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Friday, November 24, 2017

OUR LIVES AS WORKS OF ART

A portrait of the - would be - artist
As a young person, I fancied myself as an artist and spent endless hours working on sketches with pencils, crayons, and water colors. Most of that artwork is long gone - from me and probably from the planet. I even have a formal background in art – at least, that, according to the undergrad degree that I obtained years ago. But I never did much with it after college, just an occasional drawing or two. Of the little I did, I kept a small part and gave away the rest to people who I hoped would value them. I was just too busy guiding my efforts in other directions, that being, caring for a family and my lifelong work in public health. 

And during all those decades that I worked and raised two children - up through their university years, I kept busy with what I saw as my priority commitments.  With the “extra” time I had, I allowed myself to do needlework and some personal journal writing. There just weren’t enough hours in the day for artwork. I always said that, someday, when I could, I’d go back to painting or drawing and perhaps do more than just write in my journal.

Luckily, since retirement, I’ve found time to dedicate a lot of time to creative outlets that I thoroughly enjoy – cooking, blogging, crafts, needlework, and drawing. The products of these activities continue to be personal in scope. My interest in these endeavors just hasn’t found any commercial outlet. I follow the SPIRIT OF LOVE AND BEAUTY– through art. This path has brought me blessings of joy, love and light, which I gladly share with others. To the extent that I can, I freely share my art with family and friends, mostly through Facebook. And, of course, the artwork in this blog serves some small part of the Internet public at large.

Creative energy abounds.
As to my drawing techniques, they are mostly done is computer graphics. Playing with colors & form is a joy for me.  It usually goes something like this. I have a feeling about a subject for a drawing and envision a theme. Occasionally, the drawings appear to me from something I've seen on Facebook or even as part of a meditation or the content of a dream. Whatever the initial motivation, I hone in on the feeling and remembering the “feeling”, I begin to elaborate on it, letting colors and shapes go where they will. The computer drawing software lets me swiftly make and erase many versions as I expand on that feeling. So, I have the freedom to enjoy each stage of the process, adding here, taking away there. The outcomes often surprise me, expressing extraordinary kinds of energy in the form of design and the color.

To date, mine’s a totally a digital project and I haven't even printed out all of my drawings. I share them on the Internet through Facebook and  greeting card apps. When I do get around to printing, I usually do an 8" X 10" or a letter-size page. Often I display them with wood or plastic frames and put them on my walls or give them to friends and family. Perhaps my most successful ventures were two sets of printed note cards of my drawings that I gifted to family members - one was of flowers and another with Christmas themes.

Drawing: WHIMSICAL FLOWERS, 2014.
Our beautiful future.
We can all foster beauty in our world by relearning some age-old, but mostly forgotten, principles about WHAT’S REALLY OUT THERE. And WHAT’S OUT THERE is ABUNDANCE. Our lives aren’t too limited or too flawed. As a matter of fact, we’re not limited or flawed in any real way. We just ARE and life just is - LIMITLESS and MAJESTIC.

When we allow ourselves to sit quietly (especially in nature among trees and gardens) - even so little as 10 or more minutes – at peace and present to our surroundings, we are released from past mental burdens and we see all around us with new eyes  And, from that vantage, we can see ourselves, standing in bright, uplifting clouds of energy. These boosts can also come from many creative endeavors.  And, for all of us, these lifts are the crayons in our very own coloring book of LOVE.

We can make our lives into works of art when we take time to expect, recognize and accentuate the beauty in our lives. What’s more, it’s all part of the immense energy available to us everyday - all the time. So, feel the glow of LOVE’S strength in the world. Meditate on beauty, harmony and peace. In those moments, we stand proudly in the band of loving souls who see astounding beauty and hear harmonious music.

Leave all those habitual worries behind and look up. There is the beauty of the world. And, with that vantage of beauty, get busy and manifest the colorful, unprecedented reality that all of us long for.  This can happen in many creative ways - through dance, drama, fine and communications arts, music, as well as through heartfelt concern and support of people and other living things. There is much joyful work to be done.

Monday, September 4, 2017

A FAMILY VISIT AND PROJECT: "KITCHEN-FIT GRAND KIDS"



This past month, I had the pleasure of visiting with my son, daughter-in-law, and my three lovely grand children, ages 10, 8 and 5 years. It was an especially joyful time for me because I don´t get to see see them often. I live at the Mexican border and they live at the Canadian border, about 2000 miles away. While the children are always sweet and loving, they are still a bit shy with me. Thus, as a sort of icebreaker, I wanted to do a one-on-one project with each child. After a bit of reflection, I decided to do a cooking project with the children.  My past visits and recent communications had shown me that the grandchildren were way above average, doing a multitude of activities such as soft ball, swimming, gymnastics and community theater. All that was proof of their mental and physical fitness. And I hoped that their days of cooking with Abuela Susan (as they call me) would be ä giant, first step toward "kitchen-fitness".


