Saying Yes to the Sourdough Life

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Last weekend, I had the privilege of teaching eight lovely women how to bake sourdough bread.  I absolutely adore teaching these workshops.  The participants are always so enthusiastic and willing to get their hands right in the dough (which is exactly what we do….no mixers here!)  We cover a lot of ground in a three hour span, basically a Sourdough 101, and everyone leaves with two loaves of bread ready to put in the refrigerator overnight and bake in the morning, along with a sourdough starter of their own to feed and nurture so that they can continue baking bread in their own kitchens.  Sourdough bread instruction tends to be very technical and intimidating.  My approach to teaching it is to make it fun and inviting.  Baking sourdough bread should not be an activity reserved only for those who love hydration percentages and baker’s math.  It’s for everyone who is willing to say “yes” to the sourdough life.

Those who show up at my workshops willing to say a hearty “yes” to this way of life bring with them so many reasons for wanting to do so:

I need something creative, just for me.

I love the idea of doing something real, with my hands.

I don’t even eat bread but I want to make this for my family.

I want to know what’s going in to the bread I eat.

Each one on their own path but wanting to enhance their lives by giving themselves over to this ancient, creative practice.  It is a beautiful thing, this sharing of the sourdough life, and I am grateful to be able to do it.

What is the sourdough life?  It is a commitment to nurturing a living ecosystem, the sourdough starter, that is your partner in the baking process.  It is a willingness to be present for your sourdough starter when it needs your attention, which at first is as often as twice a day.  It is an opportunity to dance with the ancient rhythms of life and nature that are inherent in the baking of sourdough bread.   It is a intentional slowing down to an unhurried pace that runs counter to almost every aspect of the modern world.  It is a surrendering of control and an opportunity to simply allow things to happen in their own good time.  It is a creative ritual that brings a sense of simplicity, connection and well-being into our lives.  Oh, and there’s the reward of the bread itself….fragrant, warm and rustic, unlike anything you would find in the grocery store.  And you made it with your own two hands with a simple combination of flour, water and salt.

My introduction to this life came in culinary school, three years ago.  I had just gone through a divorce and was faced with the prospect of what was next for me.  I had been a stay-at-home mom for 12 years.  What would I do to support myself?  Before I had children, I had been a practicing attorney.  A very unhappy one.  I wasn’t too excited about returning to that career path, but I investigated my options, networked with my former colleagues and went on some interviews.  In the end, I just couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t put myself back in that toxic environment.  So I went to culinary school instead.  It was something I had always wanted to do, cooking and baking had been long-standing passions in my life.  Artisan Breads was known as a demanding class, but I absolutely loved it, particularly the sourdough aspect of it.  I fed my starter religiously, even taking him with me on vacations.  After the class ended, I continued to bake on my own and even considered the prospect of owning my own bakery for awhile.  The more I baked the more bread I gave away to friends and family.  They began asking if I could show them how to make it themselves, and so the workshop was born.

Now I write, teach yoga and journaling classes, and host bread baking workshops.  A far cry from my lawyering days and not nearly as lucrative, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I don’t know where this journey will take me next, but I do know that settling into this ancient practice of sourdough bread baking has changed me.  Yes, it can be a bit of an ordeal to create a starter, to continue to nurture and feed it, to plan ahead so that your bread has enough time to ferment in the refrigerator before baking.  It’s so much easier to just buy bread from the store!  But the results of your efforts are well worth it, both in terms of the rewards of the creative process and the delicious bread itself.

Consider saying “yes” to the sourdough life, to dedicating yourself to a practice that grounds, delights and nourishes on so many levels.  Come to a workshop or read a book on the topic (I recommend Sourdough by Sarah Owens).  Simply begin by creating your own starter and see where that takes you.  I will follow up this post with instructions for beginning your own starter, but if you can’t wait, there are plenty of resources on the internet for getting started.  The good people at www.kingarthurflour.com are always a good and reliable source.

