Tuesday, December 01, 2009

I Need to Buy a Chef Hat

After seeing the movie Julie and Julia a few weeks ago, I have been inspired to start cooking more frequently.

We purchased a crock pot the week before I saw the movie, so that was a baby step in the right direction for me. First we made a Pot Roast which turned out to be very tender and delicious, and so very easy to prepare! Phil browned the roast and then we just put in cut up onion, potatoes, celery, and baby carrots and a can of beef broth with some seasoning and it was delicious about 6 hours later!

Next I made a Southwestern Chicken Stew that my friend Lesli gave me the recipe for. It is basically her adaptation of a recipe that was in the SA newspaper in October.
  • 2 cups cubed cooked chicken (we used the pre-cooked and pre-seasoned chicken breasts that HEB sells so I just heated in the microwave and then cut into cubes)
  • 1 sm can green chilies
  • 1 can whole black beans
  • 1 can corn
  • 1 cup salsa
  • Juice of 3 sm limes
  • 1 sm can tomato sauce
  • 3 chicken buillon cubes (I used 1/2 can chicken broth instead)
  • 3 whole bay leaves (I omitted these because I did not have them)
  • Dash of cilantro
  • Dash of pepper
  • Dash of McCormicks mesquite chicken seasoning
  • Chili powder to taste
  • 2 t. dried onion
  • 1 cup white rice

Dump all ingredients into crock pot. Add water as needed to cover ingredients (I did not need to since I used the chicken broth). Set pot to low and let cook for at least 8 hours or until mixture is piping hot. Before serving stew, prepare rice and stir into crock pot mixture. Service topped with shredded cheese, sour cream, and/or tortilla strips.

Phil and I both really enjoyed this recipe and it also made good leftovers!

I used the crock pot again to make my friend Kate's award winning chili! I don't think I should give out the recipe here, but I can divulge that it included butternut squash which was my first experience working with the ingredient, and the chili turned out to be so spicy that Phil and I both ended up appreciating the butternut squash in the recipe as kind of a neutral flavor to tone it down. It was delicious enough that I plan to prepare it again tomorrow while I'm home sick from work!

For Thanksgiving I had plans to prepare another dish with butternut squash that I had seen in Real Simple magazine. However, we ended up not needing extra food with everything else on the menu so we brought the ingredients home and I made it on Sunday for dinner. The recipe is called Roasted Butternut Squash with Mustard Vinaigrette and the receipe can be found here. Let me back up and say also that when shopping for the groceries for Thanksgiving we found out that 3 butternut squash cost us $15 so I was a little nervous that the recipe was going to turn out badly and Phil would be upset that we wasted $15 on it! Fortunately, the recipe turned out great. Mine even ended up looking pretty much like the photo! (Special thanks to Phil for peeling the butternut squash for me... as we continue to prepare recipes we are learning the things that we should upgrade in our kitchen. One such thing is our potato peeler; it is in sad shape.)

On Sunday evening I also had a need to use up a bunch of red apples that had gone uneaten for a few weeks. I decided to look online for a random recipe for Apple Crisp, which if you don't know was basically my favorite thing in high school. The cafeteria served this delicious crispy, cinnamony, sweet dessert every so often and I would always try to eat as many of my friends' servings as I could, in addition to my own. I found a recipe that ended up being perfect, and so simple to prepare! It is certainly not healthy by any means, with the main ingredients being butter and sugar, but it turned out to be mouth-watering, and even the leftovers taste good (it stayed crispy on top, didn't get soggy as I feared it would).

I have a few more apples left so tomorrow I am planning on baking an apple cake and maybe making hot fudge pudding cake from my mom's recipe just because I feel like having something that reminds me of home/childhood while I am sick (home for the next day and a half with strep throat).

