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Posted on Jan 31, 2014 in How to simplify, My Journey

Curiosity Saved the Dog

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I want to live a simple, happy life.  I guess you could say I’m moving towards minimalism.  What’s the word for this?  Simpleton? Simplist?  I kind of like the term simplicity, but “simplism?”

My dog, although a true simplist in his life and habits, is not interested in having fewer possessions.  He loves to make piles of pillows and blankets to sleep in, and piles of toys to play with.  He brings his favorite soft toys to bed with him as the honored pillow for his head.

We are having an unusually cold winter here.  This is a problem for my greyhound, who can’t tolerate cold very well.  Our long walks have become shorter, and I am always looking for indoor activities that he can enjoy to get some exercise and stimulation.

This weekend, despite the snow, wind and cold,  we bundled up and went to an event to get the word out about greyhound rescue. First, we greeted the other dogs.  Somehow, we always choose the opposite end of the dog to greet, so this works out pretty well.  We spoke with the other greyhound adopters, and chased a ball around for a while.  When came time to go back home, it was a sad moment for both of us.

I decided to get my dog a new toy to keep him entertained as the temperatures drop again this week.  It is bouncy like a ball, but it is caved in and has holes in it to get treats in and out.  I gave it to him with a couple of pieces of kibble, expecting him to get the food out, and come back over to play.  But he didn’t. He rolled it, pawed at it, picked it up and bounced it, chewed it.  It gave up a few pieces, but kept most of them.  He didn’t give up, but brought it with him to lay down.  He studied it a long time, occasionally licking it and turning it over with his nose. Then he was inspired to get up and drop it down the back stairs.  As it bounced its way down, it lost the remaining food, allowing him to run along behind and collect them.  Last night, the new toy was his constant companion. He brought only this toy to bed.

Just now, as I was sweeping up the downstairs entryway, a slow rain of toys came bouncing down the stairs, followed by a curious pup, looking for treats.  I think we have a new game that will keep us both busy until things thaw out–Simplicity and minimalism can wait for a thaw.

 

 

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Posted on Jan 29, 2014 in Inspiration

Wordless Wednesday: Sunshine on Blowing Snow

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Posted on Jan 26, 2014 in Menus and Recipes

Making Stock

Chicken stock isn't very pretty.  Here's what the pot looks like

Cooking chicken stock isn’t very pretty. Here’s what the pot looks like

When I was a graduate student, we would often work long hours.  Very often, we had long incubations or reactions in our procedures, and if you found someone in the dive bar pub across the street from the building where we lived, they would say “I’m actually working:  I have an experiment incubating” or “I’m really running a gel.”

Graduate students are excellent multitaskers.

Today, I feel the same satisfaction.  I’m making chicken stock.

I know this seems kind of foodie-ish, but it is true that homemade stock tastes way better than the store-bought kind, and it is so much less salty.  I freeze stock when I have a lot of ingredients, and freeze the ingredients as I cook other things.  Stock is made with bones and extra bits of meat, while broth is made from simmering meat.  When I have parsley stems, celery tops and past-their prime carrots, along with the bones from a roasted chicken, it’s time to make stock in my cast iron stockpot.  This is the perfect thing to do on a cold, rainy day while you are curled up with a good book, or a bad movie.  And you can be relaxed and productive at the same time.  This week, I brushed and washed the dog to distract him from the delicious smells.

Chicken Stock

Ingredients

  • Bones, drippings and wings from one roasted chicken*
  • dried herbs and parsley stems**
  • 2 carrots, cut in large pieces
  • 2 stalks celery, or several celery top sections with leaves
  • 1/2 onion, optional
  • 1 quart water

Instructions

Place everything in the pot, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer.  Simmer several hours, or until your housework is done.  Strain everything and save the stock.  You can use this now for soup (add new meat and vegetables) or freeze for later.  You might need to skim the fat, or put the strained stock in the refrigerator overnight and remove the hardened fat with a spoon.  Stock can be used for soup, sauces or gravies, and is delicious when used as cooking liquid for rice or other grains, or for couscous.

* This is the perfect use for the remains of a store-bought roasted chicken that you used for another recipe.

** Whatever you have will make the soup better.  A bay leaf or a sprig of thyme is fine.  Rosemary is very strong, so use sparingly here.

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Posted on Jan 19, 2014 in Menus and Recipes

Cooking with Herbs and Spices

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I like to try new recipes and new ingredients when I cook.  I am lucky to have people who are willing to try these cooking experiments!  Depending where you live, it may be difficult, or very expensive to buy exotic ingredients, though.  It doesn’t have to be!  Even the most mainstream places have spice shops and ethnic groceries.  This is likely where you will find the best prices and the freshest herbs and spices, since they will sell the most, and have a high turnover.

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Learn about new ingredients

Cookbooks are a great source of information and inspiration.  You can check them out at the library, buy them or borrow from friends.  There are even ebooks that you can buy at a low price (or free!).

Cooking classes provide in-depth information on new cooking styles and methods.  These are nice because you will be able to taste and smell the ingredients and finished products, and ask questions of the teacher about ingredients and their sources.  Cooking school classes are great, but can be expensive.  You can also try classes at your local grocery store or co-op, and adult education programs.  Online demonstrations can be a great resource, especially if you are just curious, or if you are in the middle of a recipe and need some help.  Try looking herehere and here.   Cooking supply stores like Williams-Sonoma and Sur la Table have inexpensive or even free classes on weekends, often with store discount coupons given out freely.  Don’t go crazy with buying equipment that you will only use a few times!

Television shows are a great way to learn about recipes and ingredients.  The techniques and recipes vary from traditional to the chef’s twist on classics, to simplified methods for the novice cook.  A good source of a broad range of demonstrations can be found on PBS and at pbs.org.  Food TV used to be non-stop demonstrations, but you can still find some between the cooking competitions.

