Happy 2015/ Favorites from 2014

Paper Stars

Hi everyone! How were your holidays? We had some sickness, which was no fun, but all in all, it was great to spend time with family and to slow down for a bit.

I’m enjoying getting back into the swing of things, though. What about you? I thought I’d start off the year by cataloging some of my favorite things from last year. A few of them are things that were new in 2014, but most of them were just new to me. Maybe you’ll enjoy some of them.

Songs

“At the Beach” by the Avett Brothers

“Just You and Me” by Zee Avi

“The Water Fountain” by tUnE-yArDs

Podcast

Pop Culture Happy Hour

I think I’ve already talked about this to death—it’s an NPR podcast with pop culture critics sitting around and talking about new and old music, movies, TV and the like. It’s smart but not highfaluting, and it’s very, very funny. I listen to it every week.

(You can find this podcast and the songs on iTunes).

Television

Sure, we watch some network shows, but I figure you know about those already. Here are some you may not have tried:

Call the Midwife, on PBS or Netflix: based on the memoir of a 1950s midwife in London’s East End. She lives with Anglican nuns who are also midwives. The characters are just incredible.

Borgen As far as I know, this one’s only available via DVD. In a nutshell, it’s a Danish West Wing. The acting and writing are terrific, and again, fantastic characters. It’s in Danish with subtitles, so you definitely have to pay attention.

A Chef’s Life (currently airing on PBS)—I just found this one recently thanks to my mom (who also turned me on to Call the Midwife). I can’t tell you how excellent it is. It’s part documentary, part cooking show, part food history program. It follows Vivian Howard, a chef hailing from tiny Kinston, NC, as she and her husband run their high-end restaurant. But it’s more than that. Vivian visits all kinds of local folks who teach her about various aspects of southern cooking and farming. It is totally charming, never saccharine, often funny, and it even won a Peabody. And btw Vivan Howard and the producer, documentary filmmaker Cynthia Hill, are both UNC grads! (that’s where I went for undergrad in case you didn’t know)

Broadchurch via Netflix, a British seaside murder mystery. Beautiful, gut-wrenching, dark, and addictive. Great characters (hmmm…sense a theme?).

Bletchley Circle, again from Netflix, follows a group of British women who were code breakers in WWII. Now they’re reuniting to solve mysteries.

Also enjoyed the BBC miniseries version (with Gillian Anderson) of Bleak House, available via Netflix.

Books

These are all nonfiction, which seems to have been my theme for last year. I read a ton of memoirs and several history books.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and America’s first known serial killer

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart, a memoir about moving from the Soviet Union to New York in the early ’80s. Dark, funny, poignant.

My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss, a cooking memoir, complete with recipes, of a half Italian, half American woman who grew up moving back and forth between Berlin and the US. I laughed, I cried, I got super hungry.

Cookbooks

Once I found the Budget Bytes blog, I had to have her cookbook of the same name. It’s a great place for weeknight meal inspiration, and I love her simple-yet-interesting, less-meatarian approach. Many recipes are easily adaptable to be gluten-free if they aren’t already.

I’ve just started cooking out of the How Can It Be Gluten Free? Cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen. So far, I’m really impressed, and I’ll share some of our favorites soon.

I’m sure there are other things I’ll remember as soon as I wrap up this post, but for now, that’s what I can think of.

In case you’re wondering what’s happening with my writing, I’m still at it! I’m in the process of revising both my YA novel and my middle grade nonfiction book (not simultaneously but back and forth). It’s slow-going, which is why I don’t talk about it much, but I seem to be inching forward.

Bath Fizzies

Homemade Bath Fizzies

Plop, plop! Fizz, fizz! This was a project I planned a really long time ago but never got around to doing until this month. I got the idea and directions from Martha Stewart.

It goes together fairly quickly, though the part where you have to spray the ingredients with a water sprayer is kind of tedious. I made some peppermint fizzies and some lavender ones. The directions call for food coloring, but I didn’t really like the thought of food coloring in my bath, so I skipped that.

