Saturday, January 31, 2015

Katie: The Saltwater Saga, Part II: Finding Nemo (and Other Ichthy Things)

The tank progress 
             The days following the initial set up of the tank were filled with a flurry of final touches and fishy research as we finished the tank arrangement and started contemplating what corals and fish we wanted to add to our soon-to-be kingdom in the salt. 

Unfortunately, while we were contemplating rock arrangements, Aiptasia reared its ugly head. One lone stalk had snuck past our initial inspection of the rocks, and had started to waive its sinister tentacles in anticipation of overtaking our newly-established dominion. Thanks to Husband’s keen eyes (and slight paranoia of all things saltwater-pest related) we were able to catch it early. We considered trying to remove it, but due to its virulent nature and heart of pure, infectious evil, the entire rock it was attached to had to be banished to the nether-realm of a plastic bowl on our bathroom floor. We carefully inspected every inch of the remaining rock with a small LED flashlight and found a few foreign growths on another small rock. We weren't 100% sure they were Aiptasia, but unwilling to take chances, that rock quickly joined the other in plastic-bowl prison. Eventually, we are going to move them to a better location where all things living on them will die off, and maybe in a couple years we can re-introduce them to whatever tank we have at the time. They will no longer be considered ‘liverock’, but can still be added to a tank if you don’t mind waiting a while for your chemical levels to balance back out (incase all you fishly-oblivious people – like myself – didn’t know).  

After re-settling the remaining rocks, we put the whole tank on Aipsia watch.When a week went by and there was no discernible sign of our nemesis’s return, we figured it was safe to go ahead and start stocking the tank. The first order of business: fish!

Specifically clown fish. Now before you start thinking “Clown fish, how original” (a thought I of course did nothing to encourage with the title of this post) let me explain why almost every saltwater or reef tank owner has one: They’re pretty much the perfect reef fish. Most of them don’t take up a lot of space in a tank, but they do grow and can hold their own, so they can be kept in almost any size set up. They are also extremely coral friendly; other than occasionally trying to adopt a coral in lieu of a proper anemone – which most corals don’t appreciate at all and get rather grumpy about – they bring almost zero negative effects to their coral co-residents. They are also extremely hardy fish who don’t die easily, and they can be very personable. They’re also extremely cute!

Interesting fact: Finding Nemo was semi-accurate in a lot of ways. ‘Dori fish’ - Blue Tangs – can actually co-exist well with clown fish, and Gill - the fish that was always orchestrating the escape attempts is a Moorish Idol, a breed of fish that notoriously doesn't do well in captivity, as they just can't handle or adjust to the glass walls. Who knew!

 But back to the search for our own Nemo: many varieties of clown fish were considered. There is of course your traditional clown fish made popular by the movie, but there is also a plethora of alternate varieties, including designer clown fish (yes, it’s a thing!) that can range from your traditional orange and white, to black and white or maroon, with anything from stripes to patches to almost full-cover white, and everything in between. Some also have electric blue outlining their patterns. One particular pair that caught our collective eye were the Phantom clown fish: black and white irregular patterns outlined with the electric blue, they were stunning fish. Unfortunately they were accompanied by a price tag that left us a feeling a bit stunned as well.

Wanting to keep the over-all price tag fro the tank as small as possible, we decided to keep looking as we mulled it over. It was then that Husband found them: The Solomon clown fish. So named because they hail from the Solomon Isles, the pair he came across were wild-caught with the traditional orange with white stripes patterning, but the orange was an unusually bright, vibrant orange, reminiscent of the flames found in the heart of a fire. His patterning fit Husband’s desire for a more traditional clown fish, while his unique coloration fit my desire for a more unusual fish.

I was at work when Husband made the discovery; he sent me a picture, of which I approved, but wanting to wait to buy the pair with me – because he’s a loving and thoughtful person like that – he waited till I got home that night to talk about it. In the meantime, he called other fish stores to check on the availability of Solomon clowns. It turns out that they are somewhat rare, and ordering any in could take at least - if not more - than 3 months.  
You wont be able to see the blue due to lighting and my camera

          Considering the uniqueness of the fish and their perfect fit for us, their comparative rareness, and how much Husband liked them, we decided to buy them the next morning. When we got there, we realized that one of the fish had sold already, but there was one Solomon left. Lucky for me though, the store also had some Picasso clowns – a variety that I was partial too, with traditional orange, but with white patches in patterns unique to each fish. Upon inspection of their available selection, we found one adorable one that had some of the electric blue lining the intersection of the white and orange. Since the blue was the one thing I hoped to find most in the clowns, we declared our picks to be perfect and bought the two. It’s our hope that they will become a mated pair, and already we are happy with how personable they are. They love to swim right up to the glass and say hi, and they move around enough to provide some tranquil watching and animation to the tank (though the moving makes it very hard to get a good picture). They seem to be settling in quite well, and are making themselves at home – we think the Solomon might be already adopting the output valve since we don’t have an anemone for him.             
The Duncan
Our Hermit Crab that came with the tank and the Duncan

Clown fish don’t actually need anemones, though they are very cool. They were on the top of the list when Husband and I started looking at things for the dream list. Unfortunately, anemones have a tendency to get pissed off and go on a killing rampage. They have a foot and will literally uproot themselves and move when they get grumpy, killing everything in their wake as they go. Since we have a small tank and not a lot of room for one of our corals to go on random killing sprees, he was off the list. We did get a small Duncan, which has a lovely color and the same general shape and wavy tentacles as an anemone, only with much less of a penchant for death and destruction. He’s a bit small for the clown fish to live in, but we’re looking into getting some macro algae which might be a good replacement – plus, there is always the output valve.

