Monday, February 16, 2015

On Stress: The Gory Details


   I think most of us can say similar things about our dear friend stress: we fear it, acknowledge it, try and deal with it and ultimately accept it as a daily companion, like a pesky shadow you just can't shake.

   Every step of our lives seems to come with admonishments to reduce and manage stress. I was particularly inundated with tales of medical students being consumed by stress, fables and urban legends about the first year student who finally lost it after an anatomy final and was never seen again. And of course it only gets worse when you become a resident: not only are you still responsible for a behemoth mountain of ever evolving information but now you have real live patients relying on your decisions and abilities. Adding a pregnancy (and subsequent newborn) to this mix may seem to some a wee bit reckless, nay, foolhardy?

   And yet.


   I am a true believer that work, money and those annoying details like crushing medical school debt are merely the means to a full life, NOT the focus of life. I acknowledge these details can be scary and deserve attention, but I also realize how easy it is to slip into what I call a problem focused life. I heard it a million times in medical school: 'Just three more years, then it gets better.' 'Just one more year then I'll be a resident and it'll be better.' Then residency came and I was probably more surprised than I had any right to be when I heard the very same sentiments from my fellow residents: 'Just three years of residency, then I'll be working and it'll be better.'

   One of the reasons I finally scrounged up the courage to change specialties mid residency was the simple fact that I really listened to the people I worked with and I realized one day that I was starting to tell myself the same things they were telling themselves: just a few more years, then I can be happy. No sir. Life doesn't work that way. Happiness and life happen now, not in five years. And if it's not, you better slow down and figure out why.


   Aside from the major life changes we may need to face, stress management is, in my humble pathologist's opinion, a micro activity. It is something that happens in the million teeny decisions we make every day that add up to a surprising artillery against the things that make our cortisol soar and our sleep restless. It's enjoying your breakfast quietly without checking your long suffering bank account. It's snugging up to your favorite work out DVD rather than stare at your computer and suffer through another five slides on the powerpoint that can wait until tomorrow. It's consciously dismissing that snarky comment your coworker winged at you and choosing to hug your spouse for an extra few minutes before you settle into the reassuring routine of making dinner.



    Back to my original question: adding a pregnancy and baby to the mix? For sure foolhardy! But life waits for no one and remember what I said about delicious, chubby, infant thigh rolls in my last post? At the end of the day most of the things we let stress us out are just gory little details. And details are never as beautiful as the big picture. Especially when there's a sweet smelling baby to be added to it.

   And for those moments that just get the best of you, I advise generous portions of this chocolate pudding. I blended it in the vitamix longer than the original recipe recommended and was rewarded with the most spectacular, airy yet dense love child of luscious pudding and ethereal mousse. Get on it.

Dark Chocolate Pudding
Serves 8. Or 6 in need of stress reduction.
Slightly modified from Melissa Clark  
  • 1 large egg, plus 2 yolks 
  • 6 ounces bittersweet chocolate (70% percent cacao, broken into pieces)
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed into several pieces
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 
  • 2 ½ cups whole milk 
  • ½ cup heavy cream  (plus additional for serving)
  • cup plus 2 tablespoons firmly packed brown sugar 
  • 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder 
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch 
  • ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
  • Freshly whipped sweetened cream with a dash of vanilla extract, for serving
   Place the chocolate and butter in your blender. Set aside.
   In a small heat proof bowl, whisk together the egg and egg yolks. Set aside.
   In a heavy bottom sauce pan, whisk together the milk, heavy cream, brown sugar, cocoa powder, corn starch and salt. Bring to a slow simmer over medium heat, whisking the whole time. Simmer for 2 minutes (and no more). Remove from heat and slowly whisk some (about 1 1/2 cups) of the hot custard into your eggs until the eggs are heated up (this tempers the eggs and prevents them from scrambling when you add them into the rest of the custard). Scrape the tempered eggs into your sauce pan, whisking the whole time. Return to low heat and whisk until the pudding is quite thick and steaming. This should take only a minute or two. And do not stress if you see it getting a little grainy or curdled! The blender is to the rescue.
   Scrape all of the hot custard into your blender on top of the chocolate and butter. Turn blender on, bring it to high, and blend for a full 3 minutes. It will look a little frothy. Turn off blender and pour the custard into serving ramekins or cups of your choice. You can also pour into one big serving bowl but that's not nearly as fun or cute.
   Chill in the fridge, uncovered, for at least 4 hours before serving. If making a day ahead, cover with plastic wrap once fully chilled.
   Serve with generous dollops of sweetened whipped cream and a sigh of appreciation for life that includes this pudding/mousse love child.


