Thursday, April 30, 2015

Real Estate Wishes (and Reality Checks)

After months of waiting for an answer, we finally found out about two weeks ago that we were released from military housing when we move to New Jersey at the end of May. It's good news. It's what we wanted. We won't have to live in an apartment on Staten Island. But it's scary good news, because it means the pressure is on to find a place to live before G has to report for work June 8. The hubs has been looking at rental listings online since last fall, and now that it's closer to go time I've been looking, too. But, per usual with this military life, I'm realizing that we are going to have to make a lot of compromises, some sacrifices, in this house hunt. We got what we wanted, in terms of getting out of being forced to live in Sector New York's military housing, but we likely will not get exactly what we want in our next home.

Here's our wish list: 
  • Single-family house, duplex or town home. (We are trying to get away from apartment-style living.) After a year in 750-square-foot apartment, we're hoping for 1,000-square-feet.
  • At least two bedrooms (one for an office) and one bathroom, though two would be preferable.
  • Walkable neighborhood, close to shops, restaurants, bars and parks. Hoboken would be ideal but likely out of our budget, so we're also searching in Jersey City, Weehawken and Union City, as well parts of Brooklyn.
  • A home with a yard, even if it's a small one, for the dogs. This is why apartments and condos don't work.
  • Windows! I don't need a view but I do need natural light. I'm tired having just a couple windows on just one side of the building, another reason we are trying to avoid apartments and condos. 
  • Large, clean (if not updated) kitchen with plenty of counter space and storage. We love to cook and we have a lot of kitchen tools and dining pieces.
  • Large master closet. We're bursting at the seams with our humble walk-in closet now and I still have a box of clothes that I never unpacked when we moved in last June!
  • Plenty of storage. We had to rent a 10x10 storage unit when we moved from our two-bed, two-bath condo in San Diego to our one-bed, one-bath St. Pete apartment. It's an expense we don't want to carry to Jersey. 
As you can see, we have quite the extensive wish list (but not an overly generous budget), which is why I know we are going to have to compromise somewhere along the way. We've already done a lot of searching and found nothing that checks all the boxes, and our favorites get snapped up right away. (That real estate game is fierce!) We even reached out to a New Jersey realtor last week and he basically came back saying, in so many words, that we couldn't afford to live in our preferred areas, even though we've casted a wide net in that regard. (He then proceeded to send us listings upwards of $3,000/month. Safe to say we won't continue using his services.)

While we are not buying our first home, this rental house hunt feels just as important. We moved to St. Petersburg right after we got married, so even though we lived together for a year in G's San Diego condo, Florida was going to be our first married home, the first place we got together. The apartment we are in now was supposed to be temporary, which is why we were OK with just one bedroom and one bathroom. But then we found out we wouldn't be staying in St. Pete for three years after all, so we nixed plans to move into something bigger and better and stayed in our transitional living situation. This move to New Jersey feels like our second chance at that "first married home," since we should (fingers crossed) actually be staying in the Garden State for three years.

Our decision also feels important because, if I get my greatest wish, we will be starting a family soon. The home we decide to rent then is where we will have a baby, our child's first home. Maybe I'm putting too much thought into it, but hey, I'm a (emotional, hormonal) woman. I can't help but think of these things and consider the future. 

As discouraging as house hunting can be, whether you're renting or buying, we'll keep on searching because, well, we need somewhere to live! The hardest part really will be that compromise bit. We probably won't find a place in a hip neighborhood with a yard (it's looking bleak), an updated kitchen and two bathrooms. So G and I are going to have to figure out what our priorities are and what we're willing to sacrificeand hopefully we're on the same page!

Ah, the joys of moving, of marriage, and of military life.

I'll be happy not to have to move again for three years. To stay in one place, for a little while.

(Watercolor New York by Stamen Design 
by Youngna Park via 20x200)

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Good (For You) Food : Three-Bean Turkey Chili

It is a stormy day here in St. Pete so it seems like the perfect time to share with you this recipe for a hearty but healthy chili I made weeks ago. (I know, I've been holding out on you!) The original recipe is endlessly customizable, in terms of what kind of beans you use and how you prepare them, your choice of peppers (spicy or mild), and even how you cook the chili itself (stovetop, slow cooker, pressure cooker). 

For my version, I capitalized on the convenience of canned beans and made the whole thing in my enameled cast iron pot. I diced up one poblano pepper, for just a hint of spice, and one bell pepper—actually, half of a red bell pepper and half of an orange one, for color. The original recipe is also vegetarian, but I added some lean ground turkey to make the chili extra filling and flavorful. I will urge you to pay a couple extra bucks for the fire-roasted tomatoes; they really do make a difference.

This one-pot wonder is perfect for a weeknight dinner—it's quick (if you use canned beans) and easy, you probably have many of the ingredients already in your pantry. Plus, it makes killer leftovers for lunch the next day. (See photographic proof below.) My husband was a fan and I'm not exaggerating at all when I say he raved throughout the mealbetween each bite even—that it was the best chili he'd ever had.

