Sunday, July 31, 2011

Simple Food for One - Good Hot Drinks

The news sends me into despair. I feel like we will all be jumping off a cliff together soon. I can't really cope with it and don't want to write about it.

So ... now for something completely different ... food, cooking, recipes.

I live alone and have to make meals for myself. I prefer not to just buy ready made food (most of the time anyway) so I have learned to cook things that are good and easy and that serve one person.

Most of the things I cook don't take much time and don't have a lot of ingredients. I don't see much point in  spending a lot of time cooking just for me, especially because it doesn't take me much time to eat what I fix.

I also try to avoid using the stove if I can. I know this is weird, but I find electric stoves to be very imprecise machines, and they heat up the house too much. I haven't had access to a gas stove since .... when? Childhood? Something like that. I have figured out how to cook nearly everything I want with counter top appliances only. The only thing I have to use the stove for is to boil eggs in the shell... so far. I'm working on the egg thing, and I could do it with a hot plate and small sauce pan.

So I use the microwave (yes, I'll risk cancer or whatever it is this machine is supposed to give me, according to Internet rumors), a toaster oven, an electric frying pan and an electric water kettle. In the winter I also use a crock pot. In the past I have owned and used a rice cooker, but I can do rice in the microwave, so I think I don't really need the rice cooker. I do cook rice and pasta sometimes on the stove top when the micro is occupied with something else. I regard this as the same as using a hotplate.  I also make good use of a blender, a coffee grinder, and a mixer. I own other small appliances, like a waffle iron and a regular slot toaster for bread, but I can easily live without those. But don't try to take away my electric kettle and my electric frying pan!

If I needed to create a minimal kitchen, say in an RV or a vacation cabin, I would forgo the stove. I would put in a microwave and use my small appliances. The hot plate and toaster over would work for me just fine in place of a stove.

I eat mostly vegetarian, the lacto-ovo type. Some weeks I'll be 100% vegetarian all week and on into the next and next. But I'll have fish maybe once a week, and I'll eat what's put in front of me when I am a guest. I'll have bird maybe once a month and every so often I just get a craving for red meat so I will indulge. The single hardest kind of meat to resist is bacon, I find. I've heard that lots of vegetarians have that little failing.

So today ... here are some suggestions for making some delicious drinks from scratch. I do my best to avoid ready make mixes and manufactured food, so I like to buy ingredients instead of products. I learned awhile ago how to make delicious hot chocolate from scratch. It's quite easy and takes only a tiny bit  more time than using a mix.

My "recipes" are descriptions about how to do things. As in many things, I think that theory is more practical than prescriptions.

Hot chocolate from scratch for one person

I make this in an over sized cup, a French style one that is used for making breakfast chocolate.

I use a regular teaspoon and put a heaping amount of granulated sugar and a flat amount of cocoa powder plus a pinch of salt in the bottom of the cup. Sometimes I also add in a shake of cinnamon or nutmeg. You could add a few drops of flavor extracts like peppermint if you want. I imagine any sweetener that could be heated would work as well. I have used all different kinds of cocoa. The best is obviously your favorite brand.

I boil some water in the electric kettle and once it is boiling, pour just a tiny splash into the cup ... just enough to be able to turn the dry stuff into a liquid. If you add too much, it won't hurt, but will make the finished product a bit watery.

I add about a regular sized cup of milk to the big cup. You could measure in a measuring cup or regular coffee mug if you wanted. You can use any kind of milk you want. If you want some decadence, add a splash of heavy cream that you might just happen to have on hand. Stir the milk and chocolate together thoroughly. A small whisk works well, as does a spoon.

I put a wooden chop stick into the liquid. This keeps it from boiling over the the microwave. I start with one minute, then stir & test for desired temperature. Add in 30 secs more as often as needed until it's the right temperature for you ... probably 2 more 30 second tries at the most.

More decadence needed? Add whipped cream, powdered flavorings, a peppermint stick .... yum.

If you want to make more than one serving ... you might be treating a guest to something special ... you can just double the amounts. If that is the case, I suggest using a large glass bowl and then pouring the finished product into the prettiest cups you have. Using the bowl will keep things from boiling over. You'll probably need more heating time.

