Month: February 2008

Getting Things Done flexibly

Web Worker Daily has finished posting a three-part interview with David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. I found the second and third parts very interesting, as David mentions how some people think they have to subscribe to every detail of the system described in in the book and give up on the whole thing. But really, you just do what works for you, getting your system “as simple as possible but no simpler.”

So, for example, GTD has this idea of “contexts.” The examples in the book include “home,” “errands,” “calls,” “office.” The idea is that each context can have its own to-do list — so that when you have some time to make phone calls, you can pull out your phone to-do list and make a bunch of calls at once (thus saving time). Or, if you’re going to be out running errands, you can pull out your errands to-do list and see if you can get a few done while you’re already out.

In the interview, David Allen says that you don’t need to have all those different context lists if you don’t need them. What a novel concept! I’m guilty of this myself — I have an “errand” list and a “home” list that is essentially almost always empty. Bob Walsh, the interviewer, says that he basically only has two contexts: “at the computer and not at the computer.” That pretty much sums up my life as well; the things not done at the computer are fairly easy to keep track of with a quick note jotted down in my planner or my paper to-do list for the day.

As part of my weekly review this Friday, I’ll be re-examining how I implement GTD and if there are ways I can make my system a little simpler. In the meantime, if you find this stuff interesting, I’d encourage you to read at least parts 2 and 3 of the interview!

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Freezer shortcuts

The freezer can be a great tool for saving time in the kitchen or for saving money… or both! I like to buy in bulk and also pre-prep some foods, store it in the freezer, and pull things out when I need them. Here are some of the things I like to do:

Meat freezer tricks

  • Buy ground meat in bulk. Split it up into smaller packets, wrapped in plastic wrap or butcher paper, label, and freeze. You can use a food scale (or a postal scale, which is what I do!) to get 1/2 lb. or 1 lb. packets — all ready for a recipe!
  • Same thing works when you see any kind of bulk meat or meat on sale: Buy a lot of meat all at once, split it up into recipe-sized portions, and freeze. I do this with large fillets of salmon, for example.
  • Buy whole chickens (which are usually cheaper than individual parts). If the butcher can’t cut it up for you, it’s actually kind of fun to do it yourself! I usually de-skin and de-bone the breasts as I’m cutting up the rest of the chicken, and use a cleaver to chop up the back into smaller pieces to use for homemade chicken broth. Divide the parts into different plastic bags (or butcher paper) according to what you might usually use them for. For example, I’ll wrap the chicken breasts individually, put the wings, thighs, and legs together, and take all the excess skin, fat, bone, and chopped-up pieces of back into a big Ziploc bag for homemade chicken broth. Everything gets labeled and stored in the freezer, ready for dinner later on.
  • If you like bacon occasionally or if you like to buy bacon in bulk, try this trick: Pull out two slices of bacon at a time and roll them up together. Put the bacon rolls side-by-side in a freezer bag (it’s okay if the rolled sides touch each other) and freeze. It’s very easy to break apart the bacon rolls and pull out as much bacon as you want to have in the morning or to use it in a recipe.

Produce freezer tricks

  • Chopped green onions are a staple in my kitchen — I use them in soups, fried rice, in omelets, and more. So, instead of buying a bunch of green onions, using one or two stalks for a meal, and letting the rest rot in the fridge, I wash, dry (with a paper towel), and chop all the onions at once and throw them in a freezer bag. The frozen onions are great with cooked foods; however, they tend to look a bit wilted if you try to use them “fresh” (as a garnish or topping, for example)
  • I do the same thing with parsley and celery, which I am rarely able to use all at once. Chop them up and freeze them, and they’re great for adding to cooked foods later on!
  • We have a friend with a very productive lemon tree. I took part of an afternoon to juice the multiple bags of lemons that she gave us (an electric juicer would have been handy, but I used a normal hand-held juicer) and poured the lemon juice into ice cube trays. The lemon juice was a bit more difficult to pop out of the trays (I had to use a butter knife to encourage some of the cubes to come out), but once they did, I was able to put them all in a freezer bag. You can do this with any home-squeezed juice — lime, orange, etc. I’ve also frozen the base for blackberry limeade (blackberries and water) when I bought a ton of blackberries on sale, although in a ziplock bag, not in ice cube trays.
  • Although this isn’t produce-specific, ice cube trays work nicely for freezing small portions of homemade pesto, broth, or any sauce or liquid!

