Sunday, December 21, 2014

Finding What I Seek

I like using the natural tendencies of my mind to shape how I experience life.  Lately I’ve been toying with the idea of intentionally planting metaphorical seeds in my mind for things that I could use in my life right now.

Consciously thinking of something can trigger our minds to later notice it more frequently.  It may not be more prevalent, it’s just that we’ll notice it as a pattern.  I learned about this Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon last year, and sure enough I saw it mentioned in two other places within 24 hours.



A woman doing her daily shopping at the boulangerie
Synchronicity, serendipity, happenstance. I love all these words and meanings, and I’m delighted when I experience them.  Whether it’s a cosmic coincidence or just the natural tendency of our brains doesn’t matter to me.   Once we learn something, we may start finding it everywhere. And once it’s in the brain, it can shape our experiences and attitudes dramatically.

Shaping my experience: My assignments for France


Earlier this year I asked two dear friends what type of souvenir they would like me to bring them from France. I expected them to say scarves or some other object. I was surprised when they asked for things that required no expenditure, and I hadn’t anticipated how much richer my travels would be for the requests. One asked for photographs of strong women. Another asked for photographs of a certain popular graffiti artist. Both assignments shaped how I viewed and experienced my surroundings during my trip, and I noticed details that made my visit all the more unique and delightful.



Three Women at the Centre Pompidou Museum
I didn’t get photographs of all the strong women I saw because I was either too embarrassed to ask or couldn’t pull out my camera in time to get the shot. But those moments still linger in my memory of the trip.  The woman in a fabulous skirted ensemble riding her bike through the bustling streets of Paris. She passed cars in gridlock with ease and a fluidity exuding confidence and beauty.  The three aged women in the Centre Pompidou museum enjoying a leisurely conversation and laughter filled evening out together. I only took a photograph of them from behind because I was too embarrassed to ask to take their photograph. Their wide smiles on lined and joy filled faces are missing from the photographs, but I still light up at the memory of them. Just as I perceived them, I’m looking forward to being an old woman enjoying life and making time for my relationships, art, and the evening breeze.  Now I realize how special it could have been to connect with them and expand the experience. It might not have been an interruption to them, rather an opportunity to make the evening even more special and memorable for all of us.


Graffiti in the alley outside our apartment on Rue Mouffetard
The graffiti of the artist my friend mentioned is typically small and hidden.  Like finding a gem in a lawn, it pushed me to look at my surroundings in detail. We looked at cracks in building foundations, and we studied unfamiliar road signs wondering if they were standard or artistically modified. I’m not sure if I found any of his artwork, but we found many beautiful, clever, and vibrant paintings everywhere. We looked, and we found.
The Do Not Enter signs are usually just a red circle
with a horizontal white line.
We found clever modified signs throughout Paris.
The residual effect of these travel assignments is that I continue to seek and find everyday beauty in graffiti and strong women.  I delight in the beauty of street art and human creativity. I’m inspired and empowered by the interesting women all around me.

Not always finding exactly what I seek, but loving what I find


Naturally, I don’t look for things I don’t think I’ll find. I like the idea of putting something in my scope of attention and believing the universe will provide.  Setting aside the judgment of whether I’m likely to find it or not, only focusing on my interest in seeing it.


I find coins on the ground a lot. I’ve found a lot over the years, and I continue to look even though I don’t think about it much. I didn’t see any change on the ground in France in almost three weeks. It made me curious if they have a different relationship to change than Americans where they don’t accidentally drop it as often as we do. Or perhaps the custom of leaving spare change for servers after meals doesn’t facilitate carrying as much change around. Do French men put change in their pockets or in a zippered wallet? Or does the fact that they have coins worth a dollar or more increase their carefulness with their money? This is one case of not finding what I looked for. It wasn’t something I need, and it prompted a curiosity in my thoughts and discussion with my sister about the possible reasons why the difference. I didn’t find what I originally sought; I found something that satisfied my search in an even more interesting and fulfilling way.


Intentional seeking


As I look at my vision boards from a couple years ago, it amazes me how many of the things pictured I’ve learned to do, have done, or have in my life now! These experiences urge me to be more proactive about how I view my day. I’m tired, maybe I’ll think about looking for energy around me. If I’m feeling low, I can think about seeking joy and beauty. It'll be interesting to see how it works!


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Music Is My Happy Place

For #GivingTuesday today I donated to MusicandMemory.org.  Music is my happy place through challenging times, and I hope my small donation will help someone else experience their happy place again.

