Adventurous Eating at Home – An Introduction to Asian Grocery Shopping

I really, really like Asian food.  All the kinds – I have yet to meet an Asian cultural specialty I didn’t want to try, not just to eat, but to cook as well.  I’m game to try almost everything, and my pantry reflects that.   I recently mastered Saag and Indian Butter Chicken.  I make my own Pad Thai, Bulgogi, Potstickers and other things pretty regularly.  I started cooking Asian at home in my 20s out of curiosity, and because it’s a whole lot cheaper than eating out.  I started with simple curries, and eventually ventured into more complex foods as my courage grew after successful meals, and the resulting expansion of my spice cabinet and pantry.

Not far from my house, close enough for a trip every month or two, is a giant grocery store called HMart.  Primarily Korean, but stocked with food from about every East Asian culture, it’s a really fun place to visit.  But it’s also intimidating, even for those of us who have been going regularly for a while – on a recent trip, my son found a sweet pancake mix that he wanted to try, but I had to confess that I had no ability to read the Kanji required to successfully prepare them.    The trick is to treat it like an adventure with some necessities for Asian cuisine tossed in.  I bring a list, but it is the one store where I allow us to go off script every time.  My goal is to try at least a couple new things each time. It helps that I love grocery stores – I try to visit at least one in every country I visit.

When I bring the kids, the new things end up being treats.   Asian candy, especially Japanese, is mesmerizing and the flavor combinations are both perplexing and near-endless.  Sure, some things end up being in the ‘not even good enough to compost’ pile, but then there’s Crispy Matcha-flavored Oreos, which, I kid you not, are a real thing and they are so, so good – I say this as someone basically without a sweet tooth.  I make an exception for these – even the box smells amazing.

Matcha Oreos.jpg

The key to Asian grocery store success is to be open-minded, and not to be afraid of a little failure.  And to ask lots and lots of questions – even of fellow shoppers if you feel comfortable.  Early in my kimchi-buying days, after I had discovered I loved it, I spent a lot of time asking people why they picked a certain type, because I was daunted by the veritable wall of available fermented pickled cabbages, radishes, carrots and other items.  I got an education, too – some because it’s the kind they grew up on.  Others were looking for the hottest, flavor-iest kimchi available, still others just bought the largest quantity they could, because it was a dietary staple they preferred not to make.  I still buy the same brand of coconut milk a woman standing next to me advised me on 15 years ago.  When I asked her why that one, she shrugged and said – ‘good and cheap’.  Hard to beat that input.

If you are going for the first time, pick a recipe you like to make, and then Google brands of the ingredients.  This will help you to a) know what you are looking for and b) help in the event that your only available venue lacks someone who can translate for you.   Be prepared to wander the aisles looking for things – until you get used to it, you need to allot yourself some time.

After you find your stuff for your recipe, go back and re-examine all the things that caught your eye.  Pick one or two to try – the internet is filled with friendly, helpful bloggers who can teach you how to use that thing you bought.  Groceries.jpg

Yesterday, I came home with rice vinegar (I buy it by the gallon), dumpling wrappers, seaweed salad, radish kimchi, coconut milk and lots of other things on my list, but also with Dragon Fruit, which has been on the household list to try for a while.  I also found Tapioca Starch, which is a key ingredient in a whole bunch of Paleo recipes, Acorn Starch, because a friend with a Korean husband sent me a recipe to use it in, and candy that my son picked out.  We know we generally love Pocky, but the Muscat-flavored Gummy Choco thingies were a surprise love for all of us.  They will definitely be reappearing in our vacation goodie bag this summer, after watching my daughter tentatively eat one, and then immediately try to chug them directly from the tube.

Even though we veer off the shopping list every time, I still would offer that I think that our willingness to expand our options is a part of living more frugally.  We don’t spend tons of extra money.  We often find things we really, really like – Black Tea Udon noodles have become a pantry staple for cold noodle salads that get rave reviews every time I serve one up – and I don’t need to order take out very often if I crave ethnic food.  I’ve crossed the line into the land of finding the food better at home a good deal of the time, and that saves me lots of money.

