Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Heavenly Eggs

If you make as much soup as I do, there are bound to be leftovers. Honestly, I welcome those leftovers with open arms and empty bowl. On many a Saturday night, you can find me in my kitchen, happily chopping and stirring and salting and tasting a big pot of soup that will feed me well that night and for the rest of the week. Soup makes a delicious, filling lunch AND helps me sneak in a few servings of vegetable in slurpable form. What’s not to love about soup?

And yet, by the fourth or fifth go-around with the same pot of soup, my tastebuds start to sigh with boredom. My hands get itchy to make something new and exciting in the kitchen. What’s soup-loving gal to do? Fortunately, soup has an uncanny ability to morph into a new entrée. By varying mix-ins, toppings, and sides, soup can keep the eating exciting all the way to the last bowl. Today’s recipe (more of a strategy or a technique, really) is my happy discovery of new life in delicious leftovers.

I had been fascinated for some time with this idea of poaching eggs not in water but rather in a liquidy medium that would eaten with the eggs. Two recipes I had read use this technique. From Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon, Eggs in Hell is a half-dozen eggs poached in a well-seasoned spaghetti sauce, sprinkled with cheese, and served over bread or pasta. From Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home by the Moosewood Collective, Chakchouka is four eggs poached in a spicy, vegetable-laced tomato sauce. I kept coming back to both of these recipes in my mind because they sounded so simple and so satisfying. But I had yet to try either one.

On a dark November night (aren’t all November nights dark when you live in Illinois?), I found myself craving something other than leftovers, but I didn’t have many ingredients in the house. I spread the recipes for Eggs in Hell and Chakchouka on my kitchen table and got to work making an approximation using leftover Homemade Tomato Soup for Winter Days and a bean chili. The results were heavenly: light, flavorful scrambled eggs in a puddle of beany, tomatoey sauce and sprinkled with white cheddar. I was so pleased with the dish that I promised myself I will make it again the next time I have some brothy leftover soup that needs another chance.

The following recipe is a set of guidelines that I have written out for your sake and my sake. I imagine this strategy will work well with a variety of soups and stews, so you have my permission to play with it as you like. Rather than poaching my eggs, I chose to scramble them individually before adding them to the hot soup. I have a long-enduring childhood fear of the “runniness” associated with poached eggs; thus I prefer my eggs cooked thoroughly. If you enjoy poached eggs, then by all means poach whole, unscrambled eggs.

Heavenly Eggs
Serves 1 as a hearty entrée or 2 as a side dish
Instructions adapted from those given for Eggs in Hell in Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon

About 3 cups of any brothy, tomato-based soup or stew (if they have similar flavors, many soups and stews can be combined to good effect here for a total of 3 cups)
2 eggs
Grated cheese to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Toast to eat with your heavenly eggs (optional but highly recommended)

1) Pour your 3 cups of soup and/or stew into a large skillet. Heat the soup until it is bubbly and hot. While the soup is heating, scramble your first egg in a measuring cup. Once the soup is bubbly, use a spoon to push a bit of the soup back to make an indentation and pour the egg into the indentation. Quickly scramble the second egg and nestle it into the soup like you did with the first egg.
2) Turn the heat down to medium low and cover the skillet with a lid. Cook the eggs over medium low heat for about 8 minutes.
3) Uncover the skillet. By this time, the eggs will have expanded during their cooking and are probably covering much of the surface of the soup. Use a ladle to scoop the eggs and the soup into a deep bowl. I ended up eating my eggs one at a time because it was easier to scoop one egg at a time. Sprinkle the eggs with grated cheese and/or salt and pepper as you like. Eat the heavenly eggs with toast and feel blessed.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Day-After Gratitude

Happy Day-After-Thanksgiving!

Tomorrow is my birthday. The completion of another year of life tends to make me reflective, so in the spirit of appreciating life, love, and food, let me state emphatically that I have much for which to be grateful. This year, however, has been a hard year for me. It is best summed up in one word: REJECTION. My grant application was rejected, one of my papers was rejected, and I was rejected by a man. The first two make me sad, but that last one angers me! I have had very few unequivocal successes this year, which makes me wonder how I find the motivation to get out of bed every day and try again. I know what gets me out of bed: it's that morning coffee or tea! After that, I can't go back to bed, so I figure I might as well give my graduate student life another chance. And it does pay the bills, which lets me drink more coffee and tea, thereby making me happy. It's one big, caffeine-fueled loop.