 

A Conversation with Your Artist Self: A Journaling Exercise

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When I told my journaling class last night that we were going to explore our unique artistry, I was met with blank stares.  And then the inevitable protest, “but I’m not an artist.”  “Me either,” someone else chimed in.  But I was ready for this pushback, for this denial of any association with the word “artist”.  I quickly pulled out my copy of Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance:  A Day Book of Comfort and Joy, and began reading from the entry for February 8 entitled, “You Are an Artist”:

“Each of us is an artist.  An artist is merely someone with good listening skills who accesses the creative energy of the Universe to bring forth something on the material plane that wasn’t here before….So it is with a creating an authentic life.  With every choice, every day, you are creating a unique work of art.  Something that only you can do.  Something beautiful and ephemeral.  The reason you were born was to leave your own indelible mark on your personal world.  This is your authenticity.”

So we start with the premise that we are all artists.  You may not be a painter or a poet, but you are most certainly an artist of your own authentic existence.  There is something you are here to do as only you can do it.  What is that thing?  What kind of artist are you?  What is unique about you?  What artistry are you being called to bring forth in the world?  How will you stepping into your authentic existence serve others?  

Take out your journal and a pen and start on a clean page.  In the center, write “I am an artist of…” and draw a circle around it.  We are going to do a clustering exercise with this phrase as a starting point.  A cluster is simply a mind map in which we choose a word or phrase for the center bubble and free associate out from there.  Let your thoughts generate other thoughts in the form of a single words or short phrases.  Circle each one and connect it with a line to the thought before it.  If you think of something entirely new that doesn’t relate back to the previous thought, go back to the center bubble and connect the new idea up with where you originally started.  Continue to build outward from there.  Keep going for 5-7 minutes exploring what kind of artist you believe yourself to be.  Don’t hold back!  Just let your mind free associate and explore at this stage.  Clustering is a fantastic way to gather information quickly and to engage both hemispheres of the brain with it’s non-linear style.  You may be surprised by where your thoughts take you!

Once you have completed your cluster, see if you can narrow down what kind of artist you are into one word or a short phrase.  The more clear you can get on your unique brand of artistry, the better you will be able to direct your energy towards what really matters.  “I am an artist of….”  How do you fill in that blank with a word or phrase that captures your authentic desires, interests and abilities?  Let your unique artistry be BIG, let it be a container large enough to hold all of what it is you believe you are here to do.

Once you have an idea of where your unique artistry lies, have a dialogue with your artist self on the page and ask he/she what it is that you are here to bring forth into the world.  What innovation or new understanding will your unique point of view bring to your art?  Refer back to this exercise for a general discussion of how journaling dialogues work before you begin if you need a review.  Continue your conversation with your artist self for 20-25 minutes or until you feel like the dialogue has come to a natural conclusion.  Thank your artist self for the information he/she has given you.

Review your conversation.  Where can you take inspired action now in order to begin bringing YOUR art into the world?  Look for the small, baby steps.  That’s always a good place to begin.  Remember, we are talking about you being an artist of your authentic existence.  Any step you take towards a fuller expression of your authentic self is a move in the right direction and a display of your unique artistry.

Everyone in class found this exercise to be surprisingly empowering and an excellent way to tap into our authentic creative longings.  There is something about having a conversation with your artist self that gives you permission to pursue something outside of the box, something new, innovative and uniquely yours.  Because that’s what artists do, right?  Now go make YOUR art!

What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up? A Journaling Exercise

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What do you want to be when you grow up?  I don’t know about you, but I’m still trying to figure this out.  Even if you are lucky enough to have already found your way to your true calling, it’s fun to imagine what our lives might be like if we were doing something different than we are right now.  On a deeper level, our imagined lives can help us discover what it is that we long for, how we might infuse our lives with fun, creativity and meaning, and what’s possible if we allow ourselves to think outside the box.

