Month: November 2014

Shenandoah Valley Beauty (But Skyline Drive Made Me Sick)

I love certain categories of photos, fall foliage and big skies among them. Here’s the first photo gallery of my blog from my trip to Shenandoah in October. (Click any photo to open the photos in a gallery and see captions.)

I started at Skyline Caverns, which has stalactites, stalagmites, and anthodites, cool and rare crystal growths. Very cool and less touristy than Luray Caverns, which was one of the first items on my places-to-go-when-I-stop-working list.

I got a last-minute reservation (as in, “Can I have a room in an hour?”) at The Woodward House on Manor Grade, which was as kitschy as a B&B should be. I wrote more about the B&B in the post about the food of this trip.

The next day was devoted to Skyline Drive, which I’m embarrassed to admit took me 12 years to visit. I drove all 105 miles of it, stopping for a few hikes and scenic views. The road is hilly and curvy, and goes in and out of bright sun and shadows. The result was a really queasy me. It took an hour in my B&B room to feel stable. Now I can say I’ve traversed the whole thing and don’t need to do so again.

The final day was in Staunton (pronounced Stanton).  Late-season sunflowers, a delicious lunch at George Bower’s Grocery, owned by Katie—who drank all of those beers—then beautiful sky along I-81 to Harrisonburg. The sunset in my rearview mirror as I drove home was gorgeous, but I was heavy traffic and chose to focus on driving instead of snapping a photo. So, please imagine your favorite bright orange and red sunset and insert that as the last photo below.

Cranberry Sauce Three Ways

I love comparative taste tests—pitting multiple foods against each other in head-to-head tasting combat. But I don’t get to do it often for logistical reasons (how can I simultaneously have Amy’s Ice Creams (Texas) and OWowCow (Pennsylvania)?).

The assignment to bring cranberry sauce for 30 people to Thanksgiving this year provided the perfect opportunity for a little competition. Because, why have cranberry sauce one way when you can have it three ways? Honestly, I probably would have carved out time to do this even if I was still working. But it was fun, so I’m posting about it.

I’ve been interested in making Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish ever since hearing Susan Stamberg talk about it on Morning Edition years ago. When searching for the recipe, I learned that Garlicky Cranberry Chutney is Susan’s favorite, so clearly I had to make that one too. Next, I got an email with a link that led me to this Spiced Cranberry Sauce recipe (and I then saw it posted at a spice market as a suggested recipe, reinforcing the need for me to try it).

The verdict? None of the recipes is perfect as is—at least for me. I came to realize that I envision sweeter cranberry sauce at the actual Thanksgiving meal, so I’ll be making the third recipe with a few tweaks. As the other two are on the savory side, I think either would be perfect with the leftovers (if you’re lucky enough to have any). In the meantime, I’m enjoying lots of cranberry sauces with yogurt, oatmeal, and occasionally straight from the container.

Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish, the one that started it all: Mine got to the desired Pepto-Bismol pink. The relish actually tasted better after sitting in the fridge for two days because the onions and horseradish mellowed, but it was still tart.

Mama Stamberg's Cranberry Relish

Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish

Garlicky Cranberry Chutney: Too garlicky! When opening the container of this chutney a day or two after making it, I was overwhelmed by the garlic smell. The chutney didn’t actually taste as garlicky as it smelled, but the odor was too strong to get to the tasting part. It was the thinnest consistency of the three recipes. If I were to make it again, I’d cut down on the garlic—I can always add more later, but as I learned here, I can’t take it out once it’s in there.

Madhur Jaffrey's cranberry chutney

Madhur Jaffrey’s cranberry chutney

Spiced Cranberry Sauce: Too gingery! I like ginger quite a bit. My extended family? Not nearly as much. I’ll be adding a lot less ginger when I make the big batch. I like how thick this cranberry sauce is and with cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg, it tastes like the holidays.

Spiced Cranberry Sauce

Spiced Cranberry Sauce

 

 

Being Uncomfortable

change black white writingGrowth comes when one experiences something uncomfortable and lives to tell the tale. Or so I’ve been told.

Since leaving my job, I have been putting this theory to the test in a few ways.

Trapeze school. At first, it was way more than just uncomfortable; it was close to terrifying. The appropriately named blog post is here.

Chopping off my hair. Sometimes I think people don’t know what I look like, they only know what my hair looks like. Hidden in my basement are school portraits from the last time my hair was short—in middle school. They are hidden well for a reason.

