Snow day sampler

A three-day weekend (thanks, dead presidents) has now turned into a four-day weekend (thanks, snow), which means I’ve had lots of time to write. Just kidding, it means I’ve plowed through my Netflix watch list and clicked my way through at least 60% of the internet. It’s possible I also watched the first two Twilight movies on ABC Family while drinking bourbon and questioning my life choices.

So, in no particular order, here’s a collection of things I’ve spent time on.

Stuffing food in my face

I promise, it tastes better than it looks.

I promise, it tastes better than it looks.

I’ve been messing around in the kitchen, and come up with a few gems. In trying to make myself a not sad Valentine’s Day dinner for one, I somehow thought microwave cooking was the answer. I took my recipe for quinoa flakes, swapped the milk for chicken broth, and added celery salt, garlic, parsley, Parmesan and tuna.

On the flavor scale I’d give it a 7 – nice and creamy, kind of like risotto, all in all an enjoyable meal. On the sadness scale I’d give it a 9, but this is probably because I ate it directly out of the microwave-safe bowl while watching an insufferable teenage girl choose between two metaphors disguised as abs.

I also found a not-so-guilty cookie recipe that I think I like even better than the one I’ve blogged about previously. This new one has a combination of almond and coconut flours, which leaves the cookies softer. Not quite like a soft-baked chocolate chip cookie (more like cookie-cake) but still tasty. I used coconut palm sugar as my sweetener and Enjoy Life mini chocolate chips.

Movies, movies and more movies

I’ll be honest, I spend so much time watching Netflix that I’m starting to scrape the bottom of the streaming barrel. There were a few films that had just been sitting in my queue gathering dust, so I figured I’d spend my weekend watching through them. The only film that I genuinely enjoyed was John Dies At The End. It’s a really refreshing addition to the horror genre (or I guess, more accurately, the horror-comedy genre) that had me simultaneously grossed out and laughing out loud.

Movies that I now can, without any hesitation, tell you not to bother watching include HickMr. Nobody, and World War Z. That last one really disappointed me, because I enjoyed the book immensely. The movie is absolutely nothing like the book, except for the fact that there are zombies in it.

I’d say maybe give Electrick Children a try if you like coming-of-age stories and magical realism. I’m not much a fan of either, so the film wasn’t really for me. However, I did really like the song that plays as a constant refrain throughout.

So much internet

Even on a regular day, I spend more time online than is probably medically advisable. More so on the weekend, and monumentally more so on a long weekend (now an even longer weekend, as I’ve found out since starting this post that my office is closed tomorrow too).

long-weekend

The past few weeks I’ve been working on a little Twitter side project as a sort of snark outlet. I get an email every day from one of those daily deal sites, and while sometimes there are actual bonafide deals, there’s mostly just bizarre dreck. So, I gather up the weirdest of the weird and post one every day. It’s nice to have something that prods me to write each day, even if it’s just a snappy caption.

Because obviously I’m not spending enough time as it is watching moving pictures, I’ve also been catching up on some of my favorite YouTube channels (and watching some of their back catalogs that I haven’t seen yet).

And catching up on current events.

Stream themes – Flirting with disaster

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, there will be many sites out there that offer romantic viewing suggestions for you and your special someone. This is not one of those sites. Not in the traditional sense anyway.

Just as my first love of literature was science fiction, my film and television soulmate is the end of life as we know it (in its many splendid forms). While we have an open relationship that leaves room for horror and dystopia, the apocalypse knows who I’m coming home to each night. If you’re looking to woo me, the second step is a shared love for all-out disaster.

The first step is pancakes, obviously.

Z Nation

I was skeptical about this series at first. It’s produced by The Asylum, a company known for such fine cinematic works as Mega Python vs Gatoroid and Sharknado.  But it turns out I love seeing the zombie apocalypse through their eyes (incidentally they’ve also produced several zombie movies, including the deliciously cheesy Zombie Apocalypse).

Z Nation succeeds in walking the line between horror and humor with only the occasional facepalm moment. There are a few legitimately startling jump scares, creative zombie kills (egg beater!) and honestly some of the most realistic interpersonal relationships I’ve seen in the genre.

DJ Qualls, as a lone NSA agent trying to guide survivors from a snow fortress, pulls off the difficult task of acting in isolation. Everyone else in the ensemble cast can play off each other, but even though he speaks with them he’s never in the same room as the rest of the team. And Nat Zang impressed me in his first professional role (also half the teenage internet, judging by all the fanfic out there).