Take out your journal and a pen.  Quickly, without overthinking it, jot down 10 imaginary careers that sound intriguing to you.  They can be absolutely anything….painter, pilot, nun, photographer, lawyer, doctor, deep sea fisherman….you name it.  Once you have a list of 10, pick three to five of these imaginary careers and describe what your life would be like in each one.  Focus on the aspects of each career that seem appealing to you, the parts that sound like fun.  Maybe you adore solitude and contemplative time (me!), and that’s one of the reasons being a nun sounds really compelling to you.  Or maybe you’ve always enjoyed doodling and drawing and playing with color, and the life of a painter calls to you.  As always, flush out your imaginary career in exquisite detail.  What is your average day like?  Who are you with?  What are you wearing?  What is your overall state of busyness?  How do you carry yourself?  Have fun with it and really see yourself in this new role.  It might be helpful to write in a first-person present format, for example, “I am a painter…..” and describe your imaginary life from there.

Once you have described three to five lives, go back and read what you wrote.  Notice and underline any patterns and themes that carry through your imaginary careers.  Do the same for details that really matter to you, the ones that light you up and excite you.  Write these patterns/themes/details in a list format on a new page in your journal.  Here are a few of the entries that showed up on my list:

Meditation and mindfulness

An appreciation for solitude/alone time

Journaling

Vegetarian Cooking

Bread Baking

Becoming an author

Aligning meditation, mindfulness and journaling with the grounding practices of presence available to us in our everyday lives

Seasons

My love of the Nordic aesthetic

Hygge/coziness

Once you have your list, consider how you can work some of the details of your imaginary life into your life as it is right now.  For example, I’m not going to open up a vegetarian café today, but I can let myself play around with vegetarian cuisine in my own kitchen and make myself something fabulous for lunch or dinner in the process.  Brainstorm ideas for infusing your current life with fun, creativity and meaningful activities based on what is on your list.  Choose one or two to try out this week.

You might also consider using your list to describe another imaginary life…..one the contains everything on the list you just made.  This is a fun way of designing a career that is outside the box and uniquely your own.  For example, mine might be:

“I am a meditation and journaling teacher and a writer.  I write books that align meditation, mindfulness and journaling with the grounding practices of presence available to us in our everyday lives.  My books have a very Nordic/hygge/cozy vibe to them.  They include writings about celebrating the seasons, bread baking and cooking as a spiritual practice.”

Use this description as an inspiring vision for what is possible, as a way to see how all these different aspects of what you long for in a career can come together in an unexpected and delightful way.

Simple Seasonal Pleasures for September

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Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

Finally, after one of the hottest summers I can remember, the days and nights are beginning to cool down.  Humidity levels drop, and the air has a crisp clarity to it, bringing the world into sharper focus.  Greens slowly turn into gold, orange and deep red.  There is a sense of anticipation and aliveness as the seasons change and we begin turning inward towards fall.

1. Celebrate what feels like a new beginning.  As I wrote about here, for many reasons September 1 feels like my New Year’s Day.  I will take some time with my journal to give thanks, reassess and make resolutions for the year ahead.

2. Put the winter squash from the garden to good use.  We have a bumper crop of winter squash this year!  Butternut squash risotto with bacon and sage, pizza with roasted squash and caramelized onions and my favorite squash soup are all on the menu this month.

3.  Light the first indoor wood fire of the year.  We have a little wood stove in the corner of our living room that has been patiently waiting since April to be of use again.  Hopefully we will have a chilly morning or two towards the end of the month that will require a little fire to get things warm and cozy.

4.  Apples!  As we sadly say goodbye to peach season for another year, we welcome apples back into our kitchen.  They are obviously delicious as is, but I will find an opportunity to make a tarte tatin (upside down French apple tart) at lease once this month.

5.  A cozy wrap for chilly mornings and evenings.  Dressing comfortably at this time of year is a challenge….chilly mornings give way to warm days leaving me too hot or too cold at some point.  Enter the wrap!  Stylish in a way the a cardigan is not and almost like a socially acceptable way of wearing a blanket out into the world, the wrap is the obvious answer to this dilemma.  I bought a cashmere wrap from Garnet Hill several years back and it is still as lovely as ever.  A worthwhile investment.

