Friday, January 31, 2014

Out and about

It was a sunny, warm day, no meetings or deadlines for once, and the forecast for the day was good enough that I was sure to get somewhere and back without sliding off the streets, and so it was the first trip to the coast for 2014. It definitely felt more like March than the last day of January. Melting snow, mild temperatures, and an intense sun that woke up all summer loving molecules in my body although the long bays of the Maine Gulf are still frozen.

I stocked up on all types of groceries, a fresh block of parmesan cheese, organic arborio rice from the bulk bin, a huge bottle of black cherry balsamic vinegar, and a jar of creme fraiche. At Chase I was tempted by the tomato tarts, but ended up with the pinto bean soup with pico de gallo and cilantro. I browsed cookbooks and fermentation books, and fell in love with a 2 quart le creuset. Sadly, the devastation to the trees during the ice storm around Christmas, which hit the coastal region much harder, is still visible everywhere.

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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Through the backdoor

I started out this blog with writing about what it really takes to loose the last 5-10 pounds that seemed to often between me and a weight with which I am content. That weight is different for everyone, some love their curves, some like really skinny, there is no right answer besides the one that I have to be happy with me. Over the time there was frustration when I felt I did everything ‘right’ but the weight would either not budge or go up. It happened for years. Things that defied the opinions of physical law or current dieticians like “if you burn more energy than you eat you will loose weight.” Nope, never did anything for me.  Others are ‘lean proteins!”, think Greek yogurt and organic chicken. Nope, not for me, I bulked up seemingly having a propensity to build muscles really fast, which would be great if I would like to become a body builder. Only clean eating and eventually vegan eats made a significant difference and I finally ended up without problems at the weight I am happy with and definitely don’t want to loose anymore, and keep it there for more than 10 days. I would be able to maintain for a half year without a problem.

Sometimes, of course, there are times when the some pounds come back on. For me it is often stress, stress at work, private stress, sometimes it is things like too many parties and invites or eating out, or the holidays. But normally I know if I get back to vegan eats, avoid bread, and if that does not help cut out wine for a while, I am back to my ‘happy weight’ in no time.  --- This is why this time around it started to become quite frustrating when it did not work. I scratched my head “what am I doing differently/wrong?” Yes, there was a stressful phase at work with a deadline but that was a while ago. Yes, I don’t sleep well some nights and the next day seem to want to inhale carbs. But still, ….. and the scale continued to creep up.

I started to feel depressed. Yes, it is cold, winter, dark, but not enough snow to go skiing and get some mood lifting fresh air. I lost interested in dressing up, and all my tasks at work started to feel like a drag. I felt depression looming and asking myself how I would get through the days with out being  a major grump. I blamed it all on the weather and work.

But on Monday, it finally clicked. I saw that I had eaten almost 2 bars of my favorite chocolate in 2 days. Drinking a cup of hot tea I would break off a piece of the chocolate and eat it instead of sugar. But 2 bars in 2 days? I think it all started with the Christmas cookies. Cookies in my office with that cup of Starbucks. The tasty Gingerbread lattes with the 3 pumps of syrup (unfortunately, there was no sugar free version but those taste terrible any way). A spoon of sugar with the hot tea. Some chocolate here and there. And through the backdoor, refined sugar had entered my diet again, in a major way, spoonful by spoonful.

Tuesday I went cold turkey. I paid attention to the sneaker upper of sugar. Switched to Tazo Orange Blossom tea instead of flavored lattes. Had maybe half a cookie a day, not 10 here and there. Now, 3 days later I not only feel lighter, but also more energized and my brain fog has lifted. The onset of depression has completely dissipated,and I have more energy than is good for me. Plus, I have a clear mind again. No more grumpy, complaining grouch. ---- It is really a wake up call for me, because refined sugar was one of the first things I ever weaned myself from to keep my weight. Before bread, crackers, stress, and everything else. And here it was, back in my diet through the backdoor in the form of Christmas cookies and Gingerbread lattes.
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(courtesy bakerella)

Intrigued I did some google-research to find out more about the chemical link of sugar and depression. I suspect it has to do with the hormonal balance. This is what I found:
“Refined sugar consumption suppresses brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF, an important growth hormone in the brain. This growth hormone is extremely important for the health of neurons in the brain. BDNF triggers new connections between neurons in the brain which is crucial for memory function. Studies have shown low BDNF levels in patients with depression and schizophrenia. The consumption of refined sugar has the potential to exacerbate depression and schizophrenia by contributing to low BDNF levels.”

