Thursday, April 10, 2014

Treat Yo Self 2014

Best Day of the Year!

What, you haven't heard of a Treat Yo Self Day? Please let the nice folks over at NBC's Parks and Recreation explain the rules. It's only 24 seconds, you can spare that much time.

 

So basically, you take the day to, you know, treat yourself. You want it, you got it. For me this meant a mix of pampering and (of course) eating a bunch of things I usually deny myself. Hey, you keep Treat Yo Self in your way and I'll keep it in mine.

First stop! Haircut. I was long overdue for one, but while I usually just get a quick shampoo and trim at the place around the corner from my mom's house, this time I decided to go the whole nine yards and get a cut, blowout, and style at a nice salon.  Turns out my friend Barbara from work's (whom I was just with in Lincoln, Nebraska), husband works at a salon and is a fantastic hairdresser. Sounds like a plan.

So on my most recent benefit day (I get every other Monday off from work since I work longer hours on all the other days) I got myself an appointment in the morning at Muse Boutique Salon in Arlington. The place was pretty empty, so I waited only a few minutes while Atilla finished up with the client before me and sat back and relaxed while I got my hair washed (scalp massage!), cut, blown out, and styled. It looked pretty damn good, if I say so myself.

...and wow, I look eerily like my Mom.

Look! It's straight! That doesn't happen very often with my hair, trust me. And it even survived the windy day...well, mostly.


After getting my hair done, I headed to Shirlington for a massage. I've only had three massages before--it always feels amazing, but it seems like such a splurge. There's always other things that seem to make more practical sense to purchase, even for myself.

But anyway, this massage was too good a deal to pass up. At Nirvana Reflexology Spa in Shirlington, you can get a one hour full body massage for only $45, compared to the around $75-100 cost at other places in the DC area. You don't get a private room or the oils rubbed in to you like at other places, but there is still privacy with heavy fabric curtains separating the areas of the room and the massage is still amazing. And, if you are one of those people who has problems being naked in front of people, you get to keep your clothes on. They still use lotions on your arms and legs and it just feels really nice. I recommend it!

After my haircut and massage I was hungry! And if I was going to treat myself, I wanted something I haven't had in a really long time. Specifically, cheese. Ever since I figured out I was lactose intolerant two years ago, my cheese intake has gone down to almost zero. Unless it's goat cheese--goat cheese I can handle and it's also my favorite. But I wanted other types of cheese. So to Cheesetique for lunch I will go!

Appetizer: a glass of the house red wine (balanced, smooth, and fruity) and a cheese board with the chevre (goat cheese). Since it's the cherry blossom festival, they had mixed fresh cherries into the cheese and oh my stars it was delicious.


Next up: something I hadn't eaten in all the time I have been lactose intolerant. Macaroni and cheese. This was the Billy Goat Mac with several types of cheese (including goat and cheddar) and chicken. This was blow my mind amazing.


For dessert, I decided to leave the cheese shop behind and walk a block down the street to Cake Love. It wasn't an entirely selfish decision; I needed to order my Aunt and Stepmom's birthday cake from there (they have the same birthday and we always do a joint celebration). But while I was there....I figured why not have a cupcake? A Drumstick cupcake to be exact. Vanilla cake, salted caramel middle, vanilla buttercream frosting, and a layer of chocolate on top (with some salted peanuts).




The rest of the day was spent relaxing at home and then over at a friend's playing a little D&D. All in all, I declare the first Treat Yo Self Day a total success.

Is it 2015 yet??

Monday, April 07, 2014

Stuck in the Middle....of the Country

You might remember from a few years ago I used to travel for work a lot. The judges at VA's Board of Appeals travel to the Regional Offices (there are at least one in every state) to allow veterans the opportunity for an in-person hearing. An attorney used to accompany the judges to help them brief the hearing cases--basically, we would quickly review each case and identify the issues and pertinent evidence for the judges.

Well, those days are gone.

Budget cuts must come to us all, and the Powers That Be decided about three years ago that sending attorneys on the Travel Board trips was an unnecessary expense. It was a shame too because getting out the office, networking with judges you otherwise wouldn't interact with, and forming relationships with the people in the Regional Office were invaluable benefits to the attorneys.