In early 2013, I watched the movie, “The Music Never Stopped,” with fascination about a man with a brain tumor that affects his memory. Through listening to the music of his youth, he’s able to remember and connect with his family. Beyond the story and fabulous characters, it's also a toe tapping flick with tons of Greatful Dead songs.  After savoring the movie I scrutinized the credits to learn the movie was based on Oliver Sacks’ story, "The Last Hippie."  Searching for other books by Oliver Sacks, I found and read Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. This book is thought-provoking for the anecdotes and studies showing just how powerful, quirky, and surprising our brains and abilities can be with our relationship to music.
                                                                                                                      
This past weekend I streamed Alive Inside on Netflix and was moved to tears again by the power of music on people’s lives. The documentary focuses on how the simple gift of an iPod with a playlist of music that’s meaningful to a person with dementia can transform their quality of life and allow them to connect with people around them.

In the United States we have 5 million people living with dementia and 10 million people caring for them. MusicandMemory.org is an organization that helps bring music to people living with dementia in nursing homes. May we all enjoy our own personal musical playlist for the full extent of our time on earth.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Getting The Most Out Of My Neurologist Visits

Data, data, data  With Multiple Sclerosis, the data I can track to see how I’m doing pretty much boils down to how I feel, what symptoms I experience, and what my MRI scans show. This requires ongoing tracking on my part to monitor my health and get the most out of my doctor visits.

The Neurologist Exam When I go to my neurologist and don’t have a new MRI scan done, the visit mostly consists of me telling the doctor how I’m doing.  Then he'll give what I laughingly think of as an expensive, doctor conducted sobriety test. He'll watch my eyes as they track his finger moving around, he'll watch me touch my finger to his finger and to my nose, back and forth. He'll check my walking gait, speed and balance skills by watching me walk in the hallway.  Forward away from him 20 feet quickly, turn around and walk toward him. Walk on my heels, on my toes, and along a line on the floor heel to toe.


For the exam he'll also poke and scratch me with a small stick to see what I can feel and whether it's a sharp or dull sensation. He'll check my reflexes, flexibility and strength in each limb.We’ll discuss any symptoms I’m having, and he can let me know which medications are on the market that may help alleviate symptoms.


MRI Scans I've learned from my neurologist that MRIs show lesions, and the MRI scans taken with a contrast will show active lesions as a brighter white. Over the course of years of scans, the neurologist will have a lot of scans that he can toggle between to compare lesions from years past and your most recent scan. He'll show you the technician's report and describe his own conclusions from looking at the information. Ask lots of questions if something doesn't make sense. Repeat what you think you understand from what he's said so that he can agree or correct you if you misunderstood.


Some people choose not to get the contrast, and it's a matter of personal preference.  It's important to know though that without the contrast you will not be able to tell if lesions are old or active.


My neurologist says that he's more interested in brain scans than the spine because they help indicate disease progression where symptoms aren't as readily felt or visible. I like to get scans of my spinal cord to show any activity. This information helps me compare how I’m feeling today and any symptoms since my last scan with proof of disease progression.   In the past I've had pretty normal looking brain scans and a spinal cord riddled with lesions.  I understand my doctor's perspective, but given fatigue is my biggest challenge and it’s such a vague symptom, the MRI scans give me feedback that helps me decide what symptoms were likely the result of having an exacerbation (aka flare up as a result of new damage) or just the consequences of old lesions.


MRI scans have been my best source of feedback to start trusting myself again with how I think I'm doing. They've also helped me relax more when I experience new symptoms since I've learned a sense of what is health issues as usual or something that needs immediate attention.


Prepare a list of my symptoms and questions to ask my neurologist.  I keep a health journal that came with my disease modifying drug.  It’s primarily provided in order to track my injection rotations and consistency.  I use it to track my sleep, exercise, weight, and any unusual symptoms.  I also enter alcohol consumption and certain foods that I think can contribute to me not feeling great.


It’s easy to get flustered or forget something I’d like to discuss at the doctor’s visit since time is limited and some discussion may derail my train of thought.  I make sure I have any questions I want to ask written down so I can make the most of my appointment.


I check my notes from my last visit and see what symptoms were discussed and what recommendations were made.  In my appointment I take lots of notes.  I've had a couple of providers in the past that seemed surprised or uneasy with my note taking, but once they got to know me they've all complimented me on my approach to my health.


Consult my support team and invite someone along. I let my inner circle know that I’m going to my semi-annual neurologist appointment so that they can be on standby in case I need to talk following the visit.  At times I will also seek their input prior to the appointment to see if they've noticed any symptoms or have any insight into how I’m doing. Their observations are always helpful and sometimes surprising!


I like to bring someone with me to my appointment so that I have someone to talk to afterwards that may have heard things differently or can reinforce what I heard.  Even taking notes, it’s a lot of information to absorb and it’s helpful to have someone else that heard the same conversation.  Especially if my friend concluded something different than I did, I can pursue it.


