Fall Leaves and Boots

My Mindful Exercise: 30 Days of Thanksgiving

lifestyle

Around 4 years ago I was spending too much time working and not enough time taking care of myself. Weeks of antibiotics took a toll on my physical, mental and interpersonal well-being – not to mention I was non stop working and taking pride in my inability to remember meals or get adequate sleep. It was a toxic form of Stockholm Syndrome where I was growing to love the alienated, unwell version of myself because I associated being exhausted to being important. This was my sophomore year of college, an extremely formative year not just in spite of but because of some of those hard times. This tradition grew out of something unpleasant and that’s always my hope whenever November comes along.

So this is 30 Days of Thanksgiving, a 30 day mindfulness exercise that not only changes my mindset but also prepares me for the holiday carnage. After Halloween ends folks jump straight to Christmas and sentences brim with “I want” statements. “I want a boyfriend,” “I want some new boots,” those kind of “I want” statements that seem greedy and sometimes unrealistic. It really changes the season of giving into a season of taking.

Honestly, slow down. Christmas will come like it does every year. It’s draining, and I’m sure I’m not the only one anxiety-ridden and stressed. What we miss by rushing through November is an opportunity to take care of ourselves and appreciate the little, every day things we take for granted. This is especially necessary before the draining, hectic holiday season. I mean, is anyone ready for heavy traffic and throwing elbows at the mall? I’m not.

How does it work?

This could very well be a journal activity, but I prefer to do this on Instagram as a way to bring realism and positivity into the social media realm, something lacking in a lot of hyper-produced, inauthentic content that circulates among the many genuine accounts. Every day, no matter how down I feel, I think of one thing I’m thankful for. It could be anything: people, places, things. You know the drill.

Now despite hard days that inevitably arise when it gets dark at 5pm, you have to keep going. Last year I remember getting a flat tire on my way to meet someone for dinner. It was a perfect situation: no tire iron, no car jack, no roadside assistance. Thankfully, the person I was meeting for dinner drove the extra hour to meet me. We called a local roadside service to change my tire, and after a few hours and about a hundred dollars we were en route to finally get some food. The CBD cocktail I drank with dinner made me ugly cry in the shower a few hours later, but despite all that (plus the next day’s waiting for new tires) I still could find something to be thankful for.

Personally, I find that putting this out on social media almost manifests a positive attitude. There’s something about writing it down and getting input from friends and followers that feels comforting, like we’re all living through November together. However, there are other variations depending on what you can manage. I mentioned bringing this exercise analog in a journal, but you can also verbally express thanks. Tell the people around you when you feel thankful for their presence. Tell your favorite barista that despite your long commute, you’re thankful for mornings because their drinks bring you comfort. Hell, tell the pizza guy that you’re thankful for that stuffed crust. Whatever you choose please don’t forget the reason for the activity. Keep your gratitude front and center even when you’re not posting about it on social media or writing it down in your journal.

Intentionally burning food was my first sign of true adulthood

food

A timid child, I cried at damn near everything. Couldn’t get the combination in dance class? I cried. Someone made a harmless joke? I cried. I was frustrated easily and fragile beyond help. I was insecure and sheepish for years. That girl is long gone now, but the lingering effects held on in one facet of my life: my cooking. I loved cooking and baking, but I yearned for perfection every time. There were never burnt edges or crispy bits on any of my baked goods or meals, but that resulted in undercooking nearly everything. Setting timers for the minimum cooking time and being the most pesky oven checker were my culinary downfalls. I craved perfection so tenaciously that my efforts had the opposite effect entirely.

Early in my college career my love for food manifested itself into my academics. In my journalism classes I squeezed food into every assignment I could, from political assignments to longform creative pieces. I attempted to become that modern urban farmgirl who cooked squash and overnight oats and blogged about it. I was passionate about local honey and became evangelical about eating locally and seasonally. I had ancient grains coming out of my ears. I needed to have my quirky side and excel at something niche. I snagged an internship with a local food publication and became a published food writer. And yet, each time I roasted a vegetable I couldn’t keep my hands off the oven handle. I hauled squash from the farmers market to class only to bring it home and woefully under season or undercook it for the sake of not making a mistake. I was the girl watching the pot boil. I would peek into the door and feel the warm dry heat on my face, look at the slight color on whatever was cooking, and take it out prematurely. I would take food out of the oven, plate the dish and realize it was undercooked after slicing into it, after which I would throw it in the microwave and nuke the crap out of it, making up for lost time.

