Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mini Writing Retreat

windowseat writing

Writing retreats are wonderful opportunities to let go of everyday life and concentrate on writing, writing, writing. You can forget taking care of other people, going to work, paying bills and running errands. For the last four days I’ve indulged in a mini-writing retreat of my own.

Four days is a good chunk of time. Much more than that and you stop feeling like the time is precious. Less than that and you don’t gain enough momentum.

No, my retreat has been “mini” in terms of the actual retreat part because I didn’t go anywhere. K did, however. He’s been in Arizona playing golf and attending spring training games.

Unlike a staycation, which doesn’t really mean anything to me because I work at home and even take work with me when we go on VAcations, a home-based writing retreat does mean some significant changes in routine. Most of these changes reflect my favorite things about other writing retreats I’ve been on.

--No cooking. No cleaning. No yard work. No errands. No phone calls.

--Writing first thing in the morning with no eye on the clock.

--Very little Internet time. Minimal email. Minimal promotion.

--Writing any time and all the time during the day with no eye on the clock.

--Taking breaks by spending time in nature. On other retreats this has included wandering the beach, long walks by the river or on paths through an organic farm. Here I strode the bike path along the river, beside ponds, horse farms, and the butterfly meadow (still too chilly for butterflies, though).

--Solitude during the day – and then spending time in the evenings with other writers. This is a welcome aspect to many writing retreats, and by pure serendipity I had one writers group meeting scheduled for Monday night, and then another for Tuesday night.

--Writing late into the night with no eye on the clock.


--Feeling like I have a quota, a manageable quota in a manageable window of time.

-The ability to focus, focus, focus.

--The luxury of playing with a few new ideas and new project possibilities in the midst of revising my latest book.

I’m happy K is returning tonight. The washer is churning, my to-do list looms, my inbox is groaning,  and I know the rest of the week will slide back into a normal routine – which still includes a lot of writing. But it’s been nice, for a few days, to take everything else off my plate. In the meantime, K won’t be home until late, so I’m going to join Minerva on the window seat and set down just a few more words.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Cutting the Mustard

In ancient times mustard was used more for medicine than as a condiment. Even in more modern times our grandmothers treated chest colds and other ailments with mustard poultices. The chemical heat in the seeds warms and sooths congested chests, relaxes muscles, and opens blood vessels.

But it’s pretty good on a sandwich, too.

To that end, the seeds were mixed with unfermented grape must (hence the name mustard) until the French started mixing them with actual wine and vinegar. Americans in the 20th century Midwest substituted beer for the wine/vinegar.

mustard ingredients

Though we enjoy all sorts of differently flavored mustard around here, it never occurred to me to try and make some until I ran across this set of recipes on Mother Earth News. They all look pretty easy, so I decided to try the Honey Stout Mustard.

Of course, I made a few alterations. First off, I used a locally brewed porter rather than stout, and that really affected the flavor. In short, it made the mustard more bitter than some people might like. I happen to like the bitter flavor of this porter, which is why we had some in the refrigerator in the first place. So I’m happy with the resulting mustard. Just be sure that if you try this, choose a beer/stout/porter you like to drink.

Secondly, you need a lot of mustard seeds for these recipes – a cup each of yellow and brown for this one (there are also black mustard seeds). You can find them in bulk food bins sometimes, but they’re still pretty expensive to buy like that and it’s hard to gauge how fresh they are. The volatile oils are, well, volatile and evaporate quickly, losing potency. So I added mustard seeds to my last order from San Francisco Herb Company, where I also buy peppercorns, cumin, caraway, chili powder and other herbs/spices/teas at significant savings. So far I’ve never been disappointed by their quality, and I got a pound each of yellow and brown mustard seeds for less the $5 total (plus shipping).


Honey Porter Mustard a la Cricket

  • 1 cup yellow mustard seeds
  • 1 cup brown mustard seeds
  • 16 ounces O’dells Cutthroat Porter (replacing 12 ounces British stout)
  • 3/4 cup cider vinegar
  • 4 small shallots, grated (replacing a small minced onion plus 4 pressed cloves of garlic)
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar (increased from 1 Tablespoon to offset the bitterness of the porter)
  • 1/3 cup honey (increased from 4 Tablespoons to offset the bitterness of the porter)
  • 2 Tablespoons mustard powder (decreased from 1/3 cup simply because I only had that much)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves (replacing 1 teaspoon ground allspice)
  • 1 teaspoon of turmeric (increased from 1/2 teaspoon just because I really like turmeric)
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Soaked the mustard seeds in the porter, adding more to cover, for 6 hours. Combined all the other ingredients and heated until reduced by half. Added the mixture without straining (which is why I grated the shallots) to the soaked mustard seeds in a food processor. Processed for nearly five minutes before getting the consistency I wanted. It was thick enough at that point that I didn’t have to cook it down any more, so I simply packed it into sterilized jars.

