Friday, August 31, 2012

Chipotle-Lime Marinated Chicken

It's time to have that talk now.

No, not THAT talk!  The one about chipotle-lime marinated chicken, a little something that I said we should discuss sometime.'s time.

One leftovers-driven day, I went looking for something to do with excess chipotles in adobo.  I like them, but I don't have the heat tolerance to load too many into a dish, and even if I did, there would still be part of a can to use up because that's how they come. This is one of the ways to give full purpose to the quantity of hotsies that you're forced to buy.

It isn't mentioned in the title, but the honey in the recipe balances out the heat in the chipotles, reducing them from FIREY to lively, which I don't mind a bit.  I'd like a latin dance in my mouth, not an inferno, thank you.

It's a very good thing with which to douse that eternal wallflower, the boneless, skinless, mass-produced chicken breast.  Those high protein girls can be a mite bland, but not after a bath in this spicy stuff.  It perks them right up.  A little makeover of sorts.

Some half-decent grill marks don't hurt either.  Maybe someday I'll have a real grill, and we'll see what smoke adds to the ensemble.  That day being yet to come, my sample tenders are wearing the equivalent of a spray tan.  Those marks (practicing my skills at home!) come from my cast iron grill pan.  Even so, still good.

I think I even remember pouring this marinade over some chicken thighs in the crock pot once.  I have also forgotten (or was too lazy) to split the marinade, adding the honey to the final basting coat to prevent blackening of the sugars.  Even with all that slippage or slackage, it was still eminently edible.  It's like the perfect scarf or statement necklace that takes you from just clothes to outfit in a trice, even if other parts are questionable.   

Ah, accessories.  Even in food, a little bling is a good thing.

Chipotle-Lime Marinated Chicken
Adapted from The Meatwave
Serves 6

2 1/2 lbs boneless skinless chicken breast, about 6
1 chipotle chile in adobo, minced
1/2 teaspoon adobo sauce, from the canned peppers
1/4 cup lime juice
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons honey

In a small bowl mix together chipotle, adobo sauce, lime juice, garlic, and oil. Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper and put them in a ziploc bag and pour half of the marinade in. Seal the bag, getting out as much air as possible, and let the chicken marinate while you prepare the grill or other parts of dinner if you're indoor grilling. Add the honey to the remaining marinade.

Prepare the grill if using, lighting 1 chimney of charcoal and, when it's lit and covered in gray ash, pouring out onto charcoal grate. Arrange the coals on one side of grate, creating a two-zone fire. Oil cooking grate and grill the chicken breasts directly over the hot coals until browned on both sides, 4-5 minutes per side. 

Oil a grill-pan if cooking the chicken indoors. Cook 4-5 minutes per side.

Move the chicken to the cool side of the grill, if using, and baste all over with the reserved marinade. Cover the grill or grill pan and continue to cook chicken until sauce lightly browns, about 5 minutes more.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Version in Verse, Newly Re-Discovered

Velvet Discipline

Showing up out of love
poised to receive
ready to experience
committed but not compulsive

No stick no whip
the carrot is pleasure
on the page
a few lines tossed off
with a faithful fillip

Happy regularity contains
no drama no will
just the decision to trust
and be present
with whatever comes
softly calling

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

For Now

My erstwhile epitaph isn't the only phrase that I've been able to transform, through growth, from bitter to sweet.   There's also the formerly dreaded one-two punch: for now.

In the past, "for now" was the phrase uttered with a sigh as I made do in ways I didn't enjoy:  Stacking cardboard boxes by my bed in lieu of a proper bedside table. Eating dinner at a borrowed card table when I couldn't afford to buy one.  Wearing what was in my closet even though none of it made me feel alive.

Those words were ponderous as funeral bells, bitter with resignation, empty of faith that any other, more prosperous or beautiful time would ever come.  It seemed that all my life had been one "for now" compromise after another, and that feeling twisted my lips with resistance.

Not any more.  I've learned that now is all we really have, so choosing the best you can do for that time is all we can expect.  I've experienced better days, too, when creativity scored higher than financial paucity.  I've learned to think differently and to tell different stories about my circumstances.  Those last two are the crucial parts.

