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Monthly Archives: October 2014

Embracing the Selfie Ethos

Cristian Iohan Ştefănescu #selfie CC BY 2.0We are all the stars of our own movies, the protagonists of our own stories, but it seems, with the “selfi(ie) generation” at the helm, as a society we’ve become more self-consciously so, keen on having an audience. Lately I’ve been wondering if this is such a bad thing — as my Facebook feed is inundated with babies and couple shots and cool views from exotic locales, it seems there’s more to the culture of selfies than narcissism. It has to do with a basic appreciation of life, a move toward sharing and celebrating the little moments.

I wonder if the selfie ethos is shaping us to savor our lives a bit more, to be more ebullient and overflowing and public with our little victories — more connected as a result of social media, not less.

There is an interesting CNN article about “the upside of selfies” that reveals some surprisingly positive statistics: according to Common Sense Media, one in five teens reports to feeling more confident as a result of social media, versus 4% feeling less confident. 29% of 13-17 year-olds report that social media made them feel less shy.

According to Rebecca Levey, the founder of a video platform for tweens, social media is an opportunity for kids with niche interests to find each other. It’s also a place for tweens and teens — and full-grown adults — to make their voices heard about important issues.

The New York Times has a name for such tweens and teens, and some of those full-grown adults — it’s called “digital natives,” folks who never had to adapt to the internet, for whom a virtual reality was always a matter of fact. Apparently, these so-called millenials are “the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations had at the same age.” Who can knock ‘em for cheerleading their way through, for slapping a selfie on a genuinely difficult struggle?

I’m increasingly inclined to view my friends’ status updates, hashtags, and photo uploads as something to celebrate. Hear me? I want in on the minutiae of your life — it’s life-affirming to share it.

In the meantime, allow me to indulge in the selfie culture myself, by showing you what I made: muffins! That’s right — look at me, look at what I made! Orange marmalade muffins. They’re delicious. Or at least, I think so. Me. Myself(ie). And I. Here’s the recipe:

Orange Marmalade Muffins
Adapted from The Pioneer Woman Cooks

Ingredients

2 oranges
2 sticks butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda

Tools

Microplane zester
Cutting board
Sifter
Mixing bowls
Measuring cups and spoons
Stand Mixer with paddle attachment

  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Grate the zest of the two oranges. Measure the flour and sift it into a bowl.
  • Cream the butter and the granulated sugar.
  • Add the eggs and mix until combined.
  • Add the flour and the brown sugar and mix until just combined.
  • Combine the buttermilk and the baking soda. Add it to the mixture and stir until just combined.
  • Stir in the orange zest.
  • Line a muffin tin with paper liners and fill 2/3 full with batter. Bake until light brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle of the muffin comes out clean, about 13-15 minutes.
  • I had enough batter to repeat a second time, making six more muffins. Fill the empty muffin cups with water.

Comfort Food

jmv Magic Mushrooms? NOT CC BY 2.0There is something innately comforting about mushrooms. The comfort factor doubles when you add heavy cream and butter and white wine… am I right? Last Sunday I took the afternoon to chop and sweat and simmer mushrooms to my heart’s content, and then I poured some tender loving care onto a pot of herbed basmati rice — I can’t decide what I enjoyed more, the eating or the cooking.

I’ve been suffering from blogger’s block this past week. My attempts to embellish the sautéing of mushrooms with a nugget of spiritual wisdom or worldly advice have left me dry and desperate. Just being honest. It turns out, though, that cooking is quite the complimentary activity to writer’s block — working with your hands, it seems, gives your brain a rest. If you’re good at following directions, and you know how to spot a well-written recipe, things generally turn out as planned.

