Montbell Permafrost: Best Jacket Ever?

Well, I can’t really say yet because, to date, I have only used it while lounging on my bed.  But, I have my suspicions, and I believe it just may be a quite-excellent jacket.

It’s a compressible down jacket.  These are great for travel because they are really, really light and do not take up much space.  They are easy to bring along for trips where some cold weather is possible, but not enough to justify the hassle of lugging a big, heavy coat around for the entire trip.  (This would have been great in India when camping out with the camels in the cold cold desert or in Machu Picchu when it got so cold at night at the higher altitudes).

I have wanted one of these for three years.  In fact, this is the third fall season in a row that I have purchased one.  But I’ve never been happy with the selections before.  The first jacket I tried was the Montbell UltraLight.  I like the Montbell brand.  Their products are well-constructed and the jackets are super light and warm.  Badger has the Montbell Alpine Light and has loved it forever.   But I didn’t like the UltraLight’s women’s fit (skimpy) and the men’s was awkward and schlumpy on me.  The next year, I tried the Outdoor Research Ergo Down Sweater, which I expected to love and almost did.  But it wasn’t exactly the thing. It was also a bit skimpy and wasn’t quite long enough.   I wanted something (1) lightweight and compressible but also (2) roomy and long.  I can’t emphasize how important the “long”  was to me.   A jacket that ends at the waist or mid hip is just too short for me.

This year, I tried: Marmot Venus, Isis Lucky Stripe Down Sweater (almost loved it), and Patagonia Down Sweater. But none of them were really what I was looking for.  In desperation, I decided to give Montbell another shot.   I figured if I was going to buy a jacket I didn’t love, I might as well get a high-performing one.  And then, I saw it:

Montbell Permafrost Light Women's Down Jacket in Gun Metal.

Love at First Sight: the Montbell Women's Permafrost Light Down

I don’t know why, but I immediately thought it was The One.  I loved the idea of the wind-proofing.  The “generous cut” for layering.  And it seemed long.  And it is!  It covers my ass easily (insert blush).  For a jacket that weighs less than 12oz and compresses to 5″X7″, it’s bulky and substantial. The only thing I would change is that the fabric is a bit crinkly–sort of like a crisp garbage bag–and it rustles a bit when I move, i.e. shift positions in my bed.  (It’s too bad: the tiger will hear my approach from a mile away.)

The cost of the jacket bothered me a lot.  When I began my compressible down quest three years ago, I would NEVER have even considered spending $250 on this jacket.  NEVER.  In fact, the first jacket I got was a last-ditch clearance item, and it cost $107 or less.  But, in the last three years I have experienced a horrifying price-creep tolerance.  I am willing to pay SO MUCH MORE for EVERYTHING.  Because, I think, I am so LAZY.  When I saw how hardy the jacket was, though, I realized that it solved a couple of other jacket-related problems, which probably justifies its price.  First, the zipper on my real (long-to-the-knees and impenetrable) down jacket broke at the end of the season last year.  I’m not sure this jacket can replace that one for the worst of the winter weather, but I’m willing to try.  Second, and more importantly, the  weight of this jacket means that I can wear it for the commute in the morning, but stow it for the walk home in the evenings.  Last March, I started walking from the job to Penn Station in the evenings. It’s a nice 40-minute walk, and I really enjoy it.  But I didn’t know how the walking was going to work out during the winter months.  During the cold-but-not-freezing March weather last year, I was having trouble because the big down coat was too warm after walking a few minutes, but was too heavy and awkward to carry.  This jacket, I think, perfectly solves that problem. Guilt alleviated.  (Or am I making excuses?  I think only Caroline can help me answer that one.  She is a smart, frugal shopper.)

The only thing I might have done differently with this purchase is to have gathered up the courage to go for silver:

On the screen, I love this color.

On the screen, I love this color. Next to my face, not so much.

I love the way this looks.  And I have so many black winter clothes, a lighter color might have been really nice.  But, I can’t really wear gray near my face. The color makes me look ghastly/sickly.   I worried that in person the silver would be more gray rather than the lovely silvery blue color it appears to be on the internet.  Sigh.

I am looking forward to trying this jacket out in harsher conditions than my bedroom (but consider: the windows were open, and it’s nippy these days!).

And don’t fret, I have more terribly expensive gear reviews to come.


Filed under Gear Review, Hiking, Travel

ABC Trek!

I have posts to write, and they are not about food!  I can hardly believe it.  (I do have a few recipes to talk about but I haven’t really felt like it so I’ll keep them to myself for now.)

