Sunday, January 30, 2011

cookies from childhood, all grown up

Last June, I took a quick trip to Portland, Oregon. I stopped at a farmers' market and sampled sweet confections from this bakery. Their tagline goes, "artisan sweets for the soul." How could I resist?

One of the sweet treats I tried from the Two Tarts booth at the Portland farmers' market is fleur de sel chocolate chip cookies. There's something about chocolate and salt together that really hits the spot. Sweet and salty flavors, done just right. Toast with fruit preserves and Irish cheddar. Figs and gorgonzola. Fleur de sel caramels. It's that play between sweet and savory, a delicious contrast, each flavor bringing out the best in the other. 

Recently I started craving for fleur de sel chocolate chip cookies... and so the hunt for a recipe began. I used this recipe, but modified it by using fleur de sel instead of kosher salt. I also sprinkled the tops of the cookies with a touch more of fleur de sel right before baking.

But baking these cookies was more than a delight to the senses. It was a trip down memory lane, baking with my mother back home, when I was little. My first memory of being in the kitchen with my mother takes me back to a vivid picture of me standing on a chair next to my mom as she worked on cake batter on the countertop, with her big bowl and mixer, while I had my own kitchen play set, including a bowl, spoon, and apron. She even put some flour in my bowl for me to "mix", and I enthusiastically "baked" with her, making a mess in the process. But she didn't mind. Maybe she could foresee, back then, how much I would love to cook and bake as a teenager, then as an adult. Maybe she could envision me having so much fun baking and cooking with my nephews when we were on vacation.

Some years later, when I was old enough to actually handle real ingredients (7 or 8 maybe?), I remember making chocolate chip cookies with my mom and older brothers. Oh, what a big deal that was for us! Each of us had a role in the baking process. Later, when I was older, my mom told me how our family was on a tight budget then, with my three brothers and I going to private school and engaging in sports or other hobbies. But I never felt it, never felt deprived. I remember now, we had to ration the Hershey's chocolate bar, back then a precious commodity for us. Hershey's was a huge deal then! So we made the cookie dough separate from the chocolate. My mom gave us instructions to only put two pieces of chopped chocolate on each cookie, to make the chocolate bar go a long way. One of my brothers, of course, tried to sneak in a third or fourth piece of chopped chocolate on a few cookies, trying to remember where those "extra special" cookies were on the baking sheet for him to eat later.

Then I remember, years later, when we first tried US-made chocolate chip cookies. I remember looking at the cookies disbelievingly, because each cookie was studded with chocolate chips. But even as I look back to our childhood memories of chocolate chip cookies, with only two small pieces of chocolate on each one, it didn't matter. What mattered was the experience we had -- learning to take turns, learning to take on roles, learning to help out and cooperate, and learning about the joys of making something from scratch. And having fun, without gadgets and video games (which we never had, growing up, but I didn't mind). It goes to show how valuable the experience is. The experience of family, of being together. What I learned from these experiences back then are my anchors as an adult. And no matter how old I get or how far away I move from home, remembering these moments ground me in what I think is essential in life: nurturing relationships. Nourishing each other, not just through food made with love, but nourishing each other by giving undivided attention, listening, and exercising patience and compassion. The actions I experienced as a receiver, as a child, have become my anchors. Anchors which I hope to pass on to my children in the future. And my children's children.

Now, I look back with fondness as I made these "grown-up" chocolate chip cookies. It's amazing how the simple act of mixing butter, sugar, eggs, flour, and chocolate makes me think about my roots.

And it's funny how, as an adult, I never spent for cable TV service, but I will choose to make a splurge of $10 for something as "basic" as salt. Well, not just any salt, but fleur de sel. Anyway, clearly I know my priorities. :)

Here's what I do: since I don't bake the cookies all in one sitting, I freeze the rest of the dough. But before I freeze them, I mold them using a small cookie scoop for easy thawing later.

