Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Christmas Cookie Adventure

My friend Ashley is one of the best people I know for those times when you really need to let loose and have some fun.  We're well-suited to each other, too, as we're both introverted animal people with minimal energy for maintaining friendships.  We can ignore each other for months, then hook up to hang out for a night of shenanigans and be perfectly fine with the arrangement.  She's also a fellow rat lover.  It's just a good fit. 

Anyway, Ashley invited me over to bake some Christmas cookies yesterday.  Seeing as how I've been so busy for weeks (and can barely remember what day it is most of the time), this seemed like an excellent chance to escape the daily grind.  It also seemed like a good opportunity to bake some cookies for a cookie exchange I'd agreed to participate in. 

So, eager and excited, I packed up a few ingredients I wanted to experiment with (including a tupperware of frozen pumpkin I'd pureed myself) and headed down to her house. 

It didn't start so bad....

We spent a while catching up.  I said hi to her dogs, then went back to the rat room to meet her new acquisitions and admire her Critter Nation cage.  We discussed strategies for socializing her terrified new rescue.  By the time we were done with this, we returned to the kitchen to see that her husband (who's much more practical than the rest of us) had already started on the cookies.  No worries.  We'd just have a nice drink and relax until he was done. 

So Ashley mixed me up a hot cider with Goldschlager and caramel vodka, and it was the most divine thing I'd ever had.  So good, in fact, that I needed a second one.  And a hot chocolate with the same treatment. 

By this point, I was feeling quite a lot of Christmas cheer.  So I settled in to start experimenting with my pumpkin. 

Things started to go sideways here. 

Upon adding flour, sugar, pumpkin and egg, the resulting mixture looked (not unsurprisingly) rather like cake batter.  Dismayed, but not to be discouraged, I added....more flour.  (In hindsight, it occurs to me that maybe I should have opted for something less glutinous.  Oats, perhaps.  Or dry cereal)

The cake batter was now beginning to look an awful lot like very loose bread dough.

"No worries!" I say, feeling rather confident.  "It'll be great.  I'll just take it, and chill the dough.  That'll make it firm right up!"

So I roll it up in parchment paper (there was no plastic wrap) and (after almost dropping the entire droopy log) manage to wrestle it into the refrigerator.  Ashley, meanwhile, was rooting through the liquor cabinet. 

"Have you ever had whipped cream vodka?"  She asked, drawing out a bottle and a glass that was most definitely not a shot glass.  "Here, try this!"

The Christmas Cheer kept spreading. 

I decided, on a whim, that the ever-spreading log of amorphous dough in the refrigerator should be turned into a pinwheel.  Stuffed with cream cheese frosting.  It'd be delicious! 

(somewhere in the back of my mind, a quiet voice is saying, "I don't think that's exactly how those are made...." but I summarily quiet it)

Pulling out a chunk of fridge-cold cream cheese, powdered sugar, and a fork, I set myself to the task of making frosting.  Ashley, meanwhile, is mixing butter-cream for the sugar cookies with her hand-mixer. 

"I'm really not sure why I'm using a fork for this," I said, looking over enviously at her creamy frosting. 

She graciously offers the mixer, although she has some misgivings: "I'm not sure your bowl is big enough for this." 

"It'll be fine!" I say, confidently, as I drop the spinning mixers into a small bowl mounded high with powdered sugar and chunks of cream cheese. 

Predictably, this does not go well. 

Ashley helps me pick up chunks of cream cheese from the counter.  I dust the powder from my shirt and return humbly to fork-mashing.  When this fails to provide me with the results I desire, I pour in some milk.  That helps with making it mixable, but does little to alleviate the lumpiness of the cream cheese. 

"We also have this," Ashley offers, looking a little hesitant and holding out an old-fashioned crank mixer. 

I decide to try this.  The mixer will spin, but only for two revolutions before coming to a stop.  I can't figure out if the frosting-concoction is too thick or if the mixer just doesn't work.  I say as much to Ashley as I hand it back to her in defeat. 

"It probably doesn't work," she says, holding it upside down and examining it.  "That's probably why you gave it to me in the first place when you moved." 

She cranks the handle experimentally and the beaters spring to life, spinning fiercely -- and splattering her, point blank, with a flying spittle of icing. 

This is nearly too much for me.  I'm laughing so hard by this point that my hands are shaking and tears are streaming down my cheeks.  My belly hurts.  My legs are trembling.  I head to the fridge and steady myself by cracking open a beer. 

Once I've recovered somewhat (and made significant headway on the beer), I decide to remove my log of pumpkin dough from the fridge.  I try to unroll it.  The parchment paper sticks, leaving me to peel it off in chunks, losing a fair amount of sticky dough in the process.

(again, that niggling voice in the back of my head insists that this is really not going well)

I flour my work surface and spread out the dough.  It rolls beautifully, smooth and elastic.  I spread it with the "icing" -- a liquidy, semi-transparent white soup dotted with mysterious white gobs. 

I attempt to roll it up.  It sticks to the table, making the rolling a challenge.  As I roll, the dough stretches and sags.  Icing oozes out of the middle.  I try to stem the flow by folding in the ends, like a burrito.  I try rolling it up from the bottom.

Once it's sealed, I look around for some way to lift it over onto the baking pan.  I try a spatula.  It's far too big for that.  Finally, I'm stuck with lifting it with my hands -- awkwardly, as it's drooping in the middle -- and chucking it as quickly as I can onto the pan.

We both look at it uncertainly.

"Maybe it will still taste good," I say.

"This is going on Facebook," she tells me, snapping photos.

Nailed it. 

 I grab another beer and head into the living room to nurse my shame. 

To its credit, my pumpkin-bread-phallus experiment actually tasted fine.  Not like a cookie, a cake, or a cheesecake pinwheel, of course, but serviceable.  Pumpkin-ey.  The texture, however, left something to be desired: A hard, bread-like outer crust containing a gooey, semi-baked lump of pumpkiney goo in the middle. 

"Okay," I admit, finally, as I deviously spread more "frosting" over the bottom half in a particularly NSFW way, "Maybe I need to make something else for my cookie exchange."  

(The rats (in her household and mine) thoroughly enjoyed it, though) 

Happy Holidays, kids (and try to drink the goldschlager after the baking is finished)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Holiday Spirit

I can't believe I'm a week into December already!  I've been so busy that things are passing in a blur.  After a long dry spell, I have more work right now than I can handle.  This is certainly a good problem to have, but it is a bit stressful, and it sometimes feels like I'm doing my best just to tread water.  So, apologies for falling off the face of the planet recently!

