Small Comforts

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This week I’ve been thinking about relaxation, and how I’m not very good at it. While I advocate self care to everyone I know, I’m not always as good at taking care of myself. Self care need not be about doing the right things all of the time, but it is about doing the right little things most of the time. Here are some of my most recent small comforts that I rely on to stay healthy and happy.

Small Comforts

1. Flowers – small, beautiful, colorful flowers. I don’t need to buy myself roses, or even a large bouquet – a single stem usually does the trick. But if you like bouquets, by all means, go all out!

2. Hot Water Bottle. I fill mine and put it under the covers to warm up the bed before I get in at night.

3. Slippers. I have the Wicked Good Moccasin from L.L. Bean. Classic. Warm and toasty.

4. Chai Hot Chocolate. I tried the kind from Starbucks this week, even though I don’t usually purchase their sweetened beverages. I was seduced by the red cups. It wasn’t terrible. (Usually I make my own with black tea, spices, and cocoa.)

5. Hot water with ginger and honey. I try to drink hot water all day long. Ginger and honey when I need a little zip.

6. Verbena Tea. I steep verbena leaves in water (technically a tisane.)

7. Baby Cacti (and other succulents). Nothing I do will kill them, and they remain bright and happy on my windowsill.

8. Eggs. In the kitchen, always.

9. Grapefruit. With a little sprinkle of maple sugar on each half. A coworker today mentioned that she had never had grapefruit. I am concerned for her well being.

10. Chocolate. For curing all the things.

When at a loss for dinner, make one of these!

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I’m curled up in bed tonight flipping through my new Nigel Slater: “Eat: The Little Book of Fast Food” – there really isn’t anything better than that. November is here, and although I love my winter kitchen, I’m not quite ready to brave the great outdoors in the most frigid months to come. Boots? Winter running gear? A warm jacket? All of these seem too daunting to think about. Fortunately today reached nearly 70 in Boston, proving, along with a World Series win this week, that anything is possible around here.

Here’s a list that I’ve been mulling over. I started writing it just for myself, and then realized that it might actually be useful to share here.

Let’s be honest, life is not a Pinterest board. Life as a devoted food lover is difficult. Sometimes, you want to cook an entire meal out of Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc cookbook. And sometimes, you want to cook a box of Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese and call it a night. Here’s the secret: most nights I want to cook a box of Annie’s and call it a night. In my quest to find a mid-point between the two, I have a list of meals on standby – a backup plan for my weekly meal plan. Not all of these are 20-minute meals (though many of them are), but they are all things I like and make on a regular basis. Most of them are base recipes – ideas that allow for a hundred permutations to keep things from getting boring. When I have a craving, and need a little more guidance, I’ll identify the basic combination I’d like, and I’ll flip through one of my many cookbooks to find inspired variations – maybe a spice combination, or an ingredient I hadn’t thought about. These are largely meat meals, although you can just as easily make most of them meatless.

In no particular order, things that I like to eat for dinner:

lamb chops (or chicken, or pork tenderloin, or butter beans) with salsa verde – sometimes when I’m at a loss, I’ll start first with a sauce – with the knowledge that I’ll always be able to find something to cook with it. Salsa verde is one of my favorites – herby, with a little bit of vinegar to make you pucker. You can also spoon it over roasted vegetables, potatoes, fish, you name it.

crispy chicken thighs with baked baby potatoes and tomatoes – I like tray bakes where you can just squash everything in a pan, and roast it at around 400 for just under an hour. (Usually I’ll steam the potatoes in the microwave first, so that they are soft and quicker cooking.) I’ll also make this with italian sausages, or kielbasa.

meatballs of any kind – in Turkey, meatballs are called kofte, and they are ubiquitous. I have a special kofte spice from the spice bazaar in Istanbul that I use a lot of. Or, I’ll use a different type of seasoning based on my global mood. I’ll fry these on the stove top, and eat them on salad, or with a Turkish shepherd’s salad of tomato, cucumber and parsley.

citrus mustard chicken – I’ve been doing permutations of this one for a while – there’s a good recipe for apricot-mustard baked chicken in “Dinner, a Love Story”.

tex-mex soup – sometimes it’s chicken tortilla, sometimes I go for a spicy bean soup. Back in the early 90’s, we used to take a can of refried beans, some chicken stock, and a can of Rotel, simmer it for 30 minutes and call it dinner – I think that it was probably a Weight Watchers special, but variations on this are still pretty darn good. I also make a lot of no-tortilla soup – usually with leftover rotisserie chicken.

baked fish, potatoes, and green things of choice – on Sunday, I’ll head to the market to see what I can find. Sunday is one night that I can commit to buying fish and eating it fresh. Sometimes it’s salmon, sweet potato, and brussels sprouts. Other days scallops, new potatoes, and asparagus.

