Let It Snow!

Most of you are probably familiar with the art of origami, which is Japanese for paper folding (kami or gami means paper; oru is the verb “to fold”). You may not have heard of kirigami, which is the art of paper cutting (kiru is the verb “to cut”).

When I taught preschool years ago, and when my own kids were little, I used to love to make paper snowflakes with them, like these:

paper snowflakes

My kids always seemed to enjoy doing it, and we liked taping them up on the front window for decoration. I got pretty good at remembering how to fold the paper correctly so it would usually “work,” no matter how you cut them. Then we would experiment with different kinds of cuts – rounded or straight-edged, bold or intricate. But I never made anything too elaborate.

My fascination with collage (see my blogs starting with A Bird by Any Other Name and ending with Juxtaposition of Elements) has made me yearn to improve my cutting skills. I tend to be pretty sloppy about cutting when I’m making collages, covering a multitude of sins by gluing on more things, and/or slathering on a bunch of paint. I’d like to learn more patience and precision. With that in mind, as well as the advent of the holiday season, I’ve decided to take on kirigami.

I ordered this book on BarnesandNoble.com

Designed with animal patterns as the basis for a multitude of snowflakes, the book allows you to print out from the website or photocopy the designs, then follow the instructions for folding and cutting. Fortunately for me, it begins with the simplest designs, and gradually gets more intricate. While I’m not entirely sure how many I’ll get through, I started out at the beginning to see how difficult it would be.

There is still some folding involved in a lot of kirigami.

The folding instructions in the book took me a while to understand, but once I got it, every other one I did was easy.

The easiest was the starfish pattern, followed by the duck.

You fold on the dotted lines following the book’s instructions, then cut on the bold lines. The cutting was a different story; at first I thought I’d completely done it wrong, but it came out just like the picture.

paper snowflakes

Left to right: starfish, duck, penguin, platypus

Once I’d completed a couple more, I realized that my biggest problem was that I don’t have a really good, sharp pair of smallish scissors. The edges I was cutting weren’t always clean. And sharper scissors will be essential to creating the more intricate designs in the book.

The book also recommends using a paper hole punch when making some of the designs. I have one, but it seems to punch a bigger hole than might be required. So I plan to make a trip to my local Michael’s craft store to look for better scissors and maybe a smaller hole punch also. Hopefully that will make creating the coming designs easier. I have ordered another couple of books and kits online in case I get tired of making snowflakes! Some of the kirigami projects I’ll be attempting are 3-dimensional designs in paper, which I look forward to trying.

I do enjoy learning this activity, and so far it’s not too hard, though when I look ahead in the book I wonder how far I will get. Better tools will definitely help. Find some fun crafts to do this season!


Lentil ham soup in white bowl

The Healing Properties of Soup

How many times have you had a cold, and someone offered to make you chicken soup? While it may not be approved as a cure by the FDA, I’m pretty sure that soup has healing properties. This week I’m battling a cold, and while I didn’t make chicken soup, I did make two different and very satisfying soups that I’d like to share.

One of my goals this month was to make a really good French onion soup. I’ve had some at restaurants that was really good, and others that were very disappointing. Sometimes it’s too salty or greasy; other times there’s too much or too little cheese.

So I went into this project thinking that French onion was really difficult to make. I found a recipe for Rich and Simple French Onion Soup on AllRecipes.com that I wanted to try, as it seemed fairly straightforward. Some recipes online recommended red onions, but this recipe didn’t specify which kind to use. I like the sweetness of yellow onions the best, so that’s what I chose.

Sliced yellow onions

For a change, I actually had all of the correct ingredients, though I don’t usually have sherry around (which is optional). My boyfriend picked up a small bottle of dry Marsala instead, which was recommended by a sales associate at the liquor store. Once the onions had sufficiently cooked down, I thought the taste of the beef broth seasoned with thyme, plus a little salt and pepper, was absolutely delicious.

We have perfect bowls for French onion soup, and they were just the right size for two side-by-side slices of French bread, and absolutely the right size for the round sliced provolone from the grocery store.

French onion soup in white bowls

First the bread goes atop the broth, then slices of provolone and Swiss, then grated fresh Parmesan

I’m a little scared of my broiler and don’t use it often. After moving the top rack close to the broiler, I set the broiler to low. When I put the cookie tray with the bowls of soup in the oven, it only took about three minutes before it was done (I’m not a fan of overly browned cheese).

Finished meal with french onion soup, salad, wine

I served it with a little fresh tomato and mushroom salad and red wine

The results were very satisfying. Both the taste and the aroma were wonderful. The onions had cooked long enough to be very tender and sweet, and the combination of the three cheeses (provolone, Swiss, freshly grated Parmesan) was soooo good, and just stretchy enough to be enjoyable. The cheese provided the perfect counterpoint to the rich – but not salty! – broth. I just couldn’t get enough of it. Fortunately, we got another three servings out of this batch. The hot, steaming onion broth was so good to smell, and it really eased my sore throat and congestion!

The second soup I tried was one that I could make easily in my crock pot. I had red lentils left over from last week’s Indian Mulligatawny Soup, so I found a recipe using lentils and ham that would cook on low for several hours, also on AllRecipes.com. In fact, the recipe said 11 hours on low, which seemed like an awkwardly long time (I’d have to start cooking pretty early in the morning if I wanted to dine by around 6:00). Many reviewers commented that the cooking time was too long, so I took heart in that, and also prepared to switch it to high if the lentils weren’t cooking enough by the late afternoon.

