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 business and locally-owned stores; so I decided that, this year, I would have an Amazon-free Christmas.  I needed a gift for a friend who is studying Portuguese and 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 wish 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 help 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

 

 

 

The First Time

November 26, 2014

“…Outdoors we are confronted everyday with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence.  It is our daily bread.  Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle.  We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”
~ Wendell Berry

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I have lived all of my life near the Pacific Ocean.  I grew up going to the beach and wading in the waves, tasting the salt water on my skin and listening to the sounds of seagulls flying overhead.  As a child, a trip to the seaside filled me with joy and wonder.  As an adult, I tend to take my proximity to the shore for granted.  Too often I have driven up or down the coast thinking about to-do lists, politics, what I’m making for dinner and numerous other subjects other than the miraculous, life-giving ocean in front of me.

That is, until I read the story of Ruby Holt, a 100-year-old woman who recently saw the ocean for the first time in her life.

A mother of four who spent most of her life picking cotton on a farm in rural Tennessee, Ms. Holt and her late husband were hard-working people who never had enough leisure time or extra money to go to the sea.  She had seen pictures of the ocean and heard people talk about how wonderful it was, but she herself had never walked on a beach or seen the water in person.

Earlier this month, thanks to the efforts of the assisted living center where she now resides and an organization which grants wishes to the elderly, Ms. Holt finally visited the ocean.  Two workers from Brookdale Sterling House, filled out an application to Wish of a Lifetime, and arrangements were made for her to take an all-expenses-paid trip to the Perdido Beach Resort in the Gulf of Mexico.

A motorized wheelchair, equipped with special tires that roll over sand, got her down to the water.  Then, with the help of a walker, Ms. Holt strolled along the shore and dipped her feet in the waves as she watched her first-ever sunset over the ocean.  She turns 101 on December 13th.

I don’t live as close to the beach as I used to.  I now live inland a bit, in the foothills of the local mountains.  I see them everyday.

A few years ago I was driving a couple who lived near me home from a funeral.  A dear friend of ours had committed suicide and the mood in the car was somber.  As we drove up the road toward the mountains, my friend, who grew up in another state, pointed to the majestic hills in front of us and exclaimed to his wife, “Look honey, look where we live!”

Now, when I am driving near my house, I often think of my friend and his wife and the day that I saw my local mountains through their eyes.  When that happens I smile and say to myself, “Look where you live!”  The concerns of the day cease to fill my head with noisy conversation and, in that moment of awareness, my heart is filled with gratitude.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
~ T. S. Eliot

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Cranberry, Orange and Pumpkin Seed Coffeecake makes a lovely breakfast treat or hostess gift during the holidays.

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Cranberry, Orange and Pumpkin Seed Coffeecake
(Or Muffins)
The green of the pumpkin seeds and ruby red of the cranberries makes this delicious bread a festive holiday treat.  This recipe is easily doubled.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon orange zest (about one navel orange)
1/2 cup raw, unsalted pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup dried cranberries

Preheat oven to 375°F

Lightly grease bottom and slightly up the sides of an 8-inch round cake pan or line 6 or 7 muffin cups with liners.

In a large bowl, mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and nutmeg with a large fork.  Set aside.

In another bowl, beat sugar with egg, then mix in yogurt, oil, vanilla and zest.

Add wet ingredient to bowl with dry ingredients and mix until just incorporated.  Mix in pumpkin seeds and cranberries.  Do not over-mix.

Spread batter into prepared cake pan or divide between lined muffin cups.

Bake cake for 18 to 23 minutes, or when edges begin to pull away from pan and toothpick inserted into center comes out clean.  Bake muffins for 15 to 18 minutes.

Let cool on a rack.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

 

A Wing and a Prayer

November 19, 2014

“We are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly by embracing one another.”
~ Luciano De Crescenzo

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I recently became aware of the story of an American bald eagle named Osceolo who lost one of his wings when he was hit by a hunter’s bullet in 1983, when he was only about two years old.  He had been injured for a week by the time he was found struggling in a field in eastern Arkansas, his left wing dangling as he ran, trying to fly without success.  He was taken to the Memphis Zoo, where the staff veterinarian tried for three days to heal the broken and infected wing to no avail.  Amputating the injured wing saved the bird’s life, but meant that he would never fly again.

