Wednesday, December 31, 2014

best of 2014 | best books

Follow what I read and chat with me about books on Instagram: @funnelcloudrach | #booksandbeverages

It's no secret that I love lists. And book lists are pretty much the best thing in the world. I have printed out copies of everything from the Pulitzer winners from the last century (someday I will read all of them) to Amazon's 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime (someday I will read all of those, too).

The end of the year is pretty much the best time for a list lover like myself - it's when year end best of lists are released and I find myself poring over the best books lists from The Washington Post, The New York Times, Book Riot, Slate, Paste, Huffington Post, Time, and The Wall Street Journal. So many books that I haven't read! (Of The Washington Post's 50 Best Fiction Books of 2014, I found that I'm interested in reading 45 of them!) My library queue and iBooks wish list grow by dozens and dozens of titles. It's also an overwhelming time of year, as I make promises to myself to READ ALL THESE BOOKS IN 2015. Every January I'm jazzed to catch up on all the titles I've been meaning to read, all the half-finished books that have been littering my nightstand for years, all the classics I never read in school, and all the current books that everyone is raving about. It never happens that way - I'm usually off to a good start at the beginning of the year, ramp up my reading in summer, and then hit a complete reading slump come fall. Plus, there are all those other daily responsibilities and things I should be focusing on, like oh, my business, that keep me from living my life as a full-time bookworm. Oh well, I have the best intentions.

(And then I realize that there will be more best of lists coming out in a year and I'll add dozens more titles to my to read pile and the backlog is just overwhelming!)

I only read 26 books this year, so my excitement over all the books I want to read in 2015 is a bit misleading when it comes to my best books list of 2014. I read some good books this year for sure, but nothing really seems to stand out as the best. I feel like there were a lot of B+s, but not the A+ books that I remember fondly for years and recommend to friends. (I still remember my favorite books from 2011 and 2012.) I struggled a bit with reading consistently during the second half of the year as we were traveling so much, so there were quite a few books that I started and never finished. Maybe those were the A+ books that I never found this year.

What I Read in 2014:

Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan
The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
Just Don't Fall by Josh Sundquist
The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver
Half a Life by Darin Strauss
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida
The Tenth of December by George Saunders
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard
Still Alice by Lisa Genova
The End of the Alphabet by C.S. Richardson
The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman
Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris
The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
Unlikely Brothers by John Prendergast and Michael Mattocks
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Congratulations, by the way by George Saunders
The Hospital Suite by John Porcellino
The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

Total number of books: 26
Fiction: 17
Non-Fiction: 9 (one was a speech and one was a graphic memoir)
By Male Authors: 15
By Female Authors: 11

Best non-fiction book definitely goes to Destiny of The Republic. This book was really interesting and educational - I knew nothing about President Garfield and I'm guessing most people don't as he had the second shortest presidency in the history of the United States. He was a fascinating man. The medical practices of the 1800s will shock and horrify you. This book is kind of along the lines of Unbroken, but not quite as engrossing. Unbroken was definitely an A+ book, and this one is a solid B+.

My favorite novels were The Orphan Master's Son (disturbing and engrossing), Still Alice, and The Good Earth. Honorable Mention goes to the book everyone was talking about this year: The Goldfinch. Many people loved this book, some hated it or couldn't get through it. I never wanted to put it down, but once I was finished, I wasn't sure what to think. I liked it. It was interesting and had plot twists, but also some irritating characters. By the end, it felt like the movie that had gone on too long and was just getting a bit ridiculous. Solid B+.

Also, The Turn of the Screw is the most boring book in the history of ever. I feel bad making such a hateful statement, but Henry James is long dead and this book totally sucked.

And now back to my lists and my library queue and hoping to make 2015 the most literary year yet...

Saturday, November 8, 2014

that's what he said . #9

*We interrupt this lack of blogging for some comic relief:*

Larry: We had our first frost last night.
Me: "When the frost is on the pumpkin..." How does it go?
Larry: Your daddy's a bumpkin?

(Poetry fail!)

Me: Which smells worse - dog food breath or beer breath?
Larry: What about farts?

(These boys are trying to kill me!)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

these feet...

these feet 2014
Over the past three months, these feet have tromped all over VA, NJ, CO, WY, ME, and NM. They've hiked on trails and boardwalks, and through mountains, streams, and canyons. They've explored cities, climbed ladders, and pedaled bicycles. They've trekked through 8 airports, sat restlessly on 10 flights, and slept in 10 different beds...

