A Little Free Library

February 24, 2015

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.”
~ Andrew Carnegie

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I often take a walk around my neighborhood, both for exercise and to daydream.  The other day I was heading down a local street and saw something at the edge of a neighbor’s front lawn that hadn’t been there the last time I passed by.  A small box with glass doors in the shape of a little library sat atop a wooden post stuck into the grass at the edge of the sidewalk.  “Take a book; leave a book” read a small sign on the front.  This Little Free Library was filled with previously read and obviously well-loved books.  How cool! I thought.  I remembered having seen a story somewhere about these community book-sharing boxes.  I was delighted to have one nearby.

In 2009, Todd Bol, a man in Wisconsin, built a small replica of a one-room schoolhouse, placed it on a post in his front yard, and filled it with books to share.  He built the miniature library as a tribute to his schoolteacher mom, who loved to read.  The little library was such a hit with neighbors and friends that Todd built and gave away several more.

It wasn’t long before Bol and his friend Rick Brooks, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, decided to promote literacy and the love of reading by building and sharing these tiny free book exchanges around the world.  Inspired by Andrew Carnegie, who founded 2,509 libraries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they turned their backyard project into a movement and, in 2012, Little Free Library was established as a non-profit organization.

From their website:
A Little Free Library is a “take a book, return a book” gathering place where neighbors share their favorite literature and stories.  In its most basic form, a Little Free Library is a box full of books where anyone may stop by and pick up a book (or two) and bring back another book to share.

As of January 2014, the total number of registered Little Free Libraries around the world was estimated to be at least 15,000.

You can build or buy a Little Free Library for your neighborhood.  Go to littlefreelibrary.org for more info.  You can also watch a short video on how Little Free Libraries work by clicking here.

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Happy Chinese New Year!  Celebrate the Year of the Goat by making some Homemade Goat’s Milk Ricotta.

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Homemade Goat’s Milk Ricotta
Homemade “ricotta” is easy to make yourself.  Ricotta cheese is traditionally made by heating the whey that is left over from making other cheeses.  This simpler method uses warmed whole milk, salt and vinegar to form the curds and only takes about 30 minutes or less of your time to make (most of which is simply waiting).  Using goat’s milk instead of cow’s milk makes for an interesting flavor and a special treat that your lactose-intolerant friends will appreciate.  I found grass-fed, humanely-raised goat’s milk at my local Trader Joe’s.

Note: whether you use goat’s milk or cow’s milk, check the label to make sure the milk is pasteurized, but not ultra-pasteurized.  Sometimes the ultra-pasteurized milk will not form the curds properly.

4 cups whole goat’s milk
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar

You will need a medium to large sized mesh strainer and
A piece of fine cheesecloth (strong paper towels may be substituted)

In a large, heavy soup pot or saucepan, over medium heat, heat milk and salt until milk just begins to simmer (milk will be foamy around the edges and tiny bubbles will begin to form on the surface, but it will not be boiling).

Remove pan from heat.  Add vinegar and stir only once or twice, until you see curds begin to form.  Do not stir past this point!  Let stand a full minute.

Line a mesh strainer with a piece of clean cheesecloth and place this over a large bowl (you can use a strong paper towel for this purpose in a pinch, if you don’t have any cheesecloth on hand).

Slowly pour the liquid and curds into the cheesecloth.  Make sure the strainer is not sitting in the liquid, so that it can continue to drain freely.  If necessary, you can pour the excess liquid (whey) into another container (you will want to save this for another use).  Do not disturb/stir the curds.

Let the curds drain over the bowl for about 12 to 35 minutes, depending on whether you desire a moist or a dryer texture for the ricotta (goat’s milk makes smaller curds than cow’s milk and takes a bit longer to drain).

Spoon the cheese into a bowl and let it come to room temperature.  Use immediately in a recipe (lasagne, manicotti, cannoli, etc.) or cover and refrigerate for up to 5 days.

You can mix in a little extra virgin olive oil or mayo, along with some fresh herbs and a pinch of salt and pepper.  Basil pesto is also a nice addition.  Serve this as an appetizer with chips or crackers, as an addition to a salad, or spread on a sandwich.

Note: save the leftover liquid and add it to your pasta cooking water or the liquid you use to make rice or soup.  This will add a nice flavor.

Makes about 1 & 1/2 cups

 

Sealed with a Bliss

February 13, 2015

“The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart.”
~ Helen Keller

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Valentine’s Day is the day in which we celebrate matters of the heart.  Whether you look forward to Valentine’s Day or would rather avoid it, a lovely way to harmonize your mind, body and soul within the context of your heart is with the Anjali Mudra.

Often used as part of a yogic meditation, mudras are gestures of the hands that symbolize and encourage various mental, spiritual and energetic states and are thought to help manifest these states into physical reality.

The verb manifest, defined as “to make evident”, probably originated as a combination of manus, the Latin word for “hand”, combined with festus, meaning “struck”.  Therefore, the etymological roots of the word manifest describe striking a pose with the hand, as in forming the gesture of a mudra.

The Anjali Mudra is made by bringing your palms together in front of your heart center, with the thumbs resting lightly at the sternum.  This positioning of the hands is used as both a greeting and a sign of respect in India and other parts of Asia.  It is familiar to westerners as bringing the hands together in prayer.

Anjali, in Sanskrit, means “offering” or “salutation”.  Mudra translates as “seal” or “gesture”.  The Anjali Mudra can be interpreted as “to seal an offering” or “to make a gesture of salutation”.

