A Rose By Every Other Name

February 13, 2018

“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts,
the depths of their hearts
where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach,
the core of their reality,
the person that each one is
in God’s eyes.

If only they could see themselves as they really are.
If only we could see each other that way all the time,
there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…
I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”
~ Thomas Merton

Sometimes, among the seemingly mundane events of the day, we find an unexpected connection.

That’s how it was for me, one evening last October, watching the Late Show with Stephen Colbert.  Stephen’s guest was the comedian Russell Brand, who was on the show to promote his latest project, like every other guest.  The interview began with some light banter about small talk, followed by a surprisingly deep question and answer:

Stephen:  “Why are we here, Russell Brand?  Why do you think there is something, instead of nothing?”

Russell:  “Do you think it’s to move towards oneness?  Could the tendency be unity?  Could there be some consciousness trying to realize itself through material?”

The conversation that followed was decidedly not the standard talk show babble.  They were discussing Brand’s new book Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions.  Stephen asked him if he thought one could really have freedom from ones addictions or simply hold them at bay:

Russell:  “It depends, I suppose, on how one interprets addiction.  If you see addiction, perhaps, as a yearning to connect that our culture doesn’t know how to service, then you can have freedom from the malevolent manifestations of addiction.  If addiction is a drive to know truth or, in another lexicon, to know God, to know oneness that we are unable to medicate successfully because our culture tells us that there is no meaning, tells us that we are but material, tells us that we are individuals trapped in flesh, only here to consume, and there are some people who just can’t bear that; so they take a little heroin to unwind.”

Stephen: “Yes, that’s true, as Thomas Merton said, that ‘Ourselves we clothe, we wrap in the bandages of other people’s perceptions of us or in our appetites and pleasures and we say, “Oh, those bandages, that is ourself”, without ever looking at what’s underneath the bandage, which is a hole in our heart the size of God.'”

Stephen and Russell’s conversation and, in particular, Stephen’s paraphrase of Thomas Merton’s words, so resonated with my own spiritual philosophy, that I immediately set to googling the name of “Thomas Merton”.  I found that he was a Trappist monk, theologian and mystic, born under the sign of Aquarius, who wrote more than 70 books on spirituality, social justice, civil rights and pacifism.  I found a number of other quotes from his writings that also resonated with me, such as this one:

“It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is , and who we are.”

It is important to remember what connects us, rather than what divides us, especially in times such as these when social media algorithms and outrage-peddling bots and trolls continue to push our politics away from the center and our citizens apart from one another.

These are interesting times, to say the least, and I have found myself disappointed by some I had previously admired, and inspired by many that I had formerly assumed I had nothing in common with.  As a fairly true-blue liberal, I never thought that I could be moved by a speech from George W. Bush.  But one he gave on October 19, 2017 touched me deeply, especially these words:

“We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty.  At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together.  Argument turns too easily into animosity.  Disagreement escalates into dehumanization.  Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions – forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.”

The Gods truly do have a sense of humor.  I never imagined I would connect with the words of George W. Bush, but I did.  Russell Brand, our 43rd President and Thomas Merton have all echoed my deepest belief; that we are on a journey towards connection, towards the recognition of God’s face when we look in the mirror, as well as when we look at each other.  Sri Aurobindo, a favorite philosopher of mine, wrote poetically about our origins, defining creation as:

“Existence that multiplied itself for sheer delight of being and plunged into numberless trillions of forms so that it might find itself innumerably…”

And I have no doubt that we can find our way back to civility, to camaraderie, and that one day, perhaps generations upon generations from now, we will find that recognition of the divine in ourselves and each other.  Sri Aurobindo’s quote continues:

“….Love is the keynote; Joy is the music; Power is the strain; Knowledge is the performer; the infinite All is the composer and audience.  We know only the preliminary discords, which are as fierce as the harmony shall be great; but we shall arrive surely at the fugue of the divine Beatitudes.”

Love is not always easy.  Sometimes, the most difficult relationships are the ones that teach us the most important lessons.  So, in honor of Valentine’s Day, and in the name of true love, take a moment to seek a connection, to see the humanity, as well as the divinity, in someone you disagree with.

“Love is our true destiny.  We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.”
~ Thomas Merton

~~~~~~~~~

Dust off that waffle maker that’s been sitting lonely on your top shelf.  Chocolate Brownie Waffles with Coffee Maple Syrup make a lovely breakfast or brunch treat, on Valentine’s Day or any day.

Chocolate Brownie Waffles with Coffee Maple Syrup
These delicious dark chocolate waffles taste like you’re having a brownie for breakfast.  The Coffee Maple Syrup adds a sophisticated pick me up for your morning meal.  I added blueberries to the waffles in the picture above, for extra anti-oxidant power.  Freeze any leftover waffles to heat up in your toaster oven on hurried mornings.  I like to spread a waffle or two with peanut butter for an easy, portable, high protein treat.  You can also serve them as a dessert with a scoop of ice cream on top and chocolate syrup drizzled over all. 

Note: if you haven’t used your waffle iron in awhile, plan on throwing out the first waffle; it will serve to season your waffle iron.

 

Ingredients:
1/2 cup baking cocoa
1/4 cup butter, melted (still warm but not hot)
3/4 cup organic cane sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup plain yogurt*
*you will want thinner Euro style yogurt for this – not Greek style

Coffee Maple Syrup (recipe follows)

 

In a large bowl, stir cocoa and warm melted butter together until smooth.  Stir in sugar.  Add the eggs and vanilla and beat well with a fork.

In a medium bowl, mix flour, baking soda and salt together.

Add some of the flour mixture to the large bowl with the cocoa mixture, a little at a time, alternating with some of the yogurt, mixing fully between each addition, until everything is added and mixture is fully combined.

Bake in your waffle iron, according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Serve with Coffee Maple Syrup for breakfast or ice cream and chocolate sauce (and some strawberries or raspberries, if you like) for dessert.

Makes about 9 – 10 waffles (depending on your waffle iron).

 

Coffee Maple Syrup
You can double this recipe (just use a larger pan) for more syrup.

1 cup strong coffee or espresso
3 tablespoons real maple syrup
2 tablespoons golden brown sugar (packed)
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a small, heavy saucepan, over medium high heat, stir together coffee, maple syrup and brown sugar.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until reduced by half (about 15 minutes).  Turn off heat and add the butter, a piece at a time, stirring to melt and combine between each addition.  Serve immediately over Chocolate Brownie Pancakes or let syrup cool, pour into a jar and store in fridge.  This makes a nice gift from your kitchen.  Make sure to let the recipient know to refrigerate the syrup and warm it before using.

 

What Goes Around, Comes Around

January 13, 2018

“Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.”
~ James Thurber

About a week ago I was commenting to a friend about how the national roller coaster ride that began a little over a year ago seemed to be intensifying as we begin 2018.  My advice to her was “Hold on or put your hands in the air, whichever seems appropriate.”

A similar conversation with an Italian friend of mine caused me to look up the Italian word for “roller coaster”.  Imagine my amusement when I found the translation to be montagna russa or “Russian Mountain”.  In fact, the languages of French, Portuguese and Spanish also use equivalents of the term Russian Mountains to refer to roller coasters.  This struck me as quite an interesting and humorous linguistic coincidence, considering current events.

Curious, I looked into the history of the term.  It turns out that the predecessors of our modern roller coasters were 17th and 18th century Russian winter sledding rides.  They were built to stand between 70 ft/21 m and 80 ft/24 m tall, with a 50-degree drop, on specially constructed hills of ice and snow.  The ice hills were reinforced with wooden supports.  Located mostly around Saint Petersburg, the rides were very popular with the Russian upper classes.  Catherine the Great even had a version built at her personal residence, complete with a special gazebo where her guests could enjoy a post-ride cup of tea.

The first version of what we think of today as a roller coaster opened 1812, when one of the founders of the Moulin Rouge music hall built a wheeled ride, inspired by the Russian hills but without the ice, called the Montagnes Russes de Belleville or Russian Mountains of Belleville.  It was the first roller coaster to lock the cars to the track.  The first looping roller coaster opened in France in 1846.  In 1884, the first American roller coaster debuted at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York.  Called the Switchback Railway, it traveled about 6 miles per hour and cost five cents to ride.  Nonetheless, this roller coaster’s immense popularity made its creator hundreds of dollars each day.

Interestingly, when modern roller coasters made their way to Russia, they came to be called amerikanskie gorki, or “American Mountains”.

What goes around, comes around.

 

