Spiced Zucchini Muffins

Are you at a loss for something to make for a Sunday afternoon tea?  Fear not!!  I have the perfect recipe!  This comes from one of Jane Brody’s many good food cookbooks and it has been a favorite in our family for years.  I think it was one of the only ways our mother could get us to eat a vegetable…

They're so yummy...
They’re so yummy…

Don’t be put off by the idea of zucchini (or courgette) in a muffin.  It works even better than carrots, as the water content of the zucchini makes the muffins nice and moist.  So without further ado, here is the recipe:

  • 1 cup unprocessed bran
  • 2/3 cup stone-ground, whole wheat flour
  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • ¼ cup corn oil (or canola or sunflower)
  • 1/3 cup firmly packed, dark brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoons grated orange rind (a pain in the butt, but worth it!!)
  • 1 cup 1% low-fat milk
  • 2/3 cup grated unpeeled zucchini (roughly one large zucchini)
  • ½ cup raisins
  1. Heat oven to 400ºF (205°C).  Line a 12-cup muffin pan with 2 ½ inch foil cups (don’t use paper, they’ll stick!!).
  2. In a large bowl, combine the bran, whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt.
  3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, oil, sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and orange rind until evenly blended.  Whisk in the milk.  Add the milk mixture and zucchini to the bran mixture, and stir together just until the dry ingredients are moistened.  Do not overmix.  Stir in the raisins.
  4. Divide the batter evenly into the muffin cups.  (The cups will be quite full.)  Bake about 20 to 25 minutes, or until a tester inserted in one of the muffins comes out clean.

They’re quick and easy to make, especially if you have a food processor in which to grate the zucchini.  Give them a try and I promise you will like them!

Crocheting to Keep Warm

A gift from me to you
A gift from me to you

Two days ago I finished a crochet blanket and yesterday I had the pleasure of giving to a girlfriend.  It always fills me with satisfaction to see the final product and know that I made this beautiful (at least, I think so!) thing with my own hands.  The other day in my post about boredom, I wrote about how manual labor in the form of creative crafts can help alleviate ennui and make one feel useful.  Crocheting, for me, is more than just a way to feel productive: it a fun way to give a little part of myself to my dearest friends.

Last year I joined a Stitch n’ Bitch and started meeting up with a group of (mostly) ladies on Tuesday evenings.  (Stitch n’ Bitch is an international thing and you can probably find one in your hometown if you’re interested.)  We meet in quiet, well-lit cafés around the Plateau neighborhood and chit chat mostly about our projects, but also about the little things that make up these lives of ours.  I have learned a lot of tricks from the ladies, including this neat tip for joining two skanes of yarn!

There are always new and familiar faces at the meetings.  They come from diverse backgrounds, all brought together by a love of knitting and crocheting.  The other day, the organizer of our group asked us on Facebook why we knit (or crochet).  The reasons were diverse: some said for socializing, others for keeping their hands busy.  Still others said they learned it from a loved one and kept on in their memory, and others do it for the love of creating something.  Everyone had his or her own reasons for picking up the needles or hook, and it was interesting to hear the different ways this simple, ancient activity brings joy to people’s lives.

That got me thinking about why I love crocheting so much.  My mother taught me when I was little, and she and I worked together on a granny square blanket which I kept for many years (until it disintegrated).  It wasn’t until college, though, that I realized what a precious gift crochet is.  My friends saw my old blanket and kept asking me about it.  So I finally picked up my hook again and made a throw for each one of my closest girlfriends.  Then I made one for my grandmother.  Then I made one as a wedding gift for my oldest brother, then another for my second brother and his bride.

Soon, everyone I loved had a handmade Jane afghan.  Even my new little nephew has his own original BrainInJane piece!  So when asked why I crochet, I realized that it is because for me it is a way of telling a friend or a family member just how much I love them.  I want to give them something that I have put time, thought and energy into.  It’s my way of saying, “You are a person I value and here is just a small token of how much you mean to me.”

The next time you have a gift to give, consider making it yourself.  You’ll be delighted by how much it touches your friends’ hearts.

Movie Night: Les Misérables

Last night Chico took me out on a date for dinner and a movie.  I love date nights!  We saw “Les Misérables” which I had wanted to see but never got to.

