Saturday, November 26, 2016

Sweet Potato Latke with Cheddar and Jalapeño

After scrounging around my fridge and kitchen counter the other evening I came up with the ingredients for the following recipe. So I made these. I ate half of them, then my son stopped over and ate the other half. Super easy to make. Super delicious. Slightly sweet, slightly spicy. Try to eat just one. I dare you.

Sweet Potato Latke with Cheddar and Jalapeño

Makes about 12

2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and grated
2 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and grated
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
½ medium onion, sliced thin
2 jalapeño, seeded and minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 eggs
4 tablespoons whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
canola oil for pan frying

Combine all of the ingredients except the canola oil and mix well. Heat about ¼ inch of oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Using a large spoon, drop dollops of the latke batter into the skillet and flatten them with the back of the spoon. Cook them on both sides until golden brown and cooked throughout. Transfer to absorbent paper.  

Urban Simplicity.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Things that can be carried on a bike (#710)...

A bin containing a few groceries and sundries; a cardboard box containing a pair of chef pants and kitchen clogs and a few items from the hardware store; a book bag containing a journal, a few books, and other things; and a new toilet seat.

More things on a bike.
Urban Simplicity.

Friday, November 18, 2016

And then this happened...

So this is a two-part post. Okay, maybe a multi-part post. Firstly, the photos. These are images of the Union Square subway station in NYC. It began as “Subway Therapy” and grew into this. There are pads of sticky notes on a small table with some pens, and people write inspiring notes and stick them on the wall. And it keeps growing. It is really beautiful. Really moving. But I’m jumping ahead.

I’m on a short few-day getaway to the city to clear my head (yes, I go to large cities for an escape). I like the anonymity that a large city such as New York has to offer. Though I’ve never lived here, I have had a love affair with this city for much of my adult life. I first began coming here more than 30 years ago. I attended culinary school just up the river and came here on the weekends with friends. I attended seminary a few years ago and came here each month for two years. And now I’m back to once or twice a year. I just love to walk and see. My days usually entail book stores, coffee shops, and churches during the day and cafes and bars in the evening. But I’m getting off topic.

It may sound odd to you but I find cities—especially very large cities—spiritual.  For the simple reason that there are so many souls crammed into one place going about our business all at once. So much humanity. I am also struck by the juxtaposition—or more appropriately, the stark contrast—of wealth and poverty. I often find myself offering spare change to those asking for it that live on the streets. And on this trip I found this especially true...there was the veteran in a wheelchair with no legs asking for money, there was also a woman with a large face tumor that covered half her eye asking for money, there was also the mother with a young child asking for money. There were others. And I apologize for the graphic descriptions, but they are real people. I’m also not trying to glorify myself by mentioning that I offered these people money. Actually, sometimes I think I’m a bit nuts as I worry about my own finances, but I can’t help it. They really pull at my heart strings. These are souls from the same creator as you and I. But I suppose this too is a bit off topic. Let me steer back to what happened last evening.

I am staying at my usual place, a Lutheran hotel just off Union Square, and I went to dinner at my usual Thai restaurant. I had finished my meal and still had half a beer left so I was sipping it and watching the crush of humanity as it passed the window. I was thinking about how many times I have been here, and how the city, but mostly I, have changed. Emotionally and spiritually, yes of course, but also physically. I love to walk, I always have, but these days my feet and knees hurt pretty bad after a day of walking. By the end of the day I limp...a lifetime of working on my feet. When I was younger I could walk from Central Park clear down to the Village without even thinking about it. These days I still walk a lot but it is usually planned from subway stop to subway stop to cut out much of the distance. This worried me some...the pain I have now, what will it be like in 10 years, or 20 (if I make it that long). Anyhow, this is what happened next.

The waitress came over and cleared my plate so I asked her for my bill. She looked at me sort of awkwardly, then looked over her shoulder, then back at me. Then she says, Do you know that woman over there? No, why, I ask? Well, says the waitress, She already paid your bill. What? Are you sure? Yes, she replied. It was sort of surreal. I go over to the table to ask her why and also to thank her. She was an average looking person whom I probably would not have noticed in a crowd...African-American, over weight, and middle aged. She did not strike me as someone of great wealth or with a disposable income. Anyhow, I asked her why she paid my bill. Her response almost floored me. You look like someone who works hard and gives a lot to people so I wanted to give you something back.

Bam. My head was spinning.

Are you sure? I stuttered, I can pay for my own meal. No, honey, she responded, I want to do this. I do this now and again. Thank you so much was all I could stammer. And I walked out into the unusually warm New York evening and melded into the river of people that only a moment ago was watching pass in front of me. And at that moment the veil was lifted ever so slightly and briefly and I caught a glimpse of what life is  supposed to be like. We truly are all connected. Pay it forward and it returns.

And this is what happened to me yesterday evening.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Some things about soup...

(This article originally appeared in Artvoice. To see it at its original location, click here.)

“Good soup is one of the prime ingredients of good living. For soup can do more to lift the spirits and stimulate the appetite than any other one dish.”
–Louis P. De Gouy

Soup is delicious and nutritious, no doubt, but it’s also exceedingly easy to make. If you can boil water, you can make soup. Even soup’s foundation—stock or broth—which is often perceived as laborious, is simple to make. And, like making bread, there’s something about a simmering soup pot that is nostalgic. Soup is the original comfort food.

