Clean Kitchen, Clean Start

Spring cleaning is a commonly observed phenomenon that occurs when winter begins to relinquish its icy grip, thawing and slowly awakening all creatures across the still barren tundra. That is, barren aside from the overstuffed caves we’ve been hibernating in. Piled high with the remnants of parties passed, forgotten novelties, and simply neglected staples, we need this collective reminder to take a step back and take stock. However, that alarm bell starts ringing not at the vernal equinox, but the threat of a looming New Year. Inspired by the time-honored custom of “o-souji” (literally, “big cleaning”) in Japan, I find myself knee-deep in Goodwill donations and floor polish while most other people are picking out their perfect cocktail dresses and pre-gaming over the most opulent sparkling beverages.

Disclaimer: I’m not the most tidy person in real life. Mismatched forks and knives spill out of the kitchen drawer, plates of all colors tower in endless stacks on the shelves, and there’s a bottomless pile of new products to review waiting in limbo just off to the side. Years of living alone, being a borderline slob HAS prepared me to know exactly where to draw the line, though, when the weight of this physical clutter shifts to mental baggage. The greatest offender here is found in the pantry, where odds and ends accumulate with no final destination in mind. Shuffling things around only does so much good, so let’s break it down into a few simple steps towards controlling the chaos.

1. Check labels and dates. I frequently violate this rule, squirreling away packaged goods despite the clearly printed numbers that indicate expiration. In most cases, these numbers are relatively arbitrary and can be taken with a grain of salt, but know your limits. A week or two passed the due date? Totally fine. A month or two? Maybe not; always go by a visual and olfactory inspection before diving in, discarding if anything seems remotely off. If you stumble across anything a year or older, those are grounds for instant dismissal. Don’t try to donate this stuff either. The 99 cents lost on those ancient black beans are not worth getting sick over. For more specific guidelines on various foodstuffs, try StillTasty.

Bear in mind that this is only applicable to food. Immediately toss any expired medications you may come across, and be very careful when checking cosmetics as well. Things like nail polish or mascara won’t kill you when they’re past their prime, but they dry out, separate, and don’t work as intended anymore. When in doubt, throw it out.

2. Re-home leftovers. Dozens of depleted, open bags litter the battlefield when I’m done working, making it awfully tempting to tie them up with rubber bands and stuff them back out of sight when the war is won. Inevitably, this leads to broken seals, messy spills, endless duplicates when I accidentally purchase the same things over and over again without checking the surplus. Contain and consolidate loose flours, sugars, dry grains, sprinkles, seaweeds, herbs, and spices into clean glass jars. It helps to be able to see the contents at a glance, while keeping all like ingredients together. Label clearly, including the date it was opened, for easy reference. I find this more helpful than the date on the package since it’s a more obvious reference to how long it’s been exposed to air, becoming more stale by the day.

3. Digitize your stockpile. Take photos of packages before transferring the contents to more long term storage for easy reference and better accountability. In case you forget exactly what’s in that pancake mix, or need to know how much fiber was in that wild rice blend, you can just pull up the picture without all the baggage. It’s also helpful to keep on your phone while you’re shopping to prevent the usual double purchase. You’ll know at a glance that you still have some chickpea flour kicking around somewhere if that picture is on file. I like to keep everything together in one folder on your Dropbox, but you can also make an album on Google Photos, EverNote, and so forth; pick your favorite app and make it work for you.

4. Cut your losses. While working through that excess, know when to let go. If there’s a half a cup or less of flour, for me, that’s a sign to just give up the ghost and toss the rest. It’s really not enough to make anything out of, right? You’d have to buy more, end up with an even greater volume of leftovers, and you’ve just made the problem worse in the end. Start fresh with a new batch altogether if you really do end up needing it.

5. Freeze your assets. Make the most of your edible investments by stashing anything with volatile fats in the freezer to prolong their lifespans. That means whole grains, flours, nuts, and seeds especially should go into the icebox, not the closet. Nothing is forever though and even ice cream needs to get the boot at some point, so check every six months for any off flavors or the tell-tale signs of freezer burn. Minimize all exposed surface to help prevent this, wrapping things tightly with plastic, placing disposable wrap on the surface of all items if they don’t quite fill to the top of their containers. Resist the urge to use plain foil because it can’t form a proper seal, and you can’t see the contents within. Don’t forget: Label, label, label.

6. Share the wealth. I’m one of those people who just has to try everything, no matter how bizarre or obscure. In fact, the more unusual it sounds, the more attractive it becomes. Thus, I end up with hundreds of things that I no longer have any use for (or desire to use) after the first or second taste. Did I really need to buy five pounds of teff flour to make one (failed) batch of injera? Where did all these extra green peppercorns come from? Why on earth do I have seven different containers of protein powder? For items that are perfectly good but have no purpose in the kitchen, offer them up at your next potluck and treat your guests to a little giveaway. There’s a good chance that they’ll have similar curiosities, along with a matching propensity to edible oddities if they’re friends with you. Especially if they’re food bloggers, such a random stroke of luck could kick start the inspiration for a new post (speaking from personal experience, at least!)

