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Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

Even before we moved to the Santa Cruz area — epicenter of the local food and do-it-yourself movements — I started to experiment with making stuff from scratch that I was used to buying at the store.  I enjoyed the notion that, instead of paying a mega-corporation to make a particular foodstuff for me,  I could make it at home — and it would be tastier, more nutritious, cost less, and use less plastic to package.

It’s my small way of sticking it to The Man (said with a sneer and single-finger salute, well out of sight of Little Bird).

Granted, I am a stay-at-home mom, so I have a little more time to futz around in the kitchen than moms and dads who also work outside the home.  But yogurt is one those things that, if you have a smidgeon of energy left in the evening, it’s easy to put together.  All it takes is milk, some yogurt from the store to act as a starter, and some dry milk powder.  In terms of equipment, you need a pot, a food thermometer, and a heating pad.

Dry milk, starter yogurt from the store, and milk is all you need for homemade yogurt.

For God’s sake, don’t go out and buy a yogurt machine!  A waste of money and cabinet space.

I found my yogurt recipe and method in The Complete Tightwad Gazette, a compilation of a newsletter published from 1990 to 1996 by Amy Dacyczyn.   It’s the Bible for scrooges and tightwads, a 950-or-so page tome filled with tons of tips on ultra-frugal living.  I honestly use it more for inspiration than actual ideas, but I do regularly turn to page 751, where you can find her thoroughly-researched method for making homemade yogurt.  It is so reliable that I have never found the need to look elsewhere.

Here it is:

Homemade Yogurt

  • Put two tablespoons of “starter” — plain store-bought yogurt with the words “live cultures” on the label — in a small bowl and let it warm up to room temperature.  If you do this around dinner-time, it should be ready to go by the time the kiddos are in bed.

This is my starter. I used two frozen cubes of Trader Joe’s organic yogurt, and let them defrost and come to room temperature.

  • When the starter has come to room temperature, put a quart of milk in a large saucepan.  Whisk in 1/2 cup of dry milk powder.  Heat the milk to 180 degrees.  (Note:  this is not the time to multi-task!  In a flash, the milk will boil over and make a huge mess on your stove.)

You can kinda sorta see that this milk has reached 180 degrees on the thermometer.

  • Turn off the heat and let the milk cool to 115 degrees.  Whisk in about 1/2 cup of the warm milk to the starter.  Add the starter-and-milk mixture back to the saucepan of milk and whisk well.
  • You can then pour this either into a large bowl (cover with plastic wrap) or a quart jar (screw on the lid).  Place the bowl or jar on a heating pad set on “low,” cover with a towel, and cover all that with a large soup pot.  Incubate for eight hours.

My pre-yogurt is ready to sit on a heating pad all night.

And here it is, covered with a towel and then a canning pot.

That’s it!  If you get this going at night before you go to bed, you can wake up in the morning to fresh yogurt.  Pretty awesome.

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A nagging sense of frustration has been nipping at my heels lately.  I am certainly busy enough these days — taking care of Little Bird, taking care of the house, taking care of the veggie garden, taking care of the animals.  I am a caregiver, yet lately it all feels like a bit much.  It is time to take stock and see where the imbalance lies and what can be done about it.

I hope you will indulge this rambling discourse on the state of my life, as I see it.

Looking Back

It’s been almost a year of craziness.  We moved from our very urban life in Pasadena to Northern California in November of last year, and lived for two months in a hotel while we found our house and closed escrow.  We moved into our new house in the semi-rural Santa Cruz mountains in January.

For about six months after our move, we went through some crazy illnesses — sponsored by Little Bird’s preschool buddies — and my mother’s move into a retirement community and sale of her house.  These events, combined with the dislocation of the move, were very stressful to me.  Like a pebble dropped into a pond, the ripples of my dislocation spread in my little family unit.  Little Bird became crazy clingy to me, and My Guy became over-protective and exhausted from carrying so much burden.

Finally, our lives here are smoothing out.  I can take a deep breath, look back, and see how hard it really was.  But I’m on the other side of that now.  My health is back, I’ve lost seventeen pounds, my back only hurts a little, and I can sleep again.  Thank you, Baby Jesus!

Looking Forward

     Home and the Natural World

To be honest, I don’t feel entirely integrated with my home yet.  This life is so different from what I’m used to:  in Los Angeles, we lived in a two-bedroom condominium overlooking city and freeway, with no outdoor space of our own.  Now, we have an actual house with a third of an acre of backyard.  Talk about an embarrassment of riches!  It’s hard to know what to do with it all.

Since we moved here I have noticed that my comfort zone is definitely indoors, working in the kitchen or reading in the bedroom or living room.  I’m not a natural gardener, and I feel hesitant about working in our garden, like I might offend or hurt the plants somehow.  I have a long ways to go before I’m fully comfortable and at home in our outdoor space.

Yet, we have the most amazingly generous land around and beneath us.  Our peach tree literally showered us with hundreds of white peaches.  The neighbor’s Bartlett pear tree rained down delicious pears into our yard for weeks.  My summer squash grew into the size of alien spacecraft.  Sun Gold cherry tomatoes voluntarily sprang up in odd parts of the yard.  Every turn of the season, the garden gave us wonderful surprises.

