Friday, November 24, 2023

Thanksgiving 2023, with Calico Cat Cookies

Thanksgiving 2023 dawned as a freezing cold, yet beautiful and sunny day here in Northeast Georgia. My sister and nephew were visiting for a few days. I started the morning by running my first 8K race. (Only the third time that I have run this distance of 8 kilometers/ 5 miles). I finished it in decent time. Thanksgiving runs are very popular and now I see why! There were people running in turkey costumes and funny hats. It was a fun and cheerful time out in the fresh air before the day of feasting got underway.

We were a cozy group of 6 at the Thanksgiving table- 3 adults and 3 kids. I had toyed with the idea of making a innovative menu but in the end inertia, tradition, and the kids' wishes won out and we made more or less the same menu as last year. Don't fix what ain't broken, right?

  • Portobello Mushroom Wellington 
    • Puff pastry encasing roasted portobellos with a savory stuffing of pecans and chestnuts seasoned with fresh herbs, onion and garlic
  • Gardein Ultimate Plant-Based Chick’n Filets
  • Mac and cheese
    • In bechamel sauce, baked with a topping of breadcrumbs
  • Mashed potatoes
    • Made in the Instant pot
  • Garden salad
    • Mixed greens, carrots, red peppers in a balsamic dressing
  • Mushroom gravy
  • Cranberry sauce
    • Orange and cinnamon scented
  • Pumpkin pie
  • Chocolate pecan pie
    • I was glad it did not crack this time!

I'm jotting down the timeline of prep and cooking here for future reference. Having my sister around was so helpful- she made the crusts for both pie, and the entirety of the pumpkin pie, made the gravy, and we assembled the Wellington together. 
  • Tuesday
    • Review all recipes and stock up on ingredients
    • Make a double batch of pie crust, and store halves wrapped in the fridge
    • Make the cranberry sauce
  • Wednesday
    • Make the mashed potatoes and store in fridge
    • Make the mac and cheese and store in fridge
    • Roast portobellos and store in fridge
    • Make both pies and store in fridge
    • Make the salad, and the dressing in a separate jar
      • Serve half of the salad with takeout pizza for dinner
  • Thursday
    • Make the gravy on the stovetop
    • Make the stuffing for the Wellington
      • Start by making fresh breadcrumbs, which will be used for the mac and cheese topping and also for the stuffing
    • Fire up the oven
      • Bake the mac and cheese with a breadcrumb topping
      • Bake the chick'n filets
      • Assemble and bake the Wellington
    • Warm the mashed potatoes in microwave oven
    • Toss the salad
    • Serve a buffet meal at 1:30 PM followed by a nap
    • Serve pies (each cut in 12 slices) with whipped cream and coffee at 3:30 PM
    • Pick at leftovers the rest of the day and on Friday morning
* * *

After a Thanksgiving late lunch, V took the kids bowling. We capped off the day with cookie making and a couple round of Codenames, our favorite board game, all while fridge-diving for leftovers.

For the cookies, I made a batch of my favorite sugar cookie dough, and divided it in several portions so each cookie baker had their own dough to play with. We had a few gel food colors on hand. 

I was inspired by a post on the Reddit baking forum and made these cute (and easy!) Calico cat cookies. Calico cats have a tricolor coat with random patterns of white, orange and black. I split dough into three portions, made one orange with orange gel color, one brown with cocoa powder (next time I will use black gel color) and left one white. I rolled out some plain dough and laid a few chunks of the colored dough randomly on top and kept rolling it out to get the random look, then stamped out cookies with a cat shaped cookie cutter. 

Baked calico cat cookies

The kids made their own
colorful cookies

Duncan has somehow bounced back and is doing okay, even as the tumor keeps growing.We went on lots of long walks this week and he loved it. He got a special dinner of his own on Thanksgiving. 

* * *

Listening to: Taking Things for Granted by Joy Olakodun (Released 2023)- - a beautiful song, heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. 

      "    Sometimes it feels like this world's got nothing for me

             Gettin' blind stares in return for what I give" 

I also had the unmatched joy of watching two live performances in the last week. The first was a local theater production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It is a horror/musical that first opened on Broadway in 1979. I've heard about it for years and was glad to go see it with a friend. Set in Victorian London, it is the lurid and infamous tale Sweeney Todd, who returns to the city to seek revenge after an unjust exile. He teams up with the baker Mrs. Lovett, and carnage ensues. Here's a famous song from this musical where the late, great Angela Lansbury (of Murder, She Wrote fame) plays Mrs. Lovett.

The second performance was a rousing chorus with the theme of thanks and gratitude- we took all the kids to this one (the youngest one had FOMO and insisted on coming along), and they were quiet and attentive for the most part. 

As always, I am most grateful for this blog and the lovely folks I meet here!

Thursday, November 16, 2023

NaBloPoMo Day 16: Sweater

My friend Cathy taught me to knit in 2008 and what a gift it has been in my life- it has brought me endless joy even though I don't have a project on the needles at all times. Cathy started as a food blog friend and became a real life friend- we've stayed in each other's homes and everything. Just one example of how food blogging has enriched my life in tangible and intangible ways, giving me much more than I put into it. 

Anyway, I had not been knitting much this year and wanted to get back into it. I used my stashed yarn to make some hats as a warm-up. And then inspiration struck- I saw a pattern for a beautiful top that I immediately wanted to knit. 

