Saturday, July 31, 2010

About Uruguay: Cool Stuff to See

In my continuing series on Uruguay, I've talked about the Uruguayan cuisine, the culture, the I'll share a couple of my favorite things to see in Uruguay.
Uruguay is a place that one could visit many times and still not see all the cool things there are to see there. In Montevideo, there are lots of gorgeous historical and architectural locations, but you'll do well to visit them with a Spanish-speaking guide, as the signs explaining each location's significance are all in Spanish. 

Two of my favorite things to see in Uruguay are found in Punta del Este, just up the coast from Montevideo. The first is the hand sculpture on the beach (photo, right, thanks to James in Manchester). I'd seen this sculpture in National Geographic and elsewhere since I was a child, but never remembered it was in Uruguay until Leo and I were vacationing on the coast and happened upon it. The sculpture is occasionally covered in graffiti; the government has it cleaned from time to time.

Another cool thing to see in Punta del Este is the sea lions who live in the harbor. If you're from the States, then when you think of "sea lion," you probably envision the sea lions at the zoo - sleek, frisky creatures with narrow heads that end in small sniffers. But the Uruguayan sea lions are much more lion than the ones we Americans know, and have large manes and broad, feline-like noses. They're surprisingly tame and this one (photo, left) was basking in the sunlight less than 8 feet from where I stood.

The story goes...we'd spent the afternoon in the harbor, having gone there specifically to see the famed sea lions, who live in the harbor and frolic on rocks and cement alike. We'd searched for the sea lions everywhere we could think of, and struck out at every turn, so we stopped for lunch at a harborside restaurant, where we enjoyed some stunning fish, fresh from the sea.

After lunch, I was snapping what I figured would be a fairly "artsy" photo of a snail crawling up a wall, when Leo walked over and said, "I want to show you something."

In full artistic photographer mode (let's be honest here - I'm no Ansel Adams, but I sort of know my way around an SLR), I said, "I'll be right there, just one second..." and then, in fairly dramatic fashion, Leo replied, "Sue, if you don't come right now, you'll regret it for the rest of your life."

Well, that got my attention, so I followed him around the corner, and there it was, mere steps away, in all its glory - a single, alpha male sea lion, with enough scars to make me believe he was not only big, but old, too. It was absolutely incredible - like nothing I'd ever seen.

He was massive, and as he sat there basking in the sun, he was so lazy and so totally relaxed, he made me a little sleepy. It was a brilliant, unparalleled moment in Uruguay, and if you ever have the chance to visit, I highly recommend that you seek out your own sea lion moment.

Stay tuned for more on Uruguay and other places around the world in the coming weeks!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Yep, I Really Do Like Mixed Martial Arts!

I've been a fan of mixed martial arts since I was in graduate school. It started with boxing. I remember the first time I saw a match, it was in 1997 and it was Oscar de la Hoya vs. Pernell Whitaker for the Welterweight title. I'd never seen anything like it. I knew boxing existed, of course, but I had no idea how exciting it could be. I was mesmerized. 

After the fight, I did what I always do when something piques my interest - I went in search of information. The internet was nothing like it is now - a decade ago, social media was limited to listservs and discussion groups. I quickly found a boxing listserv and learned everything I could...and as is often the case when exploring a new area of intrigue, I was exposed to new concepts like mixed martial arts, and names I'd never heard, like Couture and Shamrock and Gracie. 

Then one day, when I was home visiting my family, my dad showed me the Ultimate Fighting Championship - the octagon. It was incredible! Two guys, both from completely different styles of fighting, duking it out, no holds barred. I thought it was brilliant. 

If you've ever talked to someone who knows a martial art, you've likely had the conversation about which martial art is better. Kung fu artists say kung fu would win over karate; karate guys say karate is better than street fighting. Street fighters just knock you out. But the point is, all these different guys back then had different fighting styles and were just testing them against each other.

One of my favorite fighters back then was Tank Abbott. He was a giant, goateed street fighter whose experience was pretty much winning a lot of bar fights. Today, MMA is so different - most fighters are well-rounded, with an emphasis in ju-jitsu and wrestling. It's not about which style is better - that question has been answered. Today it's all about the quality, skill, and heart of the fighter, and I don't think Tank Abbott (or many of the fighters from "back in the day") could stand up to the level of competition we see now.

That said, MMA is still a fascinating sport - a rare combination of massive skill and unfathomable heart. I never really competed in anything athletic, so I don't always understand continuing to compete, even when one is severely injured. But I still respect the fortitude it requires for someone like, say, Urijah Faber, to stay standing through almost an entire fight with two broken hands, and still make a good showing. 

When it comes to the UFC and how brilliantly Dana White has transformed that company,White's business acumen and the genius in utilizing the media and reality TV to bring MMA to the media are an inspiration for entrepreneurs. And anyone who's ever been bullied has to get a little satisfaction out of MTV's "Bully Beatdown," where bullies endure three rounds with an MMA fighter, in the hopes of winning $10,000 (produced by Mark Burnett, no less).