Or so it seemed.

John Stokes, who ran the Raptor Rehab Program at the zoo, also happened to be a hang glider pilot.  Over several years, he worked to develop a special sling and harness that would hold Osceola above the pilot in the hang glider as he flew.  Finally, after many tests and preparations, John was able to take Oseola hang gliding with him. Thirteen years after he lost his wing, Osceola the one-winged eagle was airborne once again, soaring above red-tailed hawks and taking in the view from above.

“Wherever a man turns he can find someone who needs him.”
~ Albert Schweitzer

John and Osceola have made many, many flights since then.  Osceola helps John do educational programs at the United States Eagle Center at Dollywood in Pigeaon Forge, Tennessee and in conjunction with the American Eagle Foundation.  For a more in-depth story and to watch YouTubes of Osceola gliding visit osceolabaldeagle.com

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Green Chile Mac N’ Cheese will send your taste buds soaring.

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Green Chile Mac N’ Cheese
Green chilies are a summer treat, but you can find them canned all year round.  They add just the right amount of zing to this rich but easy to make macaroni and cheese. Use canned Hatch green chilies, if they are available at your grocery store.

1 cup (whole or 2%) milk
1/3 cup sour cream
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 cup canned diced/chopped green chilies
2 cups grated Monterey Jack cheese
2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 cups Pepper Jack cheese
8 oz imported Italian elbow macaroni

Preheat oven to 350°F

In a large bowl, mix milk and sour cream with a fork until smooth.  Add mayo, black pepper and chili powder.  Mix well.  Stir in chilies and the Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses (4 cups total).   Stir to combine and set aside.

Cook pasta al dente according to package directions in boiling, salted water.  Do not overcook the pasta.  It will cook more in the oven.  Rinse the hot pasta under cold water in a strainer to stop the cooking.  Drain well and add to bowl with sauce.  Stir everything together and pour into a lightly buttered 9″ x 13″ baking pan.  Sprinkle top evenly with the Pepper Jack cheese.

Bake uncovered for 35 to 45 minutes* until macaroni is bubbling and top is just beginning to brown.  Let stand a few minutes before serving.

*I used a heavy, deep Le Creuset lasagna pan and took mine out at 45 minutes.  A lighter-weight pan may take less time.

Note: the pasta went about halfway up my pan.  You could probably safely double the recipe and fit it in an extra deep pan, such as the Le Creuset lasagna pan.

Makes 8 side servings

Time Signature

November 10, 2014

“I will love the light, for it shows me the way; yet I will love the darkness, for it shows me the stars.”
~ Augustine “Og” Mandino

ALMA image of the protoplanetary disc around HL Tauri
Photo courtesy of ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

 

I enjoy all of the seasons, but fall is one of my favorites, partly because we return to Standard Time.  After the chaotic celebration and intense heat of summer, I welcome the shorter days as an opportunity to slow down, to go within, to dream, and to observe the world around me.

Now, thanks to a huge collection of radio telescopes in the Chilean desert, the formation of the early Universe can be observed as it happened.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) was built as an international partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia. ALMA’s mission is to investigate the early Universe, the first stars and galaxies and the formation of planets.

A new image from ALMA recently revealed, in never before seen detail, the formation of new planets around a young star known as HL Tauri.  Located in the constellation of Taurus, HL Tauri (a star like our own Sun) was born within clouds of gas and dust that collapsed under gravity.  Over time, the surrounding dust particles stuck together, growing into sand, pebbles, and larger-size rocks.  These pebbles and rocks settled into a protoplanetary disc (proto means “earliest” or “first”), a thin disc made up of stuff that eventually came together to make asteroids, comets, and planets.

The cool part is that observing the first stages of planet formation around HL Tauri can show us how our own planetary system may have looked when it began, more than four billion years ago.

So enjoy the fall season, the return to Standard Time and the earlier view of the night sky.  With the right kind of telescope, you can watch the world being made.

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For more about the ALMA and HL Tauri, you can see a five minute YouTube at this link.