In preparation for this project, I sent ahead a set of children's cookbooks. A cupcake book for Iris, the oldest, a cookie book for Myra, the second, and a simple snack book for Cruz, the youngest. In my judgement this choice of books would reflect the complexity of the cooking tasks, according to ages. (As related below, my estimation of the relative difficulty of the recipes turned out to be wrong.)


As soon as I arrived, I asked each child to choose one recipe from their book. They seemed eager to get started and, within minutes, selected their recipes. Iris chose lady-like, pink lemonade cupcakes and Cruz chose a fancier sort of grilled-cheese sandwiches, shown crust-less, cut into quarters, and held together with fancy toothpicks. Myra's choice was unexpected. She wanted to make what were the most complicated cookies imaginable. These cookies, called "Treasure Chests", were a quadruple-chocolate concoction with a brownie base, two layers of fudge icing, a chocolate cookie top and MnMs, a child´s version of gold treasure, that fell out of the sides of the "chests". My better judgement should have sent up red flags on Myra's choice but, being still somewhat jet-lagged mentally, I agreed to help her make complicated treat.


The second day of my stay, I went with the family to a neighborhood grocery store and, together, we bought all the ingredients for the recipes. Cruz wanted to make his sandwiches the very next morning. With just a bit of guidance, he was able to do almost all the work. I did the grilling, of course, and he cut them into quarters and placed them on a large platter, toothpicks stuck into each piece. The children and I ate them for lunch and leftovers went kept back for their Mom and Dad. Cruz was very pleased with the favorable comments that were made, and the first project was a resounding success.


Myra was ready to begin her treasure chest making on the third day. The process took more than two hours to complete because everything had to be done in steps.  I helped her with the initial steps of measuring and mixing and put the brownies in the oven. We had to wait for them to cool. And much care was needed to decorate the treasures.
Myra's 600-calorie "treasure chests".
The results were attractive and had a surprising resemblance to those shown in the cookbook. These treasure chests definitely had the wow-factor and received family raves. 
The only unfortunate part of this project was that the children wanted to eat multiples of these 600 calorie creations. I put out one for each of us on a plate and, when I had the chance, hid the rest in two plastic containers in the freezer behind other foods. My idea was to keep them hidden so that each of us could have one the next day. That trick worked, at least partially, and only a few had been stealthily removed from the freezer by the next day.


A few days later, Iris prepared her cupcakes. I taught her how to crack open an egg. She had never tried it before, but, after just one demonstration, successfully opened the remaining two eggs. She also did all the decorating by herself. I just had to oversee her work and helped her with the oven. The cupcakes were quite attractive and good. Also, luckily, they were normal cupcakes so that eating more than one in a day´s time wasn't so much of a worry.


These few days that I spent cooking with my grand kids were priceless to me. It reminded me of my own childhood when my sister and I learned (mostly from our Mom and Aunt Jane) how to make such treats as  popcorn, chocolate fudge, cookies and cakes. With these long-ago memories go warm feelings of family closeness and the joy of cooking adventures.


Project "kitchen-fit grand kids" was wonderful fun. And they radiated confidence what with their new skills of grocery shopping, measuring, mixing, pouring and decorating.  All-in-all, it turned out to be a perfect way to build a great family learning experience -- and all through the art of cooking.


Yes, it was a bit messy and the finished items were not quite as sophisticated as the pictures in their cookbooks. But the very best thing was that the kids felt they did it "for themselves" and, for all of us - especially grandma, we were building family memories. And that was absolutely worth it.

Monday, June 19, 2017

TALES – OLD & RECENT - OF LENTIL-BASED CHUNKY SOUP.


I know it’s mid-summer. And, yes, I’m preparing a hot, chunky soup. I LOVE home-made soup and always have. It's healthy. What's more, this kind of soup is not only filling but also helps make us sweat, thereby cooling the body. All tropical cultures, at least, the ones I know about, eat warm and often spicy foods to create a higher level of perspiration. It’s nature’s own cooling system. So, even though it’s the summer solstice, let’s talk soup –chunky-style, at that.

Now, for a bit of personal background lore…
Today, as I prepared what might be my 100th - or more - pot of lentil-based, veggie soup, I found myself a bit misty. Past memories came back to me of a time when chunky soups meant an awful lot in terms of nutrition and comfort. This reminiscence was the product of some Internet news I saw today about not one, but two, tropical storms that appear to be on a target course for Texas or some other Gulf destination.
And I remember a time when my husband, Enrique, his good friend, Bob, and I spent the better part of a month eating chunky soup almost every night. Imagine that, and we didn’t complain a bit, since we considered ourselves more than lucky to have all that soup. It was, back then, when Hurricane Wilma devastated a good part of South Florida, including our own condo and the entire building that we’d been living in for 5 years. Enrique’s friend, Bob, invited us to spend time with him in his condo - nearby - that was not so much affected by the storm. We thought it would be just for a few days or a couple of weeks. But it turned out to be more like eight weeks.

