Thursday, January 31, 2008

Lazy woman's health food: beets and sweet potatoes

As happens all too often, my kitchen has a backlog of dirty dishes and, as I confessed to just a couple of posts ago, I was lacking the motivation to do anything about it or cook dinner by the end of the work day yesterday. Fortunately, I had the ingredients for a lazy woman's healthy dinner that took all of 10 minutes of active prep time.

White wine vinegar
Sweet potatoes
Yogurt (I prefer Greek, which is increasingly available in grocery stores)
Garlic powder
Cheese, optional

**I was able to purchase everything but the vinegar, salt and yogurt at the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market and, with the Goat Lady Dairy starting to offer yogurt, the list of grocery store items will soon be even shorter

I scrubbed the beets and wrapped them in foil with a splash of the vinegar, which I think aids the sweetness of the beets. Then, I scrubbed the sweet potatoes, poked holes in them and stuck everything in a 400 degree oven.

Then I read a book for an hour.

Once the sweet potatoes were soft to the touch and the beets could be easily pierced with a knife, I mixed together the yogurt, garlic powder and salt while the beets cooled a little. To avoid pink hands and to buffer the heat, I slapped on some latex gloves and peeled the beets by rubbing them briskly with a paper towel; they were then sliced to roughly 1/4-inch disks... very roughly.

I cut open the potatoes - Rob topped his with cheddar and cinnamon; I stuck a dollop of the yogurt on mine. I divided the rest of the yogurt between our plates and topped with beet slices. I sprinkled the slices with the tiniest bit of kosher salt and tah-dah, a lazy woman's healthy dinner.

The beets are a recipe from one of my favorite cookbooks, Arabesque - they also suggest a drizzle of olive oil which I often do, using Giacomo's brand. It nights like these that make me wonder why I ever fall back on pizza delivery...

Their Eyes Were Watching God

I'm kind of a nut job when it comes to reading - I'm also kind of a nut job when it comes to wasting time. When combined, I end up overly annoyed if a book is less than spectacular. I think it comes from being constantly aware that there is not a chance that I can possibly read all of the worthwhile literature during my finite time on Earth... but that doesn't stop me from wanting to try...

As a result, I will drop a book if it doesn't grab me within 100 pages (if I can manage the patience to read a book I'm not loving that long) and I almost never read a book more than once, even if I loved it - more fabulous books are awaiting!

I think the fact that I'm so uptight about my reading selections makes it all the more notable that I've read Their Eyes Were Watching God no fewer than three times. And when I read in Sunday's News & Record that Bennett College is hosting two months of programming on this one book, I immediately went out and bought another copy (it seems that my enthusiasm for the work has caused me to "loan" out every copy I've owned).

I have never read anything by Zora Neale Hurston that I wasn't mesmerized by, but Their Eyes is such a dynamic book - each time I read it, I feel differently about the characters, particularly Tea Cake, and the path that Janie takes through her life.

I'm looking forward to diving back in, then joining some of the discussions around town to hear how others react to her journey and Hurston's prose. I truly think it is one of the tragedies of the literary world that Hurston died a pauper, disdained by her peer group, and one of the miracles that Alice Walker revived her legacy so effectively.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Versatile ingredients: polenta

I was poking through my now defunct food blog, Thought for Food, when I came across a post that I thought deserved updating and revision...

Though I consider cooking to be one of the great pleasures in life (right below eating), I am not immune to the challenges of finding motivation to spend an hour or more in the kitchen after a full work day. The fact that my office is a mere staircase away from my kitchen doesn't seem to be much help either.

What does help, though, is having a few versatile pantry ingredients that can be easily paired with anything that happens to be in the fridge. An often overlooked favorite of mine is polenta. This mixture of cornmeal, water or stock and salt can be ready in 15 minutes and paired with everything from spicy Mexican flavors to mellow Mediterranean flavors and everything in between.

