Thursday, September 30, 2010

Restaurant Review: Johnny Rockets, USA

I'm not a huge fan of chains or franchises, but there are a few that do things so well that I don't mind the big corporate ownership. So, for the first-ever Life in Blue Jeans Restaurant Review of a franchise operation..Johnny Rockets!

Johnny Rockets is a 50s-style diner, complete with jukeboxes and servers wearing 50s-style diner attire. The menu is mostly burgers, fries, and shakes, but the "new millenium" version of this diner includes healthier choices and a vegetarian Boca burger option. If someone happens to play the right song on the jukebox, all available staff will jump out and dance, which turns out to be a fun, albeit slightly uncomfortable show (the fun part is the servers who really get into the dance and make it fun by trying new moves; the uncomfortable part is the servers who clearly only do the dance because they have to- watching them is probably the most uncomfortable thing about Johnny Rockets).

We frequent two Johnny Rockets locations in Indianapolis - one in Castleton and one downtown. I have to confess that the service we've gotten downtown has always been friendly, but the Castleton location is a bit spotty. There are a couple of staffers at Castleton who are...a bit dour. But if you happen in on the days when those servers aren't working, the staff is extraordinary, in particular, Lyndsay, who is always enthusiastic and over-the-top welcoming and friendly. So, assuming you're showing up on a day when you get the "happy staff," you'll be greeted and seated practically the moment you walk in the place.

Results of the Johnny Rockets Ketchup
Face Competition Leo and I accidentally
started recently.
There are more great surprises at Johnny Rockets. I'm a believer in the concept of what I call "The Buffer." The Buffer is a separate plate or dish that's used for any sort of condiment, to avoid the food itself getting soggy. I use The Buffer for ketchup for fries, syrup for pancakes, etc. At Johnny Rockets, they bring you a Buffer and then, using ketchup, draw a face in the buffer. The quality and creativity of the face depends on the server's experience and dedication, but Leo and I actually caused a small ketchup face competition during our recent visit, when we complimented our server on having made the best ketchup face we'd had yet, in full earshot of another server. Once he heard our compliment, he came over to say that he'd taught our server everything she knew...and it was on like Donkey Kong.

Another great thing about Johnny Rockets that makes it such a phenomenal place for families, is that they give unlimited refills on drinks and fries. Plus, Monday through Wednesday, from 4:00 to close, kids eat free. When you're feeding a family, value matters. And Johnny Rockets delivers value in spades.

And on our last few visits there, they've given us these sweepstakes cards that we bring back for the next visit. The manager opens up the cards and tells us what we get free. The first time, we got a free shake, which earned a big "meh" from me. But last time, we won two free burgers and they let me swap my burger for a Boca burger, which prompted a "yay!" from me. And if you go to the Johnny Rockets web site and sign up for their e-club, you'll get a coupon for a free burger.

Johnny Rockets isn't a romantic place. It isn't a fancy place. But they deliver an entertaining, delicious meal with high value, which is a major bonus in this economy. Big thumbs up from us!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Please Excuse This Interruption....

Every once in awhile, I get a little writer's block. It's not that I can't come up with ideas or that I'm actually's that sometimes...I just don't want to write. To be fair, I have a large number of writing gigs- web sites and outlets I've promised regular writing assignments to, and now and then, the sheer volume of writing that I do on a weekly basis just...gets to me. 

I started this blog for fun- to have a distraction from the topic of business that I write about on a daily basis. And it has been exactly what I hoped it would be- a great source of joy, fun, and an opportunity for me to share my life and all the cool stuff that Leo and I do on a daily basis with many of the folks who have previously only seen my business side (even if my business side is still wearin' blue jeans).

But right this minute, I'm overwhelmed with writing assignments, and I have to take a day or two off to sort through them all. So please bear with me and excuse this interruption. I'll be back momentarily.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Restaurant Review: Udupi Cafe, Indianapolis, Indiana

It's hard to find Udupi Cafe in Indianapolis, Indiana. In fact, I'd wager that Udupi rates as one of the best-hidden culinary gems in Indianapolis. First, it's on a side of town where one expects to find a great variety of ethnic cuisine, but not necessarily on a side of town where you'd really want to go. Let's face it, the area around Lafayette Square Mall just isn't what it used to be. Leo and I happen to spend a good amount of time in this part of town, simply because we live about five minutes away. But I never feel completely safe in the area.

Second, Udupi is hidden inside Indian Plaza, which I never even knew existed before two days ago. So even if you know the address (4225 Lafayette Road), finding Udupi's front door just isn't a simple matter. In fact, I've driven by this place for the last ten or fifteen years, noticed the sign for "vegetarian indian cafe", and  I always assumed it had gone out of business, since there was no visible storefront. 

Then, two days ago, I was out running errands and I was super-hungry. I didn't want to go grocery-shopping on an empty stomach, so I decided to treat myself to a dim sum lunch. Well, the dim sum place was closed, so I decided to go on an Indian adventure. And what I found amazed me. 

The strip mall (yes, I know) where Udupi is located happens to have another Indian restaurant at the end. I assumed that was the Indian restaurant, but then noticed a door with a sign reading, "Indian Plaza." "What's that?" I thought, and decided to venture forth. 

Inside, I discovered a small Indian paradise. A little spa beckoned me with eyebrow threading and facials. A boutique tempted me with sparkly, beautiful jewelry. A massive grocery offered huge bags of scented rice, fresh produce, some of which I'd never seen before, and avast array of music and Bollywood films. And nestled in all of this cultural richness was Udupi Cafe.

On my first visit, which happened late for lunch (2 PM) on a Saturday, the staff was just about to tear down the buffet to start getting ready for dinner. When I happened along, though, they were completely welcoming, asked about the books I had with me, gave me a guided tour of the buffet, including recommendations, spice levels, and even made up a dessert plate for me, complete with masala tea. The head chef wandered out into the dining room to shake my hand when I was finishing my meal, and I had a lovely chat with a cake artist who stopped by to say hello to the staff. And when I was paying my bill, (under $10 for full buffet including dessert, beverage, and tip) they surprised me with a little to-go tub of my favorite dessert that day.