Truth be told, I know that my cooking skills need quite a bit of work but I know also that the old adage "practice makes perfect" certainly has some truth to it, so I think that the more cooking I do, the better I will be at it and the more comfortable I will be in the kitchen. I still consider myself a novice but hopefully am on my way to being a decent cook! I am interested in trying new recipes now, so please send me your favorites!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

New Home

We started looking for new houses earlier this year without any real timeline or plan for buying. We knew we were interested in a larger home in a quiet, established neighborhood somewhere between my work and Phil's. We found a realtor who began sending us listings for homes that met our criteria, which at first included a swimming pool, no exceptions. But as we thought about it more, we opened ourselves up to houses with backyards big enough for a pool to be added in the future in neighborhoods with pools, and that's what we ended up buying. We were not in any rush to buy, which put us in a much stronger buying and negotiating position. After driving around neighborhoods in our favorite areas we narrowed down our search to one particular subdivision. We found one particular home that had been on the market for almost a year, through various listings. We looked at it once, then thought about it for a few weeks, then looked at it again as it continued to grow on us. We then brought Phil's mom to look at it a third time and when my parents were in town one weekend they also drove by the house and looked in the window. Again, we were in no rush since we had a place to live, but were interested in the house because of its potential. This time we were much more knowledgable when we looked for homes and not as emotional as first-time buyers tend to be. We could see this house's potential and that it had good "bones". Neither Phil nor I are in love with the open-concept floor plans that are so popular today. We prefer smaller cozy rooms and we loved the traditional feel of the house, in our favorite neighborhood. It was a very good deal and the sellers were motivated since the house had been on the market for so long. After about a month of negotiations with the seller, we finally came to an agreement on price and considerations. At the end of May, we moved in to our new home! The house was listed as 5 bedrooms, 3.5 baths, with a 2-car garage, fireplace, eat-in kitchen, formal dining room, totaling just over 2600 sqft. This was a BIG change from our 1174 sqft little home! As it turns out, we had quite a few empty rooms with absolutely no furniture in them at the new home once we moved in, which made it look kind of sad. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When we bought the house, we had a list a mile long of projects we wanted to do to improve it. The first thing we did when we moved in was scrape off the popcorn ceilings from every room downstairs. We decided right away to focus all our energy (and money) downstairs and probably won't even get to any upstairs projects for a few years! We talked to different people and were told to spray water on the ceiling, let it sit, and use a scraper to remove the popcorn. Well it was slow going, using an empty Febreeze bottle to spray with, me going ahead of Phil to get it wet, then him scraping. Not to mention the mess!

We laid down plastic on the floors to cover the carpet/laminate, covered the windows, tried to cover and do one room at a time, but nothing stopped that white powder from getting on everything I owned. One day I showed up at work and looked down on my white pants to see little white Cooper paw prints. As we got better at it, the work went a little more quickly but one evening Phil found a video on YouTube showing that if you add vinegar to the water, the popcorn texture would come off more easily. So we added vinegar to the water and it slightly improved our pace. Our biggest finding ended up being the use of a big pesticide spray bottle to spray a thick coat on the ceilings since they have those continuous spray nozzles, and once we figured that out (still with vinegar), Phil was able to go at least 20 times faster, doing multiple rooms before I even woke up in the morning!

When we moved in to the house, we decided that we would make what had been called the "master bedroom" downstairs into a TV room, so that the room with the fireplace could be our formal sitting room. The room originally had a large walk-in closet in it, and during the course of the popcorn ceiling scraping, we decided to tear out the closet and make the room bigger. My mom had come to stay with us to help us get settled into the new house, and little did she know she would be able to partake in some demolition! We had lots of fun swinging around a hammer and knocking the wall down! Here is a before picture...

...and a during picture...

...but no After photo just yet! We still had a long way to go!

After the demo of the closet was complete and the popcorn was scraped, Jack helped us get the ceilings lightly textured and painted, and re-painted all of the rooms. We went with a much more muted color pallete than in our other house, but still just could not deal with cream colored walls.

Another weekend project we did in the middle of August (yes, the hottest part of the year in South Texas) was installing recessed lighting in our new TV room, completely DIY style. We carefully marked off 5 light locations, cut the holes, and then climbed into the attic to wire them, one at a time. I would help Phil think the wiring schematic through, then he would climb up there and I would be his eyes and ears below while he did the wiring in the sweltering hot attic. It would start out fairly comfortable in the mornings but after about 11am, it was awful up there. The moment you went up, you were immediately drenched with sweat! But we did not want the project to be un-finished so we made it happen. So on Saturday we got all of the recessed lighting wired and working, with the new double switch installed in the wall! On Sunday we needed to wire the room for surround sound, and relocate the cable TV connection to another wall, so we accomplished that as well! We then had to patch the ceiling areas where the old light fixtures had been, and install the recessed lighting surrounds that we preferred (we went through 3 or 4 before deciding on the best fit/lighting for our room). It was a full weekend with a total I believe of 5 trips to the hardware stores!

