Inch by Inch

Cleaned the house this evening.
One more thing off the list.


Run Off My Feet

Sorry I haven't been more communicative lately, folks. My days have been filled lately, and that leaves little time for blogging. Here's a brief rundown of what's keeping me busy:
- Had lunch with fellow UCFer, Janiece. She was in good health and good spirits and had a beautiful and very cute red and spiky haircut. It so perfectly suits her, though I understand the color is still being worked on. We had a great time chatting about all manner of things. She has a great story about a yogurt brain she overheard while waiting for me to arrive. Her Smart Man and Smart Boy seem to be keeping things lively for her.
- I'm trying to tidy and clean the house pretty thoroughly before my dad comes to housesit while I'm gone.
- I'm preparing for not one, but two parties this coming weekend. One is a time and labor intensive dinner party. I'll blog more on that some other time. In a nutshell, it's an annual Spring Dinner that I do to treat some of my nearest and dearest. Two problems with that: one is too complicated to get into, but the second is that my nearest and dearest don't really fit around one table anymore. So, I planned a second, very informal, party. It'll be the following day and will be an open house, so that my friends will be able to drop by when it's convenient and stay for as little or as long as they like. I really need more seating for something like that, but I've never let that stop me before.
- I've been trying to get things (like finances) tidied up for my trip so I'll have bills paid and money available while on the trip.
- I have not yet started planning what to take with me. I have a small pile of things it has occurred to me to take, but I've not really gotten to the 7 pairs of socks, 3 t-shirts stage of packing.
- I have been trying to get things at work squared away for the guy who is taking care of my project while I'm gone.
- I am trying to get to bed on time, so I can manage to get up and *&%#$ exercise.

That being said, I think I'll go to bed. Sweet dreams, everyone!


20 Thousand Geeks Under the Sea

(Over the sea, technically)

Newsweek has a great article about scientists defrosting and studying the giant squid that was pulled out of the ocean last year. It was written in a lovely way that showed the geeky delight of the scientists without putting them down as weird. Recommended reading.

I felt sad for the squid, but happy for the scientists.
Yay Geeks!



I am definitely an incurable night owl.
Because I like to exercise in the morning (requiring a 5:30 wakeup call) and need 8 hours of sleep, my bedtime is supposed to be 9:30 pm.
This evening, I got done making cat food shortly before 10. A little over bedtime, but not much.
But do I go to bed? No.
For some bizarre reason, I decide to put the new sheets I bought on the spare bed.
And when I got done that, did I go to bed? No.
For an even more bizarre reason, I sit down to write this blog post. I had to!

Well of course I did. Do you think post subjects like this grow on trees? ;)


Review: The Forbidden Kingdom

Two words: Loved It.

I just saw The Forbidden Kingdom last night. I won't say it's my favorite movie ever (lacked that extra layer of subtlety and character development that I love) but it was delightful. It's 50% a star vehicle for Jet Li and Jackie Chan (featuring both of them in roles they obviously enjoyed, and looks pretty much written for them) and 50% Chinese fairytale (a genre I love). I am definitely going to buy it on DVD.

The sole Caucasian dude did a good job of acting like a normal person put into a fantastical situation and the beautiful token female did a lovely job of being beautiful and spirited. She talked about herself in third person, which was cooler than it sounds. Made her sound mysterious, for some reason.

Highly recommended, especially if you like fantasy action movies.


Digital Camera Generations

Here are the camerasaur (big, but had 10x optical zoom and saved to a 3.5 floppy disk), my current camera (purchased in July '04), and after much discussion, my new camera (received in the mail today - Yay!).


Cooking Mojo is Back (I Hope)

I had to go to the grocery store for some odds and ends and was inspired to make something fresh for dinner (as predicted, the leftover pasta lasted a week and a half). I had some leftover celery, so I bought some whole milk mozzarella to make some braised celery, broiled with cheese (also had some leftover Emmenthaler Swiss). This is a variation on one of my favorites, Braised Fennel with Mozzarella. I also picked up two small piece of sirloin, which I grilled on the deck. I managed rare on the smallest piece (should have left it on a bit longer) and a perfect medium rare on the less small piece.

It was delicious!

More Treats for Me

Back in December, I wrote about my discovery of the full set of Red Dwarf DVDs. Well, I decided that in addition to the new pots and pans, I would finish buying the DVDs on my list of stolen DVDs (backstory here) AND buy that Red Dwarf set. I look forward to going throught all of the 8 seasons (that's 48 or so episodes, I believe). Squee!