I may have freed my mind, but I still have limitations.  It is, in fact, difficult for me to imagine a life without them.  When my husband challenged me recently to think of a fun financial goal (debt reduction didn't count as fun apparently--I have no idea why), I had to reach to find options.  I guess I might like to go to Europe or buy good antiques.  I've just never planned for such things before and have ceased to feel bereft without them when life is so rich here and now.

It's even hard right now to remember other examples of my deprivation, even though this phrase has hovered on my formerly-only-mental To Write About list for years.  It seemed back then a fertile ground for exposition.  Now, with my wantings blunted by wisdom and more desires satisfied, there seems not much more to say than, "I used to hate that phrase.  Now I get it".

I relish being so healed of emptiness that I can no longer remember how wronged I thought I was.  The truth is that we've all been wronged, and hurt and deprived of something, too.  I'm not special that way.  I'm merely normal.  No carrying on is necessary these days when I do something "for now."

When we moved into this barn, I hung up $6.00 clearance sheers that I already had "for now."  With their skeleton-key-and-hemp tie backs and their lightness balancing the salvaged wood walls' darkness, I still kinda like them.  They're not too bad, for now or maybe later, too.

The other curtains in the house were made of fabric long held or improvised, not directly chosen. They don't offend me either at this stage of my life.  I suppose there's something out there I would find more perfect or desirable, but it doesn't feel urgent.  I have bigger things on my mind right now:  my consuming job, my hobby, dinner every night.  They're just curtains, not symbols of my lowly compromising status.  Besides I'm not entertaining myself by shopping, which just brings me across more things to want from without instead of within.  Why court longing?  There's plenty naturally, the good kind.

Here's another fact I've realized while writing these rambling thoughts (I love when that happens):  the examples of bitter compromises that I could think of were mostly about home decor.  Obviously, that is very important to me.  I'm having fun getting dressed these days, loving having better--well, more satisfying--clothes, but home is always my queen.  Photographs of beautiful rooms are where I escape during my blessed Sundays.  Spending money on our house was one of the few enjoyable options to jump to mind after my husband's challenge.  It's good to know the sources of one's joy.  Easier to find it that way.

The dreaded phase "for now" doesn't weigh heavily and bitterly any more because I do know myself and my needs for happiness better.  Coming into my own makes it easier to believe that even if I am making do for now, the future really might bring something more suitable or more lovely.  But even if it doesn't, ca ne fait rien.  Joy is available "for now," too. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Followed Directions Well

A couple of nights ago, I came home late from work and whipped up an improvised dinner.  I sauteed some onions, garlic, and mushrooms, deglazed the pan with some white wine, and threw in some diced tomatoes, sliced kalamata olives, fennel seed, oregano, and cubed, leftover pork roast.  Oh, and salt and pepper, too of course. After a few minutes of simmering, I served the melange over pan-grilled eggplant slices and garnished it with a bit of shredded mozzarella.  Quite good with some crusty bread and a glass of pinot grigio.  Nothing to it.

Oh, but there is.  

In the past, I did not extemporize.  I was not one of those people who could make up dishes based on a loose idea or whatever was on hand.  The gears of my brain locked up when challenged to throw dinner together.  I religiously searched out recipes, made plans, shopped according to a list, and cooked what I had planned and shopped for because I didn't feel able to do anything else.

We ate fairly well that way, but I yearned for the instinctive freedom other people seemed to have.  That yearning was my personal reason for attending culinary school.  I hoped that by being exposed to more knowledge about and experience with food, I would become more comfortable with creating dishes or meals.  I longed to be free and easy with dinner, rather than bound by a plan.

Not that I dislike plans.  I still make one and usually follow it because it makes life simpler.  I even enjoy creating the plan, with recipe research taking hours if I please.  Mostly now, though, it's more inspiration than mandate.  I know that I can off-road it if I want, as I did that night.  Occasionally, I do have to remind myself to quit leaning on the crutch of the inspiring recipe and just do it already, because I own the power now.  I'm acquainted with flavor-makers and with my own instincts. I can be as free as I choose to be.

I can find freedom now because I realize that I do have instincts and ideas.  They were just obfuscated with self-doubt and over-analysis in the past.  Now, I sense and honor them, catching myself before I'm too snagged in questions and following my own leading instead.