Having friends and family accompany me to my appointment is also a tremendous opportunity for bolstering my support system.  My hope is that it will help demystify my disease and how I’m doing.


After taking a good friend with me to an appointment she gave me feedback that she was surprised that I was so timid in the exam room.  She knows me as a person who takes care of myself and strongly advocates for my needs.  With some self-reflection I knew she was correct and my timid nature was in response to not wanting to be labeled a problem or difficult patient. This feedback helped me put my fears in perspective and encourage myself to think of self advocacy as just that, not being difficult or troublesome.

Reward yourself after the appointment.  Plan for and allow time after the appointment to nurture and reward yourself for being responsible and proactive about your health. I remember as a kid getting ice cream after going to the dentist and behaving well.  I think we never grow out of needing positive reinforcement. Self care takes a lot of effort and may not always be enough of its own reward.


My preparation list below is specific for a neurologist visit, but is good for annual checkups and other doctor visits too.

  1. Write down a detailed list of any questions you have for the neurologist. Bring a journal to write down notes during the appointment. Repeat back to the doctor what you understand was said to confirm or correct your impressions.
  2. Bring a list of all medications and supplements you take consistently and once in a while. Make sure to bring insurance card and pharmacy contact information.
  3. Dress comfortably, and wear shoes you wear frequently.  When the neurologist checks your gait, you want to make sure he’s seeing you in your regular shoes.  He may also look at your shoes to see if wear is uneven.
  4. Be prepared to say what symptoms you're experiencing, how long they last and whether they've increased or decreased.  Describe any concerns you have. Think about any possible explanations other than MS for these symptoms.
  5. Know and be able to describe how you're doing with stress, exercise, and diet. Have there been any changes in your life?  
  6. Bring a friend or family member who can help absorb information, be supportive and get an accurate understanding of how you're doing. Make sure you let this person know what you expect from them and how they can help.
  7. Bring your personal calendar to help schedule the next neurologist appointment in six months.
  8. Plan to do something after the appointment that is fun and personally nurturing. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

My Life List


When I was 22 and hanging out in the hot tub with a group of people, my mom described a Dear Abby or Dear Ann Landers question that she’d read. The question was, “What have you always wanted to do and are now too old to do?” My mom asked her friends at work what fell into that category for them, and skydiving was one of the responses. It kicked off a conversation among us about what experiences we would like to have before we get too old to do them. When my mom asked if I would ever sky dive I immediately responded, “In a heartbeat!” Being the amazing person my mom was, soon after she gave me a static-line parachute lesson as an early birthday present. That parachute jump was a scary, thrilling and amazing experience. Over twenty years later, I still grin thinking about how much fun I had and how jumping from an airplane made me feel like I could do anything.

Building a Life List, Prioritizing and Completing Goals
Do you have a bucket list?  I loved the movie, and I think it’s a good idea for me to think about what I would like to accomplish before I kick the bucket. The one aspect of a bucket list that bugged me was the half glass empty feeling it gives me.  It occurred to me to build a Life List that includes things I've already done.  Yes, it’s exactly like writing something down on my To Do list so that I can cross it off. But I do that too, and it doesn't bother me a bit.  I added parachute jump to my Life List and said, “Yep! Done that and glad I did!”

And the more I think about it, the more I think we need to give ourselves credit for what we've already done. This exercise helped me appreciate and put into perspective all that I've already done, the things I haven’t yet done, and the things I may never do. Plus it helps me prioritize my list differently given the experiences I've loved and would like to do again, those I’d like to build on, or those that are completely new.

It’s not all happy: I add unhappy life events to my Life List since they are experiences that helped shape me.  Please note I am not proactive about adding these! This isn't to celebrate them, it’s to appreciate how hard they were and that I made it through.  When I was 23 my mother died unexpectedly, and I experienced the most profound loss of my life to this day. She named me executrix, meaning I had to quickly make funeral arrangements and figure out how to wrap up a full life cut short. Burying your parents is a natural and necessary event for most people. Luckily most people get to have that experience at an older age, and they don’t all have to deal with the financial and legal issues surrounding death. I learned a lot, and I have a huge amount of empathy for others experiencing this life event at any age.

Building on experiences: I would love to travel more and feel I haven’t much in my adult life. I had an internal belief that I haven’t traveled since I haven’t gone overseas. Once I created my Life List, I realized that belief isn't really accurate given my family moved a lot when I was young.  I've lived in Illinois twice, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ontario, Colorado and Washington. My mom made sure we experienced as many museums, historic sites and cities as we could in each state. It wasn't traveling, it was better since it was tourism and immersion in each region’s culture. It’s fun to watch movies, recognize places, and to know, “I've been there!”