Still, I figured that if ever there was a time to try a new hairstyle, it was now. And, as I’ve heard many a parent say when asked why they let their child do X with his/her hair, “It’s just hair. It will grow back.”Coco Chanel quote 2

Back in June I told Rebecca, my supremely skilled stylist at Parlour Salon, that come October, after my last day of work and all the family weddings, she could do whatever she wanted with my hair. Now it was October. As I sat in the chair, she asked, “Are you sure?” My answer was something like, “No, but do it anyway.” Then I tried not to watch the long curls drift to the floor as she cut off the majority my hair.

Verdict? I love it! It has been an adjustment to feel very little hair on the back of my head (hard to get a good photo, but the back is much shorter) and to use half as much of various hair products (bonus: they’ll last longer!). I now realize that I’m living the cliché about changing your hair to change your life. But hey, clichés often are born out of truth.

Eating alone in a nice restaurant. I rarely do this, and when I do, I usually sit at the bar and/or bring something to read. When I went to the other CIA, I spent a good part of the meal answering the Amuse cards to myself, so it only sort of counts. I decided when in Shenandoah to put myself to the test by just sitting with myself through a leisurely meal. bullseye active

I reserved a table at Zynodoa, which I expected to be excellent based on the reviews. And it was. I also expected it to be a bit of an odd experience. And it was.

I sat alone at my table for two, with a view of the whole restaurant and the back of the bar, so there was a lot to watch. As my server was very chatty, I didn’t go the whole meal without any conversation. I used this as an opportunity to “be in the moment” and focus on the flavor of the food. I tried not to think of all of the things I had to do. (And for those of you thinking, “What things to do? She’s not working!” keep reading for one part of the answer.)

Not sure I’ll rush to do it again, but I count it as successful. I learned that I can do it and be minimally (as opposed to significantly) uncomfortable.

chalkboard two circles

Saying, “No.” and “I don’t know.” Here’s the Q&A conversation I frequently engage in these days:

Friend: Do you have big trips planned?
Me: No.

Friend: When are you going to figure out your plans?
Me: I don’t know.

Friend: Do you know what you’re doing next?
Me: No.

Friend: When are you going back to work?
Me: I don’t know.

Often I feel an obligation to have amazing trips and crazy adventures to give something back to everyone who has said that they are living vicariously through me. The truth is, trips and adventures are not what I want to do right now.

Stuff and more stuff from the office

Stuff from the office I need to put somewhere

I bopped in and out of DC so much the first two months after I stopped working that I successfully avoided facing the fear of an empty calendar, being lonely, and regretting my decision. I also avoided unpacking the boxes I hauled home from my office. But avoidance can be taxing, and I’ve reached the tipping point.

Now, all I want is to finish the mundane house projects. I’m 90% done unpacking the boxes that moved from the dining room (where the photo was taken) to the study (aka “the room with the file cabinet and bookcases that I’ve never once studied anything in”). There are more boxes and rooms to go. Cleaning out closets and files is tedious, but eminently satisfying as well.

Once I feel like my house is in order, literally and figuratively, I’ll start making the next plans. Until then, I’m content with how I’m spending my time even if it isn’t amazing, crazy, or adventurous.

Chop, Chop

Those are some beautiful pepper strips

Those are some beautiful pepper strips

Chop, chop went the vegetables.

Chop, chop went my hair.

(But not at the same time or at the same place.)

I hoard my gift certificates. I never spend them, saving them for something “special.” I do the same with new clothes (waiting for the perfect occasion to debut them) or fancy soaps (I don’t want to waste them). About a year ago, I decided that this was stupid: I buy these items because I like them and therefore I should wear or use them often. Same with gift cards. The givers wants me to use them. No more waiting.

Therefore, I’m pretty proud of myself for using a gift certificate to Culinaria Cooking School within two months of receiving it as a going-away gift. That I got to work on the culinary skill I most want to master was an added bonus.

IMG_0811Taking a knife skills class has been on my to do list ever since a friend, who is very comfortable in the kitchen, told me that she found it helpful. Finally, I actually had the time to do it. The class was on Friday from 10.00 am–1.00 pm. It was me and group of retired people, along with two people my age (but I didn’t get their stories, so am having fun speculating about how they were available at that time of day…).