There is a lot of flexibility in the basic recipe for polenta, largely depending on how soon you want to eat. To serve two people in 15 minutes, bring 1 1/2 cups water, stock or a combination of the two (you could even use a combination of milk and water for a creamier polenta) to a boil. Whisk in 1/3 of a cup of polenta slowly - if you pour it in too quickly, your cornmeal will clump and you'll be left with a truly inedible mess. Whisk in salt and pepper to taste, along with any other seasonings you like, such as garlic or cayenne pepper. Reduce heat and stir frequently until it thickens to your liking; I prefer my polenta fairly thick, much like a hearty oatmeal.

Now, while the above recipe works well, if you have the extra time, you can achieve a much creamier texture by starting with more liquid, say 4 cups or water and/or stock. Again, whisk in the cornmeal once the liquid comes to a boil and turn the heat to low. Stir frequently. If the polenta thickens before you're ready to serve, whisk in more liquid (preferably warm liquid) and keep going - you can keep a pot of polenta on the stove for most of the day if you're vigilant about stirring every 15 minutes or so, and adding liquid as needed. The cornmeal grains will absorb the liquid and plump, leaving you with a smooth texture, as compared to the more grits-like texture of the quick recipe.

Once you have your basic polenta recipe made, you can top it with just about anything you have available.

For a Mexican twist, spread the polenta in a baking dish and top with taco meat (leftovers work great here) and Jack or Colby cheese, then bake in a 350 degree oven until the cheese melts, about 15 minutes. Serve with taco toppings like shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes and avocado or black olives.

To incorporate Mediterranean flavors, spoon polenta onto a plate and top with a quick, chunky tomato sauce made by sautéing chopped sweet onion, garlic and red and/or yellow bell peppers in olive oil until crisp-tender. Stir in a 28 oz can of diced tomatoes, 2 Tb of tomato paste, a pinch of red pepper flakes (if you like a little heat) and a large splash of white wine and simmer until heated through, about 20 minutes. Stir in chopped kalamata olives and top with feta cheese.

Or make a quick polenta "lasagna" by spreading the cooked polenta into a baking dish and topping with jarred tomato sauce and whatever else you like in lasagna: cooked meat, mozzarella and/or Parmesan cheese and sauteed veggies of any variety. Again, bake just until the cheese is melted, about 15 minutes in a 350 oven.

But my all-time favorite polenta topper, and an amazingly healthy meal, is sauteed greens. I sauté sliced garlic and onion (it will maintain its texture better if you slice it vertically, from root to stem) in olive oil, then add chopped sundried tomatoes, golden raisins, red pepper flakes and washed torn greens - any combination of kale, chard, mustard or turnip greens. Cover and let greens steam, stirring frequently. It should take less than 10 minutes for the greens to cook down enough, depending on the time of year and age of the greens (baby greens being more delicate and therefore cooking much more quickly). Season to taste with salt and pepper, then serve on a plate of polenta and, if you like, top with shredded Parmesan, Pecorino Romano or feta cheese.

Because it has a relatively neutral flavor and is so easy to prepare, polenta is a great jumping off point for a variety of meals.

A final word to the wise: you can spend a bundle on the boxes of cornmeal called polenta, or you can buy a bag of coarsely ground cornmeal and have this dish for pennies per serving.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Functional dreaming

The November/December issue of Psychology Today offers a story on a new theory of the function of dreams: to help us learn reactions to danger that are only helpful if executed instinctively. For example, back in our cavepeople days, there was a split second between being eaten by the saber-toothed tiger and getting away, so stopping to think about it was, well, problematic. As we, and the dangers we face, have evolved, our dreams have tried to keep pace, the theory goes. When monsters enter our dreams, it's because our brains are confusing the real dangers and those we cull from film and television.

I thought the theory was interesting when I read it, but this past week it became even more personally relevant... I'm not sure why, but for years, I've had a pattern of remembering dreams intensely for a week or two out of the year; the other 351 nights, it's blissful nothingness.

