The Best Recipes Are Our Own [Eventually]

I don't follow recipes well when cooking.

My method usually goes as such:

Look up several different recipes, compare and contrast.
2. List common ingredients and steps.
3. Ask: what can I do to make it my own?
4. Give it a go.
5. Take note of the missing flavors and textures; tweak it for next time.

This is the closest thing to a scientific experiment you'll ever find me doing. Except that it's definitely not scientific, nor is it proven fact. It's just me and my independent streak. Today I made beef stew from scratch, plus no-yeast biscuits from scratch. (Note: the no-yeast part is important. I try to avoid finicky ingredients at all costs.)

To make the stew I looked at nearly a dozen different recipes. Most of them were very similar, so I wrote down the basics and then gave it a shot. With the biscuits I only found one recipe that had only the ingredients I already knew I had in possession. (Flour, milk, shortening, salt, baking powder.) When I began to knead the dough I realized it was too dry and added one egg white - the perfect glue!

As I worked on my dinner, which I planned to serve not just to myself and my husband, but to our friends who were coming over (eek!), I began to get nervous. What if it doesn't turn out? What if the stew tastes bland and brothy? Did I put too many onions in it? What if the biscuits come out hard as rocks? Did I make enough food for everyone?... Why is it that I always decide to get gutsy and experimental when company is coming for dinner? You'd think I would stick with the easy and familiar instead of risking my culinary reputation over a desire to master the art of a beef stew on my first try.

Why didn't I just make something I already know how to make? Good question. There are plenty of soup and stew recipes from my mom, aunts, grandmas, cousins and in-laws that I could have used instead of hodge-podging my own recipe. Why am I so damn independent?!

And yet. It's not that I don't love or trust their recipes. They're like old friends, and a little like the people that handed them down to me : comforting, familiar, faithful, reliable, full of family quirks and personality. But the recipes aren't my own. If you know me, then you're probably nodding your head (Mom, Grammy, Aunt Bev?) "Recipes, schmecipes" - That's me. As it turns out, my instincts were not off base. My biscuits turned out soft and crumbly, very nearly like the correct texture and the flavor was light and buttery.

For next time: use buttermilk instead of 2% and a few tablespoons less flour. The stew turned out to be a soup, but the flavor was good. For next time: make sure the base of the soup is thicker. After browning the meat, add a tablespoon of butter and two tablespoons of flour to the meat drippings in the skillet. Heat and stir until thick and golden brown. Add a cup of beef broth to the mixture and stir thoroughly until it thickens. THEN add to the rest of the broth, plus the meat, veggies and herbs in the slow cooker.

And my life?

Instincts : good.

Foundation : solid.

Flavor : delicious.

Recipe : it's a work in progress, but it's my own.

The best part : I'm learning.


Christmas Vacation. Inspiration. Time. ACCOUNTABILITY!

Holy smokes, folks! With two whole weeks of vacation beginning next week through January 2nd, my mind cannot stop producing creative ideas to keep me busy. I have one big long list of topics I want to post about. Every few minutes I think of something else I've been wanting to write about.

I may have just unlocked my creative block I've been experiencing over the last few months. Time: I need more of it. The anticipation of whole days in my pajamas with nothing but a hot cup of coffee and my ideas has me itching to write. Be prepared! A whirlwind of words to come.

By the way, if the whirlwind never comes, will one of you please hunt me down and hurt me? Not really. But really, I'm going to be embarrassed if I have nothing to show for myself in two weeks, which is why I'm posting this now. 


Death to the Black Box

My husband and I moved into our new apartment in July and since then we haven't had TV. We own two TVs, but we don't have cable. Not even basic channels. Not even NBC or ABC or the local channel that's usually a super old power-point slideshow with odd instrumental music on loop.

I know, I know. How have we survived?! It's downright unamerican.

We're not hippies. We're not ultra-conservative fundamentalists who have denounced pop culture.

We're just poor. Every paycheck gets dolled out to rent, utilities, car insurance and school loans and with whatever is left, we think to ourselves : we could get a digital converter box this month.... but we'd rather buy a few extra groceries or go on a date.