“Refined sugar is notorious for causing increased inflammation in the body. Regular consumption of refined sugar can lead to chronic inflammation which can disrupt immune system functioning. Chronic inflammation is implicated in arthritis, some forms of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease among many other illnesses. Chronic inflammation has also been linked to a higher risk of depression and schizophrenia. Psychologists who have become aware of the recent research on sugar and mental illness have begun recommending sugar free diets to patients.”

“Dr. IIardi, associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, stated that he has encouraged depressed patients to remove refined sugar and refined foods from their diets. Patients who were willing to comply to these recommendations reported significant improvements in mental clarity, mood and energy. Research and patient experiences indicate that a diet high in whole grains and low in refined foods and sugar can provide significant improvement in mental health, clarity and reduced risk of mental illness.”

Learn more: http://www.naturalnews.com/032689_sugar_mental_illness.html#ixzz2rsxvJPjV

So,  the cycle of  “I am so tired, I deserve a little sugar boost” might lead right into the symptoms one wants to beat: exhaustion, being tired, lack of energy. --- Without refined sugar, the scale is also moving. In the right direction again. But just being happy again is really the benefit worthwhile.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Flavorful Vegetable Broth inspired by Ottolenghi

Sometimes you read a recipe and it sounds like Shakespeare: you know it has to be good. This happened to me when I read Ottolenghi’s recipe for a vegetable broth as a base for Thai soups or a Vietamese pho. It has all types of ingredients and in the original UK version it also includes dried plumes. I think they are essential for this flavorful broth. Enjoy!

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Flavorful vegetable broth (for 4 people);
2 medium onions, peeled and cut into large pieces
3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into large pieces
6 sticks celery, roughly chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled
2 inch ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
Vegetable oil
2 lemongrass stalks, very roughly chopped
8 prunes
1 red chili, roughly chopped
2 star anise
2 tbsp soy sauce
In a large pan, char the onion, carrot, celery, garlic and ginger in a tiny amount of oil. Cook for five minutes, or until the edges begin to colour. Add 2 quarts of water, the lemongrass, prunes, chillies, star anise, soy, lime leaves and coriander root. Cook on a low simmer for at least 45 minutes, to infuse. Strain the stock, and discard vegetable. Fill in a container and chill.
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For a Thai soup (1 serving)
2 enoki mushrooms
5 shitake mushroom
handful rice noodles
1/4 red bell pepper, cut in thin stripes
a few edamame
Toasted sesame oil, to finish

Bring 2-3 laddles of the stock to a low simmer.  Add the enoki and sbitake mushrooms and the rice noodles and cook for 3 minute. Add the remaining ingredients apart from the sesame oil, and heat through for a minute. Taste, adjust the seasoning as needed, and ladle into warm bowls. Finish with sesame oil, not more than a few drops in each bowl, and coriander leaves.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Best basic tomato sauce ever

It is Sunday, finally a day off from thinking about work and just lingering, shoveling some snow, not too much, 3 inches, not too cold, just 15F, and sunshine. Getting the remaining groceries I did not get yesterday while shopping at the grocery store with the shortest path from Starbucks. This the morning I started cooking a long, slow cooked tomato sauce with San Marzano tomatoes (RedPack seem to be the best, but no avail around the woods of Maine). It called for ‘put together the ingredients and then slowly cook for 1 hour for the flavors to fuse.” This is key --- the long, slow cooking to bring out the flavors, make the sauce denser and sweet. Typically I would rip the sauce off the stove after 10 minutes cooking. --- Long slow cooking, so worth it for this sauce. It would be great also cooking in a slow cooker.

