Pasta Bake and Games

Tonight, we invited Burr and Natalie over for dinner and some games. To start off, we tackled a new game creation of mine, Love-Hate Relationship, a game based on logic and coherency. It turned out to need a lot of work to make it into a playable game, but we finally had a good set of rules and the game became interesting. It still needs work and testing to shake out the scores. Next, we introduced Natalie to Attica, giving her enough tips and strategy hints to win the game with a shrine connection as we struggled to keep pace.

For dinner, Laura and I decided to improvise a pasta bake, forgoing the usual recipe and adding pasta, sauce, mushrooms and cheese and cooking for about an hour. The pasta decided to expand beyond the dish but otherwise turned out well, with a crusty browned layer of cheese on top. On the side we had asparagus and for dessert there were sundaes with all the fixings.

We then went to the art exhibit of a fellow student of Natalie's; the art was focused on the process of making art and tried to incorporate ideas from computers and technology. It was an interesting direction, and we especially liked the "Simple Thought" piece, an expansive doodle etching.

The night wound down with a game of Seafarers of Catan, an expansion to the general Settlers. I like having other places to explore and the gold resource option. Natalie and Burr headed out for the islands, while Laura and I journeyed across the dessert, with Burr eventually gaining the 10 points needed to win.

Posted by Mark @ 9:28 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Study Blockprint

Yesterday, I finished a new blockprint of the "Study". I will add a picture as soon as I can get to the scanner; I like how the bookcases turned out, and Laura really helped me choose some good colors for the shading. I'm using colored pencils for now, since the ink I have is water-soluble and not compatible with using watercolors. To make the house more modular, I changed the overall layout to have more 4"x5" rooms, separating out a breakfest nook from the kitchen and a TV spot from the living room. In related news, I found a link to Artist & Craftsman Supply, a local store which has the best deals on the linoleum blocks.

Posted by Mark @ 9:24 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

New Games for Everyone

Fresh back from our mini-vacation to Minnesota, we invited Burr over to play some of our newfound games. It turned out that in every game we played, there was at least one of us who had never played it before.

Our first game was The Queen's Necklace, named Best Family Card Game 2003 by Games Magazine. The game is set in pre-revolution France, and players purchase jewel cards or characters with special powers to prepare for three jewel shows. It is a game of trying to outguess your opponent and sell the most jewels. We didn't see the Kings or the Queen's Necklace cards until the final round, and the other character's powers were highly variable throughout the game, making for a somewhat frustrating and chaotic experience. It's a game we'll play again later, but didn't really click yet, so for now it was time for something simpler.

Burr brought out The A-maze-ing Labyrinth, a favorite from his childhood (although not a kids game like Candyland or Snakes and Ladders) for a few rounds of searching through a maze for certain treasures. It would be trivial except that each turn you change the maze by sliding the tiles, opening and closing passageways, and moving your pawn to reach your ever-changing goal. It was interesting to try and plan for the future in the face of a constantly shifting board and the hidden goals of your opponents.

Third, we introduced Burr to Attika. Playing with three players was definitely different than just two; with more going on between turns there is a greater need for planning ahead. We all staked out our areas pretty quickly, and successfully defended the shrines from attack, until Laura pulled ahead to make a connection on a newly placed tile. Usually with two players, the game is won by only one turn, but it's just as fun with three.

Fourth up on the list was Domaine, a game we'd borrowed from Matt's extensive game library. From the creator of Settlers, it explores the aftermath of settlement, where players are trying to increase their land to collect valuable mines and forests. It was the most strategic game yet tonight, and we found ourselves fighting many fronts at once, a game we'll surely play again.

Finally, we had a quick round of Chez Greek, a Steve Jackson card game about college, with players competing to have the largest parties and do the least work. The cards were funny and the game moved quickly as we bounced around the unwanted characters and slacked off, a good filler to end the night.

Posted by Mark @ 3:00 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Visiting Minneapolis - St. Paul

For this spring break, Mark and I traveled to the infamous Mall of America. Now a bit of background - for our wedding, we received a very nice down comforter; unfortunately Mark is allergic to down (plus it has never gotten cold enough in our apartment over the winter to require more than our basic blankets- and this was a rather cold winter). So the intended purpose of this trip is to return the comforter to Macy's. Now you are probably asking, why not go to the closer Chicago, because everyone I speak with thinks that there must be a Macy's in Chicago - well there isn't. No kidding, so hence the trip four hours away to Minnesota to the famous Mall of America.