In-between "so busy I can barely think" and "hibernating through having the flu," I've also spent this last week or so being thoroughly invigorated by holiday spirit.  I can't wholly explain this.  As an atheist and non-consumer, I rarely get swept up in all the holiday hype.  And yet, here it is...a little glimmer of warmth in my heart that is undeniably part of the "magic" of Christmas. 

Maybe I've just been watching too many Christmas movies.  My main computer has been in the shop since Friday, so I've spent the weekend on the couch with my laptop, playing every Christmas movie I have for background noise.  After systematically working my way through National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, The Grinch, Scrooged, Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands, it's hard not to feel some peace on earth and good will toward men. 

But I think it goes a little deeper than that.  Actually, I can think back and pinpoint the exact moment when I got infected with this holiday cheer. 

I spent Thanksgiving with my parents and one of my brothers.  The holiday itself was quiet and low-key, just how we like our holidays in our family.  But after Thanksgiving, I went with my mom on a quest to buy some luminarias for her house -- and along the way, I stopped off at a Walgreens to pick up antacids for my partner.  They had a Toys for Tots donation box, and I had a bit of money in my pocket, and I suddenly had the urge to drop something in. 

So I picked out a stuffed raccoon from the shelf -- a very cute toy, and one I couldn't help but cuddle a little before I bought it and dropped it in the box.  And somehow, the tiny act of buying a $10 stuffed toy for an anonymous child, caused something deep inside of me to waken and stir. 

Holidays and the Spirit of Giving

The next time you start to feel miserable and overwhelmed by the wanton cruelty and greed int he world, here's a factthat should cheer you up: According to science, human beings (as all social animals) are actually genetically hardwired for giving.  Being generous is actually in our DNA.  Which would explain, perhaps, why every major religion values compassion and generosity.  And it's probably why even a cynical atheist like me gets the warm fuzzies from the simplest acts of kindness. 

It's my belief that empathy is at the very core of what makes us human.  Our ability to recognize others and realize, "They have feelings just like me!" is the glue that makes all of our social interactions work.  We choose not to hurt people because we ourselves do not want to be hurt.  This is, I think, why storytelling is so important: By learning to care about fictional people, we build the emotional tools necessary to deal with real ones.  By telling monomyths, we create cultural markers that we can all gather around and celebrate. 

Holidays are one of those cultural markets.  We need them because we are creatures of superstition and ceremony.  We need rituals and talismans.  We need magic.  We need an excuse to celebrate so that we can remind ourselves that the long night will come to an end and all will not be cold and darkness forever. 

My Season of Giving

My partner is more naturally inclined to random acts of kindness than I am.  He has a big, loving heart and he can't stand to see people suffer.  He also has no guile or mouth filter; he says exactly what's on his mind and is perennially unembarrassed about being himself.  Where my social anxieties might hold me back from reaching out, he just steps in and lets his heart guide him right through his life. 

I really respect that about him.  So I try to follow his lead, as best I can. 

Yesterday, we went out to pick up some lunch at a local Vietnamese restaurant.  A man outside asked if we could spare some change so he could get some food.  Instead of turning him down or digging for loose change, David invited him to come inside and eat lunch with us.  We bought him some food (enough for two meals - he took some to go for that evening) and had a nice chat about his life and circumstances.  We connected like humans. 

For me, it fed that glowing warmth in me, that Christmas spirit that's been building all week.  For David, it was just what a decent human being is supposed to do. 

If you've never tried it, I urge you to go out tomorrow and do something kind for a stranger.  It doesn't have to be a big thing: Pay for the person behind you in line, tip generously, help an old lady load groceries in her car.  Just reach out to another human, and see what happens.  You never know...even atheists can get a little Christmas miracle sometimes ;) 

And a Bit of Housekeeping...

Tagestraum is still slated to be ready around Christmas, if things go according to plan, and I'm still very excited for it. 

I also have a very special Christmas story planned for all of my newsletter subscribers.  If you want to get it, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter before Christmas!  The link is over there ===>

Friday, November 22, 2013

Review: Freakonomics

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Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

This is a really excellent book. 

I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to get around to reading it.  It was recommended to me some time ago by my brother, who knows precisely what type of books will appeal to me, and he was right: I devoured this book in two sittings and eagerly wished for more.  I understand that there's a documentary version of it that's also quite good. 

Anyway: Freakonomics isn't a how-to, precisely, nor does it deal with any particular economic problem.  Instead, it's roughly divided into a few essays that seek to find the relationship between apparently unrelated things: it talks about cheating among sumo wrestlers and teachers; it discusses the role abortion plays in crime; it questions whether parents really play an important role in the outcome of their offspring and whether names make a difference in your success.  It does all of this in an engaging writing style filled with anecdotes, a style that easily breaks down complicated concepts.  

What makes this book great isn't its conclusions (which are themselves quite insightful) but the fact that it shows you how those conclusions are made.  It teaches you how to think critically, which is a skill sorely lacking among many people.  It also adds a humanizing side to economics, which can seem horribly abstract and dull. 

If I were to design a home-school curriculum, I would include this book as a supplemental text -- that's how good it is.  (I often think of home-schooling my future children.  As a home-schooled kid myself, it seems only natural). I recommend this book to everyone. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Who Does Not Work Shall Not Eat

For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat  (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

So...Food stamps.  Everybody is eager to share an opinion on them.  Those opinions can get pretty heated.  If you catch them on a bad day, they also can fill you with despair and loathing toward most of mankind. 

For my part, the war on food stamps is a little baffling.  Not because I don't understand why it can feel good and righteous to hold opinions about other people's lives and habits (nah, I get that), and not because I don't get outraged at the way my tax dollars are spent (I totally get that, too) but because the people who are most upset don't seem to care as much about other uses of their tax dollars.  They're bizarrely hyper-focused on food, on what other people are eating, and I think it stems from a few causes:

  • SNAP benefits are applied unevenly and don't seem to make much sense sometimes, so people who make just slightly too much money to qualify end up having less money for groceries than they would have if they were getting SNAP.  This can lead to a lot of bitterness that the people on SNAP are eating better than they are.  
  • People always have an example of "someone" who's cheating the system, although it's hard to get precise details on how that cheating is happening (or why it's not considered cheating when a corporation gets a government hand-out).  Quite often, I suspect that the "someone" doesn't really exist -- it's an urban legend that gets passed around between people as truth (as urban legends tend to). 
  • Food purchases are viewed in isolation.  If you're standing behind someone in line and they're paying with food stamps (and, incidentally, why the hell are you paying that much attention?  it's a card they swipe -- do you look to see if they use Visa or MasterCard, too?), you're getting only a small glimpse at their life.  You can't extrapolate a whole lot from that.  Maybe the lady buying potato chips and soda is attending a potluck for work, where not participating could have consequences for her relationship with her boss but she has no time to cook (I've had that job).  Maybe the dude buying crab legs is preparing a special dinner at home for his girlfriend so he can propose since he can't afford a nice restaurant.  You have no way of knowing.  And, also, it's none of your business.  
  • It's easy for people to get outraged about what other people are outraged about.  In other words, since it's in the news, people feel qualified to give an opinion.  If people were aware of many other things that go on in the world, they'd likely have opinions about those, too. 