~~~~~~~~~

Turn a frown upside down with a delicious batch of Orange Fool. The fruit fool is a traditional English dessert, dating back to the 1500s.  It began as a form of fruit custard, but has evolved into a combination of whipped cream and fruit.  An orange custard version is rumored to have been included in Martha Washington’s (our first First Lady) personal book of recipes.  In a nod to both the traditional and modern, my Orange Fool recipe combines both versions, by stirring tangy orange curd into whipped cream.

Orange Fool
A simple but elegant dessert that combines homemade orange curd and freshly whipped cream for a finale that is both rich and refreshing.  Be sure to use eggs from happy hens (pastured or free range).  For a simpler version, substitute prepared orange curd and transform the Orange Fool into an Orange Genius (recipe option below).

For the Orange Curd:
3 large eggs
1/3 cup organic sugar
Grated zest of one medium organic orange
1/2 cup strained fresh orange juice
3/4 stick of butter, cut into small pieces
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the Whipped Cream:
1 & 1/2 cups organic heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon organic sugar

To garnish:
Additional orange zest
Cookies, such as ginger snaps or vanilla wafers

Note: You will need an electric mixer, medium bowl and medium-sized wire whisk for the whipped cream.  Chill the bowl, beaters and whisk in the fridge ahead of time, so that they are super cold when you use them for the whipped cream.

 

Step one – make the Orange Curd:

In a medium saucepan, whisk the eggs, sugar and grated orange zest together until light in color.

Add the orange juice and the butter.

Put saucepan on the stove and cook mixture, whisking, over medium heat until the butter is melted.  Then whisk constantly until mixture is thickened and let simmer gently for a few seconds (do not boil!).  Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla.  Let cool, stirring a few times.  Cover and refrigerate to thicken further (now is a good time to chill your bowl, beaters and whisk for the whipped cream).

Makes about 1 & 1/3 cups

 

Step two – whip the cream:

Remove cream and chilled bowl and utensils from fridge.

Pour cream into the chilled bowl.  Whip cream with electric mixer on medium speed until soft peaks form.  Add sugar and finish beating by hand with the chilled wire whisk until stiff peaks form (finishing by hand helps the whipped cream to hold its shape longer).

To assemble the Orange Fool:

Remove chilled orange curd from fridge.

Using a rubber spatula, carefully fold in 3/4 cup of the orange curd and stir into the whipped cream almost completely, but with some white streaks remaining.  Cover and refrigerate the remaining curd and save for another use (on toast, as a dip for fruit or cookies, or mixed with your morning yogurt).

You can serve the fool immediately or make ahead and chill up to 2 hours.

Serve in wine goblets or glass dessert bowls.  Top each serving with a bit of extra orange zest and a cookie.

Serves 6

 

Orange Genius
Brilliantly simple to make (hence the name), this variation uses purchased prepared orange curd.  You can find bottled orange curd in the jams and jellies section of a well-stocked grocery store, specialty store or online.

Ingredients:
3/4 cup purchased prepared orange curd
1 & 1/2 cups organic heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon organic sugar

To garnish:
Additional orange zest
Cookies, such as ginger snaps or vanilla wafers

Note: You will need an electric mixer, medium bowl and medium-sized wire whisk for the whipped cream.  Chill the bowl, beaters and whisk in the fridge ahead of time, so that they are super cold when you use them for the whipped cream.  Also chill your purchased orange curd.

Make as in Orange Fool recipe above, but begin with Step Two.

 

The Miracle is Now

December 21, 2017

“Live quietly in the moment and see the beauty all before you.
The future will take care of itself.”

~ Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi


From PhenomeGNOME

 

Happy Winter Solstice!

2017 has been quite a ride.  As someone who is not fond of rollercoasters, the ups, downs and side-to-sides of the past year have been rather unsettling, to put it politely.  So the arrival of the Winter Solstice, which ushers in a light that will grow stronger each day, is a welcome metaphor.

In spite of appearances, darkness is waning.  The light is expanding from this day forward, until the first day of summer, when the Sun shines its brightest and longest, and our faith in the ultimate power of light over darkness is affirmed.

So, in honor of the return of the light and as an act of faith in the warmth, healing and new life it will eventually bring, stop; take a few conscious breaths and enjoy the holidays.  Surrender to the simple miracle of now.  Yesterday is done and tomorrow is at another location in time.  You are here, now.  Look around: what are you grateful for in this moment?