6.  Football games.  Nebraskans take their college football very seriously!  While I am not the world’s biggest Husker fan, I do love game day rituals….tailgating, drinking beer at ungodly hours (I am the world’s worst day drinker, by the way), the wafting scent of brats, burgers and all things grilled.  And there is something about the sound of a football game that brings me back to cozy fall days growing up in Minnesota.  Kids played football at the park near our house, and the sound of the whistle blowing and crowds cheering could be heard from our open windows on cool fall evenings.  And every Sunday, my dad would build a fire in the family room fireplace and we would watch the Vikings play.  We did not always do much together as a family, but I still associate watching football games on TV with warmth, coziness and family togetherness.

7.  Mrs. Myers Clean Day Apple Cider Scented Products.  On Labor Day weekend, I will head to Target and buy enough of these delightful products to see me through the end of the year.  It is a small indulgence, to be sure, but to have the tiny zing of sensory pleasure every time I wash my hands, clean the kitchen or do the dishes is absolutely worth it.  And no, I’m not getting paid for this endorsement.  I’m just a big fan!

8.  Decorate with pumpkins, leaves and gourds.  Tomatoes and corn will give way to pumpkins, gourds and winter squash at the farm stand this month.  I will buy a few for our dining room table and living room for a little natural seasonal decor.  As the fall colors begin making their debut, I will collect leaves on my walks around the neighborhood and press them in between the pages of a heavy book before scattering them here and there around the house.

9.   Stock the freezer with homemade chicken or vegetable stock.  It is officially the start of soup season!  Soups are infinitely better if they begin with the solid foundation of homemade stock.  I will use my recipe for chicken stock…easy, versatile and classic.  I may also make a simple vegetable stock as well.  My future self will be so grateful!

10.  Celebrate the Autumnal Equinox on Saturday, September 22.  We will light candles and have a celebratory feast featuring fall produce to mark this special time of the year when day and night are nearly equal in length.  It is also a good day to contemplate the role of balance in our lives….what do I need more or less of right now in order to feel centered and grounded?  I will take a little time in my cozy writing space with my journal to explore this topic.

Sending you love and hoping you dive deep into your simple seasonal pleasures this September!

Happy New Year!

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“It seems to me that January resolutions are about will; September resolutions are about authentic wants.  What do you want more or less of in your life, so that you can love the life you’re leading?” –Sarah Ban Breathnach, Simple Abundance:  A Daybook of Comfort and Joy

September 1 is my New Year’s Day.  Rather than feeling depleted and weary as I often do when January 1 rolls around, I feel more alive than ever as summer shifts into fall.  It’s a day for new beginnings, authentic resolutions, and tapping into the energy of harvest and change that flows into our lives in September.

Where does this surge of creative energy come from?  Maybe it’s because September coincides with the start of a new school year or because the earth’s energy is shifting from the outward (spring and summer) to the inward (fall and winter).  Maybe it’s because this has traditionally been a month of harvest and so it feels natural to assess and be grateful for what we have and to look forward to what’s ahead.  Whatever the reason, September is an excellent time to contemplate creative new beginnings.  Take some time today or tomorrow and snuggle into a cozy writing space with your journal and a pen.  Acknowledge and celebrate the seeds you have planted and what you have harvested over the past year.  Consider what’s working in your life right now and what’s not.  Explore the desires and longings of your authentic self and set your resolutions for the coming year.

As Sarah Ban Breathnach points out in her book, Simple Abundance:  A Daybook of Comfort and Joy, “the beauty of autumnal resolutions is that no one else knows that we are making them.”  There is no pressure to share your resolutions with anyone, and they can be absolutely anything that speaks to your soul and feels right for you in this moment.  Think of September 1 as a quiet opportunity to reassess and return to your true nature, to whatever “simply true north” is for you.  Happy New Year!

