Recipe experiment: Jambalaya

I have this idea of coming up with basic cooking formulas that would let you improvise with the ingredients you have on hand. Two types of formulas actually. First, flavor profile formulas: typical ingredients, ratios, and seasonings used to evoke a particular style or ethnicity of food. Second, preparation formulas: ratios and steps to combine ingredients to get some typical dish.

So in this case, the flavor profile I was playing with was “cajun”. Cajun dishes all seem to start with or contain the triad of onion, celery, and green pepper, as well as a broad and complex array of spices and usually some form of tomato. I’ve looked up cajun recipes before, and they always seem to have a lot of spices with surprisingly little agreement between recipes about which are the most important of them. I had a jar of Penzey’s Cajun Spice, which I wanted to try out and which seemed like it would vastly simplify the process. So I thought it might shortcut to try the spice combo.

The cooking formula I was working with was basically “brown rice with stuff in it”. Rice with stuff in it is a dish that appears in a vast array of cultures and cuisines, and the variety comes with what stuff and what seasoning you add. Jambalaya is a cajun variant. Variables for this formula would include how much of each type of stuff, how much water, preparation steps, and how long it cooks.

My little balcony garden offered up onions (bulbs and greens) of indeterminate variety (started from rooting a bunch of green onions long ago), parsley (flat leaf italian), celery (thin strongly flavored stalks with big flavorful leaves, grown from the base of store-bought celery), and chard (red and white rainbow chard). This seemed like a strong start.

So I assembled the following ingredients:

  • 14 oz of sausage (ideally you’d use something like andouille, but I had some sort of Kielbasa on hand so that’s what I used) diced into 1/2 inch chunks
  • 2.17 lb boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into 3/4 inch chunks
  • 2 onions, bulbs and greens (made about 2 cups diced bulbs, and maybe 1/4 chopped green onions from their tops)
  • 11 thin stalks celery – made about 1 1/2 cup chopped stems, maybe 1 cup chopped leaves
  • Chard – ten or eleven good-sized leaves with stems. Chopped stems came to about 3/4 cups, and several large handfuls of leaves.
  • 2 large green peppers, diced
  • 3 tbsp chopped garlic
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp Cajun Seasoning
  • 2 tbsp chopped parsley
  • 3 cups brown rice
  • 3 cups chicken broth

Ingredient prep – I lined up the following on the counter in order they’d be used:

  • Diced sausage
  • Diced chicken
  • First-round veggies: onion (bulb), celery stalks, green peppers, chard stems. Add the garlic onto this pile. This was about 5 cups of chopped veggies.
  • Cajun seasoning
  • Rice
  • Broth
  • Tomatoes
  • Second-round veggies: chopped green onion/onion tops, celery leaves, chopped parsley leaves. This was around 1.5-2 cups chopped leaves, depending on how firmly you pack them.
  • FInal container holds the cleaned chard leaves, cut into nice 1-inch strips

Steps for cooking:

  • Set instant pot to saute. Once hot, browned sausage then removed from pot.
  • Then browned the chicken in two batches, removing from pot when done. By now there was quite a bit of residue on the bottom of the pot.
  • Tossed in the container of onion, celery, chard stems, and garlic, sauteed. Used released liquid to scrape and deglaze pot. Once soft,
  • Added meat back in and added the cajun seasoning. Stirred a bit, then added in the rice and stirred until the rice was well-coated in the seasoning, fat, and juices.
  • Poured in the broth and canned tomatoes and stirred in the parsley, green onion, celery tops, then set instant pot for 22 minutes high pressure.
  • Once it finished, I let it naturally depressurize for perhaps 20 minutes, then stirred in the chard leaves so they’d wilt and cook in the residual heat.

Results: Not too spicy, per husband’s specific request, but quite a bit of flavor. The rice is a bit gooey – which can mean a bit too much cooking, or a bit too much water. Made quite a lot – 8 generous servings.

To try next time: Decrease amount of water so rice will be firmer, less sticky. There was likely quite a bit of extra water from all the veggies, even after pre-cooking some of them, and the can of tomatoes would have added water as well.

