Thursday, December 6, 2012

Feast of Saint Nicolas

Today is the feast of Saint Nicolas!

From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas) and St Nicolas Center (http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/who-is-st-nicholas/):
"Saint Nicholas was born a Greek in Asia Minor during the third century in the city of Patara  which was a port on the Mediterranean Sea, and lived in Myra, Lycia (part of modern-day Demre, Turkey), at a time when the region was Greek in its heritage, culture, and outlook and politically part of the Roman diocese of Asia.  He was very religious from an early age and according to legend, Nicholas was said to have rigorously observed the canonical fasts of Wednesdays and Fridays. His wealthy parents died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young and he was raised by his uncle—also named Nicholas—who was the bishop of Patara. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to the those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships. He did many kind and generous deeds in secret, expecting nothing in return. Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra.  To honor this faithful servant of God, we designate December 6th as Saint Nicholas Day (19 December in most Orthodox countries)."

So far so good: what I have explained above has all been facts that we have strong evidence for in the historical record.

Now to move into the murky waters:

One of his most notable acts of kindness was allegedly that he once donated, in secret (at night), money to a poor man with three daughters. Quoting from the Saint Nicolas Center again:
"In those days a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands something of value—a dowry. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry and destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. (Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas.)"

To commemorate his alleged charitable act to the poor father of the unmarried daughters, in many countries we used to have children hang stockings or put out shoes to eagerly await gifts from Saint Nicholas on Dec 6th (again, 19th for orthodox).  Note that for most churches, the date of hanging out stockings for Saint Nick was eventually shifted to coincide with Christmas Day (or in some churches a bit later in January to coincide with the day the wise men came to visit Jesus) as part of a revamp of the Christmas holiday calendar.

So why do I say this is murky water territory? In the 11th century when Bari, Italy wanted to bring security, fame, and money to it's city it did so in a popular method of those days: track down the corpse/bones of a known saint and relocate them within the city limits (allowing the city to become a destination for religious pilgrims and ensuring nobody would harm the city since it housed a saint). Bari chose Saint Nicolas and reburied his bones near/on/in the vicinity of the temple that had been built for a pagan goddess called Pasqua Epiphania (who it just so happens, was famous for giving gifts to children, leaving them in their stockings).  Was the story of his gift to the poor father true and known before he was buried near the temple of Pasqua Epiphania (if so, a coincidence that probably caused a lot of confusion)? Or was the story of his gift giving simple a result of Pasqua Epiphania's gift giving being conflated with Saint Nicolas? I don't think we will ever know. We are certain however that Pasqua Epiphania is the inspiration for his wife aka Mrs. Claus (hello, who ever heard of a bishop having a wife?) and so it's probably not a wise idea for Christians to embrace Mrs Claus in any fashion of their holiday tradition.Tell the children the truth: Saint Nicholas was NOT married.

Actually, the entire evolution of Saint Nicolas into the celebrated figure of Santa Claus is also quite troubling and maybe best to stay away from. For example,  the image of him with a long white beard comes directly from a bunch of German and Celtic pagans who  associated Saint Nicholas with their god Wodon. Wodon had a long white beard. And the sleigh with reindeer? Woden was known for riding a horse through the heavens in autumn. It's not too hard to see how Wooden riding a horse + Saint Nicolas = Saint Nicolas riding a sleigh with reindeer. I don't mind that our faith borrowed a few customs from the pagans around the holidays (love me some Christmas trees and we will discuss paganism again in a later post on Christmas) but it seems very wrong and insulting to tangle up a good Christian man from the 4th century with a bunch of fake pagan gods. I don't think Saint Nicholas would appreciate it much and we lose track of the real man he was and the good works he did when we bring in the Santa Claus imagery and reindeer, etc. If I had children I don't know how I'd handle the legend of Santa Claus (versus the real man Saint Nicolas). If I teach my child to appreciate the real Saint Nicolas (along with other Christian heros and heroines) and say nothing about his relationship to the legend of Santa Claus (allowing the child to believe in Santa as a separate entity and enjoy getting gifts from him), aren't they going to figure out that Saint Nicolas and Santa Claus are somehow related since they are called by the same name in many songs, movies, etc? And how would I explain that relationship? So that doesn't seem like a workable solution. Instead if I let my child think they are the same person, how do I explain how a man who lived so long ago is still alive today and how he moved from Greece/Turkey to the north pole and got the reindeer, etc? And the third option - to teach them nothing about the real Saint Nicolas (letting them get all their "facts" from the Santa Claus legend) is especially insulting to Saint Nicolas and totally unworkable as a solution. I'm really stumped and glad I'm not a parent.

In our all adult household tonight, on the anniversary of his death,  we will have a dinner in honor of Saint Nicolas because he was a faithful servant of god and a man worth celebrating, regardless of whether he did or did not take the extraordinary action to save a specific poor man's daughters from a life of misery.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

An autumn menu

For the first time in months, we will be home for a full week, giving me a chance to plan and execute a weekly menu.

We’ve got quite the international range this week, and as usual, most recipes are those that are new to me. The menu items are rounded out with small snacks of fresh veggies or fruits daily.

Recipe sources:

www.epicurious.com

Art of the Slow Cooker

1000 Indian Recipes

400 Soups

ths.gardenweb.com

domesticfits.com

mylittleexpatkitchen.blogspot.com

Sunday:

Breakfast: orange cardamom tea cake (epicurious.com)

Lunch: Taos soup (Parks family recipe)

Dinner: fresh naan, califlower pakoras, red lentil soup, cumin potatoes, grilled lamb, pistachio ice cream (all dinner items from 1000 Indian recipes)

Monday:

Breakfast: peach grits (p.115 slow cooker)

Lunch: leftovers

Dinner: grilled tilapia with lemon pepper, rice, peas

Tuesday:

Breakfast: cheerios, fresh fruit, juice

Lunch: egg salad sandwich, pop chips, red pepper strips

Dinner: pea and basil soup with parmesan crouton (p.66 soup), italian salad, spinach and cheese tortellini with fresh tomato sauce, artisan ciabatta

Wednesday:

Breakfast: fresh fruit smoothie, pb toast

Lunch: out

Dinner: greek salad, saganaki (mylittleexpatkitchen.blogspot.com), roasted onions stuffed with lamb (epicurious.com).

Thursday:

Breakfast: oatmeal with cinnamon, sauteed applies, and almonds

Lunch: dilled tuna salad with crackers, fresh fruit, cheese cubes

Dinner: italian salad, pumpkin parmesan soup (p.47 slow cooker)

Friday:

Breakfast: egg, cheese, bacon on fresh croissant

Lunch: fruit, grilled chicken salad

Dinner: date night out

Saturday:

Breakfast: corn waffles with sirachi maple syrup (domesticfits.com), fresh fruit

Lunch: southwestern shrimp tacos (epicurious.com)

Dinner: chicken noodle soup, fresh bread and butter

Sunday:

Breakfast: green chile smothered breakfast burritos, oj

Lunch: leftovers

Dinner: lettuce and radish salad, pot roast, potato parsnip latkes, orange vanilla cream with honey and almonds (all dinner items from epicurious.com)

Monday, September 24, 2012

Negotiating with Terrorists

Note: I suppose that for those who struggle with self-discipline, this morning's post will provide a measure of empathy. For those who are masters of self-discipline, my comments will likely seem alien in nature and sad/entertaining/baffling.

Additional note: I don't suffer from tragic self-esteem *all* the time, I don't *really* hate myself (I just say hurtful things when I am mad), and yes I really do have these kinds of silent conversations with myself.

 Actual internal dialogue that took place this morning at 6am in my head between "Good Me" and "Bad Me":