I took my dessert (gulab jamun, fried dough balls made with milk and flour and soaked in simple syrup) home and shared it with Leo and told him about my adventure, and we decided to go back the next day so he could experience Udupi for himself.

When we returned, the staff remembered me and welcomed us in, asking about the book I'd been reading. I introduced them to Leo and they showed the exact same level of service and friendly warmth during a reasonably busy Sunday evening dinner that I'd experienced as the only patron mid-afternoon on Saturday. Leo fell in love with the buffet, too. 

The flavors of Udupi are rich and warm and focused on Southern Indian cuisine. The matter paneer, one of my favorite Indian dishes, which is a tomato-based sauce with peas and cubes of cheese, has a deeper flavor than I've experienced before. The sambar, a vegetable stew, is only mildly spicy (though I thought spicier at dinner than at lunch) and wonderfully accompanied by saffron rice, idlis (steamed rice cakes), any of the bonda (fried potato mixtures), or the fresh naan (a soft flatbread) they bring you on request. They'll also bring dosas, a crepe made from lentils and stuffed with a potato, lentil, and spice mixture. Though it's not to my particular taste, there's a cold bar as well, with an array of raitas and chutneys, plus puri, which is an unleavened bread that comes out a bit like crunchy, hollow balls that you can fill with a mint sauce, a chutney, or a cold mashed potato mixture.

Saffron rice, sambar, mattar paneer, and bonda
And just when you've overdone it on too many trips to the savory buffet, there's dessert: at least four choices of delicious sweets await you. The galub jamun is a personal favorite, but I also fell in love with the kheer, a sweetened rice pudding made with raisins, and shrikhand matho, a yogurt-based mango dessert with fresh peaches and pears stirred in. The sweetest dessert I've had at Udupi is the motichoor ka ladoo, made with milk, gram flour flakes, and puffed rice.

I have yet to have a single dish at Udupi Cafe that I don't like. Even if I discover something that isn't to my particular taste, it's all prepared so well that I still enjoy it. And the welcoming staff makes the dining experience even more pleasant. In fact, Suresh and Raj invited us to a Cultural Cannibals event featuring a friend's band, Bollywood Bahngra, next Friday...after we sample their Friday night Indo-Chinese buffet, of course.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

My Favorite Garlic Mashed Potatoes

I'm a huge fan of garlic for many reasons, but the biggest one is that it just tastes good. I love nothing more than throwing a head of garlic in the oven, drizzled with a little oil, and cooking it until it's nice and soft and buttery, then spreading it on some crusty bread with a little butter.

I also love adding garlic to my mashed potatoes. Potatoes seem to need a little garlic, and this is the easiest way I've found to make that happen.

1 1/2 lbs potatoes, red, uncooked
4 clobes garlic, peeled
2 Tbsp butter
1/2 c. milk or soy milk
salt and pepper

Chop potatoes into chunks. In a large pot, boil potatoes and garlic in water for 10-15 minutes until potatoes are soft and skin begins to fall off (if you don't like the skin in your mashed potatoes, peel them before boiling). Darin and transfer potatoes and garlic into a bowl. Mash with a potato masher, adding butter and milk as needed for consistency and flavor. Add salt and pepper to taste.

I used to roast my garlic in the oven first, but doing it this way saves a ton of time!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Operation: Abe Report, Day Seven and HamWatch 2010: Day Eleven

Operation: Abe Report
As of this morning, I am very sad to report that there is still no sign of Abe, and I fear the worst has happened. Leo maintains a lot more hope than I do, I confess. I just have a bad feeling, because none of the food I've put out, not even the stinky Limburger cheese that Willa's gone crazy over, has been touched. Not in any room. Not even a little bit. I am very sad over this loss, and I keep trying to think of anything else I can do to find him, but I can't imagine what else I could do. I'll continue to put out little piles of food and leave his cage open on the floor, but I don't have a lot of hope that Abe's coming back.

HamWatch 2010
In much more optimistic news, the babies are incredibly mobile and active. I'm calling them "The Mob" and when The Mob wakes up, there's a wobbly feeding frenzy with morsels of food that are far too big for their tiny mouths. So this scenario is quite common: one little hamster sits with a giant piece of corn, trying to stuff it in it's cheeks, only the corn gets a little stuck, so the hamster tries to pull it out, only it can't get it out, so it wiggles around, pulling on the corn, and somehow manages to lose its balance and somersault backwards...and eventually, is able to remove the corn. It's also common to see two little hamsters sharing a big piece of food, both holding on for dear life, nibbling little pieces off of the larger chunk. And sometimes, they lay on their sides, holding the food like a toddler would cuddle a teddy bear, only unlike the toddler, the hamsters take little bites now and then.

The babies' eyes haven't opened yet, so how they're getting around so easily is a mystery to me. They're extremely wobbly still, though, and pretty unstable, so although they're also quite fast, there's a lot of stumbling and they perpetually appear as if they're just going to keel over. It's a lot like being on the streets of Newcastle in the UK just after the pubs close.

Willa, the Wonder Mom, is really
effective at corraling the babies!

They also squeak a lot. There are two distinct squeaks- one is the "where's the milk?" squeak, and the other is the indignant, "Mom, put me down!" squeak. I don't mind telling you that having The Mob in the office is intensely distracting and I haven't been nearly as productive as I should've been this past week, because I keep having to get a closer look at whichever baby is taking a wobbly wander around the aquarium.

All of the black hamsters have white chins like Abe, which I love, because I loved his little white beard, so I'm glad to see the babies will be carrying on that trait. It's impossible to tell if they'll be longhaired like Abe, but I hope that some of them are.

The babies love to bring nuggets of
food back for naptime.
There is a runt in The Mob. One of the blonde babies is substantially smaller than the others. We've already decided that we'll keep that one, because it's just so darned sweet, plus there's one more that we're keeping for sure. One of the black babies was born with three feet and a wee little stump. It has no problem getting around, but I don't think the pet store will take that one, and besides, I've already fallen in love.

Stay tuned for more, and if you think of it, send up a wee little hamster-sized prayer for Abe.

Making Organic Eating Affordable

Organic produce is almost always more expensive than regular produce. So how can you make it more affordable? The first and cheapest way to have organic produce in your life is to get some organic seeds (Seeds of Change and Natural Gardening Company are my two faves) and grow your own. Create a root cellar and learn about four-season gardening so you can have fresh produce year-round.