What a time to be doing the census.

Today’s intellectual exercise* was triggered by Keith noting that he’d completed our census and sent it in. To which I said** “Great. Complete the massive once-a-decade population count just before a massive die-off”.

So then we speculated a bit about the effect on the political landscape if the die-off was not random.
Which it won’t be – unfortunately, effects will be disproportionate among certain populations. Essential workers (healthcare, food industry, etc) are at more risk. Older people and sicker people. People who decide to defy the isolation recommendations for whatever reason. People who live in higher population density areas (maybe? Infection rate would be higher, but rural folks, when affected, may have less access to life-saving healthcare facilities?).

So you could have a census count, assign representation, then have a population die-off that leaves some geographic areas over-represented for the next decade, along with unknown shifts in the political landscape in those areas either because of non-selective population thinning, or because people change their political attitudes in response to the whole experience.

From a partisan point of view, this could go either way. Demographically, the Republican party is older, and the worst “deniers” appear to be right-wing. But, essential workers probably are disproportionately Democrat. And high-density populations (cities) tend to be more liberal than the surrounding countryside.

It’s another of those exercises that leave me shrugging and saying “I have no idea how this will roll out.”

*We both deal with uncertain situations by doing a lot of analytic speculation about hypothetical sets of conditions and assumptions. I’m sharing that with the larger population in case that’s of interest to anyone else…

** I was especially blunt because hadn’t had much coffee yet this morning.

Scrappy says Mondays are for mischief

For some reason, Scrappy loves to play in water. His preferred approach to a water bowl is to splash it thoroughly, and then maybe lap up a little of the puddle he just created. Sometimes, it’s fun to splash water all over the place even if he’s not thirsty.

The toilet is especially fascinating. He loves to watch it flush, and if the lid is left up he will happily splash until the seat, lid, and surrounding floor are a wet mess. Then, he’ll happily trot away on wet paws to wreak havoc elsewhere.

For the record… falling into the toilet does not reduce this behavior.

Some thoughts about food, health, and the environment

The most environmentally-friendly diet seems to be a vegan one, right? But it’s challenging to eat a nutritionally complete and healthy diet without any animal products. Plus, y’know, animals are delicious which makes me crave meat despite my qualms whenever I eat pork and then think about Charlotte’s Web.

Environmentally friendly is also a very multifaceted goal. Reducing greenhouse gas emission is one major goal, and that includes both any gases produced by the food itself, and by the process of producing it and shipping it to the consumer. Land usage that displaces natural habitats for animals and plants is another issue. Energy consumption is an issue, related to but somewhat separate from that of greenhouse gas production. Water usage is relevant, especially in parts of the world where clean water is scarce. And, there are tangential issues – like accumulation of plastic wastes. On the one hand, some types of food tend to be packaged in plastic, which makes that problem worse; on the other extreme, some novel food sources might offer a chance to break down excess plastics and reduce that problem.

Insects might fill some of the gap. Since many people have an emotional aversion to eating things that look like insects (except, of course, for shrimp, lobster, and crawfish), the best path seems to process them in some way that doesn’t resemble the source material. Come to think of it, we do the same with larger food animals. It seems that fat extracted from insects is palatable in baking products (original study here), and of a composition that should be healthier than most animal fats. This study used black soldier fly larvae, which I’ve encountered in my compost bin – they are ugly things, so voracious that you can actually hear them eating, and they will reduce the compost bin contents down in a remarkably short time. These have already been under study as a strategy for biowaste reduction. Insect protein has also been incorporated into foods, some of which are already commercially available – such as cricket flour, sold as pasta, energy bars, and more.

Environmentally, insect-based foods have some big advantages. They can feed off of waste materials, which means they can help with trash reduction. It even appears that some insects can consume products thought toxic, without dying or themselves becoming toxic, as with this experiment where mealworms were able to consume polystyrene foam containing toxic flame retardant materials. Their rapid reproductive cycle and growth rate means a lot of food can be produced in a fairly small space, and they produce much less greenhouse gas than larger food animals. They can be produced locally pretty much anywhere, which reduces the environmental impact of food transportation. When you take into account the effects of transport and fertilizer and pesticides and farm equipment, insects appear competitive with plants as a food source.

