Easy can be good

I’ve been really busy lately, but I’ve discovered some really useful strategies in the last few weeks which have kept me from dissolving into a hectic mess. I thought I’d share them here, because we can all appreciate it when life goes a little easier.

  • I started to use a crockpot. It’s not like I didn’t know about these, and I’ve had one for years that I’d gotten for free, but I have been oddly resistant to this simple technology and I’m not really sure why. I fired it up for the first time a few weeks ago on some lima beans, and now I use it every few days. Beans! Oatmeal! Rice pudding! Cabbage and potatoes! Recipes are easy to find online, and it’s nice to have my dinner cooking while I get my work done. I love it.
  • I have been streamlining my email. I have a Gmail account, but I hate it. I only use it when I need it for Google Docs, so I’ve never used the supposed wonders of its filtering system. I do use Hotmail (now called Outlook), and I recently realized I can make up rules that automatically puts current and future mail into folders. As new ads arrive, I send them and their friends into the ad folder. I look at it once a day to see if I need anything in there. Political email goes the same way. I now get only a few mails a day into my inbox. I feel so much less overwhelmed.
  • Salad in a jar. I have recently discovered this new food trend on the internet, and I have to stop myself so I don’t spend a lot of time gushing about it. You can find recipes all over the place, but the basic idea is that you can make a whole week’s worth of salads and put them in mason jars and just pull one out of the fridge every day for a fresh healthy lunch. It works. It’s yummy. I do this every week now.

I  am delighted to share these discoveries with you, just as I have been delighted to save my sanity. Perhaps you have some tips of your own. I’d love to see them in the comments, but right now I have a salad calling my name.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
277. What can you do to make your life easier so that you more time for the things you need to do and the things you enjoy? Try it out, and if you find a great tip, consider sharing it here.

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Gathering resources for a fresh start

It’s been a busy few weeks here, so that’s why I’ve had a short lapse in publishing–I have a new temp job after a long lapse in steady work. I enter the year grateful for this opportunity and for the fact that it’s a job helping others. I love to spread joy.

As New Year’s approaches, many people come up with resolutions. This can be good and bad. It’s not good to put too much pressure on yourself, but it can be very motivating to start positive change on a meaningful date. It’s always good to reorient your compass towards a more joyful life, so why not now? Here are some resources that you may find useful if you want to go down that path. These are specific suggestions that have helped me or people I know:

  • If you want to lose weight or eat a healthier diet. I love the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine. I have followed their advice to quit sugar, lose a hundred pounds (so far), and lower my cholesterol to admirable levels. They also have a program called the 21 Day Vegan Kickstart which allows a person to try a vegan diet with guidance to see how it makes them feel. The kickstart program features lots of ethnic variations to suit all sorts of people. I’ve met Dr. Barnard in person and was able to thank him for how their advice has helped me. If this isn’t your cup of tea, many friends of mine endorse Weight Watchers as a good solution.
  • If you want to get more tidy and organized. I have been fighting a battle with this one for years–the creative spirit isn’t necessarily neat as a pin. I finally made peace with my housework in three major ways: 1) I have less things to put in their places. Zen Habits is a wonderful resources for this. If you want to get really minimal, you can emulate my friend Nick Winter who has only 99 things. 2) I found out I’m allergic to dust, and it creates asthma issues for me that make it very hard to breathe. I am now personally very motivated to keep my house dust-free. 3) I found Flylady. Stylistically this website is targeted at a person very different from myself, but the lady who runs it has great ideas to help you get clutter under control. Highly recommended, and maybe you’ll like how cute it all is. If you don’t, learn to see beyond the presentation to find the gold within.
  • If you want to stop smoking. I have never smoked, but smoking has affected my friends and family in a big way. When the tobacco settlement happened the states were required to put money into helping people to quit. No matter what state in the United States you live in, you can call 1-800-Quit-Now to get free help to quit or to contemplate quitting if you are not yet ready.

As you prepare to start the new year, don’t forget to see the old year out with a celebration. Enjoy the holidays, whatever you choose to celebrate. Merry merry merry to you all!

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
270. What might you want to change in the new year? Start contemplating it now, and have a happy holiday in the meantime.

No “Kaboom!” required

This is not a cooking blog. You may have noticed the distinct lack of recipes and cooking tips. I try to focus on discussing things that I discover in pursuit of the most joyful life possible, and there are lots of great places to find cooking tips.

This is true, but cooking can also be a part of the joyful life. It’s good to be able to make things as you want them to be, tailored to your own whims. It’s healthier, and less expensive, and both of those benefits lead to greater happiness. I find I am more cheerful when I do a lot of cooking (and I don’t mean sweets–that way lies madness for myself and perhaps some of you).

