Monday, August 22, 2016

Za'atar Bread!

I went to a family gathering yesterday and saw some cousins and aunts that I hadn't seen in quite a while. It was truly beautiful. We all brought things to eat, and one of the things that I brought was za'atar bread. I don't make this that often but when I do I wonder to myself why I haven't made it in such a long time; it is so simple and delicious. But before I talk about the actual recipe I suppose I should mention the herb blend itself. Za'atar is a common herb blend all over the Levant, but is particularly common in Lebanon. In it's most common form, it is comprised of thyme, sumac (which gives it it's distinctively slightly sour taste), toasted sesame seeds, and sea salt. But there are many variations; two of the more common also include oregano or cumin. It's usually readily available in any Middle Eastern market. If you are in the Buffalo area you can purchase it at Pete's Lebanese Bakery, Guercio's, or Penzy's on Elmwood. Or you can make your own.

I'm told that in Lebanon this is eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And I can understand why...once you get a taste you'll know too. And as I mentioned, this is so easy to prepare. Normally this is not made with whole wheat dough, but I prefer most things whole wheat/grain these days. Anyhow, you can make your own dough as I did (use any of these super easy recipes), or a store-bought raw dough.

After forming the dough into balls, the next step is to roll it out. I used my siti's (grandmother's) rolling pin which I inherited from my aunt a few years ago. She told me it was from the "old country." Anyhow, roll the dough as large or small or as thick or thin as you like. I rolled these into discs about 8" wide by 1/4" thick. This was to be used to dip into hummus; if I was making it for sandwiches I would have rolled it much wider and paper thin.

Next, drizzle the dough with olive oil and sprinkle a liberal amount of za'atar, and rub it into the dough with your fingers.

After letting the discs rise for a few minutes, bake them--a few at a time--in a hot oven (425F) for about five minutes. I have a pizza stone in my oven which I slide the dough onto. Lacking that, you can use an inverted baking sheet. Either way, it is essential that the oven be pre-heated and that the stone or tray are hot.

Lastly, share the bread with friends and family.

If you'd like additional Lebanese-inspired recipes, click here.

Friday, August 19, 2016

PAX (a photo and a few words)

The word comes from the French, paix
Which comes from the Latin, pax
An absence of violence
That's one definition
Freedom from disturbance is another
Calm and tranquil are two more
There are others
But what about love
None seem to say that
Because with love comes peace
Not romantic love
But love for your fellow human
For all things
For every thing
With that, I think, there would be peace
But we are not there
I know I'm not
I have peace at hand
But not in my heart
At least not entirely
It's easy for me to pray for family
And friends
But for those whom I dislike
Those I feel do wrong in this world
Those who slander me
That’s not so easy
At least not sincerely
But when I can
When I can truly love everyone
Even those who wrong me
Or those who do terrible things
And only then
Will I have peace
Be peace
There is so much work to do
So much to strive for
The absence of violence

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Three Photos and Five Quotes....

 “We choose our next world through what we learn in this one. Learn nothing, and the next world is the same as this one, all the same limitations and lead weights to overcome.”
--Richard Bach

 “We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill.”
--Richard Bach

More in the Five Quote series.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The easiest tomato sauce you'll ever make...

Okay, maybe this isn't the easiest sauce--I generally don't use extreme words such as easiest, best, worst, etc--but it is really easy. And it's really delicious. Basically, after cooking onion and garlic until it is nice and caramelized, you add seasonings and grape tomatoes (diced tomatoes work fine--maybe even better--but I had these on hand so there was no dicing, that's what made it so easy. The sauce itself can be seasoned however you want...add cumin for a more Middle eastern flare, or curry for Indian, but I kept it simple with basil and hot pepper to toss with pasta. This can also be used as a base for braising meat, poultry, fish, or vegetables. Anyhow, the simple recipe is below.

Tomato Sauce (made with grape tomatoes)

Makes about 2 cups

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
1 teaspoon basil leaves
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon crushed hot pepper
2 pints grape tomatoes
1 cup water

Heat the olive oil in a heavy pot, then add the onion. Cook the onion, while stirring, for 5 or 10 minutes, or until it is golden brown. Add the garlic and cook another couple minutes. Stir in the sugar, basil, salt, and hot pepper; cook for a few seconds then add the tomatoes. Cook the tomatoes for a few minutes, until they begin to pop. Add the water and stir and cook the tomatoes until they break down. While the tomatoes are cooking mash them with the back of a spoon. Cook the sauce until it reduces and thickens.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Playing Chess in the Park and other Photos...

So just a bit of shameless self-promotion here (hey, someone's gotta do it). My solo show is up and the reception is Friday evening. If you are in the WNY I would love to see you there. More than 100 photos in all. Here's a link to the Facebook event page. My artists statement is below. Peace. 