Monday, February 9, 2015

A little update... Naval orange size, to be exact

   The last time I took a blogging hiatus, there was a beautiful wedding to share with you and a couple other fun things around the house and backyard.

   This time...



   Too many enchiladas? Nope... that's a 'lil baby!!

   After months of talking, day dreaming and a for serious case of Instagram baby envy, Steve and I decided to take the plunge and when we surfaced, there suddenly were three of us under this here roof.

   Did you know that Instagram will tell you when you're ready to have a baby? It's true! I never would have guessed this, but sure enough, one day I noticed nearly all of my suggested feeds were photos of colorfully dressed baby bumps and delicious infant thigh rolls.

   Give. Me. More. Delicious. Infant. Thigh. Rolls. Sigh.

   To add to the excitement, my sister and bestest friend in all the world (outside of my beloved Steve, of course), Nicole, is also preggo! Not only that, but due a mere ten days before my little bundle of sweet smelling joy. And we didn't even tell each other we were 'trying.' I tell you, life can boggle the mind in the most spectacular, unexpected and wonderful ways.

   With the exception of my little sister, Bonnie, finding out super early (Nicole's husband desperately knocking a wedge of brie out of her hand in front of the ever observant Bonnie does let ones cats out of the bag), we kept it a secret from our families until Christmas when Nicole and I handed our parents a wrapped double frame of their grandbabies first ultrasounds. It was easily one the most special moments of my entire life.

   With all this baby talk going on, will this turn into a baby blog? Maybe. I might like that. At the end of the day this blog is about putting good food on the table and ruminating on life. I love that my ruminations now focus mainly around this squirmy baby in my belly, and so you betcha that will become a frequent focus of future blog posts.

   Speaking of adding baby stuff to the blog, behold! My first bump/pregnancy update. I fully admit these kinds of posts are my favorites to read in other women's blogs, and they were long before I knew I wanted to have babies. I think getting a glimpse into what it's like for another person to grow and bring a fresh little life into the world is just the coolest thing. And now it's my turn!

   Right now I'm 15 weeks and I have to say (knock on wood) I pretty much adore, love, relish being pregnant. It's the bees knees. For the first ten weeks or so I was pretty tired, but nothing I didn't expect given that I was, you know, growing a whole new set of organs plus that weirdo bonus one we all know and love, the placenta. I had a few gooey run ins with eggs that left me a bit green around the gills, but other than that the first trimester was no sweat. It doesn't hurt that I wholeheartedly embrace any situation in which multiple daily naps are not only acceptable, but encouraged.

   Now that the second trimester is already underway, the fatigue has totally lifted and I feel like my old self except with a grapefruit sized bulge poking out just under my belly button. One that occasionally twitches and pokes in the most adorable fashion. I use this bulge as an excuse to live exclusively in pants of the stretchy variety. It's pretty awesome.

   So far baby has a narrow list of likes: car rides, hitting 'snooze' in the morning and belly rubs provided by her papa. She rewards these activities with exuberant little taps that it took me a week or so to realize weren't gas bubbles. Only today I noticed that the taps are gaining strength and now occasionally feel like full on twitches and rolls. Every movement is immediately filed under 'best feeling of my entire life.'

   Also, for me, pregnancy requires multiple super crisp, super tart, organic granny smith apples per day. I've eaten at least twice per day since around week 3. You're welcome, granny smith apple farmers of North America. This bebe and I sure do love you guys.

   I would say the only thing I found to be absolutely not true according to the pregnancy update apps and websites is you absolutely do not get bladder volume back in the second trimester. That was a dirty stinkin' lie. But that's ok; I needed more excuses to get up from my desk and walk around anyway. It's good for the heart.   

   So that's the first 15 weeks of lil baby's life in a nutshell. We already love him/her most fiercely and are trying to remember every single sweet second of our life as a family of three.

   I'll be back soon with some posts on how I'm trying to eat healthfully while pregnant, my favorite exercise DVD I may be slightly obsessed with, and some general insights into living life as as a resident and pregnant lady. Stay tuned.

  

    

Monday, September 22, 2014

Hey, your grass is better than mine...

   I have a confession.

   I am an instagram addict.

   I really, truly am. Instagram is my jam. I love the way I can sneak glimpses of other peoples' beautiful, arsty, carefree lives. Their delicious meals, fabulous clothes and adorable, giggly babies and children. I adore the way the app seems to afford all these people the ability to cultivate sparkly, languid lives with all the free time and resources they could ever desire. And I get to live variously through all of them! As many times a day as I want!