But I have things besides delicious caffeinated beverages for which to be thankful, including:

* My niece, Lydia, whose smile and spunk makes me happy to be alive.
* All of my family, both given and chosen.
* Love, enduring and newfound.
* My graduate advisor, who continues to believe in me and the work we are doing when I have all but lost hope.
* The lessons graduate school has taught me, including patience, humility, and sheer determination. I think that by the time I finish my Ph.D., I will feel like I can climb any mountain, conquer any challenge. These past four years in graduate school have been among the most difficult years of my life.
* My fellow food bloggers, who inspire me to cook and eat well and share their recipes and advice with joy and generosity.
* Life, Love, and Food, which has filled a void in my life that I didn't realize existed until I started writing more seriously. Writing this blog for the past six months has brought me great pleasure, and it has become an integral part of my life.
* Readers of Life, Love, and Food, real or imagined. There might just be two of you out there (hello and hello!), but nonetheless, I continue to write because I like to write. If you keep coming back to my humble blog, I must be spinning words that you like to read. For all of my readers who are related to me or who are friends who feel obligated to read, thank you for not laughing at me as I started writing this blog and sharing my dream of becoming a food writer and cookbook author. It's true that one does not need a Ph.D. in neuroscience to write about food, but your support of my dreams, no matter how far they may be from my reality right now, has meant everything to me.
* Finally, I am grateful for the abundance of laughter, love, and great food that sustains me through the darkest days of November and graduate school. Nothing makes me happier than sharing food with wonderful people, and I am blessed in the act of sharing and the act of remembering these wonderful times.

May your darkest days of the year be filled with happiness, joy, and peace!

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Smilin' Box, Hip-Shaking, and Crossing the Line

Those folks at Amazon really know what they’re doing! I don’t know any other box that makes me so happy. That smilin’ box, full of goodies fresh from the Amazon warehouse, makes me smile like nobody’s business. The anticipation of an Amazon delivery nearly drives me crazy; every day I rush home from school: “Is it here? Is it here?” No, not yet. Better luck tomorrow. But then one fine day, IT’S HERE! OH JOY! I think I order from Amazon just for the rush. It would be so easy to wander over to Borders, buy my books, and find immediate satisfaction. But as with so many things in life, the pleasure is heightened by the wait. My late neuroscience professor, Dr. Ned Garvin, hypothesized that anticipation triggers activation of the brain’s pleasure centers. Annecdotally, I am sure he was right.

Luckily, my Amazon order arrived just in time. Inside I found a new CD set which immediately got my hips shaking: A State of Trance Vol. 2 by Armin Van Buuren. Electronic music fans, be warned: this one is addictive. I love it. Actually, I haven’t made it through both CDs yet because I keep replaying the first few songs. But oh my, this man is a genius. I have to dance while I’m listening, which is fantastic because it lets me eat big chunks of Banana Bread with Chocolate and Cinnamon Sugar (topped with a dollop of plain yogurt) and then shake my hips to Halcyon (Track 3, CD 2), thereby offsetting any effects of said Banana Bread on my waistline. I think it takes approximately three repeats of hip-shaking to Halcyon to burn off one slice of this stuff—good deal!

Armin was just one part of this order. My smilin’ box also delivered me a brand-new copy of Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food that Loves Me Back…& How You Can Too by Shauna James Ahern. Shauna is a Seattle-based food-blogger and author, and I bought her book for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is my desire to support the writing efforts of a fellow blogger. Her blog, Gluten-Free Girl, is quite lovely, but I have just skimmed the surface of it. Her style is friendly, passionate, educational, and sentimental. Her book, which I am enjoying thoroughly, is layered like a casserole: part memoir, part cookbook, part guide to celiac disease, part guide to eating gluten-free. If you are wondering, “What the heck is gluten? What the heck is celiac disease?” then you can follow the link here to Shauna’s website for more info.