My desire to achieve perfection overshadowed my research and knowledge. The hours I spent reading Bon Appetit and Food52 were wasted because my internal monologue inserted itself into the narrative. I knew that color equaled flavor. I knew that salt was essential to all recipes and despite knowing those facts and more, my food was timid and colorless. I was a people pleaser down to my core, and while then I would never admit it, now I see how desperate I was to be an image of perfection through and through. I can definitely attribute that (and probably any aforementioned insecurities) to some form of anxiety. I would bring baked goods to family gatherings and sit anxiously as everyone cut into my acceptably cooked and seasoned pie, knowing that I could have cooked the crust longer or added spices other than cinnamon to the filling. I was obsessed with following a recipe and not deviating from that, fearing that a freestyle move might cost me my reputation. I made beautiful looking olive oil cakes that could have used extra time in the oven, or more lemon zest than the recipe required. While everyone loves the gooey, undercooked section of the brownie pan, everyone also likes the crispy edges. My insecurities revealed themselves in my inability to deliver both.

In any communal living situation and even when I would cook with my boyfriend, my sheepishness returned. Too nervous to make a mistake, I would either wait until the coast was clear and the kitchen was empty, or ask him (or whoever else I was cooking with) to do many of the things I knew I could do but just felt unsure about in the moment. Everyone’s a critic and for some reason, despite being the most amateur of amateurs, I was afraid my knife skills, or some other trivial aspect of my cooking, would insight mocks and giggles.

I’m now 22 and living alone. In my castle (this one bedroom apartment), I am the queen and I’m cooking for me and only me. It’s now that I’m getting dare I say edgy about cooking. I’m taking risks with flavors because who but me am I aiming to please? In the most cynical of ways, I didn’t care about disappointing myself. And yet, that’s how I achieved perfection, or what tasted like it. I love cooking onions until they stick to the pan and take on caramel sweetness. I love hearing sausages sizzle in the pan and take on crispy brown sides. I like seeing the edges of my fried egg become crispy and lacy from the heat. I season haphazardly knowing that no one around me can tell me something is too spicy. I don’t measure my spices with a spoon, but I feel the granules leave my palm as I just toss. I’m the queen of the kitchen sink, sometimes throwing whatever I have in my fridge together and wishing for the best while I let it simmer, bubble, or bake.

Taking control of my kitchen and eating food that I enjoyed unapologetically was a sign of adulthood. I realized that I actually like kale, provided it was smothered in olive oil and roasted into crisps. Deciding what to eat, when to eat it, and most importantly how to eat it seems menial but the creativity thrills me. You know you’re a real adult when dinner’s uncertain outcome becomes exciting. Cooking for myself, I feel shameless in my choices. I can eat spicy potatoes whenever I want, or breakfast for dinner on a Tuesday.

And mistakes? I don’t know her. In the words of Bob Ross, “there are no mistakes, only happy accidents.” Rarely does a silly mistake warrant an unsalvageable meal. Sometimes you just need to think it over and find a way to repurpose or rectify without retrograding and crying over a burnt pan sauce.

In this journey through burnt edges and sloppy sautés I’ve learned more about my heart than I’ve learned about cooking: there’s more to life than perfection, and if you’re a people pleaser make sure you don’t leave yourself out of the equation.

Cook Your Dang Fruit

food

Last weekend was a blur of eating greasy meals and understanding that I certainly can’t drink like I did in college. I desperately needed to eat a vegetable so on Sunday I bought kale, carrots, peppers and squash. When I came home I realized I still had some fruit in my crisper. I thought, “oh shoot, I have to eat this.” When I reached in the crisper the plums felt fine. The apples mostly were okay, except for one squishy, mealy monster. If I wasn’t in my current mindset, I would think to just throw it away. But that would be insane. This post should really be called “eat your dang fruit” but that would be too easy. No, when your fruits sit in your fridge for just a little too long think to cook them instead of throw them away.

I chopped up the apple and threw it into my new (spiffy) little red pot with just a little water so the sugars don’t burn to the bottom of the pot. I added cloves, cinnamon and honey and let it just simmer and spatter until the apples transformed into gooey goodness.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to cook fruit. It’s truly smart, especially when you clearly abandon your fruit for lack of interest. Cooked fruit tastes delightful in oatmeal or over greek yogurt and creates the illusion that you’re eating something new. It tastes special, like dessert. And what’s better than dessert on a weeknight?