Other freezer tricks

  • I usually only need a tablespoon or two of tomato paste. When I open a new can of tomato paste, I use the can opener to open up both sides of the can. Pushing against one of the metal discs, I slide the tomato paste out onto a sheet of plastic wrap, then discard the can top/bottom. When I need tomato paste, I just eyeball the frozen chunk and use a knife to cut off the approximate amount that I need.
  • I have to admit that I don’t like the heels of loaves of bread. We used to just let them sit and collect in the cupboard until they molded. Now, I’ll tear them up into chunks and pulse them in my food processor to make fresh breadcrumbs. I store the breadcrumbs in the freezer and use them in recipes. (Actually, the freezer is a great place to temporarily store those leftover slices of bread so that you can make a big batch of breadcrumbs all at once! Just make sure that they thaw before trying to pulse in the food processor.)
  • The food processor is also a great tool for making your own shredded cheese. Buying a big block of cheese is sometimes more cost-efficient than buying pre-shredded cheese. I’ll often shred the cheese myself and then freeze portions of it in Ziploc bags which I can pull out and thaw as I need them.
  • Another cheese trick — Steve loves provolone cheese, which I’ll buy in bulk at Costco. I divide the provolone into packets of 5 slices (one for each weekday) and freeze. On Sunday, I can pull out one of my packets and thaw it in the fridge to use in Steve’s lunch sandwiches that week.
  • After making homemade chicken broth (usually about 2 qts. worth from the back pieces, leftover skin, fat, and bones of one chicken), I’ll pour two or four-cups of broth into Ziplock freezer bags, seal them up, and store in the freezer for later.
  • We have a local company that makes these wonderful fresh flour tortillas, but because there are no preservatives, they go bad faster than we can eat them. I’ve started layering the tortillas with waxed paper and freezing the stack of tortillas, which allows me to pull them out easily one at a time, defrost quickly in the microwave (15-20 seconds at high), and use for a quick quesadilla.
  • After making Chinese steamed pork buns, which we love — but can only eat so many for a few days in a row, I’ll let them cool and then freeze them in a plastic freezer bag. I can then pull out one or two at a time and microwave them to eat for a quick snack or meal.
  • Finally, when Steve and I make a huge batch of potstickers/dumplings (note to self: will have to post recipe at some point), we’ll lay them out on cookie sheets (before cooking them) and freeze them, then transfer them into a Ziplock bag for storage. We then have lunch or dinner all ready to go; I like to either boil them or fry-steam them in a skillet, which you should do straight from the freezer so that they don’t thaw and stick together.

What freezer tricks do you have up your sleeve? Please share in the comments!

In which we go out of town and buy a house

One of my groundhog day resolutions this year was to buy a house.

Check!

It resolved rather quickly, although the build-up took a while:

  • Last year, I receive a letter about low-income housing that will be available specifically for small-business owners. I check the income level. We are over. But some of our good friends are not — and they go through the process and get a house!
  • Two months ago, those friends tell us that there is still a house available and the housing program is considering being more “flexible” with the income level. We decide to go for it. After much paperwork and scurrying around, we find out that our income level is still too high.
  • But in the process, my mom offers to loan us some money so that we can make a larger down payment.
  • We think seriously about whether or not we can continue to live in our [relatively expensive] town. I open up our finances to my family (two much-older sisters and brother-in-laws and my mom) to see if they have any perspective or insight to offer. One of my sister points out that we can change the amount I save for self-employment taxes because of house-related deductions, plus we’ll have a dependent as well. We discover that the numbers could work out. Then my mom ups her already generous offer to loan us even more money.
  • We find a realtor by word-of-mouth and start looking at houses. We go out three times in the next month and a half.
  • We decide we really like one of the smaller houses we looked at because of the condition of the house, lot size, neighborhood, and very close location to a community park. Plus the former owners put in a sweet deck in the back yard.
  • Although the market is soft, this house has been priced low enough that there are other interested parties. We sign the offer papers before we go off to Santa Cruz for our last pre-baby vacation over this long weekend (starting Thursday), receive a counter-offer by fax at the hotel on Friday, sign it and fax it back, and find out on Saturday that we got the house!