I did not buy her book because I am avoiding gluten, nor did I buy it because I have celiac disease. I bought Gluten-Free Girl to expand my cooking horizons by experimenting with new and different flours. I want to tinker with my favorite homemade baked goods to come up with new creations and improve the nutritional content of old standbys. It’s part of my secret plan to write a cookbook about the methodology behind recipe improvement. Oops, I shouldn’t have typed that last part! It was supposed to be a secret! Unless you happen to be a cookbook editor looking for a new author, in which case we should chat…

But this dream of mine has led me to cross the line. Brace yourselves: I paid fifteen dollars for one pound of flour. Seriously. I’ve never paid that much for a pound of anything in my entire life! But it wasn’t just any old flour. I bought a pound of rich, nubbly almond flour from Bob’s Red Mill. I have two recipes in mind for this flour, one of which I will present here.

Remember when you were a kid, and school got out at 2 or 3 PM, and you would run home for an afternoon snack? Perhaps your snack was milk and cookies (always a favorite of mine), or juice and pretzels, or even those delicious bite-sized pizza rolls that come in the freezer case and you throw them in the oven for a few minutes until they are all nice and hot and gooey inside. Whatever your snack was, chances are your body craved it for good reason: snacking helps keep our blood sugar levels even, especially if dinner arrives six or seven hours after lunch ends. Even blood sugar levels help us concentrate more effectively and they keep our mood more consistent. After all those years of afterschool snacking, it has taken me years to realize the wisdom behind this phenomenon, but now that I have, I incorporate it into my day, even though now I don’t leave school (aka THE LAB) until 6 or 7 PM. My general strategy is to have a piece of fresh fruit and something sweet around 4 PM. Ideally, the “something sweet” has a good balance of carbs, protein, and fat, thus making it fairly substantial, nutrition-wise. One of my favorite sources of recipes for afternoon snacks is Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café, a breakfast-themed book that I use more often for snack-making. Inside this lovely cookbook, I have found glorious recipes for homemade granola, ricotta-infused muffins, and homemade protein bars. I liked the homemade protein bars in their original form, but I have always been a little skeptical of Ms. Katzen’s use of soy protein powder in this recipe. While this powder does add protein oomph to baked goods, is it wise to eat large amounts of soy protein isolate? How do our bodies metabolize this nutrient in isolation from all the other nutrients that we find in a whole soybean? I don’t think we know the answers to these questions, and if given the choice, I’d prefer to eat a more “whole” food than the isolated parts. My hypothesis, which I have "borrowed" from a number of other people, is that our bodies get maximal nutritional benefits from eating whole foods: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, if we eat a whole apple, we get all the vitamins and minerals from the flesh and lots of fiber from the peel. If we just drink apple juice, we miss out on all the fiber and nutrients in the peel, and eating fiber is thought to satisfy our hunger longer because it takes longer for our digestive systems to process it.

To put two and two together, I wanted to continue making these delicious protein bars, but I wanted to replace the soy protein powder with something different. Behold, almond flour! Since almond flour is made by grinding blanched almonds, this flour is fairly close to being a whole food, certainly closer than soy protein isolate. It makes delicious protein bars, especially when paired with my favorite duo, peanut butter and chocolate. The recipe I give below is closely adapted from the recipe Ms. Katzen gives in Sunlight Café. It is a great basic recipe with which you can tinker to your heart’s content. I encourage you to find a copy of Sunlight Café to check out the original recipe for lots of ideas on variations.

Nutty Energy Bars
Makes one 9 x 13-inch pan’s worth of bars (yield depends on how big you cut the bars)
Adapted from Homemade Protein Bars in Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Café

These energy bars are tasty and nutritious, perfect for afternoon snacking. Note that they are not leavened, so the dough won’t rise when baked. Don’t be alarmed! The texture of these bars is nubbly from the oats, somewhat similar to oatmeal cookies but not as sweet. Nonetheless, they are a sweet snack and will definitely tide you over until dinnertime.

Nonstick spray
1 c. almond flour, such as the almond flour made by Bob’s Red Mill
½ c. unbleached all-purpose flour
2 c. rolled oats
½ c. oat bran*
½ tsp. cinnamon
¾ tsp. salt
2/3 c. packed brown sugar
1 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 ½ c. plain yogurt
½ c. peanut butter, crunchy or smooth as you prefer
2 tsp. real vanilla extract

