Sunday, January 29, 2012

Today's Dough: Peanut Butter and Jam-Filled Tangzhong Bread

My love of peanut butter-and-jelly is well know.  So when I came across this very interestingly-named bread, I decided right then and there what kind of concoction would comprise the filling.

These look like they take a lot of work, but in fact, they are simple to make - though there is a time investment.  Well worth it to have these gorgeous, soft and sweet rolls sitting on a plate next to your cup of coffee at the end of the effort!

To try your hand at Tangzhong bread and to fill them with whatever your taste buds desire (cinnamon-sugar-raisin?  parsley-walnut-garlic-onion?) visit my vegan cooking blog, An Unrefined Vegan for the step-by-step.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


I can't remember a time when flying was a special occasion warranting the wearing of a nice dress, high heels; a suit and tie for men.  Full meals on china with silverware.  Drinks in crystal.  Seat belts optional and a spiral staircase to a lounge and the first class cabin.  My parents remember.  But I do remember when we could wait at the gate for a loved one to come out of the plane.  I can even recall running down the gangway to meet my father right at the open door of the plane.

My dad did a lot of overseas travel back in the late 60s and early 70s and so his young family spent a good deal of time taking him to and picking him up from the airport.  Neither was a chore (except probably for my mother who had to do the driving and the herding of four active children).  We looked forward to the adventure of going to the airport.  It seemed exotic - modern and shiny.  Teeming with people with interesting (or so I imagined) stories about where they'd come from and where they were going.  Duty-free shops, smokey and mysterious bars, impressively-uniformed airline employees wheeling their bags along the wide corridors.

Dad's arrivals were to be anticipated days ahead of time.  We looked for the bags he would be carrying - covered in foreign words - that we knew held bars of Swiss chocolate and a stuffed animal or two. Departures were harder, of course.  Saying goodbye isn't really ever fun.  There are strained smiles and tears and last looks over shoulders.

Despite myself I still scan the crowd waiting by the gate as a I disembark from planes.  Maybe, maybe... But those days are over.  We have to settle for being greeting at the thin line between "secure" and suspicious.  I still feel a tiny twinge of excitement when going to the airport even though that small part of it - being at the gate, peering past other travelers to find your traveler - has been taken away.  It's still all about reconnecting and hugging, catching up and being happy that the one you are meeting is finally home.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Thank You, Zibbet!

As hard it is to imagine, I had no idea when I signed up for a "premium" shop on that I had automatically been entered into a contest to win an iPad2.  It's a good thing I didn't know, for surely, I would never have won it.  After confirming that the "You just won an iPad2" email was indeed real, I immediately told any and all who would listen about my wonderful good fortune.  And I bought a nifty black case for it. The only thing Zibbet required was a photo of it - and me.  A pretty good deal, I'd say.

So, thank you Jonathan Peacock and everyone at Zibbet for my beautiful, shiny, brand-spankin' new iPad.  It was love at first sight.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Stone Knives and Bearskins

"Captain, you're asking me to work with equipment which is hardly very far ahead of stone knives and bearskins." - Spock, to Captain Kirk (from "The City on the Edge of Forever" episode)

As far as treating cancer, it seems like methods haven't changed that much since my grandmother died of colon cancer some fifty years ago: heavy doses of radiation followed by debilitating chemotherapy.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.  Interesting and encouraging new treatments appear on the horizon and then fade into failure and disappointment.  There has been good progress in conquering some forms of cancer, but others remain tenaciously hard to beat.

My brother has been through the radiation and chemo wringer.  After a year of the "gold standard" chemo, it has proved to be ineffective, so now we work our way through a list of alternatives.  Meanwhile, we've kept our eyes and ears tuned to the latest research, clinical trials and FDA approvals.  We have him taking a cocktail of supplements for which he needs a schedule to keep track.  I encourage (unsuccessfully so far...) him to incorporate dietary changes, yoga and meditation into his treatment regimen.  Any and all options are on the table.

This past week at The Santosh Kesari Laboratory at the University of California San Diego we got him started on something completely different.  When my brother was diagnosed in October 2010 with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) the family dove into the internet looking for anything we could find on treating this deadly disease.  One of the things that popped up was something called the NovoTTF - described as a helmet that used electric fields to disrupt the growth of cancer cells.  Real out-there stuff, but intriguing.  At that time, the device was still in clinical trials, so my brother opted for the traditional treatment regimen: radiation and chemotherapy.