One other reviewer had commented that her husband didn’t think it had enough flavor, so I kept that in mind as I prepared the first ingredients — carrots, onions, celery, lentils and diced cooked ham. I used a little extra onion and one more clove of garlic, and I also added a bit more basil and oregano than the recipe called for, plus two bay leaves instead of one.

Onions, carrots, celery in a crock pot

I did cook the soup on low in my crock pot for the first five hours, but as the lentils still seemed pretty hard and I didn’t want to wait till much past 7:00 to eat, I turned it to high for the last 2-2 1/2 hours. There was still some texture to some of the vegetables and lentils, but I prefer that to a really mushy bite. The overall flavor was good, though we did add a bit more salt and pepper.

Crock pot

The finished product definitely had the nourishing, hearty quality that you want in a soup, with plenty of good broth. I wouldn’t have minded a little bit more ham, however. I’m glad I still have enough left for the next couple of days, which will hopefully hasten my cold to its end!

Lentil ham soup in white bowl

While my soup blogging adventures are over for now, I will continue to make soup, especially as the colder winter days loom ahead of us here in the Northland.

Stay tuned as I turn my hand to something a bit craftier in December . . .


Bowl of soup with bread

Stone Soup

When I was little we had a record called “Danny Kaye Tells 6 Stories from Faraway Places.” On it he read the tale of “Nail Broth,” otherwise known as Stone Soup. While the story has many versions from all over Europe, this is how I remember it:

A traveler arrives in a village suffering from hard times. They slam their doors, not offering him hospitality. Even when he begs for a crust of bread to eat, they won’t share anything with him.

So he takes a stone (or nail) out of his pocket, telling a passing villager that he has plans to make an incredible magic recipe from it, and all he needs is a large pot and water. The villager is curious and provides what the traveler needs, so he can heat up the water. With some fanfare he plops the stone into the pot.

This attracts the villagers’ attention. They peer at him from behind their shutters or venture out to watch. He declares that, after all, the absolute best Stone Soup becomes even more scrumptious with a bit of salt and pepper. An intrigued villager runs to get salt and pepper, which he uses with aplomb. Then he muses aloud that a little bit of carrot and onion also takes this magnificent soup to the next level. Two other townsfolk begrudgingly share a little of what they have in their pantries.

More people gather to watch this magical soup cook. When he makes a show of stirring the pot, he suggests that a bit of beef actually adds just the right touch to perfect this wondrous soup. Naturally, someone spares a little beef. And so on with potatoes, etc., as you can imagine.

And voila! He makes such great soup (with only a stone! Amazing!) that the villagers are really impressed, and they all share in the wonderful concoction.

I always thought the villagers were really stupid and gullible, and I didn’t understand why they were fooled by this con man who just wanted their food. When I shared the tale with friends, my friend David said it was a great story about community, showing what people can accomplish when they work together.

I must admit, I like the less cynical interpretation!

And it brings me to how much I am enjoying adding a bit of this and that to my soups this week!

A recipe for Indian Mulligatawny Soup from thewanderlustkitchen.com caught my eye. I like lentils, and I thought the Indian flavors sounded great. Mulligatawny is actually a British version of an Indian soup. Mulligatawny recipes I saw online varied a great deal, sometimes including potatoes, sometimes chicken for protein.

The protein in this recipe comes from red lentils, which are not actually red but more pink:

Uncooked red lentils in cup

It’s a vegetarian recipe, and can be vegan if you use olive or canola oil instead of butter, and vegetable broth instead of chicken broth.

As usual, I didn’t have all the right ingredients, but I didn’t want to go to the store. (You are probably wondering why I hate shopping so much!) I used fresh cup-up tomatoes instead of canned tomatoes. I didn’t have ginger root, so I used powdered ginger. I only had one apple, but it was pretty big, and I skipped the jalapeno because I’m a spice wimp. The apple added a nice hint of sweetness.

Overall, the seasonings were rich and varied. Apart from the cooked onion, garlic and ginger, you add curry powder, cumin, paprika, cinnamon, turmeric, ground black pepper, dried thyme and salt to taste. The recipe also asks for cardamom, but I didn’t have any so I used nutmeg instead.  The coconut milk added at the end provided a pleasing richness, making me wish I’d added more.

The results were outstanding. The house smelled so good while it was cooking (and for hours afterward), and the soup was very flavorful without being overly spicy.

Indian Mulligatawny soup in pot

The recipe called for some of the soup to be pureed using an immersion blender or scooping some into a blender (“immersion blender” is now on my holiday wish list) and then pouring back into the soup pot. That way, some chunks of the vegetables and apple were left, which made for a nice texture. I did not have cashews or scallions for garnish so just served it plain. I did really wish I had some naan to eat with it, instead of ordinary wheat bread. I ate it up so fast I almost forgot to take a picture of it in the cup. It was nice and hearty for a cold night!

Indian mulligatawny in cup

It was so good there were no leftovers.

The other soup I made this week was a way of using a lot of the things I had already bought but had no specific plans for. One item was acorn squash.

Whole acorn squashcut up acorn squash

I also had sweet Italian turkey sausage in the freezer, and potatoes. So I searched online for “soup recipes using acorn squash, sausage, and potatoes” (it’s amazing that you can do this — and find a recipe for whatever you’ve got!). I found this Sausage, Potato, and Squash Soup recipe on thenourishinggourmet.com.

