Remembering Forgotten Neighbors this Holiday Season

9 Dec

Thursday DECEMBER 11th 

Remember a forgotten neighbor for the holidays

Donate online or Join me at Hough’s in Greenfield, Thursday December 11th.

Five years ago, when I first heard about CHS’s holiday gift card needs, I “adopted” a family. They asked for an Eat n Park gift card so the single-father-of-two could treat his kids to a holiday meal.  He also asked for cards so he could purchase a few presents for his kids. He asked for nothing for himself but we added an extra gift card so that he might get chs xmas 2014something for himself as well.

Last year we adopted adults who were alone.  A man living at the Y asked for a winter coat, new tennis shoes and some snacks for his room. When asked to be specific about what food he wanted, he asked for a bag of chips and some cookies.

A young man, just 25 with no family and living in a group home, asked for gift cards to Walmart, Giant Eagle and Target because he rarely has money to buy anything new for himself.  He also enjoys going out to eat so requested gift cards to Subway, McDonald’s or Arby’s.

These are simple, simple asks.  People who see a subway gift card or a bag of chips as a rare treat face every day struggles that are unimaginable to me.

It’s the lonely adults that devastate me. Kids still have a chance. They receive (rightfully) a lot of empathy and support. But when we see the disheveled and dirty homeless woman sitting in Starbucks to stay warm, what do we do? We look away. We ignore. We feel helpless and heartbroken, but most days most of us don’t DO anything. I believe everyone deserves to be warm and fed, and I wish for everyone the inner warmth and satisfaction that comes from companionship.  No one starts off life thinking “whengift box I grow up I’m going to sleep over a subway grate.”  Or “when I grow up people will avoid looking me in the eye because my very existence will make them uncomfortable.”

But that’s the reality for many homeless adults and those with mental illness –and especially and particularly homeless adults with mental illness.  It’s a hard life. And without family, a solitary and desperate existence is all that there is for many mentally ill adults.

I know that helping CHS provide holiday gift cards does as much to ameliorate MY sadness as it does theirs. I know that what we really need, and should work for, is systemic change in how we care for vulnerable people.  However I also know that the opportunity to buy new underwear, to pick out ones own winter coat, to eat at a fast food restaurant, to order a meal just the way you like it, these simple pleasures can make a whole year better.

Which is why I’m asking you to give to the CHS Holiday Gift Project this year.  Please help one of the 550 people living in CHS’s supportive housing services this holiday. There are several ways you can help:

2. Invite your friends to donate $10 – if you are posting on Twitter please include the #CHxmaS
3. Come to Hough’s on Thursday 12/11, 6pm-10pm  – 
I will be there drinking beer and hanging out. Come and join me!
If you donate online just pick any team! I didn’t create one, I just donated via my friend Lindsey at I

Remembering Eileen

24 Sep

This long post to honor my mother, 13 years after her death…

Mom HS

In September of 2001, while most of the country was reeling from the 9/11 attacks, my family was living the nightmare of my mother’s final weeks and her death on September 24th.  At 63 she wasn’t young per say, but she was not “old” either. Full of life, at the height of her career, she and my father were enjoying the beginning of their well earned golden years. I was very close with my mother, we talked on the phone nearly every day, and she absolutely doted on my children. It was, for my family, a terrible tragedy.

Every September since then I inevitably hit a wall on September 24th. The struggle often begins with the onslaught of 9/11 remembrances. For me there is only one thing I remember about that year. But come September 24th and for an indeterminate time after, I hit a wall of grief and depression. Over the years the edges have dulled, sometimes I think I’ve cleared the hurdle and can get back to a “normal” September, only to realize that it’s still dragging on me–like jogging through water.

This year though, I thought I’d try to do this differently. Maybe, instead of hiding from September 24th and hoping for the best, I could embrace it. Hiding is denying, not just the terrible impact of her death,  but also the wonderful and unyielding impact of her life. This year, I thought, I’d try to use the date as a spring board for conscious remembrance, intentional honoring, and actual enacting of her legacy.  Starting this year I will try to celebrate fall as a Season of Remembrance.

So today, September 24th, begins for me and my family the first Season of Remembrance. I invite you to join me in remembering those you may have lost by consciously actuating their legacy.

But what does that mean?

I frequently think about my mother but I haven’t spent a lot of time pondering what her legacy is.

Who was she? Not just the momentary snapshots of memory, but big picture–what do those snap shots say about her as a person? Furthermore, what would SHE want her life to mean? And how can I honor that and make sure that her legacy is alive and well?

I’ve spent several months taking all the anecdotes,  the explicit lessons,  what was said about her after she died, and what she said about herself to clarify in my mind who she was and what her lasting impact has been and should be.

Mom under table w tyler

Playing Jon Smith with her Grandson

My mother, first and foremost, was a kind, compassionate, loving person. She started from the presumption that people were good, and individuals were worthy or respect and kindness. She believed all humans deserved dignity and respect. She taught literacy to prisoners and donated to starving children in Africa. Her softest spot though was for the helpless, the downtrodden, the vulnerable and the powerless. My father used to say children and animals could sense her kindness and gravitated towards her. It was true. If she sat down in a room full of people the children and animals would make their way to her. I think it’s because she would look the children in the eye and say hello. Think about how many people recognize the humanity and distinct, individual person-hood of children. Most of us see them as adorable appendages of their parents.  But that was Eileen. Within minutes of starting a conversation with her you felt, no, you KNEW,  that she recognized, respected, and rejoiced in your unique person-hood.

Eileens pins

Her pins.

In conjunction with her kindness and compassion, she believed in justice.  She had a strong desire for justice and consistently, though quietly, throughout her life supported causes that she believed were paramount examples of injustice in the world at that time.  For her that meant primarily civil rights and the fight for women’s rights and access to abortion care. Had she lived her causes would have evolved but I am sure she would have continued to champion justice for all.

If you know my family you know that my father sort of knows everything.  His intelligence is always obvious.  But my mother was just as smart and just as much of a lover of learning. She was salutatorian of Franklin Regional High School, and earned a PhD at the age of 50 from Lehigh University. But she was also quiet about her intelligence and education.  She would let you tell her about your latest intellectual discovery, enjoying your journey and embracing your experience with no need to chime in and assure you that she knew this also. Driving home from college she would listen to me chatter the entire 4 1/2 hour drive about my friends and classes and activities. My dad and I would engage in debate and discussion–and still do! But my mother enjoyed watching me engage in the discovery.