It was bubbling away while I shoveled snow. In the evening, I made meatballs, a combination of lean beef and lean turkey, and an eggwhite slushy mixed up in the Vitamix with a garlic clove, a bit of sweet onion, cilantro, some salt and pepper, pan fried and then cooked in the sauce for another hour. Quite right for a Sunday evening meal --- spaghetti and meatballs. Now, what to watch on TV? The Grammys? Downton Abbey? The Kardashians? The Housewives of Atlanta? or some Bachelor who actually for once made it to his wedding? Decisions, decisions…. 

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Best simple tomato sauce ever (with meatballs)
Makes 4-5 servings:
  • 1 large can San Marzano tomatoes
  • 1 regular can tomato sauce
  • 2 TB tomato paste
  • 1/2 sweet onion, small diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, microplaned
  • 1/2 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 ts butter
  • 1/4 cup red wine or beef broth and 1 TB balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2-1 TB turbinado sugar (raw cane sugar)
In a large heavy bottomed pot, heat the olive oil and fry the onions on medium heat until they slightly brown.

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Microplane 2 garlic cloves and add to the pot.

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Add a teaspoon of butter at this point, and melt in.

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Gently fry the garlic (make sure it does not burn) and add the red wine (or beef broth) to the onion mix. Use a wood laddle and scrap the brown, caramelized bits off from the bottom of the pot.

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Cook off the liquid until the onions are almost dry again.
In a blender, puree the tomatoes (or break up by hand or with a potato masher if you like a chunky sauce).
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Add  1 can of tomato sauce (not pictured) and 2 TB of tomato paste.
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Stir the tomato sauce in the pan to mix all the ingredients well. Crush fresh ground pepper over the sauce. Bring to a simmer, cover with a heavy lid, and simmer on medium low heat (barely bubbling) for 1h.
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Meanwhile, make meatballs (if you like). Otherwise, finish off the sauce with some fresh basil and a half tablespoon turbinado sugar. --- Done.
Meatballs:
  • 5oz lean beef
  • 5 oz lean turkey
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 garlic glove, peeled
  • 1/2 peeled sweet onion
  • 1/2 ts salt
  • fresh ground pepper
  • frew branches of cilantro
  • 3 TB  of grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs
In a blender, mix together the eggwhite, the garlic clove, sweet onion, salt,  pepper and cilantro, and make a slushy. It makes sure that the flavors distribute through the meatballs.
Mix together the meats, slushy and bread crumbs.
From small balls in your hands, and fry in a pan from all sides (my seem to always come out at triangles).
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Once browned at to the sauce, and cook for another 45h min. (Just imagine how the meat infused tomato sauce will taste).
Now, make pasta of your choice, and dinner is ready.
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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Easing into the weekend

It is Saturday morning, the skies are gray, there are snow showers on the way, but I hope they won’t hamper the trip to the mall, and some working at Starbucks later. I wonder if GAP has any new clothes by now because the period between Christmas and the end of January is a fashionable deadzone. It is also time for the weekly grocery haul, filling up the fridge with veggies and fresh made mushroom ravioli. This week I was good with bringing my own lunch salads. Recently I bought this great stainless steel container which is lighter than a glass container but not containing the doubtful materials of plastic. More home made salads, here I come.

Saturday morning often starts out for me with tuning into the FoodNetwork. This morning it was definitely worth it because for some reason I must have missing the meteoric rise of Rocco Dispirito as celebrity chef, but when he explained how he brought his (Italian) mom’s meatball and spaghetti dish from 1100kcal to 310kcal with all kinds of flavor enhancing tricks that I did not know before (and had a hunch that they could work), I was sold. Or better, 2 of his cookbooks sold on Amazon: his original book Flavor which received a James Beard award in 2004, which I bought used for $0.88, and the “Eat this now! Italian dishes under 350kcal” also for a couple of bucks. As Italian guy I guess it is not surprising that he serves as serious eye candy, and once was voted sexiest chef alive by People magazine. A smart, hot, funny guy who can tell me something about cooking ?… a good start into the weekend.