(alarm rings)
GM: Time to get up! Time to go running! Time to tackle the day!
BM: It's cold. Going back to bed.
GM: NO! We are going running. Let's go. (gets out of bed and turns off alarm)
BM: It's cold. I don't want to go. And I'm tired.
GM: I'm tired, yes, but we need to get up and get going.
BM: Why don't we just sleep in till 6:30am and then go running then? We will go to work a lil later, but that's ok.
GM: Hmm. We really should go NOW.
BM: Come on! You kept us up till 10:30pm last night studying and you KNOW we need 8 hours of sleep to function. This is really all your fault. We need to go back to bed until 6:30am so we have 8 hours. We can discuss running then. (sets alarm down and goes back to bed to lie down)
(alarm rings at 6:30pm)
GM: OK! OK! NOW we go. (jumps out of bed)
BM: Still tired. Not feeling it.
GM: We don't just do what we feel like, we do what needs to be done. This is for OUR health. We love the way we feel after we run. So awake and energized.
BM: It's still cold out there. Maybe we could run this afternoon.
GM: No, we have other things to do after work. We don't want to let down Jonathan either- he is going to ask about our run. Let's GO!You don't want to be unhealthy do you? Don't you want to be healthy and pretty and fit?
BM: Don't want to go! (I stand, paused by the side of the bed, while they continue to fight it out for 5 more minutes).
GM: Ok, remember what Cleve (former mgr) told us once: just go through the motions and you'll start to feel it. So we are putting our running clothes on and then we will discuss further.
BM: *grumble grumble*
GM: (gets running clothes on) OK, time to go. (heads down the stairs)
BM: WAIT! We don't have our running inserts in our shoes b/c YOU forgot them at work on Friday. You know if we run without them we could injure ourselves and set back our progress entirely. We really shouldn't go. It would be a bad health decision! (smug)
GM: I really want to go. But you make a good point. Hmmm. Maybe we should try going and if we have any pain, admit defeat and come home.
BM: Better just not go to.
GM: I knew it! You are a pathetic loser just trying to get out of running again.
BM: Don't put this on me! YOU ARE THE LOSER. You went to bed too late, you forgot the inserts. You are mismanaged and irresponsible. You can't try to hurry up and do everything wrong an halfhazard after you caused all this. WE ARE NOT GOING.
GM: I hate you! You never will just shut up and do what is best for us. You are selfish, and greedy, and immature and totally lacking self discipline.
BM: (starts to cry as we walk ourselves into the shower). Yelling at me doesn't help!
GM: Well you deserve it. You suck! You are never going to accomplish anything! You are always going to be ugly and selfish and GAH I hate you! (cries).
BM: Now I feel ugly. I don't like me any more than you do. I don't think I even want to bother shaving my legs this morning.
GM: But I don't want to wear pants! That will just make everything worse. Need to shave to wear a pretty dress.
BM: Who cares. Whatever. Not shaving. (turns water off).
GM: Well we can make the day better from here (although I am still FURIOUS with you for not running, and mildly disgusted). Lets get dressed (pants ugh) and go downstairs and make breakfast and pack our lunch.
BM: I'm not sure I feel like getting dressed or going to work after all this. Self-loathing makes me feel terrible, and I've cried, and ugh my legs are hairy. And I'm wearing pants. I hate pants! I just want to go back to bed and get up later.
GM: WHAT ARE YOU CRAZY? We have to go to work. We are not calling in sick b/c you're a loser without self-discipline.
BM: (argues with GM for 10 more minutes, meanwhile the time is fast approaching when we need to go). I say we stay home. Maybe then I'll even feel like running in awhile. I know you want to run, right?
GM: (gets dressed, fuming, marches us downstairs). Now we don't even have time for breakfast! Or to pack a lunch! (Gets into car and drives to train station).
BM: Whatever.
GM: (arrives at train station just as train is departing). SEE WHAT YOU'VE DONE NOW. I HATE YOU! OMG I HATE YOU! YOU SCREW EVERYTHING UP! EVERYTHING!
BM: (starts crying again). I TOLD YOU WE SHOULD HAVE STAYED HOME. THIS IS NOT MY FAULT- I DIDN'T EVEN WANT TO COME TO THE TRAIN STATION!!!!
GM: I don't even want to talk to you. I'm going to read while we wait for the next train and distract myself from that fact that I HATE YOU.
---------------------------------
 What I have learned from analyzing my inner dialogue is this:

1. Yelling at myself and being cruel doesn't help "good me" win the argument.I am simply left unaccomplished AND feeling terrible.
2. "Bad me" is quick to defensively attack and ridicule "good me" as a way to win the argument, also making me feel terrible.
3. "Bad me" will drag on the argument indefinitely to win. "Bad me" does not easily give in.
4. Because of items 1-3 noted above, almost every time I go down the road of arguing with myself, the "good me" loses the argument.


I was still crying and upset when I spoke to dear hubby on the phone later in the morning. I tried to explain to him a little bit of what happened in my head and he tried to give me advice (as men are prone to do). He said in the future I just need to get up and do what needs to be done without debate. Simple! I can't tell whether he ignores the steady whining from his "bad" self and refuses to have the inner discussion/argument, or if he doesn't have a "bad" self trying to argue the point to begin with. In any case, his comment got me thinking. Perhaps new strategy should be to refuse to engage AT ALL in the inner dialogue with "bad me". Sort of the way parents do with teenagers, right? "I don't care what you have to say, I am the parent and this is how it goes, I am not entertaining discussion or attempts for you to persuade me". Maybe, just maybe if I begin with this clear framework principle -WE DO NOT NEGOTIATE WITH TERRORISTS -I can get away from these terrible self-defeating arguments. 

What does self-discipline look like in your life? Do you have inner terrorists demanding to negotiate?How do you handle them- are you good at debating until the "good you" wins, or do you refuse to entertain debate?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Close Your Eyes and Tap Your Heels Together Three Times

Many years ago I read the following prose penned by an African pastor and was immediately convicted by the Holy Spirit. It embodies the life of the disciple I want to be for Christ and illustrates so clearly how wide the gap is between who I am and who I want to be: 

I’m a part of the fellowship of the unashamed. The die has been cast. I have stepped over the line. The decision has been made. I’m a disciple of His and I won’t look back, let up, slow down, back away, or be still.
My past is redeemed. My present makes sense. My future is secure. I’m done and finished with low living, sight walking, small planning, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tamed visions, mundane talking, cheap living, and dwarfed goals.
I no longer need preeminence, prosperity, position, promotions, plaudits, or popularity. I don’t have to be right, or first, or tops, or recognized, or praised, or rewarded. I live by faith, lean on His presence, walk by patience, lift by prayer, and labor by Holy Spirit power.
My face is set. My gait is fast. My goal is heaven. My road may be narrow, my way rough, my companions few, but my guide is reliable and my mission is clear.
I will not be bought, compromised, detoured, lured away, turned back, deluded or delayed.
I will not flinch in the face of sacrifice or hesitate in the presence of the adversary. I will not negotiate at the table of the enemy, ponder at the pool of popularity, or meander in the maze of mediocrity.
I won’t give up, shut up, or let up until I have stayed up, stored up, prayed up, paid up, and preached up for the cause of Christ.
I am a disciple of Jesus. I must give until I drop, preach until all know, and work until He comes. And when He does come for His own, He’ll have no problems recognizing me. My colors will be clear!


I couple this with Oswald Chambers's continuous call to give up everything for Christ, to live in utter humility, invisible to others but for the love of Christ they see through our words and actions and I feel so ashamed. I want to be the sort of woman who doesn't wilt when the limelight is turned off; who doesn't feel she would die from lack of validation and attention. Instead, I love the thrill of praise (whether it be for my intellectual abilities, my domestic skills or my desirability as a woman) As much as it pains me to admit it, to lay down my struggle before my readers and acknowledge that this is who I am,  I cannot deny it. This is who I am.

When I write here, for you, I like to wrap things up nicely with a summary or a call to action. But I'm at a loss. I'm not even quite sure the path forward to move from the person I am now, to the person I want to be. Pursuit of validation - is this just garden variety sin that can be prayed away or run from? Or is this a mental health issue that suggests therapy? I don't know. I know that in addition to blocking my effectiveness as a disciple of Christ the pursuit of validation harms others, turning them into pawns for my ego gratification and bringing disharmony into my circle of influence.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Book Review: Captivating

This week during my daily commute I have been reading Captivating (Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman's Soul) by John and Stasi Eldredge. The book promises to reveal what it means to be a woman and how to live the life of a woman as God intended on a day to day basis.

The thesis of the work is a philosophy of gender reasoned as follows:
1. Gender is imprinted at the spiritual level on the soul and not just in our physical form and genes. 
According to the authors, this principle is suggested by the contextual language of the versus in Genesis describing creation. Specifically, the verse dictating that God made mankind, MALE AND FEMALE, in his image. The authors argue that based on this inclusive language, both men and women represent the spiritual image of God and so it follows both genders display/embody attributes of God at a spiritual level.

2. Women reflect the following attributes of God: romance, adventure, and beauty.
Using numerous scripture references, the authors do a good job of demonstrating that romance (the call to pursuit; the quiet whisper that says I am here for you when you are ready, pursue me), adventure (intrinsically linked to grand, meaningful action), and beauty (the restful respite that takes your breath away and makes you feel at ease like a beautiful garden or gentle river or fresh cut flowers) are all attributes of God. However, I think John and Stasi fail to lead the readers through any well reasoned, logical proofs on why these three attributes are specifically tied to women. Instead, they merely provide examples of women who embody these attributes and use parenthetical questions such as "(don't you agree?)" to push the reader to accept their conclusions.

Do I agree with this premise? It does seem that I've been imprinted to the depths of *my* soul with a desire to be pursued, with a quest for adventure, and with a passion to be beautiful inside and out. But I'm not every woman, and I'm not sure I'm at all comfortable prescribing these desires for all women as ordained by God. It's especially hard at times to reconcile the desire to exemplify beauty and respite as Godly with the current push of the Western world for women to be harder and aggressive. When I was a younger woman and wanted to be pleasant and gentle and restful to others I accepted the desire as part of who I was. When I was in my 20s, business classes (and women's studies) taught me that being pleasant, gentle, and restful are qualities women are merely trained into by a sexist oppresive culture and that it would do us good to free ourselves from the shackle of these desires. Studies are often trotted out to show the #1 reason men succeed over women in the business world is because they aren't constrained with a desire to be pleasant, gentle, and restful to others and that when women adopt the posture and attitude of men they too outpace the rest of their female colleagues in rank and pay (but sadly they experience more marital and relationship discord and are not well liked). And now here comes John and Stasi asserting that being pleasant, gentle, and restful to others are the very embodiment of God within us. Are they right, or are they fools and tools of the patriarch?

3. Women are most fufilled and most useful in serving God's kingdom when they cultivate and embody these feminine attributes of God.
According to the authors, women are uniquely qualified to draw others into the kingdom and enrich the lives of others in discipleship when we cultivate these attributes I've detailed above. We can move hearts and mountains with our inviting hearts, our adventurous spirits, and our gentle and soothing beauty. Not only are we most effective when we focus on romance, adventure, and beauty but we are most joyful and fulfilled. Again, in lieu of providing reasoned arguments as to the validity of this premise, here the authors simply provide examples of women who are working life in line with this philosophy and suggest readers give it a try to see what fruit it bears. They also caution that by ignoring this principle and showing neglect in providing careful cultivation, these attributes will remain, as they are part of our souls, but they will grow weedy and untamed, resulting in a personality that is to either extreme of the attribute (aggressive and off putting/needy and clingy and desperate; reckless/listless and uninspiring; vain or harsh/frumpy or uninviting). 

