Halloween

One of my favorite holidays has always been Halloween. It’s the only day of the year where you’re meant to dress up, be crazy and eat a bunch of candy. What’s not to like?

I must confess that this year I was going to quietly sneak through Halloween. No decorations, no special food, no candy. With one teenager left at home who is not a big fan of Halloween, I thought – why bother?

Then I went to a friend’s house last week for a book club meeting. As we sat around in different rooms, I noticed all of the Halloween and Fall decorative touches. Festive lights. Mini pumpkins. Candles. I realized that I missed Halloween.

So what if the kids didn’t really care if I decorated? So what if we really don’t get many trick-or-treaters in our neighborhood anymore? So what if it’s a holiday really meant for kids? I missed Halloween and decided to celebrate for me!

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I cut way back on the decorating but put out a few of my favorite things. Looks better at night in the dark!

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My son and I had a theme Halloween Dinner: Croaked Monsieur sandwiches (gruyere and black forest ham), BAT sandwiches (bacon, arugula and tomato) and GHOST sandwiches (goat cheese, herbs, olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, tapenade). Inspired by Martha Stewart and the first two were a hit.

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If I were having a party, I would probably serve the kids orange soda and the adults – this Bloody Good Mary. It has 2 cups tomato juice, 3 T fresh lemon juice, 2 t fresh horseradish, 2 t Worcestershire sauce, 1 t coarse salt and hot sauce to taste. Delicious as is or can be spiced up with 1 oz vodka and served over ice (serves 4).

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As I went through my bins of Halloween decorations, I noticed I had a number of cute little items that I really didn’t use anymore. I thought it would be fun to create a care package for my daughter and her roommate with some of these and a whole lot of candy. When they received it, they were thrilled. And THAT made my Halloween!!

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Weekend in Lone Pine

I spent the weekend at our little yellow house in Lone Pine.

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While my husband was doing his entrepreneurial thing in town, (it was the annual Lone Pine film festival this weekend), I spent my time doing household chores and gardening. As I looked out of each of our windows in the house, I was struck by the incredible 360 degree views we have. If I were a painter, I would have inspiration galore to paint the beautiful scenery surrounding our house. Through one of my kitchen windows, I have a view of the rugged rock formations of the Alabama Hills.

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Through another of my kitchen windows, I can see all the way to the Owens Lake and on the a clear day beyond the Lake, I can see the top of the tree line of an artist community town named Keeler.

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Out my bedroom window, I can see the majestic Sierra Mountains that you can see in the first photo.

In between working in the house and garden, I came inside and watched PBS cooking shows. I used to watch cooking shows a lot before I went to Cooking school. However, now that I have acquired a certain number of skills and am always on some sort of diet of late, I haven’t watched them in a long time. Martha Stewart is always great if not a little intimidating but the show I enjoyed the most and found the most inspiring was Sarah Moulton, a PBS regular. Her show was all about preparing creative food for a picnic. She demonstrated how to pack a salad in Mason Jars and making your own Beer bread for pulled chicken sandwiches. Then she showed how to pack your picnic. If you are trying to keep your food hot, use an insulated cooler and fill it about 1/4 full with boiling water then drain it. Line your cooler with newspaper and put the food that you have cooked in the pots you cooked it in right in the cooler. Make sure you secure the lid with a twisted rope you make out of plastic wrap. If you want to keep your food cold, freeze small drinking water bottles and then add them to the bottom of your cooler. Then when they unfreeze, you will have water to drink. Ingenious!! If you are carrying a pie to your picnic and don’t have a portable pie carrier, put it into a bamboo steamer.

So I had a very inspiring weekend and actually learned something from the TV. Now if I would only learn how to paint landscapes.

Cookbooks

I am inspired by cookbooks. I collect them. I study them. I borrow them. And I buy them. As I admitted in a previous post, I own around 300 cookbooks (after the ones I’ve given away). So, I try to control my collection habit in a creative way: I go to the library and borrow and borrow and borrow …..

