Measure of Success

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How do you define success? What measure do you use to define it? How do you make it in this new online world of social media competitiveness where the constant chatter makes it increasingly difficult to be 'seen'? What are you doing in order to stand out amongst the 'noise' of social media?

You might think that getting that book deal, that corner office, that CEO title, that Saveur "Best of..." award, or any other similar award is a measure of success. And it might be.

How you see yourself and which actions you take to stand out will be the driving forces behind your success.

There are various dictionary definitions of "success" which include:

1) the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one's goals.

2) favorable or desired outcome; also : the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence 

3) The gaining of fame or prosperity

Thankfully, there are many measures of success. One person's success might be the definition of another person's failure. Only you can determine what you deem successful.

For the 9 to 5 worker, it's about making it through the day so that you can get that steady paycheck. It's about coming home to recharge at night before the daily grind starts again the following morning. It's looking forward to the weekend when you're not having to sit through endless useless meetings or fighting for that next rung on the ladder that someone less qualified than you gets to climb onto due to favoritism. It's finding that creative outlet in the off hours that keeps your mind thinking.

For others, it's simpler. It's getting that meal on the table for your hungry children when all you desperately want is to go have that nap. You're tired, or sick, or both. For you, the measure of success is being able to provide that meal. You're not worried about being judged for opening that box of Annie's Organic Macaroni and Cheese for a quick meal for your kids while other moms are sitting there cutting out heart-shaped sandwiches and claiming their meals are better than yours because they're 100% homemade. Who cares?!

These days it seems that everyone wants to have her 15 minutes of fame. With social media that is both easy and difficult. Easy in the sense that the platform is available to a greater group of people. Difficult because you have to struggle in order to be heard amidst all of the noise and chatter online.

Did you win that highly coveted award? No? Well, that does not in any way make you a failure. Unless that is your measure of success. Awards are made up and subjective and these days based on being popular. So, your blog sucks...according to Saveur. Why do you care? At least you're doing something and not simply sitting on your ass thinking you're entitled to that title, award, office, or next rung on that ladder just because.

How do you succeed in this world? It depends on your definition of success and what you do in order to stand out amongst the crowd. Don't be afraid to be yourself. Don't try to be like everyone else. Believe in yourself and know that even if you've helped only one person by posting your thoughts on something you might deem unimportant, you've changed the course of thought or action for one person who will then turn around and do the same for others. A sincere thanks to you!


THE WEEKEND KITCHEN::Recovery Mode

"Have fun making cake!", Saffron wished me as she left with her father on a trip to Costco yesterday afternoon. She was disappointed when I said we were not having Sunday cake this weekend.

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As much as I hated to disappoint her and the others, the truth is that we're all still in recovery mode from the past week. A terrible stomach flu hit and it was not pretty.

"Do you have to puke?" and "Do you have to use the Klo?" (potty, in German) were two questions that my husband and I kept asking the children as soon as we heard the slightest of moans and coughs. No, it was not a pleasant week. The little ones have been home since Wednesday. Eating has not been a priority or desired by the children. They are all still home this Monday.

The only two things I managed to make this weekend are pizza (from the second ball of dough from Friday night's pizza baking) and tomato sauce for spaghetti. Mostly for me and my husband.

Sagey was feeling ok Saturday morning until he took a turn for the worse later that day.

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Cinnamon got hit the hardest. I wished there was a magic wand to make it all go away and make all three better.

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THE WEEKEND KITCHEN::Before I Forget

I meant to tell you about my weekend. Yes, I realize another one is right around the corner but this week has been a trying one and getting a moment to sit and write has been near impossible.

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Saturday, my husband took our oldest to a birthday party for one of her classmates. You know, the kind of party where not one dad is in sight. The kind where the 6 to 7-year old girls get dolled up - complete with nail polish and a pretty updo. My daughter is a lucky girl to have such a considerate father. Normally I'm against any kind of makeup or nail polish on children this age, but sometimes it's necessary in order for your daughter not to feel left out. Especially at a time when she's emerging from her shyness cocoon.