I had pretty much resigned myself to never traveling on the government's dime again...when all of a sudden! Rumors started that attorneys might be going back out on the road! Extra money from Congress and a change of leadership at the Board are no doubt the reason, and the rumors proved true. During the ten Travel Board trips in February and March attorneys were once again sent with the judges to various Regional Offices. And I was lucky enough to go on one! To Lincoln, Nebraska.

This is Husker territory.

I know what you're thinking. Lincoln? Nebraska? Umm....yay? But I was actually pretty excited, and had specifically requested the trip. I had been on it once before back in 2009 and Lincoln is a really well run office which means the practical aspects of the trip are easy peasy. It also meant I would be traveling with the judge who was my mentor when I first started at the Board in 2005--at that time he was an attorney like me.

The reason for sending the attorneys has also changed. Instead of spending an entire week with our noses buried in cases, the attorneys now only travel through Wednesday and provide training to the Regional Office staff on various aspects of the law. The employees at the RO who decide cases aren't lawyers, and yet they are often expected to know as much as we do and perform the same kind of analysis. So we provide them training to hopefully clear up some of the thornier issues.

So if the government wants to send me out of the office for a couple days, pay for a hotel and meals in nice restaurants (hello, per diem!), and let me do one of my favorite things--talking in front of a group of people who have no choice but to listen to me--who am I to say no??

That's how I ended up in Lincoln, Nebraska. From a work and personal perspective the trip was a complete success. The second judge traveling with us was a friend of mine and we had a great time. I was also able to find some GREAT restaurants. In the past four years Lincoln has become quite a bit more cosmopolitan, so much so that I was pleasantly surprised by the number of trendy restaurants and shops that would have fit in perfectly in downtown DC.

Since it's me, I took lots of pictures of the food and am happy to provide you, gentle reader, with all my dining recommendations in case you ever find your self in Lincoln, Nebraska. First, let's talk steak. Nebraska = cows. That's the reality. But last time I was in Lincoln I was not impressed with the steak dinner I had. Maybe I went to the wrong place? Or it was just a bad cut? But this time I was going to hunt down a great steak if it killed me.

Luckily I didn't have to go far. Enter Misty's Steakhouse and Brewery. Conveniently located directly across the street from our hotel, Misty's is considered the best steakhouse in all of Lincoln. But I went into it without expectations, after all, I had been burned once before. I am happy to report that Misty's more than lived up to its reputation and I think I had the best steak of my life.

Bacon-wrapped filet mignon with caramelized onions and grilled veggies. SO GOOD OMG. And only $25. Amazing.

The next two nights were also winners. Barbara (the second judge on the trip) and I had a bit of a girls' night on Tuesday with a delicious meal and wine at a French-inspired place called The Green Gateau. They had a three course prix fixe meal for only $25. Again, amazing. I realize people in Lincoln don't make as much as us in DC, but traveling someplace with such a low cost of living is definitely refreshing

 And it's signature dessert (from gateau, "cake" in French) was yummy. It's a light chocolate cake filled with mousse and covered with a green almond fondant. 

Another example of how things are cheaper in Lincoln: the cost of a mani/pedi. Barbara and I arrived in Lincoln on Sunday afternoon and I thought it might be fun to get our nails done to look nice for our interaction with the RO staff and veterans having hearings. I found a salon open late on Sunday afternoon and a mani/pedi was, you guessed it, $25. Apparently everything worth having in Lincoln is only $25. The folks at Queen Nails were completely nice, and I even got a little decoration on my big toes at no extra cost.

I went with black sparkly bow ties on my pink nails. Subtle and classy, just like me, right? Also, maybe it's me, but my toes totally look like fingers here. It's kind of creeping me out. 

Ok, back to the food. Our last night in Lincoln we tried a new farm-to-table style place called Jack & June (they're redoing the website, but the link will take you to the Yelp page). They bill themselves as an "urban table" and this is the kind of place that has become very hip in DC lately. Local fresh ingredients and trendy twists on classic American dishes. The decor was also pretty cool, kind of a burnished steel modern kitchen meets homey wood. It was also Spring Break at the University of Nebraska so the place was practically empty.

The bar at Jack & June. We definitely didn't have any trouble getting a table.

The food there was FANTASTIC. We were all really impressed with our meals--so impressed we had the manager come by to pay our compliments. He was very excited to talk to us and actually sat and chatted with us for about 15 minutes asking our opinion on any improvements that could be made. Apparently the restaurant had just hired a new chef and was in the process of some major menu revamps. I like nothing more than giving my opinions so it was very flattering to have the ear of the manager.


