Thursday, September 22, 2011

How Asparagus Made my Day

In an effort to clear up my speckly white skin spots, I am eating a diet of mostly green vegetables. I have eliminated some favorite foods from my diet: breads, potatoes, pasta, sauces, condiments, tempeh, sauerkraut, most fruits, most nuts, mushrooms, sugars, and most grains. Eating isn't that much fun right now. But I have found a simple, joyful, delightful stalk that makes me squeal. For real.

A delightful stalk that made me squawk. A joyful sprig that made me dance a jig. A delicious spike whose taste I like.

With only 3 ingredients and a few minutes under broil in the oven, asparagus brightened my whole day. The secret to the grandest green is: drizzle some melted extra virgin coconut oil over tiny asparagus stalks, and sprinkle with sea salt. Broil.

Joy. Pleasure. Happiness. Asparagus.

Added bonus: the kids love it this way too.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How Earl Grey Tea may have turned me into a Cougar (or a Leopard, or a Cheetah or another spotted cat)

The Earl of Grey seduced me away from my former lover. I had a tumultuous love affair with Coffee. Dark, exotic coffee had a Latin accent and always smelled delicious. I knew he was trouble but I couldn't get enough of him. I became addicted to him. When I was with Coffee, I sensed he always wanted more of me. It wasn't enough to spend a little time together in the morning. He was so needy, expecting me to drink him all in, wanting more and more of my time and attention. And Coffee didn't give me my own space. He crowded me. Everywhere I went, there he was. At the gas station. The supermarket. Even at the ice cream shop. I became so dependent on Coffee, I even took him with me for rides in the car. Concerned friends could see how Coffee was changing me -- I couldn't sleep, I was restless -- and they warned me to drop him cold turkey. I had to face facts: our relationship was dysfunctional.

When I finally summoned the strength to leave him, I was a mess. I cried for two weeks. My head felt as though someone took an ax to the center in an attempt to split my skull in half. I had trouble getting out of bed in the morning. But, gradually, I began to feel like myself again.

I could once again enjoy an afternoon gathering with friends or a night out at a restaurant without worrying about whether Coffee would ruin it. That was when The Earl of Grey first caught my eye.

Looking back now, I now see that I was still vulnerable. The Earl was my rebound. Smarting from the breakup with Coffee, I sat alone on cold mornings, couldn't join friends at Starbucks for a meeting. And then there was the Earl: polite, gentlemanly, patient. He didn't pursue me like Coffee did, waiting at every street corner. Earl was different. Earl Grey Tea was content for me to come to him in my own time, which I did.

And in a way, I grew to love the Earl. It was a comfortable relationship, not too demanding or intense. I genuinely liked him and the way he made me feel. We had a quiet understanding. He calmly sat with me on winter afternoons while I read or wrote, making no demands. Earl had a pleasant demeanor. He warmed me on chilly days but never made me feel guilty when I wasn't available. But now, in the sunny summer, I see the damage that Earl Grey Tea caused. With the rest of my skin tanned, I have tiny white speckles on my shoulders and chest. I look like a wild jungle cat. With the Earl sitting right by my side, I researched the white skin spots on the internet and discovered that the Oil of Bergamot that makes him so appealing can cause permanent skin damage.

That was the last I saw of Earl. It was much easier to say goodbye to him than to Coffee, and at least he took it like a gentleman.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Parenting Experts?

I have been parenting since before that was even a verb. We didn't parent 20 years ago, we just had kids and took care of them. Parent was a noun. Because we had no internet and no cell phones when my daughter was born, I relied on plenty of experts when I faced troubles. Baby couldn't sleep? Read T. Berry Brazelton. Nursing troubles? Call the hospital's nursery hotline. Locating an expert often involved a trip to the library, questions of the research librarian, perusal of periodicals and sometimes long distance phone calls. It sounds so romantic and quaint now but it was terribly time consuming.

With newer and faster technology came the ability to retrieve information instantly. And there were loads of people lined up to provide this information. Gone were the days of requiring old-fashioned things like "credentials" and "education." The anonymity of the internet, and the change from books to inexpensive e-publishing contributed to today's new parenting experts. Today, anyone with a keyboard and internet access can call himself an expert. Turning expertise completely upside down, it is the act of writing a book which creates an expert, rather than the other way around.