dinner salad – chopped salads, “BLAT” – bacon, lettuce, avocado and tomato salad, or crabmeat salad with lemon, avocado, and tomatoes – are some of the usuals. I have a few salad-specific cookbooks that I poke through for inspiration, and quite honestly salad ideas are the first things I turn to when I get a new cookbook.

yogurt marinated grilled chicken – the nice thing about marinating chicken and then grilling it (or roasting it), is that you get a flavor packed meal, and it makes it’s own sauce. I’ll marinate in yogurt and Indian spices, or Moroccan spices, or Israeli spices. Then I cook it! This goes well with green salad.

baked chicken (or eggs) in tomato sauce – sometimes it’s a creamy tomato sauce, sometimes it’s Marcella’s quick tomato sauce, sometimes it’s a jar of Rao’s. When I want it slightly more exciting, I’ll add a tablespoon of curry powder and finish with a little cream.

Indian carrot salad with ground lamb (or) Vietnamese cucumber and carrot salad with ground beef – the idea here is to use well seasoned ground lamb or beef, to top a crunchy vegetable salad that is loaded with fresh herbs, and dressed with a bright dressing. For the Indian version I season my lamb with a homemade curry powder, and make an acidic dressing with lemon, cumin, ground coriander, and toss with plenty of fresh coriander (cilantro). For the Vietnamese version, I cook the beef with five spice powder, and make a dressing with lime and fish sauce, and top with lots of mint, cilantro, and basil.

chicken sausage and grilled pineapple – sometimes you just want a little sweetness. I’ll grab the chicken sausages with apple (or the Chardonnay ones from Trader Joe’s in a pinch), and then grill them with some pineapple wedges. When I eat this, I rarely make a vegetable, and feel a little bit like a picky three year old. But it’s good!

refried beans, eggs, and tortillas – Sometimes I’ll cook up some ground meat to mix with the beans, and usually I’ll eat mine over some greens instead of with the tortilla. This one has long been a house favorite.

I could keep going, but this list will keep me cooking for a while. What are some of your go-to easy peasy meals?

Thoughts on list making.

A few thoughts on list-making. When I read, I make lists. When I walk in the woods, I make lists. I think best in lists. God forbid I find myself without a pen, because I’ll get downright cranky. Perhaps that’s why I dislike long showers. I fear that I’ll forget those small flashes of thought that tend to flicker through my head as my eyes are shut and the water rushes down my face.

And then there is the joy of choosing what to write your list on. I have lists on my computer, on a whiteboard by the side of my bed, but physical tactile lists are undeniably the best. My uncle, who I should note has particularly fine taste, has his own monogrammed mini note pads that fit in his wallet and he carries around at all times. I have notebooks big and small. My favorite, usually, is my smallest moleskine, which has a pocket to keep the lists that didn’t make it in the book and were scribbled on the back of an old envelope, receipt, or library slip.

There is little I like better than writing my lists, except perhaps, reading other people’s lists. I have much to thank my friend Kassie for over the years, but I owe her the biggest debt of gratitude for introducing me to Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings, filled with the lists of creative people throughout history. If you’d like to procrastinate, click on that link.

This was the banana that I ate directly following my morning workout. I headed to CrossFit with trepidation. We’d be working on three things that I’m not good at: pull-ups, hang squat snatches, and toes to bar. One of my biggest challenges with CrossFit has been keeping a positive attitude when I’m not good at something. When you’ve lived your life competing with  over-achievers, accepting that you are not good at something takes some effort.

But I’ve surprised myself at how quickly I’ve found joy from my progress at the gym, tackling new challenges that seem insurmountable. Each day I learn something new, I become both physically and mentally stronger, and this keeps me coming back week after week. These days I’ve been coming and going with a smile on my face.

Tuesday WOD 9/25/12

Strength

A.  Back Squat – 6 Sets of 4 @ 80% of your 1 rep max, rest 2:30 between sets (20 min. cap total)

B.  Strict Weighted Pull-up – 8 minutes to a heavy set of 3 reps (if you can’t do them, practice pull-ups and kipping for your TTB)

WOD (workout of the day):  “Black Bart”

AMRAP 8 Ladder of 2,4,6,8, etc.

Hang Squat Snatch 95/65

Toe To Bar

This was not an easy day for me. My two rep max is 95, and although I hadn’t found my one rep max, Coach E determined that I’d work with 80 pounds for my back squat. I’ve been working on keeping my heels down, sticking my butt out, and squatting down low. I felt good at the end of my sets, gaining confidence that I’m building up muscle. I definitely can go heavier.

And then came the pullups. Up until now I’ve been doing jump-ups standing on a 24 inch box to jump up over the bar. Today, we pulled out the green band. Three pullups no problem. (I surprised myself here). And then the blue band (less resistance) – three more down (huh…) . The red? Okay, so I got one. But now I know that I can do this.

After our strength we had our WOD. My technique on my lifts could use some work, so I ended up dropping the weight down to 35#. Because I have to learn how to hang properly on the rig, I ended up with knee raises instead of toes to bar. Toes to bar is infinitely more difficult than when I was six and could do it easily. I think I need more time on the playground. Result? In eight minutes I got past the 8’s and 3 lifts in.

(Black Bart, for the record, is one of my favorite outlaws. He was a poet, and would leave verses at crime scenes!)

“I’ve labored long and hard for bread,
For honor, and for riches,
But on my corns too long you’ve tread,
You fine-haired sons of bitches.”

When I came home, I made myself this superbly good bowl of leftover beef stew. Having eaten all the meat off our marrow bones the night before, I cooked up some crumbled fresh sausage from the butcher shop and then heated up the leftover carrots and braise. I topped it all with some fresh parsley and lemon zest, and it was positively the best thing I’ve eaten in weeks. Recipe coming in the next day or so as soon as Yom Kippur is over and I can post my notes without this rumbling hunger. {Edited: recipe here!}

In the afternoon, I was craving something sweet, but decided that I’d make myself a treat for the evening – Chai Chia Pudding. I pulled out my favorite Masala Chai from Samovar, heated up a cup of coconut milk on the stove, and steeped a tablespoon of tea in the milk as it warmed.

After about 5 minutes, I took the creamy tea-milk off the stove, and stirred in about a quarter cup of chia seeds. The seeds expand in the milk and make a gelatinous pudding. Typically I’d add a spoonful of honey to sweeten it, but I’ve been strict about no added sweeteners this month, and the warm spices are enough to satisfy me lately. I put it in the fridge to cool down for later.

In the early evening I took my walk before Devon came home from work, just as the sun was setting. Just as I was coming home, I stumbled upon the IKEA drawer set I used to own (and loved) standing in someone’s front yard. I rushed home to get my car, drove over, and spent 15 minutes attempting to lift the thing by myself (not a problem now!), until I finally had to give up because there was no way it was going to fit in my tiny Volvo.

I headed to the store, silently praying it’d be there when Devon got back with the Tucson. It was not. You can’t win them all.

I did however win with dinner. I picked up a single packet of pre-cooked organic “love beets” at the store. Because I’m the only one around here who eats beets, this is the perfect convenience. I chopped my beets up and dressed them with cumin, coriander, salt and vinegar. I then set about cooking some grass fed beef with peppers and a tomato. Finally, I chopped up an avocado, heated up some spinach, and made myself this delightfully colorful plate:

Devon got his with refried beans, and we sat together and ate happily. For dessert, I ate my chia pudding, and we watched Bourdain’s Sydney episode before falling asleep way too early to admit.

Kitchen Resolutions, 2012.

Julia Child, photographed in her Cambridge, Massachusetts kitchen, June 29, 1970. By Arnold Newman/Getty Images.

I love this photo of Julia, because it reflects a level of organization that I aspire to – a sort of chaotic organization where everything is in plain view and accessible. And we all know that Julia Child got stuff done. 

Kitchen Resolutions, 2012:

I keep lists all year long, but January is a nice time to share them because everyone else seems to be sharing theirs, and it makes me feel a little less crazy to have a moleskin filled with thousands of bullet points. Here is my current kitchen list, in no particular order. I call them my “Kitchen Resolutions” because it has a nice ring to it. Some of these I do already, some I’m just starting, and others I’m working towards.

:: Take time each weekend to plan meals for the week. The goal here is to avoid the inevitable laziness that happens when I’m starving and haven’t thought of ideas for a meal. The main benefit is that it saves money and time, and it allows me to actually plan out new things to cook in advance.

:: Stock the larder with home made goodies. Once a month (at least) I like to make a new condiment. I’ve been working lately to put together a “condiment calendar” with ideas for each season.   

:: Wash all dishes and wipe down counters before going to bed each night. I’m too often guilty of leaving things until the next day. A clean slate makes life infinitely easier in the morning, and I feel even better when I have my coffee mise en place ready to go to avoid confusion during my morning grogginess.

:: Keep a running Kitchen Journal. I usually record what I eat in loose notes anyway, but I’d like a more concerted effort to put together a real kitchen diary that I can look at in the future, and maybe even pass on as a keepsake.

:: Take stock of what is in my pantry. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt has this ridiculous spreadsheet that I admire immensely. I’m pretty good at itemizing and knowing where things are, particularly with my large cookbook collection, but keeping better track of spices, expiration, etc. is the way to go.