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly spray a 9 x 13-inch pan and a large cookie sheet (preferably bigger than 9 x 13 inches) with nonstick spray.
2) In a big mixing bowl, mix together the almond flour, all-purpose flour, oats, oat bran, cinnamon, and salt. Add the brown sugar. Stir in the chocolate chips. Set this mixture aside.
3) In a second mixing bowl, mix together the yogurt, peanut butter, and vanilla. Blend thoroughly.
4) Pour/scrape the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Mix wet with dry until everything is thoroughly blended together. The mixture will resemble a cookie dough at this point.
5) Scrape the dough into the 9 x 13-inch pan and smooth the surface with your mixing spoon. Bake the bars for 18-20 minutes. The goal at this baking step is to bake the bars into a soft solid without burning the edges, so you’ll want to keep an eye on them after the 15-minute mark or so. When the center of the bars is solid (but still soft) and the edges are chestnut brown, the bars are ready for the next step. I check the center of the bars by touching with my finger, but if your fingers are more sensitive to heat than mine, you can tap it lightly with a spoon to check the consistency. Remove the bars from the oven.
6) Keep the oven on. Let the bars cool for 5-10 minutes, just long enough so you can handle them easily in the next step. Use a table knife to cut the bars into any shape you like. Use the knife and and pancake flipper to ease the bars out of the baking pan and onto the baking sheet. The bars are fairly delicate at this point, but once you have one bar out of the pan, it’s much easier to get the rest out. If the bars fall apart a little bit, you can just smoosh them back together and they will bake into one bar in the next step.
7) Once all the bars are on the baking sheet, place them back in the oven and bake for about 10-15 more minutes until golden and the edges are light to medium brown. Try not to let the edges burn.
8) Remove the bars from the oven and place the sheet on a cooling rack to let the bars cool. As the bars cool, they will firm up, but the texture will remain soft and a bit cakey.
9) Store bars either at room temperature for a few days or in the freezer for longer-term storage. I find these bars taste better the day after they are made, and they freeze beautifully.

*Yes, oat bran is not a whole food, seeing as how it has been isolated from the rest of the oat. If you prefer not to use it, you could try whirling some oats in a blender to make ½ cup whole oat flour to use in place of the oat bran. Or you could try leaving out the oat bran, but I have never left it out, so I can’t tell you what the results will be. Hurray for experiments!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Humble Soup Amid the Hullabaloo

I have many reasons to love November. November brings with it crisp fall days, the onset of sweater season, an entire holiday devoted to good food, and my birthday. It’s also the “official” start of the winter holiday season, thus setting in motion a flurry of shopping, decorating, and cooking across America. For me, the holiday season does not start until the day I buy my ticket to fly home to Michigan. That day was yesterday. I finally worked up the courage to tell my boss that despite the approaching deadline for the resubmission of my manuscript, I will be leaving to spend Christmas with my family. Whew! I felt so much better after I did that until I booked my flight. My goodness, the flights are expensive this year. That expense, friends, is how I found myself buying a flight that leaves Chicago Midway Airport at 7 AM on December 23. Yes, I said 7 AM. Horrifying! That means I will be riding a Red Line train at 3 AM to get to the airport by 5. There is only one thing I should be doing at 3 AM, and it ain’t riding the damn el across the city!

Amid all of this holiday hullabaloo, one needs a little bit of homemade comfort. During a season defined by liberal uses of alcohol, cream, butter, and sugar, it’s best if that comfort can also be healthy and thus guilt-free. And what if that comfort also comes in a cheery holiday color? Even better!

I have loved tomato soup for a long time, but I always wondered if perhaps it could be lighter and sweeter. Canned tomato soups, while acceptable, always struck me as overly tangy and thick. I wanted a soup in which the tomato flavor sings harmoniously without breaking my eardrums. This soup is my dream tomato soup. Since it’s made with canned tomatoes, it’s a great soup for winter days. The tomato flavor is robust without being harsh or one-dimensional. I love the flavors that onion, celery, and carrots give this soup; they complement the tomatoes quite well. The color is gorgeous: a bright orange-red imparted by the tomatoes and carrots. That’s natural beauty. No artificial colors here!

So make a pot of this soup and stash it in the fridge. When the holiday hullabaloo has frazzled your nerves and emptied your wallet, you can have a big bowl of Homemade Tomato Soup for Winter Days and feel pleasantly warm and relaxed. Maybe even relaxed enough to tackle the last pile of presents that need to be wrapped!