One thing I’m learning as I cook more frequently is to do what chefs call (in French, naturally) “mise en place” first. Meaning “set in place,” the idea is to prep and cut up all your ingredients before you begin to cook, so everything’s ready to go.

One advantage of course is that it forces you to read through the recipe carefully. The other is that your vegetables are cut and peeled so that when you suddenly have to add them to a pan in the middle of cooking on your stove top, you don’t risk something burning while you cut up something else!

cut-up garlic, acorn squash, Italian sausage, potatoes and onions

My “mise en place:” Cut-up garlic, acorn squash, Italian sausage, potatoes and onions

I’ve found that it’s much easier to cut up sausage when it’s nearly frozen. Sometimes I freeze it a bit before cutting, or in this case I cut it up before it was fully thawed. I also realize that I have no knife skills, and crap knives as well, so most things don’t end up being cut into very even or regular sizes. Something to work towards!

While I didn’t have any carrots or celery, I did have leftover button mushrooms and cut-up tomatoes, so I added those instead, towards the end of the cooking time. I’d read somewhere that mushrooms have better flavor and texture if you saute them first, so I sauteed them with the sausage before adding to the soup.

Mushrooms sauteed with Italian sausage

The primary seasoning besides the onion, garlic, salt and pepper in this soup is cumin, which I am really getting to like. The recipe uses two teaspoons, and it really makes for a delicious flavor.

Mushrooms and tomato added to soup

The mushrooms tend to float to the top

I served the finished soup with a little fresh parsley on top. It was even more flavorful when I heated some up for lunch two days later.

I’m excited to try more soup recipes this month — let me know if you have any favorite recipes! Maybe one day I’ll start with a stone and a pot of water, and ask friends to bring things to add . . .


Soup’s On!

While I will continue taking belly dance classes as I blogged about in October, this month I’m back in the kitchen, making soup from scratch for the first time!

I do not consider myself a “soup person.” I’ve always associated soup with being sick (chicken noodle, of course), or being cheap or lazy (canned soup, packaged ramen). The only soup my mother cooked from scratch was split pea with ham, which I sometimes liked and sometimes hated. Soup for me is only desired in winter months, when I might get a sudden craving for tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches, or matzoh ball soup from a favorite deli. And I recall having a serious, weird yearning for French onion soup when I was pregnant (why?). But the upshot is, I rarely think of soup as a proper food, preferring things I can eat with a fork.

My foray into soup-making started by accident a few weeks back, when I was looking for recipes to use up ingredients I had in the pantry, including a partial bag of lentils. This vegan recipe for Indian Sweet Potato and Lentil Soup from allrecipes.com is really good, though I made a few adjustments. The day I decided to make it I only had one sweet potato left, and no spinach, so rather than run to the store for those items, I cut up a couple of tomatillos and a tomato I had in the fridge, and added those to the one sweet potato I had. The results were very satisfying! It definitely had those recognizable Indian flavors from the turmeric and garam masala, but not too hot for me (just a bit of red pepper flakes, which you could increase if you like more heat).

I served the soup with Rice Cooker Saffron Rice from justapinch.com, which is unbelievably good, and so easy to make in a rice cooker. The Parmesan cheese tastes incredibly delicious in this rice. I will definitely make it again. The lentil soup and saffron rice also went really well together, causing us to either spoon some soup over the rice or scoop a bit of rice into the soup while eating.

So I decided I would try to learn how to make homemade soup, just in time for Thanksgiving. It turns out that it’s also a great way to add more vegetables into my diet, and a terrific way to use up items I found in the cupboard or the refrigerator!

One of the very few soups that I actually choose if I’m buying cans at the store (again, only in the winter) is beef barley.

Cup of uncooked barley

Since I had a partial bag of barley left in the cupboard, I decided to start there, and I found this recipe for Rich and Hearty Beef Barley Soup on seriouseats.com. I liked the sound of it, and the ingredients looked manageable.

As seems to be the case almost every time I decide to cook something, I forgot to get a couple of ingredients at the store, and I just don’t want to go to the store if I don’t have to. Lacking celery, I decided to throw in some extra carrots, and also some button mushrooms that I wanted to use up from the fridge. With even the little experience I’ve had cooking, I’m no longer fearful of trying substitutions or adding other ingredients when the fancy strikes me.

Soup with added mushrooms, onions

I also ignored the part about the herb sachet, which seemed like a lot of trouble, plus I didn’t have any cheesecloth. So I just threw in the bay leaf and couple of sprigs of fresh thyme (seriously thinking about growing herbs indoors at this point), which I knew would mostly float to the top so I could fetch them out again later, as required in the recipe. I skipped the peppercorns that were supposed to go in the herb sachet, since I didn’t imagine crunching down on an errant peppercorn would be a lot of fun. I did put in some extra fresh ground pepper to make up for it. I also only had two quarts of the required three quarts of chicken stock, so I made some chicken broth using cubed bouillon (I love having bouillon cubes on hand, since stock and broth doesn’t last as long in the fridge).