Not like some other things I’ve had on my mind lately. I’ve been reading (and writing) about education reform, how many of the same, stale reforms are recycled throughout the centuries, repeatedly putting teachers at the center of controversy. Also, I’ve been busy turning a year older, wondering why I’m not “farther” in life, why certain accomplishments haven’t landed in my lap yet, you know, run-of-the-mill ruminations. (However, I do feel loved, thanks to all your calls and texts). And I’ve dug deep into Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch. The book is so full — of characters and settings and language — having already bounced from the sweet, romantic New York City life Theo shares with his single mother to the surreal interior of a bombed out art museum, to the lush, moneyed apartment of Theo’s friend Andy to the subdued, textured back room of an antiques dealer to the bright squalor of Las Vegas, I can’t predict where the plot will turn next.

So I embrace the comforting predictability of cooking, the way a pot of food on the stove sets a scene of its own. Enjoy 🙂

Creamed Mushrooms
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Ingredients

1 pound of button mushrooms
4-5 tablespoons of butter
2 shallots, chopped
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4-1/2 cup heavy cream
kosher salt and black pepper
thick slices of bread, buttered and toasted (optional)

Tools

Paper towels
Chef’s knife
Cutting board
Mixing bowls
Liquid measuring cups
Large pot
Wooden spoon

  • With moist paper towels, wipe the mushrooms clean of dirt.
  • Slice the mushrooms and chops the slices into 1/4-inch pieces. This takes a while — enjoy some chopping zen 🙂
  • Chop the shallots and place in a bowl. Measure out the wine and the heavy cream in advance, for some mise en place — why not.
  • In a large pot, melt 4 tablespoons of butter on low heat and add the chopped shallots.
  • Sauté the shallots until they’re soft and limp over medium to medium-high heat.
  • Add the mushrooms, and possibly another tablespoon of butter if they seem dry. Cook until the mushrooms start to soften, stirring occasionally, over medium to medium-high heat.
  • Add the wine, and cover, cooking the shrooms about 5 minutes more.
  • Uncover the pot and continue cooking for a few minutes, until most of the liquid has evaporated.
  • Add the heavy cream and cook a bit longer, allowing the cream to thicken somewhat. (1/2 cup was too much for me; I’d start by adding 1/4 cup and add  little more to achieve a thick, creamy consistency without leftover liquid).
  • Serve on top of buttered toast or on its own, with rice.

Herbed Basmati Rice
Adapted from Ina Garten

Ingredients

2 cups basmati rice
3 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons minced parsley
2 tablespoons minced dill
2 pinches black pepper

Tools

Measuring cups & spoons
Chef’s knife
Cutting board
Mixing bowls
Large saucepan
Wooden spoon
Fork

  • Measure out the ingredients and mince the herbs.
  • Place the rice, water, salt, and butter in a large saucepan.
  • Bring to a boil, give everything a quick stir, reduce the heat to low and simmer with the lid on for 15 minutes. Watch to see that the mixture doesn’t boil over; you may have to temporarily remove it from the heat if the liquid bubbles up.
  • Once fifteen minutes have passed, turn off the heat and let the mixture sit for 5 more minutes.
  • Add the herbs and pepper and fluff it with a fork.

 

Gratitude and Roasted Red Pepper Soup

“Soup is a lot like family. Each ingredient enhances the others; each batch has its own characteristics; and it needs time to simmer to reach full flavor.” — Novelist Margaret Kennedy

bourgeoisbee Roasted Tomato Red Bell Pepper Soup CC BY-NC 2.0 There’s something you gotta love about soup that’s predicated on one vegetable, simmered and softened, then pureed. It’s an act of gratitude, piling raw peppers into a pot and making the most out of them.

Lately I’ve wondered what it means to actively practice gratitude — not just ticking off  lists of thanksgivings but fully embodying a spirit of thankfulness, in the way that we go about our day, in the things that we desire, in the way our goals and hopes are oriented. It offers us a way out of changes in mood or circumstance, a way into feeling still, centered, and easy.