Living in the Pacific Northwest, I've spent some weekends in British Columbia and broke in my passport in a short trip to Victoria.  There are a lot of places in the US I’d still like to see or experience as an adult, but looking at my Life List encourages me to focus on traveling abroad sooner than later.

Step by step: Some of the things on my list require a lot of steps to get to the point where I could possibly achieve them.  Writing these goals down helps me identify the steps, see if I’m willing to undertake them, and decide if I want to keep them on my Life List.  I also like patting myself on the back for the steps I've already accomplished that will help me get there.

New Inspiration: Groupon and Living Social are a fun source of ideas for a bucket list experience. I hadn't thought about doing trapeze until I saw a Groupon for a lesson. Bam! Then I really wanted to do it and sought out friends to do this with me.  We had fun, and I added going back and advancing my trapeze skills over ten more sessions to my Life List.  So far I've gone six times and loved it each time. Check out my post on trapeze.

Purging the list: I always thought I would run a marathon some day.  It’s athletic, it’s not an easy thing to do, and it takes a lot of preparation and dedication to complete. Hats off to all of the people that have done it! I used to jog for exercise and I ran a local 12K for six years.  At my peak I finished in just over an hour. The next year I trained hard and hoped to finish in under an hour. A week prior to the race my body started doing wonky things. I pushed myself hard to run while experiencing a lot of fatigue and a body numb from the bra-line down. I was disappointed with my race time at five minutes longer that the previous year. This eventually led to my Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis, and now I’m pretty proud of myself for doing so well given my body limitations. Over the years, I kept trying to run and would get frustrated each time I injured myself due to a slightly uneven gait or experienced an MS exacerbation from pushing myself too hard.


This experience pushed me to rethink my goals and let running a marathon go. And I have no regret or disappointment for not having done it. With so many other goals I want to experience, I will never run out of things to fill the list.

Going through phases: I like trying new things, focusing on learning them well over a period of time, and then moving on to a new project. I don’t think of this approach as giving up or having not liked them enough. I just get what I needed or wanted at the time from the experience, and I then can use my free time for learning something new. On to the next Life List goal…

Sunday, February 23, 2014

I Feel Like A Rock Star!

“You’re stable and in remission.” Seriously? A huge grin spread across my face when my doctor read the technician’s report and reviewed the new full set of MRI scans with me. This good news made me absolutely giddy! My neurologist’s assessment exceeded even the most optimistic of my expectations going in to my appointment! I anticipated the scans might reveal a few new small lesions and possibly an active lesion now that might be the cause of my ongoing and currently increased fatigue. At no time did I anticipate that all of the lesions showing on my new set of MRIs would be accounted for in scans done two or more years ago.

It’s been a few days, and I’m still giddy. MRI scans give me much needed feedback that over the last six years has helped me learn to discern whether a new symptom is just old damage flaring up or a new relapse.  I hadn't thought I was having a relapse, but I think I was too nervous to even hope for the news I received. Absolutely NO new lesions in the last two years?  My neurologist told me that with the disease modifying drugs he counts them as successful if relapses occur once per year.  Six years ago, I was experiencing three relapses per year.  Now I feel like a rock star!


The results of my scans validated my dedication to improving and maintaining my health given old lesions cause me difficulty. Mostly I experience fatigue that makes working full time and living a normal life tough.  Numbness, pain and intermittent loss of function are normal yet fortunately still invisible to others.  Please don’t take this as complaining.  I know I have it a LOT easier than many of my friends with MS.  And easier than a lot of people without MS for that matter! I’m fortunate that in spite of lesions in my spinal cord that my neurologist would expect to cause much greater loss of function and symptoms, I can still be active and experience a pretty athletic lifestyle.


I credit a lot of this to learning to listen to and adapt for what my body needs. Unfortunately I have not found a short cut for this.  It just takes time, patience, research and dedication.The short list of practical living tips (in no particular order) I consistently follow are:

  1. Eat healthy foods my body appreciates. It’s going to be different for each person, but currently I eat a blender full of fruits and vegetables spread out over each day to boost my nutrient intake and smooth my digestion outtake. Sticking to protein, fruits and vegetables and avoiding grains 90% of the time is working for me.
  2. Exercise moderately a minimum of three times per week. More if I have the energy.  Mix it up given the time of year and weather conditions. Do yoga at least once a week.
  3. Rest as needed. Prioritize activities and only do the top of the list based on mandatory items and those that will support me the most. See my Learning to Pause post.
  4. Take supplements to help with my individual symptoms and for general health.
  5. Consistently take my disease modifying drug.
  6. Lean on my friends and family. These relationships aren't one-sided, but they mean everything to me. These people help cheer me up, give me reality checks and are supportive of me no matter what.  I’m lucky to have them.
  7. Contribute to society each day. It can be through work, volunteering or just brightening someone's day.
The best part of my recent “stable and in remission” diagnosis is feeling that I don’t have to be perfect to have good health. My fear of experiencing disease progression and some day feeling I hadn't done enough to prevent it has subsided for now. What I’m doing is enough to not trigger my disease.  What a relief!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Convenience Food: Kalamata Olive and Turkey Meat Pucks

