Writing groups, and finding time to write

I read an interesting blog post this morning from the New Hampshire Writers’ Network (“Live to Write – Write to Live”), about the benefits and logistics of a writing critique group.

Someone suggested to me last year that I find such a group, where writers share and critique each others’ work. It sounded like a great idea, but I still haven’t felt a need to search one out.

So I was curious about the subject of the post, but what I found even more interesting was the addendum about the blogger, Diane MacKinnon – “a writer, blogger, life coach, mother, stepmother, and doctor.”  Almost as an aside, she adds that she writes in “small pockets of time” that are beginning to add up.

I know that small chunks of time and effort add up, but it’s nice to have it validated.

Last month, I started freelancing, and recently I added a new project into the mix. There’s also my blog, my book, and the non-writing parts of my life. I *rely* on small pockets of time.

Chocolate Sunday – Toothpaste?

Um, yes. Chocolate toothpaste. My son brought me a tube of Crest’s new Mint Chocolate Trek toothpaste when he returned recently from a trip to the U.S. It’s not available in Canada, as far as I know.

chocolate mint toothpasteI was skeptical. Toothpaste isn’t a product I would go to, or maybe even want to go to, for a hit of chocolate.

But I liked it better than I expected. It tasted chocolatey, and the mint flavour is fresh.

Mint Chocolate Trek is part of a new Crest line of toothpastes called “Be.” More info here on crest.com. The other flavours are Lime Spearmint Zest (Be Dynamic) and Vanilla Mint Spark (Be Inspired), while the chocolate version is called “Be Adventurous.”

Hmm. Will it make me feel more adventurous every time I brush my teeth? Am I adventurous because I tried it in the first place? Someone had fun coming up with this campaign. I had fun just reading the box.

But it’s a serious (i.e. flouride-containing) toothpaste. It’s also part of an effort by parent company Procter & Gamble to “spur growth in developed markets” in a year that has seen net revenue fall, according to this article in Canadian Business.

If you’re a chocolate lover, it’s a novel way to… explore outside your boundaries, to use the phrasing on the package.

If you try it, enjoy! And, chocolate or not, remember to brush 🙂





“Fancy” food for adults and kids

Last night, I was at a fancy dinner, and the butter that accompanied our baskets of bread had been formed into the shape of a swan.

butter birdEveryone at our table was reluctant to spoil the creation. I think we probably each took less butter than we might have otherwise.

The butter swan reminded me of the apple swans I used to make for my son when he was about four years old and going through a phase of not wanting to eat apples.  One day, I decided on a whim to carve an apple into a swan, following instructions that came with a garnishing tool I had bought. All of a sudden, apples were appealing again!

By coincidence, a Facebook friend of mine posted a link recently to a YouTube video showing how to make apple birds. The instructions are a little more precise than I recall. I just cut freehand, without using parallel knives as guidelines. And my bird didn’t have eyes.

But it looked good, helped satisfy my creative outlet when I wasn’t doing a lot of writing, and convinced a preschooler to eat something nourishing!

Clichés, Shakespeare, and – um – chocolate

A Facebook friend of mine posted a link to this article from Business Insider (Australia) marking William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. It has a list of 26 common phrases that can be traced back to Shakespeare’s writings.

I was curious to see how many might be considered clichés. Although journalists prefer fresher language, we don’t always succeed in avoiding clichés. There’s usually truth in them. That’s why they’ve become clichés. Groan!

Only one of Shakespeare’s phrases from the Business Insider article – “Love is blind” – made this list of 10 common clichés. But here’s a much lengthier list from a seemingly unlikely source, The Pathology Guy.

About.com reminds us that we often quote Shakespeare without even being aware of it.

Last summer I saw a play called Taking Shakespeare at the annual Stratford festival in Stratford, Ontario. Veteran festival company member Martha Henry starred as a discontented, aging professor tasked with sparking an interest in Shakespeare in a young, video game-obsessed, struggling student.

The play appealed to me because I wanted it to spark more of an interest in me too. Shakespeare explored ideas and feelings that still resonate today, in language that was fresh for its time. Hundreds of years later, it’s difficult to appreciate all the antiquated turns of phrase.

Reading the Business Insider article this week reminded me again that it’s worth the effort.

PS When I blogged about Stratford last summer, I wrote about the chocolate trail, not the theatre aspect. A visit to the Festival doesn’t have to be all about Shakespeare 😉


Chocolate Sunday – Passover Chocolate Macaroons!