Using Metaphors: A Journaling Exercise

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The key to understanding all the astonishing puzzle solutions created by the human Imagination, every human insight or innovation for navigating the wild world, boils down to the little concept This is like that.

-Martha Beck, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World

Sometimes when we are trying to solve a problem or deal with an issue in our lives, we come at it from a purely linear, left-brain perspective.  How can I fix this?  What is the answer?  I’m sure if I rack my brain long enough I will figure this out!  This can be a self-defeating, limited approach.  But there is another way, a more playful approach to trying to figure things out than with mere left-brain logic.  Instead of looking at things head-on, we can engage the power of the right brain through metaphor by juxtaposing two seemingly dissimilar things, in this case the issue we are currently dealing with and any random object, and writing about how they are “like” each other.

Let me give you an example.  Maybe you are trying to figure out what your true work is in the world.  Juxtapose that puzzle with, say, a tree.  How is a tree like my true work?  You might write something like:

My work needs to feel deeply rooted in my authenticity.  From this stable foundation I will be able to grow tall and strong, branching out in many directions.  What can I do to make money that feels deeply rooted in who I am?

And you could go on and on from there, exploring this puzzle in your life from the perspective of how it is like a tree.  Using metaphor in our journal writing opens and expands our sense of what’s possible.  It also has a certain level of playfulness to it and encourages creativity and new connections which you may not have considered before.

With that, take our your journal and a pen and get comfortable.  Close your eyes and let your breathing become slow and steady.  Release any tension from your body and continue breathing in stillness for a few moments, allowing yourself to come into the present moment.  When you feel centered and ready to tap into your inner wisdom, blink your eyes open.  Think of a situation, a problem or puzzle in your life that you are trying to solve.  Once you have chosen one, choose an object to use as a metaphor from the following list and begin writing.  My situation is like a ____________ because…  Don’t overthink.  Let your metaphors be playful, silly, quick to arise.  Keep your pen moving and write down whatever occurs to you.  Sometimes a seemingly random connection will bring a deeply profound insight.  Work with just one metaphor or, if you feel like you have tapped one out, move on to another one.  Continue playing on paper for 20 or 30 minutes.

Book

Butterfly

Ocean

Garden

Tree

Teacup

Blanket

Rock

Chair

Once you have finished, go back through what you wrote and underline anything that feels particularly resonant for you.  Use that information to help guide your inspired action this week or as a prompt for further writing.

 

Start With the Stock

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“When we eat from a wide open space, from a place of permission and empowerment, we make choices based on how foods taste to us, how we enjoy them and, most importantly, how they make us feel.  This requires us to be present and pay attention while we eat, a difficult task in our modern, fast-paced world.  It may also require that we get into the kitchen and learn some basic cooking techniques so that we can explore and play with food in our own space and on our own terms.”

Eating in a Wide Open Space

The nature of cooking has changed dramatically since the advent of the food blog and the internet in general.  There are, quite literally, millions of recipes at your fingertips for absolutely anything you might want to make.  I just typed “Roast Chicken Recipe” into my Google Search and it said there were 105,000,000 results.  Talk about overwhelming!  Between the sheer volume of what’s available out there and the pressure to produce Instagram worthy meals every time we we are in the kitchen, it’s enough to send anyone searching for the nearest takeout menu or frozen meal.

But before you toss away your pots and wooden spoons, consider this:  Perhaps the answer to complexity is simplicity.  Not in the sense that we give up cooking altogether, but instead that we get back to the very basics of things.

Perhaps its time to put the focus back on cooking techniques themselves rather than individual recipes.  I went to cooking school sometime ago, and even though I have a culinary education, I still find myself scouring the internet for recipes for tonight’s dinner.  What I really want from my time in the kitchen is the freedom to play, to be creative, to get in touch with what what foods taste good, what nourishes my body and what delights my senses.  Always a dutiful recipe follower, it is an ongoing challenge for me to step outside of my comfort zone of knowing that something is going to turn out if I follow someone else’s instructions and actually let myself play and experiment.