In my years of knitting, I've made so many different projects from baby sweaters to blankets to scarves and dozens of hats, but have made exactly one garment for myself. (But I do love it and wear it often- don't remember if I ever shared it on the blog.) The reason is that garments have to fit, and it is annoying to spend days/weeks knitting an item only to have it not fit. But I really wanted to make this sweater.

I purchased yarn for the project and when it arrived after some delay, I realized with dismay that I bought the wrong yarn- a thinner version than what the pattern called for. So now I had to look for an different project for the wrong yarn, and in this roundabout way, I found this pretty summer top which could be knitted by holding two strands of the thinner yarn.

It was a really fun, meditative project since the pattern is not complicated. I took the project along on a work trip to Chicago last month and had the BEST time turning down invitations to schmoozing receptions and instead sitting luxuriously alone in my hotel room knitting this sweater and watching reruns of Law & Order. 

AND IT FITS. Sorry for shouting, I'm just excited to wear something I've knitted myself. And now I am dreaming of making more wearables this winter. 

So...I made it through 16 days of NaBloPoMo and it was refreshing to post again, and a whole lot of fun. Thanks to everyone who has been reading along and leaving sweet comments. It shook me out of my rut. 

But today I feel a slight sense of dread and overwhelm. Dunkie is clearly declining, although he is still eating and walking. There are clear signs that things are changing, like his insistence on sleeping at night outside on the porch this week, when he has slept indoors in our bedroom his whole life. I want to spend as much time with our big boi as possible. 

On top of this, Thanksgiving snuck up on me this year and is now just a week away. Two of my favorite people are arriving for the holiday. This time of year always feels very hectic and the calendar is packed. Work has been stressful and I have a long list of things to check off before I take some vacation time next week. Clearly, something has to give. And so I'm ending the blogging streak early with a promise to myself that I will post every weekend. Thanks all, and I'll see you in a few. 💙

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

NaBloPoMo Day 15: Outside

Many years ago, when I was a few weeks away from delivering my daughter, V and I sat in her prospective pediatrician's office for a meet and greet. We liked him right away- he told me, your daughter is not born but I am her doctor already and you can call me anytime. He said to us, "As parents, you should focus on providing four things to your child: nutritious food, good sleep habits, fresh air and outdoor play, and stimulating their brain by talking to them, and singing and reading to them". He went on to say that you would be surprised how many problems can be avoided by prioritizing these four things. When more critical things come up, he said (at this point, he waved to his office window in the direction of the big children's hospital down the street), we can and will invoke the latest and greatest medical care. But the vast majority of children will grow up healthy and happy if you focus on these basics. 

Over twelve years later, I still remember this advice vividly and have tried to abide by it. It is common sense but difficult to put into practice consistently. Good food, sleep, outdoor exercise, and mental stimulation is the basis of a wholesome and healthful life not just for babies and children, but also for adults. (Also for dogs. We make sure Duncan gets out to a dog park or a trail- somewhere other than his usual walking routes- every weekend, to get him interesting new things to see and smell.)

Parenting in this day and age feels like an uphill slog sometimes, and I know I'm not alone in feeling this way. You want your kids to eat simple wholesome food in a society where they are constantly lured by fried, sugary and processed food. You want them to play outside but putting limits on screen-time is such a battle, made only worse since the pandemic when we were forced to use screens as a crutch. 

I'm reading a book called Enchantment by Katherine May, and she says, "Childhood used to have dirt under its fingernails. Now it has hand sanitiser." She longs to take her young son to the woods, to a nature preserve, but he prefers the trampoline center and bright beeping plastic toys. Relatable! On glorious weekend afternoons, getting our kids to come out to the park is like pulling teeth. Once we are there, they play happily for hours and have a wonderful time, but pulling them away from home can take some exhausting combination of begging, cajoling, stern admonishments, the occasional bribe or threat. 

Yesterday, I was driving back with my daughter and happened to glance up, and noticed, as if for the first time, the Fall colors on the trees in the neighborhood. I slowed to a crawl (luckily there were no cars behind me) and pointed them out to her, and the two of us had a quiet moment of awe as we stared at the blazing yellows, oranges, reds, greens and browns on display. There is so much beauty in this world if only we would stop and look up from our distracted lives. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

NaBloPoMo Day 14: Quesadilla

Last night I found myself picking up my son from school and back home around 5 PM with no plans for the dinner meal whatsoever. That meant it was time for a "fridge-cleaning dinner"- pulling out all odds and ends and putting them together creatively. (These often end up being my favorite meals, better than the planned ones.) 

Roz Chast, one of my favorite cartoonists and writers, wrote a great little essay on fridge-foraging dinners and how everyone has quirky little names for this common phenomenon. I had fits of laughter reading this one. Some of my favorites: trash panda, having weirds, and anarchy kitchen. I could probably add a Marathi expression to this list- urla surla, roughly translated as leftover bits.

Anyway, last night, I found half a packet of soy chorizo from Trader Joe's, a couple of boiled potatoes (left over from Diwali puff pastry samosas), half a tomato (from a kid making a sandwich, probably) and bits of cheese. There was a can of pinto beans in the pantry and a packet of whole wheat tortillas. (Whenever I take the time to grocery shop and stock the kitchen with basics, it always pays off mid-week.)