Of course this could be done on a stove or over a campfire, but you'll have to stir the milk as it is heating, and it will take longer overall. You will have to be very careful about not burning the milk on the bottom.

Hot chocolate using solid chocolate

To make hot chocolate using solid bar chocolate, you need to make a few adjustments. The trick is to get the chocolate melted evenly and quickly and then keeping it that way. This will be a bit richer in taste because of the fat in the chocolate.

You can use any kind of chocolate you want. If you select a kind that is already sweetened (like milk chocolate) you probably won't need extra sweetener. Or maybe you like that dark unsweet European style drink. That's fine too. So select your chocolate. Your favorite brand and variety is the best as always.

You'll need about an eating  teaspoon full of chocolate. Somehow cut it up into tiny, regular pieces by chopping, grating or shaving. You could use a machine like a food processor or coffee grinder, but it's hard to get such a small amount using a machine.

Heat up the milk in advance in the microwave. Get it almost too hot.

Put the chocolate in a bowl along with sweetener if you are using it. (also any extra flavoring like maybe a bit of espresso powder or some nutmeg) Splash boiling water over it and stir so that the chocolate and sugar all melt. You may need a bit more water than you would when using powdered cocoa. As soon as you have liquid chocolate, add in the hot milk and stir well. I find that making this in a glass bowl is helpful because you can check the bottom of the bowl to make sure the chocolate is all getting mixed in. By the time all the mixing is done, the drink will probably still be hot enough to taste good, but if it has cooled down a bit, just re-heat for about 10 seconds at a time stirring in between each session.

This would probably work all right using that bar "white chocolate" but I haven't tried it. Chips would work, but you would need to chop them up to real small pieces first. If you use un-chopped chips, the pieces would be too big to liquefy fast in the small amount of water you will use.

Hot vanilla drink for one person

I happen to love the mix for Gilly's Hot Vanilla. But it is a mix, and it has to be ordered by mail. So far the company doesn't have its own website, but there is a phone you can call. The company also makes Hot Strawberry and Hot Butterscotch. These products make good gifts.

I figured out how to make hot vanilla drink myself in a way that is almost as easy as using the mix. This is the first application of the concept of "simple syrup."

Simple syrup is just equal parts sugar and water, heated so that the sugar dissolves in the water. When you see recipes, you usually are directed to use 1 cup sugar + 1 cup water. But it's really just a ratio, in this case 1:1. So you can make a real small amount or a real big amount. Same difference.

Hot vanilla begins with vanilla sugar. You can buy it in gourmet stores, especially ones that have Scandinavian ingredients. In Swedish it's called "vanillin socker." You can also make it yourself, but you have to do this awhile in advance. I always have this stuff on hand because I use it a lot.

To make it by yourself you need a good quality vanilla bean. Get the best you can find. Split the bean open lengthwise with the tip of a sharp knife and flatten the bean out. Then bury it in a small jar that is filled with granulated sugar. Leave it alone for a week or so and you're done. You can leave the bean in or take it out as you please while you use up the sugar. This keeps forever. Remember how sugar is a great preservative?

Back to the drink. Use a heaping ordinary teaspoon of vanilla sugar. Boil water in the kettle. Splash in an equal amount of water. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Voila ... simple syrup, vanilla flavored.

Pour in about  a cup of milk, mix and taste. If it's not vanilla enough, add in just a drop or two of vanilla extract or a bit more sugar ... hardly any. Stir, taste, repeat until it ends up as you want it.

Heat as before in the microwave in a big cup.

I suppose you could achieve hot vanilla by simply heating up vanilla flavored manufactured milk of various kinds. I have no problems (physical or philosophical) drinking ordinary cow's milk, so I don't use manufactured milk. But if you prefer not drink cow's milk, you might want to give this idea a try.

How I make coffee

In the city I seldom make my own coffee any more. A couple of years ago when I began working at home a LOT, I knew I had to do something to make me leave the house every day no matter what. So I stopped keeping coffee beans at home. When I am in the city, I have to go out every day and get my coffee from one of our many local coffee shops. It's a habit that I enjoy. It probably costs me more than making coffee at home, but there are so many other benefits, that I've decided that it's worth the money I spend.

