Monday, December 16, 2013

My Holiday Wish List

So the holidays, for me, are complicated.

I have a lot of extended family, some by blood, some not, and a lot of obligations.

And, like this article discuss, Christmas is really a secular, cultural "hooray lights and love and family" thing for me.

But I love the season.

The lights. And the weather. And the food. And just the general feeling of "we should be nice to people" that we SHOULD have all year, but hey, I'll take what I can get.

I also love giving, and of course getting, gifts.

No one hates getting presents.

I really love giving gifts - I make a lot of my gifts, and I pride myself on putting a lot of thought into the presents I buy for people.

But every year, people ask me what I want, a question that has gotten more complicated since I've gotten older and more independent.

No one really wants the honest answer, which is money. Being a grad student is not lucrative, y'all.

So here's my list of things I like, things I'd like to have, and things that would make great gifts for any adult-ish, 28 year old, kind of bookish girls.

*A classic for a reason. $29.99 on Amazon

*With a chapter on Southern food by John T. Edge, this looks like a great conversation piece and a nice coffee table book. $16.79 on Amazon. 

*Neil Gaiman is kind of my literary spirit animal. $15.59 on Amazon. 

*Yeah, I bizarrely don't own this. Also, I clearly think that books are the best gifts ever. $26.58 on Amazon.

*Yum. $23.78 on Amazon. 

*I'm a nerd. But this book is expensive and I need it for my dissertation. $46.33

*I have a friend who has one, and loves it. I'd really like to keep track of how much activity I'm actually doing, both at the gym and just running around. $99.95 at Walmart, Target, etc. 

*I'm in the market for a new brow gel/pencil - I have really thick brows, but I had a cyst taken off one of them a few years ago and now they're kind of uneven. I've heard this is great, and I'd love to try it. $22 at Sephora.

*Um, this is adorable. $19 at Victoria's Secret.
**Also I like glitter. 
***A lot. 

*I had this for the first time at Cocktail Wars last week (post coming soon - spoiler alert: it was AWESOME) and loved it. So for anyone who wants to get someone (or me!) a good sipping bourbon, this is the way to go. Prices vary, but it's available at most Memphis liquor stores.

*SO EXPENSIVE. But I want it. Because I love him. $135 at Dick's Sporting Goods. 

There honestly isn't that much that I need. Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Target gift cards are always appreciated - yeah, it's lazy, but don't we all have enough trinkets sitting around given to us by people who don't know us quite well enough to get something really meaningful? 

Also, homemade gifts, lunch dates, home-cooked dinners, and time are great gifts. Because, really, as much as we all like stuff, the gift of someone's time is the most important one. 

Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Recipe: French Onion Soup

When it gets cold out, all I want to do is make soup.

And watch Netflix and lounge around in my pjs.

Don't worry boys, I'm still single.

But if all of this is lazy and sloth-like and has a lot of calories, well, at least it's delicious.

Because this soup is so good.

It's loosely adapted from The Pioneer Woman's French Onion Soup.

*Seriously - if I need a recipe I always check to see if she has it first. She's funny and really talented, and nothing is too difficult. I'm a pretty good cook, but this is really for all levels. 

Basically I adore her.

I make my soup a little differently, although I follow most of the same steps. This, to me, tastes a little more like the French Onion soup I had in France, particularly in this tiny restaurant right by Notre Dame. I started with soup, then had Steak au Poive and frites, and had a wonderful coffee for dessert.

(This might have been at Aux Tours Notre Dame - it's clearly been too long since I've been to Paris.)


*Maybe the reason I'm still single isn't the Netflix and mismatched pjs - maybe it's because I already gave my heart away to a place. This place. 

Anyway. So I ate a lot of amazing stuff in Paris (the crepes! the macarons! that sandwich that was the best sandwich I've ever eaten!) but this soup was perfect. Warm, cheesy, complex, and the perfect thing to warm up a tired traveler who was, for all intents and purposes, alone in one of the biggest cities on earth on her first trip out of the country. 

Making it is a several hour process but it's so, so incredibly worth it. 