The authors acknowledged that cultivating these feminine attributes can be a challenge. First, since such cultivation will further God's kingdom, evil forces will actively oppose our progress. Additionally, as mentioned above, there is currently a counter-cultural backlash pushing women to abandon these attributes and cultivate a more masculine attitude to get ahead. Finally, there is a very real fear and danger that offering these qualities to the world (and displaying vulnerability) will get you stomped on and abused. Try telling sexual assault victims that to be fulfilled they need to cultivate allure (not sexual, but personality), respite, and gentleness. There are some brief words on proper context (the author's aren't suggesting while being beaten a woman smiles and radiates beauty) but otherwise the readers are challenged to find a way to embody these attributes no matter the evil that should oppose them, no matter the western world social or business consequences, and despite the vulnerable risk it comes packaged with.

-------------------------------------------------------------------
An additional idea the authors offer is that Lucifer has a special hatred of women, stemming from his envy of her beauty and his opposition to her relationship building, that fuels much of the historical oppression and degradation of women in our world. The authors detail the scripture references to Lucifer's beauty as they construct the foundation for this conclusion. There isn't really a call to action suggested by this theory; the authors simply want to make women aware of the greater context of women's issues with regard to spiritual warfare. I like conspiracy theories so this premise appealed to me. Is it possible that women have been oppressed from time eternal not just because we are, on average, physically weaker but because there is a demonic plot working against us? Interesting to ponder.

Outside of the content of the book, the writing itself is average. It's written in an easy, conversational format.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Kitchen Essentials: Herbs and Spices

 

The key to healthy, flavorful, and delicious cooking is having a variety of spices and herbs on hand at all times. Jonathan and I have put time and energy into building our spice and herb collection and it has paid off in spades. Rarely do we find a recipe (even the most exotic) that calls for a spice or herb we don’t have on hand. And we love delighting the palettes of our friends and family with seasonings they may not be familiar with.

We prefer to stock all of our dried spices and herbs from Penzey’s, but many of those that we’ve listed below can be found at any grocery store. If there is a particular herb or spice you’re wondering about how you might use, I’d be happy to share some recipes if you send me an email with the seasoning in question.

Herbs & Spices (A-H)
adobo
allspice, ground
almond extract
anise seed, whole
bangkok blend
basil
bay leaves
brady street cheese sprinkle
cajun seasoning
caraway seed
cardamon, ground
cayenne pepper, ground
celery flakes
celery seed, ground
chili piquin (mexican)
chives
cilantro
cinnamon, ground
cinnamon, sticks
citrus grill seasoning
cloves, ground
cloves, whole
coriander, ground
coriander, whole
cream of tartar
cumin seed, ground
cumin seed, whole
curry powder, sweet
dill seed
dill weed
epazote
fennel seed, ground
fennel seed, whole
fenugreek seed, ground
galangal, ground
galangal, whole
galena street rub
garlic, ground
garlic salt
ginger, ground
ginger, crystallized
greek seasoning
green chile blend
ham glaze
herbs de provence

Herbs & Spices (J-Z)
jalepeno, dried
jerk seasoning
kaffir lime leaves, whole
kalajeera (indian herb)
lamb seasoning
lavender
lemon extract
lemongrass
lemon peel, ground
lemon pepper
mahlab, ground
marjoram
mint
mustard seed, brown, whole
mustard seed, yellow, ground
mustard seed, yellow, whole
nutmeg, ground
nutmeg, whole
old bay seasoning
orange peel, ground
oregano
paprika, sweet, ground
peppercorn, ground
peppercorn, whole
pizza seasoning
pickling spice
poppy seed
poultry seasoning
pumpkin pie spice
red pepper flakes
saffron, whole
sage, ground
sandwich sprinkle
savory
star anise, whole
steak seasoning
tarragon
thyme
tumeric root, ground
turkish seasoning
tuscan sunset italian seasoning
vanilla beans, whole
wasabi, ground
white pepper, ground
zatar seasoning

Fresh Herbs and Spices (from the garden):
basil, sweet
basil, boxwood
basil, thai
chives
marjoram
mint
oregano
parsley
rosemary
thyme
chocolate mint
orange mint
dill
basil, purple
ginger root
lemongrass

Kitchen Essentials: Hardware

 

Many friends have asked me to pontificate on the kitchen gadgets and hardware that I find essential in everyday cooking. I’ve been preparing meals for my family for 16 years, and did a fair bit of cooking for myself before that. And in all those years, I’ve never had the pleasure of a large kitchen, so keeping things pared down to the absolute essential has been a priority. I am confident that anyone stocking their kitchen for the first time (or replenishing supplies after many years) will find these items useful. If you think I’ve left something out, speak up (email me!) and let your petition be heard. 

Prep

High quality knife set – can not be overstated how important this is. Dull knives are the enemy.

wooden paddles- used for stirring most everything on the stove. Cheap and easy to replace.

cooking spatulas – 1 short nonstick, 1 long nonstick (for turning fish and crepes), 1 short metal.

baking spatulas of various sizes for getting the last bits of batters and sauces out of pans, for cooking omelets, and for folding batter.

graters -  1 microplane (for spices, for zesting citrus), 1 handheld (for grating small amounts of cheese or chocolate).

metal pounder – for tenderizing or thinning out meats, for crushing ice and garlic.

wooden citrus reamer – another workhorse of our kitchen as so many recipes call for fresh lemon or lime juice.

apple corer – used frequently to core apples and pears for cooking and eating.

handheld cheese slicer –nothing else gets perfectly thin slices of cheese at the dinner table.

mandolin – pretty much required for paper thin vegetable slicing.

large round metal spoon with holes – for scooping things out of the deep fryer.

2 veggie peelers – so you and a friend can work together in the kitchen.

tongs of various sizes – so useful for flipping and grabbing things while cooking.

kitchen scissors- for cutting bags open, for cutting herbs.

soup ladles – 1 large for soups and stews and 1 small for sauces.

cheesecloth – for bundling herbs in stocks and sauces, for draining ridiculously small grains like red quinoa.

kitchen twine – for tying up roasts and a host of other uses.

measuring cups and spoons – for the obvious.

prep bowls – we have a nested set of glass and another of metal and they both get frequent use.

tiny prep bowls- when you get good at having mise en piece (chopping everything up that the recipe calls for before you start cooking) you need a place to put it. These bowls also double well for serving salsa and other condiments at the table.

pastry scraper – for cutting dough, for scraping dough, for scraping off my baking stone and glass top cooktop.

whisks of all sizes – for the obvious.

kitchen scale – SO important for accurate measurements in baking.

pepper grinder – if you are a good cook you are going to frequently use freshly ground pepper. Make it easy on yourself and buy a handheld pepper grinder. Battery operated is a plus!

handheld can opener – don’t bother with a small appliance when they cost more and take up counter space. A next generation handheld (the kind that cuts the top off without jagged edges) will do just fine.

crumpet rings – used for making homemade crumpets (basically english muffins), but also for keeping fried eggs and batters in perfect circles while cooking.

biscuit cutters – for the obvious.

strainers of various sizes (including a colander for pasta) – for draining everything from beans, to straining sauces, to holding berries for rinsing. Very important for any kitchen.

pastry board – for rolling out pizza and other dough.

cutting boards – 1 for meats, 1 for everything else.

Bakeware

2 loaf pans – for baking breads, including quickbreads. Also for meatloaf and terrines. You want at least 2 so that you can put one in the oven right after the other around the holidays. Go for ceramic or glass and skip the metal.

2 aluminum sheet pans – get the large commercial grade sheet pans that you will use for everything from cookie baking to roasting vegetables.

At least 2 round nonstick Wilton cake pans – for cakes of course.

1 nonstick mini muffin tin – I find the mini muffin tin to be much more practical then the large muffin tins as it’s easier to make portion controlled treats and it’s lovely for making appetizer sized quiches and tarts.

Bundt pan – for Bundt cakes and angel food cakes. Also for layered jello molds.

glass casserole baking pans – 1 small, 1 medium, 1 large, all for baking casseroles, roasting cuts of meat, or baking sheet cakes and other desserts.

1 springform pan – essential for cheesecakes and other desserts.

1 tart pan with removable bottom – for savory and sweet tarts of course, but also for quiche and desserts.

pie pans – 1 glass (for fruit or other pies), 1 ceramic deep dish (for pot pies and such).

1 baking stone – cheap and easy from Wal-Mart for making pizzas, and cooking most of your breads in the oven.

cooking racks

Cookware

stainless steel pans – 2 small, 1 medium, 1 large for everyday use. Always get stainless steel because they are affordable, easy to clean, last forever, and can go from stovetop to oven/broiler without issue.

stainess steel pots -  1 tiny, for melting butter and chocolate or steeping herbs in hot oil; 2 medium for the bulk of everyday cooking; 1 very large with steamer/strainer insert for making stocks, cooking large amounts of pasta, steaming tamales, lobster boils, etc.

nonstick pans- 1 small for omelets; 1 large for low fat sautéing (particularly perfect for cooking non-fatty fishes like tilapia or sole); 1 large square flat griddle for crepes and pancakes.

1 cast iron large pan for cornbread, blackening fish and chicken, and other southern cuisine. Also perfect for making Dutch babies.

At least 1 enameled Dutch oven – size you need will depend on your family. There are just two of us so we have the 5 quart le Creuset. This thing is the workhorse of our kitchen. Stews, braises, chili, soups, and anything deep fried are all done in this beloved pot that is used on top of the stove or inside the oven.

1 or 2 stainless steel small broiler trays – flat, usually with ridges to let fat drain, these are used in our home to broil steaks and roast/toast nuts.

1 roasting pan with rack- we have a large one we use for turkey, chicken, beef, lamb, etc.

