Thursday, May 29, 2014

Never again! The Leaky Chicken Disaster and my meditation practice

Yesterday I needed just a few things from the grocery store.  I happened to be right next to a Trader Joe's, so instead of driving all the way to my normal Whole Foods, I decided to save time and shop at Trader Joe's, instead.

Sadly, no time was saved.  I came home from Trader Joe's with a bag of groceries completely coated in raw chicken juice- a nasty experience, indeed, for a vegetarian and germaphobe.  As I was mopping up the mess and throwing away groceries purchased not fifteen minutes past, I vowed never to shop at Trader Joe's again.

The moment I made the vow I was struck by a terrible feeling: how many times have I had a bad experience that made me exclude something permanently from my life?  "Never again."  It sounded so satisfying as I scrubbed bacteria-laden goo off the hummus, but it's a little sad, too.  Ok, I can probably still live a fulfilling life without my favorite Trader Joe's dark chocolate bar.  But how many more important doors have I shut in disgust throughout my life?  How many doors have I closed without even knowing it?

Once in awhile I accidentally come across an aversion rooted in a fear from the past, a door that closed so long ago I forgot there could even be an opening.  It takes time, luck, and a lot of hard work to find all the closed doors camouflaged in my habitual attitudes and routines.  And even if I do come across a lost door, there's still the tricky problem of opening it.

I'm only a newbie meditator, but so far the point of the practice, whether I'm learning it from a guided  Headspace meditation, or from a teacher on YogaGlo, seems to be becoming more aware of all my experiences, so that bad experiences don't sneak around behind my back and close doors.  I'm supposed to be noticing each and every little thing that happens while I meditate: thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, breaths- sometimes while paying this kind of close attention I'm shocked to find some part of my body that actually hurts- how had I not noticed that before?  At the end of each guided session, regardless of the tradition from which it came, the teacher gives a big lecture on how I'm supposed to use my new-found awareness to notice how I'm feeling throughout my day.  I'm supposed to notice how I react to big stuff, little stuff, good stuff, bad stuff, neutral stuff- the goal is awareness of all stuff all the time- so that there is no sneaky, accidental door-closing happening when I'm not looking.  Noticing is supposed to give me the chance to evaluate each experience and decide for myself whether a bad experience merits a "never again."  The more I pay attention, the more I get to decide which doors should be left open, which doors shut.

And some doors should be shut.  Stick your finger in fire- serious ouch- never again!  The "never again" reflex can be useful, but if it happens without our awareness it can lead to lots and lots of unnecessarily closed doors.  In the case of shopping at Trader Joe's, I'd be smarter not to buy chicken from them again unless they change their packaging or improve their customer service.  After all, the chicken at Whole Foods comes hermetically sealed, and cashiers go out of their way to wrap it in plastic and make sure it's in a separate bag from the rest of my groceries.

So don't buy chicken at Trader Joe's.  But why miss out on their extra dark chocolate bars and yummy trail mix?  It's fine to leave the door open to Trader Joe's, all I have to do is skip the chicken.

The Leaky Chicken Disaster, as it shall from now on be remembered, was, to be dramatic, a mini trauma.  At the very least it was quite an unpleasant experience.  Sure is easier dealing with mini traumas and bad experiences right when they happen.  Saves me from trying to figure out, ten years from now, why I keep making excuses to avoid Trader Joe's.  What little I understand about meditation so far, is that it can help me deal with bad experiences right away, before they have a chance to grow into lifelong patterns of avoidance.  I don't know if there's supposed to be more to the practice than that, but even with just that goal, it's already pretty useful.

Oh, and the reason this vegetarian is out shopping for chicken...

...happens to be someone's all-time favorite dinner.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

How many ounces of beans are in a 15 ounce can of beans?

Maybe it sounds like a funny question, but as I suspected, the answer is not 15.  The 15 ounces (425 grams) includes the weight of the liquid in which the beans were canned.