Proper knife grip

Proper knife grip

I learned how to properly hold a knife. See how the index finger wraps over the top of the blade?That’s where a chef develops a callous. I don’t have one of those yet. I especially felt this towards the end of the class. Julienning a carrot is hard, because carrots are so hard. Boy did my hand hurt by this time.

 

What does one do with all those chopped vegetables and chicken? Stirfry of course! And it was delicious.

Lunch

Lunch

Added bonus? Driving a different way home led me past Nielsen’s Frozen Custard. I ordered half chocolate, half pumpkin. No toppings. Creamy and delicious.

IMG_0818 - Version 2

Unexpected dessert

Oh, and my hair? That happened a week ago at Parlour Salon. At the beginning of the summer, I told Rebecca, who has been cutting my hair for years, that once I was no longer working, and after the last family wedding of the season, I was ready to try a new hairstyle. I sat there and this is what happened. I love it!

Happily Exhausted

Yesterday (Election Day) was a 20-hour day. Can’t remember the last time I had one of those. Up at 5.00 am in order to report to my Check In Clerk post by 6.00. In bed at 1.00 am that night (technically Wednesday morning) because I had to wait for Elissa Silverman’s victory speech and then I had to upload my photos to Facebook as soon as I got home.Vote Here Arrow

Highlights of being a poll worker:

1.  Working hard. People starting lining up to vote at 6.30 am—30 minutes before the polls opened. Then more people arrived, and kept arriving. It took over two hours until there were only a few people waiting in line for a few minutes. There were only a handful of short intervals in the middle of the afternoon when there were no voters to process.

We checked in 1,620 people, and talked to another 150-200 who had issues that required us to fill out a form and send them to the special ballots table. The longest I heard of anyone waiting to check in was 20-25 minutes, which means we did a good job of moving people through. (See #4 for reasons why it could have been faster.)

2.  Meeting my neighbors. I was excited to be assigned as a Check In Clerk in my own precinct. Whenever I checked in someone from my block, I made a point of introducing myself. I met a few people whom I had contacted when making campaign calls for Elissa, and it was fun to put names and faces together. One of the other first-time workers also lives on my block. I ran into him, his wife and baby on the street today. In the past, we would have nodded hello at each other; today, we stopped to chat. Our Check-In Captain lives in the neighborhood as well. We met last winter at a snowstorm dinner my next-door neighbor hosted.

3.  Trying to make the system work: #1. Seven people were assigned as Check In Clerks to this precinct. We were given six electronic poll books (voter rolls).

DC's "e-poll book" and a label printer

DC’s “e-poll book” and a label printer

This wasn’t so that we could work in shifts, or anything like that. It was the BOE equivalent of supplying one package each of hotdogs and buns without accounting for the fact that hotdogs come 10 in a pack while buns are in packs of 8. The precinct and deputy captains each requested another e-poll book multiple times, but no one ever delivered it. Eventually, one person from our team moved to the paper ballots station, where it turns out help was really needed.

One of the computers was broken a good part of the day, including during the evening rush. A roving tech came and fixed it, but that didn’t last long. (Shockingly, it wasn’t my computer so I’m hopeful that maybe I’m no longer “IT Special.”) Two of the printers ran out of labels. We had two extra rolls, but no one had been trained on how to load them because each printer was supposed to start the day with a new roll that contained more than enough labels for the whole day. The tech fixing the broken computer loaded one, but without training us on how to do it. When my printer ran out of labels later, we tried to reload it but weren’t successful.

4.  Trying to make the system work: #2. The Board of Elections bought nice, pretty carts that hold both the electronic voting machines and the machine into which voters feed their paper ballots. Who knows why. Maybe someone thought these would be more convenient for everyone. You know where this is going. New carts = new layout for the room, designed by “them.”

And how was the new layout? Short version: it sucked.

Longer version: The layout placed the electronic clerks across the room from the cart (they moved next to it early in the morning, but then had to stand all day) and the design of the cart meant voters using one of the machines had no privacy (and, of course, the machine that was broken the first few hours of the day was the other one). Various lines crossed each other and there was no easy way for us to direct voters to their next stop, causing more than a few to wander the room confused.

Basically, this was a living example of the central office having no understanding of the situation in the field. Although this was my first time as a poll worker, I quickly joined the “I liked it the old way” chorus.

Elissa Silverman highlights:

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 9.48.18 PM

She won! Once dismissed from cleaning up the polling place around 9.00 pm, I dashed home to get my car and join the crowd waiting for election returns. I’m a little fuzzy on the time (because I was a bit tired at this point), but it became clear Elissa won sometime between 10.00-11.00 pm. At that point, I’d waited long enough to know the results, what was a little longer to hear the victory speech (which started just before midnight)?

