Spices & Dried Herbs: Must haves

I love spices and herbs. We have a whole cabinet of spices. And I use most of them. But there are a few I use most of the time.

Cinnamon

Great for baking. It goes well with pumpkin/squash/sweet potato, and also with apple. A key ingredient in cinnamon rolls and most coffee cake recipes. It also is used in many middle eastern and Indian dishes.

Curry powder

There are so many kinds, and so many different purposes. But for general use, my go to mix is the Penzey’s Sweet Curry Spice mix because it doesn’t have garlic (which can be an issue for those on the low FODMAP diet like me).

Cumin

An earthy, grounding spice. Usually paired with other spices in savory dishes from all over the world; but a must for Mexican.

Coriander

My favorite spice (but don’t tell the others!). I just love the smell. This is a must in Thai and Southeast Asian cooking and curry paste (though the coriander root is often used in pastes). Found as a whole seed or powder. Many recipes that call for the whole seed have you toast it in a dry skillet before grinding it. You’ll know it’s ready when you can smell it- usually 30-60 seconds.

This one is easy to grow yourself- just let cilantro go to seed! But you will need a good sized space for it, you won’t get much from a small window box.

Ginger (powdered)

Not as potent as fresh ginger, it can be used in both baking (cookies, muffins, cakes, etc) and in savory dishes (anywhere from Indian to French).

Nutmeg

Goes really well with cinnamon.

Chili

I don’t use “chili powder”, which is a mix of chili, garlic, and any number of other spices. Instead I use the single-chili kind. Like this brand which has lots of single-chili powder choices ranging from smokey flavor to lots of heat. A must for Mexican, but is also good paired with chocolate (seriously!).

Cayenne pepper

Its bright red color should be a warning- it’s all heat, little flavor. Use sparingly, and only when you want some heat.

Turmeric

It’s unmistakable fiery orange color is imparted into any dish it’s in. It’s a little bitter, but becomes earthy when cooked along with other spices. It brings a grounding to dishes. Used profusely in Indian cooking.

Thyme

Useful in French cooking, and great in all kinds of soups.

An easy one to grow and store yourself. Cut off longish stems with leaves and either hang to dry or lay on a tray to dry. Once dry, pull the leaves off and store in an airtight container.

Oregano

A must for Mexican cooking.

This is another easy one to grow and store yourself. Cut off longish stems with leaves and either hang to dry or lay on a tray to dry. Once dry, pull the leaves off and store in an airtight container.

What are your favorite go-to herbs and spices?

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Mindfulness: How to start

I may not be a mindfulness expert, but I do know this much: mindfulness is awareness. An awareness of thoughts, emotions, sensations, (or almost anything in the present moment) without judgment. It is not an action, deciding on a course of action, nor thinking about ways to correct the behavior, emotion, or thought. It is literally just to notice. In some way it’s like a narrator of your thoughts (thoughts on thoughts seems so “Inception” (the 2010 movie)).

This is what it looks like: Most of the time there are thoughts running through your head, forced or without direction, and mindfulness is just being aware of those thoughts. Like “huh, I’m thinking about this topic.” And that’s it. No judgment (“I should be thinking about something else”), nor corrective behavior (changing what you are thinking about).

So here’s how to start: Be aware of your thoughts without judgment. Don’t go farther, don’t analyze, or force your thoughts or change course, just be aware. That’s it. It sounds stupid, easy, and pointless. But it will also be difficult. For me there were two big hurdles, which I’m sure are quite common ones. First is remembering to be aware, and second is leaving judgments aside.

Trying to be more aware of your thoughts, without a reminder or cue to do so, is not easy. Keep trying. You can start small by creating your own cues like eating or showering- allow your taste buds or the sound of running water to be your reminder to observe your thoughts. Think of this like any other good habit you have added to your life (making better food choices, getting more exercise, etc) and reuse tricks that worked for you.

Putting aside your judgments can be tricky. For me it was like switching to a different part of my brain. Allowing my “analytical” side of my brain to make the observations, and leaving the part I call “bad parent” (who criticizes or comments on everything you do) out of the conversation all together. “Bad parent” will badly want in on the conversation, but don’t engage in a battle, just brush the criticism aside with out taking it in, or give it one simple “that’s not true or helpful” and put “bad parent” in time out. Do not engage in a conversation or argument. It will take a lot of practice, and a lot of failing.

The trick is getting back up after you fall. It’s as simple, and difficult as that. You will try mindfulness and fail. Guaranteed. That’s part of the lesson: learning to get back up again after you fail, after you want to give up, after you throw in the towel. Learning that you can get back in the ring, that you have what it takes to try again is as meaningful as any of the other lessons learned in taking up mindfulness.

What do you hope to gain from learning to be mindful?

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Spring seeds

Crocuses are just starting to appear, and all but the biggest snow piles have melted completely, leaving only a few, tiny, dirty piles of snow in the back of big parking lots. Can spring finally be here? I hate to jinx it by saying so. But looking out my window, in perfect synchronicity, my neighbor is erecting another raised bed in her back garden. So I must not be the only one declaring it so.