I’m grateful for the singleness of focus I’ve had lately with my writing. My family is all so supportive of my writing goals, which is motivating and sustaining; it makes me feel like less of an impostor when someone asks me what I “do.” It isn’t so much doing as it is thinking and then recording my thoughts. Which brings me back to my gratitude for soup. A steaming bowlful, topped with a dollop of mascarpone cheese, is a reminder to inhabit the moment more fully, to savor the flavor of a single vegetable, and be filled with warmth.

Roasted Red Pepper Soup
Makes 3 large servings
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups sliced onions
1 1/2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons white wine
6 red bell peppers, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
A sprinkling of red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper
Mascarpone cheese for garnish

Tools

Chef’s knife
Cutting Board
Measuring spoons
Measuring cups
Large pot
Wooden spoon
Immersion blender or blender/food processor

  • Slice the onions, mince the garlic, chop the bell peppers, and measure the thyme. Have the chicken broth, salt, and pepper out, with measuring cups nearby.
  • Swirl the olive oil to coat the bottom of the pot. Add the onions and cook on medium-low heat until they soften and turn a bit golden.
  • Swirl the olive oil to coat the bottom of the pot. Add the onions and cook on medium-low heat until they soften and turn a bit golden.
  • Add the minced garlic and cook for another minute.
  • Add the two tablespoons of wine and cook on medium-high heat until the liquid is reduced to 1 tablespoon.
  • Add the peppers, broth, thyme, and red pepper flakes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Cover the pot and simmer the peppers for about 30 minutes, or until they’re soft.
  • Purée the mixture using an immersion blender or a normal blender/food processor.
  • Serve warm (or chilled) with a scoop of mascarpone cheese in the center.

Mark Twain, Mark 8:35

United Nations Photo Operation Lifeline Helps Displaced People in Southern Sudan CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

My friend Heidi, who worked as a nurse in South Sudan and kept a blog about her time there, once wrote about how the Sudanese are a refreshing people to be around — they take it as a matter of fact that life is full of hardships, rather than reacting with a sense of personal insult, as is the norm in America. In a culture seemingly obsessed with cultivating the most convenient, hassle free lifestyle, we Americans seem to only wake up to the natural order of things when the real s#%* hits the fan.

This past weekend I saw The Good Lie, a true story featuring actors from South Sudan, Reese Witherspoon, and Corey Stoll. The contrast between American privilege and the Sudanese values of gratitude and compassion, as well as the struggle to make meaning from suffering, are two themes that resonate throughout. Despite a few convenient, even pat plot twists, the story of the lost boys is truly profound, and profoundly Christian. To the extent that their stories are resolved, each member of the group must come to terms with what they have suffered, what their suffering has cost them, and what they can take forward. Here is a brief summary of the boys’ story, as it is captured in the film:

Ethnic/religious conflict suddenly orphans five young boys and one girl, forcing them to walk hundreds of miles across the desert. Four of the original seven find refuge in Kenya only after being turned away in Ethiopia. The violence they are running from casts a long shadow — there is a harrowing scene in which, after joining up with a long line of fellow refugees, the group’s “chief” finds a bullet near a river. He makes the split decision to cross the river rather than follow its path, even though the children are parched and can’t swim. As one boy panics, running toward the sound of gunfire, the rest tread bravely along a makeshift rope, past floating corpses. The chief finally allows the group to take a rest, but of course the soldiers are close behind. This is when the chief tells “the good lie,” a pivotal point at the center of the unfolding drama.

The boys and their sister grow into young adults in the refugee camp, waiting over ten years to get out. You get the sense of what a miserable, stagnant, and depressing place a refugee camp is, despite being a safe haven. At last, the group finds their names on the list of the American-bound, greeted by Reese Witherspoon’s blunt, brash character, Carrie at the Kansas City Missouri airport. As she works her local connections to find the men jobs and a chirpy Midwestern mom helps them set up house, they prove to be comically mismatched to America’s tech-heavy, commerce-driven society. The men are charming with their formal, chivalrous, meticulous ways — reminding their American counterparts that the rest of the world is large and far less insular.