But most of all…it’s fun.  Trying new things, adventuring out of my comfort zone – these are things that make even the simplest of days entertaining.  So the next time you need an adventure, I highly recommend finding your neighborhood ethnic grocery store.  And trust me, it’s a great way to keep a 5 year old entertained for hours.

Connor and peach pop rocks

 

 

How (Not) to be a Homesteader

There’s that moment every morning here, when the kids are at school, and all the animals are fed and both they and the plants are watered when I sit down to my computer to get to work, and I take a breath.  Everyone’s taken care of for the moment.  There are always more chores, but they can wait until the income-producing work is done.

Life at Sithean might be called homesteading, if one stretched every definition of the word to transparent thinness like one of those giant latex bubbles that are sold on TV.  I view homesteading as increasing self-sufficiency.  I’d like that, but I haven’t noticed my trips to the grocery store dropping off, so I’m reluctant to evaluate it that way.  It probably couldn’t be considered a farm, although I do grow things in volume.  What it really should be considered is a teensy, tiny farmlet-style side hustle that keeps me in asparagus, salsa, pesto and eggs.

omelet

Which is not to say that’s the limit of it, or that I won’t become more self-sufficient here over time — definitely a goal, but for now realistically, it’s not a big money-saver to live here. Quite the opposite, most of the time.  It is though, an investment in the future.    Not just mine, but a protection of sorts for my children, a place of abundance in a rapidly changing world.  It’s a sanctuary, but a connected one.

In addition to the upcoming garden expansion, this year I added a cold-hardy cherry tree, bush apricots, blueberries and lots of perennial herbs.  Few of them will produce this year, and I still haven’t figured out where to put pear trees and cranberry bushes, but in the long haul, my goal is to grow and produce at least a large chunk of what fruit and vegetables we eat, supplemented by our local farm share.   To live a life where the apples we eat come from our trees, where the house is on route to paid for, and yet be within just a few miles of expansive civilization (read: Sushi and Thai food) is a gift.

As I read over blogs and books on sustainable living though, I find very few homesteader-types that seem like me.  I have not given up paid employment to go back to the land.  I still want to see Santorini someday.  I’d love to be off the grid, but every time I flick on a light I am grateful for it.  I am not planning for end times, although I am worried about the effects of climate change, effects I already see here, as spring comes later and summer lasts longer every year.  For me, this is a slow-burn process.

I was thinking about it as I was planting and weeding this week.  I’m not any of the things a typical homesteader might be.  I’m a single mom, a liberal who is a huge fan of the social safety net and more than willing to pay taxes for the betterment of society generally.  I’m not associated with any faith.  I drive more than I’d like to, I’m on planes a bunch, I color my hair, paint my toes, and I’m not giving up shaving any time soon.

In short, I don’t fit the profile of the back to the land movement.   I have no environmental moral authority, and I’m hardly an expert on much, except the stuff that I am.

For a long time, I assumed that due to this lack of street cred, I wasn’t the right person to write about the experiences of farmlet life.  But it finally occurred to me that I have a valuable perspective after another conversation with someone, who, like me, was an apologist for having 1.57 feet in modern society and the other .43 in a place not dissimilar from mine – that there are a lot of us.  People who want to live better and more lightly on the earth, but also cave to modern conveniences.  I’m doing things imperfectly, and learning as I go along, and figuring out what works for us.

One of the greatest gifts one can give oneself is acceptance.  An unexpected byproduct of me saying to myself, ‘hey self, you don’t have to be perfect at this to have something to offer’ is that the ways in which I had offerings expanded dramatically.  And the reception to those offerings has been equally dramatic.  I’m no longer an apologist for my life, which is something of a relief.   I may not get it right, or achieve a higher moral authority, but there’s a lot going on here that is worth a share.

 

Simple Things – Pizza and a Movie Night

Our weeknights can get a bit chaotic here, like most people’s do. The nights my kids are with me I try to make sure dinner is cooked from scratch, although I do occasionally resort to Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken.   But every Friday, with the occasional exception for tacos or take out, is pizza and a movie night here.  I make pizza dough, which takes about 10 minutes to prep, and we pick something to watch.