It was surprising to me that a show written by two men could do such an amazing job capturing the survival challenges of women. Especially considering how The Walking Dead completely fails at that. I got angry at TWD when I realized that any time a woman started exuding strength or confidence the writers killed her off. But not only is Z Nation full of strong, confident women, it also broaches the subject of these women still having to make different compromises than men in order to survive.

The entire first season is now streaming on Netflix, with a second season in the works for later this year.

How I Live Now

This film (based on the YA novel of the same name) follows a girl named Daisy who goes to England to spend the summer with distant relatives on their farm. While she’s there, World War III breaks out and the kids are forced to fend for themselves sans adults. I haven’t read the book, but my understanding is that the film follows fairly closely to the plot (with just a few creative diversions). One of my favorite elements of the story is that the instigators of the war are referred to as “terrorists,” yet given no description of nationality or religion or mission. You don’t know why they’ve started a war, only that they have.

how-i-live-now

It’s unique in the apocalypse genre in that the kids are mostly left alone to make it through. This is not a Hunger Games dystopia where there are a bunch of adults pulling strings, but there are soldiers who try to enforce some semblance of order. Even with that, it’s a fascinating look at how the primal survival instincts kick in and I think the author masterfully weaves in moral dilemmas. Also, Saoirse Ronan was a perfect casting choice for Daisy.

Also, also, the film opens to the sounds of Amanda Palmer’s “Do It With a Rockstar,” which was a surefire sign I was going to like it. (Video very much NSFW)

Black Mirror

It’s not apocalyptic, per se, but I’m still including this British series on my list. It’s an anthology (so far two “seasons” of three episodes each are available to stream) which means that each episode is a self-contained story. It explores various themes of how society interacts with technology and the often disastrous outcomes.

This is hands-down the best show I’ve seen in ages. It’s dark, but not soul-crushingly dark, and has moments of levity as well. The alternative futures that the creators imagine are not so far outside the realm of possibility, and that dose of reality is what really drives the message home. The second episode of the first season (“Fifteen Million Merits,” pictured above) is my favorite – a decidedly sci-fi look at a world of constant stimulation.

Rumors are flying that they’re looking to make an American version of the show (much to my dismay) and apparently Robert Downey Jr. bought the rights to one of the episodes looking to turn it into a film (even more to my dismay), so I’d recommend watching the original before someone ruins it for you.

Honorable mention for this list goes to Pontypool, for being a zombie-esque film that also takes place on Valentine’s Day. It’s a bit of a slow build, so much so that I found myself getting bored, but the premise (once it eventually gets going) is interesting. Points for creativity, but not much else.

I’m always looking for a good disaster to curl up with, so leave your suggestions in the comments!

Healthy snack hack – Fruity frozen yogurt bites

About a month ago, I discovered an incredible yogurt. I know this doesn’t sound like a terribly exciting event, but I take life’s joys where I find them. The brand is siggi’s, and what they make (among other products) is an Icelandic-style yogurt called skyr. Jammed with protein like Greek yogurt, it also goes a step further on the awesome scale by being strained to the most silken texture I’ve ever encountered in a dairy product.

What I find particularly great about siggi’s is that they really care about what goes into their food (and what doesn’t). The ingredient list is short, free of any artificial flavors or sweeteners, and generally light on sugar. This means the end product is packed full of flavor and deliciously tart.

While I’m perfectly content to just spoon it directly into my mouth, I thought I’d try out one of the recipes they have on their site. I tweaked it just a little bit, and the end result was a quick and simple frozen treat.

yogurt-ingredients

All you need is 1/4 cup chopped fruit (I used strawberries), 1/4 cup coconut milk (full-fat, from a can) and one 5.3 oz container of siggi’s (my choice was coconut, in keeping with the theme). Mix all the ingredients together in a glass or ceramic bowl. This is an important distinction, because no matter how well you wash plastic bowls they are still porous and absorb all sorts of things. Using glass or ceramic ensures that no flavor ghosts from recipes past make their way into your tasty yogurt.

yogurt-mold

After the ingredients are well combined, spoon the mixture into a decorative candy mold or ice cube tray. I went with a nautical mold, because why not. My mix filled about 1.5 trays, and I’d say the trays I used were for relatively small pieces. With larger shapes, it would likely just fill one tray.

Then all you need to do is find a nice level spot in the freezer for these little guys to set. They’ll be soft set in about 30 minutes, and more solidly set after two hours. I find it’s best to let them defrost ever-so-slightly before eating them (for maybe just two or three minutes) so that they’re easier to bite into.

