Living in the “Is-ness” – Talking about Mental Illness, part 3

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I’m a future-living person.  What I mean is that I tend to project all my concerns and feelings and desires and fears on to some non-existent point in time in the future.  What if I can’t get a job (in the future)?  What if I become diagnosed with some horribly painful, dreadful disease (in the future)? What if some calamity of epic proportion befalls me (in the future)? 

I get stuck in this loop of fearing the future. It’s not a constant feeling, thank the FSM! However, when I’m in an anxiety spiral it’s hard to stay out of the future and I become plagued with fear of the unknown. If only I had a TARDIS!

But this is exactly the nature of anxiety. Anxiety is not a feeling you get about the present. You are not anxious about what is happening now. You are anxious about what could happen, what should happen, what would happen. It’s all about the future.  And if you’re someone who is really good at ruminating on all possible scenarios of events because you like to have a plan and you love control (my old friend, Control), when you enter the anxiety spiral, it can make you feel down right out of control. Oh the Catch-22 of it all!

My psychologist Dr. S is a practitioner in many forms of therapeutic modalities but we’ve been working on techniques that have a very Eastern philosophic tone. I’m talking about mindfulness, being present in the moment of now, and a way of giving present moments meaning that  as Dr. S calls the Is-Ness.

The Is-ness is really about how one assigns meaning to current circumstances, but in order to be able to recognize the Is-ness, one must be in the current moment. Mindfulness and Is-Ness are partners.

Here’s an example of Is-ness.  A few therapy sessions ago, I told Dr. S that I was having a “good morning.” A good morning for me was one where I didn’t immediately wake up with the internal trembling of panic. It was a morning where I felt more in control of my anxiety and physical feelings.  A “bad morning” would be the opposite of that.

The tricky thing when assigning words like “good” or “bad” to a present moment is that it can keep you from being in that moment. You’ll start looking to avoid the bad moments in search of the good moments instead of just being in the present moment. So enters the Is-ness. The moments do not have to be good or bad. They can be “is” – simply a present moment of existence. Something to recognize without judgment.

In my practice of mindfulness I’m redefining my moments simply as “is” rather than good or bad.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel. Some moments feel painful or scary or sad. Some moments feel exhilarating or peaceful or joyous. But they’re not good or bad moments. They’re simply points of Is-ness.

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Asking for Help – Talking About Mental Illness, part 2

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When I published my last post about mental health, I had just learned that designer and fashion icon Kate Spade had died from suicide. It was a blow that no one saw coming and it shocked all of us. Three days later, Anthony Bourdain, an amazing chef, storyteller, and one of my personal idols also died from suicide. It was a horrible week.

It also shined a blinding spotlight on mental illness. The general public was thrust into the reality that millions of people all over the world experience with all too much regularity. Over and over on social media, I read pleas from friends that if you were struggling to please reach out for help. People posted the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Other people urged those of us with mental illness to seek therapy or medication. All of these suggestions came from a place of love but also from a place of powerlessness. There was a sense of helplessness underlying these messages. It dawned on me that though well-intentioned and coming from a place of caring, many people really don’t know what it’s like to be in the depths of depression and anxiety and how the act of reaching out for help ,many times, feels completely impossible.

I was 25 when I first sought out a therapist to help me with anxiety and depression. I had had a devastating experience six years prior. I had fallen in love with a guy named Doug. Doug was amazing! Funny, smart, a bit of rebel (which really spoke to my rules-following-good-girl heart). Doug was also sick. He had cystic fibrosis. In 1997 the prognosis for people living with cystic fibrosis was grim. He was 24 and and always known and accepted that his life wouldn’t be a long one but he lived it in the best way possible. We fell in love with each other quickly but during that short time he became very sick. He was hospitalized back home in Michigan.  A good friend of his called me up one evening and told me that if I wanted to see him then I needed to get up to Detroit ASAP.

So at 19 years old, I boarded a plane and flew to a city I’d never been to, to stay with people I didn’t know, and to lose someone I had fallen in love with.  Doug died a short four days after I arrived. I had the blessing and honor (I feel that now) to be with him to the very end and to tell him how much I loved him and how much he was loved.

I was devastated. I cried every single moment as I flew back home to Austin. Since this was before 9/11, anyone could meet passengers at the gates. My mother met me at the terminal and wrapped me in her arms. I found myself cycling through moments of numbness and intense, overwhelming emotional pain.  That first night at home was horrific. I had never experienced loss in that way before and it was as if my soul had cracked wide open. I cried in keening wails of grief. It was enough to scare my sister. It was enough to upset my father. That night I remember so clearly the words he spoke, “You can’t bring him back. He’s dead. Crying and carrying on won’t help.”