Oh, and I ordered the Canon A720. Thanks for your advice, guys!


How I Spent My Sunday Afternoon

A photo essay:
Back in the fall, when I had to figure out how to store my motorcycle over the winter, I decided to organize the garage. I took almost everything out of the garage, then put the project on hold, because of studying. The last few weekends I've gotten back to the project, made shelves, thrown out stuff, and today I finished it. Pretty nice, eh?


Camera Upgrade

My dear little camera, which replaced the camerasaur, was bought (according to my blog) at the end of July 2004. The little Canon Powershot A75 has served me well over the years and when I had to buy a camera for my project at work, I bought an updated version, the Powershot A560 or A570, can't remember which. However, the A75 has been showing its age. The display will sometimes fritz out, and during the Vegas trip, the toggle button that switches between taking and viewing photos fell off. I can still toggle using a pointy implement, such as a pencil, but it's inconvenient, to say the least.
So, with the big India trip coming up, I'm thinking it's time to buy a new camera. I really like the Canon A series cameras, for one main reason -- they are automatic, but have the capability to switch to a variety of manual settings. As a person who learned to take pictures with a film camera with f-stops and film speeds, I like that a lot. I don't use it often, but it's something that's important to me. Also, they have a viewfinder -- critical for sunny days when you can't see jack on the screen, or the screen craps out. So, having used two different Canon A series, I know my way around the settings pretty comfortably.
With all this in mind, I went on to cnet.com to see what the reviews say about the latest models. I did a comparison style search and settled on these three models, all very similar, with small variations.
The A720 looks like a great baseline camera. It only uses two AA batteries (being in a foreign country, I'm wary of electrical outlets/appliances, so the regular batteries sound great), so it only weighs 8.6 oz. The photo size is 8 megapixels and the zoom is x6, both decent quality features.
The A650 is more expensive, but has 12 megapixel photos and a swivel screen. It's also heavier, 13.6 oz., possibly because it uses 4 AA batteries. Processing speed is also slower.
The "dark horse" in the group is the G9, an "enthusiast" camera that is still more expensive. It's billed as being a good step down from the dSLR cameras, so they're obviously targeting the photographer that takes his/her photography seriously. If I had to have 12 megapixels, this seems like a good alternative to the A650, as it is extremely durable, has better flexibility in the features, and is generally better reviewed than the A650. The settings, however, are different than I'm used to, and have a "retro" bent to them that I'm sure is aimed at making the more traditional photographer feel more at home. Despite having a traditional background, I have been using the A series settings for 4 years now and am wary of change. Also, the G9 has a rechargeable battery.

The only thing that's really keeping me from deciding on the A720 is the photo size. Is 12 megapixels that much better than 8? Worth the extra $100 or so? Worth the heavier body and increased battery needs? If I were to take a really great photo in India and want to blow it up and hang it on the wall, what does 8 and 12 megapixels really mean?

Any advice you all have would be greatly appreciated.


Googled Work

I was looking something up on Google Earth yesterday (yes, it was semi-work related) and noticed that my project is on there. Not in the street view, which was taken over two years ago:
In the satellite view, however, you can see the formwork for the 7th level (aka "the pool deck"):

Cool, huh?


Another Poll on Humanity

See-sawing between deep, introspective questions and funny cat videos seems to be a good trend, so here's another introspective question for you (the kind you really need to be asking over a beer, 'cause that's where it started):

Do you assume people will be good and then give them "demerits" for things like, dishonesty, untrustworthiness, pettiness, unkindness, etc.
Do you assume people will be bad and then give them "credit" for kindness, thoughtfulness, honesty, unselfishness, etc.

Generally, I fall more into the latter category, though my starting point is usually midrange. I expect people to be human (which is to say, good in general, but self-serving when the chips are down -- which is neither good or bad, just is), and then they get credits or demerits for extraordinary kindness or unkindness from there.

How about you? Are people black with white stripes? Or white with black stripes?


And Now For Something Completely Different

Not really, I suppose, if you know I love and appreciate having cats...

Here is a hilarious 7 minute video called Engineer's Guide to Cats. It made me laugh on a day I needed to laugh (isn't that every day really?).

(Yes, I admit to having utilized "corporal cuddling" to gently irritate a cat. And the "cat yodelling" too.)

Thank you, Paul and TJ, for making this lovely video.


Here's another funny video: Jon Stewart interviewing Bush (Will Ferrell)

Not quite as purely hilarious and cute as the cat one, but funny nonetheless, especially if you think GWB should get out of office ASAP.