Dragon's Breath
We did already get two types of macro algae, which has sealed our love for this plant type. The purple stuff is Ochtodes and adds some nice color and shape to the tank. Our favorite though is the Dragon’s Breath. It’s the beautiful red algae that literally looks like dragon flame suspended in water. The best part is; as it grows, the tips will turn orange, adding to the coursing                    flame effect. This is definitely one of our favorite things in the tank!  

We also found some lovely mushrooms – Husband picked out the orange one on the left, while I picked out the purple and blue one; thankfully they were a good price and we were able to get both!  

The combination Zoa rock 

We found a great Zoa rock as well from what is quickly becoming one of our favorite stores. The rock came with the two types of Zoa, which are encrusting, meaning that over time they will spread out and cover some of the rock surface, creating a beautiful floral-pasture-esque landscape.

        The future of the tank will hopefully include more awesome macro algae, a few more fish varieties, and lots of coral. Husband is busy researching options and contacting dealers, so I’m sure the tank will soon be filled with an abundance of  all kinds of  exotic and stunning saltwater life!           

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Katie: Finished Editing my First Book!

Just a short celebratory post to say: I just finished editing my first book!

Bound by Fear, Freed by Grace by Emmanuel Olumobi is an intriguing read about the connection between Voodoo practices and the trafficking of Nigerian women to Europe for the purposes of sexual exploitation. Its already in print, but I was given the opportunity to go over this book for additional editing!

I have edited several academic documents and currently am employed as an editor and English tutor, but as a wanna-be future editor and writer, I am excited to have finished editing my first real book!

Ok, that is all, carry on people, thank you for your time!


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Alicia: Let's talk about creepy visitors that WON'T go away!

I drove across the country from Norfolk, Virginia to California when it came time for me to change duty stations. My ship was on deployment, so I flew out from the Seychelles and days later I was driving across the country with our pets in my SUV.

Justin met me in Texas and drove the last few days with me. It was a great reunion after being apart for almost a year! When I got to California, it was late at night and I was still dealing with the weird jet lag and the surreal feeling of not being on the ship anymore. When we got to our new home at 2200 at night and found black widow spider in the back yard! Justin took care of it while I went into over protection mode with our dogs. Spiders really creep me out - add poisonous spiders and it just takes it over the top. I had put the incident out of my mind until last night when I found this:

 Yuck!! I tried to kill it, but it skittered away and is hiding somewhere near the outdoor outlet. No sir, that is not cool! I am happy enough to let bugs do their own thing, but not when they want to do their thing near my house.

Sam is true to her German Shepherd nature and it always trying to go after anything that she thinks doesn't belong in our house. She is a master at chasing shadows and laser dots! (They never stood a chance) I am going to keep the dogs supervised outside until I can find the spider again and kill it for good. I just hope this isn't an indication of a bigger spider infestation problem!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Katie: Fish Flop and Butternut Squash and Spinach Lasagna

       Yesterday Husband and I actually had a chance to cook some of the meals we've been wanting to try. First up was an oven baked red snapper. I will say right now that this falls under the 'flop' category, but I decided to include it anyways for two reasons.

1) I think it was a good cooking method, and we plan on trying it again with a different fish that we like, like maybe a trout. We just don't like red snapper and didn't know this ahead of time. 

      2) Sometimes with Pintrest and Facebook, it starts to feel like we only post the things that turn out well, the good stuff we like to brag about. I think its important to admit once in a while that not everything we try turns out gold, that we are just as human as the next person, to stand in solidarity in our mistakes, figure out what went wrong and use that to make it better the next time.  
Yes its on a pizza pan. Its the only pan-like thing we had.

The Cooking Method:

        When Husband and I were in Publix doing some grocery shopping, this lovely red snapper caught our eye and begged us to take it home. Since we had been wanting to incorporate more fish into our diet, we gladly complied. As the kind old man behind the fish counter prepared him for us, he offered to add the lemon slices. He then recommended that we use the following steps:
1) Take one orange and cut it into slices, and lay that on the bottom of the pan.
2) Cut up an onion into large slices and arrange that likewise with the orange.
3)  Lay the fish on his lovely bed and season. We sprinkled salt, pepper, thyme, and dill over ours. 
4)Sprinkle olive oil over all.
5) Place in the oven that has been preheated to 350 degrees, and let cook for 30-45 minutes. (I always forget to turn the oven on till the food is prepped, hence why 'preheat' is at the end of the list... we're going for honesty here). 