That night, when I thought of adding the fennel seed to my mixture, I began to wonder, to reconsider.  Then I plunged on with my gut leading, and it turned out fine.  It's sad to take forty-some years to learn to trust yourself, but so it is.

I still prefer the workday ease and thoughtlessness of a prepared menu, but it's a choice now, stemming from efficiency and not fear.  I follow recipe directions to see what they know, yet believe that I can trust what I know, too.

The next day when my warmed leftovers were scenting the break room and someone asked if that aroma was my lunch, I answered that yes, it was, just a little something I threw together last night.  And I felt very proud, in a grateful way.  I wasn't showing off.  I was marveling that I've come far enough to do, even if only at a humble level, what I used to envy other people doing.

I used to say about myself, with bitter humor, that my tombstone should read "Followed directions well."  I was referring then to my dependency on instruction and my supposed lack of creativity.  I guess the humor wouldn't have been bitter if I hadn't known somewhere inside that I wanted to be different and was capable of it. 

These days, I'm glad to know that I could use that epitaph in a much happier way. My unearthed instincts are the directions I follow well now.  In the kind of transformation of which I love being mindful, those formerly bitter words have a new meaning with which I can be at peace and at play.  

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Just Call Me Grandma

How I wish this was a scratch-n-sniff photo!

Recently, my husband and a friend and I had a discussion about our compulsion toward creative endeavors.  The other two agreed that they were miserable if they did their art, and miserable if they didn't do their art.  There seemed no happiness in creating for them, even though it was so necessary.  I don't remember all that I said then, but I do remember thinking that their damned-either-way situation was wrong somehow.

This was about the time I returned to writing with not a vengeance but a determination to enjoy it.   I had trod their murky waters and found a commitment to allowing myself to enjoy what I couldn't seem to escape doing. It just seemed logical. I'm still practicing it, even when reminders are necessary.

Regardless of my perky decision being made (and shared that day actually--maybe I started that talk, now that I think about it), I reflected on the conversation later. It led me to a decision that I shared with them and now share here, in the written word, where it becomes more real:  I've decided to be a folk writer.

I don't mean that I've decided to write folk tales.  I mean that I choose to be a writer like Grandma Moses was a painter.  I'm opting, for now, to be an untrained, all-natural, whatever-God-gave-me sort of writer.

Someday I might want to polish up my (Is it really there?) talent, consult with experts, and study up on the learned ways of this craft.  At some point, I may be interested in how to write really, technically well.  For now, I would rather just let 'er rip in my own fashion, even if the perspective is skewed and the scale a bit off.  I need play in my life, and I'm giving it to myself in words.

As I understand it, since ironically I'm not a fan, folk art is admired for its authenticity, its innocence and freshness, its lack of erudition and self-conscious effort.  Folk artists have not eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil technique.  They are still residents of the garden of naive production.  That sounds like the playground I need right now.

After all, there are plenty of other areas where self-analysis and performance evaluation are necessary, like my job, where accountability is understandable. There I must be striving for constant improvement and, frankly, proving that I'm worth my pay.  I have no problem with those requirements.  Those are the grown-up-world realities with which I'll happily comply and feel proud of myself for being able to meet.

Here, though, I want to be unhindered and exploratory.  Here I want to become like a child again, free of comparison paralysis and fear.  This I want to be my sandbox, my coloring book, my chest of blocks that I can arrange any way I want for sheer delight.  As I wrote one morning in my recently-reviewed journal, I want to create "like a kid high on Crayola stink."  I'm giving myself back my innocence.

The irony is that this childish innocence is chosen in quite an adult fashion, with full knowledge that it's opposite exists, which I think makes it a holy choice.  Maybe it's one way to live out a possible interpretation of Jesus' admonition to "become like a little child."  I'm pretty sure that producing happily and feeling like a fully realized being are qualities of my heaven, the place to which he said such return to innocence would gain us admittance.

I choose to stay a wise child on the page in the same way that I choose to trust even though I'm well aware that I can be hurt, to see the good in the world when I know full well that evil lurks, to enjoy living even though I know I will die, and to risk despite knowing that I can fail.  

