Tag Archives: lea craft spencer

What makes us happy?

Happiness Project, Happy, Book, Documentary, Lea SpencerI’ve been reading this book, The Happiness Project, which tells the story of a woman spending one year trying to live a happier life. Being a historian by trade, the author spends much of this year researching how difference philosophers and religions view happiness as well as how different cultures and classes view it.

I’m only half way through the book, but having this concept of happiness on my mind whilst surfing the Netflix for a nice documentary to indulge in last night, I stumbled upon Happy, which took viewers on a trip around the world to find out what makes people happy. Sold.

It explored areas like the Louisiana bayou, the slums of Kolkata, the towers of Tokyo and the villages of Namibia. The study of happiness is a segment of psychology that has only recently become a serious area of academia. Researchers have determined that most humans are born with a general range of happiness that they exist in. DNA is supposed to make up 50% of one’s range, while 40% is “intentional activities” or things one chooses to do. Only 10% (if you can believe it) is the circumstances in which one lives, or those things one doesn’t control (where one is born, to whom and with what advantages).

This “happiness measure” also broke down goals into two categories: intrinsic and extrinsic. In this case, intrinsic included “personal growth” “close relationships” and “contributing to the world,” while extrinsic included “money” “image” and “status.” No shocker here: the people who lived their lives in pursuit of intrinsic goals reported more happiness than those who lived in pursuit of extrinsic ones.

Happy, Happiness Project, Lea Spencer, Lea Craft Spencer, Documentary

This isn’t to say that money isn’t important. According to the film, people in the US who earned $5,000 a year reported much less happiness than those who earned $50,000, but people who earned $50,000,000 reported no more happiness than those earning $50,000. So money does influence happiness insofar as it buys the necessities of life and security of future, but once those needs have been met, earning more in terms of material possessions didn’t bring people more happiness.

So what does bring people happiness? Both the film and book reported that the happiest of people all maintain a close support system of friends and family. I suppose it’s true that we aren’t meant to live our lives alone. The film also found that people who live for something bigger than themselves reported more happiness more often. For some religion fills this need, for others it’s volunteering and for some people I imagine their jobs bring them this satisfaction.

Finally, and most interestingly to me, any activity that puts you “in the zone,” so to speak, initiates the flow of dopamine in your brain, which assists in happiness. For some people this is exercise, for some people it’s gardening, for some lucky people it’s their jobs, but finding that activity for yourself and doing it a lot proved paramount. What’s your happiness activity?

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An Urban Garden Fairy Tale, Ch. 2

For months, the woman blissfully watched her plants grow. Eventually many of them became too big for their pots. She re-planted many of the herbs into larger pots, but the sunflowers and tomato plants had no where to go. The small building she lived in had a tiny garden plot in front of it that no one ever used. Defiant after having returned from a weekend away to find her largest plants nearly dead, she decided she had as much right to plant there as anyone else.

lea spencer, lea craft spencer, urban garden, gardening, garden, astoria, queens, nyc, fairy tale, tomatoes, sunflowersWithout guidance, she pulled a few weeds from the dirt and attempted to re-plant the tomato and sunflower. She went to fetch some water and when she returned, whom did she see? Why it was her secret mentor, the gentleman who grows tomatoes in his backyard. He came over and inquired about her plants, insisting that in order for them to grow nicely, she would need to clear out the whole plot of weeds. He then asked if she had a broom handle. Perplexed, the woman glanced over to his porch, where all of his less-stable plants were being supported with broom handles. A-ha! One second, she said.

Elated to have made this connection, the woman ran back inside and tore the Swiffer from its handle! By the time she returned, he was standing with a broom handle in one hand and twine in the other. He helped her support the sunflower and the tomato plant.

lea spencer, lea craft spencer, urban garden, gardening, garden, astoria, queens, nyc, fairy tale, tomatoes, sunflowersHe then brought her over a small tomato plant from his garden to grow next to hers. Overjoyed and taken with emotion, the woman didn’t know how to thank him.

They continued chatting and he pointed to a few small plants growing amongst a larger plant on his porch and asked her if she knew what they were. She said no, to which he replied, “Watermelons.” The woman’s eyes grew large, “You’re growing watermelons?” she inquired. “Oh, no…” he began. “They grow themselves… I just watch.” He smiled with a wisdom she knew she couldn’t yet grasp. And with that smile the dark cloud over that day passed as the sun shone down on their two tomato plants, growing side by side on small street in a quiet neighborhood called Astoria.

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Lentil Soup a la Loren Lieberman

I apologize for my absence; I’ve been in Texas where I ate all sorts of wonderful food (blog to come) but for today I am going to share a wonderful recipe I was given by the lovely Loren Lieberman, beautiful mother of my dear friend Arielle.

During a happy hour date with Arielle, I expressed my desire to make my own soups, to which she replied that her mother made an excellent lentil soup. I was intrigued. You see, I have recently developed an affinity for lentil soup, which I had been buying in cans from the supermarket. Then a few weeks ago, to my horror, I discovered I had been paying $4.50 per can of soup! Never again!