Small Appliances

coffee grinder – use for grinding spices. Any brand should do.

food processor – workhorse of the kitchen for grinding/pureeing solids, grating larger quantities of cheese and vegetables, making pie dough. Cuisinart is the industry leader.

immersion blender – key for smooth pan sauces and pureeing soups in the saucepot. Any brand should do, we have a Cuisinart and are quite pleased with it.

high quality commercial blender  – the only appliance that can juice root vegetables like carrots; also great for crushing ice, smoothies, Frappuccino's, and batters such as for crepes. Blendtec or Vitamix are your best choices here.

stand mixer – absolutely essential for making bread, whipping cream, creaming dough for cookies and cakes. I used to recommend KitchenAid for this but they’ve gone downhill in the past decade (plastic gears- you have GOT to be kidding me!) and I now recommend Cuisinart, unless you are rolling in money and can afford a Hobart.

electric frypan – larger size and controlled temperature make this appliance perfect for shallow frying (chicken, chile rellenos, etc) or sautéing for a crowd. Any brand should do.

ice cream maker – ok, so this is really more of a splurge but fresh homemade ice cream makes life pleasurable. Get the Cuisinart electric and you’ll be so glad you did.

at least 1 electric fondue pot – if fondue is not part of your life, that’s no way to live! Seriously much cheaper to make your own then going to the Melting Pot or other pricey fondue joint.

waffle iron – for the obvious.

The frypan, ice cream maker, waffle iron, fondue pot, and immersion blender get stored in our cabinets while the rest of the appliances live on our kitchen countertops for daily access.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Onion Pie

 

I made this recipe a couple of months ago and absolutely loved it. It came to me from a penpal in the Netherlands.

5 onions

2 T olive oil

2 T butter

1 clove garlic, minced

3 t sage

1 pie crust (use your favorite recipe)

150 g goat cheese

pepper and salt

Roast onions in oil and butter. Add sage. Put the pie crust in a pie pan, sprinkle with goat cheese, salt, and pepper. Layer the onions atop the cheese. Bake 20 minutes at 200 degrees. Very good with a simple side salad for dinner.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Good Morning Starshine

Well after a month and a half of sharing one car in our family (hubby's car is in the shop till the end of Sept because a part we need is on backorder due to the SAAB bankruptcy), I am here to update you on the benefits of the arrangement. Yes, benefits. Can you believe you just read that? It didn't seem like it was going to provide any benefits at first and I spent the first week or two complaining and whining about the suffering I was forced to endure. But I've changed my tune and I'd like to sing it for you now.

1. I have always been a person lacking self-discipline who got up whenever I felt like it (i have flexible work hours).  This has caused problems for me because fitness regimens, breakfast schedules, making time to walk the dogs, and lunch making (to save $$) all depend on a reliable and consistent morning routine. And yet it's so hard for an undisciplined person to gain discipline unless it's imposed from the outside for a time (during which it eventually internalizes). True, technically no one is holding a gun to my head and making me get up at 4am but if I don't get up early enough to ride to the train station with hubby, I have to either call in sick to work or walk a couple miles to the train station. So there's that pressure to get up on time and it's been good for me as I've now got a consistent morning routine going and my health, our pets, and our finances are benefiting from it. 

2. Gone is the decades long argument between hubby and I about when to go to bed. I have always enjoyed going to bed later while he has preferred to get his head on a pillow no later than 9 pm. I would stay up till 11pm or midnight or later, but even if I went to another room to keep from disturbing him I would inadvertently wake him up when I eventually crawled into bed (he's a light sleeper). I pointed out that likewise he would wake me inadvertently in the early a.m. when he got out of bed. So we were both disturbed by each other's habits. And round and round we've gone in this argument for SIXTEEN years with no easy resolution for two stubborn people. Now that I'm getting up at 4am each morning I have no interest in or ability to stay up past 9pm on weeknights. So just like that *poof* the infighting is over on this thorny subject.

3. I am slowly turning into a morning person. I thought this morning vs night person thing was a fixed trait, but it seems to be mold-able with enough effort. And this is a benefit because being awake in the wee hours is truly awesome! I get to watch the sunrise every morning. I get to run in the streets when it is cool and breezy and deserted, which so peaceful. I have time to prep casseroles or the crockpot for the day's dinner if needed. And I get to do those things with energy and joy, no longer feeling irritable when getting up early. I am still suffering under the side effects - namely afternoon fatigue between 3 and 5pm- but I think they will fade over time (hopefully).

4. We are saving money on gas. Jon disputes whether we are really driving less just because we are down to one car but I am certain it is so. Knowing that we only have one car makes me more reluctant to schedule a lot of extra activities because I don't want to leave hubby stranded without vehicle. So I try to limit my driving trips and when I do go out I try to combine a lot of errands into one trip.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Great Taste Testing Potluck

Sunday night Jonathan and I held a Taste Testing Potluck Party in lieu of our usual 3-4 course Sunday open house dinner. All guests were asked to bring four brands of a product for double blind taste test comparisons by the group.

To facilitate the double blind study, I had each guest bring their selections in identical containers with labels for each item denoting the brand. Once at my place, I moved the labels to the bottom of each container (so that they were now hidden), and then asked another guest to move the containers (without looking at the bottoms) to the dining room table. The guest helping with this task laid out the products in a neat row across the table and then we slapped down blank post it notes in front of each item for guests to record their name and rating (rated as compared to the other items of the same variety on the table).

Products we tested and brands are shown below. Results follow under the listing.

1. Kettle style potato chips, 'Salt and Vinegar' flavor
Kettle, Lay's, Cape Cod, Utz

2. Beef hot dogs
Hebrew National, Nathan's, Ball Park, Giant (store brand)

3. Chocolate chip cookies
Harris Teeter, Chips A'hoy, and two additional brands that I've failed to remember

4. Canned tuna fish
Wild Harvest, Target (store brand), Bumble Bee, Starkist, Wal-Mart (store brand)

5. Mild salsa
Pace, Tostitos, Chi-Chi's, Grande

6. Creamy peanut butter
Giant (store brand), Planters, Skippy, Jif

After everyone had tasted and rated, we did the big reveal.

By far the most shocking result for the entire group (10 taste testers) was the unanimous win for Lay's in the kettle chip category.

For the potato chips, all tasters rated Kettle, Cape Cod, and Utz fairly equal. Lay's brand was a clear stand out in excellence - tasters noted the chips were the crispiest with a pleasing crunch and had the best potato flavor. It wasn't even close - if the chips were racing in a 5k, Lay's crossed the finish line before the other poor chips made it past the first mile. Everyone assumed the winning chip must be Cape Cod (because the brand's entire image is built around their kettle chips) and were truly floored to discover it was Lay's. Given that Lay's is not only more affordable but the better tasting product and yet not well known on the potato chip circuit as a star in the kettle chip variety, we all agreed they should launch a national ad campaign involving taste testing to promote the brand strength (Are you listening Frito Lay marketers?).

In the hot dog competition, most assumed that the winning hot dog (9 of 10 votes) must have been Ball Park given it's reputation as the "beefiest" hot dog. (here we go again with these preconceived ideas that must have been planted in our mind by advertising). Surprised gasps (I kid you not- one member asked if this was some sort of hidden camera show or a trick) could be heard all around the room during the big reveal when the winner was discovered to be Giant (an affordable store brand).   

Harris Teeter was the unanimous winner for the cookies and Chips Ahoy was rated dead last. The other two varieties were given "average" and "meh" ratings and failed to leave an impression on me (hence I can't even remember their brand names). The Harris Teeter cookies tasted very close to homemade Toll House cookies and were the only cookie to have the chocolate chips begin to melt at room temperature (desirable behavior) which was a testament to their freshness.

I'm not a fan of canned tuna (prefer Starkist vacuum pouch), but of the canned varieties tested I preferred Wild Harvest, as did most guests (a few preferred Bumble Bee). The Wal-Mart variety was the worst (a strange "plastic" taste) and the Bumble Bee brand smelled and tested the most "fishy".

The salsa testing results were a bit more balanced that the rest of the products. The winner (Chi Chi's) won by just a vote or two, with the taster votes spread pretty equally among the brands. I guess salsa variety is a very personal preference and it must be hard for product developers to target the mass audience. This tasting proved valuable for me because I've always purchased Tostitos (I have no idea why we defaulted to Tostitos) when buying salsa in a jar and so I'd never even tried Chi Chi's prior to the tasting event. Given that I rated Chi Chi's the best, we will now be a Chi Chi's salsa household.

The peanut butter testing results were also fairly balanced in terms of brand preference, with Skippy winning the taste testing by a handful of votes. My own ratings for this product surprised and disappointed me (and Jon has been holding it over my head giddy ever since). Since childhood (when my mom lovingly made me PB&J sandwiches with it), I've been a Jif fan. A fanatic Jif fan in fact. I am absolutely devoted to Jif and have refused for 16 years to let my husband bring ANY OTHER brand into our home. It was that important to me. 'Choosy Moms Choose Jif' and all that. Jif is about family and love and a whole bunch of things for me (excellent brainwashing Jif marketing team!). I was convinced to the core of my being that Jif is the best and never ever questioned this closely held belief. And to find out that I actually prefer Skippy (it was creamier and presented an overall better taste and finish despite that Jif had a more intense peanut flavor) just shook my world. Seriously! I have been wondering out loud since Sunday what other beliefs am I so firmly committed to that might also be wrong? So the next time we go grocery shopping we will buy Skippy (I could not handle the cognitive dissonance of continuing to purchase Jif just because I have some sort of longstanding emotional attachment to the brand and a need to hold onto ideas long cherished) but I will cry a little inside.







Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Farmhouse Vegetable Soup

 

Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated, we found this to be a fantastic weeknight dinner. It’s affordable, works for all seasons and easily adapted to a strict vegetarian (vegan) edition. Serve with fresh bread.