Los Angeles Downtown Public Library has the largest collection of cookbooks west of the Mississippi, or so the librarians tell me. Once or twice a year, I will make the trek downtown to wander up and down the aisles in cookbook heaven. I will stand on stools to reach the highest shelves and sit on the floor to turn page after page.

In between these treks, I visit my local public library branches that also have decent cookbook collections. I’ll try to pick up only one or two, but will always walk out with 10 – the maximum number of books you can check out in one visit. Tip: you can actually have 30 books out at a time, so several trips will help you maximize your borrowings (though usually 10 at a time is enough for me)!

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On a recent visit, here are a few of the books I picked up: Larousse Gastonomique, The Escoffier Cook Book, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, Pok Pok, The Perfect Peach and Ivan Ramen. I tried making chicken pho from the Vietnamese book and it was just okay but the fresh spring roll recipe was wonderful. Having not yet visited Thailand, I was overwhelmed by Pok Pok. I loved the story of Ivan Ramen. Part memoir (love story), part cookbook – all inspirational. Larousse and Escoffier are encyclopedias of French cooking and I enjoyed browsing.

The joy of borrowing cookbooks from our library is that you can often keep them for up to 9 weeks (3 weeks + 2 renewals). That gives me time to test recipes from them, read the narrative and really get a feel for the book. Those that I love become purchases, including recently Japanese Soul Cooking and Vietnamese Home Cooking. Most books go back to the library enjoyed for something new I’ve learned or a beautiful picture or layout I’ve seen.

As I’m running out of room for my own cookbook collection, borrowing and returning cookbooks provides much of the joy of reading them without the storage or cost issues. Additionally, buying them from used bookstores is also an economical idea that I use whenever I can. I daresay that cookbooks are a bit of an obsession for me. A guilty pleasure. Though I don’t feel very guilty!

TED

Whenever I feel I need a dose of inspiration and I have extra time on my hands, I will tune into TED and listen to or watch one of their short audio or video sessions of an expert talking about some world problem and their solution for it or someone presenting a theory about a topic that makes me think. TED is devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). It began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages. TED is owned by a nonprofit, nonpartisan foundation. Their agenda is to make great ideas accessible and spark conversation.

Here are some of my favorite TED talk gurus and my comments about each:

Amy Cuddy
She is a Social Scientist who has a theory that body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves. She demonstrates how “power posing” — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, and might even have an impact on our chances for success.

(I can tell you that I have stood in front of the mirror and practiced this power posing and it works.)

Simon Sinek
He has a simple but powerful model for inspirational leadership all starting with a golden circle and the question “Why?” He explores how leaders can inspire cooperation, trust and change. His examples include Apple, Martin Luther King, and the Wright brothers.

(I have first hand experience with this kind of leadership, in my former life as a Corporate Marketer.  I had a boss who was a very inspirational person and when he spoke, he had a profound affect on everyone in the company from the top partners of the firm to the mailroom guy.)

Dan Gilbert
He is the author of “Stumbling on Happiness,” a book that is considered to be one of the 50 key books in Psychology. It challenges the idea that we’ll be miserable if we don’t get what we want. Our “psychological immune system” lets us feel truly happy even when things don’t go as planned. Gilbert’s central thesis is that, through perception and cognitive biases, people imagine the future poorly, in particular what will make them happy.

(This concept was powerful to me because I tend to be a pessimist and can let myself imagine the worst scenarios for the future)

Brené Brown
She is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.
Her talk is about How we learn to embrace our vulnerabilities and imperfections so that we can engage in our lives from a place of authenticity and worthiness?  Also how we cultivate the courage, compassion, and connection that we need to recognize that we are enough – that we are worthy of love, belonging, and joy?

(This is a theory worth embracing for us perfectionists who didn’t get a lot of nurturing as children)

I listen to TED talks on NPR while I am driving and also on my iPad.  Even though it is only about 20 minutes, a TED talk helps me think about the bigger problems and issues in the world rather than focusing on my own little world.