But how to do this?  Maybe it’s simply a matter of taking myself back to cooking school (home study version this time) and reacquainting myself with the skills, recipes and techniques that are the home cook’s building blocks, his or her artist’s tools.  Homemade chicken stock is where I’ve chosen to begin.  Stock is a flavorful liquid base that is the starting point for many soups, stews and braises.  It the very heart and foundation of the kitchen, the most fundamental of building blocks and yet it is something we don’t give much thought to.  While most people these days buy stock or broth in boxes at the grocery store, the process of making your own at home is a restorative ritual for slowing down and intentionally engaging in something that takes time to bring forth its full potential.  The best part?  You will be rewarded for your efforts with a golden, rich elixir that will serve as a base for some soul warming foods as we begin the transition from summer to fall.

Equipment You Will Need:

A stockpot or large Dutch oven (7 quarts or more)

Chef’s Knife

Cutting Board

Large Spoon

Tongs

Mesh Spider or Large Slotted Spoon

Fine Mesh Strainer

Large Bowl

Basic Chicken Stock

There are many recipes for making homemade chicken stock. This is mine.  Some recipes have you use chicken parts or chop the chicken into pieces before adding it to the stock.  I like to leave the chicken whole as it streamlines the process, and I don’t have to go through the messy business of chopping up a raw whole chicken. My directions have you remove the chicken breast meat after an hour.  This is optional but recommended as you will then have breast meat to potentially add to a soup or use in a chicken salad for lunch.  After the meat has simmered for 3 hours or so, it has given all of itself to the broth and is pretty well spent.  You will yield anywhere from 8-12 cups of stock from this recipe.

1 whole chicken, approximately 4 pounds, preferably organic

1 large onion, roughly chopped

2-3 medium sized carrots, roughly chopped

2 celery stalks, roughly chopped

3-4 sprigs of fresh thyme

3-4 sprigs of fresh Italian parsley

2 dried bay leaves

10-12 whole peppercorns

2-3 teaspoons course salt

1.  Place the whole chicken in the stockpot and cover with cold water. Make sure you have enough water to cover the chicken by 2 or 3 inches.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer gently.  As the stock begins to come to a boil, you will notice impurities rising to the surface.  Skim them away with a spoon.  Continue skimming until the impurities no longer appear.  This may take 20 minutes or so.

2.  Add remaining ingredients to the stockpot.

3.  Allow stock to simmer gently for 1 hour.  Remove chicken from the pot and, using tongs, carefully remove the chicken breast meat from the carcass and set aside.  Return chicken to pot.  Let stock continue to simmer, uncovered, for at least 2-3 more hours, adding water as needed keep chicken and vegetables submerged.  Refrigerate reserved chicken breast meat after it has cooled slightly.  Use within 3 days.

4.  Remove any large bones or spent vegetables from the pot using tongs or a mesh spider.  Set the fine mesh strainer over a large bowl and pour the stock into the strainer, removing any solids that remain.

5.  Cool stock on the counter for an hour and then cover and transfer to the refrigerator to finish cooling.   When you are ready to use or freeze the stock, use a large metal spoon to skim any solidified fat from the top before proceeding.

Use and Storage:

You will notice, if you let your stock simmer for a good, long while, that it has a gelatinous quality to it once it is cold.  This is a glorious thing and exactly what you want.  Unlike commercially prepared stocks and broths which are a thin liquid at any temperature, homemade stock is rich in collagen to the point that it gelatinizes when cold.  Once you heat it up again it will loosen and take on a luxurious, rich quality that will be incomparable to what you might buy at the store.

Refrigerated chicken stock should be used or frozen within 3 days.  To freeze, ladle 2 cup portions into freezer bags, remove any air from the bag and seal.  Lay bags flat inside of a pan with sides (to prevent any potentially leaky bags from getting stock all over your freezer before it is completely frozen).  Once they are completely frozen, remove bags from pan and store in the freezer until ready to use.  Frozen stock should be used within 3 months.