Ring Redux

I love the comic strip For Better or For Worse. I love the storytelling aspect of it. (Unfortunately, the story part of it will end soon, but that's another topic.)
She has been criticized for too predictably choosing to pair her young protagonists with childhood sweethearts. Today's strip reminded me of my own pet peeve about the predominant cultural pressures about marriage. (Why in the heck is she "frustrated" about the lack of a firm date? Because life doesn't start until you get married. That's the way it was in "their day" and why she's reacting to an unfixed date negatively.) I'm not saying Lynn Johnston is wrong for portraying it, I'm more reacting to the sentiment. But that's another topic as well.

Some of you may recall a post where I linked to an article about engagement rings and what they mean. Here is a summary of those sentiments in a previous FBoFW strip. It perfectly summarizes the predominant impression of engagement rings. The following is from a Carolyn Hax column and shows better than I can, the impressions from "the other side."

Dear Carolyn: I just got engaged, and I have no interest in a diamond ring. (I'd rather my fiance pay off some bills so we can save for a house.) But whenever I mention having a fiance, all eyes immediately go to my hand ... which is fine, I realize it is a reflex. But people always ask me "Where's the ring?" as if that is the only thing that makes it a valid engagement. What gives?
-- Anonymous

Dear Anonymous: Scream, drop to your hands and knees, and start "looking" frantically for your "ring." When the doink who asked about it is distracted by helping you search, get up and walk away.

Compare and contrast in 500 words or more, double spaced, with your name and the period in the top right hand corner. Due on Friday.


A Good Day

Definition of a good day:

- Gorgeous weather (sunny and in the 70s)
- Rode the motorcycle to work
- Ate a decent lunch (white clam pizza - ok, but would have been better without so much cream sauce) in the sunshine on the restaurant patio
- Discovered a nice English-style pub with pretty good food
- Met a new acquaintance (friend of a friend)
- Didn't get home too late
- Caught up on New Amsterdam (I hope they continue it!) episodes with a cat sleeping on my lap

- Will go to bed kinda on time

A few tweaks (like getting lots done at work) would have made this a great day, but there's always tomorrow. :)


Sauces 101

I began my education in sauces with the first recipe in the "Sauce Sense" chapter of Cookwise. The chapter begins with purees, and sauces thickened with purees. The first recipe is called "Strictly American 'Eat Your Veggies' Spaghetti" and keeping in mind Nathan's admonition to only cook things I'm familiar with (I *have* made spaghetti sauce before), I thought it was a safe thing to start with. (The carrot sticks in the mise en place photo were pureed after they cooked.)
I made it exactly per the recipe, or as near to it as I could. One major difficulty I had is that after adding together several cooked items (onion and spices, celery and peppers, ground beef) and then adding the canned tomatoes (diced, my eye) and stock, it says "simmer on low for 20 minutes." Well, the mixture is by no means simmering at this point. I turned up the heat to bring it to a simmer, then turned it down again (low almost never keeps things simmering on my stove -- altitude?), watching to make sure it kept simmering for 20 minutes. When that was done, I thought it was a bit overcooked (20 min. + bring up to simmer time), and frustratingly, I knew the carryover heat would keep it overcooking for a little while longer. In the future, I think I will not be so literal about cooking times in the recipe. I can tell when vegetables are done.
Despite being a little overcooked, the sauce was good. I wish the diced tomatoes were actually diced, instead of being in pieces upwards of a 1/2 inch in diameter. It might have made it less chunky. The pureed carrot was good and smoothed out the texture a bit. I'd definitely try that again, especially considering how much sweetness is supposed to enhance tomato flavor. The other "problem" is that the recipe made A LOT of sauce. This is not unusual for spaghetti sauce recipes (I have a wine, mushroom, and beef recipe which is a) much tastier than this one and b) makes an enormous amount too.) but since I was following this recipe exactly, I also cooked the pound and a half of spaghetti (linguine, actually) to pair with the sauce. As any single person will tell you, this is enough pasta for about a week and a half, by which time, I shall be heartily sick of it. I froze the leftover sauce and am hoping that in a month or two I will remember to take it out and use it. Next time, that is another thing I will not take so literally.

In other news, I had a great weekend puttering around doing my own things. I just got back from visiting my dearest Aunt Ruthie and fortuitously being able to take my Aunt Janet (her sister) to visit with her too. Janet is going to be 80 this year, but you'd never be able to tell (except for the aversion to driving long distances, which is why it was my pleasure to take her with me). Ruthie is doing well after her surgery last December, but she is still under 100 lbs. and not very strong yet. Her spirits seemed to be in excellent shape however.
They are both widows and talked about what ways they missed their husbands and I related so well to their feelings. There are times I feel irritated at the one who is not here, as if he is only away on a long trip and I am inconvenienced by his absence. Maybe I'm living an inverted life, and instead of losing a husband when I am 73, I'll gain one. It's these kinds of weird thoughts that assure me that even though I am not currently writing, the pot is simmering.