We’re excited because it looks like we’ll be able to close and move in before the baby comes. It will be a bit crazy this next month (especially as my mom took a month-long trip overseas so doesn’t have easy access to her finances) but we’re looking forward to the adventure.

From my two-month experience in the world of real estate, here are some “tips” and general thoughts about the process that I have:

  • It really helped me to read a basic book about buying a first home so that I could understand the process before going into it. (I read Buying Your First Home published by Nolo Press.) While I didn’t retain everything, I was familiar enough with the terms and concepts to be able to ask intelligent questions about things I forgot.
  • The more people we’ve talked to, the more we’ve found that lots and lots and lots of people get into their first house with the help of family members. This surprised me and made me even more grateful for the generosity of my mom’s loan
  • Finding a realtor that we could trust was a key step in the process. I went with word-of-mouth and asked friends in the area for people they knew. We really appreciated our realtor’s experience in the area and found him to be a very helpful guide in navigating the different properties that we looked at; we trusted his opinion and advice because of personal stories we had heard from our friends about his integrity.
  • Having organized finances made the pre-approval loan process much easier. For the low-income housing application and loan pre-approval, we needed three years of tax records, three months’ worth of pay stubs, various bank statements, and a good idea of our financial state for the next year. My filing system and keeping on top of the budget each week helped the information-gathering to go very quickly.

Nutmeg sleeps.

On the way to the kitchen for a snack, I found Nutmeg draped over the “hill” of blanket, with her face buried in a fold:

Nutmeg sleeping

A couple hours later, she had slid down the hill of blanket:

Nutmeg sleeps.

And even later, had apparently rearranged herself to be even more comfortable:

Nutmeg sleeping

YummyDummy chocolate

I’ve been awfully quiet on the blog. No, the baby hasn’t come two months early — I’ve just gotten a lot of work all of a sudden and we’ve had some event-filled weeks recently! Related to both of those changes, I’ve also been cooking less and we’ve been eating out more with visiting friends, so I don’t even have many CSA box food pictures to post.  (But there are some adorable ones of Nutmeg-the-cat which I have yet to download from the camera.)

But in the meantime, here’s a fun company I just learned about. YummyDummy Chocolate Company is based in my town and run by seven girls aged 9-12 with fun titles ranging from CEO — Chocolate Eating Officer — to “The Chocolate Whisperer.” They manage the company and create the chocolate themselves in an all-day once-a-month effort, when they also have a board meeting to discuss new product ideas and other business stuff. They vote on a charity each quarter and donate 10% of their profits (the rest gets invested back into the company). Their parents heartily support their efforts, helping them to drive their products around and provide guidance.

I’ll have to wait until after the baby comes to sample some of their chocolate myself, but their web site does allow you to order online and they supposedly sell at our Farmer’s Market (not sure if they’re only there in the spring/summer) and at a local produce shop. I might pick a YummyDummy bar for Steve to enjoy.

Not only that, the current YummyDummy web site is based on a web template that we sell at PixelMill. Yet another great reason to support this group of young entrepreneurs!

Reading: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Finished reading:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan – Another must-read on my list! One of the main food issue books out there by journalist Michael Pollan, who follows the “natural history of four meals” in great detail. Each main section of the book (there are three sections, but four meals, which confused me until I re-read the introduction) attempts to follow the components of a meal from the most basic component (a plant, photosynthesizing energy from the sun) and up through the food chain, culminating in one of four meals: 1) the industrial food chain meal — a McDonald’s fast food meal, eaten in the car, 2) the industrial organic food chain meal — a meal made with organic foods purchased from a Whole Foods store, 3) the pastoral organic food chain meal — a meal with organic foods from a sustainable farm, and 4) the hunter-gatherer food chain meal involving actually hunting a wild pig and gathering fruits and vegetables.