At first I felt like our apartment was much too quiet. I watched a lot of Gilmore Girls on DVD.

And then I started reading books I haven't read in awhile. And then I started writing in my journal. And sketching and making decorations for our apartment. And painting. And organizing all my shoes and art supplies.

My husband and I still rent movies at least once a week and watch them together.

When I'm home alone now, I don't get the feeling anymore that the big black box is going to swallow me unless I turn it on. My brain isn't rotting away in front of the propaganda machine anymore. I don't come to consciousness several hours later, sprawled on the couch, asking myself, Wait - What did I do today? Oh yeah ... nothing. ... except eat 3 bowls of cereal and day old pizza.

I've tested this theory, and I'm pretty sure I'm right. If there is a TV in the room with a cable connection, it is inevitably on. Having the TV off in my living room growing up was pure torture. I would try to concentrate on my book or drawing, but I was distracted by the almost audible voice telling me,

"Look at me. I'm empty and sad. You're empty and sad, too. Turn me on. Let's be friends."

On goes the TV, and my productivity - no, my brain activity - plummets.

Without cable to tempt me, the TV isn't this ominous black void to fill. Yes, it's quiet. I turn on music sometimes or NPR. Yes, sometimes I give in and watch a movie. But a movie is an investment. I have to be willing to sit and watch the movie for at least an hour and a half, and if I'm not, then what should I be doing? It's a good test: Watch a movie I've seen before OR make myself useful.

We trick ourselves into believing that TV is just a filler, just something to bide our time until we have an appointment or plans to hang out with a friend. False. It's a productivity killer. Imagine what we could do with all the time we've spent watching prime time TV. I could learn a new recipe, write more than one blog post, read that novel I bought but doubt I'll finish, or organize something. That's not busy work. That's actively participating in my life.

The only time I'll ever miss TV is probably on Christmas day when TNT does the 24 hours of A Christmas Story. Yes, I love it that much. But! It's a movie so maybe it's time to actually purchase it? That way, we'll only watch it once and spend more time talking with the family we traveled 250 miles to see on the best day of the year.

Bottom line is: I've found other things to do with my time. So is it okay that I don't ever want to get cable?

What about you? Could you survive without TV or are you afraid you'll be bored out of your mind?


Poem : Oranges Aren't Just for Eating

I peeled back its thick skin to feel the sticky, sweet juice and dusty white pith glaze my fingers. 

Its sweet and tangy scent filled the room as I bit into its smooth flesh.
Oranges aren't just for eating.
They nourish and sustain us.
They delight us with a delicious scent and taste and color.

We are meant to enjoy life in every sense.
That's why we can taste, touch, smell, see and hear.
We are meant to serve more than one purpose and more than just ourselves.
That's why we can taste, touch, smell, see and hear each other.
If we just open up.


Dear College Life (Do I miss you?)

I've been thinking today about what I miss about college. Most of the time I don't really miss it, especially since I haven't really left. My alma mater has now become my workplace, which means I still see the lovely campus everyday, still see some of my classmates, roommates and former professors on a fairly regular basis.

This morning I sat outside the cafeteria trying to sell tickets for an event tomorrow night. The students rushed past, eager to get in, get some grub and get going to classes and finals. I barely recognize anyone now. And they all look. so. young. Though I was slightly distracted by how many girls wear leggings rather than actual pants - They're a thick pair of tights! Please! Cover your ass in public! - I felt a wave of nostalgia wash over me. It wasn't the pathetic, I-want-to-be-20-years-old-and-sans-responsibility-forever kind of nostalgia.

I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but there's something I miss about college. I don't miss eating cafeteria food. I don't miss sitting through mind-numbing lectures. I don't miss being up at all hours of the day and night studying and writing papers for classes that I barely remember now. I don't miss the other fashion fauz-pas that sleep-deprived, shower-deprived college kids tend to make when they roll out of bed in the morning...

Okay, I admit it.
I had an infamous pair of "no-no" pants, too. "No-no" pants because of the hole that ripped from my inner thigh across the back of my leg and I still wore them for several weeks afterward rationalizing that it wasn't that bad until one morning when my roomie said, "No. No. Not again. Wear these instead." And she tossed me another pair of jeans. Those had holes as well, but not anywhere near my backside. (Seriously, thank you.)