The thing I like about pizza and a movie night is that it’s easy, and it’s a nice closeout to the week.  Everyone knows what to expect that evening, there’s almost no thought involved.  It’s relaxing.  And for me, it’s one of those tiny traditions that I think my kids will grow up remembering.

About once a month we invite people over – last night I had one of my oldest friends, her daughter and a bunch of neighbor kids and their parents here.  I may add in a little homemade guacamole, chips and some olives, but the basic formula doesn’t change when we have guests.  More kinds of pizza maybe.  More kid-friendly snacks.  Last night I experimented with a Paleo pizza crust for me – it wasn’t good enough to recommend, but it was good enough to continue to tweak and search for recipes.

Paleo Pizza_Toppings.jpg

Homemade pizza doesn’t have to be hard.  Dough can be made in advance and frozen.  At most, it’s about 15 minutes of hands-on time to mix and knead the dough, and then rise time.  I make enough for 2 large pizzas and I make a pizza and freeze the leftover dough for the following week.  Toppings can be as simple as cheese and as complex as you want them to be.  Grownups got pizza with caramelized onions, fresh basil and ricotta yesterday on both Paleo and standard crusts.

Basic Pizza Dough

3 cups flour*
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp yeast
1/2 tsp sugar
2 tbsp olive oil
1 1/3 cup warm water

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl except water.  Add the water a little at a time until you have a dough-like consistency.  Knead by hand for 10 minutes or with a dough hook on your mixer until the dough is smooth and elastic to the touch.  Cover the bowl with a dishtowel and let sit in a warm place to rise for an hour.

The dough should triple in size.  Slice it in half and spread out on an oiled baking sheet or pizza stone.  Cover with sauce, cheese and toppings, and bake for 15-20 minutes in a 350 degree oven.  Let sit before slicing.

 

 

* I use about 2 1/2 cups of basic white flour and 1/2 cup of wheat or mixed flours to add a little bit of health to the dough, such as spelt or oat flour.  I recommend not more than half a cup of non-white flour, or the dough gets too heavy.

Happy eating!

 

 

 

 

 

The Domestic Arts

One of my greatest regrets as an adult is not having paid more attention when my grandmother and great aunt were doing things.  Like most children, I flitted from interest to interest, each for a duration that might be exhibited by the average myopic hummingbird.  As a result, I can sew passably well, but not very, I can and do cross stitch periodically, I sort of can make a granny square with a crochet hook and not much else, and I possess an odd requirement for Bleeding Hearts and Johnny Jump Ups to be planted wherever I live in order for it to feel like home.  All that said,  I have never truly mastered any of the domestic arts.

And arts they are.  Gram and Aunnie, as they were known to those of us in the knee-high-to-a-grasshopper set, knew them all.  Quilting, knitting, crocheting, tatting lace, sewing, cross stitch, embroidery, gardening.  I have pieces of their work scattered throughout my house, and memories of them knitting in their armchairs each afternoon.   When it came to teaching they were patient, seeming to know that teaching children was a short-term thankless task with long term results.

I think of them often when I wander out to weed garden beds.  Gram, whose home started out on a fairly quiet road that eventually became busy, would take off her shirt in the heat and weed and plant in her very robust white, pointy bra.  “Gram, people can see you!” I would say.  “I don’t give a damn” was her response.  I doubt I’ll ever feel a need to plant flowers without a shirt, but if I do, I hope it’s with the same attitude.

I thought about them again today as I, in shorts and a t-shirt paired with muck boots fed and watered chickens, ducks and bunnies, and planted two bush apricot trees.  They didn’t raise animals or cultivate fruit trees, but they would have appreciated it, I think.  They were believers in home, most of all.

When my best friend first came to visit me here at Sithean, she said that the house fit me like a glove.  But it isn’t just the house, it’s the land too.  There’s something about digging in the dirt and collecting eggs that makes it feel like I belong.  Every day I find something new here, and I know instinctively I will never tire of it.   Which is why often, whether I find myself  cleaning out the refrigerator, or planting flowers, or cutting into fabric to make valances for my dining room, I feel so very satisfied.   I like adventures, but if I could never travel again my life would not lack a thing.

