Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Book Review: One Big Table

I picked up One Big Table by Molly O’Neill a couple years ago on sale. This is a big, heavy book resulting from the author’s quest to travel the country and document first hand what Americans are cooking up in their kitchens. It opens with a lovely illustration inside the front cover of the United States and its agricultural products with the products overlaid on a US map to show their origins. These clever and informative old-timey graphics are sprinkled throughout the cookbook and add to its charm, as do the little vignettes on American life and ingredients. Every recipe has its own backstory included, which is useful and entertaining and the patchwork variety of recipes really illustrates the diversity in heritage we celebrate as Americans.

As for the recipes themselves, there are a lot of them. More than 600 in fact. I’ve made a handful over the years and haven’t found a dud yet. This month I dusted off my copy of the cookbook (I have 300+ cookbooks in my collection so rotation among the volumes can be slow paced) and prepared the Makah Indian Slow Cooked Salmon one evening for dinner, Mrs. Dubrow’s Carrot Noodles in Buttery Chervil Sauce as a side another evening, and Coletta Boan’s Peach Pie  in the Pie Day Committee’s Crust for a dinner party dessert. Everything was delicious as expected and my guests raved over the peach pie. I just might track down Ms. Boan on Facebook to thank her for sharing her recipe with Ms. O’Neill for the book. The editors have done a great job of making sure the recipes are accurately documented as to yield and that the instructions are clear and easy to follow, which is always appreciated.

Verdict: recommended buy.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Tomatoes and Berries: Preserving the Best of Summer

Like any other practical skill, canning and preserving take practice to build expertise. From my first canning session at the end of spring, I learned that you can’t shortcut recipes unless you know what you are doing and that you MUST make sure to cook down your jam until it reaches the gel stage. If it’s syrupy instead of gel consistency when it goes in the jar, it will be syrupy still when it comes out. To make myself feel better, I like to tell people I didn’t fail in making strawberry jam, I succeeded in making strawberry compote. Still, the lesson was obvious: cook the jams down properly.

During my second canning session, or the weekend of 10 thousand peaches as I like to call it, I learned that pressure canning jams for too long (anything greater than 5 minutes) or under too much pressure (anything more than 6 pounds) threatens to break down the natural pectin gel you created with the concentrated cooking. I didn’t figure this out until I was almost finished canning (I had been processing my jams for 10 minutes at 10 pounds). Luckily, my jams from this session are still acceptable in their jam texture, but they’re a little more runny than I prefer.

During the canning session I organized yesterday, I was pretty excited about the jam making. I was sure I’d finally mastered the technique and had a willing audience of trainees ready to participate and learn. Sure enough, we created a mixed berry jam (blackberry, blueberry, raspberry) and it came out perfect. Perfect! We moved onto a rose petal jam and because I was also busy overseeing pasta sauce production, I wasn’t as attentive as I should have been and the jam cooked for a few minutes more after reaching the jam stage. Guess what? Turns out that not only can you undercook jam (too runny) you can overcook it, rendering it into some kind of super sweet caramelized candy that might pull your fillings out. Oopsie. Looking on the bright side, I didn’t fail at making rose petal jam, but succeeded at making rose petal candy. There were only 2 of us who had signed up for an order of this kind of jam (out of the 8 attendees) so at least the damage was contained. I think it will be repairable if when opening the jars of this “jam” we drop in a T of water and then zapp it in the microwave for 30 seconds to liquefy it again. Hopefully then when it cools down it will be the right texture.

When I do things, I like to jump in head first, with no hesitancy and go BIG. So when we decided to can my favorite pasta sauce recipe I led the charge in purchasing one hundred pounds of fresh Roma tomatoes for the project. Now I have made this sauce in small batches a few times and it’s a fairly standard process: rinse about 3 pounds of tomatoes, put them whole into a saucepot with 1/4 cup of water, let them cook down until they burst and you can easily crush them with a masher, run them through a food mill using the medium sized disc, return the expressed juice and pulp to the stovepot, add 1/4 cup olive oil and 3 cloves garlic, cook down till reduced by half, salt to taste, and add basil. Normally the reduction process takes about 45 minutes but I vastly underestimated how much longer it would take when working with larger quantities of tomatoes. And of course when canning the finished sauce you have to add on the time required to complete the canning process (10 minutes+ to get the water boiling, 10 minutes to express air once water vapor begins to rise from the closed and locked canner, then about 10 minutes+ waiting for the pressure to rise to 11 pounds, then 25 minutes processing at that pressure to kill off all the botulism spores*, then approximately 20 minutes for the canner to depressurize naturally before you can safely open it to remove the finished product). Our team of eight worked all afternoon yesterday on the task and even with duplicate work tools (two food mills, multiple pots for cooking down the sauce, two pressure canners, etc), after 6 and a half hours we only had processed 75 pounds of the tomatoes into canned sauce. And I was so busy directing the process and teaching I didn’t take the time to make notes during the process on lessons learned or yield measurements. Today I finished up the last 25 pounds of tomatoes and with a less frenzied and more relaxed atmosphere I had the time to take notes. Here is what I learned:

1. Every 25 pounds of raw and plump Roma tomatoes will fill three up 12 quart stockpots.

2. Cutting the raw tomatoes in half before putting them in the pots will allow them to soften faster.

3. After you cook down and run these 25 pounds of softened and mashed tomatoes through a food mill you will end up with one large stockpot (16 quarts) of juice and pulp.

4. After you reduce the juice and pulp to sauce consistency (aim for approximately half the quantity you began with) and adding in your other ingredients, you will have a yield of 8-9 quarts of rich, fresh, all natural tomato sauce.

5. Timing: Every 25 pounds of raw tomatoes takes approx one hour to rinse, cook down, mill, and get back in the pot to begin the reduction. The reduction process for this quantity of tomatoes takes approx 4 hours. The canning process takes approx 1 hr and 20 minutes.

6. Tomato season and pricing: Roma tomatoes locally or regionally grown in the mid-Atlantic do not come into season until August. When they’re in season, the quantity pricing is by the bushel and runs $28-$34 a bushel (bushel = 53 pounds) if you can connect directly with a farmer or wholesaler. If you want to can earlier in the summer, Roma tomatoes from Mexico come into season in July and quantity pricing is by the 25 pound box and runs $13/box wholesale (but typically only grocery stores ordering many hundreds of pounds can get this price) or $22/box retail. The bulk retail price represents a discount of 30 cents a pound off the regular retail grocery store price and is offered by the local ethnic grocery stores to consumers purchasing at least 25 pounds at a time.

In addition to the jams and pasta sauce, we also canned salsa. We based our recipe on my brother in law’s (Jeff); our modified recipe that yields 18 pints is shown below. It came out perfectly.

15 cans fire roasted diced tomatoes

6 medium onions, coarsely diced

8-10 habanero peppers, to your spicy taste

3/4 cup minced garlic

5 green chiles, chopped

15-20 T Penzey’s Salsa Seasoning

6 limes

Saute the onions and garlic until translucent (do not brown). Add in the peppers, chiles, and 6 cups of water. Simmer for 30 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes and Penzey’s seasoning and simmer for 10-15 more minutes until slightly thickened. Add in the juice of the limes to the pot, and using a hand blender, blend salsa to to desired consistency.

Our next canning session will be in Autumn where we will lead a group in preserving apple cinnamon jam, apple pie filling, pear jam, fig and nut conserve, and more.

* ”Clostridium botulinum is a large anaerobic Gram-positive bacillus. When the bacteria are under stress, they develop spores, which are inert. Their natural habitats are in the soil, in the silt that comprises the bottom sediment of streams, lakes and coastal waters and in the ocean, while some types are natural inhabitants of mammalian (e.g., human, cattle, horses) intestinal tracts, and are present in their excreta. The spores can survive in their inert form for many years. The spores require warm temperatures, a protein source and an anaerobic (no oxygen), low-salt, low- acid, low-sugar environment and moisture in order to become active and produce toxin. Improperly preserved food is the most common form of foodborne botulism. Botulinum inhibits the body's production of acetylcholine within the nervous system, the chemical that produces a bridge across synapses, where nerve cell axons and dendrites connect with each other. All forms lead to paralysis that typically starts with the muscles of the face and then spreads towards the limbs. In severe forms, it leads to paralysis of the breathing muscles and causes respiratory failure. Canned goods are required to undergo a "botulinum cook" in a pressure cooker at 121 °C (250 °F) to destroy the spores.”  Source: Wikipedia. The acidity of common tomatoes is right on the line between low and medium, and varies with every tomato. Therefore, tomato based products should never be canned using the boiling water method but ALWAYS the pressure canner method in order to destroy botulism spores. Pressure should be at 11 pounds or greater and tomato based products will take at least 20 minutes of cooking at this pressure to ensure the spores are destroyed. If other products (such as onions or other vegetables or meat) are added to the tomato based product then it will take at least x number of minutes of cooking at 11 pounds to ensure the spores are destroyed where x=the time prescribed for the added vegetable with the longest indicated cook time per the USDA. As an extra safety measure one can add acid (such as lemon juice or citric acid) to every jar to increase the acid level (although this often impacts the taste negatively) and/or boil the canned product for at least 10 minutes when it is eventually opened to kill any botulism toxin before eating the product.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Book Review: And The Mountains Echoed

Khaled Hosseini has done it again. In his latest release, And The Mountains Echoed, he has written a heart wrenching best seller that gives us a window into Afghanistan’s culture and stirs the soul.