I heated a pan and simply sautéed the soy chorizo with diced potatoes and tomato. It is spicy and greasy enough that no more oil or seasoning is needed. Then I added a rinsed and drained can of pinto beans. The mixture went into tortillas with a bit of cheese and we had quesadillas ready for dinner in barely any time at all. 

This plus a ripe avocado plus leftover Diwali sweets and snacks- that was dinner. A feast fit for a trash panda! 

Monday, November 13, 2023

NaBloPoMo Day 13: Games

I'm a huge fan of word games. If I have people around to play with (does not happen often), then Codenames and Scrabble are my favorites. But typically it is solitary word games that keep me engaged on a daily basis. Every so often, a new game comes on the scene and one that really created a splash during the pandemic was Wordle, now with its umpteen versions like Quordle and Octordle

I found yet another game NYTimes recently and now have gotten into the habit of doing it with my first cup of coffee in the morning. It is called Connections, and here is an example. You get 16 words and you have to create 4 groups of four.

Connections Game in the NYTimes

I did it but my results were not particularly great. The hollow cylinders category tripped me up as I thought it was about skinny long things and included words like rope and cigarette in it. It is a fun game and can be quite tricky, especially if you're not well versed in the names of bands and sports teams and other obscure (to me) categories.

Of course my favorite solitary word game of all time is the Crossword puzzle. We think they have been around forever but apparently the first puzzle only appeared in 1913. I do (try to do) the ones at the back of the New Yorker- they cycle through puzzles that are beginner level, lightly challenging, moderately challenging, and very challenging. 

I read an interesting chapter on crossword puzzles in the book The Puzzler by A.J. Jacobs and maybe it was a coincidence or maybe I was just inspired to try harder, but I finished a very challenging puzzle for the first time ever. (Usually, the magazines are littered with my half-done and abandoned puzzles.) The clue for 33 Across- "Hollow, deep-fried bread" was the first one I filled in- Puri :) 

Cryptic clues are the ones that are most satisfying to crack, but they are not as popular in American puzzles, and also I am terrible at them ha ha. 

Words are such fun! 

Sunday, November 12, 2023

NaBloPoMo Day 12: Diwali

 Festive wishes to all who are celebrating today!

Recipe for coconut burfi here. The bottom layer is pistachio with a drop of green food coloring, and the top layer is flavored with rose water and edible rose petals with a drop of red food coloring. May your year be filled with goodness and light. 

Saturday, November 11, 2023

NaBloPoMo Day 11: Lattes

My daughter started middle school this year, a time of great change and growing freedom for the kids. The school is in a busy urban area and packs of kids walk about in the shopping center after school, saving a few bucks to buy a treat here and a cold drink there. There is a fascination with brands and trends which I am trying my best to place reasonable restrictions on. 

For her birthday, my daughter's biggest ask was to stop by Starbucks with her two friends before school for breakfast. Not my favorite place at all, but this was a special day. All three girls ordered Caramel Ribbon Crunch Frappuccinos, and were served these big drinks that were sugar bombs for sure. 

A few weeks later, when she had a friend over for a few hours, I offered to look up a copycat recipe and try to recreate this drink at home. We used this recipe as a starting point. We had decaf instant coffee, milk, and ice at home. And had to buy four ingredients from the store: dry instant vanilla pudding, caramel sauce, Heath toffee bits, and whipped cream. Even with the purchases, it is clearly much cheaper to fix these drinks at home.

1. Start by blending decaf (or regular) coffee- I used instant coffee granules, milk, and lots of ice
2. Add caramel sauce and instant pudding mix and blend again until thick and creamy
3. Pulse in some toffee bits
4. Serve in a tall glass topped with whipped cream, caramel sauce, and toffee bits

The kids were thrilled with the drinks. To me it was entirely too sweet and undrinkable. Sweetness can be adjusted up and down. 

I've tried other Starbucks knock-off drink recipes in the past, and some of them call for xanthan gum as a thickener to make the blended drink smooth and not icy. Xanthan gum is sold in the baking aisle and is a good ingredient to keep on hand for these homemade coffeeshop drinks- it works well. 

Enjoy your weekend! 

Friday, November 10, 2023

NaBloPoMo Day 10: Quote

One of my favorite quotes of all time is by the poet Mary Oliver on the value of small contributions.

Thursday, November 09, 2023

NaBloPoMo Day 9: Spice

Dinner last night was inspired by an unopened packet of MTR Bisibele Masala powder in my spice cabinet. Bisibele bhaath is a Kannada Kannadiga (i.e., from the Southern Indian state of Karnataka) version of the khichdi or rice-lentil stew that is made in many divinely comforting versions all over India. Suma of Veggie Platter has a very informative post on this excellent dish, including a recipe for homemade bisibele masala powder.

I've posted a not-authentic one pot recipe back in 2007, and then posted a more authentic version in 2012. Here's a third version that I made yesterday, using the instant pot. It uses two pots but is very quick for a weeknight.

Bisibele Bhaath

1. Soak 1 cup toor dal in water in an instant pot insert for a few hours. About 20 minutes before starting to cook, add 1/3 cup sona masoori rice to the soaking dal. 

