Saturday, December 25, 2010

Last Minute Christmas Shopping

One of my brothers-in-law used to be famous for doing all his Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve - usually just before the stores closed.
One year, he was running particularly late and decided that shopping at a bookstore would be the most efficient use of his time. Lots of choices. One-stop shopping. Good idea.

He zipped up and down the aisles and before long he had gifts for everyone, except his dad. My late father-in-law was a dear, quiet, serious man - and hard to buy for. He was a mathematics professor. Didn't have much of a sense of humor. Few hobbies. Devout religious man.

As the store was closing, my brother-in-law was starting to panic. He couldn't show up Christmas morning without a present for Dad. Just then, he spied a book of poetry on a sale table and thought, "that'll be perfect!" Satisfied that he had, once again, managed to pull off a brilliant, last minute shopping spree, he headed to the register.

The next morning, as everyone was exchanging and opening presents, my brother-in-law was watching the expressions on people's faces as they opened his gifts. By all accounts, he had done a good job.

Off to the side, my father-in-law was carefully leafing through his book of poetry. When my brother-in-law asked him what he thought, Dad handed the book to him and said, "You didn't read any of these before you bought the book, did you?"

My brother-in-law smiled weakly, opened the book and started to read. It turned out that the "poetry book" was, in fact, a collection of dirty limericks. When that dawned on him, the look on his face was priceless.
I'm sure my brother-in-law wishes he'd never bought that book, or at least never given it to Dad. But I've always thought of it as the gift that keeps on giving - because every time I think about it or one of us tells that story, it makes me laugh.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

In Praise of My Neti Pot

Yesterday, I started getting a sore throat and stuffy nose. And right away, I got out my Neti Pot and rinsed my sinuses. This might sound strange to you if you've never heard of it before. I'll admit that I was skeptical when I first was told about it. But I have never found anything that is as effective at stopping a cold in its tracks or, if I have one already, shortening its duration.

Believe me, as a veteran of chronic bronchitis and sinus infections, I've tried many things over the years including massive does of vitamin C, homeopathic remedies and a whole range of over the counter medicines. Over all of them, the Neti Pot rules.

To use it, I simply fill the pot with warm water and a pinch of sea salt. The video below shows the rinsing technique. It does take a little practice, but you'll quickly get the hang of it.

If you try this, be sure to use it at the first, slightest sign of a cold. If you wait until you are so congested that you can't breathe through your nose, the pot won't help. If you can't breathe through your nose, it's because inflammation has closed off your nasal passages. The warm saline can't get into your sinuses once things have gone that far.

However, once the swelling goes down and the cold starts to break up, rinsing once or twice a day will help speed your recovery. The rinsing will clear your sinuses and nasal passages, getting rid of the excess mucus and viral "debris" accumulated there.

Friends of mine who have nasal allergies swear by their Neti Pots, too. Regular rinsing flushes pollen and other irritants out of their sinuses and reduces their discomfort.

So ask Santa for a Neti Pot and enjoy a happy, healthy winter. Ho Ho Ho!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Great Figgy Pudding Street Corner Caroling Contest

Last night was the 24th Annual "Figgy Friday" caroling competition held on streets and street corners in downtown Seattle. This event is a fun and festive holiday tradition. It is also a significant fund raiser for the Pike Market Senior Center and the Downtown Food Bank.

I was there, on the corner of 5th and Pine, singing with a group that is now the Olio Glee Club. Because I was performing, I couldn't walk around and take photos, so I asked my friend, Gordon Hjelm, if he would take my camera and get a few shots. He did a wonderful job and all the images you see in this post (except the Macy's star at left) are his. Thank you, Gordon!

We had a total of 35 caroling teams competing along four blocks of Pine St. from 3rd to 7th Avenues. The area was closed to motor traffic during the competition so people could stroll along the street and see the various teams perform. The weather was good - no rain or snow - and everyone, performers and audience alike, seemed to be having a good time.

A panel of 14 judges selected the winners in the Best Choral Team and Most Creative Team categories. Members of the audience got to weigh in, too, and vote for their favorites for the People's Choice award. There were also "Figlanthropy" awards for the teams that raised the most money.

Money was raised in various ways. Some singers made personal donations. Some of us found sponsors. At least a half dozen companies sponsored the event. And there were "busker" boxes next to each team during the event where people could drop donations. 

I went the sponsorship route and want to say a big THANK YOU to my friends who made donations. Altogether, those checks added up to $170. Outstanding! And much appreciated.

The big winners in the Figlanthropy category, were the Starbucks Coffee Carolers (shown above). Between donations collected by barristas in coffee stores around the area and Starbucks matching dollars, they raised over $31,000! Second place winners were the Phinney Neighborhood Community Chorus. In third place, the Hoppy Holiday, Merry Malty Beer Carolers.

Here's the Malty Beer Carolers, from Pike Place Brewing Company, entertaining the crowd. They also came in second in the People's Choice category. The People's Choice winners were The Beaconettes, whom I wrote about earlier in my Glee! post. In that post, you'll also find a YouTube clip from one of The Beaconettes' past performances.

Here's my team.
And here is where I get to find out that having your picture taken when you are singing is almost as bad as having it taken when you are eating. (That's me, second from right.)

