Progress and Productivity in Stillness

Personal

A day at home, I wake up and I’m already in pain. It’s 7am, but I know that I have two hours to kill. I can’t help but refresh the mail app on my phone. I only get notifications for my personal email accounts, but my curiosity always gets the best of me and I look at how many emails await in my work inbox. My eyes just getting accustomed to the sunlight also squint to accommodate the small text on my screen. I feel my shoulders rise, though I choose to put my phone down or scroll through twitter instead. The shoulder tension moves up to my neck. The minutes pass, it’s 7:45 and I tell myself I have until 8 before I can get up, but I get up anyway. I putter about my house, make breakfast and just wait until it’s an appropriate time to open my work laptop and stare at a screen all day. But I can’t wait until 9am to work. I open my laptop (my non-work one that I also do work on) and start reading my emails and writing my social plan for the week. I convince myself it’s not work since it’s not for my salaried job. That somehow makes it better.

All the while, I see the babbling miniatures of a devil and an angel perched on my shoulders. Both of them look like me, and are dressed in pretty rad outfits because duh. One is telling me that I should do my work, continue to hold myself to my standards and ride it out while the other is telling me to sit back, relax and take care of myself. Take a wild guess at which is which. Of course, the devil on my shoulder eggs me to sit on my couch and watch movies. Why though? Why does my desire to pause coincide with devilish temptation? What harm is my inactivity really causing?

I think modern corporate labor has put too much of a value on professional productivity. Since high school it’s been ingrained that I need to be busy all the time – taking college classes, engaging in extra curricular activities, volunteering, studying – in order to beef up my resume and make myself look appealing on paper. Essentially, busy equals important, and if I can’t fill a page listing my accomplishments, achievements by age 18 then I am not somehow unworthy of a promising future making other people’s money. And I know this because I filled those pages and took those classes, and all that it’s given me was an inability to take care of myself because if I’m not advancing my professional career, I’m lazy. Right now, I resent my inability to separate my personal worth from an arbitrary value deciding my professional worth – a vanity metric in professionalism, a quantified value on my productivity and therefore goodness.

If it’s not clear, I’m a workaholic and compulsive people pleaser. It feels good to get that off my chest. While I do my best to be unapologetically myself, I have inherent guilt when I disappoint people. Even people I’ve never met before, people I hardly interact with. (“That’s crazy, Marcella.” Right?) I derive my individual value based on how many lines bisect tasks on a list, or how many Facebook users share posts and images I create. While I feel this way about myself, I preach and preach the importance of self care, of rest, because truly I can’t find myself worthy of that sanctity and peace, but others should do it for themselves. I’ve got to work. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.

These tendencies have brought me some success but have mostly set me up for emotional failures, especially right now. Now’s not the time for sealing deals and expanding your audience. I’m hearing the phrase “business as usual” to describe operations right now and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. “Business as usual” is simply a guise for “we aren’t interested in hearing about your hardship.” The very “get back to work” mindset that will cause a mental health deficit once we crawl out of the collective darkness and resume a more lively, interactive “normal.”

It’s already hitting me: constant anxiety and tension from work-related stress coupled with the ambiguity of the future as we know it. I’ve taken my fair share of easy days, but it brings me more stress to try and justify the outcomes of my “laziness.” Who will have to assume my responsibilities? Will my boss notice? Will clients say something? It’s almost not worth that extra stress.

Oh, but it is. It’s worth it once you understand the incredible power and poise in stillness. Like I’ve always said (and “I’ve always said” because it’s been said to me so often), you can’t pour from an empty cup. You have to refill before you can pour again. But also you have to drink from the cup too. You can’t keep filling up your own cup to continue dumping it. You can’t let your own well go dry without taking a drink. Because simply you need water to survive. And we’re all just trying to survive this one day at a time.

And while rest looks like physical inactivity, it’s just a different form of progress. There’s growth in rest. Humans, organisms do their most profound growth while resting. And it took a jar of sauerkraut and a walk in the woods for me to understand how my own stillness could transform me.

I’m no stranger to shoving vegetables in jars and turning my countertops into small-scale science experiments. I took an inexcusable amount of AP science classes in high school, and I would be remiss to not apply some of my “useless” knowledge to my kitchen antics. And when I made a big jar of sauerkraut I saw the possibilities in seeming inactivity. In a jar on my kitchen table, microscopic bacteria were engaging in fermentation. Though the jar didn’t move for days, invisible processes were at work. Upon each day’s burp (not me burping, but me cracking the jar’s lid to prevent too much gas buildup) I could see bubbles rise from the shredded cabbage and smell what could only be described as early stage sauerkraut. Beneath a seemingly unchanging exterior, a transformation occurred.