So that was that. That was how we dealt with pain in my family. I don’t hold it against my father. My father learned to handle grief the best way he knew how.  I repressed my grief as deep as I could. In return, my mind began to toil in anxiety. When those feeling became too much, I repressed those too.

For six years I stayed in this state. I faked it until I made it. No one, at least I thought, was the wiser. And then I broke.

I was lucky that at the time I broke I was also in a relationship with a guy, PM, who had gone through his own trauma and recovery. He and I had been seeing each other off and on for about four years. He was experiencing his battle while I was trying to keep it together. When I finally couldn’t take the anxiety and depression any more, he was the one who said that I needed to talk to someone. He battled anxiety and addiction for a large part of his life and he told me that the best thing to do was to see a therapist. It had really helped him, he told me.

I didn’t want to. I didn’t think I needed to. I didn’t think my problems were significant enough to need a therapist. I’m just a little sad. It’s not a big deal. A therapist will just tell me I’m normal and to just get over it, I thought.  It’s not like anything really bad has ever happened to me. My problems are tiny compared to people with real problems.  I figured since I didn’t try to self-medicate with booze or drugs (I did self-medicate with food, though) and that I could sleep at night (and all day and usually the next day, too.) And that my relationship with PM was fairly health (except I wasn’t always that interested in being intimate because I would rather just sleep), then I didn’t need a therapist. I didn’t have real problems.

But PM kept gently pushing and I gave in. It took me three weeks to actually call the therapist that was recommended to me. I would dial the number and then hang up. I would write it in my calendar as a “To-do” item and then scratch it out. After a particularly awful day, I finally mustered the courage to call and as the phone rang on the other end, I prayed that the therapist wouldn’t pick up.

No such luck. She answered her phone and said, “This is Dr. S.”  I could barely speak above a whisper and then once I found my voice, every thing just tumbled out. I spoke at lightning speed. I remember saying, “I don’t know why I’m calling. I’m sure I’m just fine. But my boyfriend PM said I should call, but I’m sure I’m fine. I’m fine. Really I’m fine.”  Ha! Sure I was fine! I was also crying hysterically and could hardly catch my breath. Dr. S is a fine, compassionate, and very straight forward therapist. That day was one of the hardest days in my life, but it was one of the best. I worked with her for about four years and she helped me move through the grief and taught me how to live with anxiety and depression.

So yes, I had a successful experience (and continue to since I’m back with Dr. S now.) But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t an extremely difficult process to begin.  Getting help for mental illness is extremely difficult. It’s difficult emotionally and mentally, and for some, physically. The act of making a phone call can seem impossible. Secondly, mental health therapy and services are not available to everyone. There may not be providers in a person’s area. The cost is often prohibitive. Many people don’t have medical insurance and those that do may not have any providers covered under their plan. My two mental health providers (Dr. S, a psychologist and my psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner who prescribes my meds) do not take my health insurance, so I have to pay out of pocket to see both of them.  I have had a total of eight appointments between the two of them in the last two months and have paid over $1,500. But I’m lucky. I’m in a position where I can manage that for now. How many people aren’t?

One question I get when I talk about how cost affects access to mental health care is “Well, why don’t you find a provider who takes your insurance?”  Indeed. Why don’t I? It would only cost me $35 per session as that is my co-pay. However, the rapport and relationship I’ve built with my therapists is irreplaceable.  How many people do you know won’t even change hair stylists? Yeah. So asking someone to leave an established relationship with their mental health therapist is a very tall order.

Therapy is an excellent option for getting help with mental illness. It’s not the only option, though, and sometimes it takes a toolbox of options to help someone achieve recovery. For many years therapy did the trick, but then came a point when I needed more. I sought out a provider who could prescribe appropriate medication and counsel (my nurse practitioner is also a licensed professional counselor). When I began to see her, the medication and counseling combo was what I needed. In addition to two prescription medications (Effexor and Klonopin), she also recommended vitamin D3, B12, a probiotic, and a medical food called l-methylfolate (Deplin). In combination with therapy, regular exercise, some breathing and centering exercises, and better sleep hygeine, my anxiety and depression became manageable.

I’m now back on that regimen in addition to seeing Dr. S. Things are improving. But sometimes a patient will have to try dozens of medications before finding the right one. Sometimes she’ll have to go through a number of therapists to find the right fit. Sometimes the healing process becomes so overwhelming that it can antagonize those awful feelings of despair and worry that it feels like you’ll never feel better.  Sometimes those feelings become so heavy and so oppressive that you don’t remember what it was like not feel that way. The tunnel becomes long and cold and lonely and you can’t see a way out.

This is how mental illness works. It can be a life-long battle as was the case for Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. That battle can be so hard and so painful that for the mind in the throes of unimaginable pain, the only way out is suicide. I only say this so those who have never been in that place understand why suicide would ever feel like an option.

