Algorithms, Measurable Outcomes and the Value of a Reliable Recipe


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I’ve been spending a lot of time of late trying to quantify things, such as which marketing actions translate into actual books sales; which high school curriculum will enable Daughter #1 to have an interesting and challenging education, get into college, graduate and be self-supporting before she’s 40; and how much value our two bathroom renovations will add to our house and to our lives.

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(I almost entitled this post Bonfire of the Vanities.  You can’t underestimate the value of providing bathroom space for two girls to straighten their hair at the same time).  When not searching online for a 42 inch vanity with an offset sink, I’ve been writing articles about the benefits and detriments of standardized tests in our public schools and other education-related conundrums.

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All this examination of data, marketing campaign statistics, shower stalls, tile samples, paint chips, vanity tops (we decided to have one custom made) cost-benefit analyses and discussion of measurable outcomes has my mind reeling. I’m overloaded with information yet, when the decision-making rubber meets the road, like Whitney Houston, I find myself wondering “how will I know?”

Whitney

Luckily, a few shining lights have guided me.

Though it had been an exceptionally busy week and I was on the verge of coming down with the nasty cold/flu that knocked me flat by Sunday, I’m glad I made the effort to attend a meeting of Book Publishers Northwest, where the featured speaker was Laura Pepper Wu, self-described entreprenette and book marketing guru, whose website 30 Day Books offers a wealth of valuable information for independent authors.  I haven’t yet purchased her pdf book Fire Up Amazon (at $4.99 it’s a deal), but I plan to.

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I followed a few of the tips she offered for optimizing your book’s Amazon page (turns out, it’s all about the algorithms, baby) and lo and behold I had some, dare I say, measurable outcomes.

There were more measurable outcomes to come.

I love my husband, I really do.  But we don’t usually follow the same path when it comes to house projects, which is why our kitchen wallpaper was half torn down for a number of years.  Up until now, our philosophy has been, to quote Bob Dylan, “most likely you go your way and I’ll go mine.” If one of us is invested in a project, we run with it (shelves and anything to do with the garage – him, turquoise kitchen walls and any other cool painting project – me.

However, it was Jeff who lugged 56 of these tiles home from Turkey.

However, it was Jeff who lugged 56 of these tiles home from Turkey.

When we have to work together…. well…

Here's what happened when Jeff hung a temporary mirror in our bathroom.

Here’s what happened when Jeff hung a temporary mirror in our bathroom.

But these bathrooms.  Maybe it’s the chance of escape from the vicissitudes in mood of our teen and tween that had us companionably scraping wallpaper from the master bathroom for hours one Sunday (because you know the t(w)eens aren’t going to offer to help) and trolling for tiles on a Saturday afternoon.

I know that’s what drove us to the custom vanity place not once, but twice this past weekend and then off to a lighting fixture store after that.  Imagine my surprise when we managed to agree, not only on floor and shower tiles, but also on style of vanity, counter top (that was big), faucet style and finish and drawer pulls, but also on unexpected new bedroom lighting.  I’ve been worrying about us as empty nesters. Now I see our bright future.  We’ll become renovators.

(Anyone who knows me is snorting right about now and perhaps uttering that evocative British phrase “Not bloody likely.”)

Exhibit A.  Note the lack of doorknob.

Exhibit A, still-unpainted.  Note the lack of doorknob.

The promise of a new vanity that would soon need to be picked up led me to get my act together and finally repair the broken trunk lock of the Famous Minivan. I have yet to deliver the bags that have been sitting in said trunk to Goodwill or to remove Daughter #2’s end of first term project — it’s term four now– but I’m on a roll, so watch out, world.

The nasty cold/ flu bug had knocked me flat just as the high school deliberations started intensifying and, deprived of my usual moxie, I was looking for a sure thing. I found it in a recipe.

If you like to cook with recipes, you know that there are certain people you can rely on to never steer you wrong (Claudia Roden, Marcella Hazen, Paula Wolfert, Patricia Wells, David Lebovitz and, my current gastronomic crush, Yotam Ottolenghi) and other Julia-come-latelys who have to earn your trust.

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If you like to cook at all, you know that there are certain ingredients that are magic together and techniques that are nearly impossible to screw up.  Like stew.  I’m a big fan of stews, tagines and any sort of one pot mash-up.

