Let’s Embrace – for a Long and Bright and Happy Life

My extroversion muscles have atrophied while my introversion muscles are bulging,” writes David Brooks in a recent NYTimes column. How true is that?!

My CC college friends (friends for almost 60 years) echoed that same feeling on a Zoom call the other day. But we labeled it “inertia,” and most felt it was a COVID-related issue. It seems that getting back into the post-vaccination socializing groove isn’t coming easily.

A BBC series on Worklife recently posted a helpful article “Why we may have to re-learn to socialise.” (which, oddly, enough is followed up by this article: “Can online sex fill the connection void.” I’ll save that topic for another blog…in hopes that you keep reading! 🙂

Yes, we may want to take it slowly, but we’d better get off our couch (or up from our computer chair) and get back out into the world. It doesn’t take much reading or research to figure out why.

Are dogs and cats enough? I don’t think so.

Hot off the press is a UC San Diego School of Medicine study which focuses on loneliness and gut health, as well as wisdom and gut health. I’ve been interested in gut health and food ever since my blog from a while back, so I know that richness and diversity in the gut microbiome is good. But I didn’t realize that gut health may possibly be improved if you’re socially engaged – and not lonely. To quote the researchers: “It is possible that loneliness may result in decreased stability of the gut microbiome and, consequently, reduced resistance and resilience to stress-related disruptions, leading to downstream physiological effects, such as systemic inflammation.”

The light?

In 2010 (notably pre-Pandemic) researchers from BYU published an article in PLOS Medicine which analyzes 148 studies (totaling over 308,000 participants of all ages, races, and genders). Their conclusion? Social relationships influence the health outcomes of adults – and lack of social interaction negatively impacts our longevity the same as does smoking, not exercising, drinking too much, and obesity (how many of us in this last year have had little social interaction – AND have been drinking a lot, eating more than we should, and not exercising? How much is that all going to impact our life span? Yikes.)

Maybe the most interesting research on this topic comes from a Harvard study. I’m sure it was the title that caught my attention – “Good genes are nice, but joy is better.” Beginning in 1938, Harvard tracked 268 of their students over an 80-year time period, observing their physical and mental health. The result?

Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.” 

That’s pretty up-beat, don’t you think? We may have little or no control over social class, IQ, or genes, but we sure can work at forming and maintaining close relationships.

The truth?

Now I tend to think that all Harvard studies must be perfect, but I believe there’s an important caveat here that maybe isn’t addressed adequately. The study followed men. Why? Because there were no women at Harvard when the study began. I discussed that concern about no women participants with my CC sorority-sister friends. And they all agreed – the way men react wouldn’t necessarily predict the way women may react. That said, I’m hoping the study’s findings apply to us women too.

Pre-vaccination social distancing in Sonoma…I’ll eat at the counter and you eat at the table! The question is: did that help our longevity because at least we were under one roof – or hurt our longevity because we weren’t exactly hugging?

We plan to meet and greet – and, yes, embrace…lots of friends this next year. Andy is hoping to laugh with lots of friends this year – see today’s Andy’s Corner – where Andy will also introduce “The Sunshine Lady.”

There are so many folks we’ve missed…including our Waco/Houston friends who didn’t come to SF this year because the American Sociological Association meeting there was cancelled due to COVID; Sonoma friends who moved to Toronto during the pandemic – and haven’t been able to get back for a visit nor has Canada welcomed visitors there; Boulder friends whom we normally would have seen when we take our biannual trip to visit Colorado and my Fort Collins brother.

In my effort to keep these special social connections active (and my brain brighter), I emailed each of these foodie/friends and asked them to send me a favorite recipe that they’ve been cooking this weird year, and explain why they chose it. The explanations are as special as the recipes: we appreciate the aroma of food; we crave something simple and quick and one that provides more than one meal; most-importantly, we need a dinner with good food and with that necessary social companionship that can help cheer up the gloomiest of days. I’ll embrace that!

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Lagniappe: Mountain Goats and Debbie’s Sugar Cookies

To refresh your memory, lagniappe (LAN-yap) is a Creole term meaning something a little extra, sort of like a “baker’s dozen.” It’s a word we heard often during our Louisiana years. We like to think of our “Lagniappe” posts as little digital extras we add to our regular bi-weekly posts.

[Note: Andy is taking the reins for today’s Lagniappe blog].

