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Especially now that I have more time and energy to cook, I’ve been working on eating less processed foods and making more stuff from scratch.

Recently I read an article (which I can now no longer locate) about how MSG is often not listed on labels and appears in many surprising and popular foods — even stuff like Campbell’s Soup. This led me to look at the label of a can of Campbell’s tomato soup that I had in my kitchen — turns out they throw some high fructose corn syrup in there for good measure. It’s like nothing is safe from that stuff.

This led me on a mission to learn more about making my own soup. What did I learn? That making soup is as easy as throwing a bunch of fresh junk into some broth. It doesn’t take a genius or a soup scientist.
And while heating up a can of soup only takes a few minutes, making your own doesn’t take that many more. For example, today I made a show-stopping beans ‘n’ greens soup in 20 minutes. Not only was it cheap to make, but I can eat it all week and freeze the other half for later. Even better, I don’t get the MSG or sugar and I can add or leave out any ingredients that I don’t like or don’t happen to have.

In a large soup pot, throw in

  • one cup of chopped onions
  • a half cup of food processed celery (I like the taste of celery but hate the texture, so I food process the hell of out it)
  • four chopped slices of bacon
  • two chopped carrots
  • diced garlic to your liking (I like a lot)

Cook these things for about ten minutes, or until the bacon is cooked through and the onions are see-through. Then add:

  • A 15-ounce can of white beans
  • Six cups of chicken broth
  • A cup of uncooked whole wheat pasta (I like the spirals)
  • Whichever spices your into (rosemary, thyme, and red pepper for me)

Let this stuff simmer for about ten minutes, or until the pasta is al dente. Then turn off the heat and add in about 10 ounces of spinach (or your green of choice) until it wilts and turns bright green.

And for my veggie friends, this one is easy to turn vegan — just ditch the bacon and replace the chicken broth with vegetable broth.

best essays of 2007So you know the Best American Essays book series that comes out each year? And how there’s a list of the top 100 essays published that year near the back of the book? I’m on that list! It’s for the first creative nonfiction piece I published, which appeared in The Gettysburg Review.

The weird thing is that no one bothered to tell me I was on the list, right there with people like Jamaica Kincaid, Michael Cunningham, David Sedaris, and Sherman Alexie. I only found out because my high school friend’s mom noticed it and told her and then she told me last night.

I didn’t believe her, I said, “Sorry, but I think they would have let me know.” But, it just so happens that my dad gave me the Best American Essays of 2007 for Christmas, and the very book was sitting a few yards away from me. I opened it up and there I was. It was kind of like magic.

Anyway, it is kind of a big deal for me. Especially considering how doubtful I can be about the whole quitting-my-job-to-write-things decision, this makes me feel a little more legit. I mean, there are way more than 100 American creative nonfiction writers and there were way, way more than 100 essays published in America as year. I’ve got a chance!

I have been tagged by hip to code to list seven things I approve of. Since “things” is a little too general for me, I’m going to narrow it down to seven bad television shows I approve of. In no particular order:

Best Week Ever This half-hour show at first looks as dumb as the other VH1 pop culture shows like I Love The 80s. But even though it has the same lame ADD format (people you’ve never heard of talking about a short clip shown several times), this show is truly funny. Not only do you get to catch up on the “news,” but you get to see some of the best comic delivery on TV. No, I’m serious.

Intervention Ever toy with the idea of just letting go and getting addicted to meth or crack or alcohol? Every think that maybe things would just be easier if you finally took up that eating disorder? You should probably think again and just get addicted to Intervention, like me. The episodes are like hour-long windows into a person’s life gone wrong. I find it not only fascinating but really well done – they aren’t preachy or damning and they don’t treat the addicts like monsters or freakshows. Instead, they’re compassionate about the causes and powers of addiction. It’s like getting to watch a really well done documentary every week.

The Colbert Report With the writers’ strike, The Daily Show and other similar shows have really suffered and declined. But Steven Colbert has pushed forward, carrying the entire show on his back. It just gets better and better the more empty time he is allowed to fill on his own.

Biggest Loser This is the only reality show that doesn’t make me feel bad about myself – like I’m a voyeur who revels in other people’s pain and bad judgment (although this is generally true). Since the contestants are working together toward a common goal instead of fighting against each other, it’s more about teamwork than anything else. In fact, the lamest part of the show is the forced competition that the producers have wedged into the show. Still, if you ignore that and focus on the part where people reclaim their lives after years of letting themselves go (in more ways than physically) it makes for pretty good viewing.

The Wire I’ve already written about this one.

Rock of Love I’d like to know how one could go wrong by putting a few dozen strippers (and your odd small-time porn actress) in with a over-the-hill mediocre rock star. I think the thing that fascinates me about strippers is that they are a self-selecting group of women who 1) will do anything and 2) lack the ability to do anything well (except perhaps lick their own breasts). I also think this show is the best argument against plastic surgery that I have ever seen.

Flight of the Conchords So we bought HBO to watch the last season of the Wire, and now we can’t stop watching this other HBO original series, a musical comedy about two New Zealand friends who have an unsuccessful band in New York City. Although it looks and sounds a little too quirky and indie rock (even for me), it is truly funny. Don’t bother searching for a plot, though.

There you have it. Now I get to call out people specifically to list seven things they approve of? How about if you’re reading this, feel free to answer. And, of course, if you are watching some good/bad TV, please alert me! God knows I don’t watch enough already.

ripsAfter getting a few hours of writing done after work, Ben and I walked up the street and returned to our apartment with a few deli wraps and a bottle of wine.

We then spent the night watching mixed martial arts fights on TV, toasting to various things, and envisioning how the next few months of our lives are going to unfold. Now that we will both work from the home, how are things going to change?It was quickly decided (after two glasses of wine) that as far as our growing home office was concerned, Ripley would be named Chief Executive Officer. It was also quickly decided that Rips would look really, really cute in a tie.

I thought it would be a good idea to install a water cooler in the living room so that we could take breaks and talk about the latest episode of Dancing with the Stars. We both agreed that any emails we sent to each other would now be referred to as “office-wide memos.”  

Ben also suggested that we instate a company policy prohibiting interoffice relationships in order to promote professionalism, but Ripley and I quickly struck it down. After three glasses of wine, we decided that instead of “dress-down Fridays” we’d have “drunk Fridays” – you know, just to keep everyone comfortable and to keep company morale up.

The list of things that our office wouldn’t have was highly encouraging, though. No more commutes, no more bagged lunches. No more dress code, no more dour 15-minute birthday celebrations. More importantly, no more spreadsheets (or, at least, very few), no more working on projects I don’t choose, no more phone addict cube mate.

I know that the challenges ahead of me are hard, but at least they’ll be my challenges. And even though my new boss demands to be fed twice a day and makes me clean up her poop, at least she doesn’t have the ability to talk. Or use emoticons.

I’m feeling elated and terrified.

I like the idea of being responsible for my happiness, production, and income on a daily basis. I also like the idea that even if I fail, at least I will have tried and gotten it over with.

My (good, non-emoticon) boss seemed almost as happy as I did. I would say that I liked working with her as much as I hated my job. She’s going to tell my emoticon boss that I’m leaving so I dont’ have to.

I also somewhat brashly asked for a weeklong vacation before officially giving my two-week notice. It was granted. This will give me one paid week in which to get a jumpstart on writing and marketing my ass off.

Anyone’s company need a freelance corporate copywriter?

 * The new website is going to be another day or two as we work out tiny kinks. It’s pretty damn exciting, though.

* I spent the entire day writing biographies of famous boxers for another web content freelance job. It was surprisingly inspiring to write about a bunch of guys over the last 150 years or so who held a vocation that I would describe as the absolute opposite of having an office job.

