Monday, May 30, 2022

No words

A while back I learned a technique from a counselor: I was struggling to deal with a crisis situation and she asked me to start processing by listing five emotions that I was feeling in that moment. At the end of the session, we revisited that technique, and she recommended it as a tool to help start the process of navigating difficult emotions. It's a tool I've continued to use. So here’s what I’m feeling today, if I try to think about pretty much anything outside my own little sphere:

- anger

- sadness

- despair

- frustration

- fear

I don’t feel able to write anything about everyday events like food or gardening or holiday weekends because it seems so cluelessly trivial in the context of the bigger picture of what I see happening in the US and elsewhere. I know it’s important to stay in the present, in my own reality, and not get swept up into the surging currents of events on social media, and food is one of the ways that I keep my feet on the ground. But right now the luxury of being able to mull over what to make for dinner, or what’s on the schedule for this week, feels like an impertinence; how can normal life for anyone continue in a world where things like these can happen? 

And yet it must. We must not give in to despair, to the forces of darkness. We must take action as we can: Make a donation. Call an elected representative. Hug our loved ones. Hold a thought for those who are devastated. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, remembering that every day that we draw breath on this earth is a privilege and a responsibility. Keep helping each other along.

Donate or take action in your community (US)

Find your members of Congress (US)

Support food as a universal human right (global)

Support humanitarian assistance worldwide (global)

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Work/life balance

I know that I have infinite company in feeling that the roller coaster of the last two years has thrown this balance off completely, that the mental load that work entails has expanded to encroach into every corner of brain space, with attending consequences for mental and physical health. Re-establishing boundaries, especially for myself, is an ongoing challenge and a necessary one. Here are some things that have helped recently with re-balancing the scales:

Getting out of the house and going somewhere different - in this case, London. After being entirely confined to the BosNYWash megalopolis for nearly 3 years, I got on a plane with my family and went to a different country altogether. We took Miss B to some of our favorite London spots and thoroughly enjoyed the change of scene. Oh, and we got to cheer DP on as he won an award in his field, which put a very nice finishing touch to the excursion.

Welcoming visitors - two of my sisters came to visit, also for the first time in nearly 3 years. It was such a refreshing change; we took a break from the regular routine to do touristy things with them, as well as making the most of the time together with lots of walking, chatting, and eating. We spotted this rainbow as we were lingering at the dinner table one evening - I doubt I'd have noticed if it if I'd been doing my usual daily round. 

Making time for hobbies - these breaks from the routine reminded me that I don't have to wait for other people or events to provide an opportunity to take some time to focus on things other than work. In addition to my usual food purchases at the farmers' market this weekend (including some spectacular strawberries, see above), I also picked up some tomato and herb plants to grow on the back deck - an addition to the daily routine that I hope will supplement both diet and quality of life. 

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Easter 2022

Here's this year's edition of my annual Easter post...

...freshly completed tarrale...

...a piping-hot pizza chiena...

...a bouquet of tulips from my visit to the first farmers' market of the year on Saturday morning...

...all culminating in this morning's Easter breakfast spread.

I also discovered from a friend's post that this weekend is a rare confluence of spring festivals in a number of different cultures and traditions. So I'm sending good wishes to everyone celebrating Easter, Passover, Ramadan, and Vaisakhi this weekend - and a weekend of peace, goodwill, and abundance to everyone. 

Sunday, April 3, 2022

March roundup

March got away from me, so here are a few recent highlights:

I’m continuing to find new uses for my sourdough starter and this one is right up there: a recipe for nearly-instant crumpets, aka TrashCrumps, constructed mainly from starter and found on Instagram. Definitely a keeper.

We had a weekend in New York City mid-month where we visited friends and family, ate lots of good food, and walked a good chunk of Manhattan (21,000 steps in one day!). Our Saturday evening included taking Miss B most of the length of Central Park, including the reservoir.

