Writing and reading

Reading is one of those fun activities that fuels writing. It’s easy to think that if it’s fun, it’s optional. It isn’t. Lately I’ve been reading some old favorites along with new releases and nonfiction. My bedside table is a jumble of Alison Kent’s latest, Loretta Chase backlist, a Patrick McManus mystery, and a book on traditional food preservation techniques put together by French farmers and gardeners.

When I get stuck writing, I tend to think that I should nail myself to the chair and work until I get some page count out. This disciplined approach has turned out to be counter-intuitive. It’s unproductive, because the problem isn’t discipline. What gets the fiction wheel spinning is moving away from the writing and returning to reading. Or doing something completely different, removed from words, that involves the senses.

Lawrence Block talks about burning the raft at both ends, or writing up all your material while failing to go create more experience to have something to write about. In other words, the more you write, the more you need to read, and make time to do other things.

Read anything that inspired or enthralled you lately?

An Introduction to Conscious Cooking

I’ve decided to add a regular food feature to the blog. Why? I’m married to an Italian and food is a passion in our house. Right now there are a lot of people cutting back on eating out, or needing to make the food budget stretch. There are also probably people who have this vague sense that food ought to taste better but they followed the recipe, dammit, or who saw a gourmet cooking show and realized they’d never have 3 hours to spend making dinner in their lives. Or maybe early exposure to Hansel and Gretel left a lingering impression that ovens are dangerous and to be avoided. Also, I can only get away with putting so many food scenes into my books before editors rebel and start cutting them out.

So welcome to Conscious Cooking, where I hope to change your relationship with food and your kitchen and dispel some myths about cooking such as “It’s too hard,” “It takes too much time,” “It will make me fat,” and “I can’t afford to cook like that.” I’m not going to talk so much about recipes (there are a million sites for that already) but about the principles of cooking and food philosophy.

You and food: you are what you eat. No, really, you are, and if you feel like crap, start taking note of what you’re eating. I know we all get enough media messages about being thin to have an eating disorder by the time we hit grade school, but food is not the enemy. Food is life. And life should not be dull, tasteless cardboard, watery mush, or limited to two flavors, overly sweet or overly salty.

Since food is life, it logically follows that the best food is the most alive. Organic, fresh, natural, whole. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that gardened, so I knew about fresh strawberries still warm from the sun exploding in my mouth with sweetness. I know how good garden-fresh peas taste and how vile canned peas are, and I know the difference between a vine-ripened tomato and a bland, tasteless watery supermarket imposter.

Maybe you don’t have time or space to garden (although anybody can grow a tomato plant in a container, and a few potted herbs on a windowsill) and you have heard rumors that vegetables can taste as good as Doritos and for the sake of your waistline you are willing to find out. Where do you get them? Find a local farmer’s market. Go to your local co-op. Visit the organic produce section of your grocery store. If you cannot get good fresh produce, frozen is always better than canned. Canned fruits and vegetables have enough crap that’s bad for you added to the liquid they’re in to ruin any food value that might remain after commercial growing and canning processes have done their best to stamp the life out of them. Seriously, read the labels. Why is high-fructose corn syrup in a can of tomatoes? Why do they have enough sodium to give an elephant a stroke?

Fruit and veggie preferred acquisition: fresh from garden, from farmer’s market, co-op, grocery produce section, or frozen. Skip the canned stuff unless you did it yourself or got it from somebody who did.

Meat and dairy: same advice applies. The Fred Meyer chain of grocery stores carries a line of natural meats (no growth hormones) for a very reasonable price. Co-ops are a great resource for organic meat, eggs, milk, cheese. Most grocery stores have a section for organic, and even some regular brands such as Tillamook come hormone-free. It pays to shop around and read labels carefully.

This is one point where you might really think “I can’t afford it” applies, but if you stop eating out or buying pre-packaged foods and start buying the raw ingredients to cook from scratch, you will find that your food budget goes a lot further. Yes, organic costs a little more. But not that much more, the taste is well worth it, so are the nutritional benefits, and you will save enough overall to come out ahead.

Good food takes good ingredients. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune; most of our weekly shopping trips come in under $100 for a family of four. Shop smart, buy in bulk whenever possible, take advantage of sales, and understand that the cold-pressed virgin olive oil (from the first pressing) might be a hit on your wallet in the short term but it will last a long time. Overall buying better food costs less.

“But all this good food will make me overeat and I’ll gain weight!” Not likely. If you satisfy your body’s nutritional needs, you are less likely to overeat. If you start eating really good meals that please your palate, you are more likely to eat slowly, savoring the experience, and find that you eat less than if you bolted everything down before your body had a chance to signal satiation. You’ll also improve your digestion. And if you make the switch to whole grains, more fruits, more vegetables, you will be adding more fiber to your diet. Fiber fills you up. You’ll probably find that you eat less, enjoy it more, and have a lot more energy.

“Okay, fine, maybe it doesn’t cost more and won’t make me fat, but cooking from scratch is too hard and takes too long.”