So after we removed the closet in the TV room, there was a gaping hole left in the carpet in the middle of the room where the wall had been. It was L-shaped and could not be hidden, so this gave us the extra push we needed to make a decision on the new flooring we wanted to put in. We researched for a few months, visited multiple flooring stores, had about 10 wood samples to choose from, and finally made our selection. We chose Scandian's Bonita Collection in Timborana Cafe, which is an Engineered wood. We had decided that an Engineered floor was the better way to go for our needs than solid hardwood, after researching and discussing with flooring professionals. After living in the house for a few months, we had also decided that the white tile in the kitchen had to go. We decided that it would be a complete mess to try to do the tile project after our new hardwoods were installed, so we added the tile project to our scope. We selected Emser's Umbria Savera travertine in 16"x16" tiles. Most tiles come in either 12"x12" or 18"x18" so we were very happy to find a stone we liked in a middle size.

We decided that to cut costs and keep the project within the budget we had set, we would do the existing flooring removal on our own, except for the carpet. We started with the tile removal in the kitchen, initially with a hammer but quickly learning that borrowing Jack's sledgehammer was the way to go. The tiles came up easily so as Phil broke them apart, I bagged them up and vacuumed up the area. We had the tile up in the kitchen, half bath, hall, and laundry room in just a few evenings. The difficult part was that the tiles went all the way underneath the cabinets in the kitchen. Since we were not removing the cabinets, we did not want to remove the tiles and leave the cabinets with nothing to sit on. So we had to buy a tool and grind the tiles so that the edge of the tile would be flush with the edge of the cabinets. The ceramic tiles kicked up a lot of red dust and every surface, seen or unseen, became coated with it. This would just be another round of wiping down the walls, cabinets, counters, etc since we had already done this once after the popcorn ceilings came down!

Removing the laminate wood flooring from the dining room and fireplace room was very simple and I was able to do it myself. The material was fairly new and in very good condition so we were able to donate it to Habitat's Home Store so that they could re-sell it. We are not complaining that it's a good tax deduction, either!

The floors were installed at the end of August. Here are some Before and During photos...

Once the floors had been installed, we decided to install new baseboards. We bought all of the boards and painted 2 coats of bright white oil based paint on them, then with Jack's help we got them cut and nailed to the wall. Jack also helped us with caulking them. We have a final coat of touch up paint on them to cover the small nail holes, which is on our To Do list still.

While we were doing the baseboard project, we realized that if we wanted to install molding/trim around the openings from one room to another, we needed to do it at the same time, otherwise we would be cutting the baseboards to the wrong size. One project ALWAYS leads to another with home ownership!!!

So we bought molding and painted 2 coats (Phil is a perfectionist when it comes to these details so he did all the tedious painting, and it looks really good). After we installed them, we had some gaps to fill with wood filler, and then everything had to be painted again with one or more coats of paint. We also decided to paint the french doors from the office to the TV room white rather than the orangy wood color they were previously. With the white trim and dark floors, they just didn't fit in anymore. So we have painted the trim 2 coats, and the doors are in line to be painted next.

We are co-hosting a couples baby shower for our friends Jennelle and Greg at our house on November 7th, so now we have a deadline to get all of our To Do list complete and some new furniture here before we have a large group of people over.

Two weekends ago we drove to the outlet malls and bought 3 new area rugs at the Pottery Barn outlet. We got a very good deal for really nice rugs. The following week we started shopping around for furniture, and last weekend we purchased a sofa for the formal sitting room, and matching chair/ottoman which will go in our office downstairs (just off the front entrance hallway).