What you'll need: 

1ish sticks of butter (I say 1ish, because if you only have "Almost" a stick of butter, that's okay, or if you like more butter, that's okay too.)
4-6 medium yellow onions - this is not a scientific measurement in any way. I like a lot of onions in my soup and less broth, so I did about 6-7.
2 cups white wine (dry is best - I think I used a chardonnay, but whatever you have)
1/2 - 1 cup red wine, if you have it
2 cups chicken broth
2-3 cups beef broth
4 cloves minced garlic (I like things garlicky - if you don't, obvs don't put as much in)
Worcestershire sauce (a good 5-6 shakes)
Crusty French bread or, like I use, challah

So I definitely add more wine than PW, but this is a basic "how to" on French Onion soup. Really, as long as you do the basic steps, it's really difficult to mess up.

Preheat your oven to about 400 degrees. Mine is a little finicky, so I did 425, but anywhere between 375 and 425 and you're in the right place.

Start chopping your onions. This takes forever. But they should look like this: 

*Like half moons. You want them to be pretty thin.

Melt your butter in a large Dutch oven or other pan that can be covered and put in the oven. I use this guy

*This was a gift from my parents for christmas a few years ago, and I use it constantly.

*She's a melting!

When the butter gets melted, toss in your onions, give them a toss, and cook them, covered, stirring occasionally, for about 25-30 minutes. Of course, if you're using fewer onions, you want to cook them for less time and vice versa, but they should look something like this when they're ready for the next step: 

*Oh hello.

Now take them off the stove, put them in the oven, with the lid just a little bit open, for about an hour. I checked on mine about 30 minutes in, gave them a stir, and then left them for the rest of the time. Until this happened: 

*Come here often? 

Basically you want them to get really carmelized and soft, but not to stick or get goopy.

Next, time to add some liquids!

Put the pan back on the stove, take the lid off, and turn the heat on medium or so. Scrap the bottom for all the good stuff, and then turn the heat off and add the wine. 

If you don't have red, it's fine. I just like about half a cup of red in addition to the white. 

Stir that around, turn the heat back up to medium, and let the wine cook for about 10 minutes. 

When it's reduced some (and smells fantastic!), add your chicken and beef broth. 

*This is the wine I used - I'm pretty sure someone left it at my house at the Halloween party. 

*Yum. This is with the wine reduced and maybe some of the broth added. I'm bad at things. 

Add the Worcestershire, the garlic, and salt and pepper to taste, and let it simmer on medium-low for about 20 minutes. 

While it's simmering, grab some bread. 

You can do either crusty French bread, which is great, or, my own twist, challah. 

Challah rolls to be specific. 

*From Ricki's Cookie Corner, the best kosher bakery/best roll makers ever. 

*Tear a roll in half, and slather it with butter. 

Then, you can either put it in the broiler, or, if you have an oven that's seen a couple centuries, put it in a cast iron skillet and brown it up. I don't like much bread in my soup, since I like to dip it, but it's a personal preference. 

While that's going and your soup is bubbling away, grab some gruyere and shred it up.

*Yeah it's expensive. But wrap it up after you grate some off and it will last forever. And this is really the cheese you need. I add a little mozzarella too, but this is where it's at.

*Plus you get a fancy rind!

*I love cheese.

Now the soup is done. It looks like this: 

*Yep. I'm gonna marry this soup.

Things could get all fancy here. 

You could put this in little ramekins and put the bread on top and the cheese and broil it. 

You could do a lot of things. 

But I did this: 

*No but really.

Yeah, I plunked it in a bowl, put some of the toasted pieces of challah in, sprinkled (a lot of) gruyere on top, and sat down to pure happiness. I also used a roll for dunking on the side. 

Food in Paris is such an amazing thing, and this makes me feel a little like I'm back there.

Il n’y a que deux endroits au monde où l’on puisse vivre heureux:  chez soi et à Paris.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Memphis Life: Memphis Zoo

When my mom, my brother, and his girlfriend were here a few weeks ago, we went to the Memphis Zoo.