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The two younger ones stayed home with me. I wondered whether I should bake something. Exhaustion was setting in but I decided that scones were simple enough.

One thing I changed was the method of forming them. Instead on my usual way of flattening out the dough into a rectangle and cutting it into 16 pieces, I decided it was easier (less counter cleanup) to simply drop them onto the baking sheet. Which was exactly why they look more like cookies than the typical triangular scone. Vanilla chocolate chip scones this time.

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Sunday was beautiful, sunny, and warm. On our way to a birthday picnic, the car battery died. A nice family helped get the battery going long enough for us to drive to the nearby auto parts store for a new battery. The kindness of mankind still exists.

Since I knew we'd be spending most of the afternoon at the park, I baked the Sunday cake early that morning. It was a Chocolate Ricotta Cake made with natural cocoa powder that somehow ended up tasting spicy. There were no spices in it. Time to try out the Callebaut cocoa powder.

That's it in a nutshell. Better late than never.

What is a Food Blog?

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To this day, there is no exact definition of what a food blog is or is not. Ask anyone for a definition and each person will have her own view of how a food blog should be structured and what "recipe" you need to follow in order to be successful.

Differing personalities bring about a great diversity of food blogs. Finding the ones to follow that fit your unique tastes becomes a daily quest as we discover new sites that come into existence via the power of social media.

You will find blogs with heartwarming stories from childhood revisited in recipes recalled from the past. Others have a specific diet in mind. Then there are those with straightforward recipes - stripped down to the basics of ingredients and instructions with no stories attached. And while some might delight in those personal stories, a select few of us crave those sites which provide the scientific explanations of why and how something does or does not work. 

 My husband and I discussed this topic in depth last night after I asked for his feedback in regards to my latest post - my newest series A Food Story where I use the structure of a story with characters and plots along with photos to tell a short story about a recipe without actually writing the recipe in detail. "You need to pivot", he said. "If one thing is not working, do something different."

Specifically, he was telling me how I need to change things around in my posts and "list recipes first, tell stories later".

"Just give people what they want first", he said. "If they're interested, they'll read the words after the recipe."

"That's not how it works", I argued. "Food blogs are about stories", I kept telling him. "I'm saving the recipes for my book."

However, the "write it and they will come" mentality might not fit every case. In other words, not everyone will necessarily like your blog. Trying to "fit in" and writing about what you think will bring traffic to your site has a chance of coming out in your writing. People might sense that the "voice" is forced - that it is not uniquely yours.

I've been following the food community for about a year. In that time, I noticed a few things. The one aspect that I find most prevalent is that a food blog is not solely a source of recipes. It's about the stories, the photographs, the soul of a writer.

"If I wanted only the recipes, I'd go to a trusted site like Cook's Illustrated or one of my many cookbooks", I continued to argue.

When I visit a food blog, I take note of the sites listed on that blogger's blog roll if one is listed. Why, I ask myself, are these particular blogs highlighted? What makes them special? Is it all about the recipes? Or is there something more? In most of the cases, it's that "something more" that makes one blog favorable over another. Words spoken to which we can relate.

Developing recipes is an arduous process and not one to be taken lightly. Writing clear instructions is an art form in itself. My site is not a compilation of recipes curated from other sites. Rather the recipes I choose to share are my own and at this point it's simply a matter of experimentation. I share my views on food and life - something that connects each one of us. Some people might find this uninteresting, others might share a similar viewpoint to mine. Whatever the case, you have a great selection of food blogs from which to choose.

I refuse to accept the argument that simply listing most of my self-developed recipes will get people to my site. Perhaps it might get them to my site but will it be enough to keep them coming back? Although my story might resonate with only a handful of readers, I will continue to write and tell my unique story.

Not having a clear definition of what a food blog is or is not keeps things interesting and challenging. The possibilities are endless as are the stories. Thankfully, we all have a different story to tell with own unique voice which makes for a myriad of unique blogs to follow.