Someday I’ll learn more of the domestic arts that I forgot to pay attention to, but for now, I feel an overpowering gratitude to the two women who first taught me that making home is as important as being home.

flower May 2018

 

 

 

 

Sweat Equity, Leaning In, and Balance

The other day my best friend and I were talking about some things, and she gave me one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.  ‘Everything in your life, you put sweat equity into.  Fitness, your house, your garden, even cooking almost everything from scratch.  I’m not going to grow a tomato from seed, I’m going to buy it.  But you, at your core, are about the time and effort you put into things, that’s what you value.”

There was more, of course, but it hit me square between the eyes, because it was so true – everything in my life is work, and that often feels overwhelming.  But much of it is work I choose – I prefer the tomatoes I grow.  I like the feeling of building, creating and improving.  I don’t do everything myself, far from it, and I get lots of help.  But at the end of the day, I choose to make muffins and cookies from scratch, I choose to grow food, raise chickens, run 10 miles in a single morning and so on.  Yes, they are all work, and no, I don’t have to do any of them.  The reality is that I like to do all of them.  Maybe not all of them at once, which is what happens in the spring when it’s a mad rush to get the yard cleaned up, the garden ready, take care of baby animals and still be a mother and meet the demands of my career, not to mention the regular life stuff, such as grocery shopping, laundry, and dishes.  And sleep?

To me, the effort I put into things is as important as the end result.  I like to go out to eat, but the food I make at home is just as good, if not better in many cases.  It’s gratifying to sit down to falafel or Pad Thai or even simple spaghetti and meatballs you have made yourself, and cooking is relaxing, once you start.

There’s lots of quotes about the journey vs. the destination one can throw out, but I found that learning to enjoy the process was not always simple. Some things, like cooking and weeding, I just enjoy.   Others, like yard cleanup, spackling, or long runs, I merely tolerated – necessity, but not things to be enjoyed.

That is, until I started to realize just how good it felt to finish a project and realize I was the deciding factor in how well and how quickly it was done.  There’s a zen in creating, and accomplishing, even when it’s not comfortable.  A 10-mile run for me may never feel easy, but it always feels good, if that makes sense.  The idea that you can choose what feels like work was fairly revolutionary for me, and was the difference between barely finishing a 5k and my first half marathon. If I can gift anything to my kids, it’s not to take as long to figure that out as I did.

No one has to choose to build a 48′ garden or spend their Sundays on long runs, and you definitely can buy great falafel, although if you want to try it, here’s an easy, delicious recipe.  Most of us have to balance whether we want to spend time or money on something, and I won’t lie that I frequently come down on the spend side.  But most of the time it’s my time and effort, at least in part, that makes my life what it is.

But.  It’s also exhausting at times.  I’m not going to lie to you.

When I recently took almost 5 months off from work, unpaid, supplemented with a bit of consulting work on the side, a lot of people were surprised.  I was too.  After years and years of juggling parenthood and a demanding career, travel, not the glamorous kind, the kind where you get home at 2 am and are up at 5:45 again to make the kids breakfast, an old house, a huge yard and lots of moves, and I was just….done.  I had Leaned In with dedication.  But I was tired I would sometimes walk around the house on weekends, going in and out of rooms and not know what to do.

Done enough to take savings and investments and an exit package and walk away, without certainty about what would happen next.

And here’s what did happen: I slept.  I did house projects.  I spent time with friends and family.  I made my kids blueberry muffins in the morning instead of Rice Krispies.   I went to yoga when I normally would have been in meetings.  I trained for a road race.  I started seedlings.

Sometimes I did…absolutely nothing worth mentioning.

I’m the better for it.  I don’t think everyone should quit their jobs, of course not.  And I still think that lots of things are better if I put effort into them, most things.  I would always rather make things from scratch.  And eventually of course, it was time to pick up the strings of my career and go back to work.  And what do you know, I was energized and motivated in a way that I haven’t been in years, and it was noticed.