Elissa ran a true grassroots campaign, and thanked everyone in the room for all the work we did to help get her elected. She asked us to hold her (and her colleagues) accountable to our values of making this a functional and prosperous city for all.

By the time I climbed into bed around 1.00 am, I was happily exhausted.

Background about this race: Elissa came in second place during the special election to fill an at-large seat in April 2013. She went from being virtually unknown, having never sought any political office, to making a “strong showing” by running on issues “with potent appeal for future elections, such as next year’s mayoral and council races.”

This time, Elissa won. If you want to know more about her, here are a few good reads: Washington City paper endorsement (scroll down past the mayoral race), The Washington Post get to know a candidate, and Jews United for Justice Campaign Fund endorsements (disclosure: I’m on the board of, and volunteer with, the sister organization, JUFJ).

Photos from the victory speech of the (almost) Honorable Council Member Silverman.

IMG_0776 IMG_0777 IMG_0781 IMG_0783 IMG_0784 IMG_0785

 

Shenandoah Valley—I Went For The Foliage But Am Writing About The Food First

Three completely blank days on the calendar = road trip!

Pulling out my list of local places that I’ve never been but should have after living in DC for 12 years, and considering the time of year lead to one easy conclusion: Shenandoah Valley. Of course, I spent a good portion of the trip checking out good food. I’ll write a separate entry about the beautiful fall foliage, hiking and Skyline Drive.

Facebook crowdsourcing started the trip off right with doughnuts at The Apple House in Linden, VA. Given that I left DC much later than planed and it was lunchtime, I designated the doughnuts an appetizer to a bbq sandwich. Bad decision. The sandwich tasted only of sauce and although I hate to waste food, the doughnuts had taken the edge off my hunger so I chucked it and headed down the road eight miles to Spelunker’s, in Front Royal, VA, which I had been advised serves delicious burgers and custard. Score!

I enjoyed that doughnut

I enjoyed that doughnut

Although there is a drive-thru, and inside the menu board and counter are set up like a fast food joint, this a chain burger place. My food took a few minutes to cook, and was delivered to my table by a server who then asked if I needed anything from napkins to silverware to a very long list of condiments. Aside from being a bit too salty, the burger was delicious. Really nicely grilled onions made the difference. It was big, almost to the point where I worried I didn’t have room for dessert. Luckily, it was only almost.

 

Photobombed (by a man who has no idea what that means)

Photobombed (by a man who has no idea what that means)

Here’s the first of many times I knew I wasn’t in the big city: people pre-pay for their custard and when ready for it, walk up to the counter and say, “I paid for a cone already.” They then get a cone—no proof of purchase required. It hadn’t occurred to me do this, so I waited in line again. The custard was very creamy, but ice slivers in it prevent me from raving. If I returned for a burger, you wouldn’t have to twist my arm very hard to get me to order dessert too, but I won’t send you there just for the custard.

Front Royal’s dinner options were limited—all the recommended places only serve lunch, are closed on Mondays, or both. While strolling through the town, a couple asked me for directions to a nice-sounding restaurant. Even though they live two towns over and I live 70+ miles away, I’m good with a map and decent with an iPhone and figured out which way they should walk. Before they set off, I looked at Yelp and saw that the place was closed (remember, this was a Monday). We started walking together in another direction and even though I wasn’t that hungry (it was 2.30 by the time I ate at Spelunker’s), I liked the idea of sharing a meal with someone, so I joined them for an entirely forgettable meal. It was a good change of pace to have conversation over dinner, and they ended up treating me, which was unexpected and kind.

Appetizer before breakfast

Appetizer before breakfast

Fortunately, I left Front Royal the next morning on a good food note at the Woodward House Bed and Breakfast. This place was everything I expect a country B&B to be — a bit kitschy and decorated with flowery wallpaper and lots of knickknacks. I think this is the first bed that I’ve needed a step stool to climb into.

I had some work to do and was up way before breakfast started. Luckily, there were homemade cookies in my room to tide me over. (And yes, that is a golf lamp on the side table.)

Then I learned they really do mean it when they call their breakfasts “skip a lunch.”  And, BTW, I did (skip lunch).

 

More about more good food, gelato and ice cream later.

 

 

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