Oddly, this has been a week of car-based bad dreams: two involved being stuck in cars with people I am either uncomfortable with or have had spectacular fallings-out with and at least two involved the threat of being pulled by the cops, though the blue lights flashed in neither. Now that I think about it, it's not so odd that they've all been set in cars. Though I haven't had a particularly bad auto-based experience (except a couple of speeding tickets) in years, cars were once little cages - my dad's favorite spot for "heart-to-hearts" during the 20 minute drive to the house where he lived when I was a kid - and the spot where two of the less nice people in my past acted on their less nice impulses.

The theory didn't offer an explanation for the function of pleasant dreams - perhaps they're considered less relevant or even flukes since research suggests two-thirds of dreams are of the scary sort. Or maybe they have the same function, but preparing us for spur-of-the-moment positive experiences - after all, what 15-year-old boy wouldn't want to know exactly what to say to Niki Taylor should she unexpectedly appeared in their room craving teen flesh?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Taking the political "dialogue" to a new low

Please, oh please, tell me that a 13-year-old boy came up with this 527, or someone who is mocking the political process - and not people who actually think they're contributing to the state of politics...

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

War crimes trial now?

From the AP:
A study by two nonprofit journalism organizations found that President Bush and top administration officials issued hundreds of false statements about the national security threat from Iraq in the two years following the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The study concluded that the statements "were part of an orchestrated campaign that effectively galvanized public opinion and, in the process, led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses."

1) Why aren't Bush and his lackeys in the brig somewhere this very moment?
2) What is it going to take to make that happen?
3) Who are the sheep who still think he's a good president?!?

Investing in the future of Judaism

Though every single one of my great-grandparents were Eastern European Jews, the closest I came to dating within my religion was a guy with one Jewish parent and a quasi-agnostic upbringing. I wasn’t avoiding Jewish prospects – there were none. Sure, there were perfectly lovely kids in my Jewish elementary school who grew up to be quite attractive adults, but after the playground scuffles and awkward teen years, I may as well have dated cousins as any of them.

In fact, for most Jews outside of major cities, it’s often a choice between dating outside the home market or outside the faith. For me, it was a no-brainer; though it was always important to me that my dating partners, and now my husband, respect my Jewish heritage, it was never important to me that they share it.

So now I am part of the statistic stating that nearly half of all American Jews have non-Jewish spouses. For decades, Jewish leaders have been concerned that marriages like mine might lead to the eventual disappearance of Judaism if we choose our spouses’ religion over our own, a relevant concern for a group that constitutes roughly 0.2 percent of the world’s population.

It is this concern, at least in part, that has inspired rabbis across the country to team up with the popular Jewish Internet dating service, JDate, as reported in last week’s Newsweek. Though I am clearly seen as part of the problem, I can understand where they’re coming from. As Yiddish and Klezmer music threaten to vanish with my grandparents’ generation, it’s hard not to be a little concerned about the future of our culture.

Do I harbor any feelings of guilt for my marital choice? Not a one.

You see, I think the issue at hand is not that I was married in a secular ceremony rather than under a chuppah. I think the issue is what I choose to do with my Jewish identity once settled into married life. Even more to the point, I think the issue is whether I would raise my children Jewish.

With only pets for kids, the question remains rhetorical, but even before my marriage vows, even before I met my husband, my answer was, and is, a resounding yes. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my older siblings, who are both in interfaith marriages, are raising their children with strong Jewish identities. In fact, it may just be that my nieces and nephews benefit from having a non-Jewish parent who acts as a constant reminder that we live in a diverse world, and that we can be firmly rooted in our own beliefs and cultures without demeaning others.

So, the question remains: how do we create that sense of investment in the future of Judaism?

I think we must start by accepting that a percentage of the population has permanently abandoned the notion that shared religion is a prerequisite to marriage. And then we must create opportunities to learn Yiddish and to experience Jewish music, literature and arts. Most importantly, we must create a space in which disconnected Jews – regardless of who, or even if, they marry – can fill the gaps in their Jewish knowledge, helping them get over the discomfort of having forgotten their Hebrew school lessons and inviting them to create new traditions of their own.