The actual seasonings tasted wonderful in the fish, which is why we want to try to method again. Plus its super easy and only as expensive as the fish you buy. Our problem is that snapper is not our fish. It is way too oily and 'fishy' tasting. If there are people out there who like 'fishy' fish than this might be for you. We did not like the base fish taste, and it didn't sit well on our stomachs, so no more snapper for us. Though in all fairness, we did let the fish sit in the fridge a couple days before we cooked it, so that may be partially to blame. In any case, if anyone out there tries this fish or this cooking method, good luck to you, and let me know how it goes!    
Butternut Squash and Spinach Lasagna

        I will start by saying I make an amazing traditional lasagna. My mom April makes the best lasagna in this world, and I was trained by Italian chefs during my university studies in Europe in the ways of the homemade meat sauce and pasta dishes.
       Unfortunately, Husband hates traditional lasagna. So when I stumbled across this recipe I figured I would give it a try in the hopes it could be a nice alternative.
        I used This Recipe as the basis for my dish. I of course made a few of my own modifications. For the puree, my mother-in-law had given me a butternut squash she couldn't eat, so I pealed that, chopped it up and boiled it. When the pieces were soft, I drained the water, added some half and half (because that was again all we had in the fridge), and some salt, a dash of pepper, and some cinnamon to replace the nutmeg we didn't have. I then blended it all together with my hand mixer (that we went out and bought because we're civilized like that, even though we don't have a proper baking sheet or lasagna pan).  

       For the spinach I bought a bag of the organic stuff from Publix, and wilted it down in a pan. for the cheese I shredded a block of Mozzarella from Aldi and added half of that to the spinach. I also threw in the rest of a tub of real Parmesan I still had in the fridge. The recipe calls for a lot more cheese, which I would recommend for cheese lovers. I was trying to find a happy balance between my cheese love and Husband's cheese hate. I think I managed.

       I pre-cooked the noodles as the recipe called for, but left mine a little al dente since I was worried about over-cooking. I then layered everything mostly as the recipe called for, except for an extra layer at the top with the puree and some bacon that Husband had cooked earlier. I know the recipe says 'vegetarian', but Husband and I are carnivores, so we couldn't resist throwing some meat in there somewhere. I baked it for 20 minutes with foil on and about 15 without, at 375, and it turned out really well! It even has the shape and consistency of lasagna, which surprised and impressed me.  

     I really love how this dish ended up tasting. Definitely one of my favorites. Husband said it was pretty good, and after some intense evaluating of the dish, we decided to try it with un-wilted spinach next time, and with layered rotini noodles instead of lasagna noodles. We will probably throw some ground beef or some other meat thing in there too next time. It sounds a little strange, but marriage is all about finding things that work for both of us!

        Feel free to try this recipe anyway you like, and let me know how it turns out for you! 

         I also thought I would leave this recipe here for Bacon, Spaghetti Squash, and Parmesan Fritters  which I have been dying to try, but I can't get my hands on a spaghetti squash to save my life! If anyone else tries it first, let me know how it works out, I think it could be truly decadent! 

Katie: The Saltwater Saga, Part I: The Finding of the Fish Tank

        The story of how we ended up with a 28 gallon saltwater fish tank sitting in the bedroom of our already-too-small apartment is in some ways a complicated one, and in other ways, is quite simple.

        It all started a week or so before Husband's birthday weekend. We were sitting at our computers, side by side as always. I was doing something on the internet or playing RIFT when Husband casually says "can we buy a (insert large monetary amount here) fish tank?"
       "No!" I scoffed, thinking he was joking "where are we going to put a fish tank in this tiny space? Plus that's a lot of money we don't really have... and if we move at the end of the summer as we are planning, then what will we do with it?"   
       "Ya, I guess you're right" he said with a shrug and the customary side-to-side movement of his head, classically indicating that he has weighed the odds and come to a decision, reluctant or otherwise. 
       I went back to killing rift creatures and trying to hit my attack combos just right, assuming we had made the responsible choice and that was the end of it.  

      Now don't get me wrong, I rarely say 'no' just out of hand, especially since Husband is very financially conscious, almost to the point of miserliness at times, and rarely asks for big purchases. Having said that, it isn't uncommon for him to throw out a random question about spending money on a big, pipe-dream purchase. Just as I do with asking if we can have random animals like red pandas, foxes, and falcons as pets (turns out the falcons are a distinct possibility we looked into and likely will try once we settle down a bit more). We do this to express a desire, share a dream with the other no matter how ridiculous or unfeasible it is. And sometimes, like with the falcons, its not really as unfeasible as we may have first thought, its just not for now in this time in our lives. I knew that Husband had kept saltwater tanks extensively in the past, I would even say its his favorite hobby or really thing to do in general most of the time. However, we had discussed fish tanks before, and while I always assumed we would get one eventually, we had both kind of decided it was a 'not-for-now' thing, for all the reasons I gave to him when he brought it up. Which is why I assumed he wasn't really serious about getting this particular one right now. 

       Fast forward a few days, and the set up that he had seen on the reef aquarium forum that he browses for fun  had dropped even further in price, and he started thinking that maybe his mom would like the tank. She enjoys the hobby almost as much as he does, and this way he could still play around with it. At some point during the preparation and planning for his mom to come down for his birthday weekend and look at the tank, I realized how much he really wanted this for himself, how his eyes lit up with happy wonderment and innocent, child-like delight every time he even mentioned anything to do with fish or coral.  After a very helpful conversation with his mom where she agreed to potentially buy the tank from us if we moved at the end of the summer - effectively solving two major concerns - and some measuring of precious wall space, I sat down on the couch with Husband who was watching House, turned down the volume when it got to a commercial, and told him the good news. 

