Monday, February 27, 2012

Out and About: Hippie Date Night

On Saturday night, Hunk took me out on a "hippie date night". He's been getting a lot of flack for things like our plant-based diet and his new compost bin, but at least we can make fun of ourselves! So we decided to embrace it and visit a couple of local establishments that might be dubbed hipster/hippie.

We started the afternoon with a trip to Ikea. Not really hippie, but fun nonetheless. They are in the middle of an expansion, though I can't imagine it getting much bigger. I love looking at all the kitchen designs and cool drawers, but overall it's very overwhelming to me. The point of the trip was to get cheap storage containers for our pantries. I'm wishing I had grabbed more, but at least I got a good start on getting mine better organized.

Up next was a surprise stop at Black Star Co-Op, a cool member-owner brew pub off North Lamar. Hunk had mentioned it a few times before, and I'm glad we finally made our way over there. I'll admit, it was really hard smelling all the delicious, garlicky food coming out of that kitchen. I tried not to look, but I think I saw some cheese plates, yummy looking sandwiches, and definitely some french fries. <sigh> For the record, they do have a veggie burger, but we didn't want to spoil our appetites for dinner. At least we were able to enjoy some nice cold beer. The space was really cool, and the people watching was spectacular. We really saw a bit of everything, from families with young kids, to a much older couple out on a date themselves. It was a fun environment. I still don't fully understand the Co-Op part, but apparently for about $150, you can be a member-owner that entitles you to certain privileges. I think I'll just stick with going there for the beer.

Last stop was Mother's Cafe & Garden, a vegetarian restaurant in the funky Hyde Park neighborhood. Since we pretty much prepare 3 meals a day, I want to be sure that we can have at least one night where neither one of us is having to do any work. We're using that as an excuse to try some restaurants we might not otherwise go to. Mother's is classic Austin, so it's no surprise it was first on our list. Dinner was great! We had a ton of things to choose from, though we both went with enchiladas. I think I ordered best with my tofu mole enchiladas. They were really tasty and filling! We had to pass on the complimentary chips/salsa (since they're fried in oil), but ended up ordering a delicious guacamole salad to start. Again, you can't beat the people watching when you go to a place like this. Families, couples, friends....and I can't forget the stellar electronic xylophone player for entertainment. Hippie at it's finest!! We rounded out our date night with a vegan chocolate-peanut butter pie that was absolutely amazing. It was seriously hard to tell that it wasn't made with the usual ingredients.

Overall, it was a really fun night and I'm looking forward to whatever other quirky ideas we come up with. But if you love beer, and you're looking for something different to try, I definitely recommend Black Star!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Week 8: An Apple A Day....Adopting better eating habits

There is no hiding the fact that I have been indulgent and lazy in my lifestyle over these past few months. I could blame a new (very happy) relationship, holidays, a knee injury....there are plenty of excuses! But the fact is, I've gotten in the habit of making bad choices in regards to my diet and exercise. Sure, I trained for a half-marathon, but I pretty much did the bare minimum for that. I have completely neglected all the hard work I put into getting in shape for triathlon season last year, and it's time to put an end to it.

My family and close friends will certainly agree to this next statement- I have slight OCD tendencies. And these tendencies often manifest themselves in different ways. When it comes to trying to lose weight, they can definitely kick into high gear. For me, that usually means an all or nothing approach, and that's exactly how I'm tackling my current situation. Not everyone agrees with it, but it's what works for me. Here's how my recent "project" started...

I met up with a friend for drinks, and she was filling me in on her recent "plant-based diet", the result of a New Year's Resolution to eat better. I know I probably looked at her like she was crazy. No meat! No dairy! NO CHEESE!!!! For the love of God, why would anyone do this to themselves?! But the more I listened to her talk about the why, the more interested I became. She told me about a documentary called Forks Over Knives that focuses on the science behind a plant based diet, and the belief that it can help prevent/cure diseases and help people lose weight. The film also features a local Austin firefighter, Rip Esselstyn, who helped a fellow firefighter with life-threatening high cholesterol lose weight and get healthy, through a plant-based diet. He went on to write The Engine 2 Diet, full of helpful information, recipes, etc. Book #2 is currently in the works.

Hunk and I had both been moaning and groaning about how we had each gained weight, so he tossed out the idea of giving up meat and dairy for Lent. I'm not very religious, so my purpose was more about getting back to a healthier me. But how could I not support him for 40 days? So Lent it would be. But remember that OCD I mentioned? Starting a new way of eating on a Wednesday was not going to fly with me, so we did a bunch of meal planning over the weekend, a ton of shopping on Sunday, and officially started our plant-based diet on Monday.