In honor of Spring’s (late) arrival, I started some seeds. Without a greenhouse or heating pad, I have waited (longer than I thought possible) to start seeds. Wary of the temperature, I have started with veggies and herbs that don’t mind a little coolness. My basement set up, while warmer than outside, still isn’t warm enough for those seeds that like it really warm.

I started cilantro, kale, and three kinds of lettuces. This year I opted for a greener planting method- using toilet paper (loo roll) tubes as containers. It’s free, easy, green because I’m reusing and repurposing, and less plastic means less worry.

I am also hoping it will reduce work in the long run. When it comes time to plant them outside, just pop them into place without even removing the cardboard tubes. I’m hoping they will rot in place without falling apart on me before I plant them out (fingers crossed).

If you like to start from seed too, what are your favorite methods? Have you tried the toilet roll tube method?

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Finding connection: Nature-Deficit

Emotionally, we need to have a connection: to other people, a place in society, a quiet place in nature to listen to the birds, or even time with our own breath. We all have a type of connection that speaks to us, that we desire or even crave. Other types of connection we can shun, ignore, or mean to cultivate but never seem to have the time.

I have been thinking recently, that we should spend more time seeking out all kinds of connection, including more of what we know we love and new kinds of connections.

It turns out that not taking time to connect with nature even has a name: nature-deficit disorder. Did you know that we, Americans, spend 80% to 99% of our time indoors? (I read that in this fun piece where I first heard of nature-deficit disorder)

Honestly, that feels a bit shameful. To be fair, it’s hard this time of year in the north- with snow covering almost every inch of earth- to find time to connect to the outdoors. Which is why it is important to make it a conscious priority whenever a chance comes a long. This weekend I am traveling to visit my grandmother in Florida. It may not seem like much of a burden to promise to spend as much time on the beach with my feet in the sand enjoying the sound of the waves, because it isn’t. Nature is a wonderful place to spend some down time. If you can learn to cultivate a love for the nature around where you live, you’ll be able to find a connection every time you step outside. We just need to make it a priority.

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In this moment: Self expression and brain fog

I have made it a goal to write a blog entry a week. Some weeks are easy, some it’s difficult to make my goal. Sometimes I can’t focus due to brain fog, others I can’t think of what to write. This week its more of a focus problem- I can think of lots of ideas, but don’t have the mental stamina to see an idea through, nor the big-picture clarity to choose just one.

In the end I chose write about that very predicament. In a way, writing about “this moment” will highlight ways in which CFS affects my daily life.

Many around me think I express myself, thoughts, ideas well- either in person on in writing. My boss goes as far as to say I’m a good writer. My high school english teachers would laugh, but honestly, these days I am pretty good at expressing myself- only because at times it is so difficult. It takes so much more effort to craft just the right way to express myself. I also know what its like to be confused by an ill-crafted statement. Having brain fog means you get both sides- being confused by what you are taking in, and unable to fully express what you want to want to in a cohesive manner. Leaving me with a greater understanding of how to write or craft an idea in a less confusing way. And in the days and moments of clarity, I use these powers to the fullest- knowing there are times when I cannot express myself, when words escape, when I cannot remember what I was saying (mid sentence), or days when even cohesive thoughts/self-talk are illusive.

The word ‘fatigue’ in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome elicits thoughts of physical fatigue. Rarely do people think about mental fatigue. I never knew what it was even like to be mentally fatigued until I had CFS. It’s nearly impossible to describe, and unbearably frustrating to live with. In a way you feel you are loosing yourself, your essence. But I cannot deny that while CFS brings new and exasperating challenges, it also has come with the chance to grow. Using the challenges as a jumping point for self-improvement; from becoming a better writer, to being more empathetic and understanding. Sometimes a loss can also be a win.

“A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.” -Eleanor Roosevelt

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Warming lamb with rice

This is one of those made-up-on-the-spot recipes I came up with last year, and was good enough to write down and repeat. Made with lamb and cinnamon, this dish is warming- particularly good for the cold days we’ve been having.

Did I mention it’s gluten-free, dairy-free, low FODMAP, and oh so easy?

Here are the ingredients:

1 lb ground lamb (minced lamb)

1 really big carrot, peeled and shredded

1 tsp powdered cinnamon

1 tsp ground cumin

1 cup of leftover rice *

*Using leftover rice (basmati preferably) is what makes this a relatively quick dish, but if you don’t have any, you’ll have to wait for the rice to cook. (And remember in the future to make extra rice- it’s great in things like this and fried rice)

In a deep fry pan, heat some oil/fat of your choosing. Fry up the lamb, stirring to brown and break up the pieces. Once browned, remove any extra meat juices carefully and discard (or use in something else).

Add a little more fat and then the carrot and cook for 5 minutes (until carrots are sauteed), stirring to keep from any one part from burning. Add the spices and stir in. Once spices are fragrant add the leftover rice, stirring to break up any clumps and to get an even mixture. Cook long enough to heat the rice through. Voila! Now serve with toasted pine nuts.