Many say that MMA is barbaric, and some have want it banned. If you've ever watched one of the bloodier fights, it's hard to disagree with that assessment. I can't entirely explain my own interest in it, as I tend to be about as nonviolent as it gets and I consider myself to be fairly cultured and at least somewhat refined. But what I do know is that I respect and appreciate the skill, conditioning, athletic and prowess of MMA fighters, as well as the historic nature of watching two powerful warriors face one another in hand-to-hand combat.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Restaurant Review: Union Jack, Indianapolis, Indiana

When Leo and I want some great beer, good pizza, and a friendly atmosphere, we head to Union Jack (924 Broad Ripple Ave.). This Broad Ripple English pub has everything you'd want - a solid menu, friendly and capable bartenders, and a beer menu boasting over 70 different labels. And if that's not enough to impress you, they also have "international beer club," where you get to try every beer on the menu and receive a ball cap and a case of your favorite beer when you're done.

Union Jack is one of our favorite places to hang out, so it's not uncommon to find us parked at the bar now and again, talking over a beer and a plate of seasoned fries with ranch dressing. But sometimes we actually enjoy a meal there, and when we do, we prefer the pizza, but will occasionally partake of the fish and chips. We've been pleasantly surprised by their dessert menu, as you wouldn't really expect them to have anything terribly memorable. But their English trifle, in particular, is exceptional, and so tasty that you never really feel like the serving is quite large enough.

Union Jack is a great place to go if you like sports, too, as they're almost always showing a game or an event that you want to see. With their pleasant bartending and serving staff, there's not much to complain about with Union Jack (though if pressed, I'll say that I wish they'd improve the ladies' room a little). All told, Union Jack is the best and most relaxing, casual Broad Ripple spot in the early or late summer evenings...especially when they open up the windows and let in the breeze. 

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

One of the Best Things About Costco

This year, Leo and I didn't plant nearly as large a garden as we'd planned. I was low on time and Leo had a hand injury, so neither of us got our gardens planted the way we'd planned. Instead, we're relying on farmer's markets and Costco to provide us with our produce this year.
I can't help myself. I love Costco with a deep and abiding passion. In fact, we buy almost everything there - groceries, allergy medicine, cat food, electronics, tires...the list goes on. And one of the best things about Costco is their produce.   

Right now, Costco is teeming with ripe cantaloupe, mangos, kiwis, avocados, grapes, bananas,'s gorgeous. And not long ago, while visiting my sister and brother-in-law, we discovered a new arrival - fresh figs, which are apparently present only for a couple of weeks each summer. Later this summer, we'll enter blueberry season, and when they're in season, Costco's blueberries are sheer heaven.

My first choice is a local farmer's market, but when their prices are a bit too steep for my taste, or they don't have what I'm looking for, Costco can't be beat - the prices are amazing and the quality is surprisingly top-notch.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Laundry, Urban Homesteading Style

Urban homesteading is all about living as sustainably as possible in an urban (or in our case, kind of suburban-y) area. So how do you do laundry in a sustainable way?  Well, you won't find me standing outside with a washboard, that's for sure!

Use cold water.
I wash everything in cold. I've done that for years, but I didn't start out doing it because it was eco-friendly. I did it because our washer is a Bosch, and they tend to have exceptionally high spin cycles, and the slowest one is the delicates cycle, which happens to be cold. The good, eco-friendly thing about washing in cold water is that I don't use the energy to heat the water.

Use a drying rack.
When Leo and I were dating, I noticed that he used a drying rack like the one pictured at right. I used it for my stuff a few times and fell in love. Sure, things dry a little stiff, but your clothes last way longer, and you save all the energy a dryer would use. And when your stuff is dry, you just give everything a quick shake before hanging them up in the closet. These days, I use the dryer for towels and emergencies, mostly.

Avoid phosphates in your detergent.
Phosphates apparently do something yucky to marine life, so buy phosphate-free detergent. It's not hard to find.

When it's time to replace your machines, buy Energy-Star.
I don't know if you can buy an appliance that isn't Energy-Star-compliant anymore, actually. But either way, you want Energy-Star. They're much more energy-efficient. And I can't recall the details of why, but I think front-loaders are more efficient as well. We have the Bosch Axxis Series and I've never regretted the purchase.

But remember - don't replace your appliances until you need to. My next-door neighbor called me the other day when her washer went out...after she'd been using it for twenty-five years.

Monday, July 26, 2010

What's A Pescetarian And Why Am I One?

For the last six years, I've been a pescetarian, which means I eat fish, but no other meat. Before I went pescetarian, I spent a year or so before that as a vegan, but decided I needed a little more protein in my diet and added fish to see if that felt better...and it did. So why would someone decide to become a pescetarian, anyway (and btw, to be more specific, I'm actually an ovo-lacto-pescetarian, which means that I also eat eggs and some dairy).

Now...before I get into this, I want to be clear about something. I am not a hardcore fanatic about vegetarianism or animal rights. Do I believe in animal rights? Yes. Do I think that animals that are raised for food are treated atrociously? Yes. And do I believe that economically and politically, vegetarianism is a wiser option for the planet? Yep. But do I evangelize vegetarianism or veganism to other people? Nope.

