Back To Basics

will never boil

will never boil

Years ago when I asked my grandmother for her chicken soup recipe, she thought back and told me her first step was to remove all of the feathers. So each winter the first thing I do when making a batch of soup is to read her instructions and skip the first step.

Through the years, starting with the basic recipe, I’ve experimented and made some improvements and mistakes. Dill didn’t really work but using cheesecloth was an improvement. While it’s easy to throw vegetables and a carcass into a pot, it’s more laborious to get them out. Softened carrots, parsnip, and celery break apart and worse – bone fragments need removing from the broth. Difficulty and finger burns have given me reasons to find better ways for making a homemade soup that just can’t be found anywhere else.

Although I thought of it myself, post-invention Googling shows I’m not the first to try my latest innovation. It’s to use a pasta insert to lift the solids from the boiling broth. Also, instead of boiling, I added vegetables to an upper steamer compartment and they stayed firmer, while their drippings fell right in making this the easiest and best soup to date.

While I enjoy experimenting, this winter, I’m looking for opportunities for improvement by getting back to basics – and I’m curious if you would like to join me. All creative expressions have two separate parts, an idea and a technique.

We all have ideas, and we all can learn or improve upon our techniques.

When we master a technique, whether its learning to use the f/stop on our camera or knowing how to format a business plan, we are better equipped to express our ideas.

Unlike plucking the chicken, sometimes we can’t skip the basics.
I’m taking a step back to work on improving technique by improving my writing, drawing, practicing pen and ink exercises, and looking at best practices in the kitchen. It isn’t about precision or perfection; instead it’s about improving our techniques. Whatever medium we practice, learning the grammar helps us express our ideas and helps others accept except our ideas.

One step back to basics may yield three or four steps ahead. As we need channels to express our ideas out from our minds, we can never go wrong by improving our techniques. What are you going to practice?


Inspired by Allergies

lime-parfaitDo you ever feel like you are practically the only one facing some real challenges that don’t seem to affect many others? When I think of difficult limits from our environment, the line

it was bye-bye for Shanghai – I’m even allergic to rice

from Doris Day’s old song comes to mind. Whether you suffer from allergies or not, there are lessons to be learned about finding creative solutions within limits from JD Simone as she discusses her new book: Allergy Safe Cuisine; Cooking Without the Top 8 Food Allergens, Plus Corn, Gluten and MSG Like exit polls before memories fade, a great time to see the inside of the creative process is to ask people immediately after they complete a work. While often creativity is thought to be inspired by infinite possibilities, Simone’s inventiveness came through experimenting within strict limits.

What inspired you to write this book?
I have several family members with severe food allergies. The summer before last was a perfect storm of eating disasters and that experience spurred me on to write this cookbook. The whole family went away on vacation together and, no matter what we made for food, there was always somebody who couldn’t eat it. Compound that with the fact that there were so many people in one kitchen that keeping “safe” food for one person separated from the “safe” food for the other was nearly impossible, especially with a houseful of kids running around. The final straw was when we had a birthday party and one of my granddaughters could not eat the birthday cake. Can you imagine being a child, and having never eaten a single slice of birthday cake? Normally she takes it well, but her tears that time did me in. I decided that from now on, any food I make would be safe for everyone to enjoy. What is your favorite recipe? Lime Parfait. This was one of my own inventions. It tastes surprisingly like custard, is very easy to make, and is very decorative. Great to serve for company! How did you come up with the recipes you used?
I adapted some recipes, and invented others. Since life is complicated enough with multiple food allergies, I decided that every single one of my recipes would be free of the 8 major food allergens, plus corn, gluten and MSG. For people with multiple food allergies, flavorful, mixed dishes and seasonings are usually off limits. That was why I spent a lot of time on spice mixes, dressings, gravies and sauces. My mock Worcestershire sauce took months of experimenting to come up with, but it was well worth the effort. I also included a wide variety of meals and deserts, from the most basic of dishes to a small handful of more complicated ones for adventurous cooks.

I’ve always been involved in something creative. Right now I’m illustrating “Mommy’s First Picture Book: What Nobody Told You About Parenting,” which should be done by mid-summer.

Have you ever found yourself with some real limits and a need to find solutions for yourself or your family? Like the situation that spurred the idea for this cookbook. Please pass this on to anyone you know with food allergies!


Creative Risks: Mistakes That You Can Smell

Do you ever get the feeling that you’re making a mistake? As I write this, I’ve the nauseous feeling something is wrong and this morning I can smell the mistake and it’s coming from the kitchen. Like anyone going out on a limb to be creative who finds themselves in the midst of a potential error, I’m wondering if I should stop the madness or continue and see where it leads.

It all started earlier this week when I spotted an “out-of-the-ordinary fish” special while browsing the pages of my online grocery. Choosing fish over the internet has its risks but that didn’t stop me from adding “Salt Cod” to my shopping cart. It was not as much my bravery and willingness to take a chance to explore possibilities as much as it was that I wasn’t really paying enough attention.