Human perception is also not the only measure of development. The existential “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it” scenario is extremely human-centric and highlights validation, not only as a marker of activity, but as a necessity for improvement or change. On a walk in the woods only a few weeks ago, I encountered fallen trees, cracked in the middle with the trunk and roots secured in the ground; the fallen limbs interrupting a trail. I couldn’t tell when it happened and I didn’t know if anyone could watch the top swing down and land on the ground. The fact is, yes, the tree still falls and still makes a noise. Because nature does not continue happening for the sake of human applause and validation. On my walk I saw dandelions both with shaggy yellow flowers and seeded white orbs, maturing at different rates but maturing regardless of my ability to notice. While we all watch the seasons change from inside our homes, the tides don’t stop because a boat is not gliding towards the shore. Instead the tides continue the ebb and flow, boat or no boat, surfer or no surfer, because that’s how the ocean moves forward.

But do you know how much the human body does daily outside of sending emails, holding conference calls and eating snacks? With each inhale your lungs fill with air, delivering oxygen throughout your body. Your hair and nails are growing. White blood cells are fighting like hell to protect your immune system from bad shit. The average human experiences cell turnover of 50-70 billion cells per day. I’m not a doctor, or a scientist, but that’s a lot of work for someone who might be eating Cheetos and watching Seinfeld on the couch. If I were the devil upon my shoulder, I’d use these facts to bolster my position, convincing all other parties that this inactivity is paramount for growth.

I know that this entire essay is entirely part of my problem, but I’m done I swear. You don’t have to be ripping your hair out and crying daily from stress to find self-worth and growth. I’m using “you” as a hypothetical as if I’m talking to myself. I haven’t gotten so far as to start talking to myself, but we’re starting new things here so why not. There’s an opportunity to disconnect and progress through rest, through stillness. It’s a difficult lesson I’m learning while adjusting to the ‘new normal.’ Resting to repair an immune system counts as progress. Reading because it quells your anxiety counts as growth. Don’t let anyone else define your growth in arbitrary metrics. To humans a cocoon hangs stagnant, if not for the wind, but inside a creature becomes a winged beauty.

This Kabocha, Date, Nut Bread Kept Me Occupied While Social Distancing

food, recipes

Cut it out. Yes, I’m talking to you, regular person who feels the need to criticize anyone baking during this time. It’s a great time to bake anything – whether you’re using up overripe bananas or making a focaccia and pretending you’re in Italy. Let people enjoy THINGS. Let baking be the escapism folks flock to for comfort during a scary and anxiety-inducing time.

So apologies to anyone who wants to force professional productivity on others. No, I will not be writing my magnum opus or conducting vital research. I will be baking because that will keep my body and soul fed and at peace. Stay mad about it.

NOW – why am I using squash for a springtime recipe? Well, because it’s important to use what you have on hand right now. As we all take stock (and make stock – AYYY) and assess what constitutes a necessary trip to the grocery store, we should see what we can use from our home inventory first, and that means checking the freezer.

For as long as I can remember, we never wasted pumpkins or squash. After Halloween and Thanksgiving my mom would take decorative, but edible gourds and kill them. This means roasting and steaming pumpkins and acorn squash and pureeing the flesh into smooth, orangey-yellow sustenance, roasting the seeds too for a salty savory snack. We would be pumpkin’d out with soups, pies, cookies and cakes before running out of puree, so into the freezer went pints and quarts of creamy orange goo for months. Since the apple doesn’t fall far in my case, that’s exactly the chain of events that lead me to unearthing pureed kabocha from my freezer. I also had pecans I used to make a Basically Baking recipe and dates that I found on sale at my shopping sanctuary, Ocean State Job Lot. It was a perfect storm.

This recipe can be catered to whatever winter squash you have, though I’d steer clear of the heartier butternut squash or stringy spaghetti squash. Acorn squash and pumpkin, sharing similar flavors and consistencies with kabocha, would be welcome replacements. This bread will also work with walnuts instead of pecans. You can also omit the dates or nuts and substitute with a full cup of one filling if that’s your jam. Don’t skip the parchment paper lining if possible; this will make the cake easy to lift from the pan and reduce unwanted crispiness. This kabocha date nut bread should come out moist but not dense and wet – the end product will be delightful enough to eat sliced, and hearty enough to toast and spread with peanut butter.

Baking with a limited kitchen gives you, dear baker, the ability to riff as you please. So riff on people. And take lots of pictures and gloat to your heart’s content online – hell, tag me and I’ll gloat for you.