So what did the judges think of all this? The winner for Best Choral Team was Mount Vernon High School. Second place went to Bellevue Christian School. The winners of the award for Most Creative Team went to the Carol Brunettes (shown above). Second place went to the Phinney Neighborhood Community Chorus.

I leave you with this view from Westlake Plaza, at 4th and Pine, across from the Figgy stage. It is a magical scene with the Macy's star shining and children (of all ages) riding the Christmas Carousel.

We had a lot of fun last night and, in the process, helped a lot of people in need - a winning combination all around. Want to join the fun? Plan on coming out next year for the 25th Annual Great Figgy Pudding Street Corner Caroling Competition.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Food and Drug Interactions

A few days ago, I did a post on making soup for a neighbor who had just had surgery. If you are thinking about doing this too, good for you! However, before you begin shopping and cooking, you need to know that there are some drug and food combinations that do not go well together. So it is a good idea to find out if the recipients of your goodwill are coming home with diet restrictions because of the medications they have to take.

Here's an example. It is common for people to be on some type of blood thinning medication after surgery. These drugs prevent the formation of blood clots in the vascular system, thus reducing the likelihood of certain complications. When I had my hip resurfaced, my surgeon prescribed Lovenox for this purpose. The up side was that I could eat whatever I wanted; the down side was that I had to give myself a shot every day for a while.

However, most people on anti-coagulant therapy are given a different drug, one called warfarin (brand name, Coumadin). It has the advantage that it can be taken orally. The down side is that it can be more or less effective, depending on the amount of certain foods in the diet, so extra care must be taken.

I knew that my neighbor was on this drug, and I had a handout listing the dietary precautions. So when I made my choices, I avoided soup recipes that called for leafy greens or foods from the Brassica family (cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower). The dietary guidelines for this drug are more involved than just these choices, so if you are preparing food for someone on this medication, be sure to ask for a complete list of the specifics.

When you check about drug/food issues, also ask if your friend or neighbor has food allergies. Then you've covered all the bases. Don't let any of these considerations discourage you. There are lots of good ingredients to work with, regardless. Combine them with good information, and you're well prepared to create something healthy and healing in your kitchen.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Chicken Soup and Giving Thanks

"If the only prayer we ever said was, 'Thank You,' that would be sufficient." -- Meister Eckhart, Christian theologian, scholar and mystic (c. 1260 - c. 1327)
Today is Thanksgiving, there is snow on the ground, and friends have invited me for dinner so I don't have to cook. But I like to cook and last weekend, since I didn't have to plan a holiday meal, I made batches of soup. One reason to make soup was simply because it's something I like to do when it is cold outside. There's something warming and satisfying about having a big pot of comfort food on the stove and pleasant aromas filling the house.

Another reason was that I wanted to do something for my neighbor and his wife. He had open heart surgery last week and came home over the weekend. His surgery was two years, to the day, after my hip resurfacing surgery. So many people did so many kind things for me after my operation that I promised myself to "pay it forward" whenever I could. I decided to make big batches of my Red Soup, Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup, and Chicken Vegetable soup (see recipe below) and take a container of each to my neighbors.

As I roasted chicken, chopped vegetables, sauteed, simmered and stirred, I thought about the wonderful people who did so much for me two years ago. They ran errands, called me daily to check in, brought me groceries and took me to the doctor. Thanksgiving Day was one week after I came home from the hospital. I was still using a walker and my operative leg was so swollen that I couldn't wear anything nicer than my baggiest pajama pants. But I had a lovely turkey dinner, with all the trimmings, brought to my table by tenants in my building who were cooking dinner for their family and wanted to share.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, a friend who was making a second Thanksgiving dinner for her family brought me another lovely meal. She brought it straight from her kitchen, served up on real dishes and arranged on a tray. She wrapped it all in foil to keep it warm and drove it down to my house before the food could get cold. The presentation was so beautiful and the gesture so thoughtful, that I cried when I sat down to eat.

The Monday after Thanksgiving, even though I still needed a walker to get around, my surgeon gave me permission to drive. I was glad. I don't like being dependent on other people and hate to ask for help. I was happy to be able to drive and, as long as I was careful, do a few more things for myself.

But then it started to snow. At first, I didn't think much about it. It doesn't snow much or often in the lowlands of Seattle, and when it does, it usually melts away by the next day. However, that wasn't how it worked in December of 2008. A series of storms kept us in snow and icy conditions for about three weeks. Even if I could get my car out of the driveway, streets and parking lots were covered with ice and I wasn't sure it would be safe for me to get out of my car and attempt to walk anywhere. A fall could have been very serious, because I was on a blood thinner and still healing from surgery.

Again, friends and neighbors came to the rescue. One chained up her Subaru and sent out an email offering "snow taxi" services. Neighbors delivered groceries. My tenants shoveled the walks and kept them clear after each storm system. When I ran out of snow melt, a friend's husband managed to get to Home Depot just as a new supply came in. He brought me a bucketful before heading off to take care of his own properties.

I've always been so independent. Throughout my life, I have been the one to deliver meals, shovel walks and run errands, not the other way around. The experience of having to ask for and accept help left me both humbled and grateful. It also taught me a lesson. I know how good it feels to give to others. Allowing other people to give to me allows them have those good feelings, too. It isn't fair of me to hog all the joy by always doing the giving. Being a gracious receiver is just as important as being a generous giver.