I was especially inspired by the story of Jack Johnson, the son of two former slaves and the first African-American to win the World Heavyweight Title.  To read about his against-all-odds struggle against racism at the turn of the century was unbelievable – and I immediately Netflixed Ken Burn’s PBS documentary about him on Ben’s recommendation, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. I’ll tell you how it is.

And, since I like for everything to be about me, I’ll point out that in each and every one of the boxer bios I wrote today, there was this moment in each fighter’s career when they quit their job at the factory/farm/army base/post office and decided to take the plunge and be a professional boxer. Just like that. (I won’t mention that many of their lives ended in heartbreak and financial ruin.)

* My insomnia is getting worse and worse. And although it makes my mornings painful and takes away from my daytime production, I’m enjoying the surreal hours I spend in the dark on my computer, from about 3 AM to 6 AM, scheming and planning. It’s almost as if things are more possible in the middle of the night than in the light of day. It’s like I’ve replaced my literal nighttime dreams with my figurative career-aspiration dreams. I feel like some sort of freelance writer vampire in that regard – the person inside me who truly believes that I can start up and run my own business retreats to a coffin at sun-up, hissing at the light.

* In fourth grade, it was mandatory for everyone to take swimming lessons at the high school pool. I passed everything except for the diving part and, therefore, I failed gym class that quarter. To this day, it’s been absolutely impossible for me to dive into a body of water – something deep in my brain won’t let my body jump headfirst into something. And yes, even my ten-year-old self understood the blatantly obvious and lame metaphor about diving as it translated to my larger life.

* In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day
, I’d like to post a link to the speech Barak Obama gave yesterday in Atlanta.

Growing up, my favorite thing in the world was my mom’s chicken and dumplings. Notice I didn’t say my favorite food was chicken and dumplings, I said that my favorite thing in the whole wide world was chicken and dumplings.

I can still remember my anticipation for dinner on the nights when it was on the stove. And, to this day, a big pot of it awaits me every time I go home for a visit. It’s just simply that good.

Due to my well-documented fear of preparing dough and basically anything that involves cutting things into flour, I had never made the dish myself. It was almost like a mental block — how could I create something so delicious when I wasn’t my mom?

Once, a few years back, I attempted one of those short-cut recipes for chicken and dumplings that I found online — one of those cheater dishes that uses canned biscuit dough and condensed soup. The result was such a horrible travesty that I didn’t eat more than a bite. I learned my lesson well: you don’t cut corners with this dish unless you want to cut the quality as well.

Over this past Christmas, my mom walked me through the recipe, and it was surprisingly simple and straightforward. It was as if I assumed it was difficult because it tasted so good and perhaps because when I was little it seemed to take about five hours to be ready to eat.

I made it solo today, in time to eat for the Patriots game kickoff. It tasted just as it should — exactly like mom’s.

Mom’s Chicken and Dumplings

For broth:

  • Use 4 or 5 boneless chicken breasts, or whole breasts with skin and bones (skin adds more fat and flavor – but I use skinless and it works fine)
  • 2 t. salt
  • 1/2 t. pepper
  • 2 or 3 carrots, sliced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Several stalks of celery, cut into pieces (I put mine in a food processor)
  • 1 medium white onion, chopped
  • Enough water to cover chicken
  • 3 cups of milk

1. Add all ingredients except milk to a heavy-bottomed large pot; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer. Cover pot and cook for at least one hour.
2. Remove chicken; cool. Remove bones and skin, if necessary, and cut into bite-size pieces. Set aside.
3. Add 3 cups of milk. Bring to boil and add dumplings (see below) one at a time, keeping the broth at a boil.
4. Cover pot and simmer for10 or 15 minutes or until dumplings are done. Do not lift cover so that the steaming of dumplings occurs.
5. Add chicken pieces, continuing to boil gently.
6. Blend 4 T. flour and 1/2 cold water. Add to broth, gently blending in.
7. Cook and stir until slightly thickened. Simmer (very faint boil) for about 1 hour.
Turn off heat and let stand for another hour.