Mustard is an antibacterial, like honey, so it will keep for a long time on the shelf without any canning or processing. It does lose potency if not refrigerated, though, so I tucked all the jars into the back of the fridge in the garage.

I’d love hear if anyone else tries (or has tried) making mustard. Some of the other recipes on the Mother Earth News site look really good!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

10 Signs It’s Spring


Even if it’s not yet!

So, in no particular order,

  1. Sleeping with the windows open
  2. Going through a half-gallon of sun tea every day
  3. Dinners hot off the grill and eaten outside
  4. Practicing golf shots in the backyard instead of sitting in the hot tub after dinner
  5. Packets of vegetable seeds on the dining room table, along with grid paper and nursery catalogs
  6. Sore gardening muscles – only from cleanup so far, but still
  7. Outside “office” (Adirondack chair on the back porch) is in daily use
  8. Gathering and organizing tax stuff ; (
  9. Cats shedding all over the house
  10. Pansies and primroses … and crocuses

Monday, March 12, 2012

Mindfulness Quiz

1221387_black_tea Do you consider yourself a mindful person? How do you define “mindful?”

I must admit I’ve been spending a lot of time lately trying to be mindful as a way to avoid stress. If I think about all the things on my plate right now and all the things I have coming up in the next few months it can get kind of hard to dive in and get going on what I need to do right now. Heck, it can even get kind of hard to breathe if I give too much attention to it.

So if I can come back to here and now, what is right in front of me, my own breath, the feelings in my feet and body as I walk, how my hands move on the keyboard, the feeling of air on my face, how food tastes and feels in my mouth or the smell of, well, whatever, then I can move forward with purpose and focus instead of being mired in thoughts of things I’m not even doing right now.

Drs. Kirk Warren Brown and Richard M. Ryan came up with the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS).

“The MAAS is a 15-item scale designed to assess a core characteristic of dispositional mindfulness, namely, open or receptive awareness of and attention to what is taking place in the present. The scale shows strong psychometric properties and has been validated with college, community, and cancer patient samples. Correlational, quasi-experimental, and laboratory studies have shown that the MAAS taps a unique quality of consciousness that is related to, and predictive of, a variety of self-regulation and well-being constructs. The measure takes 10 minutes or less to complete.”

A bit mumbo-jumbo-y, but if you’re of a mind, try taking the Mindfulness Quiz here. The higher your score, the more mindful you are.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Why We Love Cheese


I love cheese. Lots of people love cheese, it turns out. And lo and behold, there is a very good reason for this. Sure there are the awesome, often intense, flavors. The textures. The melty goodness. The way it accents pasta, eggs and fruit. But there's also the PEA.

Phenylethylamine, or PEA, is the love drug. The one that makes us feel giddy and goofy, clouds our judgment and in many ways makes us downright stoopid. Some studies have concluded PEA affects the human brain like cocaine. Brain scans of people in the head-over-heels stage of falling in love resemble those of psychotics. It's strong stuff.

Chocolate contains PEA. That's one of the (many) reasons chocolate makes us happy. But get a load of this: Cheese contains more PEA than chocolate. One study I ran across said ten times more.

762064_ricotta_cheeseAnd PEA isn't the only drug cheese contains, either. I grew up thinking penicillin came from bread mold. Not so, I eventually learned. Those charcoal blue streaks in bleu cheeses? Yep. Penicillin.

Now, I doubt eating a hunk of bleu cheese would cure an infection, but I'd sure be willing to give it a try.

But wait! There's more!

Cheese made from organic raw milk from grass fed cows contains high amounts of CLAs, or conjugated linoleic acids. These are omega 6 fatty acids vital to health. They're potent anticarginogens, may prevent atherosclerosis, ease inflammation, and even adjust metabolism to increase weight loss. And CLA from animal sources is the easiest for human digestion to access.

That's right. Cheese can be good for your heart and help you lose weight. How crazy is THAT? Plus, it makes you happy, happy, happy..

No wonder we love it!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Not Quite Spring Fever

chickadee I’ve taken to sitting in the window seat in the mornings as the sky pinks with dawn. At hand are coffee, a notebook and my favorite pen, but mostly I sip and watch the birds at the suet feeder. At first the wire cage fell to the ground almost daily, its flimsy chain no match for the weighty red-shafted flickers that will soon wake us each morning with their jungle calls and rat-a-tatting on cottonwoods, gutters, and metal chimney flashing. Finally, we attached an aluminum carabiner as a hanger and have had no problems since. It’s inelegant but effective. That’s okay. I often feel the same way.