Incidentally, the majority of people receiving SNAP actually have jobs, (or are too young or too old to work) so Paul's admonition in Thessalonians is irrelevant here (even if you find anything Paul says to be relevant in the first place, which is an utterly different conversation).

So here's my moral to you, if you've ever caught yourself being outraged at people receiving food stamps: 
If you want people to stop relying on the government for food, lobby for a living wage.

If you're not okay with the idea of people being paid enough to feed their families, then go ahead and openly admit that you don't believe that humans have the right to eat (and, by extension, survive).

And, seriously, why are you paying so much attention to what type of plastic a person uses to pay for their groceries?  (Paul would, surely, chastise you for being a busybody if he knew about this).

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Is It Our Job to Be Miserable?

A quick glance around my family and friends yields astonishingly few people who are happy with their jobs. 

It also seems that people are working harder to have less.  People pay $1,000 in child care per month so that they can make $1,200 at a job -- a net profit of $200 (not including the added expenses of gas and work clothes).  Is it worth it?  Wouldn't it be easier to trim that $200 from the budget and just have one of the parents stay home?

Or the people who work at retail or fast food jobs, and end up turning around and "reinvesting" their earnings immediately back into buying whatever it is they sell.

The people who never see their spouses or families because they're always working in a desperate attempt to provide for them.

Or the people who are accustomed (or even wedded) to the comforts afforded by the day job they hate, so they don't dare leave it to pursue the things they're truly passionate about. 

One of my core beliefs is that you should strive to live on a budget that allows you to do what you want with your life.  There's no point in working hard and earning money if you don't have the time to spend that money.  There's no point in buying yourself a lifestyle if you then can't actually live it.

And yet...isn't it a cultural "given" that you must pay your dues, work the shitty job, and be miserable?  Shouldn't you be grateful to even have a job at all?  

Isn't it a message that you're not allowed to opt out of the system?

There's a lot of bitterness in all that, and there's a lot of cultural baggage to unpack, and it gets more complicated the more I think about it.  After all, there will always be jobs that people don't want to do.  For someone to be on the top, someone has to be on the bottom, right? Not everyone can follow their dreams.  Or can they?

Where do you stand in all of this? 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Book Review: Freedom Through Frugality

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Freedom Through Frugality: Spend Less, Have More
by Jane Dwinell

To be honest, I wasn't entirely sure that I was going to like this book when I started reading it.  The first few chapters, where the author extolls the benefits of frugality and establishes her credibility, had me rolling my eyes quite a bit.  Like many authors in this niche, Dwinell tries too hard to to establish herself as an expert, and the result comes off as a little sanctimonious.  You know those people on Pinterest who seem to have perfect lives, and how you want to punch them?  It's kind of like that.

I'm glad I stuck with it, though, because the rest of the book is jam-packed with useful, pragmatic tips.  Many of them are pretty basic or things I already knew, but I did get a few decent ideas, and I came to like the author more by the end of it -- once I realized that we perhaps have more in common than I'd thought.

The audience for this book is obviously the overworked middle class (isn't that the audience of all of these books?), and she does pander to them a bit, but she also sticks to her principles, and I respect that.  The basic message of the book is that frugality allows you to have more freedom -- by having fewer material possessions and needs, you can cut down on how much time you need to work and spend your time pursuing your passions instead.  That's certainly a message I can get behind.  She also looks at frugality not as a means to an end but as a philosophy -- being frugal isn't about having few things, it's about really appreciating the things you have and being thoughtful in each decision you make.

This is worth reading.  If you're pretty new to budgeting and need some practical tips, this is a good place to start.  The ideas stay fairly vague, so this is more of an entry-level book than a blackbelt's guide, but I'd still recommend it.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Today's Frugal Accomplishments

Today is a good day.  This afternoon, I went with my partner, David, and a couple friends to see Thor: The Dark World.  The theater we visit has a special on Mondays:  If you go upstairs to the cafe, you can order a pizza, wings and four drinks for $35 and get four free movie tickets.  Seeing as four movie tickets on their own cost roughly that much, it's a good value if you were planning on seeing a movie anyway.  Also, the drinks are refillable (unlike the ones at the concession stand), so you squeeze out a bit of extra value that way too. 

Part of the excitement about this movie-watching plan is that it's been in the works for a while.  It was supposed to happen last week but was delayed (Veteran's Day means I didn't get paid on Monday, so no luxury spending for me!), and anticipation makes things more exciting.  There's something to be said for the power of delayed gratification.  

This also gave me an occasion to wear my new t-shirt, which doesn't sound very exciting, but it's big for me because I very rarely get new clothes, so I get excited over each and every piece.  Actually, this is my first item of clothing purchased since my birthday in September, and the first non-thrift-store item I've gotten since last Christmas.

It's the Master Sword made into a keyblade.
Thanks, TeeFury, for being awesome. 

Other frugal accomplishments of the week: 

  • I ordered a set of 20 free holiday cards from Wal-Greens.  Relatives and in-laws will likely be delighted to get some photos of the two of us, as we don't tend to take many pictures of ourselves.  
  • I made a batch of homemade mustard.  It turned out a little thin and vinegary (I didn't have the ratios quite right -- I'll work on perfecting it before Christmas!) but I used it as a Carolina-style barbecue sauce for some pulled pork sandwiches (using pork I'd cooked and frozen a few weeks ago) and it worked out just fine.  I also made deviled eggs with the mustard and some homemade pickles.  
  • I inherited a whole stack of delightfully vintage 1970s-era cookbooks from my parents, who had been cleaning out my late grandmother's house.  My love of old cookbooks is deep and maybe a little obsessive.  
  • I made some homemade cleaning solution of vinegar and lime peels.  David was a little skeptical at first, but between it and a bit of baking soda, we got our rather grimy stovetop looking as sparkly white as it ever has
Now off to squeeze in a bit of work before I settle in for some reading and late-night closet organizing.  

Saturday, April 6, 2013

How to Shop for Groceries (the right way)

Note: This is a re-post from my old blog.  I thought it was still worth sharing.  In the coming weeks, expect to see a lot more re-posts as I work on some digital house-cleaning :)

Grocery Shopping: A Surprisingly Daunting Task

Most people have gone shopping for groceries at one point or another.  It's not that difficult, in theory: you go to the store, you buy some stuff, you come home.  But it's not actually that easy in practice, and shoppers quickly realize that, without the proper strategies, they end up spending way too much money on food they won't eat.  Sound familiar?