I had a kielbasa and brussel sprouts. And let me just say...

BEST BRUSSEL SPROUTS EVER. I never considered myself a brussel sprouts person, but they've become quite a trendy vegetable (which is hilarious that a "trendy vegetable" is a thing) and these were amazing. They were roasted and covered with a kind of sweet Thai chili sauce. Amazeballs.

Only one more stop on the Lincoln food tour. Barbara and I were both in agreement that it is never too cold for ice cream, so we decided to find the best Lincoln had to offer. I figured good cows must equal good ice cream. Unfortunately, our visit to the Nebraska University Dairy was a bit disappointing. I mean, it was good. But Nebraska couldn't hold a candle to the Penn State creamery which is the best ice cream I have ever had. But! All hope was not lost.

We found Ivanna Cone, an old fashioned ice cream parlor in Lincoln's popular Haymarket district. They had super unusual flavors, but also delicious favorites, and everything was super fresh and tasty. My selection?

 A scoop of chocolate, a scoop of cinnamon, hot fudge, and peanut butter sauce. Yum!

Ok, but enough about the food. Like I said, the trip was a complete success. The training I performed was super well received, and the RO staff actually kept me after the training for almost two hours to answer their questions. Which is great! They wanted more training the next day, but alas, the training room was booked. Instead, I spent the day talking to a lot of the staff one-on-one and getting some suggestions to increase communication between the RO and the Board. They also had some good ideas on ways to improve VA's overall efficiency and functioning. The hearings conducted by the judges also went really well and we had a great show rate. 

Overall, our trip to Lincoln was fun, informative, and even more successful than we could have hoped. It was a win all around and I really hope the Board decides to keep sending attorneys out with the judges. It's a nice break from the office and a great networking and mentoring opportunity. 

 Just remember, in Nebraska you can't carry your DEADLY weapons into the ice cream parlor. Non-deadly weapons are ok though. Bonus Barbara sighting!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Shamrock Fest 2014

Kiss me, I’m Irish! No, really, I am. It’s totally legit.

On March 23, 2014, RFK Stadium in DC was transformed into an Irish wonderland. Well, if carnival rides, fried food, beer tents, and over 30 Celtic-themed bands can be considered an Irish wonderland. For my part, it ABSOLUTELY is, so I put on my best green finery and hit the festival along with some friends for a day of merriment.

The gang from last year--together again!

Despite finding ourselves in the winter that WILL NOT END (seriously, snow on St. Patrick’s Day??), the weather was beautiful for the Fest. Clouds that disappeared through the afternoon and a high temperature of around 70 meant that I had to break out the sunblock for the first time all year and dress in layers to get my Irish pride on. Since it was so gorgeous out, me, Selvi, Kevin, and Diana met up an Irish pub near Union Station, The Dubliner, for lunch and then walked a few miles to RFK. It was just so nice to be outside and not freezing or slipping in the snow that we were all grateful for the chance to get out and walk.

As soon as we entered the stadium grounds it was clear something was different from last year. The festival organizers had added carnival rides! The area around the entrance had been transformed into a midway with rides (like a Tilt a Whirl!), games, and concessions to make anyone’s mouth water. Hello, funnel cake. Who can resist funnel cake?? Sure, I only had a taste, but still. Never pass up a funnel cake opportunity.

Aside from the carnival additions, things at Shamrock Fest were as usual—fun, crowded, and green. There was a large tent of merchandise where you could shop for items like kilts, t-shirts, and novelty vaguely offensive Irish-y accessories to cap off your Festival outfit. The beer lines were long, but for the most part moved quickly so nobody waited long. And I was gratified that the food area offered some slightly healthier alternatives than the usual fried food—namely, chili from the Hard Times CafĂ©. Yum!

BEER.

The bands are always a highlight of the Festival. I love Celtic rock music, but most of the groups also dabble in pop and cover tunes; I admit I’m a sucker for a good 80s cover. And as soon as a band breaks out the fiddle or the bagpipes…the crowd goes crazy and shit gets REAL.

I’m always up for celebrating anything Irish, but the main reason I attend Shamrock Fest is to see one of my favorite bands, Carbon Leaf. They’ve been around for a while, but got their start in Richmond, VA and are strongly influenced by Irish and Celtic music. I first discovered their music at the Detroit Scottish Festival (while visiting my brother one summer when he still lived in Michigan) and their live CD was recommended to me by a dude working the music booth. From the first listen I was hooked and when I finally saw them live at William and Mary during undergrad it turned me into a huge fan.