2. Drain the rice and dal mixture and rinse it a couple of times. Then add water and salt and pressure cook in instant pot on HIGH for 4 minutes. 

3. Meanwhile, heat a separate pot on the stove with a bit of oil. 

4. Temper oil with 1 tsp. mustard seeds and a sprig of curry leaves.

5. Add 2-3 tbsp. peanuts/cashews, chopped 1/2 onion and 1/2 green pepper

6. Add salt to taste and about 4 heaping tsp. bisibele masala powder.

7. Add 1/2 tbsp. tamarind pulp and 1 cup water, bring to a boil and simmer for a couple of minutes

8. Add this boiled mixture to the cooked rice-dal mixture in the instant pot, turn on sauté mode and simmer for a couple of minutes. You are done! 

I served it with sautéed cabbage. Pickle, papad, yogurt, raita are all good accompaniments. This is a wonderful cold-weather dinner and I'm looking forward to eating leftovers for lunch today. 

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

NaBloPoMo Day 8: Stacks

The public library is my happy place. We are lucky to live about 2 miles from a great one. Apart from endless stacks of books, the library has a welcoming teen section where middle schoolers can hang out safely after school until parents finish out their workdays, homework help for kids, summer reading challenges for kids and adults, story time and free crafts, free concerts, semi-annual used book sales. They also have other things to check out that I have never taken advantage of, like museum passes and musical instruments. More than anything, the library is one of the few indoor places you can go to without being under constant pressure to buy buy buy. 

Libraries are under threat in the US, with books being banned, and budgets being cut. But they are my very favorite thing about living in this country, and I hope we can keep supporting them always and forever.

My current stack of
checked-out books

"The library is dangerous, full

Of answers. If you go inside,

You may not come out

The same person who went in."

-lines from Don't Go Into the Library by Alberto Rios (Read the full poem here)

Tuesday, November 07, 2023

NaBloPoMo Day 7: Salad

With the apple glut that I mentioned yesterday, I poked through my Pinterest folder to look for apple recipes to try. Most were cakes and sweets but I found a Waldorf salad recipe that I was excited for. The original Waldorf salad is an American classic, invented at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in the 1890s. This variation is light, crisp and refreshing, and one for the recipe binder. I always like foods that combine savory and sweet flavors. 

Celery is not a staple in my kitchen but I am coming to like it more and more. Especially since whole celery can be wrapped snugly in foil and stored in the crisper for weeks. I used 1 can of chickpeas for this recipe and eyeballed the other quantities to match. It made 4 big servings. 

Chickpea Waldorf Salad (original recipe here)

1. Make the dressing by whisking together in a big bowl or container:

  • Yogurt
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Dijon mustard
  • Sweet pickle juice (or honey or sugar)
  • Salt 
  • Freshly ground pepper
2. To the dressing, add the following and toss together:
  • Chickpeas (cooked)
  • Celery, chopped
  • Apple, chopped
  • Red grapes, halved
  • Walnuts, chopped
  • Onion, minced
  • Parsley, minced
3. Refrigerate and serve on a bed of fresh baby spinach.

The salad also has a festive, fruity flavor and would be right at home for a holiday meal or potluck as a counterpoint to heavier dishes. See you tomorrow! 

Monday, November 06, 2023

NaBloPoMo Day 6: Apples

Apple season is here! Apples are a year-round staple for us but they really shine in Fall. Our high school advertised a fundraiser for locally grown apples, and I bought and paid for a half-bushel of the Gala variety- a crisp and mild snacking apple. The day the apples were delivered to my front door, I looked at the gigantic box (50 lbs) and thought, no way that's a half-bushel. I emailed the high schooler and said, hey, I think you accidentally gave me someone else's order, I did not order a whole bushel. No mistake, the reply came, we had extra apples so we gave you more than you ordered. 

How kind!! I started handing out grocery bags of apples to neighbors, co-workers. You get an apple, and you get an apple. And we still have a fridge full of apples. Luckily, they last for weeks and months, and all will be enjoyed. Here are a couple of ways I used my apple bounty.

Some days ago, we made Starbucks knock-off drinks at home (a post for another day) so I had toffee bits on hand and caramel sauce in the fridge. 

For a football-watching potluck at a neighbor's house, I made caramel apple slices by simply drizzling caramel sauce on apple slices and sprinkling them with Heath toffee bits. It was a hit. 


I had signed up to contribute a dessert for a teacher appreciation dinner, and remembered the apple bundt cake that I posted in Nov 2015. (I was also reminded of the wonderful Impossible pumpkin pie which I should make this month, on or around Thanksgiving.) I ended up making the same recipe again for a neighborhood potluck on Halloween.

The apple bundt cake recipe is here and it comes together so simply. The best part is that is a beloved family recipe that someone shared so kindly. 

