Monday, March 31, 2008

Take that, March!

Wow, I did not think there was any way I would finish this before March slipped away. Crazy. Apparently, my whining about how long Sleeve #1 took me caused some rift in space/time that made Sleeve #2 just fly by. I thought I would have a whole skein of Malabrigo left over, but I had to wind it and use a few yards for the last half of the neckband, so it's a good thing I had a sixth skein. My husband has promised to take pictures as soon as we have good sunshine. I think it's fantastic! I need to find a good camisole to go underneath. I really did think this was going to be too small, but it's a perfect fit. I will edit this post to add photos as soon as I have them.

Pattern: Simple Knitted Bodice by Stephanie Japel
Yarn: Malabrigo Merino Worsted in Velvet Grapes, six skeins (only a tiny bit of skein #6 used to finish off the bindoff on the neckline.
Needles: Size 7 Clover bamboo dpns and circulars, size 4 Crystal Palace dpns and circulars
Notes: I adore this yarn. I adore the structure of this pattern, which may have the least finishing of any sweater pattern. I liked the less-pointy Clover needles with the one-ply Malabrigo, which got a bit splitty with the Crystal Palace needles unless I paid close attention.
The only change I made in the pattern was to do 2 instead of 3 purl ridges at the neckband. Every other part had 2, and it just seemed to make sense.

Other knitting: I have been seized by the idea of a scarf based on the redhead gene for my SIL, who is a redhead. I remembered this scarf and googled around until I found it. I actually remembered it as a little...prettier. Not that this isn't cool, it's just not what I had in mind. Does anyone think I could assign a stitch (yo or k2tog, for example) to each amino acid and come up with a lace scarf I could make in a nice looking pattern? I could maybe do the stranded pattern, but with more muted colors and skipping the lettering at the ends. At any rate, this would be a Christmas project, to be done later on in the year, and I'm not sure I have yarn for it. I love the idea, and I think my SIL would, too, but I'm not that crazy about the look of the scarf.

Anyway, my April project will be the Opal Tiger socks, toe-up with short-row toe and heels, for Matt's birthday (which was in February). I screwed up the toe twice, and I'm hoping things go more smoothly this time!

Reading: I've just been finishing up the Jane Jeffry mysteries. The most recent, The Accidental Florist, was rather odd. There is a murder, but Jane and Shelley show almost no interest in it. There is some unnecessary melancholy added, and Jane and Shelley spend a lot of time planning a wedding. It reads as though Jill Churchill (really Janice Young Brooks) is ending the series, and was more occupied with wrapping up loose ends in the lives of Jane's family, Mel, and Shelley, than with a mystery. There was also apparently no editing done. Among the glaring errors is this: Jane mentions that she's glad she scooped the litterboxes in the basement since someone was coming over. A few pages later, Jane decides that her cats will be inside cats in their old age and goes to the store to get kitty litter and pans, then makes a big deal about her cats remembering how to use a litterbox from their kittenhood. Now, that's just sloppy, and the editor should have caught it. There's also a mention of something Jane supposedly has never told Mel, but she's told him in at least two previous books. I still enjoyed Jane and Shelley, and I was happy to see some non-mystery lines of plot resolved, but the mystery was seriously lacking and the errors grated. I wouldn't start with this one. Get Grime and Punishment and see how you like it, then keep going if you do. I like this series, and I'm willing to cut Churchill some slack on this one. (I usually read to the bitter end of a series, though even I abandoned (with sadness) the Cat Who... books, which became unreadable.)

I'm now reading the almost un-put-down-able What The Dead Know by Laura Lippman. Wow, what a gripping story.

Writing: Nothing to report. I think I need to change my goals. I prefer longer periods of writing, to let my train of thought really go, but that may not be possible with Lilah. I think I need to try to write for at least 15 minutes every day, which is a LAME goal to me, but it may be the only way for me to make progress at this point in my life. Although Lilah and I have been having play dates with a friend and her little boy, and we're working up to trading some babysitting, which could give me a chunk of time every week to frantically get writing done. I tend to only write if I know I have an hour or so, because I'd really rather spend a lot of time on it instead of losing my train of thought before I've finished a writing session. But if I'm going to get anything done at all, I need to try to change that.