Homemade Tomato Soup for Winter Days
Adapted from Tomato Soup, p. 162, The New Laurel’s Kitchen
Makes ~3-4 servings

1 onion
2 stalks of celery
2 carrots, scrubbed well with water
1 tbsp. canola oil or another mild vegetable oil
1 can (14.5 oz.) diced tomatoes
~2 cups of vegetable stock or water (I recommend using vegetable stock if you can because stock adds a lot of flavor to this simple soup)
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Chop onion, celery, and carrots. The carrots don’t need to be peeled unless you think the peel looks especially funky and unappetizing.
2) Heat oil over medium heat in a medium-sized pot. Add the chopped onions, celery, and carrots, stir to coat the vegetables in oil, and cover the pot to cook the vegetables for several minutes.
3) Add the tomatoes to the pot. Add the stock or water to cover the vegetables; you can add more liquid if you would like a thinner soup. Bring the soup to a boil, and then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook the soup at a simmer for 20-30 minutes or until the carrots are quite tender. Turn off the heat.
4) Puree the soup in batches in a blender. As always, be careful while you are pureeing hot liquids. If you aren’t in a hurry, you can turn off the heat and let the soup cool as it sits for a while before you puree it.
5) Add the soup back to the pot. Taste for seasonings and adjust the seasonings to your taste. Eat your soup, preferably with grilled cheese sandwiches!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Geeked About Soup

I dwell in an interesting food world. At the corner of health and hedonism, I read my copies of Vegetarian Times and Eating Well. I eat salads. I drink green tea. And then I hop on the Internet and start drooling over decadent chocolate chip cookies laced with espresso and dried apricots. Oh my. Half a pound of butter and half a pound of chocolate can ONLY mean that we’re feeling quite naughty in the kitchen. God, I love Orangette. I must make these cookies ASAP!

Chocolate chip cookie dreams aside, my equally strong interests in eating deliciously and healthfully led me down a path that I swore I was not going to take. Remember this soup? I had promised myself that I was not going to tinker with its cream-filled potatoey perfection, that I would just eat it and enjoy it in its full-fat glory. Well, I lied. Inspiration struck when I was perusing my copy of Passionate Vegetarian and read Crescent’s words about the voluptuousness of butternut squash puree in soups. Yes, I thought. Butternut squash puree IS voluptuous. It’s slightly sweet, can thicken broth, and like most vegetables, it’s naturally low in fat. Hot damn! Butternut squash puree would make a WONDERFUL substitute for cream in Garlic, Chickpea, and Kale Soup. Rather than replace all the cream with squash puree, I decided to replace most of it, leaving just a dab of cream for good measure. The resulting soup is just as delicious as its predecessor. I don’t even miss the extra cream. Was I surprised? Not really, because squash can be seductive too! Just look at all those curves!

Garlic, Chickpea, and Kale Soup in Butternut Squash Broth
Adapted from “Garlic, Chickpea, and Spinach Soup” in The Cook’s Encyclopedia of Vegetarian Cooking by Linda Fraser
Makes ~4-5 entrée-sized portions

Don’t forget to serve this soup with bread for dipping and munching!

1 c. butternut squash puree (instructions for making butternut squash puree are below)
2 tbsp. olive oil
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
5 c. vegetable stock
4 medium-sized potatoes, chopped into bite-sized pieces (peeling the potatoes is optional—I wouldn’t unless the peel is gnarly and unappetizing)
1 15-oz. can of chickpeas, drained
1 tbsp. cornstarch
1/4 c. heavy cream
5/12 c. milk (about ½ a cup to bring total volume of cream and milk to ¾ of a cup)
2 tbsp. tahini
1 bunch of kale (or more to taste*), leaves stripped from the stems and torn into bite-sized pieces
Red crushed chile peppers to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