I used a mini muffin tin and got the citric acid from AmeriHerb, a wholesale company. I’m sure there are several online sources. The rest is just corn starch, baking soda, and essential oils. I was afraid they would fall apart when I popped them out of the muffin tin, but they held together just fine. I did use a silicone mold, which probably made that part easier.

Be careful—-my hubs almost popped one of these in his mouth, thinking they were some funky-looking cookies. Heh heh.

They make fun little treats to give out as gifts.

For more crafting, click here. For more simple gift ideas, click here.

photo 2

Holiday Roundup: Gifts, Crafts, Recipes

 

Origami Stars

I thought I’d round up a bunch of recommendations and past favorites from this time of year.

Regarding the stars, a few weeks ago I got obsessed with making these. Directions here.

Let’s start out with a few gift recommendations.

Books for Kids:

Here’s my list from last year. Here’s a list of favorite craft books for kids.

This year I’m giving Into the Unknown to two of my nephews. It’s a beautifully illustrated nonfiction book about explorers. More about it here.

Another nephew and son book this year: Boycraft, a British craft book with plenty of blood and guts and monsters, beautifully photographed. It can certainly be given to girls as well. I find a lot of kid craft books are full of purses and headbands and jewelry, and this book fills a void. We checked it out from the library earlier this year, and my son loved it.

I’m a big fan of Ed Emberley’s drawing books and thumbprint art books. Another illustrator with great drawing books is Sachiko Umoto. We have Let’s Draw Cute Animals, and I love it. She has several others, though. Wishing I had all from both authors.

One more drawing book, for preschoolers especially: Hand Art from Klutz. And another recommendation: high quality colored pencils. A few good brands: Prismacolor, Lyra, Caran D’ache. There is a huge difference in these vs. the cheapie kinds.

For the little chef in your life, we’re loving Chop Chop magazine, which has a great balance between fun and nutrition and encouragement to try new things.

If you need more recommendations, try going to your local independent bookstore (and of course actually buying there). Speaking of which, my own books are stocked at Charlotte’s own Park Road books, an excellent bookstore!

Amy Karol at Angry Chicken also has some great recommendations over at her blog.

Crafts of Christmas Past:

Quick wreath from backyard greenery

Simple ribbon wreath

Gift wrapping cloths

Cardboard Christmas trees

Fabric mache ornament

Simple gifts to make (with or without kids)

Cookies:

German-Inspired Almond Meal Cut-Out Cookies

Gluten-Free Almond Meal Cut-Out Cookies

Hope you are keeping warm and cozy. Cheers!

Origami Star

 

 

 

Flourless Oatmeal and Dried Cherry Bars

Gluten Free Oatmeal Bar

So these came from Budget Bytes. They are the “Apricot-Walnut Bars,” but I used pecans and dried cherries since that was what I had on hand. They’re super easy, there’s very little added sugar, and I was able to use gluten-free oats—-triple win! My seven-year-old (who has gluten troubles) loves them, which is no small compliment. Recipe here.

You use mashed banana for sweetness and stick-together-ness, which means the bars taste a little like banana bread–yum! We eat them for snacks and sometimes for breakfast.

American friends, how was Thanksgiving? We enjoyed time with extended family down at the beach. Beforehand, the hubs and I got to spend a few days in Mexico (thanks, mom and dad for kid-watching!). The trip was great, but we got stuck an extra day, which was not the most fun. Fortunately we had lots of folks covering for us back home with the kiddos—-I’m eternally grateful.

Christmas is now descending upon me, and I feel only half-ready and half-remembering what it was I meant to do to prepare. I’m going to try to post some round-ups of favorite gifts to give. recipes, and simple crafts, so stay tuned. As usual, I’m spending most of my kids-in-school time working on my novel. Is it getting anywhere? I sincerely hope so!

For more posts on cooking and eating, click here.

