Sunday, March 30, 2014

Healthy Eating Challenge and Beyond

Hi everyone,

Do you remember that I participated in a 21-day Healthy Eating Challenge (February 15 through March 8)? I followed it well for the first two weeks and felt amazing! Then, I crashed and burned at the end when my dad visited with a box full of homemade Junior Mint brownies and Irish Bread. I've successfully completed the challenge before, but I didn't want to deny myself that weekend of such special treats or yummy meals out on the town.

During that final week, I faithfully continued to cook myself challenge-approved snacks and meals. But the new recipes I tried were unsuccessful. The Mixed Veggie Enchiladas fell apart into a soggy mush and the Strawberry Ginger Smoothie overflowed out of my little blender. I still ate and drank it all, and it was delicious! It just didn't look pretty, and the proportions weren't exactly right. I'll try both recipes again soon and will share them when I figure out what went wrong.

Despite faltering, I participated in the challenge's closing celebration, a potluck brunch for which I made Lemon Date Balls.

Lemon Date BallsLemon Date Balls 
(Makes about 18)

Tart lemon, nutty walnuts, sesame seeds, rich coconut, and sweet dates come together to make these delightfully tangy treats. 

1 cup chopped pitted dates
1 cup raw walnuts
1 cup sesame seeds
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
1/2 cup unsweetened dried coconut flakes

Place dates, walnuts, sesame seeds, lemon juice, and zest in a food processor. Pulse and blend until completely mixed. The mixture will be slightly sticky. With dampened hands, roll tablespoons of the mixture into balls. Roll in coconut and chill until ready to serve. 

My experience: I don't have a food processor and use my blender for everything. For me, this mixture doesn't just get "a little sticky." It gets so thick that, sometimes, my blender stops working. When that happens, it's a pain. But all I have to do is move the mixture around with a spoon to unclog the machine. Then I just add a bit more water and pulse through it. 

Moving On...
While not the healthiest choice,
Uncle Buck's Beignets are a worthy treat! 
After the challenge was over, I got back on the wagon, at least partially, as I hope to always be. The purpose of the challenge was to reset my body, giving it a clean slate. I think I achieved that in the first two weeks. Aside from the delicious food, the best part of the challenge for me is how it changes my eating habits so quickly and easily. I learned about healthy alternatives and where to buy them, and I don't really crave what I used to eat.

In fact, most of my old favorites don't taste as good to me anymore. The challenge made me aware of the food I'm eating. Even when eating out, I now think of the consequences before I order. If I really want that lobster roll and french fries, that's okay too. I'll never stop myself from enjoying Uncle Buck's Beignets at Founding Farmers once in a while. The key is not eating those things all the time. Now that I know what to eat, how to make myself healthier meals, and how much better they make me feel, the choices are easy and plentiful.

When my sister and nephew visited last weekend, arriving too late for a meal out, I had delicious Sweet Potato and Bean Chili waiting for them.

Sweet Potato and Bean ChiliSweet Potato and Bean Chili 
(Serves 6)

1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped 
1/2 large green bell pepper, chopped
1 small sweet potato, peeled and diced
5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth, divided
1 tablespoon no-salt-added chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 15-oz can aduki beans
1 15-oz can navy beans
1 14.5 can no-salt-added diced tomatoes
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 cup copped cilantro (optional)
Sliced fresh jalapeno peppers (optional)

Heat a large saucepot with lid over a medium-high flame; heat until hot. Add onion, bell pepper, sweet potato, and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for about 3 minutes or until it begins to brown and stick to the pan. Stir in 1/2 cup broth and cook for 3 to 4 minutes or until vegetables are tender and most of the liquid has evaporated. Stir in chili powder, cumin, and cinnamon, and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add remaining  broth, beans, and tomatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, for about 30 minutes or until vegetables and beans are tender and sauce is thickened. Stir in black pepper. Serve with cilantro and jalapenos, if using. 

My experience: This quick and easy recipe is one of my favorites. Because I'm not very tolerant of super-spicy food, I didn't use any jalapeno peppers. However, I recommend topping your chili with cilantro as suggested; a few herbs on top make a big difference in the taste. This chili, paired with a side salad, was a perfect meal for what I hope is this winter's last cold, snowy week. If it's still cold where you are, give this recipe a try. It will warm you up!

Both recipes in this post are courtesy of Ebeth Johnson, Healthy Eating Specialist at Whole Foods, P Street. She's the best, so email her to sign up for her classes, challenges, and recipes!


Thursday, March 20, 2014


This winter, I could only muster enough energy to watch movies and hibernate in my most comfy pajamas while under my warmest blanket. The Kitties, on the other hand, passed every cold, snowy day doing things like this. They are twisted.

Happy Spring, everyone!

Twisted (March 10, 2014)
(Illustration Friday: February 14, 2014)

Saturday, March 15, 2014


Comet wasn't sure what to think when Ashes first moved into his house, but eventually she won him over, as she does with everyone. Nothing's better than finding a lifelong friend.