The news:  I am going to Nepal.  With Badger.  We are going to do the Annapurna Sanctuary (or Annapurna Base Camp (ABC)) Trek.

A view of the Annapurna Ranges from Pohkara.  It's a much better picture that any I'll be taking

A view of the Annapurna Ranges from Pokhara (and a much better shot than any I'll be taking.)

The planning of (and for) these kinds of active trips is very intense and exciting, but it also makes me sick with nerves and anxiety.  There is a tremendous amount of research and agony involved.  Every. Single. Time.  I just can’t seem to do it in the easy-breezy fashion of the just-pick-up-and-go crowd.

The first thing was to pick the trip I wanted to take.  I have a ton of leave to use by the end of the year, and I’m burnt out and tired of the job so I wanted to go away for a while.  I knew I wanted to do a trek of some distance.  I’ve been interested in Nepal for a while, and the weather is decent in December.  And it is, comparatively speaking, pretty cheap.   So the decision to go to the Nepali-region wasn’t that hard to make.  I picked the Annapurna Sanctuary trek because the dates and length of the trip worked out with my leave. Also, the trek doesn’t involve some of the extremes of altitude of other treks in the region.  It’s higher than I’ve ever been though.  Annapurna Base Camp is 4130m (13,550 ft).  AMS, here I come!

At some point in the planning process, Badger figured out that she might also be able to take some leave and do the trip with me.  Then, for a while it looked like she was going on a different Annapurna trek and that we were going to be in Nepal trekking at about the same time but never see each other.  But happily, things worked out, and we booked our trip with Intrepid.  It’s going to be a medium group– 15 people it seems.  Though there is 1 spot left if anyone wants to join us!  We’ve traveled with Intrepid before, and they usually do pretty good trips.  We considered trying other operations–like World Expeditions (they do a wonderful-seeming Annapurna camping trip), but they are pretty pricey and the dates didn’t work out.

Because of the way our respective leave works out, I will be leaving  a few days before Badger, and she will be staying a few days after me.  I’ve pretty much decided to add a short (pre?) extension onto my trip and go to the Royal Chitwan National Park and maybe try to stalk a Bengal tiger:



So the trip is picked out, but I’ve still got to get there.  This usually involves grueling research and making a ton of difficult cost/benefit decisions.  How much is a short (as opposed to long) stop-over worth to me?  A nice, safe airline?  How many stops am I willing to make?  This time, though, I got lucky. There weren’t many options, and the fastest and most direct flight is the cheapest (though not cheap by any means–AMEX membership rewards points to the rescue).

Once the logistics are set, the mind inevitably turns to the gear required.  And the purchasing begins.  Every time I do an active trip, it is astonishing the amount (and cost!) of gear I need to buy.  And after each trip, you say to yourself, well, I spent a ton on gear but it’s ok because next time I won’t need to buy anything.  HA!  It’s all a lie you tell yourself.  Don’t believe it.

Between my last two (only) active trips in Machu Picchu and on the Camino, I bought new hiking pants, tech t-shirts, a wind jacket, a backpack, a sun hat, boots, trekking poles, a lightweight sleeping bag (which was in addition to my regular weight sleeping bag), sandals, wool hiking socks, and a rain jacket.  All this is in addition to camping gear I purchased around the same time and that is useful for traveling:  sleeping pad, head lamp (possibly second-best purchase ever), lightweight towel (maybe the third-best), and I know I am forgetting a bunch of stuff.

For this trip, things are even more consumer-y. The conditions on the hike will vary.  It is winter in Nepal in December but the temperature spans a pretty big range.  Daily temps are expected to be from just below freezing to mid-60s (F).  And we will be hiking at altitude so wind and sun/glare are also concerns.  The new gear list looks like this:  fleece pants, compressible down jacket (possibly the first-best purchase ever), fleece jacket (at least 1), thermals, rain pants, hiking pants (my only long pair have been ruined), wool socks (more), sleeping bag liner, and sunglasses.  At buying all this stuff, I feel guilt because it’s so excessive, but also an inexplicable thrill: I need the ultra-light weight compressible down jacket or I might die! On a mountain!

Plus, my crappy Canon Powershot SD 450 is no longer focusing and, anyway, its range was disappointing for travel photos. (Family:  did I mention how this is your Christmas present to me?  Don’t worry, I’ve already ordered it.)

That is a LOT of stuff to buy.  The Columbus Day sales were my friend.  But, I need there to be big Halloween sales also or perhaps a Veteran’s Day blowout or two.  It may also be that the tanking economy will also induce some random sales (Though I will feel a twinge of something like regret if I end up profiting from the complete and utter destruction of our financial markets.  I have to boo de-regulation even if it results in a 20% off discount on my favorite fleece pants.).