But in my summer home, I don't have such easy access to coffee shops, so I make it at home. I don't do anything special. I grind my beans in a simple grinder, heat the water in the electric kettle and then use either  a Melitta cone filter or a French press. Depends on my mood which one I use. I owned an electric coffee maker many years ago. It was fine until it stopped working. Then I went back to the Melitta filter and that was that.

But I have a confession .... coffee purists will blanch. In the city I use an old Pyrex glass stove top percolator style coffee maker when I do occasionally want to make coffee at home. It works just fine and makes good coffee when you start with good beans. All you need to do is to keep an eye on it so it doesn't cook too long. Just get it to the darkness you want and take it off the heat right away. You have to let it cool down a bit before drinking because the water was boiling, but the coffee tastes just fine. And I like using such a lovely classic piece of equipment.

Now that I have written this, I have a pile of ideas for other directions for a variety of foods. When I get too upset for words with what's going on in the world, I think I'll just write more about food. Who doesn't like that?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Despair and Hope

Listening to NPR's Morning Edition Sunday I first felt despair and then hope for the state of the world today. I'm feeling a lot of despair lately as I listen about all the politics going on over the national debt and budget. It all makes me so angry, I don't want to even think about it.

I started to feel down just listening about the politicians themselves. That's always bad enough.

But then there was a "man on the street" section from some place in Pennsylvania. The part that made me want to almost cry was listening to a woman who was described as starting a new career as a nurse. She said she was a Republican She thought there should be no tax increases for wealthy people because "why should they be punished after getting an education, working hard and then earning more money as a result of their hard work?" She said we should stop all foreign aid  because we don't need to send our money away when we have so many problems here of our own. She thought that unemployed people needed to get off their duffs and stop collecting unemployment and go out and just get jobs. About the only thing she didn't mention was the defense budget.

There was absolutely nothing unusual, creative or even interesting about what this woman had to say. I was so depressed, though, thinking again about how these views are held by so many  US citizens and how I don't see any evidence that US citizens are learning to think in a more sophisticated manner over time. In fact I think things are getting worse.

It was all so glib and just so ignorant of so many facts. Foreign aid, for example. It's a minuscule part of the US budget. We could zero it out and it would make no difference whatsoever. Ironically, soon after this story, there was another story all about the drought and famine in the horn of Africa, in Somalia and Kenya. Human suffering on a massive scale. I guess that we Americans don't care at all about that kind of thing. And of course, probably a fundamental reason this is all happening has a lot to do with global climate change .... something else we Americans don't care about either.

Then there is the bit about the wealthy in America. Did anybody hear the story about how Rupert Murdock's corporation has  a source of revenue from the US taxpayers? How we have been paying that organization an obscene amount of money year after year because of how the tax code works and because of all the loopholes the corporation can take advantage of?  What about the difference between the tax rate on the books and the actual amount of taxes that corporations  and wealthy people actually pay?  I could go on and on.

And the jobless sitting around just sponging off the rest of us on unemployment? Again, ironically, in the same story there was a second man on the street who was a long term unemployed factory worker. Does anybody pay attention to the fact that the candidate Mr. Romney got his wealth by buying up and restructuring companies and in the process putting huge numbers of American workers of all kinds out of work? What about the fact that the actual historical data do not support the theory of trickle down economics? It's been disproved over and over again, and yet it seems to have nearly Biblical importance because President Reagan believed it. But I don't see any evidence that Republicans have any other ideas to offer us.

All of these beliefs and attitudes , aka the mainstream culture in the US, can make me feel despair. What can I do to help to change peoples' minds? The issue is just too big.

But I kept listening and ended the morning  with a glimmer of hope because of this story:

It's a story about a group of young people homesteading, creating a kind of hobbit village, and making their living by doing really high tech animation. This a a quotation that  makes me feel good:

"We could certainly be maximizing our potential to make money right now but that would hinder and slow down the development of this neighborhood that we're building and world take us on the road to possibly and empty existence."

