Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Kitchen Adventures: Arancini

I love trying new recipes and for the most part I manage just fine working the kitchen alone. But occasionally I run across a recipe that, while tempting to try, looks a little too complicated to be a one person operation -- at least the first time. That's when you phone a friend.

I had a trip planned to Seattle a few weeks ago to visit my friend Leah, who I've mentioned in my blog before. She's one of the best cooks I know and there isn't a tool that can't be found in her kitchen, so I knew she was the right person to help me try a recipe I got from the fine folks at Cakebread Winery in Napa, CA.

Arancini is a fancy word for deep fried risotto balls with a dollop of soft cheese melting in the middle. Rather than type it out here, I'm including a link to the Cakebread website which includes the complete recipe and a very helpful instructional video.

The main reason I'd avoided trying this recipe on my own was twofold. First, I knew it would make too much food for one person and I wasn't sure how well it would keep. Second and perhaps most importantly, deep frying anything in a tiny studio apartment kitchen seemed to be a dicey proposition at best. Having a plan to safely dispose of the used oil requires space and an extra set of hands.

As Leah and I were deciding our menu for the weekend of my visit, she was game to help try the recipe and we had a large enough audience of people to feed to make it worth the time and effort. Turns out it was much easier than I thought, although we did learn a few important things as we went along.

First, the risotto recipe itself was super yummy on its own! If you're looking for a good risotto, give it a try. I got a little carried away with my taste testing.

The cheese mentioned in the recipe is specific to the Napa Valley. You likely won't be able to find it by name at your local market, but shop at a store with a large cheese department and ask them to recommend a good soft cows milk cheese to substitute and the recipe will turn out just fine.

We improvised a bit on the size of the balls (actually I was the one most guilty on that front) and they were a bit too large. The recipe calls for a dollop of risotto the size of of small ice cream scoop, but a tablespoon would work out just fine and leave you with a nice two-bite size ball.

Once you have the oil  heated, the balls fry VERY quickly so it helps to cook them in very small batches -- no more than 3 or 4 at a time -- so they don't get too done. Leah did an awesome job in that department since I was handling the panko crusting duties.

One of the things we learned watching the video is that the recipe can be made ahead of time and frozen. The video didn't specify the process to do that, but Leah and I were thinking you could roll the balls and freeze them ahead, bring them to room temperature and then bread and fry them right before serving. Otherwise we suspect the panko breading would get too soggy.

Above all, we learned this recipe is a crowd pleaser AND it's kid friendly! Leah's niece and nephew both liked it and the adults absolutely approved.

So the next time you're in the mood for some deep fried Italian yumminess, have a ball -- or two!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Even Four-Legged Heros Shouldn't Be Left Behind

Several months ago I was on a Southwest Airlines flight when I came across an article in their in-flight magazine about military working dogs. These unique and highly trained animals help US military efforts by detecting explosive devices, ammunition, narcotics and other threats and in the process help save the lives of their human handlers and countless other soldiers that could be injured otherwise.

As I read through the article, I teared up several times. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for animals but these dogs are special. They are American military heroes.


That made me even more sad to learn they have not always been treated as such. In fact, dogs in the Korean or Vietnam conflicts were left behind after as "property." This specific quote from the article gave me the most pause.

"Between 1971 and 1973, approximately 2,700 military working dogs were either turned over to the South Vietnamese Army or let go. They never came home."

Thankfully, some decent human beings realized this was no way to treat American heroes. In November 2000, President Bill Clinton signed legislation establishing retirement and adoption protocol for military working dogs.  

In addition, these animals have advocates in  the United States War Dog Association, "a nonprofit organization of Former and Current US Military Dog Handlers and supporting members committed to promoting the long history of the Military Service Dogs, establishing permanent War Dog Memorials, and educating the public about the invaluable service of these canines to our country." Check out their website link above or their Facebook group here.

This Memorial Day, show your support for ALL our American military heroes -- even the four-legged ones.

Cell Phones For Soldiers

I am very proud to work for a company that encourages its employees to be socially responsible and support charitable efforts in their communities. I am especially proud of the very generous group we have in California where I work. Every month, our volunteer committee looks for causes and organizations to help support and since May is Military appreciation month, we've been collecting used electronics for a group called Cell Phones for Soldiers.

Dubbed "Operation Old to New," the idea is simple. Collect used or outdated cell phones and batteries, old charging cords, phone cords and other electronic items and exchange them for calling cards with minutes for our troops to call home.

According to their website, Cell Phones for Soldiers is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing deployed and returning troops cost-free methods to communicate with family while serving in the United States military.  In 2011, 593,535 service men and women have been served thanks to the generosity of people like my co-workers.

