When it’s too much, do something else.

I used to babysit for my friend S’s six-month-old child. The baby was a generally pleasant little guy, but when tired or if startled, he could get into cycles of sadness. Like so many of us, he immediately focused on the negative and was inconsolable sometimes. What I realized, especially with a small one who couldn’t use words to work his way out of his problems, was that sometimes distractions are life-giving. If I could get a sad baby to engage with a new toy, to listen to me sing, or to touch the textured wood on the bench outside, I had a chance of making him happier. Focusing on something else was enough to bring solace.

Lately, I’ve been spending time with other people who, as adults, having this problem: and I’ll confess, it’s sometimes me too. Focusing on one negative thing leads to another, and then to another. In that spiral, my brain stubbornly tells itself, “you must solve these problems in order to feel better. You must be miserable till then.” The tough part, of course, is that suffering, and loss, and emotional damage aren’t things that are solved: they are managed. What I’m learning is that, sometimes, the right thing to when negativity has you trapped is to do something else.

When sad, bake bread.

When heartbroken, tend your garden.

When furious, do some dishes. They make a lot of noise, so that’s nice.

It’s not that the thing or the emotion is solved by the action. It’s that distracting yourself from the negativity introduces another spiral, an upward one. It gives you one rung of a positivity ladder that can take you up. Obviously, the problems are still there; they will erupt from time to time and demand your attention. But living with all your attention on that isn’t as good as doing something else, something else good or something else that needs to be done. It’s a life-giving kind of distraction.

Learning to Love Fruit

At the height of my disregard for healthy eating, I told my friend E, “I don’t like to bother with fruit; it’s all sugar and if I’m going to eat sugar, I want to eat caramel or chocolate!” There’s nothing wrong with loving chocolate and caramel, but E was right to be a little flabbergasted: fruit is such a beautiful food group, and I was silly to disregard it.

Fruit, when it’s really fresh, has become one of my favorite things. When eating at the breakfast here at the hotel this week, I’ve been replacing some of my old time favorites, like danishes, with larger-than-usual piles of fruit. Sure, they also are sweet, but I feel more alert and happy instead of like I’m in a butter-and-sugar coma for the rest of the day.

I’ve noticed lately that keeping fresh fruit in the house is hard because it can spoil before I get to it, but keeping fruit smoothie drinks means I’m often reaching for that instead of more pastry or bagels. I get whatever brand is on sale and sometimes there are even ones with spinach blended in – added bonus. Obviously, this is not the whole-food solution of one’s dreams, but E would probably be pretty proud of me. I’ve also been really happy with recipes like the Apple Cake and the Zucchini Bread I’ve made over the past few months, which combine my love of pastry with a mixed in serving or two of fruit. I’m coming around to the way that fruits and veggies as the bulk of my food makes me feel a lot better and be more creative with my cooking.

Eating My Way Through Denver

This conference has been decadent, y’all. I have tried to keep my portions small, but man oh man. My conference friends and I split a pile of crusty bread that was covered in the most amazing roast garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes when we arrived, and it hasn’t stopped. I had a magical panini with spinach and fresh mozzarella and pesto, and when everyone else wanted to get drinks at a trendy little place after a day of learning and presenting, I chose a cup of chocolate mousse instead – it’s just been that kind of beautiful time.

Denver is a city full of pretty areas, and even though there are some standard spots (does every city have a Cheesecake Factory?) I’m thrilled to see restaurants I’ve never seen. Everywhere, there are little touches of great conservation (good public transit, recycling bins) and touches of healthy eating (a whole restaurant devoted to salads, a fresh mediterranean food fast-food joint). I’ve loved my conference so far, but I confess: I keep trying to escape to eat and to explore! I’m drinking a weird concoction – nitro cold brew coffee – as a I blog and plot a trip to a used bookstore before booking it back to the conference.

One of the most special moments was when I was volunteering at registration and idly thumbing through the nametags that hadn’t been handed out yet. I saw a distinctive name and instantly knew it was my friend T, who I was close to 5 years ago in Spain but who I’ve seen only once since then. We haven’t really spoken in 3 years, but I instantly sent her a message to confirm. Sure enough, we were both accidentally in Denver at the same time! We went to a conference session together, got dinner, and caught up on each other’s lives while walking the pretty city. I am so grateful that the world is always smaller than I think it is, and even friends I think are gone can sometimes walk back into your life at the randomest times!

Making Dinners Out Special

I’ve been trying something new: when Husband and I go out, I am trying harder than before to get something that I have never tried. For instance, last night we got dinner because I was going away for a few days, and I got a grilled pear and goat cheese salad – so delicious and I’ve never had it before. I wanted to remember how nice it was to have dinner with Husband, chatting about our mutually crazy days at work and feeling like we really were getting the chance to unwind.

