Too much stuff

Of all my colleagues who were downsized, I was likely the one who brought home the most stuff. I began to recycle old notebooks and sort through papers in my office cubicle in my final weeks of work. But on my last day, I still filled the trunk of my car with binders crammed with years’ worth of articles, stacks of notebooks, photos, and other odds and ends that represented 22 years at the paper. And it wasn’t the first load I’d brought home – although it was the largest.

Fast forward two months, and welcome to my dining room, aka my (temporary) office. It’s also still the dining room (as long as I clear the table and move my Canadian Jewish News stuff into the corner) – because meals with friends and family are more important than a perfectly tidy room.

But lately, I’ve been motivated to tackle the clutter more aggressively.

You have to love technology – I programmed a daily reminder into my iPhone so that I’d remember to go through at least one notebook, shredding any contact information I come across. A modest strategy, but it’s been working very well.

I usually tackle more than one notebook, and I’m convinced the pile of stuff is shrinking. If I chip away at it a bit at a time, the task becomes less daunting.

It’s good to get rid of things I don’t need. Somehow, it helps me feel that I am moving forward – toward whatever is next in my work life, and toward a more office-y office in an extra bedroom.

PS – No post tomorrow. Will blog again on Sunday.

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Elmore Leonard’s famous writing rule

Last week, I read the news that novelist Elmore Leonard, probably best known as creator of Get Shorty, had died. He is also remembered for his 10 rules of writing, most notably, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Although I obviously never wrote dialogue – Leonard’s forté – when I was working as a reporter, I was very conscious of using quotes that didn’t sound “like writing.”

Sometimes I used quotes that originated in written form – statements from a press release, or comments made in an email. I also interviewed a few people who brought “scripts” to their interviews and asked if they could read me what they’d written instead of talking off-the-cuff.

But written statements that are used as quotations sometimes end up sounding like “fake” quotes, not the type of thing a person would actually say. Plus, they’re one-dimensional compared to face-to-face dialogue.

Direct quotes are important in reporting – they convey the subject’s exact words and his or her “voice.” They’re more immediate than a paraphrase. Well-chosen quotes can liven up an article. And they don’t sound “like writing.”

But even a “spoken” quote may not be ideal. People don’t always talk in coherent sentences. Or they may begin a thought, and veer off on a tangent instead of finishing.  Sometimes what they say makes sense when you’re hearing it, but it doesn’t “read” well. Or it may be unintentionally funny or ambiguous.

That’s why I never minded spending a bit longer than I might have on an interview, when it was possible. I wanted to ensure that I understood what was meant, not just what was said, and also to increase the odds that there would be good, usable quotes.

Although I hesitate to admit it, one of the trickiest bits of writing and rewriting that I’ve done was a little script I wrote for myself many years ago in preparation for a difficult phone call (personal, not work-related). After I’d reworked it to my satisfaction, I called a friend to run it by her. “That sounds good,” she said, not realizing I had actually read her my script. “Why do you have to write something?”

I didn’t even know that I had followed Elmore Leonard’s famous rule.

Chocolate Sunday – Sorbet!

Earlier this week, I thought I might start this post by writing that I made a chocolate sorbet this week, and that it had no right to taste as good as it did.

I planned to use the Cuisinart recipe for Dark Chocolate Sorbet, which I’d made several times before. You wouldn’t guess from the rich, chocolatey taste that it’s both fat-free and dairy-free.

It’s easy, too. Just simmer water, brown sugar and cocoa powder for three minutes, strain (although my friend skipped that step and still had good results), add vanilla, chill, and let your ice cream maker do the rest.

So I was confident about the end result when I started to make it. But I used a small pot on a dual burner that I usually use for large pots. burner controlI didn’t make the mistake of using the large-pot part of the dial, but because high and low settings are reversed on the small-pot part of the dial, I lowered the heat from medium instead of raising it to bring the chocolate mixture to a simmer. It was heating for longer than it should have and I don’t think it was supposed to thicken the way it did on the bottom, plus I didn’t get the temperature high enough to do a proper simmer. However, the mixture looked and tasted fine, so I proceeded with the recipe.

I chilled the heated mixture and put it in the ice cream maker as directed. It was only when I checked it after the recommended 25 to 30 minutes that I realized the mixture wasn’t thickening the way it was supposed to. I had kept the container in the freezer before using it, so that wasn’t the problem either. I gave it another five minutes, and another, and maybe even longer.

