closer than this life

For winter break my sophomore year in college, I went to the New Orleans home of my friend, Rachel. Like all college kids, we put off packing until the last second and didn’t even manage to leave town before it started getting dark. I-10 in Louisiana is a series of long, straight bridges over marshy waters. In the moonlight, the trees stretch spindly silhouettes up toward the sky; haunting, otherworldly.  She took over and popped in a CD. Better than Ezra. You like them? The lyrics were meaningfully angsty to a couple of teenage girls trying to figure out how to make their lives happen.

Two years later you’re a star
Who’d have thought we’d get this far?
But I’d give it all away if I
Could see you on that day again
When you quit work
And threw that coffee
At the manager jerk

You said, “Close your eyes
I’ve got a surprise
A house in the hills
And a car that drives by.”

That’s all we wanted then. A house in the hills and a car that drives by.

Fast forward eight years.

My husband, M, and I are leaving Houston. We sold our house (in the hills) and our car(s that drove by). I tossed back three cappuccinos for courage, then marched up to my manager jerk and quit. M, the master at packing the car, fits four suitcases, all of our camping equipment, a cooler, and our two dogs in our Jeep, and we head off on a three week road trip. He gets behind the wheel, and puts in a CD.

Closer than this life
Falling through again
Giving more than anything
That you could hope to win

And he knows his life is changing
It’s never easy letting go
For the first time you are mortal
As the child before you grows

I heft my growing belly into the passenger seat, and we set off on a new adventure.

 

Jenn’s Must – Have Road Trip Foods

– Andy Capp’s hot fries. My staple for years! A bag of these and a cup of gas station joe will keep you awake for hours.

–  Wispride. Oh yes. And ritz crackers. If you wanna get fancy, a log of Genoa salami. The perfect road trip breakfast. (You will keep these handy in your backseat cooler).

– Jerky. Preferably the Chinese stuff.

– Fruit. Gotta hold off the scurvy, ya know? Arrrr! Cherry tomatoes count.

 

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a kick in the proverbial arse

I’ve been struggling lately with the form, purpose, and voice of my writing.

Then a friend of mine posted something that jolted me from my pondering.

Was it an inspirational quote? A mouth watering recipe? Tips on photography and photo editing?

Ehhhhh…. no… not quite.


It was the video above, Bob Newhart as a highly effective psychologist, who tells his patient to simply “Quit it!” whenever she was paralyzed by her fears.

I think the advice is sound.

The thing is, I’ve been stuck wondering (QUIT IT!)

I just don’t know why I write about (QUIT IT!)

Sometimes I want to just delete everything and (QUIT IT!)

….. I guess it’s time for me to shut up and blog.

our big night out

Before we left Barcelona, Matt & I were able to have an amazing night out thanks to our friend Tanja, who watched Cameron for the night. As I tripped through the streets, belly full of delicious pintxos and cocktails, I finally began to understand why everyone loves Barcelona. I can’t wait to go back next spring so I can go back to Ideal Bar and Maitea Taberna!

Pinxtos at Maitea Taberna: (L) fresh cheese with pine nuts, raisins, walnuts (R) cabrales (blue) cheese with walnuts

Maitea Tabersa is a pintxos bar mostly frequented by locals, and for good reason. It’s incredibly crowded, and not exactly a cozy place to have a romantic dinner. But the pintxos are amazing. Pintxos are like tapas, in that they are small bites of food, but to my mind they’re even better. Each is a portion of food on a slice of baguette, speared through with a toothpick. At the end of your meal, your toothpicks are counted for your bill.

Anchovies with onion

You can imagine why this idea appeals to me, especially when each pintxo is 1.55E. Endless mixing and sampling! And so little risk to trying each thing! While each pintxo was not perfect, we had some really amazing combinations. Our favorites included a crab salad with tuna, a thin slice of pork fried with cheese and ham, and a caramelized pineapple slice on spicy chorizo.

We managed to find a spot at the bar, where you can easily access the cold pintxos in display cases. Most of these were combinations of cured meats, cheese, and seafood. Hot pintxos were prepared in the kitchen and would come out in waves, offered by the bustling waitstaff. Snagging a particularly delicious looking morsel before the crowd got it was all part of the game. At the end of the night, our bill was less than 30E.

