Monday, August 30, 2010

Five Underrated: Foods

I will start the series with something dear to my heart: food!  I taught myself how to cook when I was in college, and I basically made the standards: chicken, burgers, pasta and cupcakes (for breakfast?  Don’t judge!)!  After I graduated, working on Oakland near ethnic restaurants and shops encouraged in me a sense of adventure.  As I was living on my own and buying all my own groceries, I was more willing to expand my tastes.  Slowly, I evolved from a pizza-snacking, fry-popping twenty-something to a bean-sprout tasting, homemade dip-making, avocado-nibbling experimentalist.  The list that follows includes some of the most underappreciated foods I have encountered in the past five years…and how I have come to respect them!

1. Plain, Nonfat Yogurt

Having begun to watch both my salt and fat intake lately (and, to his dismay, my husband’s as well), I was blown away by how much of the “bad stuff” is in even reduced-fat and light products, like ranch dressing, cheese, and flavored yogurt cups.  Fortunately, plain, nonfat yogurts is an incredibly healthy ingredient – and it’s also a master of disguise!  I use it as a base for homemade dressing.  Portion out about a half-cup of yogurt, add a sprinkle of garlic powder, onion powder, parsley, dill and a splash of skim milk.  Stir well, and you have a tasty, light alternative to ranch dip!  Add hot sauce, chili powder and red pepper flakes for a sauce to drizzle over burritos or tacos.  For breakfast, I combine 2/3 of a cup of yogurt with a sprinkle of sweetener and either 1/4 cup of raisins or cranberries or 1/2 cup of chopped pineapple.  Plenty of protein, some fiber, calcium…a good way to start the day!

2. Tofu

Yup.  For real.  The facts are plain; tofu, made from soybean curd, is one of the leanest, cheapest forms of protein you can buy, and unlike nuts, meat and eggs, tofu is cholesterol and saturated fat-free.  Just make sure you’re purchasing the correct consistency for what you plan to do with it.  Firmer tofu is great for grilling and sautéing, while softer tofu works great when blended in desserts.  Soft tofu also works well when blended with ground beef or turkey in meatloaf, burgers, and lasagna.  Tofu does pick up the flavors of whatever it’s cooked with, so it’s virtually indistinguishable in dishes with meat.  I think the texture tends to turn people off as well, so if you can get away from imaging tofu as a slimy white brick and start imagining it as a great addition to a meatball sub, you’ll be well on your way to appreciating soybeans a little more.

3. Mushrooms

I despised mushrooms when I was a child.  I went so far as to pick tiny cubes of them out of any dish my mother made with cream of mushroom soup.  I’d devour the chicken or rice, but on my plate would remain a small pile of gray blocks that eventually ended up on the dog’s bowl.  For whatever reason, my opinion has changed as I have matured.  Now, I love sautéing them in a bit of olive oil and eating them as a dish on their own.  I also love threading them on skewers, brushing them with oil and sea salt, and throwing them on the grill.  I recently tried them in an omelet with mozzarella cheese and was pleasantly surprised that a meatless meal could be so tasty.  Like tofu, they function as a great filler in recipes requiring meat, but I rarely replace meat entirely.  After all, you can’t get the iron and vitamins you need from mushrooms and tofu alone!  The next big challenge is getting my husband to appreciate them as well! 

4. Spices

Being conscious of my sodium intake has actually encouraged me to be more creative and daring with spices.  Recent studies have shown some spices, like oregano, and cinnamon, to provide genuine, heart-healthy benefits like reducing cholesterol.  Ross loves Mexican food, so I find myself loading our meals with flavors like lime, cilantro, and cumin.  There’s so much intensity to these spices that we rarely need to add salt.  Italian meals benefit hugely from plenty of oregano, basil and garlic, of course, and my chili always contains two secret ingredients: curry for kick and cinnamon for sass!  Below is a chart for flavors that pair well.  Try them on meats, mixed with side dishes, or sprinkled on top of fresh or cooked vegetables.

Lime and cilantro
Black pepper, oregano and basil
Lemon and rosemary
Pepper, lemon and garlic
Chili and lime
Basil, thyme and garlic
Cumin, black pepper and red pepper
Dill, lemon and cilantro

5. Alternative Side Dishes

Thanks to more and more stores expanding their ethnic food sections, I have been finding myself picking  up packages with foreign writing all over them, taken them home and been pleased to find new favorite dishes.  Don’t get me wrong; sometimes I crave me some Velveeta Shells and Cheese Dinner, but I also love the mealy, earthy bite of barley and the almost creamy texture of couscous.  I add barely to my Italian wedding soup instead of the pasta.  It’s healthier, creates a heartier texture, and makes it unique.  Couscous tastes great on its own, but it’s also fantastic when mixed with sautéed zucchini, finely chopped onion and parmesan cheese.  Another trick I like is heating plain, unflavored croutons, with spices and low-sodium broth to create “homemade” stuffing.  Much faster than cooking it in the bird!    