For example, Jeremiah’s own experience of hunger has trained him to live by his convictions, and the Bible — he quits his job at a grocery store when caught giving old food away rather than throwing it in the dumpster. Mamere works two jobs while studying to be a doctor, exuding earnestness and thankfulness — it’s during his literature class on Twain’s Huckleberry Finn that he demonstrates his intimate understanding of “good lies,” in which a lie is produced to provide protection for others, and is therefore justified. The youngest brother, Paul, is the only one who openly grapples with being a guest of the United States, admitting to feeling belittled by a people unacquainted with the suffering he narrowly escaped. He gets depressed and smokes pot, until a confrontation with his brothers provides a catharsis of sorts, and things presumably get better. The film ends with one more “good lie,” connected to the first.

I felt very privileged watching The Good Lie. It’s a credit to the filmmakers and the casting directors — USA Today states that the Sudanese were played by actors “with ties to Sudan, a couple having been child soldiers” — that the refugees were not sentimentalized or aggrandized because of the suffering they endured. Viewing their work is a humbling and moving experience that can’t help but leave you wondering…would I tell “a good lie”? And then, close behind, the Gospel of Mark, affirming that the “lost boys of Sudan” are indeed, found:

“For who whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”

 

A Few Takeaways from “Hard Choices”

Asher Isbrucker obligatory airplane wing. YYZ > YVR CC BY-NC-SA 2.0This past summer I had a week-long vacation to dive deep into Hillary Clinton’s book, Hard Choices. It paints a broad picture of foreign policy and covers a lot of ground — literally, the whole world — which sometimes diluted the subject matter, I think. But I read on anyway. In light of all that’s written about her, I was just curious to hear Hillary Clinton tell her own story. I know that some people must be rolling their eyes at what seems a strategic start to the Democratic nomination for president, but Hillary Clinton is a politician — this is what she does — and I admire both her passion and skill. Here are a few of my general impressions:

  • Clinton’s writing exudes a sincere respect for Obama. It seems that the two were genuine collaborators. When she’s not openly expressing admiration for the president, Clinton points out their differences diplomatically — it doesn’t come across as a thinly veiled, aggressive attempt to separate herself in lieu of coming elections. It’s a decidedly non-cynical window into the way American politics works, the matter-of-factness with which Clinton transitioned into a collaborative relationship with her former rival.
  • There are instances where Clinton points out traveling to a country, or meeting a leader, or having an encounter in a particular White House Room as first lady, senator, and then secretary of state. You get a sense of the incredible layers to her life in politics, and what it must feel like to suddenly recall a moment, ten years prior, of making history, only to be making new history.
  • Clinton writes about how much she enjoyed the non-partisan nature of being secretary of state. You can feel her enthusiasm for the art of international relations as she repeatedly invokes terms like “creative diplomacy,” and tracks the huge number of miles she logged. You get the sense that she enjoyed the adventure of her position, her prerogative to meet leaders face-to-face, fronting her team abroad.
  • In general, the book exuded a positive, hopeful attitude. It’s noticeable and significant that Clinton, who is among the most informed people in the world about international affairs and global politics, takes such a practical, affirming point of view on so many topics that are widely impugned by the general public. Obviously Clinton has a vested interested in representing her own accomplishments, but then again, public servants can speak to progress that those of us on the outside wouldn’t even think to appreciate. It reminds of me something I recently read in another non-fiction work, this one about American educational policy, The Teacher Wars. Author Dana Goldstein writes that the status quo in American education, while much maligned, is in reality “concerning,” but not in dire straits. As for Clinton, some folks might criticize her optimism on some fronts — for example, she put a positive spin on the climate change conference in Copenhagen that some poorer, island nations considered a dismal failure.
  • Clinton’s humanness also shines through — in this book, she comes across as more the hardworking civil servant versus ambitious first lady or opportunistic senator. She writes about making myriad wedding planning decisions as mother of the bride to Chelsea alongside legitimately “hard choices” in the political arena, of being deeply humbled by her interactions with Burma’s female opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and of the sense of personal obligation she felt to the thousands of employees at the state department. Most importantly, she writes about the outsize effect of building and sustaining personal rapport with world leaders, citing Hamid Karzai as an example of a strong personality who could be appealed to on the basis of personal gestures. The extent of her travels and her push to Obama for face-to-face diplomacy indicates that she took a very personalized approach to the job, placing a high value on conversations between world leaders.
  • Hillary Clinton’s decisiveness, the surety and clarity of her opinions, is definitely something that comes across in her book, and it’s a noticeable contrast to Obama’s hedging since becoming president (say I as an Obama supporter). This is demonstrated in her sharp criticisms of Vladimir Putin — she’s not a fan, and there’s no sugar coating, her directness almost makes me laugh. It reminds me of those “who you gonna call” ads from the 2008 race — or at least, that’s how I vaguely remember them. As much as I love me some Barack Obama, Hillary has a swift way of sizing up a situation and articulating a precise course of action, even as she talks about “smart power” or “smart diplomacy,” aka working countries from multiple angles, for example engaging in talks on some issues while placing sanctions or playing tough on others.
  • I’m afraid this post is starting to sound like a go Hillary! ad. If you’re not keen on Hilary for President, or you find yourself more dubious than curious about her account of hard choices, I have to say, there is one other reason to shell out the bucks for the discounted hardback and get reading: each chapter is laid out according to the state of world affairs in a different region, and so it provides a sweeping overview of the balance of global powers. It’s certainly not a biography — the “hard choices” paradigm really is a refrain throughout the book, and you really get a sense of how Clinton, among others, engineers the wielding of “smart power” in a global realm of shifting alliances and competing challenges.