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Aside from the tastiness, a great reason to make something like this is to help with portion control. When you want a little treat, you can take a few yogurt bites out of the freezer to satiate your craving without any guilt. Add to that the fact that siggi’s is certified kosher and gluten free, plus they only use milk from grass-fed cows, and you have yourself a healthy snack that you can feel good about eating.

While it’s not available in every store, siggi’s is still pretty easy to find. Just in case you’re not sure where to look, you can pop your zip code into their store locator.

As an added bonus, when I emailed siggi’s to tell them how much I loved their yogurt (yes, this is totally a thing that I do) they sent me an adorable packet complete with measurement swaps for cooking and a bunch of coupons. I think the best way to spread the love is to pass some of it along to you, so I’ll send a coupon for a free container of siggi’s to the first five people who comment on this post.

Happy eating!

50 Shades of Grain

The past week or so, it seems like my world has been inundated with ads for the upcoming 50 Shades of Grey movie. For the record, I have not read the books, nor will I be seeing the film. Not because I’m offended by the concept of kink, but rather because I’m very offended by terribly written books. Especially terribly written books that hit it big solely because there’s a big segment of the human population that thinks taking an extra cheese sample at the grocery store counts as living dangerously.

So instead, I’m going to see if I can milk some of the promotional web traffic by casually mentioning 50 Shades in a blog post that has nothing at all to do with the books (or movie), but is instead about my love affair with quinoa. Actually, if you intentionally exile your mind to the gutter, you could argue that quinoa sounds a little bit like a tool Christian Grey would keep in the world’s lamest BDSM den. Just a little.

Aside from the awkward name, quinoa is a pretty sexy little powerhouse. It has tons of protein, plus fiber, calcium, iron, and a whole cocktail of B vitamins. And even though it seems grain-like in texture, quinoa isn’t a cereal, which makes it a gluten-free food. It’s actually in the same plant family as spinach, and the part of the plant you see packaged in stores is the seeds. Essentially, quinoa is the epitome of all that is awesome, the complete polar opposite of Anastasia Steele.

The only real downside to quinoa is that it’s coated with saponins, a natural defense mechanism that tastes bitter and foams like soap. In other words, saponin is the Christian Grey of the plant kingdom. This means that you need to thoroughly wash quinoa before cooking it, and you’ll need to use a very fine mesh strainer so that the sneaky little seeds don’t slip through. Once it’s washed, combine a 2:1 ratio of liquid to quinoa (I prefer chicken broth), bring it to a boil, then reduce to simmer for about 20 minutes (or until all the liquid is absorbed).

In addition to eating quinoa as a side dish like rice or couscous, there are tons of great recipes out there for more creative ways to cook it. One of my favorite recent discoveries is this recipe from Whole Foods for an egg bake that uses quinoa to create a sort of crust. You could easily adjust the recipe to accommodate whatever herbs you have on hand, and it can also be made paleo by swapping out the milk for coconut milk and skipping the cheese topping (but don’t do that, cheese is delicious). I used Silk unsweetened coconut milk in the version pictured above, and it worked like a dream without any coconut flavor.

Unlike 50 Shades of Grey, I completely understand and support quinoa’s recent rise in popularity. Not content to rest on their laurels (and some damn fine laurels, at that), the superfood superheroes at Nuts.com have started carrying pre-cooked quinoa dry goods. Quinoa puffs are a tasty gluten-free alternative to cereal. They taste like Rice Krispies (and sound like them too) but have the added benefit of protein. I love combining them with a handful of freeze-dried fruit and coconut milk.

quinoa-puffs-cereal

If, like the rabid 50 Shades fandom community, you’re looking for something hot and messy, they also carry quinoa flakes. These cook up with the speed of instant oatmeal and the texture of Cream of Wheat, but with the slightly nutty, legume-y taste of quinoa. The mixture may seem a little liquid at first, but it quickly thickens as it starts to cool.

Put 1 cup unsweetened almond milk in a large microwave-safe container and heat for 1 minute. Add 1/3 cup quinoa flakes, stir well, then return to the microwave for another 1 minute – 1 minute 30 seconds. Top it off with a handful of freeze-dried strawberries or 2 Tb apple butter and prepare for a mouthful of pleasure.

Stream themes – Bizarre romance

In watching the Golden Globes last night, it became abundantly clear to me that I’m a bit out of touch with the mainstream. I don’t think I’ve seen any of the movies nominated, and only a handful of the television shows. To be fair, a lot of the nominated films haven’t been released yet (or just saw limited release at independent theaters).