Here's the thing.  If you don't know how to cook, grocery shopping can seem like navigating a country whose language you don't speak.  Even if you have a list, you might spend way too much money on groceries or end up with the wrong food.  Luckily, you don't have to despair!  Here's how you save money, buy healthy food and cook cheap, easy meals even if you kind of suck at cooking.

Planning Meals 

If you're not big on experimenting in the kitchen, you'll want the guidance of a meal plan.  Otherwise, how do you know what to buy for groceries?  There's plenty of ways to put together a meal plan.  You could ask the people who live with you, "Hey, what do you want to eat this week?" You can download a pre-made meal plan from one of many sites.  You can put something together from your selection of known recipes.  My mom had three months' worth of meal plans that she cycled through - write them up once, then just buy the same things every month.

If you're really budget-conscious, your best bet is to plan your menu around what you have in the kitchen + what's on sale.  This is what I do, and it enables me to eat surprisingly gourmet food on a tight budget.  Here's my process:

  • Take stock of everything you have in the house.  Go through your cabinets, freezer and fridge and make note of every single item you have.  (this is a great opportunity to throw anything out that's gone bad and wipe down your fridge and cabinets, btw) 
  • Look at the list and brainstorm several meals that you could make using only the ingredients you have in the house.  Write all of those down.  
  • Next, look through the sales adverts for your local grocery stores.  Write down all of the sales for ingredients that you could use in conjunction with the foods in your house in order to cook meals.  
  • Figure out what meals you can cook with the foods in your house + the foods that are on sale, and make a list of them.  That's your meal plan.  
  • Determine what items you need to buy, both on sale and not on sale, to make everything on your list.  That's your grocery list.  
  • Add up the prices of every item from the sales flyer, then add $10 - $20 (depending on what additional items you need to buy).  That's your budget. 
Now you know what you can eat for the week, you know what you need to buy to make those meals, and you know how much money it's going to cost to buy it.  There should be no surprises at the grocery store if you do this.  If you want some help getting inspired, you can use the Supercook link on the right side of my blog to plug in ingredients and get ideas for food.

Once you get to the grocery store, pretend you're on a game show called "Find a better price."  Look at the item on your list, then see if you can get the same or comparable items for an even better price.  You'd be surprised at how often the advertised products aren't even the cheapest version in the store.  If you clip coupons, you can also cross-reference your grocery list with your coupons to get more savings.  (I don't do this, for reasons I've discussed in the past).

 Tips For Success

When you're planning meals, writing a grocery list and going shopping, there are a few things you can do to improve your odds of success:
  • Learn about your staples.  Staples are items that you need to always keep in your kitchen because they serve as the base for so many other foods.  Every household will have different staple items depending on what type of foods they eat frequently.  In my house, staples are pasta, canned tomatoes, rice and frozen vegetables.  Every time I run out of those items, I know I need to buy more because they make up the core of so many things I cook.  
  • Plan meals around your protein.  Proteins, especially meat and dairy, are going to be the most expensive items on your list.  Plan your menu accordingly.  If meat's on sale, pick whatever is the best deal and buy that one item.  Find ways to stretch that one item into several meals.  For example: If whole chickens are on sale, you might want to buy one and roast it one night, then shred the leftovers for tacos another night, then cook the bones for stock and make soup a third night.  
  • Don't buy more fresh foods than you can deal with.  If you don't eat them in time, fruits and vegetables will go bad very fast.  Plan to eat the most delicate of them early in the week.  If you find an excellent deal on them and buy in bulk, make a plan to preserve them.  It's super easy to make small batches of jam or refrigerator pickles, and pretty much anything can be frozen if you do it right.  
  • Learn what substitutions you can make.  If you get to the store and they're all out of zuchinni, it pays to know that you can cook crookneck squash or Mexican gray squash in pretty much exactly the same way.  Try to get as wide of an idea of what foods taste good together and what can be substituted in the dishes you like to cook, and be flexible with your list.  
So, there you go.  A few tips from me on grocery shopping.  Is this the only way you can buy groceries and save money?  Of course not.  But it's my method, and it works pretty well.

If you have any questions, I'll happily answer them!  

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Cooking Lesson: Anatomy of a Recipe

I blogged recently about the importance of seasonings and a few of the more common flavor combinations.  Mastering seasoning will get any would-be cook well on the way to making tasty meals, but it can only do so much.  So, today will offer a "meatier" (pun intended) lesson on cooking: The Anatomy of a Recipe.

Now, none of these rules are set in stone, and you can play around with them once you get comfortable.  But when you're looking through your cabinets, trying to think of things to eat, it can be extremely helpful to know, "What can I combine in order to make food happen?"  It's what makes the difference between "food" and "a meal."

Components of a Meal

Each meal should consist of:
  • A protein source 
  • A starch 
  • One or two vegetables
  • Some seasonings 
  • Maybe a little bit of fat to tie it all together
That's not too hard, right? 

The ratios aren't set in stone, but I find them to be helpful.  They help you, for example, avoid eating "starch with a side of starch" (a pitfall I am particularly prone to) and make the whole "balanced meal" thing pretty easy.

So, when you're looking at your cabinets, how do you decide what elements are what?  Here's a handy guide!

Categories of Food in Your Kitchen 


  • Meat, including red meat, fish and poultry
  • Legumes like beans and lentils
  • Soy products like edamame and tofu
  • Nuts and nut butters 
  • Eggs 
You can sometimes combine two protein sources.  This is often a good idea if you have one strongly-flavored protein (bacon, ham, sausage) and one lightly-flavored protein (tofu, lentils).  If you couple a flavorful-but-pricy protein with a cheap-but-filling protein, you can make a huge meal with very little cost. 


  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Bread, including tortillas
  • Potatoes in all of their myriad forms
  • Polenta
  • Oats and oatmeal
  • Quinoa and any other exotic whole grains you want to experiment with
Starches often provide the bulk of a meal.  They exist to serve as vehicles for sauces and seasonings, and they play well with  proteins.  If you're eating legumes, you'll need a starch in order to provide necessary amino acids to create a complete protein.  Also, they're delicious. 


  • Greens like spinach, collards, turnips etc. 
  • Summer and winter squashes
  • Brassicas like cabbage, broccoli and brussels sprouts 
  • Root vegetables like carrots, turnips and sweet potatoes
  • Basically anything else you find in the produce section
If you need help eating more vegetables in your diet, try substituting your starches with veggies.  For example, serve sauces over a heaping plate of vegetables rather than pasta or rice.  You can also substitute the primary protein in a meal for a vegetable.  For example, making a spaghetti sauce with mushrooms or squash instead of meat.  Bear in mind, though, that vegetables tend to have few calories, so you might not feel full or satisfied if you load up on veggies alone. 