Their set at the Fest is always amazing, and this year was no exception. They played for a solid hour and a half in the evening, and the energy coming from the crowd and from the band was infectious. Though we were packed pretty tight, my friends and I had gotten prime spots near the front of the stage and still had room to dance, jump, and fist pump along to our favorite songs. Hey, never underestimate the appeal of a good fist pump.

Side note regarding concert-going: for the most part, the crowds at Shamrock Fest are always really great. People tend to be respectful of other people’s space and with such a mix of people and ages, things never get out of control. Having said that, any festival that includes as one of the main draws beer drinking is going to attract some assholes. But other than one drunk guy who tried to start a mosh pit (during a Celtic rock concert? Really?) everyone was just dancing around having a good time and not being a jerk.

And then a guy in a wheelchair crowd-surfed by. On one hand, you go, dude. In the words of Kevin, “that guy is very handicapable.” On the other hand, you should have seen the look on the faces of the security staff who had to catch him and carry him down. They were not happy about the large and heavy metal contraption making a beeline for their heads. 

All in all, Shamrock Fest was a blast aided in part by the stunning weather. Just one word of advice if you go: have your friends wear something distinctive that is NOT green. Because trying to identify anyone dressed in green in that crowd? Not easy.

Have green eye shadow, will travel.


Me and Selvi in the DJ tent!

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Stuff It

I think I am creating a new snow day tradition. On the last snow day, I experimented with low calorie pancake recipes. This time around, it was french toast.

From now on, snow days = new breakfast recipes. This might be one of the best ideas I have ever had.

Blueberries were on sale at the grocery store the other day; two containers for $5. It was too good an offer to pass up and I like blueberries in my oatmeal, so I ended up with a LOT of blueberries. But I'm not sure even I could eat enough oatmeal to use all the blueberries before they went bad, so I decided to look up some recipes to use them.

(enter the blog Skinny Kitchen, stage right).

Let's see....stuffed blueberry french toast? Hmm. I'm not usually big with the french toast. Not sure why, pancakes just always seemed to hit the spot for me more. Maybe it's a texture thing. *scanning recipe* This one has potential though....I think I have almost all the ingredients on hand....and getting a big serving for 166 calories is not bad all...I think I will give it a try!

And thank goodness I did, because holy moly, these things are delicious. It's a very simple recipe--you essentially make a cream cheese and blueberry sandwich and then fry it up a bit in a pan. What keeps it low calorie are the details: a sandwich thin instead of regular bread, no sugar blueberry jam, no fat cream cheese, and an egg white. You still get the juxtaposition of the crunchy coating of the bread with the savoriness of the cream cheese and sweetness of the blueberries. And it's so sweet from the blueberries (and the optional dusting of powdered sugar), you don't even need any syrup.

The finished product: weighing in at 166 calories and 9 grams of sugar which makes this is a MUCH better option than standard french toast. Skinny Kitchen includes the stats for full-fat and calorie versions of her recipes, and at IHOP the french toast will set you back 830 calories and 51 grams of sugar. Ouch.

Assembling the french toast "sandwich." You just spread cream cheese on both sides of the sandwich thin and top with sugar free blueberry jam and 1/4 cup blueberries. After coating it in an egg white and frying it up for about 3 minutes per side...you have delicious crunchy, creamy, and blueberry syrupy french toast.




 Are you hungry yet? I also had a scrambled egg and egg beaters (I need the protein to feel full) and my breakfast was still less than 300 calories!


Skinny Blueberry Stuffed French Toast

(NB: this recipe and the ingredients list are for two french toast sandwiches. I halved it to make just one).

2 whole wheat sandwich thins
2 tablespoons fat free cream cheese
2 teaspoons reduced sugar blueberry preserves (I used sugar free jam since that's all I could find)
½ cup fresh blueberries or frozen and thawed, sliced in half
1 egg white
1 teaspoon reduced-fat butter or Smart Balance Light spread
1/2 teaspoon powdered sugar (optional)

1. Spread the bottom inside piece of each sandwich thin with 1 tablespoon cream cheese. On top of cream cheese, spread 1 teaspoon blueberry preserves on each. Place ¼ cup sliced blueberries on top of preserves on each. Top each with the remaining sandwich thin to create a sandwich.