As I was sitting on a plane flying home from New Mexico yesterday, I had images of all the places Larry and I have traveled to over the past year and a half flashing through my brain: Oahu, Maui, Smith IslandKentucky, North Carolina, New Jersey, Colorado, Wyoming, Maine, New Mexico... My mind was zipping all over the USA as hundreds of mental photos flew through my head. They say pictures of your life flash before your eyes before you die, and if this is what I'll see, I'll know that at least I experienced life to the fullest in 2013-14. But I'm not sure where I am right now...

It seems like just yesterday that it was June, and I was anticipating the beginning of summer. I was looking forward to eating dinner on our back porch, sweet corn, cold beers, lazy weekends, and perhaps a trip to the beach. And then I was whisked across the map via airplane: DCA>DEN>DCA, DCA>ORD>JAC>DEN>IAD, DCA>BGR>DCA, BWI>ABQ>BWI. And now suddenly you're telling me it's October?! I feel a bit like I was blindfolded, spun around, and placed stumbling and dizzy in the middle of the U.S. map. Where am I today? I've been to the mountains, the desert, the city, the coast, the forest. I've slept in secluded cabins and fancy hotel rooms. That feeling of waking up in an unfamiliar bed and taking a few seconds to figure out where I am is all too familiar right now. I'm feeling a bit discombobulated.

I'm not the kind of person who gets homesick. I prefer to be out in the world exploring and adventuring and trying new things. At home, I fall into ruts and bad habits and the routine of daily life wears me down and zaps my energy, motivation, and attitude. That's not to say I don't miss things in Virginia when we're away: my dogs, our friends and family, and after spending several nights sleeping in a Motel 6 bed with a pillow that was the approximate size and thickness of a piece of kleenex, I definitely appreciate our plush king-sized bed at home.

So while I'm not quite sure how to transition back into life at home, after months of scheduling one last minute trip after another, and hours spent on planes and in airports, I think I'm finally ready to be here for a while. And after visiting the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum and the incredible Canyon Road in Santa Fe, I feel more artistically inspired than I've been in years. I need to act on that before it disappears! Within a week, I'll probably be itching for adventure again, but right now I can say that I don't want to see the inside of another airplane until 2015.

So good job, feet. You've taken me far this year. I've pushed you to walk further and climb higher than you ever have before. And you've allowed me to explore and interact with new environments and people all over the country. You've taken me to see things that inspire me artistically - the natural world, the architecture of different regions of the U.S., the work of other artists. You've treated me well, feet, but I think it's time to put you up for a bit. At least until next week...

Sunday, September 28, 2014

life list #29a: see a mountain goat in the wild

mount evans, colorado
Are you mocking me, Goat?

It's been a long time since I wrote a Life List post, but as I was scrolling through my list of all the things I wanted (or thought I wanted) to do with my life since 2006, I realized I've checked off quite a few items in the last year. (I also realized it's time to revisit that list - there is some hilarious stuff on there and it might be time for an update!)

Anyway, I've been on the quest to see a mountain goat or a bighorn sheep in the wild since Larry and I first visited Colorado together in 2005. We've been to numerous national parks together and time after time, these creatures have evaded me. FOR NINE YEARS. It's become almost comical.
mount evans, colorado
On my fourth trip to Colorado in July, I finally saw and photographed the elusive mountain goat on Mount Evans. With a summit at over 14,000 feet, Mount Evans is the highest paved road in North America, and my friend Sarah, who lives in Denver, assured me that every time she's been up Mount Evans she has seen mountain goats. Ah, but you haven't tried to see mountain goats with me, Sarah. Something *will* go wrong...
(Told you so!)
mount evans, colorado
mount evans, colorado
mount evans, colorado
mount evans, colorado
Looking for goats? Pondering the meaning of the universe? Appreciating the awesome beauty of the natural world? 
Nope, she was intrigued by that drainage culvert.

Our expedition to see the goats actually took two attempts over a span of two days. There were originally six of us who started out on this adventure, but due to flat tires and other mishaps, only three of us made it to the top. (The girls, obviously!)
mount evans, colorado
It was worth it. Mount Evans was beautiful. And I FINALLY saw a goat. Not just one goat, but LOTS of goats, including the jerk who stuck his tongue out at me. Also, BABY GOATS.
mount evans, colorado
mount evans, colorado
mount evans, colorado
mount evans, colorado
mount evans, colorado
mount evans, colorado
mount evans, colorado
mount evans, colorado
mount evans, colorado
mount evans, colorado
mount evans, colorado
My nine year quest to see a mountain goat is finally over. Life List #29: Finally see an elusive mountain goat or bighorn sheep in the wild. Take its picture. Check...