In certain cultures, as well as in western yoga classes, this gesture of salutation is often accompanied by speaking the word namaste which can be translated as, “the divine in me salutes the divine within you.”

The heart is the center of the physical body, through which all blood flows. Energetically, the heart center is where the earthly, emotional, creative, mental and spiritual elements meet.  Placing the hands at the heart center when greeting another person physically signifies that your heart is opening to acknowledge, not only the universal beauty and love within yourself, but also within them.  One seals this offering of universal love by bringing the palms together to touch.

This hand positioning is also beneficial as an individual exercise.  Bringing the hands together in this way connects physically, energetically and symbolically, the two hemispheres of the brain as well as the right and left sides of the body.  It is the most fundamental of balancing postures.

Touching the palms together at the heart also helps to connect the inner self with the outer self.  By forming the Anjali Mudra as part of a silent meditation, you are acknowledging the divine within your own heart as well as the universal love that exists within all things both greater and smaller than yourself, while symbolically and energetically sealing the connection.

No matter how you celebrate Valentine’s Day, you can make every day a celebration of love by combining the Anjali Mudra with six minutes of slow, deep breathing.  Here’s how:

Sit or stand comfortably.  Inhale deeply through your nose as you bring your palms together at your heart center.  Rest your thumbs lightly at your sternum.  Exhale slowly, again through the nose.  Close your eyes and continue breathing in and out, slowly, evenly and deeply, preferably in and out of the nose.  Do this for six minutes.  If your mind begins to wander, imagine a beautiful rosebud as you inhale and see it opening slowly into full bloom as you exhale.

“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.”
~ Joseph Campbell

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You will love Red Velvet Cheesecake Brownies.

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Red Velvet Cheesecake Brownies
These yummy brownies combine creamy red velvet cheesecake with a chewy, chocolatey brownie.  I used natural food coloring (available at Whole Foods and online), which is not as intense as artificial food color, so the cheesecake part of my brownies was more of a pink velvet, but just as lovely and delicious for Valentine’s Day!

 

Red Velvet Cheesecake Filling:
8 oz full-fat cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup organic sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 large egg
1 teaspoon (or more) red food coloring

Brownie batter:
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup organic sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup cocoa powder

 

Preheat oven to 350°F

Lightly butter the bottom and partially up sides of an 8-inch square pan.

Combine cheesecake filling ingredients in a food processor.  You can also use a medium bowl with an electric mixer.  Mix on low speed, then medium, then high, until creamy.  Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt.

In another bowl, cream sugar and butter, then beat in eggs, then vanilla, then cocoa.  Mix well.

Combine wet and dry ingredients.

Set aside 1/2 cup of the brownie batter.

Spread the remaining brownie batter in the bottom of the prepared pan.  Top with the cheesecake filling and spread over the brownie layer evenly.  Dot spoonfuls of the reserved brownie batter over the cheesecake layer.  Run a knife over the surface to create a swirl pattern.

Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until top is just set.

Let cool completely and cut into squares.

Makes 16 brownies.

Literally Figuratively

February 2, 2015

“No one is yet using figuratively to mean literally; the confusion, such as it is, is all in one direction.”
~ Ammon Shea

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I am literally writing these words on Groundhog Day.  Whether Punxsutawney Phil actually saw his shadow this morning or not, there are literally six weeks and four days from today until the first day of Spring.

Recently, I have noticed the word “literally” being (figuratively) peppered throughout people’s conversations and, on most occasions, being used to say something obviously non-literal.

The word “literal” comes from the Latin littera, meaning letter, and is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as: Taking words in their most basic sense, without metaphor or allegory; free from exaggeration or distortion.

And yet, modern colloquial conversation is filled with figurative or metaphorical uses of the word.

The antonym (opposite) for literally is “figuratively”, meaning to do or say something symbolically or metaphorically.  In other words, not literally.

In the exact opposite of its original definition, the word “literally” is now being used figuratively for emphasis, as in: “That heavy metal band literally rocked our socks off” or “His improper use of the word made me literally tear my hair out in frustration.”

The use of “literally” is not literal in the above examples because even the best rock concerts don’t cause our socks to spontaneously leap off of our feet and, although I do get frustrated at the current misuse of literally, I’m much too vain to suffer the pain and permanent bad hair day that pulling my own hair out in frustration would cause.

I apologize if it seems that I am figuratively appointing myself a member of the metaphorical Word Police; that is not my intention.  The English language is a living, ever-changing form of communication, and part of what makes it vibrant is its colloquialisms, its common and informal usage.  As a native Californian, I must admit to using the word “totally” in a non-literal sense on (literally) more occasions than I can count.

I guess it just seems to me that lately, no matter how it is being used, the word literally has become this year’s “awesome” and is now the go-to emphatic for those without a thesaurus.

If you want to add emphasis when telling a story, the English language is full of colorful choices.  Here are some:

Virtually
Practically
Figuratively
Metaphorically

Like the word literally, the following words would most certainly be used in a less than literal sense.  However, just for variety’s sake, here are some alternatives:

Absolutely
Indubitably
Positively
Definitely
Incontrovertibly
Unequivocally
Altogether
Utterly
Completely
Totally

I sincerely thank you all for indulging me.  I am overwhelmingly grateful for the opportunity to express both my philosophical and mundane musings via this blog and I wish each and every one of you a positively beautiful week!

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Did you literally not get enough pizza on Super Bowl Sunday?  If not, Bean and Bacon Pizza will figuratively hit the spot.

