Baked Ziti With Spinach and Tomatoes Recipe Review

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 pound hot Italian sausages, casings removed
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 3 large garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 28-ounce can diced peeled tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup pesto sauce
  • 10 ounces ziti or penne pasta (about 3 cups), freshly cooked
  • 8 cups spinach leaves
  • 6 ounces mozzarella cheese, cubed
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese (about 3 ounces)

For directions, visit Epicurious.

Recipe Notes:

I almost always substitute 1 pound of sliced mushrooms (white or baby bella are my favorites) for the sausage and make this into vegetarian dish. Sometimes I make it with both mushrooms and sausage. I’ve also substituted cubed eggplant with delicious results.

I usually use frozen spinach, because I’m more likely to have it around the house.

Recipe Review:

Since stumbling on this recipe on Epicurious years ago, this has become a favorite dinner of my husband and me. It’s delicious, easy to make, and fairly healthy. I especially like the addition of the pesto.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

 

Selected Poems of Anna Akhmatova Book Review

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Review:

Anna Akhmatova has been one of my favorite poets since discovering her in my college Russian classes. She had a wonderful gift for lyric poetry and in her youth, her poems were sheer beauty. Her mature poems, on the other hand, are both beautiful and gut-wrenching, for Akhmatova lived through several of the most dangerous and turbulent periods of Russian history, including the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s purges. Her ex-husband, Nikolai Gumilev (also a poet), was shot in 1921 for suspected anti-Bolshevist activity, her common law husband Nikolai Punin was arrested repeatedly and eventually died in the Gulag, and her son Lev (by Gumilev) was also arrested during Stalin’s purges. Many of her close friends and associates, including Gorky, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Mayakovsky, and Esenin, were also killed or committed suicide.

These experiences gave weight to what is, in my opinion, her greatest poem, Requiem. An excerpt:

You should have been shown, you mocker,
Minion of all your friends,
Gay little sinner of Tsarskoye Selo,
What would happen in your life –
How three-hundredth in line, with a parcel,
You would stand by the Kresty prison,
Your fiery tears
Burning through the New Year’s ice.
Over there the prison poplar bends,
And there’s no sound – and over there how many
innocent lives are ending now…

I gave my copy of The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova to my brother when we moved and kept Selected Poems of Anna Akhmatova because Selected Poems is dual-language in Russian and English, while the Complete Poems is English-only. The English translations, by Judith Hemschemeyer in both books, are accurate in meaning and strive valiantly for the beauty and lyricism of Akhmatova’s words, but of course, nothing can compare to the original, so I kept the smaller volume because it has most of my favorite poems anyway (“Poem Without a Hero” is the most notable omission) and I wanted to have both English and Russian versions of her poems together. As a student of Russian, it’s good practice. If you don’t read any Russian, you may prefer the Complete Poems.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

John Denver Definitive All-Time Greatest Hits Album Review

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Review:

John Denver is one of relatively few singers that both my parents like (their tastes are not very compatible at all in general – my mom is all about classical music and opera, while my dad’s favorite genre is 60’s and 70’s folk-rock), so we listened to quite a lot of him when I was growing up and he’s been one of my favorite singers for pretty much as long as I remember. This album is a fantastic collection and contains almost all of my favorite Denver songs (the main exception being “Grandma’s Feather Bed”), so it was a must-buy for me. I also managed to convert my husband and a bunch of his family members into fans, so this album is a regular in our car rotation, especially on long trips. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is a special favorite for us, as it was the first English language song my husband’s nephew loved when he came to live with us in the United States, and he’d always get the whole car singing along.