The soup took a lot longer to cook than I thought. While I didn’t need much more than an hour for the cooking of the beef and stock before the beef became pretty tender, it took more than the allotted half hour in the recipe to soften up the vegetables and fully cook the barley. In fact, it took twice as long for that stage. So be sure you have plenty of time to check your own ingredients and how well they’re cooked, which I imagine varies according to the type of stove, pot being used, etc. Patience is definitely required when making soup, just as it was when I was baking bread. However, the soup was worth the wait.

Close-up of bowl of Beef Barley Soup Bowl of Beef Barley Soup

The flavors were all really good, and it made the house smell amazing. It turns out that I do like just about anything that includes sauteed yellow onions and/or garlic. I did add the optional fish sauce recommended in the recipe, and a little more salt, as I’d used unsalted stock in the recipe. The beef was really tender and yummy. If anything, I would have liked even more of the beef in the soup.  There was plenty of soup for leftovers, which I know I will enjoy in the coming days.

I’ll be looking for new soup recipes to try, and perhaps some unusual ingredients as well, so I’m open to suggestions. It’s already feeling pretty wintry here in Minnesota, so it’s a good time to be cooking up soup!


Dancing in the moment

For just a few brief moments, I felt like I was really dancing.

Weeks three and four of my belly dancing class proved to be challenging as well as rewarding. We learned how to make horizontal and vertical figure eights with our hips (I’d demonstrate, but — perhaps at a later date when I’m more confident), and we practiced various hip movements while moving forward and backward to music. We also learned how to make “snake arms” (just like it sounds), and to isolate various parts/muscles including our rib cage, to make our abdomens appear to undulate.

All these movements were completely foreign to me, and I suspect to most of the other students as well. Some of them came more easily than others, and as our teacher Kathy warned us, we often found one side or one direction much easier to maneuver than the other. That was to be expected, Kathy said.

Fortunately, she’s introducing and demonstrating each movement slowly, and building on what we’ve learned each week to go just a little further the next time. She also provides a lot of stretches for when we feel our muscles protesting against these new demands.

Happily, I did find in each class those rare moments when I felt like, “Aha! I’m doing it!” Granted, there were plenty of times when I did not feel that way, but those times when I felt successful in learning something new were well worth the effort. Success came in the moments when I let myself completely inhabit my body and stopped thinking so hard. I had to focus on what the teacher was showing us and just let myself DO.

It was only through allowing myself to be fully present in that moment and feeling my way through the movements that my body was able to do I wanted it to do.

This kind of dancing, as I observed in my last blog, appears to be all about control. A lot of dancing is like that. Ballet certainly is, and high level ballroom dancing appears to be as well. While we watch dancers who are experts at what they do, it looks like total freedom. We think, “Wow, what must it feel like to fly across the floor like that?!” But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t feel like pure flight to them.

The only times in my life I felt like I was moving “freely” while dancing are few and far between. I remember whirling around our wooden living room floor to recordings of Chopin Waltzes when I was a little girl. I loved the movement to the frenetic music. Who knows what I must have looked like. I also have memories as a teen or young adult, dancing to pop music during those moments when I could let go of self-consciousness and lose myself in the music. That was a great feeling. And once, learning the authentic polka in a folk dance class in college, I danced the male part (there weren’t enough women in the class) with a slightly built and very able female student as my partner – we spun around the room beautifully, almost to the point of dizziness. That felt free, and really fun!

Learning to be really good at a skilled dance like this is a very different art, or so it seems. Those who have practiced for years and have the talent certainly make it look easy; I know it is not. In order to gain that visual impression of fluidity, a great deal of control is required. It’s not a Bacchanalian free-for-all, this kind of dancing. A lot of what our teacher describes to us is that the control of what muscle groups you’re moving, and how, and when, directs the viewer’s eye to a certain part of the body. You keep the upper body and the head still when you want attention drawn to the hips. If you’re letting your head bob and swivel around, the audience’s eye will be drawn there. A lot of the movements are about creating a sort of optical illusion, which makes it a real art form.

Flyer for Cassandra's Mezza dance concerts by Jawaahir Dance Company November 9-12 in Minneapolis

When you watch someone who’s really good at belly dancing, you are really not sure how they’re making all those motions happen. They seem to defy the laws of physics at times (or at least biology). It’s like the dancer has a magical skill that others couldn’t dream of possessing. And yet, it can be taught.

If you’re in the Twin Cities and interested in seeing some professional Middle Eastern dancing, the Jawaahir Dance Company is having a performance next month, November 9-12.

I imagine it takes years to really master all of the control that I’ve only been introduced to for a month. Because the movements so far have been good for my sometimes aching hips, and I feel better after the classes than I even expected, I plan to continue at least through the end of the Level 1 class, if not beyond.

One aspect of class we’ve just started which I really enjoy is the use of finger cymbals. Because I’m a drummer, the rhythms and coordination of two hands is fun and relatively easy for me (a little harder when you throw in the hips at the same time, but still fun). I like the sound they make, and look forward to learning more complicated combinations in the future.

A pair of brass finger cymbals my hand, wearing a pair of brass finger cymbals on third finger and thumb

What I really enjoyed, however, were those few little moments when I looked in the mirror and saw that I was (for the most part, anyway!) managing the movements that we were trying to learn, and it felt good! I liked what I saw, and I enjoyed the feeling of accomplishing something new.

