Thursday, October 31, 2013

Miami review: finding good food

Over Columbus Day weekend in October, Matt and I took a five-day, four-night trip to Miami to enjoy some baby-free time together before baby #2 makes his appearance this winter. We stayed at a fancy-schmancy resort (more to come on that later) and decided to spend our days at the beach and by the pool. The only other plans we made involved eating.

Matt spends a good amount of his time reading food blogs and restaurant reviews, so he happily accepted the task of booking all dinner and brunch reservations for us. We're the kind of people who eat two big meals -- breakfast/brunch and dinner -- while on vacation, and we graze as needed for a mid-day snack. We always prefer to visit restaurants that are highly reviewed by locals rather than eating at touristy spots or overly stuffy, fancy places. In booking our meals, Matt took into consideration several recommendations from friends who either have lived in Miami or have visited a few times, and he relied heavily on the 38 Essential Miami Restaurants from I tip my hat to my husband for doing an excellent job with all our dining choices.

Here's what we ate and where we ate it in case you're planning a getaway to Miami any time soon.

A restaurant that defies easy categorizing, claiming to be a noodle bar with BBQ and beer. That's about right.
Dinner: $67 for three drinks, four dishes
This restaurant kicked off our Miami vacation. It serves small-ish drinks that are actually affordable and a great size. The ambiance is loud -- loud kitchen, loud music -- but it's the perfect atmosphere for an un-stuffy restaurant catering to a young crowd. I was happy to start our celebration here.

  • Brussels sprouts with cauliflower, soy and bacon, $9 -- amazing! Cooked perfectly, great combination of flavors. This is one of my favorite dishes from our entire trip.
  • Cubano special with brie, $15 -- worth it, large portion, brie was a nice touch
  •  Roasted pork bun with peanut sauce and carrots, $9 -- OK, but too similar to the Cuban special for me, and too much bread, not enough meat.
  • Drumsticks, $13 -- a little spicy, just right for us, surprisingly big portion (5 large drumsticks with lots of meat)
We were considering ordering some udon noodles, too, but the waiter advised against it, both because he dislikes the dish (I appreciate his honesty) and because we had ordered enough for two people (he was right).

Southern food, but not overly heavy/fried/covered in gravy. Fancy drinks, some with moonshine!
Dinner: I can't tell you the bill total on this one, because a generous friend picked up the tab, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't cheap.
This is far and away the restaurant I would say you have to go to out of all the ones we tried -- a very memorable dining experience.
  • Kitchen pickle jar, $6 -- several types of pickled items, including carrots, tomatoes, onions, horseradish (we think), plus served with some hearty bread with salted butter.
  • Fried Everglades' frog legs, $14 -- Eh. I would not have ordered this, but our dinner partners had sampled them before and wanted more. I tried a bit of one of Matt's frogs' legs, and it was definitely not offensive in flavor, but it was really chewy. I didn't want to risk my pregnant self throwing up in the bathroom over the gross-out factor.
  • Fried green tomato BLT, $14 -- I loved everything about this. Big slab of bacon, over pimento cheese, over a perfectly fried tomato? Yes.
  • Chicken 'N Watermelon 'N Waffles, $36 -- enough for four people to share. The chicken was appropriately fried, not too heavy on the breading. The watermelon cubes were an ideal amount of spicy. I've never had the classic chicken-and-waffles southern combo, and I don't seek out waffles in general, but these cheddar ones were pretty awesome.
  • Buttermilk biscuits, $9 -- with a honey butter that may have forever changed the way I'll look at the possibilities butter can present. As with waffles, I do not actively seek out biscuits, but I had more than my share of these. This is another favorite food item from the whole trip.
  • Charred okra, $8 -- Who knew? I've only had slimy okra. There was nothing slimy about this side. It was incredibly salty, though, but I am not one to complain about salt.