I imprinted so hard on Denver’s music that it’s practically a part of me and it’s hard to consider it objectively enough to write a good review. He certainly has a pleasant singing voice, but I think the real magic is from his beautiful and evocative lyrics. He also handles a range of emotions very well – from the achingly romantic “Annie’s Song,” to the melancholy “I’m Sorry,” to the just plain fun of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” I do think a few of the songs go on a little too long (“Sunshine on My Shoulders” in particular always stands out to me as a song that’s beautiful but should be about half as long as it is), but these are relatively few.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

A Song of Ice and Fire Series Review

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Review:

A good friend recommended the A Song of Ice and Fire series, by George R.R. Martin, to me and my husband back in 2005, shortly before the release of the fourth book, A Feast For Crows. We both read the first three books in just a couple weeks, waited a couple months to read the fourth… and then were stuck with all the other book readers waiting nearly six years for the next! Your guess is probably as good as mine when next book, The Winds of Winter (book six out of the planned seven), will be published. I’m hoping we’ll at least have an announcement before the end of the year, but who knows?

The long waits between books notwithstanding, I think the series’ reputation as one of the best (if not THE best) fantasy series ever written is well deserved. The depth, breadth, and richness of the worldbuilding is exceptional even by epic fantasy standards. What I like most, however, is the characters. Although there’s SO many it can sometimes be hard to keep some of the minor ones straight, most of the primary and secondary characters are complex, well drawn, and very memorable.

I especially appreciate the diversity of Martin’s female characters. Although I think the extent to which he’s a feminist writer is sometimes overstated and the later books have several parts that I considered rather problematic from a feminist perspective, Martin undeniably has a whole bunch of the most complex and interesting female characters in the fantasy genre populating his books. I especially like and appreciate his ability to show different types of female strength. There are a number of classic tomboy-style “Strong Female Characters,” including Arya, Brienne, and Asha, but also many characters who are both strong and feminine, such as Catelyn, Olenna Tyrell, Arianne Martell, and (increasingly) Sansa. With such a large and diverse female cast, Martin also has the freedom to show women who are not “strong” by any definition of the word without being accused of misogyny or sexism, as well as female characters who are villainous, incompetent, or just plain unlikable.

I enjoy moral ambiguity and byzantine political intrigue, so I enjoy the plotting as well, although it sometimes gets a little too dark and relentless for me. My favorite book is the third, A Storm of Swords, largely because the grayer side of Westeros’s black-and-gray morality actually wins a few battles for once. A Storm of Swords is also packed with many of the series’ most memorable scenes, and some of its most interesting character development. It’s the literary embodiment of epic, and the fourth and fifth books were unfortunately a little bit of a let-down by comparison, but I’m hoping to do a full re-read when the sixth is released, and hopefully I’ll enjoy them more back-to-back than I did six years apart.

Aside from that, the only major complaint I have about the series is Martin’s tendency to overuse catch-phrases to the point of extreme irritation. “Winter is coming” and “You know nothing, Jon Snow” are probably the most famous, but far from the only.

Book 1Book 2


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Book 3Book 4


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Book 5Box set


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My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Russian Music: Любэ

Review:

Любэ, most commonly transliterated as Lyube, is my favorite Russian band. I was first introduced to them in one of my college Russian classes, when a professor played their song “Не валяй дурака, Америка” (Don’t Play the Fool, America) for us. It’s all about how Alaska rightfully belongs to Russia and Catherine the Great never should have sold it to the United States, and it ends with them screaming about caviar in the background. It is, quite frankly, hilarious.

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That evening on the phone, I mentioned how much I’d enjoyed it to my USSR-born boyfriend (now husband) and discovered that he not only knew the song well, but considers Любэ his favorite band. He recommended a few more songs to me, but this was years before the arrival of helpful sites like YouTube and I didn’t get the chance to really investigate them more until my semester abroad in Russia, when a compilation CD of their greatest hits was one of the first things I bought.

The band was formed in the final years of the Soviet Union and is led by lead vocalist Nikolay Rastorguyev. The other members include: Aleksey Tarasov (backing vocals), Sergei Pereguda (guitar), Pavel Usanov (bass), Vitaliy Loktev (keyboard, bayan), and Aleksandr Erokhin (drums). Many of their songs have military or patriotic themes (in addition to mine and my husband’s, Любэ is also apparently Putin’s favorite band), but they sing in several styles, including rock, folk, and ballads. My Russian is a little short of the vocabulary necessary to appreciate some of their songs in full, but the lyrics of those I can understand are often beautiful. (Though they have several humorous songs besides “Не валяй дурака, Америка,” it’s not their standard style.) I also love Rastorguyev’s voice, which can be both gentle and harsh.