What are your thoughts on this? How is your blog different? Why do you follow the food blogs that you do? Is it solely for the recipes? Or is it that "something else" that the writer conveys through stories to which you can relate?

THE WEEKEND KITCHEN::Pause For Reflection

The oven was cold and bare this weekend. No Saturday morning scones. No Sunday cake. Although I had plans for making a chocolate ricotta cake, this was a rare weekend of the absence of baking. And so, not one photograph of food for this post or the daily photo project.

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Sometimes you find that you need to step back and take time to reflect. Time to unshackle yourself from the self-imposed schedules and routines. It might be a day or two. It might be weeks or months. Whatever the time frame, it's important to re-evaluate your journey. Perhaps a fork in the road stands before you.

I went on an introspective drive Saturday morning after a simple breakfast - alone with my thoughts while the kids stayed with their Papa. I first made sure I was there for Sagey, holding on to him while my husband took out the stitches from the incident a few weeks back.

Inspiration was all around - in music and colors. Decorations for summer were already on display at Pottery Barn. The stunning Ocean blue Cambria mug immediately caught my attention and I simply had to add that to my growing collection of mugs.

Although I did not spend time in the kitchen, we did have our Saturday night grill feast outdoors. Luckily, it was warm enough to sit outside and enjoy the crisp spring evening air as the filet, chicken, red peppers, and asparagus sizzled on the grill.

Sunday afternoon we attended the opening day of the Pippi Longstocking play at the Scottish Rite Theater in downtown Austin. The actors were superb. The play was amazing. It was intended for children but the message was for adults and children alike. "Don't change just to fit in." Be different. Be YOU!

Instead of rushing home after the play to try making something simply for the sake of sticking to some self-imposed schedule so that I can post it on my site, I decided that dining out was a much better idea. So, we dined out for the second time this year. Garlic and Parmesan fries were the perfect ending to this laid back weekend.

As for getting back to baking, photographing, and writing...I'll wait another day or two before returning to my kitchen and neglected oven. I need to make up for not making that chocolate cake my boy requested.

THE WEEKEND KITCHEN::Resupe's for Cake

No school on Friday meant we could stay home. It meant not having to get into the van and wait until the kids spent five minutes buckling themselves up in their car seats. It meant not having to fight the holiday Friday crowds at the grocery stores with three children. Instead, Friday was a "fun" day.

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The weather was warm and signs of spring were showing in the backyard. Although parts of the lawn are green, a greater portion has died off and will need to be replaced thanks to the drought that Texas has been experiencing during the past few years. Despite that, the children enjoyed playing restaurant in their little playhouse tucked in the shadows of the overgrown bushes. It's been quite some time since I've seen them play in that house so I was glad they were taking advantage of it.

Meanwhile, I was sitting inside at the kitchen table watching them play while writing recipes. My husband was away on a business trip. When your children choose to run and play outside instead of inside, you learn to cherish those peace filled moments. At one point, my older daughter decided she was finished playing outdoors and joined me at the table. She saw that I was writing. I told her I was working on my cookbook. So, she ran upstairs, grabbed a sheet of clean paper from the copy machine and an entire stack of the discarded printed papers lying on the side of the printer. After taping the "spine" of her book together, she announced that she is also writing a book called "resupe's cake" (that would mean recipes in her world).

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She sat on the chair next to me and wanted to write a recipe of her own. I first gave her a copy of one of my unfinished recipes that had been sitting in the Notes app on the iPad since last summer. The motivation for that was for her to practice her handwriting - which she did not inherit from me. She will never hear the words "Oh, it looks like you typed this!' or "Um, you need to fill out this form" (after I'd already filled it out).

After this exercise, she asked what are the basic ingredients that go into cakes. I told her flour, sugar, butter, and eggs were the building blocks of all of my cakes. "How do you spell pounds?", she then asked. "Grams", I replied. "We'll be using grams." But that's another story. She wrote her recipe, which included vanilla and lemin as the flavors then went to play some more.

