Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Thirty-nine good deeds

A couple of weeks ago I watched a video on facebook where a young man in India performed 21 good deeds on his 21st birthday.  (And of course, now I can't find the video.)  The acts ranged from watching a tollgate for a guard so he could use the restroom to feeding the homeless. 

Later that week, I was in a bookstore and found a title of a book that looked interesting.  I was having a crummy day and needed some inspiration, so opened the book to that date.  Turns out Erin had had a bad day, too: it was her first deedless day.


I took a picture of the book and vowed to check out at the library.  Then I went back to my day, trying hard get over my curmudgeonly and pissy mood.

The universe seemed to be working to get me to do something.  The book and the video stuck with me, never far from my thoughts.  I finally decided to do 39 good deeds in conjunction with my 39th birthday (which isn't until August 2013).  Would I attempt 39 deeds in one day?  Would I focus on doing one a day for the 39 days before my birthday?  I didn't know but it would be my way of thanking the world for letting me occupy it for 39 years.

I did worry, however, that many of the deeds would cost money we can't spare.  Sure, it's lovely to purchase the next drive-up person's order, to donate money to a charity, to buy a kid's school fundraiser items, but what if I just don't have the cash?  We are on a very strict budget.

A couple of days after having seen the book, one of the bloggers I follow on facebook announced that her friend, Erin McHugh (see above), was giving away e-copies of her book for one day only on amazon.com.  Wait a sec... that's the book I was coveting!  And it's free!  I rushed and got myself a copy. 

Happy happy joy joy!

The book has provided me with a lot of inspiration.  Good deeds mean calling a friend, being reliable, giving credit where credit is due, helping others find joy, and more.  I'm really enjoying the book and am so glad that I own a copy because I know I'll read it again.

This morning as I walked from my car to my office I noticed an abandoned Safeway shopping cart on campus.  The nearest Safeway is well over a mile away.  I'd seen the cart there for the past few days but not done anything.  I live near another Safeway and am constantly taking back carts that people have thoughtlessly left in the street.

Rather than grumble to myself about careless people, I whipped out my cell phone and called the number on the cart to report its location.  That was a much better way to start my day than getting worked up about the cart having been left on campus by some jerk.

Sometimes good deeds are more dramatic. 

Yesterday a coworker came to my office doorway and said, "Jenn, I think I'm going to pass out".  Then he did.  I had just enough time to get to him and lay him down gently on the ground.  I put my coat under his head, called his wife, kept him company until the paramedics arrived, then helped keep curious students at bay so that he could have some privacy.  I was pretty amped up on adrenaline for the rest of the afternoon and got very little work done.

(And Erin McHugh says that good deeds don't fall into your lap!)

Just last Thursday I found a debit card on the ground near a window well.  I glanced into the well and saw what appeared to be a driver's license.  I climbed down into the well and retrieved the card: it had the same name as the debit card.  I reported the find to the the police and left the items at a nearby bakery.  That morning wasn't completely altruistic: I'd missed my stop because I'd been eavesdropping on some very personal conversations on the bus.

And so it would seem that my 39-deed pledge has begun without my having realized it.

Won't you join me in a similar pledge?  The purpose of sharing the good deeds isn't to tell us how wonderful you are - we already know that! - but rather to inspire others to take action and influence in a positive way the world around us all.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Gourmet eating on a Top Ramen budget

In the first two weeks Marius was here, I bought bananas no fewer than seven times.  He ate at least 2-3 each day, on top of the other fruits I had on hand.  Our weekly milk intake went from 2 half-gallons, which included my bi-weekly yogurt production, to closer to 5 gallons.  I hate to admit it, but I've had to get a Costco membership and shop at discount grocery stores to stretch our food budget as much as possible.  Since coupons are so often for processed foods we don't use, that hasn't been an avenue to help the old bank account.

After Marius had been living with us for a couple of weeks and we started to realize just how much he really eats, I started asking work colleagues with teen boys what they feed their plague of locusts kids to satisfy them without bankrupting the family budget. 

One coworker's suggestions were full of processed foods: mac-n-cheese from a box, pre-made PBnJ sandwiches, pizza rolls, instant noodles, etc.  That wasn't going to happen (and clearly she doesn't know me very well!).

I started focusing on increasing his share of carbs, and finding things to make him feel satisfied after a single serving: trail mix, pasta, rice, cheese sticks, bread.  That definitely helped.  Introducing him to peanut butter has helped, too.  Instead of eating 3 bananas, he now eats a peanut butter and banana sandwich on wheat bread.  We don't want him to not eat, we just want him to eat smarter.