Second, explore your local farmer's markets. Most places have farmer's markets in the summertime, but you might be surprised to find that many states have markets year-round, and the produce is often very affordable. You can also join a local co-op or CSA that will allow you to get organic produce delivered to your home every week. In Indianapolis, a great option is Farm Fresh Delivery.

Amazon has tons of affordable organic foods, as do Wal-mart and Costco. At Costco, I buy giant jars of a totally yummy organic peanut butter, for example. We set up shelves in our basement and have a refrigerator and freezer there as well, which we use when we buy bulk (another great way to save money eating organic).

I wouldn't recommend jumping into organic immediately. Start slowly and go in phases. I started with milk and butter, and moved into produce, then realized the benefits of keeping frozen foods and bulk items in storage. Then we added gardens, and eventually, our own chickens for the freshest, most organic eggs.

Eating organic is possible, even on a budget - you just have to start slow, rethink how you spend grocery money, and ferret out the best resources.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Hummingbirds and Rosie

Ruby-throated hummingbird
My mom and I shared a love of hummingbirds. I always loved hummingbirds, from the moment I first saw one as a little girl. When I lived in Colorado one summer, there were hummingbirds everywhere, flying outside my window, in and out of stores that left their doors open....and my adoration of the hummingbird increased every time I saw one.

When my mom passed away, I started seeing hummingbirds at important moments in my life - when I talked to Leo on the phone for the first time, when I sold my first book, when I was missing my mom so much. And when one of my best friend's dad passed away last year, the funeral was held in a church with a giant window behind the pulpit...and during the funeral, hummingbirds danced just outside that window, as if to say that my mom and my friend's dad were hanging out together watching over us.

Hummingbirds are delightful creatures, hovering here and there, pausing mid-flight for just a moment before speeding off. According to Wikipedia, they can beat their wings 12-90 times per second and are the only bird that can fly backwards. All I know is that they're special to me and I'm pretty sure they're a sign that Rosie's looking down on me with love.

The other day, I saw a pair of hummingbirds next to the side of my house. They actually landed - something I've never seen. I haven't seen very many hummingbirds lately, so seeing those two was special, and a good sign that a big transition I'm about to make in my life is the right one.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

From The Mouths of Babes

As told to me by My Sister The Dentist...

Recently, my three year-old niece started school. There was a little boy who was kicking, so after the teacher was alerted, a couple of days later, my brother-in-law went to school to have lunch with my niece. My brother-in-law (who looks like a slightly smaller, much tidier version of Hagrid from Harry Potter, and who wears two or three earrings) sat down next to The Little Kicker, who looked up at him and said accusingly, "Why are you wearing earrings?"

My brother-in-law explained that he liked them, they were jewelry, etc. and then The Little Kicker said, "I thought only girls wore earrings."

My brother-in-law said, "Yeah, girls....and pirates."

The Little Kicker's eyes went round as saucers and his voice softened as he said, "Ohhhh. Ohhh. Do all pirates wear earrings?"

My brother-in-law said, "Only the real ones."

Kicking problem solved.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Coolest Thing I Ever Saw In London

A few years ago, when I was traveling to London for the first time, I sought recommendations and advice from my traveler friends and from my Anglophile friends and family. And somewhere in the midst of all the suggestions was one I thought sounded a little odd: The British Library.

Now, I am a huge lover of the library. I visit our library at least once or twice a week and I'm constantly immersed in at least one novel and 4-6 nonfiction books at any given moment. But visit a library in a foreign land? Such a thing had never occurred to me.

However, my stepmother was adamant that The British Library was something special and something we'd enjoy, so I figured, heck, why not? What I discovered was the single coolest thing that one can see in London. Period. I've seen the Tate Modern. I've seen Victoria and Albert. I've seen the Tower of London and I've seen a lot of other stuff. And hands down, The British Library is the coolest thing I've ever seen in London.

So what makes The British Library so intense? Let's see...
  • Shakespeare's first folio.
  • The original Alice in Wonderland in Lewis Carroll's handwriting.
  • The Magna freaking Carta. The original one, the document known as the cornerstone of liberty. 
  • Leonardo da Vinci's original notebooks with his handwriting.
  • The Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed on a printing press.
  • Illuminated manuscripts.
  • George Frideric Handel's Messiah, in Handel's handwriting.
  • The Diamond Sutra, the oldest dated printed book.
  • The original Canterbury Tales.
  • Original writings from the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen.
And that's just the start. I'm telling you, The British Library is an absolute treasure trove of moments that, quite literally, brought tears to my eyes, and if I had just one day in London, I'd spend it there. If you do go to London, do not miss it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Operation: Abe Report, Day Four and HamWatch 2010: Day Seven

Operation: Abe, Day Four
This is the fourth morning Abe is still missing. On Tuesday, he went missing. On Wednesday, he left a dropping and some bedding so we knew he was around. Yesterday and today...nothing. In the last few days, I've pulled out bookcases and filing cabinets, searched through closets, behind and under everything I can think of. Abe.

The last two nights, I put out flour, hoping to catch Abe's trail. Several of the web sites I found suggested it, and I thought maybe it would work...but no dice. Here's all I got:
Flour Trap, Night Two
Flour Trap, Morning, Day Three that really enough to go on? First of all, Abe has a "hair skirt" that I kept thinking would majorly disturb the flour. This could be a trail, but when I saw it, I thought it was a bit more like a bug could've done it. It's hardly anything. And it didn't go anywhere. This trail points directly to my bedroom, and that door is always closed tightly and has no space at the bottom, so there's no way that Abe could be in there.

Two nights ago, we also implemented our bucket trap. At a restaurant supply store, we bought this canister for rice. We haven't used it yet, and obviously we'll be sterilizing it before using it for rice, but I put bedding and enticing snacks in the canister. Leo and I created a staircase out of motivational books. I even used The Power of Seduction, which I received as a gag gift once, hoping it would seduce Abe into coming home. I baited the canister with peanut butter, even, thinking that would be enough. Abe.

Last night, I didn't even bother with the flour. I was a little concerned that Abe was a little frightened off by it, so I just didn't put it down. I was testing my snacks on Willa to see what appealed the most to her. Peanut butter was a miss- Will totally ignored it. But she really seems to like apples, so I put a slice of apple into the canister.