If you need help bringing your focus into the now, here is a simple exercise you can do anywhere:

How to Fix Your Gaze
Sit or stand comfortably, with spine lifted as if a string were attached to the top of your head, holding it up.  Balance your weight across the surfaces of both feet. Gently engage your abdominal muscles and keep them tucked in.  Begin to breathe, in and out of your nose (if possible),  slowly, deeply, fully.  Make your exhales the same count as your inhales, or slightly longer.  Now find a small object or spot out in front of you and focus your gaze softly on that one point, letting everything around it become a blur.  If you are indoors, perhaps you can fix your gaze on an ornament on the Christmas tree, a bow on top of a package or a steady candle flame across the room.  If you are outside, find pebble on the ground, a flower or a blade of grass  – anything that is not moving.  Breathe in and out, softly gazing at that one point in the distance.  That point is your now.  The blur that surrounds it symbolizes the past and future clamoring for your attention; tune them out. Gaze steadily at your point of focus, breathing evenly and fully, anywhere from several breaths to a few minutes.  You can end the exercise by giving thanks to the object and this unique moment in time.

“I’d kiss a frog even if there were no promise of a Prince Charming popping out of it.  I love frogs.”
~ Cameron Diaz

~~~~~~~~~

Need a last-minute gift to bring to a holiday party or dinner?  Tiramisù Truffles are deliciously easy treat to put together.

Tiramisù Truffles (Tartufini al Tiramisù)
With a few ingredients and a little bit of your time, these rich and sophisticated treats are easy to make and will be chilled and ready to give in a few hours.  Be sure to let your recipient know they should be refrigerated.  The key here is quality ingredients.  Be sure to use good, strong espresso or coffee and good quality cocoa powder.  I used Equal Exchange Fairly Traded Organic Baking Cocoa, available at Whole Foods.

Ingredients:
74g (8-9) lady fingers/savoiardi
8 oz tub of mascarpone
1/4 cup organic sugar
2 tablespoons cold, strong, sweetened coffee*
2 to 3 tablespoons cocoa powder/baking cocoa

You will also need:
18-21 mini cupcake liners/candy papers
A large plastic zip bag
A rolling pin

*Sweeten espresso or strong coffee to your taste and measure after coffee has cooled.

 

Place lady fingers in a large plastic zip bag and crush using a rolling pin.  You may need to use the ends to break up the cookies and then roll to crush.  Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine mascarpone and sugar with a spoon.  Add the cold, sweetened coffee/espresso and mix until fully combined and smooth.  Use the back of the spoon to make sure all the mascarpone is incorporated.  Add the crushed lady fingers and mix completely.  Cover the bowl and chill for 30 minutes.

To make truffles:
Remove mascarpone mixture from fridge.  Place cocoa powder in a small, shallow bowl.  Separate the mini cupcake liner/candy papers and set them up on a baking sheet or pan.

Wash your hands thoroughly.

Take about a tablespoon of the mixture and roll gently between clean hands to form a ball.  Roll the ball in the cocoa powder until fully covered.  Carefully place the finished truffle inside one of the papers.  Continue, rolling mixture into a ball and coating with cocoa until all the mixture has been used up.  Cover the tray of finished truffles and chill in fridge for 2 to 3 hours.

Package in a small gift box to take as a hostess gift or set on a pretty platter to serve as part of your holiday dessert tray.  Store in refrigerator until ready to serve.  Store any leftovers (there probably won’t be any) in fridge as well.

Makes 18 to 21 truffles.

 

 

Take Comfort

December 11, 2017

“On days when warmth is the most important need of the human heart, the kitchen is the place you can find it.”
~ E.B. White

 

Have the rich foods and rushed pace of the holiday season made your digestive system less than comfortable?  Has your stomach been actively protesting 2017?  Is your skin in need of soothing after a cold, dry and windy day?  Could your body use a warm hug?

It’s important to put self-care on your holiday to do list.  You won’t enjoy the festive foods of the season if your stomach is stressed and you can’t celebrate tidings of comfort and joy if you’re wiped out from decking the halls.

Below are two recipes for self care.  A tummy-comforting soup to soothe a sensitive stomach and a body-comforting milk bath to relieve sore muscles and soften dry winter skin.  The bath also makes a nice gift to comfort a friend.  So, after you take some time to soothe your own body and soul, make sure to pass the healing on by making up some extra soup or milk bath and encouraging your loved ones to do the same.

“There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.”
~ Sylvia Plath

~~~

Tummy-Comforting Carrot Soup
with Fennel, Turmeric and Ginger
This tasty soup recipe is designed to be stomach-soothing, with a touch of probiotic yogurt to add some comforting creaminess.   It’s good cold or hot, but I recommend hot, as a warm bowl of soup on a cold day defines the idea of comfort food.

1 medium fennel bulb with fronds
1 & 1/2 lbs carrots
1 tart/sweet apple, peeled and chopeed
1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped
1 & 1/2 teaspoons turmeric
1 tablespoon fresh ginger
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon organic sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cups (32 oz) reduced-sodium vegetable broth

To garnish:
1/2 cup plain yogurt with active cultures
Ground cumin
Reserved fennel fronds

Equipment: a blender or food processor

 

Cut carrots into halves or thirds, horizontally, then cut those pieces vertically into 2 to 3 inch pieces.  Place cut carrots into a large bowl.

Remove fennel fronds, rinse, pat dry and finely chop enough to make 1 tablespoon to garnish soup.  Set aside.  Discard stalks and remaining fronds, scrub outer layer and trim bottom.  Slice bulb into 1/4 inch-thick slices and add to bowl with carrots.  Add apple pieces, garlic, turmeric, ginger, lemon juice, sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper.

In a large soup pot, heat olive oil over medium.  Add seasoned veggies and stir several times to coat with the oil.  Add 1/2 of the broth, stir well and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until veggies are tender, about 25 to 30 minutes.  Let cool completely (if you try to blend while hot, you’ll make a mess).

Once cooled, blend vegetables in batches using a blender or food processor, adding additional broth, as necessary, until very smooth.  Transfer to a medium saucepan.  Repeat with remaining veggies and broth.  Return blended soup to pan and simmer until heated through.  Taste and season with salt and black pepper, if needed (I didn’t add any).  Ladle into bowls and garnish each with a drizzle of plain yogurt, a dash of ground cumin and a sprinkling of chopped fennel fronds.