Seeing how the day was coming to an end, I wanted to make a ricotta cake with the revisions I'd written in my journal. Adding a little more ricotta turned the previous recipe into more of a cheesecake. I loved the taste and the fact that I now had two recipes from one. I had intended on keeping this cake for the following day - my husband's birthday - but my oldest insisted on eating a piece that night. After the homemade pizza.

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Saturday was a special day - it was my husband's birthday. So we had cake for breakfast. We started our day earlier than usual since he had a haircut scheduled before noon. The children all wanted to go with him. I had almost the entire day to myself as they ended up going to the park afterwards and then on a few other errands. Apparently, they grew restless and bored while at Fry's.

I chose to use three of those hours cleaning up around the house before I went grocery shopping - alone. It might not sound like a big deal to go grocery shopping alone, but when you have three small children all fighting to sit in the cart (which means I have no place for groceries) going alone is a zen like moment - although it's still a chore.

This weekend's movie feature was a new 3D movie that the children and hubby bought while out running errands. I've never heard of it, but the animation was amazing in 3D. The story was pretty good too - Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole.

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Both girls decided to get up early on Sunday morning. Saffron took charge of organizing the "egg" hunt for her and her siblings - going so far as to draw up a map of where she intended on hiding them. They weren't real dyed eggs. Simply plastic eggs filled with quality European chocolate and the mini Haribo bears.

She did such a great job of it but later remarked that next year I can hide them. I guess it's not much fun when you already know the hiding places. It was nice of her to volunteer with this task as it gave me a chance to make a special Easter breakfast cake.

Almond meal, sliced almonds, Amaretto, and sour cherries. Granted, sour cherries are not a seasonal ingredient for spring but it's great to have an excuse to try something new.

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Clouds rolled in shortly after noon, followed by rain and thunder. It was perfect for kneading a batch of Neapolitan pizza dough. This version of the dough was made entirely with all-purpose flour as opposed to the Caputo flour I've been using. The resulting texture of the baked dough was not bad, just not as chewy as I'd prefer. My next version will be equal parts all-purpose flour and cake flour.

The toppings were simple, with a hint of spring. Pencil thin asparagus topped the pizza before it went into the oven. Fresh arugula graced the top of the baked pizza right before serving. Of course, only on half of the pizza, as the children have not yet developed a liking of the more complex flavors beyond Kalamata olives and Greek feta. 

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Not a bad way to spend a special 3-day weekend.

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A Hearty Breakfast::A Mosaic of Cuisines

Croatian eggs, Mexican guacamole, Greek olives, Italian tomatoes, and Turkish coffee.

The only scrambled eggs I ate as a child were the ones I knew as kajgana. Anything else was simply to eggy for me. Eggs whisked with salt, flour, sour cream, and buttermilk - the mixture then gently pushed around with a rubber spatula in a nonstick pan over low heat. This is a relatively quick process - one where you need to be at the stove the entire time, spatula in hand. A spoonful of sour cream completes the eggs. It's not as strange as it might sound.

Avocado smashed with diced red onions, cilantro, lemon juice (would have used lime if I had one), sea salt, Urfa and Aleppo red peppers.

Kalamata olives and Campari tomatoes - the tomatoes sprinkled with a pinch of Portuguese Flor de Sal.

Accompanying every morning meal, regardless of cuisine, is the special Croatian/Turkish coffee. Made in a briki with water and sugar brought to a boil, several heaping teaspoons of superfine imported Franck Croatian coffee powder are then added to the briki. Care must be taken not to walk away from the pot afterwards as the coffee foams. Not even for a second. Not even to reach over to the cupboard a few inches away to grab for the coffee mugs. Believe me, I speak from experience.  Although the coffee is typically served in demitasse cups due to its strength, I always fill up an American coffee mug to the top.