I was ecstatic to try this soup made with lentils, carrots, celery, onion, zucchini, and a jalapeño.

Add everything to the pot, add parsley, bay leaf, salt, pepper

The recipe calls for any kind of stock, so I used veggie both because that’s what I had in the fridge and to introduce a few more vegetarian meals into my diet. The ratio of liquid to lentils is supposed to be 5:1. If you are in possession of a large pot, this is no problem for you. I only have two small pots, so I ended up adding too many lentils, making this soup a little thicker than intended, but it was still delicious!

I let the liquid come to a boil, then added the lentils while I chopped the other veggies. I then added everything and lowered the heat to a simmer, covered and let sit for one hour.

After an hour, I separated this into two pots, added a little more liquid and it turned out beautifully!

The biggest challenge with this soup was that I needed to freeze a portion of it because I was going out of town and I can’t count on my housemate to eat leftovers. I wasn’t sure how it would freeze, but I am currently enjoying a bowl of the de-frosted soup and it’s just as tasty! I believe I got about 8 portions out of this recipe and the total cost was less than $10. POP POP.

 

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Gnocchi with Lamb Bolognese

I was feeling rather bored with all the typical dinner choices this week. Everything seemed meh until my man suggested something he loves that I’ve never really given a chance: gnocchi. I consented, albeit rather hesitantly.

Then, as we were walking through the super-est of the markets in our neighborhood, we happened up some ground lamb. YES! Something new. I was elated.

I made the tomato sauce with garlic, onions, basil, oregano, cumin, salt and pepper

I cooked the lamb with garlic and onions. Drain the fat before adding it to the sauce

 

 

 

 

 

 

Never having cooked lamb before, I wasn’t exactly sure how to do it. But it looked like beef so I just did it like beef and guess what? It worked. I kept it a little pink in the pan because I knew it would cook more in the sauce.

Let the sauce and the meat simmer together for 20-30 minutes.

I added the gnocchi just at the very end and then a little romano cheese on top.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This being my first time really eating gnocchi, I didn’t think it best to try my hand at making it, so we bought a package and dropped it in some salty boiling water until it floated to the top, which I’m told indicates it’s finished. It was tasty and potatoey– a very decadent dish.

Served with salad and a nice Chianti... yes I considered fava beans... no my man did not get the joke... did you?

This salad was actually rather intense, it had your basic lettuce, tomato, carrot, onion, cucumber, but I also had some left over avocado, asparagus and feta in the fridge. WINNING.

It was a tasty supper and something we’ll definitely be doing again 🙂

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Mushroom and Feta Stuffed Chicken

Last week, a discussion was had in my home regarding the lack of vegetarian dinners had by us. I suggested we do a mushroom-based dish, which is a big concession for me because I don’t particularly care for mushrooms, but I thought it might be a nice change. Somehow, after vast discussion, we decided on mushroom-stuffed chicken. Yes, I realize that’s not vegetarian. No, I’m not sorry. Why? Because it was delicious. And it was insanely cheap. We bought one portabella mushroom ($1), a small hunk of feta ($1), thinly sliced chicken cutlets ($3), one potato ($.50). We already had the olives and the asparagus.

Chicken brushed with olive tapenade, filled with feta cheese and mushrooms.

First, I sautéed the mushrooms with garlic, ginger and olive oil. Then after brushing the chicken with the olives and throwing a hunk of feta down, I scooped in as much of the garlic-ginger-mushroom mixture as I could.

Wrap them up carefully, pin with toothpick, roll in breadcrumbs and douse with butter!

I’m sure this would taste fine non-breadcrumbed and buttered, but I’ll never know for sure cause it’s too delicious like this 🙂

It goes into a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes, giving me just enough time to get the side dish together!

Potato and Asparagus Hash

We were originally going to have just grilled asparagus, but having once enjoyed a potato and asparagus hash at a restaurant, I thought, “I bet I can do that! It’s just cutting up everything into small pieces.” And I was right. I threw in the potatoes first, let them brown, then threw the garlic in, let it crisp a little, then only did the asparagus for the last five minutes so it stayed nice and crunchy.

I put food on top of other food because it makes me feel fancy.

This was a very pretty dinner we had that was packed, and I mean PACKED, with flavor. It was crispy and gooey and crunchy and yummy. AND it cost less than $3 per serving. I dare say… POP POP.

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An Urban Garden Fairy Tale

Once upon a time, in a cozy apartment on a quiet street in Astoria, there lived a woman. She watched all summer long as the older man living next door to her tended to what appeared to be quite the garden. Without exception, he would leave his house early and tend to his plants. He would garden all morning long and then, in the afternoon, he would sit in the sun surveying his day’s work.

She then watched in the fall as he harvested what she learned were tomatoes from his backyard garden. As she longed for a backyard of her own, she wondered if the man would ever know how enchanted she was by his dedication to those plants.

The whole winter long, she stared out her window waiting for the man to return and by the time he did, she had resolved not to wait for a backyard, but to begin her garden inside.

These are my wittle tomato plants!

Inspired by the man next door, she bought three little tomato plants and an herb garden to start her on her journey.