Learning From Mistakes

I gleefully post when I have a cooking success. Today, I'll post about my failure from yesterday evening. You'll see (or read, rather) that I am no cooking genius.
I got new pots and pans, so I wanted to make something nice that evening. I noted that I had some expensive salmon that had been in the freezer for probably over a year, I had some mushrooms that were starting to look a bit old, but still OK. However, I needed vegetables and maybe a little cream to do a cream sauce, so I put the yummy dinner on hold for the next night.
On the way home from work, I went to the grocery store and bought asparagus and shallots (which I understand are the cooking equivalent to black gold), fresh dill, and cream. This all sounds very thought out, don't you think? Well, it wasn't. I was working intuitively (aka by the seat of my pants) and while that works out a lot of the time, this time, it did not.

Mistake #1: I used old ingredients. The quality of the product is directly related to the quality of the ingredients. The salmon was dry and had freezer burn. As soon as I saw this, I should have ditched the project.
Mistake #2: I used a new (to me) ingredient in the same way I would have used one more familiar to me. I thought using shallots would be just like using onion. It's not. I think I used too much, possibly should not have added garlic (emphasized the wrong flavors), and definitely let it cook at too high a heat. Which leads me to my next...
Mistake #3: I was using new pans with the same amount of attention as I used with my old pans. New pans are going to to cook differently and therefore needed closer attention to monitor how quickly the food was cooking. I tried to do a mise en place so I wouldn't be distracted, but it was incomplete and I was off mincing garlic when the shallots were browning (didn't want that!).
Mistake #4: I didn't taste often enough along the way. This is where I can't believe I messed up. My usual success is tied to my palate. I taste along the way, can adjust seasoning or cooking time -- usually adding an ingredient for flavor or color that brings the dish up from just adequate. This time, I guess I was resting on my laurels, because though my intention was to add only as much of the chopped dill as I needed, I ended up dumping the entire amount in without even thinking.
Mistake #5: I screwed up the cooking time. Ultimately, this was tied to the other mistakes -- the freeze-dried fish and the improper temperature control, but ultimately I tried to do it all in one pan and it probably should have been done in more than one, or possibly separate steps in one pan. Having everything cooking in one pan made the timing nearly impossible to control.

The dish was not inedible. The biggest success was not something I can take credit for -- I had the salmon and shallot-mushroom sauce on a bed of wild rice. That was a detail I would not have thought of, except my co-worker, Rachel, suggested it. Her husband was a chef (now he's in finance) and so she eats divinely 9 days out of 10. Her thoughts upon hearing about the fiasco described above was that I used too many ingredients with strong flavors. I'm not sure that I agree, but I do know that I did not use enough caution portioning out the flavors relative to each other. (It was like I was on auto-pilot!)

I think my biggest weakness, at this point, in cooking is that I'm not very experienced at making sauces (except Hollandaise). So, if I have no solid foundation for my experimentations, how can I expect success? I can't, not the intentional kind anyway. So, I'm going to go through the chapter on sauces in one of my cookbooks, Cookwise, by Shirley O. Corriher, and try to learn to make each of the basic sauces. It should give me something to start from next time I want to try this dish.

The combination of the disappointment last night and a crappy day at work today, meant that when I got home, I cooked a Marie Callender Pot Pie in the microwave and sat in front of the TV, knitting and watching Wallace & Grommit.

And now I'll try to repair things with a good night's sleep.
Buenas noches!


Las Vegas: The End

I forgot to mention that when we came back from the club, Angela was still up (so was Susan, but not feeling well), so we (all four of us, minus Susan) sat up talking for awhile. It's considered one of the highlights of the trip.

Sunday morning, we got up relatively early and went to the Bellagio for thier delicious brunch buffet. It was only $25ish bucks, but it felt like a bargain, because the food was perfect. I've never had a buffet so good.
I think the Bellagio was my favorite hotel. Everything was beautiful and well done. The pool (we just looked at it, couldn't use it :( ), the shops, even the casino (which most of them look alike) were all gorgeous.
After walking through the Bellagio, we went to Caesar's Palace. The shops were, of course, Italian, and there was a vaulted roof painted like the sky, like at the Venetian. For some reason, Caesar's had more presence, more grandness. I think it might have been a wider "street" and a taller "sky". As I experienced at the Venetian, I felt almost like I was outside and it was going to rain soon (I attribute that to the light, or lack thereof, coming from the "sky"). We went into some of the shops, especially FAO Schwarz, which had a huge Trojan horse at the entry. Needless to say, they have a fantastic variety of toys.