The first section, which follows the industrial food chain, gives a lot of sobering insight into the way Americans “do food” and why we look like “corn chips with legs.” It starts with industrial, mass-produced corn, follows the corn into grain-fed industrial, mass-produced cows or other products (such as high-fructose corn syrup but also including things like food additives (the “natural flavoring” in a product may really come from corn, surprisingly) , ethanol, adhesives, stabilizers, and more), and shows how all those things come back together into a typical fast food meal. The $14 meal, however, doesn’t reflect the toll on our environment, health, and pocketbooks, of which these are just a few examples:

  • Feeding a cow corn instead of what it naturally would eat (grass) makes their stomachs acidic, requiring lots of antibiotics to help buffer the acidity and keep the cows from getting too sick. But this leads to antibiotic resistance, and has resulted in the evolution of acid-resistant E. coliE. coli that can now survive in the more acidic environment of human stomachs. Oops.
  • This system uses up a lot of oil. “One-fifth of America’s petroleum consumption goes to producing and transporting our food.” As one specific example, the “wet milling” process to break down corn into corn oil, animal feed, cornstarch, corn syrup, and the multitude of other products made out of corn takes about five gallons of water for each bushel of corn. “For every calorie of processed food it produces, another ten calories of fossil fuel energy are burned.” Feeding corn to cows, as well, takes up a lot of oil: about 35 gallons of oil for each cow.
  • To make corn cheaper, we taxpayers subsidize the farmer’s costs at a rate of $5 billion a year. But we’re really helping the big companies that buy the corn, who turn the cheap corn into the highly processed foods that we then pay a [relative] premium for. These foods, with their trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup, etc., etc., contribute to our national health crises of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

The second section follows the industrial organic food chain and how expanding operations has resulted in a lot of “compromise” for those in the big business of organics. The result? Microwavable organic TV dinners — four words, Michael says, that he never expected to see linked together. Fields that are pesticide free but that are getting overworked because of practices necessary to produce produce on a large scale. Chickens that are marketed as “free range” but who really never see the outdoors (they might get sick; so for only two weeks of their lives they have access to a small door that leads out into a small yard — but they never choose to go out). After reading about “industrial organics,” you’ll have serious misgivings about our capitalistic system that forces the best intentions and philosophies into an industrial process.

Also in this section is a fascinating look at the “pastoral food chain,” epitomized in a unique and innovative farm in Virginia where cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and rabbits are raised in a serious symbiotic system, carefully orchestrated by the farmers. While corn is the base of the industrial food chain, grass is the focus here: The cows eat the grass (on a carefully calculated rotational system around the acres of pasture so that the cows don’t over- or under-graze a field) and fertilize it with their manure. The grazing stimulates growth, and the topsoil actually gets enriched through this process. Meanwhile, the cows self-medicate themselves because they can choose to eat the specific types of grasses with the nutrients that they happen to need at any given moment; this means the cows don’t need to be pumped full of antibiotics. Since the cows move around frequently, they aren’t around their own feces, either, which reduces the likelihood of their getting sick.

After the cows are rotated to the next field, the chickens move in, three days later. The cows have cropped the grass to an ideal height for chickens to get around in. The chickens dig happily in the manure, which by this point are full of tasty fly larvae, and get lots of protein (while sanitizing the pasture for the next round of cows). Combined with the grass diet, this means the chickens and their eggs will have lots of nutrients for people who eat them. Scratching at the manure helps it to get broken up around the field. The chickens also fertilize the field with their own high-nitrogen droppings. Rotating the chickens frequently through the fields keeps the fields from getting too much “natural fertilizer.”

Everything is connected. You’ll have to read the book, however, to get the fascinating picture of how cows, pigs, manure, and corn come together in another symbiotic relationship, and how the woodland areas of the farm’s property affect the rest of the farm, as well.

In the last section, Michael embarks on a quest to hunt and forage for his own food. As he procures a hunting license, learns how to shoot, and finds guides who will teach him about foraging for wild mushrooms and hunting wild pig, he also wrestles with the ethics of eating meat, working through Peter Singer’s arguments from Animal Liberation; this is the part that I found most interesting. Others may enjoy his detailed description of his emotions and experiences as he goes on two boar hunts (the second, successful) and then plans an elaborate meal of hunted-and-gathered foods.

