Thursday, December 4, 2014

Amazing tomato soup!

I've always been a sucker for good tomato soup. In fact, when I was a girl, my favorite was Campbell's Tomato Soup, while my sister's favorite was Chicken Noodle. We used to have to alternate when we had soup for lunch! Of course, now my tastes are more sophisticated--I haven't eaten Campbell's for years. My everyday go-to is boxed organic tomato soup, and one of my favorites is Noodles' tomato-basil bisque.

Tonight Mike made an amazing tomato soup, which just might be my new favorite!! It's from Good Food, Great Medicine, a fantastic cookbook (and healthy lifestyle book) by Portland physician Miles Hassell and his sister Mea Hassell. I loved this soup and would highly recommend it...it has a nice kick, too!

You can get the recipe as a PDF on his Web site, or you can read it below. I just read his advice about ginger--he has a great tip about making it last longer (in white wine or mirin) and I didn't realize that you don't have to peel it!

Bon appetit!

Creamy Thai Tomato Soup

The Thai reference in the recipe name is actually culinary license on my part, but this is a great soup; rich and vivid, yet with the comforting quality of creamy tomato soups. This can be made from scratch quickly and uses ingredients I always have on hand.

(Serves 6)

¼ cup virgin coconut or extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 medium-large onion in ¼-inch diced (3 cups)
1 tablespoon freshly crushed garlic
1 can (28 ounces) crushed tomatoes
1½ cups tomato juice (or a 12-ounce can)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger (see note)
2 teaspoons fish sauce (see note)
1½ tablespoons honey
1 can (14 ounces) coconut milk (see note)

Optional: 2 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced

1. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a heavy 5-quart soup pot. Add pepper flakes and onion. Sauté 15 minutes, or until onions are very soft. Add garlic and sauté another minute.

2. Add crushed tomatoes, tomato juice, salt, ginger, fish sauce, and honey. Bring to a simmer, then reduce heat and simmer for about 20 – 30 minutes, stirring now and then. Remove from heat, add coconut milk, and blend thoroughly with whisk or purée. (See note below.) Add fresh basil
just before serving.

Miles Hassel's Notes:

  • I like the smooth-textured version of this soup. If you have an immersion blender, purée soup directly in pot. If you use a food processor, purée cooled soup in 2 batches. Return soup to pot and bring to a simmer again. The fresh basil is a grand addition, but the soup is bright enough in color and flavor to stand alone.
  • Thai fish sauce is potently fishy – don’t let the smell put you off. It is available in most supermarkets and probably has a shelf life of a hundred years or so. However, I have successfully substituted a tablespoon of mashed anchovies – about 3 anchovies. I dice them finely first, then mash them with the side of the knife blade until they’re a smooth paste.
  • Fresh ginger is an easy item to keep on hand. Buy a firm, smooth-skinned knob of ginger and cut it into one-inch chunks. Store the chunks submerged in white wine or mirin (a sweet rice wine used in Japanese cooking) in a glass jar in the refrigerator. The ginger will last a few months this way, although it loses some of its fresh bite over time. Peeling ginger is optional, but it’s easy to peel or scrape off the thin skin. (Some people find that ginger relieves nausea; you can make your own ginger tea by steeping sliced ginger in boiling water with honey to taste.)
  • Canned coconut milk is available almost anywhere for a wide range of prices. Don’t buy “lite” versions, and before you decide on a brand, read the ingredient list; added xanthan gum and soy lecithin are fine – they are natural emulsifiers. If the contents have separated into a solid white layer on top and the liquid below, don’t worry. Just scrape the firm creamy part into the soup (it will melt in quickly) and pour in the liquid. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Giving Thanks 2014

I am so thankful for the blessings in my life! What I'm most thankful for hasn't changed much since I last made a list in 2013...in fact, right now my list would probably be nearly identical. But I'd add to that list the fact that I reached the age of 50 happy and in reasonable health!