After hanging around for quite a while, Stacey hurried us out to watch the anamatronic statue show. It was some sort of story about two warring siblings, arguing for the throne of Atlantis. It was cheesy and wierd, and very Vegas.

After all this, we went back to the hotel and Aileen and I left for the airport. We had a quick and safe trip back, talking the whole way to a young guy sitting next to us. Turns out he is in a similar job as Aileen's husband. We had fun talking about anything from geeky stuff like computers to normal small talk like movies.

All in all, it was a fabulously fun trip. I'm so glad I took my first trip to Vegas with such a fun group. Stacey did a wonderful job planning and she has some great friends, Aileen and me included.


A Gathering of Tats

I have three tattoos, but they're all part of the same set, so I've taken a picture of all three. The middle one (yes, it's upside down, but right side up to me) was the first and is a bit washed out by the flash - it's not as faded as it looks. The octopus was second and the horse is a week old and still peeling. They are all symbolic in a way, but too complex to explain in a blog post. I drew them all myself, sometimes working from something else, sometimes completely from scratch. The location is on my thigh, high enough to be hidden by a skirt, low enough to be seen when I have shorts on.

These are Stacey's tattoos. The first was drawn by her daughter and is located on her back, between her shoulder blades. The fact that she can't look at it directly is a trade off for an awesome look when she's wearing an open backed dress with her hair up.
This is Stacey's second and resides on her right ankle. It's based on a photograph of a plant called Wandering Jew. The tattoo artist definitely has a talent for shading and color, as you can see here. I'll be interested to see how it ages. If I ever do get another tattoo, it will probably be color. I had no idea how lovely it could look.

In other news:
- My brother, his girlfriend, my canine nephew, and myself are now immortalized in Google Street View.
- Today I bought a new set of stainless steel pots and pans. Through the magic of 20% of a coupon and three gift cards, it was actually affordable! Now I have to figure out what to cook! ;)


Birthday Girl (or The Longest Post Ever)

The morning of my birthday, we got up bright and early. Our reason being that we needed to get to Hart and Huntington, a well-known tattoo parlor in the Palms. For several months I had been working on the design for the final tattoo in my set and when someone suggested I get it done on my birthday in Vegas, it seemed like a really good idea. Stacey was also really interested in getting one. The shop opened at the early hour (for Vegas) of 11 am, so we had to entertain ourselves gambling. To make a long story short, I lost $22 on various types of slots. I did "win big" on one called Frog Prince, while I was on the phone with a male friend who had called to serenade me on my birthday. The song was a bigger win than the machine, which bestowed $3.75 on me. No, all you marriage minded friends, I don't have a new Squeeze, so you can just put those thoughts back into storage. Oh, and for any planners out there, The Palms was the most testosterone/masculinely oriented casino/hotel we went to on the entire trip. It would be a great place for a bachelor party. Or so I would imagine.
I ended up getting the first spot of the morning (11 am) for the tattoo. It turned out OK, but was exorbitantly priced. Obviously, I was paying for the experience, but in the long run, I'd advise anyone getting a tattoo -- two things: do not rush any decision on a tat (not that I did, but I could see others at the shop making what I considered spur of the moment decisions) and if you already have a very good and affordable tattoo artist, you'd be wise to stick with him (or her). To be clear, the experience was fun and the final product looks good (because the design is good, to be immodest).
After that, we went to the Excalibur to pick up tickets for the evening's entertainment, then walked to the Luxor. Next to the Bellagio, I have to say that the Luxor was the most fun hotel/casino (which is not to say I wasn't impressed by some of the others we visited).
The sheer implausibility of a pyramid shaped hotel with extravagant Egyptian-inspired decorations really appealed to both my architectural side and my imagination. Too bad the "ride" we went on, called In Search of the Obelisk (what a shame, looks like it's closing on April 15th), only elicited giggles and rolling eyes. It appears that it used to be marginally better because a review on IMDb (Yes! Even this laughable "movie" has an IMDb page) includes descriptions of things I don't remember seeing.
We also went to an exhibit on King Tut's Tomb. I think my sister said it best when she pointed out that we had seen so much artifice in Vegas, it was hard to believe any of the Tut exhibit was real.
After the wonders of the Luxor, we went back to the hotel to dress for dinner. When we left the hotel room, we had five gorgeous ladies (see evidence below).
Stacey had organized a dinner surprise for me -- Todd English's Olives (at the Bellagio). We had a lot of tempting choices. Ultimately, I decided on the Pan Roasted Mahi Mahi, with shrimp scampi risotto, toasted garlic chips, crispy pasta & micro green insalata, aged balsamic vinaigrette (no, I didn't remember all that, it came off the internet, amazing invention that it is. All of the other ladies had yummy meals as well, including Grilled Pork Tenderloin, Chestnut Ravioli, and Butternut Squash Tortelli.
We also had a lovely wine, but I don't recall what it was. At the end of the meal, they brought out a beautiful little brownie/flourless cake for me, with an elegantly written birthday message on it. The other ladies picked a Madagascar Vanilla Souffle with Creme Anglais and a Chocolate and Peanut Butter Bread Pudding. They were all delicious. In addition to chocolate and tea, we had two different ports, both very very nice. Below is the photo of the group, taken by our excellent waiter (I'm the one with the pink pin that says "Birthday Princess"):

