Saturday, April 30, 2011

Greenland or bust: a review

Thanks for all your well-wishes and kudos on the previous post, readers! Today, I'm yet again trying my hand at book bloggerhood. I'd been wanting to read An African in Greenland for a while since it had been recommended to me by a number of sources whose reading tastes I trust. I've never been a great reader of travel writing, despite loving both traveling and reading. It's probably because, for better or worse, my reading list seems to be always dominated by fiction. Nevertheless, I had some time open in my reading calendar this month, and with the coming of warm weather, it finally seemed an appropriate time to dive into a tale of travels in the Arctic Circle.

An African in Greenland is appropriately titled as it is the memoirs of Tete-Michel Kpomassie, a Togolese man, who as a teen in the 1960s, decides to travel to Greenland and live among the Inuits. Interestingly, his desire comes from reading a book about Greenland he finds in a Jesuit bookstore shortly after he is attacked and nearly killed by a python in the jungle. It seems that a big part of the appeal of Greenland to the 16-year-old was that there are no snakes in the country and no trees for them to hide in. His journey to Greenland takes him nearly 10 years as he slowly makes his way through West Africa and Europe. However, as the title would suggest, the vast majority of the book takes place on the largest island in the world.

Kpomassie is perhaps the first African to travel to this part of the world, and in many cases he is the first black man the native Greenlanders have ever seen. As such he is treated with immense curiosity, but also extreme hospitality. In the entirety of his journey, he is always given a roof over his head rent-free just be knocking on the door of houses and inquiring. He is a shrewd observer and presents the customs of the people he encounters--both the good and the questionable--with minimal judgment, although he does naturally compare them to customs of his own people. The book is an excellent introduction to life in the Arctic and Inuit culture. It is at times extremely humorous and at others very bleak. The author does touch on some of the darker sides of Greenland life: 6-month polar nights, alcoholism, and starving huskies eating infants to name a few. Some images, such as the skinning of a seal and the eating of the raw blubber, are particularly visceral. Other descriptions, such as the enormous fjords or aurora borealis are almost enough to make me add Greenland to my travel list. For now, I'll lump it in with the "upper Canada" category.

Overall, I enjoyed this book a great deal. Which I guess makes this less of an objective "review" and more just an advertisement. After all, I wouldn't waste time blogging about a book that was only so-so. Astorian Dream is nothing without standards.

Monday, April 25, 2011


As of today, April 25, 2011, I have completed my 90-day boot camp under the watchful, un-judgmental eye of Tony Horton. None of you are likely invested enough in my personal fitness to really do the math, but if you did, you would know that it actually took me slightly more than 30 days to complete this last third. This is because I took three days off during the move last month. I tried to move forward with my hourly exercise in the morning while moving all of my worldly possessions up four flights of stairs in the evenings (because that's what Tony would have done), but in the end I was left with a pulled muscle in my side that hurt every time I coughed. (The coughing was--I'm pretty sure--an unrelated ailment.) Deciding that moving was the more important of the two irritants, I forwent additional exercise. And even after I resumed p90x a day or so after the move, I probably wasn't really back to fighting shape for another half week or so. I half-assed many a prison cell push-up during that time.

But enough of past regrets! These last 30 days were generally positive. I really had a handle on all the work-outs, and begun to notice that I was completing things I'd laughed at (out of nervous disbelief and confusion) mere months earlier. Granted, there are still things I can't do, that I continue to laugh at out of fear and confusion (namely, plyometric push-ups), but by-and-large I notice improvement in my overall physical capabilities. This is not to stay there still weren't a couple of surprises in the last few weeks. In the last two weeks of strength training, I was introduced to a DVD I'd never done before. This was very unexpected to me as it certainly felt like I'd covered everything. However, it was easy for one to have slipped through the cracks as all the workouts have such similar names. This workout would have been just another mish-mash of pull-ups and weight lifting to me, if not for the introduction of my new favorite character: Kate.

