Sunday, January 31, 2010

Making it Healthy

It's Saturday (well, it was two minutes ago), the day I spend in my kitchen.

I really spend several hours each day in there, the natural consequence of having three teenagers. But Saturday is the day to loll, to play, to do some prep for the week ahead. And today's play began with a serving of my healthy scones.

Since he started eating solid food a mere 14 years ago, my middle son has been a particular eater. As a toddler, it was a challenge; the list of acceptable foods was brief and frightening. He would not eat meat, cheese, peanut butter, or eggs; it was nearly impossible to get protein into his diet (Please don't tell him that for years I doctored his fruit smoothies with soy and whey protein powder! We considered it a breakthrough when he finally started liking chicken nuggets; a relative quipped that the only reason he liked them was that they had absolutely no resemblance to meat).

But what he would eat was carbs: potatoes, pasta, bread, cereal. And like any thoughtful parent, I decided to cram as much goodness as I could into what I prepared for him...and for his sibs.

I'd been baking bread off and on those years--timing risings between naps could be difficult--but what I could put together were quick breads: muffins, coffee cakes, biscuits, cornbread, scones. And of course, I could not leave well enough alone; I'd start with a basic recipe and then I'd have to tweak: increase the protein, up the fiber, add in omega-3s, reduce the fat, cut the sugar. The wonderful thing about playing with food is that you get to eat the mistakes.

(Now for an aside: I never realized how obvious my behaviors were; I always thought that, to my family, they'd see me clipping along following a recipe just as written, even if it was written in my own handwriting, and behold, out from the oven or lifted from the stovetop would be something tasty. The spell was broken this past Christmas. For my eldest's birthday, my mother made a Dobos Torte--a Hungarian seven-layer cake filled with chocolate buttercream. A cake worth aging for. The kids raved. "We wish Mom would make this." Oma: "Well, I could give her the recipe." Kids: "Don't bother. She won't follow it.")

I never quite understood the intent of the "healthy baking recipes" I've read in cooking and wellness magazines; the focus is on reducing fat and sugar, which are certainly worthwhile goals...but often the nutrition profile hasn't changed. I often wonder why no one considered substituting some whole wheat flour or nut meal for some of the all-purpose flour; brown sugar instead of white (and it doesn't need to be packed; trust me, it will be sweet enough; for many recipes, the sugar proportion can be reduced by 1/3 without affecting the final product...other than to make it much less cloying). These changes don't cut the calories, but they do add vitamins and minerals and flavor. I've discovered that a pie crust made with half whole wheat, half all purpose flours adds a wonderfully nutty dimension to apple pie, with no more calories than a totally white flour crust, but with considerably more fiber. Brown, rather than white sugar, in a pancake recipe adds a caramel-like note...maple syrup only gets in the way.

So this morning, for brunch, Healthy Scones made their appearance. And then a rapid disappearance. I am not even sure where the roots of this recipe came from, so I apologize for not giving the source of my inspiration. The recipe has morphed so much over the years that I think the originator wouldn't even recognize it. It also reflects my utter dislike for washing dishes--if you can reuse a tool and maintain good food safety, why not?

Healthy Scones (copyright Paula F, 2010)

1/2 c. old fashioned rolled oats
2 Tbs ground flaxseed with enough all purpose flour added to make 3/4 c.
1/2 c whole wheat flour
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch salt
1 Tbs. brown sugar
2 tbs butter, cut into small pieces
1 Tbs plain or vanilla yogurt (if the dough seems dry)
1 egg
1/3 c milk
1/2 c of add-ins(chopped toasted nuts, chocolate chips, cinnamon chips, fresh or frozen berries, dried fruit, or whatever sounds good to you; I will have to try cheese and herbs sometime)

Preheat your oven to 425F. In a bowl, combine the dry ingredients with a fork until blended. Using the same fork, mash the butter and the yogurt into the flour mixture until very small lumps form (it will be the texture of meal). With the same fork now, combine the milk and the egg until well blended, then pour into the dry ingredients and stir to combine. It will be a soft and sticky dough; let it sit for a moment to let the flours absorb the liquids while you are deciding what add-ins you'll be using. Stir in the add-ins until evenly distributed.

Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray. Scoop the dough onto the sheet and pat into a rectangle about 1/4 inch thick. You can use the fork to do this (that fork is getting a workout), but I usually use a clean hand dipped in flour (to keep the dough from sticking). With a butter knife (the one I used to level off the cups of flour and to cut the butter; nothing like recycling!), cut the dough into squares or triangles; I tend to make small ones, to yield about 24 scones.

Bake for 10 minutes, or until just set; they do not rise very high because of the weight of the oats and flax. The bottoms will be light brown but the tops will still be pale. Trust me, they are done; any longer and the scones dry out.

Let cool 5 minutes, then transfer to a serving plate. These are best eaten the day they are made. But that never seems to be a problem at our house.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Memory of Persistence

So if I stay up blogging past midnight, does my post count for the day I started or the day I ended?

I spent some time today shuttling my oldest son to a doctor's appointment, then running errands, then to and from a friend's house. He seems content to sit there in the passenger seat during these rides, staring forward and hovering between deep and no thought.

The silence is unbearable for me; I have to ask a question, any question. Most often it's asking him to find a radio station that will play decent music by bands he appreciates. That evolves into a tutorial for me on bands, musical genres, touring schedules, new releases, and op-ed about who has stayed true to their passion and who has sold out. Hours later the fun continues for me when we have follow-up dinner-table conversation and his poor dad asks what a Vampire Weekend is, or puzzles about why The Mountain Goats were at the Electric Factory and not in the Rockies. (We need to get this man up to speed on popular culture.)

Tonight, though, was a little different. We started by listening to a radio interview of a former teenage hacker turned cyber-security expert. And somehow this evolved into talking about books, me suggesting he read Dave Eggers, about the quality of good versus "soap-opera" memoir, and then about him wanting to write his own story. And then the question: how does memory work? If only memory worked like a computer array instead of a concept cloud. And him lamenting, if only I could remember what happened when I was in the hospital, if I could just go back to see the room [the unit has been renovated and is quite different], if my brain worked in chronological order so that the story would make sense...only what I recall is not organized or orderly or coherent. How can I make that a story?

I tried to explain that chronology can sometimes squeeze the life out of a story--it becomes a calendar and not an unfolding process. I reminded him that memories are multisensory: there are not only words and pictures, but their are sensations, smells, noises...and emotions. He didn't seem to hear me.

"Mom...there was a journal, wasn't there? That whomever was staying with me in the hospital would write. I don't know where it is. Do we still have it? I'd like to see it."

I reassured him that, yes, the journal was in my possession, on my bookshelf. And that there is also a collection of emails I wrote, to about 200 people at a pop, updating them on the events of our lives and the progress of his treatment. (This was at the birth of the blog movement, just as sites like CaringBridge and others were starting, and since he, as my tech support, was in no condition to teach me, I passed up the opportunity to archive our experience on such a site.) And that I would be glad to share the emails with him as well.

I smiled inwardly, surprised, delighted. I had promised myself that I would tell his story, our family's story of childhood cancer, since I so desperately wanted a survival story when we entered the ped-onc world. But then everyday life took over and the written story never jelled from the bits and pieces we have saved.

Maybe now is the time. And wouldn't this be the most remarkable story of them all: a cancer survivor's story through the eyes of a child.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Zen again

It's getting late, and I remind myself I don't need to be profound; I just need to write. But what about and where do I go with it?

I've been in what seems to me to be a low energy phase; I'm usually the human whirlwind who starts most days with a to-do list and then congratulate myself that night for crossing off as many items as I can. However, I suspect that anyone observing me lately would think I'm about average in getting things done--dinner's on the table, the dishes get washed, junk mail tossed, milk purchased. Kids get transported to wherever they need to go, reasonably close to being on time.

And yet I perceive myself as stuck in the blues. Oh, I definitely know or people who are naturally hypercaffeinated...putting in 12-hour shifts at work, volunteering regularly in their community, shunting their collection of kids to multiple activities each week, establishing charitable foundations, and keeping their homes spotless. I am not one of those people. Never have been. (I really believe the secret to their accomplishments is having staff.)

I still haven't gone through my three boxes of journals and memos from my previous job; I just don't want to face it. And yet, if I go back to full-time work...well, to paraphrase Shrek, "it'll never happen." (say aloud with thick Scots burr for best effect). I need to toss the stuff, move on, let go. Admit that I will not look at research that is 4 years old--I have no cause to, and if I'm writing an article, I'll go through an electronic database anyway (or weasel my way into Penn's library).