I often cook my own beans instead of buying canned, which can leave me at a little bit of a loss when I encounter a recipe that calls for a "can of beans."  Normally when this happens I just eyeball the amount- in a soup, stew, or curry the exact amount doesn't make a huge difference.  But this weekend I'm baking black bean cookies, and baking cookies requires a lot more precision than simmering a stew.

Since I had no idea exactly how many cooked beans are in a drained can of beans, I had to go out and buy a can for the cookie recipe instead of cooking my own.  Can in hand, it seemed like a good opportunity to figure out, once and for all ,how many cooked beans are in a can.

That fifteen ounce can of beans in your pantry actually contains about 9 ounces of cooked beans:

Or, if you're a metric freak like me, that's about 260 grams.

If you don't need to be super precise, and can afford to measure by volume, one drained can of black beans is almost exactly 1 1/2 cups of cooked beans.

Next time I have a big bowl of cooked black beans and need to measure a "can" for a soup or stew recipe, I'm going to grab a measuring cup and scoop out a cup and a half of beans.  

I haven't yet tested the weight and volume of any other type of beans.  I'd assume approximately the same measures for kidney beans, cannellini beans, and black-eyed peas, since they have a similar form factor and size.  I'll definitely repeat this experiment with garbanzo beans and perhaps lentils, since these have different form factor and size.  It's worth the effort, because I can say with some confidence that a "15 ounce can" of any bean or lentil is most definitely not equivalent to 15 ounces of cooked beans.

A can of beans is 1 1/2 cups, or 9 ounces, or 260 grams.  I'll sleep better tonight having cracked the mystery of the 15 ounce can.  As for everyone else, hope this was a little bit useful!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Zojirushi Bread Maker Strawberry Jam

I'd known for some time that my Zojirushi bread maker did a wonderful job spoiling me with fresh, home made, whole wheat loaves of bread, baked overnight and ready to enjoy in the morning.  But it wasn't until I sat down with the appliance manual that I realized I could also be making delicious jam.

And since I'd just come home from the farmer's market with beautiful strawberries...

I modified the strawberry jam recipe from the Zojirushi manual, which called for three cups of strawberries.  My interpretation is that the volume measure should be for the strawberries after they've been mashed, not before.  So I cut the strawberries into pieces and broke them down using a potato masher, continuing until my mash measured three cups.

The ingredients for jam are so simple- strawberries, lemon juice, sugar, and half a packet of fruit pectin, which I weigh precisely at 27 grams.  

I used to be hesitant about fruit pectin, confusing it with gelatin, but pectin comes entirely from plants (typically citrus if Wikipedia is accurate).  I use Sure-Jell pectin for "less or no sugar recipes."  It's easy to work with and always comes out great.

Add the strawberries, lemon juice, sugar, and fruit pectin to the bread maker, and the machine does the rest, gently stirring and heating so that I can get busy with other kitchen projects.  I pour from the pan directly into glass jars while still hot.  If you like, this is a good time to taste and add a little extra sugar if needed.  Sometimes I make a jar or two extra sweet for those in my life who have more of a sweet-tooth than me.

So simple, and at the end, yummy strawberry jam.  It's a great way to preserve an abundance of fruit.  The jam lasts up to 6 weeks in the refrigerator, and up to 1 year in the freezer- although home made jam has never gone uneaten at our house for so long.

My version of Zojirushi Strawberry Jam

3 cups mashed strawberries
1 T lemon juice
1/2 C turbinado sugar (Sugar in the Raw)
27 grams (1/2 packet) Sure-Jell fruit pectin made for low or no sugar recipes

Add ingredients to the bread pan in the order listed.  Set the bread machine to the jam cycle.  When the cycle is finished carefully remove the pan from the machine (it will be super hot!).  

Taste for sugar, if you want more, stir sugar in to taste while the jam is still hot.

Pour the hot jam into glass containers.  Allow to cool.  Refrigerate for up to 6 weeks or freeze for up to 1 year.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Recipe Roundup

Last week I experimented with three new recipes.  All three were good, and two were instant favorites.