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Friday, January 24, 2014

Beef broth in the slow cooker

According to Marcella Hazan beef broth is best made when cooked at a bare simmer for more than 6 hours. To take an endlessly cooking pot on the gas stove out of the equation, the slow cooker is the next best thing. On one of the last farmers markets in the fall I had bought a soup bone, basically a piece of relatively tough meat with a big bone in the middle. I placed it in the slow cooker in the evening, with boiling water, the necessary other broth herbal and spice ingredients and cooked it for 24 h. It looked and tasted already perfect after 12h, but even the beef was cook after 24h. Best way to make beef, chicken or seafood stock --- the slow cooker!

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Beef broth in the slow cooker
  • 1 pound of beef and bones (or specific soup beef, typically an inexpensive cut,  but the bones are crucial for a deep flavor)
  • 1 onion, quartered
  • 2 stalks of celery, cut in 5 inch pieces
  • 2 carrots, cut in 2 inch pieced
  • 5 garlic cloves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ca. 10 juniper berries
  • 1 TB pepper corns
  • 1 TB dried thyme
  • 1/2 teas spoon of salt
  • Optional: dried porcini mushroom
Set the slow cooker to low. Add the beef, and all the ingredients, fill it up with boiling water, and let cook for 24h.

Discard the vegetables and bones. Decide if you want to feed the beef to a dog or discard. Chill the stock and remove the fat, which will harden on the surface after 12h. Pour the stock into glass containers and chill in the fridge for up to 1 week or freeze for up to 3 month in ziplock bags.

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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Hot and Sour Mushroom Soup

It is cold and sunny, and the week is almost over. Not that the weekend will change much because with more snowfall on the way I will still be pretty much locked into the house instead of visiting nice places and leaving the routine behind. Ah, January. I cannot say that I am particularly well-versed in Chinese cooking, i.e. I can’t make a single dish, but this hot and sour mushroom soup reminds me of the take-out at Panda Express, just much much better, and it my first foray in the Chinese cuisine.

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Hot and Sour Mushroom Soup  (ca. 2 servings)

2 ts roasted sesame oil
2 minced garlic cloves
1 inch minced ginger
4 cup vegetable broth
3 TB soy sauce
1/4 cup mirin (sweet rice vinegar)
2 TB sugar
1 TB srirachi hot sauce
1 TB cornstarch dissolved in 1/4 cup hot water
8 oz  sliced cabbage
4 oz sliced shitake mushroom and/or mini portabellas
1 oz rice noodles or udon noodles  Heat toasted sesame oil and sautee the garlic and ginger for 1-2 min. Immediately add the vegetable broth to prevent it from burning. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. Add all the other ingredients besides the cornstach. Simmer the soup for about 10-15 minutes until the noodles are cooked. Now, add the cornstarch mixed in the water, and simmer for another 5min until the soup has slightly thickened. Serve!

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Black bean, corn, and bell pepper salad

It is clear, sunny and cold outside. The year is off to its real full start, no more breaks until March. We will be churning away at classes, homework, learning, projects, meetings, half way through the semester. To bring my own salad to work more often I made a sub-salad (not a Subway salad, but a salad that is part of a salad) --- I cooked a cup of small black beans in the pressure cooker for 25 min which leaves them with a nice, firm texture, and cooled them. For the salad, I added 1 half diced red bell pepper, 1/2 cup of frozen corn sauteed with a half jalapeno pepper and 1 garlic clove, some salt, added them to the salad with the juice of a half lemon. Bright and spicy!