Makes 6 servings

~~~

After work, before dinner or just before bed, treat yourself to a skin-soothing, mind and muscle-relaxing milk bath.

Body-Comforting Coconut Milk Bath
You can find powdered coconut milk at Whole Foods, in the baking section, in health food stores or online.  Make one batch for yourself and then make additional batches to give as gifts.  Make sure to include the instructions for both storing and taking the bath (below).

Makes enough for one to two baths:

1 cup powdered coconut milk
1/2 cup organic cornstarch
6 tablespoons baking soda
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 vanilla bean

A clean pint-sized mason jar with lid

To Make the Bath:
In a medium bowl, stir together the coconut milk, cornstarch, baking soda, turmeric and ginger.  Cut the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the powder mixture (you can toss the scraped pod into ground coffee, or a carton of cream or milk to add a nice vanilla flavor to whipped cream or your morning coffee). Stir mixture with a fork or small whisk until the seeds are evenly dispersed into the powder.  Scoop finished milk bath into your mason jar and seal.

To Take a Bath:

Add 1 to 2 cups of the mixture under running bath water.  Soak and enjoy!

I like the delicate natural scent of the ingredients by themselves, but if you wish to add a few drops of essential oil for extra fragrance, be sure to add to the bath water, not to the milk bath mix, as the added moisture can decrease the shelf life of the milk powder.  Store your milk bath, tightly sealed in a cool, dry place and use within 1 month.  It will probably keep longer than that, but why put off taking care of yourself?

 

 

Be Thankful for…

November 20, 2017

Though you may not drive a great big Cadillac
Gangster whitewalls, TV antennas in the back
You may not have a car at all
But remember brothers and sisters
You can still stand tall
Just be thankful for what you’ve got

~ From “Be Thankful for What You Got” (1974)
Songwriter: William DeVaughn

Thanksgiving day is approaching, a day initially dedicated to breaking bread with loved ones to enjoy and be grateful for the bounty of the season and to share that bounty with others less fortunate.

In reality, the actual day is usually busy with cooking, socializing and navigating through personal and family relationships, along with the joys and challenges that come with them.  These days, some folks even spend the day or night lined up at stores, anxious to grab the biggest discounts on toys and appliances.  The simple idea of being thankful and having more than a moment before eating to meditate on it can be hard to come by amidst the holiday chaos.

If you miss the opportunity to focus on what you are truly grateful for, no need to wait another year.  Begin, the day after Thanksgiving, making a list of three things you are thankful for every day until the New Year.  You can write them down or simply see them in your mind’s eye.  Think of three things each day, perhaps before you sit down to eat, or maybe at the day’s end.  These could be big things, such as health or love or family.  They could be small things, like a delicious dessert you ate or an entertaining movie you saw.  Maybe you are thankful just to get through a particularly challenging day.  Whatever you put on your list, do it faithfully every day until January 1st.  My guess is that you will feel calmer, less stressed and enjoy the Holiday season more by taking this simple, daily action.  If so, you may decide to continue the practice into 2018.

To help get you started, here is your musical mantra, from 1974:

~~~~~~~~~

Be thankful for Polpette di zucca (Pumpkin Balls), little cheese-filled, breaded and fried nibbles of creamy, savory pumpkin.

Polpette di zucca (Pumpkin Balls)
These delicious and nutritious little balls of creamy, savory goodness make a fun appetizer for your Thanksgiving, Christmas or other Fall/Winter holiday table.  Using canned organic pumpkin saves time and trouble, but you could roast and mash pumpkin from scratch, if you choose.  I have included a short. step by step video below. 

1 (15 oz) can organic pumpkin*
1 cup unseasoned bread crumbs, divided
1 egg
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese
(I used a combination of both)
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh, flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Generous pinch of crumbled, dried rosemary
2 ounces of smoked cheddar or sharp cheddar cheese, cut into small cubes
(you will need about 14 cubes)
Oil for frying (to reach 1 inch from bottom of pan)

*Variation: use canned butternut squash for Squash Balls (Polpette di zucca lunga)

In a shallow, wide bowl, combine 1/2 cup of the bread crumbs, rosemary, salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste.  Set aside.

In a medium bowl, thoroughly combine the pumpkin, egg, remaining 1/2 cup of bread crumbs, parsley, Parmesan/Pecorino cheese, a pinch of salt and a few turns of freshly ground pepper.  Put 2 tablespoons of the mixture into the palm of your hand and place a cube of the cheddar/smoked cheddar in the center.  Fold the edges of the pumpkin mixture around the cheese to form a ball.  Roll this ball gently into the bread crumbs and pat to fully cover.  Continue making the rest of the balls.  Chill in fridge for 30 minutes.

To fry:
Fill pan so that there is one inch of oil from bottom.  Heat to 350°F/170°C, or until the handle of a wooden spoon dipped into the oil forms bubbles around it.  Alternatively, you can toss in a tiny pinch of bread and it should sizzle.  Also, a kernel of unpopped corn will pop when the oil is ready.

Fry pumpkin balls, a few at a time (so as not to crowd pan or lower temperature of the oil), until golden brown (about 3 to 4 minutes).  Drain on paper towels and serve immediately.

Makes about 14 balls.

Here is a short, step-by-step video to guide you how to assemble the balls.  It is in Italian, but you don’t need to read it, as I am merely providing it as a visual guide.  Their version roasts the pumpkin from scratch, so don’t worry about that part if you are using canned:

Night of the Sleeping REM

October 31, 2017

“By night, Love, tie your heart to mine,
and the two together in their dream will defeat the darkness.”
~ Pablo Neruda, Soneto LXXIX

The romantic longing of Pablo Neruda’s passionate poem may actually hold a scientific truth.  A study of young adults recently published by the Society for Neuroscience suggested that dreaming more can help you to fear less.

Researchers at Rutgers University monitored students’ sleep for one week, then had them participate in an experiment to measure their response to fearful stimuli.  The scientists found that the students who had spent more time in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep were less inclined to respond with fear.  REM sleep is the phase when dreaming occurs.

Contrary to popular belief, sleep is actually a very active time for the brain.  Although our physiological processes (heart rate, breathing, blood pressure) can slow down, our brains are busy cycling through four distinct stages of sleep in a specific sequence.

Stage N1 is transitional, a light sleep that lasts 5 to 10 minutes. Body temperature decreases and brain waves seem to slow.  This is the sleep you get when you take a short nap, wake up, and then wonder if you fell asleep or not.

Stage N2 lasts 10 to 25 minutes.  Your heart rate slows, muscles relax and eye movement stops.

Stage N3 is deep sleep, also known as “slow wave” or “delta” sleep.  This is the sleep you need in order to feel fully rested and refreshed the next day.  This phase usually lasts 20 to 40 minutes.  You are super groggy when awakened from N3 sleep, which is why you should probably not nap for more than 30 minutes, so you can wake from your nap easily.  This is also the sleep phase when sleepwalking or sleep talking are most likely to happen.