This dish would also be good with chopped up, cooked spinach, or even dried fruit like golden raisins (marinate them in some water or orange juice before adding them last minute to the pan for extra juiciness and flavor). And one last note- if you like full flavor- go ahead and up the spices to 2 tsp each- mmm mmm!

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Pancakes!

Holy swear-word batman! Gluten-free, vegan (dairy and egg free), oh and did I mention low FODMAP and corn, potato, soy, and bean/pea free too?

Happy pancake day to me! And to all of you ;)

ps. The first few were terrible, so I tweaked the batter and voila! I also added un-sweetened shredded (desiccated) coconut to the batter too- to give a nice sweetness as well as texture. These were good-without-anything-on-them pancakes; so no one has to choose sides (maple syrup like in the US or lemon and powdered sugar like in the UK). When I am sure I have perfected the recipe, I’ll post it. Until then, keep experimenting- you never know what you might come up with!

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Bruised ego; getting back up again

I had my ego bruised this weekend. One of my goals this year is to work on traveling more: a. to see friends who are scattered about the country and world; b. to feel more a part of this world, experience new things and see different sights (insights too). As a starting point a friend who lives an hour away seemed like an excellent start. I built myself up for the trip, partly with unrealistic expectations about how my health would hold up, only to have those expectations quashed. It was a pretty obvious outcome in hindsight, and bruised my ego. Spending most of my time lying down, too exhausted to move was not how I pictured the weekend (not many sights seen for one).
After 2 days my bruised ego (who I had been feeding to be fair) lashed out with depressive thoughts. “This was a waste of time”… “I should have known I couldn’t do this”… “I’ll never get better”… “everything is hopeless”… “I’m a failure.” As you probably know thoughts get out of hand quite quickly. Anger, resentment, sadness, lethargy, and emotional exhaustion also joined the pity party.

I’m sorting through the pieces today. While I don’t have total clarity just yet, I am re-learning a lot. First and foremost: I’m always surprised that this is a journey not a destination. Whenever things go wrong, I get surprised that I end up in the same emotional state or with the same feelings. I must think that once you get through them once they’ll never return. Wrong. But if you have been through it before, you can bolster yourself knowing you’ve gotten through it before and you will this time too. Sort of like “oh yeah, I’ve been here before, i think this is the way out.” Second: patience. Journey it may be, but it is not a short one. Even if you know the way. Have patience with yourself (easier said than done, but this is something that gets better with practice). In turn it will help you have patience with others. Third: I learned and re-learned more about myself. Sifting through what happened I see things more clearly- where I can improve next time, what to account for, how to be more patient and kind with myself, reminding myself this is an experiment in self-love (well, life is really if you make it so). I’m thinking of things I can do or say to improve the outcome the next time, giving myself credit for trying and re-writing the experience as a win rather than a failure (I did it, my expectations were not fully met, but I managed a long drive and visit and this is a fantastic starting point- physically accomplished and with polishing it can get better).

If you turn off ego’s negative thought patterns (in a similar way that meditation works- when a thought arises remind yourself that you don’t actually believe it and refocus) you have more room to think and plan for how to better handle a situation next time it arrises, as well as take some time and patience to check in with your heart. Ego, especially depressed thoughts, may feel like an emotion- but it’s not, it’s the pain-pleasure part of your BRAIN. Not your heart. That’s not how you really feel. So don’t forget to push ego aside and check in with how you really feel. I’m feeling vulnerable yet gently optimistic about the future. I am looking forward to trying again. Remember: it’s not how many times you fall, but how many times you get back up again.

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Risk your heart, learning to be more open

Today I’m reminding myself to be more open. To let come what may, to take emotional risks and trust that whatever comes, I can handle it.

Not just in relationships, but also in life, you must open yourself up. It is in being vulnerable that we find the best life has to offer: love, joy, happiness: things that make life worth living. By being open to failure, we in turn live more fully and deeply.

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Helpful books: “Beating Stress, Anxiety & Depression”

A recent conversation reminded me that I have read some really helpful books, and I have decided to start sharing some of the best here.

I decided to start with “Beating Stress, Anxiety & Depression” by J. Plant and J. Stephenson published in the UK in 2008 (I have a 2011 reprint).

This book breaks down depression, anxiety and stress in an unprecedentedly thorough way. Written by people who have been on the receiving end of care (on the NHS in the UK), they also add a personal touch with some stories of their own experiences. The book has three parts- the first about understanding the conditions includes more recent studies and information than what your doctor is likely working with. The second is a comprehensive list of treatment options including complimentary/alternative medicine options for healing. The third has more self-help recommendations.

Despite being written in the UK, there is enough cross over to how diagnosis and treatment works in the US to make it well worth the read. I read this a couple years ago, and looking through it again, I can’t recommend this book enough!

I should warn you this book may make you a little angry at the current medical system (from personal experience), but perhaps a small price to pay to be so well informed.

I hope it is helpful to you too!

Katie

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