To make the butternut squash puree, you will need:
1 butternut squash**
~1-2 tbsp. light vegetable oil, such as canola oil
1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
2) Peel the butternut squash. You'll want a good, comfortable vegetable peeler for this job; I actually bought a brand-new vegetable peeler from Oxo specifically for peeling butternuts. That's how much I love this squash! Save the peelings to make soup stock if you like. Chop the ends off the squash and begin chopping the squash into pieces ~3/4-1 inch in size. While you are chopping the squash, you’ll find the seedy center. Cut out the seedy center of the squash, cutting out the squash flesh around the seedy area. As you are chopping the squash, place the pieces in a large mixing bowl.
3) Once all your squash is in the mixing bowl, pour a dab (1-2 tablespoons; I’m terribly imprecise here, but it doesn’t matter much) of oil into the bowl. Toss the squash with the oil to coat it.
4) Lightly spray a 9 x 13 inch baking pan with nonstick spray. Dump the squash into the pan and use your mixing spoon to spread the chunks evenly in the pan. It's okay if the pieces overlap.
5) Cover the pan with foil and bake for ~30 minutes. Check the tenderness of the squash by piercing it with a fork; if it pierces very easily, the squash is done. If it doesn’t pierce easily, put the squash back in the oven for a few more minutes and check it every few minutes until it is done.
6) Once the squash is tender, remove it from the oven and let it cool in its pan until it is cool enough to mash.
7) Put the cooked squash chunks back into a mixing bowl and “puree” the squash by mashing it with a potato masher. (I love my potato masher from Oxo!) Whew, you’re done making the squash puree! Set aside 1 cup of it for the soup below and refrigerate or freeze the rest. A trick my friend Nicole taught me is to measure out the squash in a measuring cup and then scoop it into little baggies to freeze for later use. That way your frozen squash puree is premeasured and easy to use in future cooking adventures. Nicole uses that trick when making her pumpkin puree. Thanks, Nicole!

**A note about yield: I started with a 2.5-lb butternut squash and ended up with almost 3 cups of squash puree, enough to make another batch of this delicious soup or to use in other recipes.

To make the soup:
1) Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a skillet or a large soup pot. Add the garlic and onion to the oil and cook for about 5 minutes or until the garlic and onions are softened and golden brown.
2) While the onions are cooking, use a blender to blend the butter squash puree into about 2 cups of the vegetable stock.
3) Back to the onions and garlic: stir in the cumin and coriander and cook for another minute.
4) If you are using a skillet to saute the onion, transfer the onion, garlic, and spices into a soup pot. Otherwise, pour all the vegetable stock (now infused with butternut squash!) into the pot with the onion and friends. Add the chopped potatoes and bring everything to a boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Add the chickpeas and simmer for another 5 minutes. Check the tenderness of the potatoes by tasting one; if the potatoes are tender, you’re ready for the next step. If the potatoes are not quite tender enough for you, simmer for a few more minutes until they are perfect.
5) Measure out the cream by pouring it into a liquid measuring cup. Add enough milk to bring the total cream/milk volume to ¾ cup. Add the cornstarch and tahini to the cream and use a spoon to mash and blend them together. This mixture might still be a bit chunky after you’ve mixed for a few minutes, and that’s okay. When you add it to the hot soup, the heat will help it blend into the soup nicely.
6) Add the cream mixture to the soup and stir. Add the kale to the soup, stir, bring it to a boil, and simmer for about 2 minutes. Season the soup to taste with crushed red chile peppers, salt, and pepper.
7) Serve in big bowls, preferably accompanied by thick slices of bread to mop up the creamy broth.

*Every time I’ve made this soup, my cooking companions and I just piled several cups of torn kale into a bowl and then dumped it into the soup. Because the kale wilts into the hot soup, you don’t need to be very precise about how much you add.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Fulfilled Life?

From what is fulfillment made?

The big answers to this question seem obvious to me: fulfillment is love, loyalty, honesty, intimacy, trust in relationships. Fulfillment is commitment, passion, enthusiasm in work. Fulfillment is laughter, zest, irreverance in play.

But what about the little answers? I believe the little answers may be the critical difference between a happy life and a joyful life. Is it asking too much to live a joyful life? I think not, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy task to accomplish. I think it takes discipline and thoughtfulness. It requires a deep consideration of habits and the cost of those habits. A cost that is measured in units of joy, not dollars. In the United States, we are obsessed with dollars, productivity, and economic growth. It’s all about “getting stuff done.” Joy, however, is NOT about getting stuff done. I suppose it CAN be about getting stuff done; I am happy when I cross that last thing off my to-do list. But more fundamentally, joy is pleasure and fulfillment; pleasure on the small scale and fulfillment on the larger scale.