So here are my childhood cookies, all grown-up: I do allow the indulgence of mixing in the chocolate chips with the cookie dough. And the fleur de sel adds a grown-up touch.  But more than that, I find joy in thinking that I can also nourish someone else's soul. Even if it's just through chocolate or cookies. But it's something made with love, attention, and fond memories of the moments that really matter.


A few notes...

Below are some recipes to try:
David Lebovitz' Salted Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies
Jacques Torres' Chocolate Chip Cookies, here and here

Here is one of the best articles I've read about chocolate chip cookies. This is serious stuff, folks. And it's why I let chocolate chip cookie dough rest in the refrigerator for 2 whole days before baking.

I prefer to use a good chocolate bar (dark, 70% cocoa), chopped up - rather than chocolate chips, for two reasons. First, I think the quality of the chocolate is better (yes I know I'm a chocolate snob). Second, I like how chopped up chocolate is rough around the edges. All the pieces (big and small) and the tiny bits - the chocolate dust that results from chopping - become more distributed throughout the dough. The result? You're ensured to have a dose of chocolate in every bite.

I told you this was serious business.

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

when yoga and photography collide

 Photo by my dear friend - see her work here and here.

I've often written about how photography becomes a meditative act. I find that when I rush through the process and experience of photography, I also end up being unhappy and uninspired with the resulting images. And it makes perfect sense.

With all the high-tech photography gadgets out there, it can become easy to get caught up in the sparkle of technology. We are almost led to believe that we can control everything. But there are still things that are beyond our control. Such as sunshine. The way sunlight gently shines on dewdrops or the petals of a flower. Or the way it reflects on water. Perhaps a cloud moves and creates shade - and in that second, the light changes. Temporarily, at least. But this is why photography is an act of patience, reflection, and even a sense of submission to what is present. Which is why I think photography is about being mindful, aware, and... yogic. Photography, like yoga, is a chance to give thanks. To enjoy the moment. To be fully present in what is.

Anyway, my real reason for this post is to share this article about "The Slow-Photography Movement". The author could not have articulated it any better. Read it here.

Photo-op of photo-op
Taken by my dear friend Minnie, Maryland 2008

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Monday, January 17, 2011


The sunlight is glorious on this Monday morning. In the long, gray, dreary winters of Cleveland, sunshine is like a miracle. I love it. I've been fortunate that in all the places that I've lived, my bedroom window always faced east. The sun is so energizing.

I've already spent some of the morning assembling a 3-tier rolling shelf in an effort to reduce clutter and organize my workspace, physically and mentally. Trying to start the week off on the right foot. :)

I might brave the 18-degree temps today and bundle up for a walk.

Meanwhile, a breakfast of champions:

Homemade bread and peanut butter topped with sliced dates

 Happy Monday!

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

ants in your (yoga) pants?

So I was wondering why I felt so "antsy" today.

I couldn't sit still, couldn't focus on any one thing for more than a few minutes. I had so many things to think about and do for the next few days.

Then I realized that the problem was right in front of me:

Exhibit A

To make matters worse:

Exhibit B

See my issue?


Not just the physical desktop (oh yeah, that is cluttered too by the way -- files and folders and notepads and books), but my computer desktop. All those Firefox tabs, open documents, etc etc. And I'm totally giving myself away with the Exhibit A image above: out of the 8 visible open tabs, 1 is for email (thank goodness for automatic email forwarding, so I only have one main account to check!), 2 are recipe searches, 2 are for teaching, and 2 are yoga related. And 1 tab is on the weather channel because I tend to obsess about it (the island girl is STILL not used to winter).

And worse, I have not one, but TWO cluttered computer desktops because I use both Mac and Windows on my Mac (sounds geeky, I know...). So I have files open on Windows too because some of my shared virtual workspaces are only Windows-friendly.

Aaaah. The nature of the multi-tasking beast.