I may have a gentile as my partner, but I have a mezuzah on my door. The beauty of modernity is that one needn’t diminish the other.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The elitism of food

Epi-Log, the blog, has an interesting post about the elitism of healthy food. It's an issue that comes up frequently, though a little reluctantly, among local foods/whole food devotees. The reluctance comes largely because there is significant overlap in the population who commits to food-based activism and the population who is interested in other kinds of social activism - it was no coincidence that the raise-the-minimum-wage activists were stationed outside the farmers' market to collect signatures for their petition. It's a group of people that is enormously uncomfortable with the idea that they might be acting in elitist ways.

But the sad truth is that unhealthy food is so artificially inexpensive - made so by corn subsidies which allows chicken nuggets to be sold for less than it costs to grow/raise its component ingredients - that healthy food is only available to those of us with a more comfortable standard of living. To make matters worse, a drive through East Greensboro will demonstrate that there are fast food joints on every corner and barely a single grocery selling fresh produce.

The solution is as Megan O. writes in her post:
I agree with Pollan that those of us who can afford to pay more for real food and support our local farmers need to do so... And we need to get behind legislation that will even the playing field between giant, heavily subsidized agribusiness companies making faux food and small farmers growing real food. Gussow added, "We need to learn that food costs money and then pay people a living wage so they can afford it."

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Dutch e-commerce

You needn't know the language to get a kick out of this great site - just wait for it...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The fairytale of Clinton's slam

I cracked open the latest Newsweek this morning and was disappointed to see that their Conventional Wisdom section is perpetuating the myth that Bill Clinton called Obama's campaign a fairy tale.

As recorded in the Congressional Quarterly and reported by Media Matters for America, what Clinton actually referred to as a fairytale was Obama's claims that he was against the war from the jump - still fighting words, but hardly the blind and condescending slam the media is reporting it to be.

Rob sometimes jokes about racism, sexism, etc, that he can think of plenty of reasons to dislike people other than their ethnicity, gender, age or whatever. I think the same can be said here: there are plenty of reasons to criticize the Clintons other than comments taken wildly out of context.

Yet again, way to go, media.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Heart Crusher

Practically since the day the book was released, people have been telling me that I must read Khaled Hosseini's runaway hit, The Kite Runner. I think the remainders of my teenage rebellion have all been filtered into my reaction to suggestions like that, though, because the more people tell me I should read or watch or listen to something, the less I want to do so. It's a weird sort of snobbery, I suppose.

But I finally gave in when one more friend said: "I'm reading it now and loving it. He's a great storyteller."

I didn't just read it - I devoured it in roughly four sittings. And then I wrote back to that friend with a "fuck you" - my apologies to my cursing-averse readers, but there's no other way to say it. She was right - Hosseini is an amazing storyteller - clearly, I could not put down the book. But I spent those 371 pages wondering why I was punishing myself with the images of such horror.

After the first horrific episode, child on child violence (I truly can't think of anything worse than sociopathic children torturing other children), I didn't for a second imagine that the worst was not over; I thought the rest of the novel would be the internal battle of a person recovering from that one horror. But no. There was so much more. And I had to know - had to believe that there would be some glimmer of hope in the end and truly, that was all there was - a glimmer.

I suppose it's a strange sort of compliment to Hosseini that the characters and plot were so real to me that I literally sobbed when I finally finished the book (right after I let out the breath I had been holding all week) - in Rob's arms, nose running, sobbing. I've been emotionally attached to books before but never reacted like that. Perhaps it was part relief that I was done and didn't have to see if and in what other ways these people would be punished for being alive.

I felt, actually, a lot like I feel after reading the paper some mornings, the wretchedly true accounts of the most awful murders that always leave me wondering why I needed to know that: will it make me safer? Does it help me understand the world better? No, not unless paranoia and a lessened belief in the basic good of humanity are somehow adaptive.