If deciding to be child-like means that I can hold my head up when I say that I write, or that I do anything else for that matter, rather than wanting to cast my eyes down and hide behind my elbows, then I'm happy with my choice.  It means that I'm not trying to be perfect anymore, which was killing me, but just myself, honoring the way I was made, rediscovering humble first-grade pride, which comes not from feeling better than anyone else, but from making no comparison at all.

I'm done with monitoring stats and craving comments. I'm through deciding every word consciously. I'm just here for the fun, the tinkering, the play.  I'm here to be instinctual, to birth what I feel moving inside me, to be true to my God-given desires without self-serving ambition.

I'm almost ready to share what I do here confidently with others, but not to create a platform or to market myself or to be famous.  I'm quite sure those worldly grown-up successes aren't part of my mission on this earth.  

My husband told me this week that I'm high minded, and I agree that I am.  I like noble purposes and warm, fuzzy goals.  I'm after the heart and soul of the writing that is mine to do, not the nuts and bolts of polished prose.  I'd much rather have genuine passion with imperfections than flawless posturing that garners hits.

There's another way I'd like to be like Grandma Moses.  I read somewhere years ago a quote from her about how to end a life.  I don't remember it exactly, but it involved the dusting off of hands as after a good day's work.  Now that's a simple measure of success and peace I can embrace--leaving this world satisfied, knowing you did some good. I can't imagine a greater achievement.

I don't know how I'll feel at the end of my life, but satisfied and confident that I did a good thing is how I feel when I'm done writing for the evening, now that I've regained my innocence.  That's enough reason to stay in the garden by choice.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Work Hard, Rest Hard

This week has been every bit as unpredictable and demanding as I expected.  I have (whew!) risen to the tasks as far as I know, and arrangements for production and staffing for our major event seem to be in place, again as far as I know, but it has not been without cost.  I expected that, too.

By Wednesday evening, I was experiencing chest tightness and flutters;  I had been up half the night before;  and I was reaching the danger point that I've passed in other years, the tripwire that launches a full fledged anxiety attack.  It was time to pull out all the guns in my relaxation arsenal.

I started my intensive letting-go therapy with a trip through the grocery store, because yes, I even enjoy the gathering of the food that makes the good dinner. With no hubby rendezvous--Dave was out for the night at a play read through--I had no deadline, however welcome it always is.  Whenever I caught myself rushing, as I had been doing all day, I reminded myself to notice the gorgeous color and seasonal price of red peppers, breathe deeply while waiting at the deli counter, stroll with the buggy as if I had all time in the world.  The long wind-down was beginning.

After shopping and buying gas, enjoying the breezes while I waited by the pump, I drove home with the windows down, imagining my cares blowing away, too.  I listened to my favorite regional station, WOBO out of Batavia, Ohio, which plays delightful swing and big band music.  It's hard to be troubled when listening to Glen Miller or Frankie.

Once home, I fixed a simple dinner of cashew fried rice and cardamom-dusted orange slices, and lazily did the few dishes, still bopping lightly to my retro tunes now streaming online.

Then the heavy recuperative artillery came out. I did something I've not done since we moved into this barn/house, a time when I was equally strained by finishing school and moving:  I took a long, soaking bath with lavender-sage bubbles and read a glossy magazine while I let the hot-tubbish heat penetrate my tightened body until beads of sweat stood out on my forehead.  Then I slathered myself gently with lavender-sage lotion and got straight into my pajamas for some pressure-less reading.

After all that, I was a  warm noodle of a human being who could sit for meditation and find a little peace behind the cantering heart and scanning thoughts. I went to bed early and barely knew when my sweet husband arrived home.  I'll admit to taking two Benadryl for insurance, prepared to suffer the hangover if it meant sleeping, which is so important to sanity.  To my surprise, I woke promptly, and my first thought was "I feel good."  Mission accomplished.

Not that I was absolutely untroubled from then on.  I was wound up again before the morning was over, just not dangerously so. But I knew what to do: draw that big fat line in the sands of the day that says work is over and restoration can begin. You can't have me any more cruel world.  I'm in the fortress of serenity.  See you in the morning.

The waves of hyper-alterness and uber-vigilance I'm experiencing are part of high-demand times for me (and probably most people).  When they build, as they did that day, to tightness and bird-like flappings in my chest, I'm no longer scared.  I've been checked out.  I know that it's just strain or fear.  I disarm it with a factual greeting, and set to caring for my ailing self.