Years ago I had a terrible nightmare wherein I had declined to marry my husband and we’d gone on to marry other people instead. Soon after the weddings, I realized with agony what a mistake I’d made and felt the full weight of despair as I understood I could never make it right; we could never be together now that we were committed to other people. It was such a deep and profound sense of agony and loss that I woke up from this terrible dream sobbing so loudly and in such a frenzy I literally made myself sick. This – this feeling of irreversible bitter pain and sadness that cannot be undone – this is what Khaled captures so perfectly in his stories.

And The Mountains Echoed introduces us to two motherless siblings, Abdullah and Pari, and then subsequently tears them apart and keeps us pining for their reunion throughout the novel. We want the satisfaction of their reconciliation. We crave the happy ending that Khaled keeps just out of our reach and it’s this longing that provides the pace for the novel. Along the way, we’re pulled deeper into Pari’s life after the separation and into the life of her uncle Nabi, her brother Abdullah, and a number of other key characters. Khaled has a lot to say about difficult families and about loss and he says it so beautifully with his prose:

"All my life she gave me a shovel and said, 'Fill these holes inside of me',".

"They tell me I must wade into water, where I will soon drown. Before I march in, I leave this on the shore for you, I pray you find it sister so you will know what was in my heart as I went under”
~Abdullah, composing a note to his sister

Khaled takes readers on an incredible emotional journey across continents and many decades as Pari, Nabi and the others live out their stories. I could not put this book down once I began. And The Mountains Echoed goes into the very special subset of books I have read that have moved me so deeply I weep for days after I close the cover.

Buy this book. And a box of Kleenex.

Book Review: The Lebanese Kitchen

I received a copy of Salma Hage’s new cookbook, The Lebanese Kitchen a couple of weeks ago.The publisher, Phaidon, is well known for producing high quality books that are lovely not only to read but beautiful to hold and to look at and The Lebanese Kitchen is no exception. The pages are uniquely cut with a delicate zigzag edge and there are at least two colorful ribbons strings sewn into the binding for easy bookmarking.

This is a heavy, large cookbook; an exhaustive encyclopedia of the best of Lebanese cooking. So many recipes to choose from in fact that I wasn’t sure where to get started. Over the past few weeks I’ve made Hage’s hummus with chili oil, eggplant and garlic dip, Lebanse mixed salad, and zucchini stuffed with lamb. Everything has been phenomenal and I’m really pleased to count The Lebanese Kitchen among my favorite cookbooks. The recipes are well written in that they are accurate (no typos or proportion errors) and easy to follow. Bonus: there are a number of full page photos sprinkled throughout the book that provide a visual guide to what the finished dishes should look like and that’s very useful.

It would be a welcome addition if the next printing provided notes such as background or history to accompany each recipe. When did the recipe find it’s way into Lebanese cuisine? Which region of Lebanon gave birth to the flavor profile and ingredients? Was it inspired by another nation’s or culture’s cuisine? And so forth… However, the cookbook stands strong (recommendation: buy, buy buy this cookbook!) as-is, even without these requested details.

Book Review: Tender

Nigel Slater is an iconic food personality in the UK. From what I understand, he’s a bit like the British version of Julia Child. I picked up a copy of his cookbook Tender, A Cook and His Vegetable Patch a couple summers ago at the Strand in NYC. It’s a thick volume on growing and cooking vegetables, which each vegetable given it’s own little chapter. I’m not much of a gardener, and our soil and weather conditions here in the States are different that those in the UK, so in my case, the gardening anecdotes Slater provides serve merely as charming and interesting backstory points of references for the recipes versus practical, actionable advice. The recipes he’s provided are quite varied, ranging from ordinary preparations most of us are familiar with such as roasted asparagus to more unusual ideas like Slater’s Beet Cake or his Curried Tomatoes. Of course I skew to that which is novel and exciting so I had to try my hand at the Beet Cake. It’s really quite extraordinary and quite nutritious as well, as far as quickbreads go. Plus the orange blossom glaze takes it to a whole other level – perfect tea cake for a party. This is one way to serve your kids beets without them catching on. Very clever recipe.