I should mention that Cooper had really been loving the carpet in the house when we first moved in. He loved gripping his nails into it and running at full speed through all the rooms in the house as we chased him. It was lots of fun but we decided, to his dismay, to pull up all the carpet and install the hardwood and tile floors. (We do still have carpet on the stairs and all the bedrooms upstairs, which he enjoys but is not able to run around like he could downstairs.) But he does seem to enjoy the new rugs and now we see him just laying around, always on a rug. Sometimes while I do dishes he will lay on the rug under the dining room table and watch. Other times he will lay in the formal sitting room on the rug and watch while I cook. I will not be surprised this winter to see him roasting smores in the fireplace, of course, with his paws firmly resting on the rug.

Here are some of the latest photos taken as recently as today. We still need to buy more furniture and finish a long list of projects in the next month, so we will post more photos as we go. Hopefully just reading this post has tired you out and you can see what has been keeping us so busy that we have let our blogging lapse!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Becoming Landlords is Tons of Work!

While we were in Dominica we spent part of our vacation working with realtors and contractors in the process of buying a new home. We finally closed on the new house the last week of May, but we will write more about that in future posts.

We decided that rather than sell our little house, we would find a renter for it. We tried to find Trinity students but that didn't work out, and we ended up getting very lucky to find a personal friend who was looking for a place and we are now renting to her, someone we trust to take care of the house and be a responsible renter! The timing also worked out perfectly because she moved in right as we moved out, so we were able to avoid having to go any period of time paying double mortgages.

In order to prepare the house for the renter to move in, we created a very long list of repairs we needed to complete. We installed a privacy fence first. Then we replaced the old, yellowing laminate flooring in the laundry room with fresh new tile. It turned out really nicely!

We also had the bathtub professionally refinished, initiated a pest control plan, re-leveled the gate so it would properly lock, repaired the running toilet, touch-up painted in all rooms, replaced the flooring under the sink, and thoroughly cleaned the house from top to bottom. It was so much work and we wondered why some of these projects hadn't been done sooner so we could enjoy the results!

We also swapped out the refrigerator with a side-by-side one that was in the new house so that the renter would have the benefit of a water and ice dispenser rather than the old refrigerator we had been using while we lived in the house.

After she moved in, we also installed a sprinkler system so that she would not have to worry about hand-watering the yard and that it would stay in good condition and maintain the value of the home and its curb appeal. This was a big investment but we consider it just that, an investment, so it was worth it.

We are not sure if we will keep renting the house out forever, but for now it's been a good situation and we are happy with how everything turned out.

Felicity can correct me on this one if I'm wrong but due to my blogging hiatus, I can't confirm the name of the last waterfall we went to. I think it was Sari Sari. Anyway it was also fantastic. The weather had been rainy in the previous days and the waters were rushing very quickly which limited us on the waterfalls which were safe to hike to, and we could definitely tell when we got to these falls because the rocks were very slippery and the upsplash from the falls was big! (It was also quite wet and cold.) Felicity and I stayed on the lookout deck while Phil climbed down to the actual falls and he was gone for about 20 minutes. Just about the time we started worrying, he turned up again and said the views were gorgeous down at the bottom.
Last, we visited Titou Gorge which was a cave made of tall gorge rocks and formed swimming areas inside. Very pretty but it was dark inside so we didn't get very good photos. There was quite a bit of treading water involved while holding the camera in a plastic bag over our heads, and the water was freezing! So needless to say it was a quick visit, but one Felicity really wanted us to see because on a sunny warm day it is said to be even more gorgeous!
During our entire stay, Felicity and Karthik were wonderful hosts and cooked us delicious home cooked meals including pizza, Indian food, burritos, and one of my other favorite things was getting to drink Coke and Fanta from the glass bottle (just like in Mexico). We did not get to visit all the waterfalls we would have liked if time allowed, nor did we get to scuba dive (Dominica is supposed to have some of the best diving in the world) so we would like to someday return!
Our travels home involved us leaving Felicity's house before 4am so we could drive across the island, return our rental car, and make our early flight. Apparently Phil was out of sorts because he left his wedding ring in Felicity's house and to this day still doesn't wear a ring on his finger since it's currently living in Dominica...

Our last stop of the day was Trafalgar Falls, which is a breathtaking double waterfall. We enjoyed the hike to get there and Phil and Karthik climbed further up the rocks to get closer to the falls. It was an absolutely spectacular sight.
The following day we rented a van so that we could explore the steep mountainous terrain of the island without any worries about wearing out Felicity and Karthik's new vehicle. We drove from one end of the island to another and learned just how beautiful it was!
Here is Phil doing his ritual of putting sand in a bottle to bring home from each of our beach vacations. This was a black sand beach we happened to drive by during the road trip that day.