So when I saw that the ingredient list included chickpeas, preserved lemons, dates, saffron, plus lamb and that nice exotic lamb sausage, merguez, I put down my tissue box and perked up.  I hadn’t felt like eating much over the past few days (but had managed to produce chicken adobo and a Mexican tomato soup with fideos.  I may not be timely with household projects, but, as my friend Donn likes to say “Damn, the bitch can cook).

It came from The Garum Factory, one of my favorite foodie blogs, which perks up my inbox each Friday morning with its clever combination of history, culture, technique and interesting food.

On the way back from picking up the now-repaired Famous Minivan, I zipped over to store, bought the ingredients, slapped them in the pressure cooker and in less than an hour was tucking into a divine tasting and beautiful looking lamb stew.

Sometimes it’s nice to forget about algorithms.

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And sometimes it’s a relief to have a recipe for success.

Thin Mints

Fruits and Nuts and Flakes and Seeds and Teenagers

I’ve realized for a few weeks that it is high time I wrote a post about food and I’d been planning one about the satisfactions of slow-cooked pork and slowly-developed friendships  (Be forewarned, I’m also planning a post about mid-life belly fat).

But ideas have a way of taking root, like seedlings, and, based on my consumption of late, and particularly this week, I feel compelled to tell you about the way I am eating now.  The comedian Gallagher once said:  “California is like a bowl of granola.  What ain’t fruits and nuts is flakes.” In addition to dried fruits, nuts and flakes (coconut flakes, that is) I’ve been eating lots of oats and seeds and therefore have been spending a lot of time in the bulk section of the grocery store.

So I think I’ll do what the smart bloggers do: write the post about slow-cooked pork and save it for a week when I’m busy or uninspired.  This week, because seeds are on my mind, in my cupboard and in my ever-expanding middle-aged belly, I’ll tell you about them instead.

In February I mentioned that I had started making granola, and not very originally linked to a recipe I found on Orangette, which was originally posted on Food 52 and which has also been mentioned by David Lebovitz.  Everyone loves Early Bird Foods granola. I make it every few weeks and it’s become Jeff’s and my favorite weekday breakfast.  I like the way making this granola makes me feel, the way it makes the house smell and the routine of it.  I like the illusion of control granola gives me, which is not how I felt about it when I ate it during the years I lived in Northern California, a flakier time in my life.

Early June in Seattle can sometimes be like November in Seattle and it was so this week.  I was seeking comfort food and remembered Shakshuka, an Israeli dish of poached eggs atop sauteed peppers, onions and tomatoes, which I had made on Easter morning.  I got the recipe from Yottam Ottolenghi’s book Plenty and shortly after that, saw a different recipe for Shakshuka from Gail Simmons in Food and Wine magazine.  Trolling around the Internet this week, I found several variations of Shakshuka, including one recipe a devotee said was head and shoulders above the rest because of the addition of Hawaj.  Though I consider myself pretty savvy about international cuisine and the ingredients of the world, I had never heard of Hawaj.  It turns out it is a Yemeni spice blend, favored by Yemeni Jews.  I had fun reading about it in Claudia Roden‘s The Book of Jewish Food and then I decided to make it so I could add it to my Shakshuka. It really did elevate the quality of the dish.  Here’s the recipe I used, though Hawaj, like most spice blends, lends itself to individual interpretation.

Jeff called, as he often does during his sloggy long commute home, to see what was going on.  There had been a fair amount of adolescent drama, which had worn me down, and I think he was surprised, after telling me about his day and traffic woes, to hear that in my head, I wasn’t in my Seattle kitchen making dinner, I was in Yemen making Hawaj (There is some precedence for this.  I survived the baby and toddler years through culinary expeditions.  You’ll be able to read about it when my book comes out). He arrived home to find me catatonically smashing coriander seeds with my mortar and pestle and wisely did not judge me for my choice of distraction.  I wish I could say that I had been as non-judgmental when I found him staring catatonically at a basketball game on TV several nights this week in response to the “energy” in our household.

Our adolescents are wearing us down.  It’s the end of the school year, daughter #2, just finishing up fifth grade, has a sentimental case of “senioritis.”  Suddenly she’s best friends with all of her classmates, who will soon scatter to different middle schools.  Even the boys are nice. There are skate parties and trampoline parties and luncheons and barbeques and the dreaded FLASH (Family Living and Sexual Health) class.

Daughter #1 has been taking end-of-year tests, sending endless texts and has recently discovered Skype.  Remember how your mother admonished you not to tie up the phone line when you were a teenager?   “You just saw your friends a half-hour ago, why do you have to call them?”  That’s how I sound when I complain about Skype and D#1’s dominance of the computer.  Apparently she, too, will be taking FLASH, the seventh grade version, and I feel for the poor teachers who have to present this material to her randy middle school peers.