My only criticism with Tender is minor and completely unrelated to the quality of the recipes: many of the “vegetables” featured (such as eggplants, tomatoes, etc) are actually fruits. How’s that for nitpicky?

We should all be eating more vegetables and Tender features many novel preparations to keep things interesting at the dinner table.  A word to the wise for vegans – while this book focuses on vegetables, many, many of the recipes feature dairy or small quantities of meat.

Book Review: Foods of the Americas, Native Recipes and Traditions

One of the most interesting museums on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Ten Speed Press, in association with the museum has published a cookbook written by Fernando and Marlene Divina that celebrates the native ingredients of the Americas. Foods of the Americas, Native Recipes and Traditions highlights over 100 recipes featuring corn, potatoes, chile, berries, wild rice, and other iconic new world ingredients. In addition to the recipes, the Divinas’ have included a wealth of information on the history of such ingredients, the dishes created from them, and the people who have enjoyed them for centuries. The cookbook also features full color photography of recipes, ingredients, and historical vignettes.

I have made the tomatillo salsa, guacamole, tamales, and the empadas (South American version of empanadas) featured in Foods of the Americas. Everything was quite enjoyable, although it was my preference to add more seasonings to the empadas than the recipe called for in order to bring out the best flavor.

There’s a little bit of something new for everyone in this cookbook. If you’ve grown up in the American southwest for example, you might find the recipes that arose from the Pueblo and Navajo to be common to your childhood, but you’ve probably never been exposed to the culinary traditions of the Cherokee, Algonquin, Multnomah, or Chippewa. Likewise, if you’re from New England, Oneida cuisine might be pedestrian to you but what about the food of the Utes or Coos?

Foods of the Americas is a worthwhile addition to your cookbook collection. You can pick it up at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian or order it directly from Amazon.com.

Monday, July 8, 2013

On Dogs and Anxiety

We have two adorable dogs. 

Julia is almost eight years old. A beagle-Cattle Dog mix, we adopted her from our local animal shelter when she was almost a year old. When we first brought her home, she was friendly to strangers and other dogs but within a few months of living with us she became much more defensive and distrustful of both. Jolene is just a year and a half. She’s a Pomeranian-Corgi mix and just like Julia she has transformed from a friendly-to-everyone pup to a more aggressive and defensive dog. While both dogs understand some rudimentary commands like sit, stay, and shake paw, neither dog consistently behaves in the ways we’d prefer and I frequently worry about their interactions with other dogs and people. 

After a recent visit to the veterinarian wherein Jolene had to be restrained and muzzled to allow for examination we knew we had to do something. I have often seen other people out and about with well-behaved dogs and it seems like magic to me. I feel there must be some trick, some technique that I do not understand and it makes me sad because I want to be a good dog owner and I want my dogs to be well behaved and liked. I’ve dabbled in a few techniques I’ve read online but nothing produced lasting results or tampered their aggression and defensiveness. 

This week we finally turned to outside help. I was hoping that one of those affordable PetCo workshops would do the trick, but our vet said we’d be better off with a professional dog trainer so we reached out to the folks at Good Dog Workshop in Warrenton, Virginia. Our first session was at their location - a large farm out in the country. We met the business owners Brian and Christine and reviewed our concerns and the history of our dogs’ behavior. 

Before we even started any of the physical work with Jolene and Julia, Brian had a diagnosis: anxiety problem:  *my* anxiety problem. He looked me in the eye and explained to me that it was obvious from my demeanor, tone, and rate of speech that I am anxious. He noted that if he can sense it, the dogs can sense it, and they are feeding off it. They are actually anxious, not aggressive, and that’s important (and apparently good news bc truly aggressive dogs are more difficult to work with or something). I replied, “I don’t really think of myself as an anxious person”. I turned to hubby and gave him a look that asked, “Can you believe this guy?” and hubby gave me that funny little look he gives when I ask him a question he doesn’t want to answer.  Alarming turn of events, definitely, but I pushed aside my little defensive voice that wanted to argue the matter and decided to hear Brian out. He wanted to go with the assumption I was anxious, ok, let’s go with the assumption for now and see how things play out. 