Eating food that hasn't been pre-made or packaged requires a lot more time in the kitchen.  When you need to eliminate certain foods from your diet, it’s a must to make your own from scratch.  I've eaten foods where the ingredient list should result in a food safe for me to eat.  I’m not sure if it’s the processing or trace amounts of something not included on the wrapper, but I know something is off when my throat gets sore or my head gets congested. Regardless, the only way to be sure what’s in your food is to make it yourself from fresh ingredients.

These meat pucks are terrific for cutting up and adding to salads or whole as grab and go meals.  I’ll eat them for breakfast with a green smoothie or as a snack with some cut up raw vegetables.  They’re great convenience food for traveling.  I can freeze them and put them in a cooler for overnight trips.  It’s nice to not have to completely rely on restaurants or grocery stores to get my basic food needs met.  At approximately 2 ounces each, they provide half the protein I like to eat in a meal. They help me maintain my self-control with food choices and avoid emergency occurrences where I’ll eat anything I can find!

You may modify the meat mixture to your heart’s content. Making and freezing a couple variations of these meat pucks allows you to vary your meals throughout the week without extensive cooking time. Substitute other ground meats for the turkey with beef, pork, lamb, or chicken. This is also a good recipe for including organ meats if you’re trying to up your intake of offal. I've also added shredded carrot, sweet potato, kale, and spinach to the meat mixture prior to baking with great results. Just make sure the vegetables are cut small enough to cook completely  with the pucks. Adjust the seasonings depending on what you prefer and have on hand.  If you omit the olives, make sure to add a teaspoon of salt to the mixture before baking. Be creative!

If there are two or more people in your household, make sure to make a lot of meat pucks.  These disappear quickly!
Kalamata Olive & Turkey Meat Pucks
Kalamata Olive and Turkey Meat Pucks
Equipment:
Chef’s knife, cutting board
2 Muffin tins to make 24 pucks
KitchenAid Stand Mixer with paddle attachments, or a large bowl and your hands
Standard ice cream scoop with a spring to release the food
Cooling racks preferred but not necessary

Ingredients:
3.25 lbs Ground Turkey
3 Tbsp Solid Cooking Oil (lard, coconut oil or palm oil is preferred for high heat)
1/2 Onion, (5 oz) diced
30 Kalamata or Green Olives, pitted and chopped small.  Check the ingredient list on olives.  You want to make sure there isn’t something in them that you don’t want to eat.  The kalamata olives I found have red wine vinegar in them.  I did find some green olives with only olives, water, salt and lactic acid.
6 Cloves Garlic, minced (approx 2 Tbsp)
12 stalks Thyme, ¼ oz fresh stripped off stalks and minced, or 1 Tablespoon dried thyme
6 stalks Fresh Sage, 1/3 oz, leaves stripped from stalk and minced, or one teaspoon dried ground sage

Directions:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Prepare all the ingredients by cleaning and chopping them.  Place everything into the stand mixer and mix for 30 seconds to a minute until blended through.  Alternately you may just mix it all with your hands in a large bowl.  It’ll be cold and will take longer, so I prefer to use a mixer.
2. Grease the muffin tins with coconut oil or palm oil.  Turkey is low in fat, and you don’t want the pucks to stick to the pans.
3. Using the ice cream scoop, scoop the turkey mixture and press it against the bowl to fill the scoop. Release one scoop of meat into each muffin tin.  Once all 24 are filled, you may have a little extra meat mixture. Either evening add a little mixture to each muffin tin or refrigerate the remains for use in another meal.  I had 3.5 oz left over and refrigerated it to scramble with veggies tomorrow.
4. Flatten the top in each muffin tin to make each puck.
5. Place both muffin tins into the oven, close door and cook for 30 minutes.  Make sure to set the timer so you can track how long they've been cooking. (This note is for me since I could easily forget I have something baking or what time I put it in…)
6. After 30 minutes pull the muffin tins from the oven and turn off the oven.  Remove the meat pucks from the pans and place them on a cooling rack.  Eat them or once cooled put them in a lidded glass container for storing in the refrigerator.  You may also freeze them for future eating.  Enjoy!
Fresh, fresh, fresh!
Only a chef's knife and cutting board are needed for prepping all the ingredients, but you may use dried herbs and a garlic press if you prefer less preparation time.
Done and ready for eating, refrigerating or freezing

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Pork Chop & Sweet Potato Stew

Pork Chop & Sweet Potato Stew
Soup on a cold winter day fills my belly and soothes my soul.  And in the case of soup, more is always better.  Leftovers are the best. With a long cooking time and each reheating, the soup flavors continue to meld and become even more delicious.  Made in a crock pot, this soup greets me at the end of a work day with comfort and a clean kitchen. If you’re short on time in the morning, you can do as I did by preparing it in the evening and letting it cook overnight.  I then left the crock pot on “warm” throughout the day to let it stew even further.

