Odds and ends revisited

I’ve been really busy lately, and when that happens writing is the first thing that gets dropped. I just focus on the basics at times like this: provisioning and feeding myself well, getting enough sleep, and fitting in a bit of down time.

Last weekend was the typical crazy mix of weather Chicago is known for. It was gray, wet, and chilly on Saturday, and some parts of the metropolitan area even got a bit of snow. I wasn’t too upset when I was told that my volunteer time wasn’t really needed last Saturday and I could stay inside where it was warm and dry instead.

A few weeks ago I took on a volunteer commitment for select Saturday mornings: being an escort at a family planning clinic in my neighborhood. I think free speech is a wonderful civil right, and that people should be able to get alternative viewpoints when making big decisions. I also think it’s reprehensible behavior to block folks from accessing a health care facility and shouting mean and spiteful things at them as they try to enter and leave. Really, if you’re going to be standing with a rosary in your hand, don’t you think you should be more Christ-like and not berate men for being cowards because they are walking with a woman volunteer escort to their car?

Since it was so miserable I did a lot of baking last weekend. I made a cake on Saturday afternoon with rhubarb and applesauce in it. It’s delicious and I think I’ll make another to bring to Easter dinner next weekend. Both the rhubarb and the applesauce were put up by me in the freezer last year, so I am continuing my freezer-purge challenge.

On Sunday morning I made a baked oatmeal recipe from the King Arther Flour Whole Grain Baking book. I’ve been wanting to try this recipe for a while, and my mother gave me the perfect excuse to do so. She’s in a rehabilitation center for a few days as she recovers from knee replacement surgery. That morning I phoned her to check some details before I drove out to visit her. One of the things she talked about is how she gets oatmeal every morning, but she can’t eat it because it is so slimy, even though she usually loves oatmeal. Since she also commented on a problem she was having that would be helped by a good dose of soluble fiber (oh, mom!), the idea to bring her some of this baked oatmeal popped into my head. (The “food is love” concept works just as well, child-to-parent as it does parent-to-child.)

I’m not sure if she’s been enjoying the servings of baked oatmeal I left for her since I haven’t had a chance to ask her, but I certainly have enjoyed it during this winter-like weather we’ve been having. When I got up yesterday morning there was snow on the ground!

Good thing I got the lawn cut before dark on Sunday. Even though it was cold here on Sunday it was dry and sunny and a perfect day for me to try my new reel lawnmower. I have a perfectly good gas lawn mower, but I’m going to sell or trade it. City lots aren’t that big and since I’ve eliminated all the grass in the front through native landscaping, I have only a small lawn in the back to cut. I love the mower and the company I ordered it from was awesome. They had the best price on this highly rated mower, charged no shipping fee, and I received the mower on Saturday morning after ordering it on Friday morning. Amazing!

Visiting my mom on Sunday involved an hour’s drive on the expressways. As I drove in my trusty nine year-old car, I thought about how much I liked it. My car is pretty swanky, actually. I have power windows, a power driver’s seat, heated side mirrors, cruise control, and automatic headlights.  A few years ago I had the standard radio replaced with one that allows me to plug in my iPod/iPhone so I can listen to podcasts and my own playlists instead of just the radio or a CD. It’s very comfortable and I’m glad that I didn’t buy that Prius.

The 40-mile drive to northwest Indiana didn’t use much gas and I topped off the tank for about 20 cents less per gallon than it costs in the city, too. Rising gas prices may hit me in other ways, but I drive so little that I’m sure to stick within the $30 a month I’ve budgeted for fuel even if I do take a few more drives down to visit my mom.

Now I have to get back to work. I’ve had a nice little break here as some issues behind the scenes got fixed, but I’ve been told everything should be working now. I’ve been doing a lot of system testing in the last few weeks. It’s very disruptive testing browser-based systems because whenever the slightest thing doesn’t work right the techies want you to clear your browser history and restart. I hate having my browser cookies blown away several times a day because it means I have to enter my name and password every time I check personal email, Google Reader, or even try to pay a bill. Ah, well. At least I don’t have to reboot every time.