We spent the next two hours working with our dogs under his direction. We learned how to “talk” to Jolene and Julia with our body language and some helpful training devices to make it clear we are the pack leaders. Brian told us that while some dogs are the dominant leader types and require more work to fall in line under a human leader, ours aren’t that type and would rather be led than be leaders. Both of our dogs want to behave, want to have a leader to rely on and are only defaulting to taking control because they don’t feel we are showing leadership. From the dogs perspective apparently *somebody* has to take charge and since we aren’t, they see no other choice but to try to run things themselves. Between the behavior directions we communicated to the dogs with Brian’s help and the behavior directions Brian communicated to me (relax, relax, RELAX), we started to see an immediate difference in how Jolene and Julia responded to us. Suddenly, WE had that magic that has eluded us for so long. We were even able to successful socialize our dogs with theirs without any behavior problems at all. Magic! 

We left our first Good Dog Workshop session with new information, a bit of new equipment, and a great new feeling of confidence. We will spend the next few weeks practicing what we have learned – in our neighborhood where other dogs are plentiful and in our home where guests are frequent – and see if we can completely turn around our relationship with our dogs and their behavior by the time our follow up session with Brian rolls around. That will be an in home visit where he comes to us and can give us more pointers in our own environment. 

Let’s come back to this issue of anxiety. As I mentioned, when Brian pointed this out to me I was not wanting to hear it. After subsequent conversations with hubby and a lot of worrying about the matter in my mind (AM I anxious? How did I not know I am anxious? Do my friends think I am anxious? Do my coworkers? Has this been impacting other areas of my life I’m not aware of? *worry worry worry*) it dawned out me: well, damn, if I am getting this anxious about possibly being anxious then perhaps I AM anxious. Of course, as an anxious person (look at me, claiming it now without defensiveness), realizing that I am indeed anxious has given me a whole new thing to be anxious about. Why am I am anxious? How can I stop being anxious? And so on…

I read this morning that one of the first steps in conquering anxiety is to write down a list of what makes one anxious. So here’s my list:

  • Loud noises incl thunder, fireworks, guns, engines backfiring
  • Unexpected physical things like the person standing next to me saying “boo” or hubby quietly walking into the room I am in without me knowing so that I turn around and suddenly see him
  • Balloons (because they might pop and make a loud noise)
  • Anyone but me driving – anxious someone will hit us from behind or the side, anxious we might do the same
  • Not getting over in the right lane far enough ahead of time to make the turn/exit
  • Procrastinating (because then I fall behind, which makes me more anxious, which makes me not want to think about the task, which means I can’t work on it, which makes me fall more behind)
  • Death
  • People possibly not liking me or thinking less of me
  • Our dogs misbehaving and getting into a fight with another dog or snapping at a person
  • What happens to our townhouse when it’s reached its end of life
  • Missing out on things
  • Developing health problems
  • Not being as fit as my husband (I don’t want him to run away with some beautiful fit girl from the gym)
  • God being disappointed in me or upset with me
  • People “discovering” I’m not as smart as they think I am
  • People thinking they are better than me or treating me like I am beneath them
  • Financial concerns (what if I lose my job?)
  • Yellowstone volcano erupting
That’s about all I can think of immediately. Seems like a lot, doesn’t it? Now I need to read up on what the next step is after completing the list…

More Adventures in Canning and Preserving

It was quite an exhausting weekend as our family spent most of it on our feet working on preserving fresh summer produce.  At least we didn't have to begin by picking the fruit ourselves as they did in the old days and thankfully, we have plenty of delicious creations to show for our hard work! 

Fresh Currants
After his early morning half-marathon run on Saturday, hubby and I drove to Fairfax to gather up the currants waiting for us at the Farmers’ Market. Kuhn Orchards (operated out of PA) is one of the only available sources for currants in the metro DC distribution area. We picked up 6 pints of black currants and 6 pints of mixed currants – red, white, and pink. White and pink are merely pigmentation variations of the red while black currants are quite different (larger and tarter). We also stopped by the Manassas Farmers’ Market to pick up 30 pounds of ripe fresh peaches for preserving (on sale for less than a dollar a pound!).
Fresh Peaches

 Our first task was to sort and stem the currants. A portion of the red currants was aside for a red currant and peach crisp, another portion of red currants was mixed with pink currants and set aside for Jonathan's mixed berry shortcake, a 3rd portion of red currants was set aside with a large portion of the black currants for black and red currant French macarons and the remainder of the black, pink, and white currents were reserved for jam. I put on some bluegrass music to pass the time away and we finished our task in just under 45 minutes. 

Sorted Currants Ready for Preserving
Immediately following I blanched and peeled nine pounds of the peaches. I spent the next six hours in the kitchen prepping various jams, preserves, and fruit in syrup. The French preserves cookbook I'm using is quite time consuming in its steps (some tasks designated for Saturday, some for Sunday after the fruit prep rests overnight) but well worth the effort. 