The next day the fish was delivered in a plain marked pine box. Before even sliding the lid to exhume the contents, I could smell the “aroma.” It reminded me of strolls through the dried food markets in Hong Kong or like the beach at low tide on a hot day. I’ve learned that to some, the smell of dried fish is like the freshness of baked bread; however, I’ve not acquired this sense and beginning to wonder if even a splash of wine or a squeeze of lime could provide enough cover. The instructions say to rehydrate the fish in a series of water baths for a day and some Google searching revealed testimonials predicting a full transformation into something worthwhile and wonderful.

At the moment, it’s been soaking for 12 hours and the smell is …a little less fishy. Halfway through when trying something creative, when your hopes and your visions aren’t materializing, do you ask yourself: “What am I doing?” Should I go on?? Is it worth my effort? And will this one-pot meal disappoint my hungry audience and lead to the inevitable pepperoni pizza?

At times, our plowing through the chaos and uncertainty is rewarded with an incredible final product. Other times, simply giving up can provide freedom, like playing with the food you no longer intend to eat, or splashing and dripping paint over a landscape you don’t expect to complete – when you have nothing to lose – you have the freedom to start to really experiment.
Is it Portuguese Fish stew or New York pizza tonight? when you get the feeling things are going wrong, what do you do?


Since crayons don’t come with spell check: INNOVember – Your opportunity to invent


out of the fire and into the frying pan

We don’t often have the chance to really look at the imaginative artwork created by children. Quickly walking past bulletin boards of preschool artwork, I recently saw written in day-glow orange crayon the word Innovember” and this got my attention.

With my brain preloaded for all things creative, I mistakenly took this to mean: “Innovation in November,” and thought: what a great theme! Then, looking more carefully, the word accompanied an illustration of a Thanksgiving scene and I realized the little typographer who created this amazing idea had actually left out the spacing between words and meant to say: “In November.”

Well, it’s not exactly Rocktober but still a great theme and InNovember we have a built-in opportunity to be innovative. Our harvest festivals around the northern hemisphere and Thanksgiving in the United States in particular are steeped in traditional foods that are ripe for shaking up. However, as we are giving thanks and reflecting on our good fortunes, many people come to expect their stuffing and cranberry sauce cooked a certain way — and many families have traditional dishes that even the most courageous of us won’t dare to mess with.

Our opportunity doesn’t come from reinventing the whole meal or redefining a treasured side dish but from bringing an entirely different creation to the table. Whether it’s your favorite everyday food that you’ve perfected and want to share or a wholly new experiment involving bat’s wings, eye of newt, or the nearly forgotten sun dried tomatoes — either have the potential to become next year’s tradition. Assuming you use ingredients that don’t exceed their expiration dates and are fully cooked, there is little risk in serving a new dish since a singular disaster in a vast feast won’t leave anyone hungry — and mistakes provide the best leftovers that can be warmed up into stories for next year – and some even may even become legends. Try something new! And if you can, please December to help the less fortunate.

What was your biggest holiday food disaster or your greatest success? What will you cook this year?


Encouraged by the Bottom 10 percent

"Can" you make it across (click to enlarge)

If you’ve been to Hong Kong, have you noticed the flashing man on the WALK signs look uncharacteristically overweight? Occasionally in NYC, you can see WALK and DON’T WALK lighted simultaneously, but have you ever seen a WALK sign made entirely out of cans of food.

Massive structures are built using cans of food as part of a design competition with the winners displayed at the World Financial Center in Manhattan. The event is sponsored by Canstruction which uses cans of food as a catalyst for change. When the structures are dismantled after November 21st, the food is donated to City Harvest,who uses the cans to feed hungry people.

While most structures are incredible, pointing to one that seemed lesser, I friend surprised me by saying , “if I could do that, It’s not very good.” Conversely and thinking back many years when I first started painting,

Why so angry? (click to enlarge)

I would go to group art exhibitions and feel challenged by the best watercolors yet encouraged by the bottom 10 percent. I would say “I could do that!”

The same sentence, “I could do that” can evoke opposite responses between people. Do you compare your abilities with professional athletes while watching a football game and say, if I could catch that ball, the player must not be very good? Why is our creativity so difficult to accept? Perhaps we could recast our self image on creativity, especially if we see proof that we can do something other creative people are doing.

Which one is your favorite? See more photos of the constructions [Read more…]


Live Longer by Eating, Drinking and Relaxing: 2 Books 2 Save Your Life

No time to be a crab.

John Belushi, Jim Morrison, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Vincent Van Gogh… unfortunately the list goes on and on – what else could they have created if they had lived longer? If you cut out some of your vices, does life become longer or does life just seem longer?

Today, the number of centurions is growing by 7 percent a year. Will you be one of them someday? For a living history, talk with one and learn how they adapted to a world that changed from long trips on horse and buggies to long waits at the airport, from silent movies to cell phones with streaming ads, and from deciphering Morse code to miscommunicating by SMS texting.

The greatest innovations weren’t air conditioning, TV remote controls, or microwave popcorn as many suspect, but instead came from improved health and nutrition that actually kept us alive and increased our life expectancy.