I can't think of a better way to honor our active duty military members than to help keep them connected to their loved ones. There are plenty of other ways to be involved even if you don't have old electronics to recycle. For all the details, check out the Cell Phones for Soldier website here.

Thanks to all the members of our military for keeping us safe and sound this Memorial Day.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

New Places: Huntsville, AL

Back in March, I started a new blog feature highlighting places I was visiting in my work travels by telling you things I learned about Baton Rouge, LA. After a bit of a break, I got back on the road again this week and headed out to Huntsville, AL.

Huntsville is the fourth largest city in Alabama with a population just over 180,000 people. It is nicknamed "The Rocket City" because of its long history with United States space missions, starting in early 1956 as the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA). It is also home to US Space Camp, attended by my very own boyfriend in his youth! I found out first hand about Huntsville's "humid subtropical climate," with high average temperatures in the 89 degree range. Thank goodness for air conditioning!

But facts and figures can only tell you so much about a new place. Getting there and exploring is the real fun. So thanks to a little help from a friend and former resident of Huntsville, here are some of the things I learned trying to check out the city like a "local."

When I entered Alabama via the Huntsville airport, I knew right away the residents know how to have a good time.

When I picked up my rental car and hit the highway, I discovered that drivers in the state LOVE their gas pedals. The highway speed limit is 70 MPH and I almost got run over at least twice merging onto the freeway. Maybe its the influence of the aerospace industry, but it seems like the preferred method of transportation for some drivers should probably be a rocket. They have those here too.

I wanted try to some local restaurants while I was in town, so I started with a recommendation from a friend who used to live in Huntsville and stopped in at Bandito Southside. It features good Mexican food, awesome margaritas and conversation from Tess, the coolest bartender in Huntsville, and live music. Needless to say that was a big thumbs up and exactly what I needed after a long day at work.

Bandito is like the Mexican food version of Friends. Everyone there knew each other, and if they didn't Tess made sure they got acquainted. But this is also the kind of place where folks are friendly to a fault and interested in meeting new people, so I struck up quick conversations with some interesting folks.

The first guy was the dad/sound man/photographer of the singer playing that night. When he asked me where I was from and I said Los Angeles, he said "It's a good thing you didn't say LA." When I asked why, he explained that LA stands for "Lower Alabama" (aka the Redneck Riviera). I told him I guessed that meant I was from LSD ("Lower Slower Delaware"). We both got a laugh out of that.

My second bar buddy was a local beer distributor that hooked me up with some souvenirs to remember Huntsville's favorite local brew. I wish I'd had time to stick around for the brewery tour.

Beer is required when you're down South, but so is BBQ. All of my co-workers at the Huntsville office kept talking about Dreamland, and I found a location less than two miles from my hotel. The portions are HUGE, the prices were right and they're big local sports supporters -- including HOCKEY!

I can highly recommend the ribs and mac and cheese, plus some peach cobbler for dessert. Then prepare to put up your feet and let it digest, because you'll be FULL.

This is the HALF rack. My advice -- don't attempt the full without backup.

The folks at my office also told me that lots of people in the local area head south on the weekends to visit the Gulf Shores beaches. I decided to add a visit there to my bucket list when i learned about The Flora-Bama. It's a bar that straddles state line between AL and FL so when it's last call in one state you just cross the bar to the other side. I'll bet they have plenty of red cups there!

I was actually kind of sad to be leaving, but the heat and humidity at 4 AM made me realize one aspect of life in the South I wouldn't miss. But the airport won HUGE points with me for actually having food service at 4:30 AM, so I just might have to come back some day. But I think I'll skip the pig and cow poop...

Now I have a few days off until I head southeast again.

Next stop, Mississippi!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Because It's The Cup: Conference Championship Winners, Losers and Memories

The battle for Lord Stanley's Cup continued with the conclusion of the conference final round this week. The one consistent thing about my picks all post season? I get some right and some wrong. This round, just like the last one, I split things right down the middle with a winning pick in the West and a loser in the East.

Here's a quick rundown of what happened for those of you that haven't been following along.

Eastern Conference

NY Rangers vs New Jersey Devils  - WRONG
My pick - Rangers in 7
What happened - Devils in 6
This series was bitter right until the end, in part due to the long standing hatred between the Rangers and Devils fan bases and partly because is was a more offensively minded series than a lot of people probably expected. In the end, the Rangers just looked worn down by the grind of two difficult series they needed just to get into the finals. Normally one of the NHL's premiere defense-first teams, the Rangers developed more holes than Swiss cheese and the speed of the Devils offense took advantage. Aging star goalie Martin Brodeur unjustly stole the post-season thunder from Henrik Lundqvist while frankly not doing all that much to help his team win -- because he didn't have to -- and Lundqvist wasn't able to save the team that fell apart in front of him. So this time evil reigns in the East, and I have an easy opponent to root AGAINST. The boyfriend gets to join me.