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Ingredients
  • 1/8 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
  • 8 sprigs fresh parsley plus 3 tablespoons chopped
  • 4 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (use olive oil for vegan adaptation)
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 2 carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2 celery ribs, diced
  • 1/3 cup white wine
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • Salt and pepper
  • 6 cups water
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth (use vegetable broth for vegan adaptation)
  • 1/2 cup pearl barley
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed
  • 1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped green cabbage
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
Instructions

1. Grind porcini with spice grinder until they resemble fine meal, 10 to 30 seconds. Measure out 2 teaspoons porcini powder; reserve remainder for other use. Using kitchen twine, tie together parsley sprigs, thyme, and bay leaf.

2. Melt butter (or olive oil) in sauté pan over medium heat. Add onions, carrots, celery, and 2 teaspoons salt. Deglaze with wine as needed. Cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid has evaporated and celery is softened, about 10 minutes. Add soy sauce, and cook for 1 minute more.

3. Transfer sautéed vegetables to crockpot and set aside sauté pan. Add water, broth, barley, porcini powder, herb bundle, garlic, and potatoes to crockpot.

4. Pan steam cabbage in pan with 1/4 to 1/2 cup water: cook until cabbage wilts.

5. Transfer cabbage to crockpot.

6. Cover crockpot and cook on low for 8 hours or high for 4-5 hours. Just before serving, stir in lemon juice, and chopped parsley; season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve, passing Lemon-Thyme Butter (diced thyme mixed into butter with a dash of lemon) separately for guests to garnish their soup.

Friday, June 22, 2012

So Much Data

In my quest to become better organized, I've tallied a master list of all the data I generate and where I log it. Upon review, it seems to be very haphazard - some things are tracked in analog systems while others are recorded in digital format. When I decide to record a new type of data I often struggle in deciding which format to store it in and also which particular product to use in the format category.

I'm REALLY interested to know what kind of data you personally record, whether your habits in recording have changed over the years, and what formats and products you use for your recording. Drop me an email in reply, comment on this blog entry on the website (http://songsofgratitude.blogspot.com), or comment on the facebook syndication.

Data Item Recorded, Format (analog/digital), Products

medical records, digital, google docs (Excel Spreadsheet)
nutrition, digital, sparkpeople.com
exercise--cardio, digital, dailymile.com
exercise--strength, analog, Eat Clean Workout Journal
work journal, analog, Franklin Covey Daily Planner
travel, digital, SongsofGratitude blog and travbuddy.com for longer entries
books to read, digital, pinterest
book reviews/notes, digital, SongsofGratitude blog
weekly menus, analog, Weekly Menu Planner
recipes to try, digital, pinterest
recipes tried and true, digital, Mastercook & publication to SongsofGratitude blog & pinterest
bible study/sermon/theology notes and musings, digital, SongsofGratitude blog
SAS projects and happenings @CSC, analog, SAS Projects notebook
meetings, analog, Cambridge Meeting Notebook
interesting system and SAS errors, digital, google docs (Excel Spreadsheet)
prayers offered and answered, analog, Prayer Journal
goals, digital, OneNote
certifications and educational achievement log, digital, OneNote
training/education study notes, analog AND digital, simple notebook for trainings done at work; OneNote for grad school classes

Thursday, June 21, 2012

People Doing Bad, People Doing Good

Never underestimate the power of an individual to make a difference! 

You guys, get ready to cry. 

Please stop and take a moment to read this- it will brighten your day (after you cry first). 

Karen is a bus monitor in a small town in NY- whose frequent bullies (mid school boys ugh) were caught on camera tormenting her. A twenty-something aged gentleman in Canada stumbled across the video (it had been uploaded to YouTube by a student) and wanted to do something for Karen to show her how much she is loved. He created a funding campaign on one of those microfunding sites with a goal to raise $5k to send her on a nice vacation. He raised over $120k (and the campaign is still active), brought the national spotlight on Karen (who has since made an appearance on the Today show) and bullying. It's been an amazing spectacle to watch.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Becoming an Effective Person: Sharpen the Saw


Continuing notes from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
The final habit for effective living offered by Covey is one of renewal, or what he refers to as ‘sharpening the saw’. In essence this means taking care of ourselves from a holistic perspective:
  • physical health: stewardship of our body including physical fitness, nutrition, proper rest, etc.
  • mental health: stewardship of our mind and talents including continuing education and training, reading, writing.
  • spiritual health: stewardship of our spiritual life including prayer, meditation, worship, and study.
  • social health: stewardship of our social relationships including civic duties, service to others, practicing habits four through six.
According to Covey we should ensure that we carve out time in our weekly schedules for each of these stewardship areas alongside our Quadrant II activities.
Since my mission statement (again, here for reference) already incorporates these four areas of stewardship as subset points under the main/summary mission (to glorify God) I won’t need to add them in separately- they’re automatically built in to my Quadrant II planning.
So we’ve come to the end of our discussion on Covey’s philosophy for becoming an effective and successful human being. I hope you enjoyed the review and found my notes useful. Where are you in your development of the seven habits? Are you motivated to write a mission statement or have you written one already? Have you made plans to begin using the Quadrant approach to planning? Overall comments, questions or concerns on this material?

Becoming an Effective Person: The Path to Interdependence


Continuing notes from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
Having put forth three habits that comprise personality responsibility and independence, Covey turns to address interdependence (cooperative action).
Building interdependent relationships:
  • seek to understand people, their thoughts, and their motivations so that we can empathize and know what matters to them
  • attend to details; small kindnesses and courtesies are important
  • keep commitments
  • clarify expectations in relationships to avoid confusion
  • always strive to demonstrate personal integrity (first three habits)
  • apologize whenever it is warranted
Habits four, five, and six build on these concepts:
  1. Habit Four: Think Win/Win
    • seek mutually beneficial outcomes whenever possible
    • Win/Win or no deal strategy for collaborating with those we do not hold commitments to
    • Win/Win or compromise strategy for collaborating with those we hold commitments to
    • this habit takes tremendous integrity because it requires choosing the best overall outcome instead of the one that is just best for ourselves
    • to put this habit into practice identify the key issues and concerns, document the outcomes that would benefit all parties, and brainstorm solutions to achieve those results
  2. Habit Five: Seek to Understand First Then to be Understood
    • diagnose issues before prescribing solutions
    • when peers are at the stage of producing emotional output (“venting”) the best course of action is to empathize
    • when peers have reached the stage where they’re ready to solve the problem and are producing rational output the best course of action is to provide thoughtful advice and guidance
  3. Habit Six: Synergize
    • synergy is when we collaborate with others to brainstorm solutions and implement them and the results we achieve are greater/better/more effective than what we could have produced as individuals simultaneously working separately.
I’m on board with Covey when it comes to the importance of interdependence and collaborative problem solving. However I have concerns (fears?) about the practical distribution of work in collaborative partnership attempts. It’s been my experience that most or at least many people are not interested in interdependence and win/win. Taking responsibility for not only our own best interests but the whole team is a big job that requires a lot of thoughtful planning and brainstorming and few are willing to put in that level of effort. Our society is very competitive and individualistic and people are trained from an early age to advocate for their interests with the understanding that everyone else will be doing the same and so it will all even out – everyone will get what is best for them through negotiation. Even our legal system is designed to find the compromise or win/lose position between opposing sides advocating their own interests (versus collaborative justice).
At worst I see teams actively refusing to even accept win/win scenarios proposed by the team members trained in interdependent problem solving (because they don’t trust them, because they’d rather have a win/lose solution). Even at best I see teams accepting win/win scenarios but only *after* the effective team members (a minority of the team) do all the work of finding and presenting the win/win solution while the rest of the team slacks off (having slid into dependence mode once they sensed the effective members were looking out for their interests). In short: how can we motivate people (and trust them) to fully participate in collaborative problem solving? Because if we cannot get others to play along, it really doesn’t matter how much we are willing to engage in collaborative, interdependent work now does it?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Becoming an Effective Person: Put First Things First