We began Thanksgiving celebrations a little early, when my sister and her family came down to Portland the weekend before. We went over to a house my mom inherited from her brother to discuss renovation plans. I'm afraid I wasn't too much help...while Nadine was proffering her thoughts, I was too busy poring through drawers and bookshelves, finding some great gems--art supplies (my uncle was an artist), antique cameras, old maps, and these treasures:


Antique papers in the organ bench




Cool old schoolhouse desks
After that I convinced Mom and Nadine for a brief tea break at Medley in Multnomah Village. Yum--scones with jam and cream, with a lovely pot of tea, and even better company!

Mom and sister
Then we had a pre-Thanksgiving turkey dinner at my parents' house. My brother's new girlfriend has four boys. I accused him of trying to outdo me and my sister (who each have three boys)! Yes, that's right--10 boys in total with nary a girl in sight! Good thing they all love their moms!

Kieran had tech rehearsals for Mary Poppins that weekend, so we didn't see much of him. He got to see his cousins for about 1 hour the entire weekend, captured in the photo below!

My bro with 8 out of the 10 boys in the house

Nicholas, tired out from all the boy energy!
The best part about the Thanksgiving break was having Kieran with us again for awhile. He had four days off from rehearsals before diving back in on Sunday afternoon. Dress rehearsals have begun! Each day this week he's in dress rehearsals or previews from 5 to 10 p.m. The show officially opens on Saturday, and Kieran's first performance is Sunday at 12:00 noon (the child leads are double cast). It's all very exciting! I can't wait to see him as Michael Banks.

On Thanksgiving we went to my aunt and uncle's house in Lake Oswego...when I was a child my extended paternal family used to gather for every holiday and every child's birthday. As an adult, that frequency went down to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and occasionally the 4th of July. Now it's down to a much smaller Thanksgiving because of health issues and family drama. At times I've been a little bit sad about that, but we have been creating new (smaller family) and meaningful traditions on the other holidays.

I really appreciate the fact that my aunt and uncle are still willing to host Thanksgiving, so at least I can see some of my cousins and aunts and uncles there!


With my parents and brother on Thanksgiving

With my bro, who's celebrating 2 years of sobriety in December!
(would have been 3 years, if not for a bad day)

With my sweet boys
Friday Mike and I worked on cleaning our study, and on Saturday we went over to church so Chris could practice the sermon he gave on Sunday. (It was about his volunteer work for Care to Share, a food pantry where he and Mike have been volunteering for the past 4 years.) Kieran, Nick, and I walked/ran our dog around the church grounds while Chris was rehearsing.

My beautiful boys with our sweet girl dog with introspective eyes
Then we ventured out to find a Christmas tree! We went to White Lane Christmas Tree farm in Oregon City, where they had HUGE trees for $4/foot, or any tree over 7 feet for $30. The only downside was that a lot of the trees had some brown needles on them--not sure why. Finally, success!

My patient husband, who faithfully goes along
with this Oregonian's tradition of real Christmas trees!
If it were up to Mike, he'd go for the artificial one! Or just maybe I have converted him!

Nice to have Kieran with us for a change!
The tree farm offered shaking and baling for $10,
which we opted for--first time we've done that.
After our tree mission, we stopped by the Oregon City McMenamin's Pub. I was determined to try their hard blackberry cider--delish! I find hard apple cider to be a bit too sweet, so this was perfect for me.
Kieran, Nick, and Mike at the pub

With my little preemie! :)
I'm especially grateful to have a little bit of family time as we head into the hectic holiday season. So grateful for these amazing men in my life, along with all my other blessings!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Happy birthday to my sister-in-law and brother-in-law!

Kath with Mike in Singapore (1989)
November 25 marks an important date in my husband's family: both his brother and sister celebrate their birthday on the same day. In Ed's case, he is turning 50, just a month and a half behind me.

I first met Kath (the youngest) in Singapore, when we had left Japan and Kath happened to be there visiting her friend Lisa. I remember her to be be quiet and kind...now that I know her better, I know she's not that quiet...but she's also grown much more confident in adulthood!

Ed & Kath on the left at our wedding (Mike's family)
I first met Ed when he flew in for our wedding...he was in Oregon for only 24 hours to be the best man. So my first fond memories of him are watching him dance frenetically with Kath to the Gipsy Kings, followed by a collapse of his jet-lagged head onto the table in between dances. Mike and both siblings inherited their graceful, skilled dance moves from their dad Hugh.