So, if you care nothing about reading about random active gear, I’m sorry.  You will be bored because that is all I have to talk about for a while.

But then!  I will be posting about our travels.  With photos!  And commentary!  There will be elephants and mountains.  Just wait for it.


Filed under Hiking, Travel

So long

It’s been so long and how time flies, etc etc.  I’ve been tired and busy, alternately and sometimes at the same time.  But I have made some things.  Some good things.

First, I did make the plum cake discussed here.  It was an interesting cake.  I made some dramatic changes, which included taking out so much of the oil and replacing it with apple sauce.  I did this at the very last minute and without a lot of thought.  But, really, I thought the cake didn’t suffer much because of it.

I didn’t have plums, so I made a peach cake.  Unfortunately, the peaches were  awful.  Just a terrible batch. I didn’t have enough peaches (because so many were bad through and through), and what was left after cutting around the rotten bits was just not enough.  More fruit would have been nicer.  The cake also cooked up really fast, and this one was done just a bit too much (like 33 minute was at least 3 minutes too many).  The cake was very moist and had a strong brown sugar flavor (I used turbinado instead of the brown sugar that was called for.)  I would make it again, perhaps following the recipe a little more faithfully.  It has a lot of potential. (As an aside, when I asked the Fiend what she thought of the cake she said “it’s ok.  But it’s was not like that other one you made.  You know, the one with the crumbles on it.”  Then she glared at me meaningfully.)

I have also cooked up two more batches of Orangette’s french-style crack.  I just love love love that granola. I recommend it to all.  I finished my last batch today and have decided to institute a moratorium on the granola-making for just a little while.  Some people can manage a full-time job while on crack.  Not me though.

In an effort to make some actual savory food, I decided to focus on chickpeas for a week.  I got a small container of dried garbanzos at Fairway and soaked them all overnight.  (It’s a pain to cook the beans from dried, but there is no point to eating gross canned beans.  And in both recipes, using the dried beans made all the difference, taste-wise).  I thought I’d have so many chickpeas to try so many different recipes, but I was delusional.  It was a very small carton of beans, and I had unrealistic expectations about how much dried chickpeas would expand when rehydrated.  Anyway, I did have enough to attempt 2 different recipes, with very respectable results.  (My sister has the camera, so no photos today.  You’ll just have to rely on the far superior photos on the linked-to sites.  So sad, I know.)

First off:  the Unexpectedly Delicious (a/k/a Fried Egg Noodles are Tremendous).  As you might suspect, I did not know what to expect from this recipe.  I am not a noodle lover, but I was intrigued.  When I was putting it together, I worried that it might be bland. But, no.   So tasty, so filling.  So wonderful.

Instead of vegetable stock, I used Pacific Chicken Stock, which was on sale at Whole Foods.  I believe, however, that the sale only served to highlight how much cheaper the Whole Foods 365 Brand chicken stock was (even post sale).  Because the 365 shelf was wiped clean, while there was plenty of the Pacific brand left.  But, I’m glad it was there.  I thought it tasted miles better than most other chicken stocks so perhaps the price premium really means something.   The only other change to the recipe I made was using less oil than the recipe called for.  In the end, I added about 1.5T of oil instead of 3T to the finished product.

Oil and stock aside, without a doubt, the fried egg noodles  made this dish.   It’s a keeper.

Second recipe:  Where Initial Disappoint Turns to Appreciation and Then Delight.  I distrusted this recipe.  I think I picked it because it was simple.  There were just two steps:  dump everything in a pot and then stir.  But when I got around to it, the thought of just dumping everything in a pot together at the same time seemed fundamentally wrong.  Instead, I sauteed the onion, garlic (which I subbed for ginger) and the spices in (a reduced amount of) butter before adding the other ingredients, as I believe has been done in every other curry recipe ever made.  I unthinkingly added the “fire roasted” tomatoes not realizing until after how much I dislike the distraction of charred bits in my food.  I can’t even believe I bought the tomatoes. (See above re: chickpeas. I think I was engaged in disassociative/magical thinking while food shopping this weekend.)

In all of my taste tests while cooking, I was so disappointed.  All I could taste was char and a too strong tomato flavor.  I thought everything was ruined.  Before I put it away, though, I took a last taste-test and got a nice surprise.  Somehow, over the course of several hours (as I bitterly ignored the curry on the countertop), something happened and the flavors came together nicely.  The chickpeas took on a really nice creamy taste (absolutely my favorite part of the dish).  And the charred bits stopped bothering me.  This is not an intensely flavored dish, but it’s actually really pleasant.  Next time, I might try this curry recipe out just because the reviews are so good, and it seems to be spicier.  But I was not disappointed.