If you want to learn more about vegetarianism, the global impact of our dietary choices, or how your meat is treated (which may have implications for your health), read John Robbins' books, Diet For A New AmericaThe Food Revolution. That's as evangelistic as I get about this stuff, because honestly? I just don't think it's up to me to tell you how to eat.

So why do I eschew most meat? Well, first of all, I don't really like it. I never have. Don't get me wrong - I've enjoyed a spectacular steak now and again in my time, but intellectually, I simply can't help thinking about what meat actually is, when I'm eating it. And that has always been a problem for me. It does not bother me when others are eating meat around me. I realize there are other vegetarian-minded people who are disgusted when others consume meat nearby, but I am not one of them, so I find it a little funny when people I dine with apologize for their steaks. For some reason that I have yet to fully understand, I'm not the slightest bit squeamish about fish, which is why it's a regular part of my diet. I have to eat something, and fish happens to be easier for me to eat. I like most fish, and although there are issues with fishing practices and commercial fish farms, it has a slightly lowered economic impact than meat consumption. It's what's right for me.

Another reason I don't eat meat is that reading Diet For A New America and The Food Revolution really educated me about the politics, economics, health concerns, and overall issues associated with meat and meat production. Aside from the fact that these books are well-written so they're actually interesting,  they really did change my life. And since meat wasn't really at the top of my list anyway, letting it go wasn't that big of a deal for me. I've never really missed having steak or chicken or pork in my diet, though I do have to confess to an occasional craving for barbecued ribs.

I thought it might be a challenge being married to an Uruguayan, as meat is a critical part of their diet. But we've respected each other's choices and it really hasn't been a problem at all. Leo shares my diet a great deal of the time, but occasionally has a craving for meat, and then he just has some. Brands like Boca and Morningstar have made things a lot easier. When my family dines on burgers, I get a Boca burger. And when Leo wants bacon, there's the Morningstar version of bacon - what we call "fake-on." Every once in awhile, Leo grills a steak while I'm grilling some shrimp. It all works out in the end.

And as for eating fish, well, I'm aware that there are issues with that as well, with overfishing and dyed salmon and whatnot. But I do my best to be conscious of the choices I the end of the day, if you're trying to make a small difference, it's better than not trying at all.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Vampires...BT (Before Twilight,...Or At Least In The Recent Past)

Long before Stephenie Meyer write the Twilight series, long before Robert Pattinson brooded his way across the screen, there were vampires. And I dare say, the vampires of my generation were cooler, had more character, and were much, much more interesting than those of today. Now, don't get me wrong. I've read the Twilight series and I enjoyed it. But compared to what's come before, even in the more recent past, it just didn't stack up.

As I considered writing this post, I realized I didn't want to write an extensive history of vampires in movies or fiction. I'm neither qualified nor inclined to do so. But what I can do is talk about what I've enjoyed more than Twilight, because the truth is, while the stories and themes explored in Meyer's work might be new to the tween set, they're not new to the genre....not even remotely.

And as I thought about what I really wanted to say here, I realized I just wanted to call attention to two vampire series that I think were just better - one televised and one printed. The first is the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" television series, which includes the spin-off, "Angel" (and while the "Buffy" movie was okay, the TV series far surpassed the movie, in many ways). Why am I a fan of this series? Because it captured so many things that "Twilight" attempts to capture, but...better. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" follows the life of a young girl who discovers she's a part of a legacy that's almost as old as time - into every generation, one girl is chosen to receive an unparalleled strength to battle evil. When she dies, another girl is automatically chosen and the legacy (and the fight against evil) lives on.

What I like about the "Buffy" series is that they attended to the deeper issues, like how lonely it would be to be the only person with that strength and that purpose, even if your friends and family fought by your side, impossible love, and that fuzzy, grey area in between good and evil, and yes, even the "my vampire boyfriend and I can't make love" problem that Meyer's addresses, but Whedon (the creator of "Buffy") did it while maintaining a clever, humorous dialogue (dialogue like, "I'm a rogue demon hunter now." "Oh. What's a rogue demon?" was commonplace, and that's not even the best line, but the one that's on the tip of my brain right now). And they did all of this long before "Twilight" was a twinkle in Stephanie Meyer's eye. 

The other vampire series that rocked and that I think bears mentioning is Anne Rice's now classic 10-book  "Vampire Chronicles" series. Starting with Interview With A Vampire and ending with "Blood Canticle" (though for me, the Vampire Chronicles really ended with Memnoch The Devil), the series follows the adventures of the Vampire Lestat through his life and death and even to Heaven and Hell.

Before I go any further...please, forget about Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt and just read the books. The movie, as is often the case, just didn't do justice to the written work.

One thing Anne Rice did better than anyone was to explore the sensuality of the vampire - yet again something that we see in "Twilight," but something that was done better long before Meyer made her pass at the vampire world.

And that's the cruz of the issue for me. "Twilight" is appealing to the tween set. It's hugely popular and massively successful on a dollar scale. And I'm not saying that "Twilight" is bad (though frankly, the movies are a poor substitute for the books - the simplicity of how cleverly Meyer depicted Bella's loneliness and depression in New Moon was only marginally captured in the film version). All I'm saying is that it's all been done before...and better.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Meet Abe and Willa!