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Sweet and savory slow-cooked Caramelized Carrots with Lime and Thyme are not your grandma’s carrots.

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Caramelized Carrots with Lime and Thyme
These will disappear from your Thanksgiving table. 

16 oz baby carrots, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
(about 3 cups of chunks)
3 tablespoons salted butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon dried or 2 teaspoons fresh thyme
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
Zest of one lime
1 teaspoon lime juice

In a large, heavy saucepan, frying pan or braising pan (carrots should cook in a single layer), melt butter with oil over medium heat.  Add thyme and season with a bit of salt and pepper.  Stir continuously to coat the carrots with the butter/oil and seasonings.  Reduce heat to medium-low and let sizzle, stirring only occasionally, until carrots are tender-crisp and beginning to caramelize (about 30 minutes).  Stir in lime zest and juice.  Taste and add additional salt and pepper, if desired (I didn’t).

Serve hot, with bread to mop up the extra butter and oil (yum!).

Serves 4 to 6

Flying Selfie

October 31, 2014

“The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating.  The paths are not found, but made, and the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.”
~ John H. Schaar

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Flying saucers are real and NASA is launching them.

On June 28th, NASA’s Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator project (LDSD) conducted its first test flight of technologies that will one day be used to land massive, heavy objects on the surface of Mars.  Nicknamed NASA’s “Flying Saucer”, the LDSD is a 20ft (6 m) diameter dish that is partially inflatable and carried to the upper stratosphere with the help of a gigantic balloon and a rocket.

If present-day scientists on Earth are creating objects called “Flying Saucers”, maybe the creatures we refer to as “Aliens” are not visitors from another planet after all.

The image of an outer-space Alien that is most common today is the one often referred to as a “Grey”.  A large head with huge, dark eyes and a tiny mouth and nose is attached to a whisper-thin body with long arms, hands and fingers.  What if these so-called “Aliens” are actually visitors from Earth’s future?

After hundreds of years of staring into smartphones, tablets or whatever the equivalent future technologies are, and relating only to their devices and not to each other or the physical world around them, Earth’s inhabitants could possibly have evolved into thin, gray beings with no need for mouths to speak, noses to smell or bodies capable of physically mingling.

It is quite possible that future Earthlings have found that life without physical human interaction is empty and unfulfilling, and they are traveling back to our time, in order to change (what is to them) the past for the benefit of their present happiness – to somehow interfere with the invention and proliferation of technologies that discourage human relationships and physical experience.

Earlier this morning, I was watching West Wing Week on YouTube.  The end of this week’s edition showed a woman walking while staring intently into her smartphone, her thumbs moving rapidly back and forth across its surface.  The President of the United States walked right by her and said hello.  She was so involved in her phone that she missed this once-in-a-lifetime moment.  She can always see it later on YouTube, I suppose.

The clip was supposed to be humorous, but I found it a bit sad.  Today, people seem more concerned with filming and watching important moments than they are with living and experiencing them.  Epictetus, a Greek philosopher (c. 50-120) said:

“If one oversteps the bounds of moderation, the greatest pleasures cease to please.”

I am hoping that Earth’s current inhabitants can learn to enjoy the benefits of our technology, without losing the beauty of our humanity.

Turn off the tablet and put down the phone.  Choose to talk rather than text.  Don’t see the world through Instagram; go for a walk and see it in person.  Create a memory instead of a photo.  Be more concerned with how you live, than how you look online.

Make the future a better place.  Enjoy the here and now.

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A photo of Caramel Apple Crostata would not do it justice.  Bake one yourself.  Your taste buds will thank you.

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Caramel Apple Crostata
Using a pre-made, unbaked pie crust and store-bought caramels makes this recipe super-easy, but still delicious.  Use good-quality caramels for the best results.  I used Trader Joe’s Fleur de Sel Caramels (about 13 of them, or half the container).

3 tablespoons organic sugar
Scant 1/4 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
Scant 1/8 teaspoon of ground allspice
1 pre-made unbaked pie crust (thawed, if frozen)
2 large gala apples
2 tablespoons cold butter, cut into small cubes
5 oz of caramel candies, unwrapped (about 3/4 cup)

Preheat oven to 400°F

In a small bowl, combine sugar and spices.  Set aside.