I also put a slice of apple and three Cheerios in a room I hadn't previously tested- the laundry room. Our washer and dryer Bosch, which are often intended to go under counters. Since we weren't following European tradition and putting our laundry machines in the kitchen, we had to have a platform built to raise them up a few inches. The platform is a) hollow, save some acoustic foam, and b) open at the back for ventilation. Since the flour trail pointed vaguely in the direction of the part of the house where the laundry room is, I gave it a shot and put the snacks in there. But this morning, nothing. None of the snacks in any room has been disturbed. I just have no idea where Abe could be or if he's even still alive.

It's almost as if, during that first night, Abe packed his cheeks with food from his cage in preparation for a long vacation, because he hasn't touched any of the snacks I've put out for him.

Today I plan to empty the two closets in the office. I've already looked in the bottoms of the closets and taken stuff out of there, but there are clothes and coats that Abe could be hiding in, so I aim to do a pretty thorough search this afternoon. It kills me not to do something.

HamWatch 2010: Day Seven
On a happier note, the hamster babies are celebrating their one week birthday today, and they are absolutely thriving. Willa continues to mother beautifully- which the pet store confirms is kind of a rare thing for a first litter. The babies have grown a bit of fur and four are definitely black, eight are blonde. They make the most delightful squeaking sounds, which my clients confirm that they can indeed hear when I have a phone meeting, LOL (I'm lucky that my business isn't overly formal and my clients enjoy a bit of fun, or I think I'd have to move the hamsters out of the office). 

I have been able to touch them a bit without upsetting Willa. Sometimes when she leaves the nest, a couple of die-hard nursers hang on and get dragged a few inches outside the nest. Without their eyes open yet, they can't really find their way back unless they're really close, so I've petted Willa and gotten her scent on my hands and then gently coaxed the wee babies back into the nest. I seriously can't wait until I can hold them, though. They are so tiny and so precious. And newsflash: the other day, Leo said casually, "What do you think about keeping one or two of the babies?" LOL Here we go again.

Operation Abe Update:
I just searched both closets in the office, but there was no sign of Abe. Where could he be? I also talked with a vet who said that if Abe packed his cheeks for a long vacation, he could be just fine, holed up somewhere, hanging out and relaxing. He may not come back until he's exhausted his supply of snacks. My hope is (somewhat) restored.

Knitting Season Approaches!

I started knitting about ten years ago, when I was a graduate student. Every week, I would go to this tiny knitting shop where I'd sit with six other women and a man (which my boyfriend at the time called, "my coven") and we'd chat and learn to knit from a tiny, fascinatingly aggressive woman named Edyie (pronounced like the more traditionally-spelled "Edie"). I made my first scarf at that knitting shop, a scarf I still own, but can't wear (I'm incapable of wearing anything wool, no matter how soft or how low the wool content), and my first pair of socks, too. Edyie was patient with us, and boy, did I try her patience. As a left-handed knitter who does some things left-handed and some things right-handed, I confused the heck out of Edyie, but that woman could teach a girl to knit like nobody's business. In fact, Edyie taught me to make scarves, hats, and socks so well that I only made scarves, hats, and socks for years.
Edyie also introduced me to the the one book that has stayed in my knitting bag all these years: The Knitter's Companion. It's a small, spiral-bound reference book that has all of the basics of knitting spelled out with exceptional diagrams. I live and breathe by this book.

I only knit in the wintertime. I am incapable of knitting a single stitch when the weather is warm, and believe me, I've tried. I'll think, "Hey, I'm going to get a leg up on Christmas and make some stuff in the summertime," but it's literally impossible for me to pick up the needles. 

When the weather starts to cool, though, I'm a knitting fiend. In fact, I'm kind of obsessed. Of course, I still mostly make socks, hats, and scarves, but you can really only make so many of those as gifts before people think you're on your way to becoming one of those weird old ladies with a million cats who watches Judge Judy and eats Cheese-its all day while knitting. 

Last winter, I attempted my first sweater. I knitted it from a gorgeous, soft, wine-colored cotton yarn that came from Punta del Este, Uruguay, which seemed appropriate, since Leo and I took our first vacation there. But while the sweater came out perfectly, it had an unfortunate, unflattering, and ill-fitting shape, so this season I plan to unravel the whole thing and make myself a gorgeous sweater-hat-mitten combo instead. I think the problem stemmed from choosing a pattern that was easy, rather than one that was flattering, so I've chosen a pattern for this winter that I think will suit me better.

The Christmas socks I made last
year for My Sister The Dentist
In the meantime, I'm gearing up for another season of socks, which I always find relaxing and pleasant (and they always fit, no matter what). Leo can't get enough of the warm, sturdy wool socks I've made him, so I love making socks for him and for the kids (despite that all three of them share the same ridiculously long feet). 
Hopefully, it won't be too much longer before the yarn manufacturers come up with a wonderful sock yarn for those of us who can't wear wool. After all these years of making socks for other people, I have yet to make a pair for myself.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Restaurant Review: Pat Flynn's Pub, Indianapolis, IN

Leo, Jay, Sue and Raemie at Pat Flynn's
Last month, Leo and I took the kids to Pat Flynn's Pub (5198 Allisonville Road) for lunch. While the parking is somewhat limited and we didn't feel totally welcome when we first walked in, once we were seated at our table, the service was impeccable and the food was delicious. The atmosphere of Pat's is a bit more casual than I usually like. Unless there's a big sporting event or a good reason, I typically eschew places that have a lot of TVs. If I want to watch TV when I dine, I can do that at home. That said, Pat Flynn's is set up for families, with ample TVs and a game room in the back. 

Hands down, the food is great. I had the fish and chips and everything was cooked to perfection. The fish batter had an ingredient that I couldn't quite identify - something that reminded me of sweeter dishes (maybe nutmeg?) and didn't quite belong. However, it was still the best fish and chips I've had to date in Indy (if you know of a fantastic chippie in town, do let me know!) Jay and Leo shared a plate of wings and Raemie ordered chicken fingers (I don't actually know if the menu calls them that, but that's what the kids call chicken strips that have been fried). Based on the commentary from the family, I can only conclude that their meals were just as delicious. The portions were ample and service was attentive and fast.