I don't think multi-tasking is wrong necessarily. It's what helps me cook soup, clean the apartment, design my online course space, and listen to a podcast at the same time. But at what point does multi-tasking make work ineffective? At what point does it slow you down?

The thing is, there's physical clutter and mental clutter and "electronic clutter". It's all the same. Clutter is CLUTTER. 

Clutter gives me the "ants in your pants" feeling.

Meanwhile, I am making the decision to take a half hour break, turn my laptop to "sleep" mode, and practice some pranayama and meditation. Turning off my electronic clutter.

I remember one of my 2011 words: BALANCE. Working on it...

What do you think about physical/mental/electronic clutter? How do you manage it?

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"creamy" tomato bisque

...without the cream.

Don't get me wrong, I am not against heavy cream. Sometimes I just HAVE to have it. Whether it's to make homemade caramel or to top off an intense dark chocolate pudding, cream is just... sigh. In fact, one of the most unforgettable foodie moments A and I shared is when we went to this brunch place called Vine and Bean Cafe, ordered one of the best waffles I've ever tasted, and asked for another serving... Not a second serving of waffles, but another helping of whipped cream to eat with the rest of our waffles. Seriously. We enjoyed waffles with whipped cream like it was nobody's business. I wouldn't have been surprised if the server asked "You want a waffle with that?" while we were spooning whipped cream out of the little cup. It was bordering on shameless, I know... but I hope they take that as a compliment.

Anyway, before I go on into a foodie daydream about Vine and Bean's "vanilla bean buttermilk waffles topped with warm peach rhubarb compote, *honeyed whip cream*, and striped with house-made caramel sauce" (isn't that enough to make you want to go out into the freezing cold and visit the cafe RIGHT NOW?), I did set out to share a recipe. So why no cream in this one? Well, I could have used cream, but I didn't have any... and I was in the mood for soup and getting grumpy hungry, and knew I needed to eat something. And almonds, which are in this recipe, are so good for you... a good source of protein, healthy fats, fiber, and vitamin E. It's nice to lighten things up once in a while.

So here goes...

"Creamy" Tomato Bisque
(serves 2)

half a medium onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
a few fennel stalks, chopped (I know that the onion-celery-carrot trio is the "holy trinity" soup base, but I was out of carrots... and I had leftover stalks from a fennel bulb I ate a few days ago)
1 garlic clove, minced
1 1/2 cups diced or pureed tomatoes (when tomatoes are not in season, I prefer the Pomi brand of packaged tomatoes as they have BPA-free packaging)
2 cups vegetable broth
1/4 cup (maybe more?) of ground almonds or almond meal (you can buy this at Trader Joe's... or you can grind whole almonds in a food processor. Just happened to have the almond meal which I used for a pie crust)
salt, pepper, lots of basil

Start with a heavy-bottomed soup pot.

Saute the onion, celery, and fennel in some olive oil. Add a pinch of salt to help soften the vegetables. Once they have softened, throw in the minced garlic. I like to wait until the onion, celery and carrots (or in this case, the fennel) are soft before adding in the garlic, because garlic tends to burn faster and get bitter - not good for soup!

Add the tomatoes, broth (or water), and basil (save a little bit for later!). Bring it to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Let it simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Enjoy the smells of your kitchen, and pretend you're in a Tuscan villa...

Sorry. Back to the soup...

Add the almond meal, then take the soup off the heat. Use an immersion blender and puree the soup until smooth. The almond meal adds a heartiness and creaminess to the soup, without the need for cream. Add more broth if needed or if you would like a thinner consistency. Check and adjust for seasoning, then add a little more chopped basil before serving. Serve with some crusty artisan bread with some really good, fruity extra virgin olive oil (this unfiltered kind is my favorite) on the side for bread dipping.

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Monday, January 10, 2011

balance and nourishment

I've started to feel overwhelmed lately.