Les MisérablesBefore I go any further, I will say that those of us who know and love the stage version of Les Mis will only be able to fully enjoy this film if we check our musical expectations at the door.  That said, the acting was fine, the film was visually stunning, my biggest disappointment was Hugh Jackman, and my greatest delight was Anne Hathaway.

First, the negatives: I’ve always been a fan of Russel Crowe, especially since “Master and Commander” (he makes ruffles look SEXY!).  But, not to put too fine a point on it, his singing was, well… weak.  He can carry a tune, yes, and he was clearly trying hard.  I think we all expected him to sound bad, but his obvious discomfort at having to sing made him appear stiff and uncomfortable on screen.  One could argue that Javert is a stiff character, but for the most part I thought Crowe just looked pained at having to sing.

And then there’s Hugh Jackman.  I had heard and read that he was on broadway and was a talented singer.  I even heard him singing at a Tony awards ceremony and in some YouTube videos, so I had high expectations.  Talk about disappointment!  His singing, while better than Crowe’s, is by no means good.  After hearing his first song, I realized I had to seriously lower my musical expectations.  As far as acting goes, he is fine, though I would argue that Valjean is not a particularly challenging or nuanced character.

Not to harp on, but another let-down were Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter as the Thenardiers.  Their “Master of the House” scene was disappointingly lame, and I struggled to understand many of Helena Bonham-Carter’s lyrics (I had the same problem with her singing in “Sweeny Todd”).  Thankfully, I already knew all the words, so her lack of enunciation couldn’t leave me mystified. Foiled, madam!  I felt the director could have done so much more with Baron Cohen’s comic genius (did anyone else find him hysterical in “Hugo”??).

After accordingly lowering my standards, imagine my delight when Anne Hathaway showed up.  True, her voice is not particularly strong, but it is clear, true and wonderfully fragile.  The close-up camera during the iconic “I Dreamed a Dream” aria was harrowing, and her performance was, I believe, the strongest of the film.  She was heartbreaking and, frankly, perfect.  Well done.

The younger members of the cast were the most talented, and Marius, Cosette, Eponine, Enjourlas and the children are all quite good.  As I said, the film looks amazing: gritty, dark, with great sets.  Despite sounding like a Debbie downer, I really did enjoy the film!  There’s plenty of eye candy and who doesn’t love a costume drama?  I DO!!

Life is Awesome

What do you have to celebrate today?  No matter how crappy life seems to be, or how dismal the weather outside, there is always something to celebrate.  So take a minute to think about what’s awesome in your life today and then CELEBRATE IT!

celebrate (1) copy

Go out and have a party!  My party plans: Get a massage and then buy myself some beautiful new yarn.  Yup, that’s how I’m going to celebrate a bundle of good news.

Life truly is awesome.

 

Ratatouille

This is a recipe for something which I call ratatouille but which probably has nothing to do with real ratatouille.  I’m sure real ratatouille is far more complicated than this, but I like to keep things simple (and tasty).  So here goes:

I'm never sure how best to chop these.
I’m never sure how best to chop these.
  • 2 large sausages of your choice (optional)
  • 1 large Onion, diced
  • 1 Eggplant (or aubergine for you UK folks), diced, salted and left to sit for a while then rinsed.
  • 2 medium Zucchinis (that’s courgettes for the UK), sliced however you like
  • 2 bell Peppers (I like to use orange and yellow to add color), sliced however you like
  • 3 large Tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 large cloves of Garlic, smooshed (hee!)
  • 1 vegetable bouillon cube
  • Salt, pepper & other seasoning you might like (I use oregano)
  • Gnocchi (to serve)

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Slice open the skin of the sausage, squeeze out the meat and in a large pan, cook it until browned on medium heat.  Remove from the pan and set aside.  (I like to leave the grease from the sausage in the pan for extra flavor.)

    Brown it up nice an' good.
    Brown it up nice an’ good.
  2. Add some olive oil to the pan and warm it up on medium heat.  Add the onion and cook until translucent (they say about 5 minutes).
  3. One by one, add the eggplant, zucchini, peppers, tomatoes and garlic.  Let each cook a little before adding the next.  (Note: some people like to cook the garlic with the onion at the beginning, but by adding it towards the end with the tomato, you make the flavor more intense.  Just sayin’.)
  4. Chop up the veggie bouillon cube and mix it in well.  (I recommend using the cube and not broth because the veggies will produce a lot of juices and you don’t want it to be too wet.)Photo 2013-02-18 14 23 18
  5. Add the sausage back in, get it nice and bubbly.  Then lower the heat, cover and let it bubble away (stirring occasionally) for 15 to 20 minutes.  Once done, season to taste.
  6. In the meantime, boil some water and salt it generously.  Throw in the gnocchi to cook until they pop up and float in the water (about a minute or two).  Drain and serve with your delicious ratatouille-type dish!