Don’t Forget to Dance

Last night I attended a dance performance by the Guild of Oriental Dance at the Cassandra School of Middle Eastern Dance, where I’ve just started taking classes. What struck me was the joy in movement that was wonderful to see in all the dancers, no matter what their age, size, or shape. I was impressed by the boldness and confidence of the women (and one man!), who moved beautifully wearing a variety of costumes, from fully covered to more revealing. A few, like Cassandra, were polished and professional dancers, but many were amateurs.

Photo of dancer Cassandra Shore in belly dance costume from the 1970s

The great Cassandra Shore, earlier in her career

When I asked myself whether I might one day have enough courage to dance in front of an audience, even in a modest costume, my immediate response was, “Oh, hell no!”

To be honest, my response had a lot more to do with how I feel about my appearance than faith in my ability to learn how to dance.

When I was in my class yesterday morning, trying to learn the moves our teacher was demonstrating, I watched myself in the huge wall mirrors to see if I was doing it right. When I looked at myself, I did not like what I saw. Immediately, I flashed back to my teen self, looking in mirrors of a dance studio while taking ballet.

Never a serious dancer, I only took beginning lessons because my “open school” allowed us to use dance for gym requirements. I’d always hated gym class. I couldn’t run fast, throw or catch balls. So there I was in ballet class at 15, looking in the mirror as we followed the teacher’s instructions. I recall very vividly not liking what I saw. Was I tall and willowy like the girl to my right? No. Did I have the perfect hourglass shape like the girl to my left? No. Looking back, I know that I was fairly average. But that’s not the way I saw it. I was also unaware that it was very likely the girls next to me were similarly judging their own bodies.

If I could use a time machine to go talk to my teenaged self, what would I tell her? “Hey, enjoy how you look now, because it’s mostly downhill from here?” Not a great message, and not entirely accurate either. Maybe I would say, “Hey, look – you’ve got strong legs that allow you to bend and kick and leap. You can move your arms with confidence and some grace. You can move around the floor and exert your muscles, and feel how good that feels. You are young and healthy. Enjoy it!”

Since then I gave birth to two children, which of course changed my body. Overall, as an adult, I was average looking (size 12-14). Was I happy with that, or even content? Unfortunately not. I’ve never liked being photographed, and I’ve tried many times to change my body shape and overall appearance using various diets, exercise routines, hairdos, etc. But I never spent enough time on that, because there was always so much else to do and worry about.

Then my husband died when I was 42. Grief and depression followed for years, and I spent most of my energy raising my children and coping as best I could. My energy level was very low and I didn’t move much. I indulged in a lot of emotional eating. Within three years I gained 40 pounds. I had to wear size 18 (or larger). This was very upsetting to me and I hated myself for it. Again, I occasionally tried to lose weight through various methods, most of which were too drastic to be sustainable. Other concerns always ended up taking precedence and I just couldn’t keep up the regimen.

In recent years, by changing small things about my lifestyle, I’ve gradually begun to lose a little weight. I’m down 10 pounds from the heaviest I was (now size 16-18). To me, I’m still not in a good place. It took a lot to convince myself to take this belly dance class. Initially, I told myself that I’d wait until I lost another 10-20 pounds. Which could of course take years, or maybe never happen at all.

But that’s the difficulty with weight. If you put your life on hold until you are XX pounds lighter, you waste your life waiting for it to begin.

That’s why I loved watching these women dance. They didn’t have to look “perfect” to be good dancers. They all showed varying levels of skill in the dance moves I’m just starting to learn to appreciate, and they all performed with conviction and with joy.

The students and teachers of belly dance that I’ve talked to described the sensuousness of the movements, and how enthralled they were when they first watched belly dancers. I also heard that what they loved was the sense of confidence these women exude. I would add to that: what I loved was the sense that these women had complete and utter control of their own bodies, down to the muscles of their abdomens, tiny movements of the hips, shoulders, neck, and even – in the case of the fabulous Cassandra Shore – her eyebrows!

Given that the performance last night was a benefit for Women’s Advocates, an organization that helps women whose lives are impacted by violence, the message of women controlling their own bodies is even more powerful.

And empowering! I would like to learn to love and accept myself fully just as I am, and not wait for “someday” to do anything, because someday may never come. Taking these dance classes is not easy for me. Some of the movements do not feel natural. I feel clumsy and ungraceful as I try to make my feet and hips and arms do what the teacher is doing.

So why am I taking dance classes? I want to feel better about myself. I want to move more and learn how to enjoy movement and music in new ways. I’m not ready to be old quite yet.

Picture of me in a dance pose wearing a hip scarf in the Cassandra School of Dance studio

So I ask myself again, would I ever have the courage to dance in front of an audience? Maybe, I think, just maybe. It would take a lot more classes first, though!

— Miriam

WAY Out of My Comfort Zone

If you had told me ten years ago that I would be drumming in rock bands, singing in public, or blogging about cooking, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Such is the magic of stepping out of your comfort zone and trying new things. You never know where it will lead you.

This week my impulse to try something new has led me WAY out of my comfort zone, into this dance studio.

the Cassandra School of Middle Eastern Dance studio

The Cassandra School Dance Studio

My friend and fellow rock drummer Cassandra Shore is the Artistic Director of Jawaahir Dance Company and runs its accompanying school of Middle Eastern dance.

Photo of Cassandra Shore, middle eastern dancer, in costume at a performance

Dancer extraordinaire Cassandra Shore — Photo by Donna Kelly

You got it: Belly dancing. Not something I would have EVER dared to try to do before. And weirdly, not even when I was much younger, trimmer and fitter. But maybe there’s something about being over 50 that is liberating, to some degree. You care less about looking ridiculous because, no matter how silly or bad you may look, you’ve lived through worse. It just doesn’t seem to matter anymore.