  • Oil, especially olive oil
  • Butter 
  • Lard and other animal fats
  • Cooking sprays
  • Mayonnaise and other spreads
You need fats for certain kitchen applications.  They prevent foods from sticking when you cook them by providing lubrication between the food and the pan.  They encourage browning and carmelization.  They add some extra flavor to your food.   They make a water-resistant barrier to protect starches from breaking down and getting soggy.  They conduct heat for frying and hold foods together for baking.  If you want to stay on the healthy side, I recommend butter (in moderation) and decent olive oil. 

Putting it All Together

So, let's take what we've learned and apply it to the simplest food item imaginable:  A sandwich! 

Sandwiches are great.  They're easy to make, easy to eat, and you can feed yourself with them even if you're not so great at cooking. 

The necessary components of a sandwich: 
  • Some kind of bread to hold it together: A pita pocket, a tortilla, slices of any kind of bread imaginable
  • Some kind of protein to put inside the bread: Lunch meat, hummus, slabs of roast animal, grilled tofu
  • Some vegetables:  Lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, mushrooms, whatever
  • A fat to spread on the bread and keep it from getting soggy: Butter, mayonnaise, cream cheese, yogurt
So here's your homework for today.  Go through your fridge and cabinets and pull out some likely ingredients.  Classify each one as a protein, starch, vegetable or fat.  Put them in discrete piles.  Then assemble a sandwich (or multiple sandwiches!) from what you find.  Note the results. 

Not every sandwich combination will taste good, since some flavors don't play well with each other (a topic we'll discuss in the next lesson!) but this will generally help you experiment and keep from starving.  

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Cooking Lesson Number One: Seasonings Are Your Friend

So, I have a friend.  Bless her heart, she's a wizard with animals, a rock star at packing and tells a hilarious story.  But the poor thing has never properly learned to cook.  Fortunately, she has a husband who can pick up the slack, but they work opposing shifts, and I can't very well let her starve while she's alone.  Besides, she's desperate to save some money around the house, and food is the best place to do it -- but only if you know what you're doing. 

I half-jokingly told her I'd take her under my wing and teach her to cook.  I figured I could include my culinarily-clueless boyfriend in the lessons and kill two birds with one stone.  But as I started thinking about it, I started to realize that maybe other people could use some help.  Plenty of my friends can't cook, after all, and the friends who can often express interest in doing it more inexpensively.  So I decided, maybe I should blog a few of my lessons, to make them easier to share. 

Lesson the First: Seasoning is Your Friend

When it comes to 'seasoning,' the very first thing you need to think of is salt.  You need to put salt on everything.  You also probably need to use more than you would imagine.  Contrary to what you might think, salt (when used properly) doesn't make food taste salty.  It just makes the food taste more....delicious.  It amps up the dial for every flavor that crosses your tastebuds.  It's a complex chemical reaction that takes place in your mouth and exists, evolutionarily, to ensure you eat enough sodium (which is necessary for multiple bodily functions). 

That said, you've probably heard about how sodium isn't so good for you.  It's true that, in high quantities, it can cause hypertension and plenty of other problems.  Here's a secret: The sodium that's hurting you isn't what you're putting on the food you're cooking.  It's the hidden sodium in processed foods.  If you cut those out and focus on cooking food from whole ingredients, you don't need to worry about salt. 

One other thing: Most of the frenchy-froggy chefs advise you to use kosher salt.  This is because it has a bigger surface area and dissolves better.  It's also easier to measure, and tends to have a cleaner taste.  But it is a little pricier, and I won't hold it against you if you use regular table salt.  I've been known to do that plenty of times myself. 

Herbs and Spices by Cuisine

Once you've mastered the salt thing, it's time to tackle herbs & spices.  You can get a long way with an empty pantry but a full spice rack.  Below are some of the more common cuisines along with the herbs and spices they use, as well as some of the other common ingredients that go into these recipes.  If you're starting with a bare spice rack, you can pick the cuisine you cook the most of and focus on buying just those spices.  You can also skim through to see which spices show up again and again, and buy those first. 

A few notes: 
  • Herbs are the green leaves and stems of plants, and many of them can be grown at home.  Spices are usually seeds, berries or bark, and they're mostly grown in exotic or far-away places.  
  • Herbs can be used fresh or dried.  If you're using dried herbs, add them to the dish early on so they can infuse the dish with flavor while it's cooking.  If you're using fresh herbs, add them toward the end so they don't get slimy and wilted.  
  • Herbs and spices both lose potency over time.  Try not to store them too close to the oven -- the heat will cause them to lose flavor quickly.  Replace them frequently.  
  • Save money on herbs by buying them in bulk.  You can usually buy plastic bags of herbs and spices on the Mexican aisle of a supermarket for a fraction of the price of the name-brand containers.  
  • Start small with any new seasonings you try.  You can always add more later, but you can't really take it back if you put in too much.  Start with a quarter-teaspoon of any new spice or herb and work up from there as necessary.  
  • In addition to their yummy flavor, herbs and spices have various health benefits associated with them as well! They've been a key part of, er, herbal medicine since the dawn of time.  
Mexican Cuisine:
Examples: Chili, fajitas, enchiladas
Herbs & Spices:  Garlic, cilantro, oregano, cumin, chili powder, paprika, black pepper (these last four I refer to as "chili spices" in recipes I write for myself). 
Other Common Ingredients: Peppers, tomatoes, beans, rice

Asian Cuisine: 
Examples: Stir-fries, fried rice
Herbs & Spices: Garlic, ginger, black pepper, soy sauce, five-spice powder, Siracha
Other Common Ingredients: Vegetables, tofu, rice, noodles

Italian Cuisine: 
Examples: Pasta dishes
Herbs & Spices: Garlic, oregano, parsley, thyme
Other Common Ingredients: Pasta, tomatoes, polenta

French (and gourmet American) Cuisine: 
Examples:  Roast chicken, meatloaf
Herbs & Spices: Rosemary, thyme, marjoram, sage
Other Common Ingredients: Onion, carrot and celery (aka mire poix, or the start of any good soup), wine

Mediterannean Cuisine: 
Examples: Roast lamb, gyro meat
Herbs & Spices: Basil, parsley, marjoram, oregano
Other Common Ingredients: Olives, chickpeas, feta cheese

There are lots of other combinations to learn -- like those in Indian, Middle Eastern or North African cuisine -- but they are perhaps not as useful to the beginning cook.  Pay attention to seasonings in recipes you find and you'll start to realize which ingredients are responsible for what flavors. 