Soup is also a chameleon of foods: on one hand it’s as basic as simmering meat and/or vegetables in liquid to create a simple yet nutritious meal, but it can also be the epitome of culinary refinement, such as bisque or consommé. It's origins, though, undoubtedly lie on the humble side. From its earliest days soup is said to have evolved from the practice of boiling meat in a vessel over an open fire.

The word soup is derived from the Middle English, sop, or sup, referring to a stale piece of bread onto which hot broth was poured, thus giving a slight meal some substance. To eat in this fashion was “to sup;” this is also from where the modern word “supper” is derived. The classic French Onion Soup is one of the truly ancient soups remaining today: broth, onions, and bread (the thick topping of cheese is a modern and more luxurious addition).

Soups can be divided into two basic categories: broth soups and thick soups. Thick soups can be further defined into subcategories of cream soups, purées, thickened soups (those that are thickened with the addition of a starch, such as flour or cornstarch), and self-thickening soups (made with legumes, grains, pasta, etc.).

In its most simple form soup is nothing more than a collection of ingredients that have been boiled together, but this simple recipe will often produce a “simple-tasting” soup. However, when basic culinary principles are applied, a few simple ingredients can become an incredible soup (sauté or sweat the vegetables, for example, rather than simply boiling them; add stock or broth to the soup instead of water). Interestingly, while there are seemingly countless soup recipes available, their preparations are often similar: heat a pot with a small amount of oil or butter, add vegetables and allow them to sweat, cover with broth, skim and season the soup, and simmer it until a desired doneness. To thicken soup a starch is usually introduced while sweating the vegetables, and then broth is slowly incorporated.

Simply said, soup making is as straightforward as the aforementioned directions, follow those guidelines and you can make soup out of almost anything, within reason of course. The most crucial instruction within those simple directions is “cover with broth.” Stock or broth is without doubt the most important ingredient in any soup recipe, and unfortunately, this is also the area of soup making that is sometimes thought of as drudgery, but it shouldn’t be. Many view stock making as a lengthy and complicated process when it’s actually quite simple. True, stock or broth does necessitate a few hours to cook, but they need very little tending as they cook, and the outcome is far superior to a powdered base, bouillon cubes, and even the canned varieties that are so plentiful today (ok, yes, I—a professional cook—sometimes use canned broth at home out of convenience but it doesn’t compare to homemade).

The benefits of homemade stock or broth are many; they can replace much of the fat and sodium in a recipe—when you add stock to a recipe you add flavor. With a full-flavored stock or broth the simplest food preparation becomes something special. A flavorful stock or broth is very simple to produce, yet the process that takes place is nothing short of alchemy—extracting and conveying the flavor and nutrients from the meat, bones and vegetables into the simmering water.

The main difference between broth and stock is that stock is made by simmering bones and vegetables in water, whereas broth takes its full flavor from the addition of meat, thus broth is more costly to make. Stocks and broths are interchangeable in soup making, although broths usually have a fuller flavor because of the inclusion of meat in their recipes. Stocks and broths can be made ahead in large batches and frozen in small increments for future use.

When making stock or broth always start with cold water, this encourages the release of gelatin, albumin and nutrients that are in all animal products. Gelatin and albumin are water-soluble proteins that dissolve in cool or warm water. If the bones and meat are immersed directly into hot water in an attempt to speed the cooking process these proteins will coagulate too quickly, and the resulting product will be cloudy and insipid. Stocks should be simmered slowly; boiling them will also yield a liquid that is murky in both appearance and flavor. When simmered slowly the resulting stock will be crystal clear and offer a more well rounded flavor.

Another important factor in stock making is the ratio of water to flavoring ingredients (bones, vegetables, and meat). The flavoring ingredients should be added to a pot with cold water poured over them. For a concentrated broth or stock the water should just cover the ingredients. If too much water is added to the stockpot the outcome will be watery and diluted. And stocks should not be salted as they cook—salt is added to recipes in which the stock is used, this offers the cook control over sodium content.

After a stock or broth has simmered slowly for a sufficient amount of time it should be carefully strained through a fine mesh colander or cheesecloth. An easy method for removing any accumulated fat is to refrigerate it overnight. The fat will rise to the surface and will be able to be lifted off in large pieces. The resulting broth will be good enough to drink as is, or used as the base to any soup.

Curried Vegetable Soup

Makes about 12 cups

3 tablespoons canola oil
1 small onion, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 parsnip, diced
1 turnip, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cumin seed
2 teaspoons crushed hot pepper
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup diced cabbage
1 cup chopped cauliflower
1 cup diced tomatoes
1 cup chopped kale
8 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup lemon juice

Heat the oil in a medium soup pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, parsnip, and turnip. Cook the vegetables in the oil for about five minutes, allowing them to release their flavor but not brown. Add the garlic, curry, turmeric, cumin, hot pepper, and salt; saute for another couple minutes. Stir in the cabbage, cauliflower, tomatoes and kale; stir to coat the vegetables with oil and spices. Stir in the broth. Bring it to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer. Cook the soup for 30-60 minutes, skimming as necessary; if it becomes to thick add more broth. Taste it for seasoning, and add the lemon juice just before serving.