No, it isn’t, and it doesn’t. I make waffles and pancakes from scratch on a regular basis; it might take 2 minutes longer than if I used a boxed mix. Pancakes from a mix still require following directions, measuring, stirring. It takes only slightly more time to measure the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder individually into a bowl than measuring out dry mix. Labor and time saving is really a marketing ploy. Does it take any longer to brown ground turkey, boil noodles, and stir together a sauce than it takes to make Hamburger Helper? Not really. It might be the difference of five minutes prep time. I’ve made pizza from scratch, dough for the crust included, in less time than I’ve spent waiting for one to be delivered. Fast food isn’t always that fast. Packaged foods still require prep time and cooking time, and doing it from scratch doesn’t add a significant amount of labor or time to the process.

Also, taking the time to chop your own veggies and stir together your own sauces gives you a chance to be creative and individual. You can tailor any meal to your own preferences or needs. Food is life and this is YOUR life. Why should it come in a box and be indistinguishable from anybody else’s? Maybe you want some paprika in your life. Maybe you love mushrooms. Maybe anything with sour cream in it makes your eyes roll back in your head. So live a little in the kitchen. Your own life, designed by you.

“Maybe it won’t take much longer, but really, I’ve tried cooking and I’m not good at it.” Ah. Now we’re getting somewhere. Chances are, you’ve tried to follow a recipe with lame results that made you resent the time and effort you put into it. Chances are, you didn’t use the best ingredients, didn’t understand rules of substitution, didn’t know the principles of cooking that underlay the recipes.

Cooking is art and science. The artistry comes from knowing when to add a dash of nutmeg or cinnamon or when tarragon will add the perfect note. Understanding the science gives you a foundation for artistic flair. You have to be careful making substitutions that will alter consistency; it can ruin a dish. But in most cases, you can substitute ingredients with an equivalent or leave something out or add something extra and it’ll turn out fine.

Food is life, and everybody deserves a satisfying life within their means. Just as an exercise, try thinking about cooking as a celebration of life instead of menial labor or one more chore in a too-long list. At the very least, look at your next meal and ask yourself if it’s creating the life you want.

Flour power

I’ve been baking for, um, let’s say a long time and leave it at that, shall we? And in all this time, I have never found a particular brand of flour that I raved about. Until I tried out Wheat Montana Bronze Chief and vowed to never, ever buy inferior flour again. (Sorry, King Arthur whole wheat. You are servicable but you never sent me to carb heaven.)

Why I love this flour; first of all, it comes in big bags. I don’t know why most stores don’t carry whole wheat flour in anything bigger than a five pound bag, but if you bake for a family, you go through that fast and it’s inconvenient.  This comes in 10 and 50 lb bags along with the typical 5 lb size. 

Second, the texture. It’s fine and dense and you can see and feel the difference in the grinding process. Anything I bake with this flour is lighter than you would believe a whole wheat flour could produce. Fluffy waffles and muffins, perfect cookies, great pizza crust. This flour performs.

Third, the flavor is wonderful. Chemical free, GMO free, and you can taste the difference.

So if you’re looking for a whole-grain, organic flour you can rave about, give this a try. But be warned, it will ruin you for anything less, and you might swoon over your next loaf of bread. 

all or nothing and earth hour

Wanted to follow up on the previous post about goals and daily living with some thoughts on all or nothing thinking. This is also called black and white thinking, and it is The Enemy. See, all or nothing thinking says that if you can’t achieve every bit of your goal, you’ve done nothing. Not true. Some progress is much better than none.

I didn’t write as many pages as I wanted to this week, but I wrote. I didn’t work out as often as I wanted to, but I did work out. The house isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot more organized and I threw a bunch of junk away and will be making a donation drop-off. Progress.

And to tie this into earth hour (reminder: turn your lights off between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. tonight!) I think a lot of people give up on environmental efforts because it seems too big. All or nothing thinking says if you can’t solve the whole problem, why bother?

But there are lots of ways to make changes and make progress. Use environmentally friendly household products. (In Washington, this is now mandatory; prepare for your state to follow.) Recycle. (Again, mandatory in some areas, but you can choose to participate in voluntary programs. It only takes a little extra effort.) Compost if you can. Use energy efficient appliances, turn off and unplug electronics not in use, use a clothesline in nice weather if your neighborhood allows. Buy local and organic foods when you can. Bike, share a ride, use public transportation. Adopting even one environmentally friendly habit has impact. Add more as you can, and the effort adds up.

The daily writer

If you’ve never read Elizabeth Bear’s journal (see sidebar, and go visit her) you’re missing out on one of the best examples of the daily working writer I’ve seen. She writes at a steady pace, not in 50 page sprints followed by a crash. She does regular exercise and gets out of the house frequently. I find her a refreshing reminder that you can accomplish mammoth amounts of quality work and still have a life. You do not have to be chained to the keyboard morning, noon and night. In fact, the daily routine is probably the key to producing mammoth amounts of quality work.

I have been working at making my own life more daily, making sure that all the important things get time. This doesn’t always work out; this week there were too many things that came up and had to be taken care of, so I have to give myself a fail for the workout goal. (Goal is 2 weight workouts and 2 walks. I’ll have one of each in.)

Even when I miss weekly goals, I still find slow and steady and well-rounded is a better way to live. Is your daily routine working for you?