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Bean and Bacon Pizza
This delicious and hearty pizza is easy to put together using prepared pizza crust.  Vegetarians can omit the bacon and substitute some of the mozzarella with smoked mozzarella or smoked cheddar.  Tip: rinsing the canned beans in a mesh strainer before cooking helps reduce some of the “gassy” side effects.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (plus more to brush crust)
1 clove fresh garlic
1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
3 or more tablespoons water
1 (15oz) can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
A dash of paprika
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1 (10 to 12-inch) ready to top packaged pizza crust
1 & 1/2 to 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1 & 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1/4 cup crumbled, crispy-cooked bacon
2 tablespoons finely-grated Parmesan cheese

Cook beans:
Make cuts partly through garlic clove to release flavor, but leave whole.  Heat oil in a small saucepan over medium heat.  Add garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until translucent.  Add vinegar and 3 tablespoons water and stir a minute or so more.  Remove garlic clove and discard.  Add beans, thyme and paprika.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Stir to combine.  Add a tablespoon or two more of water, if necessary.  When the beans begin to bubble, reduce heat to a low simmer.

Preheat oven to 400°F

Brush surface of crust with about a teaspoon of olive oil.  Sprinkle the mozzarella cheese evenly over the top, leaving a small border of crust.  Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the chives over the cheese.  Bake until cheese is bubbly and crust is golden (about 10 minutes).  Remove pizza but leave oven on.

Remove beans from heat and mash slightly with a fork.  Spoon beans evenly over hot pizza.  Sprinkle with the cooked bacon and the remaining chives.  Sprinkle the Parmesan cheese over everything.  Place pizza back in the oven for 3 to 5 minutes.  Serve hot.

Serves 2 for lunch, 4 as an appetizer

Slow Down, Step Back

January 24, 2015

“Perfection is attained by slow degrees; it requires the hand of time.
~ Voltaire

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At the risk of sounding like a stereotypical Californian, I’ve been having a Mercury-retrograde week.  For those of you not astrologically inclined, when the planet Mercury appears to be in retrograde motion, all sorts of mischief is said to occur: missed emails, arguments, misunderstandings, accidents, mechanical failures, mistakes in judgement.  Astrologers advise against signing contracts and caution us to drive carefully and back up computer files.  Even my friends who don’t follow the movement of the planets ask me, “Is Mercury retrograding or something?” whenever events seem chaotic.

The term retrograde comes from the Latin, retrogradus, a combination of retro (backward) and gradus (step).  To retrograde means, “to step backward”.

Up until several hundred years ago, Earth’s inhabitants thought we were the center of the Universe, and that the Sun, planets and stars moved in circles around us.  One complication of this worldview was that, occasionally, some of these planets seemed to stop and move backwards or zig-zag across the sky.  In ancient times, this was interpreted as the whim of the Gods.  Mercury’s seemingly quick and erratic movement, from the perspective of Earth-dwellers, earned him/her the reputation of a trickster.

Astronomers have since discovered that the Sun is the center of our galaxy and that we, along with the other planets, move around it.  Since we are all going around the Sun at different speeds, Mercury only appears to move backward in the sky.  What is really happening is that the planet is slowing down.

Both the Earth and Mercury move around the Sun.  Not only does Mercury move faster than the Earth does, its orbit is elliptical (oval or egg-shaped), so the speed of its orbit changes.  The point in that elliptical when Mercury is furthest from the Sun is also the slowest point in its orbit.  This slowing down gives Earth a chance to catch up.

The best way to illustrate this phenomenon is to imagine you (Earth) are on the freeway.  The car in the lane next to you (Mercury) has been driving at a faster speed and you have been lagging behind it.  Suddenly, the other car slows down.  When that happens, it appears to move backwards.  The other car is still traveling faster than you are, but in comparison to you, it seems to move back and forth as it either slows down or picks up its own speed.

When planets like Mercury appear to stop and move backwards, they are not changing direction at all.  Only from the perspective of Earth does this seem to happen.  In fact, from Mercury’s perspective, the Sun moves retrograde sometimes.

So why does the collective belief (seemingly stronger today than ever before) that the apparent retrograde motion of Mercury causes mishaps and miscommunication persist?  I’m not sure.  The Moon is close enough to Earth to move the ocean’s tides and, according to some studies, affect our sleep patterns.  Could  Mercury’s orbital pattern have some sort of magnetic affect on Earth’s activities?  Perhaps.  It is also possible that the collective consciousness of Earth’s inhabitants over the millennia, as we have observed the planets move through the sky, has influenced outcomes (mind over matter, so to speak).

Either way, the key to surviving seemingly chaotic Mercury retrograde periods is perspective.  When we take a moment to widen our view outside the personal and let go of the idea that we are the center of the Universe, events outside of our control become easier to accept.

Back to my retrograde week.  This last Tuesday evening, the night before Mercury appeared to stop and move backwards in the sky, my neighbor rang my doorbell to tell me that my car had a flat tire. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that all four of my tires were bald.

Luckily, I had the next day off.  I called roadside service to put on my spare.  Luckier still, there is a tire repair place walking distance from my house.  I was able to successfully haggle a good price and replaced all four of my tires.

The flat tire at first seemed like a classic Mercury retrograde mishap.  But what, in the beginning, appeared to be a setback, turned out to be a blessing.  When I took a step back and looked at the big picture, I realized that, rather than causing havoc, Mercury was actually slowing down to show me that my tires were unsafe.  This flat tire could have happened when I was far from home or out late at night.  It could have blown out on the freeway, causing an accident.  What could have been a major catastrophe, ended up being only a minor inconvenience.  For that I am grateful.