Michael Pollan raises a lot of objections to the big-business industrial food chains that other books in this genre raise as well; however, don’t expect to find any “what should I do?” answers. He leaves that part up to you.

With a bookmark: (Books I just started reading, or books I’ve been “reading” for ages. Most recent first.)

  • If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat by John Ortberg
  • Birthing from Within by Pam England and Rob Horowitz
  • Sacred Attitudes by Erica Ross-Krieger
  • Body, Soul, and Baby by Tracy Gaudet
  • What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff, Arlene Eisenberg, and Sandee Hathaway
  • The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst
  • A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson

In the library book box:

  • The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp, M.D.
  • So That’s What They’re For! by Janet Tamero
  • Me, Myself, and Bob by Phil Vischer

CSA Box: Many meals

I’m giving up on the day-by-day post idea, but still intend to post photos and formal and informal “recipes” or meal descriptions as I work through our CSA box contents.

Salmon, sweet potato, and potato leek soup.

Using up the remaining items from our first CSA box, I made potato-leek soup using a recipe from America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook with Farmer’s Market potatoes and all the CSA box leeks from last time’s box and this box. This is one of my favorite soups, especially when made with with homemade chicken broth. The recipe instructions have you “sweating” the leeks (cooking for a longish time) before adding the diced potatoes, broth, and thyme.

I had two sweet potatoes left, so I baked both and made a brown sugar-butter glaze to go with them. Unfortunately I don’t think I baked the potatoes long enough so they were a little bit firm, but they were still tasty. I made a mustard-brown sugar-cider vinegar spread for the salmon and baked it in the toaster oven to complete our meal.

Carrots, pink lady apples, and grilled cheese sandwich

I recently rediscovered the sweetness and flavor of “real” carrot sticks after years of munching on bland baby carrots (which I think I used to like when they first came out), so I was really excited that our second box came with a bunch of carrots. For lunch, I made a grilled cheese sandwich and shared a carrot and Pink Lady apple with Steve. Delicious!

Spinach, garlic bread, and shrimp scampi

We got to experience crocodile spinach, a different variety, which is supposedly harder to wash but well worth the effort. I found that this bunch of spinach was actually a lot cleaner than the last bunch, so it didn’t seem like it took as long to clean although I did still check each leaf individually to make sure there was no more dirt. We had a deliciously yummy meal of shrimp scampi, garlic bread, and spinach over rice. With the exception of the rice, everything else had garlic and butter in it! I used a basic shrimp scampi recipe from The Best Recipe, but here are my favorite ways of cooking spinach and making garlic bread…

Garlic Bread

  1. Cut a loaf of French or sourdough bread in half, lengthwise. (I use one french sandwich roll for two of us.)
  2. Put a chunk of butter in a small bowl. If necessary, soften just slightly in the microwave. For the french sandwich roll, I use about 3 tablespoons of butter, microwaved at 10 seconds.
  3. Mince two cloves of garlic or run them through a garlic press. Stir into the butter.
  4. Spread the bread generously with the garlic butter.
  5. Turn on broiler (I use the toaster oven) and toast, watching carefully, until the bread is your ideal shade of brown.

Spinach with garlic and butter

  1. Wash a bunch of spinach well, separating leaves from stem base. Clean stem bases well if you like to eat those as well.
  2. Melt 1-2 tablespoons of butter in non-stick skillet.
  3. Add 1-2 cloves of minced garlic and the stem bases (if using). Cook, stirring occasionally, to start softening the stems.
  4. Add all the spinach leaves. Cook, tossing and stirring, until the greens have wilted down and the stems are tender. Add more butter if you think it looks a bit dry (depending on how large your bunch of spinach is).
  5. Serve immediately.

Superbowl Sunday salad

We went to my in-law’s house to watch the Superbowl. I made a whatever-we-have-in-the-fridge salad with romaine lettuce (all that was in our box), green leaf lettuce (from the store), sliced carrots, the one watermelon radish in our box, canned mandarin oranges, and hard-boiled eggs from our box. At first, I was going to make a basic vinaigrette, but after tasting one of the spicy pieces of radish, I decided to look for a creamy, sweet dressing in one of my standby cookbooks, Lettuce in Your Kitchen. I modified one of the recipes and put together a mayonnaise, ketchup, sugar, olive oil, and apple cider vinegar dressing with a tiny smidgen of prepared horseradish.