Three-Bean Turkey Chili
Recipe adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Prep time: 5 minutes | Cook time: 40 minutes | Yield: Makes 4 to 6 large servings

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped small
1 to 2 peppers of your choice, finely chopped (I used one poblano and bell pepper)
20-ounces (1.25 pounds) ground turkey
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons chili powder
3 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons dried oregano
3 teaspoons kosher or coarse salt, or 2 teaspoons table salt
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh-cracked black pepper
1 12-ounce bottle beer (I used Dos Equis but you can use whatever you like!)
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes, fire-roasted if available
3 15-ounce cans of beans of your choice, drained and rinsed (I used low-sodium kidney, pinto and black beans)

Optional accoutrements: Lime wedges, sour cream, diced white onion, diced tomato, avocado, cilantro, hot sauce (like Cholula), warm corn or flour tortillas, or crispy tortilla strips (how-to below!)

Heat oil in the bottom of a medium-sized heavy pot or Dutch oven. Once warm, add onion and cook for 5 minutes, until translucent. Add fresh diced peppers and cook for 3 more minutes. Toss in the ground turkey, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. Once the turkey begins to brown add the garlic, chili powder, cumin, oregano, salt and pepper and cook for a couple minutes, until everything is browned and deeply fragrant. Pour in the beer and scrape up any bits stuck to the pot. Boil until the beer is reduced by half.

Stir in the can of crushed tomatoes, put a lid on the pot, and let the mixture simmer for 20 minutes. Add the drained and rinsed beans and let simmer for 10 minutes more, until the beans are warmed through. If the chili looks too dry for your liking, you can add 1/4 cup of water and simmer for a few minutes longer. (We didn't do this, as we liked ours nice and thick.)

Serve as-is or with toppings.

Now, this chili would be good all on its own but I believe what makes chili so much fun to eat is the toppings! If given an array of choices, everyone can make their bowl just the way they like it. Personally, I go a bit wild with the toppings. I joked to the hubby that my bowl of chili looked like it was ready to go to Rio! (Um, see above.) I added diced white onion, extra tomatoes, creamy avocado, a dollop (or two) of sour cream, a squeeze of lime, a few dashes of hot sauce and some tortilla strips, for crunch. 

If you've never done it, it's easy to make your own restaurant-worthy tortilla strips at home.

To make tortilla strips: Lightly oil both sides of a corn or flour tortilla. Stack up a couple (one per person should be plenty) and cut into half-inch strips. Scatter on a baking sheet, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and pop into a preheated oven set at 350 degrees. Mine took about 5 to 10 minutes to toast up; just keep your eyes on them. The strips are done when they are golden brown and crispy.

I hope you'll give this recipe a try! I have to agree with my husband, it also is the best chili I've ever eaten. And with so many ways to jazz it up, this recipe is sure to be a go-to whenever we're in the mood for something warm, cozy and satisfying, without any of that comfort food guilt.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Hello, Clearwater : An Evening at Sugar Sand Beach

This past weekend we happily dog/house sat for a couple of friends. After all, they watched Cali for three weeks while we were in California! The least we could do was take care of their (big!) beloved goldendoodle Nelson for three days. But before dog duty began on Thursday, the hubs and I journeyed to Clearwater for a midweek date night that consisted of a quick calligraphy photo shoot on the beach, a low-key dinner at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill, a look at some amazing sand sculptures at the annual Pier 60 Sugar Sand Festival, followed by a moonlit walk on the shore.

Grouper is a local favorite here in Florida and Frenchy's is known to have some of the best around. The popular eatery has several outposts in Clearwater but Rockaway Grill is the largest, and right on the beach. Even though it was a Wednesday evening, there was a 20-minute wait to get a table and while we didn't get a spot on the open-air, beachfront patio, we did get front-row seats to the night's live band. (It would have been wonderful to see the sun set over the Gulf, but perhaps it was best we weren't on the patio since, while we waited outside the restaurant for a table, a gull pooped on my arm! That's good luck, right? Fortunately, there was a beach shower right next to us. Phew.)

When eating at a restaurant for the first time, I like to try what the establishment is known for, the house specialties. Having done a little research beforehand, I knew exactly what to order at Frenchy's. The hubs and I split a half-order of the Garlic Crab Fries, since Alton Brown described the beer-battered frieswhich are tossed in garlic butter and parsley and topped with garlic aioli, Old Bay and snow crab—as "food crack." For our entrees, the hubs had the grilled Mahi Mahi Sandwich while I had to have the fried Grouper Sandwich (hold the provolone). I washed it down with the dangerously delicious Rum Runner, a frozen crimson concoction made with Virgin Island Dark and 151 rums, banana liqueur, blackberry brandy and tropical fruit juices. It was good and strong. While G and I often dine out at high-end restaurants and we tend to cook gourmet fare at home, it was fun and kind of refreshing in a strange way to eat low-brow grub like fried fish sammies.

After dinner, we headed over to Pier 60 for the main event: the Sugar Sand Festival, named for Clearwater Beach's nickname. The sand there is so white and soft and really does look and feel like sugar! But what's more impressive is what master sand sculptors can do with it. This year's festival featured a fairytale theme. As G and I walked through the 21,000-square-foot exhibit tent, we were in awe at the size and great detail of the sand sculptures, created with more than one thousand tons of sand. And, having grown up on Disney and fairytales, I truly enjoyed the enchanting subject matter. Because we visited after sundown, changing colored lights helped illuminate the sandy scenes; not always great for photo-taking, but it did add to the festival's fantastical feel.

