Writer – Five Minute Friday

Usually when I get blogs sent to my email, I delete them in a hurry to “clean-up” and move on, forgetting the whole reason I subscribed in the first place. Today, something caught me and I stopped to read Lisa-Jo Baker’s post “Five Minute Friday:Writer”. Here’s the skinny: 

Each Friday, write on the given prompt for five minutes flat. No major editing, no worrying about punctuation or grammar - just write. Then post and share. Oh, and encourage the person who shared before you. That’s the ONLY rule. It’s a good rule.

Well…that sounded like an attainable challenge, one right up my alley. And so, I’m joining in. I’m inconsistent at best with posting, and maybe, hopefully, this can be a really, really good thing for me. 

Here we go…

Writer

This word brings up so many thoughts and emotions in me. I love writing. I’ve loved it since I learned how to write. I would steal away and write stories about anything and everything, but I was always afraid to share them, afraid to hear the critiques and the “This would be better if…” I mean after all I was 7 years old, I wrote for the adventure of it.

As an adult I have longed to sit down and write. I have a million stories in my mind, but always with the question – is it worth writing these stories? Is it worth the time, the criticism, the questions? And yet, so often in my life people have spoken over me about writing, about pouring myself out on the page. A quill pen, a symbol that was imprinted on my heart 6 years ago, and still, I don’t write.

Writing is intimate in its creation. And then so violently and quickly it becomes public. What you write and post you can’t take back – someone somewhere has seen it. How do you form into words those feelings those thoughts, so that they can be understood and shared? How do you take your heart and lay it on a page and watch as the world comes to take a look?

So I write. Privately. Secretly. And on rare occasional I’ll let someone in to read it. I’ll let someone see my heart there – red against white.

But I want to be a brave writer. I want to tell a story and to change a heart. I want to say “It’s okay – you’re not alone.”

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Lego Your Prego – Pasta Sauce

There’s something so deliciously satisfying about serving a meal that you made from scratch. I beam like a little schoolgirl when I place my homemade meal in front of my hubby. He appropriately smiles and ooh’s and ahh’s and I know my act of love has been accepted.

It’s easier than you might think to make things from scratch. But it can seem daunting at first. One of my favorite quick week-night meals is pasta. I make it in a myriad of variations and the possibilities are endless. I once made an Alfredo sauce that was to die for – but knowing how much cream cheese went into it made me worry for our coronary heath. So, that’s a once a year sort of meal. Okay, like three times a year but let’s not get crazy.

A simple red sauce is quite easy to make. From the base you can add cheeses, creams, spices etc. to make it whatever type of sauce you’re craving.  Here is my go to base:

*Please note I am a “by feel” cook and I guestimate most of my homemade meals. Start with a few spices, taste, and add as you desire. The more you do this, the more you’ll get a feel for how much of something to add from the start. 

PREP: 10 minutes         COOK TIME: 10 minutes       SERVES: 4-5*

*(Perfect for hungry hubby, guests, or left overs)

  • 2 8 oz cans of Hunts tomato sauce (Hunts uses steam to peel tomatoes rather than chemicals – GO HUNTS)
  • 1 14.5 oz can of Hunts diced tomatoes, drained
  • 1/2 tsp salt (or to taste)
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 tsp Italian Seasoning
  • 1/4 tsp Chili powder
  • 1/3 cup diced onion (more if you love onion)
  • 1 clove garlic, minced (substitute 1/4 tsp garlic powder, if needed)
  • 1 summer squash, peeled and chopped
  • 1 zucchini, peeled and chopped
  • 1/2 or 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1-2 handfuls baby spinach, chopped roughly
  • 1 TBS Olive Oil
  1. Heat 1 TBS Olive Oil in a large sauté pan on medium heat. When shimmering, but not smoking, add the diced onion and garlic into the pan. Stir constantly to make sure garlic doesn’t burn. Saute for about 1-2 minutes or until garlic is fragrant and onions starts to soften. *Note, I throw these in to cook while I peel and chop the other veggies.
  2. Add in chopped veggies – squash, zucchini, bell pepper – and sauté until veggies are tender, about 4-5 minutes. *You can add whatever veggies you like, but these blend well and I hardly know I’m eating veggies!
  3. Add in Italian Seasonings, chili pepper and black pepper, stir to coat all veggies. If you are substituting garlic powder, add it here. Let cook while you open up the cans of tomatoes.
  4. Add in tomato sauce and drained diced tomatoes – you might want to turn down the heat before you do this so the tomato sauce doesn’t splatter all over your favorite white shirt. Experience is a great teacher. 
  5. Add in the salt gently – there’s nothing worse than an over salted dish. But also nothing worse than an under-seasoned one either! Here is where you will add more of whatever spices are needed.
  6. Toss in the chopped spinach and stir it in so it’s under the nice hot sauce. Let it sit there and get nice and wilty while you drain the pasta and get ready to eat.
  7. NOTE: if you are cooking ground beef/pork you can cook that first, set it aside and saute the veggies in the brown delicious bits left in the pan. This really adds flavor. Same if you sauté some chicken and set it aside to rest. Re-add the meat at the end.