REM sleep begins about 90 minutes after you first fall asleep and have gone through all of the first three stages already.  The first REM stage usually lasts about 10 minutes, with each REM stage you have throughout the night getting longer and longer.

As I mentioned above, REM, stands for Rapid Eye Movement.  During this phase of sleep, your closed eyes may move rapidly from one side to another.  Although not proven yet, many scientists believe your eyes move like this during dreams.  During REM sleep, your heart rate and blood pressure increase a bit and your arm and leg muscles relax so much so that they become somewhat immobile.  This is possibly the body’s way of keeping you from acting out your dreams physically.  If you’ve ever had a one of those scary dreams where you couldn’t move, you were probably just half conscious of your temporary paralysis while dreaming.

So, as you can see, in order to get to the REM sleep that strengthens your psyche against fear, you need to go through all of the stages before REM and that means sleeping well.  Here are a few good tips:

Keep your bedroom dark, quiet and at a cooler temperature.

Turn off your electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bed.

Don’t keep electronics on or charging near your bed.   Use a wind-up clock for your alarm.

Stop all caffeine consumption 8 hours before bed.  Drink a relaxing beverage, like valerian, chamomile or lemon balm tea.

Don’t work or eat in bed.

A hot bath with Epsom salts before bed helps.  The magnesium helps you relax.

Don’t sleep in your daytime clothes, even if they’re comfortable.

If you like to read before bed, use a real, paper book.  The light from e-readers (especially blue light) makes your eyes believe that it’s time to wake up.

Do some relaxing conscious breathing before bed.  Below is a favorite Pranayama (yogic breathing technique) I use to help myself and my students relax and relieve anxiety and/or insomnia.

The Extended Exhale

In this easy breathing technique, you gradually increase the length of your exhales, relative to your inhales.  The heart beats more slowly during exhalation, so increasing the length of time that you breathe out encourages a relaxation response in the body.  Here’s how:

To begin relaxing for sleep when you first get into bed, lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet on the mattress, about hips’ distance apart.  Begin breathing, preferably in and out of your nose, placing your palms lightly at your solar plexus, the soft place on your abdomen directly  under your rib cage.  Try to begin breathing using this area first, letting the chest expand upward from there, gradually, as you inhale.  Continue taking nice, long, slow, steady and deep breaths, in and out of your nose.  Begin counting to yourself as you breathe in and as you breathe out.  Your inhales will probably be about the same length as your exhales.  Slowly began lengthening your exhales relative to your inhales.  For example; if you inhale for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 6.  Try to gradually work up to a ratio of 1:2 (if you inhale for 5 counts, exhale for 10).  However, do not increase your exhales beyond double the count of your inhales.  If doubling the length of your exhales is too difficult, just making your exhales a couple of counts longer will help, even if they are not double.  The point is to help you relax, so take it easy at first.  Simply extending your exhalations for at least a minute or two, will encourage your heart rate to slow, your blood pressure to drop and your muscles to relax, helping you unwind into a nice night’s sleep.

“Sleep is the best meditation.”
~ Dalai Lama

~~~~~~~~~

No need to be afraid of the dark when you bake up some Midnight Boo-scotti – dark chocolate cookies draped in white.

Midnight Boo-scotti
Dark chocolate contains some caffeine, so it may interfere with sleep.  However, according to Swiss researchers, the consumption of dark chocolate can reduce the effects of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.  Dark chocolate increases the amount of seratonin (a mood regulator) in the brain, and it is also high in magnesium, which helps to regulate the body’s internal clock. Eating dark chocolate has many other beneficial effects, including lowering the blood pressure, lowering cholesterol levels and improving blood flow to the brain and heart.  In fact, frequent chocolate consumption is associated with a nearly 40% reduced risk for heart disease and a 30% reduced risk for stroke.  Whether you enjoy these yummy biscotti with your morning coffee or as an evening snack, I’ll let you decide.

 

2/3 cup organic sugar
5 tablespoons butter
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 & 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 (12 oz) pkg white chocolate chunks (24% cacao), for dipping

 

Preheat oven to 350°F

Grease a large, rimmed baking sheet with butter or line with parchment paper.

In a large mixing bowl, using a large fork or an electric mixer on low, combine the sugar and butter until pale and fluffy.  Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition.  Add the vanilla and cinnamon and blend 30 seconds more, or until combined.  Set aside.

In another bowl, combine the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt.  Add the flour mixture to the bowl with the sugar/egg/butter mixture and beat until combined.

Transfer the dough to the prepared baking sheet (you may want to dust your fingertips with a little flour, as the dough can be sticky).  Shape the dough into a log, then flatten into a 4-inch wide strip.  Bake the strip, rotating the baking sheet halfway through cooking time, until browned and set, about 25 to 30 minutes.  Transfer the strip to a cooling rack and cool for about 15 minutes.

Reduce the oven temperature to 300°F

Transfer the strip to a work surface.  Using a serrated knife, cut strip into slices (as if slicing a loaf of bread) about 1/3-inch thick.  Arrange the slices, cut side down, on the baking sheet.  Bake the slices, rotating the baking sheet halfway through cooking time, until crisp, about 15 to 20 minutes.  Transfer the slices to a cooling rack and let cool completely.

To dip in white chocolate:
Melt white chocolate chunks over low heat in a small, heavy saucepan, stirring, until smooth and creamy.  Dip end of each biscotto into the chocolate and return to the cooled baking sheet to harden.  You can put the tray into the fridge for ten minutes or so to speed up the hardening of the chocolate if the weather is warm.

Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

Makes about 18 biscotti

 

 

 

 

Keep Going…

October 14, 2017

Frodo Baggins:  I can’t do this, Sam

Samwise Gamgee:  I know.  It’s all wrong.  By rights we shouldn’t even be here.  But we are.

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo; the ones that really mattered.  Full of darkness and danger they were.  And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy?  How could the world go back to the way it was, when so much bad had happened?  But, in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow.  Even darkness must pass.  A new day will come.  And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer.

Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.  But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand.  I know now.  Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t.  They kept going, because they were holding on to something.

Frodo Baggins:  What are we holding on to Sam?

Samwise Gamgee:  That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.

From The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

In case you have been having doubts lately about the fact that there is some good in this world, let me remind you that there is an abundance.  Although the voice of hate and discord seems to be shouting the loudest, those that encourage and express love are all around us, albeit speaking in softer tones.

One of those voices is José Andrés, the Washington D.C. -based, Spanish-born chef who runs a non-profit specializing in disaster relief, World Central Kitchen.

I first discovered José Andrés via his PBS cooking and travel show Made in Spain.  I fell in love with his warm and likable personality and his passion for food and cooking. A few years later, three of my best girlfriends took me for a special birthday dinner to The Bazaar, his award-winning, avant-garde tapas and cocktail bar.  It was an amazing, unforgettable culinary adventure.

For the last few weeks, Andrés and his World Central Kitchen charity have been on the ground in Puerto Rico, providing hurricane relief by feeding people located even in the most remote parts of the Island.  Utilizing food trucks and working out of a temporary kitchen that he says will remain active for the next few weeks, he and his team recently announced they are now serving 97,000 meals per day in Puerto Rico.  He has even helped to feed the National Guard members working on the island.  He has asked the federal government for helicopters to help distribute food and supplies (including 65 blue tarps delivered to the community of Parcelas Falu, San Juan), but so far they have not been responsive to his requests.

You can read more about World Central Kitchen and their work in Puerto Rico as well as other disaster areas at their website here.   If you’d like to donate, you can do so here.  Below is a short YouTube with the wonderful José Andrés himself explaining their efforts.  Check out those giant paella pans! Yum!

Enjoy:

~~~~~~~~~

If you’re not busy feeding the multitudes, like José Andrés, donate what you can to World Central Kitchen and then fry up some Smoky Salmon Sliders with Raspberry Pimentón Mayo.

Smoky Salmon Sliders with Raspberry Pimentón Mayo
The Pacific Northwest has the best salmon in the world, in my humble opinion.  Trader Joe’s carries canned wild-caught sockeye salmon, caught off the coast of Alaska’s Bristol Bay.  Alaska’s state constitution includes guidelines that dictate sustainable fishing practices.  Wild Planet offers the same (they are perhaps the suppliers for Trader Joe’s version) and theirs can be found online at their website and at grocery stores, including Whole Foods markets.

Sliders are miniature burgers, so I recommend serving two per person.

 

2 (7.5 oz) cans wild Pacific sockeye salmon
1 rounded tablespoon mayonnaise
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon liquid smoke*
Zest of 1 small lemon (rounded 1/4 tsp)
Pinch of chili powder (1/16 tsp)
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
2/3 cup breadcrumbs (unseasoned)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil for frying

8 soft rustic rolls (French, sourdough or Italian) cut in half to make mini-buns

*Liquid smoke is a natural flavoring made by channeling smoke from smoldering wood chips into a condenser, causing it to liquefy.  The smoky flavor dissolves into the liquid while the insoluble bad stuff like carcinogenic tars and resins are removed by multiple filters, leaving only clean, smoke-flavored liquid.  I used Wright’s brand because it contains only water and natural mesquite smoke concentrate.  You can find it at most grocery stores and online.

 

Drain all of the liquid from the cans of salmon (if you have cats, give them the liquid; mine love it) and remove larger pieces of bone.  Add the drained salmon to a medium bowl and mash well with a fork.  Add lemon juice, zest, liquid smoke, chili powder, chives and half of the breadcrumbs.  Gently mix until just combined.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Divide the salmon mixture into 8 equal mounds on the parchment.  Pat each mound into a ball, then press the balls into mini patties, about 3/4″ thick.  Cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Make Raspberry Pimentón Mayo (recipe below).

Remove salmon patties from fridge.  Spread the remaining half of the breadcrumbs on a plate.  Gently press one side of each salmon patty into the breadcrumbs.  Scoop more breadcrumbs over top and press to coat other side (it’s best to leave patties in place, as moving them around too much can cause them to break).

Heat a thin layer of olive oil in a large, non-stick skillet over medium-high heat until a breadcrumb dropped into the oil sizzles.  Use a spatula to carefully move the patties to the pan and cook until browned on the bottom, 3 to 4 minutes.  Turn patties and cook until the other side is browned, 3 to 4 more minutes.  Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.

Lightly toast rolls in a toaster oven or on a grill and let cool slightly.  Spread the inside surfaces of each bun with some of the raspberry mayo.  Sandwich a salmon patty between and serve, two sliders per person.

Serves 4

Raspberry Pimentón Mayo

1/2 cup organic mayonnaise
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Zest of one small lemon (rounded 1/4 tsp)
4 rounded teaspoons organic seedless raspberry fruit spread (low or no sugar)
1/4 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika (pimentón)

Mix the mayo, lemon juice, zest, raspberry fruit spread and pimentón in a bowl.  Mash with the back of a spoon to make sure fruit spread incorporates into the mayo fully.  Mix well, cover and refrigerate until ready to use.  Delicious on fried fish, chilled shrimp, cold chicken or turkey, salads, eggs, beef and sandwiches.

Raining, Cats & Dogs

September 29, 2017

“We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don’t know.”
~ W. H. Auden

The recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean, and Puerto Rico affected many people, destroyed homes and businesses, separated pets from their families, and left already homeless pets in crisis.  The earthquakes on September 7 and 19 in Mexico put a great many animals in distress as well.

My family includes my two cats, Sofia and Folster.  I have cared for them since they were one day old (they are both 15 years old now).  There is no question that, facing evacuation, I would never even consider leaving without them.  A lot of organizations have provided and continue to provide help reuniting pets with their families after these disasters as well as rescuing homeless animals from certain death.

Many wonderful non-profits are helping with overall disaster relief after these crisis, but if you would like to give some extra help to those who are focused on animal rescue, here is a list of folks doing good work who could use your donations:

 

Hurricanes Harvey (Texas) and Irma (Florida and the Caribbean):

AKC (American Kennel Club) Pet Disaster Relief  helps communities across the country be prepared to keep people with their pets during disasters.  The AKC Reunite Canine Support and Relief Fund provides resources, support, funds and other assistance to not-for-profit animal shelters and similar organizations providing care for domestic animals orphaned or displaced as a result of natural or civil disasters.

Austin Pets Alive is seeking families that can foster cats and large dogs, as well as cash donations.

Best Friends Animal Society is helping to reunite families with lost pets of Hurricane Irma.  Every penny of your Hurricane Irma gift will help reunite pets with families, help animals turned into shelters find homes, and help Florida’s rescues and shelters reestablish their operations.

Wings of Rescue dispatched planes into the disaster zone within hours of Hurricane Harvey striking Texas, and has been non-stop ever since, continuing straight through Hurricane Irma, as well as flying rescue missions from Puerto Rico.  It is estimated that over 100,000 pets have been displaced by the hurricanes.  Wings of Rescue’s rapid response team flew homeless pets out of shelters before the storms to make room for pets who were displaced and separated from families by the hurricanes and resulting floods.

