Monday, May 30, 2011

Kitchen Adventures: Copy and Steal Everything

My cooking skills are pretty limited unless I have a recipe to follow. I've always wanted to be one of those people that could just grab a bunch of stuff out of the fridge and make it into something, but I don't have enough base cooking knowledge or experience to make that happen -- at least not yet.

So in trying to branch out my ability to experiment in the kitchen, I thought the best place to start would be taking a component of a recipe I knew worked and trying to do something else with it. The Ina Garten pasta salad recipe I did the other day worked out so well, and I had left over ingredients, so I thought that would be a good place to start.

I took the basic formula for the dressing from Ina's pasta recipe and quadrupled it to make sure I had enough to marinate 5 boneless, skinned chicken breasts. In hindsight, I probably could have gotten by with tripling it. Depending on how much chicken you're cooking, you can decide what proportion to use.

Here are the base level amounts of everything before you multiply the recipe.

5 sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
6 tablespoons good olive oil
1 garlic clove, diced
1 teaspoon capers, drained
2 teaspoons kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

I marinated the chicken for 30 minutes in the refrigerator, then put the chicken in a baking pan and spooned some of the marinade over each breast.

Thirty minutes in a 350 degree oven later, I had some nice baked chicken to serve over pasta!

 So the experiment was a success, and I have a new recipe in my repertoire. Now I just need to work on my plating skills...

Friday, May 27, 2011

Kitchen Adventures: From TV To Table

I spent a lot of my non-working time during CAT duty watching TV. Since the hotel had neither HBO nor Versus (hockey play-offs), I mainly switched back and forth between Showtime and The Food Network. There is nothing like eating boxed sandwiches and fast food for 3 weeks straight to make you yearn for REAL food.

One afternoon I was tuned in to "The Barefoot Contessa", watching Ina Garten make a beautiful pasta salad with several of my favorite ingredients, and I resolved to look up the recipe and try it some time this summer. Who doesn't love a nice pasta salad for a casual meal outside?

Normally, I would find the recipe, save it in a folder in my computer and never get back to it. But one of my resolutions for this summer is to actually cook more and not have the majority of my meals come from a microwave. So I looked up the recipe online and decided to make it for the weekend so I had something nice to munch on that I could spread out over several days.

And since nothing says summer like a nicely chilled Riesling, I chucked a bottle of Chateau Ste. Michelle in the shopping cart to go along with my meal.

After the wine had ample time to chill, I poured myself a glass, started up Sideways on the DVD player (my favorite movie to cook by!) and assembled the fixings for Ina's Tomato Feta Pasta Salad.

The recipe is very simple, with an incredible flavor that comes mostly from the dressing, a mixture of olive oil, red wine vinegar, garlic, capers and sun-dried tomatoes. And you get to make the dressing in a food processor, one of the simple joys of cooking (at least for me).

Before processing....

...and After Processing!

After the pasta cooks and you chop the other ingredients, you toss the whole shebang together and it has everything most pasta salads don't -- terrific color, pleasing texture and great flavor!


What are you eating this weekend?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Urgent, Important or Neither

My return to real life slapped me square in the face on my first day back to the office. Somehow all my work and personal to-do lists were suddenly screaming at me simultaneously, reminding me how behind in LIFE I am right now.

Somehow the car went to service level DEFCON 1 in 24 hours...

I used to help teach a class for managers that included a component on time management. The key concept was the time tested Franklin Covey developed "Urgent/Important Matrix", which is a tool you can use to decide how to budget your time. Sounds like something that could be helpful in a situation like this, right?

Courtesy Merrill and Covey - "First Things First" (1994) via Wikipedia

This time, not so much. It's a great tool for normal everyday planning. But sometimes you need an even simpler process to help you feel better about having too much to do and not enough hours in the day. So here's a simple list I developed to help set some REAL priorities.

If you don't get "X" done today....
1) Will someone die (including you)?
2) Do you risk imprisonment?
3) Will it cost you more money if you wait?

If the answer to all of the above questions is no, it doesn't HAVE to get done today. So take a deep breath, open a nice beverage of your choosing and relax. It will all get done eventually, and if it doesn't it probably wasn't urgent or important enough to matter much anyway.

In case you're wondering, nothing on my list required a "yes" answer. Now where is the wine opener?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Getting Back To Normal

After working 21 days with only 1 day off, I got to enjoy 3 days of solitude before heading back to work.

I was so happy to be home I didn't leave the house for the first two days, and I only partially unpacked. They say you can't store up on sleep, but I gave it my best shot by rising late and taking frequent naps, with a few meals and some internet time in between.

By today -- day 3 -- I realized I had better get my butt in gear and face the world again. That meant finally unpacking, doing laundry and making a list of errands and shopping I needed to accomplish to start getting back in the swing of things. Frankly, the list was so long it made me want to crawl right back into bed and avoid it all for one more day.