I don't miss working crappy part-time jobs just so that I could buy a couple packs of Ramen Noodles. I've paid my dues - as a library page, English tutor, waitress, telemarketer, retail associate, nanny and much, much worse. I don't miss walking to class in rainstorms and blizzards or getting parking tickets from Campus Safety. I don't miss fighting with roommates over dishes duty or whose turn it is to clean the bathroom. (If you've ever lived with girls, you understand my dread at having to unclog the shower drain.)

At this point in time I feel like I've won some big battles. I've crossed a major threshold in life. I've survived adolescence and my college years and I've come out on the other side having achieved several goals. I completed my Bachelor's Degree. I completed my degree in four years AFTER switching my major AND after I traveled abroad for a whole semester with classes that didn't directly count towards my degree AT ALL. (Worth every penny and extra class, by the way.) I'm married to my college sweetheart. I have a full-time job (and I'm even using my college degree!) I've confronted some pretty big fears and painful experiences and the consequential character flaws. I'm writing of my own accord on a regular basis without needing a mentor to spoon-feed me inspiration.

So what was that nostalgia, then, as I watched students scurrying past me in the cafeteria?

Here's what I do miss :

I miss having a roomie around to tell me when I need to use a hairbrush or put on a better pair of jeans. (I'm blessed with a husband who mostly thinks I look good in everything, but he's biased.)

I miss late-night burrito runs, having people to eat lunch with nearly every day and walking to class with friends.

I miss the feeling of earning an A on a paper or project I've spent weeks researching and studying for. (Note : Paychecks are an entirely different kind of gratification - the kind that wears off as soon as you hand over your rent check.)

I miss sleeping, eating, working, studying, and spending nearly every waking moment in a community chock full of people I love.

I miss travel and studying abroad - packing my bags, taking trains, wandering around old cities that are new to me - the general freedom of being a wanderlust.

I miss morning, afternoon and evening naps squeezed in between classes.

I (occasionally) miss wearing jeans and sweatshirts (and "no-no" pants) instead of dress pants and heels.

Sometimes, without taking the "lifelong learning" bit too literally or wishing to go back in time, I do actually miss college. It went so fast. Time stretches out before me now with few definite plans. I plan to be a parent. - in the distant future, a very VERY long time from now. Like, when God creates a 36-hour day, OR 5 years from now, whichever comes first. I plan to pursue a career in writing. I'm trying to pursue that now, but I'm not sure what the next rung on the ladder is...

Time for grad school?


Black and White : Lessons Learned.

I woke up this morning to find several inches of snow outside my bedroom window. After a long work week, a big blanket of white to cover everything is exactly what I hoped for on my long-awaited Saturday to sleep in and spend time alone. I'm wrapped in my grandmother's afghan with a cup of tea as I watch it continue to fall. For the first time in a long while, I have time to sit and contemplate and write.

My writing dilemma of late has been this: reconciling myself to my imperfections.

A writer's mistakes are always going to be there, in black and white, for everyone to see. That makes it hard for me to want to be completely honest, sometimes. And if I can't be honest, I have a hard time convincing myself to say anything at all.

The potential for grammar, spelling and punctuation errors alone is embarrassing. When we write we have the added expectation of committing ourselves to an idea, a perspective, a way of seeing the world.

We're arguing. We're saying,

"This is my story and I'm sticking to it."

And I hate being wrong. More than that, I'm emotional, sensitive and overly sentimental, which means I'm an argumentative basket-case that doesn't know when to shut up. Great qualities for writing about something with passion. Horrible combination when I'm confronted about it.

With the advent of online writing tools like blogs and social media networks we have the option of controlling feedback to a certain extent. The delete button is always handy. It doesn't erase memories, though. Moderating and filtering out the comments that you don't want people to say about your work will only separate you from the moments meant to help you grow.

I'm learning these lessons the hard way. I'm learning through trial and error that I either write, make mistakes and attempt to right them, or I don't write at all.

Writing is a constant process of coming to terms with what I am: a writer.

I bleed black and white.

I wear my heart on my page.