Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Crockpot Creation: No-Fuss Mac n' Cheese


I will be the first to admit that I am not a good cook. A decent baker, but not a cook. I am consistently fantastic at burning food (and my fingers), letting pasta boil-over, and the fine art of permanently affixing food to tuperware through some sort of crazy food-adhesive physics. It is an talent that eludes me, so I decided to set the bar a little lower and try some recipes using only a crockpot.

The concept seems simple to me: you throw stuff in and meals pop out. One of our first housewarming gifts in Alexandria was a set of crockpot cookbooks from Matt's Grandma (thank you!). Together, we decided to try some of them out using a lot of ingredients that we already in our fridge and supplementing with small purchases from the grocery store (and tweaking the recipe to suit our needs and taste).

Our first try was "no-fuss" mac n' cheese. We already had all of the ingredients except for the pasta and made the fallowing alterations (because who doesn't want double servings of mac n' cheese?)

Pretty easy instructions, except that someone (me) forgot to double the milk. It came out very dry, but we found that if you put it in the microwave with a little water, it was actually really good! This made a TON of food, but it will provide nice lunches and sides for the week.



Our next attempt will be creamy chicken and vegetable soup. If I manage to not destroy our kitchen in the process, I will post the results (good, bad, or terrifying) when it is done.

Have you ever tried crockpot recipes? With or without success?

Tastings Abound!

This past weekend was our first real wedding activity: tastings. We had our menu tasting and cake tasting lined up for the same day (though thankfully the cake tasting could be done at our leisure). This was also the first time my parents saw the venue for our wedding and I am happy to say that they were more than pleased!

Choosing a menu for any event can be tricky. We only have fifty people to worry about and we still have to take into consideration who can and will eat what we choose. I wanted it to be far from a bland menu and I am ultimately happy with what we chose. I won't post the menu here (it will be on the invitations), but we successfully chose 2 hors d'ouevres, 1 salad, 2 entrees, and 2 sides. We were also able to work in fresh vegetables during the cocktail hour and a special dessert surprise for the end of the reception! The event manager who is working with us at our venue was spectacularly nice as ever and genuinely shared in our excitement. I am so happy to have her working with us to truly make our wedding special.

The place where we scheduled our cake tasting was overbooked, so they were kind enough to prepare a take-home tasting that we could sample as we liked. Needless to say that it all went pretty fast!

Here is the selection we were given:


What we liked: Chocolate Cake, Vanilla Cake, Buttercream, Chocolate Buttercream, Raspberry, Swiss Cream

What we disliked: Lemon Cake, Caramel Cream Cheese, Chocolate Mousse, Eclair

Our favorite combination was Chocolate Cake filled with Chocolate Buttercream frosted with Buttercream. We are going to try other cake shops and tastings, but this was really a good way to get an idea of what we like.

It is incredibly exciting to start taking "real" steps in our wedding planning. There are just over 200 days until the big day, and I know it's going to go by far to fast.

What flavor combinations would you / did you use in your wedding cake?

Monday, March 10, 2014

Carribean Cruise


Last week, my family and I went on a week-long cruise in the Carribean to celebrate my dad becoming a realtor, my brother's Spring Break, and me finishing my time in Florida. I had my doubts about cruises, since I had heard both really spectacular and really awful reviews about them. Our experience was amazing and I would certainly mark it as one of my favorite vacations ever.

The first day on the ship was just figuring out what was going on. We explored the restaurants, shops, and events on-board and even attended an art auction. We learned about the different ports we were visiting and about the different things we could do and see on sea-days. Overall, a relaxing, but pretty uneventful day.

The next day was our first port in Ocho Rios, Jamiaca. Our shore excursion for the day was to do glass-bottom kayaking and climb Dunn's River Falls. When we booked it, the excursion looked like a nice, calm river kayaking experience. We joined our group and were led to a beach with ocean kayaks. The water was extremely rough coming out of the cove (our parents' kayak capsized and they were boated to the Falls). Matty and I had a kayak that continued to fill up with water, so we had to jump out of it into the ocean, dump it out and jump back in. The rest of the trip was not so bad and got to the Falls just fine.

Only my dad and I opted to climb the Falls. It was 600 feet over a series of smaller waterfalls. It was a lot of fun and I am amazed that I made it the entire way up!