Photography for me is often a contemplative practice. When I look through a lens it forces me to focus on what's right in front of me. And it's always beauty. One simply needs to look—to open themselves to it—and it’s there. These photos were taken over a five year period, from 2011–2016, but most were taken during 2012–2014. I was enrolled in ministry classes in the city and traveled there nearly every month for 2 years. And when I wasn't in class I would wander around the city, mostly the east and west village, and contemplate what it means to be human at this point in time. And these photos are the result.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Five or Six Quotes from Maggie Kuhn...

Maggie Kuhn, born in Buffalo, NY on August 3rd 1915, is often attributed to the inspirational quote, "Speak the truth even if your voice shakes." But from what I've found that is a paraphrase, the actual quote is the first listed below. To read about Ms. Kuhn's extraordinary life, click here.

"Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind -- even if your voice shakes."

"When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say."

"Power should not be concentrated in the hands of so few, and powerlessness in the hands of so many."

"I'm an old woman. I have gray hair, many wrinkles and arthritis in both hands. And I celebrate my freedom from bureaucratic restraints that once held me."

"By the year 2020, the year of perfect vision, the old will outnumber the young."

"There must be a goal at every stage of life! There must be a goal!"

To read more in the Five Quotes series, click here.
Urban Simplicity.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Two things I'll talk about (but shouldn't) and one I won't (because it's exhausting)

So a couple things. Three actually. This is a response to the infiltration (near total domination) of politically focused posts on Facebook and elsewhere. It's odd, I suppose...writing a blog post about Facebook but they are both a form of "social media," and I find it easier to type here. But let me begin again.

There are--I have read--three things one is not supposed to discuss in public...religion, money, and politics. But I'm prepared to discuss, or at least disclose my views, regarding two of them here.

Religion. This is a touchy one. I don't even like the sound of it. But here's my view. If I had to put a single label on myself I would without hesitation say that I am a Christian. I am an active member of a very liberal Christian church and try to follow the teachings of Jesus the best I can (and usually fail miserably on a daily basis). But it goes beyond this (Christianity). I believe that all the major religions share the same Truth at their core. I also believe (know in my heart) that there is something greater than I and all of us. Call him/her God if you like, but I also find it easy to use the words Spirit, Divine, Source, just to name a few. In short, I believe that this Source or Holy Vibration is all that there is...that we in fact live and move within It and live out our lives in this manner. Okay, I'll stop and get off my new age-y metaphysical soapbox. But there it is. I talked about religion.

Money. This is an easy one for me. I don't have any. Or at least not much (at all). Despite what food TV and culinary schools will tell you, working as a cook does not generate a lot of income. Oh sure, a small few in any business will make lots of money but I'm not one of them. Each time I save up a few thousand either something happens to deplete it or I take a trip or do a major home repair or take a class or or or.  This is not a complaint, it just is. I'm fairly content, I am able to pay my bills, and I find if I don't have money then I don't have money to worry about. So here this is. I talked about money.

And lastly, politics. This is one area where I refuse to talk. Why? because I am so burnt out on the arguments, accusations, and lectures I am seeing on Facebook and elsewhere. In some instances I am surprised and others downright shocked by what some are saying or the reactions they are having. What is most shocking I suppose is that some of these negative and angry posts are coming from people I would least expect. I will exercise my right as an American and vote this November, but I will not discuss it. I will not add to the argument. So there this is. I didn't talk about politics.

But one more thing. I was actually considering leaving Facebook for a while, and I still may, but probably not. What I will do is post what I believe to be the opposite. Pictures of beauty. Poems. Positive quotes and affirmations.  With this said, the above image is one I took a few days ago. I rode my bike to the Bird Island Pier, then hopped the low railing and walked another mile out the crumbling break-wall. This is the very point where Lake Erie ends and the Niagara River begins. The Great Lakes are said to contain 21% of all the earth's fresh water, and they all rush through this point every day. To me, this is something to ponder.


Sunday, July 24, 2016

Things that can be carried on a bike (704)...

A camera bag with a camera and an extra lens, two pairs of pants, a pair of work clogs, about $20 in groceries, three paint brushes, and two gallons of paint.

Urban Simplicity.

Gazpacho (on a plate)

Gazpacho. Is it a soup or salad? Maybe both. Or maybe a sauce of sorts (salsa). It’s interesting, I think, that sauce, salad, and salary all share the same common root, sal, which is Latin for salt. A sauce was originally a form of salted liquid to season foods, and salting is what one did to their lettuce (and other vegetables) to bring out its natural flavors. And the English word salary is said to derive from sal because this is what slaves were often given in return for their back breaking work during Roman times.  But I’m jumping ahead..

Like the rest of America, and the world no doubt, it has been hot, consistently hot this summer. I no longer work in a sweltering kitchen; the one in which I toil these days is an open kitchen. It gets warm but not hot. Yes, it is uncomfortable at times but not the...I hope I make it through this shift without passing out hot...that I was accustomed to. But for that my heart goes out to all my fellow culinarians who are working through those conditions in this hot summer.

With thus said, my house is not air conditioned. Not at all. Speaking with a neighbor recently I commented that I think I’m 1 of like 10 people in the city—ironically, the city in which air conditioning was invented—that didn’t have an air conditioner. He responded by saying I was also probably like 1 of 10 people who didn’t own a car. Neither of these are accurate, of course, but I thought it was funny.