And so as I am about to head out the door to receive a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner, I offer you the gift of a classic chicken vegetable soup. It is the soup I make for myself when I'm sick and the one I make for friends when they need a lift. Happy Thanksgiving!

Chicken Vegetable Soup
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1-2 cloves of garlic, chopped
2-3 stalks of celery, diced
4-6 carrots, sliced into 1/2" rounds
2 small (about 6" long) zucchini, split lengthwise and cut into 1/2" slices
1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 cup diced, cooked chicken
3-4 cups chicken broth
2-3 tsp. dried organo
1 tsp. thyme, fresh or dried
Sea salt and pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a stock pot over medium heat.
Add onion, garlic, celery and saute about 5 minutes.
Add carrots and saute another 5 minutes.
Add zucchini and cook another 2-3 minutes.
Add remaining ingredients and bring the soup up to a gentle boil. Reduce heat and simmer about 40 minutes, or until vegetables are tender.
Taste broth about halfway through cooking time to check seasonings. Add more herbs, salt or pepper to taste.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


After a couple of years away, I've started singing again with the Olio Glee Club (formerly known as the Prelude Glee Club). This is the perfect choir for me: no audition was required; the music is challenging but not impossible for me to sing; and our practice space is close to home.

I'm a fan of the TV show, Glee, but watching and listening to other people sing, even though they are WAY better at it than I am, is just not as satisfying as taking a deep breath and going for it myself. I think we lost something important when we stopped making our own music and just let ourselves be entertained by professionals. Radio, TV, concerts, sound systems and iPods are great, but if they are the only ways we get music, we miss out on the benefits of participating.

Consider, for example, the health benefits. Singing is all about using breath to create sound. To do that well, we have to empty our lungs and take in the deepest breath possible - over and over. I figure that I take in more oxygen in a two hour practice session with the glee club than I do in two days of ordinary, sitting-in-front-of-the-computer, shallow breathing. This deep breathing boosts metabolism, improves heart and lung function, relieves tension and gives me a wonderful sense of well being.

Singing in a choir has another benefit - it creates a community. We are a small group working together to achieve something: learning a piece of music, blending our voices to create harmony, preparing for a performance. It gives us a shared sense of accomplishment. It is fun. It gives us something to look forward to. It is an antidote for loneliness.

This month we will be practicing Christmas carols to get ready for the 24th Annual Great Figgy Pudding Street Corner Caroling Competition, which will be held downtown Seattle on "Figgy Friday," December 3rd. This competition raises funds to benefit the Pike Place Senior Center and Downtown Food Bank. We will be one of over 40 singing groups taking to the street corners that night to entertain and help our neighbors.

Here's a video from a group called "The Beaconettes" (our neighbors to the east on Beacon Hill) singing in a past Figgy Pudding competition. They've altered the lyrics of a well-known carol to acknowledge yet another great Seattle tradition: the naked bicyclists who show up each year at the Fremont Solstice Parade.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sweet Potato Fries

I love sweet potatoes. I'm always surprised when people tell me they don't. When I ask them why, I often find out that they have bad memories of holiday dinners involving sweet potato dishes made with lots of sugar and marshmallows.
And I say, "No wonder!"
Sweet potatoes are, as the name says, SWEET. There's no need to add sugar to them. (Unless, of course, you like that queasy feeling that goes with a sudden spike in your blood sugar.)

If you are one of those people who feels a twinge of nausea at the thought of sweet potatoes, I invite you to give them one more try. Only this time without any sugar, or spices, or butter or marshmallows.

This time, the only ingredients will be:

Sweet potatoes
Kosher or sea salt
Olive oil

Prep is really easy:

Pre-heat your oven to 375F
Peel the sweet potatoes
Cut them into strips like french fries
Put the sweet potato "fries" into a bowl
Drizzle olive oil over them
Sprinkle salt over them
Stir to coat the fries

Now spread your fries in a single layer in a baking dish or on a cookie sheet. Bake for about 25 minutes. Keep an eye on them in the last 10 minutes to be sure they are not burning. Bake until they are cooked through and just beginning to brown. Take them out of the oven, let them cool a bit and -- enjoy!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Agreeing to Disagree

I was going through some old journals the other day and came across an email I printed out in October of 2004. It was a message I sent to my son, Mike, the morning after we had had a very angry "discussion" about politics.

Then, as now, we were days away from a major election. The Bush-Kerry presidential race dominated the news. Mike was pro-Bush. I insisted that George W Bush was the WORST president in the entire history of the United States.

It is embarrassing to remember, but we had reached the point where we were actually yelling into our respective phones -- him on his cell phone in Virginia, and me on my landline here on the "left coast." We were like people on those stupid political shows that spend the entire program trying to out-shout each other.
Then suddenly... there was silence. 
The battery in Mike's phone had died. I sat there for a minute, dazed. I was shaking from the emotion of arguing. I was ashamed of myself for letting the conversation get out of hand. The room was SO quiet - did all that shouting really happen or did I just imagine it? It was late, after midnight on the east coast. Should I call him back on his other line? I didn't want to continue the argument. But I didn't want us to end the day on such a negative note.

I was just about to call him when my phone rang. It was Mike. He started talking about something completely unrelated to politics. I was relieved. I began to relax. We chatted a few minutes, said our "good nights" and "I love yous," and hung up. The tension and anger had melted away.