Continuing notes from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
Habit three of effective living can be summarized as life management.
Remember that habit one was recognizing our agency, habit two was demonstrating the leadership to chart our course and now here we are at habit three- active management on a day to day basis in line with our chartered course.
From a computer/IT perspective this is running the program we’ve written. The most important part of running our program is keeping our commitments; is adhering to the features we’ve documented in writing the program. Doing this is a show of self-discipline.
We have to master self-discipline in order to succeed in running the program as written. Integrity is having the discipline to submit our will to our principles we’ve centered our life on.
Here Covey introduces his organizational paradigm of Quadrant management. Quadrant I activities under our management are those which are urgent in nature and important (furthering our chartered course). Quadrant II activities are those which are important but not urgent. Quadrant III activities are urgent but not important (think busywork required on the job). Quadrant IV activities are neither urgent nor important (time wasters, distractions). Per Covey, most of our life efforts should be in Quadrant II and in order to acquire the time needed for these activities we have to rob it from Quadrant III and IV (since the first Quadrant activities are also important).
Quadrant II focused management stems from a knowledge of our principles documented in our mission statement. It is the balancing act of managing not only our production output but also our production possibility (the golden eggs versus the goose that lays them).
Notes on managing these Quadrant II activities:
  • Coherence – our Quadrant II activities should flow from and be in sync with our mission statement and principles.
  • Balance – Quadrant II activities should be balanced across several goals that follow from our mission statement. We must be careful not to neglect some areas while tunnel visioning on others.
  • Wide Angle View - Quadrant II activities should be integrated into our schedules through weekly planning (versus just daily planning) to ensure our schedule as a whole is balanced and centered properly.
  • Flexibility – Our life management in action should be able to adapt to changing circumstances based our principles. We must not make an idol out of our schedule when God makes it clear our principles are dictating an unexpected change of plans. (For example, be willing to delay or skip a Quadrant II scheduled activity to help a friend dealing with grief who wants to talk in that moment).
  • Portability – Our life management schedule and plan should be documented in a portable format so that we can take it with us everywhere. If we don’t have it to reference at all times, we may stray from it easily.
What is the technique, on a practical level, for scheduling and managing our life through a Quadrant II focus? Schedule in the Quadrant I and II activities FIRST (the big rocks in our bowl), then fill in with Quadrant III and IV activities as they will fit.
Long term scheduling: review mission statement--->document goals
Short term scheduling: review mission statement and goals--->document substeps and tasks--->schedule or delegate substeps and tasks
A note on delegation: delegate WHAT (results) and not HOW (micromanaging) as much as possible, Obviously some guidelines, regulations, and certified processes must be followed but give people stewardship to carry out tasks their own way whenever possible. Make sure to setup accountability (standards for evaluation) and document the consequences for the evaluation results.
Covey is emphatic that many people *think* they struggle with putting first things first but actually struggle with centering their life on principles (habit two). That is, their real problem is an implantation-of-principles-in-the-heart problem and not a self-discipline problem. Do I agree with this? I’m not sure. It’s a bit of human arrogance to claim anyone can submit their will to their principles if they’ve truly accepted those principles in their heart. After all Romans 7:19 tells us "For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing.” Given what Saint Paul has stated here, is the problem really that we haven’t accepted the principles in our heart or that we have accepted them (or at least want to accept them) but our sinful nature fights against these principles we want to follow?
I used to struggle (in vain) to acquire the self-discipline required to bend my will to my principles. I failed over and over. In frustration I went to my pastor at the time who told me I was going about it all wrong by trying to force myself into self-discipline. He told me I needed to focus on building my relationship with God and giving him my life and that God would change my will for me. That pastor was a Presbyterian and so embraced the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity (theology that states man in wholly incapable of choosing goodness and only the holy spirit within him can do so). This was very wonderful to hear and since then I’ve tried to direct my efforts to engaging more frequently with God (prayer, worship, meditation, study, etc) and leaving it to him to change my character and it seems to be a more successful strategy for me. Now here comes Covey telling me that with practice I can actually change it myself. And given that there are many people who aren’t religious at all who exhibit self discipline it would lend credence to the view that we can control our will and subvert it to our values if we try hard enough. But then what about our verse in Romans? And if we can submit our will to our principles if we just follow a sound methodology like Covey’s and try hard enough then, in theory, we should be able to be successful, ethical, and principled without God and scripture points to the contrary and the need for grace b/c of our own weakness and sin.
Jonathan and I had a long discussion on executing the program and the self-discipline it takes and whether we can acquire that discipline with practice or whether God changes our character and molds us into a self-disciplined person. Jon thinks it’s a healthy mix of both (convenient safe answer and not at all helpful for me in deciding what exactly *I* should do to most further my character development). What do you think about the human will and discipline? Do you think a failure to follow the program is due to a lack of true acceptance of the program or a failure in will and discipline to follow what we’ve accepted? And in either case how do we get ourselves to accept something we want to but apparently haven’t or how do we bend our will in a way we want to but can’t seem to? What have you found to be the answers to these questions?

Becoming an Effective Person: Begin With the End in Mind

Continuing notes from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.
Covey states that the second habit of a highly effective person is to organize life around a vision of what we value most, or in his words, to ‘begin with the end in mind’. Along these lines we should document what matters to us with a personal mission statement or statement of purpose. This is leadership; this is setting a vision of what we want to accomplish.
From an IT/computer perspective this habit is writing the program for our system.
The best programs we could write per Covey focus on solid principles (again, unchanging deep truths) and we must be careful not to center life on anything but those principles lest we make them little idols in our life. He cautions against a life that prioritizes marriage, family, money, work, possessions, pleasure, friends, enemies, church, or ourselves at the exclusion of everything else.
I went through this exercise many years ago – creating a statement of purpose- and have since refined it many times. My purpose statement is here:
http://songsofgratitude.blogspot.com/2010/09/purpose-statement.html
I think I’ve got a very good handle on this habit. I love to plan, to analyze, to prioritize, and I have a firm understanding of the biblical principles that I’ve built my mission statement on. 

Becoming an Effective Person: Be Proactive

Continuing notes from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.
According to Covey, the first habit we must cultivate for success is that of proactivity. This means abandoning the paradigm of strict determinism:
stimulus------>response
Instead we must embrace a paradigm that includes the interjection of man’s free will:
stimulus---->thought/will---->response
We are not mere robots led around by our noses; we can choose to stop and think before acting. We must take initiative to act in our circle of influence. Note that this is not simply superficial positive thinking or an attitude adjustment but addressing realities and thoughtfully choosing the best course of action.
Our circle of influence:
  • that which we have direct control over – our actions and character
  • that which we have indirect control over – our collaborative work with others
From a computer/IT perspective this habit is simply the embrace of the reality that we have a hand in programming our own system.
I agree with Covey completely on the importance of this habit and have long ago accepted the premise that we are not just listless leaves in the wind but have a will and agency that can influence the outcome of events.

Becoming an Effective Person: Overview

I’ve been reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. It’s my second reading of the work - my first reading was early last year but with the stress of my father’s death I didn’t absorb any of the material.

There’s a lot to review and comment on so I’ll be writing my notes in sections.

According to Covey, the field of success literature began with an emphasis on building character (fidelity, integrity, humility, etc). However post WWI the field turned toward a cult of personality and most modern success literature addresses the superficial of social relations like how to get people to like you and how to build your “brand”. Covey criticizes this new paradigm and reminds us that social ethics are secondary success factors; we can only experience true success and enduring happiness if we have a foundation of underlying character.

“Search your heart with all diligence for out of it flows the issues of life.” Proverbs 4:23

“What you are shouts so loudly in my ears I cannot hear what you say.” RW Emerson

Principles are fundamental truths. Covey stresses that we must focus on principles and internalize them as habits and then growth and success will follow. The closer our lives align to principles the more successful we will be.

Living a life according to principles is a habit and takes practice just as learning to play the piano does. Character is simply a composite of our habits.

“Private victories precede public victories.” Stephen Covey

Stages of Responsibility and Effectiveness:

1. Dependence: everyone else must look out for me.

2. Independence: I look out for myself.

3. Interdependence: We look out for each other.

We develop our character habits to move from dependence to independence. Then we build on that foundation to move to functioning at an interdependence level.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Sweet Potato Casserole

 

Made this for dinner tonight as a side for baked ham. Very good.

Source: Cook’s Illustrated
Serves 5-6

Bake the casserole in an 8-inch-square baking dish for 35 to 40 minutes.

Ingredients

Sweet Potatoes  

  • 3.5 pounds sweet potatoes (3-4 medium)

Streusel  

  • 2.5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces and softened, plus additional for greasing pan
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour (1 1/4 ounces)
  • 1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar (1 3/4 ounces)
  • 1/8 teaspoon table salt
  • 1/2 cup pecans (2 ounces)

Filling  

  • 2.5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 teaspoons table salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • Granulated sugar to taste
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 3/4 cups half-and-half
Instructions
  1. FOR THE STREUSEL: While potatoes are baking, butter 13 by 9-inch baking dish. Pulse flour, brown sugar, and salt in food processor until blended, about four 1-second pulses. Sprinkle butter pieces over flour mixture and pulse until crumbly mass forms, six to eight 1-second pulses. Sprinkle nuts over mixture and pulse until combined but some large nut pieces remain, four to six 1-second pulses. Transfer streusel to medium bowl.

  2. FOR THE SWEET POTATOES: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Poke sweet potatoes several times with paring knife and space evenly on rimmed baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Bake potatoes, turning them once, until they are very tender and can be squeezed easily with tongs, 1 to 1 1/2 hours (or 45 minutes for small sweet potatoes). Remove potatoes from oven and cut in half lengthwise to let steam escape; cool at least 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees. Once potatoes have cooled slightly, use spoon to scoop flesh into large bowl; you should have about 4 cups. Transfer half of potato flesh to food processor. Using rubber spatula, break remaining potato flesh in bowl into coarse 1-inch chunks.

  3. FOR THE FILLING: Add melted butter, salt, nutmeg, pepper, vanilla, and lemon juice to potatoes in food processor and process until smooth, about 20 seconds. Taste for sweetness, then add up to 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, if necessary; add yolks. With processor running, pour half-and-half through feed tube and process until blended, about 20 seconds; transfer to bowl with potato pieces and stir gently until combined.

  4. TO ASSEMBLE AND BAKE CASSEROLE: Pour filling into prepared baking dish and spread into even layer with spatula. Sprinkle with streusel, breaking up any large pieces with fingers. Bake until topping is well browned and filling is slightly puffy around edges, 30-40 minutes. Cool at least 10 minutes before serving.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Fried Yuca

 

Tonight’s experimental dinner consisted of Peruvian roast chicken and fried yuca with spicy mayo. The chicken was unremarkable, but the fried yuca was fabulous. I was very nervous preparing it for dinner as the tuber contains hydrogen cyanide and it must be prepared carefully and correctly to avoid poisoning (Yuca must be boiled to release cyanide into the cooking water).

It’s been an hour since we sat down at the table and I’m not feeling any cyanide side effects so I think I did alright. Recipe below, adapted from Gourmet Magazine.

yuca fries

Serves 2

For sauce

  • 1 T feta cheese, crumbled fine
  • 1/2 cup mayo
  • 1/2 jalepeno, pureed in food processor
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 lime
  • 1/2 tsp Penzey’s Arizona Dreaming seasoning

For yuca
  • 1 large fresh yuca (cassava)
  • About 2 cups vegetable oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Make sauce:
Mix together sauce ingredients in a small bowl until smooth.