This seems to be the year that I have trouble locating my Passover recipes. I found my favourite macaroon recipe on my computer, but only the plain version, not the chocolate.

chocolate macaroonsThe macaroon recipe, from an old Martha Stewart magazine, is my favourite not only because it’s delicious, but because you don’t have to beat the egg whites. It’s one less step – and leaves one less item to wash – than most other Passover macaroon recipes. Just mix coconut, egg whites, sugar, vanilla for flavour, a bit of salt, and that’s it.

I know there was a chocolate version, but I couldn’t find it online. However, I found two other recipes that gave me confidence I could recreate what I’d made before, or even make a new, improved version.

The easiest recipe, on about.com, is a regular (beaten-egg) macaroon recipe that becomes a chocolate macaroon recipe with the addition of melted chocolate. I could do that with my regular macaroon recipe too.

But then I came across the Smitten Kitchen recipe for dark chocolate coconut macaroons. To read it is to swoon, so my first thought was to follow it to the letter. But it calls for sweetened coconut, and I only had unsweetened. It also calls for unsweetened chocolate, and I only had regular chocolate bars. Plus, it calls for more coconut than I had, so I had to fiddle with the proportions. I also didn’t want to bother getting my food processor out, so I guess I’ll have to try it another time.

One more change. Once I was making the recipe my own, I decided to substitute Sabra (chocolate orange liqueur) for the vanilla. I think next time I would add more. The flavour in mine is so subtle that unless you have a very discerning palate – or know it’s in the cookies – you might not appreciate it.

The friends who tasted my macaroons teased me that they looked like falafel balls. But the taste was rich and chocolatey. Not too sweet either. I cut down on the sugar, because, um, we’ve already eaten a lot of sweet desserts this holiday.

Here’s my brand-new recipe:

Passover Chocolate Macaroons:

1/3 of a 3 1/2-oz. chocolate bar (72% cocoa content)

6 oz. (170 grams) unsweetened shredded coconut (2 cups + 1 tbsp.)

2 large egg whites

pinch of salt

1/2 cup + 1 tbsp sugar

a generous tsp. (or more) of Sabra liqueur

2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder

1. Melt chocolate in microwave-safe bowl on low heat.

2. Combine thoroughly in mixing bowl coconut, egg whites, Sabra, salt, sugar, cocoa and melted chocolate.

3. Form into 1″ balls or haystacks on baking sheets lined with parchment paper.

4. Bake at 350 for 15 minutes.

Yield: 32 small macaroons



Passover Vegetable Cutlets

Vegetable cutlets are a staple at my house on Passover, even though they can be labour-intensive for the number of cutlets that one recipe makes.
vegetable cutletsMine are small – like little pancakes – so I get almost two dozen. I like to eat them with plain yogourt as a vegetarian main dish.This year, somehow, I had the recipe when I made my grocery list, but couldn’t find it when I was ready to cook. Groan!

I was sure I’d find it online, but most of the vegetable cutlet recipes I found included mashed potatoes. No! That definitely wasn’t what I was looking for.

This recipe is the closest one I could find, but the proportions are different, and I prefer the carrots grated, the way I’m used to, not chopped. I know – picky, picky.

I called my mom, who’s been making the recipe for years, but her list of ingredients and amounts is also a little different from what I’d been using.

I decided to use what I had on hand, including shallots and one cremini mushroom left over from another recipe, which I thought would add a bit of a meaty texture. The end result was basically what I’m used to. It’s a forgiving recipe – you can substitute vegetables and tweak the amounts. But I think you need the spinach, onion (or reasonable facsimile), and grated carrot.

I was tempted to sauté the spinach with the rest of the vegetables, but I decided to cook it separately the way I usually do. Maybe next year.

The original recipe called for frying the cutlets, but I prefer to bake them.

Here’s the recipe I came up with. It hit the spot. 🙂

Passover Vegetable Cutlets

3 shallots, chopped

1/2 large yellow pepper, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

2 carrots, grated

1 cremini mushroom, chopped

5 1/2 oz. fresh baby spinach, coursely chopped

oil for sautéing

3/4 c. matzo meal

3 eggs, beaten

salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat oil in large pan, and sauté all vegetables except spinach until they start to soften.

2. Rinse spinach, and drain. Cook (or wilt) in dry pot, using only water that clings to the leaves.

3. Cool cooked spinach, and squeeze out excess water.

4. Mix vegetables in bowl with matzo meal, eggs, salt and pepper. Refrigerate mixture for 15 minutes.

5. Form patties on cookie sheet(s) lined with parchment paper.

6. Bake at 375 degrees 12 minutes, then flip the cutlets, and bake another 12 minutes.



Why I blog

I was thinking last week, in the flurry of pre-Passover preparations, about why I still blog on days when other tasks demand my attention – freelance assignments, for example.