Our next day was another sea day with another auction (I bought a painting this time around!). There was also an arts and crafts that my mom and I did and we saw a music impersonators show (which was fantastic!).

We arrived at Costa Maya, Mexico the next day and traveled by bus to the ruins as Chacchoban. It was amazing to visit this site as it is a part of history that I find very interesting but that is not often covered. We learned a lot and had a great time exploring the area.


Another sea day and we were at Cozumel, Mexico. This was absolutely my favorite port. As my dad and brother went ziplining, my mom and I went to go swim with dolphins. My mom had hurt herself the night before, so she opted out as an observer (and took awesome photos and video). My dolphin swim was so much fun and it felt like it went by much faster than it did. I could have spent all day playing with Elena. It was an amazing experience!


I also went snorkeling with some MASSIVE stingrays. It was scary, but I would have totally regretted not doing it.


We had one more sea day to head back to Miami. We played Bingo, did another arts and crafts, and had a Cirque de Soleil style dinner.

Overall, this was a pretty fantastic vacation. I would definitely cruise again and urge others to try it :)

Have you ever gone on a cruise?

 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Out of Florida


I am writing this about two weeks after I finished work (back-logging), but I still want to talk about the experience I had, both at work and at home, in Florida.

I spent six months working in Florida, from September to February. I was fortunate enough to be hired for a position at my mom's company, which made lunch and transit a lot of fun. All of my coworkers were extremely kind and helpful and truly made me feel at home.

The position itself also provided great experience. I learned so much about database management and environmental regulation. I would probably never have been exposed to these aspects of my field and I now feel that I can offer a wider range of knowledge and experience as I apply for new positions in D.C.

While this was certainly an unexpected role and caused a six month separation from my fiancé, it was extremely valuable experience. It bridged the gap between my work at Virginia Tech and Matt's graduation. It allowed me to earn enough money to allow us to pick a fantastic apartment in Alexandria. It exposed me to topics and skills that are truly valuable in my field. While my time at Titan was short, it certainly was worth it and I'm not sure I could have made any better decision than to work there.

Next week my family and I will be in the Carribean as a sort of "last hurrah" before I leave for Virginia and to celebrate my dad becoming a realtor. Bon Voyage!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Art and Fear

I had a bit of writer's block today as far as the blog, so I put the call out of Facebook for inspiration. My favorite teacher, Ms. Vance, posed a very thought-provoking prompt, as follows:

Truman Capote identified fireworks and conversation as his favorite art forms. What are yours? And what are your (similarly, most unusual) fears? Where have these arts and fears manifested?

This is a HUGE question and any one person could write volumes on it. I have a blog and will attempt to do this question justice, as it could cover many aspects of my life and nearly all of my future.

My favorite artforms. This presents itself in so many fashions. My favorite artforms would be story-telling and photography. Story-telling is by far my favorite of favorites because it takes so many shapes. It can be verbal, full of rhythmic cadences and lyrical tones, painting a scene through sound. It can be literature, leaving everything to the imagination, every color hiding between the black and white. It is so universally relatable and so personal, because it has infinite possibility to be made one's own. No one person will read, tell, or interpret a story identically to another. Each experience is unique to the individual audience, while simultaneously connecting the greater audience, sharing ideas. People who live a world away from each other could share a common sentiment from reading the same piece of literature; people who have nothing in common, but a story, can feel connected, because they have vicariously lived through the author and the characters. We can all cry when Cinderella can't go to the ball because we experience her sadness, experience rage at the unjust, untimely, and faster-than-a-breath "death" of Sirius Black, the unbridled joy and odd sense of relief when Elizabeth ends up with Darcy, and the heart-stopping, ice-cold fear of just about any Stephen King novel. While we experience all of these second-hand through the characters, we do experience them, and we experience them so much more keenly because we make the stories our own. We immerse ourselves, whether in listening or reading, and we become the character, lived over and over through eyes and minds of many. Stories themselves are an artform, but there is just something so wonderfully beautiful and ubiquitous about the way a story is and can be told.