Afterwards, we headed out to the Excalibur where we went to Thunder From Down Under, a "male revue" (not a strip show, no no). It was a lot more tasteful than I expected, despite the fact that my "friends" wanted me to fraudulently wear a bachelorette tiara (complete with an itty bitty veil) to get more... ahem... personal attention from the guys. In an extremely ironic twist, I ran to the bathroom when it appeared that they were having an intermission. It was not the intermission, it was the closing act and my sister got a hug from a scantily clad cutie, which was rightfully my hug, darnit.
After the show, one of our party went back to the hotel and the rest of us went to find some good dancing. The first place we went, Ivan Kane's Forty Deuce (at Mandalay Bay) was not as fun as the little video on their website made it appear. It was overcrowded and no one was dancing. Fortunately, we had not had to pay to get in, so no harm, no foul.
We left and headed over to another Mandalay club, rumjungle. This was more to our liking, though the drinks were way too expensive (really, what were we doing buying our own drinks anyway!). Another of our party left for the hotel shortly after we were ushered in, again with the cover charge waived. The remaining three (me, Aileen, and Stacey) danced, drank water (because by that point, I was feeling really dehydrated, and eventually I turn into a square), and flirted with guys from a bachelor party (most of them being from California, I think). The music was a little reggaesque at the beginning, then later switched to straight hip hop (which suited my sister perfectly, and was acceptable to me). I tried to take pictures of the dancers in the suspended cages, but they didn't really turn out, so here's a picture of their very impressive bar instead. We had a good time, to say the least (a little disco wouldn't have been unwelcome, but alas...) We all made it back to the hotel without incident, except when Stacey stood on the bar and...

Just kidding, that was me.

Hosting a Birthday

Not mine this time...

One of our Girls' Night In gals had her birthday yesterday. We had a small party for her at my house. I cleaned and tidied and worked on a small project in the garage and then cooked (of course!)...
Our birthday girl's favorite meal is lasagna, so I got a recipe from my sister (she thoughtfully emailed me a recipe from her America's Test Kitchen cookbook - not sure which one).
The recipe had two main parts, making the tomato sauce from scratch. Here's the mise en place:

You'll see the final product in the mise en place for the assembly of the lasagna itself:

Meat can be added to the tomato sauce, but I used Morningstar "Meat" Crumbles, since one of the GNI girls is vegetarian (she's also not supposed to have gluten, but she talked us into using regular noodles, sly girl). Unfortunately, it turns out the birthday girl is not supposed to eat soy. All these food intolerances (we also have a gal with a latex allergy, which also affects her eating habits pretty extremely) really puts a crimp on the food for gatherings nowadays!
Anyway, for those of you waiting breathlessly for the final product, here it is:

The party was really nice. Ended fairly early, so I could watch TV and knit for a while before going to bed.