 

Slow Cooking

Screen Shot 2013-03-25 at 8.31.31 PMI bet you’re wondering what brisket has in common with yoga… The answer is that both involve the slow heating of deep-tissue. Yum! Or maybe I just grossed you out. Sorry.

Yesterday I went to a Hatha yoga class for the first time in a while — unlike the brisk pace of Vinyasa, Hatha moves slowly, forcing you to sustain each pose for several deep breaths.

I’m hoping that the slow and steady vibes carry over to the rest of my life, where I’ve got several projects cooking over a low flame. I’m trying to regain momentum with my freelance writing “business,” drumming up ideas to query and not rushing through the more straightforward Demand Media titles, only to land a rewrite, I’m trying to shed a few pounds I gained over the summer, and I’m trying to keep a clean house, even though I’m much more inclined to make a mess in the kitchen — as a matter of fact, I wear my frequent messes as a badge of soulful home cooking, but somebody’s got to clean up. And I feel bad saddling my husband with flour-dusted countertops, mixing bowls covered in dried goop, and onion skins, chopped nuts, and smears of stuff gathered on the floor. Now you get the picture? I’m laying it all out there.

Someone said that patience is a virtue, and braised brisket is a fine instructor of this oh-so-true truism. We’ve been eating the fruits of my labor all week. Here goes:

Braised Beef Brisket
Adapted from Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything

Ingredients

1 large eggplant, cubed
Olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons butter
2 cups chopped onions
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 chopped tomato
1 teaspoon minced garlic
3 cups chicken stock (or beef, or vegetable)

Tools

Dutch oven or large pot
Measuring spoons
Measuring Cups
Mixing bowls
Chef’s knife
Cutting board
Plate
Paper towels
Mixing spoon or heat-proof spatula
Tongs