The general guidelines (according to the Engine 2 book) are to exclude meat, dairy and oil from your diet. Most people (myself included) think that things like olive oil are "good fats". But the fact is that it has highly concentrated calorie and fat amounts, with almost no nutrients to make it worth eating. So the goal is to limit as much oil as you can, especially if you're trying to lower your cholesterol. That's not a problem that I have, but I'm sticking with it for now just to see what it does for me. You can get enough protein from sources like beans, whole grains, soy, and even vegetables (broccoli and spinach are two great examples) without eating meat and dairy.

Four days in, and I'm doing better than expected. Planning is a key factor in being successful, as far as I'm concerned. That way, you don't set yourself up for getting hungry, and then not having food you can eat readily available. I think our menu for the week looks great! I tried really hard to meet protein needs, as well as getting enough calories and other good nutrients. It's pretty easy to do as long as you're including a variety of food in your meals. I spent about $100 at the grocery store (excluding non-edible items), which I don't think is that bad for 3 meals a day for 7 days. Plus, I had to buy a few extra things that I'll use over the weeks to come, so I expect my grocery bill to go down next week. Here is what my first week of plant-based eating looks like:

B- oatmeal, berries, ground flax seed
L- large spinach salad w/ mixed veggies and Cashew Ranch dressing
D- Galloping greens w/ cashew sauce (from E2 site) 
snacks: clementine, hummus and veggies/crackers

B- mixed cereal w/ soy milk, bananas and kiwi
L- spinach salad with black bean veggie burger, mashed sweet potatoes on the side 
D- Pasta Primavera (from E2 site)
snacks: apple w/almond butter, veggie sticks (carrots, bell peppers, celery)

B- oatmeal, berries, ground flax seed
L- leftover Pasta Primavera, small spinach salad
D- black beans and rice w/ veggie mix (peppers, corn, tomato, jalapeno, kale)
snacks: clementine, kale butter w/carrot and cucumber slices

B- mixed cereal w/ soy milk, bananas and kiwi
L- leftover beans and rice, grapes
D- roasted tofu and steamed green beans with cashew sauce
snacks: apple w/almond butter, veggie sticks w/kale butter

B- Fruit smoothie w/soy milk, frozen banana, mango pineapple, and protein powder 
L- Hummus sandwich w/leftover veggies, applesauce
D- sweet potato gnocchi with veggie meat crumbles, tomato sauce and spinach
snacks: grapes, roasted sweet potato slices

I realize that this is a pretty radical change to our typical eating habits, and it's not a likely plan for everyone. I know my mom thinks I'm nuts, and wonders where the "real food" is. But honestly, all of the meals so far have been really good, and I don't feel like I'm missing out that much. I'm excited to see how I feel after a few weeks, and am hopeful that this will point me in a better long-term direction. I'm sure I'll start to miss things soon (cheese pizza anyone?), but so far so good. Hunk and I are trying to make it a fun adventure, complete with a hummus cook-off, date nights at Whole Foods, and even a picnic lunch on Fridays. I bet we can find even more ways to make this fun as we go along!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Out and About: Austin Cake Ball Kitchen & Bar

About every month or so, a group of my girlfriends get together for GNO (girl's night out). A different girl usually takes the lead in planning something fun to do, and I always look forward to it. We've done pedicures at Embellish followed by dinner, girly movie night at Alamo Drafthouse, fondue at The Melting Pot....always something just a little bit different. This past week, we got together for dinner at Austin Cake Ball Kitchen & Bar. You'd have to be hiding under a rock to not have tried a cake ball at some point, and theirs are absolutely delicious (and so perfectly round and frosted!) However, I didn't realize they had such an interesting savory menu to choose from!

I tried my best to get there on time, but parking at The Domain is always a bitch. I found a spot, walked to the restaurant, and was pleasantly surprised by the space. It wasn't very big, but it had a really neat bar that ran almost the length of the restaurant (half of that was their cake ball display), and there were also really cool accent walls and floors with pennies imbedded in them. I thought the design was simple, but interesting. We had called ahead to make reservations since it was a larger party, and got a table towards the back. I usually don't like being so close to the kitchen, but I never noticed much noise.

Speaking of the kitchen- I will say this was one of my only complaints. They were SLOW!! It did not appear to be super busy, but I thought it took entirely too long to get our food (and later, a warm dessert) out to the table. The kitchen did not appear to be large enough to handle the variety of the menu. I think if they stuck with fewer, and maybe easier to prepare dishes (just cheese plates, stuffed peppers, 1-2 soup/sandwich options, etc) it might make things go more smoothly. But I had no complaints about the food whatsoever.