On the topic of producing good food out of bad garbage, there’s also mushrooms. Apparently some fungi, including oyster mushrooms, can digest plastics without retaining any toxic chemicals. That could certainly be a game-changer. However, this field is still pretty new and many questions would need to be resolved for this to be a net-positive food source.

On other fronts, milk. This article questions whether a dairy-heavy diet is a good thing at all. The US dietary recommendations include several daily servings of dairy. The recently-revised Canadian recommendations do not include dairy as a separate category, instead lumping milk in with other possible protein sources. It seems likely that politics played a big role in the American version. Since the dairy industry is pretty awful for the environment, it makes a lot of sense to look at alternative sources of calcium, vitamin D, and protein – like mushrooms, and leafy greens, both of which can usually be produced locally. Though some of the alternatives to milk, like almond milk, can have their own environmental problems.

So, those are a few things I’ve read about recently that could change the way we do food for the better. Food for thought, as they say!

Shopping for Joy

A writing topic sparked by two recent events: I read the Marie Kondo book, and I bought some new pants.

While I hadn’t read that book cover-to-cover before, I was already pretty familiar with her method and philosophy. And in general, I recognize that the approach does mostly work for me – when I like an item and have a clear plan for how to take care of it, I tend to do a good job with that.

I fall short when there’s not a well-planned out system for everything to be put away nicely – which is the current state of my workshop and my sewing room. Kondo covers that situation nicely in her discussion.

I also fall short because, for some categories of belongings, I need to own the things but none of what I own really give me much joy. Kondo touches on that more obliquely – with the tale of people whose wardrobe was given to them by someone with different taste than theirs, for example.

What she does not say is: If there is a category of thing that you need to own, then figure out what in that category would give you joy and go acquire it. In fact, going out and buying new stuff is kind of the antithesis of what she’s trying to get people to do.

But then there’s my new pants. Which I didn’t need, because I already owned plenty of pants. But, these new pants are giving me a lot of joy. They’re a pretty fabric, and they fit, and they’re long enough, and they’re comfortable. They give me so much joy that I don’t mind going to some extra effort (such as hand-washing) to keep them nice. And even though I have plenty of other pants – I don’t want those pants. I want a closet full of pants like the new pair.

It makes me realize that there are corners of my home with disorganized piles of stuff where I simply haven’t tackled decluttering because I know, without even looking, that none of the items in the pile will bring me joy, but I can’t really function without at least some of them. For example, I have a whole shelf full of purses that I don’t especially like, but haven’t gotten rid of because sometimes (usually) you need a purse.

What if I ignored those piles for a moment, and bought (or made) some minimum functional set of purses to cover my daily needs, all of which gave me joy to use? And then emptied the purse shelf, happily tossing every item that isn’t sparking joy into the donate pile, in the happy certainty that I really don’t need them?

It seems such a ridiculously privileged way to live. But if I can afford it, it also seems like it might work.

What we model

Today’s writing topic: how we learned our sense of normal, and how we pass that on to others. I have a lot of vague thoughts on this topic, and feel they’re

This time of year, a lot of my friends are struggling to adopt new habits. As they attempt to modify their diets, activity levels, patterns of work, housekeeping, or relationships, I hear the same comment repeated in infinite variations: we learned these things as children, which makes it hard to break away from them as adults. Sometimes this awareness is conscious, as with the friend who described yesterday how her mother catered extensively to every family member’s food preferences, and now she struggles as an adult to be a more adventurous eater. Sometimes the awareness lurks below the surface, as with the friend whose weight-loss diet challenges her because at a gut level, she feels it’s unfair to have to give up foods that she sees as normal and reasonable to consume.