I'm rather glad that Kate only entered my life in the last 15 days of the program. While hilarious, she doesn't have the quiet, slip-into-the-background quality of a Dreya or an Adam. If I'd had to sit through her workout too many times, I would have no doubt learned her every line and found her more annoying than endearing. But suffice is to say, at 6 am I found her, what I hope was sarcastic, enthusiasm and ironic, chipper can-do attitude hilarious. "Bring it. Bring the pain," she'd say to Tony, in exactly the smart-alecky tone I would have tried to adopt had I been lucky enough to be chosen from the p90x test group. I admire Kate for doing corncob pull-ups (the most ridiculous of all pull-up options) during the choose-your-own pull-ups sets. But more than that I respect her ability to egg on Tony's little skits that none of the other participants ever seem to engage, such as in the following exchange during cool-down, ballistic stretching:

Tony: Do you all have your tickets?
Kate (innocently): The tickets? What tickets?
Tony: The tickets to the show.
Kate (against the pleading silence of the others): What show, Tony?
Tony (flexing, naturally): The gun show!

She even laughed. She's his Zeppo, although only if Groucho hadn't been in on his jokes. But enough about my crush on Kate. I'm finally ready to show a little "after" photography.
I'm supposed to be fist-bumping Tony. Perhaps it's best to focus on my right bicep instead. That didn't use to be there.

Having completed 90 days (albeit not 90 consecutive ones) of grueling, extreme workouts, I have to say--I feel pretty good. I'm already starting to plan my maintenance routine, so that I don't return to what I once was: an un-toned naif who quailed at squat runs and strength training. That said, I do plan to drop all the p90x cardio routines. They were quite fine for those miserable winter days back in February when the city was blanketed in brown sludge and doing karate in my living room was the only option. But now New York is entering into the one month of the year where the weather is truly lovely (before it gets hot, humid, and dirty--seriously, why do so many people live here?). I think I'll take my cardio outside in the form of running for the summer. As an added incentive, my new apartment is now closer to the park in my neighborhood, which has a nice running track. I'll (hopefully) supplement this exercise with at least three days of strength training a week and perhaps yoga on the weekends.

Thank you all for reading the trials and tribulations of my 90-day journey to physical betterment. It's been an enjoyable ride, and I consider the program well-worth the money, although I can't help but admit I'm really looking forward to taking tomorrow off.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

El cerdo con manta

I promised to update you with my other Pillsbury Bake-Off entry this week, and, if you were checking back hourly in the hopes that I would follow through on that promise, well then you're in for a treat. For the rest of you, check back soon, and I promise to post something more interesting. Just kidding! There's nothing more interesting than crescent rolls.

Anyway, for my second entry (well, second in terms of how I'm posting them, but it's actually the first idea I thought of), I wanted to create an appetizer inspired by the flavors of Spanish tapas. I knew from the outset that it would have to include chorizo because I needed an excuse to buy a bunch of chorizo. From there I preceded to create what was essentially a pig in a blanket but with a more Spanish flair. (I originally wanted to call them "Spanish Pigs" for that reason, but common decency prevented me.) The result was a crescent puff filled with chorizo sausage, Manchego cheese, and a bastardized version of a Basque piperadda (that incidentally didn't include very many peppers and absolutely no onions by the time I got through with it).

You'd think that after making this recipe as many times as I did during the testing phase, I would have gotten at least one picture. And yet, shockingly, I did not. It's okay; they weren't all that showy appearance-wise anyway. Rather like the recipe in my last post really. Based on Carolyn's suggestion in the previous post though, I'm just going to post delicious pictures of food from the Internet.

Isn't that the most glorious pie you've ever seen? It's mango strawberry meringue for those of you keeping score at home. It would probably make a nice pairing with this appetizer. Then you wouldn't even need a main course!

If you were going to make a main course could do worse than cornmeal crusted fish tacos with rhubarb salsa.

Okay, following that gratuitous display of food pornography, my recipe might not be able to hold it's own. Nevertheless, a promise is a promise.

Pillsbury Crescent Rolls
1 can(s) Muir Glen Diced Fire Roasted Tomatoes
3 tablespoon(s) chopped chipoltle peppers in abodo
1 tablespoon(s) olive oil
1 teaspoon(s) garlic, minced
4 oz(s) Manchego cheese
4 oz(s) fully cooked chorizo sausage

Number of servings 12:

Preheat oven to 375.