The Barefoot Contessa, My Mentor

Growing up, I never learned to cook. Anything. I remember once trying to bake a cake (from a box) as a surprise. And I yanked it out of the oven early to save the surprise and tried to frost it (from a can) while steaming hot. It was nothing but a hot mess.

Fast forward to young adulthood and life just after college. I tried to teach myself how to cook when I could find time between commuting and working. I read Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines and started collecting Martha Stewart cookbooks. Those were hard cooking years ….

At some point shortly after my 3rd child was born, I came across, “the barefoot contessa cookbook.” I think it was a referral from Martha Stewart. Phew.

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Compared to what I’d been trying to cook out of Gourmet and Martha Stewart, these recipes looked completely different. They had fewer and simpler ingredients, fewer steps, and basic equipment. There were pictures to accompany most recipes and the food looked comfortable and comforting. Not like you were having the Queen over for dinner.

So, with Ina Garten as my mentor (“Ina” as I now refer to her), I went through the original “the barefoot contessa cookbook,” and taught myself to cook. In general Ina’s recipes are well-tested and simple but provide surprisingly superior results. I was worried originally that the food would be bland or boring. But it wasn’t. And although I wasn’t a fan of every dish, there were some I absolutely LOVED.

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Like the Grilled Tuna Salad Nicoise. As with all recipes, over time I tweak them to our personal tastes – here exchanging grilled fresh ahi tuna with Italian canned tuna packed in oil and boiled potatoes for the french potato salad.

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Ina’s Perfect Roast Chicken recipe I’ve adapted by dry brining the chicken for 24 hours before roasting with the lemons and garlic but without the onion.

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A summer staple is Ina’s Barbecue Sauce. I change nothing about her recipe. Just double it at the beginning of the summer and freeze in portioned containers. My family cannot get enough of it.

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A simple technique I learned from this book was roasting vegetables in the oven. You can roast virtually anything. Here I roasted carrots in olive oil, salt and pepper then sprinkled with fresh flat leaf parsley when done, though many herbs would suffice. Now, this seems almost too simple to even be included as a recipe in a book but back when I was learning, it was a revelation!

As I cooked through this book, I began a rating system so I would remember if I liked or didn’t like a certain dish. “Yes” in sharpie across the top of the page meant “make this again, it’s worth it” and “no” meant, well, “don’t.” Pretty simple.

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Of the 87 recipes in “the barefoot contessa cookbook,” I completed 72 or 83%. Not really a success if I wanted to try everything in the book, but actually after having tried a few of the desserts, I gave up on them. Two of the 4 I tried were time consuming and not great. So I decided to focus on the rest of the book instead, making 68 of the 71 non-dessert recipes or 96%. Not bad for a beginner. (Is it obvious that I am an accountant?)

Now, almost 15 years later I still fall back sometimes on the tried and true recipes in this book. Some favorites include Ina’s recipes for Hummus, Guacamole, Lentil Vegetable Soup, Provencal Potato Salad, Szechuan Noodle Salad, Grilled Vegetable Platter and her Homemade Granola. Her “Platters” for fresh fruit, country desserts, fruit and cheese and crudite with dip have been put to use time and again.

I have since collected every Ina Garten cookbook, more out of loyalty than necessity, and another almost 300 cookbooks of many varieties. They are an obsession and my favorite thing to read! I completed a concentrated culinary school program several years ago and continue to study on my own through books, magazines, a wealth of information on the internet, travel and occasional classes. But my first love will always be this very special book, “the barefoot contessa cookbook,” that taught me that I could cook and that it wasn’t scary. Thanks, Ina.

Why I Love My Book Club

InspirationI was recently invited to join a book club. I am not sure why I have never been a part of one before, because I love to read but I am so happy that I said yes. It is a small group of women who also love to read and seem to all have eclectic tastes in books. We meet once a month always on a Wednesday evening at the member’s house who was responsible for choosing the book we supposedly read. Dinner is also provided by our hostess. After catching up with everyone’s life and spending some time exchanging weight loss tips, we move from the dining area to the living room and begin discussing the book.

