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All posts for the month December, 2011

New Year’s Resolutions: Dreadful Things!

Published December 30, 2011 by livinggraciously

It’s that time of year when everyone gets ready to start a fresh new year by setting themselves up for failure: “I’m not going to eat sweets” or “I’m going to work out for two hours every single day” or “I’m not going to watch TV anymore.” Or “I’m going to keep my house spotless every single day!”

If you are like most New Year’s resolvers, you will violate your resolution within a week – quite possibly on New Year’s Day itself. And then a little voice in the back of your head will be saying, “You were a loser from the very beginning of 2012.” And at the end of 2012, when people are looking back and asking if anyone kept their resolutions, that little voice will be saying, “No, you were a loser!”

And we wonder why we don’t feel good about ourselves.

Two years ago I decided I was done with subtractive resolutions, the kind of things that are all about sacrifice. Instead, I decided that I would make New Year’s Goals, positive, definitive actions that, when accomplished, I could point at and say, “yup, I did that!” My first goal was to learn to juggle, and by the end of the year, I had learned to juggle three balls. I was ecstatic. Last year I resolved to learn to bake sourdough bread, and we have lovely bread all the time now.

Making a goal of something you want to learn is so much more positive than a resolution of self-prohibition that you have to police all year. It’s happy-making!

My goal this year is to participate in Ohio’s Pedal to the Point bike ride to benefit MS research. There is definitely a huge fitness component in getting ready for that ride, but it has a definitive goal, and as we are friends with people who are heavily invoved, a big fun component as well.

What’s your goal for the coming year?

Have a lovely, gracious Christmas

Published December 25, 2011 by livinggraciously

Even if you don’t celebrate it. In which case, have a lovely, gracious day anyway.

Though I am not of the Christian persuasion, I still love this day for the celebration of family and friends that it is. A long history of winter feasts predates Christmas by millennia. It was a time to welcome back the return of the sun, the lengthening of days that signified that a new spring would be coming, and with it life renewed.

Is it any wonder that the early church chose this holiday as the perfect place to celebrate the birth of their god? The coming of the sun/son already had an established history from which to work. Bless those Romans, they were the best at vacuuming up local culture and using it to their advantage.

For me, the celebration of Christmas is a wonderful time to enjoy family and reach out to those less fortunate. Looking upon the most classic of Christmas stories, Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol.” one can see that, while there is much talk of kindness and generosity, there is no real talk about Jesus. It’s not a Christian story; it’s a human story. A tale of how our humanity is impacted by our interaction with the world.

For me, today will be a day of family and friends, of feasting and laughter. The fruited bread is rising, the fire is roaring, and a leisurely morning will soon give way to excited children and chattering adults. We will deep-fry the turkey that’s currently brining, cook the ham and the rolls and the potatoes. Everyone will come to the table to feast.

So whether you are feasting with family, taking in a day of movies and Chinese food, or just hanging out, I wish you the best of the day, and a happy final week of 2011.

Graciousness abroad

Published December 23, 2011 by livinggraciously

We are spending the holidays with my mother-in-law, who is probably the most awesome mother-in-law anyone ever had. We got here on Wednesday evening, and yesterday went shopping for the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day feasts that we will be cooking here.

I’ve offered to bake bread and rolls, and to help with the cooking, so I brought recipes with me, and between her grocery list and my additions, our list was three pages long. And of course as you walk through the store you find all those things you forgot to include on the list. By the time we made the final turn toward the checkout stands, our cart looked like the Grinch’s sleigh just before he took it up Mt. Crumpet to dump it.

And we still had to go out to dinner last night.

Cooking in someone else’s kitchen is always a bit of a challenge. It helps that my mother-in-law has a wonderful kitchen, and that she is very flexible and laid back about others taking it over. I don’t know that I could manage to be that casual about sharing my kitchen.

But there are definitely those moments when getting ready to cook in someone else’s kitchen makes one feel like a bit of a douche. Including making the grocery list and determining if there are compatible items in the kitchen. Like flour. She has flour. It’s not the right flour. She doesn’t really need more flour, but we are buying flour anyway because I will insist on using King Arthur Flour.