The fish tank and stand
       Lets just say he did not respond in anyway I expected him too. Immediately he narrowed his eyes at me and asked what changed my mind - after explaining the results of the conversation with his mom and that I wanted him to be happy and saw how happy this made him, he abruptly pulled out his phone and called his mom, demanding to know what kind of 'conspiracy' the two of us had going on. After about 15 minutes of both of us laughingly trying to convince him there was no conspiracy, he decided I was 'easier to crack' and hung up with his mother. Another 10-15 minutes of couch interrogation ensued, where he would put his face close to mine, and with eyes as wide as they could go, ask 'whats going on?' in a funny voice. With a lot of giggling and innocent, sincere facial expressions, I managed to convince him to buy the fish tank. 

The fish in my laundry bucket blocking the bathroom door 

Two days later, we hopped in the car and started our saltwater excursion. After seeing the tank in person, Husband verified that it really was as amazing of a deal as we thought it was, and we loaded up everything in our little car and brought it home. Now, saltwater tanks are incredibly complex - a hundred things can go wrong, and literally everything is alive; the fish, the rocks, the sand, the coral, even the water. And everything has to be carefully transported and stored separately. So once we got the the house, we quickly unloaded, leaving tank parts and containers of rocks, water, supplies, and two little fishies all over the floor, before hopping back in the car and driving the 3 hour round trip to his moms house to get his old supplies he had stored there. While there, she agreed to come down that night and help us get everything set up. Not only did all the live stuff have to be carefully taken care of, there was also a Reverse Osmosis system for making clean water to turn into saltwater that needed to find a home somewhere, and some rocks covered in hair algae that needed to be scrubbed.                   

Assembling the framing
So that night, we went to Home Depot, picked out a long plank of framing wood, and had it cut to our specifications. We had decided to build a frame that would go over the back of our toilet to attach the RO system to, so it could pull water from the sink, and the bad water could drain out into the tub - my idea! Though it was Husband's brilliant mind that figured out the best practical design. We're just awesome like that. It took us a while and more than a little frustration and a few unpleasant words - because we're human like that - but we finally managed to assemble our contraption, with turned out quite well, in my opinion. It wont be winning any beauty contests or Most-Well-Constructed-Furniture-of-the-Year awards, but it's pretty stable and it works in our space constraints.     
This is my bathroom now

   We weren't able to get the RO actually working that night, but by then it was midnight and we were all more then a little tired, so we called it a night. The next day was the day to celebrate Husband's birthday, and we had already planned to spend the day perusing fish stores with his mom, since, as I mentioned before, he loves everything about the saltwater hobby. Now that we had the tank, we had an extra mission: find new liverock and sand.

       Though the tank had come with some liverock and sand, the rock was covered in hair algae, and the sand was pretty dirty. We realized that just buying new stuff would be worth saving us the hassle of trying to clean off what we had. We were also worried about getting the fish back in the tank before too long.

Flame Scallop. Picture from: 
       We saw a lot of cool fish and coral that day. My favorite thing we saw was the Flame Scallops. The little blue lines are flickering bio-luminescent lights that dance around the edges of their 'lips' like tiny bolts of underwater lightning. Its breathtaking and mesmerizing to watch! Unfortunately, we can't have any right now as they are too hard to keep alive, but maybe one day!

       We did manage to find a good price on live sand, but we were striking out on the rock. Liverock can carry good algae, like Coralline, which you need for your tank, and very very bad pests like Aiptasia which can over take your tank in a week, is virtually unkillable, and will destroy everything you ever loved in your salty world. Unfortunately, Aiptasia is everywhere, and many rocks we checked were suspect. Also, the prices in the stores were high, and though we found some nice rock pieces in the last store we went too, there was no good algae on it.

       As we stood there contemplating our options, Husband remembered that private sellers often sell liverock on the same forum where he found the tank. A little searching, some grace from God, and a phone call later, and we were on our way to look at some privately owned rock. On the way, we realized that we should try to sell the old rock that came with the tank as weren't going to use it, and it would help recupe some of the cost of the new rock we were getting. Husband messaged an individual which had expressed an interest in the livestock from the tank, who promptly messaged him back saying he would take the rock, sand, and coral, as long as the fish were included. We were already beginning to worry about keeping the fish alive in a bucket long enough to assemble the tank again and let the chemical levels balance out, so we agreed. It was sad to see the fish go, but it was best for them, and made way for Husband and I to pick out a pair of clowns together.  

      There were a few chaotic moments as Husband tried to decide how much to ask to guarantee the livestock would be gone that night (besides the fishes' health, my own mental health was becoming a concern with all the buckets clogging up every walkway space) while still getting a descent monetary return. Meanwhile, Husband's mom was racing through the streets of Tampa, trying to find the rock seller's house, not get hit by crazy drivers, and attempting to follow the directions on the phone Husband was using to message our buyer.

        Being the awesome people we are, we managed to reach the rock house in one piece, and found awaiting us some extremely nice specimens for a killer price, most of which had Coralline on them. When we returned home, the buyer agreed to come pick up the livestock for a descent price (excellent for him, good for us as our alternative was to give it all away) and after saying goodbye to the fish, I finally had my floor back! Well, most of it anyway, but enough for breathing room and mental sanity.