Split Pea Soup with Garlic and Smoked Sausage

Makes about 12 cups

3 tablespoons canola oil
2 cups diced smoked sausage
1 small onion, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
1 carrot, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound split peas, cleaned and rinsed
1 potato, diced
8 cups chicken broth
1 teaspoon salt

Heat the oil in a medium soup pot over medium-high heat. Add the sausage and cook it for a few minutes, until it releases some of it's fat and begins to brown. Add the onion, celery, carrot, and garlic; cook the vegetables with the sausage for a few minutes, until the vegetables begin to cook but are not browned. Add the peas, potato. Broth, and salt. Bring the pot to a boil, then lower it to a simmer. Cook the soup for about an hour, stirring frequently. If it becomes to thick add more broth.

Butternut Squash Bisque with Apple and Toasted Walnuts

Makes about 6 cups

2 tablespoons butter
1 small onion, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 pounds peeled and diced butternut squash
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup chopped, toasted walnuts
1/2 cup small diced apple

Melt the butter in a small pot over medium heat and add the onions. Sweat the onions over medium heat for 5 minutes or until they are translu­cent. Add the flour and stir over medium heat for 2 minutes. Stir in the sugar, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, salt, pepper, and diced pumpkin; sauté another minute. Add the stock and simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until the squash is very tender. Add the cream and simmer for 1 or 2 minutes longer. Puree in a blender or food processor. After ladling the soup into warm bowls, garnish it with the toasted walnuts and diced apple.

Roast Red Pepper Bisque

Makes about 12 cups

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup diced onions
1/2 cup diced celery
1/2 cup diced carrots
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons black pepper
1/2 cup flour
4 cups chicken broth
3 cups diced roast red peppers
2 cups heavy cream

Sauté the onion, celery, and carrots, over medium heat in the butter or olive oil for 5 minutes, then add the garlic and sauté for another minute or two. Stir in the flour and cook over medium/low heat for 5-10 minutes. Add the chicken stock, stir with a whisk to remove any lumps. Stir in the diced peppers. Bring to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Add the heavy cream simmer 2 minutes. Puree in a food processor or blender. Strain if you desire a smoother consistency.

Potato Chowder

Makes about 12 cups

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
12 ounces diced lean ham
1 cup diced onion
1/2 cup diced carrots
1/2 cup diced celery
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2-1/2 pounds peeled and diced potatoes
6 cups rich soup stock
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup milk (optional)

Heat the butter in a large heavy soup pot over medium-high heat. When it begins to bubble add the ham, onions, carrots, celery, and garlic. Sauté the vegetables and ham for approximately 5 minutes, or until they are soft and translucent but not browned. Stir in the potatoes, chicken stock, thyme, salt, and black pepper. Bring the soup to a boil then lower the heat to a simmer; skim any impurities that may have risen to the surface. Simmer the soup for 45-60 minutes, stirring often. Using a wire whisk, gently break apart some of the potatoes to give the soup some viscosity. If adding the milk, do so directly before serving the soup, and do not boil it once the milk has been added.

Chicken and Rice Soup with Saffron, Lime, Jalapeño, and Cilantro

Makes about 8 cups

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, diced
2 tablespoons minced jalapeño
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon saffron, crushed
1 pound chicken breast, diced
6 cups chicken broth
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup cooked rice
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a heavy soup pot. Add the onion, jalapeno, and garlic; sauté for 2 minutes. Add the saffron and diced chicken; sauté 3-4 minutes. Stir in the chicken stock, salt, and pepper. Bring the soup to a boil, then lower it to a simmer; skim any impurities that rise to the surface. Simmer the soup for 20 minutes. Stir in the cooked rice and the limejuice. Return the soup to a simmer and cook the soup another 10 minutes. Stir in the chopped cilantro and serve while hot.

Rich Soup Stock

Makes about 12 cups

5 pounds chicken bones
2 pounds pork bones
1 medium onion, quartered
1 medium carrot, cut into thirds
4 ribs celery, cut into thirds
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 bay leaves
10 whole black peppercorns
1 gallon cold water, or enough to cover the ingredients by an inch

Combine all of the ingredients in a heavy-bottomed stockpot. Bring slowly to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower the heat to a slow simmer and skim any impurities that may rise to the surface. Simmer the stock very slowly for approximately 4 hours, and then strain it through a fine mesh sieve or colander. Refrigerate or freeze until needed.

Easy Chicken Broth

Makes about 12 cups

3 pounds chicken wings
2 onions, peeled and cut in half
2 whole cloves garlic
2 ribs celery, cut into quarters
2 carrots, peeled and cut into quarters
1 bay leaf
12 whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon salt
1 gallon cold water, or enough to cover the ingredients by an inch

Combine all of the ingredients in a heavy-bottomed stock pot and place over medium-high heat; bring the liquid slowly to a boil. When the broth begins to boil, skim any impurities that may rise to the surface, then reduce the heat to a very low simmer. Simmer the broth very slowly—bubbles should just be breaking the surface—for 3-5 hours. Occasionally skim the foam that rises to the surface. Strain the broth through a fine sieve; reserving the meat from the wings for another use. Refrigerate or freeze until needed.