I want to become a crock pot queen this fall.  (I said crock, not crack.  I told you I’m off that stuff–temporarily).  While at Fairway, I also got a small container of dried black beans that have a future as a chili and perhaps a black bean and rice dish.  Many, many moons ago, when I was at school in Boston, a friend came over and made a black beans and rice meal that I still think about, and I want to re-create it.  So let me know if you’ve got any ideas about that.   Also, I see a chiffon cake in my very near future.

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Filed under Food

The problem with food blogs

First off, the good: Delicious photos and creative recipes, which encourage innovation and experimentation. Fabulous, generous people. Easy enough. Nothing to regret there.

The problem: the baked goods! oh, the baked goods. While I doubt there is any blogger who bakes everyday, everyday there are many talented people baking many wonderful things. And so, the list of things to make grows considerably faster than there are reasonable occasions to make them. For instance, just in the last week these recipes caught my eye:

  1. Chiffon cake.
  2. Plum cake.
  3. Granola Grabbers.
  4. Blueberry Pudding Cake.
  5. Chai Cupcakes.
  6. Blackberry Flummery (although not a baked good, it’s still dessert).

And this happens nearly every week. In my ever continuing efforts to avoid a heart attack/diabetes/morbid obesity, I try to exercise some restraint. I can’t bake everyday. (Or can I? )

Enter the machinations of the Unstoppable Sugar Fiend (a/k/a my dear mother.) Here’s a short story to illustrate how dangerous she is:

The other day, I made these blueberry crumb bars. I had considered halving the recipe because 9X13 makes an awful lot of irresistible crumble servings. But that would involve using 1/2 an egg, which seemed like a waste, blah blah blah. I convinced myself to make the whole thing. Figured I could freeze 1/2 of it or something. Anyway, I made them, and each of the incredibly tiny portions were delicious. Only hours after it cooled, we had already made a huge dent in the 9X13 pan.

I thought I’d do the generous thing and give a big chunk of the remainder to our neighbors, who have 5 kids and had just returned from overseas on vacation. When I mentioned this to the Fiend, she gasped and clutched at her heart. She looked at me as if I had suggested that we eat the neighborhood children, instead of feed them. She was aghast, and she was not kidding. The crumble was just too precious to her.

The next day, after at least 1/3 of the crumble was gone–(Oh, Internet. It is so easy to lie to you. My better angel tells me that slightly more than 1/2 of the crumble had been dispatched)–she suggested that I make another one. That day. In fact, I only just managed to stop her as she was collecting her purse and heading out the door to buy more blueberries. I told her she was crazy.

I haven’t told her about the #2 above yet. Who could withstand the harrassment? But that is the recipe weighing most heavily on my mind at the moment. I have an 8X8 inch pan and peaches and other delicious stone fruits on hand (in the last week, the Fiend has purchased peaches, nectarines and plums in an attempt to encourage another tart). It feels like destiny.


Filed under Food

I crumbled.

I do not know why I can’t write this post.

Short story: I saw this recipe and filed it away as looking delicious and something I wanted to make soonish. With end of blueberry season fast approaching, I knew it would have to be soon. Enter Friday, when I had some time– and just slightly less than 2 pints of blueberries– on my hands. Opportunity was a-knocking, and I answered the call.

I made a few modifications to the recipe:

  1. I substituted 4oz neufchatel cream cheese for 4oz of the butter. (This was an idea I got from Madam Chow, and it worked wonderfully in the peach tart I made a little while back.) I thought it was an awesome modification to this recipe as well. I had intended to sub out only about 2oz of the butter. But when I saw that the cream cheese was not preventing the flour from crumbling nicely, I just couldn’t resist adding more. (It didn’t hurt that I had almost an entire opened package of the cream cheese left, which I was looking to use up.)
  2. I also subbed 1.5 cups whole wheat pastry flour for 1.5 cups of the all purpose.
  3. At the very last moment, I bailed on using the lemon zest in the crumble dough. I used the lemon juice on the blueberries, though. Someday I’ll get around to discussing my complicated relationship with lemon flavor.

Everybody loved the bars, and nobody seemed to notice the whole wheat or reduced butter. I’m sure the bars would have been more delectable with all butter and all white flour. But, they were still so good, the modifications didn’t feel like a sacrifice at all.

p.s. These photos are rudimentary and crass.  You should really check out the photos at Smitten Kitchen.  If they don’t make you salivate, you are probably not alive.