Appropriately enough, this post was inspired by a little something extra I received recently following a ride with a group of fellow cyclists who call themselves the Mountain Goats (or just “Goats” for short). For me the route had been particularly challenging and by the time we got back to our vehicles I was tuckered out and ready to head home. While stowing my bike in the back of my car, Debbie, one of the “Goats,” was going from vehicle to vehicle offering festively decorated cookies that she had baked. Just seeing these colorful, sweet gems brightened me up. And biting into one was heavenly – the perfect picker-upper after a long ride.

As soon as I took that bite I knew that I had to convince Debbie to share the secret of her cookies for BigLittleMeals. What could be more appropriate for a pre-Easter edition, or for that matter, any pre-festive-occasion edition? She was kind enough to agree, so I asked her to write a little something about herself and how she creates her amazing cookies.

A little something by Debbie about Debbie:

Debbie is an amateur baker, cookie aficionado, and semi-retired educator (who keeps teaching because she needs the dough. Who knew powdered sugar was so expensive?) Other than attending her first-and-only decorating class and watching countless Youtube videos, Debbie is a self-taught baker who learns through trial and error (and eating her mistakes. Yay, yummy mistakes). When not baking, Debbie can often be found cycling with her Mountain Goat friends, climbing hills around Sonoma County.

[Editors note: Debbie was too modest to mention that among her accomplishments she was the 1993 Amateur World Champion (Triathlon Short Course) and the 1994 US Amateur Triathlete of the Year. She went on to compete professionally as a triathlete. This was all prior to her becoming a world class cookie maker.]

Here’s the scoop on her cookies:

Below are Debbie’s preferred recipes for sugar cookies and for their icing. You need to go no further than the straightforward cookie recipe to produce a batch of cookies that would please anyone. But it’s the icing and decorating part that gives them that special pizzaz and – well, just makes everyone who sees them happy. That part is a bit less straightforward, but Debbie offers some helpful tips for the uninitiated.

Debbie’s decorating tips

As I have learned from many, many mistakes, successful cookie decorating depends on icing consistency. Icing consistency is really important! If the icing is too runny, it will run off the cookie. Too stiff and it will not dry flat. For newcomers to decorating, there are a number of youtube videos that explain how to make icing the proper consistency. You can check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAfBRU3WK_0

You also need practice! My first attempts at decorating were not-so-pretty…[actually, they were just so sad!]. However, like most things, decorating cookies gets easier and better with practice.

There are also so many resources online, you can become a self-taught decorator in no time! Pinterest is a wonderful resource for decorating ideas and images. 
This royal icing recipe [below] comes courtesy of Sugared Sentiments and is available at: https://sugaredsentiments.com/soft-royal-icing-recipe/

Essential tools include icing bags, couplers, icing tips, a scribe (or toothpick!) and, of course, food color. Gel dyes are more effective than liquid dyes.

Happy holiday – or any day that provides an excuse to make these happy cookies.

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No Fry Zone

Swedish meatballs may have been my favorite food dish growing up. My mother had them mastered, but maybe that wasn’t surprising, given that she was the daughter of Swedish immigrants. While my Swedish grandmother didn’t need a recipe, my mother and I carefully worked one out, so that I would be able to carry on the meatball tradition.

Actually, the recipe itself was kind of basic. But frying the meatballs so that they browned beautifully and were perfectly round was – and is – challenging. A few weeks ago I decided to give into nostalgia and try my hand once more, hoping at last to develop the frying technique which resulted in the perfectly-browned little Swedish meatball. The result was….well, it wasn’t pretty. Actually, it was pretty damn scary.

Our foodie daughter, Sara, and I agree. Frying things sucks. Andy agrees that cleaning up the mess it makes sucks (but Andy has figured out a way to make cleaning up a game! See yet another Andy-esque post in today’s Andy’s Corner).

But what are you going to do when a recipe demands that you sear your beef for birria or your lamb for a tagine – or for just plain old carrot, potato, and beef stew? I am here to suggest a revolutionary yet calming approach. Just skip that step.

I promised Sara we’d do an actual taste test, and we did. We cut in half a boneless chuck roast and made two separate preparations of birria, one using the seared beef and one prepared without searing. And our test? Well, yes, you could argue that the seared beef cubes resulted in a slightly more intense flavor, but the difference was minimal. And aren’t we all about saving time and energy – and just enjoying our meals? We’re not looking for a French Laundry experience here (I could follow that up with a comment about Gavin Newsom and The French Laundry, but I’ve moved on).