2. Add the egg white to a shallow bowl. Dip both sandwiches into the egg white, making sure to coat both sides.

3. Coat a large nonstick pan with cooking spray. Melt 1 teaspoon reduced-fat butter and swirl around bottom of pan. Add 2 sandwiches, cook about 2½ to 3 minutes on medium-high heat, until golden brown. Using a spatula, turn over and cook the undersides for about 1-2 minutes, until golden brown.

4. Sprinkle top of each with powdered sugar. Plate each and serve with a fork and knife.

Makes 2 servings (each serving, 1 full sandwich)

1 stuffed French toast sandwich = 166 calories, 2g fat, 9g protein, 31g carbs, 6g fiber, 370mg sodium, 9g sugar

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Chocolate Caramels and Wine Tasting

Just when you thought my posts about chocolate were coming to an end...here's another one guest-starring my fellow attorney and WM graduate, Dorilyn!

Not only are we both big nerds, but Dori and I are also big chocolate and wine lovers. I mean, most people of good taste and breeding are, but I know there are some strange folk out there who don't find either of these things appealing. How do they live with themselves?

I'm also a big fan of the Living Social facility at 918 F Street where I have participated in a lot of classes over the past year. Sadly, Living Social is closing the building next month (since they appear to be hemorrhaging money), so I have been trying to make sure I take any last chance opportunities to visit.

When I saw on the Living Social website they were offering a chocolate caramel and wine tasting class--I immediately called up Dorilyn and asked if she wanted to do it with me. She's no fool, so last week we headed downtown (on a uncharacteristically warm February day) to indulge in some wine, chocolate, and caramel.

The "class" was led by the owner and founder of Chouquette Chocolates in Bethesda, Sarah Dwyer. I use quotation marks because it wasn't really a class-we didn't do anything except drink wine, eat chocolate caramels, and listen and watch Sarah Dwyer as she explained how she came to open a chocolate shop and demonstrated how the caramels are made. It was all actually really interesting and she had lots of entertaining stories about her time in Paris studying at Le Cordon Bleu. She also shared some stories about how she came to develop the more unusual flavors of her caramels.

The other wine pairing class I attended involved cookies and wine and was a little more in-depth with explanations of the wines and why certain flavors are brought out by certain types of wine. With the chocolate caramels, it was more "this is all delicious so eat, drink, and enjoy." Both approaches are fine with me--as long as I get wine and chocolate I am happy.

The set-up at our table; 4 types of wine and 4 chocolate caramels. I love the designs and colors of the caramels, so lovely. The gold looking ones on the right are dusted with edible gold sugar.


Clockwise starting from the upper left: vanilla sea salt caramel paired with Prosecco, rosemary lemon caramel paired with a Sauvignon Blanc, raspberry caramel paired with a Pinot Noir, and last but not least, a balsamic caramel paired with Shiraz. 


Inside the raspberry caramel!

My favorite of the caramels was actually the balsamic one. The savoriness of the balsamic paired beautifully with the sweetness and saltiness of the chocolate and caramel. And it also went very well with the robust red wine. But let's be honest: everything was delicious and went well with everything else.

Other than eating all the yummy chocolates and getting a bit tipsy off the wine, the other highlight of the experience was seeing how the chocolate caramels are made. The chocolate is first poured into molds...but then immediately poured out so only a shell of chocolate is left covering the mold's three sides. After hardening a bit, the caramel is poured inside the mold and chocolate is again poured over it all. After everything sets, you pop out a completed chocolate-covered caramel!

This is only one of the possible ways of making caramels, some companies (like Lindt truffles) makes two sides of the truffle, put the filling in the middle, and then join them together. This creates a seam that runs around the truffle. Others fill the entire mold with chocolate right off the bat and then use a small tube to inject caramel and fillings into the middle. I think the method used by Sarah Dwyer at Chouquette is actually the most elegant way to do it: there are no seams or holes in the chocolates.


Cheers!

Oh, and because Dorilyn and I are crazy for chocolate, we decided to grab some hot chocolate at Coco Sala across the street from the Living Social building. I tried the hot chocolate flight...

 From left to right: dark hot chocolate, salted caramel hot chocolate, and peanut butter hot chocolate. I couldn't possibly pick a favorite. 

My next chocolate adventure? A chocolate walking tour of Georgetown. It's not scheduled yet, but the Groupon is purchased and I am already licking my lips in anticipation....