Kabocha, Date, Nut Bread

1-1/2 cups sugar

2 eggs

1 cup pureed kabocha squash

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 tbsp. cinnamon

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 cup chopped dates

1/2 cup chopped pecans

  1. Place oven rack on the middle to upper racks of your oven (we’re baking the cake up there, but we want space so it doesn’t touch the heating element). Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease the inside of a loaf pan and line with parchment paper.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk together sugar and eggs until light yellow and a little bit bubbly. Once combined, add squash puree, vanilla and cinnamon and whisk until incorporated.
  3. Slowly stream the vegetable oil into the batter.
  4. Sift together flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder into the wet ingredients. If you don’t have a sifter or you just hate sifting, whisk flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder in a separate bowl and whisk into wet ingredients until combined, without lumps.
  5. Coat dates in a pinch of flour. This will prevent them from clumping together.
  6. Fold in pecans and dates until they feel evenly dispersed throughout the batter.
  7. Pour batter into prepared loaf pan.
  8. Bake for 1 hour, or until golden on the outside, and a cake tester inserted in the thickest part comes out dry.

 

Sustainable Habits During a Crisis

lifestyle

So I can’t beat around the bush: the world is a wild place right now and many, if not everyone, reading this has been staying home for one reason or another. At the very least, I hope everyone reading this is minimizing trips out and keeping social activities virtual. In this moment I’m learning that sustainability in my life is experiencing a change for better and for worse.

As you may know, I’m passionate about reducing my carbon footprint through my lifestyle choices. I shop second hand, limit my single-use products and reduce food waste where I can. In these respects, some parts of my life have not changed with the onset of social distancing. I’ve been home enough to make use of all my leftovers and food scraps, I haven’t had a desire to even leave the house and shop, and my reusable products are saving me trips to the store and keeping me from hoarding products that I do not need. In some respects, my shift towards a more sustainable lifestyle has made this major change a little easier.

However, in other ways it has been safer to understand that public health must come first and that may require using more disposable products. Look, I’m not about to stubbornly frown upon people from a sustainable high horse while simultaneously putting those people in danger. Disposable gloves, single-use masks and disposable disinfectant wipes are crucial to keeping public spaces safe for immunocompromised people and essential workers. Processed and packaged foods can stretch your pantry to reduce your grocery store trips and that’s okay. Living with someone considered an essential employee means taking some of those not-so-eco-friendly practices into my home, primarily using more disposable paper towels and disinfectant wipes to get surfaces clean without potentially contaminating other surfaces. Also using more chemicals to keep spaces as clean as possible. It’s not an easy change, but it’s a necessary shift for this moment in time. Even Lauren Singer of Trash is for Tossers has had to compromise some of her sustainable practices for the sake of public health and safety.

So maybe you’re saying “Marcella, what sustainable practices CAN I maintain during this time?” I’m so glad you asked.

Keep in mind that, like Lauren said in her post about prioritizing values during this crisis, the ability to purchase sustainable and unsustainable products (especially in bulk for the sake of the latter) is a massive privilege in this country and in this moment. I’m fortunate to be able to support myself with these means right now. If you, like me, feel this way I encourage you to help where you can: don’t hoard food and support local, non-profit initiatives like food banks and farms.

You can repurpose old shirts, socks and towels into rags for cleaning surfaces. I’ve been doing this recently to give new life to items that can’t be donated to second hand shops. It’s something my mom always did that didn’t make much sense to me until this point in my life. This is helpful especially if you’re trying to limit your paper towel usage to important things like food preparation and cleaning high-traffic surfaces. I use these for kitchen spills, cleaning glass and mirrors and dusting hard surfaces. You can make the most of the paper towels you have by thinking about what HAS to be disposed of versus what can be thrown in the wash. Therefore, no need to hoard.

Using fewer disposable hygiene products also reduces waste and trips to the grocery store. There used to be nothing worse than having to make a trip to a pharmacy or grocery store for just tampons, especially after going to the grocery store the DAY BEFORE. So in this time I’m thankful for my menstrual cup and safety razor, two items that are going to help me save money and reduce unnecessary trips to stores.

Lastly, being home all day and needing to be resourceful in the kitchen is the perfect soup storm. Meaning, save your scraps PEOPLE! Mushroom stems, onion skins, chicken bones – you name it. Roast your scraps to release some deep flavors, throw it all in a stock pot and add spices of your choice and water and let simmer all day while you work from home. Now you have homemade stock, which can then be the canvas for many dinners. Add leftover cooked veggies or wilted greens and give them new life. Add noodles and crunchy carrots for chicken noodle soup, or a beaten egg for stracciatella. This whole experience has made me more resourceful, and cooking has provided an escape from daily anxiety.

I’m so sick of living in these interesting times, and I’m sure you are too. I yearn to see my friends and hug my family, but right now I understand my responsibility to stay home. I hope you’re all staying safe and healthy, and I hope you can relate to some of these sustainability challenges during these times.