As I fell asleep that night, I thought about my relationship with my son. We've been butting heads all his life. I was an anti-war, anti-gun, no nukes kind of a mom. And I wasn't too keen on the idea of motorcycles, either.
Mike is my polar opposite. He is career military, a gun collector and member of the NRA, a graduate of the US Navy's prestigious Nuclear Power School, and I have lost track of the number of motorcycles he has owned in his lifetime. 
In many families, those differences would be enough to destroy a relationship. Yet somehow we have avoided that fate. In fact, we really enjoy each other's company. As you can imagine, we had LOTS of arguments when he was growing up. But as I wrote in the email the morning after our argument 6 years ago:
"... we have never succeeded in changing each other's minds. But in spite of that, I always feel close to you and I always feel like we love each other. I love you just as much as I would if you and I agreed on everything. ... I personally believe that our relationships are more important than politics." 
His response: "I agree and I love you too."
Somewhere in this exchange, I felt like I had caught hold of something more significant than just me and my son arguing and making up. I had grasped the edge of a train of thought that I wanted to follow. It began with the question:
Why was it that I could have explosive political arguments with my son, and still have a good relationship with him? And why was it that with other people in my life those arguments led to bitterness, mistrust and deterioration of the relationship?
I thought about this off and on for several months. In the meantime, I became fascinated with Byron Katie's process of examining beliefs that she calls, The Work. The process is beautifully simple. You begin with a statement that you believe is true, ask yourself four questions, then turn the statement around. It is remarkable how this simple exercise can shift thinking just enough to allow for some major insights. It became my favorite new pastime as I went through my days, questioning my thinking on just about everything.

One of Katie's questions is: "How do you feel when you think this thought?" I applied this by asking myself how I feel during political arguments and there I found the answer to my earlier questions. When I argue with my son, I feel frustrated. (Jeez, why doesn't he GET it?!) But in political arguments with other people, I have often felt -- scared. 

Neither emotion, frustration or fear, is pleasant. But frustration can easily dissolve. All it takes is changing the subject or finding something funny in the situation. But fear is something else altogether. Fear evokes the fight, flight or freeze response. Stress chemicals flood the cells of the body, preparing us to deal with a perceived threat. If there is no resolution (and with political arguments, there rarely is), the body stays on high alert for a long time. And we feel miserable. No wonder we want to avoid people who insist on "talking" politics.

I began to watch people in social situations when political issues came up. It seemed to me that the most passionate political people often appeared to be the most fearful. Their "passion" was how they dealt with their fear. If they could get other people to agree with them, they felt better, safer. That led to another question:
What are we really afraid of? Why do we even care?
I think it's just this simple - we are afraid that somebody else's ideas will "take over" and we will have to do something we don't want to do, or be forced to stop doing something we enjoy. I don't think it is any more complicated than that. We see a headline, hear a particular phrase, observe someone else's fear and it triggers a sense of threat. When we're threatened, all we have at our disposal is a choice of stress responses: attack, run like hell or stand like a deer caught in the headlights. When we're scared, we can't analyze anything, access our creativity or even think straight.
I've decided that if there is any real threat to our existence, it isn't a conservative or a liberal, Republican or Democrat - it is FEAR.  
We all experience it, but we don't have to live in it. We get to decide if we're going to let fear (and by extension, fear-mongers) run our lives. We are free to examine our thinking and reach for thoughts that feel better. From that better feeling place, we can create a better world.
As Buckminster Fuller said, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." 
A "new model" for my own thinking is one that came, again, from Katie's work. At the end of each inquiry is what she calls a "turn around." That means taking the original statement and asking yourself if its exact opposite could be true.

The subject of politics is upsetting to many of us because we don't feel like we have any control over government. We elect people and hope for the best. We are stuck with whatever "they" decide to do. Government is something that's done to us, not for us. That's how I used to see it, until I turned it around. Once I was willing to consider that government might be bottom up, not top down, I felt more at ease.
I no longer see politics as the cause of our problems. Now I see it as the effect of mass consciousness. Politicians like to think they are leaders. But in my "new model," I see them simply as people who function as mirrors, reflecting our own thinking back at us. The macrocosm is a larger version of the microcosm.
This cause and effect idea might sound crazy to you, but I invite you to just tuck that idea into the back of your mind and observe. Pay attention to the conversations and behaviors around you. Think about the typical complaints about government: not listening; playing the blame game; wasting money; complaining and bickering; refusing to work with certain people; criticizing without proposing new ideas or reasonable solutions. See if you find any matches.

Watch also for the ways our collective fears play out. A politician who backs down on principles in order to placate someone is acting from fear. Attack ads are all fear-based. People say they hate them, but they work. They work because they tap into the collective fears of the constituency. Those ads only resonate with people who live in fear. If a politician wins a race primarily with attack ads, it is because the collective emotional set point of the electorate is fear. To a person who does not live in fear, those ads are either annoying or downright funny.

(Be sure to note the political ads Google serves up on this blog to see some examples of what I just wrote.)

Since that night 6 years ago, Mike and I have had many conversations. But we haven't had any more arguments about politics. Once in a while, he'll make a provocative comment and chuckle, waiting to see, I guess, if I'll take the bait. But I don't. There's not much emotional charge on politics for me anymore.
To paraphrase a classic Pogo cartoon, "We have met the government and 'they' are us." We don't have to change Washington. We have to change ourselves.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup

I've been reading essays from "Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager," by Langdon Cook. Cook is an entertaining writer, and these essays chronicle his various experiences as he hunts for delectable edibles in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest.