Travel log Spain: day five, Granada and Alhambra

The previous day and evening I had done a lot of moving around, so I was content to start the day slowly. After my visit to Mirador San Nicolás the evening before, I had returned to my room at the guesthouse where I finished the cheese bocadillo purchased that morning in Madrid, drank a beer, and then went to bed.

I slept deeply and long in the little cave-like alcove where the bed was located. Follow this link to see the room I inhabited at el Numero 8 to see what I mean about the bedroom. It was quiet and dark and very comforting, not claustrophobic at all despite the lack of windows. I slept until nearly 10 am, which is very unusual for me. When I finally got up I made some instant coffee and breakfast, then started reviewing my guidebook’s thorough information on Alhambra in preparation for my visit later that afternoon. I took a break in my planning to wash a load of laundry and hang it out to dry. Finally at around noon I filled my water bottle, packed a few more snacks (another piece of fruit, some nuts) and left the room to get on about the day.

In order to manage the flow and impact of the numerous people who visit Alhambra every year, there are strict rules about entering the Alhambra grounds. When an entrance ticket is purchased, a time to enter the Nasrid palaces — the jewel of the Alhambra complex of buildings — is chosen by the purchaser or assigned by the tour operator. I had chosen an entry time of 15:30 (3:30 pm) because that block didn’t seem quite as full at the time I purchased my ticket online a few weeks before leaving Chicago.

Since I had an afternoon entry for the palaces, the entry rules further dictate that the earliest I could enter the grounds was 14:00. The guidebook recommended entering the grounds at least 30 minutes before the time on the palace ticket as there was a long walk from the grounds entrance to the palace entrance. It was further recommended that the other aspects of the Alhambra complex — the fort or alcazaba, the Generalife gardens, and the palace of Charles V — be visited before the Nasrid palaces, if possible.

I had retrieved my ticket and scoped out the entrance the day before, so I had a some piece of mind about how long it would take me to get up to the entrance and no worries about getting stuck in a long ticket line. When I left my guesthouse at noon, I had plenty of time to catch the bus, so I decided to spend an hour viewing some of Granada’s other sites first.

It’s not hard to spot the cathedral around which the oldest (Christian) parts of town are centered, so I headed down a street along the backside of the cathedral in search of the main plaza. Along the way, I stopped to buy some tea from an outdoor vendor with a huge selection of loose teas and herbs. Several of my friends like tea so I thought it would make a good souvenir. (I wish I had thought to take a photo of the beautiful and fragrant booth!) I stumbled into the Plaza Pescadaria first, then finally into the big Plaza Bib-Rambla. (Passing the first of several yarn stores I noticed in southern Spain!)

Sculpture in Plaza Pescadaria, Granada

Sculpture in Plaza Pescadaria, Granada

I made my way to a stop for the Alhambra bus at about 13:00, and made it to the entrance at 14:00 as planned. After entering through the checkpoint and splurging on an audioguide, I started the walk through the grounds towards the main sights.

I was hungry for lunch now and had not packed much to eat besides a KIND bar and an apple that I’d already consumed. My guidebook noted that there were few places to eat inside the Alhambra grounds, but it did mention that one of the restaurants had good sandwiches for takeout. Unfortunately this proved to be incorrect information, and my only other restaurant choice was an even more expensive one at the parador on site. I had a little over 20€ on me, and while I did have a credit card I didn’t want to splurge on an expensive (and lengthy) lunch. (Plus I had to surrender my photo ID when I rented the audioguide, and since using a credit card would require a photo ID I would have problems.)

Like many other suckers, then, I was left with no choice but to buy a sandwich from a vending machine for my lunch. First I had to break my 20€ bill, though, and I was glad to visit a vendor selling chips and packaged snacks to do just that. I took my bag of chips and vending machine sandwich (salmon salad on the Spanish equivalent of Wonder bread) to a bench in the sun and enjoyed the surroundings, at least.

The Alhambra is just stunning. It’s an overwhelming feast for the eyes and senses, which makes it a great challenge to write about and to share with photography.