After our lovely, too-brief time with Edison, Leo and I realized that it was a great deal of fun having a little rodent friend co-habiting the office with us. Plus, we had an empty cage and a bunch of rodent food, so we decided to bring another little fuzzball into the office when we felt ready.

Today...we felt ready. So we stopped at the local Petco and Petsmart to peruse the selection and although we did find some potentials - a seriously fat and grumpy looking fancy hamster, some really rambunctious dwarf hamsters, and a long-haired hamster that just really looked like what comes off of my hairbrush when I clean it - nobody really jumped out of us as "The One."

Then we found ourselves at Speck's Pet Store in Brownsburg, Indiana, which is near the branch of our bank where our favorite teller moved. Sometimes we go to that bank just to visit her and bring her eggs, and last week I visited the bank, I noticed this pet store and I remembered it today and thought it would be much nicer to get our new friend from a privately-owned store, rather than a big-box chain. It turned out to be the right choice. Instead of the full-grown hamsters from the larger stores, Speck's had newly-weaned babies, so we were able to get babies that will grow up feeling comfortable and safe with us.
Abe & Willa
(and yes, you should click to zoom in on this photo.)

We'd considered bringing home just one, but we couldn't help ourselves (seriously, look at these faces - could you?), and we brought home two. At the store, they said they were too young to determine their sex, so if we ended up with babies, we could certainly bring the babies into their store any time. But when we got home, we Googled how to sex hamsters, and sure enough, we've got a male and a female, so we expect a fairly interesting future with these two. 

Our little wrestlers.
All the way home, our little babies alternated between wrestling and trying to chew their way out of their little take-home box. I think they wore themselves out, because as soon as we got them home and in their new aquarium, they fell fast asleep. They've already explored their new digs and had some snacks, and even had a wrestle or two. I think they're pretty content.

They're surprisingly comfortable with having our hands in the cage - probably a consequence of starting life in the pet store. Leo and I are trying to leave them alone as much as we can, but it's difficult - they're absolutely precious. I think it's safe to say that you can anticipate that I'll be sharing the adventures of Abe and Willa for a long time to come. Leo and I are so happy to welcome these tiny new additions to our family!

About Uruguay: What Are the Uruguayans Like?

Last week, in my continuing Saturday cultural series on Uruguay, I talked about what it's like in Uruguay, and ended with a note on the temperament of the Uruguayan people. Today I'll talk a bit more about what Uruguayans are like as a people.
The temperament of the Uruguayan people is much like their national anthem. I've never said that about any other country before, and I only heard the Uruguayan anthem for the first time during the World Cup. But as I listened to their song, it struck me as completely appropriate and musically descriptive of who the Uruguayans are - proud, fiercely independent, deeply and soulfully emotional, a little rebellious, and yet somehow, surprisingly light-hearted and humorous. 

Uruguayans are a lot like Argentinians, but a bit more humble, as their country is so small, with a population around 3 million in the entire country - there are more Uruguayans living outside Uruguay than in the country itself. Their Latin roots often make them seem a bit too emotional and dramatic, and while that can get in the way (something easily witnessed in their soccer game), it also serves them well (also, something easily witnessed in their soccer game). 

Family is vital to the Uruguayans, but rather than putting children first, they are, quite simply, a seamless part of everything. Children are to be seen and heard and they're involved, accepted, and enjoyed at virtually every social gathering. They matter - not more than everyone else, but as much as everyone else.

And if you want a simple etiquette tip...don't try to buy a drink for an Uruguayan's birthday - custom dictates that they'll be buying you a round of drinks or a meal on that day.

Next in this series, I'll cover a few cool things to see and do in Uruguay. Don't miss it!

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Marketing Tactic That Makes Me Hate DVDs

The other night, Leo and I settled in to watch "Aliens in the Attic" and I was reminded yet again that today's DVDs really annoy me. Listen, I get that studios want us to watch all of their movies, but when I put a DVD in, I don't think I should be forced to watch previews of every last one of them. I try hitting the "menu" button, but it rarely works. I get that annoying, "Action prohibited by disc" message or the even more irritating circle-with-a-slash that indicates, simply, "No."

On some discs, you can fast forward. On others, you can stop the playback, then hit the menu button. But should I really have to go through this, if all I want is to watch the movie I rented? This is yet one more marketing tactic based on the premise, "we'll force you to look at our ads and make it hard to discover how to opt out." Forced marketing, as we've all learned time and time again, doesn't work. It just annoys.

And in this case, it's more than likely that I've already seen the trailer, so compelling me to sit and watch it again isn't going to make me want to watch the film more. 

My poor husband has witnessed my frustration over this tactic time and time again, as I furiously punch buttons on the remote, trying to assert my consumer's rights not to be marketed to. It's not entirely dissimilar to the way I insist that we immediately fast-forward through commercials when we're watching recorded TV.

I don't want to be brainwashed by marketing any more than I already am. I can't turn off the billboards or magazine ads, and I can't help that I see certain amounts of marketing collateral all day, every day. But I can choose when I see the more overt forms when I'm watching TV and movies, and as such, I darned well will do so as much as possible (and yeah, it is a little hard to live with me, LOL).