If you're looking for a romantic evening out with sophisticated fare, Pat Flynn's isn't the place to go. But if you're looking for an inexpensive, yummy, family lunch or dinner and you want great food, you really can't miss with Pat's.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Abe Report (subtitle: When Hamsters Escape)

Yesterday morning, I woke up and came into the office to say good morning to Abe and Willa. To my shock, Abe's cage door was open and Abe was nowhere to be found. I absolutely could not believe it. I knew I had closed his door firmly. How could he have escaped?

Leo was sure I just hadn't closed the cage, but I knew I had, so I took to the internet to find answers. It wasn't long before I found around ten YouTube videos of hamsters escaping from the very CritterTrail where Abe lives. Here are some of them:

So it's a thing, this escaping hamster bit, and more than that, it's something that happens regularly with that cage!!! Obviously, they should sell a lock with the cage.

Abe was missing and possibly hurt (his cage usually sits about four feet off the ground, so I'm pretty sure he fell), and the only clue I had was a dropping near the bookcase where his cage sits. And worse, I didn't even know what room he was in. Much of our house has doors with two-inch gaps at the bottom, because the house used to be carpeted pretty much everywhere, and the bottoms of the doors were cut high to accommodate the carpet. I replaced the carpet with hardwood and now there's a gap, which isn't a problem most of the time, but obviously, that gives a wide berth for a curious hamster, so I was afraid Abe had left the office, which left at least seven possible rooms he could've gotten into, on the second floor alone.

Have You Seen This Hamster?
I read on several different "How to find a lost hamster" web sites (and there are tons of these sites, so you know it happens all the time) that you should put out some food and water and sprinkle flour around the food and water so the hamster makes a trail wherever he goes. I figured that was a good bet, since Abe has kind of a "hair skirt" now, what with his development into a longhaired hamster. 

I sprinkled flour everywhere, sitting on my floor like a coke addict, using two Business in Blue Jeans business cards to create tidy lines of flour in front of doors and around piles of food and water in virtually every room on the second floor.

And as of this morning, Abe is still missing. None of the flour was disturbed and none of the food was eaten. However, there was a dropping just outside the pile of food just outside Abe's cage (duh, why did I put one there anyway?!) and some bedding next to it, so I think Abe ignored the snacks and went for the food and water he knows in his cage. Duh. At least I have some indication that he's alive.
I emptied the bookcase next to Abe's cage and had Leo pull it out to see if Abe was behind or under it, but Abe wasn't there. I'm pretty sure he's still in the office, so I'm ready to move to Phase Two of Operation: Abe, which involves a bucket with peanut butter and snacks in the bottom and a wooden plank (or books) as a ramp so the hamster can get to the yum-yums. Hopefully, we'll catch Abe and get him back to his home and I can stop freaking out with worry and missing him.

In the meantime, Willa's still mothering the babies, they are starting to look less creepy, and the pet store confirmed they'll take the babies, so I have no worries there. Whew.

My Power Minestrone

This is a recipe that Leo absolutely loves. I make it in the autumn, just around back-to-school time. It's warm and comforting, but it's also packed full of nutrients and good, healthy stuff! It's also easy to make. You start with a broth - you can make your own or you can use store-bought. I used to make this with my own broth that I made from scratch, but Leo introduced me to Knorr vegetable bouillon cubes, which I still haven't found in Indianapolis. We've found beef, chicken, and tomato with chicken, but not vegetable, so when we go overseas, we stock up. Last January, my checked bag aroused a little bit of suspicion due to the massive quantity of Knorr vegetable bouillon cubes and paella mix packed inside (at least now I know I can get Knorr from Amazon and avoid the raised eyebrows from airport security).

3 1/2 c. vegetable broth 
1 29-oz can Italian-style (or fresh) diced tomatoes
10 oz frozen green peas
1 c pasta (macaroni, shells, etc.), uncooked
1 lb fresh spinach leaves, washed and dried
1 19-oz can white beans, rinsed and drained
Parmesan cheese

Combine vegetable broth and tomatoes (with juice) in a large soup pot or Dutch oven; bring to a boil over high heat. Add peas and pasta; reduce heat to medium and cook 7-9 minutes until pasta is tender. Stir in spinach leaves and beans; cook over medium-high heat until spinach leaves wilt and soup is heated through. If soup is too thick, add water or broth and heat through. Serve in individual bowls and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese just before serving. 

  • You can substitute half of the tomatoes with 3/4 cup salsa for a little kick.
  • Substitute half the spinach with 1/2 lb of kale or rainbow chard.
  • Or, do both substitutions!
I've made this many times and it freezes really well, so you can make a giant vat of it, freeze it, and have yummy, healthy soup all winter long.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Raw Food And My DIY Dehydrator

Last year, I decided to embark upon a test of the raw food diet. I have no problem eating vegetarian, but raw, while probably the healthiest dietary option, is a completely different choice, and I wasn't sure if I could tolerate it. So I borrowed a couple of basic books from the library and started my research.

It wasn't long before I discovered that "raw food" is a lot more complicated than it sounds. I assumed that people eating a raw food diet just ate a bunch of salad and fruit. Not so. Raw food is far more interesting, complex, and diverse than I ever imagined, and in fact, some of the most delicious food I've eaten to date came from a raw food cookbook.

"Raw" in the raw food diet doesn't mean, "completely uncooked" or "cold." In fact, many raw food dishes are served warm (a particular favorite of mine is a spaghetti dish made from zucchini - look for the recipe in an upcoming post). The theory behind raw is that critical enzymes are lost in the cooking process. But the destruction of the enzymes doesn't start until the food is heated to 106 degrees Farenheit. So as long as you keep the temperature below that, you're good to go. That means you can heat food and you can also dehydrate food, as long as you stay below 106 (I stayed around 100, just to be safe).

And that's where my dilemma came in. Quite a few raw food recipes require equipment, whether it's a food processor, a blender, a specific kind of rotary chopper, or a dehydrator. Now, I had a bunch of this stuff already, but the one thing I didn't have was a dehydrator. There was an awesome pizza recipe that called for a dehydrator, and I love my pizza! But as I did my research, I discovered two things: a) most commercial dehydrators heat food to over 130 degrees, and b) raw food dehydrators are kind of expensive, if you want to be able to control the temperature of the food. The Excalibur, for example, is over $200.