Fry yuca:
Trim ends of yuca and cut crosswise half, then peel, removing waxy brown skin and pinkish layer underneath.

Cover yuca with cold salted water by 1 inch in a 4-quart pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until yuca is tender when pierced with a fork, 15 to 25 minutes. Drain and rinse. Transfer with a slotted spoon to several layers of paper towels to drain further, then cool 5 minutes. Cut yuca lengthwise into 1/8-inch-wide wedges, discarding thin woody core. (If there are pieces that have white parts to them, return them to barely simmering water and simmer until almost translucent.)

Heat about 1 1/2 inches oil in heavy pot over moderate heat until it registers 360°F on thermometer.

Fry yuca, turning occasionally, until golden, 3 to 5 minutes per batch. Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle fries with salt and serve with cheese sauce.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Caribbean Rice and Beans

 

This is a favorite recipe in our house, adapted from the rice and beans dish served all over Belize. Menu suggestion: serve with Jerk chicken or stewed chicken and fried plantains.

Ingredients

Serves: 8

  • olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 red pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • white wine (to taste)
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh thyme
  • 2 cups uncooked long-grain rice (jasmine works well)
  • 1 can can coconut milk
  • 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 can white bean variety (small white, navy beans, etc), drained and rinsed
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • fresh thyme leaves to garnish
  • hot sauce (I prefer Marie Sharp's)

Preparation method

Prep: 10 mins | Cook: 20 mins

1. Cook the rice with your usual preferred method (I like cooking in microwave on 50% power for 15 minutes with a 5 minute rest after: one part rice to two parts water and a T of oil), but substitute the coconut milk (stir before emptying can btw) for part of the water. So instead of 4 cups of water for our two cups of uncooked rice, use the can of coconut milk and however much water in addition you need to equal 4 cups of liquid. 

2.  While the rice is cooking, heat the oil in a large dutch oven pan, add the onion and peppers and cook gently for 3–4 minutes until softened. Stir in the garlic and cook until tender, using white wine to deglaze the pan as needed.

3. Dump the beans into the dutch oven over the onion mix, stirring to heat. Mix in the thyme. Stir in the rice (mix well), adding salt, pepper, and hot sauce to to taste and scatter over some fresh thyme leaves to garnish.

Rice tastes even better after flavors meld so its perfectly fine to freeze or fridge and warm up later in microwave.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Time Management

Summary Notes from Time Management for System Administrators by Thomas Limoncelli:

1. Keep all your time management stuff in one place - your work and personal appointments, to do list, calendar, goals, etc.

2. Focus on the current task; use external storage to record/remember everything else.

3. Develop routines for things so there are no oopsies or important items left undone or forgotten. A good routine is to start each day with our to do list, estimate duration to complete each task, prioritize the tasks, schedule them to be completed, and work the schedule.

4. Pre-compile decisions by developing habits and mantras. Habits such as using the first quiet hour of the day to work projects, or to put gas in your car on the same day every week.

5. Maintain focus during work tasks- do not allow distractions like email, internet surfing, IM, etc to derail you. Study in a quiet environment whenever possible.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Smoked Pork and Spicy Grilled Potato Salad with Corn and NM Green Chiles

 

Memorial Day Menu

Spinach and Arugula Salad with Tomatoes

Baked Beans

Potato Rolls

Smoked Pulled Pork with Spicy BBQ Sauce

Spicy Grilled Potato Salad with Corn and NM Green Chiles

Hibiscus Iced Tea

 

Recipes Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated

 
Spicy Grilled Potato Salad with Corn and NM Green Chiles
Ingredients 
  • 1 1/2 pounds new potatoes, 2 to 3 inches long, scrubbed and unpeeled, cut into eighths
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper  
  • Table salt
  • 1 cup corn kernels, cooked
  • 4 NM green chiles, roasted, peeled, seeded, and diced
  • 1 jalapeño chile, seeded and minced
  • 4 tablespoons lime juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 scallions, green parts only, sliced thin
Instructions
  1. In large Dutch oven or stockpot, bring 4 quarts water to boil over high heat; add 1 teaspoon salt.

  2. Skewer potato pieces. Drop skewers into boiling water and boil until paring knife slips in and out of potato easily, about 10 minutes.

  3. While potatoes boil, line rimmed baking sheet with paper towels. With tongs, remove skewers to paper towel–lined baking sheet; pat potatoes dry with additional paper towels. Discard paper towels (potatoes can be cooled to room temperature, covered with plastic wrap, and kept at room temperature for up to 2 hours); brush all sides of potatoes with olive oil and sprinkle with remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper.

  4. Place skewers on hot grill; cook, turning skewers twice with tongs, until all sides are browned, 2 to 3 minutes per side over high or medium-high heat (you can hold your hand 5 inches above grill grate no longer than 2 seconds for high heat or 3 to 4 seconds for medium-high heat) or 4 to 5 minutes per side over medium or medium-low heat (you can hold your hand 5 inches above grill grate 5 to 6 seconds for medium or 7 seconds for medium-low heat).

  5. Slide hot potatoes off skewers into medium bowl and use immediately.

  6. Toss potatoes with salt, and pepper. Add corn, chiles, and jalapeños; toss to combine.

  7. Whisk lime juice and sugar in small bowl until sugar dissolves; whisk in olive oil and salt to taste. Pour mixture over potatoes and add scallions; toss to combine. Serve. (Can be covered with plastic wrap and kept at room temperature up to 30 minutes; toss before serving.)

Barbecued Pulled Pork on a Gas Grill

Ingredients

  • 1 bone-in pork roast, 6 to 8 pounds (preferably shoulder or Boston butt roast)
  • Instructions
    1. Massage your favorite dry rub into the meat (I used Penzey’s Galena Street). Wrap tightly in double layer of plastic wrap; refrigerate for at least 3 hours. (For strong flavor, the roast can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.)

    2. At least 1 hour prior to cooking, remove roast from refrigerator, unwrap, and let it come to room temperature. Soak 4 cups wood chips (I used apple) in cold water to cover for 30 minutes and drain. Place the wood chips in a small disposable aluminum pan.

    3. Place the wood-chip pan on the primary burner (the burner that will remain on during cooking), Ignite the grill, turn all the burners to high, cover, and heat until very hot and the chips are smoking heavily, about 20 minutes. (If the chips ignite, use a water-filled squirt bottle to extinguish them.) Turn the primary burner down to medium and turn off the other burner(s). Set the unwrapped roast in the disposable pan, position the pan over the cooler part of the grill, and close the lid. Barbecue for 3 hours. (The temperature inside the grill should be a constant 275 degrees; adjust the lit burner as necessary.)

    4. Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place roast in pan and wrap with heavy-duty foil to cover completely. Place pan in oven and cook until meat is fork-tender, about 2 hours.

    5. Slide the foil-wrapped pan with the roast into a brown paper bag. Crimp top shut; rest roast 1 hour. Transfer roast to cutting board and unwrap. When cool enough to handle, "pull" pork by separating roast into muscle sections (see illustration, below), removing fat, if desired, and tearing meat into thin shreds with fingers. Place shredded meat in large bowl ; toss with 1 cup of your favorite barbecue sauce (I used Kraft Hickory Smoke mixed with shiraz wine and a few shakes of Marie Sharp hot sauce), adding more to taste. Serve with remaining sauce passed separately.

    Thursday, May 24, 2012

    Salmon Cakes

     

    Made these for dinner tonight, accompanied by roasted corn on the cob (trim loose husks from corn and roast at 425 for 40 minutes), and roasted asparagus (drizzle with olive oil, salt, lemon juice and roast at 45 for 10-15 minutes). The hubby rated them very highly and it’s a great way to get in your healthy Omega-3 fatty acids.

    Adapted from Cook’s illustrated.

    Serves 4

    If buying a skin-on salmon fillet, purchase 1 1/3 pounds of fish. This will yield 1 1/4 pounds of fish after skinning.

    Serve the salmon cakes with lemon wedges.

    Ingredients
    • 3 tablespoons plus 3/4 cup panko bread crumbs
    • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley or arugula
    • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
    • 4 teaspoons lemon juice
    • 1 scallion, sliced thin
    • 1 small shallot, minced
    • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
    • pinch cayenne pepper
    • 1 (1 1/4 pound) skinless salmon fillet , cut into 1-inch pieces
    • 3 T olive oil
    Instructions

    1. Combine 3 tablespoons panko, parsley, mayonnaise, lemon juice, scallion, shallot, mustard, salt, pepper, and cayenne in bowl. Working in 3 batches, pulse salmon in food processor until coarsely chopped into 1/4-inch pieces, about 2 pulses, transferring each batch to bowl with panko mixture. Avoid overprocessing the fish! Gently mix until uniformly combined.

    2. Place remaining 3/4 cup panko in a shallow metal bowl. Using 1/3-cup measure, scoop level amount of salmon mixture and transfer to baking sheet; repeat to make 8 cakes. Carefully coat each cake in bread crumbs, gently patting into disk measuring 2 3/4 inches in diameter and 1 inch high. Return coated cakes to baking sheet.

    3. Heat oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Place salmon cakes in skillet and cook without moving until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Carefully flip cakes and cook until second side is golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer cakes to paper towel–lined plate to drain 1 minute. Serve.

    Sunday, May 20, 2012

    The Art of Critical Thinking

     

    Just finished reading The Art of Critical Thinking by Vincent Ruggiero.

    Summary Notes follow.

    Thinking is production of ideas and judgment of ideas.

    Read problems fully then decide how to begin attacking them.

    Check assumptions for validity.

    Think on paper for clarity: freewrite, brainstorm.