How does one measure anything in units of joy? If we examine joy on a temporal scale, for any given activity there is anticipation, duration, and aftermath. A truly wonderful activity will contribute units of joy to each of these temporal stages. For example, I love to bake and eat cookies. I look forward to baking (anticipation—1 unit of joy), I like mixing the ingredients together and watching a cookie dough form right before my eyes (duration—2 units of joy), and I like eating and sharing my cookies (duration/aftermath—2 units of joy). I’m not a big fan of the cleanup (aftermath), so we’ll say that washing, drying, and putting away the dishes and cleaning up the counters costs 1 unit of joy. So if we add up the units, cookie baking is a total of 4 units of joy (5 units – 1 unit for cleanup = 4 units). That’s a pretty good deal in my book!

My theory is that the secret to a joyful life is to discover the people and habits that make you happiest. Spend more time with those people and spend more time cultivating those habits. As for the other people and habits, remove them from your life if possible. If removal is not possible, think deeply about the ways that you can make them more enjoyable (or maybe just less irritating). Don’t let unpleasant people or habits steal your joy!

I have a habit which is sneakily stealing my joy. It’s my own fault, really; I willingly devote hours to it with little complaint. Sometimes I even build my schedule around it! It, my dear reader, is television-watching. Staring at a big box with moving pictures. It is a greedy habit, soaking up my free time and leaving me feeling vaguely empty after I stop. When I’m not rationing the amount of time I spend on it, I can spend 7 or more hours a week watching television. That’s a lot of time! That’s 7 hours, 420 minutes, during which I am not reading, writing, cooking, baking, cleaning, chatting on the phone, working, or any of a hundred other things that I could be doing, things I find more meaningful, fulfilling, or even just important. This madness has to stop! But it is SO HARD. Recently I tried rationing my TV time: I told myself I would only watch 4 hours a week. I only lasted about 2 weeks before I watched 5 hours in one week. Shoot!

Why is it so hard to not watch television? I think it’s hard because television is such an easy, effortless form of entertainment: click on tv, sit down, watch as the hours of your life slip away. The stories are absorbing: I think human culture evolved in part as a result of story-telling, and as products of human culture, we in turn are biologically programmed to like stories. But television-watching is as much a pleasure as it is an irritant. I loathe commercials. While I like the stories, the characters are often annoying, prone to making the same mistakes over and over again. Many storylines revolve around unrequited love, infidelity, and betrayal. I, on the other hand, am looking for requited love, fidelity, and trust. Finally, I’m getting better at predicting the endings, which either means that I’m getting smarter or the television plots are getting thinner. Maybe it’s both.

It’s time for me to quit watching television. Period. At least for a few weeks. To tell you the truth, I’m a little nervous about quitting cold turkey. My television habit has been with me for several years now, and my prediction is that my life will feel a little empty without the comfort of some brainless entertainment every week. During my television-less time, movies are allowed as long as they are not televised movies; in other words, I can rent videos but no network television. To document my television-less adventures, I will be posting blog entries here at Life, Love, and Food. I know I have a history here of saying I’m going to do things (Summer Cooking Wish List, anyone? Hey, there’s always next summer!), but this promise is one I will keep. Promise!

Wish me luck!

In celebration of what one might call a life wake-up call, I will leave you with a simple recipe for Mexican Coffee. Ground coffee is brewed with cocoa powder and cinnamon, and the sweetly spiced brewed coffee is combined with milk and a dash of cream and sweetener. It’s rich and delicious, a perfect pick-me-up in the morning. It’s my standard morning coffee now.

Mexican Coffee
Serves 1 (but can be scaled up to serve more)
Units of Joy: 2
Adapted from Rachael Ray’s Cooking 'Round the Clock

1 heaping tablespoon of ground coffee (use more or less depending on how strong you like your coffee
~1 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
Generous sprinkle of cinnamon powder
1 cup water
1/3 cup milk (or more or less as you prefer)
Tiny splash of heavy cream (optional)
~1 tsp. sugar (or more or less as you prefer) OR a drizzle of real maple syrup

1) Brew coffee by adding coffee, cocoa powder, and cinnamon powder to your coffee maker’s brewing basket. Use the back of a spoon to smooth out the contents of the brewing basket to make sure the brewed coffee can flow smoothly into your coffeepot. Add water to the coffee maker’s water tank and brew coffee according to manufacturer’s instructions.
2) Pour coffee into your favorite mug and add milk, cream if desired, and sugar or maple syrup. Enjoy!