Or the sugar cookies. She wanted to buy premade dough. Premade dough is nasty. I don’t want to make sugar cookies with premade dough.

Hey, there’s going to be lots of extra flour. I can volunteer to make the sugar cookie dough!

Triumphant in that, I let the purchase of premade frosting, and Ferrett’s glee over some terrifying-looking decorating gel, go. And the purchase of some Uncle Ben’s microwaveable rice mix as a side for Christmas Eve dinner as well.

Roasted fresh brussel sprouts and carrots will be side-buy-side with canned sweet corn. I won the “no frozen broccoli” battle, so letting the corn go seemed the right thing to do.

Gracious living isn’t impossible when visiting others, but it does require flexibility and a sense of humor. I will keep my wincing at the jello creation to a minimum, and focus on the sharing of love of family and friends.

Eating graciously

Published December 19, 2011 by livinggraciously

I just read a blog entry discussing the author’s plan for Christmas dinner. Her family traditionally makes prime rib and rich side dishes for that special meal, but because she has lost weight and doesn’t want to regain, she is bringing her own food instead of partaking in the family meal. She expects resistance, and is dreading the ordeal.

She then goes on to describe a meal that would be considered deprivation by any standards: steamed turkey breast (!) steamed vegetables, and half an apple with cinnamon and 6 raisins for dessert. Her planned Christmas dinner has fewer than 400 calories.

And sounds like bad hospital food.

Now, I have more than a few pounds of extra padding. I have struggled with weight my entire life, and weight has pretty much won the battle. But I really wanted to respond that I’d rather be fat than to have to eat like that.

Food is more than just fuel for our bodies. It’s an integral part of our social structure, and sharing meals is a bonding experience that carries tradition into our times together and memories out of those times. A good meal, particularly a festive meal shared with family or friends (or both), feeds more than just our stomachs: it is pleasing to the eye, pleasing to the sense of smell, tactile, and even pleasing to the sense of hearing as conversation and laughter fill the room. A shared meal should fulfill all five senses.

We have gotten out of the habit of lingering at table, and food  tends to be bolted down in front of the TV or the computer–I’m just as guilty as anyone else about this most of the time. It’s partially because of this that the disconnect between fueling our systems and the true nourishment of dining has occurred. Even though dining out used to be considered a lingering experience, some fine restaurants are now making reservations for three separate seatings per table per evening, because they know that they can hustle diners in and out without the customers feeling rushed; they are so used to eating on a fast food schedule now that they don’t even notice. Much of the time, they barely notice what they are eating.

There is some pushback going on in response to this speed-eating insanity. Restaurants like San Francisco’s Saison are decreasing the number of tables and taking reservations for only one seating in an evening, with the expectation that diners will linger, talking and eating small portions of numerous courses over several hours. It’s the kind of dining experience that was once common, and now is a sort of novelty.

How sad for us all. Where we used to spend time with family and friends, we now rush off to watch TV or play on the internet.  Where we used to make memories of shared times – some good, some bad, some funny, some tragic – we zap something in the microwave and stuff forgettable food into our mouths. And wonder why we feel unfulfilled.

The holidays are often all we have left of those shared traditions. A group of people coming together to prepare and share a meal has a certain sacred, ritual nature to it. That nature doesn’t belong to any one faith or creed; it doesn’t depend on believing in anything – except the value of each other as human beings.

Yeah, lots of us suffer from difficult relationships with our families. Yeah, there can be division of labor issues with who does the cooking and cleaning up. But these issues don’t detract from the bedrock nature of sharing both food and ourselves. Nurture is not just about providing the proper number of kcals and nutrients to ensure our internal combustion engines run at optimal efficiency. It’s about feeding our minds and our souls as well, if not with the family of your birth, then with the family of your choosing: friends and loved ones.