But I'm still searching for that blasted bighorn sheep!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

collections | summer souvenirs 2014

collections | summer souvenirs
Today is the first day of Fall. Summer 2014 is officially over. I'm so sad to see it go, but man, it was one for the books! We had so many amazing travel opportunities and took more trips this summer than we ever have. (We typically prefer to travel during the off-season to avoid crowds and save money, so we rarely travel during the summer months.) But this summer was jam-packed with repeatedly packing our suitcases, sitting on airplanes, and outdoor activities in multiple states. It flew by, but it was awesome.

A couple weeks ago, Veronika posted a picture of her souvenirs of summer and I knew I had to copy the idea since it fits in perfectly with my Collections series. You really should just go read her post because she perfectly sums up my own desire to hoard travel ephemera and various pieces of useless crap that I collect as I go. I've mostly trained myself to accept that photos are the best souvenirs (they're free and don't take up space), but I still end up with tens of thousands of digital pictures that I can't seem to sort through. And even though I've learned to limit myself when buying souvenirs (I usually only allow myself to spend money on postcards and Christmas ornaments), I return from every vacation with a pile of maps, receipts, lists, tickets, brochures, and boarding passes. Most of it is garbage, but I just can't seem to throw away my memories!

Anyway, I thought Veronika's idea to photograph her collection of souvenirs was genius and would allow me to document the stuff I collected and then get rid of the useless bits of paper that clutter up my house. So here is the story of my summer, as told by the crap I collected along the way...
collections | summer souvenirs
 1   Park Maps - Mount Evans, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Acadia
 2   Toiletries Kit provided by United Airlines after losing our luggage
 3   Map of Jackson, WY
 4   DC VegFest Program
 5   Bison Sketchbook purchased at the Jackson Airport
 6   Bike Maps
 7   Trail Map - Cascade Canyon, Grand Teton National Park
 8   Bear Warning Flyer - Grand Teton National Park (we carried bear spray on our WY hikes)
 9   Books - I discovered I can buy paperbacks at the library, 3 for $1
10  National Parks Annual Pass - The best $80 we spend each year
11  Balsam Pillow - Acadia National Park (Smells like my Nana's house!)
12  SD Cards with 25 GB of digital photos
13  Bottle Cap - Moxie soda from ME
14  Museum Tickets - Museum of Natural History butterfly pavilion and Lemurs 3D IMAX movie
15  Concert Tickets - John Eddie at The Stone Pony, NJ
16  Flip Flops - Purchased at Jackson, WY Kmart after airline lost our luggage
17  Boarding Passes - Flew on 8 flights, but booked on twice as many due to delays/cancellations
18  Belvoir Farms Lemonade Label - my favorite non-alcoholic summer beverage
19  Vegetables from Bull Run Mountain Farm CSA
20  List of things to look forward to in Fall
21  Reasons This Summer Was Awesome (Notepads available in my shop.)
22  Camelbak Water Bottle for my new bike
23  Business Card - Little Notch Bakery, Southwest Harbor, ME
24  Map Pins to track our summer travels on our travel map
25  Sailboat Christmas Ornament from Acadia National Park
26  Coaster - Bluejacket Brewery, DC
27  Moose Sticker from WY
28  Bike Taillight
29  Matches from Matchbox Chinatown, where we celebrated our 11th anniversary (and first date)
30  Cork from a bottle of Carnivor Cabernet Sauvignon, which we drank at our cabin in ME
31  Beach Badges from Belmar, NJ
32  Brochures - Clyfford Still Museum, Denver Art Museum, Chihuly at Denver Botanic Gardens
33  Headlamp for dark nights in campgrounds and cabins
34  Packing Lists
35  Homemade Salsa and Pesto - The freezer is full!
36  Parking Pass - Acadia National Park
37  Hike Sticker - I think this came with a pair of shoes
38  List of things to do in Denver, written on hotel stationery
39  Trail List - Grand Teton National Park
40  Vehicle Pass - Mount Evans, CO
41  Bobo's Oat Bar - our favorite trail snack
42  List - 2 pages of bike research. My bike was the best "souvenir", but it wouldn't fit in the photo.
43  Postcards for my travel journal

And maybe someday (is the year 2020 a reasonable goal?), I'll find the time to sort through my vacation photos from 2014 and blog about our amazing summer trips to Colorado, Wyoming, and Maine...