Khong River House
Dinner: $110 for two drinks, four dishes, dessert
We're always on the lookout for good Thai food. Northern Virginia has some really wonderful Thai restaurants, so it's hard to find ones that are just as good as the ones we're used to here. Khong River House is good, but I can't say it's much better than what I can get for half the price in our hometown.
  • Burmese fresh noodle wraps, $15 -- my favorite dish! Appropriately spicy, nice blend of peanut sauce and spicy goodness.
  • Korat beef jerky, $12 -- Matt has an affinity for beef jerky (the kind you might find in 7-Eleven during a road trip), but he hardly ever eats it, so I thought this dressed-up version would be fun. It was! The beef was chewy, but not overly so, and the spicy dipping sauce that came with it helped soften it appropriately.
  • Thai crispy duck, $28 -- This was probably the best duck dish I've ever had, though I can't say that duck is ever as good as I want it to be. This duck was not particularly fatty, and it was somewhat crispy.
  • Stir-fried eggplant, $12 -- My least favorite dish. It contains minced pork, FYI, so not a vegetarian option, though that is not a concern for me. I felt that overall this dish lacked flavor, but that's probably because I kept comparing it to a favorite stir-fried eggplant dish that I absolutely love at our neighborhood Thai restaurant.
  • Dessert: Thai doughnuts!, $8 -- three little doughnut orbs with three dipping sauces: dark chocolate, coconut, condensed milk. Skip the condensed milk sauce and you will generally be in love with these perfectly crispy doughnut balls.

Tongue and Cheek
Modern American
Sunday brunch: $45 for one drink, three dishes
The food here was probably the least unique out of the food at all the restaurants we visited during our trip. But, that's not to say it wasn't enjoyable, just not overly memorable, and probably dinner plates here are more unique than the brunch options. The ambiance, however, was the most in step with my style -- classic modern (is that an oxymoron? Probably.)
  • Cuban sandwich with Gruyere cheese and pickles, $12 -- This was an OK Cuban, but I preferred the one at Gigi earlier in our trip. The bread on this one was just too soggy for me to feel really positive about the whole thing.
  • BLTA (bacon, lettuce, tomato and avocado) sandwich, $12 -- Served on thick-sliced olive bread, this was a great sandwich. Challenging/messy to eat, but very satisfying. This and the Cuban were served with a generous helping of house-made potato chips.
  • Freshly baked basket of assorted pastries, $12 -- The basket contained four items: a small sugar-coated doughnut, a blueberry muffin, an indeterminate muffin (that may have been either cream-cheese or coffee based, we're not sure) and a buttermilk scone with honey and sour cream. The scone was far and away the best item in the basket, though they were all pretty awesome.

Sugar Cane Raw Bar and Grill
Eclectic cuisine: raw bar, robata, sushi, tapas, modern American
Dinner: $85 for one drink, 7 dishes
This was our last dinner of the trip, and by this point my third-trimester pregnant belly decided to go on strike. So, we didn't stay too long, but the place was lovely and the food (that I ate) was enjoyable. Sorry to not be overly descriptive on this one. We sat on the beautiful patio, but we didn't factor in the cigar smoke from a few tables down. This may have exacerbated my pregnant stomach sensitivities. Here's what I recall:

  • Marinated olives, $6 -- what you'd expect.
  • Local catch and shrimp ceviche, $14 -- Excellent flavors and portion sizes. This tied for first place for me.
  • Heirloom tomato and bread salad, $10 -- This was a dish I couldn't stomach that night, which is weird because basically combines all my favorite foods -- tomatoes, fresh herds, feta, bread -- but I enjoyed it as my breakfast the next morning on the way to the airport, and it held up quite nicely.
  • Goat cheese croquettes, $7 -- Skip these.
  • Brussels sprouts, $8 -- I've never met a Brussels sprout I didn't like. These were no exception. The orange and sweet soy flavors were wonderful.
  • Bacon-wrapped dates, $11 -- I bet if I had been feeling better these would have been great, but that night I needed them away from me.
  • Sweet potatoes, $7 -- These were made on the robata grill and finished with a maple glaze. It was my first grilled sweet potato experience, and I'd do it again.
When we came back from Miami and reported to several friends that we enjoyed some excellent food, most were surprised, figuring Miami isn't known for its cuisine. I can't say whether that's a fair statement or not, but I can say that you could go to any of the restaurants we visited during our stay and have a great time.