I'm the sole wager earner in the household right now, and bringing home an educator's income at that, so we've had to very closely monitor our food budget.  We are a cash-only household on principle and things have been tight this month.  After paying bills at the end of September, I knew that October was going to be a lean month.  Feeding two adults, a mobile infant, and an athletic teenager on a tight budget has been a herculean, but not impossible, task.  I refused to eat pasta for a month or to serve crap food.

Thank goodness for a well-stocked pantry, creativity, and kitchen know-how.  In the past three weeks, we've only purchased perishables and bread.  Here are some of the things we've had:
I even made tomato jam and took corn bread to a work potluck.

Kaelen has been gorging himself on home-canned foods, some of which are favorites if wild kicking of feet is any indication.  Peaches, green beans, pears: he's eating food by the fistful and has loved all the quick breads I made.

Thanks to a friend's generosity, I am in possession of a mountain of rainbow chard, kale, cabbage, beets, lettuce, green tomatoes, and a spaghetti squash.

Tonight we're having kale with sausage and white beans for dinner.  Technically the white beans are Peruvian yellow beans I bought out of culinary curiousity a couple of months ago, but who's going to judge me?

Tomorrow we'll have a green tomato and chard gratin.  I'm going to throw in the last of the coppa I found in the freezer.  Tuesday will be spaghetti squash with pasta sauce.  Wednesday we'll have sloppy joes and sweet potato fries.  I think Thursday the last of the pork chops will be brought forth and served with rice pilaf and green beans.

Luckily for us, hosting an exchange student comes with a stipend. The first month's check, received at the beginning of October, paid off the futon we'd purchased for his new room.  That's part of the reason why these past weeks have been exceptionally tight: none of the stipend has been available to go toward the very real living expenses.  October's funds will restock my pantry and allow us a little more wiggle room.  My freezer is nearly empty and just about all of my staples are gone.  I'm literally scraping the bottoms of containers to get sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and similar items.  I still have a nice supply of items I canned: green beans, chili, tomatoes, tomato sauce, peaches, pears, pickles, beans, jams, and more.  That said, there are a lot more empty jars than there were a month ago.

The last few weeks have been very tiring for me.  I love cooking: it's a challenge and a puzzle and is interesting.  But there's been no break: no take-out, no "wanna go grab a sandwich?" moments, no dinner out.  Every single day I've had to figure out what to make that will not only feed the four of us but will also provide enough leftovers for lunch the following day.  There have been days where all I did was plan what I was going to cook, cook it, clean up from cooking, and plan for the next bout.  I went to work each Monday exhausted from having devoted so much of my weekends to finding ways to get healthy food into mouths creatively and economically.

But I did it.  Marius, whose older sisers both studied in the USA and told him that Americans eat mostly fattening fast food and "from powder" (mixes), has said over and over again how happy he is to live with a family who cooks real food.  I used up some odder things in my stockpile and finished up lots of odds and ends.

Payday is Thursday of this week.  I'd planned on going grocery shopping on Thursday night after work but in surveying what's still left in the house, I think I'll go Friday morning instead.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Lactose-free pumpkin pie

Last weekend we had out-of-town guests for dinner.  I knew that the wife is vegetarian so checked with her husband ahead of time if she ate eggs and cheese.  He said yes, so I went forward with my plans to prepare shakshuka.  It's an easy and hearty vegetarian entree that can be stretched by serving it over rice.

On a side note, the first time I made this dish for Marius, our 15-year-old German exchange student, he was sampling tidbits from my cutting board and got quite a shock when he nabbed a hot pepper.  I laughed and said, "that'll teach ya".
The day before our friends came over, we were all together at a Renaissance-themed wedding.  Here's a photo of the wedding party.  Gene, Kaelen and I are about 1/4-way from the right: I'm wearing orange and holding Kaelen.  Gene's grinning from behind the guy in the fleur-de-lys robe and hood.  And the newlyweds are in the sage-green velvet dress and kilt at the center.  We're so happy for them!

It's early and I'm pre-coffee.  Bear with me... I have a point.

While we were at the wedding, I double-checked with Rejoyce (pictured 3rd from right in a traditional Kyrgyz matron's dress) that she ate eggs and cheese.  She kind of blanched and said she could, but preferred not to due to lactose intolerance.