Online recipes are so abundant now, you might find the same recipe on dozens of different sites.  Be careful, though. Some blogs and personal sites have recipes from memory, or that have not been tested.  Your results may vary!  Here are a few places to look allrecipes.com, food network.com and food.com.  WebMD has a section on health benefits of herbs and spices.

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Local stores

Supermarkets usually have ethnic food aisles in addition to the spices you will find near the baking section.  Be careful, though.  Depending on the item, it may have been there for a while.  Herbs and spices should be as fresh as possible for the best flavor and health benefits.

Co ops and health food stores often have more extensive spice sections, and most have bulk spices.  This section is great, because the supplies are fresher, and you can smell before you buy.  There is often experienced help nearby for questions, and you can buy as little as you want to try something out before you commit to a large container.

Ethic grocery stores and spice markets exist in every large city, and many smaller towns as well.  Supplies may vary with the local population, but you will find something new if you look around.  These stores are staffed and frequented by people who use the herbs and spices, so ask someone if you have a question.  If you are less adventurous or live in a suburban zone, you could try World Market stores in most cities for a sampling of world spices and other cooking ingredients.

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Online orders

Amazon.com, of course has everything.  Quality and amount will vary with the supplier, so check the reviews and cross your fingers!

Penzeys is a reliable spice merchant.  They don’t have the most exotic items, but they have their own spice blends, and even several of their own cocoa powder and cinnamon sources.  They also have stores in many US cities.

San Francisco Herb Co. Has a local store, and also sells online. The quality is good, and prices are lower than most sites.

The Spice House has a selection similar to Penzeys, and has a herbs and spice website that can be searched by alphabet, category or cuisine.

Savory Spice Shop carries more unusual items.

Chain stores like Williams-Sonoma, Dean and Deluca, and Sur la Table have a limited selection of herbs and spices.  They will likely be good quality, but more expensive.

 

Spices come from all over the world, but you can grow many herbs in your own garden or kitchen window.  It’s wonderful to have a ready supply of fresh herbs when you are cooking.

Photo credits:  srqpixMartin and Kathy Dady,  LenDog64,  Skånska Matupplevelser

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Posted on Jan 15, 2014 in How to simplify, My Journey

3 Reasons To Put On Your Oxygen Mask Before Helping Others

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Now that the holidays are over, I’m back in grant-writing mode at work. As usual, I’m trying to balance the regular workflow of the lab and regular meetings with the extra workload of coordinating and writing a fundable grant (well, four of them in the next few weeks).  In the past, this would have me in a panic, and staying up all night trying to get just the right combination of clarity and convincing in a too-small page limit.

Over these many years, though I discovered that the grant does not benefit from exhaustion and vending machine food.  To get the work done, I have to cut back on time usually spent on other tasks.  Since I am also less willing to sacrifice my personal time, this means I have to find time during the workday.  So, I took a close look at where I spend my time.  I mean with a timer.  What I found was truly surprising.  I am not very good at predicting how long things take.

Here is why:

1. If your door is open, you are going to be interrupted.

Interruptions come in many forms.  One is the actual door being open.  My students, employees and colleagues all feel free to stop in with a question, a request for a favor, or just a visit.  But the open door can be the ping of a new email or the phone ringing, too.

2. When things are boring or frustrating, you look for distractions.

This can be a peek at Twitter or a game of Candy Crush, but it can also be another task.  I find myself picking up simple tasks to do when I am stuck on a decision or problem. I really like this strategy, and often use it to let problems percolate through my brain, or let the frustration subside so I can start again from another perspective.  But when you are under a deadline, choosing to focus on tangents can really reduce productivity. Somehow, having the timer made this dilemma better. If I knew that I had only another 15 minutes before I had to move on to another task, I could hang on to a problem instead of letting my mind wander. I also had the strong motivation to finish up what I was doing before I stopped working, so I would not have to face the same problem again when I started.

3. When you allow yourself to be distracted, you are working for someone else.

The hard truth is that if you answer every email immediately, stop what you are doing every time someone has a question, and “just taking a quick look and giving some feedback on my paper”, you are not focused on your own agenda or priorities,  but working under someone else’s.  If your priority is to get a big project done, you have to focus more on that than other things.

How can you realistically manage this, when you are responsible for other people as well?

Here’s what I did:

1.  Close my door.

I have some Post-it notes on the inside of my door.  They have description on them of what I am doing, and how best to contact me, ranging from “please knock if you need me” to “send me an email if you need me”.  I might have my email off, though.  The people in my group have access to my calendar, and they know what an emergency is. They will knock if something is on fire.  This is not a metaphor.  Things sometimes catch fire.

2. Focus on the task.

This could be going to the library or a coffee house to work, or putting on some music.  Somehow, this cues me that I have separating myself from the rest of the world. I’m not sure if this is just a way to provide white noise to block out the discussion outside my door, but it works. This also means letting some things slide, like non-urgent meetings and packing elaborate lunches.

3. Engage more in the lab’s activities.

Normally, I have my schedule of meetings and work in my office or the lab.  I let my group members do the same for themselves for the most part. When I am busy, I make sure I know what is happening every day so I can be available when I might be needed, and I work out details with my group members before they get started on an experiment. Then I can close the door and not worry about those details, and there is less need for my real-time availability. I also let the group know what I am working on so that they can cooperate with my modified workplan.

I’m not sure if I can keep this up for the 6 weeks or so that I am busy with these proposals. Keeping balance over long periods of time is difficult. Or, maybe this will be a more permanent plan.

 

How do you find time for special projects?

 

 Photo credit:  Debbie Ramone
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