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Monday, January 20, 2014

Land of Lemon

About exactly a year ago I bought a Meyer Lemon container tree, in a beloved store in Belfast, ME. I removed all my table top photography set up from the biggest window and move the Meyer lemon tree there instead. With the good care of plenty of light, water, organic fish fertilizer feed, it blossomed soon with the most fragrant, intensely sweet, perfumed blossoms.

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In the summer, the Meyer Lemon tree enjoyed a warm, fertilized, sunny life outside on the deck and the tiny blossomes developed into tiny green lemons, which grew and grew over the summer.
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By October the remaining lemons had grown all the way to industrial strength lemons and could be take for super limes.
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They moved back inside the house for the winter, and since have been spending again at a place in the light and close to the woodstove. Over the months, they turned from green to yellow. I’ve heard you know when you walk into the house and you can smell them then they are ripe. So, far I am waiting and enjoying the splendid sight of my Meyer Lemon land of lemon in the middle of winter in Maine,
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(Don’t mind me kissing the lemons.)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Pesto Gnocchi Soup

Winter put on a new layer of make-up. A 2-3 inch layer of fresh snow, and the world looks like primetime again. The rest of the week will be arctic cold, winter is back, a light version at least. Last week Isa’s new cookbook arrived in my mail and yesterday I read through the recipes. The soups alone are worth it. The pesto gnocchi soup immediately captured my attention. A creamy soup made with pureed cauliflower and basil leaves to give it a spring green, and with gnocchi, Swiss chard and beans. --- I made it with frozen basil and I think it is better to make it with fresh, which makes the soup look much brighter. My soup is more on a muddy winter color. Otherwise, I am sure I’ll make it again.

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Pesto Gnocchi Soup (my version)
Makes 3 servings
  • 1 teaspoons olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 0.5 regular sized head cauliflower, leaves removed, cut into florettes
  • 4 cups vegetable broth, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • Fresh black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 3 cubes frozen basil or a cup fresh basil
  • ca 10  frozen gnocchi, partially thawed (to separate them)
  • 0.5 cups chickpeas, cooked
  • 0.5 cup frozen edamame
  • 2 large swiss chard, stems discarded, leaves thinly sliced
  • optional: fresh grated parmesan, sliced almonds
Preheat a medium sized pot over medium heat. Saute garlic in olive oil for about a minute, being careful not to let it burn. Add cauliflower, 3 cups of broth (only 3 of the cups! the last cup is added in  a bit), salt, thyme and several dashes fresh black pepper. Cover pot and bring to a boil, stirring every now and again for about 10 minutes, or until cauliflower is tender.  Mix the final cup of broth and the cornstarch until dissolved. Lower heat a bit so that the soup is at a slow boil. Mix in the broth/arrowroot and cook uncovered for another 5 minutes until slightly thickened. stirring often. Add the basil leaves, and remove from heat (don’t cook the leaves!). Use a submersion blender to puree until smooth*. Adjust for salt.  Return soup to the stove over medium heat and add the gnocchi, chichpeas and frozen edamame. Cover and let cook for 3 minutes . Add the Swiss chard cook until greens are completely wilted (1-2 minutes). Be careful as you stir not to crush the gnocchi or beans. Serve with parmesan and sliced almonds.



Saturday, January 18, 2014

Winter rewind

We are at the beginning of a new cycle. A new snow and winter cycle. Winter, snow and arctic spell cycle. It felt like spring the last two weeks, no complaints here. But in a few hours it will snow again, and by tomorrow it will be very cold again. Where are those felt-lined boots? Oh, well. I cleaned out the woodstove, bought all my groceries and netflix is on.

Today, when I came home from shopping I sat down at my desk and put down my small handbag next to my feet. Chanelle started harping down on the small bag, trying to turn it around, eventually biting into it. “Chanelle, since when are you interested in my handbags"?” He did not give up his peculiar interest, and started biting into the bag again and again. At some point I no longer found it funny and took it away from him. I opened it and removed my cellphone and camera, and, there - the mystery was solved: I still had the 2 catnip pillows I had bought at the vet today in the bag. ----

Lunch was a combination of the healthy and the fast: kale, sauteed exotic mushroom, and noodles from a Chinese noodle soup paper container (which I had bought for the office).