Among some of the newest experts on the topic of raising children are Alex and Simon (Silex) of Real Housewives of New York infamy. According to Simon's website, their brand new book is a he said/she said look at how these Brooklyn parents are raising their two boys. I have seen several episodes of this reality television show and not once have I thought to myself "Wow, those two are super parents. I hope they write a book." Watch for yourself and see. Never mind that neither parent has any background in child development, yet they published with confidence a book about raising children. In an interview with Time Out magazine, Alex was quoted as saying,

"I don’t think anyone out there is a parenting expert. Nobody’s got all the answers and it’s silly to pretend that anyone does."

Just because someone doesn't believe in experts doesn't mean they don't exist. To paraphrase a line from the film The Santa Clause, you may never have seen a million dollars but you know that it exists. Of course, I don't pretend to be a million dollars just because you may not know what it looks like. defines expert as "a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field; specialist; authority." The term expert does not imply that one possesses all of the answers to life's questions. Skills, knowledge, and even experience used to contribute to expertise. Is this no longer true? I long for the days when authorities read books and studied a topic.

I recently attended a workshop about parenting vegan kids, which was right up my alley! I hoped to pick up some tips, ideas, new recipes for my 12 and 15 year olds. The two sweet and lovely speakers each had only one child: one four year old and one infant! A parent of one breastfeeding baby was acting as an authority on vegan parenting. One year olds can't even say no. I actually found the advice adorable, in the same way I chuckled when I heard the mom of a toddler exasperatedly sigh "Potty training is the hardest part of parenting." Any parent who has raised children through best friend breakups, first loves, learning to drive, and college admission may think that bigger challenges lie ahead.

And while I'm on the subject of parenting challenges, I am wary of mommies carrying babes-in-slings spouting their homeschool philosophies. Not that they aren't entitled to have such philosophies, but until their children reach (at minimum) school age, their opinions are best kept quiet. As a homeschooler of 4 entering my 15th year, I just roll my eyes childishly when I hear a mom of a toddler lecture others about the best educational method.

Ah, but those good old days. Just remembering all those quaint styles of the late last century, such as grunge music, Thelma and Louise, and Bruce Willis with hair makes me nostalgic. But I suppose there's no turning back time. Just this week, scientists (experts in the field of science) proved that time travel is in fact impossible. So I must learn to live in this century of self-proclaimed parenting experts who have almost ONE entire year of experience. I can only hope that I don't run into any parenting issues more difficult than potty training.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Vegetables You May As Well... Keep Eating

While waiting for my tea to steep several mornings ago, I like millions of others, turned to the internet. On Yahoo's homepage, I saw a headline, "Vegetables You May As Well Skip" (Amy Paturel, Self magazine, July 13, 2011). Wow, I thought. That is a bold headline at a time with record-breaking obesity rates and new governmental guidelines recommending more fruits and vegetables in the daily diet. I clicked on the headline and was directed to the article in Self Magazine.

I respect the author's good intentions, and concede that perhaps Self Magazine readers are the type who will accept her recommendations to eat the most nutrient-dense vegetables available. But I suspect that in the wider internet audience that there are more people: college students, people on low budgets, the unadventurous, and fast-food lovers, who will instead hear the advice as permission to stop eating pesky, worthless vegetables completely.

The first offender was celery. Its offense: low vitamin content. Its appeal: crunch, low calories, high water content. Celery is a convenient, high-fiber dip delivery system. Celery's crevice is the perfect place to fill with peanut butter. In soups, stews, and curries, celery is a flavor staple alongside onions and garlic. Yet the recommendation was to skip celery and eat carrots instead. True, carrots are loaded with beta-carotene. They are also tasty in dip. But carrots are higher in natural sugars than celery. Eating a variety of different colors is a healthy way of getting nutrients, and there is a reason dips are often served with both celery and carrots. They complement each other. Is there some reason we can't eat both?

The second offender: the cucumber. The offense: low vitamin content. The appeal: crunchy, refreshing, easy-to-find. The cucumber was the protagonist in a risque book comparing itself to a man (and coming out the winner). Though not as dark green as kale or nutrient-dense as spinach, cucumbers are not a waste of time. Their mild taste appeals to children. Spread with hummus or tossed into a salad, cucumbers add fiber and few calories. They are readily available, even found in convenience stores. People without access to whole natural food markets have no trouble buying them. As a snack, cucumbers are healthier than trans-fat laden crackers or chips. But the laughable alternative to cucumbers mentioned in this article was purslane. Go back and read that sentence again if you need to. Purslane.

