Colorado's Own Crazy Microcosm #1 - Bishop's Castle

On a recent road trip towards the Great Sand Dunes National Park, for once, we didn't make a lot of plans in advance. Just good ol' driving through rural Colorado and see what's out there. Bishop's Castle was conveniently on the way, and it's the stuff of legends around here. Jim Bishop has been working on this thing for a few decades now, building a for-real castle by hand.

 The castle is free to visit, with no guided tours. If you're thinking "European style castle mimicking ones centuries old", I wouldn't expect quite that - it's more of a whimsical construction site without much practical possibilities. I must say though, this thing photographs very well.

Some really awesome features of the castle include a main hall with stained glass, a dragon at the top, and pretty swirling staircases leading to... well, let's just say don't let your kids run around unsupervised.
Most of the staircases just lead to a small landing, from where you can glare at
the people passing by. And try not to fall off.
Overall, the construction methodology seems to be along the lines of "keep adding supports until it doesn't fall over anymore".
I know, let's weld more pieces on!
In general, common sense is not just expected here, it's mandatory. This is an active construction site and what's built out isn't built to be safe or anything. When I walked out on the pretty metal walkways, they shook under me, and there were spots that have clearly fallen through. I've had a friend tell me that a stair crumbled under her as she was descending from one of those towers. Having said that, however, I can't say that I showed much common sense that day - see the clouds in the pictures? We climbed the highest tower, just as a storm started gathering. As I sat at the top, taking pictures, it only slightly occurred to me that I'm sitting in a tall, exposed, metal tower. No luck getting hit by lightning so far, but it does make me wonder if anyone's gotten seriously injured here.

Pretty metal walkways with an optional side of
death trap.
There are a few websites for the place, all of which give about the same information, so I'm not sure why there's more than one: They all have very nice pictures of the place and useful information. What the websites don't show you is that there is signage like this all around the place, and that's where the crazy really starts coming out.

This one's pretty mild. There was one talking about the two party political system,
with the D in Democrat having a hammer and sickle drawn in and the R in
Republican having a swastika in it.
So there you have it - a nice little 15 minute stop if you're in the neighborhood. You can usually see Jim Bishop in the area and talk to him about the castle or politics. I didn't because the signs worried me a little - I'll leave the one below as the last little present:

Because nothing says "I'm an adult who made something
awesome" like screaming that it was you and not your dad. Yes,
there is a paragraph long rant about it below.

Snowshoeing - do I really need the snowshoes?

Snowshoeing pictures look about the same - snow, trees, sky. This day was particularly pretty though.
Over the holidays, I managed to drag my little brother and his girlfriend Vy snowshoeing for the first time. Vy, while enthusiastic about seeing snow on the scale of Colorado snowstorms, wasn't excited about tripping over her own feet because of the bulky snowshoes. On the compacted, popular trail, it did seem extraneous to be wearing them, so at one point we went off-trail and to their surprise, even with the snowshoes, the soft powdery snow had quite a bit of give. My first time snowshoeing, I was just as disappointed to sink to my knees and to have to work quite hard to lift my legs through the snow.

My only point of comparison from with snowshoes to without was to the time when I went ice climbing a few years ago and didn't have any on the approach. I remember the 10 minute approach taking at least three times as long as I climbed through the snow, which was almost up to my chest. But I never actually did a direct comparison. So last weekend, while out on the West Summit Loop A at Rabbit Ears Pass near Steamboat Springs, I decided to give it a try.
On the left - with the snowshoes and the shadow of my husband. On the right - no snowshoes and no husband.
So here is the highly scientific (N=1) proof that snowshoes are useful. Maybe at some point I'll learn to walk well enough in them without stepping on myself and faceplanting at least once per trip. In the meantime, I'll just keep practicing my acrobatics... because that's attractive.


A Colorado Train Adventure

Husband unit has the best ideas for presents. This time around, he didn't make it a surprise, which gave me plenty of time to obsess about how we were going on a traaaaaaain. Really, the excitement was hard to contain, because I got to take a mini-vacation out to Glenwood Springs. On a train.
OK, that's not a passenger train, but you get my point. Trains are awesome.
California Zephyr was a great big thing of beauty. A bit aged by now, but nonetheless quite cozy, with a dining car and a lounge car, and the passenger cabins.
Observation area with lots of windows
and swivel chairs. That's where I spent
most of my time.