Apple Bundt Cake (adapted from Epicurious)
  1. Set out 4 eggs to come to room temp.
  2. Preheat oven to 350F 
  3. First, I made "cake goop" by mixing 2 tablespoons vegetable shortening, 2 tbsp. vegetable oil, and 2 tbsp. AP flour in a small container. I brushed the goop thinly and evenly all over the inside of the bundt pan. As far as I am concerned, this is the most important step in getting the cake to release beautifully from the pan. 
  4. Apple mix: Wash and chop 4 apples into medium pieces. Toss with cinnamon and 2 tbsp. sugar and set aside.
  5. Dry mix: In a bowl, whisk together 3 cups AP flour, 3.5 tsp. baking powder and 0.5 tsp. salt.
  6. Wet mix: In a big bowl, whisk together 4 eggs, 1 cup veg oil, 1/4 cup any kind of milk or orange or apple juice, 1.5 cups sugar, vanilla extract and one of these flavorings: fiori di sicilia extract OR cardamom OR orange zest.
  7. Mix dry mix into wet mix to make a thick batter.
  8. Spoon half the batter into the bundt pan. Cover with the apple mix. Top with the rest of the batter.
  9. Bake for 50 minutes or more, until the top is golden brown and a toothpick comes clean or with crumbs. 
  10. Cool for 10 minutes in pan, then run a knife around edges, and turn the cake out onto a cooling rack. 
This cake has an outstanding crumb. It is my ideal of what a cake texture should be like. The inside is soft and the crust is golden and chewy. The cake can be cut into perfect slices.

Tomorrow: another recipe with apples, but not a dessert. 

Sunday, November 05, 2023

NaBloPoMo Day 5: Run

The clocks fell back today, in that annoying twice-yearly time switch ritual. I am with the majority of Americans who would like to end this whole business of switching clocks. The problem is that people cannot agree on which to make permanent- standard time or daylight savings time. Most politicians favor daylight savings time because it is better for the economy- more daylight in the evenings gets people out and spending money. Most doctors and scientists favor standard time because early morning sun is best for our health. So, in the end the debate flares up twice a year and dies down, nothing get done, and the clocks continue to spring forward and fall back. 

I started the day at 3:30 AM (waking up at what felt like 4:30 AM to me but was 3:30 AM due to the time switch) and went for a run with my friend K at 7 AM. We run together most Sunday mornings, jogging and chatting, and it is always a highlight of my week. She's a much better and more experienced runner than me but is very gracious about going at my pace, taking walking breaks whenever I need to. We ran 4 miles today on paved trails that run through our town, and had some excitement mixed with apprehension when we spotted a coyote! We are lucky to live in a town with an ever-expanding network of trails, and parks bursting with greenery, and weather that supports running year-round.

A glorious tree spotted on a run

Running was one of my goals for 2023 and I've been more consistent with running this year than in the past. My runs are short and slow. I am literally the slowest runner I know. But as long as I'm getting out there and trying, I will call it a success. A couple of weeks ago, this article in the NY Times (the link is a gift article so you can read it in its entirety if you like) made me so happy because it describes research that suggests that the benefits of running are at the front end- even short runs can be very beneficial.

I try to get out 3 times a week and run 2-4 miles each time, on paved or unpaved trails, or on streets. My favorite runs are my Sunday runs with my running buddy K and her pup. I am full of energy on some runs and on other runs, my legs feel like they are made of lead. It is just one of those fun mid-life things where I rarely feel my age- some days I feel like I'm 20 and others I feel like I'm 80! I'm going for process, not product, so while I do look at my data (pace, heart rate, etc.) for my runs, I honestly am just happy to lace up the shoes and get out there. 

I've run three 5K races so far this year and hopefully there will be a couple more before the year is out. My big goal is to run the Peachtree 10K in Atlanta on July 4, 2024, for a few reasons. My running buddy runs it every year and I'd love to do that with her; it gives me something aspirational to work towards. It is also the largest 10K in the world, with over 60,000 participants, and just once, I would like to be part of an iconic race like that. And finally, where a marathon feels impossible, a 10K seems doable. The hard thing is that it is held every fourth of July (peak summer) in Atlanta (peak South) so it must feel like running in warm soup. I have 34 weeks to train!

Coming up tomorrow: Fruit. And cake. 

Saturday, November 04, 2023

NaBloPoMo Day 4: Haul

The seasons are changing and I am swapping out clothes in the kids' closets and mine. I had two bags of outgrown clothes and assorted stuff to give away, and stopped by the thrift store. Only to be greeted by a sign that said, "No donations today; we are full". 

I went in to browse anyway. I can never resist digging for those thrift store finds, my favorites being the toy and game shelves for jigsaw puzzles, and the book section. It is the thrill of the hunt! I've found clothes from high end brands with the tags on. Books in pristine condition. Vintage toys. Cute holiday serving dishes. Unopened craft kits. If I am being honest, thrift store shopping is the only kind of shopping I actually enjoy. There is a special joy in having someone admire your Anthropologie top and be able to crow that you bought it for two dollars. Half my clothes are from thrift stores and consignment stores. There are those who would be horrified by this and to them I say...nothing. I can only shrug. To each their own. But for me reusing things is a very good thing, and so is giving away things that we don't use so that others can use them. 

Living in a consumerist society overflowing with stuff means that unbelievably nice things get donated to thrift stores (I know this because I shop there, but also because I'm one of the people regularly donating nice, almost-new things to thrift stores.) SO many things that sometimes they have to put up signs saying "No more!" 

One of the cutest viral videos I've seen was of a bunch of college girls going into a thrift store to buy the most over the top dresses they could find, trying them on with peals of laughter, then wearing those fancy dresses out to lunch at a diner. In my friend circle, swapping things is the norm. And my neighborhood email list has a constant stream of stuff being bought and sold. My only regret with not being on Facebook is that I miss being part of those "buy nothing" groups out there. 