Which is to say that he and I have very different ideas about what constitutes a good time. An easy afternoon hike in the woods is fine with me, but I'll pass on anything involving camping, fishing or lugging a heavy pack. (Not to mention free-diving with a kind of slingshot in the icy waters of Puget Sound, hoping to snag a ling cod!) Still, I love eating well and am curious about where our local bounty comes from. So I'm grateful that he is willing to write about his expeditions and that I can tag along vicariously while propped up in my comfy chair.

Beyond comfort, I am also a big fan of safety. And foraging in the wilderness can certainly involve an element of danger, whether from exposure or from taking a bite out of the wrong thing. According to Cook, "Nothing focuses the mind like an activity that might kill you." Which is probably why he has survived to write his essays and post on his blog -- he's pretty focused.

Despite the risks, hunting and gathering certainly has its rewards, as anyone can attest who has had the pleasure of eating wild, foraged foods from around here, including: salmon, huckleberries, oysters, fiddleheads, clams, mussels and mushrooms. Nothing really compares.

And that brings me to my recipe for cream of wild mushroom soup. This is a recipe I adapted years ago from one I found in an out-of-print Weight Watchers cookbook. The original recipe called mostly for those white, tasteless button mushrooms that can be found anywhere, with a few shitakes added to qualify it, I suppose, for the name, "wild" mushroom soup.  It wasn't a very interesting dish until I started adding locally foraged wild mushrooms to the mix.

I was a little timid about doing this in the beginning. Hundreds of mushroom varieties grow in the Pacific Northwest. Some are harmless. Some are tasty. And some are lethal. Unlike Cook and others who take their reference books into the wild and key out their discoveries, I prefer to do my foraging at the local PCC store. In spite of the fact that I am a horticulturalist and can ID hundreds of species of plant life, I feel safer leaving the mushroom harvest to the pros.

(Of course, you might wonder: where do PCC, Metropolitan Market, restaurants and other stores get their supply of wild mushrooms? A recent post on Cook's blog, called The Transaction, explains.)

This time of year, encouraged by the fall rains, mushrooms are beginning to bloom in the woods around us. And my favorites, the chanterelles, are beginning to show up in the produce department.
Rich in color and flavor, these beauties elevate my humble soup to something magnificent.
Among other mushrooms you might add to this soup are these, from left: crimini, also called Italian browns; oyster mushrooms; and shitakes.

As with most of my cooking, I am not very precise in my measurements. When I buy mushrooms for this soup, I am aiming for 4 cups total of chopped or sliced mushrooms. Depending on cost and condition, that mix might lean a little more toward one variety than another. For me there are only two constants: chanterelles must be in the soup, and only fresh, never dried, mushrooms will do.

Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup
2 Tablespoons butter
4 cups chopped or sliced mushrooms: your choice of available wild mushrooms, plus crimini or white button mushrooms to taste
2 medium sized leeks, chopped (use just the white parts and a little of the pale green)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 Tablespoons of all purpose flour
2 cups low fat milk
2-3 cups chicken broth
3 Tablespoons dry sherry
1/4 Teaspoon dried thyme leaves or 1/2 tsp. fresh
Dash of white pepper
Chopped fresh parsley for garnish (optional)

Melt the butter in a large saucepan or soup pot.
Add the mushrooms, leeks, and garlic. Saute over medium high heat for 3-4 minutes, until leeks and mushrooms have begun to soften.
Sprinkle the flour over the mix and stir quickly to coat.
Add the milk and broth, stirring continuous to prevent lumps.
Add remaining ingredients, stir to combine.
Bring the soup to a simmer. DO NOT let it come to a boil, because the milk will separate and ruin the creaminess of the soup.
Simmer about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Serve with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top, if desired.

Makes 4 servings.

This soup tastes decadently rich, but is probably less than 200 calories per serving (the original recipe, which called for margarine, not butter, was 123 cal/serving). The richness of this dish comes from the mushrooms.

Some of my friends love this dish so much, they call it THE Soup. To me it is one of the best flavors of fall and a simple celebration of the riches of our region.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

How I Became a Landlady

I never thought I would own rental property. I'd heard too many stories about careless renters and middle-of-the-night emergencies for that to seem like a good idea.
However, as I am about to tell you, I suddenly, and quite magically, became a landlady
in the summer of 2002, while on a mission to do something to improve my financial situation.
At the time, I was newly single, living on a combination of savings and income from my landscape design practice. I had money from a divorce settlement plus a modest nest egg invested in a 401K. I was working with a financial advisor who put my money into mutual funds and bond ladders. She assured me that I was doing all the right things. My money would grow and I would be prepared for retirement.
But as time went on, my brokerage statements told a different story. Each month, I watched my assets shrink at an alarming rate.  I asked my advisor if there weren't some other investment options. She encouraged me to stay the course. She showed me articles and charts showing that the stock market was, over decades, the best way to accumulate money. She showed me more charts showing how people who get out of the market and come back later make far less than people who buy and hold. Again, she told me that I was on the right path. 
I wasn't reassured by the charts and graphs. I was in my 50s. I could not afford to wait and see if the "buy and hold" strategy would work. Nor did I have disposable income available to feed the 401K kitty every month. I needed my money to work for me right then, not sometime down the road. In spite of what my advisor said, I was sure there had to be a better way.
There is a Buddhist saying: "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear."