The Wine Gate, Alhambra

The Wine Gate, Alhambra

It’s also nearly always packed with people, so it’s hard to get a clear shot of the amazing architecture. (Although at times it’s good to have some people in the photo to show the scale, such as in the photo above.)

After my lunch I entered the Charles V palace for a bit, but I had no time to visit the the museums housed inside. Despite getting to the grounds 90 minutes early, I only had 30 minutes left before my ticketed entrance time for the Nasrid palaces of 15:30. I wandered back out of the Charles V palace thinking I may be able to quickly visit the fort, but with such a short period of time open I decided instead to refresh myself with a small glass of cerveza.

Once I was through the checkpoints and in the palace I went a bit camera crazy. The details in the architecture were just so fascinating to me. I had little sense of time passing as I wandered the complex taking photo after photo. It was impossible for me to capture the fine details on the ceilings with my little point and shoot camera, yet I tried to do so over and over. I took photos of door hardware and tilework, too. My photo collection from the Nasrid Palaces is a mix of macro and micro.

The famous Court of the Lions was blocked off for restoration, but the beautiful Court of Lindaraja was a fine sight.

Court of Lindaraja

Court of Lindaraja

And then, you’re done. It seems rather unceremonious to wander outside the walls into a garden area with no discernible exit to the rest of the grounds. (Not just unceremonious, but potentially inconvenient, too. I overheard one woman go off on her husband/partner: “Stop f*cking with your camera and help me find the way out of here!” I was desperate for the restroom at this point, yet not in a meltdown, at least! And, yes, she was speaking American English so it was very easy for me to understand her.)

After I found the way out, too, and visited a restroom I noticed that the grounds were pretty empty at this point. It was near 17:00 and I needed to turn my audioguide back within an hour, but I had yet to visit the fort, so quickly made my way to the entrance. Perched at the very end of the high peninsula of the Alhambra, the fort has spectacular views. But that’s about all it has.

Opposite view

An opposite view: looking at Mirador San Nicolas from the Alhambra fort

It was interesting to see all the people gathering at Mirador San Nicolás from the other side, but there wasn’t much else to admire. I was in and out of the fort in about 15 minutes, then made my way back to where I entered Alhambra. Instead of riding the crowded bus back down into town, I instead walked the tranquil Cuesta de los Chinos path just outside the walls, ending up next to the small remains of the Rio Darro.

I had been walking a lot, so I felt no guilt in catching the bus up into the Albaicín quarter, where I stopped at the small market to buy a bottle of red wine and a green pepper, and was gifted with some fresh bread rolls by the proprieter. Back at the guesthouse I made a small tapas plate of sauteed green pepper, cheese, and the fresh bread rolls with some wine. (Why didn’t I note anything from the wine label? It was a local red and it was delicious.) I took my plate up to the rooftop terrace to relax and enjoy the last of the sunshine.

Then I heard the guesthouse host talking with someone in English and met the newest occupant, another single woman traveler from the U.S. We chatted for a few minutes and then parted as she went to unpack and I took my morning laundry off the clotheslines and down to my room. But she and I met up again and made plans to go to dinner that night.

One of the things that had concerned me about taking this trip by myself was that I would feel lonely at night, and especially during the evening meal. I was excited to have dinner with another person, and it seemed even better than she was an American woman traveling solo, too. I imagined we could swap tips and stories with each other and have a fun time.

The actual event was OK, but it also made me realize what I had avoided by traveling on my own: all the negotiations involved in doing something with another person. We had to decide what time to dine, what sort of food to eat, where to eat, and how much we wanted to spend. After all those things were figured out we wound up at a “Moroccan” restaurant at the edge of the Albaicín where we had a fairly expensive meal. Well, at least I had some leftovers.

By the time dinner was over it was drizzling pretty steadily and the walk back to the guesthouse across slippery cobblestones was treacherous enough that I was glad to have drunk nothing stronger than lemonade with dinner. We parted ways at our respective rooms and I settled in for another quiet, restful night in my snug room.