HINTS:

  • If it doesn’t taste “pasta saucy” enough, add in more Italian seasoning
  • If it tastes too “tomato saucy” add in a dash of salt.
  • If it’s missing “depth of flavor” try adding some garlic powder.
  • If all else fails, add cheese. :) 

VARIATIONS:

  • You can add in some heavy cream to make it a smoother creamy sauce. I do this when I’m feeling fancy.
  • You can add in grated Parmesan cheese – note that this makes it a little lumpy sometimes, but also tastes great!
  • Add cream AND cheese – mind blown!
  • Add a bit of cayenne to heat it up, add in cream, a dash of wine (sherry or the real stuff) and BAM, you have FANCY pasta sauce and your husband will declare “Let’s never eat out again!” and you’ll re-think this whole cooking from scratch thing.

SCALED DOWN VARIATION:

If you’re cooking for one and you don’t want leftovers for a week (who does, really?) here is a fun variation:

  • Spray PAM into a skillet, let it get really hot (smokin’) and toss in half a package of cherry tomatoes. Let them get blackened on all sides – shaking the pan occasionally.
  • When they are bursting, smush them with your spatula (again, avoid wearing a white shirt).
  • Add in the 8 oz can of tomato sauce, 1/4 tsp salt, 2-dashes chili powder, 2-dashes garlic powder, 1/4 tsp ground pepper, 1/4 tsp Italian Seasoning.
  • Add a dash of cream, and a dash of sherry or wine (if you have it, if not don’t sweat it).
  • Chop some spinach and throw it in, add your favorite protein, serve over pasta and enjoy!

There you go – a myriad of pasta variations! I think once you give it a try you’ll be sold – it’s easy, it’s healthy, it’s sugar and preservative free, so really, what’s not to love? And just think how you will impress your friends and family with your mad skills. Amazing.

Just as an FYI here are some quick facts on the top three store-bought pasta sauces and links to their nutrition info:

Happy pasta sauce making!

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Artisan Bread – 5 minute recipe

This is the second post in the series “Sugar Wars.” You can read post 1 here

One of the staples of American fare is BREAD. We love bread with everything. We love bread by itself! But, in the midst of our love affair, we might not realize that most varieties we buy in the store, even the healthy whole wheat ones, contain added sugar. Some sugars occur naturally in foods: fructose, lactose, and glucose as carbohydrate. While other sugars are added: sugar, high fructose corn syrup, etc., and these are what we have to be careful with.

Orowheat Whole Grain Bread for example has 3 grams of sugar per slice (our daily intake should be limited to 24 grams). The third ingredient is sugar, right after whole wheat, and water. Admittedly, there are bigger fish to fry than sugar in your bread, but it’s an important component to understanding how much added sugars we are consuming – especially in our savory foods. 

About 8 months ago I came across a recipe that has changed my view of bread making AND bread buying. It was a post by Frugal Living called “Amazing No-Knead Bread.” Oh how I love this recipe, let me count the ways:

  1. 5 minutes of work – start to finish.
  2. One loaf costs $0.40 cents to make.
  3. Fresh bread smells AMAZING!
  4. I know exactly what I’m eating: Flour-Water-Salt-Yeast
  5. It looks like this:

IMG_20130817_122331_314

I know…you can hardly wait to make a loaf! So let’s get to it!

I have made a few modifications to the method of preparation that Frugal Living describes in order to match our lifestyle and my love of simplicity.