After pintxos, we headed down the street to Dry Martini Bar. Although the bar had an old-time atmosphere, with deep cushioned seats and dark wood paneling, it did feel like a bit of a tourist trap. There was a colorfully attired man singing opera and going from table to table selling roses. The menu was sponsored by Bacardi and Grey Goose and featured an array of fruity and colorful cocktails. I ordered a Negroni, and Matt had a martini. While we waited, we watched the lab-coat attired bartenders splash gin (no measuring here!) into the specially bar-branded cocktail shakers. The gin in my Negroni was a bit overwhelming, but it was fun to see the action. Each cocktail was 12E.

After Dry Martini, we headed down the street a few blocks to Bar Ideal. This bar was much quieter, with only a few patrons sitting at the bar, nursing gin & tonics served in huge balloon glasses. When I asked the bartender, he said that was the way here in Spain. I ordered an Aperol Spritz and Matt had an Americano. Both were fantastic, and we enjoyed them while watching the bartenders josh with the patrons and balance trays full of liquor and glasses. In Barcelona, if you order a liquor at your table, it seems common for the waiter to bring the bottle to your table and pour it there. The bar is nautically-themed, with plush red chairs and amusing paintings of ships at sea. Very pleasant. Each cocktail was 9E.

Goodbye Spain

I’ll be leaving Spain in less than 48 hours so I thought now was an especially appropriate time to do another phone photo post.

Someone once asked me about bocadillos here in Barcelona, the quintessential lunch/all purpose snack. So I snapped this photo of a bocadillo menu outside a streetside cafe. I’ve never been interested in these sandwiches, because they never look particularly appetizing. They consist of a loaf of bread sliced lengthwise and filled with a few slices of meat and cheese – jamon, tuna, and semicurado are popular. That’s it. No veggies, no spread, no other filler. To be honest they always seem rather dry to my (Americanized) tastebuds. And someone needs to give these cafes some food photography tricks…

Jamon. Jamon is ubiquitous here! Here is the Jamon section of my local Carrefour market. It’s located between the ice cream and the meat. Although I see legs of Jamon everywhere for sale, to be honest, I’ve never actually seen anyone purchase one. I wonder how long they sit in the store for..

I’m not sure if this product illustration would fly in the US… given how weird we are about breasts.

I can totally get behind this marketing, though, for pint size porsches! Cameron needs one, I think.

I’ll be the first to admit I know nothing about fashion but I REALLY don’t understand the fashion here in Spain, and genie pants are the first on my list of WTFs.  Here is a particularly garish pair, in jean material. I’ve also seen little children running (hobbling) around in them. *cringe*

This isn’t the best picture as I had to zoom in quite aways with my dinky little camera phone but you ought to be able to make out the sexxxily dressed woman at the bus stop. Woooo mama! And this was at 9AM. Where was she going???

Among the things I don’t understand is this. People walk around sharing headphones all the time. Couples, friends (ok, maybe same sex couples, it’s hard to tell), all tethered together by their ears. It looks faintly ridiculous while they’re sitting down but the best part is when they try to get up and walk around.

I’ve been thinking about doing a “Barcelona couple of the day” series when I come back here next year. This is just one of many photos I have of people making out in public. Now, I don’t consider myself puritan by any means when it comes to public displays of affection, but every time I step foot outside, I come across a couple wrapped around each other on a park bench… on the sidewalk… on the stairs to the metro. What’s really amusing is watching them get started. They stop suddenly, turn to each other, and start kissing, while wrapping their limbs around each other. It’s funny how they seem to settle for a long make-out session in what seems to me to be the most uncomfortable places (standing in the stairwell to the metro???)

A condom vending machine. Yup.

I’m really not sure what’s going on here.

A dog hanging out on the floor of a hair salon. At first I thought it was a giant pile of blond hair. I love that dogs are allowed everywhere (except my doberman, it seems).

cake & coffee: macaron edition

I recently visited Paris in April, which is pretty awesome in itself. We happened to be staying within a few blocks of both Pierre Herme and Laduree, making the perfect setup for a macaron taste-test. I explained my plan to Matt, and he was slightly incredulous. “You want to buy how many of whats, where?!? Aren’t these basically cookies? Why do you need to do this?”

Once I got him to admit that I could have much worse habits than a baked goods fetish (purses, shoes…) he was slightly more accepting. It didn’t stop his jaw from hitting the floor when he found 75E chocolate Easter Eggs at Pierre Herme. I was proud of myself for managing to snag my prized macarons without disturbing him or the baby and causing a scene. Believe me, it was a stealth operation.