Mom and Ty in rain

With Grandma, getting caught in the rain was a wonderful adventure.

A kind, earnest, intellectual with a steady determined drive for justice, she nevertheless was anything but dour or humorless. Her exuberance for life was obvious to everyone who knew her. And she had a grand sense of humor that often seemed at odds with her gentle nature. I think I get my gallows humor from her and my tendency to face life by finding the humor.  The very last conversation we had before she slipped into a coma was her joking about needing help to go to the bathroom. “Well shit” she said, and laughed. As if things weren’t bad enough. WE laughed–it was the last conscious interaction we had. And she had an incredible sense of adventure. Growing up it was clear that both of my parents were adventurers, but while my dad always wanted to explore grand new adventures from flying airplanes to hang gliding, my mother saw the adventure in the little things. She could find adventure in her back yard. One year we made butterfly nets out of hangers, broom handles and netting and we went out and caught butterflies (….and killed them, but whatever. It was the 70s). And then we bought butterfly books and learned about the different types of butterflies, butterflies v. moths, migratory patterns and chrysalis! Adventures in nerdland!

She embraced life and appreciated the glory in everything from the mundane to the spectacular. She lived her life with joy. We talked almost every day her day could be made simply because the Ursinus College cafeteria served chocolate chip cookies or potato chips, even though she could only eat a small handful of chips or one cookie because of a stomach weakened by cancer surgery.

She loved music and dancing and was an Anglophile and always wanted to travel to Moscow where she might use the one sentence she remembered from college Russian: “Vera please close the door.”

She was sensible and steady. Slow and steady wins the race was her motto.

And brave. Goddamn that woman was brave.

My beloved mother, my best friend, was also a tremendous human. I admired her so much. She was loved by so many people I consider myself lucky to have been her daughter. Yet I also feel obligated to make sure her legacy is realized. What does that look like? I’ve gotten so excited to honor her through action. So I have been really contemplating what it would look like to consciously enact the lessons I’ve learned from her.

I think it looks like taking her compassion and kindness and her sense of justice and supporting causes that help humanity, particularly the vulnerable.

I think it looks like taking her sense of justice and supporting causes that advance the equality and protect the rights of marginalized groups.

I think it looks like taking her intelligence and love of learning to 1. support others, especially her grandchildren, in their quest for knowledge and 2. embrace my inner nerd and learn about something that interests me.

I think it looks like taking her sense of adventure in the mundane and remember to find the adventure in every day, and to share that with the people around me.

I think it looks like living my life with purposeful joy, and facing up to the things that scare me, the things that slow me down or inhibit me, and refusing to be stopped.

So maybe, if you know me, you are coming to the same conclusion that is dawning on me at this point…

I’ve been living her legacy without really acknowledging it. BAM! Wow. I guess that is what a legacy is after all, something that persists after you are gone. And her wonderful, funny, vibrant spirit persists in almost everything that I do. And it will persist after I’m gone in my kids, I can already see it taking shape.

At this point I could just settle for the family dinner in which we light food on fire and laugh and celebrate her life and ours. But I’m going to continue on the month of remembrance, as a way to share her legacy with my kids and with the world.

Living Eileen’s Legacy…

Over the next month–or whatever, maybe 3 months, maybe few weeks–she wasn’t a stickler for that kind of thing either–I am going to post some anecdotes and tributes to her along with ways in which I am choosing to live her legacy.  They will include:

Building and firing a model rocket with Riley, going on an adventure, completing a mission for the Secret Agent L project, (she would have gotten a kick out of it!), organizing another On the Spot, donating money, volunteering for, or raising awareness for Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and other women’s organizations, baking bread, setting food on fire, going dancing, learning something, and possibly engagement in other causes.

The big one though–and I will post more about this soon–will be helping homeless teens, particularly those in the LGBTQ community–did you know that an alarming number of LGBTQ youth are homeless, many because of family rejection? This project has Eileen written all over it.

I invite you to follow these posts and support some of these causes. But even more I challenge you to find ways to live her legacy, because it’s a good one.

Or if you would like to honor the memory and live the legacy of those you’ve lost, I invite you to do that. I’d like to hear about it if you do and if you want to share your story I’d be happy to share it.

Until then…

Be kind, because she would have insisted.

Be brave, because she always was.

Do something, because time is short.

To Eillen.

Here’s to you mom.

Update: So, no posts. But a lot of activity. Health problems and surgery for my partner dominated much of the fall and early winter. I’ve worked with the SAY program helping homeless youth, teamed up with some fellow bloggers and social media mavens to conduct a toy drive when a snafu left thousands of children without Christmas presents, helped 412 Food Rescue get started, organized another On the Spot, had adventures with loved ones and worked hard to be kind, be brave and DO something. I just haven’t had the time to write about it. But in the spirit of Eileen rather than focus on the failure to blog, I’m going to just keep moving forward forward trying to save the world and live my life with purpose and on purpose.

First Ever Pittsburgh Food Swap

21 Mar

Sunday April 1, 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Every home canner, baker and candlestick maker is familiar with the problem. You set out to complete a project and end up with enough strawberry jelly or homemade hand soap to supply your household well past the zombie apocalypse.

The obvious answer is to trade my excess strawberry jam for your candlesticks (or spiced pear jam, mmmm). Hence, the Homemade Pittsburgh Swap.

What: Bring your homemade goods to trade for other homemade goods.

Why: I have 27 jars of Plum Rum Jam and you have 32 dozen eggs. We can fix this.

Rules: What you bring has to be made by you (or grown by you), and preferably from or including local ingredients. It doesn’t have to be preserves, it can be cupcakes or bread or cheese or yogurt or eggs your chicken laid. It can be edible or it can be a house hold product. (Like home made soap or dryer sheets).

How much: Hmm. I don’t know. This is our first try so let’s wing it. You can bring a lot or a little, but its a swap so the less you bring, the less you get to take home.

How it works: We will have about an hour to eat and look over each others goods and sign up to indicate our interest in something. Then, at the start of the second hour, its GO TIME. You negotiate for swaps with other folks. I’ll give you a jar of pickled green tomatoes for a 1/4 pound of your home made fudge…you counter that you want TWO jars, and so on.