Urban Simplicity

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."
John 1:5

There is still a light that shines in the darkness. Even in dark and uncertain times there is still light. I forget sometimes and fear creeps in. I become arrogant. Fear creeps in and all I see is darkness. But then I remember and I see love. It can be as simple as a mother caring for her child in the most simplest way. Or someone holding the door for another with a smile to offer. Light always overcomes darkness. And then I remember this and the fear resides. I remember that this same spark shines in all of us. Even those I don't agree with. And that is the hardest part. Even in dark times there is still light. I just have to stay aware of it. There is so much work to do. But the light still shines. Unwavering.

Urban Simplicity.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Five or Nine Quotes from Dorothy Day.

Dorothy Day was born on this day in 1897, and the world was/is better because of her. The above photo, from what I've read, was taken in 1973 (when she would have been 75 or 76). She was in California protesting with Cesar Chavez, among others, on the mistreatment of migrant farmers. She was arrested and spent 10 days in jail. This photo says a thousand words...this anything-but-frail elderly woman sitting and staring defiantly at armed police officers with guns and batons. I really wish I could see the faces of the officers. It's also ironic, I think, that her birthday coincides with the US presidential election today. I of course cannot say for sure, but I'm pretty sure I know who she would not have voted for. Anyhow, here's a few quotes...

“Don't worry about being effective. Just concentrate on being faithful to the truth.”

“We must talk about poverty, because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.”

“The final word is love.”

“Most of our life is unimportant, filled with trivial things from morning till night. But when it is transformed by love it is of interest even to the angels.” 

“Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily. ”

"I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions."

"The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?"

"We have all known the long loneliness, and we have found that the answer is community."

"Words are as strong and powerful as bombs, as napalm."

To read more about Dorothy Day, click here. To read about her incredible life and courage I recommend her autobiography.

More in the Five Quotes series.
Urban Simplicity.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Silent Night [anti-politics]

This photo was taken almost a year ago to the day at St. Paul's Chapel near Ground Zero, NYC

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.”
~Ansel Adams
So the bracketed portion of the title of this post is really a misnomer...this post is not anti anything, it's simply the absence of. But I'm jumping ahead.

If you are like me--and I know there are plenty of us--you are likely tired and bored stiff of the inundation and nastiness on social media these past months regarding the presidential election. In revolt (that's a pretty strong word, but I suppose it's appropriate) I've made the personal vow to post only uplifting quotes and photos for the next week. But that's not what this post is about either.

What I wanted to highlight--or rather, promote--is a one-day movement that is happening across the country and was organized by two local Buffalo pastors:

Silent Night.

There will be a few churches across the country opening the doors to their sanctuaries on election day to be just that...sanctuaries. Here's a description from their website:

"Silent Night is a time of quiet on election day. No phones. No politics. No noise. You can use the time to pray, reflect, rest, or heal."

Anyhow, here's a link to their website. There you can search for participating churches in your area.

Peace. Salaam. Shalom.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety

You began as a mist
Rising invisibly
Drawn uncontrollably
As one
And there you stayed
Growing stronger
Until all at once you burst forth
Separating into droplets
But still connected
You fall from such great height
Yet you land on me
And all around me
Separately and together
Still connected
But you've forgotten
Your connection
Separate droplets
But from the same
Soon you will evaporate
Or slide off into the earth
And be drawn up
Repeating the cycle
Returning to one
But there you are
On your leaf
As if you are alone

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Things that can be carried on a bike (#709)...

A pug!

So this is Maxwell, one of the pugs that owns me. He's 8 and a year older than his brother, Franklin. You wouldn't know it by this photo, but Maxwell is the serious bossy one. He hadn't been on a bike ride since he was a little puppy. In this photo I had to taken him to a groomer (St Francis grooming and training). It was a semi-emergency in that poor Maxwell had an ingrown dew claw that was becoming infected. The entire procedure took about 20 seconds. Now look at how happy Maxwell looks :)

(On a side note: he tried to jump out of the basket the entire two mile ride to and from the groomer; I held the handlebars with one hand and Maxwell with the other.)

Urban Simplicity

Thursday, November 3, 2016

This is Arnesto...