Spark (March 10, 2014)
(Illustration Friday: March 7, 2014)

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp Film #42—Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

[What is Johnny Kitties? See Johnny Kitties: Celebrating Johnny Depp for all the details.]

I always feel that with Captain Jack, you can chuck him into any situation and have a ball with it. Johnny Depp

Where do they go from here?
The idea for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides came up while Johnny Depp was shooting the franchise’s second and third films back to back. The writers, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, brought a book to producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s attention. Once he got the rights to On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers, which focused on Blackbeard and the fountain of youth, they set the stage for it in the last scene in the third Pirates movie with Captain Jack on his way to find the fountain.

Right after Johnny excited everyone by showing up as Captain Jack at a Disney event, where they announced that another Pirates of the Caribbean movie was on its way, news broke that it might not happen. Disney chairman Dick Cook, who had advocated for Johnny’s inspired take on Captain Jack Sparrow from the beginning, abruptly left the company, and Johnny started talking like he was going to back out too. "There’s a fissure, a crack in my enthusiasm at the moment," he said upon hearing the news. Oh the drama! Don’t worry; after Johnny met with the film's new director Rob Marshall, the crack was sealed.

Johnny with former Disney Chairman Dick Cook
Aside from this change in Disney personnel, Johnny was also concerned about the script. "Things got very mathematical, very subplotty, on the last movie because there were lots of things that needed to be resolved with the characters," he says. "I wanted to make a film that was more like the first one, that was more character-driven." Apparently, Johnny now deserves a writing credit. "With this one, in terms of story, my involvement was a little more, just because I felt that if we were going to do a 4, that—more than anything—we owed the audience a fresh start," he explains. "I felt it was very important to eliminate as many complications as possible." Co-writer Terry Rossio confirms, "Johnny has a huge influence on the script. He’s invented characters, story lines, jokes. We had lots of creative dinners. They’d normally start at 11 p.m., the drinks would arrive around 1 a.m., and we go on to around 5 in the morning."

A fresh start calls for some fresh blood.

This new stand-alone story introduced several new characters, including new shipmates, some freaky mermaids, Jack’s old flame Angelica (Penelope Cruz) and a few historical figures like King George II (Richard Griffiths), King Ferdinand VI (Sebastian Armesto), and the dreaded pirate Blackbeard (Ian McShane).

I love Ian McShane’s performance as Blackbeard so much. It wasn’t until after I saw the movie that I discovered Blackbeard was a real 18th century pirate who sailed the seas around the West Indies and Americas. "Blackbeard is pure evil," Ian McShane says. "Blackbeard’s the most infamous pirate that ever lived. He was feared by everybody, probably because he never actually killed anybody; he just looked fearsome. He’d light torches in his beard so he could impress everybody, or so the legend goes..." In this movie, he scares people just by mere presence.

Equally fantastic in this movie is Penelope Cruz as Angelica. "She’s a pirate. She’s Jack Sparrow’s equal," she explains. "They have a history. A part of her wants revenge and a part of her still cares about him, and they have this dance going on of fights and words." Although Penelope Cruz discovered she was pregnant with her first child halfway through shooting, it didn’t affect the swashbuckling adventure. She and Johnny worked together 10 years before in Blow, and their reunion was a fun experience. "The weird thing was that, when we saw each other again, it felt like we'd wrapped Blow the week before, or a few days before," Johnny remembers. "It just clicked instantly. Whatever exists in terms of chemistry was just instantly firing on all cylinders. It felt completely right." Penelope Cruz agrees, except that, "Johnny is such a funny person. The main problem is that he’s so funny, it was hard to film the dramatic scenes because I could not stop laughing."

Johnny checking things out with Rob Marshall
It was Rob Marshall who persuaded Penelope Cruz, whom he’d directed in Nine, to join the cast. Although I was sad (but understanding) about Pirates franchise director Gore Verbinski’s decision not to direct this Pirates movie, I was excited by the prospect of Rob Marshall taking over. "For me, if the movie had continued with the same cast, the same story lines, it would have been very difficult to come into the project, but I felt like it’s a new beginning in many ways," he says. Though it doesn't make much sense, I had a good feeling about Rob Marshall because of his background in directing musicals. Johnny must have felt similarly. "He has fantastic ideas and a brilliant handle on the way the story gets shaped together," Johnny says. "He’s totally open to ideas. If he likes it, it’ll get used, and that keeps everyone on their toes, keeps it fresh."

So, what’s changed?
I was thrilled to see some returning characters, like Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Mr. Gibbs (Kevin McNally). Be on the lookout for some surprise cameos too! And, of course, Jack is as entertaining as ever. "The one thing we couldn’t change was Jack. That would have been a mistake," co-writer Terry Rossio says. "He’s always been the trickster character, and we had to carry that through. And with Johnny, there’s no need to embellish the performance on the page because you know that he’ll do it all himself." 