Laundry and unpacking somehow turned into a minor closet reorganization and Goodwill purge. For someone who isn't a very casual dresser, I own more t-shirts than most guys I know, and two large bags headed out to the nearest donation bin. For a second I debated on keeping them for workout clothes, then I realized I wear the same stuff over and over again to the gym and I'd never worn any of the things I was pitching. Not to mention the fact that my last gym visit was....let's not go there. I feel awful enough already.

With that done, I ventured out. My first surprise was realizing the last time I left my car, I had put the top up but forgot to close the windows. They were open the entire 3 weeks I was gone. Thank goodness for covered, gated and security monitored parking or I'd probably be dealing with a stolen car.

I started it up, and of course the tire pressure light went on, followed by a reminder that I'm due for my 30,000 mile maintenance.

Going out was supposed to remove things from the to-do list, but now I was adding. At least gas is about 10 cents LESS a gallon than when I left.

After getting air in my tires and gas in the car, I stopped by Kovacs Luggage to get the broken wheel on my computer bag replaced. I've had that bag 8 years with no issues, so it was about time for a wheel to go. I'd also been considering looking at new bags since I carry 2 laptops on my work trips, so I poked around the store a bit after I dropped off my bag. I must have been destined for something new, because I found one on sale -- and it's purple to boot!

Maybe re-entry to the real world wouldn't be so bad after all.

Next I headed to Michael's Crafts to look for a scrapbook for a project I'm working on. Everything they had was 25% off, almost like they knew I was coming. I love it when a plan comes together! Finish the day with a much-needed pedicure and some ice cream, and life is back on the upswing!

At least until I take another look at my to-do list. I think I'll put that off until tomorrow....

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Long Journey Home

I've never been able to figure out why traveling home from any trip is always more arduous than the journey getting there.

If it's a pleasure trip, you're no longer looking forward to a big adventure so the excitement is gone. If it's business, you're probably more tired from working your butt off, which means you have less patience when problems crop up. Whatever the reason, finding your way back home is exhausting.

All the permanent CAT reps talk about the "Going Home Giddiness" you feel on your last day of duty. I think I felt it a little early, which caused me to book an early morning flight. Or maybe I just wanted to get the heck out of dodge, if you know what I mean.

But being up so early seemed to guarantee little snags in my travel all morning. Like having to walk all the way back to the rental car drop off after learning there was no live person to check in my GPS unit (why a rental car company uses portable GPS units is beyond me...).

Or having to shepherd a woman without glasses and no experience through the US Airways electronic check-in process because the ticket agents were too rude to help her get to the funeral she was attending in Baton Rouge. If there is a Rapture, those US Airways folks earned their spot in hell. I, on the other hand, probably saved myself by helping that poor woman.

It certainly didn't help that I was doing all this dragging a computer bag with a broken wheel as its loud "clackety-clack" noises made every head around me turn and look at me like I was disturbing the balance of the universe.

I've never been more excited to get back to the craziness of Los Angeles. I want my life back.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

On The Loss of a Friend

The older I get, the more I've learned to accept that life comes with loss. Some losses are expected, like the death of a parent. Others are like a sucker punch, taking your breath away and leaving you empty, with only questions and no answers to explain why bad things happen to good people.

The loss of a friend, especially one your age, stops you cold and makes you examine your life. Are you doing enough personally and professionally? Are you giving enough of yourself to the issues you care about? Are you wasting time chasing things that aren't important instead of spending it with the people you love?

I started confronting these questions when my friend Jon Moncrief passed away May 19th at the far-too-young age of 43, the victim of pulmonary thrombosis - a clot in his lungs which made him unable to breathe and suddenly ended his life. I haven't stopped thinking about him, and those issues, ever since.

Jon was one of the many friends I've made through hockey. We met at a Kings tweet-up at at the 2009 draft where I shared my love of the game and Jon shared his considerable knowledge about the sport.

What a Tweet-up crew!

He was a sportswriter by trade and a sports fanatic for fun. Unlike some people who write about sports for a living, when you had a conversation with Jon he always spent as much time listening to what you had to say as trying to dazzle you with his insight. It's not because he didn't have any. What I know about hockey could fit into a thimble compared to the vast knowledge and experience Jon had to share. He listened because he was genuinely interested in other people, and despite the objectivity required by his job, he enjoyed sharing his unbridled love of the sport.

During the Kings season, Jon and I had a little routine. He would come down from the press box and meet me on the concourse to chat about the game and dissect what we thought the Kings need to do differently. Sometimes other friends joined us, and sometimes it was just Jon and me. No matter what the game outcome, it was always fun because of those visits.

But the special thing about Jon is that his interest in people went beyond sports. He was a true and genuine friend who would text or call you out of the blue just to say hello and see how you were doing. Jon understood what was important in life and committed his time and energy to doing what he loved and looking after the people important to him. He was truly an example of someone who spent his time LIVING. He knew how to focus on what mattered even when real world problems threatened to get in the way.