My other favorite artform, in a more direct interpretation of "art", is photography. I not only enjoy producing it, but viewing it and gathering inspiration from it. Candid to carefully and meticulously planned, unaltered to edited beyond fantasy, photography is special. It puts a direct focus on the world around as and screams "PAY ATTENTION". It stops us in our tracks, even for a moment. and forces us to pause and analyze. It stimulates our want to understand and to appreciate a moment. "Why did someone photograph this?" we wonder. Whether it confuses us, shocks us, awes us, or simply makes us smile, all photography elicits emotion, and even more-so because, even after edits, it is still drawn from our physical world, our surroundings. A photograph is not a photograph if it does not, at its base, start with the real world.  That, to me, is what makes photography so fascinating. Unedited, it reflects real and simple beauty and is almost reassuring as it whispers "This exists". Altered, photos can extend beyond fantasy, taking the limited that physically exists and creating what might or never can be, reaching far and deeply into our imaginations.

For me, I love taking photography because it captures my world in a permanent manifestation of my point of view. There is no better feeling for me than going through photos and finding memories that have been lost or candid moments captured perfectly or re-experiencing the beauty of a moment or a place. It is entirely selfish, but I photograph for me, to capture and recapture my life, to call upon physical representations of my memories as often as I choose. 

Being able to share these memories as well is beautiful to me, whether is is my photography or someone else's. It is story-telling without words. It can be a series or a single image, answer questions or produce many. Photographs can be viewed again and again and interpreted in a different way every time. There is something so unique and special about that and there is an endless amount possibilities to test and discover.

I am now going to move into fears. There are the obvious: needles, spiders, pain. Survival, base fears. My deeper fears all seem to revolve around loneliness. One of my biggest fears is non-recognition. I certainly don't want to seem or be self-centered or expect people to kiss the ground I walk on, but if I do a good job or if I put a lot of effort into something, I would like a pat on the back. I do not complete a project or perform simply for this praise, but the praise lets me know that I am doing something right. Therefore, I suppose this is actually a fear of being wrong. I dread imperfection in myself, not fulfilling my potential, or fearing that my potential is, in fact, not perfection. This nearly unattainable envisionment of myself is the cause of near-constant anxiety. Praise allows for a temporary relief of this anxiety. In that moment of praise, in my mind, I am perfect, I am right, I have earned my A+, my 100%, I have not disappointed. Unfortunately, there is a fine line between appreciating praise and literally relying on and expecting it, and I fall into the latter. It is not a matter of ego, it is not a matter of pride. For me, I just cannot bear to be a disappointment. Anger may scare me and make me cry, but it will never utterly crush me the way the words "I'm disappointed" do. Anger implies a mistake whereas disappointment implies intent or lack of caring. I take great care in everything that I do, either in thoroughness or in eagerness, so to be disappointing completely renders all of my effort as null. There is no greater mental and spiritual fear for me than this.

For me, these two tie together. I gain small pats on the back through my photography. A main character in a story is hardly ever a disappointment. I can escape my anxieties, even briefly, through these mediums and that makes them all the more powerful in my mind. They are essentially therapeutic. 

This has been a very long blog, but I thank Ms. Vance for the inspiration, as this was actually enjoyable to write. I haven't had a really in depth blog in a while and this genuinely felt good to write.

What would you say if you were answering these questions?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Best Friend and Fun Times


This weekend was another fun-filled, fantastic adventure as I got to see my very best friend for the first time in five years. We had a lot planned and treated this weekend as a sort of dual-engagement party, as she is newly engaged as well! She was able to make it out of the snow to come down to Orlando for a few days and we packed every minute of girly, geeky friendship into it that we could!


Friday night, we met up and went out to dinner with her parents at “Sweet Tomato” (think multi-station, restaurant engulfing buffet). We headed back to our hotel room, that had an unbeatable view of Universal Studios, and talked and talked and talked about all things friendship, weddings, and just general catching up. Needless to say, we didn’t get much sleep.

On Saturday, we went to Sea World. I’d never been there before, so I was very excited to see what it was all about. First, I have to say, the park is MASSIVE. We barely covered all the things we wanted to do, and only because we planned super efficiently! We started with stingrays, going to the pool where you could pet and feed them. Feeling brave, we decided to buy some food to give to them. This ended up being a hilarious disaster, as both of us were too scared to feed them properly (their mouths are on the bottom, so you had to hold the food as they slurped it up). We ended up getting soaked from the flock of stingrays fighting over the food we panickedly dropped in the water. I got the hang of it towards the end, and it was quite fun, but it had to be on of the weirdest sensations I’ve ever experienced.


