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.


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.

A little word snack

Here in Seattle it is easy to indulge my predilection for sitting in public and sipping coffee. Today I am having my cup of goodness in the local food co-op, Madison Market. I love this place, and it reminds me of one of the reasons I love Seattle. Food is a very personal and cultural thing, and I feel accepted in a place like the co-op. There’s something homey about being in a place where there’s other vegetarians, and people routinely eat tofu. I’ve belonged to a food co-op in every place I’ve lived, and I experience an immediate sense of belonging in each new one I join. Seattle, too, is full of vegetarians and people who think about what they eat. It makes me feel welcome.

When I miss New York, I seek out decent pizza and Italian desserts, and when I miss Minnesota I go to Ballard to get some lefse. Lefse is basically a tortilla made out of mashed potatoes. It’s a Scandinavian thing, and I got hooked on it while I was in Minnesota.

I’ve also fallen to the nostalgia of foods that Mom used to make. I’ve got recipes for some of her treats, but sometimes I take the easy way out. My mother cooked almost everything from scratch. I remember two major exceptions—Kraft macaroni and cheese, and Hamburger Helper. These days the Hamburger Helper contains vegetarian crumbles, but it still brings back the memories. Yum.

Another one of my food rituals centers around pierogis. Pierogis are Polish dumplings made from a pasta-like dough. They can contain many things, but our family makes them most often with potatoes and cheese inside. Once they’ve been boiled we fry them in a pan, and some people like onions on top. Pierogis are part of my Polish heritage, and I love them, but they are labor intensive. Each year my family gets together and spends most of a day making an enormous quantity of them. Then we eat and eat and eat. It’s a ritual I cherish, and it functions as an initiation for new members and friends of the family.

All this writing about food is making me hungry, so it must be time for lunch. See you tomorrow.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

166. Food can create strong feelings, memories and opinions. What are some of yours? Share these thoughts with someone else. Even better, share them over a meal. Remember to respect the feelings of others while you do this exercise.

And I love the country music

This morning I’m wearing a tee-shirt I bought in North Carolina, and I’m thinking about my travels down south. Every year my family goes to the Outer Banks and stays in a beach house together. I’ve also been to Savannah, Georgia, and a number of other places in the South. I have an outsider’s view of the region. My thoughts are highly segmented, like some sort of ancient crazy quilt.

I could never live there, but I do like to visit. The heat drives me away. I start to melt when the thermometer goes over seventy. I love all the flowers there, and I adore the way the kudzu vines cover the buildings and trees. Their invasive weed is my eye candy.

I also love the grits, especially when those grits come from Waffle House, one of my very favorite places to eat while traveling. This restaurant chain is practically ubiquitous below a certain latitude that my brother refers to as the IHOP/Waffle House line. The food is good, and very inexpensive, and the atmosphere is unique to the chain. Waffle House delights me.

I’m not so fond of the sweet tea, although I see it as a technological marvel. How do they suspend so much sweetener in one glass? I also love the barbecue smell that hangs in clouds over many of the towns. I hear it’s darn tasty, too, but since I’m a vegetarian I’ll stick to the fire-roasted aroma.

I remember my trip to Savannah for the beauties of its gardens and architecture, but even more for the stunning kindness of its people. It was so hot while I was there that water boiled in plastic bottles in the car and peaches baked in the backseat. The locals were reminding the tourists to drink water and stay in the shade. Some establishments even had iced punch bowls on the sidewalks with cups for overheated pedestrians. I have not seen strangers being so sweet to visitors anywhere else. I’ll never forget it.

I’m very glad that I’ve had a chance to experience the region. Growing up in the North, I’d heard a lot of ignorant statements about the South. I’m sure it has its pitfalls, like everywhere else, but I will remember its charms. I look forward to future travels below the IHOP/Waffle House line.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

162. What are your opinions about the South? Have you been? If you live there, what are your opinions about the North, or other regions of the United States?