On the way there, we were riding in coach, and I spent very little time in my seat. Instead, I opted for hanging out in the lounge, the snack area, or the dining car. Everyone on the train was relaxed, so people were generally super friendly. This is encouraged by the staff, as they'll sit people at community tables for meals.

Oh, the sleeper cabin. You'd think it would be completely unnecessary for a 5 hour journey, but what a difference it made to be able to lie down and read (OK, nap) whenever I felt like it. It was also nice to be able to bug Oleg as much as I wanted without worrying that we'll die in a fiery car crash.

In case you're wondering, the book is "Outliers" by Gladwell.
Reason #1 to bug Oleg.
Reason #2 to bug Oleg.
Well, maybe the real reason #1 to bug Oleg was really the wildlife - there was quite a few elk around.

When we got off the train, the hotel was quite literally right next to the station. Living in the 'burbs, I've gotten so used to (read "annoyed at") driving, that it was quite the change to just *gasp* not need to do it.
On the left - the train we were just on. On the right - the hotel (you can see the red H)
Hotel Denver seemed to be the appropriate choice for the trip, with its history of being the stop for the rich train travelers. We're not as rich as the people who used to stop here for a night, but we could still appreciate the old-timey feel, with its real keys, uniquely set up rooms, and antiques everywhere. By the way, even though it didn't get placed in the hotel until 1970s, the piano is actually older than the hotel itself. It also can't be played (of course I checked!).

This mini-vacation is the most I've been relaxed in ages, probably most relaxed since the Mexico mini-vacation a couple years ago, when all we did was sleep and eat. Being stuck in one place, where I couldn't get caught up in the "Oh, the laundry needs to be put in! No wait, I need to go check the mail and then feed the bunnies and then and then and then..." - well, being stuck without too many options was refreshing. A nice vacation before our much more intense Thanksgiving road trip to Grand Canyon and Las Vegas, which is creeping up way quickly.

An Array of Hong Kong Snackage

Flower tea from Lock Cha Tea Shop in Hong Kong Park
I always say that the best souvenirs to bring home are edible. And Hong Kong's got plenty of those kinds of souvenirs - some are even quite unfamiliar. Acquiring them was entertaining on its own. It probably would've been a crazy adventure of me buying random things in the store, but our local marketing guy volunteered both of his interns to come with me and explain what everything is. There's a fun internship - take the random coworker from the headquarters grocery shopping.

So here's the list so far. It's got the good and the OK. Thanks to the interns, none of it was bad or ugly.

Crispy shredded pork - pork is sure popular in China. In fact, it's so popular, that recently a Chinese company bought a significant number of shares in a US pork producer. This is essentially a mutant version of beef jerky - seasoned and sweetened pulled pork that's been dried and doesn't need to be refrigerated. Oleg summarized the experience as eating sweet pork tasting carpet. It works great when added to a pot of rice.

Mmmm, shredded pork carpet.
Little dried fishes, shrimps, etc. - often served as a pre-meal snack, similar to the way our restaurants give you bread. Sometimes breaded and fried, sometimes just dried, these little critters have a strong taste (I would say a strong fishy taste, but I guess that's kind of obvious). By the way when I say little shrimps, imagine something about the size of a dime.

Crispy pork thins - now we're talking! These are almond and pork crisps of various flavor. It's pretty much an extra thin cracker that tastes like maple bacon (and in this case black pepper). Very tasty!

Just eat these.
Pineapple cookies - a biscuit dough filled with a rather artificial pineapple jelly. Nothing to get too excited about, just pretty simple.

Peanut cookies - many varieties are available. The ones I got were beautifully formed with the texture of extra thick peanut butter.

Mooncakes - a pastry that probably deserves a separate post of its own. It's usually available around fall time during the autumn festival. These little cakes are filled with lotus or red bean paste, and will come with salted egg yolks inside. The egg yolk came as a surprise to me when I grabbed some unrefrigerated prepackaged mooncakes - there will actually be a full egg yolk inside!