Please make sure to RSVP to the Facebook event by March 27th. I don’t think it will be a problem, but we will be capping the size of this event due to space so first come first serve.  If you don’t have a facebook profile, just comment here.

Everyone should bring a small snack to share as well.

April 1, 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.
904 McClure Ave
Homestead PA

If you are nuts…

21 Feb

So I like booze. –You are shocked, I know.  And I REALLY LIKE booze that I have somehow made or improved. So the idea of making my own Vermouth intrigued me. Vermouth is something I’ve cooked with and used for Martini’s so why on earth would I want to make it? Well my favorite Christmas present, Jennifer Reese’s Make the Bread Buy the Butter,
describes it thusly:

“Vermouth is a fortified wine, infused with herbs, making it at home is a delightful and ridiculous project. The results can be delicious.”

Reese, who rates every recipe as “make it or buy it,” says about Vermouth “Are you nuts? If so make it.”

I think we know where this is going…

If you looked at the link to the recipe you will see that it is indeed a ridiculous project.

Vermouth is basically herb infused fortified wine, but it calls for dozens of herbs. Reese’s paired down recipe in fact had 2 dozen herbs, including obscure herbs I’ve never heard of like pau d’arco, gentian root, wormwood root and angelica, and then a truly bizarre mish mash of “every day” herbs and spices from multiple family groups. It included your sweet (or sweet and savory) collection like vanilla, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and anise. Some from the more savory family like saffron, oregano, marjoram, black pepper and bay leaves. And “regular” herbs one finds easily in the tea isle like chamomile and dandelion root.

I had my heart set on making Vermouth so I gathered the ingredients over the course of several weeks (see below for hints on buying the herbs for this) and got started one lazy Saturday afternoon.

As I was adding two pinches of this, and a pinch of that—

as a brief aside, if you try this at home, a pinch is actually a technical measurement equaling 1/16th of a teaspoon. So I doubled my recipe meaning that 2 pinches of oregano became a quarter teaspoon and 5 pinches of coriander became 10/16ths or 5/8ths or just over 1/2 a teaspoon. Easier, more accurate, and less messy!—

Any way, as I was adding ingredients by the pinch I began to wonder:

How will a tiny pinch of gentian root even be tasted, floating in the midst of 1.5 liters of wine, over a cup of cognac, and more than 2 dozen competitors?

How did someone come up with this recipe? 

WHY did someone come up with this recipe?

It was the box of dandelion root tea that gave me a clue. “Good for liver functioning”  I seem to remember something like that from my research into purchasing pau d’arco on the internet.

That’s when it hit me. This is an aperitif, something meant to be sipped to “stimulate the appetite.”  I finished adding my herbs and the cup of wine to the pot, set it to steeping and ran to teh googles:

Coriander: treatment of swellings, high cholesterol levels, diarrhea, Mouth ulcers, anemia, digestion, menstrual disorders, small pox, eye care, conjunctivitis, skin disorders, blood sugar disorders, etc.

Juniper berries: This is needed to relieve gas in the digestive system, help with good digestion and reduce bloating.

Star anise A warming spice, star anise is most widely used for treating digestive ailments such as abdominal cramps, bloating, belching, constipation, gas, indigestion and stomach aches.


Vermouth seems to have been developed as a digestive aid. Sort of like herbal tea on steroids.

There is a complete list of the herbal ingredients and their relative medicinal advantage at the bottom of the post, but let me say if you have issues with flatulence, you will love this list of herbs!  Also if you suffer a bite from a mad dog or get worms, there is some very useful info down there.

I am now even MORE EXCITED about this project!  I love intelligently designed food. and Vermouth seems to be such a food. But how will it taste?

As it steeped, I began to notice that it smelled phenomenal. The variety of herbs gave it a complex and delightful smell. It seems the herbs play well together. I was worried because sometimes too many competing elements can muddy the flavor and smell of something (think about mixing all the primary paint colors–you get brown). But this smelled, and more importantly tasted great. The vanilla and anise lend delightfully sweet tones to the broth but the herbs retain their herbaciousness. So I strained it through a coffee filter–

(–this process wasn’t very smooth. The fine herbs somehow managed to clog the coffee filter and I had to run it through my sieve and then through the filter, and then I squeezed it to get the liquid to go through…anyway, the result was a less than crystal clear broth to mix.  Whatevs. It tastes great.)

Anyway, to the cloudy infused wine I added the rest of the wine and poured in the cognac…

–oops, I didn’t have quite enough. So through the cupboard I dug looking for brandy which I usually have. Nada. But I DID find a bottle of dry Vermouth.

Huh. Didn’t know I had that.

I smelled it and the memory of what vermouth smells/tastes like came back and I remembered…ICK. I do not care for Vermouth. …”But the broth I made was so delicious I’m sure mine will be great” I think.  Empty handed I turned around to taste the slightly short on Cognac Vermouth.

Annnnd…ick. Bitter. Bitter bitter bitter. Somehow the mix of cognac, wine, and herbs is tart and bitter and not tasty-though I can imagine it flavoring a beef stew. Bummer, and I have two bottles worth.

Well, one last option is to make a sweet Vermouth. So I followed Reese’s instructions to melt my sugar in a sauce pan.

Annnnd I burned it. This is not going very well. One might say this is becoming a disaster really quickly.  I try again and manage NOT to burn the melting sugar and add it to the liquid.  Reese says it will turn all spidery and crackly when you add it, not mine. It immediately turned into a giant lump of hard candy. With some poking and cracking I got it down to small pieces and waited for another 30 minutes before I could taste it and finally admit defeat.

FINALLY, my sugar was melted and the last chance for Vermouth was at hand. A little taste and….

Not awful. But it’s weird. Another little taste…

Unusual, kind of complex…maybe I better get a little glass. Another sip…

Hmm, this is pretty interesting.  Sip…

I kind of like it…sip

This is actually ok…sip sip.  Sip. Siiiiiip.  Where’s did I put the bottle?
Oh, I haven’t bottled it yet…

Yes friends, the sweet Vermouth is a hit. It is weird, kind of wild, and definitely wonderful. An unusual drink, probably not for everyone, but I think I adore it.