Oh, and btw, "Aliens in the Attic" was a delightful movie. It was quirky, not at all scary, and generally just fine family fun.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Why Does Any Insect Need to Be That Big?!

This morning I brought a live cicada into the house when I went out to open up the chicken coop. Imagine my joy upon discovering this massive insect attached to the  pocket of my cargo pants, when my cat, Scooter, started sniffing at it. I think the neighbors three blocks away heard me scream. 

I jumped off the sofa, brushing wildly at my pocket and screaming like a crazy person. Leo hadn't seen the cicada, and thought that I had finally cracked up. 

Leo, being my official Knight In Shining Armor In Charge Of All Insect Activity In Our Home, hunted for that thing for about ten minutes, until he finally stood up, put his hands on his hips and said, "I just can't find it. I'm sorry. I don't know where else to look." 

And then he turned around was on his back. It was like every series on the Sci-Fi channel (inexplicably and stupidly renamed just "Syfy"), where there's at least one show with a creepy giant bug attached to the back of one of the characters. They can't see it, but it causes terrible things to happen. "Dr. Who," "Sliders," "Star Trek," "Angel," they've all done it. And here was my real-life version playing out before my very eyes.

I said, "Uuuuuuuuhngh! It's on your back."

To his credit, Leo didn't freak out, he didn't scream like a girl. In a split-second moment, we were acting in perfect harmony. I ran to the door and opened it and Leo, walking very gingerly, hoping not to disturb the giant creature, lest we lose it in the house, went out onto the patio and took off his shirt, shaking it just enough so the cicada flew to safety.

The cicada is a giant bug, maybe the biggest we have here in Indiana, and this is the time of year when they are the noisiest and the most abundant. Thus, as a bug phobic, this is my least favorite time of year, for obvious reasons. I dare say that Leo will be opening the chicken coop for the next month or so.

Restaurant Review: El Torero, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England

Lest you think I hate all restaurants, I decided to do a couple of reviews of restaurants I love. I'm starting overseas at what is currently my favorite restaurant in the world I've seen to date, El Torero (Milburn House,
Side City Centre).

El Torero is my favorite for a few reasons. First, the food is consistently, authentically, mouthwatering, something of a feat when you're in England. Second, the service is impeccable- not overbearing, but there when you need something. Third, when you walk through the doors, suddenly, you are in Spain. The servers usually speak Spanish, and everything has a pleasant, authentic feel. In El Torero, you sense that you really could while away an entire afternoon talking with friends over wine and tapas. And the most important reason that El Torero is my favorite restaurant? Leo and I dined there many times during our courtship and he even colluded with the staff there to surprise me on my birthday (see the photo of us with the most amazing birthday cake ever- a rich chocolate torte from Thornton's, which was covered in chocolate with chocolate truffles embedded in the top- ridiculous), so this restaurant holds a very special, dear place in my heart. Leo and I love El Torero so much that we had our wedding caterer copy some of our favorite dishes from their menu.

So let's start with the food. You can easily see from the photo (theirs) that the food looks good. But more importantly, it's authentically Spanish. Everything on the menu is exactly as they promise. 

The pan y alioli is exactly what you want it to be - a baguette-style bread that's light and crunchy on the outside and just the right amount of airy and chewy inside, accompanied by an alioli that's the perfect blend of garlic and mayonnaise. The aceitunas are straight from Spain, gorgeous, plump, fat green olives that disappear far too quickly. The paella de pescado y mariscos, cooked to order for two, is a perfect representation of everything paella should be - the rice is a gentle yellow color from the saffron, the seafood left in shells to keep the flavor and moisture in, and every flavor working in brilliant, beautiful harmony. The cigalitas plancha are large prawns, cooked to perfection, absent of that springy, rubbery texture one finds all too often in shrimp dishes. The gambas al ajillo (king prawns) have a hint of spiciness from the chili peppers that's easily relieved with sangria. And the patatas payesa, oh, the patatas payesa...potatoes lightly fried with onions and red peppers. The peppers and onion caramelize and subtly flavor the potatoes so that as soon as they hit your mouth, you think you've died and gone to heaven. To finish the meal, sometimes they'll bring you an elegant shot glass filled with Tilford, a Spanish hazelnut liqueur that blows Frangelico out of the water.

Chef Almirón, originally from Andalucia, is a genius at translating native Spanish tapas cuisine. His recipes are authentic, flavorful, and beautifully-presented. "El Torero" translates to "bullfighter," and if Almirón is the fighter here, then one almost feels sorry for the bull...but looks forward to seeing the brilliant way Almirón will serve it.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What Do You Know About Figs?

During a recent visit to my sister's house, my brother and law treated Leo and me to a plate of tasty figs, which he'd procured at our local Costco. Now, aside from how tasty Fig Newton cookies are, I didn't know much about figs until I met Leo, who tells some lovely stories about eating fresh figs, straight from the tree as he was growing up in Uruguay.  

Figs are sweet, but not too sweet, and there's something quite sumptuous about them. I always feel a little decadent when I'm eating figs. It's no wonder that figs are considered to be a symbol of abundance and sensuality. Our favorite way to eat them is fresh, sliced, and accompanied by a bit of cheese, olives, and wine. And I'm a huge fan of fig jam. 