The valuable thing about this brief list is that it helps you determine what a dish will taste like (if reading from a recipe) or what type of flavor profile to give something (if experimenting in the kitchen).  For example, if you start with tomato sauce and add oregano, parsley and thyme, the results will probably be a pasta sauce.  If you took that same tomato sauce and added cumin and paprika, you'd be well on your way to making chili.  By knowing -- even vaguely -- what you're starting with, you know more or less where you'll end up. 

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Critical Thinking Thursdays: Correlation, Causation and the Silliness That Ensues

Note: I was going to post this last Thursday, but it didn't really happen.  I ended up spending much more time away from home than I'd anticipated, and by the time I got back I was entirely too braindead to construct this post.  Besides, I'm glad I waited, because I woke up this morning to find this delightful graphic in my Facebook feed from my favorite page, I Fucking Love Science.
Now I have something to talk about today!

You can probably spot the problem with this statement, even if you're not familiar with logical fallacies.  There's an issue here with correlation (things that happen at the same time) and causation (one thing happens because of the other thing).

This problem crops up in a lot of places.  The human brain is trained to find patterns -- it's a survival instinct that helps to keep us alive -- but sometimes we find patterns that aren't actually there, or draw the wrong conclusions from patterns that do exist.

In this case, the causation is reverse:  Birthdays don't make you live longer.  Living longer, by definition, enables you to have more birthdays.

There are several other ways that correlation and causation can get screwed up:

  • Reduction Fallacy:  The assumption that a single event was caused by a single factor, when in reality multiple factors are all partially responsible.  Unfortunately, life is rarely simple, so this happens a lot.  After a school shooting, for example, you'll get people saying, "This happened because of guns!" or "This happened because of mental health issues!" or "This happened because of violence in the media!" In reality, all of those factors may be at play -- and many more could also be responsible.  It's very rare that complex problems are ever caused by a single root issue.  
  • Bi-Directional Causation: When A causes B, but B also causes A.  So, for example, imagine a bank account that gains interest.  The more money in the bank, the more interest it earns.  The more interest it earns, the more money in the bank.  If left alone, this causes a sort of "chicken or egg" feedback loop.  
  • Spurious Relationship:  A and B are both caused by a third factor, C.  One of my favorite examples, courtesy of The Flying Spaghetti Monster:  A shortage of pirates causes global warming!  After all, as the pirate population decreases, global warming increases!  Of course, this is probably due to one or more outside factors, such as global industrialization, that cause both things to occur.  Of course, not all examples of this are so silly.  
  • Affirming the Consequent:  The format for this is, "If P, then Q.  Q, therefore P."  In other words, if one thing were to happen, Q would be the consequence; since Q has happened, P must have caused it.  This is related to the reduction fallacy above in that it assumes that Q can only be caused by a single factor, therefore P must have happened.  Here's a (cynical) example:  "If Mary screws her boss, she'll get a raise.  She just got a raise, so she must be sleeping with her boss." 
  • Denying the Antecedent:  This is the inverse of the above.  This one says, "If P, then Q.  Not P, therefore not Q."  So for example, "If I were rich, I'd be happy.  Since I'm not rich, I'm not happy."  This sort of neglects that you could be made happy by anything else.  
There are other iterations, but they're all pretty similar.  The trick to figuring out the correlation/causation issue is to do a bit of investigating.  Things that seem obvious at first may not be so simple in reality, and making assumptions about them can lead you to try and solve problems in all the wrong ways.  After all, you can't really solve a problem if you don't know the real cause of it.  

Always ask yourself, "Could this have been caused by anything else?  Is there some other element that could be behind all of this?  Is it possible that the causation is actually inverted?"  

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Critical Thinking Thursday: Movie Magic and the Power of Editing

Today, I want to talk a little bit about "movie magic," and especially about how the power of editing can make things appear different than how they really are.  This is a trick that's used for everything from movies to televised magicians and even the nightly news, and recognizing it in advance can help you keep a clear head any time you see something outlandish on a screen -- be it Criss Angel, Fox News or a YouTube video.  

What You Have to See to Believe

Humans are visual creatures.  Although we have four other senses that provide us with valuable information, our eyes are the thing we rely on the most. Take just a moment to appreciate how amazing the human eye really is.  This complex little organ takes in light, which then travels to your brain, which sorts through the light, converts it into images and assigns meaning to those images.  The simple act of reading these words on the screen is an impressive feat of nature's engineering.  We've evolved these eyeballs -- and the brains that go with them -- for milennia.  Cameras, on the other hand, have only been around for a few centuries, and motion-capture cameras have been around for just a few generations.  There are people alive today who were born in a time when there were no videos -- and now everybody can take a video with a device that fits into their pocket.  It's awe-inspiring.  

Now that we've got that out of the way, here's the thing about human brains.  Our brains are pretty much conditioned to believe that they can trust the information delivered by our eyes.  If we see something, our default state is belief.  Questioning that belief requires effort -- critical thought, in other words.  So if you're fooled by the things you see, it doesn't mean you're stupid.  It just means that your brain is having a hard time keeping up with these rapid changes in technology. 

Ways That Cameras Can Lie

There are a lot of ways that a camera can lie to you, and a lot of different applications for those lies.  Here are a few examples:  
  • Shooting multiple takes.  For example, a television psychic approaches a man on the street and says, "Excuse me, is your wife named Mary?" and the astonished man says, "Why, yes, she is!"  What the audience doesn't know is that the psychic approached a dozen other people and asked that same question; this gentleman is the only one who said yes.  Since all of the unsuccessful attempts were cut, the psychic looks more successful than he really is. 
  • Editing footage together.  A person on a reality TV show wins a storage unit.  You see the auctioneer cut off the lock, signifying that the unit hasn't been tampered with.  The winner walks inside, opens a box, and finds a priceless antique.  What you don't see?  Between the shot of the lock being broken and the winner walking inside, the camera is shut off and the camera crew places the valuable item inside to be "discovered."  When it's edited together, it appears that the item was there all along.  This was one of the very first "magic" tricks ever done with a camera.  The concept of an item appearing out of thin air was, at the time, inconceivable, and it fooled a lot of people.  Things don't just spontaneously appear in real life.  But they can and do in film, where a shot could have taken hours or even weeks to put together.  
  • Cutting and cropping.  Like the picture above, you can take anything and make it look like something else by zeroing in on one small part of it.  The ability to focus and crop a photograph is one of the things that makes photography an artform, an expression of the person behind the camera, rather than just 'real life.'  But never forget that everything you see could have been manually put together or cut in a way that creates a reporting bias.  
  • Post-production editing.  In the old days, people needed to do this sort of thing in a dark room.  Today, we have Photoshop.  However you do it, the premise is the same: you change a photograph or video after it's been shot to look different.  For example, you can airbrush a model to make her appear thinner.  You can combine human features with animals to create were-people.  Or you can use your iPhone to insert ghosts into cell phone pictures.  
  • Claiming that natural events are supernatural.  This one doesn't even require editing -- just viewers who don't understand cameras.  Have you ever seen those photographs that supposedly have "spirit orbs" or other such things?  What the photographer isn't telling you is that those floating balls of light are actually just dust particles that are reflecting light into the camera lens.  
There are tons more tricks -- from using a green screen to computer-animated special effects -- and of course out-and-out faking (for example: the "stranger on the street" is actually a paid actor).  Here's what's important for you:  Don't trust anything you see on TV without thinking critically about it!  