I sat down and listed my to-do's for the next 6 months and the rest of the year and I almost went into a semi-panic, looking at my list of at least 5 big projects, all of which have to do with my academic life.

So I got up and made some soup.

(Recipe to follow later... it was REALLY good, by the way).

But such is my defense mechanism. Cooking and creating soothe my nerves, and provide me with some grounding and centering. An opportunity to breathe.

Then I went back to work.

Before I go on, I have a feeling that this will be a long blog post. I've been doing a lot of introspection lately... mostly on my professional/academic life. It must be because I've been working on my academic portfolio for the past several days. But anyway...

In thinking about my defense mechanism/stress relief (a.k.a. my compulsive, I-have-to-do-it-now stress-cooking sprees), I went back to thinking about my word for this year. In my journal, I wrote that the word I want to encapsulate 2011 to be BALANCE/BALANCED. Last year (2010) was about COURAGE and INSPIRATION, to tackle the many challenges ahead. 2009 was about TAKING ACTION, because it was a year of opportunity, decision-making, and transitions. I do like thinking of my big words for the year.

But I was led to think about how I want to achieve BALANCE: a BALANCED state of mind, body, and soul.

Why BALANCE? I started thinking about how I love balancing poses.

Tree pose, New Hampshire, Summer 2006
photo by Dad

Tree pose, Maryland, Fall 2008
photo by Minnie

I do love balancing poses. I don't mean that I never fall out of them -- I do, just depending on the day -- but I still love them. Maybe it's my dominant vata dosha in my personality in need of grounding, or my childhood gymnastics aspirations. I love all the elements that make up a balancing pose like tree or half-moon, or my favorite, dancer pose.

Dancer pose, Cincinnati, Summer 2006
photo by Jen

Dancer pose, Cleveland, Winter 2010
The centering of focus, the attention to the breath, the feeling of strength and stillness coming from deep in your core. The feeling of integration: integration of breath, mind, and body, the integration of subtle movement and peaceful stillness. The integration of process/effort and form/outcome, no matter what the outcome is -- whether it's gracefully achieving the pose you sought out to do, or modifying it, or falling out of it...gracefully, or not. It's all ok.

In my senior year of college, my best friend of 20+ years wrote these words to describe me: "a pillar of quiet strength." Words I hold very dearly. When I feel good in an asana practice, when I feel in tune with my body and mind, that is how it feels: Quiet strength.

So how do I take these lessons of balance and integration into my life?

To do that, I didn't set out to make a list of new year's resolutions in the manner of writing "things" to do. I didn't want to make a list of to-do's, only to abandon them by February. I find that I'm constantly reflecting, planning, and re-evaluating my choices throughout the year anyway. So instead, I wrote first about the things that throw me off balance:

  • Poor sleeping habits
  • Not enough vegetables
  • Not enough movement, or too much
  • Not enough sunshine and fresh air
  • Not enough creativity
  • Not enough quiet time
  • Not enough community...and by that I don't necessarily mean always being part of an organized, structured group... but to me it could mean an enjoyable conversation with one person, a few persons, or several
  • Not enough chocolate (I know, I know.... *wink*)
Ironically, in this day and age of gadgets and gizmos and technology in all shapes, sizes, and forms, all the things that I need for balance are really just basic things. Well, almost, depending on how you classify chocolate. :)

So how do I address those things that throw me off balance? Instead of writing a list of WHAT to do, I wrote about the HOW. How I'm going to do things, and how I'm not going to do things.

I came up with this list:

  • To do, not overdo.
  • To strive for excellence, not perfection.
  • To nourish and be nourished.
The words NOURISH and BE NOURISHED leaped out of the page. I suddenly remembered that the words "Nourish your life" were on my vision board which I created in 2008.

It's funny how words come back. It must mean something.

I reflected on the words some more, thinking about how they are, or can be at work in my life. Nourish your life. Nourish. Be nourished.

So it's no secret that I love, love, LOVE to cook...