Bald Eagle Costume

Bald Eagle Costume

Hope you had a happy Halloween. Ours was lots of fun, and thankfully, the cold and rain held off until right when we were all ready to go in anyway.

This year, I only made one costume, since my daughter only needed a thrifted dress for her “diva” outfit. Our son, seven, wanted to be a bald eagle. He has a thing for birds of prey. At one point it seemed his visions were never going to match up to reality, but in the end, both of us were happy with how it turned out.

It’s made from four thrifted items: brown jammy pants (unaltered), long-sleeved brown T-shirt (sized down), brown henley shirt (cut open and scalloped for the wings), and the cut-off top of a fleece hoodie (sized down and scalloped for feathers). My son made talons made of yellow foam and cardboard. He also made the foam beak, which he attached to a pre-bought plain white eye mask. I tried to convince him to just attach a beak to the hood, but he was having none of that.

I thought he did a great job making eagle poses here. For more semi-homemade costumes from previous years, click here.

Meanwhile, I’ve been slog, slog, slogging through my novel rewrite. Also, enjoying the fact that Bletchley Circle has new episodes. Woo!

Homemade Taquitos

Taquitos

These come from Budget Bytes. Recipe here. It’s just a twist on the taco, but we love all things taco-related, and it’s nice to change it up now and then. My kids actually cheer when they hear these are for dinner, and anytime that happens, I’m pretty pumped.

The first time I made these, I found the rolling process to be frustrating. By the second and third times, though, it’s no big deal. We’ve been addicted to Trader Joe’s frozen taquitos for awhile now, but although these take a bit more time (obviously) it’s nice to be able to control exactly what’s in the taquitos and how much salt, etc. is involved.

I deviated from the original recipe in a couple of ways. First, I used ground turkey (rather than beef) with the black beans. Secondly, I just used the Penzey’s taco spice mix, which is a favorite, very handy and nicer than most grocery store mixes (i.e. less junk in it).

I like to dip the ends in salsa. My daughter likes to do the same with sour cream, and Beth Moncel (blogger and author of Budget Bytes) recommends her “Creamy Cilantro-Lime Dressing,” which sounds delicious (it’s in the book but I haven’t found an online link).

Turkey and Bean Taquitos

The first time I made the taquitos, I made part of the batch with extras like onions and peppers for the grownups. They were really good, but I don’t always have time for the chopping. I’m thinking of experimenting with some other fillings. Spicy chickpeas and sweet potatoes, maybe?

These are great leftover. Not quite as crunchy, but still excellent if you heat them up in the oven or toaster oven. I would not recommend microwaving them, though.

I continue to be addicted to Budget Bytes‘ chipotle black beans. So yummy and satisfying, also simple and quick. For more posts about food, go here.

Listened to a most excellent podcast from Fresh Air the other day about the creation of Wonder Woman. Completely fascinating and also, hilarious. Highly recommend.

Charting Works in Progress

Chart

I’ve been busy making revisions to my works in progress (nonfiction middle grade and  YA novel). There are lots of ways to use spreadsheets to “see the forest for the trees” when you’re writing, and good thing, because I’m often getting lost in the trees. Or the weeds, maybe.

I used the chart above to help me look at the timeline as it relates to theme in my nonfiction manuscript. (Yes, the picture is blurry on purpose. Call me crazy, but I’m not comfortable sharing THAT much info on a work-in-progress)

Related: a couple of weeks ago I went to a fantastic plotting workshop by Rebecca Petruck. She shared another charting method that I found very helpful. If you ever have the chance to take a workshop from Rebecca, jump at it. More info here about Rebecca and her approach.

Darcy Pattison also has some great ideas on how to use spreadsheets to chart your fiction.

What about you, writers? Do you use spreadsheets to analyze your work, and if so, how?

Currently reading: Michelle Icard‘s Middle School Makeover. No, I don’t have a middle-schooler yet, but I will soon. I am loving Icard’s sensible, practical approach and especially all the science about the adolescent brain.

What about you? Reading anything good?