Monday, March 03, 2014

Good Times in the Big Apple

It's so easy to get to New York City, I don't know why more people from around here don't make the trip. It's 4-5 hours on the bus (I always use Bolt Bus, which goes direct from Union Station to Manhattan), and you can sit back, relax, and not have to worry about tolls or paying attention to the road. Maybe I'm weird, but I don't mind bus or plane trips since it gives me uninterrupted time to read, listen to music, or just nap.

Of course, as soon as I arrive in NYC, I like to hit the ground running. When you're only spending one night in the Big Apple, you need to cram in as much fun and adventure as you can, and this trip was no exception. Along with my friend from work (and fellow WM alum), Dorilyn, I spent the last two days in NYC hanging with friends, seeing two of my favorite actors, and stuffing myself with chocolate.

I've had worse weekends. And not that many that were better.

This trip came about because Dorilyn is as big a nerd as I am. When she heard that Patrick Stewart (i.e. Captain Picard) and Ian McKellen (i.e. Gandalf) were performing on Broadway together, she thought I might be interested in going up to NYC and seeing them in Waiting for Godot.

She was not wrong.

Per usual, we took the first bus up and arrived in midtown Manhattan at 10:30, leaving us the entire day for shenanigans. We met up with our friend Caroline and grabbed a quick lunch at Fresh & Co. (basically the NY version of Sweetgreens and Chop't) and made our way to the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) to take in some of their exhibitions.

I love visiting FIT when I am in New York; the exhibitions are free, include stunning fashions spanning the centuries, and don't require too large a time commitment. Basically, it's ideal for someone who wants to see something "very New York," but can't spend hours wandering in a museum.

We were particularly interested in two exhibitions, Trend-ology, about the sources and forces that alter trends in fashion, and Elegance in the Age of Crisis, an exploration of the clothing of the 1930s, the period between the Jazz Age and WWII when modern fashion was created (mostly due to the development of synthetic fibers).

From Elegance in the Age of Crisis: I'll take one of each, please. Well, except that one with the green bow. I mean, REALLY.

 From Trend-ology: perhaps camo should remain on the battlefield. 

After feasting on fashion, we headed back to Caroline's apartment, and watched Terminator 2: Judgment Day, ate some cookies, and shot the shit. You know, typical girl stuff. Running around the city is all well and good, but sometimes you just want to catch up with your friends. 

But before too long, it was time for me and Dorilyn to head out. We had dinner reservations at a fun French bistro-type place in the theater district called Marseilles. It was Restaurant Week in New York (which actually lasts for about 3 weeks) and Dorilyn took advantage of the three course prix fixe menu to get a little adventurous. I stuck with my typical roast chicken entree I try at most places, but had a bit of her sweetbreads appetizer. Surprisingly, I found it delicious. I guess eating outside your comfort zone can pay off. And of course, I couldn't turn down fancy melting chocolate cake for dessert. 

And then! It was time for the main event! We walked a few blocks to the Cort Theater and saw two fantastic English actors in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The show was great (of course), with 
engrossing performances from Stewart and McKellen, whose ease and affection for one another was obvious. Despite being at its core a pretty depressing study of the futility and meaningless of human existence (how cheery!), the play was still very funny. Stewart and McKellen proved they were as adept with acts of physical comedy as they are with wordplay, and it was just a genuine pleasure to watch two such talented friends act alongside one another. The audience was also one of the best I have shared a theater with; their respect for the actors and play was obvious and there was no inappropriate talking, cell phone usage, or other distractions.


Their epic bromance lives on!


Did I mention the adorable dance routine they performed at the curtain call?


Right before the curtain went up....we were practically giddy with excitement.

The show let out around 10:30, but our day wasn't over yet. We headed  back to Caroline's to pick up our bags (she was kind enough to let us leave our stuff at her place) and then we journeyed over 100 blocks north to my friend Sarah's place where we were spending the night. It ended up being something of an adventure--I won't get into details, but let's just say it involved a dead cell phone battery, my not writing Sarah's phone number down before the phone died, Dori and I remembering the wrong house number, and a very kind deli-counter worker with a battery charger. Despite the hiccups, we finally got to Sarah's and settled in for a night's sleep.