This is Arnesto. I’m not sure if the spelling is correct as I’m spelling it phonetically, and please forgive the poor photo quality. It’s an unedited nighttime cellphone shot. Anyhow, we met unexpectedly this evening, and I’m not sure who was more startled. We didn’t see each other initially because I was on my bike and coasted silently up to my front steps and he was bent over and literally waist-deep in my neighbor’s recycling tote, which is adjacent to my front steps. He heard me and he stood up quickly, startling me. It was awkward in that we were just a few feet from each other and I had to move to allow him to pass. I said hello to him as he passed and he responded the same in a heavy accent. After he passed I called to him, excuse me, I said, I don’t have any returnable bottles but please take this, and I held out my hand with a single dollar in it. I then went to go up my porch. But before I did I turned to watch, because Arnesto had set his bags on the ground and was kneeling in the street. He made the sign of the cross on his chest then stretched his arms skyward as he looked up and spoke quietly in what I recognized as Arabic. He stood again and gathered his bags. His back was to me and we were now maybe 15 feet apart. I called to him again, excuse me, I said. He turned and I said, as-salāmu ʿalaykum (which is Arabic for "peace be upon you”). His eyes lit up and he returned the greeting. He spoke some English, enough for us to communicate. He is from Sudan, he told me, and that he is finding it very difficult in America. More difficult than he had thought. But he is trying. He is Catholic, he also told me, and that when he was praying he was thanking God for the gift that he had just received. After I asked if I could take his photo I told him my name. When I held out my hand to shake his, he took his calloused hand and pulled mine to his chest. We were now inches from one another. Thank you so much, Joseph, he said in his heavy accent as our eyes locked. And then he said, in English, peace be upon you. And upon you as well, is all I could say as he turned and walked away. But what I was thinking inside was, namaste...the spark of the divine inside me recognizes the spark the divine in you, as I do believe that we all equally carry the same divinity within us. It's also interesting to note that just before we met I was coasting on my bike and worrying about a few upcoming bills, and then Arnesto was so thankful for one single dollar. It really puts things in perspective. People are put in our paths for a purpose, I truly believe this. Yes, I may have helped Arnesto a little with my single dollar, but I received much more in return. And this is what happened this evening in the street in front of my house.

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" 

The New Colossus, inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
Written by poet Emma Lazarus

Urban Simplicity.

At the end of the pier...

These photos were shot a couple weeks ago (click any for a larger view). It was on the eve of the October full moon (which was a super moon) so I rode my bike out the mile-long Bird Island Pier to get a good view of it as it crested the horizon. I find it so peaceful out there...right next to the city but on a path that juts out into the water; it feels, in a way, sort of feral. Anyhow, the photo above was taken when I first arrived, there was barley a breeze and the water was like a mirror. The one directly below is of a similar angle, albeit later in the evening. The one next in line is one of my favorites and it's one I've taken's the very spot where the Great Lakes pour and tumble into and become the mighty Niagara River (for those not from the area and unfamiliar with local geography, Niagara Falls is twenty miles downstream). The next photo in line is, of course, the full moon just as it rose above the horizon. I was hoping that it rose over the city for a dramatic cityscape shot but it rose to the left, or north, of the city skyline. And lastly, the bottom photo is the Peace bridge, which of course traverses the river and connects not only Buffalo with Fort Erie but the U.S. with Canada. The next full moon--the November moon--is also a super moon and is supposed to be the closest the moon will be to earth since 1948. I'm hoping for clear skies...

Urban Simplicity.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Bread Upon The Waters...

“Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.”
~Ecclesiastes 11:1

It’s 11:30 on a Saturday night. I’ve had a few glasses of wine and have slept a mere 4 hours in the last 36. I’m exhausted. But just before I go upstairs to pour myself into bed I mix together a dough. In one bowl I make an autolyse, a sort of unleavened pre-dough by combining 4 cups of whole wheat flour with 2 cups of cool water. In another bowl I make the pre-ferment by combining a cup of bubbling sourdough culture with enough flour to form a ball. Then I feed the culture, which is in a separate bowl, with some fresh water and flour. I cover all the bowls and crawl up the steep stairs of my old house and fall into bed and sleep a deep dreamless sleep for nearly 10 hours.

The next morning I come down and the house is cold; it’’s late October and I still haven’t turned on furnace. My two dogs are curled together in a sort yin-yang pattern to conserve heat and look at me with that “where’s our food,” look. Despite the cool temperature the kitchen still smells of yeast and one of the bowls—the starter—has bubbled over. It makes me smile to know that while I slept the dough was working...feeding and growing. I don’t make bread, I thought to myself, it makes itself...I simply provide the right conditions.

Before I mix the dough I turn on the coffee maker and feed the dogs, “the boys” as my son and I call them. While the dogs are eating, and the dough continues to eat, I go to the front of the house to start a small fire in the wood stove to take the chill off the house. I watch as the fire takes hold, and the kindling pops and sizzles, and I think of my day ahead. It’s Sunday and I often attend worship at our church, but today I likely will not; I have a paper to write which is hanging over my head and I’ll go to a coffee shop to work instead. But on my way I’ll pray...meaning, I’ll thank our creator and source for the autumn beauty that surrounds me...the crisp air, the beautiful fall colors, and the fact that I am even inclined to think this. So I offer thanks, and while it doesn’t remove the stress of the work I have to do—nor does it relieve the imaginary stress of my work-week ahead—it does calm me a little, and make me feel more connected and centered.

“If the only prayer you said in your life was ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”
~ Meister Eckhart

Before I leave the house I mix the dough. Once the fire is established I return to the kitchen. The dogs are finished feeding and are doing their little tap dance near the rear door, signaling I’d better let them out or there may be an accident. When I reach for the bowl of the mixer I notice how cold the steel feels. And into it I combine the autolyse and the pre-ferment; I also add a few tablespoons of olive oil and a couple teaspoons of sea salt. After placing the bowl on the mixer I turn it only low speed at first, and then medium. It makes it’s all too familiar grind-click-grind sound, which I know means it’s only a matter of time before I have to send it in for repair.