Cooking: I am in the South now, which means Baby Vidalia onions in the spring! I'd never seen these before. Obviously, I've gotten Vidalias when they're available, but the baby version is new to me. I loved them. They're mild enough to use raw, but cooked, they had a nice, delicate flavor, sort of like leeks, only sweet. I decided to try them in a springy quinoa one-pot kind of dish. If I had had asparagus, I would have tossed it in olive oil and roasted at 400 degrees until lightly browned and served it on top.

Creamy Spring Quinoa

1 TBL olive oil
2 Baby Vidalia Onions, chopped (or any spring onion or shallots, about 2/3 cup)
2 cups quinoa, rinsed*
4 cups water
1 tsp salt
juice and grated zest of one lemon
4-6 oz. spinach
1/2 cup goat cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook about 2-3 minutes, until translucent. Add quinoa and stir to coat. Add water and salt; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook about 20 minutes, until quinoa grains open up and look like little spirals. Stir in lemon juice and zest, spinach, and goat cheese. Stir gently over very low heat until spinach wilts. Serve topped with parmesan and pine nuts.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Wow, I really meant to post sooner than this, but my parents were visiting, and we were otherwise occupied. But I could almost post the same thing I did last time. Garden? Still nothing planted, and it's looking grim. Not really--I really will dump some basil seeds in a pot with soil. And some catnip seeds outside. Simple Knitted Bodice? I did finish the Neverending Sleeve, but I have two arms, so I'm currently knitting another Neverending Sleeve. Blech. I have till Monday to finish this for March. We'll see. I still don't think this will fit me. Can someone please extol the virtues of blocking and assure me that a Malabrigo sweater can grow with it? If not, the next blog contest will involve an SKB as a prize. Writing? Argh. This is the really frustrating one. There's virtually no way I will make my March goal of rewrites of the first two chapters. Lilah's sleeping has actually gotten WORSE, which I didn't think was possible. She's been waking up every 2-3 hours every night.

The other fun thing is that Matt's beloved Mustang died a tragic death three weeks ago. While my parents were visiting, they had a rental car, so it was fine, and then a really nice coworker of his who had just bought a new car let him borrow her old car. That conked out yesterday so Matt didn't get home until after I'd put Lilah to bed, and now we have one car again. This is frustrating because a year ago, we barely needed one car. We drove it to the grocery store once a week, and that was usually it. Matt took the bus to work, we walked to restaurants and the farmer's market, and when I was working, I walked to work. And now Matt commutes and we live outside the city so we have to drive everywhere, and we have to have two cars. And Matt and I are both horrible at decision-making (which really calls the accuracy of astrology into question--I'm a wishy-washy Pisces, sure, but Matt isn't), and there are 14 million different cars out there and we have no idea what to get. Ugh. Okay, I'll try to stop whining. But no promises. I'm not the kind of person who adores car shopping, and I'm tired.

Knitting: Well, I covered that. I finished the first sleeve on SKB, and I've started the second. It'll be exciting to see if I make it by the end of the month. I watched the Nancy Drew movie on DVD, which got me through sleeve #1. I really thought this was a cute movie. I loved Nancy Drew as a kid, and I thought the movie was fairly true to the spirit of the books. I got Enchanted for my birthday, so maybe that'll help me with sleeve #2.

Reading: Man Walks Into A Room by Nicole Krauss: I really wanted this to be a five-star review, and if I had stopped around page 75, it would have been. Krauss is a fantastic writer, and there are passages of achingly beautiful prose that highlight the potential that is never realized in this, her first novel. But Man Walks Into A Room is too scattered and wanders off on too many tangents. The book begins with a memory seemingly unrelated to any of the characters we meet for those first 75 pages, and this was annoying, but I was sucked into the gentle exploration of Samson, who is found wandering in the desert, all memories since the age of 12 obliterated by a tumor. He does not recognize his wife, Anna, and Krauss explores her reaction to Samson's condition in a peripheral kind of way. The story up to this point is fascinating and beautifully written. Then Krauss veers off onto a science-fictiony tangent that the framework just can't support. I tolerated this for a while, but by 125 or so pages, I was irritated and cranky and wanting the story to be over, but the opening had been so promising that I felt compelled to keep reading to see if she redeemed herself. Nope. After the science fictiony bit is finally blissfully over, we go into this other part in which Samson connects with a teenager and then his senile uncle in sort of obvious, yet obscure, ways. And the ending just fizzled out. This could have been a really amazing book, but Krauss was too ambitious in her scope and the story suffered for it. Ultimately, I don't recommend this book, but I do want to read her second novel, The History of Love, in the hopes that she reaches her potential there.