Tangy and Bright Marinated Beans

food, recipes

You may be like me right now: using pent-up anxious energy to haul your Dutch oven to the stove at 8 a.m. to prepare a big pot of beans. I feel like I’m on nonna time – waking up early and letting bread rise or soup simmer until some shoulder tension eases. It’s only a matter of time before I’m in a “house dress” and wearing leather soled shoes while I putter around my house. For now, the meditative stirring and gentle burbling of long cooked beans melts the worry away. And bonus, I get extra creamy, flavorful beans at the end of it all!

I typically make my dried beans the same way each time, not for a lack of creativity, but for the broad application of the flavors. For starters, I soaked my beans overnight and put them in fresh water in the morning to cook. I just like using fresh cooking water to have a clean start – I leave my beans on the countertop overnight. Who knows what the night goblins drop in there, you know?

Right into that heavy Dutch oven go lemon peel, crushed garlic, salt, black pepper, bay leaves, red pepper flakes and a good amount of olive oil. A pot of beans loves a little fat, so feel free to put in bacon, salami, or other fatty, salty meats. I personally just like to keep my beans vegetarian – truly rated E for everyone beans. Over a gentle heat, simmer the beans until they are infused with flavor and creamy inside.

Now after this you will undoubtedly have an overabundance of beans. Even using a fraction of the dried beans will yield just SO MANY beans. Whether it’s cause for concern, or a cause for celebration you will need to find ways to consume said beans without getting sick of them. Maybe on day one you make a plate with crusty bread, a pile of beans and some bean liquid and top it off with a runny egg. Another time you add the beans to some greens and serve that over pasta with a generous sprinkling of cheese…Then what?

You definitely don’t want your beans to go bad – so why not give them an olive oil bath to preserve them for as long as possible? Inspired by Marcella Hazan’s marinated eggplant and marinated pepper recipes from Marcella’s Italian Kitchen, I thought marinating beans would yield a product equal parts delicious and sustainable. These marinated beans use lemon juice and olive oil, but any acidic liquid could replace the lemon juice. Red wine vinegar would also be lovely. Additionally, any herbs, spices or funky additions like chilis would yield both flavorful preserved beans with a delicious vinaigrette.

What I love even more than the long shelf life is the ability to just add more beans to the existing liquid. Got a jar of olive oil with a few beans in it? Add more string beans or white beans. As long as the olive oil prevents bean-air contact, your beans are safe to enjoy.

I like to pile these beans onto some crusty bread with sliced radishes and some salty, hard cheese. These are also a welcome addition to salad (using some marinade as dressing, obviously) or a side to fish. You could even make a zesty, cold pasta salad with the beans and marinade for a riff on a picnic staple. Regardless, you’ll have bottled springtime you can crack open even when there’s snow on the ground in March.

Marinated Beans

1/2 cup cooked white or navy beans

1/2 cup blanched string beans, cut into half-inch pieces

Juice from 1 lemon

Extra virgin olive oil

  1. Get yourself a little glass jar to store your beloved beans. I’m using a stout little Ball jar from some leftover jam.
  2. Layer your white beans and string beans in the jar. They don’t have to be stacked one way or another, the jar will get a good shaking later. Just leave some room between the beans and the lid.
  3. Juice the lemon right over the jar, being mindful of seeds. Now is when you can also add any herbs to the mix.
  4. Cover the remainder of the beans with olive oil, making sure all beans are submerged and there’s still room between the top of the jar and the oil.
  5. Place the lid on tightly and shake to combine the beans with the liquid. It will separate during storage, but it’ll at least give all the beans a chance to get to know the flavors.
  6. Keep refrigerated and dive in whenever you want.

The Sourdough Starter Guide I Send My Friends

food

Hey! What’s up? It’s ya girl, The Bread Doula. So…you want to bring a sourdough starter to life? I’m so proud of you! But this shit is like having a real baby, except you can leave it on the counter all day. So it’s not like a baby at all, but it is a high maintenance kitchen project so buckle the fuck up chica.

First things first: The Jar. You want a pretty big boy in terms of jars. I would recommend at least a 3 cup jar or larger. No lid? No problem! You can cover loosely with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap. If using the actual jar lid, only screw it on loosely so that shit doesn’t explode. Before you put anything in the jar, boil it in water to make sure it’s as sterile as possible!

Now you can make that baby ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°) When starting this bitch you want equal parts BY WEIGHT of flour and water. So get a kitchen scale for accuracy. They’re like super cheap anywhere. I think they’re like $5 at Target. Water weighs more than flour so you’ll always use what looks like twice the amount of flour compared to water. This is CORRECT!

So how much flour and water do you need? Start by mixing 4 ounces of flour and water together. By this I mean 4 ounces of flour and 4 ounces of water. I’m worried you may have thought I meant 2 ounces of flour and 2 ounces of water. Just clarifying. I have anxiety.

Anyway. Mix it until no streaks remain and scrape off any from the sides with a rubber spatula. Leave this in a warm corner of the kitchen with the lid loosely screwed on (or one of the other options I suggested above).