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

“I missed you, Dandelion”

You know it is a busy day when you bring your own salad because you don’t have time to walk to the cafeteria and back to get one at work.  The weather is mild, and I could live with this: no need for a fired up wood stove or much heating at all or ski clothes as regular wear and actually wearing shoes again  instead of some snow and sleet proof, slip-averse, fur -padded hunting contraptions. The weekend is close, and a first real weekend in for like weeks. ---

My new find on netflix streaming is '"Orange is the new black”, similar to Weeds or Breaking Bad a slightly off-kilter series with the premise “good person (like you and me) gone bad”. In this case,  a woman going to prison to serve a 15 months sentence for a crime from 10 years ago. Going to prison, …. so the show takes us with her from her normal life with fiance and lemon cleanses and clean eating  to reporting to prison. At the beginning it looks not much different from moving to a dorm or summer camp, with activities, bunk beds, and much of the conversing going on in the cafeteria. But then it is also prison, with creepy guards and showers, bullying people, lesbian relationships gone wrong, and a whole bunch of scary, very likable women. All in all, very funny (Just be warned: much nudity in episode 1 and 2, but it tapers off).

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

3 hungry cats and a rainy day

The last days flew by in a whiff of hard work, focus and not much else. Yes, yesterday I noticed it felt like spring, the sun out, temperatures warm and mild and birds singing. Birds singing! Otherwise, the general relief set in today when all the work was done before the deadline. I cleaned up the folders with al the temporary versions, and eased out like a Olympic ski jumper having safely landed and gliding towards the rest area. It was definitely an occasion for dinner out with a glass of wine since today’s meals only included am apple and too much coffee. But I just wanted sleep, not a dinner out, and so I made my way home, where 3 hungry cats waited. Dinner was corn, kale, some funny flat beans I don’t now the name of and a few more ravioli stuffed with butternut squash. Here's to life getting back to normal.

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Butternut Ravioli with Kale

It was a long day at work (yes, that happens to Sundays and a deadline), and dinner became a simplified yet upscale concept, the butternut ravioli are store-bought and the kale with fresh mushroom and some garlic and sauteed butternut squash cubes directly from the produce section.

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Clean up

After the (black) ice came the warm rain and wind, and it is hard to believe that just one week ago I was snowshoeing with friends in winter wonderland and now there is barely any snow left. It looked a lot prettier back then. Well, we take the short idea of an early spring because there is no hope to be had on January 12 for winter to be over. It is more likely the weather that chuckles. It says "wait, until I wallop you again with snow storms!"

So, we are cleaning up those trucks along the interstate, and move on with life, enjoying a day or two of good shoes instead of bulky manly functional all-weather boots. (pict source)





Saturday, January 11, 2014

Black ice and red tapioca

Global warming: the gift that keeps on giving. Today I had a date with my hair dresser, which is overdue looking at my locks. She called me to say “it is treacherous outside. Black ice. Be VERY careful. But I am here at the salon.” I got ready to leave and investigated the driveway. While it looked like warm rain thawing the last remnants of our winter wonderland, it actually just covered everything with a thin layer of ice. I jumped into my car anyhow, but realized there is no sand on the streets, no salt, the pure ice conditions are everywhere. Once I stepped on the brakes, slightly, I felt the car becoming a projectile, going straight in a direction it was going before, sliding like the cars in an action movies. No traction. Hmm. I very carefully turned around, made it safely back into my driveway and cancelled my appointment.



The alternative program for this Saturday involves baking, a fireplace and eating coconut tapioca. I must say I have never cooked tapioca before and I had to google what it actually is. Not rice, nor a grain but some exotic South American starch (root). I had found the recipe on Smitten Kitchen, and made a few changes: using regular coconut milk (the one in the carton instead of the canned version) to cook it, add some rum, and eat it with strawberry compote. Very good!

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