As I said, it might not really be ratatouille, but it’s delicious in any case!  Thanks to my friend Maura for teaching me this recipe oh so many years ago now.

Bon appétit!  (Yes, I did just say that in a Julia Child voice in my head).

Beating Boredom

pg-10-boredom-main
Don’t they look bored??

Boredom, or as the French call it ennui, is a hard thing to beat.  If you are trapped, as I am, in a horizontal position for several days at a time, you may want to find some other method of entertaining yourself than watching endless videos on YouTube (though have you guys seen the video of Henri, the cat having an existential crisis??  HILARIOUS!).  While these can be fun, spending hours on the internet can make one feel like a waste of space.  So here are TheBrainInJane’s five tips for keeping the creative juices flowing and beating bed-ridden boredom.

1. Manual Labor!

If you are confined to your bed through illness or temporary physical disability, take advantage of the time you’ve been given to make something!  Everyone knows that a handmade gift is a gift from the heart, so if you once learned how to knit, crochet, quilt, or make those friendship bracelets we all wore in middle school, create something!  If you’re really sick, perhaps woodworking wouldn’t be the best option here, but you’d be amazed how therapeutic making something with your hands can be.  Turn on the TV, pull out the cross stitching or what have you, and have at it!

2. Scrapbooking!

Remember how your mother used to make photo albums of your family vacations?  If you’ve ever had the pleasure of going through an old family album, you know how wonderful these keepsakes are.  If you have a Mac, iPhoto has great tools for making photo albums and slideshows.  Applications like Flickr and Snapfish also allow you to design your own albums.  If you’ve got all your photos stored on your computer, how often do you browse through them and enjoy them?  Beat boredom by building your album of memories.

3. Write!

Why do you think I’m writing this blog post right now, folks?  That’s right: I’M BORED.  But writing this is forcing me to think of (hopefully) interesting content, and that’s setting the little gray cells a-tingling.  If you don’t have a blog, think of the last restaurant you went to and write a review on UrbanSpoon or TripAdvisor.  Or think of the last book you read and write a helpful review on Amazon (but don’t be *that guy* and throw in any spoilers).  OR, and this is even better, get out pen and paper and write a letter to a friend!  Letter writing is the COOLEST, and people are always touched to get letters.  Trust me.  I love getting letters.  HINT, HINT.

4. Give Yourself a Manicure.

That one’s not just for the ladies.  Some of you dudes could really use manicures.  I’m not even kidding.  Man grooming is not a sin, people!

5. Call/Skype Someone.

I’ve Skyped five times today!  Okay, admittedly three of those times were with the same person (I love you, Mom), but it was lovely nonetheless!  Talking with someone else about their day can help you get your mind off of just how much it sucks to be bed-ridden.  Ask a friend what they’re up to, or how they’re getting on.  Listening to someone else’s stories, raves and rants can strengthen your friendship, give you some great stories to tell at cocktail parties (omitting any sensitive details, of course) and generally brighten your day.

Those are my beating boredom tips!  Now that I’ve written this, I’m going to break out the crochet hook and put on a Jane Austen movie.  Because Jane Austen always helps.

#Hashtag of the Week 4

Michael-Jordan-Championship-RingsThis week’s trending topic is #MJ50.  If you’re wondering what on earth that stands for, it means Michael Jordan’s turning 50 today!  Happy birthday, Michael Jordan!  Not only is Mr Jordan by consensus the greatest basketball player of all time, he is also one of the most successful celebrity endorsers, and the inspiration (as @bostonkid17 on Twitter put it) for the “greatest sneaker ever made.”

Michael Jordan’s talent and global fame combined to lift basketball’s international popularity.  His participation along with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and other big stars on the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team” further helped to make it one of the world’s favorite sports.  But more than bringing basketball to new heights, Jordan’s personal image as the world’s greatest player made him an incredibly popular figure throughout the 90s, and therefore a magnet for celebrity endorsement.