   What's not to love?

   Mid way through an instagram fest a few weeks ago a small voice in the back of my head whispered exactly what is not to love: your life kinda sucks, it whispered. You're pretty boring... you work too much... this whole residency thing is consuming all of your free time and creativity.... you will never have those fabulous, effortless outfits and adoring, giggly babies...

   I would like to say that right then and there I deleted the app forever, refocused my attention on my own daily existence and hummed frequent gratitudes to myself throughout the day to remind myself just how awesome, fortunate and spectacular this life I have really is. 

   But it wasn't until I read this article that I really got it, that I really listened to those whispers and acknowledged the poison that social media can become. Why is instagram so popular? Why are everyone and their grandmothers taking selfies and facebooking like their lives depend on it? The answer is simple: because we all want to be admired. In some ways that fabulous morning, that glorious date, that chic outfit or major life win doesn't truly exist until we share it with the world and feel the adoring stares of our friends, family and (the biggest boon of all) strangers. And slowly, whether we are aware of it or not, our minds become saturated in all the feeds, all the lives, all the great and glamorous other that we and our lives are not. 

   And there it is. The great con of social media: what once made you feel connected and cool now makes your feel left out and lacking. Suddenly, our homes aren't lit 24/7 in that perfect, golden glow of the evening sun. Our meals don't all regale us with their color, creativity and impeccable plating. We have real, stressful career obligations that don't involve us looking bored and fabulous all day long.

   After reading the Zen Habits blog and ruminating about this for a little while I've realized that all of these things I've been feeling badly about are perfectly ok. It is one thing to strive for better and happier but quite another to allow social media to fool us into thinking we are the only ones with moments of mundane in our lives, the only ones with ugly morning eyes or spilled beer on our couch (I admit nothing).

   The internet is a magical thing; obviously as a blogger I believe in its power to bring us together, to foster community, creativity and inspiration for a life well lived. But I also believe in viewing our lives as a whole and being careful not to let the on line world trick our minds into thinking there is some fantasy life waiting for us where the dog doesn't ever stink and you don't ever have to see a chicken hawk tear one of your beloved baby chicks apart right in front of your very eyes (true story. I'm still recovering).

   After all, sweet things are always better with a little salt and color would be boring if we didn't know what black, white and gray looked like. It's only when we take the boring and the exciting, the beautiful bits and the lumpy, ugly bits all together that we can see clearly: it is all just so, deliciously good, this life we have.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Very Best Of

   Should we take time away from our busy lives for one more treat? I think yes.


   This isn't 'just' another treat, of course. I am a big believer in finding my 'best of' in many life categories and sticking with whatever that find may be. This reduces mental clutter and the stress of constantly having to choose. Choice is a wonderful luxury in many aspects of life, but in some it can mean one too many unnecessary decisions.

   One of my favorite books of all time is The Sex Lives of Cannibals, by J. Maarten Troost. It isn't a salacious tale of tropical indulgence, as the title may lead you to believe, but rather an adventure tale of the author and the woman he loves, trying to make sense of life on a teeny island in the Pacific. At one point, he describes coming back to the US after quite some time away and being absolutely paralyzed by the huge number of choices simple purchases, like what type of laundry detergent to buy, he is suddenly faced with. On the remote island, variety was extremely limited and he marvels at the relief he had found living in such a way that the day to day infinite consumer choices had been virtually eliminated. He finds himself missing it.


   If I told you that the number of times I've read this book is in the double digits, you would easily make the leap that I find the idea of that kind of simple living hugely appealing. With that in mind, I have a lot of 'best ofs' in my life that eliminate the need to choose. The best mascara. The best material for bed sheets. The best shampoo. The best route to work and my favorite parking space. No need to ever make a decision about those things again. 

   And here I have the best chocolate cake for you: it is impossibly and darkly rich with the fragrance and flavor of chocolate. This cake is totally decadent and at the same time has the lightest possible crumb. There is little else to say about it except that once you bake it, it will go directly into your 'best of' category too, and you won't ever again be faced with the decision of which chocolate cake to bake.


   I make a double decker version of this recipe, towered with tufts of frosting and generously dusted with coconut shavings for the hubby's birthday. He has made me promise never to make him anything other than that cake for all of his birthdays to come. It seems he has his own 'best of' schemes too!