So, when events seem to be going all wrong and not according to your plan, slow down, take a step back, and widen your perspective.

“A penny will hide the biggest star in the Universe if you hold it close enough to your eye.”
~ Samuel Grafton

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Slow down for a few days and make some White House Kimchi.

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White House Simple Kimchi
The First Lady tweeted out this photo and recipe last year for Kimchi after making the condiment with Napa cabbage, picked from the White House Garden. You can substitute soy sauce for the fish sauce, if you are a vegetarian.  You can cut this recipe in half, if you like.  Note: I added some tips to the First Lady’s recipe (in italics).

2 heads Napa cabbage, washed
1 cup kosher salt
1 tablespoon fish sauce, any brand (could skip for vegetarian)
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon turbinado sugar or brown sugar
1 small white radish, sliced paper thin
1 bunch scallion, sliced
5 Thai chilies or 5 tablespoons Korean dried chili powder

You will probably need two quart-sized mason jars for this recipe.

Cut the Napa cabbage into 1-inch slices.  Place in a large bowl and sprinkle with the kosher salt.  Mix, using your hands, and set in the refrigerator overnight.

Rinse the salt from the leaves and squeeze out as much moisture or excess liquid as possible.  Mix in the rest of the ingredients.

Place in an airtight jar (mason jar works well), pack the veggies into the jar tightly, and store in the refrigerator.

The pickle should be ready in about four days.

Microcosmic

January 16, 2015

“As is the human body,
So is the cosmic body.
As is the human mind,
So is the common mind,
As is the microcosm,
So is the macrocosm.
As is the atom,
So is the universe.”
~ The Upanishads

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Whether you believe in an omnipotent power called God or Love, a Universal Consciousness or Soul of the World, the possibility of something similar, or the idea of no unifying power or intelligence at all; whether you call yourself religious, spiritual, agnostic, humanist or atheist; who among us hasn’t had the fleeting thought that, if we were in charge of the Universe, the world would be at peace and there would be no hunger, pain, sickness or injustice?

It’s easy to imagine how much better taken care of the world could be if only we had the power to make it so.  However, before you pat yourself on the back for a potential job well done, take a good look at the world that is currently in your care: your own body.

Just as you are a single entity dwelling in the greater Universe, so are the cells in your body single entities of the universe that is you.  You are the supreme being in charge of your bodily sphere.  How well are you taking care of it?

If humans are in need of guidance, inspiration or healing, they often pray, asking a higher power for help.  When the cells in your body ask for oxygen, exercise and nutrition, do you listen to their prayers?  If so, do you answer them by breathing deeply, moving and eating healthier food?  When your spine is stiff from commuting, do you make sure to stretch a bit before hunching over an iPad for hours?  When your mind is stressed out after a long day, do you take a few moments to breathe deeply and clear your thoughts before turning on the evening news?

Many wonder how a benevolent God could allow disease, drought and famine in the world.  You oversee the world that is your body and mind.  Ask yourself: are you a benevolent or a vengeful God?  When your stomach cries out for better nutrition, do you punish it by filling it with more empty calories?  Your neck holds your head up all day; your back keeps you upright.  When they are overworked and in pain, do you curse them for crying out to you for help?  Do you smite your tired mind with internet negativity, angry politics and TV or movies that showcase the worst of human nature?

Do unto the cells, organs and systems in your body as you would have this world’s highest power do unto you.

Answer your body’s prayers with good nutrition and regular exercise.  Provide daily bread for your mind by reading inspiring books, watching uplifting movies and clicking on positive stories.  Heal your heart by saying thank you on a daily basis and by being kind to others.

Be a force for good in the universe that is you.

“I sent my soul through the invisible,
Some letter of that after-life to spell:
And by and by my soul returned to me,
And answered ‘I myself am Heaven and Hell.'”
~ The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

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Penne with Broccoli Pesto is both nutritious and delicious.

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Penne with Broccoli Pesto
Super yummy and also good for you, this simple no-nut pesto makes eating your vegetables something to look forward to.  If fresh broccoli is not available locally, use frozen broccoli florets from a good local, organic farm.

6 cups fresh or frozen broccoli florets (20 oz)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 cup water
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for table
A pinch of ground red pepper
OR
1/2 of a fresh chile pepper, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
16 oz penne pasta

In a large, heavy saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat.  Add broccoli and garlic and sauté while stirring for 10 minutes.  Add water, lemon juice, cheese and hot pepper.  Stir well, reduce heat to low and cover.  Simmer for about 30 to 40 minutes (fresh may take longer).  Remove cover and cook and additional 10 minutes, or until water is evaporated and broccoli is very tender.  Mash with a fork until mostly smooth, drizzling with additional olive oil until you get a texture that you like.  Add salt and black pepper to taste.

Cook penne al dente in boiling, salted water, according to package directions.  Drain well and toss with the broccoli pesto until well coated.  Serve immediately with additional Parmesan cheese available at the table.

Serves 6

 

3D is for Derby

January 7, 2015

“And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke

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In December of 2014, Derby the dog ran down the sidewalk for the very first time.

Due to a congenital deformity, Derby was born with tiny forearms and no front paws, preventing him from moving himself along anything but soft surfaces.  A hard surface, such as a sidewalk, would cause severe abrasions on his front limbs.  Playing fetch, chasing squirrels or enjoying any of the other favorite dog pastimes that involve running was not possible for Derby – until he met Tara Anderson.