So, I read Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris, which is headed to the semifinals in the Tournament of Books. It was fantastic. Seriously, one of the best books I've read in a long time. It's extremely funny, with a unique voice (the corporate "we") that manages to explore group dynamics without losing the individuality of the group members. Who doesn't love a book with the awesome first line, "We were fractious and overpaid."? Excellent stuff. There is a lot of funny here as Ferris explores the contradictions, excess, and search for meaning in an ad agency just as the dot-com bubble bursts. The group dynamics shift and change as layoffs loom over the entire office and the employees wonder whether or not their boss has cancer. This would have been a fantastic bit of office humor, but Ferris goes deeper than Office Space for insights into finding meaning in one's life, how to face death, and how we break when pushed too hard. Brilliant, amazing, fantastic first novel, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

I'm taking a break with more Jane Jeffry mysteries. The one I just finished, Groom With A View, was really, really fun. It took place at a wedding in a hunting lodge. Jane is planning the wedding, and that was funny, along with an entertaining mystery.

Writing: Unfortunately, I've said all there is to say about it. But if I miss my March deadline, I'll just revise a deadline for April, because the alternative is just giving up on writing until Lilah is in school or something, and I really don't want to do that.

Cooking: I've been cooking quite a bit. I had a meeting at my house of our playground committee, and I used the infusion of people as an excuse to make cinnamon rolls. My preferred recipe is Mrs. Hoggendobber's Orange Cinnamon Buns from Sneaky Pie's Cookbook for Mystery Lovers, a really cute little cookbook/collection of anecdotes authored by Rita Mae Brown's tabby co-writer of her mystery series. If this sounds so cutesy as to be vomit-inducing for you, I'd skip the Sneaky Pie mysteries and the cookbook, but I personally love them, and I quite like this book, which I bought entirely for the aforementioned recipe for baked goods that are referenced several times in the early novels and always made my mouth water. They are absolutely delicious and worth the trouble to make.

I've also been making Heidi Swanson recipes, this time from her website, 101 Cookbooks. Lilah and I love her recipe for split pea soup, which we make with yellow split peas. Simple and delicious. We've been having it for lunch. I've also been on a quinoa kick, and made Quinoa With Grilled Zucchini. The dressing is to die for, and I could eat it with a spoon. The recipe, unless you have the quinoa and hard-boiled eggs on hand, is fairly involved. I didn't, so the items I had to wash included: pot for cooking quinoa, pot for cooking eggs, bowl to toss it in, bowl to make the dressing, thingy to squeeze out lime juice, cutting board and knife, Foreman grill for cooking zucchini, pan to toast pine nuts. I sprayed the zucchini with olive oil spray before placing on the grill, or I would have had a bowl for tossing the zucchini and oil to clean as well. And it turns out, after all this, I'm not a fan of quinoa salads. The texture doesn't work for me and the quinoa, unlike pasta or rice, doesn't absorb the dressing, but rather sits in it, which I don't care for. I wish I'd tossed the hot quinoa with a little pesto, goat cheese, and the zucchini and left it at that. The egg recipe also didn't get them as cooked as I'd like (the yolks were set, but very, very yellow) and the shells stuck to the eggs like the dickens, so I had to pry off tiny bits of eggshell. Ugh. Anyway, I love Heidi's site and her cookbook, so I'll keep trying. This one just wasn't to my taste. She has a lemon-scented quinoa salad that seems less salad-y (and much less involved) that I think I'll try next. I also want to make her healthier artichoke dip.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Spring has sprung, and all that

Boy, did I have great plans for this spring. I would plant stuff! plants, even! in our yard! We would landscape. Our yard would be beautiful. And I would plant herbs and a small vegetable garden. And I would replace the dead plants in the concrete planters with live plants. And keep them alive! (fyi: the plants were dead when we bought the house. I did not kill them.) I would wear a floppy hat and gardening gloves and pull an errant weed once in a while without breaking a sweat. Huh. At least some daffodils came up in our yard with no input from us, because we have done NOTHING. I still want to plant basil, chives, parsley, and catnip. I think I'll start them in pots so I can figure out the best side of the house as far as sunlight goes. But I think it's really too late for anything else. Maybe I can buy a tomato plant still and stick it in the ground and pretend I grew it? I can't believe I thought I would be able to take up landscaping and gardening, when I barely have time to keep the house clean-ish. Or to finish a sweater before it gets too hot to wear it. Which is pretty much now. The sleeves on SKB are KILLING me. They are taking forever. I'm almost to the point on sleeve #1 where I could bind off and have short sleeves, but honestly, what would I do with a short-sleeved wool sweater? I still regret that I made my Somewhat Cowl short-sleeved. There are like two days out of the year I can wear it.