I spent today--after going to an interview--running about, shopping. Okay, it is better than taking an antidepressant, maybe even cheaper. I purchased items I will truly use (we are not mentioning the spending of the $$ while underemployed, of course), I got some exercise trotting from store to store and building to parking lot; and let me include the six-block round trip hike to the interview. Although I'm pleased with my purchases, it still feels like a do-nothing day. Running about ticking items off a shopping list (Dang, I forgot the power adapter for my son. Ugh, well, I'll be near a hardware store tomorrow)feels unsatisfying. Somehow, even grocery shopping is more gratifying, seems more purposeful. Which may be because I've become coupon happy, and the whole event is now turning into hunting/gathering rather than nomadic wandering to see if 70% off is legitimately worthwhile.

I don't watch TV; really haven't, in years, the only times being when I am staying in a hotel and I can watch all the food shows I want without interruption. But I have become a 'net junkie, stumbling for new websites and realizing that you really can find one of anything out there in cyberspace. And that has become a time-eater as well. Fun but not very satisfying. I have reading I'd like to do--all 4 books that I ordered from the library appeared in the last two days, waiting lists notwithstanding. So that would be a little more nutritious for my brain and my spirit. I'm working on a needlepoint picture for my mom, a tiny thing, really, but also fun as I hadn't picked up needlework in years. There is satisfaction in doing that, watching the picture emerge, glorying in the colors, and feeling a sense of accomplishment as it comes together.

I struggle with letting myself veg, knowing on the one hand that the vast majority of people do at some point during their day and that it is okay; and on the other hand realizing that vegging is the default. It happens without my deliberate choosing...but do I really want to live out my life floating around, being done to rather than doing?

When I started writing this post tonight, I didn't know what to title it. But as the thoughts started flowing, I knew what this post should be called. What I am asking myself to do, what I know is the place where I am happiest, is when I am aware of what I am doing in the moment. It becomes choice, it becomes meaning, it becomes satisfying and substantial--the difference between eating a dinner of a hearty bowl of soup versus a glazed donut. Zen again.

My eyes are tired, tomorrow is a full day (first thing on the agenda, after turning on the coffee maker and downing a cup, is to make a to-do list) and sometimes not-doing can be the most important doing of them all. Good night.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Gotta do it

I did ride the train today, but I did not write. Tsk-tsk. I was too busy reading a book, "Making It Stick" by the brothers Heath (I keep on mistakenly writing their name as "Health"...I think I've worked in hospitals too long.) A very readable, interesting book on effective communication, especially in organizations trying to brand themselves or initiate a culture change. They cite Gladwell--whose books I also ordered from the library--about decision making and thought processes. It's all fun stuff and I wonder how I can put it to good professional use.

I have an interview tomorrow. My heart's not fully in it: it's a place that I interviewed at earlier in the year (three times, in fact, over the course of the summer) only to be told that I didn't make the cut. I tried to handle it graciously but events that unfolded afterward led me to feel bitter; sour grapes, I guess (I promised myself to strictly avoid, avoid, avoid cliches, but there is no other way to illustrate my reaction than to cite Aesop).

There are some aspects of the place that really appeal to me, and some that make me a bit edgy...I'm not sure if it is the best career move for me. I am feeling my age and no longer wanting to waste time doing something or being somewhere that isn't a good fit for my personality, skills, and interests. I want to interact with people that I can work with. I want to make a difference. I don't want to be stuck somewhere without options.

I have two, now three other resumes floating around out there. I need to call one fellow and confirm that the fax of my info arrived in his hands. I am waiting to get a phone call from a headhunter about 'next steps' for another position for which they are recruiting (this one would be my ideal, a great opportunity to grow professionally... but there may be some conflicts of interest affecting my chances, and I may not quite have the credentials they are seeking). I just--moments ago--submitted an online app to another hospital, but I have submitted to them before and had the feeling my resume was sent off into the ether and never reached the desk of HR (all my efforts to email the HR contact at that time were ignored. Wonder if she was fired). I think a wise decision would be to fax them a paper copy. Tomorrow.