        Before saying goodbye, Husband's mom helped us arrange the new sand and rock in the tank, further freeing up floor space. We got the RO system working that night, and the next few days were spent picking up the last few pieces we needed for construction purposes and tank maintenance, and going to a lot of fish stores to start getting ideas for the kind of fish and coral we wanted to buy. All in all, we were well on our way down the path of our salt water adventure.                    

The tank with the new rock and sand and old water in it. The sand is still settling and it needs more water, but its a good start. 

Alicia: Participating in Winter Shape Up 2015

I have been reading the the fitnessista blog for almost 2 years now. I found it when I was looking into way to get in shape, and I stumbled onto it through a google search. It is actually the first blog I have ever read and the only one I have consistently followed since I found it. If you are looking for a blog that focuses on fitness and food and good times, this is the one to check out. 

Gina is hosting "Winter Shape Up 2015" and this year I am going to participate with my own little modifications. It's a four week program that encourages you to work out and eat in a healthy way that hopefully shakes up your fitness routine and helps you to make better choices. I have the time now that I am in a training program. I think that this is going to help give me the motivation to get out of the house and tear myself away from the books and video games that I so prefer to spend my time with. 

If you want to participate, head over to to find the workouts listed and a suggested eating program. I will be focusing more on the workouts than I will be on the eating plan. It's hard enough to get out of the house super early in the morning and the work schedule does not support fancy lunches! I do think that some of the dinner recipes look really good. I will be trying a few and will let you know how they taste! 

Friday, January 23, 2015

April: Snowmen, superglue and letting go......

This is one of my favorite Christmas decorations. The skiing snow family! We bought it years ago when our 3 girls were under 10 years old and it perfectly depicts our family doing one of the things we love doing most together...skiing!! Dad is helping Emily, Mom on skis, Alicia on a sled and Kate going down the mountain on a tube, with birds next to her (she used to have a pet bird). It has weathered many years, including several moves. A little super glue and a lot of TLC keeps it usable each year. 

Wesley with his stocking
Can't say the same for our snowmen stocking holder family though, a couple of them are beyond repair I'm afraid. One of them got knocked off the mantle this year in a game of chase between Wesley and Emily and when it crashed and it's head went rolling across the floor didn't look good for fix-ability. It had already be repaired in the past. I have a hard time letting go of some of the meaningful family treasures, as simple as a snowman stocking holder is. After all, they are still with us, when two of our daughters have grown, finished college, gotten married and for the first time in 25 years were not home for Christmas this year as their new jobs, and responsibilities did not make it possible. 

So I guess I will get out the super glue and patch up the snowman stocking holder once again...just not ready to let go quite yet......even if two of the stocking holders were empty this year....well. okay, they didn't stay empty, I bought the cat and dog their own stockings as hanging only three did not seam right! They certainly loved getting a stocking full of toys and treats smile emoticon Christmas morning and while it was not the same, it was nice to have 5 stockings hanging by the fire again.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Alicia: Meeting Brandon Sanderson!

On the 20th, I had the great opportunity to meet Brandon Sanderson at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore! He was there promoting his new book, Firefight. I will post a review of this book later, but I can tell you it was awesome! I purchased the book two weeks before the signing along with the first book in the series, Steelheart. I had no problem flying through Steelheart, but got caught up in work and life and was stalled with Firefight. I ended up going to the book signing early and finishing the book while I was waiting for the event to start! The owner of the bookstore said that people had started showing up for the signing at 1530 and it didn't start until 1930! Needless to say, I was too late to get a seat! I did find a good place to stand near the front squeezed in between two book shelves. 
A lot of people showed up for the event and packed the bookstore. There was a group of girls in beautiful capes and various other people dressed in random fantasy articles not necessarily related to Mr. Sanderson's works. I wore my Captain America sweatshirt and Darth Vader shoes. I figured I should try to be as nerdy as possible! It worked and I got a lot of compliments on my sweatshirt. There was another guy there in a Captain America shirt and we connected as the super hero twins. It was a lot of fun! 

During the Q&A I asked Mr. Sanderson if he could write in another writer's universe again, which would he choose to be a part of. He complimented the lyrical writing style of Patrick Rothfuss but said it was too far outside of his own writing style to mimic well enough to write in Rothfuss' universe. He said he admired Brent Weeks' magic systems but if he had to choose one universe, it would be Anne McCaffrey's Pern. I have always loved the Dragonriders of Pern and am excited to know that he enjoyed the series as well! Anne McCaffrey was an amazing writer and was one of the first authors I discovered when I stared reading fantasy books.

Mr. Sanderson gave out character cards as part of #Steelhunt2015 that have a link to Perfect State, a novella of Mr. Sanderson's that has no been published yet. I received one with the High Epic Newton on it. I am too excited! Perfect States looks just as compelling as Mr. Sanderson's other works and I am excited to read it in its entirety. 

I was the 50th person in line for the book signing that took place after the discussion, and it was well worth the wait. Mr. Sanderson personalized two copies of Firefight for me as well as The Emperor's Soul and The Alloy of Law. I had one copy personalize for Katie who was a Sanderson fan years before I had read any of his books. He signed the Firefight books with bad puns. Too perfect! 