Day 12 10/11/18

lifestyle

Today was bad. Like how I thought the white wine was sweet because I tasted it after a particularly dry rose, today was particularly bad because yesterday was just exquisite. I’m supposed to be at an industry event right now, but I hope you realize that I’m not since I’m publishing this at 7:51pm. I felt like I was hit by a truck today and went home sick. I continued to work, let me tell you. My body literally hates me for my work ethic. But day 12 is the day that got me. Day 12 is also the day that forced me to throw away food. I napped briefly in the middle of bowl of soup number 4 so that sat getting cold and sad on my night table. Whole wheat egg noodles are also low-key gross, but I wasn’t about to get picky with my sick foods. I am thankful, however that I have so many frozen meals that my mom brought me. I need something spicy to really knock the mucus out of my head (sorry). My head feels like a balloon on the verge of popping despite the bowls of hot water that I mulled over with my blanket scarf draped over my head.

I’m especially bummed about missing the industry event, but my friend Kelly put it best: real adults don’t go to work when they’re sick. Since I’ve been working I still find it hard to view my coworkers as peers since I’m the youngest person in the office. I feel as if I constantly need to prove myself and stick through each and every day like my head is on the chopping block. But the reality is, I get sick sometimes. Everyone gets sick sometimes. I wasn’t sick for over 3 months, but this week was the week that got me and that needs to be okay. Taking one day to re-charge was necessary. I even worked from home, which is an option that I’m so grateful to have. Self-care and self-preservation are essential right now. They’re the tools that will enable me to produce my best work once I’m well rested.

 

Adventures with Aretha

food

Let’s take a break from this ‘waste not’ challenge, shall we? While this adventure turned out to be pretty waste-free, it started as a desire to make my own, delicious bread. I birthed a sourdough starter. It’s a girl. I named her Aretha.

Aretha is about a week old and she’s feisty and a little stinky, but according to various online sourdough starter troubleshoot forums this is normal. It just needs time.

Aretha is teaching me a lot, especially about fermentation. Whether you know it or not, you love fermented foods. Cheese, buttermilk, beer, bread, wine, basically all things good are fermented. Fermentation lends a funk to food. It’s like the bass line in a seventies jam. It’s funky, and you love it. It’s why tangy pancakes and crusty bread make your heart sing. It’s why you put the pickles on your burger. Trust me, it’s all in the fermentation.

She’s also teaching me about patience. In the week that I’ve had the starter I’ve had to discard a lot in order to allow the yeast to mature and reach a stable, active state. This means I can wake up to a full, bubbly jar of starter only to have to dispose or repurpose half of it. The first time I dumped some starter, I looked at the space in the jar and panicked only a little. Man, I just wanted to make bread. But Aretha told me to stick it out for a little longer. And thank goodness she did.

Now in the week I’ve been growing my baby (too weird?) I’ve made some choices about discard. While the discarded starter would not be able to produce enough rise to make a loaf of bread, the discard does add that funk to a wide range of recipes including sourdough pancakes and sourdough biscuits. Adding the discard to pancakes emulates that buttermilk flavor reminiscent of real buttermilk pancakes. The texture may not be quite the same, but the pancakes make a great canvas for layering sweet or savory flavors. I had mine with both avocado and honey and it balanced very well with the funkiness of the batter. Next were the biscuits. Oh, the biscuits. Again, the sourdough created a mock-buttermilk tang in the biscuit, and the butter created those dang perfect layers I love to peel apart. While I maybe ate too many, the biscuits needed an extra oomf to make them really sing. As a trial run the biscuits were fine, but I’d love to see how they fare with cheddar or even honey mixed in.

So why sourdough starter? Well first off, it’s my kitchen and no one can tell me to not turn my countertop into a science experiment. Second, the starter has the potential to provide yeast for years with proper storage and feeding. Harvesting yeast is a simple process at it’s core but takes dedicated thought daily. It’s meditative and introspective to watch something literally come to life in your hands. Basically, sourdough starter is a tiny reminder that magic might actually exist if you’re whimsical enough to believe.