For years I relied on pre-made bullion to flavor my soups.  They were delicious, but often mystery ingredients can sneak in unbeknownst to us.  Specifically, yeast is in a lot of store-bought bullion among other food items.  It might be a contributor to additives named natural flavoring, caramel color, or citric acid.  I've found that cooking meats on the stove, making sure to include any pan drippings in the soup, and a long slow cooking time in the crock pot leads to a flavorful meal without using pre-made bullion.

This Pork Chop & Sweet Potato Stew is hearty and flavorful.  A garnish of fresh green onion and avocado slices adds a nice texture and contrast to this substantial dish.  You could also substitute beef or chicken for the pork. I like eating broccoli florets as a side dish and using the stems in soups and smoothies.  You may also substitute celery for the broccoli stems.

Broccoli stems are terrific for adding extra nutrition and fiber
to a soup without adding an overpowering flavor.
Pork Chop & Sweet Potato Stew
Equipment:
Large Skillet, I prefer cast iron
Large Crock Pot – if yours isn’t extra large, I suggest halving the recipe.
Cutting board, knife, spatula, tongs and soup ladle

Ingredients:
2 lbs Pork loin sirloin chops, boneless, (4 thick cut chops)
3 Tbsp cooking oil (lard, coconut oil or palm oil is preferred for high heat)
1 large Onion, (15 oz) diced
2 lbs Sweet Potato, (3 medium) diced to ¼” cubes
Broccoli stems from one large head of broccoli, minus the florets, diced to 1/8” cubes (approx 8 oz)
6 Cloves Garlic, minced (approx 2 Tbsp)
8 cups Water
1 tsp Salt
12 stalks Thyme, ¼ oz fresh stripped off stalks, minced
6 stalks Fresh Sage, 1/3 oz, leaves stripped from stalk and minced
Fresh sage and thyme complement
pork and sweet potatoes nicely.

Garnish:
Avocado, sliced
Green onion, chopped

Directions:
Heat a skillet (I prefer cast iron) over medium high heat.  Add oil and coat the pan.  Cook the pork chops at medium high heat for three minutes each side or until browned.  Add to crock pot with the uncooked diced broccoli stems.  Turn on crock pot to high.

Break apart the meat into small pieces
by squeezing it on edge with tongs.
While the pork chops cook, cut up the vegetables.  Once the pork chops are done and removed from the pan, add the onion and cook until translucent.  Add the minced garlic to the onions.  Cook until onions are lightly brown. Add mixture to crock pot.  The onion mixture will deglaze most of the brown bits from the pork chops.  Add a cup of water to the skillet to deglaze any remaining bits.  Add to the crock pot with the rest of the 8 cups water.  Remove pan from heat and turn off the stove burner.

Add salt, thyme and sage to the crock pot.  Cover and cook on low for 10 hours.  Alternatively you could cook it at high for 6 hours and it would still be great.

Go to work or take off for the day.  Come home to the wonderful smell of dinner ready. Or make this in the evening, let it cook overnight and wake up to a finished stew.  You can put it in the fridge or leave it to cook on low during the day.

Break apart the pork chops into smaller pieces approximately 1" in size with tongs and a fork.  Slice the avocado and chop green onion, serve on top of the stew. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Parsnip Pasta with Bacon, Kale and Mushrooms

It’s an interesting idea to stop using food for comfort, but I’d much rather find or create healthy food that soothes my soul. Still recovering from being sick with the flu last week and now realizing I have a cold, it’s tempting to just toss healthy habits out in favor of treating myself.

After work and a gym workout, I would have loved to get a drink and relax. Given it’s only mid-week, I’m feeling the pressure of work deadlines, and I’m physically mending, I chose to make a comforting dinner. Yay me for being boring and making good decisions! Let’s hear it for maturity!

Parsnip Pasta fit the bill. I still love my spiralizer which will make noodles out of anything. (See my post on the spiralizer here.)  Parsnips hold up well when cooked and don’t get mushy so quickly like zucchini. The recipe below makes 1-2 servings depending on how hungry you are. I’d had a big lunch, so I only ate half and saved the rest for leftovers.