Laduree Macarons, left to right: Rose, Chocolate Mint, Pistachio, Caramel with salted butter, Chocolate Cherry. Not pictured: Blackcurrant violet, chocolate passionfruit.

Laduree’s shop is crowded and packed. The cases of sweets are in the front and the cafe is to the right, but it’s not immediately apparent which line is for which. The shopkeeper seemed impatient and dissatisfied with my order, which I made hastily, not knowing anything about the flavors. Macarons are kept behind the glass case, in boxes, and you choose flavors from a laminated menu.

I’m sorry to say that I almost spat out the first Laduree macaron I bit into. The chocolate cherry one had all the overwhelming tart flavor of cherry combined with bitter dark chocolate. It makes my mouth pucker just to think of it. The macarons themselves were denser than the Pierre Herme macarons, and the filling more sticky than creamy.

Both the pistachio and chocolate passionfruit macarons were good, and although I preferred Pierre Herme’s caramel macaron, the Laduree one was also tasty. Stay away from the berry flavors and rose flavoring, which is like eating perfume.

Macarons in the window of Pierre Herme

My selection of Pierre Herme macarons: in front, Salted Caramel and Jasmine. In bag (top row): Coing & Rose, Mint and Green Pea, Pistachio. Bottom row: Jasmine, Chocolate passionfruit, Marron & Green tea.

The shopkeepers at Pierre Herme were all incredibly friendly, even though it was clearly apparent that I was trying to get the most macaron for my money. After I exceeded a certain number of macarons, they charged me by the pound, which was quite less expensive than by the piece. I really preferred these macarons to Laduree’s.  Though the cookies were similar in texture, Pierre Herme’s fillings are creamier and more mildly flavored. The green pea and mint flavor was SO GOOD I wanted seconds – which, sadly, was not the case with any other macaron. Herme’s caramel flavor is not as sweet as Laduree’s, which I prefer.

Second favorite PH flavor was Chocolate Passionfruit which captured the fruit without being cloyingly sweet. Even the Jasmine was incredibly delicate. Only after a few minutes did the Jasmine flavor come through, tasting exactly like the tea.

Conclusion: Pierre Herme over Laduree, hands down. Since they cost about the same and have similar flavors, you really have nothing to lose. But, if you want to try both, it’s easy enough. The stores are only a few blocks apart. Win-win, either way!


tapas & sangria

I’m about to make an awful, awful admission.

Ready?

I’ve lived in Barcelona for more than 6 months and I’ve only had tapas once.

The problem is that Matt arrived here a week before me. And he got so homesick during that week that when I finally got here, he didn’t want anything to do with tapas. He wanted good old American home cookin’, and that’s what we’ve had ever since.

It also doesn’t help that tapas are a pretty expensive way to nosh compared to home cookin’. And the produce here is so good and cheap, it’s hard to find an excuse to eat out.

Well, I fixed that this past week. With a friend in town who had never been to Europe, I took it as my duty to make sure she experienced the “must haves” in Barcelona.

First: Tapas & Sangria in the Old Town:

Gambas al Ajillo (Garlic Shrimp)

 Tapas from top, clockwise: Pan y tomate, queso (manchego), Patatas Bravas, Gambas al Ajillo.

Needs no description!

grilled shrimp tacos

I’ve begun a crusade to shake up what we eat in this house. First, I cleverly (maybe accidentally) snuck mutton into BBQ sandwiches. Hey, the picture on the package looked like beef! Then, I began introducing shrimp into our weekly lineup of beef, pork, chicken, bacon and cheese.

Matt isn’t such a huge fan of seafood, but scarfed these shrimp tacos down and asked for more. Winner!

Chipotle Shrimp Tacos

This recipe begins, as all good recipes do, with bacon.

Chop 4-6 slices of American style bacon. Brown in a pan, and remove to paper towels to drain. Add a quarter cup of chopped onion to the bacon fat and saute until translucent. Throw in a pound of shrimp mixed with 2-3 chopped chiles in adobo and their sauce. Saute until shrimp are pink and curled, about 5 minutes. Add back the reserved bacon.

Serve on warm corn tortillas with avocados, queso fresco, and lime.