Tara agreed to foster Derby after seeing his picture on the website for Peace and Paws, a dog rescue group in Hillsborough, New Hampshire.  Finding a foster parent for a dog like Derby was good news all by itself, but the fact that Tara was an employee at 3D Systems was nothing short of a miracle.

3D Systems (3DS) is the South Carolina company that invented 3D printing, the process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file.

At first, Tara outfitted Derby with a cart.  This enabled him to get around, albeit awkwardly, on hard surfaces, but not to run like a normal dog.  Tara then decided to enlist the help of her colleagues, 3DS designers Kevin Atkins and Dave DiPinto.  With the assistance of a Certified Orthotist (orthotists specialize in patients requiring artificial limbs) they designed and created customized prosthetics for Derby.

Tara was worried that a traditional prosthetic leg design would dig into and get stuck in the dirt, so she chose a loop shape.  3DS created pairs of loops in different sizes, so that Derby could get used to the height gradually.

Said Buddy Byrum, a Vice President at 3DS, “The beauty of 3D printing is that, if the design needs to be adjusted, we don’t have to wait for time-consuming and expensive traditional manufacturing processes, we can simply print out a new set.”

Derby has been permanently adopted by Sherri and Dom Portanova.  He runs at least two or three miles a day on his new legs, sometimes sprinting past his new parents.

You can see a YouTube about Derby and watch him run on his new legs by clicking here: Derby the dog: Running on 3D Printed Prosthetics.

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Blueberry Chèvre Scones are a deliciously new way to start your day.

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Blueberry Chèvre Scones
Made with smooth, creamy goat cheese instead of milk, these yummy scones are a sophisticated and scrumptious sweet treat, especially for friends who are avoiding lactose.  You can make them without the lemon glaze, but I think it adds an extra dimension of flavor that makes them super delicious.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
5 oz chèvre goat cheese
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup frozen wild blueberries
Lemon Glaze (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 400°F

Lightly grease a large baking pan or line with parchment paper.  Set aside.

In a large bowl, using a fork or whisk, mix together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and cinnamon.  Set aside.

In another bowl, using a fork, mash chèvre with oil and mix until smooth.  Beat in egg, vanilla and water until well combined.

Add the frozen blueberries to the bowl with the dry ingredients and toss a bit to coat.  Immediately add the wet ingredients and mix gently with your fingers until the dry ingredients are moistened and the dough forms a large ball.

Divide the mound into 8 equal mounds for large scones, or 12 equal mounds for smaller scones.

For 8 large scones:
Divide dough in half; divide each half in half, then each of those in half.

For 12 smaller scones:
Divide dough in half; divide each half in half, then divide each of those into thirds.

Place mounds 1-inch apart on the prepared baking sheet and bake on center rack of oven for 12 to 15 minutes, or until tops are golden brown.

Move to a rack to cool a bit.  Brush tops with Lemon Glaze.  Eat warm or cooled.  Yum!  Store leftovers in an airtight container.  These were even better the next day, after the glaze soaked in.

Makes 8 large or 12 smaller scones.

Lemon Glaze
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon vanilla

Place ingredients in a small bowl and mix with a fork or whisk until smooth.

A Never Ending Story

January 1, 2015

“Love is, above all, the gift of oneself.”
~ Jean Anouilh

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I’ve known Wilma since I was 14 years old, when she, our friend Francesca and I worked at the local mall.  We came of age together, going through teenage years and young adulthood, with all of the triumphs, mistakes and memories that come with growing up.

A little over ten years ago, Wilma lost her older sister Nancy to an auto accident.  This single tragedy was transformed into multiple miracles with the donation of Nancy’s organs, which helped to save the lives of six different people. I can still see Nancy’s smiling face in my mind’s eye.  I know that her spirit lives on, not only in the hearts of those of us who knew her and those who loved her, but also through the lives of the recipients of her donation.

Wilma has since become active with Donate Life, a not-for-profit alliance of organizations across the U.S. committed to increasing organ, eye and tissue donation.  Several times I have been lucky enough to join with her in decorating the Donate Life Rose Parade Float.  Begun as the inspiration of a man who had received a life-saving lung donation, the organization’s Rose Parade Float helps spread awareness every year at the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.

This year’s float, titled “The Never-Ending Story”, illustrates how the story of life continues from donors through recipients.  The float depicts 60 butterflies emerging from a large, open book (each butterfly represents one of 60 lives that can be transformed by a single deceased donor).  The butterflies seem to fly over a line of 72 additional books, each adorned with the floral portrait of a deceased donor.  Wilma’s sister Nancy was one of those represented.

The other night, I was one of Wilma’s guests at the annual Donate Life Float Gala Dinner, honoring participants, donors, recipients and others.  Everyone dressed up to gather for cocktails and appetizers, then we all sat down for dinner in a lovely room decorated with butterflies and roses, in keeping with this year’s float theme.

The speeches started as we finished eating.  I listened to the stories; they were all heartwarming, but my mind wandered a bit.  Then, a slideshow began.  The names of the 72 deceased organ, eye and tissue donors, along with their pictures, slowly appeared on the screen, one by one.  Suddenly, I was overcome with emotion.  My throat formed a painful lump, the muscles in my forehead scrunched together, and my eyes welled up with tears.  Seeing the faces of loved ones lost, knowing that their passing gave new life, new hope and a new start to others, was profoundly moving.  Some were old, some were young; one was an infant.