Western Conference

Los Angeles Kings vs Phoenix Coyotes - RIGHT
My pick -- Kings in 7
What happened -- Kings in 5
The Kings continued their dream season and silenced the doubters, winning only their second conference championship in franchise history. After an easy semi-final round against the St. Louis Blues, this one took more than 4 games. It's also probably a good thing it ended in five or someone might have gotten killed. It was fast, brutal, Western Conference hockey at it's best, with bruises, blows and harsh words exchanged between both the players and fan bases. By the time it ended, Phoenix was looking like the sorest of sore losers and the refs refs were in the doghouse -- but the Kings just minded their own business and walked away, well aware of the bigger prize still waiting. But the best news of the series is that the boyfriend and I survived while rooting for opposing teams -- and THAT was no small feat.

There will be some incredible stories surrounding this Stanley Cup final because the hockey community is a small one and the ties between players, coaches and management are many. I'll be writing about those on my hockey blog Kings Court so be sure to check it out if you want to follow the series in more detail.

But the most important back story of the series to me will be a personal one. My good friend and hockey writer Jon Moncrief passed away a year ago on May 19th at the age of 43.

He hailed from The Garden State and was a life long New Jersey Devils fan, in particular a fan of New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur. The highlight of his hockey writing career was getting an interview with Marty at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas in 2010. I remember Jon coming back from that trip and handing me his tape recorder so I could listen to Brodeur's voice, his face beaming with smiles as I listened to his hero.

I'm sure Jon was watching this May 19th as the Devils lost to the Rangers 3-0 in Game 3 of their conference final series, then rooted for their turnaround in Game 4. Just as I know he'll be watching every moment as the Devils and Kings play for the biggest prize in sports. Seeing his longtime favorite and his adopted team compete against each other might not trump that interview with Marty, but he wouldn't have missed a moment. I'll be the one that will miss discussing the series with him.

Now it's the biggest prediction of my hockey fan life, and with so much on the line I'm sticking with the one thing that has worked for me all post-season. Each time, I've picked the Kings series to go 7 games, and they've won in 4 or 5. So my prediction about the Kings-Devils Cup Final series is pretty simple....


He might not agree, but Jon would approve. 

Because It's The Cup...

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Habit Forming -- Or Not

Three weeks ago, I decided to try and incorporate some better habits into my life. I made a neat little chart to help me keep track and carried it around with me as a reminder. And to make sure I would be held accountable, I promised to share my results. I put myself in the best possible position to succeed in creating positive new habits and get rid of some bad ones.

So what happened?

Well, my skin looks better, my nails are no longer a mess and my water intake is increasing, but I still can't manage to get up at a consistent time in the morning and my night time routine is non-existent. I'm a little better off than I was 3 weeks ago, but I still need work.

Even though I didn't fix all my habit issues, this exercise was a valuable one because charting my behaviors helped me understand positive and negative triggers that cause them. For instance, I did great with the snooze button when I was traveling or had important meetings to start my day with a critical focus. I had a hard time sticking with the tooth brushing when I'm traveling because I can't just grab the spare toothbrush from the desk drawer in my office after eating lunch. Easy things to fix once you're aware of them.

Time to go shopping for a compact toothbrush....

Because It's The Cup: Semi-Final Results and Conference Final Predictions

As the Stanley Cup Playoffs march on, the field continues to narrow and competition keeps heating up -- and I'm still proving that predicting winners is part science, part art and part voodoo, and in some cases I don't have any of those things working for me. I did OK in the first round and split the semi-final round right down the middle in both conferences.

Here's what happened in the Conference Semi-Finals.


Eastern Conference

NY Rangers vs Washington Capitals - RIGHT
My pick - Rangers in 7
What happened - Rangers in 7
The boyfriend rejoiced in being on the winning side of the match-up. I rejoiced in finally picking one series EXACTLY RIGHT. At the rate I'm going, it will be the only one. Thanks for helping a girl out, Rangers!

Philadelphia Flyers vs New Jersey Devils - WRONG
My pick -- Flyers in 6
What Happened - Devils in 5
The Flyers quite simply lost every bit of scoring mojo they showed off in the Pittsburgh series and got beat by a defensively more balanced team. They're also now saddled with a lengthy and enormous contract for a goaltender that continues to prove he's not a playoff goalie -- even if he is funny as hell. So much for the possibility of a Philly East meets Philly West Stanley Cup Final (that's a little Kings insider joke).