We then headed over to see a dolphin show (again, something I’ve never done). It was amazing and the skill needed by both the trainers and the dolphins was astounding. We sat in the splash zone, figuring it wouldn’t make much difference after the stingrays. These ended up being the best seats in the stadium and really enhanced the overall experience, as some of the acrobatics were literally done right over our heads! It was incredible.


We watched all of the other shows (including a sea lion performance that went hilariously wrong at every turn) and walked around, being sure to visit every exhibit we could. The one that we spent the most time at was the orca exhibit. The orcas won’t be performing until April, but it was amazing to watch them, as I’ve never seen an orca before in person. There were five, including a mom and baby, and, had it not been for our carefully, efficiently planned out schedule, I would have watched them all day.


My next favorite exhibit had to be the penguins (who doesn’t like penguins?). There were literally hundreds of the fluffy, chubby birds waddling around! It was an overload of frozen, adorable cuteness. There were even penguin chicks, though they were in the back of the exhibit just out of sight. Sadly, we weren’t allowed to take one home :P

   

We finished up the day with a mad dash around to the last exhibits we wanted to see and some super speedy shopping (Shamu pajamas, anyone?). We headed over to Disney Marketplace, another place I had never been, and continued with a little more shopping, but mostly just talking and laughing and being the goofy best friends that we are.

The next day, we headed out early to Islands of Adventure, which is home to my favorite, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Katie and her family had VIP access and got to enter the park early, so I waited behind for a bit and tried to plan out the rides we wanted to hit. By the time I entered the park, I assumed Katie and her family were having breakfast at the Three Broomsticks, so I decided to quickly sneak over to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (probably my favorite ride of all time). For single riders, seating was immediate, so I was able to get on the ride with no problem! 

However, the ride stopped about 30 seconds in, with my group dangling over a view of Hogwarts (not so bad considering the car next to us was stuck nearly upside-down - yikes!). The lights went up and the intercom blurted out assurances that the ride would begin moving soon again and again. It ended up being only about five minutes that we were stuck, but, as you can imagine, it felt much longer than that. The ride finished up without a hitch and I received a text message from Katie saying that she had been in line when the ride broke! After they got off the ride, they headed to breakfast, so I grabbed a butterbeer and wandered for a bit. I swear, I will never get tired of visiting Hogsmead.


After Katie finished breakfast, we headed around the park loop to a few rides we definitely wanted to try. We did the Popeye roaring rapids and got soaked (those human-sized dryers are totally worth the $5). We went on Spiderman and Cat-in-the-Hat. We finally ended where we began and went on the Harry Potter ride one more time, afterwards making a quick stop at Honeydukes.

Then began the long car ride to meet up with my dad. Once we hit the highway it was pretty quick and we were at the meeting point before I knew it. While our dad’s talked Katie and I hugged and hugged and hugged in an effort to not have to leave. It was hard, only getting to see each other for two days after five years, but they were two fantastic days that rendered many happy and lasting memories.

Katie is just leaving Florida today after spending one more day at Universal with her family. She bought a minion plushie and named it “Bloocheese”, due to the fact that minions highly resemble two of our favorite characters (Bloo and Cheese) combined.


I know that I am going to see her many times this year and probably over the next few years due to our weddings and soon-to-be closer proximity to each other (D.C. is much closer to Connecticut than Florida!). I am looking forward to every chance I get to see her and know that we will continue to make good memories as best friends.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Birthday Weekend Bonanza!


Even though my birthday is tomorrow, we have the habit in our family of having a birthday week, generally starting with the birthday weekend. This tradition had been sort of lost when I went to college, due to distance and busy-ness. However, this year I am living with my family on my birthday so, of course and without question, the birthday week has begun.

My mom, my aunt, and I went to the tea room (mentioned several blogs ago) and had a wonderful tea lunch, complete with birthday cupcake in a tea cup (can you think of anything more adorable?). I received some very nice gifts from my aunt, including a "something old" for my wedding ensemble.

We went and saw Monuments Men, which we all agreed was long, but interesting. In a sort of back-to back movie viewing, my brother and I saw the Lego Movie the next morning (for a complete change of pace). And then, the traditional birthday shopping. Down here in Florida, we have a huge mall with lots and lots and lots of my favorite stores. I didn't go overboard (at least not by my standards) and had such a fun time with my mom.

I cannot wait for my birthday tomorrow. This next year of my life is going to be amazing and I cannot wait to see how it unfolds :)