Get Lost in the Sauce

food

There’s a maintenance man at work who always enthusiastically tells me about his tomato sauce. It started because my name, Marcella, is literally so Italian it becomes synonymous with pizza and pasta to most people. Besides that, I love that this sweet guy tells me when he makes sauce and asks for help when he needs to improve it. I’ve opened him up to simmering to thicken and adding a bay leaf to reduce acidity (you’re welcome, by the way) and he can’t believe his results. It’s very sweet.

That being said, I thought I would try to actually follow a sauce recipe for the first time in my life. As an Italian woman you’re born with an innate knowledge of how to make sauce exactly how you like it. So why a recipe? Bon Appetit’s Basically is doing 10 recipes in 10 weeks, the first one being sauce. I was going to make something else for dinner but plans change and I had all the ingredients sorta. I used passata instead of peeled tomatoes and pecorino romano instead of parm (because money) but everything else remained true. The garlic, red pepper flakes and fresh basil were pretty routine, but it was the technique at the end that transformed this from good to great. Cooking the pasta below al dente, saving some pasta water and finish cooking the spaghetti in the simmering sauce with butter really made this a home run AND that’s something you can do with any pasta.

The other thing that really made this pop was the amount of salt I added to the pasta water. Add so much salt that you feel bad about it because as Samin Nosrat says in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat most of that salt will go down the drain with the extra water, but a lot of salt is needed for the noodles to absorb flavor. Salt isn’t a spice, it’s an essential mineral that when used will enhance the flavor and texture of your dishes. Don’t oversalt, but start to build your flavors and enhance what’s there by using salt.

Really what I learned is that technique can be everything, and technique can be simple for the home cook. Sure, maybe 5 star french pastries won’t be coming out of your kitchen any time soon, but damn good pasta will be minutes away every night.

Inspiration

Personal

I was feeling particularly uninspired this week. I felt like I was approaching a stand still in my life: nothing was happening. I was trying to create my own work and contribute something, but it just didn’t feel genuine or important. I’ve been thinking of the things that keep my motivated and creative in order to get out of this rut.

Staying in touch with your body is so important. Are you eating right? Are you washing your face? Are you exercising? I’ve been going to the gym bright and early in the morning. It gets me out of bed and I can get creative with my breakfast once I get home (see here). I indulged in a bottle of Trader Joe’s kombucha to make my tummy feel good with all of those probiotics. Drinking kombucha makes me feel like a health queen, and that inspired me to sketch and paint for a little while. I felt that since my body was at peace with itself, my mind was also at peace and could contribute something.

The gym also gives me something to look forward to. The Thursday night yoga class at my local gym is a treat. Yoga makes me feel the most in touch with my body as it involves so much of me. Breath, movement, and mindfulness join together and bring some much inner peace.

I learned that doing something, anything, inspires me. I drove to Trader Joe’s and that energized me. I went thrifting today and that got my creative wheels turning. Whether you spend all your money, or just browse, going to thrift stores could ignite creativity. When my tiny self goes thrifting, sizes do not matter. I could see the beauty and potential in a boy’s large or a women’s medium. I think of outfits I want to wear involving those “new” pieces. I think of what I want to look like and how I can make that happen with something at the store. Thinking of all the ways to achieve an aesthetic gives me creative solace. Even if I leave with nothing, I never leave with nothing.

Finally, a trip to Michaels was the icing on this inspiration train (too much?). I love watercolors and journaling. As you read here my travel journal is my favorite souvenir from my semester abroad. I decided to continue to keep in-depth details of my trips, so for my trip to Austria coming up I bought a small journal, portable watercolor brush, and rolls of washi tape to create a journal just for those 10 days. Nothing is more inspiring than fresh art supplies. I had a great time today testing watercolors and setting up this new journal.

I finally feel like I’m out of this rut. Finally.

Beans, my dude

food

Beans are so underrated. They transform over time and take days to make perfect, but the transformation is worth the wait.

All over Italy at those beloved outdoor markets vendors sell dried beans. I don’t know how, but they’re far superior to anything we can get in America. These dried beans are large to begin with, but after an overnight soak and another day of simmering on the stove, they become so large that they require cutting with a fork and knife just to eat. The beans soak in water first, then garlic, olive oil, red pepper flakes, and olive oil are added before they simmer on low all day.