Unlike Everyone Else, who seems to have migrated away from Facebook towards Pinterest, I haven’t yet succumbed, fearing yet another Internet time suck.  Instead, I keep food magazines and recipes that interest me in a pile on top of my microwave and once in a while I actually go through them.  For months this pile has included a recipe for Dukkah, an Egyptian nut and spice blend that I learned about from the wonderful food blog The Garum Factory.  If you haven’t already, you should check out the Garum Factory.  In addition to its intriguing recipes, Ken Rivard is a marvelous writer (I keep telling him he should write history books) and his wife, acclaimed chef Jody Adams, offers useful, down-to-earth techniques by sharing her own recipe trials and errors with honesty and humor.

By mid-week the intensity level in the house was really beginning to get to us (Jeff and I even resorted to using our friend D’s technique of taming the females in his household: “Everybody calm the f**k down!”  If you’ve heard of my Battle Hymn of the Jersey Mother, you’ll know that this approach particularly resonates with me).

“That’s it, I’m making Dukkah!” I vowed.

I’ve learned that asking a teenager to shell nuts or fava beans is an excellent way to, in the words of Van Morrison, get down to what is really real.  D #1 dutifully shelled pistachios for the Dukkah and we had a calm, pleasant, enlightening chat before she disappeared to Skype her friends.  Jeff came home and, once again, did not judge when he saw that I had been pretending to be in Egypt.   That night, instead of watching basketball, he and I caught up on Season 7 of Weeds.

The next morning, as I ate steel cut oats with Dukkah sprinkled on top, D #1 confronted us about the hypocrisy of us watching Weeds, especially since the night before, over Pan-Roasted Cauliflower with Dukkah, we had been probing for information about the drug scene at her school  (We were saved by the trademark family sense of humor.  D #1, knowing of my own struggles to fit in as a PTA mom, could see the humor in one secretly becoming a big-time drug dealer, yet still attending PTA meetings).

Middle school.  How will I survive having two kids in middle school next year?  Luckily, so many cultures have their own blends of spices and of nuts and seeds that I should be able to spend the next few years working through my frustrations.

Mother’s little helper

In fact, I like to amuse myself by imagining that Ras-el-hanout, Zaatar, Garum masala, Paanch phoran, Muesli and even Lowry’s seasoned salt were developed by weary mothers of adolescents, much as soccer, basketball, football and petanque were developed by men desperate to get out of the house.

There is growing number of Middle Eastern comedians, who delve into careful, but spot-on humor about their cultures.  I’m sure eventually one of them will follow Gallagher’s lead and remark that the region is like a spice blend.  Take the seeds of dissent, mixed with several dashes of courage and yes, a few nuts, and sweeten them with the taste of freedom.

Related links:

Pushing the Envelope Through Stand-Up Comedy

The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour

Yes, There are Comics in Qatar

I‘ve been on a technology tear lately, building a website and formatting an E-book.  On my to-do list is an overhaul of this blog, featuring a recipe page.  Stay tuned.

International Comfort Food

Even though I was not allowed to listen to Pandora during my recent shot in the neck, the Pandora in my head provided a soundtrack. Lying on my stomach, held tilted down, arms immobilized underneath me, all I could think about, as the doctor drew an X to mark the spot where he would inject me (perilously close to my spinal cord), was the Neil Young song “The Needle and the Damage Done.”

Luckily, the Pandora in my doctor’s head must have been playing Pat Benatar.  He hit me with his best shot and I am grateful.

Scheduling the shot had been tricky. The doctors warned me I might feel some “discomfort” afterwards and would likely be uncomfortable for a day or two, but everyone stressed the urgency of getting it done.  So I ended up having the procedure just hours before I was supposed to attend an Egyptian cooking class at The Pantry at Delancey.

I told you how much I admired journalist Annia Ciezadlo for dodging gunfire in Beirut to make sure the pasta wasn’t overcooked.  Discomfort or no discomfort, there was no way I was missing this class.

Words can’t begin to describe what a wonderful antidote it was to the clinical procedure I had endured.  If people resemble food, then teacher Sureyya Gokeri is the best bowl of sweet, spicy noodles you’ve ever tasted.

When we arrived, we were greeted with a comforting cup of sahlab, the warm, cardamom-infused “intimacy drink,” that is sold by street vendors during Middle Eastern winters.  It’s normally thickened with the starchy ground bulb of an orchid ground to powder form, but Sureyya taught us to make a version using cornstarch.