Bonus! Easy-peasy way to warm tortillas! I always find that when I warm tortillas one at a time in a skillet, the first tortillas are cold by the time the last ones are done. And I don’t have a microwave. So here is how I warm my tortillas:

Lay one tortilla in a warm skillet or on a baking sheet in a warm oven. After 30 seconds, lay another tortilla on top of the warmed one and flip both. Wait another 30 seconds and add another tortilla and flip the whole stack (this is best accomplished by hand). Continue to add cold tortillas to the stack and flipping the stack until all tortillas are warm. The first tortillas end up in the middle of the stack, keeping them warm and soft.

This is most easily done in the oven, but be aware that if your stack becomes uneven, the tortillas that stick out may crisp around the edges.

my doberman

I have a Doberman. His name is Dexter.

When I walk him down the street, mothers pull their children to their sides. Policemen yell at me for letting him off leash, and other dog owners shy away from us at the park. Some even condemn me for not having a muzzle on him.

I wish I could explain that my dog isn’t this kind of Doberman:

He’s this kind of Doberman:

Here he is pictured on the Couch of Heaven. The Couch of Heaven is where Dexter’s masters spend most of their time, and his all-encompassing goal in life is to be allowed on to the couch.

Unfortunately, he’s currently exiled to the Rug of Purgatory. This is because the last time he was on the Couch of Heaven, he began chewing on the blanket. I AM THE MASTER, I MAKE THE RULES.

Other characters in Dexter’s life include:

The Noisy Small Person and the Scary Chair. Often combined, these block the poor dog’s passage from one room to the next. Walking past the Scary Chair in a calm manner is impossible. It’s liable to rock, make sounds, or burst into screaming at any moment.

If he finds himself unable to pass the Noisy Small Person and the Scary Chair, Dexter will position himself just behind the Chair, stare at the nearest master, and cry plaintively until the Chair is moved. Once he has room to pass, he will then attempt to sneak by as quickly as possible, usually skittering across the tile floor and knocking over a few items of furniture.

The Laundry room of Terror. When we first moved to Barcelona, we put the dog bowls into the laundry room. Dexter was so terrified of the room that he refused to eat or drink, choosing instead to run wild at the park scarfing whatever he could find on the ground and drinking puddles of gross liquid-y substances. It became a standoff of sorts, with me refusing to move the food for what I deemed a stupid reason and him slowly starving. Finally Matt gave in and put his food in the hall to prevent him from starving himself to death.

My other dog, Ricky, is not afraid of the Laundry Room of Terror. He actually got quite fat eating all of Dexter’s food.

The Evil Cleaning Implements. After Dexter has taken care to shed as much fur as possible into every corner of this apartment, I use the Evil Cleaning Implements to remove said fur and throw it in the garbage. Poor dog. Parents just don’t understand, do they?

The Evil Cleaning Implements are so terrifying that Dexter will flee them by standing on the couch, risking my wrath. When I attempt to shoo him off by waving the broom in his direction, he just slinks as low as possible and gives me sad eyes.

What a vicious animal.

goat cheese cheesecake

This cake is a combination of a trifecta of influences:

– Endless browsing of Tartelette, which eventually led me to this delectable looking recipe.

– My diabetes diet, which allowed two Maria cookies per day, with a glass of milk, as dessert. I’d never heard of Maria cookies before. They’re sort of like graham crackers, in that they’re delicious but you can pretend they’re healthy.

– The endless bounty of citrus earlier this year, during which I constantly left the store with bags of beautiful lemons and oranges. And David Lebovitz’s unbelievably perfect, bright, and easy to make lemon curd.

Crush enough maria cookies to make 1 cup of crumbs. Don’t worry, graham crackers will do in a pinch. Stir together with 4T of melted butter and 1/4 cup of sugar… or less, if you’re using sweeter cookies. Press into the bottom of an 8″ round pan, going up slightly on the sides to form a shallow crater for the cheesecake. Bake the crust for five minutes at 325F.

Meanwhile, beat 3/4 cup sugar with 8 ounces of fresh goat cheese and 8 ounces of cream cheese. Add three large eggs, beating well after each addition. The batter should be smooth and creamy. Pour into the prepared crust. Bake at 300F about 20 minutes – it should still be slightly soft in the center.

Top with David Lebovitz’s lemon curd while still warm. Let cool before slicing.