Dumplings:

2 1/4 c. flour
3 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
5 T. shortening (I use non-transfat Crisco)
1 egg + enough water to equal 3/4 cup

1. Mix flour, baking powder, and salt in large mixing bowl.
2. Cut in shortening with pastry blender or fork.
3. Beat egg and water with fork until blended (about 30 seconds).
4. Add egg mixture gradually into flour mixture while blending with a fork.
5. Use hands to form into a ball.
6. Roll dough out on well-floured surface until 1/8-inch thick using a rolling pin.
7. Cut into rectangles about 2×4 inches in size using a pizza cutter or sharp knife.
8. Let dry at least 30 minutes, uncovered.

Note: You can add additional milk to this dish if the broth is totally absorbed or to achieve the consistency you like.

we're movingHeads up, everybody: BROOD is moving to a newer, prettier home. This new site is not only better looking, but also has better features, such as a link that allows you to bookmark posts easily. And, hopefully, the address is easier to remember, because it’s my name (brood was taken, unfortunately): sarahaswell.com. It’s not up quite yet, so don’t bother to type that into your browser right now.

The only downside to this newer, classier site is that it’s going to be hard to get people to move over with me. The site should be “migrating” or whatever on Monday, at which time this page will re-direct you to my new home. When you reach my new, functioning site for the first time, you should:

  • Update your bookmarks
  • Update your RSS feed
  • Edit your blogroll

You could also just write done the new address or memorize it or shave the mirror image of the address into the back of your head. But the point is, I’m moving, and I want you to come with me.

Also, if you like the look of my site and you need some web-techy help yourself, let me know and I’ll send you over to my lovely, talented, and always-awake web-lady, Robin.

Ever since I made a big decision about my job/life (to be disclosed in further detail in the coming terrifying weeks), my crippling insomnia has returned and made itself at home.

I have what I refer to in my head as “Type II Insomnia.” This means that I have absolutely no trouble falling asleep at all but that I wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning and that’s it. Sleep is over for the night. Tossing and turning is acceptable. Getting up and doing something is acceptable. Dozing or snoozing is not.

But here’s the thing: I kind of like it. It feels like… every night feels like the night before Christmas when I was a kid. My mind is simply too excited about things to sleep. The last time I had chronic insomnia was for the two years I was in graduate school – doing what I loved and constantly thinking about what I would do next. And now I have it again. It’s as if it pops back into my life whenever I’m actually thinking about possibilities and acting on them.

If you were really a fan of terrible metaphors, you could say that while I’ve been in this office job, I’ve slept well through the night, but what I didn’t realize that I’ve also been sleep-walking through my days.

And so I lie in bed and have these intense thoughts about all the awesome plans I have and how I will execute the beginnings of them the next day. I write stuff in my head and file it away, where I can access it surprisingly intact sentence by sentence the next day (including this blog post)(including these parentheses!). If I get bored, I hug up on Ben and tell him embarrassingly corny things – and he’s helplessly unconscious and unable to prevent me from doing it.

The bad part isn’t being up at night at all – it’s the part where I have to go to work in the morning and function. I’m doing pretty well so far, but if this continues for many more weeks, we might have a problem on our hands. I might spend all my energy planning stuff at night and be exhausted during the day. Already, after just a few night of sleeplessness, I’m falling asleep earlier and earlier (I didn’t make it to 10 p.m. last night) and waking up earlier and earlier (last night it was two in the morning).

I suppose I can get out my dusty bottle of Simply Sleep (insomniacs everywhere: this is my favorite product ever) and get things back on track. But the point is that, in some sort of strange backwards way, my insomnia is proving to me that I’ve made the right choice. My brain has been jolted awake and is poised at the starting line. Even if  I am scared and hesitant during the day, at night a calmer, more organized part of me is diligently and methodically preparing itself for what is to come.  

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