Dragon beard candy - a Chinese specialty with a long time history. The outside is made from spun sugar, similar to cotton candy. The spun sugar is made into hundreds of thin threads, which gives it the "beard" look. The filling can be sesame, peanut, or more recently pop rock candy. The treats came in sealed pouches and should be eaten quickly, before they get the chance to absorb moisture from the air.

Hairy candy! Very tasty!

A Mini Tour of Memphis Barbeque

When a place is known for something, it's fun to try to find what the "best of" whatever they specialize is. With Memphis, it's barbeque and music, and since Colorado has a shortage of "real" barbeque, I figured it'd be fun to try.

For the record, I used to think that I hated barbeque. Not just kind of disliked, but full on hated - I would gag at the smell of the sauce when my parents would bring home the slabs of barbeque ribs from Costco. OK... maybe, just maybe, Costco ribs weren't the best introduction to what barbeque really is. Just a little side note there.

I was in Memphis for work with Leann, who is wonderfully adventurous and willing to go wherever for food. I figured that I could find enough locals to ask where the best places are while I was there. If nothing else, a girl's got to have lunch.

When I got in from the airport, my first quest for lunch had to include barbeque, but since I wasn't actually in Memphis, but instead Germantown, a suburb, my options would be limited. Luckily, as soon as I came outside, I found the shuttle driver chatting with a few of the other hotel workers, so I could pick their brains.

"Corky's is... OK." he said, clearly unimpressed by my research so far. "Let me take you to the Commisary instead. They've got great pulled pork."

Germantown Commissary - a little place known for its pulled pork, ribs, and homemade desserts (banana pudding and coconut pie are a couple). Quite the sight with all the sides and pies lined up in trays in a fridge by the entrance. The pulled pork really was something out of this world - smoked with barely any sauce on it.

Of course, dessert was mandatory. I think that was the most shredded coconut I've ever seen in a coconut cream pie.

Next day, the arguments on where to go for great barbeque began in the morning and continued all throughout the workday. One coworker was absolutely set on Rendezvous for best ribs in town. The others were arguing that Cozy Corner would be better, but conceded that my lunch choice was a great place as well.

Cozy Corner turned out to be an adorable little place in the rather questionable part of town. We could see the smoke from a few blocks away.

I wonder if before all the online reviews, barbeque restaurants just used
smoke signals to lure customers in.
Of course, I was smitten as soon as I came in. The smoker is the first thing you see, followed by the menu board. Not many options - Wings, ribs, whole chicken, bologna. Corn bread, beans, slaw for sides. Pie for dessert - and when I asked if it was pumpkin or sweet potato, the friendly lady at the counter replied "sweet potato, of course!" as if it shouldn't be a surprise at all.

The wings were monster wings. As in, when I ordered a 2 wings and 2 ribs plate with sides, I thought that'd be a small lunch. The picture should show pretty clearly how not small it actually was. Both were wonderfully smoky, without a huge amount of sauce (the picture definitely makes it look like it was all sauce. I promise, it really wasn't!). And the sweet potato pie - rich and delicious. But what impressed me most was that even the iced tea at the place was clearly homemade. Another place to love!

But was Cozy Corner the "best" of Memphis? At the end of the day, we chatted with the boss about what we liked. I told him I'd been to Germantown Commisary and Cozy Corner, and Leann had been to Rendezvous before.

"Those are all pretty good, but you really got to try Central. That's where ALL the locals go," said Scott.

Yeah, it's kind of hard to tell what the "best" is, when even the locals don't agree on where the "locals" like to go. I didn't get a chance to try Central or Rendezvous, or a few other places that would've probably been wonderful. It's likely that those are also little shops with homemade, real food, like the other well-loved places in town.

When Pigs Are Pretty?