I will be making more of the sweet Vermouth I think and I found a recipe for Vermouth chicken (oh hells bells, where did I put that??) so I think I’m going to whip up a quick batch of dry Vermouth too soon. I seriously have enough herbs to make Vermouth for the entire East End of Pittsburgh!

Final thoughts? I LOVE this project. From the weeks of scouring for herbs, to the herb-lore clearly called upon for it’s creation, to the strange and tasty final product, this is exactly the kind of project that keeps me going and helps prevent me from getting discouraged about the universe!

Buying herbs:

You can buy them online and you can find most of the obscure herbs at various herbalists and tea shops. And you can spend a fortune doing so. Or, if you live in Pittsburgh, you can go to the East End Food Co-Op. That was my last but should have been first stop. They had every ingredient on the list (except wormwood oil, I used dried wormwood) but the REAL bonus is that you don’t have to buy a full 2 oz as you do most places. Seriously, what am I going to do with 2 oz (roughly 2 cups) of pau d’arco? For $1.42 I got enough dried wormwood and angelica for probably 5 batches of Vermouth. What more could you want?

Medicinal properties of herbal ingredients:

Coriander: treatment of swellings, high cholesterol levels, diarrhea, Mouth ulcers, anemia, digestion, menstrual disorders, small pox, eye care, conjunctivitis, skin disorders, blood sugar disorders, etc.

Sage: full of anti-oxidents, benefits to brain function (treatment of alzheimers) curbs symptoms of menopause like hot flashes, boosts intake of insulin so helps diabetes

Juniper berries: This is needed to relieve gas in the digestive system, help with good digestion and reduce bloating.

Pau d’arco: is a liver protector and may help neutralize poisons that infiltrate the liver. (also doesn’t mold—used as an anti-fungal. Lots of other uses too)

Star anise: A warming spice, star anise is most widely used for treating digestive ailments such as abdominal cramps, bloating, belching, constipation, gas, indigestion and stomach aches. In China, the herb is often consumed after meals to help dispel gas and bloating caused by food. It is believed that star anise activates the body’s digestive enzymes, which helps assimilate heavy foods such as meats and fats.

Oregano: The oil is sometimes used as protection against food borne illnesses. Although science has yet to confirm many of these claims, anecdotal evidence suggests oregano oil may provide some health benefits. Research has found it particularly effective against parasites, viruses, fungi and yeast.

Dandelion root: The health benefits of dandelion include relief from liver disorders, diabetes, urinary disorders, acne, jaundice, cancer and anemia. It also helps in maintaining bone health, skin care and weight loss.

Cinnamon: may help regulate blood sugar, has preservative affects including anti fungal properties, also fights e coli in unpasteurized juice, and for the ladies: In some studies, cinnamon has shown an amazing ability to stop medication-resistant yeast infections.

Cardamom seeds: According to traditional wisdom of Ayurveda, cardamom is effective in improving digestion. It helps those suffering from stomach cramps. It is a good stimulant and beneficial for those suffering from flatulence and gas.

Nutmeg: and mace both come from the nutmeg tree and have very similar medicinal properties. They are infrequently used in the West because of their toxicity at high dosages, but nonetheless are important medicines, employed principally to stimulate the digestion and to treat infections of the digestive tract. Nutmeg has also long been valued as an aphrodisiac and as a remedy for eczema and rheumatism.

Rosemary: can improve vitality in the individual, and it can effectively stimulate digestion, as well as relieve flatulence and distension, thereby enhancing the appetite and increasing the flow of digestive juices. It can help in the flow and movement of food and wastes through the body, thus removing stagnant food within the digestive system, and also improving sluggish digestion. This helps to a large extent in the assimilation of nutrients from the food into the body. The bitters present in rosemary stimulate liver and gallbladder function, increasing the flow of bile and aiding digestion of fats

Chamomile: The main action of the chamomile is that it brings about relaxation in all the smooth muscles throughout the body of an individual. The herb acts on the digestive tract and rapidly brings relief from any muscular tension and spasms, it alleviates disorders such as colic, and it can reduce the amount of abdominal pain, and remedy excess production of wind and abdominal distension in patients. The other major affect of the herb lies in its ability to regulate peristalsis along the esophagus, resulting in the treatment of both diarrhea and persistent constipation in a patient. The chamomile is well known for its ability to soothe all types of problems related to the digestive system, particularly when these are specifically related to persistent stress and tension affecting the person.

Angelica: All parts of the plant will help relieve indigestion, gas, and colic.  (The name angelica derives from the Medieval Latin herba angelica, “angelic herb,” so called from its supposed special powers against poison and plague. It was believed to protect against contagious diseases (including the plague), ward off evil spirits and enchantments, bestow long life, and even neutralize the bites of mad dogs.)

Gentian: Physical systems such as weakened digestion, leading to excess abdominal gas, persistent indigestion, and poor appetite can be relieved due to the stimulatory effect of the herb on the digestive system.  (…it is also considered to be a major anthelmintic agent, aiding in the quick elimination of intestinal worms.  Ew. Good to know, but ewwww.)

Marjoram:  In traditional folk medicine, sweet marjoram was used as a remedy for asthma, indigestion, headache, rheumatism, toothache, earache, flatulence, epilepsy, and to help relieve the pain of childbirth.

Fennel:  Spasms in the digestive tract are relaxed by the effective carminative properties of the herb and in addition, the herb also helps in relieving excess abdominal wind, it aids in bringing about a reduction in colic and in reducing the discomfort of hiccoughs, in this role the fennel is an ingredient in the gripe water used to reduce colic. Disorders such as long term indigestion, problems like heartburn, persistent constipation and abdominal pain can be treated using the fennel as a herbal remedy, traditionally the ability of the fennel to increase digestion was known, and it was added to cooking food for this very reason.

Ginger: has been used to help digestion and treat stomach upset, diarrhea, and nausea for more than 2,000 years. Ginger has also been used to help treat arthritis, colic, diarrhea, and heart conditions.

Bay leaves: The bay laurel leaves are also used as an ingredient in cooking, where they aid in the process of digestion and absorption of food in the stomach. Bay laurel leaves possess many of the same positive effects as seen in the spearmint – botanical name Mentha spicata, and the rosemary – Rosmarinus officinalis – especially in assisting in the breakdown of heavy foods, such as protein rich meat.