My DIY Dehydrator
Well, my birthday was coming up and Leo had recently proved his building prowess by remodeling a shed into a chicken coop and building a chicken run with his own two hands. So I asked for a dehydrator for my birthday, and the very next day, Leo took me to the hardware store, picked out some wood, had me choose handles and hinges and before I knew it, I had my very own, handmade dehydrator. And instead of costing over $200, it cost just around $30 for the materials, which is a far more reasonable investment, when you're just conducting an experiment and aren't ready to commit to a full-on lifestyle.

The dehydrator is heated with a lightbulb. It's controlled with a dimmer switch, and we use a simple kitchen thermometer to determine the temperature inside the box. There's a screened hole in the top for ventilation, and the shelves are removable. In this photo, I think I was making either pizza crust or flatbread - I can't remember which. 

Most importantly, for my birthday, I received a beautiful, handmade gift that was made with love. What more could a girl ask for?

Monday, September 13, 2010

HamWatch 2010: Day 4

Today I had a minor panic. Since the hamsters live in my office, I'm able to keep pretty close tabs on them all day long, which means I'm usually here during the rare moments when Willa gets up for a stretch. I keep my camera next to the hamsters and as soon as I hear Willa rustling around, I can hop up and snap a photo of the babies (as long as I'm not with a client, LOL).

This afternoon when Willa went on a little walkabout, I snapped this photo of the babies. I was editing the photo and it's become my habit to count the little critters a couple of times each day to make sure they're all there and healthy. This early, it's not uncommon for a baby to get lost, especially since their eyes aren't open and they're so vulnerable that getting lost means certain death, which I'd like to avoid. When I looked at this photo, though, I could only find eleven of the twelve babies.

I panicked, went back to the nest, and lured Willa out with some multigrain Cheerios so I could count again. Luckily, I discovered that all twelve were there, so it's possible that one was just covered up with bedding when I took the photo. Whew.

Well, as you can see, some of the hamsters are turning a bit dark. Four of the twelve, it seems, are going to take after their dad, Abe, who, as you know, is a lovely black hamster. It's fascinating to watch these babies develop daily and see them grow this way, and they make the most delightful squeaks throughout the day.

Speaking of Abe, Leo and I have been spending more time with him since Willa's been occupied with the babies. Abe's CritterTrail has an upstairs "condo" that's removable, and he'd brought all manner of bedding and snacks up to the condo, so the other night, we brought him (in his condo) downstairs to watch TV with us.

Here's the thing about Abe: he's kind of slow-moving most of the day. He only starts to pick up speed around 11:00 PM. So as we snuggled up in a blanket on the sofa, I felt confident taking him out of the condo and settling him on the sofa with Leo and me. Abe was quite happy to curl up on top of the blanket with some Cheerios and lettuce, and really seemed to enjoy "Top Chef" and "Leverage." But then he got curious and wanted to explore the entire sofa, and we were worried he'd fall off, so I brought him back up to the office.

This morning, though, I discovered that Abe has moved all his stuff downstairs, so I think maybe he didn't enjoy having his condo moved around. That said, he's getting much more comfortable with being handled, and actually seems to like being held, so I think there's more TV and movie viewing in Abe's future.

Oh...I've been getting e-mails about the cats. People want to know, "How are the cats handling the hamsters?" and "Where are the cats?" Here's the scoop: the only one of our cats that lives in the house full-time is Kate, who's almost twenty years old. Kate's almost blind, mostly deaf, and the fact that we even have hamsters barely even registers with her, so that's a non-issue.

Kate has no claws (certainly not my doing) and doesn't get along well with the other cats, who all have all of their claws. Kate's old and also has a heart murmer, and Leo and I don't want to get her riled up too much, so the other four cats live in a large sunroom and come into the house during the day, as long as they don't upset Kate. And when they're in the house, the door to the office (and thus, to the hamsters) is closed. I don't think the other cats even know we have hamsters, but I'm sure if they did, there'd be a lot of interest. Rest assured, though, the hamsters are totally safe and protected at all times.

Stay tuned for more HamWatch 2010, as we await the opening of the eyes, fur, and movement out of the nest!

My Love Affair With Airborne

I have loved Airborne for the better part of two decades. Airborne is a dietary supplement that's purported to boost the immune system. It's also, by the way, an excellent entrepreneurial tale.

Airborne was developed in the early 1990s by an elementary school teacher who found herself catching cold after cold and was tired of catching all the bugs her students brought in. So she set about finding a way to boost her immune system to try to protect herself, and Airborne is the result.

Airborne contains Zinc, Ginger, Echinacea and 13 other vitamins, minerals and herbs. The ingredients have all been scientifically shown to boost the immune system.

Airborne rates quite highly in both my winter-stocked medicine cabinet as well as in my travel bags. I drink Airborne whenever I travel and several times throughout the year. Leo's adopted the same policy. We'v enoticed that we tend not to get sick when we follow this protocol, and recently when we traveled to England, I forgot the Airborne, and sure enough, Leo caught a cold and was sick for a few days when we arrived back at home.

I've been in love with Airborne for such a long time, I can't recall the last flu season I spent without it. My favorite flavors are the original orange and the newer lime. Pink grapefruit and berry were never my thing. The great thing about Airborne, though, is that it tastes good. I actually enjoy it, so it's not entirely uncommon to find me sitting in an airport Admiral's Club, reading and enjoying a glass of Airborne in between flights.

I still take my multivitamin (despite my recent post about vitamins, I do still taken them, just in case), but whenever I'm flying or planning to spend any quantity of time in a large group of people, I drop an Airborne into a little cup of water, wait for it to fiz down, and chug it like I'm at a frat party.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Willa's A Good Mom!

We're heading into Day Three of HamWatch 2010, where Willa has had her babies (official count: 12) and is performing her motherly duties with absolute perfection. So far, it appears that all twelve babies are still alive and kicking and growing exactly as they're supposed to.