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

postcard travel journals

postcard albums
Almost four years ago, I wrote a blog post about my lifelong postcard collection. A few weeks afterwards, I organized my postcards into albums, but true to disorganized Rachel form, I failed to post an update as to how I ended up organizing my collection. Today, my friend Sarah asked what kind of albums I use for my postcards since she wants to create an album for her four year old daughter, Anna, who has a growing collection of postcards. So I was spurred to action and I grabbed my camera and took some photos of my current albums.

What I wanted to share today was how I document our travels. While I have a compulsion to document the shit out of everything (much to Larry's annoyance), I am not at all interested in scrapbooking and post-sixth grade, I've never successfully kept a journal for more than a few days. My blog is definitely my most successful means of documenting my life. I am obsessed with photography and have a hard drive with probably a hundred thousand photos on it. I have the best intentions of creating albums for all the vacations that Larry and I have taken together, but making photo books is a somewhat gargantuan task. (Someday...)
postcard albums
I have, however, been writing postcards about all our travels since Larry and I took our first vacation together in St. Thomas in 2004. I've written a daily postcard for every vacation Larry and I have taken over the past ten years and now have amassed several volumes of travel journals - all written on the backs of postcards and stored in simple 4x6 albums.
postcard albums
I love this method - it's simple and doesn't take much time as your journal entry is limited to what you can fit on the back of a postcard. (I don't actually mail the postcards, so I can write two columns of text on each one.) It helps to write each night while our day's adventures are still fresh in my mind - and that way, I've still documented our vacation even if I don't get around to blogging about it until months later.
postcard albums
I have postcards from our adventures in national parks, road trips with friends, and our wedding in Hawaii. Here are the cards from our most recent trip to Wyoming a few weeks ago:
postcard albums
postcard albums
I created a simple title page for each book. The back of the title page is a map where I can write the dates we traveled to each location:
postcard albums
The goal here is to keep it simple or I'd never be able to keep up with this project. 4x6 postcards in 4x6 albums, done.
postcard albums
postcard albums
As for Sarah's question about the albums, I use 4x6 SEI Preservation Albums. I'm sure there are fancier albums out there (my choices were limited when I bought these four years ago), but I like these because unlike a lot of the mini albums that only hold 10-20 photos each, you can add extra plastic sleeves to these albums with SEI refills. (I have about 50 postcards per album.) These albums also allow the front and the back of the postcard to be visible and display only one postcard per page - both important criteria for making my album feel like a book and read like a page-a-day journal. They aren't fancy, but they do the trick and only cost a few bucks each at ShopSEI or

I used the same method for organizing the postcards I've been collecting since childhood, starting with the first postcard I got from my dad in 1983:
postcard album
Now I've got my postcard collection organized and a nice little stack of memories to flip though.

And I'll be sure to send little Anna some more postcards for her collection, just as friends and family did for me when I was little.

Monday, August 18, 2014

summery summary

Summer on the back porch - a duet by Larry and special guest, Merlin of The Borrowed Abode.

When I last blogged, I think it was still snowing. And I was sick. Don't worry, I haven't really been sick for the past four months. Nor have I given up blogging or been intentionally hiding under a rock. There have been a few frustrations keeping me from writing (a broken computer and a complete meltdown of all Apple products in the Smoellke house being the main problem), but mostly I've just been busy doing other things.

My summer activities can pretty much be summarized into three categories: books, travel, and vegetables. Oh yeah, and broken shit - like my computer. (And also the car, toilet, tub, kitchen sink, and front door knob. And my iPhone. Pretty much everything is broken right now.)

Anyway, I thought I'd break the blogging ice with a summary of what we've been up to these past few months. I hope to write in detail about a lot of these things at some point in the future, but for now - bullets:

Summer is reading season for me, and I've been checking out huge stacks of books from the library and tearing through them. Just like last summer, I've been instagramming what I've been reading (and drinking) - check it out with hashtag #booksandbeverages. I'm pretty much obsessed with books right now - I like discussing them and I'm currently addicted to the Dear Book Nerd podcast - give it a listen, fellow bookworms!