If you do this in the morning and leave it all day, you might come home to a mixture with a few bubbles in it and that shit is EXCITING. But wait, there’s MORE! Feed it again! Another four ounces each, mixy mixy and scrapey scrapey. Cover it and leave it overnight.

By this time it will literally GROW! It’ll look all bubbly and weird. Now before feeding again, it’s smart to discard at least half of what’s in the jar. It’s not REQUIRED but no one wants to find starter all over the counter because it outgrew the jar. That’s like the sourdough equivalent of your baby yaking all over their crib in the middle of the night. The worst, probably. I don’t know.

“But Marcella that’s WASTEFUL!” Ya bish I KNOW! Which is why you can make a bunch of shit with the discard INSTEAD! I’ve made crackers, biscuits, pancakes, pizza dough and popovers. It’s so good but damn so many baked goods.

After about 5 days of this – your starter might be active enough to use in bread! To check if it’s ready, drop a little bit of starter in a glass of water. If the starter floats, you can make some bread!

Now, what if you can’t keep up with feedings? Slap that bad boy in the fridge! You can pull out the starter in the morning, feed it, leave it out all day, and then put it in the fridge overnight. Or just feed it once a week after putting it in the fridge. Whatever you want man, I haven’t fed mine in weeks and it’s probably fine.

So get real in touch with the yeast around you and make everyone you live with INSANE! Have fun, be yourself and also call me if something goes wrong at 1-800-is-ur-bread-fucked

I Finally Tried ThredUp and Here’s What I Think

lifestyle, Vintage

So I’m not the official authority on thrifted clothing but I know a thing or two about the whole process. I’ve been trying to make the conscious effort to shop ethically and sustainably which sometimes means shelling out a bit of money for something well made and ethically sourced, or sifting through racks of second hand clothing at my nearest Goodwill or Savers. Personally, I like visiting thrift stores and spending time finding a piece that speaks to me. Without an agenda, a sense of “oh I really NEED a new black dress,” and instead a sense of “what treasures can I find today,” I find the hunt exciting. It’s an activity. However, what happens when you want something specific and don’t want to shell out the money for a high quality version because it’s just not the “worth it” sort of item? That’s when you use ThredUp.

Disclaimer: I don’t want my opinions to deter anyone from using ThredUp. I think any move towards more sustainable options (that may be more accessible due to price point and online fulfillment) is a good move. These are just some questions/concerns/stipulations I had before ordering, and my experiences. Spoiler alert: I would shop at ThredUp again.

I placed my first order on ThredUp on a slow Thursday at work. Honestly, ThredUp can be akin to a thrift store when you surpass the filters and search options, making it a great source for afternoon scrolling. This time, however, I was looking for two specific things: a pair of khakis and a sundress. My first praise to ThredUp comes here: I found both items easily through the filters. I could sort by my size, brands that I like and colors I prefer. I landing on a pair of Uniqlo khakis (a brand that makes pants that actually fit my weird body) and a grey linen Tahari dress.

While I found what I was looking for, now would be a good time to mention some critiques. While I understand that these items are second hand and the site might have a high turn-over rate, clothing often looks a bit disheveled in the photos. The descriptions offer some assistance (both items were classified as “like new”) but when the photo looks one way and the caption says another thing, you get weary. This was actually a deterrent from me ordering clothing sooner. But with enough assurance from other people, I gave it a shot. My other critique: price point. Yes, I know the designer brands and expensive name brands see a high markdown from traditional retail price, that discount diminishes when it comes to other brands. For example, you can probably find Old Navy items in the actual store on clearance for the same price they are listed for on ThredUp, and if you’re shopping second hand due to budget, this isn’t quite the discount you may need. You can probably find some mid-tier brand items even cheaper at actual brick and mortar thrift stores, however without the luxury of pre-sorting items and browsing online.

Nevertheless, I placed my two item order: $29.75. Definitely more than what I’d pay in a traditional thrift store for two items. I actually paid $3 for a pair of pants at a thrift store one week later. Shipping was $5.99 – another critique but something inevitable for an online retailer, I guess. I was STOKED to get a package in the mail, though. It’s like giving a present to yourself. A treat!

Yet, I waited a week for my items to arrive. No big deal, I wasn’t in a rush, but I was less than excited to get two separate packages for only two items. I’m all for sustainability, which is why I shop second hand in the first place, but part of the sustainability process is minimizing both packaging and shipping frequency. Aside from the plastic outer packaging, the inside only had a paper sticker and tissue paper, which was nice because it was recyclable.

Upon receiving both items, I was pleasantly surprised to find them in better condition than they appeared online – a shock as almost everyone looks better online. Good job, ThredUp. The dress was virtually wrinkle free (although that changed once I gave it the requisite wash) and the pants looked as if they had never been worn. I can foresee myself wearing both items regularly and for quite some time, an advantage considering the prices. In addition, both items fit, and while I’m not sure if that’s attributed to good luck or accurate sizing, I’m happy with that fact.