I also don't berate myself anymore for getting stressed.  It's human of me.  If I get more jittery and jangled than the average person, it is, I believe, the flip-side of the permeable empathy that has me clapping along with someone else's joy or feeling just as giddy and rapturous as I do strained and scared. That I wouldn't want to lose.  I just have to manage its twin well.

Luckily I learned years ago that it's not so bad to work hard and be stressed.  It's actually very difficult to avoid either circumstance.  The crucial skill is to balance the body and mind with equally generous rest.  Even a few hours of carefully calculated non-activity can right the up-ended.  I can take whatever the day brings if there's a good meal and some rest at the end of it and whatever the week dishes if I have my Sabbath retreat waiting for me like a tropical island.

I have, through trial and learning (no error), ironically ended up meeting the prescription for anxiety management that I found in the books I read about the subject back when my woes were given a name years ago.  At the time their recommendation of one hour a day and one day a week of down time seemed simply impossible.  By listening closer to my instincts and observing what worked to keep me happier, I've met those experts' mark without intending to.  Apparently, they were right after all.

It seems that the cure for extremity is extremity, a burning out of the negative, like a good hard run or push ups when you're angry, or vigorous cleaning when you're worried.   Other times, that extremity comes in the form of intense rest and pampering, or pure and intentional escape, being as lost in the pleasant recovery as in the perturbing activity.  Our bodies and minds, like this part of the planet, benefit from seasons and cycles.  They don't take well to either unending productivity or constant leisure.  We need balance.

Thus the motto for consuming times: work hard, rest hard.  It gets me through in better style.  Just one more day until the rest gets deliciously deeper.   Aaah....

Monday, August 13, 2012

Another Little Mantra for a Big Week

The mantra I shared recently is not the only one I've developed to guide me through life.  There are others on my To Write About list, and while driving to work a few days ago I found a new one floating to the top of my thoughts.

These are the words on which I'm leaning heavily this week:

Be a problem solver.

This is a big week, full of opportunities for accomplishments that could expand my personal world and benefit a community, but fraught with unprecedented demands and circumstances beyond my control to which I will have to respond quickly. It's all wonderful.  It's a dream come true for me that I'm even in the role I'm playing and loving.  But it's also very stressful.

I confess that in the past I have not been aces at managing stress.  I have an unfortunate tendency toward anxiety that kicks in mightily under these circumstances. I dislike not knowing what will happen (I own up to a few tiny control issues maybe), and I'm easily frustrated when things don't go along with the smoothness I crave.  I also get a mite wound up and jittery, vibrating along with the manic pace of change and fearing that I'll fall apart.  I've always managed to get done what needs to be done, but at times it hasn't been peaceful or pleasant.

As I was driving, I observed my thoughts inexorably returning to the topics of What Must Be Done and How To Do It and my feelings fluttering nervously with doubt, tempted to spin up in the old way.  I soothed myself with a reminder that these daunting tasks and uncertainties are just problems to solve.

It was then that I really understood how life changing it could be to take this approach consistently.

One of the things I love about my husband is his usual calm in the face of a problem. When something goes wrong, instead of getting frustrated and irritated, he gets curious.  Life may as well have presented him with a classroom word problem to solve without the pressure of a grade.  He creates no personal story about his own vexation or his utter inability to cope.  He just puzzles it out with acceptance and persistence.

He has solved many of my own problems this way, too.  Early in our relationship, I began to find myself counting on this skill of his for such aid.  I was grateful for his helpful spirit, but I didn't want to use him for something that I could learn to do myself even if I am very much my father's daughter.  I've had my therapy.  I know that we ought not to borrow too heavily or too much.  I was determined to work on my fussiness and cussiness in the face of challenges and to become a problem solver.  I did not want to be the woman who always devolves into hysterics, while someone else saves the day.  Besides, bumpy times are stressful enough.  Why add to it with wails of woe?

I've finally accepted that life isn't a smooth ride all the time for anyone.  It's an off road adventure at many stages, a thrill ride if you're truly growing.  If I view all the challenges and changes of plan and upending developments as simply problems to solve, and myself as capable of solving them you understand, how much less would be my fizzing and suffering!