Filed under Dessert, Food, Uncategorized

A bit more food nostaglia

I made Nancy Silverton’s Pappardelle with Bagna Cauda, Wilted Radicchio and an Olive-Oil-Fried Egg

today, as sort of a brunch meal. This is much, much fancier than I usually cook or eat. It has anchovies in it! I think this was the first time I even touched anchovies to be perfectly honest. They are certainly not the most pleasant-looking food.

I only found the recipe last night, and that was by accident. But when I saw it, I knew I wanted to at least try it–despite the anchovies– because it reminded me a great lunch I had in Barcelona last year. At the time (and even now, actually) I had no idea idea what I was ordering, but what I ended up with was a runny fried egg on top of a crispy, french-fry like base. The base was sort of like a mix between fries and potato stix in terms of texture. It also had some kind of mildly spicy, chili sauce mixed into it. The whole thing was unexpected and delicious. So the idea of having the runny yolk of egg run through egg noodles was very appealing.

It’s a pretty easy recipe to put together for something with such a fancy name. I cut down on some of the oil and didn’t use parsley (because I hate it). I also didn’t bother with the cheese, but it might try the dish with a bit of parmigiana next time for the sake of complexity.

I think the Bagna Cauda has potential. But in my rush to make it (it was 2 pm and I still hadn’t eaten yet), I accidentally added the juice and zest of 1 whole lemon, instead of 1/2 a lemon. That’s kind of a lot of lemon, and it ruined the dish. Anything that might have been subtle about the anchovies or garlic or radicchio flavors was washed away by the overpowering lemon taste. Such a pity. I did manage to eat my egg and some of the pasta. I had it with a slice of the light whole wheat bread, and it’s a hearty meal. I’ll try it again because it does have the potential to be great. I might change out the radicchio for spinach or something similar. It seemed kind of too bitter to me. But then again, it was really hard to tell what was working with all the lemon squishing around. But I can’t complain. I got to try something really different and had a hearty, filling meal. This would be a great meal to have on a brisk fall morning, just before a really long hike. It’s the kind of thing that will keep you going.


Filed under Food

Bread-Making and Nostalgia

Reading Badger’s other (unfortunately password protected) travel blog about her recent trip to climb Kilimanjaro had me thinking about a trip we took together to Machu Picchu. We hiked the 4 days along the Inca Trail, but the trip was fully supported. One of the greatest things about it was the food, which was always high-quality and fresh. And there is nothing like hiking all day to get the appetite up. One of the culinary highlights was tea time. This was usually just after we got into camp after a day of hiking. There would be a few hours after lunch and a few hours before dinner and we needed something to tide us over. The group would be tired and maybe a bit sore, but we’d descend on the tea-time snack. The porters and guides would set us up with some tea (with powdered milk), biscuits or cookies, and jam. The menu reminded me of childhood trips to Ireland, which used to be the only place I’d drink tea or eat biscuits or jam. So every afternoon, we’d have a really filling and wonderful tea. And it turns out that the tea-time fare was similar in Kilimanjaro. Which got me thinking about recreating that nostalgic feeling, especially since I haven’t taken any vacation yet this year.

I wasn’t in the mood for biscuits, but I did have some nearing-the-14-day-mark dough in the fridge from the light whole wheat recipe in this book. Not enough can be said about the wondrousness of that book. Many people have remarked on it. But I think I finally decided to buy the book after reading this post. I’d been seeing (reading?) people talk about it for a bit, but I thought the idea of five-minute bread sounded gimmicky and too-good to be true. Well, I was wrong. It’s fabulous. I have made so many things from that book. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with wheat recipes, in an effort to be good. My latest attempt was a simple light whole wheat. It’s basically this recipe, except with 1 cup whole wheat flour instead of 1 cup white. Not much whole wheat at all, but it counts. It may be my favorite so far. Though the all-white loaf is delectable.

This is the old, stored up dough, kind of gross looking actually:

It was goopy and slopped after so many days in the fridge, but it worked out all right. I shaped it into a boule:

I let it rise for 40 minutes and then slashed it incompetently:

I baked it with a pizza stone.  This loaf has a wonderful smell and looks really nice as well.

The crumb on this loaf was bit denser than I’d like. I don’t know if that was because of the age and wetness of the dough or maybe it needed a bit more time to rise. Still very tasty though. It really didn’t take much work and it was worth it for a nice afternoon, nostaglic tea break:


Filed under Food, Uncategorized