We've been out of town 18 days out of the past month. And I love it. In July we took trips to New Jersey, Colorado, and Wyoming. We visited friends and family, explored national parks, hiked, biked, floated, sat on the beach, and tried new restaurants. Next month we go to Maine. It could not be a more perfect way to spend summer. I am my happiest when I am traveling. Our relationship is at its best when we're exploring the world together. And travel is such a great reminder of all that is out there and all that I want to see and do in my life. (Keeping up with life at home in between trips is a bit chaotic though. The house is littered with suitcases, receipts, maps, and piles of dirty clothes. Oh well!)

Larry and I have been eating a plant-based diet since the end of March. It wasn't something I felt comfortable writing about when we made the switch, but now we're four and half months in and I've been surprised at how many friends have expressed interest, curiosity, and support for our new diet. So at some point I will share our thoughts and favorite recipes (and I promise not to be a preachy vegan!). We also joined a CSA this year (Bull Run Mountain Farm) and so we have spent the summer drowning in vegetables. I have enough homemade salsa and pickles and pesto to feed an army!

This spring we got into a weekend tradition of taking a hike or visiting our CSA farm in the morning and then stopping at a winery on the way home to sit outside and enjoy a bottle of wine in the Virginia (or Maryland) countryside. We've been to Paradise Springs, The Winery at Bull Run, Greenhill Winery, Maggie Malick Wine Cave, and Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard. We also love stopping at our favorite lunch spot in Falls Church, Nourish Market, for vegan chick'n salad sandwiches. Evenings are spent in our own backyard.

Exercise is still a part of my life, though I've found I have a hard time sticking to a routine when I'm traveling so much. Luckily, we've had very active vacations that have included hikes and bike rides, so I'm still logging lots of miles on my FitBit and instagramming my progress with hashtag #ayearofactive. We're currently obsessed with cycling and are looking to buy bikes of our own, which so far has proven more frustrating/confusing than shopping for a car. (We've been to NINE bike shops in the past week...)

When we started changing our diet back in March, it only seemed natural to pay more attention to what I was putting ON my body as well. I've spent the past five months switching to natural and chemical-free skin and beauty products. I've found some great stuff and am still searching for others. (Mineral sunscreen is a bust so far - the ones I've tried leave my skin coated with a white film that I can't stand!) This is another topic I'll write more about, when I have all the answers...

My business has been put on the back burner this year. I'm still shipping prints and I even designed a new product, but I'm taking a break from art markets until the holidays. I'm also discontinuing the majority of the prints in my shop - so once they sell out on Etsy they'll be gone forever. But new stuff and hopefully a new website will take their place in the coming months, once I get these technical snafus sorted out...

Back to that broken computer. It's still broken. It's actually been broken since January. (I'm currently blogging from Larry's laptop which he brought home from work for the weekend.) And yeah, it's annoying to not have a computer, but it's also kind of nice. I like spending my time doing things other than staring at a screen all day. I like not spending hours editing photos. But it's no way to run a business or keep in touch with people. I honestly cannot keep up with 200 e-mails a day on my phone (which seems to be selective about what messages it receives anyway), so if you e-mailed me this year and I didn't get back to you, I offer my sincerest apologies and I promise I am not intentionally ignoring anyone - many e-mails have unfortunately slipped through the cracks. I've told my friends that I am currently only capable of communicating by text message or Instagram!

So I can't say that this is the beginning of regular blogging again for me, but I at least wanted to check in. Hopefully, I'll save the cash/gain the know-how to fix my poor iMac soon. Until then, Instagram...and exploring the world!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

sick days

rumpled bed
There's something so inviting about afternoon sunlight on a rumpled bed.

Just when exercise was starting to become a habit and I actually began craving daily activity, I had to go and get sick. It's thrown a major monkey wrench in my #ayearofactive and April swimming goals, which is really frustrating. On the plus side, being sick has given me plenty of time to lounge around watching more documentaries and poring through a pile of new cookbooks (thanks, Amazon Rewards!).

Since I don't have the brain power to compose paragraphs, instead I'll compose a bullet-list of random things in between nose blowings:

+ I spent the weekend being a tourist in my own city. Friday night started out as an after-work happy hour and ended up turning into an accidental bar crawl to some of the diviest bars in DC that I used to frequent in my twenties. Fun times (that I regretted the next morning)!

+ On Saturday, we walked around Georgetown, watched the GW Invitational Regatta, and treated ourselves to cupcakes from Baked & Wired. I usually hate walking around Georgetown, but the weather was so delightful (blue skies and pink petals everywhere), it ended up being a fantastic afternoon.