 

A Messy Rainbow Chard Potato Gratin

Tonight's dinner plan was that I'd make a potato gratin with other half of the asparagus bunch used in last night's dinner. I reconsidered and decided instead to use the farm fresh eggs and rainbow chard I bought at the farmer's market this past weekend.

I looked through my kitchen journal from last year - at a meal I made for a full moon dinner one night in April. Tonight's dinner was based on that recipe.

Two Yukon gold potatoes were sliced thinly using a mandolin slicer and placed in a gratin dish.

To that I added olive oil, two diced shallots, two diced cloves of garlic, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper. There was no obsessive and pretty layering. No sauteeing the shallots and garlic with the olive oil separately before adding it to the potatoes. It was messy, unstructured, and disorganized. Kind of like life at times.

Four leaves of the rainbow chard were sliced thinly and added on top of the potatoes.

In a pot, I mixed four eggs with 1/2 liter of whole milk and about 100 ml of heavy cream. The herbs I added include fresh chives and thyme.

After pouring this custard mixture over the potatoes and chard, I grated fresh Parmesan and lemon zest over the entire casserole.

This messy dinner fare was baked for about 50 minutes at 375F, covered halfway through baking. Despite the unconventional and haphazard method, the taste was exceptional.

So angry, I asked for my $2 back!

This morning was "Breakfast with Mom" day at my daughter's school. I admit that I held no high hopes of what constituted breakfast at an American public school. Nevertheless, I went.

The smells of the cafeteria brought back memories of my time served at the lunchroom of the elementary school in Oregon, a small town outside of Eugene. Occasionally I'd have to eat food from the cafeteria. I'm not sure why I didn't always have lunches from home, but the experience was not pleasant and I'm sure it had something to do with my dislike of veggies later in life - particularly spinach. I disliked drinking milk - still do - and was forced to show the lunch ladies, by shaking the little carton while standing in line to dump the lunch trays, that I had indeed drank all of the milk. Sometimes I'd stuff the spinach inside of the little milk carton.

Saffron was excited to have me drive her to school in the little car - the only time this year she's not had to take the bus in the morning. I asked her what the agenda was for this breakfast. "I don't know. I didn't make it up", she replied. I thought that maybe the school wanted to do something nice for the moms. Then I saw we had to pay for breakfast: $2 for an adult breakfast, $1.35 for a child's breakfast. Hesitantly, I paid. I agree, it's not a lot of money, but somehow I knew it wasn't going to be the "special" breakfast I thought it would. As we walked into the school cafeteria, I was instantly overwhelmed by those exact smells I remember from childhood.

Looking around at all of the moms with their children, I glanced at the contents of their plates. My jaw dropped as I walked forward in the line as if paralyzed. 1% milk, chocolate milk, and apple juice were the first to greet us. Then I spied corn dogs, pancakes, toast, cinnamon rolls at least 5" in diameter, Cocoa Puffs, "All Natural" pancake "syrup", and fruit on top of the counter that looked more of a decoration. Saffron took some milk and two pancakes. We grabbed the syrup but I explained to her that it was not real - not like the pure Vermont syrup we buy that comes from actual trees. I'm sure most kids would be surprised to find out that real syrup comes from the sap of trees. The only reason I took the plastic tube of syrup was to analyze the ingredients: "Corn syrup,...Artificial Flavor, Sodium Benzoate,…Cellulose Gum”. That is what they feed the kids?!

As we walked through to the end of the line, I asked Saffi to grab an orange. I had no intention of eating anything that was being served, so when we walked to the cashier to hand over our tickets I asked if she could refund me the $2 for my meal. The cashier explained to me that she'd put the money on my daughter's account. Account? "My daughter does not eat at school", I replied sternly, meaning that my daughter brings her own food. Sensing that I was on the verge of creating a scene, she swiftly opened the cash register and handed me the $2.