Here's my haul from this thrift store visit: books for everyone. For my 7-year old son, a little anthology of a dozen stories on being seven. He loves his 30 minute bedtime reading, and we actually read one this afternoon. 

For my daughter, a Famous Five book (remember those??). For my spouse, The Martian by Andy Weir- one of my favorite science fiction novels. 

And two books for myself, an Inspector Montalbano mystery, and A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, a novel I've heard about but never read.

I also couldn't resist picking up this small zippered bag for 25 cents, to be used as a gift bag for jewelry or such.

Enjoy the weekend and see you tomorrow! If you're a thrifter or a garage sale diva, tell me what your favorite finds are. 

Friday, November 03, 2023

NaBloPoMo Day 3: Snacks

Welcome to day 3 of the blogging marathon. Hamsini requested an update on the After-School Snacks for All post that I wrote almost exactly 11 years ago. After 18 years (!!!) of blogging, I do not remember most of the posts I've written, so I had to go dig this one up. It was fun re-reading it. 

How things change over the years, though. Snacks are now a very minor part of my diet. I've gone from being a snack enthusiast to thinking of them as more of a problem. 

In that post I wrote, "I've made it a habit to eat a hearty snack right around 4:30 PM". That is no longer true. Now we eat dinner at 5, right after we all get off work and school. And then the grown-ups don't eat anything at all until breakfast around 9 or 10 the next morning, making for a sort of intermittent fasting. Most days, I exercise in the early mornings, and I do that on an empty stomach. The kids sometimes eat a snack closer to their bedtime. 

I also wrote, "I'm not really eating 3 big meals a day, but more like 6 small meals, and this snack is one of those meals." Nope, not doing this any more. It turns out that a petite woman like me (barely 5 feet tall, with a small frame and a desk job) does not need much food, and even 6 small meals verged into overeating territory. There are other hormonal reasons why eating frequently is not a good idea, particularly for someone like me, a veteran of gestational diabetes. (See article here; I don't agree with everything this doctor says- I don't agree with everything anyone says- but it makes the point.) So I am now habituated to 3 moderate meals per days and rarely snack at all. If I want to eat a snack food, I try to include it in a meal, like eating tortilla chips crushed on a black beans and veggie bowl instead of snacking on them. 

In that post, I said, "These smaller frequent meals seem to keep my blood sugar on a more even keel, which makes for all sorts of better decisions and a sunnier disposition, believe me." Well, now that I am habituated to eating fewer meals, and eating more whole foods, I don't typically get hangry if I go a few hours between meals. Snacks are not as inevitable in my life as I thought they were. You live and learn. 

Hunger pangs are a complicated thing. People like us- affluent, well-fed people- rarely get a chance to experience true hunger. It is mostly a matter of habit and boredom which drives us to seek food. I do stand by many of the things I said in that post, distraction, drinking water, or a hot beverage like herbal tea may be sufficient to quell the hunger pangs. Also, "urge surfing" (look it up) is worth practicing for cravings in general.

I also recognize that my lifestyle- flexible hybrid working schedule, 8 minute commute, and nuclear family structure- allows me to eat dinner at 5 PM. For others who work late, have long commutes, live in multigenerational homes and eat with family members who want to dine later- this may not be an option. So, no shade to those who tide over the hours until dinner with a snack! 

I guess my big issues with snacks are that they (a) make it easy to overeat, (b) tend to be ultra-processed, (c) tend to create packaging waste, (d) create a culture of grazing constantly all day. The last point- the snacking culture where you can't go anywhere or can't do 15 minutes of sports without snacks and gatorade in tow is particularly exasperating. 

With two growing kids and their friends who drop by often, snacks are an inevitable part of life. How I currently handle it: (a) lean into whole foods as snacks, (b) compromise and buy occasional packaged snacks that the kids love, (c) make food like lasagna and casseroles and leave it in the fridge for the kids to warm in small portions and eat in between meals. 

Snacks at my daughter's recent birthday party:
Fruit platter and veggies with dip

Snacks at my daughter's recent birthday party:
cutie oranges, chips and pretzel sticks

So here is a giant assortment of snacks, compiled from that old post and adding some new ideas. It is not that I have all of these on hand all the time, but at any time, I try to keep a selection of 4-5 snack options around. 