I also tried serving the noodles under the rest of the pasta sauce and found the parsnips a bit starchy on their own. As shown in the last photo I tossed it all together before eating. It's not as pretty, but it tasted better!

Kale, bacon and mushrooms cut and ready to cook
Parsnip Pasta with Bacon, Kale and Mushrooms, not tossed
Parsnip Pasta with Bacon, Kale and Mushrooms, tossed

Parsnip Pasta
Ingredients:
1 medium Parsnip, noodle cut (6 oz)
¼ cup water
4 slices cooked bacon, diced (2.25 oz)
1 cup mushrooms, sliced (3.5 oz)
1 cup kale, cut thin (2.5 oz)
1 Tbsp bacon fat or other fat that will withstand high heat
1 Tbsp Seasoning (mix of oregano, thyme, marjoram)
Salt to taste

Directions:
Spiralize the parsnip, put it in a microwave safe glass dish with ¼ cup water, and microwave 2 ½ minutes. Rinse, set aside, and drain any excess liquid prior to using later.

Bring a skillet, I used cast iron, to medium-high heat and add the bacon fat. Add the mushrooms, bacon and kale to the skillet. Sauté three minutes or until the kale is sufficiently wilted and cooked through. Add the seasoning mix and drained parsnip noodles to the pan. Toss and add salt to your preference. Serve and smile.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Feeding The Baked Goods Hankering And Coconut Varieties 101

Searching Pinterest for recipes using the term “AIP”, I learned “AIP” not only refers to Autoimmune Protocol but also to Aging In Place. Both are of interest to me, but I focused on AIP recipes this time. After pinning many new recipes (and spending way longer on the computer than planned) I chose a recipe by A Girl Worth Saving for Pumpkin Spice Thumbprint Cookies. The short list of ingredients consisting almost entirely of whole foods intrigued me.

The only changes I made to the recipe were to add a pinch of salt to the batter and substitute a Bosc pear for the green apple in the frosting. I’m avoiding apples, and according to Wikipedia Bosc pears are the "aristocrat of pears". Fancy!

Overall, these little nuggets are made of coconut, pumpkin, banana, pear and flavoring. They were good and definitely met my craving for baked goods. Next time I may add a little maple syrup to the batter to sweeten them a little and change the ratio of banana to pumpkin to increase the pumpkin flavor. Given the cookies are truffle sized and have the texture of frosted cupcakes, I’ll likely refer to them as truffle-sized cupcakes in the future. All in all, the recipe is a keeper!
Pumpkin Spice Thumbprint Cookies,
aka Truffle Sized Cupcakes
While going through my pantry, I realized I had quite a few versions of coconut! Coconut is handy since it’s slightly sweet and can morph to suit baking needs. It’s also paleo friendly and higher in fiber than a lot of other flours. The various terms for coconut products confused me at first when I ventured into new AIP recipes. To hopefully save others time of uncertainty or confusion, here’s my quick guide to a few coconut ingredients, aka Coconut 101:
Left Side Top To Bottom:
Coconut Manna Jar, At Room Temp, and Melted
Right Side Top to Bottom:
Coconut Oil, At Room Temp, and Melted
Coconut oil and coconut butter are very different. Given they’re expensive and baking takes a lot of time, I’d hate to see anyone confuse the two. Coconut Oil on the right side of the photo above is white at room temperature and melts to a clear liquid. Coconut butter is also called coconut manna and resembles a chalky crumble at room temperature. It reminds me of the texture of the filling in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Melted 20 seconds in a microwave, coconut butter becomes creamy and light yellow in color.

Coconut Chips are a snack food made of coconut, sugar and salt. I bought mine at Trader Joe’s, and they’re sweet and crunchy with a buttery flavor. This flaked coconut is unsweetened and cut to a larger texture than the finely shredded coconut most of us are used to using in recipes. You can also buy sweetened flaked and shredded coconut, but I prefer to regulate my sweeteners in recipes. Lastly, the photo shows coconut flour which may also be called dried-ground coconut meat or unsweetened coconut flour. I've heard a recommendation to get the darker colored coconut flour if possible because the whiter flour undergoes additional processing.

Clockwise from top left:
Coconut Chips, Flaked Coconut,
Shredded Coconut, and Coconut Flour
Coconut cream and coconut milk are also super handy ingredients for baking, smoothies and ice cream. I’ll leave them for another day.  

Happy baking and eating!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Thoughts & Tips on Cooking

Learning to cook at an early age
I owe my mom a huge debt of gratitude for teaching me to cook at a young age with a sense of adventure.  I’m comfortable cooking without a recipe and rarely have an inedible outcome – maybe twice in twenty years?  My sisters and I always helped when my mom made meals, and she was terrific at delegating age appropriate tasks to the three of us.