I love the box subscription thing because probably never in my life would I have thought to look for or purchase watermelon radish! These baseball-sized radishes have a white-green exterior and a surprisingly red-pink-purplish interior. Very fun.

Rice bowl

Finally, I tried out a rice bowl recipe from In My Box, using wild rice, kale, onions, garlic, and a bit of dried serrano pepper flavored lightly with a yummy dressing and topped with a poached egg and toasted sesame seeds. (I didn’t have nori on hand; the recipe has you top it with toasted nori bits as well.) I don’t think I’ve had a comparable dish with this mix of flavors and found it quite tasty! I ended up with a lot of leftovers; unfortunately Steve doesn’t like crunchy rice, so I’ll be working through the rest of the rice over the next few days!

Happy Groundhog Day!

Cheering groundhogI had a fun and rather unproductive time over the holidays and it has nearly taken all of January for me to get back into the flow of things. Now that it’s Groundhog Day, I’m ready to set some goals for the year (or at least the next few months) using Dave Seah’s Groundhog Day Resolution concept.

Last year I had nineteen goals that I intermittently worked on which got trimmed down to twelve or so in the fall. I would set monthly milestones for 7-10 of these goals each month.

This year I’m a little less ambitious, so I only have thirteen goals to start with. Here’s how they break down:

  • Health/body goals
    • Weight:
      • Long term: Maintain healthy weight (between 110 lbs – 120 lbs)
      • This year: Gain healthy pregnancy weight. Then, lose it to get down to my ideal healthy weight.
    • Exercise:
      • Long term: Maintain a regular exercise routine.
      • This year: Exercise daily: Walk regularly pre-baby. Get back into running post-baby.
    • Nutrition:
      • Long term: Prepare healthy meals, eat organic/local/sustainable foods, and plan menus.
      • This year: Eat “real food” despite expense.
  • Work goals:
    • Web design:
      • Long-term: Maintain a sustainable amount of work, balancing income and personal needs.
      • This year: Spend most of my time working with existing clients or developers. Take on only one new custom client job at a time.
    • Alternative work:
      • Long-term: Develop alternative revenue streams.
      • This year: Work more at writing.
  • Personal goals:
    • House:
      • Long-term: We own a house.
      • This year: Buy a house.
    • Marriage:
      • Long-term: Be best friends with Steve.
      • This year: Intentionally spend time with Steve both before and after baby.
    • Social:
      • Long-term: Be in a satisfying small group/community.
      • This year: Do my part to foster authenticity, prayer, and growth in our church small group.
  • Spiritual/Character goals:
    • Spiritual:
      • Long-term: Know that God loves me.
      • This year’s goals: Daily devotional time. Meditate each week on a verse about God’s love.
    • Character:
      • Long-term: Live like God loves me: Be grateful,  humble, free from people-pleasing, joyful, trusting, holy, loving people freely and unconditionally, open, authentically.
      • This year’s goals: Develop a better understanding of my identity so I don’t think too highly or too lowly of myself — i.e., develop humility — by praying for people, keeping up the gratitude journal, and analyzing conflict situations.

Here is the action list, or list of milestones, that I put together for this next month:

  • Gain 4 pounds.
  • Walk 30 minutes daily, rain or shine.
  • Use all veggies/fruits from CSA boxes. Consider renewing subscription.
  • Analyze current work projects and if they fit into “new design,” “current clients,” or “developers.”
  • Analyze projected income for next 3 months to see if I need to work more.
  • Write two articles.
  • Continue house hunting.
  • Plan special Valentine’s Day date.
  • Sign up to lead two activities for small group.
  • Follow through on daily/weekly spiritual/character goals.

To help me keep track of this goals, I revamped the text bits of my Monthly Goal Tracker form. Instead of tucking this into my planner, I’m keeping it on my desk at all times so that I can review it daily!

If you plan on making and keeping some Groundhog Day Resolutions, I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment!