better sleep

Sleep does wonders. It’s the rejuvenator everyone requires. But it shouldn’t be a burdensome requirement. It should be a good, positive experience that charges you with the convertible potential energy for tomorrow.
Now this is not going to be rocket science but in the process of trying to improve my own sleep, I figured I’d post on my approach to do exactly that. I’m giving it a three-prong structure:

Fruit – I enjoy McIntosh apples (PLU #4019, not #4152), soft Bartlett pears, peaches, clementines, or any type of berries. Save the bananas for the morning.
A Good Drink – Milk, VitaminWater, big glass of regular water, orange juice, apple juice, or cranberry juice. Refreshing, nutritious, and calming.
Daily Vitamin(s) – Not to take before bed, but taken each morning it maintains chemical balance and the healthy diet needed for good rest.
NO Drugs – No sleep aids ever. No smoking ever either. People shouldn’t drink alcohol before bed either, but a glass or two or three of wine during/after dinner every once in a while is good for sure.

Exercise – The best way to be tired is to get tired. Nothing like a good early evening workout followed by a good shower. Good health is directly proportional to good sleep. Just leave some post-shower cool-down time to get your heart rate back to normal.
Stretching – Probably one of the most important things to do before bed. Even if it’s just hamstrings and quads, relaxed muscles correspond to relaxed sleep.
Deep Breaths – Sit and take 5 deep breaths. It’s soothing and creates a relaxed rhythm.
Pillows / Blanket – Build a good nest! Get the right blankets there.
Environment – Turn on a fan, open a window, close the blinds, etc. Getting a good temperature, lighting, and sound (or lack thereof) are especially important for sustained rest.
Write – Write off all your worries for another day. Sometimes actually writing things down you need to take care of – at work and at home – helps rid your mind of those thoughts and temporarily relieves stress and burdens.
Read – A routine of ten pages a night does the job. It will make you look forward to reading and falling asleep at the end of that session, and also will break you cleanly away from the rest of the day.
Observe – Go look at the sky. It is different every night and can be a good way to clear your mind of any earthly pains.
Convert – Turn daydreaming into night dreaming. Think of a good memory, dream vacation, or happy feeling. Or make some original thoughts and ideas and take them to bed with you. New thoughts can be very enlightening and comforting before bed.
Hopefully a combination of even a few of these things (e.g. fruit + stretch + good temp + reading) is all you need. The good thing if you don’t like the routine, there are plenty of combinations to make from the above lists.
Image 1: From GraphJam
Image 2: From JeromeProphet

stomach rumblin, mind a tumblin

I love the feeling of going to the grocery store with not a clue what to get: Stomach rumblin’, mind a tumblin’. Fortunately, most grocery stores are designed in the same way, and I have to give Lord Henry von Supermarket the kudos for smart design.
Most grocery stores will have the produce section first. For someone with no idea what to make for dinner, I think this is ideal. It gives off the nice colors and smells and aura of freshness that get the mind thinking of some good combinations: potatoes and corn, tomato and basil, squash and pepper, onion and garlic, are some traditional ones. But then I usually take that all in and move right to the butcher. Meat is the simplest way to begin designing a dish. I like to think of flavors and meats, marinades and spices. If I’m not in a hurry, I’ll take a gander around the hot food and international food sections to gather up some more flavorful ideas as well. Then back to the butcher.
Last night I wanted something simple, flavorful, and mixable. I’m the type to take a little bit of everything on my plate onto each bite and kick it up with some sauce/condiment/spice before devouring. Here’s what came out:
Center cut boneless pork loin (cut about 3/4 inch thick)
Yellow squash
Sweet potato (California yams)
1. Make a spice rub for the pork. I used cajun blackening spice, fresh ground coarse black pepper, salt, rosemary, thyme, savory spice mix, and a bit more garlic powder. They say not to over-spice your meat? I disagree with that one. The only rules in cooking is to eat or share all that you make and to make sure the kitchen is clean before and after cooking.
2. Rub the spice into the pork, on both sides and edges too.
3. Chunk up the raw yams and boil. You’ll lose some sugars by boiling but you can always add it back in! When potatoes are cooked, drain the hot water, add a big chunk of butter, some brown sugar, and mix. Keep the skin in there, it’s the best part.
4. Chop the squash and cook in a frying pan in butter on med to med-high heat. You’ll get some good brown edges which have the best flavor.
5. Cook the pork. There should be some leftover butter in the pan after removing the squash, but if not, add some butter or a little bit of olive oil and heat it up. Toss the pork in and cook a few minutes on med-high heat. Flip and cook until middle is barely pink / white.
6. Frank’s Red Hot sauce is perfect for this and/or throw some applesauce on your plate too.
I served with a random on-sale cabernet sauvignon called Pepperwood Grove (2006, California). Don’t listen to wine rules, just get what you want. If you don’t want wine, 2% milk hits the spot.
Main advice here is you don’t always have to pre-plan. Try the walk-in approach and let your senses guide you to dinner preparation. Then you won’t be a rumblin’ no more.

on cooking

If I haven’t expressed it yet, I love to cook. I really love cooking. It’s a hobby, a need, a getaway, and a creative expression. I like the science behind it as much as the process, flavors, origins, and beauty of food and cooking. Vegetables, fruits, meats, cheeses, spices, sauces, pastas, rices, seafoods, herbs, and much more are all variables in a world of infinite combinations. Because something doesn’t show up in a recipe book or google search doesn’t mean it’s not good. It just means it may not have been done yet and you are the lucky one that gets to put it together!