I couldn't let us leave the beach without a quick moonlit stroll along the shore. Clearwater Beach is truly beautiful and I can see why it is such a popular place to live and vacation. 

Hopefully we can make one more trip to Clearwater before we leave to explore more of what Sugar Sand Beach has to offer.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

An Evening at St. Pete's Museum of Fine Arts

Last week, I dragged my sweet (but not very arty) husband downtown to check out the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Pete. Browsing the galleries was an item on my winter/spring bucket list and every Thursday the museum offers discounted evening admission: $5 after 5 p.m. Win-win! Two of the current exhibitions were of particular interest to me: "Monet to Matisse: On the French Coast" and "Life's a Beach: Photographs by Martin Parr." Though they both share a coastal theme, these shows are very different in tone, style and medium. And yet, the museum stacks them on top of each other, so to speak. Whether you like it or not, you have to go through "Monet to Matisse" to get to "Life's a Beach." Not that I minded, but I did think it an odd choice. Nevertheless, G and I enjoyed both galleries. 

Walking through "Monet to Matisse," we and our fellow museum patrons were quiet, respectful, reflective. The works on display are imbued with a feeling of serene calm, and were painted by some of the greats: Claude Monet and Henri Matisse, of course, as well as Pablo Picasso and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The exhibition explores and compares, for the first time, Impressionist and Modernist visions of the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of France. Some of the works are detailed and realistic, while others are foggy memories and quick first impressions of a time and place. Unsurprisingly, my favorite piece was one by Monet, of a cottage set on a cliff. I adore the dappled pastel colors and the way the sea seems to be shimmering in the distance.

My favorite artistic medium is photography, so I was excited to see "Life's a Beach," especially based on the photo used to market the exhibition (above). But that didn't fully reveal the strange, humorous and fantastic images British photog Martin Parr captured with his lens. The mood of the show was a total surprise to meattendees were openly laughing and making fun of the scenes and subjects depicted—and while it was not at all what I expected, it was a delightful little journey just the same, showcasing beachgoers across the globe, in their complete unfettered and often unflattering glory. The colorful photographs, literally and figuratively, proved Parr's words true: You can learn a lot about a country by looking at its beaches: across cultures, the beach is that rare public space in which all absurdities and quirky national behaviors can be found.”

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to take photos inside the temporary exhibitions but I could snap away inside the museum's permanent collection. We didn't have much time to explore those galleries, as we had an impromptu birthday dinner to attend, but we ran through a few rooms of what I would describe as modern and contemporary art—which is right up my alley. If you're an art lover like me, you can check out some of my favorite pieces, after the jump...

Monday, April 20, 2015

Weekend Recap : Arts & Eats in St. Pete

What a fun weekend it was! Perhaps a little too fun, since I feel like I'm in recovery mode over here, making for a not very productive Monday. (Though, to my credit, I have managed to do a few interviews for another freelance story assignment my former editor sent me; yay!) If I had to sum up our weekend in three words it would be these: arts, eats and drinks. We only have six weeks left here in St. Petersburg and I am determined to make the most of our time and cross off items on my Florida bucket list (which I've added a few more must-dos to). 

To that end, on Thursday night we went to downtown St. Pete to check out the Museum of Fine Arts, which offers discounted admission on Thursday nights: $5 after 5 p.m. We browsed two of the current exhibitions"Monet to Matisse" and "Life's A Beach"—and quickly explored some of the museum's permanent collection before running off to meet friends at Red Mesa Cantina for a birthday dinner. On Friday, the hubs and I had a little date night, starting with drinks at The Canopy, The Birchwood's gorgeous rooftop lounge (which I previously wrote about here and here), and then dinner and dessert at Annata, the tapas-style wine bar where Jen and I had a fabulous girls' night back in February. I knew G would love it as much as we did and Annata didn't disappoint; it was just as delicious as last time. On Saturday, we laid low, cleaned the house, and the hubby slow-cooked a pork shoulder for hours to make us Hawaiian-inspired teriyaki pulled pork tacos for dinner. 

Yesterday, Sunday, we ventured back to downtown St. Pete for the annual Mainsail Arts Festival in Vinoy Park (a few snapshots, above). Unfortunately, the heat and humidity were a bit too much to bear, coupled with a strong gusty wind that kept blowing my dress, shawl and hair this way and that. (I wore the complete wrong outfit for the occasion. Don't you hate when that happens?) So we didn't stick around long and instead sought refuge and cool drinks along Beach Drive. First a late lunch at 400 Beach, followed by leisurely drinks (again) at The Canopy and then a little champagne (for me) and oysters at the Sundial's newest upscale eatery, Sea Salt

Now you know why I'm feeling a little sluggish this Monday. But, I have to say, it was all worth it.

I'll be back with more on our visits to the Museum of Fine Arts, Annata and Sea Salt, later!
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