Cloves: is seen as a cure for problems such as nausea and as an aid to eliminating excess gas in the stomach and the intestines,

Saffron: The active components in saffron have many therapeutic applications in many traditional medicines as antiseptic, antidepressant, anti-oxidant, digestive, anti-convulsant.

Pepper: they have also been used for their ability to reduce excess gas in the intestines and the stomach. Aside from these, these compounds have also been used to stimulate the activity in the human heart and kidneys in medicine.

Wormwood:  The herb has several medicinal qualities and that includes increasing hunger (appetite), augmenting digestion by enhancing the secretion of digestive enzymes as well as bile from the liver and gall bladder and inciting peristalsis (wavelike movement of intestinal muscles that propels food along the digestive tract). As the plant’s name suggest, wormwood can also be used to throw out worms from the body and it is also a superb medication for anyone suffering from weak, lethargic digestion, contaminants as well as jamming in the gut. It is also beneficial in solving liver disorders in people suffering from a sensation of being run down and incapacitation during convalescence.

Vanilla: this may be added primarily for flavoring though it does seem to be recommended for fever and it may help treat dyspepsia and ulcer

Playing with cello

27 Jan

Of course I am not referring to the instrument but riffing off of the concept of limoncello, the lovely Italian digestif liquor. Sweet and citrusy, I have long enjoyed both drinking and making limoncello. But I read a blog before Christmas that referred to Pomelocello–a liquor in the style of limoncello but made with grapefruits. This of course engendered a flurry of comments wherein we all collectively realized you could make cello with any citrus fruit. INSPIRATION!  I immediately vowed to make a series of cellos to give as Christmas gifts.

If you’ve never made cello, don’t be afraid. It’s terribly easy and the results will knock your socks off and trick lucky recipients into thinking you are more talented than you really are. Well, maybe you ARE that talented (Alix, Mahogany) but I rely on such trickery to impress!

So, I set out to make a flight of cellos. I purchased a modest selection of citrus, clementines, lemons, grapefruit, and limes. You could make kumquat, buddahs hand, blood orange, and all manner of cellos if you really wanted to get crazy, but I wanted to see how it translated to other fruits before I spent a small fortune on exotics.

You will also need a clear, strong alcohol. Vodka or everclear (grain) were the two recommendations.  I’m not sure you can even buy grain alcohol in PA any more, and frankly, the flashbacks to high school are enough to dissuade me from ever even standing near an open bottle of grain again.

You don’t need a good vodka for this, and in fact your money would probably be wasted if you purchased a really high end brand, but Pinnacle is pretty good and it was on sale for the same price as Nicolai.

Once you get all your supplies you need to peel your citrus. The ease of this varies tremendously. Grapefruit was pretty easy. Clementines? Not so much. See, the trick is, you want JUST the rind–no pith. The pith is the white stuff between the rind and the fruit and it is bitter.  I’d love to give you a fool proof standard for removing rind from citrus but it varies. The grapefruit is thick enough you can use a peeler. You get some pith, but it is easily removed with a very sharp knife.

But that didn’t work for the clementines. I tried it and the force of the peeler was enough to rupture the skin and cause it all to come off, pith and all. So I ended up peeling the clementine and then removing the pith with a very sharp knife. A long and annoying process, even with the help of a captive 12 year old.

So basically, you have to figure out what works best for you and remove the peel from the pith and the fruit. How much? Well the more you have the faster/better/stronger your cello will be. I aim to have my bottle about 1/3 to 1/2 full of rinds. (You’ll also need some extra containers/bottles. The rind displaces the booze so you can’t just shove it into a full bottle and be done…you get the idea).

So you fill your bottles with 1/3-1/2 rind and vodka and put them away somewhere cool and dark. Ok, mine sat on the counter. Not exactly cool and only sometimes dark, but everyone seems to agree cool and dark is the ticket, so do as I say, not as I do.

Nascent clemencello and pomelocello infusing

Estimates of how long to let them sit range from 60 days to 10 days. The Pomelocello and Clemoncello sat for close to 60 days, the lemon and lime much closer to 10. There really wasn’t a huge qualitative difference, though you definitely should aim for at least a few weeks.

Once you’ve let them sit as long as you are going to let them sit you make simple syrup to finish them off. Simple. Except… This step also allows for some degree of personalization. The first time I made limoncello the recipe called for mixing the steeped vodka and simple syrup on a 1:1 ration. It was too sweet and I didn’t even add all the syrup! At the same time, if you add a lot less in order to cut the sweetness you will get a product that is very, very high in ABV, making it difficult (not to mention dangerous in its deceptive sweetness) to drink strait.  If you want it less sweet I suggest using more water and less sugar in your simple syrup so you still cut the alcohol down enough to have a sipping liquor. If you want it more sweet, use more sugar in your syrup so you don’t water it down so much it dilutes the flavor right along with the alcohol content.

I wish I could tell you exactly the ratios I used, but you know by know I’m much more fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants than that! I made a syrup and added it to the infused vodka, tasting it until I got it right–and was more than a little buzzed! Small tastes if you are making a lot!

Here are more precise bloggers talking about pomelocello and limoncello if it makes you feel more comfy.

So the BIG question…how did it taste?

I was so excited about the pomelocello that I have to say I was crushed (CRUSHED) that it wasn’t as spectacular as I imagined. The Lime and the clemencello however were sublime. So delicious! So flavorful! The lime totally surprised me because I wasn’t at all thinking about it. It was sort of an “extra” to round out the flight. I have friends who LOVE limoncello and know plenty of purists so I had to make that, but the lime–eh, whatever. Boy was I wrong! It is just phenomenal. The sharp lime flavor really stands out on its own, whereas, surprisingly, the grapefruit sort of recedes.

So not only was that my assessment, but I did a round of tastings for my father and Robby on Christmas Eve and they agreed.  Bummer…or not.  One night recently I decided to have a glass of the pomelocello before bed. It has to get drunk eventually…

And it was really good!  Delicious even! I ended up having 2 glasses that night and thinking, with a hiccup, that it was a shame it wasn’t a weekend night! Apparently when set in relief against the incredible clemencello and limecello the subtle but delicious qualities of pomelocello were easy to over look.