Maybe these ideas don’t get your heart racing or your mouth watering, but maybe they’re helping open the door to trying new things.  It’s not always an overnight process, but in the end, it’s probably healthier, and more fun, than living on chicken nuggets, fries and ketchup (all due respect to Heinz, of course)!

Next up in the series: Stores!

Rubber Duckie, You're the One!

Baby animals are cute. Even the least dog-friendly person has a hard time resisting the innocent, brown-eyed stare from a fluffy-faced golden retriever pup, right? And, although I myself am allergic to cats, I can't help but cuddle and tease my friends' six-week-old kitty Leo. Can't say no to that bitty face!

Baby insects, however, are not cute. Baby spiders, baby flies, and - you guessed it - baby centipedes are not at all cute. They still have the same buzzing wings or creepy legs that I despise in the adult versions, so they don't win any points in my book.

Why have I returned to my centi-rant, you wonder? Well, about a month or so ago, my Dad's best friend Lee began (much-needed!) work on our bathroom. Ross had been toying with the idea for years, but when parts of the wall began to, quite literally, fall into the tub as I showered, it was time to move to action. We picked out a new tub and tile, and Lee and Ross discussed how feasible parts of the project would be. It could be done in a few weeks! At least, phase one could be. The remainder of the project - painting, new shelves and a new vanity - would have to wait until probably next year. "That's fine," I exclaimed. Until I realized that, during the renovation, I would have to shower downstairs.

For those of you who have visited the house, you know that there are a lot of cool things here. There is beautiful woodwork, a spacious dining room, several decent-sized bedrooms...and a freaky, bug-filled cellar. Maybe my animosity goes all the way back to my childhood, when the house in which I grew up also had a scary, downstairs shower. In the case of that house, it was right near the basement door. Bugs flew in all the time. Wasps had created an evil, haunting nest right outside, on the deck, and they flew in the the house as though it was their right. I took showers down there when I had to, but never at night, and never for more time than was absolutely necessary.

However, Ross and I, I have to admit, made pretty light work of the temporary shower. He has, naturally, a Pittsburgh Potty in the basement, concealed only by a cheap blue shower curtain. We simply added a few more curtains to turn that corner of the room into a mini-bathroom, complete with a few hooks for hanging soap and bath sponges - and the garden hose that was to be the shower head. At least it offered several delightful settings: 'trickle', 'trickle left', 'trickle right', 'leak awkwardly', 'douse', and 'assault'.

In all honestly, once I got back into the college-born habit of wearing my flip-flops into the shower, things weren't so bad. Well, maybe not in the shower itself. Unfortunately, Lee's hard work must have upset the centipede population that had gone into summer dormancy in the pipes. Since the weather had grown very hot, we hadn't seen them for some time. Other bugs, sure (spiders in particular love the office on the second floor), but centipedes only thrive in most, temperate conditions. We must have rattled them. Because they were back, in full force.

With their babies.

The first one I saw was in the kitchen, and I was startled, but more frustrated than anything else. I knew he was a herald, sent by the evil Centipede Queen to let me know that more were coming. Ross killed him with a shoe, hoping to send a message back to their Underground Kingdom.

The next one I saw was in the upstairs bathroom. Lee's fussing with the pipes had made the bug bold. But, as he was only a juvenile bug, I had to show him a lesson in pride. I removed my flip-flip and smeared him against the wall. I chose not to remove his remains. Again - I had to send a message. Also, it was gross.

The remaining bugs must have heard our message clearly, because, after that, they stayed down in the basement. As they grew more cautious, I grew more evil. Instead of being startled, afraid or angry when I saw one - even a little one - I paused, stayed perfectly still, and silently considered every possible way of destroying it. Should I use the traditional but effective Shoe-Smack? Guts on the floor? Perhaps a can of hairspray to crisp up the legs before Ross's grill lighter takes over? Char-i-pedes. Maybe drowning in the laundry tubs? My friend, you may have 30 legs but I doubt you can swim.

I pretty much stuck with the shoe, though.

After long, hard days of battle, I do admit it was pretty nice to be able crawl, war-weary, into the bathtub, complete with its Rubber Duckie curtain and bath mat, dump in half a bottle of bubble bath, and soak until even my toes pruned up.

It was my first bath since I married Ross, and it was darn well time for it.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Five Underrated: Introduction

The older I get, the more I begin to appreciate things that I never noticed as a child.  For example, the sense of peace and accomplishment that bursts out of my heart when the laundry is ironed, folded, and slid neatly into the drawers.  Or, the keen taste of triumph in patiently waiting the exact amount of time before an already inexpensive pair of shoes goes on clearance, and snapping it up like a fish-spearing osprey before the other predators attack.  Even the simple comfort of cuddling on the couch with my husband is something I try to savor when we get the time (which, despite our fairly simplistic lives, happens only rarely).

In light of this "new leaf", if you will, I am beginning a blog series entitled  "Five Underrated".  From movies to foods to music, I'm trying to give the underdogs a leg up.  Of course, this series will be pretty darn opinionated, because I'm using only my own experience to guide me, but maybe I'll be able to open your eyes to some things you never tried, heard, or even imagined (tofu kebabs, anyone?).