So what is the final verdict? I may not shop on ThredUp frequently. For the higher prices, lengthy shipping time and ambiguous quality, I would rather partake in my favorite pastime and sort through musty racks of clothing. However, for the times when I need a new black cardigan or a specific party dress I can happily turn to ThredUp knowing my purchase will still fit this part of my sustainable lifestyle. When I’m in the mood to spend money and shop online, I’d rather turn to ThredUp.

Prove Your Love: Make This Lasagna for Someone Special

food, recipes

What’s the most romantic food? Mass produced strawberries dipped in chocolate arranged like the finest rose bouquet? Spaghetti and meatballs served to you and your loved one in an ally accompanied by two old Italian men singing? Probably neither of those. For me, I say it’s lasagna and here’s why.

Lasagna is no small feat. It’s not an easy weeknight dinner you can just throw together. At least mine isn’t. This layered, decadent treat takes planning, multitasking and easily a full day if not longer. It’s a labor of love that requires the thought,” I’m going to make lasagna as a special meal for a special person.” It’s like making an intricate birthday cake but instead it’s savory and creamy and fills your home with a loving, familiar scent. Italians have taken tomatoes, cheese and carbs to new heights, but no other variation can top the end result that is cutting into layers of lasagna baked to perfection. I decided to make this for Valentine’s Day, but just like how you show love on Valentine’s Day, it’s appropriate for any time of the year.

Now this particular recipe from my great grandma’s recipe box still remains a mystery. As mentioned in the mysterious meat sauce that makes up one third of this lasagna recipe, no one knows who wrote this recipe and how it ended up in the box. My grandma tells me that all the recipes in the box were either written by my great grandma or my grandma assisting her. The only other potential scribe would be one of my great grandma’s friends, but unfortunately it’s impossible to track down that information now. What I know for certain based on the pin holes in this worn piece of loose leaf is that this recipe was well loved by previous owners. There’s no doubt.

While many people make lasagna with a cheese only layer, this recipe calls upon béchamel to achieve even, creamy layers to hold the lasagna together. Upon doing some research, this is common for lasagna from the Emilia Romagna region (you know, the Italian region that has given humanity absolute hits like parmigiano reggiano, balsamic vinegar and Massimo Bottura). While béchamel is really one of the French mother sauces, it’s used widely as the base for only the creamiest dishes. If you’ve had a home made mac and cheese that blows the blue box away, you can probably thank béchamel.

While this recipe clearly outlines how to make the bolognese sauce and the béchamel sauce, as well as how to order the layers (bolognese, grated parmigiano reggiano, and béchamel), it leaves out how to cook the noodles and for how long and at what temperature to bake the assembled dish. Some people cook the noodles fully before assembling, some people don’t even bother to cook the noodles at all, but since this recipe does not use the otherwise popular mozzarella and ricotta mixture in the assembly, I knew I had to do my research. And as luck would have it, Chris Morocco from the Bon Appetit test kitchen uploaded a whole video on Bon Appetit’s Best Lasagna, and by luck, once again, his version uses bolognese and béchamel sauces. Bingo. Therefore this recipe combines the translated Italian recipe found worn and well-loved in my great grandma’s recipe box with the technique approved by the Bon Appetit test kitchen. After all, it’s probably a good sign that the two are so similar.

The Perfect Lasagna

For the mysterious meat sauce

Olive oil

4 tbsp. butter

1 carrot, diced

1 celery stalk, diced

1 medium onion, diced

1 pound ground beef

1 – 28 oz can or jar of tomatoes (I like to use passata or pureed tomatoes)

Salt & pepper

  1. Melt the olive oil and butter in a 4 qt Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot.
  2. Once the butter is melted, add the carrot, celery and onion and salt. Cook the vegetables until soft, then add the beef. Cook everything, breaking up the ground beef and stirring until the beef is cooked, and everything is combined.
  3. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper. Cook for about an hour until the crumbled beef and diced vegetables are thoroughly mixed and the sauce is at your desired consistency.
For the béchamel sauce

4 tbsp. butter

4-5 tbsp. all purpose flour

1 liter of milk

Salt and pepper to taste

  1. In a saucepan melt butter.
  2. Add 4 tablespoons of flour to start and whisk together. For a thicker sauce, add one additional tablespoon. Stir the flour and butter continuously, careful to not let it take on too much color.
  3. Add milk in small quantities while whisking.
  4. Stir while allowing the mixture to cook for about 10 minutes or until it’s thick enough to coat a spoon.
  5. Add salt and pepper to taste.
For the noodles