I’ve been continuing to make snacking cakes, inspired by this book. Miss B’s recent favorite is a raspberry cake topped with a glaze made with icing sugar mixed with equal parts milk and blood orange juice. A good way to make the most of their short season.

Spring has come to northern Virginia and the flowers are blooming. I snapped this gorgeous camellia when it was all just beginning a couple of weeks ago.

And now it's time to jump into April. Hoping it brings good things to all.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

MacGyver gnocchi

The pace of work and home life this week continued to dictate yet again the need for dinner solutions that could be produced on a short turnaround. Gnocchi in the pantry and leftover sausage and kale in the fridge came to the rescue to help produce this cheesy gnocchi bake when
MacGyver night rolled around on Thursday. 

It’s still a work in progress, but the basic infrastructure involves preheating the oven to 425F/210C; browning gnocchi in butter and bacon fat in a cast-iron skillet on the stovetop, then mixing in chopped, cooked kale and Italian sausage. I then added about 1 cup of stock and milk mixed together, and slid the whole thing into the now-hot oven to let it heat through for about 10 minutes. Then I mixed in somewhere around 1.5 cups of cream cheese, grated cheddar cheese, and grated pecorino romano, and put it back in for another 5 minutes or so. The sauce isn’t quite right yet, so I’ll be continuing to fiddle with it, but even as is, it was still pretty tasty and hit the spot at the end of a long, busy day. And since I'm on a short turnaround yet again, that's all from me for today.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Points north

This week was another busy one - a visit from our oldest nibling, more mitigation on the recent water issue, plus the usual round of work and family commitments crammed into four days - and we wrapped it up with a weekend overnight in Pennsylvania. This trip encompassed our youngest nibling’s first birthday party; a celebratory dinner with one of DP’s former students who’s just achieved a significant career milestone; and, since we were in the neighborhood, a peek at a possible candidate for Miss B’s college application list. (Yes, we’ve officially entered this phase of the parenting journey.)

By the time last night rolled around, I was glad that DP had insisted that we splurge and stay at a local inn, rather than a generic hotel room. After an extra-long sleep in a very comfortable bed, we were fed an amazing homemade breakfast made by someone other than me. And with all of our obligations completed, we had a flexible Sunday schedule and continued the indulgence with a stop in Gettysburg on the way home to browse in some shops we don’t get to often - including the only Polish pottery supplier in this part of the country. I took the opportunity to pick up a few new pieces to level up breakfast at home.

So - not much cooking this weekend, but plenty of good eating and good company, a change of scene and a bit of rest. I'm grateful to be able to say so.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

3-day weekend

The third Monday in February is a public holiday in the US - Presidents’ Day. I can’t say I commemorate this in any meaningful way, other than this year by being even more grateful than usual to get an extra day off. Last week felt like it went on about twice as long as normal, thanks to a confluence of professional and household events that started way too early on Tuesday morning with discovering puddles in the basement, and finished late Friday with a day that felt like a real-life game of Tetris, trying to slot repeated visits from various repair personnel in with work-related Zoom calls, and vice versa. The time in between involved 48 hours of industrial drying equipment that invaded 2 out of 3 floors, sounded like a jet engine was parked in the kitchen, and required constant wearing of earplugs in order to function indoors. 

This disrupted my sleep patterns just a bit, and I was awake before 6 on Saturday morning, even though I didn’t need to be. This was an improvement over the previous 2 mornings - not only because I had slept past 4, but also because it was quiet. Even with a busy Saturday of offline and online chores in prospect, I thoroughly enjoyed a peaceful breakfast - and the ability to move about freely in my own kitchen again. 

I celebrated by making a little something special - a batch of biscuit croissants. I made up a batch of 2-Ingredient Biscuits; rolled the dough out flat; sliced into 8 triangles; filled half with chocolate chunks (for Miss B) and half with cinnamon sugar (for me); rolled them up like croissants; and baked them on a parchment-lined tray at 400F/200C for 15 minutes. I had 2 of the cinnamon ones for breakfast with some cranberry-apple butter.