We drove to Scotts Head where the Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean but we happened upon it on a cloudy day so we weren't able to see its true beauty. We did take a walk along the rocky beach... until it started pouring rain!

To warm up from that adventure, we next stopped at Screws which are natural sulfur hot spring pools. The water is a murky brown color but the water is warm and feels like a nice hot tub! They managed to reduce the sulfur smell somehow in the actual pools themselves, but when we were driving nearby, there were some spots that smelled terrible!
On our next adventure Ethan was able to join us for a trip to Emerald Pool because the hike was not too intense. The car ride, however, was a bit too much for him. About half way to our destination, Ethan got sick and we had to endure the rest of the ride with the lovely smell of spoiled milk accompanying us! So, Ethan got the pleasure of bathing in the (freezing) crystal clear water and his mommy got to rinse off at the same time.

It was the day before our wedding anniversary and I found a heart shaped leaf so I had to show it off.

No carseat laws in Dominica! Ethan liked to stand up in the back seat. Good thing his mommy is protective and kept him safe, plus Uncle Philip was driving and we all know that is safer than Ethan's daddy's driving. ;)

Later that afternoon we went to Syndicate, which is basically a nature preservatory/national park where if you come at the right time you can see the parrots that are native to Dominica. We were able to see some on our second trip to Syndicate during our stay but only from about 30 feet up in the air. It was still exciting.

They had some really cool species of trees that we had never seen before and they were so tall!

On the drive home, one of the lookout points had this fun sign. The Dominicans are proud of their beautiful country!

The next day Karthik took care of some school business and the rest of us went on a group trip to what we were told was the best beach on the island. The transport driver dropped us off after about a 30 minute drive at the top of this hill and we trekked down a muddy hill to get to the beach. We had to be very careful not to slip, especially since I was carrying a sleeping Ethan! The views were very pretty from the lookout points as we walked.
We had a nice time at the beach swimming and walking on the beach. Later that evening we all went out for a seafood dinner to celebrate the end of the semester for the med students. We were able to see a beautiful sunset so it was very nice.

The following day we got a babysitter for Ethan and we took a day trip to a cool natural water slide called Bense Pool. There is a tall rock where you can jump into the crystal clear water below, and also a rock formation that rushes down a small hill, creating the water slide concept. It was super fun!

Dominica Vacation

The last week in April we flew to Dominica to visit Felicity, Karthik, and Ethan. As we flew in, we knew this island was not going to be like the other Caribbean island destinations we have visited. First of all, the island is definitely not flat. It has big hills (maybe they could even be classified as mountains) and lush green foliage so from the air, the landscape is overwhelmingly green. The beaches are pretty but they are not spectactular like some of the other nearby islands; this island definitely had its own gorgeous scenery and its fair share of things to do to fill up our vacation!

We arrived on a Saturday and were excited because the following day was Ethan's 1st birthday party! Ethan was just at the stage where he wanted to start walking but just wasn't there yet so he would take one or two steps and fall down. But he LOVED for us to stand up over him and hold his hands up so he could stand up and we help him walk, so that was lots of fun.

He enjoyed his pool party and lots of the other kids whose parents attend Ross came, so we were able to meet their group of friends. Ethan's favorite activity was definitely eating, so he really enjoyed his birthday cupcake at the party.

A little snot makes it taste better, he told me!

I can't believe it has been 6 months since I blogged! Since today is the 6 month anniversary of my last post I figured it is a perfect milestone to jump back into this blogging game. These past few months I have pondered whether the blog is even necessary, with everyone keeping up with the day-to-day on networking sites like Facebook. I considered just posting a general pitch for everyone to join Facebook, but then I started looking back at our blog posts for the past 3 years and realized that it is such a great way to journal our lives that I shouldn't give it up. But after 6 months, do I go back in time to play catch-up, or just dive right in with a blog entry about our current lives? I choose to go back in time... enjoy!