I’ve now eaten at a lot of restaurants with Husband, to the point where they often blend together. Part of my goal in eating a different thing whenever I go out is to try to “fix” it in my memory: I want to remember really valuable nights out. I remember eating a really amazing burger when visiting Husband in Baltimore, back before we were sure if our long-distance relationship would work. I remember drinking a slushie from a gas station right after we got engaged, when each of us would look at each other and giggle a little, not quite believing  we were getting married. I remember the plate of Indian food (let’s be real… there have been so many plates of Indian food) that I ate after our best date ever, a night at an astronomy observatory looking at stars.

If I can have a memorable meal or a meal that I have had a million times, I want to be the person who chooses a memorable one (I don’t always, though. I’m pretty likely to make a beeline for whatever has avocado on it, if I’m being realistic). These meals help me keep track of all the places we’ve been together, and all the people we’ve shared time with along the way.

Butternut Squash and Gouda Cream Sauce!

Remember, long long ago, when my sister made me Sister’s Gouda and Butternut Squash Casserole? Well, I finally tried making something similar but with ingredients from my beloved garden and my nearly-as-beloved Aldi.

I found some “Applewood smoked” gouda at Aldi and I had the last sad little squashes left from the summer, so I thought it time to try this so that Husband could see what a delightful combo it was. I bought “herb chicken” tortellini because 1. I’m lazy and do not make my own pasta (yet?) and 2. because husband loves a little protein in his pasta dishes. I set slivers of butternut squash in the GoSun for a sunny hour in the backyard, and they emerged soft and perfect.

The sauce starts with a roux, about a tablespoon of butter and nearly two tablespoons of flour (for me – do your favorite roux!) and then a generous pour of whole milk. More traditionalists should definitely follow a recipe for bechamel, and then grate some of that gouda goodness in. The gouda thickened the sauce wonderfully; I added Italian seasoning, basil, and oregano, and then mashed the butternut squash thoroughly before adding about 1 and a half cups of it. I wanted the sauce to be heavily squash-y, so you could always use less, but I wanted to feel like a veggie.

I boiled the tortellini as instructed and poured that sauce over; leftover gouda (I had about half of the round left) went on top of salads and into a 4-cheese tomato sauce I made later for the rest of the tortellini. I would not call this a health food, but it’s a wonderful flavor combination if you are bored with traditional alfredo, and it reminded me of good times shovelling pasta into my maw with my sister this summer; now it feels more seasonal with the autumnal chill in the air!

My Grandmother’s Cocoa Fudge

My grandmother made the same cake for my grandfather’s birthday for most of his adult life – when they married around the time they each turned 20, my grandmother learned the recipe for the yellow cake with fudge icing that he loved so much. “The hard part,” my grandmother always said. “was getting the icing onto the cake while it was hardening, because it hardens quickly and is brittle and crumbling.”

I thought this particular recipe (similar ones are found lots of places, including this one from Just a Pinch!) was so magical when I first tried cooking as a teenager: start with cocoa powder, sugar, and milk and all of a sudden, you have candy! It was pretty high-intensity, trying to make sure I got to exactly the right level of boil so that the candy turned out soft and crumbling. There are moments when you need to stir a ton, and moments when you need to avoid stirring at all, and what results can either frost a cake with sweet, sugary fudge or just be served in a little block… or four.

Fudge is certainly not a health food, but on this sweet, cool Autumn afternoon, I was more than happy to add a few extra chores to my schedule when I had a sliver of sugary chocolate motivating me. The key is to keep your hands off the next pieces! I will have to eat my salad and the rest of my dinner before I can partake in more of my grandmother’s traditional birthday treat, the one she’s been making for 67 years of marriage to my grandfather.

GIVEAWAY: Starry Recipe Box and Custom Recipe Cards!

I’ve been thinking a lot about the community that participates in blogs, either by writing them or commenting on them or just finding recipes on them and making them. It’s a beautiful thing, and it makes me want to give back.

I’m doing a giveaway that isn’t really super flashy – this is what you get with homemade – I have painted an astronomy-themed recipe box (see picture) and I have some beautiful recipe cards just waiting to be filled with your favorite recipes. If you make a pinterest board or a list of links for your favorite recipes, I’ll make up to 20 custom recipe cards for you. If you prefer your own handwriting, I’ll just mail you the box and the cards. 🙂

The way you enter is simple: just comment on the bottom of this post! If you want more chances to win, I’ll add a chance for the first time you do these things:

I’ll also enter you once for every comment you make on my blog in the next month (until November 9th). How often do you get to promote good dialogue online while also giving presents? I feel like blogger Santa.

The goal is to get more people talking about recipes and the stories behind them, as well as the processes, like cooking and writing and running and crafting and gardening, that we go through every day. I’m excited to read everyone’s responses and comments, and very excited to get a few more recipes in my inbox!