The Very Best Chocolate Cupcakes
Makes 3 dozen cupcakes or 2 10 inch round layer cakes 

For the chocolate cake:
  • 1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder, plus additional if making layer cakes
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt  
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour 
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda 
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 
  • 3 cups sugar 
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, melted 
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk 
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten 
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract 
  • 1 1/2 cups boiling water

   Preheat oven to 350. For cupcakes: line your cupcake baking tin with cupcake wrappers. For the layer cake: grease 2 10 inch cake pans with butter and dust with cocoa powder. If you have parchment paper handy, line the bottom with a circle of parchment, grease and powder that as well. 
 Sift cocoa, flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda together in your mixing bowl.  
Measure out your buttermilk, add in the vanilla extract, crack the eggs into it and lightly beat them together with a fork. With the mixer on low, add the buttermilk/egg/vanilla mixture to the dry ingredients. Mix just until barely incorporated.
With the mixer still on low, slowly pour in the melted butter. Mix on low until just incorporated.
With mixer on low, slowly pour in the boiling water. Once incorporated, increase mixer to medium speed and mix until evenly incorporated. Turn mixer off and use a mixing spatula to scrape the bottom of the bowl and make sure everything is mixed.
For cupcakes: fill cupcake liners a scant 2/3 full (the batter expands quite a bit) and bake for 15 - 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with just a few moist crumbs attached. For the layer cake: divide batter evenly amongst the cake pans and bake for 45-55 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached.
For layer cake: allow cakes to cool for about 20 minutes, then invert the pans and place the cakes on cooling racks until perfectly room temperature.

For the Cream Cheese Frosting:
  • 1 1/2 pounds cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 4 cups confectioners sugar, sifted

    In a large bowl using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter until perfectly smooth. Beat in the vanilla and sugar and continue beating until smooth, fluffy and silky. Taste and add more sifted sugar if you want it sweeter. Frost cupcakes with a star tip for extra fancy results.  
   For Steve's birthday cake, frost the first layer cake, sprinkle with a generous amount of sweetened coconut flakes, add the second layer and frost the entire cake. Finish it with plenty of coconut flakes dusted over the top and pressed into the sides.



  

Friday, July 4, 2014

With Tequila, Please

   Did I say cupcake? I meant cocktail... a happy fourth of July cocktail!

   Cupcakes will be coming soon, no worries. But today- this auspicious, happy day in hot, sunny July, calls for tequila and merry making. So let's.


   I've written about a pink tequila kissed beverage here before; apparently there is a trend in my favorite cocktail indulgences and I'm completely okay with that. This drink is a touch sweet, a touch sour, just a hair bitter, and deliciously thirst quenching in a 'may I have another, please' huge way. It is also dangerously quick to whip together.

   Guess who celebrated Independence Day with their first stroll in the great out of doors? Our adorable backyard chickens! Here they are saying hello to Audrey:


   We are loving our teeny suburban farm. Their gentle clucks and delicate little bodies resting in my hands remind me of the deepest possible sense of home. I've always been so thankful to have grown up on hundreds of wild acres, filled with animals of all shapes and sizes, learning every day what it means to truly care for life and nature. Having a small piece of that in my very own backyard brings me endless joy. I admit (shamelessly), the only thing that dragged me away from my second straight hour of watching the ladies peck around their yard was one of these beauties.


   For many years fourth of July for me meant cook outs around a lake in New England, surrounded by extended family on my dad's side. One of his crazy cousins (who had an even crazier twin) would whip us around the pond, barely afloat behind the motor boat, hanging on for dear life and wondering which cousin we were at the mercy of.

   Now family and independence day means a sunny afternoon with my amazing new husband and our adorable chicken and dog babies. And even though I always wish our parents and siblings were closer, I wouldn't have it any other way.

    So happy fourth, I hope when I raise a glass you are too!

Pomegranate Grapefruit Margaritas
Makes 8 cocktails

1 1/2 cups tequila of choice (I like silver tequila but if you prefer gold, go for it!)
3/4 cup triple sec
1 1/2 cups Pom brand pomegranate juice
1 1/2 cups grapefruit juice
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
Plain seltzer water, to finish

   In a pitcher combine all ingredients except for the seltzer water. Mix to combine. Fill your glasses with ice and pour in your margarita mixture, leaving about 1/2 inch at the top. Fill the remainder of the glass with the plain seltzer, garnish as you please and enjoy! 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Project Simplify

   It started out innocently enough a few months ago. Late one night, Steve and I created what we affectionately called our Simplify List. It's nothing more than a Word document that we occasionally open and add projects or ideas to when they come to us. At first it was easy, silly things (like 'if you put on a piece of clothing and it doesn't fit just right- put it in the Goodwill bin!') but it has since grown into much more meaningful pursuits. Last week, for instance, we got rid of cable television.