Reading: The new Tournament of Books list really shamed me into finally reading Vendela Vida's debut novel (her latest is on the list). I got it as a bargain book at some point a couple of years ago, and though it's a slender novel, I just hadn't gotten to it yet. I busted through it yesterday and a little today. It's a quick read for capital-L Literature. The premise really grabbed me: Ellis, a 21-year old college student, is held at gunpoint. She escapes from the experience unharmed, but completely changed. The encounter occurs at the very beginning of the novel, so the story is really about how she responds--in unpredictable, conflicting ways. She does everything a victim is supposed to: she files a police report, collaborates on a sketch of the assailant, looks at mug shots, sees a therapist. But her world has been turned upside down, and she flounders, avoiding her boyfriend's calls, telling outrageous lies to strangers, and turning to a few solicitous men for answers. She flies home to see her parents and ends up in the Philippines on a medical mission with her mother (a nurse). This could have been a gloomy, depressing book, but Vida's sense of humor is finely tuned. Ellis's roommate (not a friend, Ellis tells us, just someone from whom she rents a room) leaves little poems accusing Ellis of shirking her chores, and these are hilarious. Rather than dismal, I found it a hopeful book, and a surprisingly light read for such heavy subject matter. Oh, and Ellis is an art history student, Holly, so though it's not a huge part of the book, there are references to art history throughout. I definitely recommend this book and will have to check out her second novel.

Other than that, I've been busting through Jane Jeffry novels like mad. Fun, fun cozy mysteries.

Writing: I've been writing when I can, which has been tough with Lilah's nap "schedule." But I have a handle on how to start the book now! Yay. I have 350 words in my new draft file. It is DEPRESSING to go from a 45,000 word DraftTwo.doc file to a 350 word DraftThree.doc file. But it's going to be so much better now, and I wasn't going to be able to finish the last third or so without going back to make major structural changes. I have subplots I got too attached to, and I have to ax them. I have connections I have to make between characters. And I have to make my sleuth more proactive (Thank you, Tim!). And I figured out how to do that, so I'm very pleased. I have large sections of DraftTwo that will just be lifted into the new draft, so I'm not starting from scratch at least. And though I originally thought I'd cut out the events of the first two chapters, now I think they just need tweaking, so I'm not starting two days after the point I had been. I'm sure this is all just fascinating to everyone!

Cooking: I made an extremely unsuccessful Vegetable Biryani. I should have listened to the little voice in my head saying, "I'm pretty sure the biryani I'm thinking of is made with pre-cooked rice." It wasn't absorbing the liquid and ended up kind of soupy. And with overcooked veggies. I won't make it this way again, and I really should have ignored the recipe. Duh. The flavor was fine, which was good, because it made a lot. I made Quinoa With Crescenza from Super Natural Cooking, although I made it with fontina because wow is crescenza expensive. And I like fontina in combination with mushrooms. Matt, it turns out, dislikes quinoa, though he politely said he was sure it was very good quinoa. I LOVED it, though. Yum. The only change I'd make is to leave out the (I thought) rather incongruous red pepper flakes. The heat really made no sense in this dish, at least to me. I made a very nice chickpea curry from a neat little cookbook I have called Indian Vegetarian Cooking At Your House. I tweaked it a bit to add tomato, but basically followed the recipe. Even Lilah liked it, and it was really kind of spicy. I think I've mentioned this little cookbook before. It makes Indian cooking really approachable. Plus, when I bought the spices for it, the nice Indian man at the checkout said, "You make curry?" I said yes and he said, "Not from curry powder?" and was very impressed. There are a lot of ingredients, but most of them are from the same 10 or so spices, so you only buy them once to make dozens of dishes. Plus making the curry from scratch instead of with commercial curry powder makes me feel very accomplished. And tastes amazing.