Where cucumbers are abundant, purslane is the opposite. As an experiment, take a survey of the first five people you encounter, asking them to describe purslane. Could a majority correctly identify it as an exotic weed with smooth reddish stems, tiny alternate leaves and yellow flowers? I agree that purslane's omega 3's, Vitamin A and Vitamin C are superior. Realistically, the likelihood of my 18-year old son or his friends replacing cucumbers in their diets with purslane is nil. More than likely, he would eschew the cucumber at the salad bar and go for a bread stick instead.

The third, and perhaps least respected vegetable offender: iceberg lettuce. The offense: being the American cheese of vegetables, and maybe sinking the Titanic. The appeal: tasty on burgers and sandwiches, sold as salad in fast food joints and diners, recognizable. Ideally, Americans would all replace their iceberg lettuce with darker, healthier romaine. But I fear that after reading about iceberg's apparent lack of nutrients, Americans will choose a side of fries over a side salad. That is definitely not an improvement.

Advertising messages bombard us loudly and constantly to eat high-calorie, high-fat, salty, sugary, processed junk foods. My little blog voice is a whisper in comparison, but I would like to shout that EATING CELERY AND CUCUMBERS IS FINE!

Enjoy your celery, cucumbers and iceberg. Eat them with gusto as part of a diet rich in varied fruits and brightly colored vegetables. I am off to find a bunch (bushel? peck?) of purslane.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Harry Potter and The End of An Era

Julia looked around her cleared out bedroom, threw an overstuffed plaid duffel bag over her shoulder, and grabbed the last book of the Harry Potter series to re-read in the car. This was the day we moved her into her dormitory at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst for the first time. She tossed her curly red hair and rushed past me. I said, "Jul, I haven't read that one yet." She responded, "Can't you read it on Kindle?" Biting my lip, I tried not to cry. I snuggled up to her face, standing on tiptoes, and instead of kissing her cheek, blew a raspberry on it like I did when she was a toddler. She scrunched her nose and giggled, like she did then. Only this time she was humoring me, knowing how dreadfully I would miss her. My firstborn was leaving home, taking with her a huge hunk of my life.

That was two years ago. Now Tommy, 18, is counting down the days until he moves across the country to begin work as a personal trainer.

When Julia was 8 years old, Tommy was 6. We had been homeschooling for two years already. 3 year old Anthony and newborn Jack required most of my time and attention. So when I had heard about a book about a young wizard named Harry Potter, I splurged on the hardcover at once. Wanting to give attention to all four children, I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone aloud from the rocking glider while I nursed the baby each night. Julia and Tommy sat rapt as Harry learned that his parents who had been killed when he was an infant were both wizards. Potter was invited to attend Hogwarts, an academy for wizard children. Locked up under the stairs each night, Harry was unaware that an owl was delivering him invitation after invitation to attend the school. Despite his muggle (human) aunt and uncle's attempts to destroy every correspondence, Harry was personally visited by Headmaster Dumbledore and Hagrid, a sweet giant, who escorted him to Hogwarts. Julia and Tommy appreciated the story more than the little ones. Bravely, they did not fear the evil villain Voldemort as much as they did Harry's nasty aunt and uncle. On the rare night that I was too tired to read, Julia and Tommy refused to allow my husband to take over, because "Mommy knows how to do all the voices." Thankfully, this was before they had heard the audiobooks, which utilized authentic Scottish accents in addition to British. My Hagrid sounded slightly like he was from Alabama.

The following year, we took a family trip to Europe, traveling between countries European-style on the train. To pass the tedious hours and to keep everyone relatively quiet, I read aloud from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Rowling's second book, while my husband walked the aisles with toddler Jack. Harry discovered his special talent of speaking with snakes when he communicated with a python through the glass in a zoo enclosure. Several days later during a visit to Paris' Parc Zoologique, Julia and Tommy whispered to the snakes through the glass, attempting to recreate the scene. To my immense relief, neither spoke parceltongue.

Book Three was released on the day we held a garage sale. Tommy and I took a break from haggling over prices to buy the book immediately. I started reading it as soon as the last customer had handed over their quarter. I read until I was hoarse. All of us worried together about the ominous Sirius Black hunting Harry, until we discovered that he was actually Harry's godfather, and we dreaded the dark, soul-sucking dementors. When playing together, Julia, Tommy and Anthony frequently called "Expelliarmus!" on each other, putting a spell on each other which caused them to drop their imaginary wands. We talked about the world of Harry and Hogwarts as if it were real, while going about our mundane muggle errands like food shopping.

Harry, and his friends Ron and Hermione became family friends. Harry's first girlfriend Cho coincided with Julia becoming a teenager. She was as interested in this new facet of Harry's life as she was in her own. Still children, the boys noticed a difference in their sister. Julia, Harry, and the Hogwarts gang were changing.