Meanwhile, the "helmet" was approved by the FDA for use in the treatment of GBM - neuro-oncologists could being prescribing it once they were certified by the inventing company, Novocure (based in Israel).  When we learned that the standard chemotherapy was not working for my brother, we immediately went back to the idea of the "helmet."  Only a few clinics in the country are as yet certified to prescribe the device and San Diego was the closest one to my brother.

Long story short, my brother is now wearing the device.  It is not for the faint of heart.  It is cumbersome, awkward and elicits stares and sometimes polite, sometimes rude, questions.  The head has to be shaved clean.  The batteries are huge, heavy and last only two hours - which means planning ahead even for short trips is a must.  The device beeps if it gets too hot; it beeps if the power wavers; it beeps when the battery dies.  It must be worn for a minimum of 18 hours a day.  It comes with a large rolling case (a la band roadies), a large bag of redundant equipment in case something fails, and a tote for razor, bandages, scissors, rubbing alcohol and medical tape.  Long cords get in the way of putting on coats, moving quickly and getting in and out of cars.  The patches that house the thermistor disks are sticky and tend to get tangled and mangled - and they must be replaced every 4-7 days.  No doubt this will change over the years and the device will become streamlined, but for now, it's a real pain in the ass.

But there is no argument that the bigger pain in the ass is a diagnosis of GBM.  So despite all of the hassles, we are grateful for this option.  Despite the primitiveness of it - the "stone knives and bearskins" aspect of it - we can't help but imagine what a breakthrough this device could prove to be - and not just for people who suffer from GBM - but from other types of cancer (Novocure will launch a device for lung cancer next).  Maybe all of this time we've been barking up the wrong tree.  What if toxic chemicals and poisons aren't the answer?  Imagine what a miracle it would be if cancer patients could be cured with a device that is painless and produces virtually zero side effects.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Running in Places

At some point during each run this past week, I've had to stop and pinch myself to make sure I'm really running along the Pacific Ocean; that the colorful tangle and variety of flowers are real; that those are seals and pelicans I'm seeing in and on the gray and foaming water.  The only rule I have is that some portion of the morning run must be along the beach.  Otherwise I take whatever turn looks interesting - skinny stairways, thin alleys, wet sea rocks.

This is not a revelation to runners: running is a great way to explore a new place.  I'm finding this out all over again on my trip to La Jolla.  Each morning I get up before the traffic and the crowds on the sidewalk and hoof it all over town - down sand-covered stairs that lead to the water and back up through the quiet streets - admiring waves and sand; flowers and trees; homes and shops.  What is drudgery at home (the daily workout) becomes something to anticipate in the mornings.  The air is cool and smells of salt and seaweed and blossoms.

Running is active meditation.  I think about everything and nothing at all.  Problems get probed and solved.  Ideas bloom or get rejected. The day gets fleshed out and breakfast becomes the most tempting and earned meal of the day.

Despite the exotic surroundings, I will be glad to get back home.  The press of people and traffic and the constant noise of a populous place are wearing.  I'm looking forward to quiet and space.  But still, running here has been a joy.  I've got four more days of it here in Southern California.  Tomorrow I'm planning on heading in a different direction, to an area called Windansea and then maybe into the Bird Rock neighborhood.  I can't wait to see what's there.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Game Cam Update

On its second night "out in the field" we got exactly zero photos from the wildlife camera.  Not to be deterred Kel set the camera up once again - this time at the edge of the woods, facing into the pasture - a high-traffic area.  The next morning we had lots of photos: the usual array of cows (one actually used the camera to scratch an itch on her chin), a rabbit and a big raccoon.  But the best photos of the night were of a coyote (which should please my friend Isobel).  It's clear from two of the photos that he or she was startled by the flash of the camera.

On another night we set the camera to video to see if we could get any action shots.  When I first saw the video below, I thought the small creature hopping across in and out of the frame was a frog.  A frog in December?  A closer look revealed a mouse with a very long tail.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

5 Neglected Tasks (That I'm Thinking About Doing Soon)

1) Clean the Coffee Pot
I'm not the coffee consumer in the household.  Well, I'm not the major* coffee consumer in the household.  And I'm fairly certain the major consumer/barrista would be hard-pressed to notice if the coffeepot did not receive its occasional maintenance.

The maintenance?  I "brew" white vinegar and water through the pot a few times and swirl a combination of kosher salt and ice cubes around and around in the carafe.  The metal mesh filter gets brightened and some of the stains on the inside of the carafe come out, but my undiscerning taste buds don't notice any improvement in the taste of the coffee.  Here is the formula that I use:
Use 1 part white vinegar to 2 parts water.
Pour the mixture into the water reservoir of the coffeemaker and cycle/brew through.
Turn off the coffeemaker and let the pot cool for 20 minutes.
Follow with two full cycles/brews of fresh, cool water.
*It's true.  I do, in fact, require 1/4 cup of fresh-brewed coffee when I make a Hot Chocolate-Mocha drink.

2) Vacuum Along Baseboards
I should do this every time I vacuum.  I should.  But it's difficult on the knees.  And there are so many baseboards.  When quickly running the vacuum around the house makes everything look neat and clean, it's hard to justify going that extra mile (literally) more than once or twice a year.

3) Change Furnace Filter
Ridiculously easy and quick job.  And yet it can hang around on my To Do list for months.  I write the date of the filter change on the filter itself and I'm always mildly embarrassed at how late I am in changing it.  Thankfully there is no Furnace Filter Police checking up on me.

3) Change Brita Filter
No big deal, right?  A few minutes and it's done.  But it's another filter that I don't change often enough, despite the handy sticker on the side of the container that tells me exactly when to change it.  I always say: I'll get to it tomorrow, but right now I just need a glass of water.

5) Dust the Venetian Blinds
Dusting.  A hateful job.  You dust; it flies around the room and resettles itself.  But dusting blinds is even worse.  It's got to be on the top 10 list of worst household chores.  I even bought a handy-dandy tool with which to do this thankless, miserable, tedious task.  Do I use it?  No.  I had visions of me quickly and easily cleaning the wood slats and feeling tremendously satisfied about it.  Turning visions into actions...that's the rub.

Today's Dough: Onion & Mustard Seed Braid

Today on An Unrefined Vegan, I've posted a recipe for an elegant, easy-to-make bread that works well as a sandwich bread or alongside dips or spreads, soups and stews.  The braid really makes it look special, though you could bake it up as a plain loaf.  The onions are not overpowering - they kind of melt into the bread and the mustard seeds add good texture and make for a pretty slice.  This would make an excellent and impressive "beginner" bread for someone just trying their hand at breadmaking.

Sunday, January 8, 2012


Let's do some math.  For the sake of my numbers-challenged brain, I'll keep it simple.  We live on a 160-acre ranch.  There are 6,969,600 square feet in 160 acres.  There are just two of us living on this chunk of earth, yet Kel and I persist in what one local calls "handwork."  That is, relying on our own arms, hands, legs and energy to do both light and heavy lifting around those 160 acres.  We do not own an ATV nor a bulldozer nor a back hoe.  We have shovels, rakes and various kinds of clippers and saws.  There is a big John Deere tractor in the barn and a couple of lawnmowers, but they are employed only occasionally. Kel and I really prefer to walk the ranch and get after some kinds of work without benefit of machine.  Ask us how we feel about that idea in ten years...

One of the things we do by hand is cut down cedar trees.  I know, it sounds sacrilegious to hack down trees and in many instances, that is the correct assumption.  Here, however, cedars are considered an invasive species.  They pop up like, well, weeds - with the help of birds snacking on the blue berries that appear in the fall.  There are clusters of cedar trees in various stages of growth around older trees: birds sit in the branches and the seeds drop and the seeds germinate.  Cedars are also water gluttons.  In a parched land, the water needs to go to the species that really need it: the grass in the pasture, the stately oaks and the elegant pecans.  And finally, cedar trees harbor ticks.  There shall be no safe harbor for ticks while we have something to say about it.

So we are making our way around our 160 acres.  On foot, with clippers in hand.  Kel and go around snipping little cedar tree babies and sawing down the older ones.  Luckily for us, once snipped a cedar does not grow back.  We've made noticeable progress, but the work is never-ending.  I find it strangely satisfying - not only cutting the trees, but seeing the piles of dead cedars which become dens for rabbits and opossums and armadillos and who knows what other creatures.  And now Kel and I both intimately know each and every one of our 6,969,600 feet.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Descent into Hell or A Trip to the DMV

I happened to take a close look at my driver's license the other day and noticed that four years had passed since I'd first gotten it - and it was due to expire in a month.  Which meant a trip to the local DMV.