If you ever get a chance to to to a signing with Brandon Sanderson, I would definitely recommend it. He answers everyone's questions and has a great personality to be around. It was worth staying up past my bedtime for! 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Alicia: Ha! I finally did it!

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I finally got around to making the quinoa stuffed bell peppers that I have been trying to make for 2 weeks now. Hey, things get busy and it's so much easier to just grab a microwave meal...or some popcorn!

So, without further ado, the process of love:

Take 6 peppers and cut off the top and hollow out the inside. I made the mistake of picking up two peppers that wouldn't sit up on their own, so I had to lean them against the side of the pan. Make sure to look at the tipsiness of your peppers when you buy them! 

Cook the the quinoa and transfer it to the bowl where you will mix everything else from the recipe all together. I didn't use the feta cheese or cilantro that was recommended. It still turned out quite tasty! 

Take the mixture when you are finishedand scoop it into the peppers. I thought I was going to have too much filling, but I ended up being a little short on the last two peppers. I filled them to the brim and added cheese on top in addition to the cheese already in the recipe. 

I stuck everything in the oven and pulled it out later for an excellent dinner!

Overall rating:
I enjoyed this meal and had lots of leftovers since Justin was in the field last week. It only gets 4 out of 5 stars since I had some problems cooking the peppers. The insides were super tasty, but the peppers were crunchy where I was expecting them to be soft and easy to cut. More like peppers in a fajita! Next time I make this, I am going to try cooking the peppers first and then adding the ingredients and putting in all back in the oven. Hopefully that way the peppers will turn out more as expected. For people like Katie and Zack, you should be able to take out the corn and purchase a cheese without corn additives and it should be perfect for people with corn sensitivities! 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Katie: Mozzarella Macaroni and Cheese with Bacon

       One of my favorite comfort foods ever: Macaroni and Cheese. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to have some in a long while, baring the one time we picked up Black Truffle Mac and Cheese pre-made from Whole Foods for a date day that was utterly delectable! In any case, its been on the craving list and now that I have some free time, I decided to make my own version last night.

The Challenges to Overcome: 

1. Husband doesn't like cheese. 
Potentially a major obstacle when it comes to making Mac and Cheese as that is kind of the prime ingredient. He offered to let me just make it for myself, but I don't like cooking so much as to want to make something for one, and we live on a rather small grocery budget, so I don't like spending money on food only I can eat even if he says hes ok with it. 
The Solution:  Mozzarella!
He does like -or at least dislikes the least - mozzarella, so we agreed to try making the dish with exclusively this variety of cheese. 

2. Finding Cheese Husband can eat. 
The issue with many cheeses is they often have additives in them such as lactic acid. Most chemically derived additives are stabilized with corn, and as Husband is allergic to corn, most things with additives don't get to come home with us. Also, all pre-shredded cheese we could find  has anti-caking agents added that are corn-based, and any mozzarella that comes ball-shaped and packed in liquid it immersed in vinegar, which is also often corn based, so is therefor on our 'No-No' list.  
The Solution: Aldi!
After scouring the shelves of Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Publix, we finally found block mozzarella cheese at Aldi that was only 1.80 each (at least half the price of any other store) and had no additives in it. 

A tip for any one out there trying to eat healthy or avoid additives: stores such as Trader Joe's and Whole Foods which are marketed as having healthy options can be really good resources, but sometimes they charge a lot more for food that isn't actually the best option on the market. Instead of assuming if such stores dont have it, no one else will, be willing to check more 'normal stores' such as Aldi and Publix: especially in the case of Aldi, you can often find much less expensive things that are even healthier for you then what you might find at a 'health food' store.    

3. Finding Healthy Bacon 
I've also been craving bacon for a while (because really, who doesn't?) but as we all know, bacon is on the 'Super Bad For You' list for many reasons, including being full of nitrates and additives and being super-processed. Also, most bacon comes from pigs who are fed corn, and while we do still occasionally eat meat that is corn fed, we are trying to cut it out of our diet entirely as it is bad for Husband in the long run. And me too I suppose. 
The Solution: Wellshire Bacon! 
The Wellshire Pork Shoulder Square Cut Uncured Bacon (Chopped and Formed) has an insanely long name, but is a great healthy bacon option that doesn't come from turkey and still tastes really good. We found it buy-one-get-one at Whole Foods, so it was pretty inexpensive. The pigs were raised with no antibiotics, there are no added nitrates and minimal processing, and it only has 6 ingredients. 

Another shopping tip: the more ingredients something has, the more likely it is you wont be able to eat it. Sometimes its worth reading through the ingredients list as some things have long lists with
real ingredients. But as a general rule of thumb, if you're trying to quickly scan ingredient lists while trying to not spend for ever in the store, long lists = bad food.  

The Finished Product
       After gathering all the specialty ingredients, I began. I based it off of This Recipe I found online, but used almost 16oz. of mozzarella - hand shredded - and used a little more then a cup and a half of cream instead of milk since we didn't have any in the house. Also, I only left it in the oven for about 20 minutes since Husband had pre-cooked the healthy whole-grain noodles for me but they got a little over-cooked, since the healthy ones don't cook the same as regular ones. The bacon I  cut up in chunks and fried separately, then mixed it in with the cheese sauce before pouring over the noodles. It fried up pretty well, though it didn't get super-crispy like regular bacon, but that could be because I just didn't cook it long enough. It still tasted a lot like bacon though and added a nice flavor to the Mac and Cheese. When making the cheese sauce, I realized I probably wasn't going to have enough for the amount of noodles, plus it still looked really thick, so I added in some water - maybe about half a cup  - to stretch it a bit.