I think my favorite part of this (aside from the creamy beans you get after over 24 hours of preparation) is the vintage crock that these beans soak and cook in. The reddish-brown clay pot was my great grandma’s and it’s a piece of cookware that inexplicably produces the best foods. There’s something about old cookware: I’m not sure if it’s a placebo effect or if the age makes a difference, but this is not the only piece of old cookware that produces the best of the best. My dad’s mom (my nonna) makes focaccia in her old pan. It inexplicably comes out better than any bread on this earth. We think it’s the pan, but it could just be Italian nonna magic.

Whatever it is, my dudes, I guess what I’m trying to say is that nonnas know best about everything from love to beans. Fill your soul with love, that’s what food (and nonnas) are for.

Treasures

Personal

 

I’ve kept journals for as long as I can remember. I definitely destroyed the ones from middle school/early high school, but these are the five I have in tact from the most recent years. Some span a few years, some span one summer, some span a few months, but all are great recounts of my emotions throughout these really formative years of my life.

 

This journal contains my thoughts from my senior year of high school all the way until right before I left for Florence. It spans two relationships and includes my transition from high school to college. In the back I have letters from friends and important mementos from those years. It ends abruptly, approximately 4 days before I boarded my flight to Europe.

 

 

This journal was given to me by my then boss right before I left for my first year of college. This was fun because it was guided and has pages containing everything I ate in a day and what I spent my money on as well. It also has lists of songs I liked, countdowns until fun events during that summer, and descriptions of new vegetables and fruits that I learned about on the farm.

 

 

 

Ah, my favorite. I wrote in this every day for 4 months during my semester abroad. It is FAT with business cards, tickets, and other mementos from the various countries and cities I visited. My roommate and I made sure that we both wrote on every night of our journey, and it resulted in the best souvenir that I have from those 4 months.

 

 

 

I bought this journal from Tiger, a store on my street in Florence. This wasn’t so much of a journal as it is an artistic account of my time in Florence and my interests now. I have watercolor paintings, calligraphy trials, and short stories in these pages. I continue to fill it whenever I can. I absolutely love keeping this one around.

 

 

Finally, this is my most current journal. I started this last summer after I returned from Florence. It has the thoughts about my adjustment back to America, as well as my senior year of college. Senior year was a doozy and unfortunately I couldn’t write in this every day, but I made sure to recap as best as I could even if it was weeks later. Yes, the beer stickers are upside down.

 

 

Keeping these has been the best decision of my young life (probably). Not only because I can see how I felt during different milestones in my life, but also because I can accurately accrue information about places and topics. I can refer people to certain places in Florence or Europe based on my abroad journal, or I can figure out what I was baking three summers ago based on my farm journal. I encourage anyone, especially young writers, to keep journals. Your future self will thank your past self for doing it.

 

 

Spritz Season

drink

I miss Italy. I lived there for four months during a semester abroad and I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said I never felt more myself. I embraced the culture and the culture embraced me. Something new and exciting that I enjoyed frequently was the spritz, specifically the Aperol spritz. Aperol is a bitter liqueur made from non-specific herbs. The liquid is bright red, like some magic love potion you’d see near a witch’s cauldron. Its a little bit bitter, a little bit sweet, and a whole lot delicious. Aperol is most commonly served in a spritz: a drink consisting of prosecco, Aperol, club soda, and an orange wedge. The drink is perfect for almost every occasion. Eating a panini on a hot day? Spritz. Getting ready for dinner? Spritz. This is a cocktail that quenches thirst and satisfies your senses. Even the appearance of the drink is enchanting due to the signature red hue of the liqueur. The bitterness of the Aperol contrasts with the sweet effervescence of the prosecco. I simply adore everything about it.

To me the drink reminds me of warmth and happiness. There are so many versions of spritzes consisting of those three main components: bitter liqueur, wine, and seltzer or club soda. I bought an entire book devoted to the art of the spritz. I’ve had versions with Campari instead of Aperol, making the drink more bitter, and different herbal liquers, like the Hugo spritz. Today I made mine using rosé, Aperol, and a splash of seltzer. The sweetness from the rosé against the bitterness of the Aperol created a refreshing drink that didn’t taste alcoholic in the slightest, meaning it was a dangerous concoction and I should only have one.

The Aperol spritz reminds me of my second home: Italy. It reminds me of the great times and adventures I had. It reminds me of the little things, like tasting new foods, that made me excited to wake up every morning.

Try your hand at a spritz, traditional or of your own creation, and celebrate the little adventures you can only hope to have each day.

For the spritz I made for this post, check out this link.