Marketers dream of a celebrity endorser like Michael Jordan.  Nike hit the jackpot when they created the Air Jordan sneaker which eventually led to the spinoff Jordan Brand, which in 2010 made $1 billion in sales for Nike.  He has represented brands like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Chevrolet and Gatorade, and as a result is constantly on Forbes’ top 100 celebrities list.  With such success as this, it’s no wonder that celebrities are always looking for endorsement deals and brands are willing to pay big bucks for them.

But I think we should give Mr Jordan his due.  Do we really think that any celebrity today, be they Lady Gaga or Tiger Woods (whoops!) holds a candle to what Michael Jordan has done for the brands he represents?  Really, to me they are all just following in his footsteps, trying to be as successful as he has been in maintaining an equilibrium between his personal image and his brand (for, after all, there is no better example of a personal brand than Michael Jordan’s).

Today, we are inundated with celebrity endorsements.  I learned on TV yesterday, for instance, that Rafael Nadal apparently plays online poker!  Who knew?  And while stars had been lending their clout to marketing ventures long before Michael Jordan came along, I would argue that he did it biggest and he did it best.  He has set the bar for profit-making celebrity endorsement, and brands who don’t have him are still looking for their own “Michael Jordan.”

So for being the most bad-ass godfather of celebrity endorsement, I congratulate you Mr Jordan!  Here’s wishing you a very happy birthday.

Love,

TheBrainInJane

Brain Candy

I do love myself a little brain candy.  “Brain candy” is something enjoyable that doesn’t require much thought, effort or mental exertion.  It’s candy for the brain!

Everyone likes a little brain candy every now and then, right?  I mean, if we were to always read heavy, intellectual books, or always watch dark and challenging films and always have deep, harrowing conversations would we feel all warm and fuzzy inside?  It certainly never hurts to push the limits of our understanding and expand our education, but sometimes a girl just wants to relax a little and giggle.  While some like to get their brain candy by watching TV, romantic comedies or reading fashion magazines, I like to get mine by reading book series like the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.

1-no-1-ladies-detective-agency-450hI love these books because, as an unnamed reviewer from the Daily Mail apparently wrote (according to the dustcover) “Tolerance and humanity underpin the whole of this wonderful, hilarious, totally addictive series.”  Well said, Daily Mail reviewer!  There is just enough tension to keep you hooked on the stories, and McCall Smith’s simple, straightforward prose catches you in its rhythm.  As you read of Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi’s adventures, you can almost see the Botswana landscape and feel the hot African sun on your shoulders.

McCall Smith, a Scottish medical law professor, was born in what is now Zimbabwe and spent several years teaching law at the University of Botswana in Gaborone.  That must have been when his love affair with Botswana began; you can sense his love and respect for this peaceful southern African nation all throughout his series.  Never having been to Botswana myself, I cannot attest for how accurate his portrayal of local life and culture is, and he could very well be writing about an idealized place that exists only in his imagination.

Be that the case or not, I still love these books.  They’re hilarious!  And they don’t just paint a rosy picture of warm and fuzzy humanity.  These are, after all, detective stories involving theft, violence, jealousy and other examples of the evil of which we human beings are capable.  And they’re not always tied up in a neat little bow at the end.  There is always an acknowledgement that sometimes there is nothing we can do about some ignorance, irrational hatred, or close-mindedness.  Mma Ramotswe and Mr J. L. B. Matekoni show us that all we can do is our very best to love, understand, respect, forgive and listen.

I choose to enjoy this kind of brain candy, because it is candy with some substance.  It’s like a chocolate covered strawberry: there’s the sweet of the chocolate as well as the vitamins and healthy properties of the fruit!  And, to quote St. Paul “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Lent

Today, Ash Wednesday, marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period leading up to Easter Sunday.  Traditionally, it is a time of fasting, penitence, self-examination and anticipation of the celebration of Easter.  (Fun fact: Carnival and Mardi Gras – French for “fat Tuesday” – were traditionally celebrations of excess the day before Lent began and all fun was banned.  That’s why we eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday!)

chi_rhoOne popular lenten activity is self-denial of some kind.  Every year I hear people talking about what they’re giving up for Lent.  Usually it has something to do with food: alcohol, chocolate, sweets, soft drinks, what have you.  It’s usually something that is considered a minor vice, something unhealthy or slightly naughty.  It’s also usually given up with a bit of an ulterior motive: if we give up an unhealthy food that we like, then perhaps we’ll feel good about showing self-control, and lose a few pounds while we’re at it.