  The end result had some texture issues; after careful analysis, Husband and I determined it was probably the extra starchiness from the over-cooked noodles and using cream instead of milk, plus possibly the egg, that contributed to the weird texture and lack of really cheesy sauce. Also, mozzarella has a higher moister content then cheddar cheese, so we think that may have contributed to the difference in consistency.  

All in all it turned out pretty good, though it doesn't taste like traditional Mac and Cheese. Once I got past that part, I really like this dish and will probably be doing it again, only next time with actual milk, more cheese, and I might leave out the egg to see what happens.    

The final touch: Ketchup! I have this weird enjoyment of putting ketchup on my Mac and Cheese, and this dish lent it self well to some ketchup-y enjoyment! 

Husband found me this organic ketchup from Trader Joe's that tastes great and isn't very expensive for a healthy, organic thing. 


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Alicia: Friday blues and a rainy Sunday

Don't bother me, I'm trying to sleep here! 

I came home from work on Friday feeling blah. It's that inescapable feeling of something not being right, but you can't really put your finger on exactly what it is. You can't just say you have a headache and take some Aspirin. I was just feeling out of sorts in general. Thankfully, I had the puppy encouragement squad to cheer me up. I curled up on the couch with Samantha and Miko to spend the evening watching America's Next Top Model. (Don't judge me. Whatever you are thinking, just keep it to yourself. I like the show, no matter how silly it is. At least it isn't Keeping up the Kardashians!)

I had a green-ish juice to help combat whatever I seemed to be coming down with. Into the juicer went:
  1. A medium sized Pink Lady apple
  2. A tiny green Granny Smith apple
  3. 4-5 leaves of Romain lettuce
  4. 4 Large carrots
  5. A 1" hunk of ginger
All it all, it was quite tasty. I had a yogurt for dinner and then decided that I didn't feel like eating anything else. That's how you know I was out of sorts. I usually have the appetite of a teenage boy! I went to bed early and spent the rest of the night reading. I really know how to get down with my bad self on a Friday night! 

Saturday was spent sleeping in. We met our realtor in the afternoon and spent a couple of hours looking for houses in the area. We found some potential places yesterday, but nothing that really stood out. I am hoping we can find something as close to perfect as possible in the next week or two. 

It started raining last night and continued on through the night and into this morning. People are saying that this the most rain that have had in a long time. Californians are so funny. There are weather forecasts out all over the place in advance of what can be optimistically called a persistent drizzle.

I have started reading Steelheart in anticipation of meeting Brandon Sanderson on the 20th. I figure I can get through it and the next book, Firefight, before the big day. So far, I can say it is awesome! It reminds me a lot of the Mistborn trilogy mixed with George R. R. Martin's Wild Cards series. It is the perfect thing for a rainy day. 

Oh, and I am feeling much better now. 
Puppy kisses did the trick!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Katie: The Intimidation of the Blank Page (Or, Starting is the Hardest Part)

      It sits there, imposing, daunting, staring you down with its vast, blank emptiness. It’s the new page awaiting the essay, the picture your pencil is posed to draw but doesn’t know where to begin, the letter or email you keep intending to write, but cannot figure out where to start. And that is the crux of the problem; because starting is the hardest part. There are many reasons why humans have this inherent fear of beginning, but I think some of the main ones are the indecisiveness and the what-ifs. What if I fail? What if people don’t like it? What if its not as good as I wanted it to be, as I thought it could be? What if I'm not as good as I though I could be? But in the end, it all boils down to that primal motivator: fear.

       Now most of us will look at a page, an opportunity we hesitate to take, and think “Im not afraid” And then we come up with other reasons why we don’t start, like ‘I just don’t have time’, ‘I’m too tired’, ‘Im too stressed’ or ‘I’m not feeling inspired’. Which are all legitimate thing in life. Believe me; after the stress of the last few weeks/months in my life, I certainly understand being too tired or busy or stressed. But I also know that there will never be a time in your life where you not these things; there will never be a time when you are perfectly rested, in a zen-like state of peace, unburdened by the cares of the real world, and completely inspired with an unwavering sense of purpose and direction. It would be lovely to think that such a state exists – and if anyone out there finds it, please feel free to prove me wrong! – but in our practical life experience, it does not. And waiting for this Elysian state of existence to occur before we take on new challenges just means the world will pass us by.

       As I have been learning in my 8 months of marriage, you have to make time for the things that are important. You have to be intentional about life. About the things that matter. There are some things, like work and house cleaning and traffic, that we may see as arduous or a waste of time (well some of you out there might enjoy house cleaning… lets just say you wont find me hanging out in the cleaning/organizing section of pinterest), but we have to do them anyways. But the rest of our free time, its up to us to decide what we are going to do with it, and we cant just sit on our computers or in front of our tvs, playing games and watching shows waiting for life to happen. (Which I’m pretty sure is something my mom has been trying to get through my head my whole life). If we want to achieve anything new, to become more then what we are, to achieve even those secret dreams to don’t want to discuss because they seem to far away to ever catch, then we need to begin.  
       So how do we overcome the intimidation of the blank page? Or the mountain of school work between us and that degree? Or the extra pudge weighing us down around the middle as we contemplate that jog we've mapped out in our minds? We simply begin; we start, we put pen to paper or fingers to key board and write a few words, then a few more, and see where they take you. Even if you have to go back and rewrite the first thing on the page, starting is the hardest part. It’s a beginning, a foundation from which you can build, and starting gets you farther then you were before. 
       So put aside the self doubt and the fear and write those first few words, put pencil to paper and draw a line, then another – see where they go. The picture you end up with might be different than the one you had in mind when you started, but in the end you will have a picture where previously none existed. Take that run; put one foot in front of the other, and again, and again, until you cant anymore, or have reached your goal. And it might not be the goal you wanted, you may not get where you intended in the end, the picture or the story may not be what you originally envisioned. But you will get farther then where you were before you started.  And while your final destination may not have been your original goal, you might end up somewhere or with something completely unexpected and altogether more brilliant then you first planned or imagined. And all progress lends itself to more progress, no matter how small, it builds, and it does get easier over time. 
       I think more then anything I am writing this post to myself – you will notice my first post is about just starting, because that’s what I have been struggling with. But even that can be turned into a starting point; it doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t even have to be what you wanted it to be, sometimes its enough that it is a start. And once you start, there is no telling where you might end up!

“It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

(Lord of the Rings quote because A) Added epicness and B) I can - always include LotR when ever possible!)

Friday, January 9, 2015

Alicia: For the want of Quinoa

I was excited to make the bell pepper recipe last night. I cleaned up the kitchen, pulled up the recipe, started to get out the ingredients, and quickly realized that the quinoa I was sure we had in the pantry wasn't there anymore.

I double checked to be just to be sure. There was an incident Christmas Eve when I was sure the pantry had disappeared the lasagna noodles I bought. It took a thorough search of the house and car to turn up the the pantry. With my improved detective skills, I confirmed the quinoa was truly missing. 

Not to be deterred in my effort to cook at least once this week, I fell back to my alternate plan: Smoked salmon egg white frittata with arugula. I made it once before and thought it turned out well enough to try it again. Last time it was way too salty, so I left out the salt all together this time. I also added two whole eggs to the egg whites and threw in the last of the sharp cheddar cheese and parmesan we had in the house. The added cheese barely covered the palm of my hand! We like cheese way too much in this household. I think it came it pretty decently! I had some problems getting it out of the skillet, so it was more in chunks than slices, but it tasted delicious! 

Justin came home late and heard about my woes concerning the missing quinoa. He confirmed it was not in the was in the spice cupboard. I didn't put it there, but it was hiding out with the rice all the same. I think we are going to call a truce and blame it on the dog.

This is a little late, but here are some pictures of the dogs in their Christmas costumes. I still can't answer the question of why exactly the dogs need Christmas costumes, but believe me they do!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Alicia: Number 50 Does't Seem Too Bad

I spent the morning at Starbucks and stayed much later than I intended! 

I was too lazy last night to pack my own lunch for work and was running too late this morning to throw something together before I ran out the door. Instead of going hungry (NEVER an option) I bought one of the lunch box things at Starbucks. It was pretty tasty! The wrap was filled with fresh and crunchy vegetables. The roasted tomato sauce rocked my world and more than covered my exciting flavor needs. Very tasty. 

I wonder if I could figure out how to duplicate the recipe. I think sun dried tomatoes would do great in a sauce like this!

I headed to Mysterious Galaxy bookstore after work in order to prepare for one of the greatest events of the year: the Brandon Sanderson book signing! 

I was at the New Years Day event they had to help celebrate the opening of their new store location and found out about the booking signing that Mr. Sanderson will be doing on the 20th of January for his newest book, Firefight. I went to the bookstore today to buy a copy. I am normally a hardcore Amazon fan, but I went to the bookstore today for two reasons:

1) I wanted to support a local, independent bookstore that has wonderful and friendly people working there.

2) MOST IMPORTANTLY... The book signing is a numbered event and I needed to buy a copy of the book in order to receive my numbered ticket. I will be the 50th person in line to have my copy of Firefight signed. Not too bad! 

I will also be bringing my copy of The Emperor's Soul. Emily got me the novella two years ago for my birthday before I had really discovered Brandon Sanderson's work. It was on my wishlist, but I hadn't quite gotten around to reading it. I am so glad she gave me the extra push!

 I told Justin I wouldn't be too creepy when I go to the book signing. I don't want Brandon Sanderson to think that I am some crazy stalker. That's why I am only bringing two books. I wouldn't want it to get awkward if I walked in with a whole armload.  

I really got into his books last year on deployment. I read his first book, Elantris, and liked it so much I thought it was worth the hassle of ordering the Mistborn trilogy and having them sent to the ship while we were sitting in the middle of the ocean. It took a month, but it was well worth it. I didn't like how the series ended, but wasn't so disappointed that I wouldn't enthusiastically recommend them to my sisters. The series was redeemed for me when I fould The Alloy of Law after deployment. I finished reading it before Christmas and loved it! I like the the book is set 300 years after Mistborn: The Hero of Ages ends. It is a mix between Firefly and a classic gumshoe detective novel.