Unfold pie crust onto a baking sheet (preferably lined with parchment paper).  Use a rolling pin to roll out slightly to a diameter of about 11 inches.

Sprinkle one third of the sugar mixture across the surface of the crust.

Peel, core and slice apples into 1/8-inch-thick slices.  Place slices in a spiral pattern from center of crust outward, leaving a 1-inch border.  Dot apples with butter pieces.

Fold border of crust in and over edge of filling, pleating as you go to form a circle shape (no need to make it perfect; a crostata is supposed to be rustic-looking).

Sprinkle the remaining sugar mixture over the apples and edge of crust.

Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until crust is golden brown.  Slide off of baking sheet and let cool on a rack for 20 minutes.

Make caramel topping:

Place unwrapped caramel candies in a small, heavy saucepan with a scant tablespoon of water.  Stir over medium-low heat until smooth.  Let sit a minute or two before drizzling.  Drizzle caramel topping to cover center (apple part) of crostata.

Serve warm or chilled.  For a super decadent version, add some vanilla ice cream on the side.

Serves 8

This Too Shall Pass

October 22, 2014

“Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things that escape those who dream only at night.”
~ Edgar Allen Poe

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Thursday, October 23rd, North Americans will watch the Moon take a bite from the Sun.  A partial solar eclipse in the late afternoon will occur when a portion of the Moon moves in front of the Solar light, reshaping the setting Sun into a bright, yellow crescent.

Sunset is the in-between time, when day becomes night, when the bright light of reality (day) meets the indigo-blue of dreams (night).  It is a lovely time for creating an image of, for imagining, your future.

Take a walk at sunset, if you can, and use this time to imagine your most heartfelt wishes coming true.  Sometimes what we desire seems impossible because all we can see is what stands in the way of our dream’s fulfillment.  Remember that any seeming obstacles to the realization of your goal, be they financial or otherwise, are not necessarily permanent.  Like the spectacle of the Moon taking a bite out of the Sun during a partial eclipse, those impediments are only temporary.  Behind the appearance of obstruction, the light of possibility remains: full, glorious and powerful.

Let your mind and your heart see beyond what is visible today.  Just as the Moon will eventually pass beyond the Sun, revealing the entirety of its brilliant light, so the present obstacles to your goal will not always seem insurmountable.  A new day will illuminate new ideas and opportunities.  For now, give thanks for the world as it is in this moment, and, as you watch the clouds move across the sky, as you admire the crescent-shaped sunset of a partial eclipse, remember that this too shall pass.

Get a good night’s sleep.  Tomorrow is another day, and you have dreams to realize.

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Remember not to look directly at a solar eclipse.  For more information and the best times and locations for viewing, go to timeanddate.com and type in the name of your city.

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Dark can be delicious… and a good source of magnesium.  Bake up some Black Bean Blackout Chocolate Bread for a dessert that is both yummy and nutritious.

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Black Bean Blackout Chocolate Bread
No one will guess the secret ingredient in this super-moist, rich and chocolatey quick bread. Black beans and dark chocolate are both excellent sources of magnesium.  I used Alter Eco’s Dark Blackout Organic Chocolate for this recipe.  You will need about 2 (2.82 oz) bars.  I also used their superb Organic Mascobado Cane Sugar, a lovely unrefined caramel-rich brown sugar.  Alter Eco products are Fair Trade Certified.  You can find them at Whole Foods Markets or online at alterecofoods.com.

1 (15 oz) can organic black beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 cup strongly brewed coffee, cooled
1 egg
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
1 & 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 cup dark chocolate pieces*

*If using the Alter Eco Dark Blackout or other dark chocolate bar, break into pieces and place in a plastic zipper bag.  Using a mallet or a rolling pin, pound chocolate through the bag into very small pieces.  Measure out a rounded cup and continue with recipe.

Preheat oven to 350°F

Drain and rinse beans and place into a food processor or blender with the coffee.  Puree until smooth.  Use a spatula to scoop all of the puree into a measuring cup.  You should have exactly one cup of pureed beans.  Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat the egg, add the sugar and continue to beat until creamy.  Add the melted butter and the bean puree.  Mix well.