It's a gigantic pig necklace with little piggies dangling off. Isn't it lovely?
There are a few things I've learned this time around in Hong Kong. First of all, there are more jewelry stores than Starbucks. These little stores were literally on every block downtown. Sometimes there were two per block.
Seriously! These are everywhere.
But what about the pig? Oh, I absolutely had to take a picture - the stand is not minitature, it is indeed a gigantic golden pig. You see, walking down Nathan Road in Hong Kong, I saw this necklace in a Chow Tai Fook store and was absolutely sure that it must be one of those designer things that there's only one of. But next block and next jewelry store, there was something similar. And in the next one. What the heck?

Turns out it's a traditional necklace for a Hong Kong bride to wear during her wedding. As you have probably guessed, it symbolizes fertility. And no, there is no one child rule in Hong Kong, even though it technically belongs to China now, so including that many piglets isn't just a mean way to taunt the poor bride. Just a little subtle hint from the future grandparents.

Little subtle hint about grandchildren. I wonder if anyone could possibly miss
it with the size of that thing.

The 10 Rules of Making Soup Using Leftovers

Soups are my absolutely favorite way to eat tons of vegetables, presented in the most cozy package you can imagine - warm savory liquid. While there are tons of recipes out there for all kinds of amazing soups, my favorite thing to do with it is to make soup to get rid of every leftover possible. Half a bunch of parsley left from garnishing all that Italian food? Throw it in! A few chunks of onion from making a sauce? That goes in too. Except chocolate, but who has leftovers of chocolate anyway?

Basically, you need broth of some sort and vegetables/meats/fish of any kinds. Everything can be varied, and I really mean everything. Just follow these rules.

1. You can use store-bought broth or make your own. I usually make my own, because I don't really like the flavor of the store-bought stuff as much, hence the recipe at the bottom.

2. If you have meat that you made the broth out of, it'll taste better browned first. If you're adding in something like sausage or ham, brown those too. Don't feel like you're stuck with only one kind of meat.

3. Vegetables should be added in first (even if you made the broth out of meat, take it out, and set aside). Cut them up finely or roughly, depending on your preference. Generally, add the hard ones like potatoes into the pot and simmer them until they're reasonably soft before adding things like kale and other soft stuff. Meat should be added towards the end.
NOTE: If using carrots or celery in the broth making, fish them out of the broth and then re-add them in with the soft veggies. They're plenty cooked and still tasty.

4. If you're adding in grains (rice, barley, etc.), it helps to pre-cook them and add them at the end or add them in very early so they have a chance to cook. If you're adding in noodles, those can go in during the last 10 minutes of cooking.

5. If you're using beets in the soup, it's usually practical to boil them separately, in the skin, before adding them into the pot.

6. If you're using both potatoes and cabbage in the broth, first put in the potatoes, wait for them to soften, then add cabbage. If you do them both together, the potatoes will take way longer to soften.

7. I find that adding a tomato with its skin removed at the end usually improves the overall soup flavor.

8. I also like chopping up onion and carrot in a 1:1 ratio, frying the mixture up in some oil, and adding it into the soup at the end.

9. If you're adding in cream, add it towards the end as well.

10. Make sure to taste the soup at the end and adjust the seasoning.

Using those basic guidelines, I've recently made the soup in the picture. The broth was made with the soup bones from the beef quarter we bought. The bones were quite meaty, so the meat went into the soup. We also had leftover spicy sausage and ham, a bunch of kale, green and red peppers, tomato, celery, onions, and potato. The result - a smoky, very thick broth with plenty of vegetables.

Sour cream is almost mandatory in Russia.

1. Use 2-4 cups of meat, chicken, veggies, anything you like. The more gnarly the meat, the better - you want the bones, cartilage, and all. With the veggies, stems and tough parts are fine.

2. Place in large pot, add cold water to cover, and bring to a gentle boil, removing the foam that forms on top occasionally (it's got the attractive name "scum"). Simmer for 30 minutes.

3. If desirable, at this point, you can add some vegetables to a meat broth - onions, carrots, celery are all good. Some herbs and salt are nice too, just not too much.

4. Simmer with the lid mostly covering the pot for 2 hours.

5. Some will tell you to remove the fat before using the broth. I like to do that on the beef broth, but definitely not the chicken. Just a little personal preference there.