Here are some other highlights from the class:

Muhammara: Roasted Red Pepper Dip with Walnuts and Pomegranate Molasses

Fuliyya: Fava beans with Chard

Pomegranate-Glazed White Fish

Tamar Al Ghiraybah Mamoul: Date-Stuffed Semolina Cookies

And, my favorite new must-have kitchen item:

Mamoul mold

The next morning, I felt more than a little “discomfort,” but had a raging craving for Parsi Eggs, courtesy of Madhur Jaffrey, who, along with Claudia Roden, is one of my favorite cookbook authors.  And as the day wore on, and my headache and neckache intensified, I remembered Sureyya’s sahlab.  I happened to have a box of the instant stuff.

Though not as good as the real deal, it made me feel better.

I spent the rest of that blustery Seattle weekend in bed reading Ann Patchett‘s State of Wonder.  Thanks to the pain I was in, and the altered state brought about by my pain medication, I was able to intensely connect with this tale of intrigue in the Amazonian jungle. Without my contact lenses in, I could even pretend that the raccoon cavorting in my next door neighbor’s tree was really a sloth.   

When my mother was dying, I made big pots of congee, which sustained us whenever we could manage to eat.  The Thanksgiving that everyone (except me) had the stomach flu, I soothed them with bowls of chicken donburi.

We eat pho and Armenian Chicken Soup when we have colds, and Marcella Hazan’s famous tomato sauce with onions and butter over pasta when life gets to be too much.

Every culture has its version of comfort food and I’m sure I’ve just scratched the surface.

I would love to hear about your favorites.

Sometimes words can be as comforting as food, and sharing stories can be particularly nourishing.  Seattle friends, take note: On Tuesday, March 20, I will be participating in the inaugural Ballard Spoken Word Live Storytelling Event.  

I’m honored to share the stage with my fellow Ballard Writers Collective authors Joshua McNichols, Ingrid Ricks, Peggy Sturdivant and Jay Craig.  They will share ghost stories, tales of love and unexpected friends lost and found, a new way of seeing and a new take on religion.  I’ll be sharing my parenting philosophy:  “The Battle Hymn of the Jersey Mother.”

The next morning, I’m having my second epidural steroid shot.  

When my fellow performers express concerns about stage fright, I’m able to share this perspective about performing without notes in front of a live audience:

 “It’s better than a poke in the neck with a sharp needle.”

Here’s how I’ll be finding comfort afterwards:

Sureyya’s Sahlab

makes 4-6 servings

2 T cornstarch

1/2 cup water

4 cups milk

3 T sugar

1/2 t ground cardamom or 2 broken cardamom seeds

1/2 t vanilla or to taste

Claudia Roden’s recipe includes an optional 2 t of rose or orange flower water.  Sureyya mentions vanilla later in the recipe, but the copy I have neglects to give the amount in the ingredients list.

Toppings:

1 t ground cinnamon

1 t nutmeg

2 T chopped pistachios

1 T unsweetened, shredded coconut

Combine cornstarch and 1/2 c water in a small bowl and stir well. Add milk to a saucepan or Dutch oven over low heat.  Stir in cornstarch mixture before milk warms, stirring vigorously to prevent lumps.  Cook over very low heat, stirring continuously, until milk thickens (approximately 10 minutes).  Then, stir in sugar, cardamom, rose or orange blossom water and/or vanilla. Increase heat and let boil for two minutes.

Serve hot or warm in coffee cups. Sureyya, who is originally from Turkey, says her mother refrigerates this and the family eats it like a pudding.

Parsi Spicy Scrambled Eggs (Ekoori)

(from Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking)  Serves 4

3 T unsalted butter or vegetable oil or ghee

1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped

1/2 t peeled, finey grated ginger

1/2-1 fresh, hot green chili, finely chopped

1 T finely chopped cilanto

1/8 t ground turmeric

1/2 t ground cumin

1 small tomato, peeled and chopped

6 large eggs, lightly beaten

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Melt the butter over medium heat in a medium-sized, non-stick frying pan. Saute onion until soft.  Add ginger, chili, cilantro, turmeric, cumin and tomato.  Cook for 3-4 minutes until tomatoes are soft.  Pour in beaten eggs.  Salt and pepper lightly and scramble to desired consistency.