  • Chop and measure the onions — about 2 small to medium sized onions will equal 2 cups — mince and measure the garlic, cube the eggplant, chop the tomato, and measure out 3 tablespoons  of the tomato paste.*
  • Measure out the stock or water and have the butter, olive oil, salt, and pepper on standby.
  • Heat a Dutch oven over medium-high heat for a few minutes. Add a heaping tablespoon of olive oil and swirl to coat the pan. Place the brisket inside the Dutch oven and sear for 5 minutes on each side. As the first side cooks, season the top side with salt and pepper. After you flip the brisket, season the second side. Remove the brisket to a plate. (This step, aka searing the outside of the meat, is optional.)
  • Wipe the pot with a paper towel and add the butter over medium heat. When the butter starts to foam, add the onions, sautéing them until they’re soft, 10-15 minutes. Add salt and pepper, and stir in the tomato paste, chopped tomato, and garlic.
  • Put the meat back in the pot. Cover it with the cubed eggplant and the 3 cups of stock. Turn the heat to low, cover the pot, and simmer for 2 1/2 to 3 hours, turning the meat about every 30 minutes. (I forgot to do this and it turned out fine, but hey, it can’t hurt.)
  • If the sauce seems too thin (mine was admittedly a bit watery) Bittman recommends removing the meat and boiling the liquid over high heat, scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon, until it thickens. Taste the liquid, adding salt and pepper if needed. Cut the meat against the grain, into thin slices.

*I’m pretty sure that I’ve heard Mark Bittman knock the practice of mise en scène, aka, preparing and measuring all the ingredients before you start cooking. It may seem fussy for his minimalist style, but I think it’s a small enough step that gives the best cook an added sense of ease and control. In other words, it makes cooking more fun 🙂

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 9.16.20 PM

 

Going Nuts

Jonas Tana Walnuts CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)I don’t understand people who don’t like walnuts. To me they their woodsy, slightly bitter flavor is delicious, unlike any other nut in my nut-stocked pantry (the amount of raw almonds that Padraic manages to swipe on a single Trader Joe’s run astounds me 🙂 ) As much as I love almonds, walnuts seem special somehow — maybe because I’m more likely to cook something special with them, versus eat them raw, or maybe it’s just because they’re expensive.

As it happens, I recently put 1/2 cup of walnuts to use in Tyler Florence’s recipe for banana bread. I’d wager that most avid home cooks have a go-to recipe for banana bread, and recently this has become mine, after years of following my great-grandmother’s handwritten recipe. (Her’s includes a hearty helping of bisquick, which makes me smile.) Tyler Florence’s is a bit more subtle, dividing the 4 bananas into 2 batches — the first is whipped with sugar to form a “banana cream” as the foundation for the rest of the batter, while the remaining 2 bananas are mashed into a chunky purée to be folded in at the end. The result is an especially sweet, moist, and light cake enhanced, of course, by the addition of warm, toasted WALNUTS.

Speaking of walnuts, let’s pause for a moment to ponder these infinitely adaptable blondies — except that I think I’ve landed upon the best version, and it involves a rich combination of almond extract, toasted walnuts, and chocolate chips. Here’s the breakdown:

Blondies
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Ingredients

8 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
Pinch salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup walnuts
1 cup chocolate chips

Tools

Square baking pan
Large spatula
Mixing bowls
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons

  • Grease a square baking pan and preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Stir together the melted butter and brown sugar.
  • Stir in the large egg, the almond extract, and the salt.
  • Stir in the all-purpose flour until just combined.
  • Chop, measure, and toast the walnuts, folding them into the batter along with the chocolate chips.*
  • Bake for 20-25 minutes. Gooey is good 🙂

*Adding a tablespoon of flour to the walnuts and chocolate chips helps evenly distribute them, preventing them from sinking to the bottom.

I’ll make this my last mention in this little walnut eulogy — and guess what, it’s not a baked good. Far better, it’s a one-bowl pasta dinner with a sauce predicated entirely on the combination of toasted walnuts, butter, olive oil,  heavy cream, and Parmesan cheese. The result is a subtle, buttery taste with a distinctive walnut flair. I wrote out the entire recipe below, only to realize that I’d already posted it on my blog. I guess I just love it that much. Enjoy 🙂

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