That's my hope anyway.  The ride has begun with a vengeance, and my powers of expression seem muddled.  I feel lucky to have any time at all to rest and show up here.  This active fog is why I need my mantra, a memorized intention to guide my responses, a holdfast against the waves, a light to steer by when tempest tossed. Or even pre-programming, if you will.  That's what my grandfather once told me: Load your mind with your desired response, and it will be ready to run when needed. I didn't know him very well, but I thank him for that idea tonight.

Speaking of family, I am reminded suddenly of the old motherly inquiry, "What do you say?"

This week I say, "Be a problem solver."  Let's see if it works.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Eggplant in Disguise

Has it really been almost a week since I appeared here?  No wonder I was missing writing and pulling over on the side of the road to jot down ideas.

This is progress.  I used to be compelled but afraid.  Now that I've decided to simply enjoy what I want to do on my own terms, I can feel a positive lack of writing, if you follow me.  I'll take that.

I've been absent for a while because of the busyness--well, I prefer the term fullness--that was already building last week and is quickly moving toward next week's crescendo.  It's going to be so challenging next week that I'm not even planning to cook our dinners.  In this weekend's calm before, I'll be looking for pantry throw-togethers (like this one maybe?) and simple sandwiches.  I've learned, or am learning, to go with it, as my friend Dee said many years ago, but without sacrificing my beloved repast. Creativity can rule the day still.

Thankfully this week did contain real cooked dinners.  Like that lovely up there. You need to taste it to be as enthused as I am.  I've said this before: anything that I repeat out of preference is notable.  Perhaps you've noticed that I'm on a roll of recording my personal winners?  This is another one.

Beef and Eggplant Ragu gave me a way that I could happily eat the latter half of that title.  Even diehard foodies have their limits.  Mine are usually textural, and eggplant is one of my offenders.  Many ways I've tried it--and there have been several, especially in International cuisine during Middle East week in culinary school--have turned me off with the slimy, gushy-mushy mess that eggplant can become.  I believe others interpret it as velvety or silky.  I wish I did.

The trick here is cooking it only until tender and not melting, pairing it with beef for substance, and swathing it in tomato and red wine sauce.  If the eggplant were diced small enough, it might be virtually invisible.  It's eggplant almost in disguise, or at least spared from offense by really good company.  And the dish still has the virtue of being more vegetable than meat.  I love healthy and delicious as dinner companions.

The only adaptations I made of the recipe I found in Eating Well magazine were omission of the pricey pine nuts and a reduction of the red wine called for.  I have no objection to a little vino, and red wine and tomato make excellent partners, but the wine was a little forward for my tastes.  You can of course suit your own.

On the other hand, I have always said an enthusiastic yes to their suggestion of a feta garnish. But this last rendezvous I was almost convinced that it was better without the cheese.  I have not said that about many dishes.  I may not ever say it again.  That's how good this ragu is.  It doesn't even need cheese to make it complete.

Well, I'm glad I got that down.  It may be another week before I have the time and brain power to word play again.  School is starting, my program is re-locating, and I have a major civic event to be part of that involves five visiting chefs, but also 200 school kids.  Therein lies proof of the theory of punctuated equilibrium.

Now, if I can just figure out how that one friend made such excellent grilled eggplant, I might be a friend of the aubergine for more than this reason.

Beef and Eggplant Ragu
Adapted from Eating Well 
Serves 4 plentifully

8 ounces penne, rigatoni, or rotini
8 ounces ground beef
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
3 cups diced eggplant, about 1/2 a medium or 2 baby
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 8-ounce cans no-salt-added tomato sauce
3/4 cup red wine
1/4 water
1 teaspoon dried oregano or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup crumbled feta, optional

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Cook pasta until tender, following package directions.

Meanwhile, cook beef, garlic, and fennel seeds in a large skillet over medium heat until the beef is browned.  Add eggplant and oil.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant browns, adding a little more oil if necessary to prevent sticking. Add tomato sauce, wine, water, and dried oregano if using; cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens. Stir in salt and pepper, and fresh oregano if using.

Drain the pasta.  Serve topped with the sauce and feta if using.