In another large bowl, combine the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, cinnamon and allspice.  Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients.  Stir until just combined and fold in the chocolate pieces.  Mixture will be very thick.

Scoop batter into an ungreased 9-inch round cake pan and spread in pan evenly.  Bake 40 to 45 minutes, or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean.

Let cool in pan and cut into 8 wedges.

Bee is for Ballare

October 17, 2014

“Everything in the Universe has rhythm.  Everything dances.”
~ Maya Angelou

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Most people know that honey bees pollinate plants and crops, build houses out of wax and produce honey.  But did you know that honey bees communicate to each other by dancing?

Honey bee colonies typically contain one queen bee (a fertile female), thousands of worker bees (non-fertile females) and several hundred drones (male bees, present during the spring and summer months).

The worker bees are named appropriately, as they do virtually all of the work: cleaning the hive, feeding the kids, caring for the queen, building honeycombs, guarding the entrance, cooling and ventilating the hive, and foraging for nectar, pollen, water and propolis (plant sap).

After returning from a successful forage, the workers communicate to each other about what they found by performing a dance, known in bee research language as the “waggle dance”.  The waggle is a figure-eight style movement that describes the quality and location of good foraging sites.

This form of interpretive bee dancing also comes in handy when a swarm is in need of a new place to live.  When the time comes to choose a site for a new home, scouting workers fly out in search of the best locations.  When the scouts return, each group makes its case for its favorite site to the other worker bees by dancing.  Part of this process involves some bees delivering head butts to those bees dancing in support of a site they don’t like.  When a dancer receives enough head butts, she stops, thereby decreasing the support for that particular site.  Eventually, only one site has dancers remaining, and that location becomes the new home.

Now scientists are using bee dances to learn which types of land management are most effective at improving habitats for bees and other wildlife.  In a study published this last spring in the journal Current Biology, researchers found that bees were more likely to dance for land sites that had been targeted for intense efforts at environmental restoration, rather than sites with less stringent environmental regulation or sites that had received low-level restoration efforts.   The bees also preferred the sites that had not been mowed, those where weeds were allowed to grow.

Over the course of two years, the researchers observed and videotaped the bees through special hives that had been built against a glass window in the laboratory.  The angles and movements of each dance were measured, as were the travel habits of the bees.  Observing the bee dances was found to be more effective at accurately informing environmental policy than satellite surveys and other remote methods of observation.