I love to see Mike with his siblings...there's a huge amount of laughter, teasing, and merriment. One of my early memories was visiting England for Christmas and seeing all three kids wash and dry dishes, snapping each other with the tea towels and sharing inside jokes.
Ed with his lovely family

Ed lives in Sydney, Australia, after marrying a brilliant, quick, and funny Sri Lankan Australian woman, Shemara, and they have two children. He retired in his 30s after a successful banking career, and now he's a household manager like Mike--although an adventurous, globetrotting one. Even though he's retired, though, he continues to educate himself and loves to learn. He's also a phenomenal gourmet cook!

Kath is the only one still in England--she lives in Cambridge near Mike's mum. She's had a hard last few years, but she has two bright spots in her life: two children she loves and her English as a Second Language job. She's received rave reviews for her teaching skills. With a background in drama and an outgoing personality, she is a highly engaging and successful teacher...and we are so proud of her!

All of Mike's family is coming to spend Christmas with us this year, and I'm looking forward to seeing them together again...and enjoying those family jokes that are repeated every time!






Thursday, November 13, 2014

Heartbreaking story of a blackbird angel

Trigger warning: maternal death, infant death, prematurity

These kinds of stories always stun me...so close to home.

Ashley Elizabeth (Wood) met her husband Chris Picco while they were both volunteering at Ground Zero after 9/11. After birthing their relationship in the ashes, they got married in 2007. Ashley worked at the Loma Linda Children's Center and earned her nursing degree, providing lactation counseling to young moms.

She gave birth to a baby boy via emergency c-section at just 24 weeks (the same gestation as my son Christopher)...he was due on February 22, 2015, but was born on November 8.

Doctors and nurses were concerned about Lennon's lack of movement and brain activity...which often happens to the smallest of preemies. I'm not sure what the current survival rates are for 24 weekers, but when Chris was born he was given just a 50% chance of survival.

Ashley often felt Lennon moving to music during her pregnancy, so Chris brought in his guitar to play for his son, including this gorgeous rendition of "Blackbird."



The next day, Lennon died in his daddy's arms, but it's clear he was deeply, deeply loved, and I know he felt his daddy's love through his music. Heartbreaking.

Chris has set up an Ashley and Lennon Picco Memorial site, where you can leave condolences or make a donation.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Are we too quick to blame the boys?

My 8-year-old, Nicholas, thinks we are. 

According to my little philosopher, people think girls are "goody two-shoes" and are apt to blame boys when something goes wrong. This came up in a morning-car-ride discussion about prison and sentencing...he asked me if people are ever sentenced to prison for crimes they didn't do. I told him that yes, they were...and in fact, people of color were more likely to be wrongly convicted. He predicted that this probably happens more to men than to women (and we were both right--according to the Innocence Project, 99% of wrongful convictions were males, and 70% of them were minorities). This morning was not the first time he has raised the issue of gender injustice. 

His school employs a form of behavior management in which children receive traffic light cards...and the goal is to avoid turning your card over to yellow or red. Nicholas is a well-behaved, hard-working child...so he has been devastated on the rare occasion last year when his card was turned to yellow (a warning), and he mourned when his best friend often got his card turned over. He's often informed us that the girls hardly ever get their cards turned over. 

Part of the problem is that schools are not designed for young boys who are wiggly and energetic and who have not mastered the art of sitting still and staying quiet. The irony of this drive-to-school conversation did not escape me when I was singing with Nicholas' class this morning. Two boys in the front were distracting me with their wiggling and acting out (silently, but obviously), and I asked the teacher about moving them next week. I'm not the most patient with wiggly boys myself!

All three of my boys are doing well in school and (mostly) well behaved, so I suppose we are lucky. But I think we need to re-examine the messages boys are hearing when people say things like:

1. Boys will be boys. My #1 pet peeve people say about boys. It gives them an out for bad behavior, but it also sets them up for stereotyping and low expectations and limits their full expression

2. Three boys? I feel sorry for you. Even if they don't say the second part, I know that's what people are thinking. (Here are 10 things you should never say to parents of all boys.)