Frying the beef for Birria de Res

If you’re wondering what the glistening dots are in front of the fried beef on our new Blue Star range – it’s splattered oil – and it’s all over the stovetop – and the griddle top – and the burners – and the backsplash. There’s even some on our wood floor.

You might suggest that putting meat in the oven at a high temperature to braise or brown it is the easy solution to this mess. We’ve been there, done that – and ended up with grease splattered all over the oven’s interior. That’s way more traumatizing to clean up than a stove top.

There’s a fancy foodie name for what browning can accomplish. It’s the “Maillard reaction.” Referencing that reaction, Josh Cohen, writing for Food52 (nice site, BTW – started by Amanda Hesser of NYTimes fame), verifies what our mini-experiment seemed to show: searing is a step you can skip. Another accomplished cook, John Willoughby of Thrill of the Grill cookbook fame, also chimes in about how we can safely omit that laborious step. And the always-popular Kenji López-Alt at SeriousEats.com maintains that “the more thoroughly you brown your meat, the drier and tougher your stew ends up.”

There are a few more recommendations from these folks that may be worth considering: López-Alt recommends that you never cook a stew-like dish on top of the stove but rather in a 275 degree oven with the lid ever-so-slightly ajar – and that you check carefully after two hours or so of cooking because the meat will tenderize very quickly at that point – and then start to get dry. Willoughby reminds us that Paula Wolfert – of Sonoma fame and The Food of Morocco fame – said that in her early years in Morocco it was common to start a tagine “cold,” i.e. without any browning, and that the result was “magical.” To accomplish the cold heat process, Wolfert suggested slowly heating the meat and the spices together in a little warmed oil or butter and then adding the liquid, covering, and doing the long simmer.

No frying/searing/browning. Just adding sauce to the raw beef cubes and slowly warming and mixing it together well – before adding water. Note the spotless range top.

We’ve got two recipes to make your stove clean-up fast and easy – and your dinner delicioso. There’s a riff on Paula Wolfert’s tangines; make it with lamb or make it vegetarian. Either way, it’s spicy and sweet and a little lemon-y and perfect. Or try our Birria de Res. Usually we think of Birria as being made with goat, but our recipe uses “res” – beef. Birria is SO “in” right now (see Eater and the NYTimes). Make it, and you‘ll be trendy and cool. You can use the birria two ways: serve it as a soup with tortillas along side to dip into the tomato-y beefy broth – or remove the meat from the broth and use the meat to make a taco, topped with some avocado, onion, cilantro, and, of course, lots of lime juice. And, just so you know, we tried the birria taco where the tortilla is first dipped into the broth and then the tortilla is filled and fried. It may be yummy but the mess it makes will put you right back to square one. And avoiding that mess is what this blog is all about.

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The Bluebirds of Happiness

And maybe it’s enough…in these days that are so close to turning warm and bright and green again, when we are so close to being released from the prison of our homes, to think of happiness as neither distant nor grand. Perhaps it would help to remember that even now happiness is only what it has ever been: something that lights before us, immediate and insistent and always fleeting. Not a promise at all but a temporary gift. It lands, and lifts away, and returns again, ever flashing its wings.

How beautifully expressed and how spot-on for this day and time. The writer is Margaret Renkl and I took the quote from her recent opinion column in the NYTimes – a regular column which focuses on the “flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.” 

Renkl’s 2019 book …about the joy and grief we humans experience, intertwined with the optimism the natural world may bring.

This particular column from Renkl is entitled “The Happiness I’ve Discovered in My Backyard.” Among the multitudes of birds coming to her backyard mealworm feeder – mockingbirds, wrens, juncos, doves, jays – none seems to appeal to Renkl more than the bluebirds.

Watching the tumult of their azure wings one morning, I said aloud to the empty house, “A happiness of bluebirds.” I was sure I’d heard the phrase somewhere before. It seemed so apt, the way all the other songbird collectives are apt: a radiance of cardinals, a quarrel of sparrows, a trembling of finches, a scold of jays, a murder of crows. Why not a happiness of bluebirds, for who could fail to take heart from birds who carry the summer sky so faithfully on their backs in the slender light of winter?