Review: The Bank Job and Kona Grill

Late in the work day on Friday, my good friend Stacey showed up at my desk to find out if I had plans for the evening. Of course, I was going to watch the season premiere of Battestar Galactica, but through the miracle of TiFaux, I didn't have to watch it on Friday. So, I went off to the mall to do a little reconnaissance (I have a few gift cards I need to use) shopping. I didn't buy much, but did a lot of thinking on how I want to spend my money.
Then, we met Stacey's husband and went to The Bank Job. It's a very good heist movie. Usually the description "based on a true story" doesn't mean much, but I think it was the underlying reason for the excellence of the movie. The scriptwriters managed to retain the unpredictability of real life and the complexity of real people. We were reminded of the fact that Jason Statham actually can act (and not just flex lovely muscles). The quality of the rest of the cast makes it almost an ensemble piece. It's closer to a suspense and political thriller than an action film, but it is excellent and worth the $9.50.
After the movie, we went to Kona Grill. Remembering my sister's high praise for their sushi, I got hot sake, yellowtail sashimi, and an eel sushi roll. The yellowtail was delicious. Actually, the first bite I had was a little fishy, but when I made sure to add a little soy sauce, the rest of it was yummy. I also really like eel, but for some reason, the starch of the rice was more predominant than I usually like. In retrospect, maybe a little soy sauce would have helped those as well. All in all, excellent sushi. Stacey had Roasted Asparagus Salad with field greens, tomatoes and grilled onions, tossed in a honey- balsamic vinaigrette, served with herbed-goat cheese crostini. She had ordered it before and loved it. I believe this time was equally good. JR had Chicken Satay with cabbage slaw & sweet hoisin dipping sauce. He really enjoyed it, from what I observed (empty plate if I recall correctly). So, Kona Grill, on the expensive side (as you can see by the prices on the site) but the food was excellent. The service, however, left a little to be desired. From what I hear, that's not usually the case, so I won't dwell on it. Plus, once our server realized he was pissing us off (or was reprimanded by another server), he made a real effort to take care of us better.

Thank you, Stacey and JR, for a lovely evening out.

PS - I watched BSG this morning and [wiggles in excitement] boy is it good!

I'm a Cook, Jim, Not a Doctor

Sorry for the unexpected hiatus in the Vegas story. Friday ended up being busy the whole day through and Saturday as well. I'll post some highlights from the past week as a series of short posts, then get back to the original storyline. Let's start with food news...

I made Jim Wright's Clam Chowder (finally!).

Here is the mise en place:

And the final product:

It is delicious. Even though it has a roux in the recipe, it didn't get very thick (for me anyway -- maybe I screwed it up!) but that's a good thing because I'm not a big fan of overly starchy soups or stews. Thank you, Jim, for posting the recipe.


Mirages of All Kinds

After we left the wax museum, we went to the Venetian. The shops were designed to look like shops along a canal (complete with gondoliers) with a vaulted ceiling painted to look like a blue sky with clouds. We managed to get lost, mostly because I got the two ends of the canal mixed up. You can be assured I was more careful about map reading after that!
Next, we went to the Mirage, where they have Siegfried and Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat. The dolphins were adorable, as usual. They had a young, maybe 10 month old, dolphin that hung out near his mother the whole time. They didn't really have any "shows" while we were there. The trainers did come out to interact with them, but it was more for maintanance issues, and not really for entertainment. I know that it's just anthropomorphizing, but I love the "expression" on dolphins' faces. It appears to be serene happiness. I know it's not, but it sure looks that way. Further into the "secret garden," they had white tigers and lions and (I suppose like lizard owners keep crickets) llamas.

The cats were obviously very high strung. ;) I loved how relaxed the animals were. Time was early afternoon, I believe -- prime napping time. Normally, I find it a little disturbing to view captive animals, especially if they are unsettled or pacing. That was not the case here, except for one leopard who had a smaller cage than the rest.

Eventually, we had to leave. :(

We went back to the hotel to change. One of the good vibes we got from the hotel was from the two doorcats. One was a tabby and the other gray. They didn't beg for attention, but merely took turns sitting near the door. (Yes, there was a bowl of food set out on the porch. Of course!)

The show for Friday night was playing at the Rio. After picking up the tickets, we went to the Carnival World Buffet. They had a really wide variety of food, from sushi to crablegs to a Mongolian BBQ. I stuffed myself on crablegs, actually. The weird thing is, despite the wide variety, I do not remember all the stuff they describe in that link. Aileen? Stacey? Did you see the dim sum station or the Mexican food?

Anyway, we ended up having to run for the magic show. Penn & Teller are slight of hand magicians who include a little truth and a lot of comedy in their show. They show how some simple tricks work and then do something more difficult to amaze the audience. Penn obviously has a bee in his bonnet about charlatans (being a professional liar will do that to one ;) and he did a bit showing how "psychics" fool audiences into thinking they can read minds or talk to the dead. He explained "cold reading," but only demonstrated "hot reading" (not sure how that technically worked) and a bit with the punchline in an envelope from the beginning of the show. I think Penn and John the Scientist may actually be the same person, but I'm not positive. ;)

After the show, we briefly considered going dancing, since we had dressed up and all looked fabulous, but we knew we were going out on Saturday and we wanted to conserve our strength. So we went back to the hotel and hung out in the hot tub. Yeah, it was a real hardship. (Ok, who's giving me the hot tub for my birthday?)