Sunday, August 15, 2010

In Memory of Tia

Tia liked pretzels, cookies, and colorful socks.  She liked to be the center of attention.  She liked to dance and she loved to laugh.  She loved my family with a fierce loyalty and she liked to make new friends.

Tia was a fiery and funny 27-year-old with severe mental retardation.  She died earlier this month.

My stepmum's mum, Charlene ("Grammy Char"), had a passion for taking care of foster children.  My stepmum, Deana, smiles as she tells stories of helping to raise dozens of kids not even related to her.  She mentions that she never had her own bedroom.  Not once in her life!   Not as a child, not in college, not after being married.  Of course, she adds, she never really minded.  That's Deana for you!  She must have gained a great deal of patience and integrity from helping her mother and sisters all those years.

And, speaking of patience, that is precisely what helping Tia required.  Char took Tia in when she was about 14.  Tia was quite a big girl - nearly 200 pounds - and, like a young Rottweiler or a German Shepherd, she had absolutely no idea how strong she was.  She was loyal, loving - and unpredictable.  Somewhere along the line, Tia learned that certain words made people pay attention to you when you said them.  These words are commonly called "expletives".  Since Tia liked attention, she became a frequent employer of these words - particularly at inappropriate times.  
Like, in a candlelit service right before the choir sang "Silent Night" on Christmas Eve.

It was hard for me to get to know Tia because I never spent a lot of time with her.  Charlene wasn't always able to bring her to family dinners or gatherings because sometimes she was just too agitated or confused.  When she did come, she often fussed until she was fed, and then she simply wanted more food and attention.  My sister Julia and my cousin Zane, in particular, had a way with her.  She positively adored them.  Zane liked to get her riled up, while Julia had a gift to help calm her down.  Either way, you could clearly see love shining out of Tia's often blank eyes when those two were around.  

It was easy to buy gifts for Tia.  She didn't care for clothes, having an almost endless standard of sweatpants and embroidered sweatshirts, but that girl loved fancy socks.  Striped socks, glittery socks, Disney Princess socks, G.I. Joe socks.  Didn't matter.  She loved socks, and that is what she got, birthday after birthday, Christmas after Christmas.  Best part was, she never sulked, "I got this last year!"  She simply held them up like a glorious trophy and made that delighted crowing cry that always made us laugh.

Tia stopped coming to family events altogether some time ago.  Char had begun to worry; several months prior to her death, Tia had begun to become unreasonable, almost violent, sometimes accidentally putting herself in danger.  It was a hard choice for her, but Char had Tia put under the care of a local mental institution.  

Five weeks later, she was dead.

The autopsy revealed that the cause of death was heart failure, brought about by pneumonia (her lungs were not getting enough oxygen to the rest of her body), and the pneumonia had been brought on by some type of serious injury to her chest.  

The hospital never informed Char that Tia was sick.  When Char and her daughter Nikki went to visit Tia, they were shocked to see multiple bruises on her face.  The staff told Char that Tia fell and hurt herself. 
Tia's death is currently still under investigation.  
I unfortunately heard of Tia's passing via a text message from my father.  I was sad, but I didn't realize until the funeral how truly loved that she was.  Former aides, teachers, and friends - both with and without mental challenges - came to pay their respects.  Members of my church who love our family came to support us during a difficult time.   The funeral home was far from empty.  During the short service, Zane - suddenly shedding the skin and smirk of a mischievous little boy - stood bravely and, between tears, announced how much Tia had meant to him.  After all, he spent a great many hours playing and visiting with her when he was young.  He'd practically grown up with her.

And now he had to say good-bye.

Before friends had shown up, Char spent several minutes carefully arranging a bow in Tia's tight curly hair, and slipping a bracelet onto her rigid hands.  It was strange to see Tia - and Char - so eerily quiet.  Then I realized in my head what my heart already knew.  Tia was now dancing with Jesus - whole, for the first time ever!  She was not struggling with the constraints of her clumsy physical body, nor were there strict limitations on her understanding and her mind.  She was free, completely clear-minded!  What joy she must have had when she looked into her Lord's eyes for the first time!  She may never have fully understood her need for a Savior, but she loved coming to church, singing for the Lord, and lunching with the beautiful elder ladies after their small group.  I believe she did accept Jesus into her heart.

As I reflected on Tia's life and legacy, I became strangely envious.  Unlike "normal" people, Tia never struggled through life with grudges or vengeance in her heart.  She was devoid of the capacity for worry.  Her joys were simple, and the things that upset her were forgotten in an instant.  She was, in many ways, and example to the Christian community on how to approach life.

And we think that, in being born with mental retardation, she was robbed of a "quality life"?

No, Tia may not have ever played with a PlayStation or an iPod.  She never picked out her own couture clothes or ate at trendy restaurants.  But Tia was happy.  She had friends who loved her, teachers who cared for her, and she was given every ounce of compassion that they had to share.  The simple, innocent delight in her laugh was enough to make you fall a little bit in love with her.

Good-bye for now, Tia.  Save a dance for me.