 (Joy in the kitchen... bad hair day and all :) My brother took this surprise photo of me while I was preparing food for my 28th birthday dinner.)

And I love, love, LOVE to eat...

(Cutting into my flourless chocolate cake (thanks to this friend) on my 28th birthday, which was in... gulp... 2007. This was an evening of pure joy.)

...because cooking nourishes others, as it does myself. I love it when I make a great dish, unplanned, out of random ingredients I have in the pantry and refrigerator. I love it when I revise others' recipes and make it to my own liking. I love the ease in cooking, the slowness of it. The simplicity, or complexity of a dish, to suit your mood. The creativity of improvisation. The act of waiting, the element of anticipation and surprise. The combination of artfulness and precision of technique (ok, so I felt like an impostor saying that, not being professionally trained...) that results in a pretty baked treat. The memories attached to certain kinds of food. Yes, I fully attest to being an emotional eater... and I will assert that being an emotional eater -- in the way I described above -- is not necessarily a bad thing. I've said over and over again how being in the kitchen is therapy for me. And I love sharing this joyful experience by sharing a meal with a friend, or a few, or a big group... or gifting someone with homemade treats.

But more than that, I'm thinking of nourishment beyond the physical sense. Thinking about how I can nourish and be nourished in my academic life, my work life, my personal life. I think that is how I can achieve balance and be balanced.

And I realize....

To nourish someone else's learning, I need to nourish my own. I was trained as an early childhood educator, and in my years of teaching I have always felt the need to find ways to re-energize myself, to refill my cup, so to speak, so that I can face the next day and give my renewed energy. I've always found teaching not just physically or mentally challenging, but emotionally challenging as well... especially when working with special populations of children and families. I learned, though experience, that I need to prevent myself from being emotionally burned out so that I can still be effective as a teacher. Now, I am no longer working with children directly, but I am teaching adults. Being new to the world of college teaching, I am constantly second-guessing myself. Did I do enough? Did I communicate effectively? Did I model the same level of preparedness and professionalism as I expect from students? Did I evaluate students' work fairly? Did I support students' learning? Was I flexible enough to respond to students' needs, while still remaining consistent in my expectations? Did I share at least one thing that will make an impact on their professional lives? And most importantly: Did I honor each student's self-esteem and personhood?

I'm trying not to be too hard on myself, as I usually am. It's still a work in progress. I understand that this is a growing process. Instead, I am finding ways to nourish my own learning and growth. Whether it's doing research on effective teaching practices (yes... nerdy, I know... but such is the life in academia), or reflecting on my teaching. Whether it's talking to a peer going through the same experiences, or seeking mentoring from someone more experienced than I. I realize that all these are sources of nourishment.

To nourish someone else's spirit, I need to nourish my own. To exercise love and compassion toward others, I need to practice those same qualities towards myself. That means...

  • To do, not overdo (yes, I said it again... I think I need to constantly repeat these words to myself. Stubborn me.).
  • To work hard, and rest well
  • To set high standards for myself, while being gentle and forgiving towards mistakes
  • To learn from mistakes, and also reward myself for a job well done
  • To set my own standards based on what I value as important, meaningful, and nourishing to myself and others. This is, and will be, a big challenge... because I am at a phase in my professional life in which it's all about meeting external standards and satisfying other people's expectations to get through. It is a PhD program, after all. I obviously need to think about this one some more...
  • To immerse myself 100% in the process, but practice acceptance and non-attachment toward the results. In yogic/Sanskrit terminology, non-attachment is "vairagya". Oooh... that will be another challenge. I will have to remember the lessons from my asana practice of balancing poses: focused practice in the process, but acceptance and non-attachment towards the outcome.
  • To be generous of my time and my gifts, while allowing myself time and opportunities to give "gifts" to myself. Not material gifts, but time for activities like writing/journaling/reflecting, time for movement and meditation, and time for art and creativity.
So, the big words for 2011: BALANCE and NOURISHMENT. Let's see how this year unfolds...