When I was little, my mom and I would go to the Little Rock zoo (and it was great!), but we really don't have a zoo close to us back home.

While I think, in a perfect world, animals would be safe and protected in the wild, that's not the world we live in. And the Memphis Zoo does an amazing job of putting their animals in large, spacious, almost wild-like enclosures.

Plus, it's freaking awesome.

We love the zoo. I'm a member now, and my whole family tries to come down and go once or twice a year at least. Since it's so close to my house, I've definitely been known to pop over for an impromptu visit, and the special events (Zoo Brew in particular) are great.

The zoo is right in the middle of Midtown, in Overton Park, and is over 100 years old.

From the Overton Park website:

As you can see here, the zoo is massive.

So of course I took a TON of pictures!

*Entrance. A lot of stuff is Egyptian themed. Memphis and all. 

*Obelisk at the entrance.

*We went to the Northwest Passage and Teton Trek first. This is a statue of Chief Seattle - one of the best things about the Memphis Zoo is the beauty of it and how elements like this, and the whole Northwest Passage, are integrated. 

*And of course my brother and I had to take a selfie.
**Also, I taught him well - look at that Smashing Pumpkins shirt!

A lot of the animals have huge areas to roam around in, like the giraffes: 

*I'm sure I look this awkward a lot of the time.

*This is only a small part of the enclosure. They have a ton of room.

*Other animals in the "African Veldt" also have a lot of room, and some live in a very large enclosure together.

After the African Veldt, we went to look at the monkeys. Lisa, Heath's girlfriend, likes them. My mom and I aren't huge fans. 

Actually, that's an understatement. 

I'm terrified of monkeys. 

All monkeys. 

I saw Planet of the Apes when I was too little. 


Actually, the original was scary. But one of the sequels, "Escape from the Planet of the Apes" did me in.

Just no. I'll never forget the scene where...well, I'll let you be terrified without any spoilers.

And when I was an adult, I saw "Congo."

Hell no.

I get it. They're beautiful majestic creatures.

Who also look too much like people and scare me.


Anyway, at the zoo, right as I was about to take a picture, this happened:

*Yeah. No thanks. 

In less scary animals - PANDAS!!!

The Memphis Zoo has a whole area devoted to Chinese wildlife, including pandas, in a really neat themed area of the park. 

*Sorry they're blurry - no flash around the pandas! Or any of the animals, since it can hurt their eyes.

*That's the life.

After the pandas, we took a little break and visited the gift shop, and sat for a bit. It's a lot of walking!

And took selfies of our shoes...

The zoo also has Komodo dragons, which scare the bejeesus out of me:

And lots of snakes. In the wild? FUCK NO SNAKES. In the zoo? Okay.

*I would absolutely risk the glass disappearing if the next step was "You're a wizard, Amber." I'm still maintaining that my Hogwarts invitation got lost in the mail.

And turtles:

*I know culture doesn't really matter to the snakes, but the way each exhibit is set up is awesome. 

Now for my favorite animal - PENGUINS!!!!!

*The little bands are so they can keep track of who each penguin is.


After all that excitement my mom and I took a selfie.

*She thinks we don't look alike. Ha, okay.

Probably my second favorite part of the zoo are the cats. They used to be housed in cages, but Commercial Appeal Cat Country, which has about 3 acres of room, opened 20 years ago, and it's great.

This is also where the meerkats are: 

One of the big cats had just had a baby, who was too little to play with the others, so they were put in a separate part:

*Yeah, I burst into tears reading this. 

*Red Panda!



I love the tigers too.

*And their enclosure is great.

And of course the lions:

When we left, I was actually able to use that day's admission to get my membership, making a dual membership only $40 for the year. You get all kinds of discounts, and the zoo is really a gem in our city and just a great place to go. 

Also, although we were going to Central after and didn't go, there are a ton of places to eat, get snacks, buy souvenirs, and so on. Basically if you had Amusement Park Tycoon, and built the perfect park, this would be it. I even had a friend get married at Teton Trek - that's how beautiful it is!

Zoo trip anyone?