First up, Smashed Chickpea & Avocado Sandwich from Two Peas and Their Pod.  This is the sandwich that was so yummy, I chose it over grilled cheese.  I love the play of salt and lime juice with the avocado and chickpeas.  Not only was this a great sandwich spread, it made an awesome dip.  A very rare recipes for which I didn't and wouldn't change a single thing.   

Favorite of family and friends last week were my Star Wars Day dueling lightsaber cupcakes.  Give them a try (light sabers optional).  I got the recipe for 100% Whole Grain Chocolate Cupcakes from Texanerin Baking.  I chose to top them with a Nutella-style hazelnut chocolate spread instead of the espresso frosting.  The combination of hazelnut chocolate spread with these cupcakes was just too yummy.  Erin gives a couple variations in this recipe, I used whole wheat pastry flour, turbinado sugar (Sugar in the Raw), and canola oil.

Our house is anything but gluten-free, but I'm always on the lookout for a tasty cookie with no refined white flour or sugar, and for deserts that combine some worthwhile nutrition with the treat.  These Almond Butter Chocolate Chip Oat Cookies from Kneadtocook have no refined flours and are full of protein.  I followed the recipe as written, using almond butter, and the cookies turned out well.  Next time I would add 1/4 teaspoon of salt.  To get the best cookie taste, a pinch of salt to contrast the sugar would have really added some extra kick to the flavor.  I have a feeling most almond butters contain a little salt, but my almond butter had none, so check your almond butter before deciding whether or not to add salt.  Aside from needing that kiss of salt, a decent, chewy, gluten-free cookie.  The batter is very sticky- make sure to use Silpat or parchment paper as indicated!

This week's new recipes on the horizon include an interesting spice blend to roast and grind.  It will then become part of an intriguing new spiced cashew snack.  Should be fun!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Google nutrition labels referee his and hers sandwich faceoff: avocado vs. low fat cheese

Today at lunch I made a choice to eat a very yummy chickpea and avocado sandwich.  My husband enjoyed a grilled cheese sandwich.  Whose sandwich was healthier?  I know avocados have fat- but is it mostly "good fat" like polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat, or is an avocado full of saturated fat just like the cheese?

Produce doesn't come with a handy nutrition label like, say, a package of cheese.  You might think it would take a lot of research to figure out exactly what you're getting into with an avocado- how much fat, unsaturated vs. saturated, how much protein per serving?  But getting a nutrition label for an avocado, or an apple, or any produce is super easy.

A quick google search: "avocado nutrition" yields this handy nutrition label, right on the search results page:

I've used this handy Google Nutrition Label before.  The nutrition label is interactive- I love that I can specify different amounts, such as 1 cup, sliced, 100 grams, etc. 

I'll spare you the math and get to the conclusion: ounce per ounce avocado had about 5 times had less saturated fat than our reduced fat cheddar cheese.  Avocado has a whole bunch of healthy monounsaturated fat (the cheese had none).  Avocado also had bonus fiber (the cheese had none).  But the cheese wins hands down on protein, containing about 14 times more protein than avocado!

However, my delicious sandwich was a combo of avocado and chick peas.  So I analyzed our sandwich fillings as I prepared them.  

Here's the head to head on his and hers sandwiches:  I got about a third less saturated fat that my hubby did.  And he got three times more protein than me, though he missed out on monounsaturated fat and fiber.  

So long as we don't exceed hubby's saturated fat allotment for the day, I feel good about giving him the protein boost with the grilled cheese sandwich.  I feel equally good about the healthy fats I got- so long as I make sure to keep the protein coming throughout the day.  Healthy means taking into account an individual's unique nutrition needs in the context of what's eaten throughout the rest of the day.  I think consumed wisely, both sandwiches could be part of a healthy, balanced diet.  And both sandwiches were delicious!