And I come back to the idea of that blogger surrounded by lovingly-made food, eating her plain, white dinner while regarding the dishes around her as a sort of enemy, rejecting the love and caring that went into them in favor of food she’s prepared only for herself, and brought only for her own benefit. Will she feel smug and superior as she eats her spartan meal? Will she feel resentment? Will her family look at her plate with ridicule, guilt, hurt feelings that she has rejected their traditions in favor of something so meager? What will or won’t be said because of her choices? What opportunities will be lost?

I’m not saying that the notions of healthy eating should be tossed to the winds and people should stuff themselves sick just because it’s Christmas. But imagine that instead of setting herself apart from family ritual, she’d brought a big green salad and some roasted brussel sprouts to share? That instead of turning her nose up at the prime rib, she’d asked to a sliver of a slice? That instead of closing herself inward to the food-is-fuel mentality, she’d embraced the idea of dining-is-sharing? For her, Christmas dinner is an ordeal to be overcome, instead of a communion of family. And it doesn’t have to be.

BBA Challenge Bread #3: Bagels

Published December 17, 2011 by livinggraciously

Many moons ago, when I was a young pup of 26 or so, living in Alaska, I made bagels a few times, mostly to take on camping trips. They were whole wheat, cinnamon-raisin bagels, which we ate with peanut butter, apple slices, and cheddar cheese, an amazingly tasty lunch  that could fuel many hours of hiking or paddling.

But the bagels themselves? They were awful: sad, misshapen lumps of vaguely ring-shaped bread. They didn’t rise well, they didn’t have anything in common with any bagel you’d find in a store, and we only enjoyed them because we were engaged in activities that burned about 700 calories an hour. Anything would have tasted good.

So given my sad history with bagels – arguably the best bread of all – I was anticipating this week’s bread challenge with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. This bagel recipe was certainly more sophisticated than the one I used 25 years ago, and I wasn’t going to try it with whole wheat flour the first time out, so I figured that I had a decent shot at making a food substance that didn’t require climbing a mountain to enjoy.

The bagels in Reinhart’s book are a two-day process–something I’ve gotten quite used to in bread baking. The process was a bit different than most, though, and there was no long rise of the dough prior to shaping. I had to read the instructions several times to make certain that I actually comprehended the process.

It was also the first recipe to call for an ingredient that I would consider to be a bit “exotic” (the definition of exotic ingredient is, of course, one that you’ve never cooked with before), malt syrup. The information about the recipe conceded that a different sweetener could be substituted, but that the result would just not be quite the same. So when I saw that Earth Fare carried malt syrup, I bought some, just for bagels. We call this, “dedication.”

The recipe also suggested using special, high-gluten flour in order to get that extra-chewy bagel flavor. This I chose not to do. King Arthur’s bread flour has a relatively high gluten percentage, and Ferrett is a little hesitant to bite into really chewy bagels because of his dental work. So less-chewy was quite acceptable.

The first step for bagels is a sponge, a very wet preferment (it contained all the liquid for the recipe) that sits for a couple hours getting bubbly and yeasty. (The book mentioned that sourdough can be used for bagels, but suggested not using it the first time, so I didn’t.) I mixed up the preferment and left it to get all bubbly:

As I was also making dinner in the midst of all this, and as our house is quite cool and stuff rises at a leisurely pace, the preferment actually sat for about three hours. At that point, the instructions are to stir in the other ingredients and then knead until all the flour is incorporated and the dough is silky and smooth. I measured in additional yeast and salt, and then cracked open the barley syrup.

And wondered why, in his suggestions for alternatives, Reinhart didn’t suggest molasses. Because it looked, smelled and tasted very much like molasses. Ah, well. It will no doubt come in handy at some point….

I began stirring in the flour, and it quickly became apparent that this whole mess had to be transferred to the countertop and the kneading had to begin. It was the weirdest feeling dough I’ve ever worked with. Because of the amount of flour suspended in the sponge, it felt at first like a non-Newtonian fluid.

The sensation of handling it was both freaky and fun. Eventually it started absorbing the rest of the flour, but for a long time was strangely lumpy. After 10 minutes of kneading, though, it was quite smooth and easily workable – in fact, almost rubbery.