3. Did you want a girl? My sister, a physician who also has three boys, has often been quizzed about "trying for a girl." I can't imagine having a child to try to get a specific gender. If that's why you're having a child, you should get a pet instead.

4. "I have 20 boys and 10 girls in my classroom." Now I completely sympathize with teachers who have a preponderance of boys in their classes (see above comment)...the challenges are real! But I think we should avoid expressing the difficulty of this gender imbalance in front of boys, or girls for that matter. 

5. Boys can't be princesses/wear pink/dress up as girls on Halloween/use nail polish. This summer I painted Nicholas' nails red and black (Portland Trail Blazer colors), at his request. He asked me to remove the polish, though, after he got teased in school. Even his older brother and some of his teenage friends looked askance at a boy with nail polish. Why is this so important? Boys are so limited with their self-expression by a latent homophobia...even among us progressive types!

5. Man up. Grow a pair. Be a man. He has balls. Any time a boy hears these phrases, they sink into his pores, and he feels that he has to be tough, strong, and macho to be considered masculine. 

6. Wuss. Wimp. Sissy. Girly. And of course, the WORST thing a man or boy could be is a woman or girl...they are defined by these words if they display characteristics thought to be feminine (= bad). 

7. Boys can't sit still. Boys don't like to read. Mike and I have been guilty of this ourselves...we have joked about what it would be like to have three girls who sit around doing puzzles, stringing beads, and reading all day. But Nicholas loves to draw, and my nephews LOVE to read. When he was younger, our oldest son Chris loved to read too. I must use my mouth cop and not joke about these things any more.

8. What are little boys made of? Snips and snails and puppy dog tails. As a little girl, I definitely preferred the "sugar and spice and everything nice" to the snips, snails, and dog tails! It starts early with this nursery rhyme, and these messages are powerful.

Just as author Lisa Bloom got us to think about the messages we are sending to little girls, we also need to think about what we are saying--through word or action--to little boys. Why not think of these words instead?

From http://www.achilleseffect.com/2012/04/how-the-boy-code-plays-out-at-school/
And how do we deal with the wiggly, out-of-control boys in a more positive way in school? I will be looking for some ideas myself. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What I read in September (2014)

Here's what I read in September--click title to read my full review at Marie's Book Garden. These are abbreviated versions.

Let the Great World SpinLet the Great World Spin,
by Colum McCann


Well written, with a wonderful sense of setting, Let the Great World Spin tells the stories of a variety of different characters, many of whom encounter each other at some point in the day or in their lives. Most of the novel takes place in New York City in 1974, the day Phillip Petit tightrope walked between the World Trade Center towers.

One of my major gripes with novels is when each chapter starts from the different perspective of a different character, so I found it a bit hard to sink into this novel, with all that moving around. On the other hand, the novel tells the story of New York City in so many different slices...of the priest Corrigan who works amongst the prostitutes and dealers in the Bronx ghetto and loves a Latina single mom...of the prostitutes themselves, whose children become prostitutes...a Park Avenue mom befriending a black mother, both grieving their sons who died in Vietnam...a drug-addicted artist who finds herself involved in a hit and run...and a prostitute's daughter who was raised in love and stability, who returns to New York full circle...beautiful individual stories woven together...

After EliAfter Eli, by Rebecca Rupp

In this thoughtful middle grade/young adult novel, young Danny struggles to cope with the death of his older brother, Eli, in Iraq. He befriends two unusual young people: the decidedly "uncool" but extremely smart Walter, and the beautiful, exotic Isabelle, who has quirky and creative younger twin siblings.

My favorite parts of the book were Danny's memories of Eli, who was sarcastic and mischievous but loving, and Danny's friendship with Eli's high school friend and purple potato farmer and his girlfriend, who come to be like a family for him. Rebecca Rupp approaches grief with a quiet, sensitive touch, and even though Danny chronicles the death of various people in his "Book of the Dead," the book was redemptive in the end.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

50 celebrations, Part 3: pampering time!

And so I've reached five decades, in the blink of an eye!