1. I halve the recipe – this lasts me and my husband about a week. We eat some as a snack, along with meals etc. We rarely eat sandwiches so if you eat those daily, you should make the full recipe. Here are the halved amounts:

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1 1/3 cups cool water

2. Dump all ingredients into a large bowl and stir until it comes together. It will be sticky.

3. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or towel and set near the stove (or the warmest part of your kitchen).

4. Let the dough rise for 12-18 hours. NOTE – I usually mix it up in the evening after work, then put it in the oven the following evening after work. Thus I let it rise for about 24 hours.

5. After your dough has risen for 24 hours, it will be VERY sticky and bubbly. An hour before you want to bake it, sprinkle flour over the top and mold into a smooth ball, and let rise for another hour.

6. Pre-heat oven with heavy bottomed pot (mine is aluminum) in the oven. Plop the ball of dough in the preheated pot, cover and cook for 40 minutes at 425, then uncover and cook for 10 additional minutes at 425.

7. Take out of the oven, marvel at the beautiful thing you’ve just made, and place on a cooling rack.

IMPORTANT: DO NOT slice until it has cooled 100%. Otherwise you will have a dense block of bread and then you will be sad. Very, very sad.

We store ours in a gallon sized zip-lock bag, because we are classy like that.

This is such an easy recipe, much healthier without preservatives, and you can make it anytime you need it.  We’ve completely gone off store-bought bread and I’m quite happy.

I think you will be too.

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Sugar Wars

Sugar and I have a tumultuous history. As a child my mom would allow me one small cup of chocolate milk (my favorite) per week. And because this treat was so rare and cherished I would often drink part of it then stash the rest away in a secret hiding place to drink later. Being 5 years old and not understanding the concept of heat and bacteria, my treasured chocolate milk would usually be found, curdled, in some cabinet a week later.

My mom was wise and she knew that me + sugar = unruly, annoying, hyperactive, non-cognizant child. No one wants this child. I certainly didn’t want to BE that child. So she restricted my sugar intake judiciously.

Thus my childhood was fraught with conversations such as these:

Me: Mom! Can I have Fruit Loops? My friend’s mom gets them for her.

Mom: *Uproarious laughter that echoes across the grocery store*

Me: Mom, please, can I?

Mom: *Wiping away tears of laughter* “That was a funny joke. Ahh, let’s get some Shredded Wheat.”

As a child this was discouraging, slightly embarrassing, and altogether confounding. But I owe a great deal of my eating habits and taste to my mother who refused to let her child succumb to the sugary madness around her.  That’s what moms are for – to protect us 0-17 year olds against our wills, because let’s be honest, our little wills were still learning what would and would not kill us.

As I grew up I noticed that if I ate too much sugar I would start to break out, and then come down with a cold. As a result I continued to limit my sugar intake much as my mom had. Dorritos on the other hand I CRAVED, but that’s a confession for another time…

Not all of us were raised with mom’s who were in a battle with sugar. Not because they were bad moms or negligent, but simply because they didn’t know. And sugar is just so.darn.good so why would you deprive your child of the delights you enjoy yourself? And let me add here that I’m not advocating that sugar never be eaten, definitely not (let’s not go crazy here) but I do firmly believe that it should be moderated more severely than it currently is in our food culture. The issue, I think, is not that we let our kids eat a cupcake here and there, but that we really understand HOW MUCH sugar is in our daily foods. We’d be shocked. In fact, I was!

My friend, an awesome will-protecting, super-hero of a mom to two gorgeous daughters, recently shared this post by Brooke McLay called 25 Reasons to Stop Eating Sugar. My friend, a sugar lover herself, was challenged by this and determined to change the way she interacts with sugar. In this article McLay sites research that shows the effect that too much sugar can have on our mind and body. I highly suggest you take a moment to read this article, do more research yourself, and then come back if you’re interested in changing your intake.

In short we are recommended to limit our sugar intake to 24 grams (6 teaspoons) per day. But in fact on average we take in 22.2 teaspoons per day (Heart Association FAQ About Sugar). For some shocking amounts of sugar found in things from yogurt to pasta sauce, check out WebMD’s Sugar Shockers: Foods Surprisingly High in Sugar. This will only concern you if you understand the effects sugar has on our bodies. (That means read the 25 Reasons to Stop Eating Sugar – seriously, do it!)