In my case, the teacher came in the form of a book: Robert Kiyosaki's "Rich Dad, Poor Dad." Even though this book had been a best seller for a long time, it had been flying under my radar. But once my interest in finding better ways of investing picked up, I started to pay attention to whatever information crossed my path.

I was drawn to this book because of the title. My late father - a good, kind, hardworking man - had always struggled to make a living. I felt life hadn't been very fair to my dad. He deserved better. What was it that other men knew about work and money that he didn't? I wanted to find out.

As I started reading, I realized why "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" was so popular. It gave me hope and a completely new way to look at money. I could not put it down! The idea that instead of working for money, money should work for me made so much sense. This was exactly the information I had wanted, and never received, from the financial advisors I'd worked with over the years. (If you've never read this book, it is well worth your time and the few dollars Amazon will charge to bring it to your door. A lot has changed in the world since this book was written, but the basic principles of building cash flow streams and putting your money to work for you are just as applicable today.)

I finished reading the book just before falling asleep that night. I woke up excited about what I had just learned and eager to apply that knowledge. But first, I had business to attend to. I had a meeting scheduled with clients ready to discuss the next phase of their landscape design.
I will never forget driving to that appointment. It was a beautiful summer morning. I was high on the possibilities that were opening up for me. And as I drove across the I-90 floating bridge from Seattle to Bellevue, I repeated to myself over and over, "I don't know how I am going to do it, but I am going to have assets that produce income. I don't know how I am going to do it, but I am going to have assets that produce income." 
I arrived at my clients' home and we began our meeting. About halfway through, the phone rang and the husband excused himself to answer it. He came back a few minutes later, very excited. The call was from a real estate broker who was helping them (interestingly enough!) move their money from the stock market into a portfolio of investment properties. Their broker had years of investment experience and was teaching them how to choose and manage properties. He was calling to let them know that the offer they made on a property had just been accepted.

I could not believe the turn this conversation had taken! I had been obsessed with the idea of investment possibilities on the way to their house. I had no idea what those possibilities might look like until that phone call, but what my clients had to say about real estate investment sounded interesting and their excitement was contagious. I left the meeting with their broker's phone number.

I called the broker when I got home. I told him that I'd like to meet with him, but didn't want to waste his time since I wasn't a high income earner. I briefly outlined my situation and how much I might want to invest. He invited me to come in to talk. He said he wouldn't charge me for his time and that within an hour we would know whether real estate investment would be a realistic possibility for me or not.

A few days later, we met. At the end of our meeting he told me that I was in better shape than I thought.  Based on the money I had available to invest, he said I could qualify to buy either a triplex or four-plex, provided that I would live in one of the units. I told him that I didn't want to leave my neighborhood. He advised me not to get too attached to that idea because properties didn't come available in that area very often. As I left his office, he said, "Remember this is not an emotional decision. It's not like buying a personal residence. This is a business decision."

OK, I heard him, but I left his office SO excited! I could do this! I couldn't remember the last time I felt so enthusiastic. I drove home, buzzing with anticipation. I could not believe how quickly things seemed to be falling into place. I had finished reading "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" only 5 days earlier and already I was on my way to owning a major asset that would produce income! It was almost unbelievable.
But there was more to come! As I pulled into the parking area next to my apartment, I saw that while I was meeting with the broker, a sign had been posted at the triplex across the street from me. It said "For Sale by Owner."
I could hardly believe my eyes! I immediately called the real estate broker, who, upon hearing the excitement in my voice, again reminded me that buying investment property should not be an emotional decision. Nonetheless, the property happened to be priced right. I made an offer. It was accepted. Less than a month later, the deal closed. I was a landlady.

I have never, for a moment, regretted that decision.

[All of this happened before I'd heard of Jerry and Esther Hicks and before movies like "What the Bleep!?" and "The Secret" came out.]
My landlady story is proof to me that: Nothing is too good to be true. Nothing is too wonderful to happen. Nothing is too good to last.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Listening to the Train