+ Lately, I've been addicted to playing the game Dots on my phone, or as Larry calls it "Dots on the Pot" for obvious reasons...

+ This video of two Dutch grandmothers flying on a plane for the first time is the best thing I've ever seen.

+ The Food-Lover's Drive Along the Blue Ridge Parkway - this looks like an amazing local-ish road trip. Larry, let's go! Also, 30 Places to Eat in Virginia Before You Die. Oh, and there's a book, too: Food Lover's Guide to Virginia. I've been dreaming of travel lately, but it's exciting to know that we could take a fun and delicious trip in our own state.

+ Speaking of dreams, the other night I had a dream about TOFU. Our new eating habits are permeating my subconscious - yikes! Also, the other day, I ATE THIS:
i ate this
(Next thing you know, I'll just go out into our yard and start stuffing my mouth with fistfuls of lawn.)

+ This video of 2CELLOS has been going around the internet lately. If I had known stringed instruments could be so cool, maybe I would've stuck with the violin!

+ My childhood friend, Corinne's recent blog post, My Messy Beautiful, really spoke to me as a 35 year old self-employed person who is constantly questioning my life, my career, the decisions I've made, and where I'm going. (Oy!) Corinne perfectly articulated these shared struggles in her beautifully written piece.

And with that, I'm off to blow my nose again, attempt to get a good night's sleep, and hope to be in the pool tomorrow. Life really is messy (literally - you should see the pile of wadded tissues on my nightstand!) and beautiful. Right now I'm just hoping for less boogers.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

3 documentaries to watch right now

favorite documentaries
I'm a huge documentary nerd. Documentaries are pretty much all I've been watching over the past six months and I've watched over 20 since the beginning of the year. I've loved watching docs since the days of Spellbound, but ever since I moved in with a boy who insisted we get HBO (and I then gained access to HBO GO on my iPad) and since I splurged and subscribed to Netflix last year, I've been obsessed with watching all the documentaries that I missed during my years of living under a rock without technology. I've even forsaken watching the new seasons of my beloved House of Cards and Scandal because I've been so obsessed with watching documentaries lately.

I love documentaries because they are educational and a great way to learn about all sorts of topics, while being entertaining at the same time. Between working at home by myself and no longer being subjected to formal education, sometimes I feel like I'm getting dumb. (Dumber?) Education came so easily when I was in school, but as an adult I feel like I have to seek out opportunities to learn. I'm interested in many things and will watch documentaries about all sorts of surprising subjects. True, some docs can be propaganda-ish, but the best docs convey the facts and teach you something new through real-life stories of people who are vulnerable and imperfect and human.

It's hard to choose favorites since I've watched so many over the past year, but over the past few weeks I've watched a few documentaries that I can't stop thinking about. If you haven't seen these, I suggest logging on to Netflix ASAP:

An extraordinary and tragic love story - I cannot stop thinking about it. Have a box of tissues handy.

Breathtaking and fascinating and upsetting.

I'm late to the party on this one, as it came out a few years ago and has been in my "To Watch" queue for a while. I'm glad I waited though because we decided to watch this a few weeks after Larry's dad had bypass surgery and we were working on changing our diet. I realize that nutrition can be a controversial, constantly evolving, and much disputed topic, but Larry and I both found the information presented to be extremely compelling and it's resulted in a lot of discussion about food, diet, lifestyle, and society in our household. This documentary along with several other sources have given us a lot to think about and have inspired a lot of changes in the Smoellke kitchen.

So those are my recent favorites. Here are some other docs that have fascinated me over the past few years, ranging from entertaining to inspiring to nerdy:

Monday, April 7, 2014

cooking tips with larry & rachel

I found this blog post that I wrote last summer in my Drafts folder and thought now would be a good time to publish it. Larry and I are currently making some major changes to our diet, so it will be interesting to look back on this and see how our cooking style has evolved as we integrate healthier ingredients and techniques into our kitchen.
Recent experiments from the Smoellke Test Kitchen.

Larry and I have been cooking together for nine ten years. The first year we were dating, I'm pretty sure we survived solely on bar food, but after that we ventured into the kitchen. We started with uninspired and easy things like baked chicken breasts and pasta. But we quickly found this diet to be boring, so we stopped shying away from unique ingredients and started cooking more challenging recipes and exploring new flavors. And what a delicious adventure it has been!