So, the next time you watch West Side Story, remember that neither the Sharks nor the Jets can claim victory.  When it comes to a dance-off, the bees have it.

~~~~~~~~~

My friend Bonnie shared some baby bok choy with me.  Baby Bok Choy with Big Noodles in Broth was the tasty result.

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Baby Bok Choy with Big Noodles in Broth
Baby bok choy combines with store-bought broth, cooked udon noodles and eggs to make a delicious and simple meat-free meal.  Prepared, packaged udon noodles can be found in the refrigerated section of your grocery store.  I used Annie Chun’s Organic Japanese-Style Udon Noodles.  You can also find dried udon noodles in the Asian section of your grocery store.  Prepare according to package directions.

4 to 5 bunches of baby bok choy
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tablespoons organic soy sauce
2 eggs
2 cups chicken broth, vegetable broth or miso broth
12 oz (340g) cooked udon noodles
(if using Annie’s, that’s 2 individual packs)
Freshly-ground black pepper, to taste

Thoroughly wash baby bok choy.  Cut tops and set aside.  Chop stems into 1-inch chunks.

In a non-stick skillet or frying pan over medium-high heat, add oil.  When oil is hot, add stems and stir about 2 or 3 minutes or until translucent.  Add tops and stir 2 minutes or until tops are wilted.  Add garlic and soy sauce and push bok choy to edges of pan.

Break eggs into center of pan and stir to scramble.

Add broth.  Bring just to a boil, add noodles and reduce heat.  Stir with a fork until noodles are just heated through.  Add pepper to taste.  Serve hot.

Serves 2

Oki Doki Carciofi

October 7, 2014

“Silly is you in a natural state, and serious is something you have to do until you can get silly again.”
~ Mike Myers

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A friend of mine who lives in Italy once asked me to explain the meaning of “okey-dokey”, the colloquial English language expression for “o.k.”.  I told him the term is similar to the Italian “va bene”, but that it is rather old-fashioned-sounding.  To be truthful,  answering someone with the words “okey-dokey” always seemed kind of goofy to me.

As a young adult, the importance of appearing cool at all times, even when alone, was paramount.  However, now that I’m a bit older, I have come to realize that a little bit of goofiness now and then is not a bad thing.  In fact, less seriousness and more silliness can actually be beneficial to your health.

A link between laughter and the healthy function of blood vessels was first discovered by researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center in 2005.  Their findings showed that laughter increases the blood flow by causing the inner lining of blood vessels to dilate in a manner similar to the benefits of aerobic exercise or the use of cholesterol-lowering drugs like statins.  The benefits of laughter, however, are spontaneous and have an immediate effect.

According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter causes the release of beta-endorphins in the hypothalamus gland, leading to the release of nitric oxide, which dilates the vessels, in addition to protecting the heart by reducing inflammation and preventing the formation of cholesterol plaque.  Laughing has also been shown to reduce stress hormones as well as to boost the number of anti-body-producing cells, leading to a stronger immune system.

As a yoga instructor, I like to utilize the benefits of laughter by including a pose known as “Happy Baby” (Ananda Balasana, in Sanskrit).  Happy Baby pose is easy to do.  It helps to release the lower back and stretch the hamstrings, all while reclining on the floor.  My version of Happy Baby also includes a bit of laughter, which lifts the mood and benefits the heart.  Don’t do this pose if you are pregnant.  If you have a neck or knee injury, check with your doctor first.

How to do the Laughing Happy Baby:

1)   Lie down on your back, on a rug or yoga mat.

2)   Bend the knees and bring them toward your chest.

3)   Reach up and grab the outer edges of your feet.

4)   Stack your ankles directly over your knees, so that your shins are perpendicular to the floor.

5)   Flex the feet and pull down, drawing your knees out and toward the floor, on either side of your torso.

6)   Breathe in deeply and slowly through your nose, filling your lungs completely.  As you exhale, laugh heartily: “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!”, expelling the breath with each “ha”.  Do this, inhaling through the nose and exhaling with hearty laughter, at least three times.

~~~

Baby yourself with a little laughter.  Try this simple pose once a day.

“A person who knows how to laugh at himself will never cease to be amused.”
~ Shirley MacLaine

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Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Artichoke Hearts: cheesy, creamy, artichokey, yummy!

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Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Artichoke Hearts
(Panino alla griglia con formaggio e cuori di carciofi)
Not your everyday grilled cheese, the addition of artichoke hearts to this comfort food classic adds a tasty twist.  Be sure to use plain artichoke hearts, not the marinated kind.

1 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese
1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 (14 oz) can artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
Sourdough bread slices
(you will need 16 small or 8 large slices of bread)
Butter, for frying (4 or more tablespoons)

 

In a medium bowl, mix cheeses, mayo and chopped artichoke hearts until well combined.

If using large slices of bread, cut in half, making two.

Spread about 3/8 cup of the filling between two slices of bread.  Press down a bit with your palm.  Finish with the remaining filling and bread.

In a large skillet, griddle or frying pan, over medium-high heat, melt butter and swirl around the pan to coat.

When butter sizzles, carefully add the sandwiches, no more than two at a time.  Cook a few minutes until bread is golden brown, then carefully flip with a spatula and cook the other side until bread is golden brown and filling is melted.

Serve warm.

Serves 4 to 8

 

See the Light

October 1, 2014

“Every moment of light and dark is a miracle.”
~ Walt Whitman

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A new sunrise is on the horizon.  A company co-founded by former engineers at Tesla and Nasa has developed a new smart light bulb.  Called the Alba (the Italian word for “sunrise”), the bulb contains sensors that track motion, room occupancy and ambient light.  These sensors enable the Alba to reduce or increase its light output and even to make that light warmer or cooler, depending on available natural light and time of day, as well as whether or not someone is in the room.  This “smartbulb” will use 60% to 80% less energy than a regular LED bulb.