OK, let me draft a cover letter pronto. It's a job I know I can do. I have what it takes. It would get me close to where I want to be.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Changing Jobs

So I just have a few minutes to keep my promise to myself of daily--well, nearly daily--blogging while I'm waiting for the dishwasher to finish so I can shut it off and let it air dry.

So...what do I say?

I can say that I just applied for a job online, with a local hospital. And my contact was correct: the online app has to be the klugiest system ever. It extracted data from my resume and turned it into...well, let's just say that this system is NOT an example of intelligent design. (Given that it turned everything I did into a job, I just deleted anything older than 20 yrs ago. If they need to see if I'm legit, they can certainly reference the CV I attached).

I can pat myself on the back because I made tomorrow night's dinner: two-bean chili, all vegetarian. (I also managed to hide half the seitan in it.) My daughter, doin' the teen thing, has decided to be a vegetarian. Tonight at dinner--a stir-fry done in pieces so that carnivores could add their own meat--I growled at my family assembled around the table and said they were the most difficult group to cook for. Daughter wants totally meatless, not even chicken broth; fish OK but not shrimp because "they crunch--ewww!". Son #1 dislikes all sea creatures, unless it's Uncle John's (a family friend) smoked trout. Son #2 is mortally afraid of cheese. Husband, who claims he eats everything, refused my Scotch Broth (altho he darn well ate the lamb--what's with that?), explaining his resistance is due to a childhood trauma. And I am ready to delegate the whole enterprise to someone, anyone, who wants to have the delightful fun of doing the marketing, trying to buy as close to the source as possible, consider all nutritional factors (salt, fat, sugar, carb, fiber, trans fat, cholesterol, antioxidants, vitamin profile, preservatives, artificial anything), try to get the best value cost-wise, and then transform it into something edible.

You want this job? It's yours.

OK, the dishwasher is done. Time for bed.

Random Thoughts

Tonight I learned that Classical Music (the real stuff, like Mozart)has improv. They hide it under a fancy Italian name--cadenza--but it is as free-flowing and alive as jazz, and was long before jazz ever came on the scene. Not to diss jazz, of course. (Think of Wolfgang as a guy just jammin' with his friends.)

I think the difference between political conservatives and liberals is this: conservatives see the role of government as a means to interface with other countries (an external focus). Liberals see the role of government as taking care of its own people (an internal focus). I still think I am more liberal-minded; I believe charity should begin at home.

How can there be a job posting for a "non-tenure track clinical educator position" seeking someone with a "history of productive research" and "demonstrated ability to obtain grant funding". If they are looking for a researcher, just say so. And if the person has grant funding, why are they looking for a job?

I am not entirely sure what the little screw is for on my digital thermometer. Because when I dropped it, it popped apart...and could only be reassembled by snapping everything together...with the little screw strategically placed before snapping. (Yup, it didn't screw in. Odd.)

And the goal of the survey by the toilet paper company ("pull from the top" vs. "pull from the bottom") would be...?

I complained to my husband that the paint we were using in our son's room would remove itself when I painted over wet paint areas (you know, when making sure I had a good coat on; how can paint stick to itself more than the surface it's covering??). He told me it did this because it's ceiling paint. So I want to know, how does the paint know if it's on the ceiling or on the walls?

Why does all mascara--even waterproof--always come off when I wear it? I can be sitting on my hands, never touching my face, and it doesn't matter.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Identity Crisis

I was laid off about three months ago. (Gosh, has it really been that long?)

It wasn't the most wonderful job. There were parts of it I loved (the students, the people in my department, the beautiful landscaping, my office--well, except for that bizarre picture of the St. Bernard carrying an umbrella). And parts that absolutely irked me, times when I didn't think I could stand another day, when I'd race home to surf the web for job openings. So it's surprising to me to realize that I'm still angry about the layoff.

I've described to friends that the ex-job was like one's first high-school relationship: you want to be with someone, but you know that the person you are with is really wrong for you. You know it's not going to last. So you plot and plan, hoping to dump the person before he or she can dump you. You want to be the dumper and not the dumpee.

Unfortunately, I didn't move fast enough. I got dumped.