The lesson: its hard to go wrong with cello!  I would like to try some other exotic flavors but even the humble  lime is rendered spectacular when mixed with vodka and sweetened. But I guess that isn’t really all that surprising, is it?

–on a side note, I ordered lovely bottles to gift my cellos in from here: Shore Container. Even though shipping added to the cost, they were still way more affordable than anything you’ll find around here. They have a lot of cool containers actually.

Vegetable Leather…Really.

27 Jan

I don’t remember how inspiration struck (apologies to any blogger I’m slighting here) but this summer as I investigated the world of dehydration I discovered vegetable leather.  Ok, I know it probably sounds gross at first, but bear with me, you will be THRILLED with the end result!

So inspired, I started searching and found recipes for several varieties of vegetable leather, gazpacho, tomato, mixed veg, and pumpkin, and resolved to give it a whirl–especially since at the time I was just beginning a diet the idea of tasty “free” foods was exciting. (Here’s one online resource for recipes and techniques)

So here’s the problem with this. I made my tomato leather in September and I cannot remember exactly how I did it. With the aid of the pictures and the recipes I can mostly piece it together, but there are a few steps I’m unsure of. The method I’m sharing here is not necessarily exact so if you want to try this don’t take my instructions as absolute law (just this once, ok?)….

It was the end of the season and I had a rag tag bunch of tomatoes both in my garden and from the local farmers market. Something that did not depend on pretty tomatoes seemed like the perfect use for these long in the tooth and random assortment of leftover fruits.

You can make this without any special equipment, but having a food mill makes the process super simple; mo need to peel or seed, just chop them up and throw them in a sauce pan. If you don’t have a food mill though, you may want to seed and peel them first.  If you do, throw them in the pot and cook them until they are soft, then run them through your food mill.  (This is one of the steps I’m unsure of. I *think* I cooked them before I put them through the food mill, but I”m not 100% sure)

This will give you a light tomato sauce.  I cooked mine down some but dehydrating is taking out the liquid anyway so theoretically you could probably put watery sauce on the tray and just dry it longer. I felt like it would make for thin leather or it would slosh around and be messy and that’s why I cooked it down, but you don’t have to do it for hours, just enough to thicken it a bit.

Next, season it. I actually made several batches and varied the season from one to another. Salt–for me–is a must. But you could add Italian spices, Indian spices, fall spices like cinnamon and cloves, Worcestershire sauce, or whatever you fancy. 

Once you have it where you want it, pour it on your trays. This can be done in an oven using rimmed cookie sheets. I just happen to have a dehydrator and fruit leather mats. Are you surprised?

Then turn on the dehydrator and leave it. I think mine took about 12 hours. You have wiggle room so don’t worry about going to bed or work and ruining it. It should be fine.

Once it is dry it is ready. You can eat it all standing at the counter, what? Or you can store it so you have it to snack on.

Remove it from the tray

Put it on wax paper and roll it up (like a fruit roll up!)

Ok, so how does it taste? Like a tomato punched you in the mouth–in a good way.  I LOVE this stuff. It is the pure essence of all that is good and holy in a tomato, concentrated.

When I’m feeling like I want to eat, or more accurately TASTE, but I am not hungry or don’t need the calories, or am dieting, or whatever, a strip of this stuff makes me damn near as happy as a handful of potato chips. But Bonus! It’s actually GOOD for you!

Along with snacking on it, you can also add it to recipes. I recently cut it into thin ribbons and served it on top of a risotto cake. Delicious!

I haven’t tried any of the other leathers, but I’m considering it, especially for that summer moment when I just have TOO MUCH produce and I’ve preserved it every which way I can think of, this is a neat way to preserve and its frankly easier than many of the more standard methods–though of course the end product is a little less versatile than say, canned tomatoes.

Little house in the Green Field

4 Jan

As I mentioned in my first 2012 post a week of intense nothing has reinvigorated my spirit and revved up my desire to play around with projects worthy of Laura Ingalls in the kitchen. Little house in the Green Field; it has a ring to it!

Jennifer Reese’s new book Make the Bread Buy the Butter looks to play no small part in my winter projects.  On the bonus day off that was January 2 I started my adventures by making yogurt.

“It’s SO EASY” purred Reese.

“Piece of CAKE!” I chortled.


It totally failed.

It sounds easy enough.  You start with a half gallon of milk– I of course bought expensive organic milk so we would have lovely organic hormone free yogurt. A dollar more expensive, the yogurt would still be cheaper than dannon–and 1/4 cup of yogurt with live cultures. Remember back in the day when yogurt touted it’s live cultures front and center on the label? Not anymore, the current fad is GREEK.  The live cultures are in there still, but you have to read the tiny print label with your glasses all down on your nose like an old person to make sure.

So you take your fancy scmancy milk, or whatever you get, and heat it to just before boiling, which is 212 degrees for water.  I wasn’t sure if boiling it was a big problem so I was a little paranoid. I put my candy thermometer in the milk and watched it like a hawk.  At about 175 degrees it started making that noise water (or milk) makes before it boils so I took it off the heat.

Pour it into a bowl and let it cool to between 110 and 115 degrees. As with the step before (more on that later) temperature is critical.  It must be warm enough to activate the cultures but not so hot it kills them. Reese suggests, if you do not have a candy thermometer, sticking a clean finger in the milk. When you can hold it in for 10 seconds and it feels warm but not hot, it should be good. I actually tried this at 120 and at 113ish and the difference in temperature is indeed palpable, however  I suggest  spending $3 and buying a candy thermometer.

Once it is at the right temperature, add 1/4 cup of yogurt with live cultures. General consensus seems to be that you add store bought the first time you make it and then after that just keep adding the last bit of what you made previously.  That of course assumes you eat yogurt on a pretty continual basis. We’ll see.

Stir it, then cover it with a damp kitchen towel and leave in a warm spot overnight (or all afternoon/evening in my case).

Look how sexy that is:

The only problem is…it failed. It completely and utterly failed to turn into yogurt. Ugh. So I posted my dismay on facebook and wouldn’t you know it the lovely and talented @twinmamateb came to the rescue!  (Her husband is the man behind 2 amazing Pittsburgh restaurants Toast and Brix btw, so they know something about making good food in that family!)