There's a lot you can do with figs, too. You can use them to liven up a salad, make a fish or chicken dish more exciting, or stuff the figs themselves to make a burst of extraordinary flavor.

According to the California Fig Grower's Association, "fresh figs are very perishable and should be kept refrigerated, even at the store. At home, they should keep in the refrigerator for up to a week. They are very easy to freeze, so stock up for those months when they are not available. Just wash firm ripe figs, arrange on baking sheets, and freeze. Then, store in sealed plastic bags in the freezer for up to six months, removing just the number needed each time."

Here's a fig recipe from

Figs with Salad Greens

6 ripe figs
2 cups arugula, stems removed torn in pieces
2 cups Boston lettuce torn in pieces
6 - 8 slices of goat cheese, cut in 1/2 inch rounds  (2 per serving)
1/4 cup walnuts, chopped
Freshly milled pepper to taste

Vinaigrette1 small shallot, finely diced
2 teaspoons Champagne vinegar
1 pinch salt 
2 tablespoons walnut oil

To make the vinaigrette:  Combine shallot, vinegar and salt in a bowl. Whisk to melt the salt a bit. Add oil and whisk it to emulsify. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if necessary.
Quarter the figs or slice them into rounds.Wash and dry the greens.Toss the greens with just enough vinaigrette to coat them lightly. Arrange the greens on 3 or 4 plates and place the figs artistically around and on top of them, along with the cheese and walnut pieces. Spoon the remaining vinaigrette over the top.  Give a twist or two (to taste) of the pepper mill on top of each plate and serve. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

For The Love of Poultry

Two years ago, if you had told me that I would one day own chickens, I would've laughed hysterically. Sure, I live in Indiana, but I grew up in Indianapolis and always considered myself somewhat of a "city girl." Yet here I am, the delighted owner of eight gorgeous chickens. How did this happen?

I blame my husband, of course. Leo grew up in Montevideo, Uruguay, and while Montevideo is a metropolis, Leo's family living just outside the city had chickens and  rabbits. Leo knew the joys of watching chickens and eating fresh eggs from an early age. As an adult, Leo never had chickens of his own, but lived in Spain and Tenerife (in the Canary Islands) where owning chickens is not a rare occurrence. 

So when Leo moved to America and discovered my predilection for urban homesteading, and when he started reading my urban homesteading books, he discovered that owning chickens is not only possible, even in an urban setting in America, but it's a part of urban homesteading and it's becoming the cool new thing to do. And so the dialogue began.

I can't lie - it took a lot of arguing, persuading, and convincing before I was ready to let Leo turn our shed into a chicken coop. We talked and talked about it, and even visited the coops at Traders Point Creamery, a local organic dairy farm where we enjoy year-round farmer's markets. We argued over numbers. First I agreed to four chickens. Then it was six. And finally, we settled on eight. And eventually, we embarked upon our search for the perfect tiny flock.

By far the most useful tool I found in my search was the Breed Selector Tool available at I was able to input our climate, the temperament we wanted, and the kind and number of eggs we were looking for, and out popped the ideal breeds for us - Rhode Island Reds and Australorps. We ordered for of each and in no time, our postwoman came to our front door with a sturdy, cheeping box.
There is nothing more precious than a day-old baby chick. They are fragile and timid, but quickly become used to being held, so they will fall fast asleep in your hands (this is also true of the adults). Or better, they get sleepy standing up, wobble around a bit, and then gently tip over on their beaks. From the beginning, they're a joy to watch, so much so that one can easily spend an hour or two watching them without realizing just how much time has passed.

One of the things that worried me from the start was that Leo mentioned that when their egg production slowed (as it does after a year or so), he would consider eating them. I happen to be an ovo-lacto-pescetarian (which pretty much means I eat eggs, some dairy, and fish, but no other animal products), and while I'm not evangelistic about it, I didn't really want Leo eating our chickens, especially if I became attached, so we agreed not to name them until he promised not to eat them. Once he made that promise, I was off and running with the names: Ruby, Bubbles, Dot, and Connie (all Rhode Island Reds), and Connie, Esme, Cat, and Lily (the Australorps).

They grow up far too quickly, though, and before you know it, they're outside and laying eggs....or at least, most of them are. We noticed that Lily was a bit of a loner and wasn't quite as active as the others. She was so different, in fact, that I worried that there was something wrong with her. And then she started to grow a little ridge on her head, and the older she got, the bigger it got, until we realized...we had a rooster on our hands. Lily became Lyle and these days, he's the head honcho in the coop.

Our chickens spend the night in a coop, a shed Leo converted by building a roost and nesting boxes, and enjoy the day in a large, enclosed run. We would love to let them roam around as free range, but in our neck of the woods there are way too many threats - hawks, cats, dogs, and foxes just to start.
It only takes about six months before they lay their first egg and within a couple more months, they're laying regularly. Our breeds lay about five eggs a week each, so we have around 35 eggs a week. We give a lot away to our neighbors (for putting up with Lyle's crowing) and to our family and friends. The eggs themselves are exceptional - the color and flavor are much more vibrant and rich than their supermarket counterparts. We use them for breakfast and Leo makes a wonderful Spanish omelet for dinner (if we're lucky, recipe forthcoming!)