It's a funny thing, working in mental health. I had done it during my training and had sworn never to go back to it. And then, three years ago, I had gone and signed up with the ex (some of us will do anything for money). All those stereotypes, about people going into the mental health field because they need to "figure themselves out"...they're true. From the positive perspective, many people are drawn to the field because of a personal experience--a family member or a loved one struggling with a mental illness. And this is admirable, a noble thing: to have a passion to make the world a better place for those who suffer, to give meaning and purpose to one's own pain. The problem becomes, however, that many staff members haven't worked through their issues. In order to be a healing person, you have to be healthier(mentally and physically) than the person you are trying to help...if for no other reason than to have credibility (how seriously can I take the advice of an obese cardiologist who smokes?).

I am fortunate enough to have a second half-time job, at a wonderful hospital. It is everything the other place was not. Clear communication is a priority. Administration is approachable. Professional development is expected and opportunities are offered. Yes, there are individuals who demonstrate their issues for their coworkers, but for the most part it's a healthy place to be. (When co-workers gripe, I remind them they are working in the healthcare equivalent of Disney.)

And yet, I feel something missing. I've been unsatisfied. And I know the "something missing" is in me.

Today it clicked. Today I finally understood that the missing piece is my sense of professional identity. I've long felt so fortunate that I chose a profession that seems like the most natural thing to me. My work is who I am, it is what I was meant to do.

But in Hospital House-of-Mouse, I'm a consumer consultant. Based on my experiences as a user of healthcare, I give presentations, write newsletters, review training materials, sit in committee meetings and express my opinion. But what I am absolutely forbidden to reveal (by decree from administration) is my profession.

Lately I've caught myself--in meetings with staff who have the same professional credentials as I--using technical terminology, seeing if they'll realize I know more that the average person. And ask why. And then maybe I can reveal the dark secret.

It makes me sad, this realization...because it means that for me to be truly whole, and happy professionally, I cannot stay at HHoM. I love it there. But I need more. I am not offering the world everything I have.

One possible reality--fantasy?--is for me to work in my field at HHoM. But I have a fear that I will be perceived as a traitor to the job and department I'm in. Everyone else in it has moved away from their education and training and seem to be perfectly content (e.g., the physician who becomes an administrator). Some people will understand and be supportive; others will not.

Most of the professional opportunities that have appealed to me are full-time. The few half-time gigs--which would enable me to have both a place at HHoM and a professional side--have just not felt right. And I decided when I was first laid off, that I would not compromise. Too many times in the past, for multiple reasons, what gave way was what I wanted for myself. This time, I am holding out for the type of work I want.

I'm grieving in advance, for whatever change is comiing. And hoping that wherever I land, it will be what I need for me.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A New Style of Community Service

I don't know how coherent I can be at this hour, but as mentioned earlier this month, I am a driven woman. Driven by guilt, yes, but driven nonetheless. I promised myself I would blog or write daily...and it's only Monday and I already had my day off this week. (Tomorrow you will have to trudge on without me; it's a commuting day and I am allowed to be focused on my writer's journal).

It was a full day today (what happened? It was supposed to be a day OFF!). In the past we have spent our MLK Day participating in community service. For several years it was spent painting a school in an impoverished neighborhood in Philadelphia. The first year, I found entering the school a truly startling experience...the school was in better condition than the 90-year old elementary behemoth in the suburbs, which my own children were attending. (About 3 years later the district finally agreed to improve the infrastructure and my kids moved to a glossy new building that looked like a merger between the Titanic and Danish Modern furniture. But it was a vast improvement.)

Today, once again, we painted; and we served our own family community, the five people who live within this house...I helped my oldest son move into his own room. Oh, it's not finished--the window frames and baseboards need repair and a coat of paint, and there are no curtains on the four large windows--but it's January and we can't quite open the windows, and he deserves this, having worked long shoveling out the clutter, spackling, painting, and cleaning. And he was ready for his own room. When his sister arrived, 12+ years ago, by default he ended up sharing a room with his younger brother. I think it has made them close; I would hear them sparring of an afternoon, like an old married couple, and then sharing secrets in the dark of bedtime. Being an only child, it's an experience I will never know and cannot even imagine. And I wonder what their relationship will be like when they are adults.

It was fun for me to see him arrange the furniture we have available, imagining what his new desk will look like when he can afford it, placing his Abbey Road poster where it will greet him when he wakes. (It was not fun for me to vacuum, the fallout being a tremendous flareup of my allergies; I've already double-dosed on the antihistamine, showered to settle the dust, and hydrated myself with a vat of hot tea, and my nose still won't quit. A blatant reminder of why I should not do housework.)