In a frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the minced garlic and saute until garlic starts to brown (about 2 minutes). Add the chopped peppers (you can add more or less depending on how spicy you want the appetizers) and the can of Muir Glen Fire Roasted Tomatoes. Turn the heat down to low and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally. When the liquid is mostly gone (this should take about 10 minutes), remove from heat and let cool.

Open the Pillsbury Refrigerated Crescent Dinner Rolls (you can also use the Pillsbury Crescent Seamless Dough Sheet, if available). If using the rolls, unfurl the dough, but do no separate into individual rolls. Press the perforations together with your fingers. Use a knife to cut the dough into 12 equal squares.

Using a sharp knife, slice your fully cooked chorizo sausage into thin slices (approximately 1/8 inch thick). Place one slice of chorizo in the center of each of the crescent dough squares.

Slice the Manchego cheese into small chunks, the approximate size and thickness of the sausage slices. Place a chunk of cheese on top of each sausage slice.
Add a heaping teaspoon of the tomato pepper mixture to the top of the cheese on each of the 12 squares.

Fold each of the four corners of one of the dough squares inward over the filling. Where the four corners meet in the center, press the dough tightly together so that the sides will not unfold during baking. There will be naturally occurring slits where the dough does not quite meet and filling is visible. Repeat these steps with the remaining eleven dough squares.

Transfer the folded appetizers to a baking sheet and bake in the preheated oven for 13 to 15 minutes or until the appetizer bites are golden brown. Allow to cool for 5-10 minutes, but the appetizers are best served while still warm.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Peanut butter jelly (brownies) time

Well, as anyone who is up on their packaged foods recipe contest dates knows, the deadline for entries for the 2012 Pillsbury Bake-Off was yesterday. I've been holding off on posting my entries here just in case, because I didn't want them pilfered. Naturally, I trust my regular readers implicitly, but the Internet is a wasteland of recipe thieves just waiting to google search. It's a dark, dark, digital world that we live in.

But anyway, this year I entered two (fairly disparate) recipes. I'll post one now and one in a couple of days, just for the sake of posting more. Today's recipe is one that may sound like something that could only be consumed by 5-year-olds and stoned people, but they are actually quite tasty and I have seen them enjoyed by many a sober adult. Enter: the PB&J Brownie Cup. I originally came up with the idea for the pb&j brownie when I thought that peanut butter swirled brownies were good and as were brownies swirled with raspberry jam. A quick perusal of the Internet informed me that I was not the first one to think of this combination. In order then to make my entry a little punchier, I baked them in muffin tins with raspberry preserves in the center and a peanut butter mixture swirled on top. Now they're portable, self-contained, and offer a tasty surprise in the middle! But enough of my subtle campaigning to Pillsbury, Smuckers Preserves, JIF, and their subsidiaries. On with the recipe!

I may not know much about photography or how to plate something so that it doesn't just look like a turd on a dish, but I do know that things look better when placed next to flowers.

PB&J Brownie Cups
  • 1 box(es) Pillsbury Milk Chocolate Brownie Mix
  • 1/2 cup(s) Crisco Pure Vegetable Oil
  • 1/4 cup(s) water
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup(s) Smucker's Red Raspberry Preserves
  • 1/2 cup(s) Jif Creamy Peanut Butter
  • 1/4 cup(s) powdered sugar
  • 2 tablespoon(s) butter, melted
  • 1/4 teaspoon(s) vanilla
Number of servings: 12