But it's more than just the eggs. Chickens are absolutely lovely to have around. They make the most delightful sounds, and it's easy to relax in the afternoon just watching them peck around. In the autumn, we rake up a bunch of leaves and scatter them in the run so the chickens can scuff around finding bugs. We bring them sliced apples, cantaloupe rinds, and spinach as treats and feed them by hand. Bonnie and Ruby love hopping up and sitting on my lap, and Bubbles will stay so long she snuggles in and falls asleep.

We keep a little table and two chairs near the coop, and when we need a little afternoon break or just some stress relief, we head outside for a little "Chicken TV." Quite simply, it's the best show we can find.

And now we're considering adding to our flock. The most appropriate ratio is twelve hens to every rooster, and  we only have seven hens, and they're looking a little...well, henpecked, for lack of a better word (though technically, I guess it's really "rooster-pecked"). We're thinking of adding some Silkies (the lap dog of the poultry world) and a couple of Easter Eggers (they lay those pretty blue and green eggs you might have seen on Martha Stewart's show) to round out the flock and balance things out a bit. Stay tuned!

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Edison Show Is Now Over.

It is with a very heavy heart that I must report that Edison did not survive the night. This morning when I woke up and came into the office to say good morning to her, she had passed away. Leo and I think that maybe the pregnancy was just too much for her - pregnancies are notoriously hard on mice. At any rate, she just didn't make it, and it happened before the babies were born, so they're gone, too.

I don't have much to say about this, because we're both feeling very sad about the whole thing. Edison was a lovely little mouse, and a welcome addition to our pet family. It was so much fun having her in the office and watching her scurry around, examining all of the wire walls of her cage, nesting in the little plastic TV we bought her, and just being generally adorable. She was just a joy to watch.  So we're obviously heavy-hearted about losing her. 

However...I'm awfully glad we were able to provide Edison with a comfortable, safe place for her last days, and so glad she was in our life for a brief period. It's funny how attached you can get to such a tiny little presence in just a week, but we really did.

B Vitamins and Stress

A few months ago, I was getting a massage and my massage therapist mentioned the tension she was finding in my body. I said, "Yeah, I've been under a lot of stress lately." She suggested I try a Stress B-Complex vitamin. I was apprehensive - could a solution to my feeling of overwhelm and anxiety be that simple? But I figured, "Hey, it's better than Xanax at this point," so I gave it a whirl. I bought Nature Made Stress B-Complex and started taking it the very next day.

Much to my surprise, just a few days later, I was feeling so much better. The tension and stress I had been experiencing was so much more manageable, and I do attribute it to the increase in B-vitamins. I think my body just needed more than I was giving it.

Since that day, I've taken this vitamin every day without fail. But a couple of weeks ago, I ran out and I really noticed a difference. Will this work for everyone? I don't know - I'm not a doctor and you should check with yours first before trying anything you read about in a blog anyway. All I can tell you is that it worked for me. :)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

How I Chose My Skin Care Regimen

I've long been known to my friends as a bit of a "beauty guru." Long before Sephora had a presence in virtually all major (and most minor) cities, I was a Sephora addict, trying hundreds of products of all shapes, sizes, scents, and prices.

Over the last couple of years, my enthusiasm for skin care and makeup had waned. I settled into a  comfortable regimen of products that I liked, and as my business grew, I didn't have as much time to devote to fun stuff like product testing. Then, last fall, I decided I wanted to update my routine, and turned to Burt's Bees for help. I transformed my entire beauty care over to Burt's Bees, skin care and hair care, without doing much research...and within a couple of months, I was miserable. 

Now, let me say upfront that I like Burt's Bees as a company. I like what they stand for and I like their story. But their products did not work for me. My skin was dry, my hair was dry, and I couldn't figure out why.

That's when I started researching and rediscovered Paula Begoun and Beautipedia. Paula's the author of a great book called, Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me, and has meticulously researched most of the ingredients in skin care products so she can analyze the true efficacy of each product. After the success of her book, Paula developed her own skin care line, Paula's Choice, which is...well, it's okay, in my opinion, and launched Beautipedia, which is a membership site where you can access many of her reviews.

After using Beautipedia, I discovered why my skin and hair were so dry - Burt's Bees products have a lot of drying ingredients! I dug a little further and read through reviews and eventually, came up with a skin care regimen that included products from Neutrogena, Olay, and Kiss My Face, and have been using that ever since. 

As a self-confessed cosmetics snob, I'm actually shocked to say that I love these drugstore products and they're working miracles for me in ways that expensive brands like Creme de la Mer, Boscia, and Kinerase never did. 

So, if you're unsatisfied with your beauty regimen and you need real help choosing new stuff, I highly recommend Paula's book and  Beautipedia as the best places to start. You can't honestly rely on Sephora salespeople or the makeup counter people at the department store- all they can do is repeat the marketing rhetoric they've learned in their "training" by various skin care lines. But Paula (via her book and web site) understands the ingredients and knows what they really do, so you can compare the promises the skin care lines come up with for marketing purposes alongside the truth and see what might work best for you. Best of luck!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

About Uruguay: What's It Like There?