His brother is now dreaming about the transformation to take place in his own--the formerly shared--room. So I guess I will be looking at more spackling, sanding, rearranging, and painting--oh, forgot priming. I'm struggling with where to put the extra, unwanted bunk bed. I'm trying to figure out how "ceiling paint" knows where it is, and what might befall if I put it on the walls. I'm thinking a respiratory mask might be a good idea when we get to the cleanup stage. I'm wondering if I can risk taking a third antihistamine.

And I'm realizing that if we ever decide to sell the house, I'm hiring professionals.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Not so crazy...?

When I was a teen, one of the first cakes I learned to make was clipped from the newspaper. "Real Crazy Cake" was so appealing to me based on its name alone, but I also loved it for the reaction it evoked from my mom (horror at the implied junk food nature of the recipe; I think she suspected it was in league with Ho-Hos, Ding-Dongs, Twinkies--who names these things?--and worse) and the absolute ease of preparation. Grease a square baking pan, dump in all the dry ingredients, top with the wet ingredients, and stir till moistened. Bake. Eat.

The "craziness" of the cake is based in some simple chemistry; any kid who's made the infamous "science fair volcano" knows the secret. Baking soda and vinegar provide the leavening, resulting in a light texture. And the worrisome funny smells evaporate in the heat of the oven--if you didn't know the craziness, you would never guess.

Now I am the parent of three teens, all who have some food quirks (that's probably genetic; I developed my love of biology from dissecting the meat on my plate because I was too squeamish to eat it). Over the years, we have grown into the tradition of lazing around Saturday mornings--it's a big sigh of relief for everyone after a full week--and brunching on a quickly-assembled, freshly-baked something or other. Pancakes, waffles, scones (both stovetop and oven varieties), muffins, cinnamon swirl (which deserves its own post!). And now Crazy Cake has made a reappearance in my baking repertoire.

About a year ago, I came across a gently-loved copy of the "King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook" at our library's used bookstore. And there was the recipe, under a new "adult" name, but with the same crazy ingredients and preparation. I couldn't resist. As I re-read the ingredient list, I realized that Crazy Cake has a lot of good things going for it. It can be successfully made without cholesterol, eggs, or dairy--a good choice for people with health concerns or food allergies. It responds well to improvisation: add in extra healthy stuff, use whatever liquid you have, tweak the sugar content.

The very basic recipe is this:
1 1/2 c. flour
3/4 c. sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 Tbs. vinegar
1/3 c. oil
1 c. liquid

And the version that arrived on our table this morning is this--heavily modified from the crazy original, because I just can't leave well enough alone...which, I suppose, is craziness as well...

Pear Spice Cake (because I had overripe pears :-)
3/4 c. whole wheat flour
3/4 c. all purpose flour (sometimes I sub in 2 Tbs. ground flaxseed)
pinch salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cardamom (this adds a wonderful lemony flavor; I often add more)
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
3/4 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. canola oil (I goofed and misread the recipe...and it was fine)
1 c. vanilla yogurt, whisked to liquify it (buttermilk, plain yogurt, or OJ also works)
1 tsp white vinegar
2 ripe pears, cored and diced into bite-sized pieces

Coat a 9x9 inch baking pan with cooking spray. Preheat the oven to 350F.
In a bowl, combine all the dry ingredients and whisk to blend. (I find it less messy to mix everything in a bowl and then pour it into the baking pan; I've gotten sloppier in my old age). Whisk together all the wet ingredients, including the brown sugar. Pour the wet into the dry and blend until the flour is incorporated. Stir in the pears; feel free to add 1/3c. or so of chopped nuts. Pour into the baking pan and bake for about 40 minutes, or until it tests done.

With the large amount of fruit and the juiciness of the pears, this cake was moist and dense. Use apples instead and you get a drier cake. Leave out the fruit and spices, add in 1/4 c. cocoa powder, use coffee as your liquid, and you get mocha cake. Use an acidic liquid--such as OJ--and you can omit the vinegar.

I tell ya, this recipe begs to be toyed with.