Puerto Rico (Hurricane Maria):

Island Dog is located on the east coast in Luquillo, with spay and neuter programs in place throughout the island.  With the unexpected arrival of Hurricane Maria, Sali Gear, co-owner of Island Dog and resident of Virginia Beach, raised money and chartered a plane in two days that brought over 300 animals from affected areas in the Virgin Islands to her farm in Virginia Beach.  Your donation will help to fund more projects like this in the wake of the hurricane.

Second Chance Animal Rescue rescues, rehabilitates and secures permanent homes for abandoned and abused dogs found on the streets of Puerto Rico.  Second Chance provides each rescued animal with food, shelter, medical care and love.  If they are not able to place the rescue into a loving home, the animal is able to live out its life at their sanctuary.  After Hurricanes Maria and Irma, they are in desperate need of donations in order to help rebuild their rescue facility.

Human Society International
Helping in Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean:
A team of Mexican veterinarians from the Human Society International has been providing emergency animal rescue and treatment following the devastation left by the September 19 earthquake that shook Mexico.  HSI also deployed a team of veterinarians to Oaxaca following the powerful September 7 earthquake that shook that region.  According to their website, HSI Mexico’s response to both earthquakes has reached over 2, 155 animals so far.  HSI Animal Rescue teams have also been on the ground providing relief to animals in areas affected by hurricanes Irma and Maria.

For overall hurricane relief:

One America Appeal
For humans affected by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, the 5 living ex-presidents (Obama, Bushes Sr. and Jr., Clinton and Carter) have joined together to help.  Every cent donated through the One America Appeal will help the victims recover.

Americone Dream Ice Cream:

Stephen Colbert donates all of the profits from his Americone Dream ice cream to charity.  In light of the recent disasters, Stephen has challenged celebrities to tweet awkward pre-teen photos with the hashtag #PuberMe.  For every celebrity who posts an awkward puberty-age photo, Stephen’s Americone Dream Fund will donate $1,000 to One America Appeal for Puerto Rico relief!  Us non-celebrities can do our part by buying a pint or several of Stephen’s deliciously caramel-swirled, fudge-covered waffle cone enhanced vanilla ice cream.  You can enjoy your pint(s) while scrolling down through the awkward celebrity teen-age photos here: #PuberMe.  Hint: John Oliver and Conan O’Brien take the prize for dorkiest teens, in my humble opinion.

~~~~~~~~~

After you finish your pint of Americone Dream, make a super-creamy and super-dreamy Coconut Crusted Banana Cream Pie.

Coconut Crusted Banana Cream Pie
Your gluten-avoiding friends will love that this pie crust is made from crisp, buttery, shredded coconut.  Everyone else will love it just because its amazing.  The recipe can be made in a standard 9-inch pie pan, an 8″ x 8″ baking pan, or, as I did, in two 7″ or 8″ shallow bowls.  Unsweetened dried coconut flakes can be found at Trader Joe’s or in the bulk bin of your Whole Foods or local health food store.

Crust
2 & 1/2 cups unsweetened coconut flakes
3 tablespoons powdered sugar
5 tablespoons milk, water or coconut water
6 tablespoons butter

Filling
2 cups organic whole milk
1 (3.8 oz) package organic vanilla cooked pudding and pie filling mix

2 medium-sized bananas
8 oz organic heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Extra flaked coconut to decorate

 

To make Crust:
In a medium mixing bowl, stir 3 tablespoons powdered sugar into the coconut.  Add 5 tablespoons milk and stir to coat evenly.  Let sit 30 minutes or so, until coconut absorbs the sweetened milk.  Stir once or twice during the 30 minutes.

In a large sauté pan, melt butter over medium heat.  When it starts to sizzle, add coconut and sauté, stirring often at first, then continuously until coconut is golden brown.  Be sure to scrape the bottom of the pan as you stir to incorporate all the caramelized bits.  Remove from heat.  Let cool several minutes and press into pie pan to form a crust.  Cover and chill in fridge for at least 30 minutes.

Make filling:
Follow directions on the pudding mix package.  Let cool to the point where the pudding is still warm, but not super hot.  Stir a few times during cooling.

Remove crust from fridge.  Peel bananas and slice 1/4 inch thick.  Place a layer of bananas on top of crust (but not up the sides).  Pour filling over bananas.  Cover surface with plastic wrap, so as not to form a skin.  Chill pie at least 4 hours or overnight.

To serve:

Whip Cream:
Chill a medium bowl along with beaters and a small whisk.  Add cream to chilled bowl and beat with an electric mixer to soft peaks.  Add 1/4 cup powdered sugar and the vanilla extract. Finish beating the cream to stiff peaks (finishing by hand helps ensure that the whipped cream will hold its shape).

Top chilled pie with whipped cream and sprinkle with dried coconut flakes (no need to sweeten these).

Serves 8

Occam’s Popsicle

August 22, 2017

“That is better and more valuable which requires fewer, other circumstances being equal…”
~ Robert Grosseteste (1175 – 1253)

As a native Californian who also has Italian citizenship, I spent yesterday’s eclipse in decidedly laid-back fashion.  The local library ran out of eclipse glasses early yesterday.  So, as the Moon began to step in front of the Sun, I headed out my front porch, coffee in hand, armed with a pasta strainer and a white piece of paper.  The tiny holes in the strainer served as a sort of “colander obscura” when aimed to channel the Sun’s light through the pinhole openings of the strainer onto the blank paper.  As a result, rather than a single view of the eclipse, I watched a large crowd of partial suns, at one point giving the effect of a Pac-Man army marching across the paper.

Even more interesting than the dance between the Moon and Sun was the unique light cast during the event.  Having recently made several versions of the world’s easiest homemade frozen yogurt pops, I decided to photographically document both the light of the eclipse as well as how to make these super easy frozen treats.

As you may have deduced, I enjoy the occasional path of least hassle.  Both my last-minute, on hand eclipse viewer and the recipe for yogurt pops that I am about to illustrate share the quality of simplicity, echoing the sentiment expressed by the idea known as Occam’s Razor.

Occam’s Razor is the name given to the idea that when you have multiple theories that make exactly the same predictions, go with the simplest one.  The principle was named after 14th Century logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham.

Ironically, attributing this idea to Ockham is actually somewhat complicated, because, although he stated the idea behind the principle in a number of ways, the phrase most often cited when discussing Occam’s Razor, “Non sunt multiplicanda entia sine necessitate” or Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity, was written by Irish Franciscan Philosopher John Punch.  In fact, the quote that began this blog post, another version of this same principle, was written about 100 years prior to Ockham by an English scientist and philosopher named Robert Grosseteste.

So, in the spirit of Occam’s Razor, if not the reality, here are instructions for making what I like to call Occam’s Popsicles, because the process could not be more simple:

Occam’s Popsicles

You will need:
• Individual yogurt cups in any flavor
(I used whole milk, non-fat, with and without fruit and even a non-dairy, coconut milk variety)

• Craft sticks (food safe)

Step one – Make a small slit in the center top of the covering for the yogurt container with a sharp knife:

Step two – Insert a craft stick into the slit:

Step three – freeze until solid (4 hours or overnight):

Step four – To remove, warm the outside of the container with your hands or under warm running water.  Insert a knife, if needed, around the inside edge of the container to loosen.  Remove yogurt pop and enjoy:

Note: you can use the foil or plastic top of the yogurt container to conveniently catch drips, if you are out in the hot sun and eating slowly:

“It is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones, after all.”
~ Laura Ingalls Wilder

 


 

Uno

July 17, 2017

“I say to you all, once again – in the light of Lord Voldemort’s return, we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.  Lord Voldemort’s gift for spreading discord and enmity is very great.  We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust.  Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”
~ J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

 

 

In chaotic and confusing times such as these, it can be all too easy for us to retreat into comfortable circles of culture and opinion, to draw ideological lines in the sand or separate ourselves from the unknown.

Some fear is justified and and a certain amount of prudence keeps us safer.  A woman choosing not to walk alone at night is, unfortunately, too often a realistic precaution.  If you’ve never learned to swim, going on a cruise would probably not be the wisest choice of vacation.

However, avoiding our fellow humans because of cultural barriers, such as language, appearance, sexuality or religion is more often than not, simply an issue of discomfort with the unfamiliar.  We might avoid a person or situation we see as “different” because of shyness, on account of our own or other people’s prejudices or simply out of laziness.

As an Aquarian, my default nature is to be curious; for this I am grateful. I also feel fortunate to have grown up in a place where there are people from all over the world, belonging to most every religion and cooking nearly every kind of cuisine.

A dear friend of mine, also a California native, returned from a trip to Japan recently and brought me back a packet of sansho pepper seasoning, along with some anime cat-themed bandages and other quintessentially Japanese-style souvenirs.  The seasoning is unique, and I’ve been experimenting with its flavor in various recipes (two of which are posted below).  My friend’s gift reminded me of an old boyfriend I once had and a game of Uno that taught me a lesson about communication and connection.

Back in the 90s, I dated a guy whose mother was born in Japan but had moved here as an adult.  His father was American, of Swedish Ancestry I think, and born in Ohio.  One day he invited me to his mom’s house for lunch.  He warned me that his aunt was visiting his mother from Japan and that she didn’t speak a word of English.  At first it was a bit awkward.  Neither my boyfriend nor I spoke Japanese, although he understood a little better than I did.  Lunch was what you might expect: lots of polite smiles and nods and not much else.  Then, after lunch, my boyfriend’s mom got out a deck of Uno cards.

I grew up playing board and card games and Uno was one of my favorites.  Apparently, my boyfriend’s aunt was, not only familiar with the American card game, but an enthusiastic fan.  All four of us, my boyfriend, his mom, his aunt and myself, played the game over and over, each of us taking turns matching colors and triumphantly revealing the dreaded “Wild Draw Four” card.  By the end of the afternoon, I had learned the Japanese word for red, “aka” (my boyfriend’s aunt must have had a lot of red cards in her hand).

I haven’t seen my old boyfriend or his mom in years, but I still remember that “aka” means red, and I’ll never forget how much fun it was to spend an afternoon playing Uno in Japanese.