So here is what I recommend to my well meaning, very loving, concerned friends who have friends that struggle with mental illness:

    • Reach out first! Call (or text or message) your friend on a regular basis.  Just check in. If you haven’t heard from her in awhile, don’t wait for her to call you.  She might not.  If he doesn’t call back or text back or message back, don’t give up. Keep reaching out.
    • Invite your friend to go out, and keep inviting her even if she says no. If he doesn’t want to go out, then tell him them you’re coming over. Of course, we still want to be cognizant of boundaries, but you know you’re friend. Meet her where she is and hold space for her.
    • Educate yourself on depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other mental health disorders. Try to understand what it means to be struggling with a mental illness. Work on changing your assumptions and when you have the chance, speak up to dispel the myths that seem to be everywhere about having mental illness.
    • Have patience and keep connecting. We’re doing the best we can in the moment and while it may seem that we’re not reciprocating the effort, understand that it isn’t because we don’t love you or don’t care. We just can’t right now.

 

When the lizard goes berserk – Talking about mental health, part 1

I know that National Mental Health Awareness month has just passed, but I wanted to talk about my experience with mental illness*. Like millions of Americans (estimated 40 million), I have anxiety disorder. There are a few – generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, specific phobias, social anxiety, as well as PTSD and OCD where anxiety is a major component.

I struggle with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and depression.

Since I was a little girl, I have been a worrier.  I worried to the point that I would become upset and tremble and have a hard time sleeping.  These feelings would come and go. Some were certainly reasonable feelings, like worrying about the first day of school, worrying about going to a party where I didn’t really know anyone, worrying about going to sleep away camp for the first time.

Other worries, the bulk of which occupied my mind, were arguably unreasonable. For example, the cabinet underneath the sink in my parents’ house held all the cleaning supplies – window cleaner, dishwasher soap, counter scrub – but it also held the plastic Ziploc bags and plastic wrap and aluminum foil.  One day as my dad was getting my lunch ready for school (I was probably 8 or 9 years old), I saw him take out a few plastic sandwich bags from the cabinet and proceed to put my food in them.  I became overwhelmed by a sense of terror. What is he doing!?, I thought. Those bags have been in that cabinet with all the cleaning supplies. All the TOXIC cleaning supplies! My brain was on overload.  I was overcome with the fear that those cleaning supplies had somehow come out of their containers, gotten all over the plastic bags that my dad was using for food storage and were now going to contaminate my lunch. I’m going to die! He’s going to kill me! was the message my lizard brain was screaming at me inside my head.

When I was 12, I wanted a perm (super curly corkscrew curls were in) and my mom decided to give me one at home. If you’ve ever had a perm, either at home or at a salon, you know that it’s a really stinky process. The chemicals are pretty smelly and it’s not fun to breath in. However, they are safe and inhaling those fumes is not going to do permanent damage. But to my young, worrying mind, I was convinced that I was going to die from the smell. I began to tremble, sweat, cry, and scream “You’re going to kill me!” My mom abandoned the hair treatment half way through the process, the result being a calmer child with the hair of a deranged poodle.

Y’all… these are not reasonable reactions.  I feared fumes, chemicals, injury, abandonment, death, and public humiliation all before I graduated high school. You wouldn’t know that I ruminated daily on these potential horrors because outwardly I was happy, friendly, well-liked, smart, and generally appeared to be a well-adjusted kid. I had learned to cope with my feelings by hiding them.

As I got older, it became harder and harder to hide my symptoms. I failed out of my first year of college because my anxiety lead to depression, though at the time I didn’t know that’s what was going on. Even while I volunteered at the Student Counseling Service as a peer counselor (something I excelled at because I could relate so well to other people battling similar demons), I still struggled to get out of bed every morning to make it to class. I couldn’t concentrate to study. I had fought with and lost the friendship of the only person I knew at university and I couldn’t cope.

I moved back home, got a job, became busy and my worrying thoughts went away. Or so I thought. They didn’t really. I just got better at suppressing them. Over time, other triggers would put me in a tailspin. I was in my early twenties when HIV was still the number one concern of casual sex. Even though I wasn’t in a casual relationship and had a partner who I knew was not HIV+, I feared contracting the disease. The Internet was still in its infancy and I spent countless hours on medical sites searching all of my perceived symptoms. I would reassure myself that I was OK and a few days later I was back to seeking reassurance that some new symptom wasn’t an indicator of my impending doom from an incurable illness. I also had numerous HIV tests, all over which were negative. I didn’t and don’t have HIV, but at the time that didn’t stop my constant need to reassure myself that I didn’t have it. I was plagued by this fear and it felt unrelenting.

The fear of death from hideous disease seemed to fade but around that time a new fear cropped up. I had just moved out on my own, had a job, and was making a modest living. It was enough to live on my own and I certainly wasn’t living in poverty, but I became consumed with panic that I would lose my job, lose my income, get evicted, be forced to live on the streets, be abandoned by my family, and die alone in a ditch somewhere all before I turned thirty.  It was and still is an irrational fear, but I would attempt reassure myself by spending hours calculating and recalculating my income and expenses. My fear didn’t propel me to seek a better paying job or talk to my parents about a contingency plan should I have to move back home because I lost my job and couldn’t find a new one. The feelings of reassurance lasted only a short while and then I was back to the frantic rituals I would engage in to stop the pain from my fear and obsession.

There have been seasons in my life where my anxiety and panic were better managed.  Through intense psychotherapy with an amazing psychologist, I was able to manage my condition for many years. I got married in early 2007 and at the end of that year we had our first child, a beautiful son (he’s 10 now.) Having an anxiety disorder made me all the more susceptible to postpartum depression and anxiety and I struggled with those two disorders for many, many months.  I experienced another remission for about 18 months and then became pregnant with our second child (she’s 7).  I knew what to expect with PPD/PPA and I sought help immediately. This was the best thing I could have done for myself and I was able to manage my GAD and panic disorder for several years.  My fears were calmed. I was able to rationally manage the day-to-day and I was living very contentedly and peacefully.

There are some different thoughts as to whether GAD and other anxiety disorders can be permanently cured or if they’re simply managed and we experience periods of remission. For me I definitely think I’m the latter. Three years ago, I experienced a serious interpersonal event that was and has been hard to reconcile.  I have been off and on medication for these last three years and seeing a mental health provider.  For nearly a year I was able to manage my condition with out medication or therapy but in April, I experienced a set back. I’m still in the midst of that episode of anxiety and depression.

My anxiety has always elicited physical symptoms – headaches, stomach aches, heart palpitations, muscle aches, tiredness, overeating or under-eating, intestinal distress – but couple those symptoms with my tendency to ruminate and obsess about my health and it’s a recipe for serious suffering. It’s a vicious cycle. The body experiences unpleasant sensations because you’re anxious and then you become more anxious because your body doesn’t feel right.  Cue Google searches for every single symptom and what comes up? Cancer. Or porn. But thank god my symptoms only came up with cancer.  Knowing that Dr. Google is literally the worst doctor in the universe, normal, rational humans who don’t have anxiety disorder tend to take the information they find online about their symptoms with a grain of salt. Not so someone like me! So I’m back in the throes of reassurance seeking (I’ve been to four medical doctors in five weeks and have an appointment for another doctor next week. I’m not sure yet if I will cancel the appointment yet or not) and ruminating that my inevitable demise will be because of a terminal illness.

These are irrational thoughts, but when you’re lizard goes berserk, they’re all that make sense.

My lizard in the midst of GAD and panic disorder!

 

*This will likely be an ongoing series of posts about my mental health and mental health in general.  I am currently on medication (Effexor ER 150 mg) and seeing my fabulous psychologist who has been helping me for many years, Dr. S.  Writing about my mental illness is therapeutic and helps me gain some clarity and distance from the lizard brain.

Passover done Passed Over: A recipe for Migas Brei (Tex-Mex Matzo Brie)

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This is not my matzo, but I did buy this stock photo.

I may have mentioned once or a doze times on this blog that I am a Jewtina (Jewish Latina.)  It’s kind of a fun mix to be. So much color and spice and the opportunity to confuse the hell out of regular ol’ people who think all Latinx folk are Catholic. Newsflash: we’re not. Oh! But I understand the assumption.  I wasn’t always Jewish…well I wasn’t always a practicing Jew. And in my little part of the world, I, too thought most Latinx folks were Catholic. Honestly, I thought everyone was Catholic. I grew up in a place where most of my friends were Catholic — German Catholic and Irish Catholic and Mexican Catholic.  I was the oddball out with no particular religious upbringing.  But just in growing up in a heavily Catholic community, I go to know a lot of about Christmas. And Easter. But Passover? Not so much.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and here we are! I’m Jewish. I’m Mexican American. I know a whole lot more about Passover and I really think we’d all be much happier if Passover was shortened to about two days.  So far I haven’t found any fellow members of the tribe to back me on this and it turns out we don’t have a central governing body who can undo millennia of tradition.

So for eight days during Passover we remember our escape from slavery under Pharaoh and into freedom. As we beat cheeks across the desert, the story goes, we didn’t have time for our bread to rise and instead we carried these bland, flat crackers we call matzo (matzah? matzoh? We can’t agree on that either.)  And forever more, during those eight days, the descendants of those Hebrews will only eat matzo and no other grains, specifically wheat, rye, barley, oats, and spelt. And the celiacs among us rejoice!

Now if you’re Ashkenazi, the prohibitions don’t stop there. A whole new class of no-no foods called kitniyot have been listed and given reasons as to why an observant Jew should not consume them. But I won’t go into that here. Why?

Because we’re Sephardi! And the Mexicans rejoice! Sephardi Jews are those of us who are descended from the Jews of the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal.) What this means for us during Passover is that we have traditionally never followed the prohibitions regarding kitniyot. So bring on the corn! Bring on the rice! Give me a bowl of beans!

My husband, however, is Ashkenazi. *whomp, whomp* We celebrated our first Passover together in 2006 and I remember him telling me about what his mom would make for him and what he couldn’t eat. He told me he really loved matzo brei. Cue me all “Huh?” I had no idea what that was and he described this matzo-egg-fried deliciousness. It sounded similar enough to one of my favorite anytime breakfast dishes – migas, but during Passover, at least for him, they weren’t allowed.

Migas Brei was born! Congratulations for making it through all those words just to get to a recipe with no picture (sorry!)  Please give this recipe a try! You don’t have to be Jewish to make and love matzo brei. If you decide to forgo the matzo (and I honestly can’t blame you. That stuff’s like glue on the old digestive track), you can sub corn tortillas (skipping the soaking step and going right to the frying step) and make migas, instead.

Migas Brei (Tex Mex Matzo Brei)
serves 4-6

Ingredients:
4-6 matzo, broken into large chunks
6 eggs
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup onion, finely diced
1 jalapeno or Serrano, seeded and vein removed, finely diced (optional)
1 glove garlic, finely minced
1/2 cup tomato, finely diced
vegetable oil
salt and pepper
salsa and cheese for serving

Directions:
1. Break up matzo sheets into medium size chunks (bite-sized) and place in bowl. Pour warm water over the top and let them sit until softened.
2. Whisk eggs and milk until well incorporated. Season with salt and pepper.
3. In a large skillet, add 1-2 T of vegetable oil and heat until shimmering. Add onion, jalapeno or Serrano. Saute until softened and the edges of the onion begin to brown.
4. Add garlic and cook until fragrant (usually about a minute.)
5. Drain the matzo very well and add to the pan, stirring to mix with the vegetables, and cook until edges of the matzo start to brown.  You may or may not need to add a little more oil. You be the judge.
6. Add the eggs, tomatoes, salt and pepper, stirring to incorporate matzo and vegetables and cook until set but not rubbery.
7. Top with salsa (and I recommend warming salsa before putting it on hot food. Cold salsa + hot food = what would you do that?) and cheese. Serve immediately.

Beans, beans, the more you eat them, the more you…

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Stock photo – Dreamstime Images

Well, you know how the rest of that goes. But BEANS! Frijoles. Oh, the humble bean.

A few years ago when our budget was stretched wafer thin and I was worried about how to feed the four of us without spending a lot, I made a decision.  I took about $30 and bought a whole bunch of beans. I mean a whole lot! We’re talking 25 to 30 pounds total of pintos, black beans, and garbanzos. Costco was running a special. *shrug*  I figured I could do a lot with these beans and I was right. I did a lot with them. Nearly every week, I cooked up a batch of beans in the slow cooker and then divided portions to make any number of delicious recipes: black bean soup, black bean burgers, hummus, chana masala, pintos for beans and rice. I mashed the beans. I made bean and rice fritters. Bean enchiladas. Chili! (And before you pearl-clutch, this Tejana likes beans in her chili. My kitchen. My recipes.)

If you are on a budget, find yourself going through a rough patch financially, transitioning to vegetarianism, or just like legumes, then knowing how to cook up delicious beans is something you owe to yourself.  

No cocina Tejana would be complete without a fool proof recipe for beans. You’re probably thinking that cooking beans is too labor intensive, takes too long, or is complex but you would be wrong.

This recipe needs only a few things: beans, a slow cooker (also a budget friendly tool. I routinely see these handy gadgets on sale for under $30. It is an investment if you are currently strapped for cash, so I understand that), spices and aromatic veggies*, water. That’s it.

The method I’m sharing requires no soaking. Not even a quick method soaking. Caveat, though, I am not the final word on cooking beans. I’m sharing with you what I do. I make a very large batch of beans every week, and the slow cooker method is my favorite way. As Ron Popeil said, you just set it and forget it!

Big Batch of Slow Cooker Pinto Beans (you can use just about any bean you want in this method. Some beans will require more or less liquid so be mindful of that.)

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb of dried pinto
  • 8 cups of water
  • Variety of dried spices such as onion powder, garlic powder, cumin, salt, ground pepper.

*A word about using aromatic veggies: When I first started on the big batch of beans cooking routine, I preferred to use dried spices and still do. About 30 minutes before the end of cooking time, I add 1 tsp salt, 1.5 tsp onion powder, 1/2 tsp of garlic powder, 1/4 – 1/2 tsp cumin.  If you prefer to use fresh seasoning, you can make a sachet of cheese cloth but wrapping up one small peeled onion, 2-3 garlic cloves, some cumin seeds, peppercorns. DO NOT ADD SALT until your beans finish cooking. Add salt before then will cause your beans to stay hard and that’s just not going to taste good. My recipe below will include the dry spices method since that’s what I usually do.

Directions:

  1. Rinse beans in cold water and inspect for stones (for some reason pinto beans are rocky.) You do not need to soak beans to cook them. In fact, soaking many beans actually causes them to lose their distinct “beany” flavor.
  2. Put beans and water into slow cooker.
  3. Set slow cooker to low and cook for 8 – 10 hours (high for 5-6 hours.)
  4. When there are 30 minutes left in the cooking time, add the following dry seasonings:
    1 tsp of salt
    1 1/2 tsp of onion powder
    1 tsp of garlic powder
    1/4 to 1/2 cumin (or more if that’s your pleasure)
    ground pepper to taste
  5. Allow to simmer until finished cooking.
  6. Serve with anything you want – corn bread, tortillas, rice, just in a bowl. Cooked beans freeze very well, so if you want to have some on hand for those weeks you want beans but don’t want to cook, once cooled, divide your big batch into smaller portions and store in resealable freezer bags or other freezable container.

 

Shakshuka a la Tejana

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Stock image – Dreamstime Images

OH-EM-GEE! I love shakshuka! I don’t know how familiar you may be with this dish, but if it’s not a regular part of your budget-friendly-crowd-pleasing-eat-it-any-time menu, you need to add it, like yesterday!

So what is shakshuka (which iPhone likes to auto-correct to “Shark Hula.” We’ve started calling it that around the house because, you know, kids)?  Short story is that shakshuka is a tomato and eggs dish. Eggs are poached in a savory, spicy tomato sauce that is flavored with onions, peppers, and cumin. It’s a very popular dish in the Middle East that originated in areas of North Africa and you’ll find variations in just about every area of the region.

My sister suggested this dish to me when I was having a very uninspiring season when it came to feeding my family. She had just returned from her second trip to Israel and said I had to try this deliciousness.  Everything about the dish spoke to my Jewtina heart and I quickly adapted the recipe to my Tejana-Mexicana palette.

There are recipes for varieties all over the Internet and I certainly don’t claim to have The Only recipe for shakshuka, so feel free to add your spin on it. All the flavor profiles can be adjusted to taste or preference. Being Mexicana, I love a lot of heat in my food, so you’ll see that I use serrano peppers rather than mild green peppers, but certainly feel free to substitute peppers of you choice.

I’ve even made a version with roasted hatch chilies when hatch season is upon us (if you’re from the Austin area, for some reason this is a huge deal, but I know it’s an even bigger deal in New Mexico. Shout out to my New Mexican readers!) I’m less about the cumin and more about adding paprika. You may love that smoky, pungent cumin flavor. You do you!

Because the sauce is so soppable, shakshuka is generally served with some kind of bread item – challah, pita, tortillas even (dude! We’re in Texas!)  I’ve made this dish during Passover and ladled it over big pieces of matzo.  Of course, cheese is life and so I’m pretty generous with feta or queso cotija sprinkled on top of my shakshuka. Many people also like a smattering of flat leaf parsley or mint to dress it up. I’ve even seen it get even more Tej-Mex by adding cilantro (pero, not me. Cilantro me sabe a jabon.)

Without further delay, I give you my recipe for Shakshuka Tejana

Ingredients:

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Notice that there are no peppers in this picture. I’d already chopped them up when I thought “Hey! I should take a picture.”

  • 1 can petite diced tomatoes
  • 1 can crushed tomatoes
  • 1/2 to 1 large onion, diced (small or large dice, it’s up to you)
  • 1-2 serrano chilies, diced (you can keep the seeds for more heat or remove the seeds and veins for a less spicy dish)
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 T of tomato paste (this is optional, but I do find that it deepens the tomato flavor)
  • 1 T paprika
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp cumin (again, this is to your individual taste buds’ delight)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • Olive oil, lots
  • 6 eggs
  • pita or other bread for serving
  • feta or queso cotija for serving
  • parsley, mint, or cilantro for serving

Directions

  1. In a hot large, heavy bottom pan (I’m using an enamel cast iron braising pan), drizzle a generous amount of olive oil.
  2. Once oil is just slightly shimmering, add onions, peppers, and garlic. Saute until onions are translucent, edges just barely begin to brown, and garlic is very fragrant. Keep heat at medium and be careful not to over brown the garlic.
  3. Add paprika and cumin. Stir to coat vegetables and allow spices to bloom.
  4. Add tomato paste and stir. Then add one can of petite diced tomatoes with the juice. Use this juice to deglaze the pan.
  5. Allow mixture to gently simmer for a few minutes.
  6. Add the crushed tomatoes and stir.
  7. At this point I let the dish simmer on low until I’m ready to drop the eggs in. You definitely want to make sure the tomato mixture is nice and bubbly hot before you add the eggs, but timing this step can be tricky timing if you want the eggs to have cooked whites but runny or soft yolks. My advice is to drop the eggs a little bit before you want to serve. They’ll take only a little time to set the whites and still maintain a runny yolk.

Dropping the eggs:

Using a wooden spoon, make 6 little “wells” in the tomato sauce, being careful to space them out. Gently crack an egg into each well. Reduce the heat, cover the skillet, and cook on low until the egg whites are set.

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I dish up one or two eggs in a bowl with lots of the tomato mixture, dress with a little olive oil and sprinkle on the herbs and cheese. Serve with pita or bread of your choice and dig in. Bete’avon!

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A Recipe for Hummus

hummus

I have a household comprised of 75% adventurous, I’ll-try-anything eaters, and 25% “I’ll have beans, please” eaters.  My son, Mr. Selective, is crazy for pretty much any legume and I’ve tried hard to hang on to any foods remotely nutritious that he’ll eat.

But like I said, he’s selective. He has particular tastes and opinions about the food he eats (and shouldn’t we all, really?)  He loves hummus but not just any kind. Most store brands are too grainy or too garlicky or have too much cumin or not enough cumin or not enough lemon (actually this last part is also a complaint of mine. People are afraid of the acid. Embrace it! Lemon makes life, and food, bright!)  He prefers the hummus served at a couple of local restaurants and after many attempts, I’ve finally created the perfect recipe.

And today I’m sharing it with you! So get ready to makes some delicious hummus!

What you’ll need:
Ingredients

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  • 3 cans garbanzo beans, drained but reserve the liquid from one can (you can cook up your own dry beans and use those. Be sure to reserve about a cup of the cooking liquid. I didn’t have time to cook my own, so canned it is. If you want to control the amount of sodium, purchase “no added salt” beans.)
  • 1-2 juicy lemons (when selecting lemons at the store, go for the thinner skinned ones. You want smooth, thin, yellow fruit that should feel heavy for their size)
  • 2 small garlic cloves (more if you like your hummus garlicky)
  • 1/4 cup olive oil, divided (I know this sound like a lot. Trust me on this.)
  • 1/4 cup tahini (don’t skip on this ingredient. Most grocery stores now carry this product.)
  • 1/4 tsp ground cumin (or more if you like)
  • salt to taste
  • Paprika for serving

Directions:

  1. In a food processor, combine garlic cloves, 2 T of olive oil, and 1/4 cup tahini. Process until the mixture is smooth and well incorporated.
  2. Drain the garbanzo beans, reserving the liquid from one can, and add ONLY the beans to the food processor. Process until beginning to become smooth.
  3. With the food processor still running, slowly add the reserved liquid until you reach a very smooth consistency (I usually end up using all the liquid however if you like your hummus thicker and less creamy, use less liquid).
  4. Stop the processor and taste. Now is a good time to add salt if you think it needs it. Because the canned beans are pretty salty, I didn’t add any to my recipe.
  5. Adding the lemon – I started with the juice of half a lemon. Add the juice, process, then taste. Keep doing this until the hummus has enough lemon for your taste.
  6. Adding cumin – Cumin is a very pungent herb and lends depth to recipes. I started with a pinch of ground cumin, processed, then tasted. Sometimes I add none and sometimes I had as much as 1/2 tsp depending on how many beans I’ve used.
  7. Mr. Selective loves his hummus served with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of paprika. When you’re ready to serve, drizzle the remain olive oil over the top and sprinkle with paprika.
  8. Enjoy!

Hummus is a food I make weekly and we usually have one dinner a week where it is the main event. I serve it with Greek cucumber-tomato salad, various raw veggies, greens, warmed pita, and olives and feta. Other times (like I’m doing right now as I type this), I just eat it with a spoon!

 

Fits and Starts

Austin-LBLTrail-Edited

I started this blog six years ago and it wasn’t the first blog I started. I must have dozens of blogs lurking around the Internet. Half finished, sort of thought out, dumping grounds for the bits and pieces of my ideas and experiences with no real purpose.

Six years later I’m in a moment of my life where I’m happily sitting in the knowledge that not everything has to have an obvious purpose. Just being and doing and breathing and experiencing are acts of their own purpose.

So with that, I give you this blog, the reboot of me, my life, living in Central Texas, being a Tejana mama.

And I may still talk about growing tomatoes.

The Sun and the Rain

We’ve had so much rain lately, which is much needed ’round these parts. I reminds me of a blessing we used before meals times at Girl Scout camp:

Oh the Lord is good to me,
And so I thank the Lord!
For giving me the things I need,
Like the sun and the rain,
And the apple seed.
The Lord is good to me.
Amen! (Dig in!)

The sun and the rain have been quite good to me indeed, because look! Thar be ‘maters! Ha!

Amish Paste – An heirloom from WI. Produces up to 12 oz, deep-red oxheart-shaped, meaty fruit. Lots of sweet, tomatoey flavors from this coreless meaty fruit. Great for slicing and saucing.

A true black cherry tomato. Grow to produce 1″, round, deep purple, mahogany-brown fruit. Delicious with sweet, rich, complex, full tomato flavors that burst in your mouth, characteristic of the best flavorful black tomatoes.

My other tomato varieties, Cherokee Purple and Brandywine, have been somewhat lackluster.  I’m not sure what the problem really is, though while not dead, they’re fairly puny.  Time will tell if their few flowers will actually fruit.

So beyond the tomatoes flourishing, my potted Mystery Pepper (named such because it had a big question mark on the little planter when I bought it at the plant store and it was subsequently 50% off) has a lone fruit making its debut. I decided to transplant it into the bed, now that those emeffer fire ants finally bought the farm (grr!)

The Mystery Pepper. Woot!

My bed is finally rid of the most hated scourge of the southwest, but I wasn’t sure what to plant. My gardening friends are all producing lovely eats like squash, melons, beans, beets, strawberries, etc. I just needed things that weren’t going to be a wast of a $1.99.  So my primary criteria for what to put in the bed was full sun. So here’s what we have (hopefully you can read the labels, but if not, I have 2 cucumber plants, 1 eggplant, 4 different peppers: Mystery, pepperoncini, bell, and serrano, English mint, and French thyme):

The Bed, de-anted and replanted.

I know I’ve been gone awhile. Life had gotten a bit crazy (travel, children, stuff-n-things).  I’m hoping to have more garden success to show you and expand my subject matter to other interesting things. Maybe I should rename this blog “Beyond the Garden” to motivate me a little bit.

PS – I did do a little guest blogging, if you’re interested to read about something other than ants in my bed and willfully unsuccessful tomato plants. Check it out here: The Texas Treatment blog.

Passover has Passed Over!

Huevos haminados - photo credit http://www.thekitchn.com

Oops! It looks like I fell off the blagon (that’s blog-wagon. I tried to make a new word. Yeah, anyway…)  I’m kind of notorious for that, by the way. Dropping off the page for a bit and then trying to cram in updates later on.

March is over and we’re in to the middle of April already. Yowza!  The last week was occupied with Passover, or as I like to call it: my Annual Gluten Detox since I do my best to avoid as much matzo as I can.  This year we made a good faith effort to actually be more observant where our son was concerned. He’s four and starting to understand more of why some of the things we do as Jews are different than his classmates (who are pretty much not Jewish) in preschool do things.

This presents a particular challenge for school lunches. Snacks are provided by the preschool and we have a wonderful staff member who is very conscious of Passover and won’t serve chametz for snacks. It’s nothing we ever asked for, but it’s nice to be considered.  He’s pretty accustomed to one kind of lunch: PB&J, cheese cubes, fruit, and maybe some Pirate’s Booty.  Observing Passover makes it hard to have sandwiches and PB&J on matzo is pretty unappealing.

Luckily, in my opinion, we observe Sephardic food traditions during Passover which means we’ll eat certain foods during the week that are forbidden to Ashkenazi Jews (the predominant Jewish ethnic group in the U.S. and who most of the non-Jewish public thinks of when they think about being Jewish in America).  We’ll eat corn and rice and legumes. A bean and cheese quesadilla on corn tortillas is usually a winner in Ben’s lunchbox. However, these foods are in a class called kitnyot and Ashkenazi Jews are forbidden to consume them during the week.  I have to say that being a Sephardic Jew lends itself well to enjoying a wider range of culinary variety during Passover. My Ashkenazi husband has been all too happy to take on the ethnic observances of his wife!

I’ve also found that the Easter/Passover crossover is harder to explain than the Christmas/Hannukah dilemma. In an effort to help my son understand the similarities and differences between being a Jew during Passover and his friends celebrating Easter, I decided to focus on the similarities. The thing he notices most are Easter eggs. We did participate in some egg hunts this year but they got me thinking about lesser known Jewish traditions and how eggs my feature in those customs. It seems we have a Ladino custom of something called huevos haminados (pictured above).

I didn’t discover these until late in the week when a rabbi friend of mine had mentioned them, but I think they’ll be a great, fun activity (and delicious treat) for next year!

Huevos Haminados – Recipe and photo from www.thekitchn.com