Homemade Halloween

Last year Natalie was an adorable elephant, wearing a costume from Carters that I found for so cheap  (after a sale and a gift card) it may as well have been homemade. This year, though, because the majority of outfits I could find that would fit her would represent the princess theme that we are trying to oh-so-desperately avoid (I realize this is likely futile), I decided I would take a stab at "making" a costume.

Adorable 9-month-old elephant last year

Here's the issue: I don't sew, I don't have a ton of free time, and I don't really care that much about holidays. But, babies and toddlers in adorable outfits are kind of irresistible.

So, going with the philosophy that I'd like to start a tradition of using as many items as we already have inside our house for future costumes, I brainstormed some ideas, and thanks to this post on A Lovely Lark I settled on using a hand-me-down hoodie as the basis for a book worm costume (inspired by this Real Simple link) for Natalie. Why a book worm? It's something she can say, it's easy, and it fits her personality. Done!

We had the pink hoodie and pink matching pants already in our house as hand-me-downs. I figured we needed antennae, a bow tie, and glasses. Because the original hoodie said "PRECIOUS" across the front in big letters, I figured we needed to cover them to say "BOOK WORM" (same number of letters! Perfect!). I debated if I should use felt, paint, or something else, and at the last minute (on October 30, I believe) I found a sheet of bright green duct tape and decided it would be our main material for not only the book worm letters but for the bow tie, too. I even wound up wrapping some extra duct tape around the antennae to keep the look as consistent as possible.

I wound up gathering supplies randomly while running various errands over the past couple weeks. I spent about 30 minutes yesterday putting it all together.

Here's what I ended up with, just in time for a celebration today (and practice trick-o-treat experience at our local library):

Here's the budget and details breakdown:
  • Duct tape -- one sheet, $1.19 (40% coupon), from Jo-Ann Fabrics. I used this for the book worm letters, the bow tie, and the antennae finishing touches.
  • Antennae -- $1.99, from a Halloween costume shop at the mall. I wrapped the springs and headband in duct tape.
  • Glasses -- $0.59, from Party City. These were in the favors aisle. They are Dora the Explorer themed. I just popped out the sunglass lenses and peeled off the Dora stickers.
  • Felt -- one piece, $0.29, from Michaels. I used this to form the portion of the bow tie that wraps around Natalie's neck.
So, last year I spent $4 on a store-bought costume, and this year I spent $4.06 to add accessories to a homemade costume. Let's see if we can keep this trend alive.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Discard of your old meds this weekend

My pregnancy nesting urge has finally kicked. For baby #1 I had the urge to nest from the moment I found out I was pregnant. This time I had to wait until I was solidly into my third trimester before the desire to clean, purge, and prepare our house hit me. Fortunately, I'm starting to really get into this, and I have a renewed sense of energy.

The other day I woke up early and decided to clean out our master bathroom medicine cabinet in the 15 minutes or so I wanted to kill before officially starting my day. I had not gone through the medicine cabinet in many years. Though I am not a stickler for expiration dates for medications, foods, and the like, the situation in our medicine cabinet was a little ridiculous. The average pill bottle in there expired some time around 2008. We moved into our house in 2006. So, most of those bottles have been sitting there the majority of the time we've lived here.

I filled up a small shopping bag with about 20 bottles of medications, both over-the-counter and prescription, as well as mostly empty old vitamin bottles. Then I thought to myself, "Now I'm going to be stuck with this bag of bottles for several months before I figure out how to properly dispose of them."

Enter my mother, who shares with me later that day somewhat by coincidence that she received a notice in the mail that our local government is participating in a medication take-back day -- specifically, Saturday, October 26 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. is National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. You can enter your zip code here and find a location (hopefully) near you. Keep your medications in their bottles. Just take your name off any prescription bottles you turn in. This initiative is designed to help protect the environment as well as discourage prescription drug abuse (though your local police department engaged in this work should accept both prescription and non-prescription medications).