A few years ago that thought would've put me in utter, cranky despair, sunk me into a deep, black depression.  If you have not had the opportunity to spend time at the DMV in our nation's capital you have missed out on one of life's more patience-challenging experiences.  It is its own circle of hell.  Remember the "waiting room" scene from the movie Beetlejuice?

It is a fact that you will never, ever bring the correct combination of documents with you the first time you go.  After eons spent in a long, twisting line filled with grumbling citizens, the sentry at the gate will turn you back, guaranteed.  Cajoling and flattery will do nothing to break the impasse: she has a heart of stone.  You could have studied up on the accepted list of documents listed on the DMV website, but alas, that will have done you no good.  It's nothing less than a shell game.  Best to bring along a passport or two, letters of recommendation from friends in high places, various unopened bills, elementary school report cards, a birth certificate, of course (don't even think about bringing a copy), a note from your mother, your Sam's Club membership card and a bouquet of flowers (better hope you bring her favorites) for the sentry.  She'll fix you and your pathetic pile of paper with a hard, beady stare and if you're lucky, motion you through.  Do not hesitate.  Grab the detritus of your life and go.

Once past this first line of defense be prepared to wait.  Your tender buttocks will be resting in chairs the hardness of which would challenge the Buddha's peace of mind.  You will be waiting with the masses: the tired, the unwashed, the mumbling and the yearning.  Numbers and letters - the meaning of which will forever be obscured to you - will flash from time to time from various screens around the waiting area.  Although there are plenty of "service" windows, most of them remain devoid of anyone looking remotely work-oriented behind them.  Instead you will witness much scurrying just beyond the windows coupled with a determined avoidance of eye contact. 

When you finally reach a hallowed window your waiting is not over.  Your papers will be scrutinized with a dedication last seen by a scientist peering into his microscope.  There will be shuffling.  Undoubtedly your attendee will come across something for which he or she has never encountered and so managers, supervisors and co-workers must be summoned for whispered consultation.  For a while, it looks as if you will be turned away yet again.  Finally, however, papers are stamped, information has been verified, fingerprints scanned and eye tests given.  It remains only to exchange legal tender for the small rectangle of plastic.

Thankfully those days are behind me.  The DMV in town is located in a small white building with blue shutters.  It shares space with a home health care business.  A kindly older woman waits behind the counter.  She actually smiles and makes small talk.  Around the holidays she wears those splashy sweaters sewn with things that sparkle.  Photos of her children and grandchildren are taped to the wall behind her. There is a lighted potpourri candle and jars of honey for sale.  When she has an errand that calls her away from behind the counter, a handwritten sign is posted on the door, such as: "went to OKC to get stitches out.  be back tomorrow."  She works with a calm efficiency reminiscent of a mime effortlessly juggling plates and balls.  No sentry.  No flashing signs with numbers and letters.  Just friendly service.  Washington, DC could learn a thing or two.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year!

This year I've heard a lot of this kind of thing: I'm not one for resolutions, so this year I'm not making any.  I'm definitely in this camp as well.  I don't make bargains with myself.  If I want to do something, I'll just do it.  It's enough for me to have general goals - pliable and soft as bread dough - and of those, I have many.  The trick is to not let my goals run roughshod over my sanity...

2011 had its share of ups and downs for me and my family, but the good things definitely outweighed the bad and this is a ratio with which I can live; I should be so fortunate in years to come.  I am fully aware of how lucky I am and I try (though I don't always succeed) to be appreciative of that fact.  I have a loving, funny and patient life partner, a supportive family and a loyal cast of friends.  Raw nature and beautiful scenery are the backdrop to my days; a stranger in the form of a small dog walked out of the woods and changed our lives for the better; and I'm able to spend my time doing the things I love: baking, cooking, creating, reading and walking the fields and woods.  You see what I mean about being lucky?

I heard this recently and it made sense - simple and obvious - yet still it can escape us: "Be nice.  Don't lie."  For goals, this seems like one to practice every single day.

Wishing everyone a 2012 filled with new discoveries, friends, family and much happiness!

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