It helped that it was a beginner class, with only women, and that almost everyone in the class was new to it. We were all ages and shapes and sizes. I’m pretty sure we were all abilities as far as being able to catch on to what we were doing, though frankly I was too busy watching the teacher and myself in the mirror, trying to figure out what the heck I was supposed to be doing, to notice what anybody else was up to.

Before deciding to try dancing I worried a bit about my hips, though, which have not been the same since many years ago when I constantly carried a toddler on one side, recklessly, and one day felt something go wrong in there. I’ve tried a number of things to alleviate the chronic — though not constant — discomfort in both hips over the years, though not much has helped. My discomfort is doubtless made worse by the pounds I’ve added on in the last 13 years and the many hours of sitting both for work and for my sedentary hobbies (reading, writing, crafts). In addition to that, arthritis runs in my family, which may be part of the issue. So I wasn’t entirely sure how it would go, but I was willing to give it a try.

In general I feel better when I’m more active, but when joints are aching, we all tend to slow down and move less, which can paradoxically make things worse. A large part of my desire to take this class, as much as it terrified me, was the knowledge that I’d better start moving more, while I still can.

It turns out that the movements and motions required for this kind of dancing may be exactly what I need. You isolate various parts of the body (neck, shoulders, rib cage, hips, feet – but mostly hips), moving and stretching in ways not usually experienced in daily activities. It actually felt good to warm up my hip joints and stretch them in new ways. A few of the movements were not 100% comfortable for me, to be honest, but the awesome teacher, Kathy McCurdy, showed us ways to stretch if we needed to, and encouraged us to do so at any time we felt the need.

Middle Eastern dance instructor Kathy McCurdy at the Cassandra School studio

Dance instructor Kathy McCurdy

To my surprise, my hips were not at all sore the next day, but actually felt somewhat better than they have been lately. This encourages me to keep going. The class is 1½ hours each Saturday for the next 10 weeks. I also want to look for other opportunities to do more low impact dancing/movement that is not too difficult and not too expensive, to keep moving to music. Loving music is what helps me move, and makes it more fun than other types of exercise. But I’ll talk more about that next time.

In the meanwhile, I hope I’ll remember some of what Kathy taught us today and try to practice a bit, because I know I’ll need it. This does not come easily to me, but I like the way it forces me to stand straighter and move with more conscious purpose!

If you live in the Twin Cities and know of opportunities to dance and move, low-pressure and not performance-oriented, let me know! I have a few ideas in mind already, but I’m open to hearing about more!


It’s all about that squash

September has mostly turned into a squash fest, with a few exceptions.

Every time I go to the grocery store now, I see new squash that I’ve never seen before, like these two interesting specimens. Do you know what they are?

Delicata squash and sweet dumpling squash

The smaller squash is one I had never heard of, and apparently is used a lot with sweeter recipes, so I decided to use it more as a dessert. I also felt compelled to buy it because it shared the name of my cat. On the left: Sweet Dumpling Squash. On the right: sweet Dumpling the cat.

Sweet dumpling squash My part Siamese cat, named Dumpling

This may have been the recipe I used, though I don’t remember poking holes in the squash or putting water in the bottom of the pan. It’s possible that I just didn’t read the recipe that carefully.  I did cut the squash in half and scooped out the seeds, which I left outside for the squirrels.

Inside view of sweet dumpling squash

It used lots of pure maple syrup, butter, cinnamon and nutmeg to turn the squash into a really yummy as well as hearty dessert. And it was easy to bake in the oven.

Cooked sweet dumpling squash with maple syrup mixture inside

Jacques and I decided that it tasted like a combination of French toast and pumpkin pie.

Whole delicata squash

Do you know this squash?

The delicata squash I had heard of, I think on one of the cooking shows I’ve watched, but I was pretty sure I’d never tasted it. Again, the first step is to halve and scoop out the seeds.

Inside delicata squash Inside delicata squash with seeds removed

I found a fun recipe from theprettybee.com, which specializes in allergy-friendly recipes, using ground turkey. Instead of cherry tomatoes I just chopped up some on-vine tomatoes I already had, and instead of chopped onions I used pearl onions, which I’d eaten many times but had never cooked with. It was not hard to make this recipe, and it turned out to be really tasty. I would definitely make it again. I served it with a simple romaine salad and crusty garlic toast.

Ground turkey, tomato and pearl onion mixture, cooking in a pan Meal with delicata squash half stuffed with ground turkey/tomato mixture, French bread and salad

The lesson I’m learning about squash is that overall it’s really easy to use, you can simply bake it if you want less fuss, and most of the squash varieties do not have that strong of a flavor, so they absorb a lot of what you’re cooking with them.

This was really true of the last one I tried this week, spaghetti squash.

Spaghetti squash, whole

I’d seen it on cooking shows, often used as a substitute for pasta. If you’ve never cooked with it, I recommend giving it a try! This squash has a harder shell, so it can be difficult to cut in half. The recipe I used recommended poking holes in it and scoring where you want to cut it first, then putting in the microwave for a few minutes to soften up the rind before cutting.