While I worked the preserves, hubby baked an elaborate shortcake to serve as the base for a red currant, strawberry, and raspberry shortcake for Sunday night’s dinner. We also prepped and froze a portion of the currants for future recipes like blackcurrant macarons.  After all that work, there was another hour in the kitchen starting at seven p.m. to make empadas (the Brazilian cousin to empanadas). Jon made and rolled out the dough and I made the filling and stuffed the pies. They were pretty tasty.

We picked up our work first thing Sunday morning and by nine a.m. hubby and I had finished preparing and canning 6 half-pints of black currant jam, 2 half-pints of white currant jam and 1 half-pint of red currant jam.  We also put away 2 half-pints of black currant jam and one quarter-pint of red currant jam in the freezer so that later in the year we can experience the taste differences between canned and freezer preserved jam. One interesting aspect of canning currants preserves: the white and pink currants maintained their beautiful jewel tones even after boiling them down to a thick jam and went into the pressure canner white and pink but came out of it almost as dark as the black currant preserves. I was able to find an article online that explained this is the normal outcome for white and pink currant jams post processing and the only way to avoid it is to freeze the jam instead of processing it in a boiling water bath or pressure canner. Now we know for next year.

Jon's Red Berry Shortcake
After an adventurous outing with our dogs (I’ll be writing about that in another post), we came back to canning in the late afternoon on Sunday.  I pitted a pound and a half of fresh cherries and prepped them for preserving before turning my attention back to the peach preserves I had started working on the day before. For the next couple of hours hubby and I worked together on the canning.  Our finished products included 5 half-pints of peach vanilla jam, 5 half-pints of peach lavender honey jam and 4 half-pints of cherry jam. Additionally we put up 4 half-pints of plain peach jam for some of our friends who had requested it.And of course hubby's red berry shortcake.
Difficulty: I still have more than 12 pounds (half a file box) of peaches left. We are going to slice and freeze a few pounds (for fresh raw peach flavor to add to smoothies, granola, etc.), slice and can a few pounds in light syrup, and eat the rest fresh this week.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Book Review: Upgrade

There is no shortage of authors lining up to tell you how to run your life and your business better. A glut of self-improvement books are on the market. Likewise, there are numerous titles covering business how-to and new books are released at a staggering pace.

Rana Florida (wife of “creative class” expert Richard Florida) has opted to combine a self-help and business guide in one handy book which she has titled, Upgrade: Taking Your Work and Life from Ordinary to Extraordinary.

Florida’s writing style is effective and conversational. She doesn’t cloud her text in obscure academic terms or complex business language. Readers will find her writing easygoing and direct. 

Her credentials in business include partnership in her husband’s successful consulting company, business school training, and years of corporate work as well as independent freelance jobs. In Upgrade, Florida lays down a blueprint for business and career success that emphasizes:

1. Boldness in thought and action; taking risks

2. Creativity and cultivating a creating environment

3. Collaboration on idea generation and solution execution

4. Failure is a necessary step along the path to success

Her business advice here is spot on and I have found that a willingness to take bold risks has especially been a key factor in my career success. Along these lines, I add to the chorus of praise and recommendations for Florida’s business prescriptions. 

Florida doesn’t specify her qualifications for dispensing personal advice and it the self-help portions of her book that are troubling. She decries hedonistic materialism as shallow but equates happiness associated with experiences (such as travel or fine food) as somehow more deep and wholesome. Don’t get me wrong, I find travel, fine food, and other experiences to be fun, but I don’t pretend that self-pleasure from experiences is higher and holier than self-pleasure associated with owning or using material goods. After all, it’s typically the experience of using the material things we amass that bring pleasure, not just possessing a thing for its own end.

An even greater problem than assessing her brand of hedonism as better than materialism is her overall focus on happiness and pleasure as the measure of a good life. She gives a quick nod to “giving back” but it’s clear from the percentage of page space she devotes to the happiness quest and the accomplishment quest (covered under the business advice section) that ordering one’s life around something other than one’s own pleasure and accomplishment is not her aim.

Ecclesiastes 2

I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. 2 “Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?” 3 I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives. 4 I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. 5 I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. 6 I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. 8 I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem[a] as well—the delights of a man’s heart. 9 I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.