Nowadays, we try between 100 and 150 new recipes a year. Our pantry contains 11 types of vinegar, 13 flavors of oil, and ingredients such as pomegranate molasses, gochujang, and sumac. Our spice collection is up to over 60 different spices. I have thousands of recipes cataloged in three-ring binders. We spend our free time flipping through cookbooks, Food & Wine magazine, and watching Top Chef for inspiration. This is not to say we are food snobs (I love a greasy piece of pizza or a taco from a food truck!), or that we are experts (we definitely have recipes that flop), just that we have learned a few things along the way:

So, I'm really not a fan of the tasteless, mushy, wet-kleenex style hamburger buns from the grocery store. But what irks me more than their lack of taste, is that they always end up molding or getting stale before we can use them all. Years back, we switched to using toasted English muffins as hamburger buns and have never gone back. They're thinner so there's a better meat-to-bread ratio, they don't turn to mush when slathered with ketchup, and bonus, you can eat any leftover muffins for breakfast!

I still struggle with making a decent pizza in the oven - the crust never cooks evenly and there are usually tears and/or curse words involved when trying to transfer the pizza to/from the pizza stone. But who cares about oven pizza when there is grilled pizza? Roll/pat out the dough into a pizza shape and toss it directly onto the grill (that's right, you don't need oil or cooking spray to keep it from sticking and you don't need a pizza stone, baking pan or anything - put the dough directly on the grill). Don't fret that the dough stretches out when you're putting it on the grill - grilled pizza will never have a perfectly round shape. (One of mine came out in the shape of Florida - not the prettiest, but still delish.) Once the dough cooks enough on the bottom side so that it is no longer sticky/is flippable/has grill marks, flip the crust and add sauce, FRESH mozzarella and toppings. (This pizza is best kept simple, so don't overdo it with a load of toppings.) Close the grill and wait just long enough for the bottom side of the crust to cook and the cheese to melt. Take it off the grill and enjoy. The pizza is made even more flavorful if you brush the dough with garlic oil before cooking. (See below.)

Update: I like to dust the dough with cornmeal - keeps it from sticking to your hands and adds a little texture to the crust. Also, I typically use a pre-made ball of dough from the grocery store and divide it into two portions, which each make a large personal sized pizza - this is the right size for ease of flipping on the grill.

Pour a little olive oil in a ramekin. Stir in some crushed/minced fresh garlic. Let it sit for a bit while you're preparing diner. Now before you throw that pizza dough on the grill, brush on some of that garlic oil. Same goes for those English muffins you were going to toast on the grill for hamburger buns. So easy and takes the flavor of your pizza and burgers to the next level. (Also, the Garject garlic press is the best I've found - it's self-cleaning and has a PEEL EJECTION BUTTON!) Now does anyone have a tip for getting the smell of garlic off your fingers? My hands constantly smell like garlic no matter how many times I wash them!

GROW YOUR OWN HERBS. (Especially oregano and thyme!)
I have a little container garden of kitchen herbs on my patio. Throughout the years it has contained many different herbs. It has also been neglected at times. But the two herbs that I use the most in my cooking are the two herbs that come back year after year and don't seem to mind my neglect: oregano and thyme. These two herbs, along with the huge rosemary bush (now dead - wahhhh!) in our backyard make up the three primary herbs we cook with. They are so universal (pizza, pasta, meat/chicken, potatoes, fish!) and taste so delicious when picked from your backyard that you'll never go back to using the dried stuff. I've also grown marjoram and sage (don't use them very often), parsley (kind of boring), chives (easy to grow and delicious on eggs!), basil (bugs always eat mine, but I still manage to get a batch of pesto every summer), and cilantro (cannot grow this at all - always dies). The New York Times recipe for Oregano Marinade is our favorite marinade for all meat. P.S. Save time and dishes - don't make it in your blender, use an immersion blender instead...

My favorite kitchen gadget by far is my immersion blender. In fact, I haven't used my regular blender in over six years. I hated cleaning/assembling that thing anyway, so it might be time to donate it. The immersion blender on the other hand - easy to use, easy to clean, and you don't have to transfer foods to a blender, dirty up another dish, or risk spilling your vat of soup everywhere since the immersion blender can just blend in the same vessel you cooked in. I use my immersion blender for smoothies, milkshakes, and frozen cocktails (it crushes ice, no problem), pureed soups, sauces, marinades, and dressings.