Willa is turning out to be a really great mom, which isn't always the case in the animal kingdom. When I was a teenager, we had a Yorkshire Terrier who had no idea how to give birth, much less take care of her babies once she had them. We had to help her a lot, and it was like she had no maternal instincts whatsoever.

As a result of that experience, I was worried that Willa, being a first-time mom, wouldn't know exactly what to do. But my fears were completely unwarranted, as Willa's instincts have really kicked in. She's maintaining her nest and continues hoarding food, but more importantly, she doesn't leave those babies alone for more than a few seconds. She will move about to stretch a little a couple of times a day, but for the most part, she's covering those babies, keeping them close and warm and letting them nurse, and doing everything she's supposed to do. And as far as I can tell, every single one of the twelve babies survived and is still thriving.

I don't think I'll feel totally safe until we've past the 10-day mark, but at this point, I'm cautiously optimistic that all of the babies are totally healthy and strong.

Baby hamsters; credit:
Quite a few of my friends have e-mailed me to say that the hamster babies are really creepy looking. Indeed, they can seem a little odd, if you haven't seen them before. When I look at them, I see what they're about to become - tiny, sweet, irresistible little fuzzy hamsters. And even if they look a little...naked...when they first arrive, there's no doubt that they're absolutely adorable in just a couple of weeks.

From The Mouths of Babes

As told to me by My Sister The Dentist....

Recently, My Sister The Dentist was at home with her three year-old daughter. My Sister The Dentist was doing an old Cindy Crawford workout tape and her daughter was watching and sucking on a pacifier. Somewhere through the workout, My Sister The Dentist stopped (I assume huffing and puffing was involved) and said, "This workout is hard!"

My niece took her pacifier out, looked thoughtful for a moment, and asked, "Is it hard for Cindy Crawford?"

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Hotel Review: Marriott-Owned Hotels, United Kingdom, Part 2

Last week I covered four Marriott-owned hotels in London. This week, we're heading north to take a look at a few other Marriott properties. 

First, two "utilitarian" properties, one of which we've used quite a few times as "home base" when visiting the kids and one which was a recent stopover. 

Newcastle Marriot Hotel Metrocentre
The Newcastle Marriott Hotel Metrocentre is not one of my favorite Marriott properties, but it's located near an IKEA and the Metrocentre, which is Europe's largest indoor shopping center, located in Gateshead, in the far northeast of England. If you want to get to the Metrocentre from the Marriott, you actually have to walk across two giant parking lots, which I don't mind on a pleasant day, but find cumbersome in the rain or snow. Unfortunately, the train station is located inside the Metrocentre, which means if you're coming straight from the airport, you have to drag your bags across these parking lots, unless you can get really lucky with the shopping center shuttle.

This property is a bit older-feeling than most. It does have a couple of rooms that are considered "fanta-suites" which was kind of a cool concept in the 80s, but I can't imagine that I'd enjoy staying in a "Wild West" or "Arabian Nights" themed room these days. At any rate, the hotel itself isn't a place I particularly enjoy staying. The service and food are good, but not great, which pretty much sums up the hotel itself. But in a pinch, if I need a place to stay in the Newcastle/Gateshead area, the Metrocentre property is pretty much the  most convenient Marriott in the area, so unless I discover something better, it's the "go to" place when we're in town.

Durham Marriott Hotel Royal County
Not too far from Newcastle is the Durham Marriott Hotel Royal County, where Leo took me for a birthday weekend. Situated on the banks of the River Wear, the Durham Marriott has sections dating back to the 17th century. Plus, bonus, it's located quite close to a dynamite pizza joint (LOL)! Seriously, this hotel was gorgeous and we had lovely service and food there (the dessert menu was particularly delightful). The hotel wasn't located too close to the train station, which means taking a cab (or a long walk, if you arrive late at night, as we did), but it is located close to Durham Cathedral, which is absolutely stunning. Walking around the town of Durham and investigating the castle and cathedral is a wonderful, romantic way to spend an afternoon, and finishing the day at this hotel is the perfect way to cap off a lovely day. I'm surprised that Marriott doesn't rank this hotel higher. I'm sure they have their reasons, but I think the Durham property is very nice.

Dalmahoy, a Marriott Hotel
and Country Club, Edinburgh
Hey, did you ever want to get lost in Scotland? Well, if that's what you're looking for, there's no better place than Dalmahoy, a Marriott Hotel and Country Club. Now, I can't complain much, as this particular hotel in Edinburgh is where Leo and I stayed over Valentine's Day weekend when Leo proposed to me. So I have very fond memories of this place. But I have to say, this hotel is one of the most confusing hotels I've ever seen, owing in large part to its historical architecture. There's just a lot of "you can't get there from here" to the hotel, as certain stairs lead to some corridors that don't connect to other corridors, and it's all very confusing.

The spa at the Dalmahoy is nice, but nothing particularly special, same with the restaurant, and the service is just okay. You can take a convenient bus into downtown Edinburgh, and the walk to the bus stop takes you across the hotel grounds, which are awfully pretty. I'm not a huge fan of golf courses in general, but this one is kind of nice. 

Manchester Airport Marriott Hotel
Similarly confusing and maze-like (albeit not nearly as visually appealing) is the Manchester Airport Marriott Hotel. I stayed here for a night recently. The room was pleasant, the pool was gorgeous (including a steam room, sauna, and cold pool), and they had what looked like a very nice spa. However...while the room service menu offered less pricey options than the actual restaurant, room service itself was highly inconsistent. The kids and I had room service twice and they forgot a couple of side dishes the first time, and forgot completely different items the second time. Plus, we ordered the same Spaghetti Bolognese dish both times, but it was prepared with spaghetti first, and penne the second time, which made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Still, the convenient location (just a very short and inexpensive shuttle ride from the airport) was worth it, and overall, both the kids and I had a good night's sleep, which is, after all, the entire point.

What it comes down to is that across the United Kingdom, Marriott has properties ranging from fabulous and incredible luxury hotels where you want to stay indefinitely to serviceable, convenient overnighters that deliver a tolerable place to rest your head.

Stay tuned for more hotel and condo reviews down the road!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Do People Really Enjoy Counted Cross Stitch?