I have memories of making French toast at the age of seven.  It was a favorite of mine, and learning to make it allowed me to have it whenever I wanted.  My sisters and I made large breakfasts as a regular weekend morning routine at a young age.  We were curious about foods and would attempt recipes for fun.  My mom was on hand to answer questions but she didn't hover, and she allowed us a lot of autonomy in the kitchen. 

When I was ten my mom bought a fabulous International cookbook.  I think it was by Betty Crocker, and it opened a whole new world of cooking to us.  Our family cooking experience making won tons was a hit even though we tripled the batch when the amount of filling in the recipe didn't seem like enough.  We had won tons out our ears!  From that book we made so many dishes that were exotic and new to us.  Foods that are commonplace and available in most towns now, we had never experienced.  We trusted the photos, followed the recipes, and traveled the globe with our taste buds.

Cooking is a creative and artistic endeavor for me.  In my adult life I've gone through phases of experimenting and mastering (at a nonprofessional level) making chocolate truffles, specialty cakes, pies, soups, and breads. I love purchasing what looks fresh and delicious at a market and then deciding what to do with it when I get home. 

This background has developed my skills and confidence in creating meal options with a limited diet.  I see many online posts by people that are fearful they won’t know what to eat if they have food limitations. Knowing how to cook, use kitchen tools and experiment with food makes limitations an adventure I can embrace, not fear.   Thanks, Mom!

In support of multitasking
Doing more than one thing at a time is usually very inefficient, but for me cooking is the exception to the rule.  Tonight I made my dinner and all of tomorrow’s meals in 30 minutes.  With fresh ingredients, baked sweet potato, and ground turkey with onion and garlic leftover from batch cooking a couple days ago, I made food that I like, is healthy for me and can be eaten immediately or within minutes tomorrow.  The meals are:
Dinner tonight: Seasoned halibut with sautéed zucchini and sweet potato
Breakfast: Salmon and a green smoothie
Lunch: Halibut and a green smoothie
Dinner: Ground turkey, zucchini and sweet potato
Snacks (not pictured): Carrot sticks, fresh fruit and water

It saves a huge amount of time in the morning when I’m having trouble getting going to be able to avoid deciding what to eat, making it and cleaning the kitchen.  It also front loads tasks that I want to do but may not have the energy for later.  Certainly putting less effort in and getting more out conserves my energy for other fun tasks.

The details:  I put the salmon and halibut in the same pan to cook while I washed and cut up the zucchini and smoothie fruits and vegetables.  Once the fish was done, I removed it and added the zucchini to the same pan.  While the veggies cooked I assembled the turkey and sweet potato meal.  I blended the green smoothies and poured them into glasses.  By then the zucchini was half done and ready to add some to the turkey dish for reheating tomorrow.  I added the cooked sweet potato to remaining half of the zucchini in the pan to heat up.  A couple minutes later all was done and ready to serve.  Total time from start to finish was 28 minutes!

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.  If you remember only one thing from this blog, I bet it’s this.  Simon and Garfunkle taught me how to remember seasoning poultry with their song, “Scarborough Fair / Canticle.” Sing along with me:
Are you going to Scarborough Fair:
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.
Remember me to one who lives there.
She once was a true love of mine…
Every time I season poultry, I mentally sing the chorus to this song.  It’s relaxing and a bit meditative.  And this mix is delicious on any savory dish, not just poultry.

Always make extra:
Leftovers are king.  And a lot of meals taste better the next day, cold or hot.

Cutting up vegetables and putting half in a saute pan for dinner and the other half in a lidded dish for tomorrow’s salad takes half the time of making each meal separately.  And you only have to clean dishes once!

Knife skills
Taking a knife skills class was one of the best experiences I've undertaken to improve my cooking skills.  I took the class with a friend a few years ago at a cooking store at University Village in Seattle.  The instructor taught us all about quality knives, what type of knife to use for cutting different foods, cutting boards, how to properly use a knife and push food to the cutting knife, and different cutting methods for all types of vegetables.  If I haven’t lost you or bored you yet, great! 

Here’s the sales pitch:  Food tastes and looks better or worse depending on how you cut it.  A stew with huge hunks of vegetables and meat doesn't taste as good to me as one with smaller vegetables and meat that allow more than one item in a soup on your spoon.  A chiffonade of lettuce tastes better on a taco.  Vegetables with differing textures and sizes can cook in the same pan and finish at the same time, saving pans and cleaning time. And learning to use a knife well saves money on specialty kitchen gadgets, NOT that I’m opposed to kitchen gadgets.  See my post on My Latest Kitchen Love…