This recipe from inspiredtaste.net called for cutting the squash in half, removing seeds, then baking the halves with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Spaghetti squash cut in half Cooked spaghetti squash halves

Then you shred the spaghetti-like cooked insides of the squash with a fork, so it looks like this:

Spaghetti squash after shredding with fork

Hence the name

Then you use as you might a pasta, mixing it with cut-up cooked chicken thighs, cheese, fresh lemon juice  (I also mixed in some lime, as I didn’t have enough lemon), and pepper. It really absorbed the citrus flavors and cheese wonderfully, which was a surprisingly delicious combination!

Cooking spaghetti squash strands with cut-up chicken thighs

It looked like a hot mess after I added the cheese. I didn’t have enough Parmesan, so I added cut-up mozzarella too, which turned it into a gooey but very addictive mess. I served it with a simple salad of romaine and cut-up tomatoes to add those extra colors (see last week’s blog).

I did make one new dish this week that did not include squash. This recipe featured pearl onions.

pearl onions

They were difficult to peel, though if you boil them for a few minutes they peel easier. Based on the general idea of a recipe I found on potsandpans.com with pearl onions and mushrooms (I didn’t have fresh thyme, so used dried thyme), I started what was supposed to be a side dish. Then I added some cut-up ham and some tomatoes too, because I had them in the fridge waiting to be used, plus I really like tomatoes. That turned it into a meal.

Pearl onions and button mushrooms cooking in a pan Pearl onions, mushrooms, tomatos and ham slices cooking in a pan

Here’s what I’m learning about myself as a cook: I get creative when I don’t have the right ingredients. This happens a lot, either because I don’t plan ahead, I’m too lazy to run out to the store for just one thing, OR I just feel like using up something I’ve got in the fridge that might go bad if it’s not eaten. The results have been amazingly good! I sometimes google substitutes for the missing ingredient, which can be more or less helpful, but lately I’ve just been winging it. I wouldn’t have had the nerve to try that even a year ago, so I can tell that my confidence is increasing. And the more positive results I achieve, the more confident I become. I guess that could be true with anything.

Keep on cooking!


Color my world

One thing I’ve read about good, healthy eating involves color. Not only does a colorful plate look pretty, but it also means that you’ve chosen ingredients with a variety of vitamins and nutrients. In my continuing quest to cook with unfamiliar — and plant-based — ingredients, I’m looking to color to inspire me.

Most types of squash have nice color to them, both inside and out. I picked up this acorn squash at the grocery store last week to try.

Whole acorn squash

While I’m sure I’ve eaten acorn squash, which is a pretty familiar ingredient in the autumn around here, I’ve never cooked it before. I think I’ve had acorn squash ravioli somewhere. When I cut it open and scooped out the seeds, it felt like preparing a jack o’lantern, and smelled a bit like pumpkin, too.

Acorn squash cut in half Acorn squash with seeds removed, cut in slices


A lot of acorn squash recipes include butter and brown sugar, sounding more like dessert. I wanted to go a little more savory with this one, so I found a recipe on realsimple.com involving parmesan cheese which sounded good.  I didn’t have sprigs of thyme that the recipe called for, so I used dried ground thyme. It turned out to be pretty tasty. Jacques ate the skin too, but I didn’t care for that texture.

Acorn squash slices arranged on pan

I probably could have sliced them thinner.

Acorn squash slices with spices and Parmesan cheese before cookingAcorn squash slices, cooked

Then I bought a bag of little sweet peppers at the grocery store last week just because they were cute and colorful: the peppers were various hues of yellow, red and orange.

Colorful yellos, orange and red sweet pappers, cut up shishito peppers

Without using any particular recipe, I ended up cutting them up quite thin to sauté with the one shishito pepper I had from my sister-in-law’s CSA pepper stash.

Whole shishito peppers

The second pepper here looked like it had gone bad when I cut it open, so I only used the good one, along with half an onion and a garlic clove. Because I was going Asian flavor profile with this meal (I’d already marinated chicken drumsticks in soy sauce, ginger, black pepper, honey and garlic, with a sprinkle of fish sauce and lemon juice; and I had rice going in my rice cooker), I then added a dash of soy, ginger and lime to the sautéed peppers.

Cooking peppers and onion mixture in a pan

Then I cheated and microwaved a bag of frozen sugar snap peas I had in the freezer, to end up with a nice colorful plate. It tasted pretty good, too. The shishito pepper was not spicy at all but added a nice zing to the overall flavor.

Finished meal with chicken drumsticks, rice, sugar snap peas, cooked peppers and onion mixture

There were two chayotes left over from the previous week,

Whole Chayote

Remember this?

so I decided to cook them up using a recipe I found on AllRecipes.com. It called for slicing the chayote lengthwise and cooking with vinegar, garlic and red pepper flakes.

Pan with cut-up chayote slices with red pepper flakes

The red pepper flakes made the dish quite spicy (for me) in a good way, but I didn’t care for the taste of the vinegar very much (though maybe it was not good vinegar). After tasting it in the pan, I decided to add some tomatoes to absorb some of the heat and vinegar, which helped. I threw in a dash of lime juice also; not sure why. The recipe said that the chayote would still be crunchy after cooking, but I didn’t care for it being that hard, so I cooked it a great deal longer than the recipe said. It was still quite crunchy despite the extra time in the pan. I think I prefer chayote to be cooked until softer.