I was reminded of a tweet I saw last week with a photo of a Hanukkah menorah.  The caption read, “Celebrate Life…. my devout Catholic wife lighting menorah in honor of the 20 year-old donor of heart that saved her life.”

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As John Donne famously said, “No man is an island, entire of itself.”

Whether we realize it or not, our actions, words, choices and examples influence our fellow humans, our planet Earth and all of its residents.  When our physical bodies are no longer useful and our spirits leave this world for another adventure, each one of us lives on in those who remember us and those who have been affected by us, knowingly or unknowingly.

“Strange isn’t it?  Each man’s life touches so many other lives.”
~ From It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Islands only appear to be isolated.  Far beneath the surface of the water, they are each connected to the one Earth.  As we turn the page on 2014 and begin a new chapter, remember that we only appear to writing individual autobiographies.  In truth, our tales are intertwined.  We are co-authors, writing this story of the world together.

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One million people are in need of life-saving and healing organ, tissue and cornea transplants each year.  To see this year’s Rose Parade Float and to learn more about Donate Life visit donatelifefloat.org

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Lentils are an Italian New Year’s tradition.  It is said that their shape resembles coins, signifying abundance.  Green is also a color of abundance.  Ring in an abundant 2015 with Green Lentil Risotto.

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Green Lentil Risotto
This absolutely scrumptious vegetarian dish transcends “rice and beans”.

1 cup green lentils, rinsed and drained
2 & 1/2 cups water
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, divided
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika
Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 clove of garlic, minced
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
6 cups vegetable broth or chicken broth
3 tablespoons butter
2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

In a large saucepan, combine lentils, water, 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice, thyme, paprika, salt, garlic and pepper.  Bring contents to a boil.  Reduce heat to low, cover pan and simmer for about 30 minutes, or until lentils are tender.  Drain cooked lentils, reserving any leftover cooking liquid.  Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, bring broth just to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer (you will keep the broth simmering until you have used all of it).  In another large saucepan or braiser pan, melt butter over low heat.  Add rice and stir to coat completely.  Add reserved lentil cooking liquid, the remaining tablespoon of lemon juice and 1/2 cup of the hot broth to the rice.  Stir continuously, until the rice absorbs most of the liquid.  Continue adding the hot broth, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring continuously until each addition is absorbed before adding another.  This process takes about 20 to 25 minutes.  When all the broth has been incorporated into the rice, the rice should be almost tender but with a little bite to the center (like “al dente” pasta).  Gradually stir in the cooked lentils, then the cheese.  Turn off heat and serve immediately.

4 to 6 servings

Do the Opposite

December 24, 2014

“If every instinct you have is wrong,
then the opposite would have to be right.”

~ From the TV show Seinfeld, “The Opposite” episode (1994)

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This last Sunday marked the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere.  The exact opposite happens during the Summer Solstice, when the Sun reigns supreme over the longest day.  Along with the extended darkness come cold temperatures and inclement weather.  Human beings are part of the natural world and, just like our environment, we are affected by the changing seasons.  The extreme cold of winter, like the extreme heat of summer, can create imbalances in the body and mind.

A delicious way to take the edge off of winter’s harsh weather is through your choice of foods.  Ayurvedic nutrition encourages a balancing approach to eating, in keeping with the principle that like increases like and opposites create equilibrium.  During stark winter’s chill, a little hint of warm summer in your food and attitude can help make the season bright instead of bleak.

Ayurveda, one of the world’s oldest medical systems, originated in India more than 5,000 years ago.  The word Ayurveda is Sanskrit, combining ayuh meaning “life” with veda meaning “knowledge”.  According to Ayurvedic teaching, the five elements of Ether, Air, Fire, Water and Earth combine to form three fundamental energies that influence our inner and outer environments.  In Sanskrit these forces (known as doshas) are referred to as Vata, Pitta and Kapha.

Ayurveda teaches that each of us is born with a unique proportion of these energies and that this proportion influences the characteristics of our mind and body (known in Sanskrit as our prakriti).  If Vata is balanced in our system, we tend to be thin, talkative, enthusiastic and flexible.  If Pitta dominates, the qualities can be: passionate, driven, intense, corageous and adventurous.  Those with strong Kapha influences are most likely calm, methodical, slow-to-anger, steady, dependable and nurturing.  Although all three forces or doshas reside within in each of us, most people have one or two elements that are dominant.

Foods, environment and activities with qualities that are similar to a dosha will increase that dosha, and those with attributes that are unlike a dosha will decrease that dosha.

Vata is composed of Air and Ether.  Vata is described as light, cold, dry, rough, clear, changeable, quick and mobile (think of wind blowing).  Pitta consists of Fire and Water.  The characteristics of Pitta are fiery, hot, pungent, sharp, intense and movable (think of warm water flowing).  Kapha is made of Water and Earth.  Kapha is heavy, slow, cool, wet, creamy, soft, dense and steady (think of wet clay).

Winter’s climate, tends to be cold and can create an overabundance of Vata.  Cold winter winds and home furnaces can dry out skin and mucus membranes.  So the cold/dry of Vata can potentially create imbalance during the winter months.  Warm and sweet comfort foods can be a welcome antidote for Vata this time of year.  Pick up a bowl of hot soup from your local Thai restaurant to balance out the elements of the season.  To comfort your taste buds, pour yourself a cup of mulled cider or a mug of hot chocolate (add a pinch of cayenne, if you’re adventurous).  Warm, buttery, cheesy and saucy main dishes will take the edge off winter’s chill.