She makes her yogurt in the crock pot according to these directions, adding 2 TBS of powdered milk and filtering it through a coffee filter to get it thicker.

I also did my own research and found this really helpful guide to homemade yogurt.

Between the two I figured out the critical information to understand why my yogurt failed and how to fix it.

TEMPERATURE is critical.

First: the milk must reach 180 degrees, that is where the proteins begin to break down.

Second: we know that you add the yogurt at 110-115 degrees

Third: you need to keep it warm while it sits.

Not unlike the time I decided to can during a heat wave with broken air conditioner, yesterday I decided to make yogurt on the coldest day of the winter so far…

So last night I proceeded- despite the cold- to try again armed with a lot more understanding of what I was doing.

This time, no expensive milk, if it’s going to fail I’m not wasting that extra dollar.

I added dry milk powder (which I happened to have.)

…See my keys on the counter? I literally threw this into the crockpot before I took off my coat after work.

The crock pot instructions are to heat for 2 1/2 hours, unplug and let sit for 3 hours, add yogurt, let sit some more.  Really, you just need to get it up to the magic 180+ degrees and back down to 110-115 degrees.  Some comments on the crock pot post said they started it on the stove. That would be faster and I might try it in the future but last night I was busy making dinner and helping the kid with her homework so letting it sit for 2 hours was perfect.

Once it came up to temperature I removed the crock from the pot and moved it to a drafty spot to cool to 113 degrees then added my starter…

The non crock pot method sits the bowl on top of a heating pad. The crock pot method swaddles the unplugged pot in towels.  My heating pad is new (after the dog ate the old one!) so I didn’t want to risk spilling milk on it.

I swaddled my crock pot, turned it back on to low for about 5 minutes, and put my empty dehydrator next to it on 165 degrees. Why? It’s freaking freezing out and my kitchen has no direct heat. I wanted to make sure the yogurt had enough heat to properly culture. You don’t need to do this. In fact, I think the trick is to make sure it is warm, in whatever way works for you, your kitchen and the season.

So I let that sit overnight and awoke with Christmas morning-like anticipation. I leaped out of bed and ran downstairs (really it was more of a groan and a reluctant amble) to find…


It totally worked!

Tonight after work I’ll drain it to get it more along the consistency of Greek yogurt (I’ll save the whey for baking) and flavor half of it for Riley to eat (vanilla) and leave half plain for cooking.

I’m so very excited I don’t have to pay $4 for a pint of Greek yogurt and another $3ish for a pint of vanilla yogurt every week anymore!

And it’s homemade! FTMFW.

Goats? Yogurt? Goatsmilk yogurt? Full speed ahead into 2012!

3 Jan

I’m not gonna lie, 2011 was a bitch of a year. Not the worst I’ve ever had. But in the past, bad years were personally bad. 2011 was trying for, well, everyone. Starting in February of last year it was intensely chaotic, full of upheaval and what felt like internecine war around the globe. From fights in our own communities to Arab Spring, 2011 was a series of unending gut punches followed by hardscrabble brawls.

By December I was pretty exhausted. Put on top of that holiday duties, both personal and professional and by the time guests left on Christmas night I was kind of on the verge of a breakdown.

So for the next 8 days I did as much of nothing as I could stand. I read three books. I slept in every day. We ate leftovers and ordered out. We went to three movies and rented another 10.  One day we didn’t get out of bed until after noon (though I don’t think I slept past 10 once.)  I got sick–everyone got sick–and nursed my symptoms.  I ignored phone calls and emails from friends and work associates alike. Basically I engaged in mental bed rest.  It was good.

I feel ready for 2012. As one of my twitter folks wrote, 2011 is dead, let’s not speak of it again.

By yesterday, January 2nd, the legal holiday for New Years Day I was bored and my engines were revving. I finally felt myself again. So I engaged in some projects.  My family did an amazing–AMAZING–job with Christmas presents for me this year, so I can’t say that my favorite presents were anything but what they got me. However, in terms of project starts, two gifts I got myself stand out. First, this book:

I highly recommend you get this book by Jennifer Reese if you are at all interested in cooking. (She also has a blog called the Tipsy Baker (love the name))  Love. LOVE. LOOOOOOVE this book. She spent a year making a bunch of staples and analyzing the value and ease of making vs. buying. Her introduction describes a grocery store paralysis which I am all too familiar with. That moment where you weigh the cost value, nutrition value, environmental value, taste value, etc etc of various foods, leading to indecision and occasionally complete surrender and running out of the store empty handed. She tries to answer the question make it or buy it, rating various projects by difficulty (one of my favorites “you’ll want to bludgeon yourself with your rolling pin half way through”) and the economy. She is a fine writer, approaches the topics with great humor, and covers everything from bread to prosciutto to back yard chickens.  So you can see why I love it. I sat up until 2 am one night reading this cover to cover. Many of my projects this year will come from this book. I may finally get chickens. Or bees. But not goats.

I kicked off the year by trying her bread recipe (delicious and NO KNEADING!) and yogurt (totally failed. I’m trying again tonight).

The second project centric gift you’ll be hearing more about is a pressure cooker. I made chili one night that cooked at temp for 8 minutes. EIGHT MINUTES.  It was delicious. I love my pressure cooker.

I’m excited to embark on another year of living life intentionally, savoring every day.  Thanks for those of you who read along, especially those still with me after the awful, awful waning months of 2011. Hopefully I’ll have more time to play in the kitchen and post about various and sundry adventures in 2012.

I’ll post about my yogurt and bread experiments as well as my cello/khalua making venture (I think it made lovely Holiday gifts) later. For now, I’ll tell you that I kicked off 2012 by trying these dehydrated oranges from Well Preserved. I have no idea what I’m going to do with them (pressure cooker perhaps) but they were so pretty and we had a lot of clementines sitting around so I couldn’t resist.  If anyone has any ideas for these, I’d love to hear them.

What’s new pussycat?

21 Dec

I bet you wonder where I’ve been! No? That’s ok. Somewhere, someone is wondering I’m sure, because I’ve been largely absent from most everywhere except work and home.

Fall 2011 has been busy. And by busy I mean I’m ready to go psycho and murderously stab 2011 until it’s life blood swirls down the drain and out of sight, leaving it pale and lifeless in the bottom of a cheap motel shower…

Too Much?