This was good, because the next step was to divide the dough into 4-1/2 ounce segments and round it into little balls:

I understood better why there isn’t a rising period first. The gluten was still quite flexible throughout the dough, so it was sturdy enough to be torn into little bits and then mashed back together without much resistance from the gluten skin. The balls all had to rest for about 20 minutes, to let the gluten relax, and then shaping began.

Now, the traditional way to shape bagels is to roll each ball out into a tube, wrap the tube around your hand, and then roll the two ends together. To keep with tradition, I shaped one bagel in that way;

The final result shows why this method is a pain in the butt:

Not very even. The “cheaters” method is to flatten your ball of dough, poke your thumb  through the middle, and then turn the circle in your hand until it’s the right size. That worked okay, but was kind of boring. So I developed a modification. I poked through the middle with thumb and pointer finger, then twirled the bagel on my pointer finger until it was a little bigger than the perfect size (the elasticity of the dough means there will be some bounce-back). This method was so easy, and so fun, that I called my husband into the kitchen to make some bagels with me.

Once they are formed, the trays of bagels go into the refrigerator overnight. Two large jellyroll trays of bagels. Once again, I am glad for the auxiliary fridge:

In the morning comes the boiling and baking steps. The recipe said that the raw bagels could be held for two days, so I decided to cook only one tray of them this morning. Our friend Angie is here visiting, so I took orders for what kind of bagels people wanted. I could do this because I had ordered the King Arthur Everything Bagel topping mix. Once again, I made sure everything was on hand for the next step in the process:

One giant pot of boiling water, one oven preheated to 500(!) degrees, toppings to go on the wet bagels.

When I started boiling them, I was kind of disappointed with how flat they were.

I was careful to place them back on the tray with the same side up, because the bottoms were very flat. Then after sprinkling with toppings, into the oven they went.

12 minutes later, they came back out:

I couldn’t believe how gorgeous they were! They had sprung beautifully in the oven, puffing up and browning perfectly:

Once they were marginally cooled, I sliced them and we slathered them with the cream cheese Ferrett and Angie had generously braved the snow to acquire. Ferrett was also a total sweetheart and bought my some lox (the best part is I don’t have to share them because no one else likes them!) and I spooned a few capers into my sandwich:

These bagels were delicious! We all devoured them, moaning with flavor ecstasy the entire time. Our only complaint is that we are all still too full to eat the second ones.

Okay, well maybe Ferrett had one more complaint. He gently chided me that I’ve been baking too much bread lately. We’ve had some go stale simply because we had more of it than we could eat, and he suggested that maybe I should slow down a little.

I began to get defensive about this accusation, then I glanced at the counter, and took this picture:

The bowl next to the bagels? Not some dirty dishes needing to go into the dishwasher. No, that’s a sourdough bread that I’d mixed up and was letting rest before I kneaded it. With another tray of bagels waiting in the basement, there’s a chance that Ferrett might have a bit of a point.

How to cook

Published December 16, 2011 by livinggraciously

I’m not going to teach you knife skills here, or the secret to the truly perfect hollandaise. No, this entry is strictly about strategy in the kitchen, how to work efficiently and effectively, and to keep the fun in cooking by getting you through with it before you burn out.

Because as much as I love cooking, I have no pressing desire to be in the kitchen for thankless hours on end. I’m happy to tour through in brief and productive whirlwinds. Some people may be happy slaving away for endless hours, but my attention wanes and I have to be able to wander away and do something else for a while. Yet, with less than half an hour of actual effort on my part, I can turn out a roast chicken and veggies like this:

This is not because I’m some sort of awesome cook. Like I’ve said before, I’m very average in the kitchen. But one thing I am good at is cooking “on the balls of my feet,” in other words, quickly and assertively. I know lots of people who don’t cook often because it takes too long. These techniques will take some practice, but they will make cooking quicker and more enjoyable. So let’s start.

1. Start with a clean kitchen. You can always tell when I haven’t been cooking much: my kitchen will be a mess. Before I start cooking, the dishwasher must be emptied of clean dishes, the sink must be empty of any dishes or glassware, and the counters must be wiped down. Often I even sweep the floor.

Some people think this is silly. After all, aren’t you about to make a mess, anyway? (The answer to that question is actually “no,” but we’ll get to that.) But there’s nothing silly about it. You now have a fresh palate for the work you’re about to do. All your tools are where they belong, you don’t have to be pushing things aside to get to counter space, and you will just feel like you’re taking yourself seriously.

Most of the time, this won’t take very long. It’s generally no more than 10 minutes for me. But if you’ve gotten out of the habit of keeping a clean kitchen, it may take you longer.

Take the time to get it right. Once you do, maintaining it will be easier, anyway.

2. Know what you’re going to cook and cluster your prep times. If you have a long-cooking roast with root vegetables, and also short-cooking, tender veggies, you don’t have to do all the prep work at the same time. But I’ve seen people chopping salad veggies before they’ve even gotten the dish that needs to be cooked onto the heat. Take a couple minutes to strategize. If you’re going to be in the kitchen stirring something that’s sauteing, you might as well be prepping the next step between stirs rather than just standing there doing nothing.

3. Keep cleaning the whole time you’re cooking. When the veggies in the prep bowls go into the dish, take five seconds to rinse the bowl and put it in the dishwasher. It’s already in your hand, which means it’s vastly more efficient than putting it down somewhere where it’s likely to be in your way and have to be picked up and moved again, and then again when you finally get around to actually cleaning it. That’s a huge waste of your time and energy, and getting in the habit of making a decision where the thing in your hand should optimally go before you release it. This actually it kind of cool and can make cooking almost feel like a dance. Are you done with this bowl, or is it going to be used again? If so, swish some dish soap through it, rinse and dry, and it’s ready without ever leaving your hand until it’s ready for its next use.

4. Put things away as you work–even if you know you’re going to use them again in a matter of minutes. This is the one that seems crazy, and yet makes the most sense as a time saver. Every time I finish chopping something, I run my knife under the faucet, dry it off, and put if back into the knife block. Even if I’m going to be picking it up to chop something else in just a couple minutes. I do the same with my cutting board: run it under water, wipe a towel over it, and stand it in its corner. My knife is never set down on the counter. If there is something else that I’m going to be doing between chopping tasks, I perform this cleanup.

While I’m most rigid about the knives, I do the same thing with can openers, measuring cups and spoons, and even stirring spoons. This may initially seem like a weird waste of time, but you know what it actually means? It means there is no clutter on my counter that needs to be moved out of the way. It means that there is never a time when I don’t know where those things are when I reach for them again. I don’t waste time thrashing through a cluttered counter trying to find that thing that I just had a second ago, dang it! And it means they are ready to go when I reach for them again. The couple seconds that it takes to prep those items for their next use is more than made up for in the time that is saved in not searching for them.

It also means that my knives don’t get their edges damaged by stuff being knocked into them, or risk cutting anyone by being hidden under things.

5. Keep a damp cloth on hand and wipe up as you go along. You don’t need to be trying to wipe down a counter and move stuff out of the way while juggling a hot pan, so do it every time you get a chance. You keep your counters usable in a matter of seconds.

6. Once things are cooking, take the time to wipe down the counters and wash any prep items still left. Sometimes several things that have been in the first part of the cooking process have to be mixed together for the next step and there isn’t time to clean pots in between. If you can put those items in the sink with water, great, but in any event, when the next cooking step has started (or the resting period before serving), try to get everything cleaned back up. When you finish the meal, you’re still going to have dinnerware to clean up, but who wants to come back into the kitchen all full and sated and then have to deal with greasy pots? Far better to get that mess cleaned up when you’ve got the momentum from the cooking, and if you have to be standing around for the final supervision, you might as well use the time well.

7. Once you’ve got a good grasp on these skills, work on multitasking. You can chop the veg for the main dish, then clean up and start it, then chop again for the side dish, but it might make more sense to chop both in succession and just use separate prep bowls. Lots of time you can saute things on just a slightly lower temperature to allow yourself time to prepare a pastry crust at the same time. Everyone has a different capability to multitask, but look for those idle times when you could be thinking ahead to the next task. That kind of thinking will work better, though, when you’re working in your clean and efficient kitchen.