In our continuing Saturday series on Uruguay, today I'll cover what it's like in Uruguay, focusing mostly on the capital city of Montevideo.

Despite that many people think Uruguay is "a small, obscure country in South America" (actually, that's me - I'm always teasing Leo that he comes from a "small, obscure country in South America"; it's a running joke at our house), Uruguay is much like a European country.

In the interior of the country, I'm told there are some forests, where one can find tarantulas, which should explain quite clearly why I've never ventured inland. ;) In the developed areas, however, Uruguay is a lot like any other city with a long and rich history.

In particular, Montevideo, with its multi-cultural architecture, intriguing sculpture, and monuments (several of them dedicated to important figures in education), multitude of restaurants, and copious boutiques and shopping malls, seems, in most ways, like any city you'd find in Europe. There's an older part of the city, where one can find a street market where artisans sell jewelry and handmade goods, and a newer part of the city, where one can buy the same electronics and name-brand merchandise you'd find anywhere in the States (albeit at a premium, due to import taxes).
But look a bit more closely and you'll see evidence of the country's not-too-distant dictatorial history; the Uruguayans suffered through military leadership from the early 1970s until it was overthrown in the mid-to-late 1980s. And if you look a bit beyond the mouthwatering cuisine and the stunning seaside views, even beyond the bit of political protest graffiti that remains here and there, you'll discover that the toll of the dictatorship on the Uruguayan people themselves still lingers just beneath the surface, making them fiercely independent, proud, and maybe even a little rebellious.

Which of course brings me to the next topic in this series: the beautiful temperament of the Uruguayan people. Tune in next Saturday!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Confirmed: Edison Is Female and Edison Is Pregnant

Edison spent all day in her (yes, it's official, Edison is a girl) loft today, snuggled up in the fluffy blue cotton. When I realized Edison had gotten so nested in the cotton fluff that I couldn't see her, I realized that Edison isn't just pregnant...she's about to give birth. And from the look of things, it's happening

I did a little research and learned that you can't clean a mouse's cage for a couple of weeks after it gives birth, so Leo and I got to work immediately, locked off the loft, and cleaned out the cage. And now, Edison, who appears to be in the process of giving birth, is inexplicably running around her wheel and wobbling up and down the tunnel from her loft to chow down on some snacks.

So now we know why Edison came out from hiding in the first place. We know why she moved slower than it seemed like she should. And we know why she's been eating so much junk food.

I confess, I feel very torn. How can I express this? I adore Edison. I think she's the cutest little thing. But I don't love that there's at least one mouse still living behind the stove, and I'd really like to catch him (clearly, it's a him) soon. And I'm all too aware in this moment that if we hadn't caught Edison, she'd have given birth to five to ten babies (I guess I'll know tonight or tomorrow) and then the mouse problem in our house would've grown exponentially. 

I'm honestly thrilled to pieces that Edison is here, safe, and giving birth in a very pleasant environment. The little girl in me is so terribly excited that we're about to witness this fascinating moment (much like I did so many times when I was young and had pet gerbils whose babies I sold to the local pet store for bubble gum money). But the adult woman in me is so relieved that we caught Edison before we ended up with a mouse problem of epic proportion, and pretty concerned about what we're going to do once these baby mice are ready to be weaned. 

So again, if you're looking for an adorable, Edison-like pet, drop me an e-mail. You could have your very own little Edison (or two!) in just a few weeks.

Why Rocks Rock

When I was a little girl, my dad was really into rocks and fossils. He tried caving and spelunking and would, on occasion (when we were traveling through rocky areas), stop our car on the side of the highway to hunt for fossils. I grew up knowing what a rock tumbler was, how it worked, and what it was for. I grew up knowing that rocks are just cool.

As an adult, I'm an avid collector of geodes, rocks, mineral specimens, and fossils. I'm also a lazy collector. Except for a few exceptions, I don't know what most of my rocks are, where they're from, or what constitutes a "good" specimen. For the most part, I just collect what I like and what appeals to me. But the ones I love most have great significance and meaning to me. For example, a small blue geode (above, at right) that was the very first rock in my collection - probably not the best specimen, but I was a student at the time and the $10 I spent was a big deal to me.

Other sentimental pieces in my collection include my mother's amethyst, a celestine specimen my sister gave me (above, left), and a small, mounted geode slice from Uruguay that Leo sent me in the very first care package he mailed to me (right). The rocks in Uruguay are really spectacular. My luggage is always heavier on the return home. :)

Another piece that I love is a small Indian Shiva Lingam stone (left). This stone is purported to have properties that increase fertility, which is why it stays safely ensconced in my display cabinet.

I have a friend and mentor who believes that rocks have energy and life. He loves nothing more than when friends bring him a special rock from a special place they've visited. I don't know that I think rocks, minerals, and crystals have all the properties they're alleged to have, though I have a Moldavite necklace that I think gives me nightmares and other strange dreams (Moldavite is said to have very strong and unique energy, as it's created when a meteor strikes earth and fuses with a terrestrial rock - both extra-terrestrial and terran, it's unlike any other rock). Whether rocks and minerals have all the properties that New Agers want to believe in, I just collect what I like and enjoy the view.