We started out with their amazing peppadews stuffed with a delicious citrus mascarpone filling, and then each of us had either a sandwich (bacon and grilled cheese for me) or their Cake Ball Cobb. (Yes, you read that right- red velvet crusted chicken with the usual fixings. ) Drink prices were really reasonable for happy hour up until 7, though none of us were brave enough to try the Candy Girl cocktail. You just can't beat a decent $5 glass of red wine! We each ended the night with a cake ball, my flavor of choice being the red velvet. I have also tried the lemon, and the salted caramel. Honestly, you can't go wrong with any of the flavors. Just be sure you have people to share with. At $2.50 each, it can really add up if you're wanting to taste a few. But if you're looking for something fun and different to do for happy hour (or even post-dinner), I recommend this place!

Friday, February 17, 2012

My Cheesy Valentine

My mom always made a big deal out of Valentine's Day growing up, and I guess that's part of why I love the holiday so much. It's not all about cheesy romance, but it's a day to do something special. I realize that not everyone shares that sentiment. Especially those of you who think you should show your love every day. I don't disagree. I just don't see what's so wrong about being a little extra-special on this particular day.

Hunk isn't the biggest fan of the holiday, but I appreciate the fact that he was willing to indulge me just a little bit. Right before lunchtime on Tuesday, I got a text saying to go outside my building. When I opened the door, he was standing there with a half-dozen chocolate covered strawberries from Amy's Ice Cream. I had mentioned last week how much I loved them when I heard a commercial, and was so glad he remembered. I loved being surprised like that! (And I LOVE chocolate covered strawberries.)

As much as I love the holiday, I don't believe it means that you have to go out for fancy romantic dinners. Much like New Year's Eve, I think it's so much more fun to stay home and do something special. Lucky for me, Hunk didn't mind that plan, either. In fact, he made it extra special and fixed one of my most favorite meals- fondue!! I had my running group after work, and was able to go home afterwards and eat to my heart's content without even lifting a finger. We had the most delicious fondue with sausage, bread, asparagus, brussels sprouts and cherry tomatoes. It was amazing. For dessert- we made s'mores out of some chocolate we had tasted at Central Market the weekend before. It was such a great, cheesy meal, and absolutely perfect for a special Valentine's dinner.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Looking for love in all the wrong places?

Just in time for Valentine's Day, Austin Culture Map is giving you access to some of Austin's best relationship bloggers and their advice. Just so happens that yours truly was included. While I'm no longer officially in the relationship advice giving world, it was still fun to be recognized. Check out the article when you get the chance.

I actually feel a little bad that Valentine's Day is already here, and I have provided no advice for how to make it a special holiday. I think it's a fun day to celebrate anyone special in your life (friends and family included). Usually I'm the one making the plans, but this year I'm happy to sit back and let Hunk do all the work. Though he's not a big fan of the holiday, he is indulging me by making one of my favorite foods- fondue!! It's one of a string of last indulgences before we venture into the world of plant-based eating next week (stay tuned.) If you're still looking for some last minute ideas for what to get that someone special, you can always refer to last year's post.

And if for whatever reason you find yourself home alone, indulge in something special for dinner, pour yourself a glass of wine, and maybe pop in a funny movie or curl up with a book. There's nothing wrong with making the most of some quality "me" time.

Week 7: Give Back

I first learned about philanthropy during college, when my sorority chapter required us to participate in the Race for the Cure and other Susan G. Komen events. While I'll save my current rant on what I now think about the Komen Foundation, I will say that it was a life-changing experience. I loved how good it felt doing the various tasks that were required for particular events, knowing that even just a small contribution was making a little bit of a difference for someone else.

After college, I continued to volunteer for Austin-area Komen events, and later for the American Cancer Society's Cattle Baron Ball. Eventually, the politics and cattiness of working with so many women got the best of me, so I decided to look for something else. Having always been an animal lover, yet not able to have a dog (due to a schedule that rarely had me at home), I decided that volunteering with animals might be a fun and rewarding way to spend my time. I went to an orientation meeting at the local animal shelter, and I was sold. Not even the depressing video showing animal euthanasia was going to stop me. Just the thought of spending a little bit of time with a scared, homeless animal was all I needed to sign up.