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a muffin pan with non-stick cooking spray and set aside.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the oil, water, eggs, and brownie mix. Stir 50 times with a wooden spoon to combine.
  3. In a smaller mixing bowl, combine the peanut butter, powdered sugar, melted butter, and vanilla. Stir until mixture is smooth, with no lumps of powdered sugar remaining.
  4. To assemble the brownies, add 1/8 cup of brownie batter to cup of the muffin tin. On top of this add to the center of each cup a teaspoon of raspberry preserves. Divide the remaining brownie batter among the cups to cover the preserves.
  5. Top each cup of brownie batter with a tablespoon of the peanut butter mixture. Then, using a butter knife, skim the surface of the brownie batter to swirl the peanut butter.
  6. Place the tray in the preheated oven for 25-28 minutes. Brownies will still be gooey (due to the preserves) when finished.
Let me know you think, if you make them. Unless it's to offer criticism that would have been constructive two days ago before I submitted it, but now would offer me nothing but bitter regret. I'm just kidding! Positive and negative feedback is appreciated. I can always use negative comments to help pave my way to domination at Pillsbury Bake-off 2014. Also, stay tuned in the next couple of days for recipe number 2: Spicy Tapas Puffs.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Poems Enough

Today is my mother's birthday (Happy birthday, Mom!). This year is something of a milestone birthday, so I wanted to do something special for her. My mother is a woman of many talents: an artful painter and sculptor, a dedicated gardener, and (one day) a virtuosic banjo player. But above all, she is a life long writer--both of poetry and fiction. For her birthday this year, I wanted to publish her collected works of poetry into a single volume. At first, I wanted this to be a surprise and enlisted my dad to help gather her oeuvre. What I realized from the smattering of word documents he sent me was that my mother had written more than I realized, and many things were in varying stages of completion. I had no idea where to even begin to sort through what she would even want to have published. So the secret thing was out the window, and she contributed not only the book and chapter titles and where the poems should be organized, but also a thoughtful introduction tying the volume together.

Through the ease of self-publishing offered by and with the enormous help of a very talented designer (whose unflagging devotion to this project, despite my many edits, prompts me to plug his Website again:, we now have a finished book:The cover, although I forgot to credit it in the book (whoops! so much for the editorial check list!), is a section of one of my mom's recent paintings. It's something she did based on a photo of the Japanese gardens in Fort Worth.

I wanted to share my favorite poem from the collection, but it was harder to pick than I thought it would be. Instead, I'll just share one that I really like. It's about the constant spread of suburban sprawl (something anyone who has ever lived in the suburbs of Houston is quite familiar with). One day you're neighbors are cows in wide open fields, where you and your sister can pick berries of somewhat questionable health, and the next it's the inevitable grocery store/nail salon/laundromat mini mall.

Suburban Sprawl

We remember cows
Where grocery carts now graze.
In dove season shots rang out
Reminding us that hunters
Nestle in the cozy grass.

Then, we dared not walk
To Val-U-Drugs
Nor could we imagine how
Vast the space, once paved.

Mere grass,
Festooned with barbed wire
It seemed a part
Of our own backyard.

Now it is open, uninviting.

A beat-up taco van
Parked beside the winding road
Nourished the crews
Who straightened the road
Paving the way
For Taco Palace
And the storage place
(Painted orange and purple
To avoid confusion with the red white and blue
And the other two)
The day they broke ground
We vowed to boycott
Twenty-Four-Seven-Shop & Drop
And stick to homemade tamales
In honor of the fallen trees.

But sometimes you need something late at night

And it’s great to nibble a praline
Walking home
Pondering where the cows graze now.

I know the vast majority of my readers already have their copies soon to arrive in the mail, but if anyone would like to procure their very own copy of Poems Enough, you can do so from Amazon here. I realize I'm a little biased here, but if you can only buy one book of poetry this year, it should probably be this one.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Metamorphosis OR Talented table artists and the deadbeats who love them

As many of you noticed in my apartment photos, the kitchen of my new place is quite large. It is even of the much coveted (well, in New York anyway) eat-in variety. However, it is not so large that my beloved yellow dining room table could fit there comfortably. Luckily, as one of the many advantages of cohabitation, my boyfriend provided a table that was the perfect size.

Naturally, I'm not the sort of person who would let my cat sit on a surface where I eat. But she does make a fetching model, doesn't she? We're talking Price Is Right quality.

While I'd seen this table many times at his apartment, I'd never really gotten a close look at the top because it was always adorned with a lacy, doily/tablecloth thing. I never questioned why an adult man living alone would make "grandma chic" part of his bachelor pad home decor. He's cute, so I just left it at that. However, when this table made it's way to the new apartment, I wasn't too unhappy to see the tablecloth had not survived the journey. The only downside is that I discovered the dirty secret the tablecloth had hidden.