  • Refrigerated snacks
    • Make at home
      • Squares of hash brown casserole
      • Pasta
      • Vegetable patties (recipes here and here)
      • Carrot sticks, baby carrots, cucumber slices, red pepper strips, cherry tomatoes
      • Sprouts bhel
      • Date balls or granola bars
      • Kale salad (my daughter loves this as a snack and eats it by the handful)
      • Cut up fruits- watermelon, cantaloupe
      • Baked sweet potato fries
      • Corn on the cob- steamed or roasted
      • Dips- yogurt based and hummus
    • Store-bought
      • Whole fruit- cutie oranges, apples, pears, grapes, strawberries
      • Peanut butter
      • Nut butter
      • Cheese sticks
      • Cheese- to be sliced or cubed
      • Raisin cinnamon swirl bread- my kids love this with cream cheese
      • Sliced bread- for quick sandwiches
      • Yogurt cups
  • Frozen snacks
    • Make at home
      • Extras of any of the homemade stuff
    • Store-bought
      • Frozen waffles
      • Frozen snacks like onion rings or potato spirals
      • Frozen quorn nuggets and such 
      • Frozen edamame
      • I freeze stuff I buy on sale or in bulk, like bread products
  • Pantry snacks
    • Make at home
      • Chivda or trail mix
      • Stove-top popped popcorn
      • Cookies on occasion
      • Peanuts and jaggery make a good 30 second treat
    • Store-bought
      • Cereal- less sweet varieties
      • Granola bars
      • Whole grain crackers and pretzels
      • Salsa
      • Roasted seaweed (the packaging waste is horrible for these)
      • Applesauce
      • Canned fruit like mandarin oranges and pineapple 
      • Chips
      • Nuts- peanuts and other
      • Dried fruit like apricots, raisins, cranberries
      • Khakra
      • Fried Indian snacks like chakli

If you have a post request for my NaBloPoMo marathon, drop me a comment! 

Thursday, November 02, 2023

NaBloPoMo Day 2: Mind

We're two months away from the end of 2023 but I am confident that this book will be my favorite read of the year: How to Change Your Mind- Michael Pollan. It came out 5 years ago to rave reviews and has been on my TBR (to be read) list ever since. The subtitle of the book is What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

It is fortuitous that I waited all this time to read it, because when I did pick it up, it was at the right time and the book just hit me differently than it would have before. I have thought more about "consciousness" this year than in any of the preceding 4 decades. When I was in grad school for biology, there was a standing joke that whenever the big shots in the field got their Nobel prizes, they would stop working on whatever they used to work on, and start working on consciousness. Basically consciousness had that "woo-woo" reputation and with good reason, because it is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) mysteries of the universe, very complicated to study objectively, and also a field rife with charlatans of different stripes. Now, I'm reading different books, thinking about consciousness and the mind, and interested in learning more the way I never was before. 

How to Change Your Mind is a tour de force of narrative nonfiction by Michael Pollan. I used to think of psychedelic drugs in the way most people do, my immediate associations being rave parties and '60s hippies with those iconic psychedelic colors and patterns. Well, Pollan did change my mind and I now have a less superficial understanding of this. Pollan starts off the book by covering the history of psychedelic drugs and why they are experiencing a renaissance now. 

Then, in an amazing first-person narrative chapter called "travelogue" he describes journeying underground (because these drugs are illegal in the US) to find underground guides or therapists who work with a variety of psychedelic substances in a carefully prescribed manner, and trying LSD, Psilocybin, and 5-MeO-DMT or the Toad for himself. (It struck me that there is a strong privilege in being able to try illegal drugs without repercussions, and write a best-selling book about the experience, even as tens of thousands of predominantly poor and minority people are behind bars for low-level non-violent drug offenses in the US).

My absolute favorite chapter in this book was about the neuroscience of psychedelics. I am going to say that it is the best chapter of any book I have read, ever. This is where he discusses the neuroscience of consciousness, which is that unmistakeable sense we have that we are, or possess, a self that has experiences. Most scientists believe that consciousness is a product of brains but some suggest that it could be a property of the universe or a fundamental building block of reality, like gravity. 

How can the ingestion of a compound/molecule created by a mushroom/toad/chemist cause a novel state of consciousness? All these three compounds are tryptamines and mimic a tryptamine that our body produces naturally, serotonin or 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT). The classical psychedelics have a strong affinity for the 5-HT2A receptor and that is how they unlock the door to the mind. Anesthetics disrupt normal consciousness by shutting it down, while psychedelics disrupt normal waking consciousness in ways that may force its fundamental properties into view. 

What do we know about physical structures in the brain related to this? The big player is the default mode network (DMN), a critical central hub which appears to be the brain's orchestra conductor. It is called the “default mode” because it lights up with activity when we have no mental tasks to perform and our minds go to wander- this may be where our stream of consciousness flows and it consumes a disproportionate share of the brain’s energy. The DMN plays a role in creating mental constructs, including the self or ego, and it is responsible for autobiographical memory or the story of who we are. When activity in the DMN falls off precipitously, the ego temporarily vanishes and the usual boundaries between self and world, subject and object melt away. The psychedelic experience of non-duality suggests that consciousness survives the disappearance of the self despite what we and it think. 

Psychedelics can quiet the DMN, loosen the ego’s grip on the mind machinery, and increase entropy in the brain, allowing a thousand mental states to bloom- many bizarre and senseless but some that can be revelatory or transformative. Finally, the link between psychedelics and meditation is that both of those achieve the same thing (only the latter is legal, free, and available to everyone.) Deactivating the DMN can be achieved through psychedelics and meditation, holotropic breathwork, sensory deprivation, fasting, prayer, extreme sports, near death experiences and so on. 

The final chapters of the book talk about the use of psychedelics in helping terminally ill patients lose their fear of dying, and in the treatment of addiction and depression. But psychedelic treatment is not just for the sick, it can be used for the betterment of well people. The reason to focus on meditation and not rush off to find psychedelics is that the effects of psychedelics fade away but can be recaptured in meditation. All in all, this is a fascinating, must-read book. 