Luckily, shakshuka is easy to prepare without eggs and cheese.  I made it up to the point where I add the eggs, then pulled out a portion for her.  To hers I threw in some spinach and VOILA: vegan entree for her.

That morning I had chatted with my aunt on the east coast while she was making a pumpkin pie.  Marius has been curious about pumpkin pie, which is also Gene's favorite, and so I decided to make one.

But wait a second.  Pumpkin pie has quite a bit of dairy in it.  Interwebz to the rescue!

Any ingredient I wouldn't quickly and earily use was out.  I didn't want to get stuck with a tub of silken tofu, a bag of spelt, or cartons of soy milk so any recipe that called for them was out of the question.

I decided on a store-bought graham cracker crust.  A little bit of research brought me to this recipe.  It turned out beautifully.  Every single morsel of that pie disappeared by the time the dishes were cleared.   With the holidays coming up, be a dear and make a dessert your lactose-intolerant guests can eat.  They'll thank you for it.    
LACTOSE-FREE PUMPKIN PIE Recipe from Dairy-Free.Food.com   1 unbaked 9-inch pie shell
2 eggs
1/2 cup brown sugar*
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4-1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups mashed cooked pumpkin
1 cup soymilk, rice milk, almond milk, or non-dairy coffee creamer*
(*I used vanilla-flavored creamer and found that the recipe was very sweet.  Reduce the sugar somewhat if you use a flavored creamer.)
  1. Whip eggs until frothy.
  2. Beat in sugar, then spices and salt.
  3. Add pumpkin and soy milk and beat until well blended and smooth.
  4. Pour mixture into pie shell.
  5. Bake at 450F for 10 minutes.
  6. Reduce heat to 350F and bake for 30 to 35 more minutes.
You can top it with your choice of a whipped cream or ice cream - with or without lactose - and nobody will even know the difference.


And, because I only used half of the can of pumpkin, I made my favorite pumpkin bread last night.  Pumpkin bread for breakfast!  Booya. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Tomatillo chicken with piloncillo

We got rid of cable several years ago and haven't looked back.  Having rabbit ears on our TV does get annoying, especially when large planes running powerful radar are doing touch-and-gos at nearby Joint Base Lewis-McCord, but we're used to getting about four channels now.

About a month ago I was watching PBS and came across a show making things with tomatillo.  I was intrigued because they were in season (and are still readily available).  The first two things she made were not new to me.  Then she made something she called "Pollo con Tomate Verde, Chipotle y Piloncillo": chicken with tomatillo, chipotle, and piloncillo.

Now she had my attention!  Piloncillo is that brown cone-shaped thing you may have seen either in the produce or Hispanic sections of the grocery store.  I'd seen them before but never knew what it was or what to do with it.
It turns out it's just unrefined cane sugar that's been pressed into a very hard cone.  To use it, you simply grate it.  At around $1.50 each, they're cheap and apparently they last indefinitely.  And it you don't have one, it's can be replaced with regular brown sugar.
I made her recipe and let me tell you: it's delicious.  Because Gene doesn't like onions, I pureed the sauce once it was done and served the dish with brown rice.  There was not a single peep from the peanut gallery about the onion content.  It was mildly sweet, tangy, and had just enough kick to be interesting.  I made it with chicken thighs.  Make yours with whichever cut of chicken you prefer. 
If you like spicy food, use 2 chipotle chilis, otherwise 1 is enough.  I hate opening a jar of chilis in adobo because I rarely get around to using that rest of it.  If you have this problem, freeze the leftover chilis and sauce in an ice cube tray and then transfer the cubes to a plastic baggy later.  Don't forget to label the bag.  One time I made spaghetti sauce with cilantro instead of basil.  It was unforgettably wretched.
CHICKEN IN A TOMATILLO, CHIPOTLE AND BROWN SUGAR SAUCERecipe from Pati's Mexican TableServes 4 to 6INGREDIENTS3 chicken leg quarters, or a combo of drumsticks and thighs, rinsed and patted dry 1/2 tsp kosher or sea salt, more or less to taste 1/4 tsp black pepper, freshly ground 1/4 cup safflower or corn oil2 cups white onion, sliced 2 garlic cloves, chopped 2 lbs tomatillos, husks removed and rinsed, quartered 4 tbsp piloncillo, shredded, or substitute for brown sugar 1 chipotle chile in adobo sauce, plus more sauce if desired 2 cups chicken broth, or water
TO PREPARE Sprinkle the chicken pieces with salt and pepper.