~~~~~~~~~

Sansho Pepper Butter turns ordinary seafood, veggies and snacks into salty, buttery comfort food with a Japanese flair.

Sansho Pepper Butter
A simple recipe for flavored butter with a Japanese twist.  The green flavor of sansho pepper gives a citrus/yuzu kick that pairs well with oily foods, so butter is a natural companion.  This unique butter is wonderful on rice, sweet potatoes, Yukon Gold potatoes, popcorn, corn on the cob, grilled shrimp or fish, and cooked carrots.

You can find Sansho pepper powder online or at specialty stores or the Asian section of a well-stocked grocery store.

If you have trouble finding Sansho pepper, you can substitute Japanese Seven Spice seasoning (Shichimi Togarashi), which is easier to find in the U.S. or you can make your own.  For the adventurous among you, I’ve included instructions for making your own Seven Spice Seasoning below the Sansho Pepper Butter recipe.

About Sansho pepper:
My friend Geraldine brought me some Sansho pepper powder from Shichimiya Honpo, a famous shop in Kyoto, which has been in business since 1655.  Sansho pepper has a citrus/yuzu bite to it, making it unique and well-suited to oily foods.  It loses flavor when heated, so it’s best sprinkled on just before eating.  That is why my recipe for Sansho Pepper Butter is made by stirring the seasoning into softened butter, rather than heating it on the stove.


Sansho Pepper Powder (Sansho No Kona) from Kyoto, Japan

 

Sansho Pepper Butter Recipe
You can double, triple or quadruple this basic recipe as needed.  This amount will probably be enough for two to four servings, depending on what you are flavoring.

2 tablespoons butter, softened (not heated)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon of soy sauce (with salted butter, use 1/2 tsp. soy sauce)
1/4 teaspoon Sansho Pepper Powder*

*you can substitute shichimi togarashi or nanami togarashi for the Sansho

In a small bowl or dish, using a fork or back of a spoon, mash soy sauce and seasoning into softened butter.  Shape into a ball or oval, cover and chill until ready to serve.

About Shichimi togarashi:
Shichi means “seven” in Japanese and Togarashi is the word for “chiles”.  Shichimi Togarashi, or Seven Spice, is called as such because seven ingredients are used to make it.  Nanami Togarashi is similar, but emphasizes the citrus flavor.  Both can usually be found at grocery stores with an Asian foods section.  You may remember seeing this bottle on the tables at Japanese restaurants.

Here’s what to look for:


Shichimi Togarashi (Seven Spice Seasoning)

 

Here’s how to make your own:

Homemade Shichimi Togarashi (Seven Spice Seasoning)

2 tablespoons sansho pepper or 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon dried tangerine peel or orange peel
1 tablespoon red chile flakes
2 teaspoons nori flakes
2 teaspoons black sesame seeds
2 teaspoons white sesame seeds
2 teaspoons ginger root powder

Coarsely grind the first six ingredients together and add to a small bowl.  Stir in the ginger powder and mix well.  Store in an airtight jar and keep in a cool spot, out of the sun.  Use within 3 months or so.