Scratches!!!!! Okay, so it doesn't look that bad here. But trust me, Dinah is the only attractive thing about the surface of this table. Note her carefully honed expression of ennui. You can't teach that.

I'd been wanting to paint a table ever since I saw some really creative ones on etsy, so this discovery was actually a blessing in disguise. After a trip to the art store, we decided to paint the table a base black with some gold stenciling. It all sounded easy enough. I was looking forward to the prospect of turning a run down table into a beautiful accent piece using nothing but a little sand paper, paint, and elbow grease (and, as it would later turn out, a wee bit of krazy glu). Below you can see the transformation:As you can probably gather, Tony has not given me sculpted forearms, nor has p90x spontaneously given me butch arm hair. As well, those of you who read about my foray into pumpkin art probably already had a pretty good idea of who would really end up spearheading the hard labor for my hare-brained scheme. After watching the intense labor required to sand down the surface of the table (in what may or may not have been an entirely necessary first step), we ( I use this pronoun a little freely, but here I actually did provide some facile brush work) painted that bad boy black with enamel paint, giving it a nice shiny finish.

Isn't it beautiful? Even without a cat atop it, this table really sings.

Satisfied with the ebony perfection we'd created, next we opened up our gold letting paint and chose a nice geometrically patterned stencil. What we soon discovered was that the paint was far too thin to actually stay on the table without bleeding under the stencil. Instead of crisp gold squares dancing delicately over a black canvas, we had runny, gold splotches. Undeterred, we painted the table black again, and started afresh. This would become a pattern of the next few days. After a few more failed attempts we switched to a gold dotted leaf pattern which seemed more forgiving to rough edges. This too required a couple of more black paintings. We may have elevated the thickness of the table top another quarter inch in black paint layers.

Finally, we (er, rather he) discovered a method that worked. Unfortunately, said technique required pain-staking accuracy and slow methodical work. Now is where I must truly confess my failure at commitment to this project. While with the pumpkin carving, I at least stayed through to watch the whole process, despite never lifting knife to gourd; for the table I grew frustrated and punked out entirely and went to bed. My boyfriend, however, stayed up late into the night in painstaking table painting chivalry. I woke up this morning to see this beautiful finished creation:Doesn't he do amazing work? Artistic talent and patience are two things that keep me from ever being a painter. Overall, I would say this project was a success. Which proves I do have decent ideas...I just lack stamina and follow through.

There she sits, the perfect addition to our eat-in-kitchen. Sadly, Dinah had gotten an agent at this point and refuses to do any more demonstration modeling for me until I upgrade to a higher grade kibble.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Oh, the places you'll go!

I just wanted to bask in the glow of those apartment photos for a while. Rest on the laurels of pictures neatly hung and shelves dusted of potentially hazardous construction residue. I appreciate all the lovely comments and emails from friends and readers, most of them New Yorkers lusting after my newly acquired counter space. The new place certainly didn't take long to feel like home.

Weirdly though, having the whole "place to live" thing nailed down and having a place I feel comfortable and relaxed in, has inexplicably left me with a yen to travel. Unfortunately, having just spent most of my disposable income (and some of the less disposable stuff) on moving expenses and an endless supply of allen wrenches, my current trip plans will have to stay more in the realm of fantasy. That said, I can't stop looking at travel locations and mentally salivating over the possibilities. So I guess this post is more for me as a reference. I just thought I'd write down some of the places I'd love to visit whenever my travel budget revives itself. Although if anyone reading is looking for ideas to put your travel funds towards, perhaps this can benefit you as well. Just remember where the idea came from when travel companion choosing time comes around. I can be a very agreeable Sherpa.

Tanzania/Mount KilimanjaroThis is a very recent addition to the list. I'm not usually one of those people who sees the tallest anything and then wonder what it would be like at the top. My hiking experience is relatively limited. It took me 10 hours to get out of the Grand Canyon (although, I have to point out, there were some environmental factors like 104 degree heat that affected my speed there). Still, the people I've known who climbed Kili have said it wasn't that bad. And "not that bad" is enough to get me on board when I've been looking for reasons to head back to Africa.