Disappointed that my “foolproof” recipe hadn’t gelled, I put it in the freezer anyway. Even if it wasn’t good enough to serve to company, maybe I could use it for a fruit dip. Or comfort food, in a an emergency.

sorbet & berries

Chocolate sorbet and fresh-picked backyard blackberries

The next afternoon, when I was preparing dinner, I decided to see what had happened to my chocolate soup. Lo and behold, it had turned into chocolate sorbet.

I served it for dessert. It really had no right to taste as good as it did.

Very Simple Sweet Potato & Leek Soup

Lately, I’ve been tweaking recipes by substituting ingredients, or sometimes adding new ones.

But last week, I used a recipe for sweet potato and leek soup that was already simple, and pared it down to its most basic ingredients, with fabulous results.  It may have been extra-flavourful because I bought the leeks from a farmer’s market, but I think it would still be great with grocery store leeks. Image

The original recipe is from a blog called love + cupcakes. I’ve made it several times this year. During the winter months, we sipped the soup hot from mugs, but as the weather warmed up, we enjoyed it chilled –  like vichyssoise, but with sweet potatoes instead of potatoes.

Last Friday, I had no vegetable broth or even broth powder in the house, and I forgot to add salt and pepper when I prepared the soup. Contrary to instructions on the blog, I use olive oil, instead of butter, to sauté the leeks. I prefer it for its health benefits, and because it’s non-dairy to boot.

My version serves about 10 people.

A note re leeks: I used to avoid leeks because, frankly, they’re a pain to clean. Some people like to slice through them lengthwise up to about an inch from the bottom, and swish them in water. I prefer to cut them first, and then wash them. Here’s a video that shows you both methods.

Very Simple Sweet Potato & Leek Soup (adapted from loveandcupcakesblog.com’s Sweet Potato+Leek Soup)

5 sweet potatoes, cut in eighths (about 7 cups)

3 cups sliced leeks

2 tbsp. olive oil

1. Heat olive oil briefly on medium high, in 4 1/2-quart pot. When one piece of leek sizzles, add rest of leeks and sauté until tender, stirring frequently.

2. Add sweet potatoes and about seven cups water. Bring to boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer 20 minutes or until sweet potatoes are soft.

3. Use immersion blender to puree.

Enjoy!

The 80/20 Rule

I’ve been thinking of blogging about the 80/20 rule for a while. I’ve often wondered – if 80 percent of the work gets done in 20 percent of the time – what happens to the other 80 percent of the time? And how much could we get done if we worked the same way we did during the productive 20 percent of the time?

Sometimes I ask myself, “If I get nothing else done today, what is the one thing I want to accomplish?” If it’s an 80/20 kind of day, then that one thing is usually the 80 percent of the work that gets done in 20 percent of the time.

Earlier this week, the Globe and Mail published an article dealing with the same issue.

The 80/20 rule is formally known as the Pareto principle. According to that rule, 96 minutes – 20 percent of an eight-hour day – can produce “key results,” Harvey Schachter wrote in the Globe’s Report on Business.

When I stopped working, I had a plan for how I would structure my day. I thought it made sense to devote the morning to work-related tasks – setting up my blog, researching job opportunities, networking, and writing. I would do the most important things first.

But it didn’t turn out the way I’d planned. On the first Monday, I spent the morning and early afternoon with a friend who was visiting from out of town. It was the only time she was available. Three days later, I met another friend for coffee in the morning, the best time for her.

In between, I put in one very long day at the computer.

It’s great to have that kind of flexibility.

But on typical blogging days, I work on my blog and post it by mid-morning, sometimes earlier. Blogging is the “big” item on my to-do list on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays – the one I feel I must do regardless of whatever else I do or don’t do.

This week, I added another “big” item to my list. It’s been on my mind that I’ve been talking about writing a book, but haven’t actually worked on it recently.

I started very small, by adding “Work on book” as a daily reminder on my iPhone. I looked at the reminder for a few days in a row, but didn’t act on it. At least I was consciously aware of it. The other day, I decided to start small, writing on my laptop in the kitchen while my oat bran muffins were baking.

When the timer went off after 20 minutes, I took the muffins out of the oven, but kept writing. I didn’t put in 96 minutes, but I made a dent.

Blogging as ‘pseudo’-work

I’ve come to think of this blog as “pseudo”-work. I don’t get paid for it, and I’m not accountable to anyone except myself.