The blue jays are a hefty bunch, too, but more rare and surprisingly more polite. A pair of downy woodpeckers visit daily. She is smaller, duller, while his spring plumage is beginning to sharpen up all sexy. Black-capped chickadees wing in between wrens and shiny black cowbirds. Bright-eyed juncos hop and peck on the ground beneath, cleaning up bits dropped from the feeder. I’ve seen robins and mourning doves all winter, but none at the feeder so far.

rose leaf budsLast fall I didn’t get to as much of the yard clean up as I would have liked. This was partly due to early snow, and partly to a book deadline. There are, however, always deadlines now. I have one looming shortly. So, as with other big projects, I’ve learned to pick away at the yard work when the weather is nice. Today we are expecting temps in the sixties, and I’ll likely spend an hour pruning the grapes and cutting back grasses before my writing group arrives for dinner this evening.

Yesterday I cleaned out one of the backyard landscape beds, and found the crocus bulbs I’d thrown willy nilly into the ground last spring survived the summer – and the winter – and are bravely poking their green spikes up now. Further exploration revealed fresh buds on the roses, red tulips pushing through mulch, and the green beginnings of hyssop, poppy, and iris.

Spring is indeed right around the corner.

irisIt’s been a bit of a luxury, focusing on writing and developing workshops, playing with new projects and getting ready for my 2012 releases. In the fall I’m so busy “putting up” the garden that winter feels almost lazy in comparison as we delve into the stores and spend long afternoons working while something bubbles away in the kitchen. But the seed catalogs are arriving, and I can’t help but think of readying soil and planting for the new season. At the [slow] rate I’m going each vegetable bed will be ready just as it’s needed.

Early to mid-April will see beets, onions, leeks, radishes, lettuces, kale, chard, carrots, spinach, and cilantro seeds poked into the soil. Soon after, starts for broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower will begin to fill things out. I have hopes but not expectation for the asparagus bed I planted two years ago – with three-year-old rootstock. Last year it didn’t seem to thrive despite a relatively mild winter before and plenty of mulch. So just crossing my fingers and waiting.

It’s not spring fever yet, mind you, but I know that’s on the way. My afternoon walks are still often lit by watery, oblique winter light, and the skies still regularly glower with the threat of snow. March is supposedly the snowiest month in these climes, but it’s hard to tell anymore. Climes, they are a changin’.

So we’ll see, eh?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Seven (Okay, Eight) Local Menus


Last weekend I was able to get to the winter farmers market and load up on some of my favorite goodies (including greens!) so I set myself the challenge of eating locally for at least a week. Breakfasts run along the lines of small omelets, eggs with toast or homemade yogurt either plain or flavored with jam/syrup, and lunches are generally leftovers from previous meals. Below are the evening meals that hit our plates (or bowls). Unless noted, all ingredients were sourced locally, including some from our freezer.

Chicken noodle soup with onions, carrots and sage (no celery, though I think there’s still some from the garden in the freezer)
Beer bread (from market and made with local beer), homemade butter

BBQed baby back ribs (sauce from the market)
Corn on the cob (frozen last fall)
Cabbage and carrot slaw (vinegar and mayonnaise in dressing not local)

Turkey tetrazzini (used frozen breast leftover from Jodar Farms T-day turkey, homemade pasta, crimini mushrooms from the market)
Green salad with homemade buttermilk dressing

Ham and cheese soufflé
with sage (Mr. Ziffel ham leftover from the week before, cheese from the market, dried sage from the garden, local eggs and piima cream)
Green salad for K, spicy braised mustard greens for me

Small beef roast (in pressure cooker)
Mashed potatoes and gravy
Buttered green beans (from freezer)
Carrot cake made with honey instead of sugar, and applesauce (Spices, molasses, extracts, not local, wheat flour was from nearby but the white flour was from farther away – but still in-state. The confectioner’s sugar in the cream cheese frosting also wasn’t local, but the butter and cream cheese both were.)

This is a menu straight out of Wined and Died, actually.

Friday (tonight)
Pizza with slow roasted tomato sauce, sausage, green peppers (frozen), mushrooms, black olives (not local, but K’s favorite) and mozzarella
Salad of romaine, napa cabbage, carrots, onions and pickled beets (in the dressing the oil won’t be local, but the vinegar and mustard are both from the market)

Saturday (tomorrow)
Salmon fillet cooked with dill, lemon and butter in an aluminum packet on the grill. (Of course the salmon isn’t from around here, but I got it at the market from a guy who goes to Alaska in the summer, fillets and freezes his catch on the boat, and then brings it back here. The fish isn’t local, but the fisherman is – and oh, my that salmon is good.) (Oh, the lemon isn’t from around here, either…)
Sautéed zucchini (from frozen)
Pasta tossed with brown butter, roasted garlic and basil (frozen)

(Next week the leftover salmon will combine with the leftover mashed potatoes, eggs, parsley, mustard and cayenne pepper for croquettes)

And a bonus:

chili relleno3_thumb[4]Sunday I’m planning to make
Chili Relleno Casserole (might buy the chorizo instead of making it – it is made locally, without MSG, but the meat isn’t locally sourced)

This is one of Sophie Mae’s father’s recipes from Something Borrowed, Something Bleu.

Just a few ideas and recipes to share (or rather re-share) with you. Have a great weekend, everyone!