I was listening yesterday to an audiobook – Marie Kondo’s magic of tidying up book – and was struck by her descriptions of how people’s efforts to reduce clutter could be derailed by family interactions. She described parents who dig through their child’s trash bags, pulling things out and insisting they be kept. Siblings who foist their unwanted belongings off on each other. Adult kids who use their parents’ home as storage facilities. Household members who have more energy for criticizing other peoples’ clutter than for facing their own. I admit that some of these interactions sounded very familiar to my own experience. The whole reason I was motivated to listen to a book about tidying up is that this is a skill I decidedly did not learn as a child, after all.

Years ago, I helped out a friend by looking out for her kids when she needed an emergency sitter. Not a big deal, just something I did one weekend and then mostly forgot ever happened. Later, I lost track of that friend – until social media came along, and one day I had a random Facebook ping. It was my friend’s daughter, who saw my name and wondered if I was the person she remembered from her childhood. Indeed, I was, and was delighted to see how she’d turned out. Then she told me that she looked for my name because she found herself teaching her daughter something that she’d learned from me. That was certainly food for thought. Especially since, as it turns out, the thing I’d taught her is something I’d picked up from my college roommate, not from my own parents.

Among the people I love, it’s all too easy to see the patterns repeating themselves – the parents who struggle with their weight, raising kids who are the same; the parents who are workaholics, whose kids overachieve in school and hobbies; those who struggle to maintain order, whose kids have no idea how to organize and maintain their belongings. I observe, but rarely say anything. Because what would I say that wouldn’t be the wrong thing to say? These are people I love, and the reasons I love them are entirely unrelated to the shape of their bodies or the organization of their homes or their skills at work-life balance. And meanwhile these parents are also modeling all the good stuff – the qualities that make them so wonderful and important to me. And those patterns are also obvious in their kids – the humor, the inquisitiveness, the clever turns of phrase, the generous hearts. In the end, won’t it be just fine if these kids turn out exactly like their parents?

And, I see my friends making the above-mentioned resolutions and you know what? Their kids will model those efforts too – and so will I. Because when someone you admire is openly and obviously trying to change, it’s impossible to ignore the issues that you were otherwise inclined to see as unimportant. As my friends are learning to be better to themselves, I hope I – and their kids – are learning the same.

In the end, I am not even sure of what my point is here. Except that apparently we are all learning from one another and teaching one another all the time. So if I need more motivation to be the best person I can be, I might remember how much impact that has beyond my own self.

Change, growth, consequences: Musings

I’m not a parent. As such, my opinions about raising human beings have relatively little validity. On the other hand, I’m an avid observer of human nature, and for the past couple of decades I’ve spent a lot of time watching and discussing the experiences of parents around me. And I always Have Opinions even when I’m not an expert. And, I’m trying to develop my writing skills, by articulating my thoughts about complex subjects. So that’s your disclaimer for this post – I’m blathering about a topic on which I have no expertise, for the purposes of organizing my thoughts and practicing my writing.

A dear friend who is doing an amazing job raising three boys recently asked for advice. It seems her son has been arriving home from school, reporting he is unable to do his homework because he has forgotten some vital component – the assignment itself for example, or the textbook. My friend is not alone; this seems to be a universal experience in parenting, based on how often I hear this complaint among my friends.

As I thought about the issue, it struck me that there’s several aspects to the problem, all of which have to be addressed in order to find a successful solution:

  1. Motivation. At its worst, the child could be deliberately “forgetting” because in the absence of homework, he might be free to spend his time doing something much more pleasurable. More commonly, a lot of kids seem to fall into a mindset where it’s the parent’s job to keep them on track, and their role to wiggle away from as much responsibility as possible. With that mindset, the child has no motivation to work harder at remembering – he doesn’t see it as his problem to solve.
  2. Ability – Even if the child feels some motivation to do better, he may flounder because he has no real idea how to do better. Kids have a tendency to just try the same approach over and over to achieve their goals, even if it repeatedly fails them. Once the child is motivated to change, he’ll need some specific help finding improvement strategies.
  3. Academic progress – in a lot of primary school subjects, failing to master today’s work makes tomorrow’s work that much harder. And yet change doesn’t happen overnight. So, how to ensure the child doesn’t fall dangerously behind while he’s working through the challenge of becoming self-motivated and competent at managing his work?