No alarm tomorrow morning either - hurrah! Hope that wherever you are, you're getting some rest and relaxation too.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Weekend schedules

Do you have a schedule for your weekend? Following on from last week’s post, I’ve been thinking more about time blocks and how useful they are - but also how important it is to not fill up all those blocks with chores. It’s just as important to set aside a few for fun things, or to do absolutely nothing. 

My mother had a tendency to fill her days with chores from morning until night, and to try to combat this environmental conditioning, my sisters and I have been encouraging one another to follow the practice laid down by one of our aunts for herself post-retirement - chores in the morning, fun in the afternoon. 

I can’t say that I’m fully succeeding at implementing this system for my weekends, especially as I regularly push the envelope by doing things like not eating lunch until 2pm. But I think it is making me more mindful about how I use my time. This includes paying attention to how long things actually take; I have a tendency not to notice that, and trying to estimate that more accurately ahead of time is helping me to better manage my own expectations of what’s feasible in a morning. And maybe also helping me to normalize that an hour or two on the couch with a book or a movie is a perfectly reasonable way to spend a weekend afternoon. Even if this weekend I instead gave chunks of my afternoons to an Instant Pot beef stew (very) loosely based on this recipe, and a longstanding family Valentine's Day tradition. It's all about progress, right?  

Sunday, February 6, 2022

15 minutes

My corner of northern Virginia has 15 more minutes of daylight today than we did last Sunday - a useful reminder of the impact that a seemingly small chunk of time can have. Particularly useful at a time of year when it’s hard to muster up the energy or motivation to do much of anything at all, and yet the list of things that needs to get done never seems to get any shorter. To say nothing of the list of things I’d like to make some time for as well, and the constant tug of war between those two categories. 

Allocating small chunks of time - 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 25 minutes, depending on the task at hand and the budget of daily time available - has been for many years the best strategy I have found to get pretty much anything done that needs doing, or that I want to be doing. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s the key to everything I’ve accomplished, certainly since I became a parent. 

I remembered another two benefits of this method this weekend: 

1. If you’re contemplating tackling a project that’s daunting in scope or duration, allocating a small, regular chunk of time to focus on it will enable you to deal with it in less-terrifying and more-manageable chunks, with gaps in between to mull your next steps. 

2. Even a 15-minute block of time is enough to get you well on the way to having some cake.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

January snapshots

I feel a certain loyalty to January because it’s my birth month, but even I have to admit that it’s kind of a drag. It feels even more so than usual this year, probably because today, as my Timehop reminded me, is 2 years since the WHO declared coronavirus a “global health emergency”. 

This is at the top of a long list of reasons to be gloomy; but I know all too well that there’s little benefit to going down that road. So instead I’m digging deep and looking for reasons to be cheerful, or at least grateful, during this season of hibernation. Here are a couple of mine this weekend:

Minneolas - one of the highlights of my winter rotation; I keep an eye out for these and eat one a day as long as they’re in season. Seeing them in the supermarket before the end of January is a bonus.

Opportunistic cooking - I don’t have the discipline or the energy to do any significant prep cooking on the weekend, but I did take advantage of a free hour and some surplus vegetables in the fridge to do some chopping and roasting for use later in the week. And since the oven was already on, I mixed up a snacking cake while I was at it and chucked that in there too. 

Lights - yes, I know it’s almost February, but every weekend since New Year’s I think about taking these down and then I don’t. They turn on automatically at dusk every night and they still give me a little jolt of happiness every time.

Side note: that's all that's left from the small amount of snow we got from the mega-storm that hit the US east coast this weekend. Thinking of all my friends and family digging out up north, and hoping that wherever you are, you've got light, warmth, and good food.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Circuit 53

This past week was pretty packed with meetings and deadlines, and so I didn’t have the time or the brain space to cook anything new or different. I only made one thing that I wouldn’t usually make in the middle of the week, and it is very old. (And it’s not the only one.) 