Here are some more of my favorite songs. Note: I’ve done my best to find versions with English subtitles, but some of the translations are better than others.

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Rome: The Complete Series Review

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Review:

HBO’s Rome has been on my to-watch list for years, and I finally watched it, so I can now officially add my voice the the chorus declaring it a crying shame that the show was cancelled after just two seasons, rather than the intended five. At least they had enough warning to wrap up the storyline in a coherent and relatively satisfying way, but the second season felt rushed as a result of trying to squeeze everything in before the end. Fortunately, despite its premature cancellation, the quality of the acting and the production values remained outstanding throughout.

In particular, I thought both writers and actors did a great job making ancient Rome, ancient Egypt, and their inhabitants both clearly alien to the modern Western audience, yet also sympathetic and relatable. One of the things that especially stood out to me was how brave the Roman characters were in the face of death. Rome has a considerable number of both actual suicides and people preparing for the possibility that they might have to commit suicide (for “honor” or to save themselves from a worse fate), and pretty much every single one is conducted with calm and stoic determination. As were most of the assassinations.

The historical accuracy was mixed at best, and I thought that some of the writers’ choices about when to stick to historical fact and when to switch things up were more successful than others. On the side of the good choices, I especially enjoyed Atia, Octavia, and Servilia, who were all substantially more entertaining than their reportedly pious and matronly real-life counterparts. Most of the changes made to their stories were so fun I didn’t care about the inaccuracies. In fact, Atia of the Julii is one of my new favorite female characters ever. Horrible human being, but so entertaining! Kudos to the writers and Polly Walker for bringing her to such vivid life!

One of my favorite Atia moments

One of my favorite Atia moments

On the other hand, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo had a much more mixed bag. I loved most of their interactions with the historical characters, and of course their interactions with each other (I’m always a sucker for a good bromance), but with the exception of Vorenus and Niobe’s complicated relationship in season one, most of their other non-historical relationships and storylines were kind of a mess. I didn’t like Pullo’s storylines with Eirene or Gaia at all, and the whole thing with Lucius Vorenus running the Aventine as a sort of ancient Roman mob boss also failed to hold a candle to anything he did with Caesar, Antony, or Octavian.

Another non-historical storyline I didn’t like was the incest. Though it was a minor plotline, it disproportionately annoyed me. I don’t have a problem with incest storylines per se, but they have to be justified very carefully for me to suspend disbelief. Incest is a nearly universal taboo, after all. Rome‘s incest seemed to come out of the blue for both characters. It certainly wasn’t as organic to the characters as the incest in The Borgias, which was set up from the very first scene they had together. As a result, it felt more like it was tossed in for shock value than anything else, which, in the context of a show with so much other shocking stuff going on all the time, just seemed cheap.

Overall, I thought that the first season was better than the second, partly because the second season was so rushed, and partly because too much of what little time was left in the second season was taken up by less interesting subplots like Vorenus in the Aventine and Timon the Jew’s fanatic brother. However, when season 2 was good, it was very, very good. The finale was especially spectacular, and a worthy ending to a great series.

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My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

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Endangered Species Chocolate Review

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Endangered Species Chocolate is our family’s favorite brand of chocolate bar. The 72% dark chocolate series in particular is excellent: velvety smooth and richly flavored without being either overly bitter or excessively sweet.

I also appreciate the ethics of the company, which is what initially induced my mother to pick up our first bar years ago. The company donates 10% of net profits to wildlife conservation organizations such as the African Wildlife Foundation and The Xerces Society (a personal favorite, due to its excellent work in the under-appreciated field of insect conservation). Endangered Species Chocolate bars are also made using ethically sourced chocolate and other ingredients. They are Rainforest Alliance certified and many of their products contain USDA organic ingredients or sustainably-sourced palm oil. Endangered Species chocolate bars are also Kosher and gluten-free, and some bars are vegan.