Thankfully, we no longer have to worry about being eaten by dinosaurs, falling out of chariots or freezing in an ice age, and OSHA standards have reduced workplace accidents to mostly paper cuts and burning our lips on coffee, but will our life expectancy continue to increase with our seemingly poor diets and increased stresses? While technology focused on making things convenient, and marketing focused on making things affordable, has anyone been concerned with our well being?

Sometimes we have to take matters into our own hands. Although they are no spring chickens themselves, here are two books that can help you to live happily ever after. the Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson M.D., shows how an easy to learn and simple to practice form of meditation can reduce your stress and reduce a host of nasty physical ailments.

The second book was given to me as a present and became a true gift. In general, the medical community has a predisposition to prescribe drugs and the Department of Agriculture has a mission to promote farmers. Who has the incentive to promote your longevity? Not the governments who pay out entitlements, the answer is YOU. In Eat Drink and Be Healthy
by Walter C. Willett, MD, the author provides practical advice about remaining healthy that is designed to enrich your body instead of enriching special interests. Both books have a long shelf life and I won’t spoil the endings.

When I was packing to move to Hong Kong, I sent thousands of my books into storage, but these are two books I brought along. What books would you bring to a tropical island?
What books will you share that you think could help others stay healthy?


Andy Warhol’s Very Questionable Taste

Imagining Outside the Box of Soup

Imagining Outside the Box of Soup

“Follow your passion” is good advice for anyone and so is: “do what you love to do” and results will follow.

Andy Warhol tasted, smelled, spilled, and painted what he loved, and what he loved was canned soup. “Warhol said that he painted it, not because it was a modern icon of capitalism, but because it reminded him of his past – as a child he had eaten soup every day.” So he got to knew his subject in the most intimate detail, but he was clearly no foodie.

Like many people, I used to believe there were things I didn’t like such as: Thai food, wine, green beans, spinach, or soup. What I didn’t realize is that I just didn’t like bad Thai food, bad wine and green beans, spinach or soup from a can.

So many of us have been raised on canned soup and without singling out any brand, none compares to what can be freshly made – and it’s so easy. Making soup is as difficult as boiling water and throwing vegetables, plus it can be made by the gallon and frozen into individual portions. Ask any soul to compare canned chicken noodle to homemade chicken soup. Other favorites such as Hungarian goulash, the dreaded mushrooms with wild rice and turkey, gazpacho, acorn squash/yams and my newest hot&sour (with secret ingredient Chinkiang vinegar) are so basic, you can find good recipes with Google.

The point is if you keep an open mind keep, reassess past assumptions and reframe the question, you may find that soup can be a meal. Are you sure you don’t like onions? Are you sure you can’t draw? Don’t like classical music? The challenge is to think outside the metal can and try again. With a more adventurous palate what would Warhol have created?


Adventuring in the International Aisle

dry food market

Moveable feast

Many of us prepare the same rotation of meals week-after-week and order the same menu item from the same restaurant. When was the last time you tried an entirely new food?

At best, it can be an opportunity to find a new regular and at worst can help you to appreciate your old favorites. When living in Asia, I had the fortune and necessity to try lots of delicious and unidentifiable foods. If you ask what you are eating and are told, there is no English translation; you probably don’t want to know. The Mexican buffet in India was an obvious mistake as were the eggs scrambled with what seemed to be worms – they happened to be very tasty and the Chinese waiter assured me they were “small fish” – my fever broke after only five weeks.

Why are small fish more palatable than worms?   Reframing questions and being open to new experiences leads to creativity. In Hong Kong on each trip to the market, I would buy at least one new ingredient – then Google the name to figure out how it could be used. Some of the foods I adopted can’t be easily found in the US but here are some less exotic ones that can:

Pomelo kind of like a grape fruit but not as sour, great in salads with feta/lime/peanuts

Miso Paste – for sauces.

Edamame beans in shells – steamed with a shake of salt.

Daikon radish – shredded raw or boiled for turnip cakes.

Kaffir lime leaves – For Thai food – Remove leaves before serving.

Rooibos – Caffeine free tea from South Africa.
Try a new restaurant, and new menu item, or a pick up a new ingredient in the international aisle of your local market. What is the most unusual food that you like?


Spend less than you earn – eat less than you burn: Creative ways to lose weight

Going into the holiday season, it’s a good idea to preemptively get into shape since we are going to see lots of people and will have opportunities for lots of good food.

Weight management is like the opposite of  your budget and savings, To save  you have to spend less than you earn. To lose weight, you must eat less than you burn.  Here are some creative lifestyle changes that will not change your life and allow you to loose weight.

1) Order a glass of wine instead of a hoppy micro-brewed beer.

2) Water at meals instead of soda.

3) Salad/fruit substitution instead of  french fries.

4) Skip the candy bar: calculate how long it takes to run on a treadmill to burn off a fun sized bar.

5) Limit the snacks that are visible in your life, try to keep your home snack free.

6) Instead of melting a pound of bland cheese like mozzarella on your meal, sprinkle little bits of Parmesan or sharp cheddar or other flavor intense cheeses.

7) Cook at home during the week and save going out to dinner for weekends.