crumbly on me and allow filling to fall through. Neither brand holds a candle to the housemade ones you can get at HEB, or the delicious, doughy ones from Taco Cabana.

However, I wanted to point out a few things about BonSavor labeling. Which is closely tied to how they market their tortillas. Take a look at the link above – the tacos marked as “plain” all say “Wheat Flour” prominently above the world “tortillas.” It’s easy to glance at this and think you’re eating something that has whole wheat flour as its first ingredient, which I’m sure is exactly what the marketers over at BonSavor want you to think.

Alas, that is not the case. A glance at the ingredient label reveals the first ingredient as “enriched wheat flour,” which is basically just all-purpose flour. See, all-purpose flour is made from wheat, so it’s not inaccurate to say these are made from wheat flour – but it’s not the same thing as whole wheat flour. They do make whole wheat flour tortillas (which I have and haven’t tried yet), and they do prominently place “whole wheat” above “tortillas” in their labeling.

One more thing I noticed when I was reading the ingredient label was the use of partially hydrogenated soybean oil. This sent up a red flag, as “partially hydrogenated” is code for trans fat. But I was sure I’d seen something on the label saying there were 0 grams of trans fat in these tortillas. Turns out that the label says “0 grams of trans fat per serving.”

Ah. So this means that there are trans fats in the tortillas, but you’re probably looking at just a trace amount. The American Heart Association recommends that trans fats make up less than 1% of your total daily calories, and I’m sure these guys aren’t going to tip you over your limit, but the fat is still there – which is probably not what you think when you first see that “0 grams” on the label.

The whole point of all of this is that you have to learn to look past the marketing when reading food labels if you really want to know what goes into the food you’re eating. Many, if not the majority, of food in the supermarket is labeled like these tortillas, so I don’t mean to say that BonSavor is the only company out there doing this. Their stuff is just what I had on hand today to make an example of.

This probably goes without saying, but an easy way to avoid having to learn to be a food label expert is to make your own food, or buy really fresh stuff – things made locally that you might find at the farmer’s market. This food often doesn’t require as many preservatives, since small local companies’ products aren’t usually made to last for years on the shelf, and they often don’t have to go to great lengths to market their food to you, since you can meet the owners in person and talk to them about their products. Often, you can try out the food you get at the market, so that helps too.

I have probably gone on long enough, so I’ll leave it at that for now. Happy Wednesday!

Dinner tonight: soft tacos with beef

I’ve been a little under the weather this week, thanks to the kids bringing home daycare germs. Luckily, this was also the week that the nice folks at BonSavor sent over a giant box of their flatbreads for us to try out. I decided to go with the low-carb tortillas tonight for soft tacos, which is just the kind of fast meal I want when I don’t feel like standing on my feet all evening, cooking.

But let me back up a bit. I have a lot of opinions about tortillas. Having eaten, oh, around a bajillion of them in my day (God bless Texas), I feel like I know a thing or two about what makes a good tortilla. It should be pillowy soft and smell wonderfully doughy, and of course, it tastes best warm.

However, real tortillas involve lard. Lard is actually slightly better for you than butter if you can find some without trans fats in it, but it’s still not something I can consume regularly and still have my pants fit. So there are times when I really just want a tortilla to be a vehicle for something else, and in those times, I often go with La Tortilla Factory’s low-carb tortillas. I figure, why waste the calories when I just want to taste the filling? The LTF ones are really the only low-carb tortillas I like, though. The other ones I’ve tried, like Mission, were super crumbly and tasted as good as the plastic bag they came in.

These guys were somewhere in between. The texture was certainly better than the Mission ones – they were soft and pliable, as long as they didn’t sit out of the bag for more than a few minutes before I filled them (then, they started to get brittle and crumbly). Taste-wise, they don’t taste like much, but I guess that’s ok as I really just wanted to taste the taco filling. They did have that plastic bag smell, though. Points off for that.

Overall, they were fine for free tortillas. I might buy them again the next time I’m in the market for a low-carb tortilla and I can’t find the La Tortilla Factory ones.

Anyway, about those tacos. I did a simple mix of beef and McCormick seasoning:

I was thinking that for a future vegetarian option I might try mixing this seasoning with chickpeas or lentils. Maybe? What do you think?

For toppings, we went simply with iceberg lettuce (I tell you, sometimes I just want that crunch) and tomatoes. That was all for Ryan’s taco, but Mason and I added a little Mexican blend cheese and salsa on ours.

Dinner was served at 6:30. Now I’m off to down some Benadryl and get some sleep.