The concept makes sense, not only regarding our energy use as a society but also for our personal mental, emotional and physical energy use as well.  Too often we run on a constant level of power all day, without paying attention to the needs of the moment.

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is in charge of the body’s response to our environment.  It regulates the functions of internal organs such as the heart, stomach and intestines as well as some muscles, skin and glands.  It causes our heart rate and blood pressure to rise or fall, depending on our situation.

The ANS has two different ways of responding to the moment.  The sympathetic nervous system kicks in if we are under stress or afraid.  It raises blood pressure and heart rate, slows digestion and releases adrenalin.  Our parasympathetic system, which takes over when we are relaxed, slows the heart and pulse rates, lowering blood pressure and facilitating digestion.  These responses evolved in order to help us to run, if we were being chased or facing some other dangerous situation, or to conserve energy, rest and digest our food, if all was well.

The modern problem with these systems arises when our minds keep us in a constant state of full power, via our sympathetic nervous system, by constantly focusing on past situations of stress or on fears of stressful situations in an imagined future.  The present moment may call for rest, relaxation and conservation of energy, but we are on full power thinking about what happened six months ago or what may happen tomorrow.

In order for our nervous system to work as intended, we must be able to see the light of the moment.  Chances are, the present moment does not require a stress response.  We must retrain our minds to let go of anything but what is now.

A good way to teach your mind to stay in the present is to practice conscious breathing.  Taking deep, full, rich breaths by inhaling, if possible, in and out of the nose, can help to facilitate the parasympathetic response, slowing the heart rate and pulse and lowering blood pressure.  Also helpful is to make the exhaling breath just a bit longer than the inhaling breath.  This helps because the heart beats more slowly when we exhale, so extending the exhaling breaths helps to “convince” the body that we are safe and relaxed, allowing the parasympathetic response to take over.

Another exercise to encourage an awareness and focus on the present moment is to practice conscious breathing while also maintaining a soft visual focus on a single point in the distance.  Softly gazing at one point in the visual field and letting the surrounding areas blur can help to keep the mind and body relaxed and in the now.

Both of these exercises, practiced one or more times a day, can help to retrain the mind to stay focused on the present, so that the nervous system and the body’s other systems can do their jobs efficiently and, in the process, help us to be happier and healthier.

“Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness.”
~ James Thurber

Let your inner light become a smartbulb.  Keep your mind’s eye focused on the now.

~~~

The Alba starter kit contains two bulbs and sells for $150.  It is available through Stack Lighting.  Visit stacklighting.com for details.

~~~~~~~~~

Cheesy Mashed Potato Portobellos will keep you focused on the present delicious moment.

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Cheesy Mashed Potato Portobellos
These tasty mashed-potato-filled mushrooms make a scrumptious side-dish for omnivores or a lovely lunch or vegetarian main course when paired with greens.  Use organic potatoes so that you can include the skins; they contain lots of nutrients.

4 large portobello mushrooms
Extra virgin olive oil (for brushing mushrooms and potatoes)
Salt and pepper to taste
2 large or 4 medium organic Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed (1 & 3/4 lbs)
Butter (optional, for surface of potatoes)
1/2 cup plain whole milk yogurt
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika

Preheat oven to 375°F

Clean portobellos with a damp cloth.  Remove stems and discard or save for another use.

Brush/rub with olive oil and lightly season with salt and pepper.

Place rounded side down on a baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, make mashed potatoes:

Rub surface of potatoes with butter or olive oil and pierce deeply with a fork.  Place on a paper plate or paper towel and microwave until super fork-tender (sticking a fork into potato is easily done).  This will probably take 7 to 10 minutes on full power.  Cook for 5, then check, then for 3, then check, and so on.

Chop cooked potatoes into chunks and let cool a bit.  Add potatoes to a bowl with yogurt, cheese, chives and paprika and mash/combine with a fork or potato masher.  Taste and add salt to your liking.

Divide mashed potato mixture among the portobellos, mounding filling inside cavities to create a rounded dome.  Return filled mushrooms to oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until surface of potatoes is beginning to brown and crisp.

Serves 2 as a meal,  4 as an appetizer or side dish