Nutrition info: 399 calories, 7 g fat (1 g sat, 3 g mono), 30 mg cholesterol, 57 g carbohydrates, 22 g protein, 11 g fiber, 345 mg sodium, 788 mg potassium. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Velvet Discipline and the 15 Minute Rule

Right now, this very moment, I'm practicing a rule to live by that I want to share, or pass on as the case may be, a topic that's been on my To Write About list for a while in fact.

You see, I do not actually feel like writing this post right now.  (That's painfully grammatically incorrect, but I'm going with the vernacular.)  I'm showing up out of commitment, but gently.  I'm using my 15 minute rule.

Well, it isn't mine.  I've read similar advice many times in various contexts. But I did issue a related edict to my son many years ago before I remember reading it anywhere. When he was a wee child and very hungry while I was preparing supper, just as convinced that he could not wait until it was done as I was determined that his dinner appetite not be ruined, I would give him a small snack and tell him that if he was still hungry in 15 minutes, he could have more before dinner.  He couldn't tell time yet, but it did the trick.  He never came back still ravenous, and we always made it to dinner peacefully.

Showing up here right now is similar to that,  maybe the inverse.  I'm pecking away for 15 minutes.  If I still feel unmotivated after that time, I'll quit and lose myself in a magazine, which wouldn't be a bad way to end a Friday after a stressful week.  If I catch my stride, I'll stay.

I'm going to use this same logic on myself in the morning when I tackle a project that I want very much to do, one that will yield me long desired dedicated yoga, meditation, and sewing space in what used to be my son's room.  I don't know that I'll feel a ripping desire to tear into a project when I get up tomorrow.  I may feel a desire to hide somewhere safe instead.  But I'll show up gently for at least 15 minutes anyway and see what happens.  Most likely, I'll get enthused and rewarded with my own zen den.  If not, at least I will have made progress toward a goal.

This approach is what I call velvet discipline.  It's showing up consistently and faithfully but without a show of iron will.  I have driven myself willfully in the past, without regard for basic needs like, oh, I don't know, sleep and mental rest.  I won't do that again.  I will, however, show up and see what happens, what my body and mind really need to happen, beyond my surface feelings.

I'm taking this approach because the odd truth is that doing whatever I feel like doing doesn't usually make me happy.  I may feel like collapsing into a soft chair with a good book and not looking up at the world until bed time.  Oddly enough, when I do that, I feel an emptiness at the end of my leisure.  I may truly need soothing, but escapist entertainment doesn't seem the way to be both petted down and satisfied with my evening.

Here's another truth, referred to above:  Even if I only write for 15 minutes, that's 15 minutes done.  Another 15 minutes tomorrow night, and the night after that, and so on would add up to a good bit of writing.  I'd still accomplish something, without cracking a whip or over working myself, both of which would suck the joy right out of the endeavor for sure, and probably lead to quitting it entirely.  The little-by-little approach worked recently for this post actually.

As further evidence, every morning I sip my cup of tea and scribble away in my journal, ending with a poem most days. The whole process gets only thirty minutes and goes on whether I feel like doing it or not. I mean, let's be honest.  How many of us even feel like getting out of bed in the morning?  We do it anyway, and it works. The resistance fades shortly after we make the committed heave off the mattress (assuming we're not sleep deprived--whole 'nother scenario there).  So does my grogginess and resistance once I put pen to paper.  My persistence has now yielded several notebooks full of revelations and poems.  Not bad output for minutes a day done in mental half-light whether I feel the love or not.

In one of her books, Barbara Sher points out that how we feel and what we can get done often have nothing to do with each other.  She even encourages the reader to keep a brief bedtime journal recording your feeling states that day and what you've accomplished anyway.  She promises that after a handful of days you'll see the data her way.

I haven't tried her recommended experiment, but I don't really need to.  The 15 minute rule is proof for me of what Ms. Sher says.  I may not have felt at the start an active desire to write tonight--no words were burning their way out of my inspired mind--but I'm still here and haven't thought about the time in...well, I don't know how many minutes it's been.  See!  It works.

My oft-mentioned creativity guru Julia Cameron concurs.  She maintains that decision and diligence make a writer, or a painter, or whatever we wish we were, because what we are is partly what we do regularly.  Write a little every day, and I'm a writer, regardless of how I feel.