Western Conference

Los Angeles Kings vs St. Louis Blues - RIGHT
My pick -- Kings in 7
What happened - Kings in 4
I was right when I wrote this: "The Kings need to strike early with a win on the road because St. Louis won't go down easy." I was wrong when I said "It will be a long and physical series..." My boys are quite simply ON FIRE. Their success defies explanation and I'm totally OK with it. After many seasons of suffering, winning is FUN!

Phoenix Coyotes vs Nashville Predators - WRONG
My pick -- Predators in 6
What happened - Coyotes in 5
I don't think anyone who follows hockey saw this one coming, which is pretty much how things go with the Coyotes. The NHL's perpetual underdog shocked everyone by unseating a better team through sheer force of will. The Predators had more talent at every position, but the Coyotes were willing to grind it out. At this time of the year, sometimes grit wins.


So now the field is down to four teams and conference titles are at stake. More importantly, all four of these teams have a legitimate shot to win the big prize (although it pains me to say that in the Devils case) -- The Stanley Cup! 

Here's what I think will happen next.

Eastern Conference

NY Rangers vs New Jersey Devils
My pick - Rangers in 7
The Rangers fan base has waited a long time for their next legitimate shot at The Cup since their first win in 1994. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist has never looked better and the Rangers, when they keep their focus, handle themselves well in both ends of the ice. More importantly, I can't in good conscience root for the Devils to win anything. If you've ever been to Newark, NJ you understand my feelings.

Western Conference

Los Angeles Kings vs Phoenix Coyotes
My pick -- Kings in 7
Everything is coming together exactly at the right time for the Kings. It's fate, it's destiny - it's the season goalie Jonathan Quick deserves after saving his teammates hindquarters for most of the regular season. The boyfriend and I are against each other on this one, but we might as well get used to it. If I have my way. our teams will play each other for the biggest prize in sports. Bring it on!

Playoff hockey rules -- Because It's The Cup!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Dermatology for Dummies: The Results Are In...

When I planned my post-biopsy follow up appointment, I intentionally picked a Monday. If the news was good, it would get my week off to a fantastic start. If it wasn't good, finding out early would be the mental equivalent of ripping off the band aid and getting down to the business of dealing with the wound underneath.

Well, the band aid is off now.

The biopsy revealed a basal cell carcinoma, the most common and curable form of skin cancer. That's right, I have skin cancer.

As I processed the news and listened to my doctor discuss next steps, I realized it was the news I was expecting. Over the last few weeks I had run into a few friends that had skin biopsies before and none of them needed stitches. I knew when I first saw the spot on my shoulder it didn't look normal. And when you're a person like me who avoid doctors like the plague and you suddenly start getting proactive about scheduling appointments and actually look forward to seeing your doctor, it's a sign that deep down you know something is wrong. You know you need help and you can't get it soon enough.

While I would have preferred a resounding "There's nothing wrong with you" diagnosis, it's the best case scenario possible under the circumstances. After removing my stitches, the doctor pronounced me a "very good healer." The biopsy confirmed the tumor is only affecting surface cells, so the treatment is simple -- just remove the rest of the affected skin. This can be done using either a cream that will dissolve the damaged tissue or by having another outpatient procedure in my dermatologist office to cut it off, very similar to the biopsy process.

I have a small scab left over at the biopsy site that my doctor wants to disappear completely before making a decision on the best method. If it doesn't seem to be spreading, the cream is the way to go because it will minimize scarring. I'm grateful I've never been any one's idea of a beauty queen, so even if it has to be cut off it won't bother me. Besides, at its current length my hair covers the spot most of the time.

While this type of skin cancer rarely metastasizes into something more serious, I'm not completely out of the woods. I asked my doctor if there was the possibility I could have other tumors crop up now that I've gotten one. She confirmed I could -- there is actually a 90% chance of it. She was quick to point out that figure includes older segments of the population including people, like my mother for instance, who NEVER used sunscreen and fried themselves with baby oil and iodine to get a good tan. And for every year I DON'T get a new tumor, the possibility of me having another one reduces. There are plenty of people that never have more than one basal cell carcinoma, so hopefully I'll end up in that group.

To help my chances along, my doctor will have me back in six months for an upper body check since any new tumors are more likely to pop up there. I'll also continue annual full body screenings. Most importantly, I'm going to do a better job of protecting myself on a daily basis. Sunscreen is my new moisturizer.

I have plenty of questions now I didn't think to ask during my appointment this morning. How do I handle sun exposure situations for the rest of my life? Is wearing sunscreen enough or should I avoid the beach and the pool altogether? Is it time for me to trade in my convertible? Will my wardrobe have to include long sleeves and hats no matter what the weather? So many questions...

I may not love the answers, but I'm not going to stop living my life. Things will just need to change a little and the change will be for the better. I haven't been given a death sentence. Lucky for me, fate gave me a wake up call instead.