Anyhow, the thought of cooking dinner in my sweltering home kitchen was less than appealing, so before I left the glassed-in air conditioned room which is the fancy grocery store in which I am currently employed, I bought a few things to make an easy dinner. Surveying the shelves that were overflowing with heirloom tomatoes and golden peppers, gazpacho came to mind. But I didn’t want soup, per se, but more of a chunky salad. And as I meandered the produce selection I thought about gazpacho, the recipe of course, but also it’s most foods it grew out of locality and possibly necessity. Use what you have to feed people. 

Gazpacho is a recipe that has been around in various forms for a very long time, but the path to what we know it as today is likely convoluted. It’s said to have existed in Spain for more than a thousand years (possibly Moorish or Arab in origin), but prior to the fifteenth century it didn’t contain tomatoes and wasn’t red (tomatoes are a New World ingredient; they didn’t find their way into European cooking until the 1500’s). It most likely began as a vegetable, garlic, and herb soup that was thickened with breadcrumbs and ground almonds. Or possibly a chunky salad with bread in it to “stretch” the meal and utilize stale bread, not unlike the Italian panzanella or Middle Eastern fattoush I suppose. It’s truly an archaic recipe, a sort of edible archeological dig for food historians. Interestingly, the word soup is derived from the Middle English, sop, or sup, referring to a stale piece of bread onto which broth is poured to give a slight meal some substance. Today—because of the “gluten scare” and other reasons, I suppose—gazpacho is often made without bread. There are no hard and fast rules as to what gazpacho is or should be, but it’s often based on many of the same ingredients from its original versions: vegetables, garlic, vinegar, oil, and sometimes bread.

Tonight for dinner I made gazpacho which was more salad-like than it was a soup. It was delicious and took about 10 minutes to prepare. I ate it with large dollops of guacamole and Greek yogurt, and toasted slices of whole wheat bread and a glass of red wine. And as I sat eating I couldn’t think of abetter or more appropriate dinner to have on a sweltering July evening. Below is how I made this gazpacho salad (pictured above), and below that is a traditional recipe for gazpacho as a soup.

Gazpacho on a plate
Dice one or two large ripe tomatoes, a piece of cucumber, a small onion, a bell pepper, one or two jalapeno, a clove or two of garlic, parsley, and cilantro. Combine everything together in a bowl and add a quarter-cup of virgin olive oil and 2 or 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar. Season with kosher or sea salt and black pepper and mix together. Allow the flavors to mingle for about 5 minutes while you pour a glass a wine or slice some bread or set the table. Eat the salad straight from a bowl or transfer to a plate with other ingredients.

Makes about 4 cups
2 cups diced tomatoes
1/2 cup diced red bell peppers
1/2 cup diced cucumbers
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh breadcrumbs
1/4 cup diced onion
1/4 cup virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 hot peppers
2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon basil
1/2 teaspoon oregano

Combine all of the ingredients in a blender and pulse until desired consistency. Let stand 10 minutes; served chilled or at room temperature. Optional garnishes include but are not limited to:  diced raw onion, hard cooked egg, parsley, and olives.

Urban Simplicity

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Potato and Black Bean “Burgers” with Cheddar and Jalapeno

Let me just say this straight away...these crispy crunchy burgers are really easy to make and super-delicious. Simply mix everything together and pan-fry them. While I was lap-swimming this afternoon I was thinking of what I should make for dinner and these came to mind...they made me swim faster to get home and make them. I made them burger sized and ate them on a plate with a fork and knife and with other foods like an entree. But they could easily be eaten on a roll like a traditional burger, or made small for a salad garnish or an appetizer with a dipping sauce. And as usual, change up ingredients and flavoring to suit your taste.

Potato and Black Bean “Burgers” with Cheddar and Jalapeno

Makes about 8-10 burgers

1 (15oz can) black beans, drained and rinsed
2 medium potatoes, peeled and shredded
1 cup shredded cheddar
2 eggs
2 jalapeno, minced
½ small onion, diced small
½ red bell pepper, diced small
1 bunch cilantro, washed and coarse chopped
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon turmeric
   canola oil for pan-frying

Place the beans in a bowl, and using a wire whip, mash the beans to a coarse consistency. Add all the remaining ingredients (except the oil, which is for frying). Mix thoroughly, then allow the mixture to rest for about 10 minutes. Heat about ¼ inch of canola oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Shape the burgers as you place them in the pan, doing this in batches if necessary. Cook for about 10 minutes, turning as necessary. The burgers are done when crispy golden brown, and the centers are hot and cooked. Transfer to absorbent paper to drain.

Urban Simplicity.

This is Mike.

This is Mike.

I saw him across the street as I was locking up my bike at the coffee shop this morning. His sign caught my attention, and as I glanced over at him he looked back at me. So after locking my bike I walked over to him.