Mark had already been to the Mall years ago, but this was my first time. The first thing that we did was return the comforter which took an hour... we had just driven four hours to get here and we arrived at lunch, so all of the managers were on break... but the comforter is returned!!! Then we headed to the food court in look for a healthy quick lunch... well, it is rather like trying to find a healthy lunch when you can't leave your car, all there was to choose from were places serving fried foods... we settled for sandwiches from a steak and potato joint.

As we toured the third level, there was almost every shop you can think of- one of the first we entered was a fun looking game shop. Oddly enough, we like our local Pegasus Games better; for a small store, they have a better selection and pricing. On the second level there was a game store going out of business so we got a good deal on The Queen's Necklace and I got the cutest sea blue soap with an adorable rubber green frog (which will soon be free :) ). There was a wonderfully overpriced soap shop with amazingly beautiful creations- giving me the inspiration to make more crafts :) We also found a wonderful scrapbook store- yet again we like our local "Scrapbook Superstore" better. Then we found a small game store selling juggling supplies and Carcassonne with the River expansion on sale- our second game of the night.

On the first level we were getting tired and after hitting the Lego super play station, cut through the plant strewn theme park to return to the third level for dinner at Kokomo's Island Cafe. While a bit loud on the inside, the decorations, waterfalls, and food was unforgettable. I had a great rice noodle dish with Thai dressing and crunch steamed veggies while Mark enjoyed a delicious ginger chicken and the best sweet potatoes ever - they were like cinamoned candy.

After our brief revival we went back to Macy's and found ourselves drawn to the cooking section. We purchased a cleaver for me, a Japanese Santoku for Mark, some long tongs, a stove top griddle, and some spring-form pans for $9 after our gift certificate. Then we happily headed to a local Econo Lodge with the help of AAA and finished the evening with a game of Carcassonne.

On the following day we went to the renowned Science Museum of Minnesota and enjoyed their displays about the human body and robots. It is amazing to see so many of the early types of robots and their amazing behavior (like the tiny swarms and light sensitive cars). We enjoyed testing our minds and senses with labs. There were wonderful displays of artistic creations like music in water (where water and alternating patterns of bubbles create truely memorable scenes and patterns), metalic pipes (which played ghostly xylophone-like music for the cafe) and a long wave maker (which facinated parents and children alike). There was an old tug boat to explore (since we were next to the Mississippi) and live water bugs to examine up close.

Definately a fun and satisfying trip to our northern neighbors, and a good weekend getaway from Madison.

Posted by Laura @ 2:59 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

Luck 'o the Irish Week

There is something fun about Saint Patricks Day. To celebrate the yearly event, we decided to try some of the local cuisine. Last Christmas, Mark gave me a wonderful cookbook and music set called The Irish Isle by Sharon O'Connor. When I got it I quickly put in the CD, but it has taken a special occasion to pull out the fancy Irish recipies. The Irish and Celtic stories have always interested me. I have ready many a fantasy book about Celts of the past and the mysteries of Stonehenge. I also remember making Poridge from my "Celtic Folklore Cooking" by Asala and wondering how anyone could fill up on yummy but rather short-term satisfication.

This time, we went a bit fancy and started with "Millefeuille of Prawns and Wild Mushrooms" I think this was the first dish in which I had both shrimp and chicken and I like the combination. But I really picked it because of the mushrooms- it used both chanterelles and the delicate oysters. We enjoyed it without the filo dough (which just seemed an unnecessary buttery addition).

We modified the "Filo with Coooleeny Cheese and Cranberry Sauce" so that it was toast points served with brie and local wisconsin cranberry/strawberry jam. It was fun to serve the brie with Mark's new cheese knifes from my parents at christmas (the knifes worked well to serve the jam too) each handle is unique. We didn't find anything lacking by leaving out the butter and filo dough. The light brie went very well with the tart but sweet jam.

Two bits that didn't go over as well were the herb vinaigrette- a bit too tart (felt like we had sucked a lemon) and "Dauphinoise Potatoes"- try as I may, I think this is my third time to use scalloped potatoes, we just don't fancy creamy potatoes- the best we had was spiced potatoes with oregano, butter and salt and pepper layers. We also won't repeat "Cream of Parsnip Soup"- I never realized that parsnips taste like carrots- and since Mark doesn't overly enjoy the veggie relative, and I can only take carrots with some accompaniment, we might try parsnips in hearty beef stews :) Our last unrepeatable dish was "Roasted Chicken Breasts with Smoked Salmon and Avacado Sauce." We both thought the dish was good, but our stomachs did not. It may have been the overly rich combination, but neither of us enjoyed that dish for long.