Monday, April 06, 2009

Bahamas Vacation

At the end of February we flew to the Bahamas for a week-long vacation. We met my Aunt and Uncle in Georgetown and spent a wonderful week on their boat, the Miss Pris. It is a 42' Grand Banks and was such a great vessel to spend the week on. We spent the week traveling on the boat between Georgetown and Nassau, where we flew out of, so we were able to see more than had we flown in and out of the same airport. Pris and Beuth were great hosts and introduced us to some awesome foods that we don't typically eat. The foods they prepare on the boat are infinitely more fantastic than anything I ever cook at home so it was such a treat. For example, lobster pasta, homemade pizza, lobster w/ drawn butter, lobster sandwiches on homemade bread, freshly baked oatmeal chocolate chip cookies... we didn't like lobster before the trip but learned to appreciate it when it is caught-that-day-fresh! We also got to do some wonderful snorkeling and see some exotic fish and coral which was really cool. Speaking of cool, the water was only 75 degrees so we were in full wet suits with hoods and booties. The only part of my face that was exposed was the space between my chin and my eyes, otherwise I was completely covered in black neoprene. Apparently this was a pretty funny sight. Enjoy our photos and if you ever get a chance to visit the Bahamas, we highly recommend the destination!

Here is the Miss Pris at dock in Nassau.

On the way out of Georgetown on our first day on the boat, here we pose on the back deck.

We watched the sunset every evening from the top deck. Sometimes the clouds got in the way but we still watched to see if we could see the famous "green flash".

The mornings were kind of chilly so my aunt and I donned our toe socks. My mom had given us each a pair back in October. They were really cute but also practical!

The water was so many shades of aqua, turquoise, and blue but we could never capture them all on film.

We kept trying, though!

Here we are enjoying a hike on one of the islands (I need Pris to fill in the blanks on the names of the island because I failed to keep a journal on this trip!). We spent the day hiking across the island, going all the way up the peak you see to the left and all the way around the perimeter of the island on the beach.

Another day, we took an excursion on the dingy to Rachel's Bubble Bath. Here is the view of our dingy anchored just off the beach. It is even more gorgeous in person!

Here are Uncle Beuth, Aunt Pris, and I before we trek to Rachel's Bubble Bath.

Behind us is the Bubble Bath. It is an area where the water from the ocean splashes over the rocks and creates bubbles. The water can get kind of forceful so we couldn't stay too very close to the rocks. It was much more pleasant a few feet back if you didn't want to get crushed by the waves!

After Rachel's Bubble Bath, we went over to the marina nearby where some of their friends were docked. We had hamburgers for $13 each and Phil was able to enjoy the beer of the Bahamas. There are nurse sharks that swim around the docks waiting for people to throw food or fish guts in so we got to see lots of them up close as well.

Eating lobster fresh from the ocean below with drawn butter was a real treat. It ended up tasting more like popcorn, I'm sure because of the butter, and didn't have any seafood or fishy taste at all. I ate my weight in that stuff.

Here is Phil showing off the lobster they had caught that morning!

I'm so brave! They said this wasn't even the biggest one they had gotten this winter! It seemed pretty big to me!

Our last night, we went out to an Italian restaurant in Nassau that Pris and Beuth enjoy. The food was delicious and it is right on the water in the harbor area so it was very pretty.

After dinner, we went over to see Atlantis hotel/casino on Paradise Island. There is so much to see there so we spent a few hours walking around the casino which had Dale Chihuly glass sculptures hanging from the ceiling, the aquarium, and the marina. The aquarium was really cool because we were able to point out all of the fish and sharks and sting rays we had seen while snorkeling over the past week. The marina was also spectacular because of the amazing mult-million dollar yachts that were docked there. It was a cool way to end the week although we were glad we hadn't spent our entire stay at a resort like that.

The following morning we headed to the airport. We had decided to return on Sunday so that we could maximize our time in the Bahamas. This was nice because the weather was the best the last few days we were there, however when we flew through Charlotte on our way home, they had a blizzard and we were stuck on the tarmac for about 4 hours, including de-icing the plane twice, before we could take off. We ended up landing around 2:15am and finally got to bed around 3am after Phil's mom was nice enough to pick us up in the middle of the night. We did make it to work by 8am, with a little help from our friend caffeine to get going!

Now we look forward to our next vacation which is just in a few weeks. Destination: Dominica!