As each book came, even though the children were perfectly capable of reading it independently, they waited for me to read it to them aloud. Book 4 was long enough to keep everyone's interest during a 6-hour plane delay at a French airport. In fact, we even attracted other weary travelers who surrounded us as I read.

When she was fourteen, Julia picked up the original book and read it silently for the first time. It was the first book she ever actually enjoyed, she said. She devoured each successive book again and again, as did Tommy. By the time Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (6) arrived, I read the book to just Anthony each night. Tommy read it independently on the day of release. At the end of the book, when Dumbledore died, Anthony and I wept.

Book 7 arrived to much fanfare, as we all knew it was to be the final in the series. Harry Potter would graduate from Hogwarts and go off into the wide wizard world on his own. This was the last time we would spend with Harry, the Weasleys and beloved Hagrid. Julia finished the book first, then Tommy, then Anthony. I never read it. Reading it to myself seemed lonely. I was not ready to say goodbye to Harry and the gang.

Each of these books was turned into a film, and tomorrow night is the opening of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2, the very last one. As always, Julia, Tommy and Anthony have tickets to the 12:01 showing. For the first time, Jack and I will attend with them. As sad as I was to take Julia to college, and to say goodbye to Tommy, I actually read the book this past weekend. It was time for me to face it: this part of our lives is over. Like Harry, Tommy and Julia must go off to begin their own, independent lives. Even if I had destroyed their acceptance letters like Harry's aunt and uncle (why didn't I think of that???), Julia and Tommy would grow up. They wouldn't need me to homeschool them, or read aloud to them, forever. It is what I and my husband always wanted for them, and how it is supposed to be. I am proud that they are moving away from the tight homeschooling community into a larger world, but I am not ready to close the book on them, or Harry. I look forward to reading these books to my future grandchildren.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A New Endeavor: Tell it To Lynne Lisa

I used to joke that I had an invisible sign on my forehead that said, "Tell me your problems," because strangers everywhere seem drawn to me. While I was chaperoning a field trip at the extremely crowded viewing platform at the top of the Empire State Building, a security guard honed in on me to alleviate the pain his two children (a girl and a boy) experienced during his difficult divorce. And there was that time while I waited for the single restroom in a cafe on 9th Avenue that a burgeoning actress asked my advice about whether I thought she needed a personal manager yet. So intent was she on getting my response (a complete stranger, merely waiting for a restroom), that she waited for me to finish and followed me to the counter while I ordered my salad. (My answer was "do you think you need a manager at this point in your career?" She immediately decided no, she wasn't ready. Another satisfied customer).

It used to feel like a burden on me, every time I left the house, having to bear so many strangers' troubles. But at some point I began to embrace it, realizing that there must be something about my face or demeanor which invites personal disclosures. Talking to people is always enjoyable for me. I love hearing about people's interests, jobs, families, and lives. If I can help someone by offering an ear, it makes my day.

Which brings me to my new endeavor: I have begun a course of study at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in order to become a Holistic Health and Wellness Coach. Soon I will be able to assist people with their health and lifestyle choices legitimately. I will even be able to practice sitting down, not leaning against rest room walls and guard rails.

I look forward to meeting new people and hearing their stories. Hopefully, I'll be able to assist them in achieving health and happiness. In the meantime, I will be blogging more frequently about my journey.

Thanks for reading! Have a great day.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Unschooling on Vacation in Florida Part 1

The term "vacation" doesn't really apply to unschoolers, who are not regimented into a time schedule or specific learning space. But since our family has just returned from five weeks in Florida, and English doesn't have a better term for that kind of sojourn, I'll just call it a vacation.

What always amazes me is how much one can learn simply by stepping out of the everyday routine. We did not design an educational field trip. This trip was a celebration of my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. They invited my husband, my sons, and me to spend the month of February with them in sunny, warm Florida to get out of the frigid northeast winter. They rented a house off the internet in Jensen Beach on the Atlantic Coast and we just planned on being with my parents, hanging out by the pool, and playing on the beach.

We took this trip in stages. My younger sons, 11 and 14, and I left freezing NJ the last weekend in January, driving towards Florida. First stop: friends in Catonsville, Maryland (outside Baltimore). Aside from visiting with my delightful friends, we wandered through music stores and toured Baltimore. We spent half a day at the acclaimed National Aquarium, wandering from rainforest to arctic, then cheering on the trained dolphins as they leapt and splashed.

Leaving Monday morning, I drove south, watching our car's outdoor thermometer slowly creep up from 29 degrees in Maryland, to 36 in southern Virginia, and finally a balmy 56 when we stopped for the night in Charleston, South Carolina. The boys and I ditched our warm wool socks and left our winter coats in the car.

The following day we arrived in Jensen Beach, Florida where the temperature was 79 degrees! The home my parents rented was unbelievably large, beautifully decorated and filled to the gills with original artwork! At dinner, we discussed the quantity of the paintings on the walls, which sparked the boys to estimate how many. Younger son guessed 45. Older son thought the number was much higher, in the 70s. My parents thought there might even be 80. After dinner, the boys carefully counted every painting hanging in each room of the house, including the outdoor bathroom and discovered that everyone had guessed too low: 106 paintings! Most of them were done by Cuban artists. Fascinating. Surrounded by all this art, we felt as though we were living in a very comfortable museum. Along with the art were many books about Cuba, art, and antiques.
The patio housed the swimming pool and spa, and backed up to a nature sanctuary where many nature birds nested and fed. The boys photographed pelicans, cranes, and even a bald eagle.

And they swam! Living in NJ and having no pool, we don't have many opportunities to swim.
Little guy set a goal: by the end of the month he'd like to be able to swim 25 laps. Day One he swam three laps.

If you are keeping track, by the time we had spent one day in Jensen Beach, the boys had covered science, social studies, art, math, and physical education.

To Be Continued...

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Infusing Foods with Magic and Love

I've just finished reading a novel combining the sensuality of cooking with romance, called The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman. In the book, Jess (a vegan) pores over a collection of centuries-old cookbooks while falling in love with the curmudgeonly book dealer. Those ancient cookbooks relied on description and hand-drawn illustration, pre-dating mathematical measurements. Interspersed with the recipes, Jess found love poems using the words from the recipes written by the original owner. This book reminded me of the magical realism in 1989's Like Water for Chocolate. In that story, Tita sickened an entire wedding party when her tears of sadness over her lost love fell into the wedding soup. What do they have in common? Magic and love.

As a vegan cook, I am frequently asked what I use to substitute for animal products in my dishes. My usual half-joking response is "magic and love." As I think more about it, I discover that magic and love are the additives that turn all combinations of ingredients into meals. The alchemy that turns flour, oil and sugar into a fluffy, light cupcake is magical. But that is only one half of the equation. The best, most delicious foods are infused with love. I know it sounds new-agey hippy dippy, but I have anecdotal evidence that this works.

Last summer at Camp Common Ground, a vegetarian family camp in Starksboro, Vermont, I experienced this principle first hand working in the kitchen. Every afternoon at 4:30, I arrived to help cook and serve dinner for the other 130 campers. The rest of the kitchen staff, Karyl Kent, the coordinator, and Naomi, the head dinner cook, had been hard at work for hours. The instant I arrived, I was greeted with enormous smiles, hugs, and kisses. The vibe in that kitchen was all love. Some days, music poured from an ipod in the corner and there was singing. Some days, no music played but there was still singing.

Every night's meals began with whole grains and the freshest, most colorful locally-grown vegetables . Our bread was baked daily in camp's outdoor brick oven by Isaiah, a student of Qi Gong and truly loving person. Even campers who eschew carbohydrates in their daily lives could not resist Isaiah's hand-crafted sourdough loaves.

Naomi's expertise was preparing raw bright, crisp greens. She crafted healthy, delicious salads that were so tasty, people filled their plates again and again. Her secret was to massage the greens, infusing them with her positive energy and love.

Inspired by the vibe in Camp Common Ground's kitchen and Naomi's techniques, here is a simple kale salad that I make at home. I have purposely left off the measurements because in this recipe, intention and technique are more important than amounts. (Also, it feeds much fewer than 130 people.) Feel free to toy around with the dressing amounts until you are satisfied with the salad.

Asian Massaged Kale Salad
2 bunches crisp raw kale, washed
fresh ginger, diced fine
sesame oil
apple cider vinegar with mother
soy sauce
maple syrup
cayenne pepper
(raw almonds, raisins) optional

Whisk ginger, oil, vinegar, soy sauce and maple syrup and pepper together. Taste, adjust accordingly. With clean hands, pour dressing over kale. Massage well, until kale looks darker and slightly wilted. Add optional almonds and raisins. Allow to sit and marinate for at least 30 minutes before eating.
Serve alongside your favorite tofu recipe or a bowl of miso soup.