So, in an effort to help my super-hero mom friend, and many others who want to lessen their sugar intake, I have decided to do a blog series on foods we can make at home to help control the amounts of sugar we take in.

While I am not a mom, yet, I would say that 99% of my friends are and as such I have a keen sympathy to the demands you have on your time and energy. I will do my best to share recipes that are actually attainable to the working (in-home, or out) moms and other’s with busy lifestyles.

So, stay tuned for recipes to be flooding your inbox (or coming in at a somewhat moderate pace), as I begin this blog series – Cooking at Home so Sugar Doesn’t Take Over Your Life! Or something slightly less dramatic…

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Back to School – Again

It has been almost a decade since I’ve been in school. Today I returned. 

To me, Fall begins when Back to School commercials appear on the TV once again. No matter how long I have been out of school I still get an urge to buy pencils, notebooks and binders and dig into a new textbook. I love learning, I always have. What I don’t love is the stress of grades and performance. I love learning without any restrictions or limitations (i.e. things that have to be turned in or known otherwise your teacher will be mad at you). If I could sit in on lectures and classes my whole life I probably would. Learning is beautiful, exciting and it opens up new possibilities. 

Since I began my job at our local University I have overheard my boss talking about courses he was auditing. Dreams of getting to take a class this fall began consuming my thoughts and finally I asked “Would it be possible for me to take French this fall?” My boss was thrilled. “Yes, take it with me! We can speak French in the office!” I gently reminded him that it had been almost 15 years since my last French class so I’d be starting at level one. His enthusiasm only slightly diminished, he replied “Oh, okay…well, take the afternoon class with Yann, he’s great!” With that, I submitted my form to the Registrar and my journey began.

Today was my first day of class. I worked over 45 hours last week preparing for our Freshmen to begin their college career, and I felt as excited, (probably more, if I’m honest) as they did walking to class today. I also felt a little nervous, hoping I’d find the classroom, hoping I’d not stand out too badly (I’m 10+years older than these kids) and that it would be as fun as I had hoped.

It was fun, but it was different. I was prepared with my paper and pen and yet I found myself feeling like I should’ve brought my iPad. I felt ill-equipped to jump into this 21st Century mode of learning. Our syllabus, powerpoints, labs, everything were online. I felt at a loss without a syllabus in my hand that I could jot notes on, unable to circle and underline and star important information. It was all on the screen, on the web, out of reach from my pen. 

The teacher however was not unfamiliar. A white-haired, charming frenchman he joked and laughed and made the class feel at home. He fiddled with the technology and although he used it well, it left me at a loss with my notebook. I jotted down a few words, just so my pen didn’t feel useless in my hands. 

This is a new world of learning. I still remember taking French when I was 16 years old at a local community college. The professor wrote the alphabet in chalk on the board and we practiced pronunciation over and over. Today, I watched a youtube video of a frog pronouncing the alphabet and I repeated after him. It’s a different world.

I am so excited to be in the classroom again, I love our professor, I enjoy my fellow students, and while I feel like an old hat at school in one sense, in another I feel oddly unfamiliar with this method. I know youtube, I’ve built several classes for faculty with the online format used, and yet, being on the receiving end I now realize that the classroom has changed. It’s not what I’m used to, it’s not bad, it’s just new. The way education is presented changes with each generation based on their culture and needs, but the foundational process of learning, analyzing, and assimilating information has not changed. I still learned how to pronounce the french alphabet — a frog taught me instead of marks of chalk. The basics are there but they come in a different package.

I’ll be honest though…I still miss the chalk. 

 

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Eat to Live

Eating healthy is always a nice idea. I love it, I try to do it, but sometimes it seems you have mill your own grains and search the supermarket aisles for elusive “super foods” to make these healthy recipes. I have a busy life, and even when I don’t sometimes I’m downright lazy and cooking ‘right’ falls in priority. However, a few weeks ago when I stepped on the scale and found I was the heaviest I have ever been, I decided that things needed to change. I have always been in shape but due to un-diagnosed back spasms that started almost three years ago, exercise (in the normal sense) has not been an option for me.

I decided that instead of using my neck and back pain as an excuse,  I needed to start finding the things I CAN do. If you focus on what you can’t, you never will. If you focus on what you can, you always will. I just made that up, but I’m pretty sure it’s true.