Have to see if there is any left for me to have a taste.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Fainting Buffaloes

I've had a former patient on my mind lately...actually, I've been thinking about a phrase he often said. "That wife of mine," he would beam, his face smiling with loving pride. "She knows how to squeeze a nickel until the buffalo faints."

(Yes, boys and girls, there was a time when a buffalo--and not a dead white guy--was depicted on the front of a 5c piece).

Although I knew this man years and years ago, I thought that this year, 2010, I would try to emulate his wife's thrift. Several factors drove, ahem, inspired this quest. First, I was laid off in mid-October...in a horrible and totally unanticipated 15 minutes during a Thursday lunch hour, three-fourths of my income vanished. Poof.

And then, at the start of December, I attended a presentation by Jodi, a perky, 30-something working mom of 3 from Florida who blogs on living the good life on a small budget .

Initially I was frustrated by what I heard--I do all the recommended penny pinching stuff already. I pack leftovers for my lunch every day, I bring my own tea bags to work, I use coupons, I buy on sale, I repurpose. I buy "close to the source" and almost never buy processed foods (soup and pizza are my family's two concessions, but those are also our emergency fall-back foods). On an average grocery shopping expedition, I save about 25% by focusing on specials and coupons and the bonus card. I shop at stores with the lowest prices in the area (which isn't saying much--Philly has some of the highest cost of living in the country for a place that's not NYC. Did you know the state sets minimum allowable prices for milk? Yeesh!).

After stewing about the issue, insisting to myself that I was doing all I can, I finally concluded that "I can do better." And so it's become a quest. Can I make the same magic as Jodi and her peers and cut my overall spending on groceries/household goods to $75 per week? And what would it take to do that?

Well, part of achieving this goal is planning: what do I need, what can I stockpile, and can I buy every single item using a coupon? How do I capitalize on the BOGOs that occasionally appear in the store flyer? It's taken detective work; fortunately, I love a good mystery.

I've been scoping out coupon websites and matching offers to our needs, and my list (I am a committed lister...otherwise I end up in aisle 4 muttering to myself about something that I know I need but what was it again?). I haven't quite figured out the best list method yet--that's my next thrift goal.

The past few weeks, a consistent 33% remained in my pocket. Paul was impressed, noting the low margin on grocery items and predicting that if all shoppers did what I was doing, we'd drive the store under. But I doubt if many others have the tenacity to scope out thrift (my cousin postulates that it's genetic...we come from a long line of trash pickers and do-it-yourselfers).

33%? Not bad. I can do better.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Oh where, Oh where

did that recipe go?

About a month ago, during a long Saturday of baking Christmas cookies, the thought occurred to me that I needed to also make dinner. Having three teenagers, I am no longer able to placate them with cheerios or cheese and crackers. As my kids have grown, they have also become more difficult to shoo from the kitchen...my oldest, a stereotypical 17 year old boy, will stand in from of the open fridge door, open random storage containers, pinch out a taste from each, and push them back onto the shelves. Which would be fine except for the chill wafting into the kitchen from the open fridge door (not even considering the extra exercise the compressor gets during this activity).

Our middle son will dramatically drag himself into the kitchen, emitting a long, low moan, "I'm soooooooooooooooo hungry. What is for dinner?" This is followed by one of two activities: he will either glide over to wherever I am standing, drop his head painfully onto my shoulder, and roll his head back and forth while emitting a Bela Lugosi horror movie moan (much easier for him now that he has grown taller than me); or if I tell him the menu, he will offer a critique based on the last time I served that dish, with reminders to use the same brand of red sauce or to be sure to omit the bay leaf this time.

As I think about our daughter's response to hunger now, I wonder if she's anticipating a career as a CEO. She will be lounging in front of the computer or with a book, fail to notice me up to my elbows in dish suds (on this specific Saturday, it was lebkuchen dough) and with a wave of her hand proclaim, "Mom, can you get me a snack?"

On this particular day, my fallback meals were unavailable: the Trader Joe's pizzas had all been consumed, we had eaten soup for lunch, pasta had been yesterday's supper. I also considered the following variables: the oven was already hot; a chuck roast was thawing in the fridge; and I had a half-bottle of red wine, a package of mushrooms on the verge, a handful of grape tomatoes, and a half-pound of carrots.