As with a few other random things (flying, reading, creative writing, building, etc), I find it hard to believe some people don’t like cooking. I think it is more intimidation and laziness than a lack of know-how or anything else. There are so many simple yet delicious dishes one can make that the “I just don’t know how” excuse doesn’t work for me. Hit the store, talk to the butcher, ask a neighbor, jot ideas down, look at pictures, buy a book, and just go at it. If you mess up, you learn for next time.

You have to make cooking a lifelong learning process. Learn to enjoy sharing what you cook. Honest feedback from multiple palates is most valuable in adjusting for your next dish. The ongoing learning process can then move you to experiment more and trust your instincts and senses more than to just use your ability to read and follow directions. That doesn’t mean books won’t always help you.

As my mom says, everyone should have the ultimate reference book in their kitchen – The Joy of Cooking. For other old, traditional references, book sales, tag sales, and local festivals are great places for these. On the other hand, you can always find new, innovative approaches to cooking at the local book store. I just grabbed a good one the other day: Ratio – The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking (by Michael Ruhlman). If something inspires thoughts for your next cooking experience, it’s worth it.

Finally, I want to note that these days, easy access to food can almost be considered a privilege. For that reason, it’s certainly a privilege to have easy access to a wide variety of foods. So if you have a nearby grocery store, go look around. There are A LOT of foods out there that someone else might not have the chance to eat. If you get flustered, go grab some juicy California oranges and soft McIntosh apples and come back another time.

Here are links to two great food blogs to which I was referred by my friends Colleen (happy birthday!) and Heather (woop woop!). Colleen says she’ll have one of her own up soon…
Gluttony Is A Bliss
Smitten Kitchen

Note: Picture above is a homemade chicken parm and shells with homemade tomato sauce and fresh parmesan cheese. 

fruits of the year

Fruit is the greatest thing in the world. That sugary sweetness with nutritional value can’t be beat. The world of fruit is diverse, colorful, juicy, artistic, healthy, natural, and pleasing. Nothing beats a good piece of fruit and you know it.

One of my best memories as a kid is eating fruit each night. As my brothers and I each showered and got in our pajamas, my dad would cut up a few pieces of fruit and mix them up in a bowl for each of us. Depending on what he had bought that week, it may have included pieces of pear, apple, banana, orange, strawberries, blueberries, and/or grapes. We’d each sit, eat our bowl of fruit, and watch The Cosby Show and maybe another Nick At Night show like Dobie Gillis or My Three Sons or Mork & Mindy before heading to bed. Little did we know that we were being filled with all sorts of free radical neutralizers and other vitamins and minerals that would help us stay healthy and strong. Here I want to rank my top fruits of the year, with the hope that I can do this on an annual basis. These may be debatable, but I don’t care. I’m basing my opinions on a combination of three main things:

  • The Acquisition (cost, availability)
  • The Consumption (taste, versatility)
  • The Feeling (health benefits, satisfaction)

1. McIntosh ApplesAcquisition: Available in pretty much every supermarket throughout most of the year. Cost is relatively cheap. Grown off a tree that is fun to climb. Easy to choose which ones you want and you can feel for tartness before purchasing.

Consumption: Easy to eat – just wash and go! Good just plain or with peanut butter or with a little cinnamon sugar sprinkled on top. Can be eaten during all hours of the day. Can be used in numerous other dishes such as pies, juices, sauces, muffins, cakes.
Feeling: Skin has many nutrients/vitamins. Beautiful green/red color. Roundness is complete and satisfying. Puts me to bed. Smiles at me. Feels great to eat I’m almost addicted.

2. Strawberries

Acquisition: Can be expensive and tough to find in harsh times of the year. However, in mid to late summer when the prices drop, they can be found on the street corner plump as a tennis ball. Sometimes tough to avoid a few bad ones when sold in plastic containers.

Consumption: Taste of a good, dark red strawberry might be the best bite in the world. Tingles my jaw. Drips with juice on a hot day. Love that crisp, cool center when bit in half. Sometimes a pain to avoid the leaves when in a hurry or overwhelmed with excitement. Great in desserts, shakes, cereal. Great mixed with other berries too.
Feeling: Beautiful red color and distinct heart-like shape. Have great sex appeal. Sometimes eat too many and get real full off them.

3. Bananas

Acquisition: Very easy to get and are the cheapest fruit you can buy. Not many bad bananas in a bunch so easy to pick out too. Ripen quickly though and are odorous when too ripe.
Consumption: Simple to peel, simple to eat. Taste predictable and easy to crave. Awesome in cereal. Love banana bread. Love banana chips. Good in shakes, desserts/sundaes, pie, on a sandwich (w/ peanut butter), much more. Also like them yellow Runts.
Feeling: Filling and nutritious. Good potassium and other vitamins. Beautiful yellow color and distinct shape.

Just missed the list: pineapples, cantaloupes, clementines. Better luck at the end of the summer.