I haven’t written much here lately because life has been 200% hectic. Work days are frantic attempts to get competing past deadlines completed, home has been racing to fulfill all our commitments and still live up to the standards for family time and togetherness.

Like some insane mix between Martha Stewart and Murphy Brown I insisted on making the shit out of the menu for my work holiday party. Duck Rangoon, samosas in filo dough, mini pork pies, ten types of cookies, and a house as Martha at Christmas as I could manage. The week before we saw three stage productions and a Steelers Game. School concerts, press events, and even right now, last minute breaking news events to pitch to editors and reporters already on holiday.

I’m spent for 2011.

The result, a lack of blogging, a house only clean in the areas which company sees, laundry undone for weeks at at time, Christmas shopping frantically accomplished between phone pitches to reporters (and as of yet still far from done) and generally frantic all around. (I missed a bunch of people on my Christmas card list too, and now have no time, no energy and no motivation to correct it. So if you were expecting a card –Dad– and didn’t get one, sorry.)

I’ve been wanting to post about my adventures in cello making (as in limoncello, pomelocello, clementinecelo, limecello) and Khalua making. I’ve wanted to tell you about the summer preserves in action –Great Grandma’s pickles are fantastic with smokey pulled pork– and the bacon cashew caramel popcorn I made for the party. But I haven’t had time. And now all I really want is to find someone to write about this BIG story for tomorrow so I can close the book on 2011 at work and head to the mall to make sure my kids aren’t really, really pissed off on Christmas morning. Then I just want to lie in bed and read a book until I’m ready to greet 2012 with a roar and a smile.

So I’m not going to worry about posting any more this year. I might even relinquish the making of Christmas dessert to someone else. It’s time for me to recharge my batteries.

So, no end of year giving pitch, no more recipes, no reflection on a year of blogging, no more nothing on Einstein’s Desk for a little while. Happy Holiday’s everyone. Thanks for reading this year!

A friend took this during the party. You can perhaps see that my house storage space is also bursting at the seems.

Remembering Forgotten neighbors

29 Nov



Remember a forgotten neighbor for the holidays

Two years ago when I first heard about CHS holiday gift card need, I “adopted” a family. They asked for an Eat n Park gift card so the single father of two could take his kids out for a holiday meal.  The father also asked for gift cards to specific retailers so he could purchase his kids a few presents. He asked for nothing for himself. We threw in a card for him to get something he wanted as well.

(I’m such a sap that I am already welling up…)

Last year I adopted adults who were alone.  A man living at the Y asked for a winter coat and new tennis shoes and a food basket for his room so he could have snacks. When asked to be specific about what food he wanted he asked for a bag of chips and some cookies.

A young man, just 25 with no family, living in a group home asked for gift cards to Wal Mart, Giant Eagle and Target because he rarely has money to buy anything for himself.  He also likes to go out to eat so requested gift cards to Subway, McDonalds or Arbys.

These are simple, simple asks.  The every day struggles faced by people who see a subway gift card or a bag of chips as a rare treat are unimaginable to me.

You can make a difference in their holidays by donating a gift card to CHS.

Its the lonely adults that devastate me. Kids still have a chance. They receive (rightfully) a lot of empathy and support. But when we see the disheveled and dirty homeless woman sitting in starbucks to stay warm, what do we do? We look away. We ignore. We feel helpless and heartbroken, but most of us don’t do anything. I believe everyone deserves to be warm, and fed, and I wish for everyone the inner warmth and satisfaction that comes from companionship.  No one starts off life thinking “when I grow up I’m going to sleep over a subway grate.”  Or “when I grow up people will avoid looking me in the eye because my very existence will make them uncomfortable.”

But that is the reality for many homeless adults,  and those with mental illness –and especially and particularly homeless adults with mental illness.  Its a hard life. And without family, a solitary and desperate existence is all that there is for many mentally ill adults.

I know that giving a holiday gift card does as much to ameliorate MY sadness as it does theirs. I know that what we really need and should work for is systemic change in how we care for vulnerable people.  However I also know that the opportunity to buy new underwear, to pick out ones own winter coat, to eat at a fast food spot, to order a meal just the way you like it, these simple pleasures can make a whole year better.

Which is why I’m asking you to give to the CHS Holiday Gift Project this year.  Please help one of the 550 people living in CHS’s supportive housing services this holiday. Come to the event Next Monday. Bring either a gift card or a cash donation.

MONDAY DECEMBER 5th 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.

Shiloh Inn – Pittsburgh, 123 Shiloh Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15211
Now the fun part, What kind of gift cards?? Any kind! But remember that most of these individuals rely on access or public transit, so try to pick something easy to get to from Oakland/Downtown.  Also, you may think of a Subway gift card as boring, but it is a real treat for someone on a tiny fixed income. And things like new underwear and snacks can be a luxury too, so that kmart or giant eagle gift card is also a versatile option!
Have a question? Need a receipt for tax purposes? For right now your best bet is to either comment here or post on the facebook event page here.
And in case you need more motivation here are two of the residents who hope to have a happy holidays this year:

Pamela is a 67 year old woman who lives in a single room at Wood Street Commons. Pamela’s husband passed away several years ago leaving her to live on her own for the first time in her life. Soon after his death, she was overwhelmed with grief compounded by her increasingly perilous financial situation. Eventually she lost her home through foreclosure and became homeless.  Pamela has been living at WSC for several years now with her only support coming from staff and other residents.  She receives services in the building that enable her to live as independently as possible while managing her ongoing depression. The holiday times are difficult for Pamela as she is reminded of her losses and the life she no longer has.

Sam is a 28 year old male living at Wood Street Commons. Sam has difficulty maintaining housing and services due to his struggles with mental illness. Many of his difficulties are the result of experiencing extreme abuse and neglect throughout his traumatic childhood and adolescence. Sam receives services at WSC to help him stabilize his mental health ad acquire skills that he needs to live a fully independent adult life.  Due to the traumatic nature of his childhood, Sam has no family he can rely on to help him through the hard times. In spite of his difficulties, Sam is motivated to work and works a part time job. Unfortunately once Sam pays his rent and pays for meals, he hardly has enough money left to get back and forth to work and purchase personal hygiene products.