I’ve been making my own birthday cakes for more than 20 years now, since I first moved away from Boston. Before that, my mother made them, and the combination of yellow cake (or gold cake, as she called it), and chocolate frosting was the one I chose most often. It still is. I’ve had the occasional celebration cake or dessert produced or procured by someone else, but all I ever really want when my birthday rolls around is one of my mother’s cakes. Making it myself is as close as I can get. 

My personal new year starts a little bit later than everyone else’s. I haven’t set any major resolutions, intentions, or goals this year, as I have tended to do in the past. I’m just hoping that the good outweighs the bad in 2022, for all of us.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Scallion pancakes

Lunch, complete with iPad (because reading) and spilled sauce (because real life)

One of the unexpected benefits of my new fridge-dwelling friend is that it has multiple uses. In addition to the whole wheat sourdough loaf that is the centerpiece of Bittman Bread (and my primary motivation for embarking on starter ownership), it turns out that there are quite a few other things you can do with it. The later chapters of the book provide a number of options, including a recipe for scallion pancakes which is a multi-step procedure. In the recipe notes, however Mark Bittman comments that one of his colleagues makes scallion pancakes using nothing more than a portion of starter and a pile of chopped scallions. I tried it myself this weekend to complement a lunch of leftover fried rice, and it was as good as any recipe that I’ve tried before. Maybe even better, because it was so much easier.

I started by melting about 1 Tbsp/15 g bacon fat in a frying pan. While it heated, I poured 100 g of whole wheat starter into a bowl, then thinned it out with about 50 ml of water and a pinch of salt, stirring until it was the consistency of pancake batter. The original recipe specified a bunch of scallions, but thanks to recent supply issues at the supermarket, I couldn’t get any. So I bought watercress instead, similarly spicy and crunchy and green, to bolster the end of the bunch of scallions I had in the fridge. I chopped them up together and mixed them in, then poured the mixture into the hot bacon fat. Cooked for about 5 minutes at medium heat on each side, then sliced up like a pizza and ate with a soy-based dipping sauce. A successful experiment, and one that I expect to become a regular fixture.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Snow days

Happy 2022! We got an unexpected bonus weeklong extension of holiday mode around here when Virginia got the first snow of the season last Sunday night. It turned into the biggest snowstorm in 3 years (the last one was our first winter here) and led to treacherous road conditions and cancellations and closures galore, including this I-95 clustercuss, our weekly milk delivery, and most of the school week. A second storm overnight on Thursday finished things off, and we all got some extra down time with no pre-dawn alarms and no good reason to attempt to drive anywhere.

I went back to my normal work schedule, but with most of the global academic community also still in holiday mode, things were relatively quiet and I had a little extra brain space to get creative with my overstuffed pantry:

Kung Pao Chickpeas: Monday lunchtime I was craving some Asian flavors to go along with the weekly batch of Instant Pot rice which is already a fixture on the schedule in order to meet Miss B’s insatiable carb demand. I decided to see what I could do with legumes, and ended up adapting
this recipe for kung pao lentils to work with what I had, which was canned chickpeas. It was a success and has now been added to the list of Recipes That Only I Will Eat But Are Still Worth Making.

Speaking of which…behold my first attempt at Whole Wheat Sourdough!

As usual, I’m about 2 years behind the starter/sourdough trend, and this is one that I’ve actively resisted, as previously mentioned. However, I requested and received Bittman Bread for Christmas, and the method of making a sourdough starter described therein finally convinced me to give it a try. After following the prescribed 3-day feeding plan, I now have something living in my fridge (on purpose for once!), and produced this as my first output. On the one hand, I can see that I’ve got some work to do on my folding technique. On the other hand, even a pretty imperfect first attempt is still pretty damn good bread. I’m looking forward to developing my knowledge, and will provide further reports as warranted. 

Alas, it’s raining today, so I expect there will be no further impediment to returning to the regular school schedule tomorrow, including the 6am alarm call. Hoping your weekend is peaceful, relaxing, and free of Sunday Night Blues.
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