Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year, Friends!

I don't make New Year's resolutions; it's too discouraging when I don't keep them. Besides, if I need to make a change or accomplish something really important I should be able to do it any time of the year, not wait until January. I rarely do as I'm told, so following the crowd and making resolutions because of a date on the calender isn't something I can do. Having said that, there are many things I regularly wish I had the time and energy to do. I live with a frustrating and limiting although not at all life threatening disability. I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Over the years this has been variously misunderstood by many people, including the medical profession, but it is now recognized as real, not in any way psychosomatic, and of unknown origin and cure. Yeah.

While current research suggests that it is a gene mutation resulting from a virus that leaves the body believing it still has a virus after the illness has gone, the symptoms may vary slightly from person to person, but long term, unexplained fatigue is the common symptom. For me, when I have pushed myself too hard, I have a viral-like physical reaction that includes swollen lymph glands, a sore throat, headache, vague body aches and extreme exhaustion. On a daily basis I am physically tired and have a lower output level than most healthy people. The greatest challenge is that you wouldn't know this to look at me.

I have lived with this for at least ten years, which is slightly less than half the length of my marriage and two thirds of my son's life. I no longer go hiking or play squash. A day gardening can send me to bed for two days; a weekend away requires a day of recovery. I work part time and it takes so much of my energy that I have difficulty keeping up with housework, a social life and favourite activities. Mostly, I read, write and watch movies. Sometimes I draw and paint. Gardening has become more my husband's labour and my artistic direction. I like to go for walks and practice yoga. I like to cook, but stamina for that comes in fits and starts. You might wonder why I am explaining all of this.

I think that this syndrome is one of the greatest gifts I've had in this life. It makes me slow down, it forces me to prioritize and has helped me to care less about what others' think. I have had to learn to say, no. No, I'm sorry, I won't be able to participate in that. No, sorry, I can't help you with that this time. It has even helped me to do less explaining. I used to worry. I thought I should do everything. I thought I should be brilliant and fabulous and have it all and do it all. Those are the women we admire, or at least the ones held up for us to admire. Magazines offer us fantasies, fantasy people living fantasy lives and I have always been a magazine addict. Over the past decade I have learned to love myself and my life. It doesn't mean I am completely free of material wants or that I don't sometimes feel sorry for myself. I'm human, I sure do fall into those traps. I can climb out quickly though. I've learned that I make my own happiness and for that matter, my own misery.

I'm damn freakin' lucky to live where I live and have what I have, I'm amongst the wealthiest people in the world. I have shelter, safety, food and so much choice that when it comes to material things the excess of choice can be absolutely ridiculous. Yes, some of those material things contribute to my happiness. I want them and I have them. I have the opportunity to chose to be vegan, a political liberal, outspoken and often controversial in my opinions. I can chose what I want to read, what music I want to listen to and what movies I want to watch. Music and movies and books exist and are attainable in my world! I don't have to worry that because I'm female I must be covered up and repressed and punished for the sexual thoughts of the males I might cross paths with.

But happiness comes from within, not from the presence or absence of any of these things. If I am too attached to what I have, I might suffer great emotional pain if I were to lose it. If I become too attached to what I think I am and what I think I can do, I might lose it and suffer pain both physically and mentally. Illness and disability can certainly lead a person along that path. I have been through the anger and depression and sometimes still struggle with guilt. What I cannot do affects my family as well as myself. But what I can do also affects us and what I can do is so much more. the most significant thing that I can do is to be happy. To love, smile at and laugh with and be with people care about is the best part of my life. If that were taken away from me I would want to cry and moan and wail that I had lost everything, but I wouldn't have. I would have my memories, my experiences of what I gave and what I received through love.

Somehow on the journey of my life so far I figured this out. I can choose to be happy. What is there to worry about? All I have to deal with is right now. Yesterday is done with and tomorrow never comes. Right now, I have what I have and what I can't control is not worth crying over. I might not have learned that if I didn't have to deal with a debilitated body. I might still be striving to be perfect. Everything to everybody. I don't have to be perfect. I just have to be me and be happy about it. It's so simple.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Yummy Polenta Lasagne: borrowed and altered

One of my very favourite websites is The Fat-Free Vegan. I am constantly bookmarking recipes from there although I am a compulsive recipe collector with not enough time to actually cook or bake all of my yummy looking finds. Somewhere in my genetic code is the tendency to try a new recipe whenever I am having company to dinner, and the recipe I am about to share is a success from just such a situation. I wanted something simple and elegant; I had to impress some new friends reported to be gourmands and also come up with something vegan that my husband would eat without too much grimacing. I went to my favourite website and her featured recipe that day was Polenta Lasagne with Kale and Portobello Mushrooms. I decided to make it and purchased the kale, kalamata olives and mushrooms required. I forgot to get the silken tofu needed and I chose to buy a tube of polenta instead of making my own, in order to save time.