And then the recipe appeared--it was truly karma. It was a recipe for an oven-baked beef bourguignon...a recipe to feed an extended family or a hockey team, with it's 7 lbs of beef and two bottles of burgundy. Yeesh, I had the four of us (hubby was on the road) and the above-mentioned provisions. So I followed a fine family tradition and (drum roll, please) improvised--the proportions, at least. I had to do some dissection on the chuck roast, but what resulted were bite-sized pieces of meat that seared quickly in olive oil. Omitted the onions--yes, I know some think this is sacrilege, but my digestion doesn't tolerate alliums--briefly sauteed the other veggies, tossed in a bay leaf, some rosemary, paprika, thyme. Lid on and my stockpot went into the oven while I washed baking sheets and sorted the cookies into tins. Cooked some egg noodles and micro'd some peas, and it was dinner.

What came out of the oven initially seemed dark and crusty, but as I stirred the stew it smelled wonderful, naturally thickened by the softened veggies (I had completely neglected to toss the meat in seasoned flour--I guess having played with flour all day I didn't see the use for more). The beef was tender and flavorful, and I love a good excuse to use egg noodles (can't get the troops to eat them otherwise, which is totally incomprehensible to me--People, we're talking pasta here!)

So now for my dilemma: it's now wintery in our part of the world, and tomorrow is forcast to be cold and windy. In culinary terms, perfect stew weather. The beef is thawing; mushooms, carrots, and red wine are at hand. There are noodles in the pantry. The only problem is, I've misplaced the recipe! I cannot recall where I found it, have checked cooking websites and reviewed my cookbooks, and so far, nothing.

I may be forced to follow that fine family tradition. I may have to improvise.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

a New Year's Revolution

Guilt, I am fond of saying, is a powerful motivator. Well, in my current situation, it's shame, not guilt, that is providing the motive force. But as they say, whatever works. Thanks, cousin!

I realize I have not posted in nearly a year...and what a year it's been, full of rich wanna-make-you-pull-your-hair-out experiences. My fantasy last January was that I would resolve to rejuvenate my writing skills by blogging, and doing it regularly, giving myself a forum in which to express thoughts and ideas and maybe actually be confident enough to beat into shape my private writing and actually DO something with it. And like every other resolution, that lasted a whole month (I think I actually hung on to "eat my veggies" longer than that). When I belonged to a writer's group, I had the external discipline of the group and the regular meetings to encourage me; when the group dissolved, so did my confidence in thinking I actually had something to say that someone would want to read. I tried joining other groups, but the vibe wasn't there, the format didn't work for me, life with three kids and activities got crazy and the first thing to drop off the schedule was my writing. That was five years ago, at least.

So what's happened that makes me think I can actually do this now?

Well, for one, I wangled a neat piece of guilt on myself (yeesh, scary what a Catholic education can make one do). Now that I take the train to work three days a week, I pulled out a writer's journal and sternly told myself, "Thou shalt write, at least once each commuting day, for the duration of the trip to thine destination." Which comes to about 35 minutes, depending on the cooperativeness of the trains. And I give myself the Anne Lamott out: I am permitted to write absolute crap. Some days I respond to the prompt in the journal. Some days I parody my fellow passengers. During the transit strike, I ranted about the ridiculousness and greed of the workers (I had just been laid off from one job and the $52K annually to punch tickets and make change sounded pretty good to me). And with time, I demonstrated behaviors having a shadowy resemblance to discipline.

It did help that my sister-in-law, my fellow wanna-be writer, book-lover, word junkie, and kindred spirit waved her writing journal in my face and I observed the cross-outs and microscopic script crawling up the margin of the page once she had filled all the lines. Heck, I was supposed to be HER conscience--we had AGREED!

So I reasoned: if I have been able to train myself (oof! unintended pun) to write on the train when commuting...I could certainly post on my blog on the other days. Here it helped that my cousin and fellow blogger apply a dose of guilt--if I wanted to be followed on her site, I had better produce something to follow.

So here it is. Actually, I should more correctly say, Here It Begins. And I will remind myself that I DON'T need to solve the world's economic crisis, come up with the ideal healthcare plan for all, share my recipe for Foie Gras Sauteed in Extra-Virgin Hazelnut Oil with White Truffle Emulsion, verbally knock the heads of conservatives and liberals together in the hope that some intelligence will be jarred free from where it's stuck, or ANY thing like that.

I just have to write.