As I cook, I experiment, and this is my theme today–experimentation. We grow up being told what to do. We learn from friends and we learn from books, but we can also learn from ourselves. I tend to think of something that might be tasty and just go for it. I’ve definitely made some things that I wouldn’t want to foist on guests, but I make more predictable meals when expecting company. I’ve also stumbled upon these fun recipes, which are inexpensive and which I make all the time:

  • Easy Indian mock-paneer: I love paneer and peas which comes in a rich spicy red sauce. Paneer is cheese, and I can’t eat that anymore, so now I throw in cubes of tofu. All you have to do is take inexpensive bottled spaghetti sauce and keep throwing in curry powder until it tastes good to you. Add peas and tofu and you are set to serve over rice. Fantastic!
  • Smoky rice & mushrooms: I have a rice cooker, so one day I threw in pieces of dried shiitake mushrooms with the rice and water (I added a little extra water) and a couple of lapsang souchong tea bags on top. This is awesome by itself, but can become an ingredient in another recipe, too. Mandarin Orange Spice teabags give the rice a good taste for pilaf. Yummy!
  • Savory oatmeal: I eat a lot of hot cereal, but I gave up sugar a few years ago so I wanted some breakfast ideas that didn’t contain honey or sweetness. I realized that you can flavor oatmeal in many savory ways. Sometimes I make it with broth and mushrooms, sometimes I season it like stuffing, sometimes I put in garlic and peas. I keep trying new things–my next favorite is waiting to be created. So good!

You may rush to try these, or they may sound horrible to you. That is not the point. I created these as a thrifty cook who wants to try new things, and I made things that taste good to me. Your recipes may contain chicken and pickles. Cook what appeals, but I encourage you to experiment, in cooking and in life. Your mom probably said it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true–if you don’t try new things, how will you know what you like? You may be pleasantly surprised. I know I have been. Just don’t blow up the kitchen–it wakes the neighbors.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
270. This week do a little experimenting inside the kitchen or in some other way. What would you do again? What will you never repeat? How does the process of creation feel to you?

Cottage cheese and grunge music

I’m originally from New York, but I live in Seattle now where grunge rock originated. It has always seemed like it’s almost a law that you like it when you live here, and Kurt Cobain and Nirvana are played all over town on heavy rotation. It’s been frustrating, because I’ve never gotten it. I disliked the music when it came out. I wanted them to enunciate. I was tired of hearing how brilliant it was all supposed to be—until this week. I was out and about and once again I heard “Come as You Are”, and I realized I liked it. I went back and listened to their other huge hit “Smells like Teen Spirit” and decided that now I liked that one, too. It was confusing.

My friends teased me that the flannel I wear had made me appreciate the music. Others claimed that it’s all the rain, or that I had simply evolved better musical taste. It could even be that sheer repetition has worked its magic and my brain has given up resisting. Maybe, but I think that it’s something different. I think it’s all part of being fully awake and present.

When I was going to Zen retreats the food would be served in silence and you would accept and eat whatever you were given. Most of the time you didn’t even know what you were getting until it was in your bowl, and this is how I was served cottage cheese. At the time I wasn’t lactose intolerant, so I was able to eat it, but I didn’t want to. I had always hated cottage cheese, and had decided years ago that it was nasty. Consequently I hadn’t tasted cottage cheese for at least ten years. In the silence of the zendo, knowing that I was to eat what I was given, I took a hesitant bite and tasted the cottage cheese. It was delicious, and I ate it regularly after that until my stomach started to rebel.

I think it’s much the same with Nirvana. I hated it instantly when it came out and decided right then that it was nasty. At that point I dismissed it with a label and moved on every time it played. I didn’t listen anymore.  It plays so often here that I’ve started to actually hear it, and my tastes may have changed a bit. I have been listening to those two songs all week, and now I find them musically delicious. It makes me wonder what else I need to taste again for the first time.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

231. Pick something you know you dislike—a food, a song, anything you’ve truly made your mind up about. Try it again without preconception—try to experience it fully as for the first time. Has your perception changed? Sometimes it won’t—I tried again with bananas and I still hate them—but sometimes you’ll find you love cottage cheese and Nirvana.

A substitution I support

Today is Friday, my favorite day of the week. This is not because I am happy to see the work week go—I’m currently unemployed, so I’m looking for work most days of the week. I am happy it’s Friday, because I am happy to see Friday come. On Friday nights, I go out country dancing. I do a lot of different dancing throughout the week, and I love it all. I love Fridays best, because I go to a bar where I get to do a whole mix of things—line dancing, two-step, waltz, and many more. I’ve made lots of friends amongst the other regulars, and I love the classes they give at the beginning of the evening. It’s one of the ways I improve my skills.