The starter, or sour culture that I’m using to leaven the bread is named 7.99, meaning July 1999. That’s the month and year that it began. I’ve had various starters since, but this is my first. And it’s the one I’ve kept alive ever since. Sometimes—like now—I’ll keep it bubbling and active on my counter and feed it everyday. And other times I’ll let it go dormant for a month or two in the refrigerator and wake it up with a couple feedings when I want to use it. I’ve even froze it for more than a year and resurrected it with a few feedings and warm temperatures.

The famed Parisian bakery, Poilâne, is said to use their original starter to leaven all of their breads which is more than a hundred years old.

It’s really incredible, I think, the way bread works...It’s a symbiotic relationship relationship between the ingredients. The naturally occurring yeast is a living organism. And when combined with water and flour it consumes the starch which is converted into sugar. And as the yeast eats it gives off gas, not unlike a human, I suppose. It eats and expels carbon dioxide, which also converts to a sort of alcohol. This is why naturally leavened bread smells so strong at times and has a sour flavor. As the gas is released it forms tiny bubbles in the dough, with more gas the bubbles grow, and as the bubbles grow it raises and lightens the bread. In the old days bakers would save a piece of the raw dough so they could add it to a new, or young dough, which in turn would be inoculated with the yeast from the previous dough and create a new loaf. The smallest portion of dough with live cultures can raise an endless amount of bread. It has been written about for millennium, sometimes as metaphor.

“Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.”
~Luke 13:21

This can be interpreted in so many ways. My take on it is that what you focus on—what is in your heart and on your mind—eventually grows and manifests into reality. In other words, if you focus on good, then good happens. And the reverse is true as well. This has been my personal experience.

The summer of 1999 seems both very recent but at the same time a very long time ago. So many things have happened, to me and all of us. I’ve gone from being in my late thirties to mid-fifties. My son went from being a child to a young man. I’ve had a few jobs, had my heart broke, became financially broke, and was ordained as a minister. And then there was 9/11 which changed everything. These are just some of the big things, the small day-to-day events that have happened since are so many but just as important. One moment after another strung continuously together.

When I came home from the coffee shop the bread was fully risen. It was beautiful and it made me smile. I turned on my oven and it made the usual woomf-woomf sound as it struggled to stay lit (it needs a new igniter) so I turned on the broiler to heat it more rapidly. Before placing it in the oven I spritzed it with some water and sliced the top for expansion. As it baked the house filled with the comforting aroma that only freshly baked bread can.

While the bread was baking I poured a cup of coffee and saw that the starter was already bubbling from the morning’s feeding. It was almost ready to leaven another loaf; it was ready to continue the cycle.

Bread is an important component to diets and cultures in many parts of the world, but in some areas of the Middle East it is so important and prevalent that it is referred to as ayshe, which also means life. And this is what I think Solomon meant when he suggested we cast our bread upon the water and we will eventually find it. My take is that he was implying we cast our lives out into life itself if we want to find it. Live freely and selflessly but most importantly lovingly.

I forget sometimes how good I have it. It’s as if I fall asleep and need to wake up. I stress over money and time; I worry about the future. I forget. I forget how much I have and all the things I’ve done and how much more there is to do in this life. And I forget how I am connected to and inseparable from everyone and everything, including the very Source that animates these flesh and bones called Joe. I also forget that we can begin again each day. Each moment, actually.

As I squatted to pull the loaf out of the oven I nearly tripped over one of my pugs who was circling around, probably because of the heat of the oven but also hoping to take a bite out of the bread. When I stood up and set the bread on the counter it was beautiful. I couldn’t help but think of the countless generations that have baked bread in this same way (but likely not with an electric mixer and gas oven). And at that very moment—even if it was for just a moment—the veil was lifted however slightly and briefly, and I knew I had everything I needed. I desired nothing. And at that moment I also knew that I should begin again. Tomorrow I may need to begin again...and again. But for now it was enough.

After the bread cooled enough to slice, I ate an apple and cheddar sandwich and couldn’t help but think that the bread was leavened with a leaven that began so many years ago. It was good. Really good. And I begin again. But tomorrow I may have to start over, too. Again. But that’s okay.

Urban Simplicity

Saturday, October 1, 2016


The above photo was shot in early Autumn at sunset. I was standing at the edge of Buffalo Harbor, that magical point where four great bodies of water converge...Lake Erie, the Buffalo River, and the Erie Canal as they empty into the Niagara River and tumble over the Falls twenty miles downstream.

So I began posting this blog nearly nine years ago in response to things in my life and changes I was making (click here to read my very first post). And now I am taking one month leave for the very same reason(s)...things that are happening and my response to them. But unlike some blogs and bloggers that say they are taking a break and basically never blog again, this is for a specific period: 30 days. This is the longest I've gone without posting. Maybe I'll be back sooner, I'm not sure at this point. But I will be back by the 1st of November, that is for sure. I enjoy this blog too much and it is a good outlet for can be cathartic in some ways. I'm also taking a break from Facebook; I even deleted the app from my phone. I will be checking emails, of course, and Facebook once a day for messages, and I may post a photo or so on the Facebook page of this blog (click here for Urban Simplicity on Facebook). But nonetheless I am having an "electronic fast" of sorts. I simply need to re-think some things. Thank you for sticking with me, I hope you are still here when I return. I'll see you in the beginning of November, inshallah. Until then...peace, salaam, shalom.