From the start, everyone was wary of boring audiences with yet another Pirates movie. "He's created this iconic character for the ages," Rob Marshall says of Johnny's  Captain Jack. "But he also knew about the danger of a fourth anything, how it quickly can become a caricature. So we were very careful to make sure that Jack Sparrow [stayed] real. I mean, he's hilarious, but it all comes from a real place." In this story Angelica reveals a new side of Jacka soft one! He regrets having wronged Angelica in the past, and it’s the reason he sticks with her throughout this adventure rather than doing his typical cut and run. "What’s nice is you get a sense that Jack has a heart. He’s doing something heroic in a way. For him, for a pirate who thinks selfishly, it’s nice to see that," Rob Marshall explains. "He really has a conscience, and he’s protective, caring."

With a new director comes a new perspective, and I like Rob Marshall’s! Maybe because I know of his musical background, my vision is biased, but some of the stunts in this movie were so meticulously choreographed, they felt like dances. "Some filmmakers go into a film and it's already shot and cut in their head. I didn't get that feeling from Rob," Johnny says. "What I got from Rob was that he heard it as music, in a weird way. It was rhythmic. And, he knew tempo and a way to finesse the sound, which became visual as well. It was an incredible experience. His timing—and not just his choreographic timing, but his sense of comedic timing—is impeccable." The movie begins with Captain Jack escaping King George’s Court by swinging on chandeliers and flags and hopping from one moving carriage to another down the streets of London. Later on, Blackbeard maneuvers all the ropes on his ship to capture his crew, leaving them swinging like rag dolls from the sails. Rob Marshall even got Johnny to tango in this one for a bit. Now there’s a stunt worth the price of the movie ticket! 

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is also the first movie of its scale to shoot in 3D on location. Although some interiors were filmed in Los Angeles, the rest was filmed around the world in Hawaii, London, and Puerto Rico. Can you imagine carrying all that equipment through the jungles of remote islands? "I couldn’t decided if we were stupid or pioneers, but there’s nothing like doing it for real and not being on a stage with a green screen, " Rob Marshall says. The results are worth it. Unlike the previous films that feature sea battles galore, most of this one takes place on land. The scenery is lavishly green and a bright change. 

It's mutiny, Captain! 
Put The Kitties on a boat with a bunch of dangling ropes, and I can't be held responsible for what happens. 

42. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) [January 5, 2014]

After discovering that his crew has declared mutiny, Blackbeard (Norman) takes control of the situation. With a wave of his sword, the ship comes to life and ties all the traitors up for a good scolding. (Among them, with Gordon, are Comet, Simon, B.J., and Tyrone.) Despite how evil Blackbeard gets in this sequence, I love his dramatic entrance and how he can make such a grand statement with a flick of his wrist. (I told Norman not to go too Method with this performance.) 

When will Captain Jack set sail again?
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides successfully refreshed the franchise for audiences, so a fifth installment, titled Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, is in the works. I’m glad because, though a stand-alone story, On Stranger Tides left some unfinished business. I don’t have any secrets to share about the film yet, but Dead Men Tell No Tales starts filming this fall and is scheduled for release in 2016. Have you marked your calendar?  

What's next?
Johnny makes good on a promise to friend Hunter S. Thompson with The Rum Diary.

Copyright credits: All Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides images © Walt Disney Pictures; photo of Johnny with Dick Cook © Eric Charbonneau/AP

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Norman (1998-2014)

Hi everyone,

I'm sad to report that Norman passed away last month, having succumbed to his mounting health problems. When he was just 5 weeks old, Norman joined our family—whether we wanted him or not. He knew a good thing when he saw it and chased my sister Julie as she rode her bike down a country road, minding her own business! When she heard his frantic cries for a lift, of course, she swooped him up and took him home. How could you deny this face?

Baby Norman!
Norman was ready upon arrival.

Norman and me (2004)
This is the sum of our relationship (2004).
Over the years, Norman shared Julie's home with fellow Kitties Comet, Ashes, B.J. and Mini, and (as you know) he didn't always get along with everybody. It's clear now that they all had steadfast camaraderie. Even Ashes, who never failed to complain at the sight of Norman, was by his side at the end.

The rough exterior, bullying, and sometimes psychotic behavior that earned Norman his name masked an inner sweetness that couldn't be denied. Who can forget his dramatic entry into our lives and the early daredevil stunt he pulled, flying off the cat tower for a dangling toy without a second thought about where he'd land? (Check out my depiction of that moment here.) Then, there are all those times he curled up next to (or on) us, sharing the warmth of his silky fur coat. All Norman wanted in life was some attention, good food, playtime with his pal Liam (my nephew), and a comfy lap to sleep on. Doesn't everybody?

Well, he got plenty of it from us in his adventurous 16 years. Norman will be sorely missed, but he'll always live on in our hearts—and for as long as I have some markers and paper.

Norman (February 28, 2014)

Farewell, Friend. We love you!