10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun

Not only does Florida champion pleasure and happiness as our personal life focus she also callously recommends we drop anyone and anything that get in the way of that happiness. Sit down, and try to stomach her advice on time management:

“We complain that we don’t have enough time to get to the things on our happiness list or to execute  our vision for the future and that life is already too busy. This exercise allows us to free up our time to put ourselves first. Make a list of the people you spend time with. Now make one of these three marks next to their names: a negative (-), a zero (0), or a positive (+). A negative person is someone who drains you of energy and adds no value to your life socially, professionally, or otherwise. You know exactly who and what I’m talking about. We all have them in our lives: they just take, take, take. A zero neither adds nor takes away value. These people always seem to be hanging around or texting: ‘Hey whatcha up to? I’m bored.’ They are always bored. They target you and make you spend your most precious resource-time-to entertain them. these are people I consider filler. A positive in contrast is someone who adds real value to your life. You are learning from this person, who is helping you move forward. Take a long hard look at your list. Put a plus, negative, or zero next to each name. Really think about that person. Don’t get caught up in emotions. What contributions, what value are these people really adding to or taking away from your life? When you’ve given everyone a score, it’s time to cross off all the names you’ve marked with negatives and zeros. If you’re serious about improving and upgrading your life, it’s time to banish these people from your life or minimize your interactions with them. With your new found time you can go back to your passion list and devote more time to the activities that make you happy.”

That’s right. Your happiness must come first! Don’t ask what you can do for your friends, ask what they can do for you. And if the answer is nothing, then bye bye suckers.

More on time management and doing things with our friends and loved ones:

…”we could all relate, whether it’s wasting a precious Sunday afternoon at a baby shower……I’m not saying you should miss Nonna or Papu’s seventy-fifth birthday celebration and little Levi’s bar mitzvah, but we do need to train ourselves to stop and evaluate. Will this experience add value to my life or is it just taking time away from my mission statement and happiness list?….The next question is will it be more fun than staying at home in my pajamas, lounging around by the pool reading books, playing tennis, going for a walk, or anything else I added to my happiness list?”

“Now when I want to see friends it’s at a restaurant, where I know I don’t have to invest the extra production hours and can leave without having to kick them off my sofa. This may sound terrible but I assure you I love my friends and family. Still, when you only have so many hours in the day, each one that is hogged up becomes a reason to stress.”


Florida analyzes her decisions when it comes to friends, her happiness, and her time. And guess what, her happiness always gets top priority. She criticizes obligations and duties as time wasters and happiness interrupters. What a sad sad way to live your life Ms. Florida. Well, apparently not sad for you, but how sad for your friends.

Obviously as a Christian (or actually, simply as a human being), I can’t recommend anyone take Florida’s advice on how to order your personal life and manage your time. Upgrade hits bookstores in the Autumn of 2013 and there are going to be a lot of people creating lists of names with little negatives and zeros beside them. God help you if any of your friends buy this book – you better hope they score you well enough to make the cut.

Overall recommendation: See this book on the shelf, and keep right on walking past it. Yes, yes the business advice is good, but I’ve already summarized it for you above, so you’re good to go there.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

This Week is Brought to You by the Letter M

I really love to cook, the whole process from beginning to end (except the clean up; I hate cleaning up).  I enjoy putting together menus and choosing interesting dishes for my family to try. I feel at home in the grocery store, the farmers market, or specialty foods shop perusing the fresh items. Handmade pastas, delicate pastries, exotic produce, luscious yogurt, butter, and cheese. Fantastic! There’s a simple joy in feeling the weight of a ripe peach in my hand or bringing it closer and taking in its sweet scent. I feel connected to the land, connected to God, and bursting with love for my husband and our friends when I take the time to prepare good meals and offer hospitality.

I’ve been in a bit of a cooking funk lately, where I’ve gotten out of the habit of putting much care and thought into my meals and instead have been just throwing things together at the last minute. Quick, easy, and lacking passion, this has been the status quo for our meals in June. Part of it no doubt is the oppressive summer heat. And then there is also the project I embarked on to consume our existing store of meat and vegetables in our freezer. This is a project I conduct at least once a year to ensure we never have food over a year old remaining in our freezer.  It’s a practical idea in theory but it really puts limitations on menu planning. While the project is ongoing I am constrained to building meals around the ingredients I have on hand which means I either have to wing it or do a manual keyword search through my cookbooks for recipes that use these ingredients. That just takes an excessive amount of time – hours really – compared to choosing recipes from my cookbooks that I’m in the mood for and then building my grocery list from the recipes.

This week I’m still operating under the project but I’ve taken the extra time required to pre-plan the full week of daily menus built around ingredients on hand. This week is brought to you by the letter “M” for multicultural cuisine.