After introducing myself and shaking hands I asked him straight out, “So what’s your story? How is it that you find yourself out here asking for help.” And then I apologized for being so forward. No need to apologize, he said, and then he told me his story. And while he did—while we talked and I asked him questions—people rushed past us.

He’s from Buffalo, the Old First Ward, born and raised. But he wanted to travel and a few years ago he landed a job as a dock worker in Hawaii. He loved it, and the pay was good. But it’s because of this job that he finds himself standing on the corner. While working he fell through a dock. He broke his back, messed up his head (showed me the massive scare on his head), and was in a coma for six months.

I couldn’t help but notice the large lump under his sock. A police monitoring device, no doubt. So I asked hi straight out about it. And he had no problem talking about it. It monitors alcohol consumption, and it is rated at zero tolerance. It also costs him $220 a month. “It’s a weird thing,” he told me, “waking up from a coma. Sometimes I still don’t know whether I am awake or dreaming.” He then went on to tell me that between the physical pain, the effects of the coma, and depression, he developed a drinking problem and “got into some trouble.” We didn’t talk about that too much.  But, he added, that he hasn’t had a drink in 6 months and is getting himself together.

After offering him a couple dollars, he shook my hand and said, while looking me in the eye, “Thank you brother, and God bless you.” I asked if he minded if I took his photo, and before I took out my phone he struck a pose, which made me smile. He even asked if the lighting was ok, if he was positioned correctly with the sun.

But the same question(s) you the reader may have asked yourself in the past is/are floating in the air this guy’s story for real? And is Joe just being a sucker again? I don’t know if he was telling the truth, I would like to think that at least some or most of it was true. But I’m not stupid, some of his story doesn’t add up. Such as if he was injured so terribly while on the job wouldn’t he be taken care of financially? And that bracelet on his ankle was very real. But, on the other hand, his limp was also real, so was the massive scar on his head, and so was the look on his face when he grimaced in pain at one point. Who am I to judge? We are all part of the same human race. But some of us have had better breaks and/or have made better decisions and choices than others. We all deserve respect.

We talked for about 5 minutes. When I p
arted we shook hands again. And as I was walking away Mike thanked me and said it was really nice talking to me, I bid him the same. And then he smiled and simply said, “Peace Joe.”

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Cat Under My House (a true story)

There was a cat under my house today.
Apparently it had been there for quite some time.
It scared the hell out of me when I first saw it.
But I need to back up and start at the beginning.

I had hired someone to do work on my house.
And I say "my house" as if I've always lived here.
As if I was the only one who has ever lived here.
The house was built in 1860; civil war times.
There have been a lot of souls in this house.
But this is my time.

The contractor removed the front porch.
When I came home from work it was simply gone.
Out with the old and in with the new.
Time to rebuild.

You could see clear under the house.
All the way back to the small fruit cellar.
Which was likely useful when first built.

When I got off my bicycle I squatted to look.
It was difficult to see with the summer sun.
So I squinted and surveyed.
Cool, musty, basement smell wafted out.
Then my eyes adjusted.
And there she was, right in front of me.
Sprawled out under my house in the coolness.
Laying there looking peaceful.

The reason I know that she had been there for a while,
is that she was dead.

Oddly, it wasn't grotesque.
She wasn't rotting or smelly.
She was sort of mummified.
And she looked at peace.

But I can't help but wonder.
What was your demise?
Was it the frigid winter,
and you sought refuge under the house.
Was it simply old age?
Or were you sick and stray and feral.
But you did look peaceful,
as if you simply went to sleep.

But one of the first things I thought was your location.
Directly under the threshold; the front door.
Were you some sort of omen.
A good one I hope.
Because one floor up, directly from where you lay,
Is where I lie every night.
You were directly under my bed.
But for how long?

Were you lying there as I lay above you?
Did you take your last breath as I slept 12 feet above?

I scooped her up with a shovel,
And buried her in a shallow grave in my unkept backyard.
I covered the grave with bricks,
And placed a tiger lily on it, which grew nearby.
And said a prayer.
Aloud and silently.
All her feral friends can visit now, I thought.

Then this morning,
when I opened the back door at the day's first light.
To let the dogs out.
There was a gray cat sitting at the grave.
He looked at me and I at he.
And then in one great leap hopped the fence.
The dogs barked and scampered.
And I smiled.
She's now a permanent resident, I thought.
And then I went back in,
and made coffee.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Those eyes...

This is not my photo nor a photo of the person mentioned in this post. This free image was found here.

"The eye is the lamp of the body.”
Matthew 6:22

So today I was working at my second job; it’s part-time and just a few hours a week. It's at a shelter for people—women and their children, mostly—that are in transition. I find it rewarding on many levels. And I only mention this because it is pertinent to this story. Anyhow, today I was working a full shift and was the only one in the kitchen. I really enjoy working alone in a kitchen.