One of my greatest joys in life -- and no doubt my greatest organizationally focused joy in life -- is purging our home of items we no longer have use for. Medications that are 5-6 years past their expiration date rank high on that list. So, come Saturday we'll properly rid our house of one more bag, and maybe you can take a few minutes to participate, too, if your medicine cabinet was as crazy outdated as ours!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Pregnancy 2.0

So, by what seems like some surreal miracle, but in reality is something that happens to thousands of women every day, it turns out that I am in fact pregnant with our second baby (a boy!), due this January. If you're keeping track, you've probably figured out that this means I am fairly far along at this point, and it's something I've not really written about until now because: 1) I don't have time, 2) I don't have nearly as much to say about it as I did for round 1, and 3) I don't want to jinx it. In an effort, though, to not give the second kid the short end of the stick (though sorry, buddy, I know it's somewhat inevitable, and I say this as a second child), I figured I should document at least some of this journey.

A reason I have felt this urge not to jinx this pregnancy is that it has all felt too easy. Although my story pales in comparison to those of many people who have faced legitimate fertility struggles, my PCOS diagnosis back in 2010 meant that the road to pregnancy #1 was a lot more challenging and drawn out than I'd originally anticipated. I went into this second attempt at pregnancy with my eyes very wide open, expecting similar or worse struggles. It turns out I'm that lucky jerk for whom pregnancy #1 cleared up PCOS symptoms to make for a really easy time getting pregnant with #2. And when I say cleared up PCOS symptoms, I mean, for example, there are no more cysts on my ovaries. I didn't do anything special this time; I just had a baby about 20 months ago, and that was my treatment. This is a fate I wish all my friends and acquaintances and all the strangers out there, too, because it should be easy for us all at one point or another. I never thought I'd struggle with fertility, and then after struggling I never thought I would not struggle, so I've been a bit shocked now twice.

This pregnancy has been really similar to pregnancy #1 with a couple exceptions. Overall, I'd say this pregnancy has been easier, which is (again) not what I would expect based on other people's pregnancy #2 stories. So, here's a quick break down:

Here's what many people told me, and what I've experienced thus far:

It goes by way faster: True. I just don't have time to sit and think, which is good in the sense that I hardly feel like I've been pregnant and I'm already moving toward the finish line. It's bad, though, for being mentally focused on the monumental life change that is about to occur. I'm trying to be more conscious of this and send happy thoughts to my son as often as I can, just as I did while pregnant with Natalie. 

You won't have time or need for as many projects and preparations: True. So far we have done basically nothing to prepare for baby boy's arrival. This will change as we have to convert our guest bedroom to Natalie's future bedroom. This involves another closet shift, another dresser makeover, some more wall decorating (maybe a decal?), some new curtains (this project could get exported to a professional this time, though), some more bookcase assembling and decorating, and the purchase of a few more basic items, such as a clothes hamper and some other closet organizing items. But besides that we don't have much in the way of home projects (though we have had some work done on the house in the last six months or so before we even thought I would be pregnant -- I will have to share those details soon!). I didn't even have to buy maternity clothes this time around since I'm pregnant during all the same seasons as I was the first time around. We definitely don't need to do much more before the baby arrives than take some gear out of our crawl space and make sure we have enough tiny diapers on hand. Oh, and we will need to get a double stroller. And a name. We should figure out a name.
You will be more tired: False. This is probably something more unique to my current lifestyle, but because my work does not involve me getting up at 5:30 a.m. any longer, I get this luxury of sleeping until about 7:30 a.m. and it is amazing. So, I am insanely well rested. Everyone says chasing after a toddler makes you more tired with pregnancy #2, but getting up at the crack of dawn, teaching on your feet all day, and then coming home to grade a pile of essays is more tiring in my opinion.