But it has some elements in common with my former job as a reporter for The Canadian Jewish News.

I have deadlines, albeit self-imposed. I’m still writing, although most of the content is generated in my head. I haven’t had to interview anyone, take notes, or do much background research.

I have two main areas that I write about, and I guess they are the equivalents of the beats I used to have as a reporter. On Tuesday and Thursday I write about moving on after being downsized, including thoughts on writing and journalism; and on Friday and Sunday I blog about food, specifically chocolate on Sunday.

However, as a blogger, my responsibilities are broader than they were at the paper. I’m not just the writer, I’m also my own assignment editor, proofreader, copy editor, and (groan!) techie. Food photographer, too!

When I was first thinking about starting a blog, someone told me it could eventually become a source of income. That’s not why I started it, but I haven’t ruled out the possibility. I’m also aware that some books, and even movies, have grown out of blogs. The book Julie & Julia, which was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep, is probably the best-known example. It began as Julie Powell’s day-by-day account of cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

I started my blog because some deep instinct told me that blogging would take me to whatever is next in my life, whether it’s because writing helps me clarify my thoughts, or because something about the blog itself would lead or point me in a particular direction. Time will tell.

Chocolate Sunday – Mocha Ginger Chocolate Chip Cookies

My friend Ruth says she knew I was pregnant with my daughter (who is now in her twenties), because I served store-bought cookies when she came to my house.

These days, I bake less often than I used to, but that’s because we eat sweet desserts less often, not because I don’t have energy to make them from scratch.

The Mocha Walnut Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe from the second issue of Chocolatier (summer 1984) is a longtime favourite. I still have my ingredient-stained copy chocolatier magazineof the magazine, billed on the cover as “The Magazine for Gourmet Chocolate Lovers.”

The $3 issue ($3.25 in Canada) was an affordable indulgence, and I’m sure I read it more times than I remember.

I always said that the cookies looked boring but tasted great. The mocha flavour, a combination of chocolate and coffee, is rich and complex, and the cookies are probably better than any other cookie I’ve ever made. Plus, they’re easy to prepare. Chocolatier gave them a “foolproof” rating – one chocolate kiss out of a possible three for more complicated recipes.

The original version – credited to a cookbook called Mrs. Witty’s Monster Cookies – includes a generous amount of chocolate chips, which add texture and complement the mocha flavour.

Recently, for a change, I decided to reduce the quantity of chocolate chips, and add candied ginger as well. I thought its sweet, pungent taste would be an interesting counterpoint to the chocolate mocha, not to mention that ginger has health benefits.

I also added some cinnamon and ground ginger to the dough, but I think a bit of cinnamon is enough on its own. Or maybe not necessary at all. Best not to mess with the chocolate, or mocha, flavour too much.

I think the recipe can still be tweaked. But you can’t go wrong with it as is… unless you don’t like ginger.

Chocolate Mocha Ginger Cookies (inspired by Chocolatier magazine’s Mocha Walnut Chocolate Chip Cookies)chocolate mocha cookies

1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature

½ cup brown sugar

½ cup white sugar

1 egg

½ tsp. vanilla

1 cup all-purpose flour

¼ cup unsweetened cocoa

2 tbsp. instant coffee (if in crystal form, crush before measuring*)

½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. baking soda

¼ tsp. cinnamon (optional)

¾ cup candied ginger, cut in ¼” pieces

¾ cup chocolate chips

1. Beat butter until soft. Beat in brown sugar, then white sugar. Add egg and vanilla, and beat again.

2. Sift flour, cocoa, coffee powder, salt, baking soda and cinnamon (if using). Stir into creamed mixture with a wooden spoon. Stir in candied ginger and chocolate chips.

3. Form dough into 1” balls, and place on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper. They will spread, so leave space between them. Flatten balls with the heel of your hand, and bake in preheated 350 degree oven 10 to 12 minutes. Don’t overbake.

Enjoy!

*To crush the instant coffee, I put it onto a large piece of wax paper, fold the paper in half over the coffee, and roll it with a rolling pin or a can of food.

*A note re candied ginger: although it’s high in sugar, candied or crystallized ginger is said to retain fresh ginger’s health benefits, such as reducing inflammation and combatting nausea. Enjoy it in moderation. More info is available in this article from the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as from Dr. Leo Galland at huffingtonpost.com, from Dr. Andrew Weil’s blog, and at livestrong.com .