Because there are young people, especially young people who are cultural leaders like these,  who really think this way and who walk the talk, I begin to think that maybe we do have some hope after all.

And then there is this news story:
Young tech millionaires keeping 1 bedroom lifestyle which is about how many very famous young millionaires are not leading lives full of consumption. They want to make the world a better place with their money. Several said they have a goal to give away all their money within their own lifetime.

Maybe there is hope in the world.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Long term travel?

Last Sunday was a day off. I accomplished virtually nothing. I had a headache most of the day that just won't go away. It's not a really bad one, just enough so that I was always noticing it and always not feeling good.

I did a lot of lying around and listening to the Anthony Bourdain marathon on TV. I hadn't seen any of the shows  because I don't get the cable TV in Salt Lake.

You may have noticed how I have a whole pile of travel blogs that I subscribe to (see the list at the right). I read these and others that are linked to these. My favorite kind of book to read is a travel narrative. I like to read about other people's traveling, and I like to think about my own traveling.

Maybe it was always so, but what with the big, big world of blogging, it seems like every 4th person is now doing long term traveling. I do notice that many of the travel bloggers tell us that they began with being dissatisfied and unhappy working in the corporate world. Many are single, but there certainly are couples and families in the mix. I get the impression that most are middle class and are generally well educated. Most are white. Most are younger than I am by decades.

I am fascinated with the idea of long term travel, but the question I keep asking is, do I really want to do that? I think that obviously if I am still uncertain about the answer to that question, then the answer right now is "no."

Here are some things I do know. I don't want to just travel around constantly, trying to see or do everything that must be done or seen in a given place. I don't want to be constantly on the move. I also don't care about visiting every place there is to visit. I don't really want to be very uncomfortable or in danger with any regularity. I want the ability to have days like Sunday when I need them, days where I just stay put in my room and do nothing much. I don't want to feel guilty about that; if I need a day "in", I need a day "in" and it's not something that I "wasted".

I do want to learn about other people and places. I would like to go someplace and then find an apartment or something so I could just live there awhile and get to know what it's like to live there, not just visit.

I don't want to give up my summer place. If I were to hit the road, I would get rid of the city apartment and do something about all the things there, but I would simply shut and lock the door here in the condo and then continue to pay the mortgage and electric bill.

It looks like most of the travelers who blog did have a fairly long period  of planning before they hit the road. I think most planned for at least a year. It doesn't look like most people just woke up one day, said "I quit" and then left by the end of the week. That's comforting. I'm a major planner. I can take my time to really think about this.

At this stage of my life, it would probably be best just to wait things out and get to retirement age. Then I would have health insurance and an income and could feel more secure about going some place for the sake of going some place. I just need to be patient.

I'm going to get New Kitty in a little while. That will keep me at home for several years. So for the moment, I'll continue to just read and think about long term travel. Maybe I will do that someday. But not now. And that's just fine. I'm not running away from anything. I'm actually quite contented with how my life is going these days. I'll stick around in it for awhile longer.

Monday, July 4, 2011


I don't know how to be patriotic.

Let's be clear that I am very happy that I was born a citizen of the USA. I wouldn't want to give that up, ever. I could see having a secondary citizenship ... Canadian, Swedish, Finnish, maybe French ... but I would never want to forfeit my US passport.

I love the land in the US. Nothing beats that. And I love my fellow citizens and residents as a whole, even though many of them as individuals  drive me totally batty. We are a kind of a big, sort of dysfunctional family, after all. In a family you take the good and bad together and make the best of it.

I guess that all that adds up to the fact that I do love my country. But the expression of this feeling ... that's where I get lost.

As I have seen it for many years, the way to be patriotic has been co-opted to mean one way only, the flag waving, USA #1, red white and blue style epitomized at the moment by Sarah Palin, tea party members and Republican politicians. You know, the ones that made a mountain of the molehill of Barack Obama not wearing a flag lapel pin back in the day. I'm not like this and more importantly, I don't want to be like this.