    Good thinkers accept the following foundational beliefs:

    1. Strict determinism and strict free-will are both false. Our ideas and actions are heavily influenced and constrained by nature/nuture but we have a strong measure of free will that we exercise to determine our course of actions.

    2.There is objective truth, although we may not always be able to discern it.

    3. We approach truth from direct experience, from directly observing others’ experiences, and from report by others. We are biased by our own senses, our attitudes and beliefs and the reliability of reporting.

    4. Memory recall is frequently flawed.

    5. Opinions can be expressions of taste/preference (which are not based on reason and cannot be argued successfully) or expressions of judgment (which should be questioned to verify solid reasoning).

    6. Almost every moral system of judgment shares the following principles: relationships with other people create obligations of various kinds that should be honored unless there is a compelling reason not to; certain ideals enhance human life and assist people in fulfilling their obligations and should be served whenever possible (these are tolerance, compassion, loyalty, forgiveness, peace, brotherhood, justice, fairness); the consequences of some actions benefit people whole those of other actions harm people and the former actions should be preferred over the latter; circumstances alter cases and while generalizations have a place they should not be used as a substitute for careful judgment. When two or more obligations are in conflict, decide on action by which is the more serious obligation or which existed first. When two or more ideals are in conflict ask which is the more important ideal. When multiple consequences exist ask which are most significant and weigh them against each other.

    Avoid thinking traps: the mine-is-better kneejerk prejudice (my ideas, my people, my kind), the face saving pride (blaming and rationalizing after we have exhibited poor judgment), resistance to change, desire to conform, stereotyping, self-deception.

    Exercise creative thinking: be diligent in observation, look for the imperfect (opportunities for improvement!), adopt an attitude of ‘dissatisfaction is simply a challenge to improve’, search for root causes of problems, be sensitive to implications of newly revealed facts or newly adopted judgments, recognize the opportunity in controversies to find truth on both sides.

    Sharpen analytical/judgment skills by increasing our reading, actively thinking and questioning while reading, discerning between ideas and the character of the people expressing them, discerning between matters of taste and judgment, learn to read sarcasm and irony, discern between fact and interpretation, discerning between the validity of ideas and the quality of their expression, learning to break down arguments into assumptions, essential arguments, conclusions and evidence. For every argument presented, summarize it, evaluate it then judge it.

    Creativity does not require high IQ.

    Drugs hinder creativity.

    Successful creative people are dynamic (active and playful), daring in their risk taking, resourceful, hardworking, willing to show independence.

    The creative process: identify problem or issue (restate the problem in multiple ways to change perspectives and give insight), investigate and further research problem or issue, brainstorm solutions.

    The analytic process: critique the brainstormed solutions, narrow down and refine the best solutions (Examine solutions for clarity, safety, convenience, efficiency, economy, simplicity, comfort, durability, beauty, compatibility; find imperfections and complications and resolve; compare with market competitors; make improvements) and prepare them for dissemination.

    Reasoning errors: invalid logic in the chain from assumptions to conclusion, either/or thinking, avoiding the issue, overgeneralizing, oversimplifying, double standards, shifting burden of proof to the listener, irrelevant appeals to common practice, fear, or tradition.

    When communicating your ideas or solutions, be proactive and anticipate objections and negative reactions that are likely to be made (this is similar to sales principle of anticipating objectives to closing the sale so that you can prepare to overcome them). Common objections include: impractical, expensive, illegal, immoral, inefficient, unworkable, disruptive, unaesthetic, radical, unappealing, unfair. Negative reactions may stem from lack of understanding of your solution/idea, bad thinking, or because your idea has serious flaws. We want to think through the potential negative reactions to find any valid criticism of our idea as well as discover potential points of misunderstanding or bad thinking in audience in order to compensate for them.

    Saturday, May 19, 2012

    Recent Readings

    I finished The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman as well as The Year of Fog  by Michelle Richmond last week.

    In The Imperfectionists Rachman devotes each chapter to an episodic portrait of a different character. In doing so, the author slowly reveals a timeline and interdependent setting for all of the characters. By the end of the novel the cohesive storyline of the newspaper and its history is fully developed and I was able to look back over what I had already read and marvel at the way Rachman had effortlessly tied all his characters together so smoothly while I wasn’t paying close attention. The background plot centers on a small family owned newspaper agency in Rome and the character portraits are of the owners and staff. Because the characters are introduced so slowly, one chapter at a time, and because those chapters focus exclusively on that character, the reader is never left confused or overwhelmed in the moment trying to untangle characters from one another (a problem I frequently had in character saturating novels like One Hundred Years of Solitude). In addition, the novel can be read as a collection of short stories, each chapter strong enough to stand on its own. It’s really a brilliant way of composing a novel.

    The Year of Fog is a suspenseful, well written drama that kept me frantically turning the pages to find out how it was going to end. The characters at the center of the novel are a young woman, her fiancé, and his young daughter from a previous marriage who goes missing in the first chapter. The focus of the novel is the search for the girl and the emotional fallout for the woman and her fiancé as the months drag on. Richmond’s writing style is captivating and her plot pacing was really good during most of the novel. I was a bit disappointed with the last few chapters because I felt she had begun to rush the sequencing of events. It felt like she was trying to quickly wrap the novel up. Despite that, I still recommend readers pick up this novel because the depth of emotions and the intensity of the drama the main character is forced to reckon with are compelling.

    Monday, May 14, 2012

    Thai Menu

     

    Enjoyed a fantastic Thai dinner tonight at our favorite restaurant – Chez Parks. 5/5 stars!

    Grilled Beef Satay

    Cucumber Salad

    Rice

    Peanut Dipping Sauce

    Mango Sticky Rice

    document_CVR_SFS_grilled_beef_satay_CLR_014_article

    photo credit: Cook’s Illustrated

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Grilled Beef Satay (Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)

    Ingredients
    • Basting Sauce  
    • 3/4 cup coconut milk
    • 3 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
    • 3 tablespoons fish sauce
    • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
    • 3 shallots, minced
    • 2 stalks lemon grass, trimmed to bottom 6 inches and minced
    • 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
    • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
    • 3/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
    • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • Beef  
    • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
    • 2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
    • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
    • 1 1/2 pounds NY Strip steak, sliced on slight angle against grain into 1/4- inch thick slices
    • Disposable aluminum roasting pan
    Instructions
    1. 1. FOR THE BASTING SAUCE: Whisk all ingredients together in bowl. Reserve one-third of sauce in separate bowl. (Use reserved sauce to apply to raw beef.)
    2. 2. FOR THE BEEF: Whisk oil, sugar, and fish sauce together in medium bowl. Toss beef with marinade and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Weave beef onto 12-inch metal skewers, 2 pieces per skewer, leaving 1 1/2 inches at top and bottom of skewer exposed. You should have 10 to 12 skewers.
    3. 3a. FOR A CHARCOAL GRILL: Poke twelve 1/2-inch holes in bottom of roasting pan. Open bottom vent completely and place roasting pan in center of grill. Light large chimney starter mounded with charcoal briquettes (7 quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour into roasting pan. Set cooking grate over coals with grates parallel to long side of roasting pan, cover, and open lid vent completely. Heat grill until hot, about 5 minutes.
    4. 3b. FOR A GAS GRILL: Turn all burners to high, cover, and heat grill until very hot, about 15 minutes. Leave all burners on high.
    5. 4. Clean and oil cooking grate. Place beef skewers on grill (directly over coals if using charcoal) perpendicular to grate. Brush meat with one-third basting sauce (portion reserved for raw meat) and cook (covered if using gas) until browned, about 3 minutes. Flip skewers, brush with half of remaining basting sauce, and cook until browned on second side, about 3 minutes. Brush meat with remaining basting sauce and cook 1 minute longer. Transfer to large platter and serve with peanut sauce.

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Cucumber Salad (adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)
    Makes about 1 1/2 cups
    Ingredients
    • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
    • 2 tablespoons sugar
    • 1 cucumber, diced
    • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
    • 1/4 cup fresh mint leaves , chopped coarse
    • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
    Instructions
    1. Bring vinegar and sugar to boil in small saucepan over high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Transfer vinegar mixture to bowl and cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes. Stir in cucumber, red pepper, mint, shallot, and fish sauce. Refrigerate until needed.

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Rice

    Using your preferred/usual method, prepare enough steamed rice (jasmine is best) for each guest to have 1 serving, plus 1/2 cup per guest for dessert recipe (see below).

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Peanut Sauce (adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)

    Makes about 1 1/2 cups
    Ingredients
    • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
    • 1 tablespoon Thai red curry paste
    • 1 tablespoon packed dark brown sugar
    • 2 garlic cloves , minced
    • 1 cup regular or light coconut milk
    • 1/3 cup chunky peanut butter
    • 1/4 cup roasted unsalted peanuts , chopped
    • 1 tablespoon lime juice
    • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
    • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
    Instructions
    1. Heat oil in small saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add curry paste, sugar, and garlic; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add coconut milk and bring to simmer. Whisk in peanut butter until smooth. Remove from heat and stir in peanuts, lime juice, fish sauce, and soy sauce. Cool to room temperature.

    -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Mango Sticky Rice

    1 mango for every 2 persons, peeled, pitted, and sliced into long strips

    leftover rice (see “rice” recipe above)

    leftover coconut milk from Beef Satay recipe

    sugar, to taste

    Warm coconut milk over medium heat in saucepan, adding sugar to taste. Spoon a serving of rice onto each plate. drizzle generously with sweetened coconut milk. Arrange 1/2 of sliced mango artfully onto plate beside rice. You can also serve this in decorative bowls, with a scoop of rice, drizzle of sweetened coconut milk, diced mango, and topped with another drizzle of the milk.