A few weeks ago, I went down to Portland, Oregon, to visit friends. Portland is about 175 miles from Seattle and, by car, the trip takes roughly three hours, traffic permitting. Which is to say that it is better to plan on four hours each way. Traffic along Interstate 5 between the two cities has become steadily more congested and, over time, making the trip by car has lost its charm for me. These days, I take the train.
The trip on Amtrak takes 3-1/2 hours from Seattle to Portland, with 5 or 6 stops along the way. I can read a book, watch a movie, walk around, get lunch or take a nap. But on this particular day, I amused myself, as you will see, by taking pictures out the window of freight trains as they passed alongside us.
Freight trains move more freight across the US (42%) than any other form of transport. In terms of ton-miles, trucks come in a distant second (28%). Trains are everywhere, it seems, their tracks crisscrossing the nation, connecting cities and rumbling across the wide open spaces between rural communities.
But most of the time, I don't much notice trains. I hear them, of course, and see them in my peripheral vision as I am driving to and from downtown Seattle on Highway 99. But mostly, trains run in the background of my life. So on this particular day, I was was surprised to find that sitting in a window seat on a train, photographing other trains, was a thoroughly engaging and thoughtful way to pass the time.
Visually, trains have a lot to offer. Different sizes, colors. Forms that follow function, like the tanker below.
When I pay attention, trains bring back memories. As I looked out the window, "ridin' the train," the Grateful Dead's rendition of Casey Jones easily came to mind. As did Arlo Guthrie's voice, singing the chorus of "City of New Orleans."
Freight trains remind me of childhood. I grew up in San Francisco's East Bay Area in a town then called Irvington (which later became Fremont). Our house was in the middle of the block. At the end of the block was a pickle factory and, running perpendicular to our street, the railroad tracks. Even now, 50 years later, I have a clear memory of laying awake on hot summer nights, the windows open to catch any bit of breeze. The air was heavy with the sour smell from the pickle vats. (I wonder now what kind they were. Dill?) And the only sounds were the clatter of passing trains and the groan of train cars being rearranged.
In those days, homeless men, hobos we called them, would sneak onto empty train cars and ride the rails from one town to another. When they got off the train, they would go door to door, offering to do chores in exchange for something to eat. Since our house was just a half block from the tracks, we got to see these fellows on a fairly regular basis. Looking back, it is surprising to me that my mother, one of the least trusting people I've ever known, used to actually "hire" some of these guys. She'd occasionally give a man some outdoor job to do and then set about making sandwiches and coffee while he worked. She would never let me go outside while he was there. She would never let him come inside the house. After he finished his work, she would put his food outside and instruct him to knock on the door and hand her the empty dishes when he finished. 
But of all my memories involving trains, the most indelible is one from a time in my 20s when my sons were little boys. At that time, we were living in southern Illinois near St. Louis, and I had to cross at least one set of train tracks to get anyplace I needed to go. In those days I was usually in a hurry, trying to cram as much as possible into my day. Having to wait for a train (or anything) did not set well with me.

One particular day I was driving with my sons: Brett, who was around 4, and Mike, two years younger. I was running late for something or other and, of course, we got caught by a train. I sat there fuming and ranting about stupid trains, and and why is this thing so long, and why can't they run them at night so they don't screw up people's lives during the day, and... honestly, I don't know what all I was going on about. After a few minutes, I heard Brett's clear little voice.
"Mommy, why are you so mad?" he asked. "Mike and I like the train. We like the way it sounds. Roll down your window so we can listen to it."
I sat there embarrassed, realizing that the adult in the car was not the person behind the wheel. My son was right. What was the point in getting upset? Being upset wasn't going to make the train go faster or keep me from being late. I was going to have to wait, pure and simple. It was up to me to decide how I wanted to spend that time; and there was at least one other choice besides being angry and miserable.

So I rolled my window down. And the three of us sat there, in silence, listening to the train. And in spite of myself, I enjoyed it. 
My wise 4-year-old boy is now a 40-year-old man. But I remember his words from that day every time I am stopped by a train. And unless it is raining sideways, as it sometimes does in the Northwest, I push the little button inside my car that lowers the window, and I listen.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A Different Perspective

Welcome to my neighborhood, Alki Beach, located at the north end of West Seattle. It is a wonderful place to live, just minutes from downtown Seattle, yet offering the relaxed atmosphere of a beach community. Nearly every day, weather permitting, I walk along the beach and enjoy the ever changing views of sky, water, islands and mountains. Sunny, stormy, placid, moody, always dramatic - I never get tired of the remarkable scenery here.
This is the view from here: the bike path and walking trail in the foreground; the waters of Puget Sound just past the beach; beyond that you see Bainbridge Island; and above it all, the snow-capped Olympic Mountains. If you look closely, you can see a white Washington state ferry in the distance, making the crossing between Bainbridge and downtown Seattle.
I watch these ferries go by every day and pretty much take them for granted. I realized the other day that it had been years since I'd been on one. I decided it was high time to take a little day trip and get a different view of my neighborhood and city - a view from the water.

On Tuesday, I left my house around noon, headed for Coleman Dock in downtown Seattle, hoping to catch the 1:10 boat to Bainbridge. I was surprised and delighted to find that on a sunny, August day, during the height of tourist season, there were short lines at the terminal. I bought my ticket, took my place in the loading area and within a few minutes I was on board and underway.
This ferry, the Tacoma, is one of the largest in the Washington state ferry fleet. It can carry up to 2500 passengers and 200 vehicles. It dwarfs everything else on the water, except for the jumbo cruise ships that operate in summer, carrying passengers to Alaska. It takes about 30 minutes to make the crossing to Bainbridge, which leaves plenty of time to get out of the car and go upstairs to the observation decks for a look around.
There's no better way to view the waterfront than from, well, the waterfront. Here's part of that sweeping view, looking north. You can see the Space Needle in the distance.
Looking even further north, on a very clear day like this, you can see Mt. Baker. This mountain which is part of the Cascade range, is located near the Canadian border.

Arriving at Bainbridge Island, the ferry docks in the little town of Winslow. I got off and headed into the picturesque downtown area to look around and get some lunch.

[Afterward, I stopped at Eagle Harbor Books and bought a copy of their paperback, "From Bad to Verse: Celebrating Three Years of Bainbridge Island Limericks." This book is a compilation of limericks that have been winners in an annual contest sponsored by the bookstore. Being a lover of limericks myself, I had to have a copy. And after sharing the story of my 50th birthday limerick party with members of the bookstore staff, I was encouraged to enter next year's contest. Woohoo! What fun.]