"There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens."
~ Ecclesiastes 3:1

Urban Simplicity.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Things that can be carried on a bike (#707 & #708)...

#707...a cardboard box containing 3 loaves of freshly baked  honey-oatmeal whole wheat bread, a dough rising bucket, 3 bread loaf pans, a camera bag with an extra lens, a book bag with books, a chef's coat, and a pair of kitchen clogs.

#708...a small rucksack containing a complete change of clothes (it was raining earlier in the day), two bottles of wine, a plate of rice pilaf, two books, a laptop computer, a camera with an extra lens, a pair of kitchen clogs, $32 in groceries, and a small paperback copy of the Bhagavad Gita.  

Urban Simplicity.
Things that can be carried on a bike.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

It's all about the light...

"Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”
~ George Eastman

So today was my day off. Sort of. I had off of work (in the traditional sense) but I had tons to do, including work for school, which I've recently enrolled. Anyhow, as a de-stresser I thought I'd head to the waterfront on this first day of autumn and have a few beers and take a few photos. I've been to this location more times to count, and you've seen many of the photos. So tonight I did something different, in a way. I've been fascinated with sunset photos for quite some the light changes and how you can manipulate the light with the camera settings (I'm in love with long exposure). Anyhow, I set my camera on a tripod at sunset, focused it, and took the same shot every ten minutes for an hour. When it became too dark, I put the camera away, ordered another beer, and just watched the boats pass in the night. And that was the true de-stresser :) Click any photo for a slightly larger view.

Urban Simplicity.

Five or nine quotes from Leonard Cohen (and a video, too).

“There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.”

“Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.”

“Children show scars like medals. Lovers use them as a secrets to reveal. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh.”

“How can I begin anything new with all of yesterday in me?”

“I don't consider myself a pessimist. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel soaked to the skin."

“If you don't become the ocean, you'll be seasick every day.”

“Reality is one of the possibilities I cannot afford to ignore”

“The older I get, the surer I am that I’m not running the show.”

“My reputation as a ladies' man was a joke that caused me to laugh bitterly through the ten thousand nights I spent alone.”

More Five Quotes.
Urban Simplicity.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Au revoir l'été (goodbye summer)...

The first leaves fall
Change color
Drift in warm breeze
The sun
It shifts in the sky
Taking a different view
Shadows grow longer
Nights earlier
But the days are warm
Your hand still lingers
As you loosen your grip
Slowly slipping away  
And your cousin, Autumn
Once a distant thought
Is now in full view
But it is now you
Who are retreating
And will soon be a memory
Like so many summers before you
A sweet warm memory
Au revoir mon ami

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Nine. Eleven. Red. White. Blue.

So this is the tippy top of our incredibly beautiful city hall. It's lit up red, white, and blue tonight in remembrance of 9/11. I had been to the waterfront this evening taking photos and was on my way home when this stopped me in my tracks. Like many Americans (and probably non-Americans alike) I've been thinking a lot about 9/11 today...and how it changed things. It was our loss of innocence in many ways. Everyone has their stories about where they were when they first heard about it. But my most personal story came the day after, when details of the people who perished began to be announced. One of the planes carried children. Half a classroom is what I remember them saying. I can't remember if they were on their way to Washington or New York (with parents, teachers, and chaperones) but at the time they were the same age as my son, who is now in his twenties. I was at home and when I heard this news I remember literally crumbling to the ground. I also remember yelling--cursing--at God. How could you let this happen?! I yelled. What kind of God are you? And then as days and weeks passed I heard of the heroic actions that not only professionals did but also everyday citizens. Some of them lost their own lives trying to save others. As this was the conversation of nearly everyone for so long, I also remember hearing a conversation in the steam room at the local JCC where I steam and swim. Two older gentlemen were talking about this terrible event and one finally blurted out--almost wailed--"Where is God, where is He during this?" After a really long pause--an uncomfortably long pause--the other person said, almost whispered, "God is in the response. God is in the response to all of this. We can either choose hatred or we can choose love. And I want to choose love," this man continued. "I want to help any way I can, even if it is simply sitting in a steam room and discussing this." I personally was not at this horrific event, nor did I lose someone close to me in it. But I mourn them. They were part of us and we part of them. We can either choose hatred or we can choose love. And today I choose love. Our country--if not the world--is broken. And we need to fix it. If we want to survive as a species, it's the only way. Seriously. We don't need to "like" everyone, but we do need to love them as fellow citizens on this rock we call earth. It really is the only way. Love. And this is what I was thinking about as I waited for the long-exposure shutter to click tonight as I stood in traffic on a chilly late summer's evening.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Three Evenings. Six Photos.