Sometimes dancing is hard for me. My joints don’t always behave, and I’m sometimes so sore I can barely stand it. On Saturday mornings I find it hard to start moving, but I still cannot wait to go out and do it again. The great thing about this is that I’ve finally found an exercise plan that works for me—I’m getting in better shape all the time, and there is no willpower involved. I cannot wait until the next opportunity comes up to go dancing. I’d go seven days a week if the venues were available.

I’m trying to keep this in mind as I start making the rounds of holiday parties. It seems almost effortless for me to exercise because I have made the most joyful choice. I’m trying to remember to think that way about what I eat, too. If I go for things I really love, I won’t be focusing as much on what I need to avoid. There are, of course, some things that fall into both categories, but the unhealthy foods cause after effects that are less than joyful. I’m trying to remember that. In the meantime I’ve found some lovely Christmas tea that is fat-free, sugar-free, and flat out yummy. I’ll drink to that.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

208. As you face the inevitable health challenges of the holidays, try to let joy be your guide. It’s much more fun than guilt ever was.

Steal this idea

I had a great weekend, full of dancing and writing and pie. Today I wanted to tell you about the pie, because it was part of what made the weekend special. Pie is special by its very nature, a tasty mélange of fruit and goodness which is hardly ever pretentious. I love it, but I don’t make it very often. This weekend I made pie with about thirty other people, and it was some of the best fun I’ve had all year.

My friend and her partner have a pie making party every fall. I’ve heard that the party started because they were trying to use up some of the fruit on the very productive trees from their back yard. This year the trees didn’t produce much, but the cooks did. The hosts provided the pie shells, the pastry tops, and the mixture of sugar, flour and spices. They also had snacks and drinks. The guests brought fruit and aprons, and we took turns sitting at the table, eight or so at a time, chopping fruit into our pie shells.

It’s really fun to socialize with people while cooking, which is probably one of the reasons that people tend to gravitate towards the kitchen at most gatherings. Everyone was putting different combinations of fruit in the pies. I ended up with apples, pears, plums and craisins with a small shake of five spice powder that someone had brought. The licorice in the spice gave the pie an interesting twist.

Another couple brought a brimming bucket of blackberries that they’d picked in their own yard that morning. Blackberries grow very well in Seattle, and most of the people who have them are overrun. Everyone brought too much fruit, so we were all urged to bring some home. I’ve got a container of blackberries in my fridge, waiting for my decision on what to cook with them.

At the end of the night, we took our pies home to bake. I threw mine in the oven the next morning, and had warm fruit pie for breakfast. What could be better?

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

175. Have a cooking party at your house. My brother gets together with his friends every year to make tamales, my family makes pierogis, and my friend has everyone over to create pies. What could you make?

Quietly gushing about gazpacho

I seem to be losing my voice today, so I’m glad for the silent nature of typing. Something seems to be going around, and the germs have started to hit me full force. I am suddenly craving soup.

I absolutely adore soup, and it’s one of those things I find incredibly comforting. When I don’t feel well, I want soup, tea, and a cozy blanket. Those essential luxuries can cure a lot of what ails a person, or at least make life a bit nicer during the rough spots.

I don’t generally use a recipe for the soups I make. I have done so, and my cookbooks have yielded some excellent and tasty broths, but I find I do just fine tossing things into a pot and adjusting as I go. Soup is marvelous for absorbing whatever happens to be fresh at the market, and I like to throw a small handful of an interesting grain into the broth. Kasha, oatmeal, and millet all make excellent additions, as long as you keep the handful small. I’ve learned my lesson over the years—too many ingredients make a soup that turns into pilaf by the next day. Even those experiments were never a complete loss—I’ve made some yummy pilafs in this manner. I love the element of surprise that this cooking method adds to the mix. My soups are usually very tasty, but they vary subtly with each batch. My taste buds are never bored.

Homemade soup makes me feel more domestic, too. It’s not hard to make, but it makes me feel like I’ve really cooked something. No matter how simple a soup is, I always feel like I’m really nurturing myself with its brothy goodness. That’s a nice contrast, as I often just throw something together quickly for a meal. Soup makes me feel like I am worth the effort it takes to make myself something yummy. If I’m feeling ambitious, I make up a pan of cornbread, too. Cornbread is inexpensive, easy to make, and it tastes fantastic. I’ll probably make both today, and sip my way back to optimum health. It’s the least I can do for myself.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

171. What makes you feel nurtured and taken care of? Take the time to do one of these things for yourself today. After all, you’re worth it.