Perhaps the impact of the book lies not in the reality of the characters but in their plausibility - that there truly could be, and likely are, Afghanis who have had similar experiences as their country has been torn apart in the last three decades, a country that, like all countries, had its problems but which were compounded, magnified and turned into nightmares, all under the guise of doing Allah's will. Don't get self-righteous on me, America - we have no room to judge when so many of the atrocities committed on our own soil have been justified by the scriptures of our majority religion.

We'll see if I have it in me to brave the paper this morning... perhaps I'll find myself a lovely, giggly Tom Robbins book and attempt (with futility, I'm sure) to empty my mind of the images Hosseini implanted. The downside of brilliant storytelling...

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Carousel a pleasant idea but...

The moments when individuals are compelled to come together for the good of the whole are magical, exemplifying what America can be when we look up from our own lives. It’s part of what makes fundraising walks so invigorating.

It seems that the philanthropically-minded business community of Greensboro is feeling similarly compelled as the plans for the downtown carousel develop. Originally proposed by Bernie Mann, immediate past president of the Greensboro Rotary Club, the carousel will be housed in an enclosure in the downtown cultural district. Mann seemed so enchanted as he spoke of the carousel’s “charm and light that are expressive of the community” that I was sure I could hear buoyant carousel music in the background.

His contagious enchantment has inspired every Rotary Club in Greensboro to commit to the project, as well as the Nat Greene Kiwanis club. Between the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation and monies raised by the Greensboro Rotary Club, $250,000 of the estimated $2 million needed has already been raised. “And we haven’t even reached out to other clubs locally,” said Mann.

I am charmed by the idea: an all-wood carousel featuring moments and figures of Greensboro history. I’m charmed by Mann’s picture of children riding the carousel at a grandparent’s side, and the hope of further exposure for a part of downtown that has been on the outskirts of the recent growth spurt. But since I read the most recent article in the News & Record (“Clubs climb aboard carousel project,” Jan. 3), my more pragmatic side has been nagging me.

I can’t help it. When I read stories of our increasing crime rate and Mitchell Johnson’s search for $500,000 to beef up our police force, when I see a noticeable increase in panhandlers on the corners of our city, when I learn of the deficits in food banks in Greensboro and across the country, I can’t help but feel that $2 million dollars could be better spent, that it could truly “improve life in [the club’s] community” as is listed in Rotary International’s “Avenues of Service”.

But now I’m sad to hear the oompah music fade... It could certainly be argued that life in the community would be improved beyond recreational pleasure if the carousel did draw more families downtown and if those families did stay for dinner or perhaps a play, and if that lead to more growth, creating more jobs, and so on and so forth.

As so often happens, this boils down to a matter of perspective, in this case our perspective on what we believe constitutes community service and what we think Greensboro needs.

“The role of civic clubs is to do things for the community that the community would love to have but can’t quite afford, that extra layer of wonderful, terrific things that help to make the quality of life that much better,” said Mann.

When it comes to art, theater and other forms of creative expression, I am 100 percent onboard with Mann’s definition; in these cases, I see not only the inherent pleasure, but also the pragmatic use of art as a medium to help us communicate across all ethnic, socioeconomic, educational or gender boundaries. Perhaps my vision of carousels is marred by the shark-jump that was the Carolina Circle Mall carousel, but I just don’t see this downtown venture justifying the price tag, not when a woman on the corner of Elm St. and Cone Blvd. is begging for food for her children.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A writer's responsibility

By all accounts and all rationale, a writer should simultaneously be mindful of their audience and ignore them - creative writers and journalists, that is. (Naturally, every piece of PR I write is specifically crafted in the hopes it will appeal to the readers.) We want to write books, articles and so on that people will enjoy reading - hopefully even pay to read - but we cannot become so enmeshed in what they would want to read that we limit ourselves.