From there, it was back to the car to go check out the views from the southern tip of the island. I have been to the north end many times, mostly to visit Bloedel Reserve, an extraordinary public garden. But this time, I wanted to see my neighborhood from the point of view of being across the water from my daily walks. I left Winslow, and having forgotten to bring a map, I figured I'd just turn left (south) and somehow find my way. And so I did, winding through miles of woods, acres of green, cool and soothing on a hot day. When I came, literally, to the end of the road, I found what I came for -- the view was stunning!
To the left, I could see the low outline of West Seattle. To the right, Blake Island. And straight ahead, in all her glory, magnificent Mt. Rainier. On a different day, I would expect to see West Seattle and Blake Island, but the mountain is elusive. We can go days, often weeks, without a view of it because of weather conditions. Although I've seen Rainier hundreds of times, it is surprisingly easy to forget how big, and how majestic, it is. So when, as we say around here, "the mountain is out," we locals can be just as awestruck as people seeing it for the first time. I stood for a while, taking it all in, feeling like one of the luckiest people on the planet: grateful for the day, for the view, for being in the Northwest and for having the opportunity to hop on a ferry and have this experience. At last, my eyes were full and it was time to head back to the ferry for the trip home.

I arrived at the terminal around 4:30 and again had just a short wait to board. As we are approaching autumn, the days are shorter and the light in late afternoon makes for good photography, so once we were underway, I went up top for more views and photo opportunities.
In a few minutes, we were alongside my Alki Beach neighborhood, the very top of Mt. Rainier visible above the bluff. Nearly every day, from somewhere along that stretch of beach, I look out and see a ferry. On this day, I'm riding a ferry, looking back the other way.
Moments later, we were back in downtown Seattle. Passengers disembarked and we all went our separate ways. As I drove along the beach on my way home, I looked back across the water at the island I'd just left. My splendid, unhurried little getaway had only taken a few hours. But it gave me a fresh perspective on the geography surrounding my neighborhood. As a bonus, I am sure I will never forget the view from the southern tip of Bainbridge Island.

Related post:

An R-Rated Botanical Limerick

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Quinoa Tabbouleh

I was never a fan of tabbouleh until about a dozen years ago when I discovered a grain-like plant food called quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah). Up until that time, I had only had this dish made with bulgur wheat which, to me, is unpleasantly coarse textured and hard to digest. As my friend Star says, remembering meals she ate back in her Outward Bound days, "Bulgur is vulgar." I agree.

Quinoa is very nutritious. It is high in protein (12 - 18%) and, unlike most plant foods, the protein is complete, meaning that it contains a full set of essential amino acids. This makes quinoa a good meat substitute. Proteins found in meat, fish and dairy products are complete, but to get complete protein in vegetarian diets, it is usually necessary to combine two or more plant foods to get the full range of amino acids. The classic combination of beans and rice serves this purpose.

Quinoa is also a good source of fiber, folate, magnesium and phosphorus. It is gluten-free and easy to digest.

Best of all, quinoa tastes good. It has a light, nutty flavor. I know that some people complain that it is bitter, but that doesn't have to be the case. Before cooking, simply measure out the amount of quinoa you are going to use, put it into a sieve and rinse thoroughly with cold, running water. This will remove the bitter coating that clings to the grains. Even though most of the quinoa you buy has been rinsed, I've found that it will still taste bitter unless I rinse it again. So don't skip this important step.

Quinoa used to be difficult to find in stores, but is becoming more available. I buy it in bulk at my local PCC store in Seattle. Most natural food stores carry it, as does Amazon.

Quinoa tabbouleh is one of my favorite dishes in summer. This time of year the herbs in my garden are at their best and I have lots of fresh cherry tomatoes. The combination of flavors is refreshing and even though it is a light dish, it contains enough protein to be very satisfying.

Quinoa Tabbouleh

2 cups quinoa, rinsed and drained
4 cups vegetable broth or bouillon
4 green onions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup finely chopped parsley
2-3 Tbs. chopped mint
2-3 Tbs. chopped cilantro
Juice of two to three ripe lemons
4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts or chopped walnuts
15-20 cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
Salt, if needed

Pre-heat a large stainless steel or non-stick saute or frying pan on medium heat. Add rinsed quinoa and let the heat from the pan dry it out, stirring often to keep from sticking.

When the quinoa is dry and starting to get toasty, add the vegetable broth. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat so the mixture simmers, uncovered. It will take about 20-25 minutes for the quinoa to cook and absorb the liquid. When it is done, you will see that the grains have expanded, forming tiny corkscrew shapes.

While the quinoa is cooking, slice the onions and tomatoes, and chop the herbs. Toast the nuts, using whatever method you prefer. I put them into a shallow pan and "bake" them in my oven set at about 325°. I stir occasionally, and let them toast slowly - I've burned far too many batches trying to use the broiler. Some people like to toast nuts in a skillet on the stovetop over medium heat, shaking often to keep them from sticking and/or burning.

When the quinoa is done, transfer to a large bowl and add the remaining ingredients, except for the tomatoes and nuts. (They get soggy during storage.) Refrigerate. When you are ready to eat, top each serving with nuts and tomatoes. Leftovers keep well in the refrigerator for a day or two at least - if they last that long. They never do at my house.