In a thick and tall heavy skillet or casserole dish, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the chicken pieces. Brown on one side, for about 4 to 5 minutes and then flip and brown on the other side, for another 3 to 4 minutes. Don't try to flip too soon or the skin will stick to the skillet. Remove the chicken pieces and place in a bowl. You may remove the skin if you wish, I don't.

Add the onion to the skillet and cook, stirring for about 3 to 4 minutes, until softened. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant, for about 20 seconds. Make room in the pan and add the tomatillos. Let it cook all together, for about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the piloncillo, the chipotles and their sauce and stir well. Once it comes to a simmer incorporate the chicken pieces along with the chicken broth and cook for about 30 to 35 minutes, stirring occasionally. The sauce should be chunky and thick, and the chicken fully cooked.

(I apologize for not using any of my own pics.  I did take some when I was preparing this recipe a full month ago but haven't had time to download them from the camera.  Indeed, just while writing this post I've over-steeped a full French press of coffee and Kaelen has fallen once and bonked his head.)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

She brought a tear to my eye

Warning - if you're squeamish about eyes, read no further.
Last Thursday at work I noticed an enormous new floater in my right eye.  The outline of it looked like a monkey hanging from a vine.  It was very annoying because it was right in the center of my field of vision.  Sometimes when I looked from my computer screen to my keyboard I noticed a momentary flash of light. 

Frustrated with a technical glitch discovered while editing my department's website, I took an earlier than usual lunch.  My usual lunchmate was busy so I sat and ate by myself.  It was during that quiet time over lunch that the words of warning from doctor upon doctor returned to me: "because of your extreme myopia, you are at high risk for retinal detachment.  Should you ever see flashes of light, call a doctor immediately".

I started paying closer attention to the flashes and the floater, then I looked up symptoms of retinal detachment on my phone. 

Holy crap:
  • flashes of light... check
  • sudden onset of large floaters... check
I hightailed it to my office and called the eye doctor right away.  While I was speaking to a technician, I remembered that the previous night Rosemary had gotten a little too excited and had head-butted me in the eye. It had hurt like hell.  After a couple of minutes the pain subsided and I had forgotten all about it.

But wait.  An eye injury was also on the list of symptoms of retinal detachment.  Oh no.  Rosemary's head-butting to my eye counted as an injury.
  • recent trauma to the eye... check
The nearby eye clinic didn't have an appointment.  They wanted to know if I could drive to the clinic that's about 15 miles away in an hour.  Does a bear poop in the woods?  Hell yes, I can get myself there.  I drove home, grabbed Gene, and we went up together.

We walked into the clinic at 2:10.  By 2:45 I had been diagnosed with a horseshoe retinal tear but not retinal detachment.

The optometrist said that the resident opthamalogist would perform immediate laser surgery to repair it. 

"Whuuut?  You mean, right now?" I gaped ever-so-eloquently.

"Yes.  We're going to 'spot weld' the tissue around the tear in place to prevent further leakage of the fluid in your eye and to avoid any loss of sight.  Gravity will continue to pull at that tear and you don't want to wait any longer than necessary.  If you leave it, it'll develop into full retinal detachment and you'll go blind in that eye."


I must have looked like a fish, opening and closing my mouth without saying anything.  I had been expecting this to happen - for years, actually - but it was going really fast.  Gene is squeamish about eyes the way I am about broken bones.  When I went into the waiting room to tell him what was happening, he visibly blanched.

About 30 minutes later I had laser surgery.  It's not a pleasant procedure.  Some of the 350 laser blasts hurt, but at least I'd been warned of that fact in advance.  The hardest part is getting over the insanely strong urge to close your eye due to the bright flashes of light.

The upper back part of of my eye now looks like this. 
My eye has a 'fro'd-out happy face because it can still see.

The new floater is omnipresent, and make take a few months to go away.  I've also got a small blind spot from the tear where the laser and tear were: like I've been looking at a bright light (which I guess I did) and/or have something on my cheek.  I also have lots of little black specks in my field of vision, which cause me to wave off nonexistent fruit flies, imagine phantom rats and cockroaches scurrying by, and turn my head to see birds that aren't really there.  My vision is hazy in that eye and I've got a follow-up appointment scheduled in another week.

I'm glad that I'd listened to doctors all those times I'd been told of the warning signs of retinal detachment.  I'm fortunate to have decent health care.

But most of all, I'm thankful I can still see with both eyes.