Remember that the goal of Ayurveda is balance.  Too much holiday comfort food (heaviness) and inertia (slowness) can potentially lead to too little Vata.  It’s a good idea to keep your body moving during the dormant season.  If weather does not permit a brisk walk or a bike ride, start and end your day with a few Sun Salutations (a yoga classic), or do some simple calisthenics in front of the TV.

So, if winter’s rain, wind and cold are shutting down your spirits, do the opposite.  Salute the Sun, cook up some warm, sweet and spicy stuff, and put a little summer’s day into the longest nights.

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Warm Pitta Punch is a beverage that will warm your heart, mind, body and soul.  Leave some for Santa, along with some gingersnap cookies.

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Warm Pitta Punch
This warm, spicy, sweet and tangy punch is the perfect antidote to winter’s chill.

1/2 cup organic sugar
4 cups water
1 cinnamon stick (plus 8 more for garnish)
1 & 1/2-inch piece of a vanilla bean
4 hibiscus tea bags
32 oz of unsweetened tart cherry juice
1 orange, sliced into 8 or more slices

In a large saucepan, over low heat, combine sugar and 1 cup of the water.  Heat, stirring often, until sugar is dissolved (about 3 minutes).

Add one cinnamon stick and the piece of vanilla bean (split lengthwise, using a knife, to reveal seeds before adding).  Turn heat up to medium and bring mixture to a boil, then add the 3 remaining cups of water and the 4 hibiscus tea bags.  Turn off heat, cover partially with lid and steep for 15 to 20 minutes.

After steeping, remove tea bags (squeeze out liquid using back of spoon) and discard.  Remove vanilla, scraping any remaining seeds back into the pan, then discard the bean.

Add the cherry juice and orange slices.  Stir well and simmer over medium-low heat until hot, stirring occasionally.

Serve in heat-proof glass mugs.  Garnish each glass with an orange slice and a cinnamon stick.

8 servings

 

 

Miracle on 58th Street

December 17, 2014

“Yeah, there’s a lot of bad ‘isms’ floating around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism.  Make a buck, make a buck.  Even in Brooklyn it’s the same – don’t care what Christmas stands for, just make a buck, make a buck.”
~ From Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

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In Brooklyn, it’s not the same.  58th Street in Brooklyn, New York is the home of Uncommon Goods, an online marketplace founded in 1999, and dedicated to sustainability, social responsibility, giving back to the community and creating a rewarding place for its employees to work.

I found Uncommon Goods several years ago while searching online for “Recycled Gifts”.  I was happy to find, not only some lovely items made from recycled materials, but also a large and varied assortment of unique and original gifts for all ages, households and hobbies, all made or designed by local artists and small companies.  My gift-giving suddenly became super-cool.

Then, in 2012, I watched an interview with Lew Prince, the owner of Vintage Vinyl, a small business in St. Louis.  He had met with President Obama at the White House in November of that year as part of a group of small business owners.  He was asked about the meeting and this is what he said:

“The President sat down in the room with a dozen small business people and literally said, ‘What can I do for you?’ And the first thing that one of us said, it was the guy who owns Uncommon Goods in Brooklyn, said ‘Raise the minimum wage to ten bucks.’ And, in unison, the other dozen of us went, ‘Yes’.”

I was so delighted to find that the cool and hip online gift store that I had been patronizing was owned by someone who supported paying people a living wage.

Fast forward to the present, the holiday season of 2014.  I wanted to help support small online businesses and locally-owned stores.  I decided that, this year, I would have an Amazon-free Christmas.  I needed a gift for a friend who is studying Portuguese, so I headed to the local bookstore.  There, an employee spent a full 15 minutes looking up Portuguese authors and advising me on his favorites.  The book that I chose cost me a few dollars more than it would have at a big-box store or from Amazon, but the personal advice and warm service I received was more than worth it.

I also ordered from Uncommon Goods.  When my package arrived, it contained an item I hadn’t ordered and a couple of things that I wasn’t happy with.  I called their customer service number and a real person, named Ebony, answered the phone.  She was helpful and friendly and spoke to me as if I were the only customer she had to talk to that day (and I know she must have been super-busy).  She immediately credited me for the items that I wasn’t happy with and told me I didn’t need to worry about returning them.  As we were talking, I noticed that the item that I hadn’t ordered (or paid for) was kind of cool.  I told her that I wanted to keep it and asked her to charge me for it.  She responded that the item was mine, free of charge, for my trouble.  I felt like I was in a scene from the 1947 movie, Miracle on 34th Street.

In the classic Christmas film, Macy’s Department Store mistakenly hires the real Kris Kringle as its store Santa.  Instructed by the management to push slow-moving toys to the children coming to see him, Kris instead directs their parents to Macy’s competitor, where they can fulfill their children’s wishes at a lower price.  The manager of the toy department is horrified when he finds out, and wants to fire Kris, until the shoppers begin professing their undying loyalty to Macy’s because “they put customers first” and “they understand the real meaning of Christmas.”  I’m guessing that Kris Kringle is now employed at Uncommon Goods.

The exchange of gifts that is traditional at this time of year is supposed to be a chance to give from our hearts to the hearts of others.  It shouldn’t just be about errands to be run, obligations to fulfill, and money to be made or spent.  We ought to put just as much thought into the places we shop as we do into the items we purchase.