One Sunday before Lent a few years ago, the priest at my church back home preached about the practice of giving things up for Lent and how he had observed that it has become more of a popular thing to do rather than any kind of spiritual sacrifice.  So he suggested the idea of adding something for Lent!  Why not add something to our lives that we have heretofore not done?  Something that adds value not only to our lives, but to others’.  Perhaps we could volunteer, do a chore that a brother, sister, spouse or parent hates, or even write to someone we haven’t been in touch with for a while and ask how they’re doing.

That idea really struck me as lovely, and that year I started to write letters with a few friends with whom I had lost touch.  My letters were answered and have led to some wonderful correspondences.  Since then, seeing how such a small effort on my part brought a little sunshine to someone’s life, I have tried to add something like this to my routine each Lent.

I’m not particularly spiritual, and I don’t know if doing this is making me a better person or anything.  But it certainly makes me feel better.  It feels like a step towards being slightly less selfish, less self-centered.  In doing something, no matter how small, for someone else, I try in a tiny way to imitate the vast compassion and love of Christ.  But even if a person doesn’t believe in Christ and religion isn’t his or her thing, I think anyone can agree that doing something for someone else feels good and IS good!

Because I’ve had so much fun learning to cook over the last year, I’d like to add a volunteering activity in a soup kitchen to my lenten routine.  The idea is that hopefully the habit will stick, and continue to provide fulfilling and enriching experiences long after Lent 2013 is over.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll make a new friend, hear a cool story or have my heart touched by some small but beautiful gesture.

The Cockroach Spelled Disaster

I should have known when I spotted the enormous cockroach on the wall that things would go all whack on Sunday.  The horrible creature was easily 6cm (just over 2 inches) long and it came creeping out from behind the TV stand in the hotel room.  Chico and I were up at 5:00am to leave our Miami hotel, drive our rental car to the airport, return the car and catch our flight home.  They say bad things happen in threes, but on Sunday, three bad things in a row led to a fourth, the consequences of which all led to a fifth bad thing.

Chico’s reaction was swift and merciless: he whacked that cockroach right off the wall with a rolled up magazine.  It lay on the floor, slowly expiring and cursing our day with its dying breath.  And boy, was it ever a powerful curse.  After the cockroach came problems with checking out of the hotel (bad thing #2).  Then the valet parking attendant with our car key disappeared for several minutes, making it impossible for us to even leave (bad thing #3).  By the time we left, we were running over half an hour late.

Now, both of us travel a lot.  I have been flying regularly since before I can remember, and never in my life have I EVER missed a flight. Perhaps for this reason the prospect of missing our plane seemed to be the most disastrous thing possible.  I went into full-fledged panic mode.  After making every wrong decision possible (bad thing #4), we finally deposited the rental car, sprinted to the metro rail, and ran through the terminal to our check-in desk where we were definitively informed that we had, indeed, missed our flight.  Bad thing #5, the supposed worst, had happened.

While we stood there trying to find a way home, all the “we should haves” came out.  We sure were able to think clearly in retrospect!  I have been in stressful situations before.  I’ve faced deadlines, decisions, uncomfortable situations, you name it!  That eustress (or “euphoric stress”) was always a positive driver.  But missing a flight must have been my boogeyman because I realized that I have never been so overwhelmed by stress in my life.  It was disturbing to think about how quickly any capacity for rational thought had evaporated.  It was doubly disturbing to think this stress was caused by something so inconsequential as missing a flight.  Sure, we had to pay for a new one-way ticket home, but the cost was entirely reasonable and no more than we would have spent on another night in Miami.

Photo 2013-02-11 18 22 14This distress was useless and counter-productive.  And really, when is stress ever anything but?  (Unless, perhaps, you’re being chased by a starving wolf pack in the frozen arctic, but that’s another kind of stress.)  I also remembered my post about failure and realized that missing this flight, though a kind of failure, really wasn’t all that horrible.  Everything in life can teach us a lesson, and the lesson to draw from this misadventure is that stressing out does not help anything.  It is a downwards spiral that can blow a relatively minor problem way out of proportion.  So I have decided that I will not let stress get the better of me like that again.  To help me, I am reading “The Mind Gym” (Sphere, 2007) and their chapter on stress management.

After all that, Sunday turned out to be our most fun day in Miami, and Chico and I were able to thoroughly relax and enjoy our visit.  You can read some of my reviews on TripAdvisor.