1-lb box of lasagna noodles

  1. Boil a pot of water as if about to make pasta, but add olive oil. Adding olive oil will prevent the noodles from sticking together while cooking and after if making them ahead of assembling your lasagna.
  2. Boil 2-3 sheets of lasagna noodles at a time. Like in the Bon Appetit recipe, they should be far under al dente, “until just starting to soften but still snap in half rather than bend when folded.”
  3. Once to desired consistency either place them directly on the lasagna in a full layer, or drizzle with more olive oil and let cool on a baking sheet.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until the whole box is made.
For the assembly
  1. Pre-heat the oven to 325 F.
  2. Add one layer of bolognese sauce to the bottom of the casserole dish. This should be 1 to 1-1/2 cups of sauce.
  3. Layer the sheets of lasagna noodles over the sauce. It’s okay if the noodles don’t cover every square inch because they will expand but be sure to fill as much space as possible. This may mean cutting noodles and filling spaces with tiny bits.
  4. Continue the assembly in this order until the final layer: bolognese, shredded parmigiano reggiano, béchamel, and noodles.
  5. Once you reach the top of the casserole dish (or you run out of noodles), finish the top of the lasagna with a final layer of béchamel and shredded parmigiano reggiano. Top with freshly grated black pepper.
  6. Loosely cover the lasagna with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour. This will prevent the dish from drying out. After an hour, increase the temperature to 425 F and bake uncovered for 10-15 minutes or until it is browned to your liking.
  7. THIS IS IMPORTANT: let the lasagna cool for at least 10 minutes before cutting and enjoying. The layers need to settle down so you get nice and clean slices.

These Anisette Cookies and a Pot of Coffee are a Match Made in Heaven

food, recipes

Everyone is getting engaged and married and truly I feel sorry. Because no one will have a stronger, more solid union than my great grandma’s anisette cookies and an entire pot of black coffee. Honestly, where’s that love comparison? I just want someone to compliment me the way anise biscotti compliments hot coffee. Where’s that romance?

“Ninety nine cents would get you a pound of these cookies.” Thinking about the light-weight of each crispy baked wedge made me realize the sheer volume that equates. “We would bring them home and drink a whole pot of coffee,” says my mom. It’s true, these cookies practically beg for a dunk before each bite, after which the harmonious union of coffee and anisette simply transports you to an old-fashioned Italian-American bakery of yore. So good you almost don’t feel bad about eating a few for breakfast. Oops.

This recipe, another mysterious find from my great grandma’s recipe box, was entirely written in English which could mean one of two things: it is once again not hers, or she had serious help writing it. In a comparison between this and her snippets of attempting English in other recipes, it appears that this is her handwriting. Impressive if so, but also curious. Someone definitely helped her, perhaps speaking the translation and showing her how to spell each word with some corrections on the way.

This recipe is also one of the rare recipes from the box that includes all measurements, oven temperature and a procedure. Truly miraculous when all others are written in at least two languages and have little clues pertaining to how the flour and baking powder eventually become a sponge cake. That being said, this recipe was also easy by most baking standards: add ingredients to the bowl, beating after each addition, then pouring the batter into a greased cake pan, baking until golden brown, slicing and baking again for maximum crispiness. This technically makes them biscotti.

Biscotti, though typically what Italians call a cookie, literally translates to baked twice. Most traditional biscotti have nuts or candied fruit in them and turn out just a touch drier, denser and tougher. Still absolutely delicious, but this recipe is unlike those cookies. These cookies are lighter and more tender. Still crispy, but you won’t have to clamp down on the cookie with your molars in order to take a bite. The coffee isn’t necessary to soften the cookie, it just tastes good.

I prefer espresso in general over coffee, but, as Ina Garten would probably say, if you can’t make espresso then regular coffee is just fine. Just try to resist eating them all.

My Great Grandma’s Anisette Cookies

4 eggs

1 cup sugar

3 tsp anise extract

3/4 cup cooking oil (canola oil)

1-1/2 cup flour

2 tsp baking powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Add all ingredients in order given beating well after each addition. Pour into greased 9×13 pan.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown.

Remove from pan and slice into 1 inch strips.

Place on an ungreased cookie sheet for another 10 minutes to toast.

Garlic and Ginger Hot Sauce to Spice Up Your Life

food

I used to go to a Zumba class and we would dance to a song with lyrics “you got da sauce, you got da sauce,” and I’d be like yeah I DO got the sauce. Anyway, the hot sauce making continues and this time I added a few twists.

As always, I followed Joshua Weissman’s lacto-fermented hot sauce recipe and added my own spin on it. Previously I’ve used this recipe to make a green version and I’ve encouraged other people to add their own flare, including my mom who made a version with roasted tomatillos. For my sauce I knew I wanted to incorporate another toasted flavor in addition to the garlic. Enter ginger. Instead of the original recipe’s eight cloves of garlic, I used six cloves and about an inch of ginger root cut into thin disks. Like the recipe says, I toasted the garlic in a neutral oil with the ginger to create this aromatic, infused oil. Since this gets drizzled into the sauce at the end, the flavors become amplified.