   I grew up without cable; we lived so far out in the boonies that it simply wasn't an option and we never felt we were missing out on anything. The television meant family movie time and most nights we all would pick a movie and watch it together as a family. Commercial free.

   I recently read an article in which it was observed that people who watch television often have higher levels of anxiety regarding their health. Perhaps even worse than that, their overall sense of well being and happiness is decreased. I can totally understand how a constant barrage of shows and commercials could slowly corrode your sense of identity and the compass we inherently possess to determine what is worthy of our time, effort and money and what is not.


    So I asked Steve to cut to cord. That's what he did and so far it's been pretty fantastic. We still have Netflix and our collection of favorite DVDs but the release from all things commercial television related has been pretty awesome. We've been reading more, taking more evening walks after dinner and I've started crocheting a gorgeous, off white afghan- a hobby I haven't indulged in since college! Of course, the cable bill savings is nothing to sneer at either.

   Then we noticed that every time we look at our monthly budget we feel demoralized and stressed to see how much money we spend on restaurants for food and booze that cost a fraction of what we pay in the restaurant to prepare at home. So we decided to take the project even further: No Eating Out July was born!

   Even though some of my fondest memories with Steve have been at various restaurant tables, I'm really excited to abandon restaurants completely, save some money, and challenge myself in the kitchen. Example: instead of going out for Pad Thai tonight, I'm making grilled Asian marinated chicken thighs over a bed of rice noodles, fresh herbs and bean sprouts (recipe forthcoming if it's a success).

   That is the power of a project like this: you start to notice the little things that cause stress or anxiety in your life and suddenly ideas for major life improvement come out of thin air.

   What would a project simplify look like for you? I encourage you to take a moment and think of the places in your life that could use less clutter- it could be your closet, your kitchen, your entertainment purchases, or even your mental and spiritual space. Ask yourself: what is draining my time, energy and money that I may not actually need to feel happy and fulfilled? Then just write a few ideas down and get your simplify on!

   I'll be back soon with a recipe. I've been craving a major treat and I suspect it will take the form of a cupcake. 

  

Sunday, June 29, 2014

About the Tomato...

   For me, summer is all about long, lazy weekends spent mostly outdoors and similarly lazy meals, also preferably eaten outside.

   In New York this meant a lot of walks and hikes, especially in the late afternoons when the sun's fury had abated a bit. Since moving to the south summers mean slow, sun drenched days at the beach and endless evenings cocooned in the safely of our screened in porch, mosquitoes mercifully thwarted.

   And, of course, summer is tomatoes and corn on the cob. Spicy shrimp boils and icy beers.


   I've written about my favorite succotash recipe before and it graced out patio dinner table as soon as corn and tomatoes were both local and drippingly ripe. Served alongside a perfectly grilled grass fed steak and glasses of white wine chilled with frozen strawberries: heaven.

   Admittedly, I was slow to the tomato camp. With a childhood of picky eating behind me I came to adulthood with the concept of tomatoes as these slimy, oddly seed ridden, wet things- or, even worse, mealy! Like a badly ripened apple only worse.


   Then I went to Croatia to visit my brother and everything about the tomato that I thought I knew flew out the door. I ate an amazing seafood risotto, so resplendent with local seafare that at first I didn't notice the barely cooked chunks of fresh tomato amidst the rice. Once I did I could hardly ignore them- so sweet and velvety, so full of the sun.


   There is nothing in this world like a truly vine ripened, in season, local tomato. Find some and make this salad. I hope you eat it outside, in the late dregs of summer sun, over a meal so lazy the candle snuffs itself out in a pool of wax. 

Summer Tomato Salad
Serves 4
I like this best with an array of baby heirlooms, but any in season tomato will do. This salad is dynamite served along side crispy roasted baby potatoes.

1 pound tomatoes, diced (to about 1/2 inch chunks)
1/3 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley
1 avocado, diced (to about 1/4 inch chunks)
Freshly squeezed juice from one lemon
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

   Place the tomatoes, parsley and avocado in a mixing bowl. In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice, vinegar, olive oil and salt. Whisk until well combined. Pour the dressing over the tomato salad and gently toss everything together. Taste and season with additional salt if desired.