Anyhow, after checking the resident's fridge in the morning I saw there were some leftover wings from last night's dinner. Knowing no one would eat them, and rather than throw them in the trash, I put them in a small pot along with a few vegetable scraps, and covered them with cold water. After bringing the pot to a boil, I skimmed the liquid's surface, and then lowered the heat to a simmer. Soon, the kitchen was filled with the intoxicating aroma of chicken stock. Even though I am primarily a vegetarian these days I still love the smell of stock cooking on the stove. It is, in many ways, the foundation to cooking. And as I cut and trimmed chicken quarters for roast chicken for dinner this evening I added the scraps to the pot as well.

After a few hours, when the stock was sufficiently cooked, I strained it, reserving the rich broth and discarding the skin, bones, and other scraps in the trash. Not wanting the garbage to leak any residual liquid I took it to the dumpster, which is just outside the kitchen door. The dumpster has two doors; one on each side of it. When I went out I immediately felt the hot summer afternoon sun. And holding the sloppy, steaming bag in one hand, I flung open the waist-high door with the other. And when I did there was a man leaning halfway in the hot smelly dumpster on this hot Sunday afternoon. He stood up and our eyes locked. I'm not sure who was more surprised. It was odd. Two men—two humans—staring at each other through opposite sides of a dumpster. His eye's, so soulful, pierced my soul. He was elderly and looked like he has been through a lot. Hi, was all my surprised brain could muster. I'm not sure what he was searching for, maybe cans or clothes, but I set the steamy bag of chicken off to the side so he could keep searching if he wanted.

As I walked the few feet back to the kitchen door I wondered who he was. How did his life’s journey result to him searching through dumpsters in the hot sun. I wondered his story, but knew I wouldn't ask him. And then I reached for my wallet. Looking in it I saw I had a $10, a $5, and a couple singles. I grabbed the two singles and turned back. He looked nervous when he saw me re-approach. Maybe he thought I was going to yell at him or take a swing at him; who knows what he's seen. I held out my hand and offered the two dollars, “Here you go, man,” was what I said. Hesitantly, he took the money and said thank you. That was the extent of our conversation.

Some of you are likely thinking one of two things as you read this. You may be thinking that I am gullible or even stupid for offering money to people when I work so very hard for it. Well I’m sure I have been scammed in the past, but mostly no. I generally do not give people money who are drunk, high, or just seem like lairs. And this guy didn’t ask for money, I offered it. The look in his eyes truly did move me...a quiet guy old enough to be someone’s grampa rummaging through garbage.

The other thing is that you may think I am being self-righteous often writing on this blog about how I sometimes offer the homeless cash. My response, no I don’t think so. Firstly, these stories have to come out of me, they simply do. And this blog is a good platform for it. If you know anything about me you know that I have a soft spot for the homeless. And if you recall earlier in this post I said straight out how much money was in my wallet and how much I gave him. Me losing two dollars and him gaining it probably makes a bigger impact in his life than mine. And If I was truly the man of faith that I claim to be I would have given him everything I had. But I still can’t get past that surprised and sad look on his face when I first flung open the dumpster door...eyes that have seen a lot in this world.

About ten years ago I bought a small postcard from an artist/urban activist in Toronto. On the card is a night-time photo of a person sleeping in a sort of self-built cardboard igloo. It was dark, snowy, and blustery; snow was pushed right up the sides of make-shift sleeping quarters. And the caption reads, “A person cannot be lazy or stupid to survive life on the street.” And this is what I was thinking about as I pedaled and coasted home on a warm summer’s eve.

Urban Simplicity.

Nutella-White Chocolate Cookies

Because sometimes I simply need to go to my happy place :)

Nutella-White Chocolate Cookies

Makes about 2 dozen cookies

1 cup Nutella
¾ cup unsalted butter (1 ½ sticks)
¾ cup brown sugar
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all purpose flour
¼ cup cocoa powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups white chocolate chips

Preheat an oven to 350F (325F if it is a convection oven).

In the bowl of an upright mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the Nutella, butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar. Start on low, and then turn  to medium. Beat the ingredients until light and fluffy (usually about 5 minutes). Scrape the sides of the bowl, then add the eggs and vanilla extract. Mix on medium another couple minutes. Scrape the sides of the bowl again, then add the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt. Turn the mixer to low and mix for a minute or two, just until everything is combined. Add the chocolate chips and mix until combined. Scoop the cookies onto baking trays that are lined with parchment or have been lightly sprayed with pan release. Leave two inches between the rows of cookies to allow them to spread as the cook. Bake in the preheated oven for about 10-12 minutes, or until set and lightly brown around the edges. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for a few minutes.

Urban Simplicity.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The cup is full...and it always has been.

“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”
~ Søren Kierkegaard

I used to be such a pessimist. It's true. The glass was always half-empty. And the irony is that I've always had so much to be grateful for. But for so many years I couldn't see it. Oh sure, I'd catch glimpses of good things, in my life and around me, but only temporarily. Some days it was as if I viewed life through a monochrome lens. Everything was black-and-white (with a lot of grayness). Maybe that’s why my photos are so filled with color these days.