My only complaint is that melting and resetting the bars ruins the texture of the chocolate to a greater degree than you find with cheaper chocolates like Hershey, so be extremely careful about leaving these bars in a hot car!

As a premium chocolate brand, Endangered Species Chocolate bars are pricey. I’ve seen it as high as $4 per bar! Fortunately, they seem to go on sale pretty frequently at 2 for $5 or a similar rate, and we stock up during the sales. You can also lower the price per bar by buying in bulk via Amazon or other retailers.

Here are our family’s favorite (and not so favorite) flavors:

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Greek Marinated Chicken Recipe Review

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ Tbsp dried oregano
  • 1 medium lemon
  • ½ tsp salt
  • freshly cracked pepper
  • ¼ bunch fresh parsley
  • 3½ to 4 lbs chicken pieces

For directions, please visit Budget Bytes.

Recipe Notes:

I dump the marinade into the baking pan with the chicken, which produces a lot of delicious sauce. I recommend cooking some rice on the side to soak all the goodness up. This recipe is also excellent with the Lemony Cucumber and Couscous Salad from the same blog.

Recipe Review:

Easy to make, but super moist and flavorful! Budget Bytes is one of my favorite recipe blogs and great recipes like this are the reason why.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Maverick Movie Review

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Review:

Based on the popular TV show starring James Garner, the film Maverick stars Mel Gibson as fast-talking gambler Bret Maverick, who’s trying to get together $25,000 to enter a big poker competition, Garner as lawman Zane Cooper (Bret’s dad), and Jodi Foster as fellow gambler and con artist Mrs. Annabelle Bransford. Wacky hijinks and hilarious misadventures ensue.

I don’t think of myself as being a big fan of Westerns in general, but Maverick is one of my all-time favorite films. Funnily enough, another of my all-time favorite films, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, happens to be a Western penned by the same screenwriter, William Goldman. Goldman brings his signature style of witty and memorable dialogue (also on full display in the classic fantasy The Princess Bride) to the Wild West, and the combination is magic.

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ERGOBaby Original Carrier Review

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Review:

Without a doubt, one of the best baby products we own. I only wish we’d bought it sooner.

We have an inexpensive Snugli front carrier that we used for both kids when they were young, but as they got heavier, it was absolute murder on the shoulders and back. We also have an expensive Kelty frame carrier we used on camping trips for longer hikes, but although it distributed weight really well, it was large and bulky and therefore impractical for everyday use.

The ERGOBaby is the perfect compromise. The wide waist belt and padded shoulder straps distribute weight well, making the ERGOBaby much more comfortable for extended use than the Snugli. At the same time, the child is carried closer to your body than the Kelty, so it doesn’t affect your natural balance as much and is much more practical in crowds or other tight situations.

Getting it on and off and positioning your baby or toddler without assistance requires some practice, especially in the back, but is totally doable. With two people, the process is simple and easy.

Like other baby carriers, taking a walk in the ERGOBaby is a great way to lull a tired baby to sleep, and the hood helps provide extra head support (and sun protection) for your little one while sleeping. There’s a large zipped pocket that you can use to store keys, phones, wallets, or other necessities while walking.

We bought the ERGOBaby when our son outgrew the Snugli, so we never tried it with a newborn and I’ve heard complaints about the insert used to convert it into a carrier for very young infants. Therefore, I’m a little skeptical of claims that the ERGOBaby is “the only baby carrier you’ll ever need” and recommend getting a cheap Snugli like ours (or a similar one) if you have problems with it when your baby is young, and trying the ERGOBaby again in a few months, probably starting around 12-15 pounds.

We also never tried it with our daughter, despite the fact that we could have until quite recently. (The ERGOBaby carries up to 45 pounds.) However, it still works great with our son, who’s now nearly 2 1/2 and over thirty pounds.

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My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

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