Painting by my Dad

One more on this subject- Based on a recommendation I saw on one of the book loving websites I frequent, I picked up this book from the library: The Happiness Trap- Russ Harris. This book is an easy to understand introduction to Acceptance And Commitment Therapy (ACT), an evidence-based model of behavior change. 

As I've said before, different books and models converge on the same small set of principles, and here too, the advice from this book boils down to not identifying with our thoughts and emotions, which come and go endlessly, but instead pay attention to the present moment and start understanding our "observing self". Here are some sample quotes from this book. 
  • Like a lion placed in a paper cage, human beings are generally most trapped by the illusions of their own mind. 
  • Evolution has shaped our brains so that we are hardwired to suffer psychologically: to compare, evaluate and criticize ourselves, to focus on what we are lacking, to become rapidly dissatisfied and imagine frightening scenarios.
  • We have little control over our thoughts and feelings but we have a huge amount of control over our actions.
  • Your mind will never stop telling you unpleasant stories because that’s just what minds do, but you can make dramatic improvements and learn to unhook yourself.
  • The thinking self gets bored because boredom is a thought process, a story about how life could be more interesting.
  • The observing self is incapable of boredom and registers everything with openness and interest.
  • Our society places a lot of emphasis on thinking but there is more to you than your thoughts.
  • Life gives most to those who make the most of what life gives.
  • Put your life's energy into action and attention because those are the two things you can control.
See you tomorrow for a discussion of something much less lofty than consciousness- Snacks

Wednesday, November 01, 2023

NaBloPoMo 2023 Day 1: Pause

Happy November! NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, is a month-long writing exercise that occurs each November. The concept is as simple as this: bloggers post something every day. I've had severe writer's block/ inertia with blogging lately. I frequently write blog posts in my head but never get around to typing them out. On a whim, I've decided to blog every day this month. Posts may be long or short. They may be centered around food on some days, but are more likely to be pointless, rambling musings. Consider yourself warned. 

And because there are no NaBloPoMo police, I'll take days off blogging if I have to, for instance, if our sweet Dunkie's condition worsens. It is hard to tell if we have days or weeks or months left with him. We had a hospice vet come by to visit him last week, but Dunkie is still continuing to do well and is napping and snoring softly near me as I write this! 

In my first post of 2023, I jotted down a few goals for the year, and a thematic word of the year- "Pause". The word aligned well with one of my goals, which was to start meditating regularly. 

As of today, we have only 61 days left in 2023. How did I do with these goals of pausing and meditating? Well, meditation and mindfulness are the work of a lifetime and not a goal to be reasonably achieved in a year, not by mere mortals anyway. I don't always PAUSE but I sometimes do. I don't meditate everyday but I sometimes do. It has been a gratifying journey so far in that I have learned so much in a few months- I am starting to understand and appreciate the concepts. Internalizing them and living them will be the journey of the rest of my life.

On the subject of meditation/mindfulness, there are an overwhelming number of books, blogs, podcasts, programs, retreats, guides, leaders, gurus, apps out there, and they more or less converge on similar concepts. It is really a matter of who you happen to come across and who resonates with you. These are ancient concepts that are being packaged and repackaged in different ways, and increasingly being studied and evaluated in different settings. 

I picked up this book from the library a few months ago: Waking Up by Sam Harris. The reason it appealed to me was the subtitle- A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. Many people conflate being spiritual with being religious and I quite enjoyed this frankly atheistic point of view. And as with most books in this genre, there were chapters that appealed to me and chapters that did not. Here are some quotes I jotted down, to give you a flavor of the book:

  • Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had and all we can offer others.
  • How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and therefore the quality of our lives.
  • We seem to spend most of our life in a neurotic trance as we shop, gossip, argue, and ruminate our way to the grave. But an alternative exists.
  • It is always "now".
  • Learning to meditate is like acquiring any other skill. With practice, the difference between it and ordinary thinking will become increasingly clear.
  • As a matter of your experience, you are not a body of atoms, molecules, and cells- you are consciousness and its ever-changing contents.
  • The goal of meditation is to uncover a form of well-being that is inherent to the nature of our minds.
  • A middle path exists between making religion out of spiritual life and having no spiritual life at all.
I ended up downloading the Waking Up app- one of the very few apps that I've ever purchased in my life. (There are many good, free meditation apps out there too.) It has been very useful for me. I worked my way through the introductory course, and now try (ahem) to do the daily meditations. I really enjoy listening to the theory sections with short and long audio lectures. 

(It is very characteristic of me that I lean towards learning concepts rather than practicing them. Unfortunately meditation is not a thinking activity but a doing one, or rather a not-doing one, so this is a very uphill battle for me.)

The book I picked up next was Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris. I liked this one less than that first book, but still took away a few things, like these-

  • The word “meditation” is a bit like the word “sports”; there are hundreds of varieties.
  • You are breaking a lifetime’s habit of walking around in a fog of rumination and projection, and you are actually focusing on what’s happening right now.
  • Getting lost and starting over is not failing at meditation, it is succeeding.
  • Thinking is a wonderful servant but a terrible master.
  • The internal narrator/ego/monkey mind is insatiable and dissatisfied. How many desserts, movies, and vacations have you enjoyed and are you done yet?
More on this subject tomorrow, including my thoughts on the best book I've read all year. Do you meditate or, um,  think about meditating? How is that going for you?