Here are a few ways this pregnancy has been better than pregnancy #1:

  • Though I said it before, this is the big one: I did not have to "try" to get pregnant. I hate this idea of "trying," but I understand why we all use the expression. It can be all-consuming. Though I am pregnant much sooner than I anticipated I would be, I would take that a thousand times over having to "try" again.
  • Because there were no concerns this time around regarding my PCOS symptoms, I did not have to take the disgusting progesterone supplements in first trimester that I did with pregnancy #1. That certainly made the first trimester more enjoyable.
  • Speaking of making the first trimester easy, this time around I only had about three days of food aversions instead of nearly two months of eating nothing but bagels and fruit. I was convinced from the beginning that we were having a boy because I just felt different about food. Turns out I was right!
  • I am just not as hungry. This could be a case of mind over matter, but I remember feeling like I was starving throughout the entire second trimester last time, and it has not been the case this time. Also, I have less time to snack, so that actually helps. Out of sight/hands' reach = out of mind.
  • So far my blood pressure has stayed lower than before. This could likely be a result of the fact that I am not teaching full time. It might also be that I am just more calm about having a baby than I was the first time around. Or maybe it's none of the above. I'm just happy that at this moment it remains low since I had heart-attack level blood pressure while in the hospital and for the week or so after leaving the hospital (though some crazy crap was going on in those early weeks that probably just exacerbated my blood pressure levels).
  • I'm getting more sound sleep, though I still have challenges getting comfortable in bed. Sure, I'm getting up to pee constantly, and my body pillow can only be twisted in so many contortions until it fails me, but I did not go through my first trimester pregnancy insomnia like I did last time around, when I would wake up at 2 a.m. incapable of falling back asleep. Again, this is probably a result of me at least thinking (however naively) that I know what I'm getting into this time around.
The most noteworthy way in which this pregnancy has been the same is in regard to my weird upper thigh/vein discomfort. I only have this on my right side, not my left, exactly as before. "Pain" is too strong a word to use here, as it doesn't really affect me on a persistent basis, but it is annoying. As my belly expands the annoyance factor increases. My hope is that as with pregnancy #1 this symptom will heal up soon after I deliver.

There are a couple small ways in which this pregnancy has been worse than pregnancy #1, and maybe I'll share some more down the road, but for now here are some of the unknowns that come up in those free moments where I get to sit and think about (or more likely dream about) the future months:

How will I deliver this baby? I have the option of going for a VBAC or having a planned c-section. I'm weighing all the pros and cons and wishing someone could give me a crystal ball that contains the answer for the best outcome.

How will my recovery be this time around? This of course will be related to how I end up delivering, but I also wonder about how the added stress of caring for two children rather than one will relate to my ability to give my body a chance to heal.

Will this baby be a good sleeper like Natalie was? OK, let's be real -- this is my biggest concern. Natalie has given us almost 21 months of amazing baby/toddler sleep habits. The way she sleeps has majorly contributed to our overall happiness. I know baby #2 will be awake every three hours for several weeks, if not months, but it's what happens after that initial newborn hazing period that has me more concerned. I'm trying not to say "worried" because I'm trying not to fret over things outside my control, but I know this is something we'll have to figure out as we go.

How will Natalie respond once the baby actually shows up? I am feeling pretty good about this for now, actually. Since we've gotten over our horrible 15-month hump with Natalie she has been this little ray of sunshine. She is being so cute and positive right now. I don't know what she'll be like in a few months, but I'm crossing my fingers.

What if Natalie's ready to potty train soon? I used to think (and say out loud a few times) that I would never consider having baby #2 until baby #1 was potty trained. Well, doesn't look like that's going to happen. In some ways, I feel like life would be more difficult if Natalie decided she was ready to potty train in the next few months, just because we'd always have to be on bathroom patrol at a moment's notice. Diapers seem weirdly more convenient for the time being.