There was one point in my life that was particularly dark. While I never actually considered ending my life, it was during this point that the I thought that if I should what? The end of me would not make any difference to me or anyone. But I of course know this is not true.

But then something happened. I started to do some inner work...reading, praying, meditating, simplifying. Trying to figure out what it was like to be me and what my place is in this world. I'm still trying to figure that out. But somewhere over the past ten years or so I've come to realize that my happiness comes from within. And that I truly have everything I need (and more). My feet and back hurt from abusing my body in hot bustling kitchens for the past 30-plus years, and I still don't have any money (which has always been a source of stress and darkness for me), but I am wealthy in so many ways.

Over time I've come to realize that self-care is not only not-selfish but a order for me to love and do good to others I first have to love and do good to myself (no one can give what they don’t have). I'm not perfect in this area (but who is). I still eat chocolate chip cookies even though my cholesterol is elevated, and I probably drink more beer and wine than I should. But the biggest (and most important) thing I did was to embrace myself with all my flaws. Rather than try to overcome my introvert-ness, I embrace it. I am in fact 98% INFJ, and when I discovered and accepted this it explained so much. My only regret is that I wished I acknowledged this at an earlier age; it may have influenced some decisions I've made. Nonetheless, the life I've led thus far, and the experiences that I’ve had internally and externally, have made me and continue to make me the person I am today. And I, just as we all do I suppose, continue to grow into myself.

Is it always easy? No, of course not. Is everything perfect? Hardly. But it is still good. Even when it is bad it is still good if I allow it to be. I am finding when I focus on the good then good will happen. Even if I don't see it right away.

So why do I share this? I don't know. I really don't. Sometimes I just feel compelled to. It's cathartic
in a way , sort of like a baptism I suppose, to post this stuff (and aren't most blogs self-indulgent). But really, I think I share this stuff because I do believe that there is light in the darkness. No matter how dark it may be. The cup is not only full, it overflows.

And this is what I was thinking while I sat typing into my phone while I sipped a glass of wine in an air conditioned cafe on a particular balmy evening.

"My cup overflows."
~Psalm 23:5b 

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Five or eleven quotes from Elie Wiesel.

Eliezer Wiesel
September 30, 1928 - July 2, 2016

“When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude.”

“One person of integrity can make a difference.”

“Write only if you cannot live without writing. Write only what you alone can write.”

“I pray to the God within me that He will give me the strength to ask Him the right questions.”

“No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them.”

“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides.”

“Think higher, feel deeper.”

“Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself.”

“Indifference is the sign of sickness, a sickness of the soul more contagious than any other.”

“Love makes everything complicated.”

“No human being is illegal.”

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Kitchen.

So I just came across the below story which I first wrote in '89 or '90. It's sort of memory lane for me. And I find it interesting in that pushing thirty years on, while I write differently now to a degree, my voice is still present in this early work. Even the recipe shows where I was at the time (literally and figuratively)...I had just returned from being in Europe for my first time and then spending time in New Orleans, where I worked as cook at Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel. What's special about it (to me) is that it is the first story I ever wrote with the intention of publication. I was taking a writing class at the time. It was later published in Artvoice. I ended up writing for Artvoice for more than 15 years. That jump-started a side job as a food writer at the time where I was published in weeklies across the country. Anyhow, the story was written while I was sitting in the kitchen office of the Park Lane Restaurant, where I was chef for a very brief period. The photos are more recent and taken during my fourteen year tenure as chef at the 20th Century Club.

The Kitchen

Sitting in my office before dawn I look out through faded glass to see the half lit restaurant kitchen and wonder how many chefs and cooks have sat here in this old and battered chair. Pieces of their past remain--old notes, books, tools and hand written menus dated New Years Eve 1974.

The kitchen staff has not yet arrived, except for one early dishwasher, who diligently empties last nights trash. The heat has not yet begun.

Looking out the office window, at the far end of the kitchen, I can see the stairway and the loading dock. The stairs lead down to the basement, under the entire building, or up to the secret passage behind the banquet rooms. Chaos often happens in this passageway, without the guests' knowledge, just inches from a formal party.

Directly opposite the office and to the left, next to the stairway, is the old ice machine. As usual it is making its all too familiar rattle and constant dripping sound. It is this sound that always gave me the urge to turn off water faucets when I was first employed here. Past the ice machine and to the left is where the main kitchen begins, this is where most of the food preparation is done. 

It's kind of odd, but when I look out the office in this early morning light, the kitchen looks tranquil--almost as if it were at peace with itself. When the restaurant is open and banquets are in progress, it looks as though the whole building were wrestling with itself and the kitchen were its core; like a heart, pumping life into the building.

Walking through the kitchen I see the massive steam kettle, sitting lifeless and cold. As I light the ovens, and the row of cast steel flattops that sit upon them, I hear the usual whoomph sound. This sound, a ball of igniting gas, can be a little unnerving at times. Now that they are all lit you can here the crackling sound they make from the steel heating and expanding. It's kind of like the sound your car engine makes after it's been shut off and begins to cool.