Chicken Matzoh Ball Soup for the Soccer Mom’s Soul

Today I decided to make Chicken Matzoh Ball soup for my friend S., who is suffering from pneumonia. 

S., whose husband has been out of town for the past month, was planning to host a sleepover birthday party for her daughter this week, on the same night as the middle school open house for parents.  When I found out she had pneumonia, after consulting with our level-headed friend C., I convinced S., who didn’t want to disappoint her daughter, to reschedule the party. I gently suggested that it was important for her kids to understand she was vulnerable, that parents can’t always do everything. Then I offered to make her soup.

S., C. and I are part of a strong community of parents who routinely bail each other out.  We’ve picked up each other’s kids from school, made emergency deliveries of lice treatment equipment and have supported each other through the social traumas inflicted and experienced by girls. Cooking is my strong suit.  It is not among S.’s many talents.  What better way to repay years of friendship then with a steaming hot pot of “Jewish penicillin,” still something of a novelty in Seattle.

“While I’m at it, I’ll make two pots of chicken matzoh ball soup,” I reasoned.  Things have been cattywampus in our household too.  My husband Jeff is in Korea, the girls and I are coughing and sneezing and we’ve had evening commitments every night of the week.

I didn’t grow up eating or especially liking Chicken Matzoh Ball soup and do not have a family recipe, passed down from generation to generation, to rely on.  Instead, the recipe I use comes from Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food. Claudia Roden is one of my favorite cookbook authors and the revised version of her Book of Middle Eastern Food is probably my favorite cookbook of all time. It’s as much storybook as cookbook, and I have whiled away many happy hours lost in its pages.

I set the pots of chicken, turnips, leeks, onions and carrots on the stove at around 3:00. The goal was for the soup to be ready by 6:00 soccer practice, where I would deliver it to S.

The soup bubbled away and all seemed right with the world.

Then, my universe unraveled.

Daughter #2, usually on top of things, remembered that she had a Colonial cooking project involving tapioca due the next day.  The  same thing had happened the week before and, though we had chosen Gingerbread, the easiest recipe, it had compromised the serenity of European Chicken Night. 

We would have to embark on a tapioca procurement expedition later on.  No big deal.  I mixed the matzoh meal and the egg and set them in the refrigerator to rest, while I strained the soup. 

On to math homework.  I have long since stopped being able to help my daughters with their math and when Jeff is away I am reminded how much I detest their discovery math curriculum and its textbooks that don’t actually show you how to solve the problems. A math freakout occurred over a problem involving a brownie pan.  Words were exchanged when I tried to help, so I encouraged Daughter #2, who is a fashionista, to pick out her outfit for school pictures the next day. Meanwhile, I rolled out the matzoh meal mix into balls and returned the chicken meat and fresh carrots to the soup stock.

Daughter #1, perhaps miffed at not being the center of attention, mentioned that her braces hurt, her ear hurt and wondered if she had to go to soccer practice. I set the matzoh balls into a pot of boiling water.

After modeling her school picture outfit and extracting a promise that I would iron it the next morning, Daughter #2 consulted the tapioca recipe, only to discover that it was supposed to soak overnight and cook for three hours. We were in for a lengthy evening.

Daughter #1 went to soccer practice.  At 6:00,  I poured a batch of the now-finished soup into a container for S, set it in a paper bag and carefully placed it in the car.  Daughter #2 and I set off to buy tapioca. By the time we got to the soccer field, S’s daughter had already been dropped off, so I made arrangements for our for our friend J, who was driving S’s daughter home, to stop by my house after practice to pick up the soup.

When we got home, Daughter #2 and I rushed out of the car, so she could quick-soak the tapioca, eat a bowl of soup, finish the math homework, take a shower and cook the tapioca, pretending Colonial people had the luxury of using the quick recipe on the back of the package.  Things were looking up.

I stepped onto the back porch to unlock the door.  The saturated paper bag gave way.

S’s soup container landed with a splat before bursting open, sending chicken, matzoh balls and any illusion that I had things under control flying.

Once the military precision of the evening gave way to chaos,my daughters rose to the occasion and things worked out nicely in the end.  I poured a new batch of soup for S and packed it in a plastic bag, cautioning J. and S’s daughter to handle it carefully.  The kids ate tapioca for dessert, which was easy on Daughter #1’s achy braces.  Daughter #2 figured out the math problem and wondered why her math book made things more complicated than they had to be.

I hope S. enjoyed her soup.

The next time I want to nurture a friend,  I think I’ll just rent the movie Bridesmaids for her instead.