I'll try to share a few more pregnancy #2 related posts before I fully gestate another human.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Picture books for a 20-month old

I am not upset that reading continues to be one of Natalie's favorite activities. We were fortunate to be gifted a great quantity of books from lots of friends and family before Natalie was born. Many of these are picture books that we haven't really enjoyed until now, thanks to Natalie's increased attention span and the fact that we have nearly hit our limit with the dozens of board books she's practically memorized. The picture book era is here, and I am thrilled.

Here are Natalie's current favorites.

Books containing repetition
Bark, George by Jules Feiffer

I mentioned this book previously, but it warrants a little more attention. Meet George, a puppy whose dog mom wants him to "arf" but he will only meow, quack, oink, and moo until a trip to the vet un-TurDuckens this dog. The illustrations are a little eccentric, but this is one of the books Natalie asks for by name. She is also hilarious in that she has named random dogs we pass on the sidewalk "George" in honor of this story.

The Napping House by Audrey and Don Wood

Everyone piles on top of one another in this napping house until a wakeful flea destroys each character's slumber. The illustrations are fantastic, and the repetition, while sometimes a little annoying from an adult's perspective, definitely helps in getting Natalie engaged with the story.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff

I mentioned this book before as well, but the "cookie book," as Natalie calls it, is far and away the picture book hit in our home. This little mouse is certainly demanding. Don't give this bad boy a cookie or else your day will be ruined. We've read the other books by Numeroff, and though they follow the same format of listing consequences for every action, they seem a lot more complicated and therefore less appealing than this one to the two-and-under crowd. I love how each page has just one key vocabulary word focus, such as "straw" or "crayon" or even "Scotch tape." I think that format has worked well in teaching Natalie lots of new, somewhat obscure vocabulary.

Favorite less-popular book
Nothing But a Dog by Bobbi Katz

I've never seen mention of this book on other websites or book lists in anyone's "best of" categories, but this is a sweet book for pet owners (though I'd recommend skipping it if you do not own a dog and do not want to encourage your child to beg for a dog). The "nothing doggie" book, as Natalie calls it, starts off by saying, "Once it starts -- the longing for a dog -- there is no cure for it." You can probably guess how the story ends. Although the text in this book is fairly simple, the protagonist in the illustrations definitely looks like an eight-year old engaged in eight-year-old-and-probably-a-lot-older activities, such as learning to play the trumpet and going to"monster movies" with her best friend. So, Natalie can't exactly relate to much except the dog-love part. Still, she wants to read this book daily.

Rhyming books
Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinnker and Tom Litchtenheld

This book seems to be a modern classic. The book title is pretty spot-on: the story explains how each truck at the construction site has had a long day and now is going to rest before the next busy day ahead. Natalie is fascinated with cars and trucks, and this book is helping to expand her repertoire of truck names.

Llama Llama Mad at Mama by Anna Dewdney

I get a little sad each time Natalie asks for the "la" book, but I know she's asking for it more because it contains nearly perfect rhyme scheme and not because she's mad at me (or so I like to think). Seriously, this book is fun to read as you track Llama Llama's Saturday shopping extravaganza with his Mama at the Shop-O-Rama. Thanks to the great rhyme scheme, Natalie can complete nearly every sentence and gets a big kick out of her involvement in reading the story. I like seeing her sense of pride as well as the way the book keeps her attention even after back-to-back readings, which she requests often. (I was about to make a joke about the need for a Llama Barack Obama book, but looks like someone else already beat me to it.)

Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle

This book is the newest addition to our library, technically a gift for our future son (oh, by the way, I'm pregnant), but Natalie of course got her hands on it the moment we opened the gift. She calls this the "dump truck book" because the Little Blue Truck, with the help of his farm animal friends, manages to save the big, bad dump truck that lacks manners and companionship. Matt pointed out how the meter and rhyme is a bit off on certain pages ("His heavy-duty/ dump-truck tires/ were sunk down deep/ in muck and mire" is supposed to rhyme, I believe, but fails), but because the story is not only fun but contains an actual theme, I'll go with it.

If you have any suggestions for additions to our library I would love to hear them!