Sunday I prepared Japanese dumplings, fresh corn on the cob (in season, so we are eating it daily regardless), and spiced edamame. If you’re not familiar with edamame, it’s soybean, and it’s quite lovely served steamed at room temperature. I took my cue from a Japanese restaurant I enjoy in the Atlanta airport and tossed the steamed edamame with sautéed garlic and shallots, toasted sesame seeds and diced pickled ginger. It was really good.

Last night I prepared pork schnitzel and accompanied it with potato dumplings and corn on the cob. The plan was to make use of the mashed potato leftovers from our Sat night fried chicken dinner so the dumpling recipe out of my Vienna cookbook was a perfect fit as it called for a quantity precisely equal to the amount we still had. Except that the dumplings were pretty bland and unappetizing, even with gravy. Win some, lose some I guess.

Today I am putting together a fondue menu for dinner. There will be the usual oil fondue (Jon’s favorite) with steak and shrimp as well as a Caraway Gouda cheese fondue (with the cheese we brought back from Holland), and a cheesecake fondue with fresh berries and kiwi for dessert. This is a menu I’ve successfully executed many times so I’m confident it will go over well with our houseguest Michael. All of the recipes I’m using are printed in my copy of The 125 Best Fondue Recipes cookbook.

Tomorrow Michael heads back to his family and home in the Chicago area for the holiday so it will be just the hubby and I for the rest of the dinners this week. I’ve got some unusual and interesting dishes slated for Wed night – tomatoes roasted in coconut and cardamom, Vietnamese greens stir fried with ginger and fish sauce, and beet cake for dessert – that I’ve found in one of my British vegetarian cookbooks, Tender.

Thursday is our nation’s birthday and so we are having a festive party with a handful of guests. I’ll be preparing my favorite BBQ baby back ribs, my brother-in-law’s ranch bean recipe, my mother-in-law’s potato salad recipe,  and corn on the cob. My husband is preparing a massively complex holiday trifle that required him to begin the preparations two days ago. Should be amazing.

Friday we are going out to dinner in DC at a house restaurant called Thai Xing. It’s basically a restaurant operated out of a Thai couple’s home and gets rave reviews from all the guests. I’ve dinner here once before but it will be Jonathan’s first foray into fixed menu home restaurant dining in DC.

Saturday we swing away from the Thai food of the night before and right into the heart of Mexican cuisine with beef empanadas, Anasazi bean soup, hibiscus tea, and cornmeal berry cakes with cream for dessert. All of the recipes are pulled from my Food of the Americas cookbook that I picked up at the Smithsonian Native American Museum a few years ago.

Sunday I’m diving into recipes from a newly received cookbook that I’ve a deadline to review titled The Lebanese Kitchen. Our menu is comprised of a few mezze plates (hummus with chili oil, eggplant garlic dip, mixed salad), a main course of zucchini stuffed with lamb and orzo, and rosewater crème brulee to finish the meal.

Japanese, Austrian, Swiss, Vietnamese, American, Thai, Mexican, and Lebanese. Seems like a well rounded adventure in multiculturalism. Stay tuned for the eventual cookbook reviews that will be posted later this month.

As always, I’d love to hear from you about what you’re cooking up in your kitchen this week. Any new favorites?

Monday, July 1, 2013

Book Review: Songs of Willow Frost

One of the best aspects of being a book reviewer is the exposure to authors with whom I was not previously familiar. Instead of choosing books to read through my normal method - perusing the shelves at Barnes and Noble and admittedly judging by the covers – I’m voluntarily reading pretty much every book that comes my way via publishers seeking feedback.
This weekend I started and finished Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford. It’s set in the early 20th century against the backdrop of the great depression and focuses on a Chinese mother and son that have been torn apart by excruciating circumstances. I absolutely could not put this book down. Ford’s prose is beautiful and evocative. He expertly pulls readers into the story right from the first pages. I identified with this young abandoned son as we came to know him in his orphanage home. I felt his sadness as it was recounted by Ford; my heart welled up with anticipation and hope as his heart pounded with excitement of the same. Buoyed by a startling appearance of of a woman that looks and sounds much like the mother he presumed to be dead, our protagonist, William Eng, teams with his friend Charlotte to escape the orphanage and find Liu Song, who he believes is now entertaining audiences under the name Willow Frost. When he finally stands face to face with Willow, the information she conveys changes his life and outlook forever. In Songs of Willow Frost the question on every human heart – Am I truly loved – is asked and answered to a satisfying conclusion.
This is one of the best reads of 2013 so far. Recommendation: Strong buy.