I regret nothing.  Not a dime of income lost.  Not a meeting missed.  Not that I didn’t get the kitchen painted.   And now it’s spring again – busy season here at my tiny little farmlet, and maybe I have even more to do than ever before.  But never again will I sign up for a life where I can’t take a random Monday to paint pottery with my kids, or where I miss our baby ducks first swim in the pond.   The name of the game now is balance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday Wisdoms or Something Like That

Robert Frost wrote “The Road Less Taken” in 1916, and it has been lauded as the ultimate paean to following your own path.  The reality of the poem is a little fuzzier, and Frost alluded quite a few times to the irony of regret for what’s on the other path.  It’s easy to get caught up in what could have been.  The regret for zigging when you might have zagged comes for all of us.

I write this sleep deprived, with a very busy day of client work and chores ahead, plus I have to drive to get my kids who have been with their grandparents for a few days.  Last night I chose to spend time with a friend rather than cleaning the house and the bunny hutch like I was supposed to.  I might regret that today when I am getting ready for company for dinner, but then again, I had a wonderful evening, and that too, is valuable.  The vacuum will be there, waiting.  Sometimes nachos and conversation is the right choice.  Almost always, actually.

I wander off the path in life regularly.  If someone asked me how I got to where I am today, the conversation would go something like “Well, I started out going over here, but then I stopped in this field of sunflowers for a picnic and found this other path so I went there, but that one was a bit to brambly so I tried this…”.  I’m a huge fan of taking alternative paths to whatever destination you want to get to.  I always have goals, but I never assume the bullet train is the best way to get there.  Sometimes it’s on foot, stopping off to see the sights.  It’s a complicated way to live, but somehow I always get where I want to go.  From my messy, complicated, beautiful life I have learned a few things, often the hard way.  There’s still so much more to learn, but these are the things I live by, when I don’t forget and lose perspective.

Don’t only spend time with people just like you
Most of us have community -friends, family, neighbors, colleagues that are just like us.  Maybe they like hummus more than guacamole or watch basketball instead of action flicks, but commonality is the name of the game, be it lifestyle, kids activities, or politics.  But it is from those that are different from me in culture, background, perspective and choices that I learn the most. There’s more than one way to live and experience the world, and seeing it through other’s eyes is going to make you a bigger, better person. Plus fun.

Comparing yourself to others is the worst thing you can do
It’s hard to avoid, I admit.  It’s so easy to look at others who have more money, perfect outfits, perfect marriages, kids who eat their broccoli without an argument.  They aren’t always fighting some secret bad thing either, maybe everything is really just good for them.  But looking at other people’s assets and finding your own lacking is a quick way to feel bad and not much else.  Set your goals, check your compass, and go towards what you need.  You don’t actually want their life or their spouse or their broccoli anyway, you want your own version.  Trust me.  Your broccoli is just as good.

Navel-gazing is going to stop you from living 
Self-introspection and awareness are important, but so is actually doing stuff.  Don’t get so caught up in self-examination you forget what you are here for, which is is live, to build community, to add love and good things to the world, be that anything from bad puns to fostering kids to feeding the neighbor’s dog while they are away.  Look up and out most of the time.  I promise you will feel better about yourself and be surrounded by far more love and support as a result.

Exercise, even if it’s just going for a walk
I know, I know, you are busy, and when you aren’t, you are tired.  I get it.  I really do.  Taking the time and effort to build in an exercise routine is hard,  It isn’t always fun.  But here’s the thing – you will feel better, look better, and you just might find your mind working better too.  Those endorphins do eventually come, and when they do, they are awesome.  We all have 15 or 30 minutes a few days a week.  Use them.

Money is just money
Sure, having some is way better than not.  But money as a sole scorecard of success is toxic, and culturally, it seems more and more like that’s the only measure that seems to matter.  Money typically takes our life energy to accumulate, and our life energy is ultimately finite. Here’s my take – give away enough of your time to make what you need and a little on top.  Know that if you lose some of your assets to job loss, divorce, illness, home repair….well, that’s not fun, but it’s not the end of the world either.  Money is handy, but it is not the measure of a person or the value of your life, it is merely an exchange vehicle.  Put it in it’s place, and your decisions around it will be cleaner and less emotionally charged, and chances are it may make you more generous overall.