I celebrated on the actual day by having my great friend and birthday sister Nancie come visit for the weekend. She turned 60 the day I turned 50. Although we've known each other for many years, we've always celebrated our birthdays after the fact and have never been together on the actual day...so this year was special in more than one way! Nancie's husband Dave was working on a trial so he couldn't join us, unfortunately.

On Sunday afternoon we took off for McMenamin's Edgefield, where we wined, dined, and pampered ourselves. I highly recommend that every milestone birthday be celebrated with spa treatments. I'm notoriously bad about spoiling myself, so I definitely appreciated it. Thanks to my Australian brother- and sister-in-law for the gift certificate, which made it easier!

Wine tasting
The weather was completely glorious--the warmest I've experienced on October 5 and 6--and we began with some wine tasting.

Then I had a massage, and as I was lying there on the massage table, I reflected on how truly blessed my life is.

In addition to my wonderful boys and the best husband I could imagine, I am surrounded by amazing, bright, and funny friends. I also have great extended family, a job I enjoy and that challenges me, and a wide-reaching village of people who support and appreciate me. I live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and am filled with a deep appreciation for life and what it has to offer. Life is good. I am so lucky.

After my massage, we took a brief journey along the historic Columbia River Highway. We visited Crown Point/Vista House and Bridal Veil Falls (Mike and I had our honeymoon at the nearby Bridal Veil Falls Lodge nearly 24 years ago).
Crown Point, Columbia Gorge

GORGE-ous view!
Birthday sister mini-hike



Bridal Veil Falls
Then we returned to Edgefield to the Black Rabbit Restaurant for dinner--halibut for me and wild boar for Nancie. We capped off the day with a lovely dip in the soaking pool and some sparkly!

Nancie with her wild boar

The lovely soaking pool at Edgefield
On October 6 itself, we got to wake up and wish each other "Happy Birthday"! We had breakfast and then went off for more spa treatments. I had a wonderful facial and a manicure.

My beautiful purple nails
Reluctantly, we left Edgefield in the afternoon and Nancie had to drive all the way home to Woodinville to be with her family. (I'm glad I didn't have to drive after feeling so relaxed!) And I came home to an immaculate house--thanks, honey!

That evening, we went to an early dinner at nearby Seasons and Regions, which was fine but the service was mediocre. (In fact, service was not fantastic at the Edgefield restaurant too, but fortunately the company more than made up for it in both spots.)

I've got more turning-50 plans coming up--stay tuned! I will sign off with this great horoscope a friend shared with me on Facebook--timely indeed, and eerily relevant to my goal for this year: to try new things!
"Your birthday this year occurs shortly after a New Moon, suggesting a time of new beginnings and fresh energy. You are instinctively starting a new phase in your life. It's time to give your life a makeover and to branch out into the untried…Changes in how you relate to others on a one-to-one level are essential to your personal growth, even if it feels a bit unstable for the time being. Something you have had to give up might now be available to you again, and you need to decide whether you still want it… This year, events and circumstances are such that you learn about your own personal strength. You may have to deal with willfulness and issues of power and competition this year--in others and in yourself. There is an inner drama taking place this year, and a feeling that external circumstances are undermining your own feeling of powerfulness. In the process, you may be able to get in touch with your internal motivations. A tendency to want to control your life through some form of manipulation is strong during this influence.
Meeting with obstacles in your paths, however, can force you into the position of using all of your resources to fight back, and you can discover resources you never knew you had in the process…This is an excellent year in which to advance projects revolving around communications - writing, speaking, selling, and so forth. Your reputation may be enhanced through word of mouth. Making new contacts through learning and mental pursuits figures strongly as well. This is a year for feeling competent, effective, and secure. You have a strong sense of both tradition and innovation. You are also more able to express your unique qualities or to go your own way, without stirring up controversy, as you act in a professional, respectful manner. You are humble, and with increased realism, we can pursue our goals with more chance of success…this should be an intellectually stimulating year in which you express yourself with more imagination and color, and make important contacts. You can feel as if you are beginning a whole new chapter in your life, and big life changes are quite possible…"
Artwork by my friend Roy DeLeon, a fitting mantra for the year!

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