Chives, oregano, cilantro, parsley, menorah

This spring, she watches the man faithfully tending to his plants as she smothers hers with love. She wonders how he’ll ever know the impact he had on her.

She knows.

As the joy of watching something grow washes over her, she knows, and she is grateful.

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A Passover Seder

This was a very busy weekend for anyone who celebrates either Passover or Easter and an especially busy weekend for people who celebrate both! In my case, we celebrated two Seders and an Easter dinner, all of which were very special. The first of these, a Seder for the first night of Passover, was at the home of my mother and father-in-law-without-nuptiuals, who knowing my love of cooking, were gracious enough to let me help them cook! Mazel Tov to me!

First the veggie stock: onions, carrots, parsnips, water. Let simmer.

Then drop in the matzah balls and let them expand in the liquid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

First we made the matzah ball soup. I got the honor of mixing the matzah balls, which we made whole wheat and I also tended to the stock, which was completely veggie.

Salmon marinated in a balsamic reduction with lemons and herbs.

I got tricked into cutting up the beets... purple hands all night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The salmon was the only non-veggie item at this seder and it was tender and delicious. These beets were also used to paint the horseradish red. A little tip, by the way, about dealing with fresh horseradish: open a window, open a door, get some goggles and warn the household, cause that stuff is NO JOKE.

Roasted vegetables, salmon, pesto lasagna, homemade horseradish, Mmmm...

This is the cutest seder plate all filled in. So lovely!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The pesto lasagna used matzah as pasta, had mushrooms and was insanely delicious. My favorite part of any meal in this home: the spinach salad with homemade tahini-lemon dressing… Mmmmm…

I hope you all enjoyed your holiday weekend and whatever traditions you observe! L’Chaim!

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Ginger-Infused Black Bean Soup

I was eager to make a soup last weekend both because I hadn’t done it before and also because I wanted to have soup around for the week. Since we had all the necessary elements for quesadillas in the house, I decided a spicy black bean soup would be a nice accompaniment.

I began by sautéing 3 jalapeños with garlic and onions.

Then I added one can of black beans and some ginger.

Don’t care much for ginger? Leave it out! We had some leftover from another dish and I didn’t want to waste it so I threw it in. It adds a different flavor and additional spice, but it’s definitely not necessary.

Next I added 3 cups of vegetable broth, but you can use whatever kind you like.

Then I let it simmer covered for an hour and half, then uncovered for one hour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can let it simmer covered for the full 2 1/2-3 hours if you prefer a thiner soup. We wanted a thick, hearty black bean soup so we let it reduce down uncovered, but that’s up to you!

Get butter down in a hot skillet, then add cheese and chicken (or veggies).

Let it brown to your preferred level of crunch, then cut into quarters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was a completely ‘leftover’ quesadilla. We had leftover buffalo chicken from a dish earlier in the week and leftover cheese from the Enchilada Casserole. It made for a spicy and delicious quesadilla!

Brush the chips with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and into a 400 degree oven for 10 minutes or until crisp.

We didn’t have any tortilla chips left but we did have a few leftover corn tortillas, so we continued with the frugal theme of this supper and made our own! Super easy.

Served here with a tasty IPA and guacamole of course! (Click for recipe)

The soup turned out spicy and gingery. My housemate dubbed it “ginger-infused black bean soup,” which I was able to enjoy all week long! Mission accomplished.

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Einstein’s Dreams

“Each time is true, but not all truths are the same.” – Alan Lightman

This quote from Einstein’s Dreams probably sums up the book better than I can, although that won’t stop me from trying. I enjoyed this book so thoroughly and I could genuinely recommend it to anyone, particularly those with a particular interest in the concept, or concepts, of time.

The beauty of this novel, as with life, is in the details. The man who “sits at his bedside table, listens to the sounds of his running bath” is someone I can relate to, he’s someone who I know, he’s someone I’ve been. The descriptions Lightman paints with his words are transportive. When this man wonders, “whether anything exists outside of his mind,” I, too, am wondering.

With each ultra-brief chapter, this book introduces the reader to a new world with a conception of time all its own. Interspersed with this is the story of a young Einstein developing his theory of time. Both Einstein’s journey and the journeys of those in each world are revealed in the most delicate of manners. We first lean what plagues the inhabitants of the new world, and from these clues we must determine which world this is. Is it the world where time runs backwards? Or the one where with no future? Or no past?

Each world seems to be tragic in its own way. In one instance there are certain people who cannot perceive time at all. Called “time deaf,” these individuals are considered great minds and are studied by scholars all over the world. “But they are unable to speak what they know, for speech needs a sequence of words, spoken in time.” Every chapter ends abruptly, and then a new conception of time emerges, with new people, in a new place.

One of these places, in particular, stands out for me:

In this world, time is not measured. All watches and clocks are outlawed except for one. This super clock becomes a place of pilgrimage that every person in the world must travel to at some point in their lives. At any given point, there is a line of 10,000 people waiting silently in line to see the clock, but “secretly they seethe with anger. For they must watch measured that which should not be. They have been trapped by their own inventiveness and audacity.”

Yes, we have.

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