I walk to the dish machine area at the far end of the kitchen and greet Francisco. Even through the loud chattering hum of the dish machine, and the steam that seemingly pours from everywhere, his cheery "buenos dias amigo" is reassuring.

As I go out into the still dark dining room, to get a cup of coffee, the air conditioning hits me and feels cool and fresh. I look around and try to picture the room festive and full of people.

Back in the kitchen I turn on the rest of the lights which gives it a fake fluorescent glow. The walls that at one time were white are now yellowed and the stoves are black from years of constant heat. No longer are the flattops crackling, but are now hot and radiating--the heat can actually be smelled.

Walking back to the office I stop and turn to look at the kitchen in my full view. It is now lit and all of the equipment is  running. I notice the beads of perspiration, that never fully disappear this time of year, on the red-brown tiles of the floor. The other end of the kitchen is a surreal scene of steam rising from the entire dish machine area and Francisco moving amidst it all. The heat has now begun.

I unlock and open the door to the loading dock to allow some cool morning air in. The air rushes in but, being in the hallway, doesn't quite make it through the kitchen. It is broad daylight now, almost 7:00 am.; the rest of the staff should be arriving soon.

I settle back into the old creaking chair in my office to have my morning coffee. As I begin to write the days menu, and the first gulp of coffee goes down, a phrase a Frenchman said to say to me a few years back comes to mind, "le cuisine est votre maison" ("the kitchen is your home").

Crawfish Beignets

Yield: approximately 25 beignets

1 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
3/4 cup cold water
2 tsp. chopped garlic
1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions
1/2 tsp. Tabasco sauce
1/4 tsp. salt
8 oz. cooked and diced crawfish tails
(shrimp or lobster may be substituted)

In a bowl combine the flour, baking powder and water; stir until it forms a smooth paste. Stir in the garlic, bell pepper, green onion, Tabasco, salt and crawfish tails. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1/2 hour.

Heat approximately 1 inch of vegetable oil, in a deep cast iron pan, to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Drop the beignet batter, a spoonful at a time, into the preheated oil. Fry approximately 4 minutes on each side or until golden brown and cooked through.

Drain on absorbent paper and serve with lemon wedges and tartar sauce.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Connected. A Story About a Story.

So I went to the waterfront to have a couple beers and take a few photos last night. It was a beautiful night. The day was hot and it had begun to cool off a little. The breeze off the lake was lovely. And it's simply a coincidence that I am writing this post after the previous, but this is something I felt compelled to share. Though I'm jumping ahead, as I sometimes do. Let me begin again. I'll start with the part of the story that is unrelated, or is it?

For the past six months or so, much to my dismay, I've been put on an early morning shift at work. This means my alarm goes off at 4:30am each morning. For me this is early, too early. I am constantly tired and usually run on about five hours sleep; I have not adjusted my sleep time yet. Often—as was the case yesterday—when I get home in the late afternoon or early evening I'll take a nap. This is what I did yesterday. After showering and turning on the fan for both white noise and cooling, I laid on my bed. It was as if someone flipped a switch. I'm pretty sure I was asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow. I slept deep for about an hour; usually I only nap for about 20 rejuvenating minutes.

So what does any of this have to do with anything, you may be asking yourself? A dream I had when I slept is the reason I mention this. The dream is vague to me now but at the time it was one of those dreams that was more real than real. In it I was sitting a large table. And at the table were other people who I do not know now but in the dream they were familiar to me. We were having a conversation and were discussing angels. Someone across from me was telling me—not lecturing, but nonetheless was rather serious—that there are angels and they are in contact with us all the time. The other people looked at him and I as he talked. And I distinctively remember him saying, “You know that we are all connected, to everyone and everything.” We all nodded in agreement.

I awoke with a start. Disorientated and sweating. It was odd for me to wake from such a deep sleep and it be a hot and sunny day out. I felt slightly hungover, though I'd had nothing to drink prior. I sat on the edge of my bed for a few minutes gathering my wits. Processing. Then I sort of disregarded the dream and got up. After dinner I rode to the waterfront just before sun set to capture a few photos.

I often try to arrive just before sunset as it is my favorite time of the day to photograph. And on this evening it was extra special. Buffalo's Main Lighthouse was being lit for the first time in 102 years. Built in 1833 it is our city's oldest standing structure. The lamp was originally fueled by whale fat, but then the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1914 and has sat dark until tonight.

Anyhow, I arrived before sunset. Had a beer and was reading a book by Marcus Borg where he was describing his mystical experiences. I snapped a few pictures; it was still light enough to hand-hold the camera. Then I went and ordered a second beer, before the light changed, and was setting up my tripod. When natural light dips to a certain dimmness a tripod is required for a long enough exposure to manipulate the light. While I was setting up the tripod I did as I often do and set one leg of the tripod between the spindles of the rail so I can get closer to the edge. It was rather crowded because it was such a nice night and there were people on both sides of me at the rail. The light was changing from day to dusk now. And as I started to set the camera on my tripod something caught my eye. The women to my left had dropped something and it bounced and was now on the other side of the rail and beyond her reach; it lay near the ledge of a 10-foot drop into the lake.