As for me, I maintain that some part of us is still a toddler or an animal.  Trickery and conditioning work on that part.  Soothe the toddler's fussiness, and you can get some work done. Keep showing up, and you make a Pavlovian habit of doing so.  All without a power struggle in which you force yourself rather than manipulating your nature in a good way, sweetly conniving yourself right into the productivity you dream of.

Earlier I said that velvet discipline is about not performing rigidly but showing up consistently and faithfully.  That last word has two meanings.  One indicates regularity, as we most often use it, the performance factor I've been ostensibly discussing.  The other is more spiritual.  I show up consistently, yes, but also full of faith that something will come, expectant and trusting.  When I decide to sit down and write, I believe that something is there, even if I don't feel it.  Thus, I don't wait to feel like writing.  I just sit down and write--softly, playfully, moodling along, just placing the photo or filling in the title box or jotting down a few thoughts. Before I know it, there's more, maybe even something done, and I'm so glad I did it.

Of course, there are those times when, 15 minutes in, I'm really sure that a calming nothing is what I need to be doing right then, occasions when even gentle nudging is too much.  The inner animal needs to lick its wounds sometimes before it can come out to play.  And that's OK, too.  Velvet discipline knows when to let go and be patient while I recoup.

Velvet discipline is wise like that.  It's based in healthy self knowledge, knowing who I am and what I really need to be fulfilled.  It's enacted out of love, not out of fear or longing or shame.  It's stubbornness well directed and smartened up.

Well, many more than 15 minutes later, I'm very glad that I showed up.  I can go to bed a contented woman now.  I leave you with this question: What in your own life needs some velvet discipline?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

While They Last

It may be time for speediness around here, but it's also time for tomatoes.  Even if I have to buy them from the supermarket because I haven't quite gotten round to visiting farmer's market, and I'm absolutely challenged at growing...well...anything, their time is now!

Allow me to present a wonderful thing to do with them: tomato and ricotta tart.  It's good enough that I've made it several times now, which is always notable for me.  It pops into my mind spontaneously, even.  That's high recommendation for me.

One of the reasons I keep coming back is the crust.  You will not find an easier one anywhere.  Toss coarse fresh bread crumbs with extra virgin olive oil and press into the bottom of the pan.  

Yes, that's it, I swear.  Crust for the crust averse.  Foolproof and surprisingly good, reminiscent of really good homemade croutons once baked.  How could that be bad, I ask you?  

Well, you will have to wash the food processor, but that's the only fuss involved.  In this case it's worth it.   

Atop this convince-all-nay-sayers crust is layered a ricotta, egg, Parmigiano, and basil filling, and sliced fresh tomatoes brushed with olive oil.  Bake until the tomatoes are almost dry, a touch leathery, and slightly sweet, and you have a lovely, light, summery main dish.  If that isn't summery enough for you, brush the tomatoes with pesto instead of olive oil.  Few things sing of summer more than lustrous tomatoes and a surfeit of basil. 

I do have two warnings about this tart. One is that it is indeed very light.  I now pair it with a salad containing beans or chickpeas for extra protein and staying power.  It keeps me away from the Nutella at bedtime.  Mostly.

The other is that proper farmer tomatoes, which I have used when I've surmounted the laziness barrier, will emit a goodly amount of juices that escape the spring form pan.  Place it on a baking sheet to catch them or prepare to clean your oven.    

Lucky for me, no matter the quality of the tomatoes, they are glorified by the oven time into giving summer it's due. Make this tart and savor both the dish and the season while they last.   

Tomato and Ricotta Tart
Adapted from Martha Stewart's EveryDay Food
Serves 4

2 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs
1/4 cup olive oil plus more for brushing over tart
1 cup whole-milk ricotta
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or 2 teaspoons dried
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 pounds thinly sliced beefsteak tomatoes (about three)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a 9-inch spring form pan, toss bread crumbs with olive oil; press evenly into bottom.

In a bowl, whisk ricotta with Parmigiano, eggs, and basil; season generously with salt and pepper.  Spread over crust.  Arrange tomatoes on top.  Brush with olive oil. 

Place spring form pan on a sheet pan and place in oven.  Bake until tomatoes are almost dry, 35 to 45 minutes. Let cool and unmold. Serve warm or at room temperature.