For the peppers I also wanted to try something new. In addition to fresno chilis I found some long hot peppers. Initially I was only going to use the long hot chilis but I tasted a teeny tiny piece and thought it would be a bit much. I fermented these peppers in the same jar for six days. Water got cloudy. Some bubbles developed. All that good stuff.

But what will this be for? When it comes to hot sauce some may say I have it all. Although, chances are, no one is talking about my hot sauce collection. While the standard hot sauces tend to pair well with anything (I’m talking from lamb barbacoa to boxed mac and cheese) I wanted something a little more niche. You can find gourmet hot sauces with all sorts of additives like peach, blueberry and smoked peppers. I wanted in on that with something almost exclusively for noodles and rice. I’ve been on an Instant Pot rice kick and the leftover rice is ideal for fried rice. A little kick from this would knock leftover stir fry out of the park. Not to mention, the spicy, ginger flavors would kill any cold immediately and be a welcome addition to winter soups.

So stoked to once again have da sauce.

 

Becoming New in 2020

lifestyle

It really was the year of realizing things, but good riddance 2019.

Growing pains aren’t only physical. No one warns you about the emotional growing pains present beyond adolescence. The first year post-grad was about living in the moment and making rookie mistakes. It was about working two jobs and drinking beers while painting your apartment. It was about realizing the woes of today’s job market.

In 2019 I made a lot of changes. I changed jobs, I moved into another state, I live with someone, and I’m realizing I’m worth more than I’ve bargained for.

Look, I’m a smart lady. This past year I’ve looked at myself and surged with confidence, and a sense of “what am I doing to be better?”

As a woman, especially as a woman in her early 20s, I’m overwhelmingly proud to see opportunities and not limitations before me. There’s so much more available today than what gender norms have afforded women in the past. It’s made me realize so much.

Like body hair. It’s beautiful. It’s comfortable. And while it can make folks uncomfortable it’s also no one else’s business. My whole life I shaved my legs every day. Dancing and performing somehow instilled a need to always have shaved legs so hairs wouldn’t poke through tights and other people wouldn’t be uncomfortable during those tactful quick-changes. And this year I got sick of it. Because it’s so much more comfortable to shave on your own terms and not because you feel others would find it unsightly. Do you. Your comfort is gorgeous on you.

I realized that the more items I throw away the more money I throw away. I mean for anyone who doesn’t see the urgency behind climate change, reducing your single-use items just helps save money. Not only has sustainability been top of mind, but investing in better quality, non disposable items has been a practical improvement. From mindful clothing purchases to bars of soap without packaging, long-lasting, low-waste items offer more stability than low-quality, disposable products. Plus, it feels good to struggle filling up the trash can each week. It’s ignited a desire try to reduce waste even more. Do I want to start a balcony compost garden? Do I want to, oh I don’t know, never buy new clothes again? Regardless, boy do I love not shelling out $12+ for razors every month.

I realized my extrovert self loves a live-in companion. My boyfriend is my best friend and living together has improved the quality of my life ten fold. Coming home to a friend after work makes evenings more pleasant. There’s always someone to hang out with on weekends. There’s someone to commiserate with when times are tough. I’m thankful for the opportunity to live alone for a year and truthfully everyone should get that chance, but finding happiness living with a friend, a significant other or even alone is a bliss I hope everyone achieves.

But 2019 wasn’t full of easy-to-swallow pills.

College doesn’t teach a course on coping with existential turmoil. In 2019 it occurred to me that I don’t actually know what I want to do. But 2019 revealed who I want to be. This world is plagued with so much bad and doing nothing is just as good as contributing to the bad. If you’re not helping you’re hindering, to quote someone wise. I realized I want to actively do something good. And that’s not easy. My indecision and professional discontent has shown me that using my brain for something important might be worth more than the expectation of a stable 9-5. I realized that you don’t have to have it all figured out at 23. Tons of people do and they’re lucky, but if you don’t it’s okay.

It’s the realization that no, I may not be where my friends are in a year, in five years, or ever. There will be no settling down any time soon. But spending the time now to figure out who I’ll be later is worth my time now.

So where does that put me in 2020? Well, I’ll be working really hard. I’ll probably cry a decent amount. I may not see a lot of people or do the traveling I hoped to do. But I finally want to work towards a goal greater than simply coasting.

My 2020 goals include being better to my body and mind while also studying my butt off and writing more. I want to constantly be reading and taking short adventures here and there. I want to surround myself with people who can support me, because part of me knows I won’t be able to do this alone.

I don’t want to reveal too much, but I’m excited and anxious and nervous and I’m ready to share it all here.