Three years later, I'm still doing it. Each week, I contribute about 2-4 hours of my time. Occasionally, I will foster a dog which requires more of a time (and financial) investment. But the good feelings that come back from doing it make the experience more rewarding than I ever imagined. At times, it almost feels selfish. There are times when I've had a bad day, and going to the shelter to sit or walk with a dog just makes it feel better. Is it wrong to use them to help me too?

The point is....I think we all have an obligation to give back to our community in some way/shape/form. You can give time, money, or even items from your home that someone else might need more than you. Austin is not known for it's charitable contributions, and I think that's sad. We're a city of smart, caring, and for the most part, successful people. Surely we can do better about giving back to our community.

Luckily, this week there is an easy way to make the first step. (a local organization) is hosting Love Austin Week and highlighting a local non-profit each day. Animals, our beloved trails, education and health are all covered during this week, and it's a great chance to support some of our terrific charity organizations. Check out the list of events and see if any pique your interest. If not, at least start thinking of one small way that you can give back to your community, and see if you can turn it into a longer-term habit. I promise, it will make you feel good. And at the very least, you'll have some good karma should you need it!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Out and About: 219 West

I'm sure many of you remember the fabulous happy hour at 219 West. If you don't remember, they had terrific small plates paired with a variety of drinks, all at great prices. Well, they shut down their old location and relocated to the space previously occupied by Union Park on West 6th (which is now in The Domain). You still with me?

I met up with a girlfriend a couple of weeks ago and have been meaning to write about the new location. From the outside, I couldn't tell much of a difference. But wow- once you walk in, it's a completely new space. The lighting was fantastic, the bar had been relocated to a better spot, and the environment seemed more conducive to mingling around groups of tables instead of the crowded meat market it used to be. Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to try their happy hour this go around. Instead, we found a spot upstairs on their balcony (that looks exactly the same as before.) No reason to mess with a good thing, as they have ample space for both sitting and mingling.

Let me be honest in saying that I haven't spent a lot of time out in bars lately, especially in this part of downtown. When I go out, I much prefer a smaller wine bar, or a quirky bar on the East side. Maybe it's just my age....but MAN! There was some crazy people watching going on that night. First was a girl in a sleeveless fur vest thingy that zipped up the front. Though I'm pretty sure she forgot to zip it up all the way. I know this because most of her boobs were hanging out the front. Intentional, I'm sure. But seriously, let's leave a little to the imagination, ok?

Then there was the girl in the tight leather pants. I can't imagine that she was able to get those things on all by herself. In fact, they might have actually been sprayed on, now that I think about it. They were so tight, they made her walk funny. Surely that negates anything that could possibly considered attractive about that look?

On our way out, I ran into what was likely a hired date in one of those dresses made out of little strips of fabric. Those dresses are great when you're a size 4. Not so much when you're a size 14, over the age of 50, and the length is more appropriate to be worn over leggings- not your bare legs. Call me judgmental, but where is the class, ladies?! I get wanting to go out, looking good. But you can still accomplish that without showing all your goods. I was so ready to get home and in my jammies after all that. There are some things about being "out and about" that I really do not miss.

Maybe that's what I get for going out a little later on a Friday night. I hope that all the cheesiness is not a true indicator of the usually clientele. They've done a great job making it look like a really classy bar. It's likely that I will go back again though, only at a more reasonable, earlier hour. As much as I enjoy a good dose of people watching, that was all just a little too much for me.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Oahu 2012

I know I have failed to deliver this post in a timely manner, but catching up from 5 days away from work almost makes vacation not worth it. These past two weeks have been a beast! Without further is my trip recap, with an excessive amount of pictures.

As most of you know, I work for a really cool technology company in their Education Sales division. Unlike many other companies, they still do a Sales Club incentive for employees who meet their quota. Word on the street is that requirements will be much harder this next go around, so I'm especially lucky to have had such a successful first year. My sister was the lucky recipient of the "guest" title, and we looked forward to this for months!

Departure day finally rolled around and we traveled from Austin to Dallas to Honolulu. That last leg nearly killed me, as the turbulence caused me to get sick. But once we arrived at the hotel, all was forgotten. We stayed at the beautiful JW Marriott Ihilani. I highly recommend it! We had a beautiful room with amazing views of the ocean and mountains.

It was nearing the end of the day, so we had cocktails and dinner poolside, and called it an early night. After all, we wanted to be well rested for a day on the beach. Little did I know that "well rested" wouldn't account for the time change. I was wide awake at 3:30 am. That was ok though, because we started our Sunday off with an early football game at the pool bar (it was a disappointing weekend in football as both the Saints and Texans got knocked out of the playoffs). So we drowned our sorrows in a chaise lounge for the rest of the day. Tough life. That evening was the official welcome party, and we were treated to a tiki themed dinner with all kinds of great food stations and signature cocktails. Unfortunately, the weather didn't get the memo, and decided to rain on our parade. We still had fun though!