If not you, who?
This is one of the hardest things I have learned.  I always assumed that others were smarter, more creative, more competent than I was.  It took a great deal of time to learn that my perspective, my creativity, and the way I think were something that no other person can mimic.  If you are waiting for permission to write, do art, start a company, speak about your experiences, consider this permission to stop waiting.

There is more right with you than wrong with you 
So go ahead, wear the pink kitty hat when you need to, screw what everyone else thinks. kitty hat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Small Improvements to Your Wallet, Your Time, and Your Footprint

It is almost feeling like spring these days – still cold some of the time, but more and more days are over 50 degrees, Forsythia and Crocuses are everywhere and the trees are in bud all over.  It’s been raining a lot lately, and today it decided to snow.  Still, I am choosing to believe in Spring’s imminent arrival, mostly because otherwise I will just be one more grumpy New Englander.

It’s about time to move the ducks outside to the coop.  They are big now, and need more space, and honestly, they are very messy.  Adorable, with great personality, but their bin needs cleaning out every day, and even then the smell is hard to miss.  We started with 4, but one, a little Campbell duck named Gingersnap, didn’t make it past the first week, declining food and failing to thrive.  It was heartbreaking to see her go, but accepting that I am going to lose some of my animals is part of the deal.  Still, it was the first time I had lost a little one.  The other 3 are thriving though, and are taking daily swims in my downstairs bathtub.

I am no model for homestead or environmental perfection  – I work, which often involves travel.  I use my dryer.  I am busy and use shortcuts that sometimes have more packaging than I would prefer.  I am often time-constrained too.  In other words, pretty much like everyone else at my stage of life.

Despite that, I try very hard to reduce my footprint and my expenses whenever possible, and often those things go hand in hand.  When there’s an opportunity to simplify or improve my life as well though, I jump on it.  Here are 3 things that cover all of those areas – they save money, they are cheaper, and they make life easier all at the same time.  You can get everything at the grocery store at the same time you go for anything else, no special trips.  If your store doesn’t have essential oils, try Thrive Market or Amazon.

  1. Homemade laundry detergent
    Making homemade powder laundry detergent is a money-earning chore for my daughter.  Every month or two we mix up a batch and I pay her a dollar. The ingredients are inexpensive and they last.  Plus, the laundry smells amazing.  I buy Borax and Washing soda maybe every 10 months, at about $4 each.  I was using leftover hotel bars of soap (free) from my business trips, but I do like the Fels Naptha better, and that’s $1.19 a bar.  Essential oil lasts for about 6 batches at $7.93 per bottle – I use orange because I like it, but any scent will do.  I figure it’s about $3.31 for me to get a 2-month supply of laundry detergent, which is way better than any generic brand.
    Ingredients
    2 Cups Borax
    2 Cups Washing Soda
    1 Bar Fels Naptha Soap
    Generous glug of essential oil

Grate the soap with a cheese grater and mix all the ingredients together well.  Store           in a covered container (I use a quart-sized food storage container).  1.5 scoops                     handles a large load of laundry

2. Dryer Balls
I like the Woolzies kind, although I freely admit that’s the only kind I have ever purchased.  Every month or two I remember to drop some essential oil on them so the laundry smells better, but even if I forget there’s no static and no dryer sheets to buy or throw away.  My dryer balls are several years old at this point and still look and work great.

3. Pots of Fresh Herbs
Fresh herbs are expensive, and even for city dwellers or those in small spaces, herbs on the windowsill are a good investment.  Seeds are cheap – your gardening friends may even plant you some free of charge.  Pots don’t have to be flower pots – leftover pasta sauce jars work and look nice too. If nothing else, Basil, Rosemary, and Parsley are high use and low maintenance.  Give them sun and water and you should reap the benefits year round.  No more herbs to buy, your dinner guests will be impressed by your ability to whip up a Caprese salad with your home-grown basil.

It’s fair to say that these are not things that are going to save massive amounts of money or time.  But they are three things that are easy, satisfying and good for the environment.  Few things are going to cut a mortgage in half – almost none, actually.  But little things add up, and the satisfaction of knowing you did it yourself is priceless.Laundry detergent