I know. It's only $2 you might be thinking. That's not the point. If the school's intention was to raise money, say so. Ask for donations, just don't ask me to jeopardize the health of my daughter. I wish I would have fed my daughter her usual weekday breakfast of toasted Seeduction bread with butter and honey - real honey.

This entire experience reminds me of the few episodes I saw of Jamie Oliver's attempts to change the minds and views of a school board in Los Angeles in regards to the food being served in those schools. In the end, it comes down to educating your children about their food choices and what it means to choose wisely. It's about teaching them to cook from an early age and making sure they know the difference between natural food and processed foods. Take them to a local farm and let them see where foods originate.

P.S. to all of the food bloggers out there: Keep doing what you're doing and don't stop. Infiltrate Twitter streams with your ideas for healthy breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. Oh, and the occasional desserts are always welcome!

Appetizer::Welcoming spring with ricotta and asparagus

Vernal Equinox signals the beginning of spring. A time when flowers start blooming and trees are blossoming. A time in the kitchen when we leave behind the hearty soups and stews of winter and welcome the seasonal fruits and vegetables that spring has to offer.

As I was waiting for the spaghetti to cook for dinner this evening, I wanted to make a quick bite of ingredients that symbolized spring. I grabbed a few of the spears of asparagus I'd roasted - the ones that were sitting on the stove waiting to be united with the pasta - and chopped off the top tree-like portions . I mixed ricotta with lemon zest and toasted almond slices while waiting for the beep of the toaster. A clove of garlic was peeled and halved to be rubbed onto the freshly toasted bread.

A rustic French baguette would have been perfect for this simple appetizer. Since we had none on hand, the French seeded Boule was the next best option - poppy seeds providing a crunch that nicely complimented the toasted almond slices.

Asparagus spears are so incredibly tasty that I can hardly believe I've avoided them for most of my life. They're nature's candy - of the savory kind. I roasted the spears at 425F with olive oil, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper for a total of 9 minutes since the spears were pencil thin.

The ingredients are few and the instructions simple: toast bread, rub garlic on one side, spread the ricotta mixture, place toasted almonds and roasted asparagus spears on top.

Simple, tasty, and quick enough to make while waiting for the first spring dinner to come together.

 

A Simple Breakfast::Creamy Polenta with Maple Syrup

"Why is it called creamy polenta, mama?", asks my 5-year old daughter. "Is it because it has cream in it?"

Cinnamon was most likely wondering why this morning's polenta was more creamy than usual. Most of the time I add more cornmeal to the milk and a splash of cream and/or butter at the end of the cooking time. This morning it was simply whole milk, a pinch of sea salt, and coarsely ground yellow cornmeal. A simple and delicious alternative for a nutritious breakfast that my kids love and often request. Of course they don't let me forget the pure maple syrup that always accompanies this cereal.

The recipe, although not as simple as toast with almond butter and honey, is not as complicated and time consuming as making pancakes - which is almost always a weekend ordeal, unless breakfast becomes dinner. It's also not one requiring you to stand by the stove, whisk in hand, during every second of the 25-30 minute cooking time. An occasional stir with the whisk is all that's required. In fact, you can prepare the kids' school lunches in the meantime and still have time to set the table and make coffee.

 

Creamy polenta with maple syrup

makes enough to feed 4 for breakfast although my children always seem to want more – increase as desired, using 40 grams of cornmeal per 250 ml of milk

 

INGREDIENTS

1 liter whole milk

¼ teaspoon sea salt

160 grams coarse yellow cornmeal

 

INSTRUCTIONS

In a 3 or 4-quart pot set over medium heat, warm the milk with salt until almost boiling. Keep an eye on this step so you avoid the milk spilling over.

As the milk starts to bubble, slowly whisk in the cornmeal. Reduce heat to a medium low and, leaving the pot uncovered, whisk every 5 minutes or so for a total of 25-30 minutes. Although constant whisking is not necessary, do not wander too far from the stove. I’m usually making Turkish coffee at this time which requires my being by the stove.

Spoon polenta into bowls and top with pure maple syrup.