Post rain shower

Monday began with a "business meeting", followed by a jaunt across the street to do a little shopping at one of Hawaii's infamous ABC Store and lunch at a taco restaurant. It was nice to venture away from the hotel, but we were ready to hit the pool for a bit before dinner that evening. They had kept the location a secret, and as soon it was announced where we were headed, I knew why. They hosted a private dinner reception aboard the USS Battleship Missouri, site of where the document was signed that ended World War II. To say that the ship was impressive would be a serious understatement. We were treated to professional picture taking, a band and a food spread that was nothing short of amazing. There was even a guy hand-rolling sushi!! It was such an amazing experience!

Hard to imagine they had the technology to build such a thing back then

Picture of the US signing the Instrument of Surrender

We woke up on Tuesday morning and felt like the trip was going by way too fast. We had been given the option to choose one of several excursions, and I had picked the Tri-Adventure at Kualoa Ranch. My sister was a little skeptical at first, but I promised her it would be fun, and it was! The day included a hike, a mountain bike ride through a valley where several movies were filmed, and kayaking out to Chinaman's Hat. It happened to be the most overcast day, which was perfect for running around.

Top of the hike- we only had an hour, so we didn't go too far.  And no- we did not plan our matching outfits.
Pretty scenery. This is actually a working ranch that provides beef to much of the island.
Doesn't get much sexier than a helmet and a fanny pack.
Jurassic Park, Lost and Godzilla are just a few of the movies there were filmed here.
Chinaman's Hat- where we kayaked out to.
The last leg of our Tri-Adventure. We were exhausted after, but it was so much fun!

After the long bus ride back to our hotel, we were more than ready for some rest before dinner. My sister snagged the couch out on our balcony, and we both ended up just reading a dozing for a bit before it was time to get ready. Tuesday night was a "free night", but the company provided shuttles to take us over to Waikiki if we wanted. So we headed out with some friends for dinner at Uncle Bo's Restaurant (their Dynamite Shrimp totally delivered) and drinks at Duke's Waikiki afterwards. I have to say- I am NOT a fan of Waikiki. It was way too busy, and there were hookers at every corner. I get that it's the place to be if you want that kind-of thing, but flying to Miami would be much easier than going all the way to Hawaii. I much preferred our quiet corner of the island.

Duke's Waikiki

Wednesday was our last day in Hawaii, and the weather could not have been more perfect. The company had rented out all of the cabanas in our inlet section of the beach, and we made sure to get out there early enough to grab one. After a late night out, we took our fair share of naps throughout the day, and enjoyed a few fruity drinks in between.

Our cabana for the day, conveniently close to the beach bar.

Part of our view of the inlet.

I like to call this "shade-bathing". Did my best not to get too much sun.

Just when I thought that they couldn't top off all the great dinners/events we had been treated to, we were blown away yet again by our final awards dinner. They had set up a gigantic tent on the lawn just next to our hotel. With the ocean as our background, it just couldn't get much prettier than this. Dinner was amazing (it was a farm-table meal) and the entertainment was fabulous as usual. It was a great way to close out such an incredible trip, and I can't wait to go back again.

On our way to dinner.

Beautiful table settings.

One last sunset.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Week 5: Let's Get (a) Physical

If you're in your 30's, I'm sure you're very familiar with Olivia Newton John's "Let's Get Physical". If not, please click on the link and refresh your memory. It's too much of a classic to have forgotten already. But that's not the kind of "physical" that I'm referring to. I'm talking about a go-to-your-Doctor kind of physical. Being pro-active and staying on top of any health issues is extremely important to your long term health. I am supremely lucky that my place of work has an actual wellness center which offers an annual physical (among many other benefits). They do the whole deal- blood work, height/weight, and getting checked out by a real physician.

I realize that not everyone has access to such convenient medical care. But your health is too important to use convenience as an excuse. Go ahead- call your doctor's office, make an appointment, and get yourself checked out. Other than learning that I've gained a few (or 6) pounds since my last visit, I am overall very healthy. Cholesterol and blood pressure is perfect, as well as the amount of vitamin D in my body. All good news! To top it off, I even get to make an appointment with our on-staff dietician to discuss some upcoming changes that I'm making to my regular diet. (Those 6 pounds aren't going to come off by themselves.)