Returning to the roast chicken above, I prepped a brine for it mid-afternoon, and while doing that I also mixed up the glaze from apricot preserves, balsamic vinegar, honey, and sweet mustard. That all took 5 minutes. Around 4:30 I put the chicken on a roasting rack and into the oven. After half an hour, I washed the potatoes and cut them into chunks, put them into a bowl and coated them with a little olive oil, then pulled the chicken out and poured the oiled potatoes into the bottom of the roasting pan, along with half a bag of baby carrots, and put the first coating of glaze on the chicken. All that took about 15 minutes.  20 minutes later I used the same bowl to coat the mushrooms, added them, and glazed the chicken – 5 minutes. A final glazing, then when the chicken was done I plated it. What was left to clean up in the kitchen was the roasting pan and the dinner dishes. Oh, and a cookie sheet because I roasted some asparagus, too.

Cooking really doesn’t have to be that time consuming, and if you use your time well it can be downright fast.

Time to go cook dinner.

Part of living graciously is dying graciously

Published December 14, 2011 by livinggraciously

First of all, let me reassure you all that I am not (to my knowledge) dying of anything at this time. I just had a physical and a bunch of tests and they all came back clean, so rest assured that I’m not writing this in anticipation of pending departure.

I am writing it because of an article I recently read about how doctors die, and how very often they make different, truly informed choices about their end-of-life care. That many times doctors will choose not to undergo invasive, painful treatment that has small hope of success and will, instead, choose to live out the remainder of their lives in quiet dignity, enjoying the time that they have remaining with their family and friends.

What a pity that more people aren’t counseled toward that option. Even more, what a pity that the families of the terminally ill aren’t supported in helping their relative make a choice that will allow them to retain their dignity and reach the end of their lives in a manner that is loving and positive.

Modern medicine has made amazing strides, and certainly I’m not scoffing at the notion of continued research toward effective treatment and cure of diseases like cancer. And I’m not saying that people who hear the “C” word should immediately update their will, make their funeral arrangements, and lay out their burial clothes. There are many cases where treatment is worth trying, and each patient should be fully informed of the treatment options and the likely prognosis.

But there comes a point when treatment is less about the patient’s quality of life and more about the doctors making certain that they are safe from accusations of malpractice. When doctors offer patients treatments that they wouldn’t accept themselves and to which they wouldn’t subject their own family members. And it’s hard for them to say, “you should consider stopping” because there is that one-in-a-fifty patient who does respond to this particular therapy, who does get better. No one can tell for certain who will be the lucky one who grabs the brass ring, so how can one counsel a patient that the horrible side effects of this particular treatment are not worth the small chance of winning the treatment lottery?

We want medicine to be better than it is. We want medicine to be miraculous in its ability to save us. We live in a world where we have overcome most of the diseases that used to kill us in childhood, where a minor wound doesn’t present a serious risk of fatal infection, where a fever is unlikely to run out of control and damage our brains.

But we all still die. We don’t do it with the regularity of the past–discounting accidents, we don’t die in our youth or young adulthood very often–and we don’t do it in our homes, among our own relatives, at least not usually. Thanks to the hospice movement, more of us are dying at home, but frequently not until our dignity has been shattered into a billion pieces and hospice is a method of trying to scrape back together some of that dignity and make some peace with the pain and anguish that would otherwise be our last memory of our loved one.

This is still not a very gracious way of reaching the end of our lives.

I hope it’s a very long time before I have to make these kinds of decisions, for myself or for anyone else. I hope, really, that when death comes it is swift and painless. But if these decisions become ones that I have to make, I hope that I will make wise ones. Almost a quarter of medical expenditures in this country are made in the last year of life, and most of those expenditures have little impact on the final outcome–save to make that last year of life a sad, painful, miserable journey that leaves the grieving family with painful final memories.

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