I am grateful for the friendship we shared, on and off the ice. I know for certain I will never attend a Kings game again that I don't think of him and miss him terribly. I can still hear his laugh echoing in my head. I already miss his smile and his good-bye hugs.

I was watching "The Bucket List" on my day off last week, a few days before I learned of Jon's death. In the movie, the two main characters are sitting on top of a pyramid discussing the ancient Egyptians' beliefs about entry into heaven, and thinking of that movie scene now makes me think of Jon.

Morgan Freeman's character Carter shares this message with Jack Nicholson's Edward:

"You know, the ancient Egyptians had a beautiful belief about death. When their souls got to the entrance to heaven, the guards asked two questions. Their answers determined whether they were able to enter or not. 'Have you found joy in your life? Has your life brought joy to others?'"

Jon Moncrief would be able to say yes to both those questions. Heaven is a friendlier place with him in it. And the sports talk is certainly better.

Rest in peace, my friend.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Finally, A Break

Thirteen days. Three hundred and twelve hours. Eighteen thousand seven hundred and twenty minutes. That's how long it's been since my last day off from work. I'm physically and mentally spent, and this break could not come at a better time.

As I thought about what to do with a day to myself, I was initially determined not to be a total slug and get out to enjoy some local sights. I even bought a map, thinking a drive into the Great Smoky Mountains would provide some nice photo opportunities.

Then the weather turned gray and windy, with rain forecasted off and on for the entire weekend. I got a slightly sore throat, which developed into a cough. And when I woke up to a silenced alarm clock for the first time in almost two weeks, I felt no desire other than to crawl back in bed and sleep some more. I got up long enough to enjoy the complimentary hotel breakfast, put the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door and grab the TV remote before getting back to the business of resting. The only other time I got up the entire day was to walk to the Applebee's across the street to pick up dinner.

Only 5 more days left. With a little luck, I might just make it.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Life On The Road and The Joy of Laundry

Before I left for CAT duty, I had to go shopping. Since I don't work in the field on a regular basis, my wardrobe of dresses and skirts wasn't going to cut the mustard for this particular assignment. But even having secured more black pants and polo shirts suitable for long days working around cars, there was still no way to have enough wardrobe for 3 weeks of work, which meant several of my evenings would be spent doing laundry.

The hotel has a valet laundry service, but since I was on my own dime I wasn't about to pay $5 for a pair of pants to get cleaned. That meant finding a Laundromat.

Luckily, I spotted one a couple of miles down the road from the hotel my first day here. It sits next to a small apartment complex with weekly rates, which makes for very entertaining people watching if you're bored while the wash cycle runs. I was even more happy to find the washers and dryers are exactly the same as my building at home so at least I knew what to expect.

I also discovered a handy new laundry invention at the local Walmart--detergent and fabric softener in one sheet! Easy to use in a pinch, and cheaper than buying even the smallest size of each item separately.

The laundry facilities were great. The vending machine that stole my money? Well, that's another story...

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Take Me Away

The site I've been working at in Knoxville is less than a mile from the airport. It sits right in the flight path to the runway, so all day long I watch planes, large and small, fly over my head.

The noise makes it difficult talking to customers, but that isn't the hardest part of their daily invasion. The hardest part is the reminder of how far away I am from my life and the things and people I love.

Right now, all I want is a plane to take me home...

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Life, Reality and Best Laid Plans

You've all heard the quote "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans." With the Kings season over, along with my vacation, I was making lots of plans for how I would spend a quiet month of May at home, cooking and catching up on all my creative projects.

When your boss calls you at 6:30 AM on a Friday, you know it can't be for a good reason. Sure enough, my company had raised an alert for assistance with the increasing number of claims coming in due to the recent storms in the Southeast. Could I volunteer for 3 weeks of duty?

As much as I would rather be at home making scrapbooks, I couldn't say no and volunteered to help. After all, I am so fortunate to have a roof over my head, my personal belongings intact and my car undamaged. So many people suffering from this storm DON'T have that. Giving 3 weeks of my time to help handle their claims is the absolute least I can do.

Volunteering for duty basically meant dropping everything and getting ready to spend three weeks on the road -- with slightly more than 24 hours to get ready for departure. So I spent a portion of the day running errands, including some last minute shopping for things I'll need in the field.

It also meant doing a whole host of things around the house. I'm one of those neurotic people that has to clean, do all the laundry and make sure the house is completely picked up before I go anywhere. I just can't stand the idea of coming home after a long trip and feeling like I already have a pile of work in front of me.

I'll do my best to keep things updated personally while I'm on the road, but working 12 hours days may make that a challenge. So if you don't see me around the blogosphere much, just know I haven't disappeared for good.

My best laid plans will still be there waiting when I get home...they're just on hold for a bit.