So, what strategy might work to address the problem, keeping all of these considerations in mind?

My recommendation, in sum, would be answering poor performance with remedial academic work, creating consequences (both positive and negative) for both short-term and long-term performance, and offering the child assistance in finding and implementing strategies to improve his performance.

In the short term, failure to bring home homework should never result in extra play time. Ideally, the child would spend the time doing a block of homework-like activity. One could acquire homeschooling materials appropriate for the child’s grade level (the teacher could probably suggest something appropriate), and use those to give assignments so he won’t fall behind. Or, the child could be assigned work directed at the forgetting problem itself – such as reading an article about a technique for improving memory, then writing a essay summarizing the technique and discussing whether it would be helpful for this situation. That would develop general academic skills while presenting him with ideas about how to do better.

In addition to this daily activity, longer-term incentives have to be in place and communicated well in advance. There should be clear expectations for term grades, rewards for meeting expectations, and consequences for missing them. These mentioned often enough that when the time comes, the kids are completely aware of why these consequences are occurring. For kids who have a lot of trouble (or very little experience) managing their behavior for longer-term consequences, it may help to create more medium-term rewards and punishments (which would require collaboration with the teacher in most cases).

As with the daily homework situation, the consequence for doing poorly on a subject could be the “opportunity” to learn more about the subject. For example, kids who do well might be offered extra time doing something they like, while those who do poorly would spend that time with a parent or tutor (if budgets allow), reviewing the subjects they failed. Repairing those knowledge and skill gaps sets them up for better success in the next term.

Ideally, when there’s no motivation to deliberately forget homework, and there are positive and negative consequences for short-term and long-term performance, the kid will develop his own motivation to improve. When he complains about the consequences he is experiencing, that’s the time to offer to assist him with a strategy to do better. Make sure he participates in the analysis of what’s happening, brainstorming for solutions, and choosing a solution to try. If he resists or tries to make it your problem, back off – the parent’s mantra should be “when you’re ready to do better, we’re ready to help you figure out how”.

Would this work? I believe it would for many kids. I’m not naive enough to think this would be the entire plan, though. Kids being kids, once a strategy is agreed upon, they could still try to make it the parent’s problem to implement. No parent wants to ask “did you fill out your homework journal” only to get a whining, resentful reply. So there’s likely an ongoing challenge of continuing to remind the child to have ownership of his own problem, and gratitude for those who help him solve it. And, it would require a lot of customization and adaptation over time, in response to events as they occur. What if the child starts concealing the existence of homework instead of saying he forgot it? What if he flat-out refuses to do an assignment, engaging in a battle of wills? What about tangential situations, like forgetting to mention the need for school supplies at the last minute?

The plan would have to adapt as the situation changes. The key is to consider the initial goals while responding to new situations. That way the response can make sure it’s still requiring the child to own his own progress, develop the skills to do better in future, and maintain academic progress as it’s all happening.

So there it is. A lengthy blather about a topic I have no authority to blather on. Enjoy!

Contact sports for kids – interesting article

I found this analysis quite interesting as an example of the tough decision-making parents face.

Sports participation in childhood brings a lot of enormous benefits – cardiovascular fitness which can really increase adult health, for example, and lots of skills related to cooperative behavior and social interaction. Also, organized sports are a path for a kid from a less-advantaged home to achieve a college education and a big step up on the socioeconomic ladder.

And, the risk of lifelong bad outcomes that are large enough to measure appears very small. So, why not let your kid play – or even encourage them to?

On the other hand… there’s plenty of sports out there which offer the exact same benefits without risking lifelong brain damage. As a hypothetical parent, I’d sure be much happier if my kid picked one of those.

Refining our understanding of the risks will be difficult, because kids (and people in general) have such unknowable potential. If your kid plays sports and comes out a pretty average adult – who is to say s/he wouldn’t have come out a genius without the sports?

And in a world where lots of parents choose to let their kids (and everyone else) risk horrible infectious diseases because they heard vague and now-debunked concerns about immunizations… the only guaranteed thing is that most parents won’t make this call on a rational basis anyway.