Do people really enjoy counted cross stitch? I don't. It makes my head hurt. I have a problem with the grids and counting the stitches, and maybe that's ADD-related. I don't really know. But truthfully, I don't think my lack of love for cross stitch is because I'm impatient. Rather, it's that I love crafts of two different varieties: 1) the kind that allow me to flow with my creativity and 2) the kind that allow me to relax in front of the TV. And cross stitch doesn't really allow me either of these things.

For creative flow, I love spending time in my craft room, where I can get tangled up in ribbons, get my hands dirty with rubber stamping ink, heat up the room with a lampworking torch. I just love seeing where my creativity takes me. Now, counted cross's just something that requires constant, vigilant attention...attention I simply don't have. I've done some pretty cool things in cross stitch, but I sure had to force myself to stick with it. It wasn't easy.

Now, having said all that, I do envy cross stitchers. I think their work is stunningly beautiful, and I confess to having more than my fair share of cross stitch kits that I was absolutely certain I was going to complete...but didn't even start.

My favorite pattern from
Subversive Cross Stitch
Of course, today, I have a fairly firm grasp on the fact that I quite simply don't enjoy cross stitch and shouldn't invest any more money into that craft. That said, if I was going to try again, I think I'd like to try the kits available from Subversive Cross Stitch. Julie's been in business for several years and now has a wide variety of hilarious patterns, including one that says, "Shut your piehole" in the style of an old Amish sampler. The irony is what makes me giggle most.

So that's my take on cross stitch. Maybe it's just me.

Abe & Willa Are Parents!

This morning, I had to go see My Sister The Dentist about a funny feeling in one of my teeth. The drive to My Sister The Dentist's office is pretty long, so Leo came along to keep me company (rockstar hubby points scored: 423).  When we got home, I came upstairs to the office (where Abe & Willa live, currently in separate cages on opposite sides of the office) and started working. That's when I heard it: teeny tiny little squeaks. Sure enough, Willa had her babies while we were gone.

It took a few hours before she moved, so for awhile, all we could see was a teeny tiny leg here and a wee little pink tail there. But finally, Willa got up and ambled over to the wheel and there they were. And wow, there were way, way more of them than I ever expected.

When I was a kid, I had gerbils that procreated rampantly. I loved it, because I had a little business (always the entrepreneur) selling the babies to a local pet shop. But the gerbils, it seems, only had four to six babies at a time. And while I'd read that it was possible for hamsters to have up to fifteen, I never imagined that little Willa, herself only around twelve weeks old, would have such a massive litter! My best count is around eleven or twelve, but since we can't actually get close or touch them, we can't say for sure how many are there. Plus, it's not uncommon for one or two not to make it. I really hope they all survive, and I think we're going to need a bigger carrier when it's time to take them to the pet store for sale.

In the meantime, Abe's missing Willa like crazy. We moved him a couple of days ago because we were afraid that when Willa had the babies, he might eat them, which is quite common for males to do. Since he's been away from Willa, Abe's been moody and bored and stands up in his new cage across the room and looks longingly at "the main house" where Willa still resides. 

Abe's escape attempt
from the CritterTrail
Er...actually, right now he's looking at me, which I attribute largely to the fact that earlier this evening, I discovered that Abe's learning. He's been living in Edison's old CritterTrail, which has bars and a door that opens. Abe's discovered where the door is and when he sees me come over, he waits by the door and attempts escape in a number of different ways. Luckily, he's not super-fast most of the time, though his speed increases as it gets later into the night and his nocturnal brain starts to wake up, so I have to keep a close eye on him, especially if I decide to feed him late at night. And now, he's making this frenzied attempt at escape, trying to chew the bars of the CritterTrail. He really, really wants to get home to Willa and the kids.

That said, this time that Abe's been forced to spend apart from Willa has given Abe and me a chance to bond. He comes out for sleepy cuddles throughout the day. This evening I brought a salad up to the office to eat while playing a computer game, and I gave Abe a couple of salad greens and we ate our salads together, Abe comfortably settled in his little colorful cage and sitting right next to me. It was sweet.

Abe and Willa, 6 weeks old
At any rate, I know many folks find the babies pretty weird-looking. One of my friends described them as "creepy" and "embryonic," which made me giggle, because I know how absolutely adorable they're going to become in a very short period of time. Heck, their eyes aren't even open yet! Remember, this is Abe and Willa at 6 weeks. It won't be long before these little babies are just as cute. Stay tuned for more updates!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Restaurant Review: Yank Sing, San Francisco, CA

Yank Sing, 40 Steven St
San Francisco is one of my absolute favorite cites to eat, second only to New Orleans. And when I'm in San Francisco and I'm looking for really good dim sum, I head for one place: Yank Sing (either at 49 Steven St or in the Rincon Center, 101 Spear St). Yank Sing was the first place where I experienced dim sum, a Chinese cuisine involving small, bite-sized foods served in steamer baskets or on little plates. 

Dim Sum carts at Yank Sing
Typical dim sum dishes are steamed buns and dumplings, fried puffs, roasted meats, steamed vegetables, and more, and the food at Yank Sing is exceptional and absolutely first-rate. At Yank Sing (as with other dim sum restaurants), servers come around with carts filled with steamer baskets and plates, and show you what they have to offer. And you get to know the carts and look for the dishes you want to sample a second time. More than once, I've waited for "that woman with the seafood puffs" or "the sesame balls cart." That's really the only drawback with Yank Sing - you have to wait for the cart that has the food you want. However, if you really want something, you can ask whatever server's closest to send the cart you want over to you.

But beware - it's far too easy to take things off the cart and keep looking for more, and before you know it, you've spent $65 on lunch for two (yeah, been there, done that). Dim sum, and Yank Sing in particular, can be quite affordable, you just have to keep an eye on what you're doing and exercise some restraint.

Sesame balls
Perhaps my favorite dim sum dish is the sesame balls, which are these delightful pastries, rolled in sesame seeds, with a little red bean paste filling. I've been known to stop by Yank Sing on the way to the San Francisco airport, just to pick up an order of these on my way out of town. They're totally bad for you, I'm sure. When you eat them, there's always oil residue left on your hands. So I'm 99% sure they're not a healthy treat. But darned if they aren't just super-tasty. I simply can't resist.

I'm always looking forward to my next visit to San Francisco, and Yank Sing is just one of the many reasons why.