In an era when corporations staff their customer service departments with robots rather than real people (“Press one to be frustrated in English…”) and treat employees as disposable commodities, I want to support businesses like Uncommon Goods, and help to show the world that putting people before profits is profitable.

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If you forget the name of uncommongoods.com, you can always find the link on the right-hand side of this blog, under the Elaborations section.

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Lemon Cream Biscotti make a lovely gift from your kitchen.

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Lemon Cream Biscotti
These biscotti are delicately flavored with lemon and vanilla and generously drizzled with real white chocolate.  For Orange Cream Biscotti, simply substitute orange zest for the lemon zest.

1/2 cup organic sugar
4 tablespoons butter
2 eggs
1 tablespoon lemon zest (1 to 2 medium lemons)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 & 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
Scant 1/8 teaspoon salt (1/4 if using unsalted butter)
1 (12 oz) package white chocolate chips
(Use white chocolate made with real cocoa butter and real vanilla)

Preheat the oven to 350°F

Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.  Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream the butter with the sugar using a large fork or electric mixer on slow.  Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat well after each addition.  Add the lemon zest and vanilla and mix thoroughly.  Set aside.

In a another bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt.  Add the dry mixture to the bowl with the wet ingredients.  Beat until well mixed.

Scoop the dough onto center of the prepared baking sheet.  Lightly flour your hands and flatten the dough into a 4-inch by 10-inch rectangle (I use the edge of my fist, lightly).  Bake the rectangle, rotating the baking sheet halfway through the cooking time, for 25 to 30 minutes, until lightly browned and set.  Move the parchment with the rectangle onto a cooling rack and cool for 15 minutes.

Reduce the oven temperature to 300°F

Place the rectangle on a flat work surface.  Using a serrated knife, carefully cut crosswise into about 1/3-inch slices.  Place each slice cut side down on the baking sheet.  Bake the slices, rotating the baking sheet halfway through cooking time, for 20 to 23 minutes, or until crisp (but not too brown).  Move the baked slices to cooling racks to cool.

In a small, heavy saucepan, melt the white chocolate chips over very low heat, stirring constantly until smooth.  Using a spoon, and a zigzag motion, drizzle each of the biscotti very generously with the white chocolate.  Let  cool completely.  You may need to cool them several hours or overnight for the white chocolate to harden sufficiently for packaging.  Store in an airtight container or in plastic baggies at room temperature.  Best if eaten within 3 or 4 days.

Makes about two dozen biscotti

Out of Thin Air

December 5, 2014

“There is something of the marvelous in all things of nature.”
~ Aristotle

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Philosophers, mystics and poets throughout time have likened the element of fire to creativity.  Now the “spark” of creative genius is being used to discover and develop ground-breaking new technologies that create fuel out of the other elements: air, water and earth.

Researchers in the UK, led by Nobel-prize-winning Professor Sir Andrei Gem of Manchester University, have made recent discoveries about graphene (a form of carbon graphite – the stuff in pencil lead) that could enable the creation of a device that would generate clean electricity by extracting hydrogen fuel from the atmosphere.  Yes, you read that correctly; this new knowledge could one day lead to a carbon-free fuel that is created out of the air.

Sunfire GmbH, a German company, has recently developed a machine that converts water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2) that has been harvested from the atmosphere into synthetic, cleanly produced petroleum, diesel and kerosene.

So these represent two breakthroughs in producing clean fuels, one utilizing the air and one using water; what about earth?

The first bus powered by human and food waste has begun service between Bristol and Bath in the UK.  The 40-seat “Bio-Bus” runs on a fuel generated through the treatment of sewage and food waste (think of the ending scene from the 1985 movie Back to the Future when Doc Brown powers his time-traveling DeLorean by feeding banana peels and trash into a machine labeled “Mr. Fusion”).  The bus can travel up to 186 miles (300km in the UK) on a single tank of this biomethane gas, which is made using the waste generated during one year by about five people.  A single person’s annual waste would provide enough fuel to run the bus for 37 miles (60km).  In case you are wondering, impurities are removed from the fuel, allowing for virtually odor-free emissions.

It seems such a beautiful irony that, after all the destruction that man’s drive for dominance over nature has wrought, the solutions to saving the air, water and earth that are key to our very survival are being found in the elements themselves.

“The poetry of the Earth is never dead.”
~ John Keats

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Have you been eating Thanksgiving leftovers for a week?  Lighten up with tangy and tasty Yogurt Mushroom Soup.

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Yogurt Mushroom Soup
This tangy and simple to prepare soup is a delicious alternative to the usual cream-based mushroom soup. 

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
8 oz of cremini or button mushrooms, cleaned & sliced thinly
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
A pinch of crumbled, dried rosemary
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar or balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon organic soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika
Salt and black pepper, to taste
3 cups vegetable broth
1 cup whole milk yogurt (European/thin style)

Add oil to soup pot or large saucepan over medium-high heat.  Add sliced mushrooms and stir until they begin to soften and release their liquid (a few minutes).  Lower the heat to medium and add the garlic, thyme, rosemary, vinegar, soy sauce and smoke paprika.  Stir until combined.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

Add the broth to the pan and heat until simmering.   Scoop 1/2 cup of the hot broth from the pan and stir it into the 1 cup of yogurt until mixed.  Add the yogurt/broth mixture to the soup pot and stir it in gradually.  Bring back to a simmer.

Taste and add additional salt and pepper, if desired.

Serve hot.
Serves 4