So far I can see some long term advantages of a book club. It exposes you to other genres of books that you may not have considered before. I think we all get stuck in a rut as to the kind of books we read, television programs and movies we watch and the music we listen too. It also gives you a deeper understanding of what you read by hearing a different perspective about the story. A book club also is an opportunity to sharpen your communication skills when you describe for the group what you got out of the book. It also exposes you to different cultures and life experiences of the group you are a part of. Because many of the books that someone chooses for our group to read, I have read in the past, it refreshes my brain to see something in the story that I may have missed before and gives me a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

It has been 4 months since I joined and the 3 books we have read so far have been: The Red Tent;
Under the Banner of Heaven; and A Year of Wonder. The book we are currently reading is, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

I am very inspired by this group of women who share a love of reading and are exposing me to books that I would not have thought to read on my own.

OWN

I don’t really watch a lot of television. If anything, I watch culinary programs while I work out to pass time. But I admit that I do like some of the programming on OWN, or the Oprah Winfrey Network. Some of the shows I find downright inspiring.

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One show that I have watched only a few times but have been impressed with is “Super Soul Sundays.” Described as “… a timely, thought-provoking, eye-opening and inspiring block of programming designed to help viewers awaken to their best selves and discover a deeper connection to the world around them,” this theme really resonates with me and my evolving interest in the spiritual journey. Oprah’s recent interview with Paulo Coelho, author of, “The Alchemist,” was deeply moving. It gave me new insight into the story and inspires me to read it again with more intention. I also really enjoyed Oprah’s interview with author Anne Lamott about her book on the 3 essential prayers, “Help. Thanks. Wow,” a book I recently read. Interviews with other authors, including Marianne Williamson have given me new resources for spiritual teachings and guidance. I recently watched “Oprah and 3 New Voices: Next Generation Spiritual Thinkers,” in which 3 young and up and coming spiritual thinkers were introduced. The work that they were doing was truly impressive. I look forward to getting to the episodes with Deepak Chopra, Elie Wiesel, Brene Brown and Maya Angelou.

“Oprah Presents Master Class,” is another show on the OWN Network which I find interesting. Each episode is led by a person Oprah has hand-picked as “a Master” of life lessons in some way. Some guests for this Season 4 have included Maya Angelou, Whoopi Goldberg, Barbara Walters, Cicely Tyson, Sharon Stone, Billy Bob Thornton, Robin Roberts and Justin Timberlake.

Other inspiring shows include, “Oprah’s Lifeclass” and “Help Desk,” amongst others. There is little television programming of this kind and for me, it is generous, rich and fulfilling. I am a fan. And I am inspired.

Fear Factor

I believe facing your fears makes you a stronger person by building up your self esteem and helping you overcome dealing with the fear of a lack of control. For us control oriented people that is a big one. That is how I became a scuba diver even though water was an element I never felt comfortable in because I never really learned how to swim properly. The other problem I have in the water is I don’t float very well which I believe is due to my inability to feel comfortable in the water. When I was getting certified to scuba dive, one of the things we had to do was tread water in the deep end of the pool for ten minutes which I could not do. As a result I didn’t get my certification until I had made three dives which I was able to accomplish because I wore a buoyancy compensator that helped me stay afloat.

Another one of my fears is of heights. So of course when my Husband asked what I wanted for one of my big birthdays, I said a skydiving lesson. Fortunately he bought me one that didn’t expire because it took me 6 months to build up the nerve to take the lesson. The day of my jump, I was very anxious but I just kept reminding myself how great I was going to feel after it was over. My Sisters met me at the course so they could take pictures and after a short review with the skydive school about what to expect during our jump, we got suited up.

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My first jump was a tandem one and I was introduced to my jumping partner, a young man who immediately put me at ease. There were about 10 of us jumping out of the plane and after getting to 14,000 feet in the air, our jumping partners, who wore the parachute, hooked up to our backs with the harness we wore and each of us moved closer to the open plane hatch to get into position to exit the plane. When the jump light turned green, my partner told me to lean my head back and we launched. The feeling as I soared through the air at 120 miles per hour is indescribable.