Ask yourself whether some or all of these techniques could have been used on the footage you've seen.  Ask yourself whether the things you see seem plausible or if they seem to go against what you know about the rest of the world.  Determine whether there is any external way to validate a claim being made in a video you're watching.  For example: Are there other videos from other people that show the same thing?  Can you talk to a real witness who saw it happen?  Is there a paper trail or other history that backs up what you're seeing?  Is there any reason why the footage should have been faked?  

Not everything you see on TV is a lie, but learning how to spot a forgery is a good task to keep in your arsenal of critical thinking skills. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

An Elegant Solution to Restaurant Portion Sizes

So, eating out is a bit of a landmine.  We're coming up on the 5th step of our "Real Food" eating challenge, and it's going to be the hardest yet -- no fast food, no deep-fried foods, eat out only on weekends.  Eating out is a big problem for us.  There's a few reasons we do it so often.   One of the most common reasons we end up going out is "dinner failure" in the house.  Either I cook something that turns out to be inedible (a sadly frequent side effect of kitchen experimentation) or the kitchen is such a mess that I have no dishes in which to cook or serve food (a frequent side effect of dating a guy with ADHD who forgets chores), so we end up making an emergency run to Taco Bell.

Other times, we just get bored or restless in the house.  When you work from home, you get really sick of looking at the inside of that home, and it can be hard to think up new things to do with yourself that don't involve eating.  Ironically, I've started shopping -- and enjoying shopping! -- more since becoming a conscious non-consumer.  Sometimes we'll get bored at the house and head out to wander through the aisles at the Good Will or a pawn shop.  Still, those outings rarely seem to occur without food showing up somewhere, and it's a big problem.

Anyway, we're going to work on curbing this habit.  For one, it wrecks the bank.  For another, it's much more difficult to keep an eye on your health when eating out.  Even if you're not interested in losing weight, you should get in the habit of checking nutrition information at restaurants, because it's always way worse than you'd expect.  You would be shocked to discover just how many calories are in certain foods.  You think you're doing yourself a favor by ordering a salad, but that salad may have more calories than a hamburger.

Part of the problem is that restaurants and fast food joints like to load up their entrees with huge quantities of sodium, sugar and fat to cover up for the fact that their food is actually tasteless.  If you don't have high-quality ingredients, just smother them in fat!  That'll make 'em taste good!  The other problem is portion distortion: The amount of food you're served is usually way more than you need to be eating.

The easiest way to cut your calories when eating out is to just not eat as much food.  But then, this causes its own set of problems.  Sure, you can get half of your entree boxed up before it even comes out to you -- but are you going to eat it?  Is it going to fester in your refrigerator for weeks?  And yeah, you can share everything with your significant other, but eventually you're going to get sick of always eating the same thing.  And just throwing away perfectly good food is certainly not an attractive option.  So, what do you do?

David came up with this smart solution.  This is the simplest, most elegant solution to this problem.  Are you ready?

Step one:  Order your food.
Step two:  Box up half of it.
Step three:  Give your box of fresh leftovers to the first homeless person you see on your drive home.

No, you're not going to be solving world hunger any time soon by doing this.  But, it makes you feel good knowing that somebody's going to have dinner tonight.  You're not contributing to quite so much food waste.  And, hey, maybe knowing that your food is going to someone else -- and may be the only thing they eat all day -- will give you just enough motivation to choose a healthier entree.

(Note:  Feeding the homeless is actually illegal in some cities, so, y'know, do this at your own risk.  But I can safely say, if there's one thing I'll never regret being arrested for, it'd be feeding a homeless guy.  Just saying.)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Critical Thinking Thursday: Statistics Mean Nothing

Today's Critical Thinking Thursday post is a bit late as I was busy learning an important lesson:  Always check the oven before pre-heating it.  I had left something in it previously and completely forgotten about it.  I didn't notice this until turning on the oven to pre-heat for a pizza....and copious amounts of smoke began billowing from the oven.  Oops.  We retreated to Buffalo Wild Wings until the smoke cleared -- hence the late post.

Anyway, today I want to talk about this graphic:

I saw this kicking around on Facebook and it's a beautiful example of the way you can twist statistics around to say basically anything you want.  So, let's go step-by-step and see how you can critically examine this, shall we?

  • First off, let's check that the figures are even accurate.  Since the graphic doesn't site a source for any of these numbers, we'll have to check them manually.  When searching, you'll want to find a website that doesn't have its own agenda (for obvious reasons), so we'll want something with some objective credibility.  
  • Let's take a look at that 195,000 figure first.  First off, the data is 10 years old.  Second, the actual causes of death are "failure to rescue, bed sores, postoperative sepsis, and postoperative pulmonary embolism".  So now we have that figure explained a bit more clearly.  
  • Now, the assault rifle figure.  It took some digging to find the primary source on this one, but it looks like it's from the FBI. (Interestingly, based on the FBI data, the figure quoted for knives is actually very low -- the figure quoted here is 1,694 for stabbing deaths).  
  • The 12,000 drunk driver fatalities appears to be from this site here, which offers an average (not the exact figure).  
OK.  Now that we've found the source of each figure, let's look at a few interesting things about how the data is compiled and represented, shall we?
  • By specifically choosing assault rifles, the graphic down plays the severity of gun violence in general.  According to the CDC, firearms account for 31,347 deaths.  Of these, according to the FBI, 12,664 were homicides.  The others could range from accidents (children handling guns, hunting accidents) to suicides.  
  • This means that gun homicide (in general) is actually more dangerous than drunk driving.  Someone with a different political stance could make a different graphic using exactly the same sources and come to that conclusion -- more gun murders happen annually than drunk driving deaths.  
  • Incidentally, according to the CDC, the total number of vehicle fatalities (not just drunk drivers) is 34,485, which is still higher than the total number of firearm fatalities.  Therefore, someone could, again, take the same data and make a new graphic showing that cars are more dangerous than guns (but the margin is much narrower).  
The point of all this isn't to take a side one way or the other about gun control.  The point is to show that this graphic -- which seems very straightforward -- presents its figures in a way that supports the point it wants to make.  This is the dangerous thing about statistics:  On their own, they don't actually mean anything.  The numbers have to be interpreted.  As you can see, different people can take the exact same data and extrapolate completely different interpretations from it.  