BoliviaA good friend of mine lived in Bolivia for a couple of months last summer and came back with some incredible photographs. Prior to this point, Bolivia was only really known to me as the place Butch and Sundance go to be shot (er, spoiler alert?). After seeing her photos and hearing all her tales of this land-locked South American nation, it's now officially on the list. It's also home to the most dangerous road in the world. My friend did that. I, however, would stick to the salt flats.

It's funny because I always thought of myself as more of a beach person than a mountain person, but I'm noticing a theme here. I'm only putting them in this order because once I'm in Bolivia anyway, it just makes sense to head on down to southern Chile and Argentina. I like fjords, glaciers, and lakes, and this region has them all. I also have somewhat of an obsession with Antarctica, but this might be as close as I could get for a while. Sadly, choosing places that are incredibly far away is not conducive to budget vacationing. But then again, this is a fantasy list, so I may as well go for the moon (only not literally, because the idea of strapping my head down to sleep in low-gravity conditions really freaks me out).

Now obviously, I wouldn't go all the way to Thailand just for the beaches...but I can't say I'd avoid them either. This is in Raillay Bay in the province of Krabi. It's apparently far enough away from Phuket to avoid the tourists who have more specific reasons for going to Thailand. Most of what I know (from a tourist perspective) of Thailand travel comes from stalking some girl's facebook photos. From those, I glean: delicious-looking food, waterfalls, and the prospect of a just-touristy-enough elephant ride through the jungle.

Yukon Territory

I've been to Canada a handful of times, but never to the far north. Basically, seeing the Northern Lights at some point is definitely on my list. Seeing polar bears would be fun too, but I think I might have to go further north and east for that? At this point, I have to admit that I'm not 100% where polar bears live--just that you probably can't go too far north.

Five seems like a good number. I think if I start saving now, I should be able to start planning the first trip for sometime in 2014. For the record, I do have more local trips in mind and several places in Europe that I'd like to visit too. These don't make the list because I could actually manage them in the foreseeable future. And what's the fun in dreaming about that?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Home is where the cat is

I'm sure you've all been waiting with baited breath for pictures of my new apartment. Actually, it's more that I've been waiting with baited breath to show you because that means I'm settled in, can resume regularly scheduled activities, and get to go places other than IKEA. The move actually went really smoothly. Turns out, movers are totally worth the money. Our movers not only moved all our stuff up four flights of stairs in only a few hours, but accidentally left the cash we gave them for their troubles (the official payment that is; they didn't neglect to take the tip). If my boyfriend and I weren't the kind of morally sound people who would chase down a moving truck, it might have been the cheapest, most efficient move ever.

But now for the important stuff: apartment photos. I hadn't seen the place post-renovation, until about three days before the move, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that they really had been serious about making things look nice. You can judge for yourself.

Here's a view of the living room. That rug is a stand-in for our real, yet-to-be-acquired living room rug, but everything else is pretty much in place.

This, as you might have guessed, is also the living room. I thought I should include two photos of it so as to answer the question I'm sure was plaguing you: but where did you put the litter box?
I've lived self-sufficiently for about three years, maintained a steady job, paid my bills on time, filed my own taxes, and published three books, but it's having a bathroom with granite counter tops that truly makes me feel like an accomplished adult.

The bedroom, which clearly needs some art on the walls. My boyfriend is getting his collection framed at present, so soon this room will contain at least one tour de force of modern art, which may or may not look like paint splatters to those of us who haven't the wherewithal to appreciate Jackson Pollock. Also, note a friendly face at the lower left hand corner. Dinah is adjusting very well to the move!

Just image the experimental cooking hijinx I can get up to now that I have adequet counter space! It's been over a year since I've lived in an apartment with a microwave. Naturally, popcorn was first on the grocery list.

I know, I know, the living room has been photographed to death. But this one is really about showcasing my new haircut. A nice apartment deserves a kicky, layered 'do to go with it.

Thus concludes the photograph journey through my newest Astorian haven. I hope you like it as much as I do, because I don't think I can afford to ever move again!