If you'd like the recipe for the Smashed Chickpea & Avocado Sandwich I enjoyed for lunch today, check out the recipe on  

Friday, May 2, 2014

My pet ladybug, and what makes us human

As a card-carrying member of the "eek, it's a bug" club, I can't believe I'm keeping a pet ladybug in my kitchen.  It's pretty cute, right?

It's been crawling around my windowsill for a couple of days.  I intended to take it outside when I got a chance, but then forgot.  Yesterday I found it wading in a splash of water at the bottom of my sink.  I scooped it with a paper towel and put it in the sun to dry.  Last night I pulled it out of the sink drain, afraid it would drown.  This morning I was taking photos of it!

Now, if I saw an ant crawling on my kitchen counter, I would not think it was cute.  I'd escort it out of the house immediately, scrub and vacuum the kitchen, and jump nervously all day at the tiniest speck I might imagine to be an insect in the house.  Let's not even talk about what I'd do if there was a cockroach in my kitchen- the national guard would probably get involved, let's leave it at that.

Why do I have such a different reaction to a ladybug than I would to another insect in my kitchen?  After all, an ant and a ladybug both have six legs, are teeny tiny, and crawl about in places I'd rather they didn't.

I can find a rational explanation for the difference.  Ants exhibit different behavior than ladybugs.  Ants have a hive mentality, and once they find a source of food in my kitchen they will come back in droves to invade.  So when I see an ant I'm immediately afraid it will bring the whole hive to my place for a pantry feast.  Ladybugs don't do that.  

While this is true, I don't think it fully explains the disgust with which I dash from the house to shake an ant from the dust pan, versus the way I tenderly dried my pet ladybug with a paper towel.  The thought of an ant crawling on my skin causes intense revulsion.  I picked up my ladybug with my bare hands.

My different reaction to the ant and ladybug comes from the fact that I find ladybugs cute, and I find ants disgusting.

I'm reading a fantastic book right now called Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene.  The chapter I happen to be reading is talking about emotion.  Greene makes a rough analogy linking emotion to "automatic" behavior, like the automatic settings on a digital camera.  He likens reason to the manual setting on a digital camera.

The idea is that as human beings we have two sets of tools to deal with any situation.  One tool is reason,  thinking logically through the pros and cons to determine an appropriate response.  My explanation about lady bugs being less of a problem in the kitchen than hive-mentality ants is an example of "manual" reasoning.

Sometimes an automatic reaction run by our emotions or "gut feelings" is the more efficient way to deal with a situation.  If a bee lands on my arm I'm going to feel afraid and flinch- I wouldn't even think about it.  Spoiled milk smells disgusting and I don't need any analysis to know not to drink it.  We need automatic responses that don't require too much discursive thinking so that we can put one foot in front of the other and get through our day.  And when we have all day to think, reasoning can take us only so far before we get down to what is good, and realizing that what is good differs from culture to culture and person to person.  It isn't possible to root out all emotion.

But what happens when our emotional responses lead us astray?  For one thing, emotional auto-responses work better at avoiding short-term threats than they do at planning long-term well-being. And emotions that might have protected us in a certain extinct context can cause us to make just plain bad decisions in our actual lives.  Misleading emotions can get codified into attitudes that form the moral fabric of an entire community and infect everyone with fear.  I only need recall a childhood memory, being pulled out of line by an elderly family member who was afraid of the African American family behind us, for a sobering example of how fear can cause harm instead of protecting us from it.

I think what makes us human isn't just our ability to reason, but our ability to negotiate between emotional auto-pilot and manual reasoning control.  How do we know when to go with our gut, or when to stop and think?  Which emotions are keeping us safe, and which are limiting us?  What about the emotions that are useful in some situations, and harmful in others?  And where did those emotions come from- our own experience, the influence of our community, our genetic inheritance?  Paying attention to what we do and why, trying to answer those questions, is the most difficult and important job we have as human beings.  The only way I can think of to get better at it, is to practice paying attention to my reactions and where they came from, day in and day out, from big, important decisions, down to the little ladybug on my counter.