Tomorrow: My Birthday Begins


The Bathrooms in Paris, and Other Things

On Friday, we started at the MGM Grand. We didn't see the lions (evidence to the left). We walked the strip, stopping at, of all things, M&M World. Four floors of M&M goodness. Besides the funny variations on movie posters, there was the ubiquitous 3D show (credit to Stacey on both photos) and lots and lots of merchandise.

I loved seeing the different variations, from New York:

(I would have loved to have seen what the plan of that one looks like. No, this does not count.)

to Paris... this lovely shell like entry mimics a series of famous Art Nouveau subway/underground entries by Hector Guimard.

An imitation of the Eiffel Tower loomed above us as we walked in to find the fabled Paris bathroom... [cue momentous creshendo]

Interestingly enough, the overall photos I took failed to capture the delightful details, so here's a photo of a delightful detail. I love how the tiles are bevelled. As Nathan pointed out, these are some of the most fabulous bathrooms in Las Vegas. This does remind me that I forgot to post a photo from the bathroom near the Star Trek exhibit. Here it is. Cool, eh? (Obviously, no great details here.)

After viewing the magnificent Paris bathroom, we moved on to Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum where we mingled with celebrity royalty. Aileen conquered Patrick Stewart's heart (picture courtesy of Stacey) and she and Stacey double team Joe Montana. Most of the time, the figures were close, but not exact, looking more like impersonators than the real thing. But sometimes, they were dead on. The best figures were Jamie Foxx and Princess Diana.

Tomorrow: Lion and Tigers and Magicians, Oh My!


La Cage

After Star Trek, we trekked over to the Riviera (aka "The Riv"). There, we gambled a bit more and I lost $16 on the penny slots. We had started feeling a bit peckish, so we went to Ristorante Italiano for appetizers and desserts. While there, some characters came in to interact with other diners. Aileen figured out that they were actors from "The Sopranos Last Supper," a cocktails and appetizer show (variation on Dinner Theater). Then, a third character came in and my sister gasped, "It's Christopher!" (Aileen, correct me if I'm wrong.) It was a clearly audible gasp, which, of course attracted attention, so they came over to investigate. Aileen is watching the show and has gotten to the second season, so she knows enough to be dangerous. She got them talking, in character, of course. It was very entertaining -- something about them writing a screenplay or making a movie or something. The photo above is one I took, sort of by accident.
The food we had was pretty standard (and tasty) Italian fare, Salad Caprese, Antipasto Misto, Cannoli, Tiramisu. I only have a picture when we were done.

After that excitement, we went to La Cage, a drag show, or as the link says, a "female impersonator" show. It was very cool. Stacey knew how to slip a few bills to the usher to get us better seats. A photographer took both a group photo (which we ended up buying one of) and individual shots (which we did not). Aileen began her conquest of all the guys in Las Vegas (actually, it had started with the Borg guy). The show was fabulous and the impersonations very good. During the show, I suspected (then was confirmed later) that the voice was the real celebrity singing, and the show was lip-synced. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed by this, but meh, what can you do? The Celine Dion guy did a great job of mimicking her moves while singing. The other really fun ones were Cher, Madonna (including a big, fat, comedic Madonna), and Bonnie Raitt (correction, Stacey points out it was Reba McEntire). The best impersonator (actually seemed to be singing for reals) was the Judy Garland guy. Bravo! The best outfits were Frank Marino, aka Joan Collins. He must have had a dozen costume changes (doing the intros for each "celebrity") and each dress was better than the last.
We weren't allowed to take pictures ourselves, but I'm sure you get the picture. If you've seen The Birdcage, you have a bit of an idea of what we saw, though Nathan Lane does his own singing there.

After the show, we walked down the strip, taking in the lights and sounds of Vegas. We stopped at the Bellagio, which had some sort of garden theme in their lobby. It was so gorgeous, it takes my breath away just thinking about it. There were butterflies hanging from the ceiling and a snail in the garden, mostly made of flowers and moss. And there was an Ent! Squee!

Eventually, we made it down to the MGM Grand, where we waited, exhausted, for a shuttle to the hotel (Residence Inn, off strip). We made it to our rooms in one piece, and so endeth the first day.
Tomorrow: The Paris Bathroom!