One of the things I CAN do, is make better choices in what I eat. I can be aware of how much I snack, what I snack on, and make slight changes that can help me. Because I can’t go do a hard-core session at the gym to work off those snacky calories, I have to pay a lot of attention to what I eat. (I also have to find physical activity I can do, but more on that later, this post is about FOOD!).

I figure most of us are looking for recipes that don’t have us growing our own corn in the backyard and eating hemp. But we still want meals that are packed with nutrition…oh yeah and that TASTE good too. Lets get real here, if it doesn’t taste good it isn’t going to stand the test of time. This is a lifestyle change we’re after here, not a fad.

So, as I go through this quest I want to share the recipes and ideas that work for me, in hopes that wherever you are at on your journey you can at least have access to some genuinely yummy healthy meals. Here we go…

Melt In Your Mouth Kale Salad

- This recipe from Foodbabe.com inspired me to try kale. This leafy green is packed full of minerals and vitamins that help us get the most energy into our bodies. I made this with just the dressing (lemon juice, olive oil, & honey) tossed in a handful of chopped raisins and we were good to go. It’s light, refreshing, sweet, and oh so healthy! (I bought chopped Kale at Wal-Mart and just gave it a quick dice, seriously like 5 mins tops for the whole salad).

Chili-Lime Kabobs

– From Allrecipes.com (my fave!!) comes this easy kabob recipe. I marinate the chicken, get cherry tomatoes, chop up red bell pepper and red onion and we’re good to go. These cook quickly on the grill. Serve with cous cous and the kale salad from above and boom, delectable healthy meal!

Spicy Chipotle Turkey Burgers

– I know what you’re thinking, “My husband will NEVER eat Turkey burgers!” well my hubby is the same, however I didn’t tell him what these were and when he ate it he said “I don’t know what kind of meat this is….but it’s good.” So, give it a whirl!

SMOOTHIES

I love smoothies! I especially love having a stick blender so I can make it in the cup and go! My basic recipe is this:

1 Banana

1 Handful blueberries (fresh or frozen)

2 Strawberries

1 packet milled flax seed (they say it’s good for me and I don’t notice it so…yay!)

1.5 cup milk or rice milk

Blend and enjoy!

You can add spinach, or kale, or really anything you like. The base is the banana and it’s a wonderful building block for whatever flavors float your boat.

I hope you enjoy these recipes. I will continue to post as I find delicious and healthy meals. Here’s to food, here’s to LIFE!

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Texas Traits

Texas grows on you. I must admit I don’t live in the most beautiful area of Texas, but it has its hidden charms. Namely, the people. I have never smiled at so many people, said hello to so many strangers, and felt so free to ask for help in a grocery store. In California, with some exceptions, I learned to avoid eye contact because I don’t know what invitation I might have just given with my smile. Or, and this really happened, I might “offend” someone by being too friendly…seriously? 

I have always been a friendly, albeit shy, person. But I had no idea how guarded I was until I moved out of California. Texans might just take the cake for friendliness and I find myself at an awkward loss wondering when I should make eye contact and when it’s okay to walk past without acknowledgement. 

I work at a small Christian University and the friendliness is exponential here. When I first started working I would purposely take the longer route to the mail simply to walk on a wider path so I wouldn’t be caught in the awkward “Do I smile now…no NOW!” dilemma. And I hate to admit it, but I appreciate the Freshmen who are just as awkward as I am and don’t know if they should smile at me or not. Kindred spirits. 

I’m not a Texan, but I like them. There is a certain passionate loyalty to their wide open grass plains, mesquite trees, and heat that is to be admired. Their great-grandfathers fought hard for the land and they passionately protect it. I am more of a mountain and ocean girl with lots of green to greet me, but the most beautiful thing about Texas — thunderstorms. I have never seen such impressive clouds, heard such deafening thunder, or seen such a display of fireworks in they sky. It is stunning. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it. 

Texas has been good to us so far, and I’m sure it will continue to be. It may not have been my first choice of location, but if I’ve learned one thing through my travels it’s that there is something beautiful and special about every place you go. To be happy in the desert you must find the flowers. 

The thunderstorms and, most importantly, the people are my Texas flowers. Stunning.  

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