So I had to work this past weekend. All of it. This, of course, is not unusual for someone in the food-service industry. It's the norm, actually. But for some reason this past weekend bothered me more than usual. It was Labor Day weekend, it was beautiful weather, and I felt like having off work. But alas I did not. With this said, I luckily work early morning/afternoon hours which allowed me to have much of the evenings free. So I rode to our waterfront--which is a mere 2 miles from my front door--where there is an outdoor bar with music and one of the best views in the city. In a way I was pretending that I had the holiday weekend off. So I'd sip my beer and snap photos in the ever-changing view in front of me and watch the sun set over the Canadian shoreline. And as the light changed so did the view. I snapped probably 100 photos, but these are a few of my favorites. The sky was crystal clear each evening, and the setting new moon present. In the second to last photo the planet Venus is also visible. And in the bottom photo is a silhouette of a local tall ship, the Spirit of Buffalo. Anyhow, being there on the water really soothed me; it's just what I needed...a sort of visual therapy. Click any photo for a slightly larger view.

Urban Simplicity.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Things that can be carried on a bike (#706)...

Boxes and totes containing photos of various sizes. Also, a camera bag, a couple books, a pair of pants, a pair of shoes, and two slices of pizza.

Postscript: I was bringing home what remained of my photo show at a local gallery. The good news is that I was bringing home a lot less that what I initially took to the show...meaning, a lot of the photos sold. Thank you to everyone who attended--either the night of the opening or throughout the month--and especially those who purchased photos.

Urban Simplicity.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Bicycling Through Thin Space...

Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia.” 
~H.G. Wells

The day before last I walked my bike out of my living-room in predawn hours and down the plank on my front porch that serves as a sort of ramp. I've used this ramp system for about ten years, since first injuring my back and unable to carry even my lightest bike up the short flight. Thankfully, since then, my back has healed. But since riding cargo bikes almost exclusively, which tend to be heavy even without cargo, the ramp has become the norm. And on this morning after walking the bike down the ramp I stood there for a couple minutes. It was not yet light and there was a crescent moon in the sky with Saturn and Jupiter visible. It was already humid and dampness hung in the summer’s air.

I was not looking forward to the day, I knew what I was walking into at work...another very busy and understaffed day. How many kitchens have I rushed around in, I wondered, as I stood there. The story of my bustling kitchens. But as I stood there gazing at the sky I was also in awe. I felt small and stupid for worrying about my petty issues. But still I was not looking forward to the day ahead. So I whispered a prayer as I stood there in the predawn darkness in front of my house. I asked the Universe to show me Her beauty, to remove my fear and replace it with Her love. Then, knowing that it was already available—that all I had to do was accept it—I finished with thank you. And I hopped on my bike.

With the first push of my pedals in the early silence I could hear a squeak that I've been meaning to tend to, and it annoyed me as I hadn't yet. My middle-aged body felt tired. After working evenings for decades I have still not adjusted to these early morning hours. I do not get enough sleep. And my legs were sore as I pushed through the humid darkness. But then as I let it go, the wet air felt good on my skin. As I rounded a corner seagulls fought for a scrap of something in the street. There was a person rummaging in a trash bin for cans, and hearing me coming (probably my squeak) he looked up and our eyes met. I nodded, suggesting a greeting. My problems are not real problems, I thought to myself, as I pushed up a slight incline.

My route to work is a direct one, mostly a straight line, and a main thoroughfare in the neighborhood. The commute is just shy of two miles and is often bustling with cars and people, but predawn it is quiet, except for the seagulls. While I pedaled I couldn’t take my eyes off the moon which hung low in the summer sky. I’d catch glimpses of it between buildings as it slowly set beyond the horizon, signaling the beginning of another day.

Sometimes—not always but sometimes—bicycling, for me, can be a meditative experience. Especially in the early morning hours. And on this day it was. I was conscious of my leg muscles pushing the pedals, and of my breath which sought oxygen to fuel my body. And even the sweat which now clung to my back and ran down my brow in an effort to cool my middle-aged body. I was both the engine and the cargo. Over the years I have come to believe that we as humans do not have mystical experiences, but rather we—who are eternal souls—are mystical beings having human experiences. Thus, when we feel some sort of mystery or unexplainable experience we are actually remembering our True Self, what it is like to be whole. Sometimes the veil is lifted, if even for just a brief second, but that is enough.

And as I pedaled and huffed and puffed my way to work, I was aware of the moon setting to my left while the first glimpse of light from the rising sun began to show to my right. A continuing and never ending cycle. For just a second or two it was as if nothing really mattered and there were nothing to worry about...all there was was that very minute. The past was just that, past, and the future was not yet here. Just now, that’s all there was. But then, just as with any mystical experience (or what I like to call, non-experience), I thought about it, and it was gone.

I’ve also come to believe that bicycling can actually be a form of spiritual practice, where I can experience what the Celts refer to as “thin space,” where the line between the seen and unseen blurs. A glimpse to what is real. And on this morning I felt it. Knew it. Does this happen every time I hop on my bike? No, of course not. Rarely, actually. If it did I would never get off the bike. But it can, I know this.

When I arrived outside my workplace to lock up the bike I was soaked with sweat; my body was doing what it was built to do. I was still dreading the day, but now much less. I had asked the Universe to show me Her beauty, to remove my fear, and She did. I knew now that no matter what happened, no matter what transpired throughout the day, nothing could harm me. That everything would be okay. And it was. 

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.