Spending summary
Food: 34,20€ (vending machine lunch, groceries, and expensive dinner)
Transit: 2,40€ (local bus)
Entertainment: 18€ (Alhambra admission plus audioguide)
Souvenirs: 17€ (tea and a small item at Alhambra)

Travel log Spain: day four, Madrid to Granada

I was up very early (5:00 am! on a vacation!) to begin my journey to Granada from Madrid. I needed to walk from the hostal to the subway and transfer subway lines once to get to the Estacion Sur bus terminal. From there I would board a bus for the 4.5 hour trip to Granada.

Granada is just not an easy place to get to. In preparing for my vacation in Spain, I had researched the places I was interested in visiting and Granada was a city that I wanted to be in very badly. This small but historically important city is connected to the other major cities in Spain by train, but the high-speed line doesn’t extend there so getting to Granada from Madrid was going to take four to five hours no matter what form of transportation I used. I had actually extended what was originally going to be a 10 day vacation to 12 days just so I could fit in a couple days in Granada, plus the travel time to get to and from there.

In determining my best transportation option, I decided to take the bus instead of the train because there were more buses a day to chose from and the price was several euros less. The major bus line serving that region, Alsa, had also recently introduced a service on this route called Supra which was supposed to offer a restroom, wider seats, power ports, and WiFi on the bus. For much less than the train, it sounded like I would have better amenities, so I booked a seat on the Alsa Supra route before I left Chicago.

When I left the hostal at 6:30 am it was still dark. I used the 10-ride Madrid Metro ticket to enter the subway and had a short, uneventful ride and transfer. Estacion Sur was “just above” the subway station, according to my guide book. As I left the station, I followed the signs pointing towards the exit for Estacion Sur and walked up the stairs to…a boulevard. There was a map just outside the exit showing some landmarks and the location of the station, but I was just not having any luck figuring out where the landmarks were in the pre-dawn dark. I dithered around the street a bit, then walked up the block to ask the only other person I could see out on the street, a sanitation worker, “¿Donde esta estacion sur?” After listening carefully to his long answer and observing his gestures, I proceeded in the direction he had indicated and was happy to see a well-lit station on the other side of the autopista ramp that had been blocking my view in the darkness.

My early day of confusion wasn’t over yet, though. While the station was an oasis of light and bustling with activity on this Monday morning, I was also having trouble figuring out where to board the bus. The terminals displaying destinations and departure times didn’t have anything resembling my Alsa Supra route on them. I didn’t want to wait in the long Alsa line just to inquire, and I had about 40 minutes before my departure so I decided to explore on my own. I took an escalator down to the bus boarding area and starting walking along, looking at the buses and the destinations listed on them. After a few minutes of searching I found a bus with Alsa on the side and a destination board marked Granada. A driver sat inside at the wheel, looking rather tired himself. I showed him the ticket I had purchased online in Chicago and printed at home. “¿Autobus à Granada?,” I inquired. He looked over the paper I handed him. “Sí.” Success!

The bus wouldn’t be boarding for a while, though, so I headed back up to the main terminal area for a few final preparations. While I had eaten my yogurt that morning and was carrying a few KIND and Larabars from home, I had passed a small sandwich shop and decided to get one for the road. A fairly large bocadillo made with a fresh loaf and cheese was only 3,80€ and great “insurance” against me getting hungry and cranky on the long ride. I also stopped at a restroom in the station; even though my bus was supposed to have a restroom on it, I didn’t want to take any chances. (That bus station restroom was the filthiest one I encountered while in Spain, and I was very glad to be carrying my own tissues, too.)

We boarded the bus about 15 minutes before departure, and then we were on our way. The Supra route didn’t hold up to all it promised: there were no power ports and the WiFi was present but I couldn’t get my devices to connect to it. I haltingly asked another passenger seated near me with a laptop for the password (clavé — meaning key — was the best translation I could come up with for password, and that seemed to work well enough), but from his expression and actions I could tell he was also having trouble connecting, and he wasn’t happy that there was no power available, either. We did have an attendant, though. She came around at regular intervals to offer us complimentary snacks and drinks, and to apologize sweetly for the lack of power ports. There was on-board entertainment, as well: a movie, several short features on music and sports, and a few different music channels.