My blog has become important to me in the same way that my five-day-a-week walks have. Sure, I’ll forgo them on occasion, but the blogging and the walks have become a staple of my week. I enjoy both, and they energize me in different ways.

But more importantly, blogging provides structure to my week, and helps me be disciplined. I blog on Tuesdays and Thursdays about writing, journalism and life after being downsized; on Fridays about food; and Sundays about chocolate. It’s good for me personally, and it’s probably also good for the blog, because people who read it know what to expect, and when.

Blogging goes more quickly than my other writing, because I write whatever is in my head, usually without referring to notes or having to interview anyone or do a lot of preparation. In that way, I see it as a warm-up for freelance assignments or work on my book.

So I may end up posting later in the day, or even taking the occasional vacation from blogging, but for the most part, blogging is part of my routine.



Chocolate Sunday – links for Passover

happy passoverA few dessert links that look tempting…






Enjoy, and Happy Passover! I’m taking Tuesday off, and will blog again on Thursday.


Happiness Tea and Passover Soup Noodles

I planned to get an early start on Passover cooking, and blog about my grandmother’s recipe for soup noodles – once I’d made them, and taken a picture to post. But, yesterday, the day got away from me. I spent most of my time in front of my computer, writing.

Mid-afternoon, when I made myself a cup of tea, I started to think that I really should blog about the tea. (But I’ll include the soup noodle recipe too.) Two years ago, I bought a flavoured green tea called Happiness at a Japanese tea store in Los Angeles called Lupicia.

happiness teaIt’s still one of my favourite teas, and it always makes me smile when I offer it to guests and they decide to try it just because of the name. Who would say no to a cup of happiness?

I try to include green tea in my diet for its health benefits, and this blend, with its fruit and flower flavours, is my favourite green tea.

I spent a long time in the store in L.A., sampling different products. It was a highlight of my trip! But online orders can only be shipped to the United States. Pity!

Today’s recipe, which has nothing to do with tea, is a way for me to get into Passover mode. Just so you know it’s authentic, the original recipe in my grandmother’s handwriting called for half a glass of water. It’s a little time-consuming, but not difficult. A reason to have chicken soup! Or vegetable broth. And leftover noodles, topped with pasta sauce, make an easy meal. Also, if you’re organized enough to make it ahead, it freezes well. 🙂

Passover Soup Noodles

2 tbsp. potato starch

1/2 c. lukewarm water

6 eggs

a pinch of salt


1. Dissolve potato starch in water, and let stand 10 minutes.

2. Beat eggs and salt well. Add starch mixture to eggs, and beat well.

3. Dab a paper towel with oil, and rub surface of frying pan. Pour enough batter to just cover bottom of pan.

4. Fry quickly over high heat (like a crepe). Remove from pan, onto a plate. Repeat process until all batter is used. Only replenish oil if necessary.

5. When cool, roll up crepes and slice approximately every 1/4″.




What makes something worth writing about?

I’ve been thinking this morning about what it is that makes a subject worth writing about.

When I was a staff reporter at The Canadian Jewish News, it was easier to know what to write than it is as a blogger. For one thing, many stories were assigned to me, although I also initiated a good number on my own.

Some of the criteria were easy to recognize – if a subject fell into one of my beats, for example. It also had to be relevant to readers. The best stories were also important, compelling, engaging, thought-provoking, and/or entertaining when appropriate.

Some stories – my own and other writers’ too – had a bit of magic for me, when a subject I didn’t expect to be very interesting turned out to be exceptionally absorbing.

I used to tell student columnists to write about subjects they found compelling, and about things they found themselves discussing with their friends.

It always caught my attention when a subject arose two or three times in quick succession – either an issue people were talking about, or repeated stories that had significant points in common. Often, that was indicative of a trend or issue, and turned out to be the springboard to a story.

I was pleased to read CJN editor Yoni Goldstein’s column in this week’s newly redesigned paper about the “journey” to a new CJN, and the vision for the paper as it moves forward. I’m excited to have an article (about the Ontario Jewish Archives and its new website) in the first new paper.

Yoni’s references to asking tough questions and providing solutions to them – as well as including uplifting stories, and issues that have been swept under the rug – indicate there will be much in the paper that is worth reading.