I am making the recipe for the second time today, as it was absolutely delicious, and since I discovered that it tastes even better the next day, I'm making it for a family dinner tomorrow night, at which there will be no vegan food unless I provide some. This time I'm making my own polenta since I did find the little circles of polenta less than perfect for slicing and serving squares of this dish.

I also quite like the sauce I came up with in the absence of silken tofu, although it must be noted that it my sauce IS NOT FAT FREE. Please visit the website for the original recipe and other yummy things to make. Here is my version of it.

1 lb mushrooms-crimini are just baby portobellos and since you will be chopping them it is a cheaper way to go
1 onion, chopped
1 bunch kale, rinsed, de-stemmed and chopped
1 jar pitted kalamat olives
1 jar marinara sauce or 2 cups homemade marinara sauce
1 head garlic
1/2 cup nutritional yeast
1 cup soy milk
2 cups raw cashews
Bragg's liquid or Tamari to taste
onion powder (optional)
faux parmesan or homemade crumb topping

Spread cooked polenta on the bottom of a 9x13 oiled pan-after it sets it can be tipped out and sliced in half to use as a top and bottom layer in a smaller pan or make two sets of this polenta layer for a 9x13 casserole. I only have one 9x13 dish but I'm patiently making two batches of polenta.

Have prepared polenta on hand and make the filling.

Saute chopped onion in a large saucepan or crockpot, until onion is translucent and soft. Add chopped mushrooms and cook a few minutes longer. Stir in the chopped kale and cover with a tight fitting lid. Over minimum heat, let the kale steam until softened. Set aside the pot of vegetables and make the cashew cream sauce

Using the food processor in which I minced the onion, I find I have enough onion bits and juice left behind to eliminate the need for the onion powder. Add the cashews, garlic according to your preference (probably 3 or 4 cloves), nutritional yeast, Tamari and soy milk. Process until very smooth. Stir this cream sauce into the onion/kale mix.

Crumb Topping:

enough bread to make about 1 cup crumbs
1 cup nutritional yeast
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1 tbsp salt
Process these ingredients together until mixed and crumbly. Add a little melted Earth Balance or olive oil to make the crumbs stick together.

Put one layer of polenta on the bottom of a lightly oiled 9x13 pan. Spread about 1 cup of marinara sauce over the polenta and then top with the cream sauce and vegetable mixture. Cover with a generous layer of kalamata olives and top with the second layer of polenta. I let my polenta cool and then turned it out onto a cutting board in one solid rectangle. To put it on the top of the casserole I cut it into squares that I could lift with a metal spatula and place on top of the olive/vegetable layer. Spread more marinara sauce on the top layer of polenta and then cover with faux parmesan or crumb topping.

Bake in 375 degree oven for about thirty minutes. In my opinion this is nicest reheated the second day.

(photo source-me-which is why it is such a bad picture. There was no time for staging or fancy lighting)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Chocolate: What is the True Cost?

In North America and Europe chocolate is consumed in enormous quantities by decent people who are unaware of the child abuse to which they may be contributing. Most cocoa farms are small, family run operations and the profits are limited although demand is high. In order to keep up with demand farmers need labourers in addition to their family members and children seeking work to support a better life are vulnerable to slave trafficking and unpaid, abusive working conditions on farms desperate to keep up with the demand for cocoa in the western world. The Ivory Coast, the region with the most cocoa farms, is also the region most unregulated and most likely to have children working on these farms in abusive conditions. Children sold to farmers by slave traffickers are not free to leave and are punished if caught trying to escape.

Although trafficking in children is illegal, it continues in West Africa to feed the demand for labour on the cocoa farms. Cocoa production is labour intensive but results in low earnings for the families who are usually depending on it as their sole income source. Even with most or all family members working on the farm, additional labourers are needed and many children can be found working on these farms. Often these children are denied the opportunity to attend school, with up to one third of them never having attended school at all. With the low earnings for cocoa farmers, these children are not being paid and are often living in squalid conditions. They are poorly fed, often subsisting on a little corn paste. They may be beaten for poor performance or attempts to escape. They work using no protective equipment to prevent injury or illness from machetes pesticides and insecticides. Michel Larouche, the West African regional director of Save The Children Canada, says,
"In Canada, Europe and America, what we have on our shelves is cheap, such as coffee, chocolate bars...if we put a stop to child trafficking the price of certain things---cotton shirts, coffee, candy bars---will rise. The reality is if your products are this cheap, it's because of this situation."