To get in the Lamb craving we tried "Noisettes of Lamb with Sorrel-Mint Cream Sauce" leaving out the Sorrel - just couldn't find it. I have been reading novels by Modesitt and getting the repeated reference to mutton cooked in every way and form, I just had to try a cream-mint sauce. Fortunately, both our pallets and stomachs agree that this was a repeatable dish! We enjoyed it with a side of "Turmeric Rice" and greatly enjoyed the beautiful golden yellow side.

We also tried some Guinness and neither of us like the stronger, stay with you for a week, "put hair on your chest" (I don't really need any) types of beer, and so we both keep looking for that perfect beer you don't have to grimace too much when you drink it... but what would Irish week be without some beer?!

Another tradition we've started is the purchase of a new game on major holidays. We've become Spielfreaks lately, playing more and more new board games from Germany and Europe. This year, we picked up Attika, a combination tile-laying and building game themed with ancient Greece. Each player has 30 settlements they wish to build, some are free if played in the right order, with the goal to either connect two shrines or put all 30 settlements on the board first. This works really well as a two-player game, and should scale up to three and four. It's our current favorite.

To wind down, we got a boat load of movies to enjoy: Spellbound was a sought after recomendation of Mark's, it follows the preparation of several youngsters as they endeavor to win the National Spelling Bee. We both enjoyed it as an interesting documentary. Runaway Jury with John Cousack had a great twist that neither of us anticipated at the end- although we got hints throughout the movie that there was a deeper reasoning behind the motives. Matchstick Men was a rather sad movie about the life of a con-man, with a twist Mark caught right at the beginning. And Mona Lisa Smile was my pick and a good chick flick with the lovely and memorable Julia Roberts - there were good, strong morals and a touching ending.

Posted by Laura @ 2:58 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

A Week of Pork and Beans

We stared off the week with a Pork Stir Fry, one of the better that we've made. I think the pork was originally going to be pork chops, but as is the nature of cooking, things changed into something better as we went along. I could eat this all the time!

For our other meals, we turned to Beans. I've never been a fan of beans, as my grandfather used to say
"Beans, beans, the musical fruit...," but with Laura such a big fan I thought I'd give them a try again. So the options we tried out were Black Beans, Butter Beans and Ranch Style Beans. If you mash the Ranch Style Beans with some diced tomatoes and mix in some cheese, they're like a wonderful chili you can serve on rice. I think these were my favorite, but it turned out I loved them all, much to my surprize.

Posted by Mark @ 3:50 PM CDT [Permanent URL]

February Craft Day

Everyone was really excited to start off our craft day with some glass etching. Everyone planned out a wonderful project and they all turned out perfectly :) One of the most straight forward ways to get started is to find a rub-on pattern from the glass etching section of your local craft store. Using this technique, Ina made a beautiful suncatcher of falling leaves, Lorene added delicate butterflies to an elegant mirrored coat rack, Kathleen created a matching set of imposing votives with bear motifs and I decorated an oil and vinegar bottle with lacy ferns.

Etching can also be very flexible for those who would like to create their own designs (as long as the designs are not too detailed- this is due mainly to the difficulty of cutting out the design). All you need is a pen or heavy pencil to trace out the design on some rubber shelving paper. To ensure that the sticky side is protected, just roll out as much of the paper as needed and lay the sticky side on a piece of waxed paper. Following this method Maleeha embellished a beveled mirror with cascading ivy from a stencil patter and Kristen created a ring of fish around one of her husbands beautiful green bottles.

Meanwhile, while we were all enjoying our craft day, there were three attempts to make taffy. We endeavored to create an old fashioned taffy pull utilizing new technology- mainly the microwave :) I had this memory when I was a little girl that I had made taffy with my Mom and friend Tarra. The most difficult part seems to be the heat of the taffy- after our first attempt, we learned it was important to start pulling the taffy while it was still hot. Well, our hands couldn't handle the heat so our first attempt ended in a rock hard brown glob of sugar. Mark, not to be discouraged, remelted the mass in the microwave and started pulling... and we started to see the infamous glistening strands of taffy... as the heat became too much I donned my heavy William-Sonoma cleaning gloves and pulled with all my might... everything seemed to be going so smoothly... then I got distracted... we ended up with a beautiful mass of hard candy (which turned out to be a wonderful treat for all).

The second attempt was using cream to create a creamy vanilla taffy. Ina and Kristen were very helpful in this endeavor, but unfortunately, right at the end, the whole mass turned deep brown. When we poured it out on the table and started to work the creamy sugar, the mass broke up into small clusters... but tasted great. This time the rest was used to garnish a delicious apple topping for pancakes the next morning :) Fortunately, taffy seems to have a variety of uses even when everything doesn't work out as you expected.

Posted by Laura @ 3:48 PM CDT [Permanent URL]