And as for the rest of the movies, seeing them in the theater would involve, well, actually going to the theater. The last time I went to the theater was to see Guardians of the Galaxy, and the jerk sitting next to me got really catty when I asked him to stop checking the baseball score and put away his phone. He proceeded to laugh like a deranged donkey throughout the film and intentionally sat his icy cold bottle of water on my leg a few times for good measure.

I much prefer cozying up to a nice quiet streaming session in the comfort of my own home. I’m patient enough that I can wait until movies are released for home viewing, and between Netflix, Amazon Prime and HBO GO, the odds are good I’ll eventually be able to watch whatever it is I’m looking to see.

This past week I’ve been drawn to a category of stories that can best be described as bizarre romance. In each of these films there is a small element of the supernatural wrapped very gingerly inside the natural progression of a relationship. As someone who has issues with suspension of disbelief, I found this approach quite refreshing and wholly enjoyable to watch.

Frequencies is set within an alternate reality where all human beings emit a frequency that determines their place in the world. People with higher frequencies are, in a sense, more closely attuned with the natural order of things. This makes them not only more intelligent but also luckier. I love how matter-of-fact their understanding of frequencies is. Your frequency is like your blood type – you are born with it and it will never change.

frequencies-01

The story isn’t really about frequencies though, not exactly. It’s a commentary on all sorts of topics, including (but not limited to) class, upward mobility, innovation and fate, all woven into several relationships, both platonic and romantic. The movie has flaws, but overall it hits a lot of nails on their collective heads with humor and grace.

3/5 stars

In Your Eyes follows the lives of two strangers as they realize they have a telepathic bond. Each is able not only to see what the other is currently seeing, but also feel through the other’s touch and even talk to the other. Even though this seems like it would be a difficult pill to swallow, they accept the reality of it very easily, which makes it easier in turn for you as the viewer to accept it as well.

The pace is very slow and deliberate, but much to my surprise I didn’t mind that at all. I found myself completely entranced by their conversations, to the point where I was literally on the edge of my seat, leaning toward the television. (Yes, I know how strange that sounds, but it’s true.)

Oh, and in case this description wasn’t enough to catch your interest, the film was written by Joss Whedon.

4/5 stars

The One I Love is by far my favorite of the bunch. I’m not going to say much about it here, because I don’t want to give anything away (rest assured, the above trailer is spoiler-free) but suffice it to say that it perfectly balances comedy and drama. Mark Duplass (of Safety Not Guaranteed, another film I adore) and Elisabeth Moss knock it out of the park as a couple who go on a weekend retreat in an attempt to reconnect.

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It’s the first movie in a long time that made me sad Netflix doesn’t let you give half-star ratings. If I could, I would have given it 4.5 stars (I considered 5, but there were a handful of predictable plot points that made me change my mind).

4/5 stars

A how-to guide for the hibernation enthusiast

Even though the recent solstice means the days are getting longer, it’s still going to be a while before the days are hospitable. Considering the weather around here seems to be either bitter cold or sopping wet, the most inviting place to me right now is inside of my own home (or more specifically, inside of my sweatpants, inside my home).

I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a recluse, but I would say that I’m at the top of my hibernation game. To help the rest of you get on my level, here are some suggestions for making the most out of the remaining winter months.

Achieve maximum cozy

The aforementioned sweatpants are all well and good, but if you really want to show the season who’s boss, full-body comfort is key. The monastic styling of the iconic Snuggie does the best it can for a glorified bathrobe, but you can do better. For the ultimate in cuddly softness, there’s only one word you need to know: Kigurumi.

Mascot of Tsu Mie

Broadly, a kigurumi is any character costume, and the characters in Japan are notably weirder than anywhere else in the world. Because, Japan. More recently, the definition of the word has been expanded to include fleecy, magical, character onesies, affectionately also known as “disguise pajamas.”

positivelynatalie-totoro-kigurumi

I picked up a Totoro kigurumi while I was living in China, and I have several roommates who can attest to the fact that I wear it regularly. If you’re not lucky enough to live somewhere within Taobao delivery range, you can order online from the Kigurumi Shop. They have a pretty good selection of various animals and characters, including quite possibly the most adorable likeness of Dracula I’ve ever seen.

Take up marathoning

Running is not my forte. Running is not even remotely close to my forte. Binge-watching television, on the other hand, is an activity where I would have earned stacks of medals (if it were the sort of thing that they gave out medals for). My Netflix marathons are a thing of beauty, carefully balanced to both entertain and also occasionally allow me to pretend that I am learning something.