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The instructor tried to do some free fall maneuvers but I was feeling a little nauseous and asked him to stop which he did. I was losing all sense of time during my jump but after only about 60 seconds of a high adrenaline free fall, my instructor tapped me on the shoulder to pull the cord and activate my parachute. The parachute deployment had a big kickback which I wasn’t prepared for but I was able to overcome the discomfort immediately as I looked down and saw the ground coming closer and I just prayed that I was going to land on my feet and it wouldn’t hurt.

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I landed on my butt and it was incredibly smooth. After it was over all I could do was just sit on the ground for about 15 minutes and bask in how great the experience was and the incredible accomplishment of facing another fear.

Wild

I recently read a book that so moved me, I felt compelled to share. “Wild,” by Cheryl Strayed left me awestruck in the COURAGEOUSNESS of a young adult woman struggling through her issues (as we all do) and getting REAL on the Pacific Coast Trail with Monster (her 50+ pound backpack) ALONE.

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As I read this book, I felt like Cheryl was my hero. This is what I wished I had the courage to do when I struggled in life. And in her mid-20’s? Who does this?

Without giving away the background and plot, Cheryl Strayed has many valid reasons to stray and feel lost. What she does with her issues, at such an amazingly young age is what is astonishing. I was inspired and felt the spirit of her conviction. Reading this book was such a gift and I wanted to share with others. Spreading the word.

*By the way, the movie version of “Wild” is being produced and starred in by Reese Witherspoon. It is due out in late 2014 but I would read the book first. The books are ALWAYS better.

 

My Foodspirations

I’ll admit it, I am a chef groupie. I love reading about chefs who have worked themselves up the ranks and made it big either through successful restaurants, publishing, TV and radio exposure or are just known in the food world to be creative and outstanding. Whenever I see a chef I admire, I always try to get my picture taken with them. I also try to get my cookbooks authored by them, signed whenever possible. When I was traveling in New York last year, my husband took my daughter and I to Le Bernardin for lunch. The meal itself was a major highlight but having the opportunity to have my picture taken with Eric Ripert, a French chef I have admired for years was momentous. Anyone who knows me, knows that I rarely am giddy but at the moment when Chef Ripert came over to my table to say hello and pose for a picture, I was literally tongue-tied. He was so charming and gracious, and said, “let’s go to his kitchen for the picture so as not to disturb the other diners.” His kitchen by the way was quiet as church with all of his staff, heads down, intently viewing the food items or plates in front of them.

Eric-Ripert

That same evening, my husband and I were visiting Eataly and he spotted Emeril Lagasse, a chef from New Orleans who is well known from his TV shows. My husband insisted I get my picture taken with him. He was very gracious and posed for the picture and thanked me for my kind words of admiration. Bam! another chef photo for my collection. I also spotted Lydia Bastianich that evening, a co-owner of Eataly and also a well-known chef but she was moving too fast for me to get a picture.

Emeril-LagasseBefore it closed, my husband, eldest Grandson and I ate at the Spice Table in downtown Los Angeles, which was a Southeast Asian restaurant and the pride of local Chef Bryant Ng.

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His food was inventive and soulful and reminded us of our travels to Singapore and Vietnam. Of course I had to get my picture taken with him. He was very receptive to my request.  Sadly the Spice Table is no more and Chef Ng has moved on to other ventures. In addition to chefs I would like to meet, my foodspirations include restaurants I would like to eat at and dishes I would like to make. My wish list consists of:

CHEFS
Olivier Roellinger
Thomas Keller
Lydia Bastianich
Jacques Pepin
Alice Waters

RESTAURANTS
Noma in Copenhagen
Maisons-de-bricourt (Accommodations, Restaurant & Cooking School in Cancale, Brittany run by Olivier Roellinger a three star Michelin chef)
Alinea in Chicago
Per Se in New York
Mugaritz in San Sebastián
Arzak in San Sebastián

DISHES
Baked Alaska
Papusas
Pavlova
Lobster Roll