7. Take baby steps. You can’t make decades of disorder disappear overnight. Every time you find yourself standing in front of the microwave or the oven, waiting for dinner to be ready, start rifling through the cabinets. Make small goals like cleaning out one drawer each day. Break down the project piece by piece to let the bigger picture develop over time.

New Year’s resolutions typically inspire little more than my disdain, but this time around, I’m fully embracing that annual call to arms. 2019 is officially the year that I pledge to clean up my act… In the kitchen, at least. How about you?

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The Dark Ages

When night falls, it plummets like a stone and crash-lands with a resounding thud. Darkness overtakes the sky by brute force, smudging out the sun in an deepening stain marring the clouds. There’s no gentle transition, no ombre sunset nor starry twilight. Like flipping off a light switch, the day is suddenly, starkly over.

Shelter is found in pinpricks across the landscape, by the electric flames of a thousand burning bulbs. They illuminate houses in neat little rows, strung together like bulky Christmas ornaments adorning the city, spilling their garish yellow glow across swaths of concrete. Biting into chunks of impenetrable shadow, clearing away the blackness pouring down all around, each luminous oasis is provides a brief flash of comfort.

Welcome home, they seem to whisper, You’re safe here. Behind glossy window panes, families gripe and groan about daily chores over hot dinners. Couples young and old sit quietly in front of a flickering TV screens, immersed in the latest new scandal or big ticket movie available to stream. Life continues on without missing a beat, unconcerned with the oppressive plague of night that has taken hold just beyond view. The darkness disguises our reality outside, but does not change that constant truth.

Build a Better Blog

Inspiring, overwhelming, humbling, invigorating, enlightening, stunning, and motivating; such a rush of seemingly discordant emotions percolated throughout hours of workshops and sessions during the 2018 WOWsummit. Bringing together bloggers from across the country for a 2-day celebration of this incredible online community, connecting screen names to real faces turned a potentially dry educational experience into a real-life reunion party. Beyond meeting and greeting, the main goal here was to share experiences, build stronger networks, and dispense invaluable advice.

With so much information to absorb packed into each discussion, you could easily fill a book after just one day on the expo floor. Condensing down some of the top tips that resonated with me, my notes are not all-inclusive nor definitive advice for guaranteed success, but bold reminders of how to step up my own game. There’s always more that can be done, whether you’re a complete novice or seasoned veteran, often with little extra effort needed. Want to know what resonated with me most? Here are the top tips that continue echoing through my brain…

Finding Your Voice and Personal Brand:

  • Think about your values
  • Speak from personal experience
  • Understand your purpose, know what you have to offer
  • Establish a mission based on your passion
  • Never lose yourself in branding; a human face is what others can connect with
  • Keep it real, not necessarily polished
  • Check in with your audience to find out what’s important to them
  • Numbers don’t tell the full story; quality over quantity always rules
  • Be honest, vulnerable, relatable
  • Have a focus, define your niche
  • Don’t dilute your brand by partnering with companies that don’t fit with your perspective
  • Define your own success; set goals, personally and professionally
  • Be consistent
  • Engage as much as possible
  • Have a schedule
  • Put yourself out there and reach out to brands you already support
  • Network, create connections with other bloggers

Working with Brands:

  • Make sure it’s a good fit; same audience, same perspective
  • Pay attention to detail (no spelling errors, get names right)
  • Do your research to know what they’ve done in the past
  • Give examples of what you will post, link to past work
  • Be clear about terms, goals
  • Encourage ongoing relationship, ambassadorship
  • Offer many options for collaborations
  • Giveaways, Facebook chats/ask and expert/Twitter party/unboxing
  • Don’t be afraid to negotiate
  • Make real connections; talk on the phone, meet in person if possible. Make it personal.
  • Stay in touch, follow up

To say that this is just a shallow overview would be generous. Anyone who’s attempted to blog for more than a day understands what a complex, crazy venture it is, which is why we’re all our greatest resources. What are your best practices for success? What keeps you blogging? Or, if you haven’t started, what’s stopping you from diving into the pool and joining the blogosphere? Come on, don’t just dip in a toe; jump head-first! There’s nothing to lose, and a whole community to gain.

Raise a Toast

No one bats an eye at $4 toast anymore. Once the greatest offense to pragmatic diners, such an expense seems downright affordable, especially in a city where you’d easily pay twice as much just for street parking three blocks away. Fancy toast has become the new normal, not an affront to sensibility, but a dish to celebrate for its simplicity. Proper toast celebrates each ingredient, starting with the best and brings out its full character. Thick sliced bread, crisped to a burnished golden brown all over, piled high with impeccably fresh fruits or vegetables, flavors are layered and carefully built, often with even more care than the standard American breakfast plate.

Toast toppings are as diverse as the people making them, which is both good and bad news for the avid eater. Order something as unassuming as toast, such a ubiquitous offering, and for all the sweet and savory surprises that could arrive at your table, you’d never get bored. So many choices could just as easily overwhelm, however, paralyzing the indecisive at their most vulnerable, food-deprived moment- At least that’s the case for me. Worse is when I’m making toast at home, given the full range of ingredients tucked away in the pantry and fridge, with no energy to figure out the best combinations.

For anyone else who feels that same struggle, let’s simplify the already uncomplicated concept. Focusing on a nut butter base to narrow the scope and make this more managable, I’ve come up with scores of effortless pairings based on what lurks in my pantry most of the time. Needless to say, this is just the beginning of an endless tale. One could, and many already have, written cookbooks on the subject, so I present to you here just the tried-and-true favorites, the best of the best, that keep my bread crisp and my stomach content.

  • The Elvis: Peanut butter with banana slices and coconut bacon.
  • Birthday Cake: Cashew butter mixed with a drop of vanilla extract, topped with turbinado sugar and sprinkles.
  • Cookie Dough: Cashew butter mixed with a tiny bit of oat flour, a drop of vanilla extract, topped with chocolate chips and a pinch of coarse sea salt.
  • Super Seed: Sunflower seed butter topped with toasted pepitas, hulled hemp seeds, chia seeds, and a very light drizzle of toasted sesame oil. Coarse sea salt optional.
  • Chocolate-Covered Cherries: Almond butter mixed with cocoa powder, topped with pitted fresh cherries or cherry preserves, drizzled with chocolate syrup.
  • Nutella: Hazelnut butter mixed with cocoa powder, topped with toasted hazelnuts, cacao nibs, and a drizzle of maple syrup.
  • Tropical Breeze: Macadamia nut butter topped with thinly sliced pineapple, a light sprinkle of ground ginger, and toasted coconut flakes.
  • Thai Almond: Almond butter topped with bean sprouts, cilantro, a drizzle of sriracha and a pinch of coarse sea salt.
  • Banana Pudding: Cashew butter with half a banana mashed into it, topped with the remaining banana, sliced, and crushed graham cracker crumbs.
  • Massaman Curry: Peanut butter with madras curry powder mixed in, topped with roasted sweet potato and toasted peanuts.
  • The Cereal Bowl: Almond butter topped with granola and a drizzle of vanilla yogurt.
  • Pecan Pie: Pecan butter topped with toasted pecans, a light sprinkle of cinnamon, and a drizzle of maple syrup.
  • Salted Caramel: Cashew butter mixed with dark brown sugar and a pinch of salt, topped with turbinado sugar and coarse sea salt.
  • Mocha Latte: Almond butter with instant coffee powder and cocoa mixed in, optionally topped with coconut whipped cream.
  • Ants Off a Log: Peanut butter topped with thinly sliced celery and raisins.
  • Sonoma Harvest: Hazelnut butter topped with sliced grapes, arugula, a drizzle of balsamic glaze, and toasted sliced almonds.
  • Apple Pie: Cashew butter topped with brown sugar, thinly sliced sweet apples, and a sprinkle of cinnamon and nutmeg.
  • Cheesecake: Cashew butter swirled with vegan cream cheese, topped with sliced strawberries and crushed graham cracker crumbs.
  • The Pregnant Lady: Peanut butter topped with sliced bread and butter pickles, optionally topped with coconut whipped cream.
  • S’mores: Cashew butter topped with chocolate chips, crushed graham cracker crumbs, and toasted vegan marshmallows.

Some are obvious, some are a bit more avant-garde, but all are thoroughly delicious. What are your favorite ways to raise a toast?

Summer Rains

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss the summer rains.

The cool relief of a cloud burst washing away the built up pressure of the day. The rumble and crack of rolling thunder in the darkness, a lumbering giant invisible in the night sky. The damp long grasses, freckled with pinpricks of dew in the morning. Each component, tactile and visceral, makes up its own flashbulb memory; distinctive, yet distinctly separate. There’s no timestamp, no geolocation, no metadata to click through and extract more information. Surely there were many rainstorms that visited through my childhood, appearing and fading away much like the last, blending into one amalgamated vision, softened by time and distance.

I don’t know how I grew so attached to the comfortable rhythm of weather patterns, so predictable that they were more reliable than the calendar as an indication of the passing days. Back then, summer was endless, stretching on through countless unscheduled weeks, lazy afternoons one after the other, not a hint of stress or guilt associated with inactivity. Punctuating the sweltering evenings with a quiet, soothing staccato on the window panes, their whispered song serving as a lullaby. Filling my mind and washing away the harsh edges, the summer rains were my meditation.

There are no more summer rains these days, far removed from the climate of my childhood. I miss them deeply because their music sang of comfort, an audible reminder of my shelter from the storm. It was my song, set on repeat for days on end; after so many years, it became my anthem.