An Iowa senator, Thomas Harkin, led an investigation into slave labour practices in West Africa. He introduced legislation for a "slave free" label on chocolate but the bill was not enacted due to pressure from the large chocolate companies who claimed it unfairly penalized them for something they could not control. They argued that if they stopped purchasing cocoa from these impoverished African farmers even more people would suffer. Nestle, the largest chocolate products company in the world, signed an agreement along with the ILO (International Labour Organization) to certify chocolate as not having been acquired through slave labour. This certification practice was to be put in place by July of 2005 but it never happened. Bernard Callebaut, large producer of chocolate, claims it is unaware of any slave labour involved in the cocoa it purchases from West Africa, and that none would be tolerated. The company also admits that they could never guarantee the absence of slave labour since the cocoa/chocolate market is so full of middlemen.

Although it is a complicated problem, solutions are not unavailable. The Fair Trade Organization has succeeded in making slave free chocolate available to consumers who care. Certified Fair Trade and Certified Organic labels are a reliable guide to ethical chocolate. The farms that supply cocoa for these products are involved in fair labour practices and small farm cooperatives that help to improve their communities' schools, hospitals and infrastructure. The purchaser of the cocoa pays an above market price, understanding that current market prices are low and support only poverty level incomes for the farming families. The increased payment makes the lives of families and their communities better. Of course, the higher purchase price is passed on to the consumer, to you and me, but I have no trouble considering it a donation of support for these African farmers.

When I consider the taste difference between the cheap chocolate candy so readily available in every supermarket and bargain priced retail outlet (yes Wal Mart I'm talking about YOU), and a good piece of Fair Trade chocolate like those sold by Cocoa Camino or Green and Black, and realize that those Hershey hugs and kisses with their insipid chocolate flavour are supporting the continuation of child slave labour, I have no difficulty paying more for chocolate that is really worth it. I wish I had known all of this sooner in my career as a mother, and insisted on only ethical chocolate for Christmas, Valentine's, Easter and Hallowee'n. Even some of the purveyors of quality chocolate are not untainted by the slavery practices now known to abound in West Africa. We are all free to make choices, live in comfort and consume too much chocolate, please let us do it with good conscience.

Recommended Read:


Sunday, December 27, 2009

Cartoon Furniture
In my random web wanderings I came across this photo. I love the architecture of this room. I am not a fan of stripes but I can accept this wall paper and I love it's echo in the plant, but I can't sort out my feelings for this furniture. I think it is the pop of colour that I like. I wonder if the furniture salesman was Roger Rabbit. Does this cartoon set of table and chairs work in this room?

Monday, December 21, 2009

If I Had $1,000,000 - Barenaked Ladies [BEST ONE]

Dreaming at the websites of Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters and Spring Shoes

Sunday, December 20, 2009

I made soup tonight and even my husband liked it.

I've recorded what I did so that I can repeat it it, which is often difficult with a throw together soup. The entree was apparently one he could take or leave ( I liked it) but desert was also a hit.

Three Sisters Soup

2 cups veg broth
1 cup water or more to reach desired consistency
3 cloves garlic
1/2 onion, chopped
1 small turnip, peeled and sliced
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 cup cooked squash
2 tbsp Bragg's Soy liquid
1/3 cup nutritional yeast

In a large pot, simmer these ingredients until the vegetables are tender. Puree. Remove a little of the broth to a small bowl and stir in a little potato flour ( approx 1/4 cup)

Add cumin, salt, chipotle chili powder to taste.
2 cups frozen corn
1 cup cut green beans
1-2 cups cooked black beans

Simmer until vegetables are tender and flavours blended.

This makes a fairly big batch, probably about ten or twelve servings

Fancy Chocolate Pudding

2 blocks Mori Nu extra firm silken tofu
2 tbsp maple syrup
1 1/2-2 cups chocolate chips, melted ( tonight I used chocolate chips and an espresso/dark chocolate bar)

Blend the tofu and syrup in a food processor until creamy. Add the melted chocolate and blend well, stirring and scraping the sides a few times. while it can be eaten right away, it is nicest refrigerated a couple of hours, in which time the flavours really blend well and the tofu is completely indistinguishable. My non vegan husband attested to this and my tofu phobic son ate a bowlful without even knowing about the tofu.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Today was the last day of school before the winter break. I have to admit that I am exhausted. In the spirit of having a good nap, a spirit I will be in for the next couple of days, here are some adorable pets from Flickr. Have a great weekend everybody.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Come on over for a cup of coffee. Here are some things you'll see at my house.

The plants I try to resuscitate.

Driftwood from the beach nearby. Vogue magazine because I like to know the rules that I break.

My art and the large collection of heart shaped rocks that my husband finds for me.

Yes, even more struggling plants and my 25 year old engagement photo. Beach treasures from near and far and a beautiful tea set that I love to look at but never use because it drips.

If you would prefer tea instead of coffee, I have other teapots in your choice of colour.