An hour south of Madrid we were finally moving quickly along the autopista and the landscape was completely rural. I saw enormous wind and solar farms, as well as seemingly endless orchards of olives, and a few smaller orchards of grapes. About 2.5 hours out of Madrid we got into some mountains. For the next 30 minutes the views outside my window were astounding. I hadn’t seen anything like them since a drive through Colorado several years ago. The autopista was a narrow two-lanes hugging the side of the mountains, and I was very glad that I was not driving.

On the road to Granada

On the road to Granada

We arrived at the Granada bus station, and I phoned the guesthouse to alert them I was on the way. My accommodation in Granada, el Numero 8, was nestled in the pedestrian only zone of the Albaicín (the old Moorish part of town), so there were very specific instructions on where to meet a person who would escort you to the house. For convenience sake I took a taxi up into the Albaicín and waited for my host, Rafa, to meet me.

It was a beautiful day, sunny and fairly warm, and I was happy to be in the city I had wanted so much to visit. Rafa (an expat from Chicago!) pointed out landmarks to me as we walked to the guesthouse; although there were occasionally names for the short, winding “streets” posted on walls, navigating by landmarks was the only reliable way to find a particular location in the Albaicín. Like Toledo, this area of Granada was built on the hillsides, and getting in and out of the Albaicín involved climbing up or walking down very sloped, cobbled streets, with a few actual stairs thrown in every once in a while. (In my notes I had jotted down, “would hate to walk these drunk!”)

It didn’t take long for me to finish the tour of the guesthouse and drop my bag before I headed back out. I had nibbled on that cheese sandwich bought many hours ago in Madrid, but I longed for a nice, big Spanish lunch in the worst way. I headed down through the Albaicín towards the “European” area of town, stopping along the way at a conveniently located restaurant. It was past 2 pm and I was hungry, so even though I had no idea what the food was like, I stepped in and asked for a table. My selections from the menu del día were a little quirky, but they hit the spot: a spaghetti bolognese starter, merluza plancha main course (grilled fish with vegetables!! there were actual mixed vegetables served alongside!!), and flan for dessert, all washed down with cerveza and agua.

After my satisfying meal, I continued down to the main street, Gran Vía de Colon, to orient myself and do a bit more preparation for my three night stay in Granada. I visited a ServiCaixa machine and retrieved the ticket I had purchased for Alhambra the next day; I went to another ATM to get more cash (because the Caixa machine, of course, wanted to charge me a fee to withdraw money!); I found the tourist office and picked up a map for Granada and one for Sevilla (the tourism office was run by the state of Andalucía, so they had information for many Andalucian destinations); and I took a ride on the little buses that go up to the Alhambra and into the narrow streets of the Albaicín so I could get a better understanding of the layout of the town and logistics for my visit to Alhambra. Before boarding the bus, though, I spent a few minutes sitting on Plaza Nueva enjoying the sunshine and watching dogs play.

Taking a break

Play makes me thirsty! I need a drink!

Before returning to my guesthouse for the night, I picked up some groceries for the next few days. Each room in the guesthouse had it’s own little kitchen facilities and cooking gear, and I planned to make good use of these during my stay. The “supermarket” marked on the small map given to me by my host Rafa was hardly up to American supermarket size standards, but it had everything I would need: yogurt, cheese, eggs, bread, jam, fruit, beer and Nescafé. (I should have skipped the coffee as I found on my return to the room; there was already a jar left behind by another traveler, as well as cooking oil, rice, and pasta.)

I hauled my groceries back up into the Albaicín, put them away, and then headed back out for a sunset view from the San Nicolás viewpoint. This viewpoint or mirador is a popular place to view the Alhambra any time of day, but as the sun sets the view is enhanced by the dramatic lighting playing across the Alhambra walls — both natural and artificial. Getting up to Mirador San Nicolás was a bit tricky, though. I knew the general direction, but the streets twist and turn so there was no direct way to get there from my guesthouse. As I stopped in a wide (by Albaicín standards) lane I saw the backs of two other women as they were pausing to consult their map, too. We turned towards each other, and there was the woman I had first met at O’Hare, and again at the Vodaphone store in Madrid! She was with her sister and they were also heading up to Mirador San Nicolás.