I had no idea how estranged I had become from the natural world after living in the city for so long.  I look forward to becoming more comfortable in it, and receiving with gratitude the gifts it brings.  I think that if I just spend an hour or two outside each day, it will make all the difference.

    My Own Self

I have become aware recently how ingrained is my habit of not taking care of myself.  Our culture  encourages us to put everything and everyone else ahead of our own needs.  Women are supposed to put other peoples’ needs ahead of our own. Men are supposed to put the needs of work ahead of their own.

I think the most important thing I can do is to continually remind myself that I am the most important person in my life, that I matter.  I have my own needs that must be attended to first, or else my well will run dry. To use another great metaphor, in the event of an emergency landing, I need to put on my own oxygen mask first, then put on Little Bird’s.  Otherwise, we’ll both go down.

I still have much to do to become mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually healthy — establish a regular centering prayer practice again; find  a new spiritual director; start doing some regular physical exercise again; and connect in a meaningful way with other people, i.e., make some new friends.

And finally, I come to perhaps the most important thing for me:  my writing.  Ironically, this one is hard to write about.  I have suffered for many years from the dual convictions that I both need to write, and that no one has any interest in what I have to say.  I won’t go into the whys and hows that that second bad seed got planted inside me, but suffice to say that it has created great frustration for me almost my entire life.

I think that I may be finally ready for a change.  On a car trip to Los Angeles recently, I became dimly aware of  a series of thoughts running through my head on a semi-conscious level  (from “so and so wrote a book about exactly the topic I am interested in” to “it looks really good and has gotten really good reviews” to “there’s no point in me writing at all because it’s already been done, and much better than I could do, so what’s the point.”).

In a rare burst of insight, I stepped back and observed those toxic thoughts from a healthy distance.  I realized I had been hearing thoughts like these all my life, which were designed to keep me from failure and disappointment.  These thoughts were like a brick wall separating me from the writing life that I want and need.

There is no magic button to delete these thoughts and feelings from my psyche.  They come from a deep place of hurt and fear inside me.  However, what I can do is this:  keep working on being aware of them when they rise up inside me. Simply giving them a space and observing them compassionately will free up space inside me to do what I really want:  to continue writing.

And as a pledge to myself, now that Little Bird is in preschool again after summer break, I promise to give myself the first couple hours of that me-time.  Instead of going home and immediately starting work on cleaning up the messy kitchen or doing laundry or any of the hundreds of household tasks pulling at my sleeves, I am going to the local coffeehouse to write.

And now that I have done so, I’m going home to clean the kitchen!  I’ll see you again soon.

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It’s still warm in Southern California during these first days of October, but signs of autumn are here.  Winter squash has started to show up at the local farmers’ market.  Halloween candy is in the stores, and the local pumpkin patch is setting up for business.  It’s time to pull out my soup pot and make pumpkin-lentil soup.

To me, soup is soul food, the steamy essence of comfort and reassurance.  The act of eating soup connects me to the story of the human family, for soup is as old as cooking.  According to Raey Tannahill in Food in History, Iron and Bronze Age humans regularly ate soup, as did the Romans and Greeks. Witness the following quote from the play The Frogs by the satirist Aristophanes (Perseus-Tufts website translation):

Dionysus: . . . “did you ever feel a sudden urge for soup?”

Heracles: “Soup? Ten thousand times so far.”

My sentiments exactly.

Soup also connects me to my individual story.  When I was growing up, my mother served pumpkin-lentil soup every week at her restaurant, The Orange Horse Gift Shop and Tearoom.  The Orange Horse was practically my second home; I worked every job at some point, from dishwasher to waitress to cook to baker.   This soup not only connects me to my own history, but also to my mother and her love of cooking.

Pumpkin-lentil soup was the very first meal I made for my then-boyfriend, now-husband.  I needed something bomb-proof, because I really liked him and I was nervous.  As I recall, it went over pretty well — well enough, anyways, not to scotch the deal.

In any case, I’ve made this soup many times over the years, and now I pass it on to you.  Enjoy!  It’s a ridiculously simple and humble soup, yet somehow, much more than the sum of its parts.

Pumpkin-Lentil Soup

1/4 cup butter (it seems like a lot, but it’s worth it)

1-2 onions, diced

1/2 cup lentils

5 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 1/2 cups pumpkin (canned is fine)

1/4 tsp. dried marjoram

1/4 tsp. dried thyme

1/4 tsp. black pepper

1/2 tsp. salt

dash Tobasco sauce

1-2 cups half-and-half (optional)

toasted almonds and sour cream for garnish

Instructions

Melt butter in a large soup pot or kettle.  Add onions and saute until lightly brown.  Stir in lentils and chicken stock.  Add pumpkin.  Crush herbs and add to soup along with black pepper, salt and Tobasco.  Simmer until lentils are cooked through, about 20 minutes.

At this point, the soup can be cooled and refrigerated overnight.  At serving time, puree with handheld immersion blender.  Heat to simmering and either serve as is, or add half-and-half to make a creamy soup.  Adjust seasonings to taste.  Top with almonds and/or a dollop of sour cream.

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