:: Make a list of easy pantry meals. In addition to my meal planning, I’m working to compile a list of easy pantry meals to make if I’m really tired, or just don’t want what I’ve planned. Having this list will make things easier, and help me to avoid my standby spaghetti nights.

:: Start more food traditions. I love traditions. Maybe pizza night? Sunday brunch? I haven’t quite figured out one that works best for our household, but I’d love to find something.

:: Sign up for a few cooking classes. I learn a lot out of cookbooks, from cooking shows, videos on the internet, but hands on in the way to go. I’m particularly interested in Thai, Japanese, Filipino and Persian food at the moment.

:: Work on my “Things I’d Like to Cook List”. I’m working on my life list, but this one goes in tandem. So far I’ve been adding just a few things at a time to my Pinterest board.

:: Assess and update kitchen for efficiency. The kitchen needs some more love. I’d like ideally to get some metro shelving, maybe a peg board, and figure out the best layouts to move smoothly in the place.

:: Identify and celebrate my kitchen rituals. David Tanis and Nigel Slater (two of my favorite writers) have written so well about ritual – those little private moments in the kitchen that remind us why we love the place so much. Morning coffee, heating oil to re-cure my cast iron pan, afternoon tea, frying eggs, using my Microplane to zest, and making oats are some of my favorites, but I always love discovering new ones.

What are your kitchen resolutions? Do you keep a list? 

{french fridays} Winter Changes

[First there was ‘Tuesdays With Dorie‘, where each week food-lovers across the internet united to bake a recipe from Dorie Greenspan’s ‘Baking: From My Home to Yours‘. And now Dorie is out with a wonderful new cookbook ‘Around My French Table‘ where she shares her favorite French recipes, and I’ve decided to cook along. Check out French Fridays with Dorie if you’d like to join the fun.

This week’s recipe is Dorie’s Paris Mushroom Soup (p.72), a warming soup for a cold winter day. The ingredients: butter, onions, garlic, mushrooms, rosemary, parsley, white wine (or sherry) and stock are minimal, but provide great depth of flavor. Instead of as suggested over a little salad of mushrooms and herbs, I added Rancho Gordo christmas limas to my soup, and a little swirl of Bariani olive oil. In accordance with ‘French Fridays With Dorie’ rules, I’m not posting the recipe – you must buy Dorie’s book to get the details. But believe me, it will be money well spent.]

Gretchen Rubin, author of ‘The Happiness Project‘, asked in this week’s happiness challenge: “Are there little things in my life that I can do, that can make my life happier?” Rather than tackling massive problems, so much good can come out of making tiny changes, and keeping up with them regularly.

While I don’t write out specific resolutions each year, I do write lists for myself regularly, and find that I get more done by doing so. Lists make it easier to live purposefully. Instead of watching life pass me by, lists help me spring into action. Some of my lists are short, easily manageable tasks, others contain lofty goals for my lifetime.

I also like my lists to be flexible. Rather than write out resolutions, I chose a word of the year that can be applied to all aspects of my life. This year’s word is Habit. Habits are the little changes – the rituals – that help me do more.

This winter, my fascination with books has overtaken my fascination with food, for the moment at least. When I feel an inkling… I find it fulfilling to throw myself into things.  I’ve been reading, and reading, and reading, so much that at times I think my head will explode. I’ve started a new 52 books project, which at this rate might become 150 books, although I suspect I’ll need to take a break now and then.

I’ve been making a bigger effort to journal, document and blog. I’ve found inspiration here about journaling. I’ve been attempting to take more photos and to take better photos.

After moving to San Francisco, I found myself forgetting rituals that I’d held dearly for years. There was something about the less pronounced seasonality perhaps – each season here is fleeting, blink, and it’s gone. So I started a list for that too. Here is my list for winter:

:: Winter To-Do List, 2011 ::
1. Make home-made Biscoff Spread.
2. Decorate the house with succulents and grass.
3. Winter dinner at Ad Hoc.
4. Work on my 2011 Happiness Project.
5. Bake parsnip fries. More than once.
6. Read! Write! 52 books project.
7. Make space for new books, dust book tops.
8. Flush drains with boiling water.
9. Clean out my closet, again.
10. Go through catalogs and magazines to recycle.
11. Drink hot chocolate. With marshmallows. (Home made, preferable).
12. Spelunking! (Antique shops – for vintage spoons and bowls, that is.)
13. Send Valentine’s day greetings a la Julia Child.
14. Plan a spring trip to a geologically significant area.
15. Continue X-Files Marathon. (Yes, I missed out when it was actually on TV.)
16. Broil a grapefruit with brown sugar.
17. Hunting! *For white ceramic animals.

What are your plans for this new year? Do you have things that you like to accomplish in the winter time?

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