Together we found our way, and jostled for a place to take photos before the light faded.

Me at Mirador San Nicolas

Me at Mirador San Nicolas, with Alhambra and the mountains.

As the sun sank further down the sky, we could hear the unamplified voice of the muezzin from the nearby mosque calling the faithful to prayer. And it felt like I was outside of time in lovely, lively Granada.

Spending summary
Food: 33€ (including groceries)
Transit: 46,07€ (Alsa bus ticket with fees; taxi; local bus)
Hotel: 120€ (paid in advance for three nights, at 40€ each night)

Odds and ends with food

I intend to get back to documenting my Spain travels at some point. Yes, really! Its just that so many other things have been going on and its difficult making time to write.

I spent two evenings this week blissfully stationary on the couch with some knitting and not with my work laptop in my face. I loved those evenings. I could have been writing, but I really need to have downtime that does not involve working a computer.

I do need to stretch my fingers and my mind a bit and write, but all I’ve got today is some odds and ends stuff about food. It took a good week plus to get my home-cooking mojo back after vacation, but I did really good this week. I made one loaf of banana bread, some all fruit jam, and a ham.

Much of this week’s cooking had a common theme: I have too much food in my freezers. Yes, freezers in the plural. I have the refrigerator/freezer in the kitchen, a spare refrigerator/freezer in the basement, plus a dedicated stand up freezer in another location in the basement. I like to freeze stuff. A lot.

So many foods can be frozen, and a freezer can be a single person’s culinary powerhouse. Forget all those “cooking for one” columns and cookbooks. I cook up big batches of stuff, portion it out, and then freeze it for later. Containers of soup and chili are wonderful for lunch, but I also love to freeze portions of rice, sliced bread, and lots of seasonal fruit.

About a week ago, while digging in my freezer for a bag of frozen brown rice I realized that I have a lot of frozen fruit left that I should use. So Saturday afternoon I pulled out a few frozen ripe bananas to defrost and Sunday morning I made banana bread.

I had also noticed a partial bag of frozen strawberries. I typically buy a big flat of strawberries at the farmers market every year, then clean and freeze the berries whole. I do the same thing with blueberries, and also freeze lots of rhubarb every year. Frozen berries and fruit are pretty versatile and it’s good to stock up when local stuff is in season. I’ll often add frozen berries and bananas to smoothies, but I didn’t make very many smoothies this year, I guess, so there are quite a few bags of frozen berries left. It’s also nearly rhubarb season again, and I have quite a bit in the freezer from last year. Time to start using them up!

The all fruit jam used up three cups of frozen strawberries. That’s a tiny dent in what I still have in the freezer, so I am thinking that one of these rainy days I may cook up a bit pot of traditional strawberry jam and can a few jars. In the meantime, I’m loving this all fruit jam mixed into plain yogurt.

Making the all fruit jam is super simple and involves only apples, berries, and water. Use one peeled, cored and diced apple to one cup of diced berries. (I use a granny smith apple because it is lower in sugar and is a good cooking apple.) If you’re using fresh berries, add about 1/3 cup water to a saucepan and then add the fruit. If you’re using frozen berries you likely won’t need any additional water. Simmer gently for about 90 minutes, occasionally stirring or using a potato masher to combine the fruit well. Cook it down to a consistency you like (mine was somewhere between apple butter and apple sauce), then remove from heat. If you want it really smooth you can puree it in a blender, food processor, or with a stick blender. I like it without any further blending. Because this jam is made without any additional sugar it is not highly sweet, but the pure fruit taste really comes through and I love that more than sugary sweetness. After cooling, it can also be portioned out and frozen in cubes or dollops for later use.

The ham I baked had also been sitting in the freezer quite a while. I’ve had sliced ham dinners twice this week and will now move on to casseroles and making soup with the bone. Some of the soup and maybe even some of the casserole will wind up back in the freezer for lunches and convenient evening meals, but at least I’m chipping away at the total volume, right?

What have you been cooking? Do you use your freezer much?