I served it with some leftover sweet potatoes and carrots I had roasted with cumin and cinnamon a couple of days earlier for a colorful, meatless meal.

I’m going to keep looking for more colorful, unfamiliar ingredients to add to my cooking. I’ll let you know what I find at the grocery store next time …


Adventures in eating

What better way to broaden your horizons, if you don’t have the means to travel, than through your palate? Do you know what this is?

Whole chayote

I’ll tell you a little later on.

This month I plan to explore new horizons via the kitchen. I’ll be cooking with ingredients I’ve never used before (which is a lot, actually), or that I’ve never even heard of, as in the above picture.

As you may have read in my previous blogs about baking, starting with Alice’s Loaf Pan, I don’t have a great history as a cook. My mother did not welcome company in the kitchen while she cooked, so I didn’t learn at her side. It wasn’t until I had children that I even thought much about cooking, and the exhaustion and busyness of motherhood did not inspire me to play catch-up for all the years I’d neglected learning this important skill.

So the upshot is, I have a very limited range of experience in the kitchen. In recent months I’ve been trying to rectify that. It’s easier now that I have fewer obligations and a little more time to experiment. I’m enjoying lots of the cooking shows on Food Network. Plus, I have a willing recipient of my efforts who has been very encouraging (my boyfriend Jacques)!

My main goal is to increase the amount of unprocessed, plant-based foods in my cooking, mostly for reasons of health as well as for the environment.

First I decided to use a Poblano pepper, since we received some peppers from my sister-in-law Kathy, who belongs to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).

Whole poblano pepper

I hope to join the CSA next year, as you get a wonderful, fresh, organic supply of vegetables (and occasional fruit, like melons) for a reasonable price. You receive whatever items they’ve harvested each week, and it’s like a fun surprise — your share might contain various lettuces, herbs, squash, root vegetables, peppers — you name it! Plus you support local agriculture, which is great.

Being Minnesota born and raised, I’m not crazy about spicy food, and I’m pretty wimpy in general about things like peppers. I hunted around on the internet till I found a recipe that seemed pretty straightforward and did not use too many peppers, on the Food Network website.

Because I didn’t have any pears, I used a peach instead. I didn’t really char the onions, as they weren’t that close to the broiler in my oven (I’m a little afraid of the broiler). But overall it turned out pretty good, though it was spicier than I normally like.

Jacques liked it just fine; here he just chomped into a pepper at our local Teresa’s Mexican restaurant.

my boyfriend holding half a pepper (he ate the other half)

Jacques enjoys spicy food!

The dish was hot enough for me that if I made it again, I might only use half a pepper, or add more fruit to balance it out.

My friend James assures me that Poblanos are not at all spicy (only 1,000-3,500 on the Scoville scale of spiciness), but Jacques and I both agreed that the dish had some heat. It may be that I didn’t clear the veins out of the pepper as well as I should have, though I was careful to remove all the seeds.

The Poblano pepper was sliced thin and sauteed with onions, thin-sliced garlic and fruit before putting in a pan under the broiler.

Mixture of peach slices, poblano peppers, onions in a pan Cooked garlic, poblano peppers, onions, peach slices in a pan Finished dish with pork chop, rice, poblano/peach/onion mixture

One of my favorite cooking aids is my rice cooker. If you don’t have one and you like rice, I can’t recommend it strongly enough. It’s pretty impossible to ruin rice if you follow the directions using a rice cooker. I’ve even made saffron rice and garlic-infused rice in it.

My rice cooker

My next adventure started when I was walking through the grocery store and saw an item I’d never noticed before, and had no idea what it was — that picture I began with.

Give up?

It’s called a Chayote (pronounced chay-OH-tay), also called a mirliton, alligator pear or pear squash, and it’s common to Latin America.

Whole chayote with label (resembles a pear)

The chayote can be cooked or eaten raw, and is sometimes used in salsas or salads. It has a high vitamin C content, which makes sense — the flavor is very mildly citrusy, though it really doesn’t smell or taste like anything I’ve had before. Cut up, it seemed similar to a zucchini, though much more firm even when cooked.

I found a recipe online using ingredients I already had in the kitchen. First I peeled the chayote, cut it in half and removed the center seed (seeds?) before cutting up. The color reminds me of honeydew.

Peeled Chayote Chayote cut in half Chayote halves with center seeds removed cut-up chayote

The recipe called for sauteed diced onion, minced garlic and tomatoes. I served it over rice with chicken thighs that I pan seared in olive oil with salt and pepper before finishing in the oven.

Finished meal with sauteed chicken thighs, rice, cooked chayote with tomatoes and onion

I did end up cooking the squash longer than the recipe said, as it stayed almost crunchy for some time. Again, it’s much firmer to cook with and holds its shape better than zucchini or eggplant. It doesn’t have much flavor of its own, but absorbs a lot of whatever you’re cooking it with.

Often when I’m grocery shopping, I remember a news story from 1989 when former Russian president Boris Yeltsin visited a U.S. grocery store and was astonished by the sheer quantity as well as quality of goods available to shoppers. We are very fortunate, those of us who can access such a variety of food, especially items from around the world. We often take it for granted. We should also recall that many people in our own communities do not have the access or ability to buy from this cornucopia of food, and be sure to donate to local food shelves when we can.

Join me in trying some unfamiliar ingredients this month, as well as a few unfamiliar recipes (at least to me) using more well-known ingredients. Feel free to make suggestions!