In the first week, we didn’t have electricity and our menus were made up of what Bob had in his pantry and the cans that we’d bought when we knew the storm was approaching. Luckily, Bob had a patio gas-run grill and we were able to heat up essential food and drinks on the grill. Main courses were a bit hard to come up with. Fortunately, we had plenty of cans of chunky soup. So, for that first week, we ate soup out of cans, just warmed over, along with crackers, olives and such in order to conserve cooking gas. Then, in the second week, the electricity came back on. Cooking, was then, less of a problem. Still, we decided to keep our food budget as low as possible, given the economic crunch that we found ourselves in when our work places did not reopen for several weeks. Our answer was to make chunky soup with the addition of white rice and garlic bread as our go-to menu for supper that month. I bought a lot of lentils and other quick-cook and canned legumes, and whatever fresh veggies I could find. The supermarkets, when they reopened, didn’t have a lot of fresh produce – and that lasted for several weeks.

My main productive role during that mostly quiet month was soup cook. I simmered chunky soup all day in the slow cooker. And, with the aid of a large rice cooker, I prepared enough white rice for three days at a time. Plain sandwich bread - the only bread available for some time - was toasted and spread with margarine and garlic salt. We enjoyed our meals and were grateful to be eating well –– or, at least, what we considered correctly – at a time when so many other people were having a hard time feeding their families. So much for reminisces.

Most recent chunky soup
There are a few tried and true soup-making tips that every cook should know. And remembering some of these tips, I've successfully once again made soup – and if I may say so - with great flavor (and as little effort as possible).

 - Sauté all the chopped vegetables to enhance the flavor. But, if you’re short on time, just skip the sauté and add all the vegetables and accompaniments to the pot.
- Use some aromatic vegetables –garlic, onion, leek, etc, among others, and add all the veggies directly into the pot for good flavor and no waste.
- Don’t be shy about using time-savers, including such things as canned beans and frozen veggies.
- Use a stock cube or some soy sauce or pesto to get more flavor into the soup. Any of these can make a big flavor difference.
- Don’t dilute the soup too much when you begin the cooking process. You can always a bit more water later if the soup appears too thick.
- Spices are your friends. Proper seasoning is a must for all dishes and especially so for veggie soups. Salt, pepper, a variety of your favorite spices – even a squeeze of lemon or vinegar - will give some zing to the final product. Just be sure to taste after putting in what seems to be just a little seasoning. Experience has shown that it’s not easy to overcome an over-salted or over-spiced soup.
- Last minute, soup toppings are great, too. A regular tasting soup gets a lift with toppings such as croutons, cut green onions, grated cheese, avocado slices or a few toasted nuts.


So, here’s the recipe for chunky soup that I improvised today, made with fresh veggies and pantry ingredients - no particular recipe consulted. I think this soup would be a winner any time of the year and in all sorts of climate, including hot, cold, stormy and post-stormy weather.

Chunky lentil-based soup, great in all kinds of weather...  (6 to 8 servings)

2 teaspoons olive oil
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves
4 small potatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 (18 ounce) can lentil soup
Enough water or broth for thinning
4 ounces of tomato sauce
1 ½ cups of red cabbage, cut up in slices
¾ cup of pasta noodles (optional)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon of balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
Ground black pepper to taste
Toppings: Parmesan cheese, cut green onions, or sunflower seeds

Instructions
- In a large pot, heat olive oil and sauté carrots, cabbage, garlic, onions and potatoes for 5 minutes.

- Add the canned lentils and other ingredients to the pot.

- Bring the soup mixture to a boil and reduce the heat to simmer, uncovered for 30 minutes. Add noodles and cook for another 10 minutes.

- Serve immediately or reheat later with one or more toppings. Leftovers keep well for 3 or 4 days in the refrigerator. (Soup is always better the second day.)

Notes
I made this stove-top soup in less than sixty minutes but it cooks just as well in the crock pot. It might take 4 to 6 hours to slow-cook the soup.

Go veggie-crazy and add any of your favorites. Modifications of this kind of soup almost always taste great. You can also use up whatever veggies you find at the end of the week as a version of “refrigerator-stew”.

This lentil-based, chunky soup is perfect for quick everyday lunches and suppers. What's more, I’ve taken similar soups to covered-dish dinners. And it's always "just perfect" for all kinds of weather.