 I know how to do this kind of patriotism. I was taught it deliberately when I was growing up. My hometown was an industrial town in the Midwest, and my parents were the kids of 1st generation immigrants. They were kids during the depression and came of age during WW II. I'm not at all surprised that the usual kind of patriotism was their style of patriotism.

I didn't grow up learning Bible stuff, but isn't it a Bible verse that says something like "when I was a child, I spoke like a child and acted like a child, but now I am an adult and I speak like an adult and act like an adult"?  Well that's how it went for me.

I still don't understand how my parents could have produced me. In the end we thought so differently about the world. Clearly they must have valued freedom of thought because that's what they did give to me. Somewhere along the line as I was growing more into adulthood, I abandoned the usual style of patriotism (and a whole lot of other stuff too).

I joined the Navy while I was in college, but even by then I was thinking differently. And I found that the Navy was really OK with my way of thinking about patriotism. As long as I did my job and pretty much followed the rules, the Navy didn't care whether I waved the flag or not. Now it's kind of cool to be a veteran, and I have no trouble telling people about this stage of my life.

But I still can't act patriotic in the usual kind of way. It's just not authentic to me. If I do the motions, it's just an act.

But what's the alternative? That's the question. I haven't figured that out, and I've been working on it for years.

I keep hearing news stories about how aging Baby Boomers are getting to be more and more conservative and traditionally patriotic  lately. Every time I hear that, I want to yell out NOOOOOOOO! NOT ME! But I look like my peers who are, so they say, becoming this way. People might could mistake me for one of my conservative, tea party peers. Perhaps I need to get a peace sign tattooed onto one side of my neck and the woman's equality symbol on the other. Maybe a little rainbow on my forehead would be good too.

Maybe I should go back to wearing long skirts and embroidered peasant blouse made in India. Grow my hair into whatever kind of braid it will still grow. Wear Brike's ALL the time. Honestly I would much rather be stereotyped as an aging hippie than a tea party member.

I was never a real hippie. Give me a break. During the summer of love I was a high school girl in the Midwest who loved her parents. I worked that summer at a local hospital as a nurse aide because I needed the money and I wanted to become a nurse.

But the hippie culture spoke to me and in my way I was a hippie. Hippie values ... peace, love and understanding ... came easily to me. As soon as I discovered the idea of modern feminism, that was it ... that's where I was.  Following close behind were the ideas of being a World Citizen and caring about the health of Mother Earth. That's where I have been ever since.

 I'm a proud tree-hugging, feminist, world citizen. But didn't others like me develop inside the American culture? Didn't this free country of ours enable us to exist in the first place? So how does a person like me (and my value peers)  act patriotically in the present US?

On my last trip to Europe, when I was in the passport line back in the US after a really LONG day of travel, one of the employees said to all of us in the US passport holders' line,  just "welcome home." I started to cry. That was a moment when I felt truly patriotic ... when I was home again in the place where I belonged.

America, love it and change it. I guess that's the road I have to take.

Friday, July 1, 2011


I hate July.

July is the heart of summer. I do not like summer very much at all. Everyone else in the world seems to love summer. Not me.

I suppose I would feel differently if I lived in someplace like Barrow Alaska or Archangel Russia, but I don't and probably never will.

I hate being hot. I do not think I would like to live in any place that is tropical or warm most of the time ... that cuts out large chunks of the world. There are a whole lot of places in the world that I do not want to even visit because of the heat. I know, for example, that India is a fascinating place. I'm fine with reading stories and looking at pictures taken by other people.

I do not like my summer clothes. Seeing as how I have no need to get dressed up during most of the summer (sometimes all of it) I just wear tee shirts all summer long. I'm real tired of tee shirts. I don't like short sleeved woven shirts either ... they need ironing to look nice and who wants to iron when it's so hot in the summer?

There's too much light too much of the day in July. You have to be too careful about being outside in the sun in July. Sunburn happens to me too easily, but preventing sunburn makes me hot and sticky.  It's difficult to see during the day in the bright sunlight. I need dark glasses AND a hat with a brim during the day in July in order to be able to see well enough.

Independence Day is not my favorite holiday.

July is just something that needs to be endured.

I don't really wish for a life with less time in it, but I could do without July.