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Thursday, January 6, 2011

a question a day

My dear friend Jen gave me this delightful little box of questions to think about.

In answering the above question, I found myself having difficulty settling on just ONE thing. Then I re-realized that there are so many things in life that bring me joy. It really doesn't take much...

In thinking about my response to the question, I wanted to really think about things that I don't feel like I SHOULD be doing. Just things I WANT to do.

Here's my short list:

  • a good stretch: sun salutations, as few or as many as I feel like doing; or a nice long yin stretch
  • a conversation with a loved one: whether just a quick "hi" to a long juicy update
  • a belly laugh
  • take a photo
  • read an excerpt from a favorite book
  • dance
This box is full of surprises... I'm going to have fun with these questions in the days/weeks/months that follow. Thank you, Jen!

What one (or a few) joyful thing(s) do you wish you could do regularly?

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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

new year, new haircut

Ok, since I've been on a roll with this New Year thing... ;-)

I got a new year haircut! Donated 10 inches of hair to Locks of Love, a "public non-profit organization that provides hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children in the United States and Canada under age 21 suffering from long-term medical hair loss from any diagnosis" (see more information here)

Here's my "before" shot:

 It was SO long - and always in tangles!

And "after":

Locks of Love haircut 2011

Here is a shot of my first Locks of Love haircut, 4 years ago:

Locks of Love haircut 2006

Change is good. :)

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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

new year, new adventure, newfound courage

So this is a somewhat delayed New Year blog post... but I had been busy over the New Year weekend. I went down to Cincinnati and helped my good friend and her husband pack their apartment to move to New York City. Of course, I was tasked with packing up the kitchen. ;-)

What a timely way to move - what better than to have a fresh start, a new beginning, at the start of the new year?

My friend joked to me, "Why is it that at least one of us is always in boxes?"

 my move in 2006

It's true. Most of her belongings will be going to a storage unit temporarily as she will be staying with an aunt in the city before they find a place. Going from a spacious 3-bedroom unit in a mid-size Midwestern city to an apartment in Manhattan is no joke.

Similarly, since November of last year, many of my belongings have also been in storage (thanks to my brother's large basement) while I am living the student life again.

I wonder if this is a sign that we'll never really get settled too long in any one place. Granted, this friend of mine has been moving and traveling pretty much all her life. I stayed in one place in my home country for most of my life, but traveled after I "came of age" at 24 when I first moved here for graduate school in 2003.

As much as I long to lay down roots and feel settled in a place and in a community, the call of adventure and opportunity is always there. It knocks, it beckons, it shakes me to my core until all I can hear in my gut is, "JUST GO."

It's the call of a dream -- a dream that tugs at your heart and soul, wanting to be fulfilled. It's the call of your inner voice, wanting something more, knowing that you are capable of surprising yourself. It's the call of a secret passion, whatever that may be, wanting to come alive. It doesn't matter if the dream comes to fruition overnight (which it almost never does) or if the dream unfolds slowly -- but we are called to take action, bit by bit, no matter how small... as a sculptor slowly works on a stone or piece of wood, chipping away at it until it finally becomes a work of art. And the art here is not just in the product, but in the process -- as it is in life.

It's an invitation to be courageous.

And how interesting that the root word of courage is from the Latin "cor"/"cour", which means "heart" (hence "coeur" = "heart" in French). In a TED talk by Brene Brown, she defines courage in this sense as "to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart." It's the courage to be passionate, vulnerable, and imperfect... even when life is scary.

"bleeding hearts" flowers, Asheville NC, 2009

Another friend of mine shared this excerpt with me a few years ago, and I thought now is a good time to share it.

"May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you're wonderful, and don't forget to make some art -- write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself." - Neil Gaiman, writer and artist

And my New Year wish for you and me is: May you find courage to wholeheartedly live out your story.

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