How does this scientific balance happen? Historical dramas. They are more interesting than documentaries, by far better acted than actual history shows, but also still full of incidental education. I spent some time re-watching the entire series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (vaguely educational if you squint your eyes and tilt your head sideways). After watching a season, I would take a pause for a period drama.

I started with The Paradise, which is a British series about a guy with immaculate facial hair who opens London’s first department store in 1875. Despite the fact that everyone has perfect teeth and the ladies seem to prescribe to 20th century grooming techniques, it’s still an interesting window to a period of time I didn’t know much about. Also over on that side of the pond, I very much enjoyed The Bletchley Circle. It follows a group of women who worked together as code breakers during WWII, who come together a few years later to solve a crime they realize the police got wrong.

great-hat

I’m now currently re-watching the entire series of Psych (in preparation for watching the final season for the first time) and I punctuated a few season breaks with the Canadian series Bomb Girls. It’s about ladies who work in a WWII munitions factory in Toronto and wear a lot of awesome hats. It also features some stellar dialogue, such as this line, delivered from a hospital bed:

asthma-cigarettes-quote

Snack like a champion

Now that you’re all snuggly and settled in for a day of sedentary streaming, it’s crucial to throw a bit of comfort food in the mix. Since you don’t want to pack on the pounds like an actual hibernating animal, I’m going to share with you a recipe for perhaps the greatest thing to ever come out of my microwave. Or any microwave, for that matter. It also saves you the sadness of hunting down a copy of Microwave Cooking for One.

The most important step in this process is finding yourself a very large mug. If the mug is too small, this delicious concoction will never make it out of your microwave and into your mouth. That would be a terrible tragedy.

Into this large mug, add:

  • 1 heaping Tb. almond flour
  • 1 heaping Tb. unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 Tb. unsweetened vanilla almond milk (or coconut milk)
  • 1 Tb. honey (or maple syrup)
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract

Use a fork or whisk to mix it very well. I find it’s best to start with a slow stir, otherwise the cocoa powder will puff out of the mug, then more vigorously mix until the ingredients are fully combined into a batter. You could leave it at that, but I would strongly recommend taking a big spoonful of your favorite nut butter and dropping it into the center of the cup.

paleo-chocolate-mug-cake

Timing is probably going to vary based on your microwave, but I find that 1min30sec does the trick for me. The end result is a totally guilt-free mug of chocolate cake that you can then curl up with in front of the television. She’s not the prettiest girl at the ball, but damn does she know how to have a good time.

How to win at Christmas – Gifts for geeks

Although there are some people willing to sleep outside in sub-zero temperatures amongst the other bargain hunters who will eventually attempt to trample them in order to get the last Elsa costume pajama set (insert your own “Let it Go” joke here), I have never been tempted by Black Friday sales. As I explained in my last post, it helps that I’m not obligated to do any Christmas shopping. So rather than running through the aisles of Target like a contestant on Supermarket Sweep, I went out with my family for a leisurely deli brunch.

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The most effort I’ve put into shopping today is occasionally refreshing the page to see the next item in today’s woot-off. No danger of getting trampled there. If you’re also averse to full-contact consumerism, there are plenty of sites online that have geek gifts aplenty. I’ve touched before on the vast array of disturbing fan-sploitation products out there, but there are also lots of genuinely awesome items to be found.

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One of my favorite things to do when traveling is pick up a copy of Mental Floss magazine from the airport newsstand. It’s chock-full of randomly assembled interesting tidbits, and always keeps me occupied while waiting for a flight. Not only do they have subscription bundles available for purchase online, they also have a shop with an equally random assortment of interesting items.

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ThinkGeek is a go-to of mine for all manner of nerd things, even though they do have a tendency to try to mine every possible fan community for customers. However, the upside to this is that they have the menu option to shop by interest, making it easier to find something specific or specialized. They also have a lot of items that are exclusive to their site, like heat-changing mugs (I own this one) and character hoodies. Want to make your mark on this year’s office secret Santa exchange? They’ve got something for that too.

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Nerd Approved is another blog I read on the regular, and they’ve got a curated shop of products that I would love to go on a spree in. There’s a section just for holiday ornaments, and also a fairly extensive collection of Pop! vinyl figures (a great stocking stuffer for pretty much anyone). As with ThinkGeek, you can browse based on your interests or you can browse based on a category.

And, for the record, any of these items would make a great gift for that special blogger in your life.