Steven King, in his book On Writing, talks about imagining your ideal reader and their reactions to things. My mom, who edits everything I attempt to publish, is the person who inevitably pops into my mind. She is a discerning reader with a thoughtful perspective, analytical mind and eye for details like the sound and flow of words, and so is a wonderful editor to have on my side. But though I feel free to curse a blue streak in front of her and share almost every detail of my life with her, there are still the usual limitations of the mother/daughter relationship.

For example, my own experiences with abuse naturally appear in my writing frequently. On my list of things to write are both a novel based around an abusive relationship and a non-fiction book that explores some of the lesser discussed aspects of abuse, like forgiveness afterwards and situations in which men are on the receiving end of abuse. But with my mom as my ideal reader, I frequently find pause in wondering how it will impact her - after all, though I was the one in the relationship, she suffered greatly for my decisions. To this day, I can't imagine what it was like for her to drive up to find our home surrounded by emergency vehicles.

Alternately, but equally vexing, is writing about sex. Not that any erotica is on my to-write list but any piece of writing about romantic relationships is eventually going to touch on sex if given enough time and word count. But they're doing what at the end of their date? And my mom is reading it?!?

I know: I'm closing in on my 30th birthday and am a monogamously married woman - it's probably time to stop pretending any sort of innocence about bedroom activities. But, c'mon, it's my mommy...

Sunday, January 06, 2008

DC lobby... of the hotel variety

For the next hour or so, I will be camped out in the lobby of a DC hotel where I have spent the weekend with my friend/colleague Tamara. While she has attended a conference, I have alternately puttered around the area and holed up in our room to work on writing projects that often get thrown to the wayside in the face of life-as-usual.

Though I miss Rob and enjoyed Tamara's company in the evenings, I do find alone time in an unfamiliar city enormously appealing. I love setting out on my own to wander in circles; yesterday, I walked for miles, past several Starbucks, until I found an independent coffee shop with couches of brightly colored broken-in leather. They played muzak versions of popular rock songs, though at a volume that is normally reserved for actual rock. I also treated myself to a lunch of truly spectacular sushi at Sake Club, where I used my chopsticks clumsily while attempting to read a book (it is a book on personalities according to the Myers-Briggs, though I have found myself overly self-conscious because the title, Please Understand Me, suggests a self-help book, though I'm still not sure why I would care if strangers think I'm reading a self-help book).

After her day's sessions ended, Tamara and I wandered within a mile radius of our hotel, stopping for gin and tonics at an empty bar with an excellent jazz band, then onto an Ethiopian restaurant (make your own off-color joke about food in underfed Ethiopia) and dessert at yet another restaurant, where we were help captive for more than an hour by a waitress who refused to believe that we could not finish our buttery, rich sweets.

I'm looking forward to getting home tonight, to see my sweet and hunky hubby and our gaggle of pets, sleep in my own bed and jump feet first into this year for which I have so much hope and so many expectations. So far, it's off to a great start.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

What the world eats

A friend sent me an email with images from Time Magazine, demonstrating what a typical family eats in a typical week depending on where they live. As my friend pointed out, keep an eye both on what is on the table and the number of people in the family.

Let's start with an NC family (I really hope they're not typical but in the world according to Time...):

Okay, now how about our neighbors to the South, a Mexican family:
So, more fresh fruit and veggies, though still plenty of junk food.

Now let's look at Egypt (I have an Egyptian friend - not an American with Egyptian heritage but a guy whose wife and kids live in Egypt though he works in America 9 months each year - who loves nothing more than french fry sandwiches):
Maybe my friend isn't terribly representative. There's some junk on this table but in splurge proportions, particularly considering how many people this food is feeding.

This is where it really starts blowing my mind, though - an Ecuadorian family:
And (are you sitting?) a family from Chad:
Now I'm curious to see exactly what Rob and I eat in a week. As healthfully as we eat at home, I suspect our too-frequent meals out would skew our table uncomfortably. What would interest me even more would be to compare our table to one from East Greensboro where produce is at a minimum but fast food joints are on every corner.

Either way, I'm reminded yet again of how lucky I am to have a fridge I can replenish at my leisure with foods I can feel good about eating...