Turns out there’s no widely recognized collective noun for bluebirds, at least none that I could find. I had simply made one up out of my own deep, unrecognized need.

The Happiness of Bluebirds. It’s a lovely expression but I don’t think it’s new and unheard of. The minute I read “the happiness of bluebirds” I burst into song (ignoring Andy’s raised eyebrows), doing my best on “The Bluebird of Happiness.” I had to point out how well known that expression is – albeit reversed from Renkl’s. You’ve really got to hear it sung by Jan Peerce, not me.

But while I was singing about bluebirds and happiness, Andy was mumbling and grumbling about how bluebirds are probably not all that happy (or maybe he was grumbling about my singing). In today’s Andy’s Corner Andy even snarks about how bluebirds are not really blue! I don’t believe it.

But back to the song. Don’t snicker about how dated it sounds. Rather, listen to the still-relevant lyrics, admire Peerce’s beautiful operatic tenor voice, and remember that this song was written for Peerce in 1934. Peerce was Jewish. Hitler had just been named Der Führer.

For every bit of darkness,
There’s a little bit of light.
For every bit of hatred,
There’s a little bit of love.
For every cloudy morning,

There’s a midnight moon above. (lyrics from “The Bluebird of Happiness”)

Food can bring happiness too. Or not. Andy, the sociologist, should be proud of me for finding a published article from the University of Toronto written by three social psychologists on “exposure to fast food impedes happiness.” That’s why I’m enthused to have found The perfect HOMEMADE blueberry muffins! I haven’t liked a blueberry muffin since having been overexposed to Betty Crocker’s 1959 introduction of boxes of Wild Blueberry Muffin mix.

What’s the secret to these perfect muffins? Well, they’re not too sweet; they’re moist – but mostly it’s because they’re made with sour cream – or if you’re really wild and crazy, the perfect mix of sour cream AND Mexican crema. Pure happiness.

Best Ever Blueberry Muffins

Best Ever Blueberry Muffins

Note: my 6 oz pack of fresh blueberries was just the right amount – about 1 c – for this recipe. If you’re using frozen blueberries, rinse them with cold water while still frozen, dry them lightly with paper towels, and then dust them with flour.  Mix them ever so gently into the batter before they totally defrost.  Adapted from Elise Bauer and SimplyRecipes.com.

  • 1 2/3 c flour, plus 1 tablespoon for dusting the blueberries
  • 2 tsp baking powder 
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp Diamond kosher salt
  • 6 T butter, melted
  • 2/3 c sugar
  • 2  eggs
  • 1 c sour cream (we like to mix 1/2 c Mexican crema – or creme fraiche – with 1/2 c of sour cream for the ultimate taste experience)
  • 1 T milk
  • 3/4 tsp vanilla 
  • 1/2 tsp lemon zest
  • 1 c blueberries, fresh or frozen

Preheat oven to 375°F.  Generously grease 10-12 muffin cups or use muffin liners (note: muffin pans vary a little in size, so that’s why I’m giving you a range).  

Place the blueberries in a bowl. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of flour over them and gently toss to coat.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the sour cream, sugar, eggs, milk, melted butter, lemon zest, and vanilla until smooth. 

Add the dry ingredients to the butter/sugar/egg mixture a third at a time and mix until just incorporated. Do not over mix!  Gently fold the blueberries into the mixture.

Distribute the batter equally among the cups. The cups should each be about 3/4 full.

Place the muffins in the oven and bake at 375°F until the muffins are golden brown, about 25-30 minutes. Test with a toothpick to make sure the centers of the muffins are done.

Let the muffins cool in the muffin pan for 2 to 3 minutes, then remove them from the pan. Let cool another 10 minutes before eating.  Once cooled, the muffins can be frozen and will still be great at a later date.

Recipe brought to you by BigLittleMeals.com and Andy and Ann.

The Chickens Are Molting!

January was an especially bad month around here – not because of the pandemic or because of drought or fires or power shut-offs – or even because of the lingering political malaise.

It’s because we didn’t have eggs from Sandy and Stacey’s backyard hens.

Being in a pandemic-induced foul (fowl?) mood, I was inclined to march over to these normally-sweet hens and reprimand them. How could they possibly do this to us?! Don’t they know that everyone is feeling pretty grumpy at the moment – and we don’t need unexpected food shortages? Don’t they know that we don’t like to buy eggs at the grocery store? Don’t they know that we can barely get through breakfast without an egg – or two?