This might have to be filed under Things That Make Rachel Weird (according to Larry!), but I am personally offended by pre-shredded cheese. Here's why: Those bags of shredded cheese at the grocery store contain ANTI-CLUMPING AGENTS. Yuck. And yes, I realize that anti-clumping agents are found in a lot of processed foods, but it particularly bothers me in shredded cheese, because it make the cheese dried up and crusty and gross. Shredding a block of cheese yourself only takes a few seconds and the texture of the cheese and your dish will be much improved...and not contain chemicals.

Do you cut bell peppers in half and then fuss with cutting out the core and getting rid of the seeds and then struggle with dicing the weird curved pepper halves? I did that for years, until I discovered this technique a few years ago - it leaves you with four flat rectangular sections of pepper and no stray seeds.

Every year it seems that we discover an ingredient, become obsessed with it, and then start mixing it into everything. Four-ish years ago, we were putting chipotles into everything and I still love anything chipotle-flavored. The next year, we discovered Smoked Spanish Paprika (also called Pimenton de la Vera). Both of these ingredients pack a potent spicy punch. A few favorite recipes: Chipotle Ketchup, Chipotle Mac and Cheese, and Catalan Fish Stew with Pimenton Mayonnaise.

Bon appetit!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


I mentioned a few days ago that I've been making some changes in my life, and my fitness goal is one that I'm comfortable talking about now, even though it's something I'll be working on throughout the year (and beyond, as I'm hoping this leads to a permanent lifestyle change).

In December, I completed #ridefive and it was my most successful fitness challenge. I hoped to continue my new exercise habit in the new year, but I needed a new, more flexible goal - something that would keep me moving, but encourage other activities in addition to riding the bike. I also wanted to be able to document my progress on Instagram - I love having a creative/photography challenge that complements the physical challenge. So in January, I started #ayearofactive. The plan was to just be as active as possible in 2014 - to walk more, hike more, get outside more, and move more in addition to activities like swimming, biking, and kayaking.

The challenge was a bit of a bust during the first three months of the year, which is why I'm writing about it now. Let's just call it a slow start. It wasn't easy (or desirable) to get out and move with all the snow we had. That's a lame excuse, but that's what happened and I'm moving on. I'm calling January though March #ayearofactive practice and now that it's warming up, I'm declaring April the official start of #ayearofactive.

I'm extra motivated after witnessing my father-in-law recovering from open heart surgery and wanting to do everything I can to try to prevent that from happening to me. I also saw Michelle Obama talk about the Let's Move campaign on The Tonight Show in February (Also, this is hysterical. Michelle, you're such a good sport. "Exercise is NOT Ew!") and recently watched this video by Designed to Move that predicts today's generation of ten year old kids is the first generation expected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents. (Presumably because we're all sitting on our butts looking at our phones/computers/video games instead of getting out and moving. Shocking and disturbing.)

So, I'm inspired. And I'm kicking things off with a swimming challenge. I have 15 pool passes that expire at the end of the month, so my goal is to go swimming 15 times in April.

So now, I'm off to the pool. One swim down, fourteen to go...

Monday, March 31, 2014

in like a lion, out like a lion

march 2014 - more snow
During my third year at Syracuse University, it snowed every day for three months. Every day from January through March, I made a tick mark on my calendar when I woke up each morning (er, or afternoon...I was a college student after all...) and saw flakes falling from the sky. After graduation, I was happy to escape that frozen hell.
march 2014 - more snow
February and March 2014 in Virginia have felt a bit like that. Snowflakes falling from the sky seemingly every day. And yet, I didn't really mind. Oddly enough, this was the first year since childhood that I didn't hate winter. In fact, it was kind of cozy and really quite productive. Most of this is because winter has made me really appreciate the fact that I work from home when the weather is cold and snowy. If I had to scrape ice off my windshield/shovel snow/commute on frozen roads/freeze my ass off at the bus stop, etc, I would be back to my old winter-hating ways. But this year when it snowed, I could just stay home. I'd turn on the fireplace, drink hot chocolate, and work on projects from the comfort of the inside of my house.
march 2014 - more snow
The first day of spring was March 20th this year, but winter wasn't over yet. We had several more snowstorms after the equinox. The snow-covered trees are really quite pretty and I finally pulled out my camera to capture a few of these last snowy days. True to my commitment to stay inside and my tendency to be lazy, all the photos were taken looking out through our windows. Thank goodness for my 200mm lens:
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
march 2014 - more snow
Now that the world outside my cozy lair is finally starting to thaw, I suppose I'll have to come out of my introspective hibernation. I'm looking forward to reuniting with friends and living a more active lifestyle in the warmer months.