I looked at it and couldn't see what it was and then I looked over at her. She was distraught; tears streamed down her face. What is it, I asked her. It's my angel, my sister gave it to me and I've had it since 1974. How will I ever get it, she asked. She wasn't looking at me because she hadn't taken her eyes off her angel.

The rail is probably about 3 feet tall. I could easily stand on a chair and hop the rail to retrieve this, I thought. Then I quickly surveyed the situation. I had already had two pints of beer and was beginning my third, I'm not as young as I once was and hopping back over the rail would be difficult. And as I scanned the edge, which is a sheer drop into the lake, I saw there were no ladders in the wall to climb out should I fall. I actually thought this. In my younger years I wouldn't have hesitated. At any rate, within maybe 4 seconds I realized hopping the rail was not a good choice. So I removed the camera from the tripod, and holding the tripod over the rail, was able to sort of scratch and drag her cherished object back a few inches at a time. It took a couple minutes but the operation was successful. When it was within reach she grabbed it, held it to her heart, kissed it, and then literally jumped with joy. She then showed it to me and gave me a big hug and kiss on the cheek exclaiming how much this meant to her.

I went back to setting up my camera. And while I was doing so the woman's husband approached. He, too, thanked me. It was no big deal, I said, but I'm glad I was able to help. He then asked if he could tell me a story. I said yes. He told me how they had met in San Bernardino when they were both just teens. He was in love with her the moment he laid eyes on her, and he still is after all these years. He apologized as he wiped away tears. But then tears welled in my own eyes as he continued. His wife and her sister had exchanged these little angel medallions in the early 70's, and they promised to always keep them with each other. To remind them of each other. Her sister is now deceased and she often holds the angel while she prays. They grew up near the ocean in Mexico and her sister loved the water. So that's what she was doing..holding the angel while praying to her sister. So this, he said, is why this little angel is so important to her. To her it is her sister. And then he parted.

Wow. I was floored. I still am as I type these words. I had my beer perched on the railing while I took photos. I do this often and have never spilled one. But just after this man and woman parted another younger woman approached with a young man. She leans against the railing and knocked my full beer over onto the pavement. She looks at it, then at me, and simply says, that sucks. And she walked away. Under normal circumstances I would have been upset, but I was still on a sort of high from my conversation with the previous man and women (never did get their names). High on humanity. All I could do is laugh.

So, was my dream some sort of prophetic vision? I don't know. I really don't. But I'm not discounting it. Do I believe in angels? Umm...sort of. Yes, I suppose I do. But not necessarily invisible mystical beings (though I don't rule them out either), but more so angels in the flesh. On this evening I was able to do this very small act of kindness for this person and in turn got to listen to this man's truly moving story. Two grown men were both moved to tears amidst a crowd of people on a hot Saturday night on the shore of one of the great lakes. With all this said there is one thing that I am sure of. And it was reminded to me earlier in the day while I slept in the hot afternoon heat. I was reminded that we are all connected in some indescribable way. Sometimes I forget this, and then sometimes I am reminded. And this is a series of events that happened yesterday afternoon and evening. The below photo is one in a series I shot last evening. Click it for a slightly larger view.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Angels are real!

You may have seen or heard about these angels, but before I discuss them I have to mention a brief conversation I had with someone a few years ago. I was talking to someone I worked with at the time who openly spoke of communicating with her guardian angels. Yes, plural. I mentioned to her that I thought that I may have guardian angel because of certain circumstances I had been through in my life. Without missing so much as a breath she replied, "What, do you think you're special? Of course you do. We all do."

This said, these images are of real angels in my opinion...people donning wings to shield families and mourners of the dead in Orlando so they can grieve in peace. But who are they being shielded from, you may ask? That evil organization that calls themselves a church but goes around the country tormenting people at funerals. Their name shan't be glorified by mentioning it here.

The Angels Action Project began in Laramie Wyoming back in 1999 to protect family and friends at the funeral of Matthew Shephard. Since then they've provided support at multiple services. They even offer a free PDF file on how to build angel wings. At the Orlando services the angels are a result of a collaborative effort from the Orlando Shakespeare Theater and others in the theatrical community.

Sometimes I really do believe that I have a guardian angel. But when I see this I know that the people that perished, and their friends and families do. Angels in the flesh. Humans being kind to other humans. This, to me is beautiful. And I can say without exaggeration it brings tears to my eyes. In all circumstances we have a choice to how we want to feel and think. And there is always the choice between love and hate. I choose love.

"Be the change that you wish to see in the world."
~Mahatma Gandhi

Urban Simplicity.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Things that can be carried on a bike (#700 & #701)...

#700 (pictured above)...$232.76 in groceries

#701 (picture below)...a trailer full of food being delivered to a local food pantry. This was my first run working with Wast Not, Want Not. The food was donated by Pasion and delivered to Friends of the Night People. Pictured with the bike is Lorena, a worker at the pantry.