I guess creatures are behaving more normally than we humans are at the moment. Molting is a natural yearly occurrence for hens. And – in Andy’s Corner today – you’ll learn that hens aren’t the only ones enduring this yucky “clucky” experience. And, just so you know, I’m pretty sure my beloved Pecker never molted.

When the days grow shorter and chillier, chickens need to replace their old, scruffy feathers with new, tight, shiny ones to protect them from winter’s cold and rain and snow. Doing this requires lots of protein from their body; producing eggs also requires lots of protein. During a molt the hen’s body directs all the protein toward feather production, so egg production ceases. Interesting, huh?


Learning about that made me wonder why we can buy eggs in the grocery store all year long. Do commercially-raised hens not molt? The answer is a little complex and not all that appetizing. Here’s a good article from the University of Kentucky about it. Suffice it to say that commercial egg producers carefully regulate the light and temperature and food to control and shorten their hens’ molting.

According to the blog found on Nature.org, bird owners know that the “mood” or “personality” of their bird — whether it be a chicken, parrot or darling starling — can change dramatically during molt. The birds often retreat to quiet spaces, reduce their activity and just want to be left alone.

Maybe the pandemic is bringing out a molt in us!

The pandemic – and vaccines – also have an interesting tie-in to eggs. Apparently 82% of flu vaccines are egg based – and are produced from hens kept in highly secure – even secret – locations. According to CNN, every day hundreds of thousands of eggs are transported to vaccine-makers where the virus is then grown in the eggs.

Rest assured, COVID vaccines are not egg-based. At least a shortage of eggs due to molting is not something that will interrupt our COVID vaccinations! Thank goodness for little things.

Just as I was immersed in my research about molting, my friend Susan sent me a favorite recipe which came from her Granny. Susan promised me that everyone she’d ever served this cake to loved it. Now Susan and I go way WAY back, having grown up together on little South Shields Street acreages in Fort Collins, Colorado, back when South Shields Street was still country. I know she raised Jersey cows (Susan reports she milked four cows twice a day!) but maybe Susan and her mom and Granny didn’t raise chickens, because her cake recipe has no eggs. I was sure Susan had just left out that seemingly-crucial cake ingredient, but when I did some checking I found those egg-less cakes used to be called “Depression” or “War” cakes, since they were baked a lot during times when eggs were either expensive or hard to find (or maybe it was November in Colorado and – like all smart hens – they were molting!).

The cake is delicious as is – and also perfect for anyone who is vegan, but it’s February and Sandy and Stacey’s hens are back on my good side. I may even try Granny’s cake with an egg added and do a taste test.

If your local hens are molting and breakfast is looking grim, we suggest Overnight Steel Cut Oats, Ginger Scones, Andy’s Biscuits, and Deb’s Granola. But if you’re craving dessert – and have no eggs – well, Granny’s Applesauce Cake will be your go-to.

Granny’s Applesauce Cake

Granny's Applesauce Cake

The recipe can easily be doubled.  If doubling, use a greased and floured bundt pan and bake for about 1 hour +  or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.  If you want to be fancier, put whole pecans in the bottom of the bundt pan so that when the cake is removed from the pan, the top is decorated with pecans.  And, yes, there are no eggs in it.

  • 1/3 c butter, softened (I used 1/2 c to keep it simple) (to make this vegan, simply substitute oil for the butter)
  • 1 c sugar
  • 1 c sweetened (or unsweetened) applesauce; use unsweetened if you’re keeping sugar at a minimum
  • 1 tsp vanilla (optional)
  • 1 1/2 c flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp cloves (I used 1/4 tsp, since I’m not a big fan of cloves)
  • 1/4 tsp salt (optional)
  • 2 c chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts work well)
  • 1 c raisins
  • whipped cream or ice cream for serving (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Butter and flour an 8″ cake pan.

Beat the butter and sugar together with a hand mixer.  Stir in the applesauce and vanilla.

In another bowl, whisk together the flour, soda, cinnamon, cloves, and salt.  Stir that into the applesauce mix and then stir in the nuts and raisins.

Bake for 30 – 40 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Recipe brought to you by Susan in Fort Collins, BigLittleMeals.com and Andy and Ann.

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