We had hoped to make it to the gym in the morning, but because of a noon brunch reservation and a late opening time of the gym, it didn't work out (we were of course, DEVASTATED). Instead, we had a bit of a lie-in, grabbed some coffee at a tiny, adorable coffee shop down the street, and took the subway back to midtown to meet up with Caroline and Joe and walk to Union Square, where we also met up with a friend of Dorilyn's, Dave, who lives in Queens.

What was in Union Square? Only some place I have been trying to visit for the last couple years: Max Brenner, a restaurant that believes in "creating a new chocolate culture worldwide." Most of the items involve chocolate of some kind and other sweets. Example: sandwiches are served on rosemary waffles instead of bread and the pizza is actually a sweet pizza crust topped with chocolate and mini marshmallows. Fries are dusted with coca powder and salads come on top of a corn waffle.

So yeah. To say I was looking forward to eating there was a bit of an understatement.

The food and dessert menus are extensive and creative. Everything we had was tasty and decadent, but aide from a few standouts, it wasn't really anything too terribly special. The regular food is on par in terms of quality with your typical chain sit-down restaurant (think Ruby Tuesday, etc.) except for the unusual ingredients and construction. The desserts were all delicious, but again except for a few items, didn't really blow my mind. The real appeal of Max Brenner is the experience, the presentation, and the fun of ordering things like the Spectacular Melting Chocolate S'mores Sundae. And the indulgence of all that chocolate. The chocolate was amazing.

And now it's time for some food porn (apologies for the yellow tint in the pics, my cell phone camera isn't great at taking indoor photos):

Hands down, the best thing I had was the Italian Hot Chocolate (available in milk, dark, and white chocolate). I had the milk chocolate, and it's a very thick warm hot chocolate with added vanilla cream. Completely and utterly delicious. It's also served in a special mug called the "Hug Mug" since you have to hold it with both hands to sip.

 It really was like a warm chocolatey hug.

We were there for brunch after all, so I ordered the goat cheese and spinach omelet. The eggs were ok, as was the sugar-dusted biscuit, but the spicy breakfast potatoes and little dish of chocolate (for biscuit dipping) were the stand outs here.

And now the desserts:

The above-mentioned S'more Sundae. Chocolate peanut butter ice cream, with toasted marshmallow, fudge, graham crackers, and peanut butter sauce. Ice cream is always yummy, but I couldn't really taste any of the peanut butter. It was good, but not great.


My other favorite item: the OMG dark chocolate chunk cookie served with strawberries, whip cream, and pourable chocolate. The cookie was fantastic: warm, crispy outside, soft inside. Kind of like a brownie in consistency Yum!


Dessert #3: chocolate cherry waffles. A waffle covered in chocolate, whip cream, and what was essentially cherry pie filling. The cherry filling could have come from a can and all the other toppings basically masked the flavor of the waffle. Again, you can't call something that looks like this anything other than delicious, but still, not the best dessert ever.

 Pourable chocolate served in little beakers. So cute.

DC peeps: don't feel like your Max Brenner dreams can never come true. They opened a dessert bar in Bethesda last year that includes all the desserts on the NY menu, but not the actual food menu items. And there are also locations in Vegas and Philadelphia.

After stuffing ourselves with chocolate and sugar we needed an activity that didn't require too much physical exertion. Good thing Union Square is also home to a huge bookstore, The Strand. If you're familiar with Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, it's kind of like that. A huge, sprawling, wonderland for book lover's filled with used and new books of all kinds. I could have spent all day in there, but alas, we only had about an hour and a half. Still, we all found some books and we headed back to Midtown flush with chocolate and excited to read our new books.

Unfortunately, by that time Dori and I had to head out to catch our 5:00 bus home. There was a large snow storm headed for DC, so Dori and I were fervently hoping we would make it back before the weather hit. Turns out we didn't have anything to worry about--we got on the bus with no trouble and made it back to DC in around 4 hours with no traffic and only a little rain.

All in all? It was kind of a perfect visit.

Next excuse for a trip to NYC? Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams in Cabaret. YES, PLEASE.

 Me and Dori heading home on the bus. Until next time, New York!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Snow and Pancakes

It wasn't supposed to be like this. I was supposed to be relaxing in Los Angeles with my mom, brother, sister-in-law, and adorable two year-old nephew. There was going to be sunshine, temperatures in the 70s, a Scottish festival at the Queen Mary, and hanging out with my awesome LA friends on Saturday night.

Instead? There was snow. Lots and lots of snow. Well, lots of snow for the DC area. When a large storm from the South roared into town on Wednesday night, I knew the writing was on the wall for my Thursday morning flight. So it was not a surprise when I got an email from my airline telling me the flight was cancelled and all the other flights on Friday and Saturday were full.

So here, I am. Day 4 of my unplanned staycation.

I did surprisingly well finding things to fill my time. I don't think I've ever ended up with a holiday weekend at home with NOTHING planned. But Thursday and Friday I worked at home (and didn't have to use any leave), and this weekend was full of gaming fun with friends, hitting H street Saturday night, lunches with family, and doing some retail damage at the President's Day sale at Macy's.

And that brings me to today, Tuesday, the last day of my staycation. I've got pretty much nothing planned except catching up on reading, binge-watching House of Cards Season 2, and running some pretty typical errands.

Being at home has also had the added benefit of allowing me time to try out some new recipes, specifically, pancake recipes. Maybe it's the cold weather or all the snow, but for some reason, I have been hankering for some pancakes. But as you all know, I have been trying to stick to a healthy low calorie diet and big, fluffy, carby pancakes aren't really part of the plan.

Good thing there's the internet! During the past few days I have tried out two new low calorie pancake recipes, with mixed results. First was a Snickerdoodle Pancake recipe from one of my new favorite blogs, Chocolate Covered Katie. I don't know how she does it, but this chick makes dessert recipes that are low calorie and packed with good things like fiber and protein.

Most things I have tried from there have been very good, but the snickerdoodle pancakes I would have to rate as just so-so. Don't get me wrong, they were tasty, but not very snickerdoodle-y. But that could be my fault since I replaced the sugar in the recipe with just a teaspoon of Splenda. So it's possible I needed more sweetener.

The recipe cooked up three nice-sized pancakes! I missed the actual Snickerdoodle taste and the texture was a little off, but overall it wasn't bad.

With a quarter cup of sugar-free syrup, these weighed in at 300 calories. I used regular all-purpose flour, 1 tsp of Splenda, and light soymilk. 

If you are familiar with diet-friendly pancakes, then you probably know that they tend to have a slightly different texture than regular pancakes. They are denser and not as sweet (obviously), and these ended up a bit sticky--they were cooked all the way through, but just kind of sticky. Still, they helped scratch the pancake itch!

My second recipe was much more successful. Y'all know I am a huge fan of the Hungry Girl recipes, and I found her basic pancake recipe (Perfect Pancake Duo) in a past daily email. I love that you get two big pancakes out of it and the nutritional info is for the entire recipe. So you can eat all that you cook and not feel like a glutton. The only change I made was adding a half cup of blueberries which ended up being plenty. But then, I love blueberries.


These cooked up really nicely--they needed to stay on the griddle/pan for a little longer than your standard pancakes, about two to three minutes per side. But they cooked up thick with a nice "crust" on the outside and soft inside. Overall? It was a winner and by new go-to pancake recipe!


I'm kind of strange and cut up my pancakes completely before pouring syrup on them. I find it lets them soak up more of the syrup! You can also see all the blueberries in these two pancakes;I think next time I will add more cinnamon as well.

With the addition of the blueberries and sugar-free syrup, these stacked up (get it?) at 262 calories. Not. Too. Shabby. Recipe below!

Hungry Girl Perfect Pancake Duo 

Ingredients

1/3 cup whole-wheat flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 no-calorie sweetener packet (like Splenda or Truvia)
Dash salt
1/4 cup fat-free liquid egg substitute (like Egg Beaters Original)
1/8 tsp. vanilla extract
Optional: cinnamon and half cup blueberries

 Directions

In a medium bowl, mix flour, baking powder, sweetener, and salt. If you like, add a dash of cinnamon. Stir in egg substitute, vanilla extract, and 1/4 cup water. Bring a skillet sprayed with nonstick spray to medium-high heat. Add half of the batter to form a large pancake. Cook until pancake begins to bubble and is solid enough to flip, about 2 minutes. Gently flip and cook until both sides are lightly browned and inside is cooked through, 1 - 2 minutes. Plate your pancake. Remove skillet from heat, re-spray, and return to medium-high heat. Repeat with remaining batter to make a second pancake. Enjoy!

Nutritional Information

Entire recipe (2 pancakes): 180 calories, 1g fat, 515mg sodium, 32g carbs, 5g fiber, 1g sugars, 11.5g protein -- PointsPlus® value 4*