So the next time you're faced with a graphic or statistic, I invite you to take a few extra minutes to think critically about it before sharing.  Ask yourself:  Where are they getting these numbers?  Are they accurate?  Is the source reputable?  If you look at the data yourself, do you get a different interpretation?  How many other ways can those numbers be interpreted? 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Week Three: A Whole Bunch of New Foods

As I think I've mentioned, we're doing the 14 weeks of 100 Days of Real Food mini-pledges (although I'm not quite doing them in order).  At the end of each week, we the goal is to add on the next challenge while continuing the first (or at least slightly modifying the first to make it long-term accessible).  Week one ("eat two fruits or vegetables with every meal") was pretty easy, and I've continued doing it since without too much trouble.  I've mostly displaced a lot of grains with vegetables (opting for veggies as a side or base instead of pasta or rice, for example, or wrapping things in lettuce instead of eating it on bread).  

Week two was a bit more of a challenge:  Don't drink any sweetened beverages.  I mostly succeeded at this.  I drank a latte instead of a mocha at the coffee shop, and I had a 100% juice when I somehow ended up at Jamba Juice while out shopping.  Mostly I've just been drinking a lot of water, and I like it that way.  I did stumble twice.  The first time, I ended up at a fast food-style Greek restaurant.  After paying for my drink, I discovered that they didn't have any unsweetened iced tea (my go-to drink for fast food places) so I got stuck with the house-made lemonade.  Oh well.  The second time, David bought us an agua fresca (de fresas) at the market, and the person selling it didn't speak enough English to confirm whether it had sugar in it.  So the jury's still out on that one (but from the taste, I'm assuming "yes." And let me just say - it was delicious). 

Today was the day to buy groceries for weeks three and four.  One of those challenges is super easy -- "Buy nothing low-fat or fat-free."  The rationale being that when food manufacturers artificially remove fat, they often replace it with sugar and chemicals.  For the most part the only thing I had to avoid buying "light" was dairy.  I still don't have a good source for raw milk (or even local milk) but I did get some organic whole milk, so that's a start.  

The other challenge is more fun:  Eat two new whole foods per week.  I actually went slightly over and got six new foods instead, because I'm an over-achiever.  Here are the foods I got -- along with a bit of fun information about them.  


A semi-aquatic plant in the Brassica family (along with broccoli and cabbage), watercress was one of the first leafy vegetables to be eaten by people.  It goes back at least as far as ancient Greece, and it's mentioned in the Talmud.  Apparently it also makes up a primary part of a swan's diet.  Nutritionally, it's a power-house:  iron, calcium, iodine, folic acid, and vitamins A and C as well as antioxidants.  It's also been reported to have some medicinal qualities, including as a diuretic, expectorant and digestive aid, and it's rumored to have some anti-carcinogenic properties.  

Because it's so delicate, you have to eat watercress pretty much as soon as you get it home.  You can eat it raw or cook it.  It tastes sort of spicy and a little bitter, almost like mustard greens, but the flavor is much more mild.  When you cook it, the flavor mellows and picks up a flowery hint.  


The local Asian market has an amazing selection of fresh fish.  David's always very excited about picking them out because he'd always thought he didn't like fish -- until he had some real fresh fish.  After surveying our options, we ended up bringing home a milkfish, which are native to the Indian and Pacific oceans and spend some time in swamps and estuaries before heading back to the sea.  Ours -- like pretty much all other milkfish you'll find sold -- was farm-raised.  They live on a diet of algae and invertebrates and make up an important part of the diet for people in the Philippines.  

If you're looking for recipes, it may help to search for their other common names, "bangus" or "chanos chanos." When preparing these guys, be careful of the bones as these are very bony fish.  There are about a billion different ways to cook and eat it, but pan-frying seems to be one of the most popular.  Here's some more information about cooking them.  

Lotus Root

The root -- or, actually, the sunken stem -- of the aquatic lotus blossom.  Lotus plants have a long, somewhat sacred history in Asia, especially in Buddhist countries, where it's a symbol of purity.  The root is commonly used in varying types of cuisines.  

They're a great source of fiber, and they also provide thiamin, vitamin B6, potassium, phosphorous, copper and manganese.  They also have about 27% of your necessary vitamin C.  Here's a few tips for preparing them.  

I had this once in a pho and fell in love with it, though I had absolutely no idea what it was and didn't find it again until discovering it at the Asian market.  It has a flavor and texture somewhat similar to jicama, and it plays well with others in soup.  The easiest way to prepare it is to peel and slice it, then boil it in vinegared water to remove some of the tannins that lend bitterness to it.  After boiling for a minute or two, you can pull it out to use as a crunchy ingredient, or you can keep boiling it and put it in soup.  

Flax Seed

Cultivated as far back as ancient Egypt, flax used to be an extremely common clothing fiber.  Some evidence suggests flax was spun and worn in pre-historic times, dating back to 30,000 B.C. The seeds are eaten as-is or made into oil.  

These things are chock-full of fiber and omega-3s as well as a whole slew of nutrients: thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, folate, vitamin C, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc.  There's some research that suggests it might play a role in reversing diabetes, high cholesterol and cancer, but the jury's out on just how accurate all that is.  

So what do you do with this stuff?  First, you can mix it into things, like yogurt or muffin batter.  Lots of people like putting them in smoothies.  You can also pound it down into a flour-like substance and use it in various baked goods.  The easiest way to do that is to grind it in a coffee grinder.  

Mung Beans

These little guys are native to India, but they're grown throughout Asia and the southern U.S.  They can be cooked and eaten or sprouted.  Cooked, they can be substituted for lentils in most dishes. 

They're packed with fiber and vitamin C, and they're also a good source of protein, thiamin, niacin, iron, magnesium, and a bunch of other things.  

Before we went to the Asian market today, we stopped off at Pho Saigon.  While we were eating our lunch, we got to musing about just how yummy bean sprouts are, and it made me think I needed to buy some mung beans and sprout them myself.  I'm curious to try them cooked.  


During the Middle Ages, this was one of the  most popular and common green vegetables eaten.  My vegetarian friends have been riding me to try this stuff since forever, so I'm finally giving in.  

This humble vegetable is another of the brassicas, closely related to cabbage.  It's high in beta carotene, vitamin K, vitamin C and calcium.  It's also rumored to have some cancer-fighting properties.  

You can eat it cooked or raw.  I hear you can dehydrate it into a delicious chip, so I'll be trying that.  It can also be mixed into things or even snuck into smoothies.