Sweet Potato Project: Holding ground, moving forward

Some days, when the hunger feels almost unbearable, I don’t have the energy to try something new at the metaphorical restaurant.  I don’t even have the energy to read the menu.  The best I can manage is to order my hamburger and make myself eat it slowly enough that it doesn’t make me sick.

And that’s okay.  On Wednesday, I’d planned to leave the house in the morning, bike to a local coffeeshop, and meet a friend to get work done together for our respective jobs.  I ended up spending the day watching a silly TV show and doing rote (but necessary) work on Akkadian.  But I made that choice deliberately; I assessed my mood and energy, and I decided that it was better to choose to do something low-key but mildly productive than to spend the whole day trying to do something more ambitious, and berating myself when I didn’t do it.  I don’t feel bad about Wednesday.

Today started reasonably well; I made breakfast (hot cream of wheat with maple and mixed nuts) and took myself and the spousey to our respective therapies.  As is sometimes the case, today’s therapy made things worse in an immediate sense, because it forced me to stop and confront certain situations and mental habits.  It didn’t help when, afterwards, I spent two hours wrestling with moronic health insurance representatives and phone trees and pharmacy bureaucracy, just to try to get the spousey the meds he needs in order to function.  I came home beaten-down and exhausted.  I knew that an evening home alone wouldn’t help, but I effectively had to bribe myself to get out of the house for the evening.

I’m glad I did.  My bribe (and my New Thing for the day) was a half-hour soak at a local spa that has a large community hot tub.  The hot tub was delightful, but at least as rewarding was my reading material: an introduction to behavioral analysis, a gift from a friend.  I’m still working through it, but its fundamental message, which I really needed to hear, was this: behavior can change.  People can be trained.

On a day when I felt hopelessly overwhelmed by my perceived brokenness — my inability to focus and achieve things that I want, even things that should be enjoyable — that message, and the accompanying techniques of behavioral science to facilitate change, helped immeasurably.  I had dinner on my own, continuing to read the book between bites, and I picked up some “supplies” at the grocery store on my way home: I want to try to train myself into better habits.

Hope comes in different forms.  Perhaps the meta-lesson of today was this: too often I look for an instant fix to the listlessness and despair of depression, something to magically Make Me Happy. But the fact is, I’m doing this Sweet Potato Project because I don’t know how to accomplish that.  I went out this evening expecting to enjoy a nice hot tub soak, and I did, but the biggest breakthrough of the day came because I strayed from my normal reading material and habits.  Here’s to continuing that wandering.


Sweet Potato Project, Day 3: Cooking and bedtimes

So hey, the depression’s been pretty crap lately, but I’ve been trying to continue the project.  Two new observations from the past few days:

  • Cooking in itself doesn’t make me happy, but it has two advantages.  First, if I have a specific plan and a cleanish kitchen, I can do it even when the brain weasels are acting up a lot.  Second, the results of cooking (tasty food, pride in accomplishment, praise) can often be happy-making.
  • Going to bed early (which for me means by midnight) doesn’t make me happy.  Getting up earlier helps a little, because it means I have more daylight hours doing stuff.  But probably the biggest advantage is that I avoid the awful zone from 2 to 3am when I’m inevitably achingly lonely and feeling hopeless about it.  So that’s a thing.

Just so I have them down somewhere (someday I’ll start doing a real recipe blog, with photos and more concrete amounts), here are the three things I’m most proud of cooking over the past couple of days.

Brazilian collard greens and sausage: Brown and cook spicy sausages in a large skillet.  While they’re cooking, remove the central stem from the greens, then cut them into thin strips.  Blanch them in boiling water for one minute, then drain.  Add some olive oil to the skillet if necessary, then add a large spoonful of minced/crushed garlic and stir until fragrant.  Add the blanched greens, salt and pepper them generously, and cook, stirring regularly, for a few minutes, until everything’s hot and fragrant and well-distributed.  Sprinkle with red wine vinegar and serve over rice.

Papua New Guinean sweet potatoes: Poke holes in whole sweet potatoes with a fork, then bake them at 350 for about an hour, until they’re soft and oozing sweet juices.  Cool, peel, and mash the sweet potatoes with coconut milk or cream and salt to taste.  Sprinkle with chopped roasted peanuts, then bake until browned.

Bolognese pasta sauce: Brown a pound of beef, drain it, and put it in a slow cooker with a large can of tomatoes, broken up.  In the same pan, after adding some olive oil, sautee chopped onions, finely minced carrots, mushrooms, bell peppers, and garlic (in that order), then toss them in the slow cooker as well.  Add half a bottle of red wine and deglaze the bottom, bringing it to a simmer, then adding it to the cooker.  Add a little more oil and sautee a can of tomato paste, then add the other half of the bottle and stir until the mixture is totally smooth.  Add to the cooker, along with thyme, oregano, basil, black pepper, salt, and a generous glug of cream or half’n’half.  Stir and cook on high for three or four hours, stirring occasionally.  Taste, adjust seasoning, and serve over pasta, with optional parmesan.

Sweet Potato Project, Day 2: Bike Exploration

First, I neglected an important part of my Day 1 post: analysis of its impact on me.  Honestly, the process of researching/shopping/mixing didn’t have a lot of emotional impact.  This may change as I see progress in the sourdough starter (so far I’ve seen a couple of tiny bubbles, but not much), but I think the lesson is that mixing up foods, with no immediate follow-up or outcome, isn’t inherently transformative for me.


Yesterday’s Thing was exploration on my bike.  I have a lovely bike for urban exploration, and I hadn’t ridden it in half a year, between breaking my leg and having my intestines trying to kill me.  But I’m getting close to recovered, and the weather was cool and clear, and the snow had mostly melted off the streets, so I went riding.


It wasn’t much — just a trip to a used bookstore and coffeeshop, both new to me, and then a bike ride home.  The bookstore was a nice little place to wander, and the coffeeshop had tasty baked goods and a fabulous wrinkled couple who’d been running it for fifty years.  The most happifying part, though, was the bike-riding itself.  I arrived home pleasantly worn out, napped for two hours, and felt genuinely good.


Two lessons from that, then.  First, bike riding makes me feel a deep, genuine happiness.  Second, it’s easier to motivate myself to get out and ride when I have specific locations to visit.  (Having a goal helps pull me over that mild hump of getting dressed for the weather and setting down everything else.)  Third, expending the energy on moderate exercise actually gives me more motivation and energy for the rest of the day.  It’s just a matter of overcoming that initial hump.

The Sweet Potato Project, Day 1: Sourdough Starter

It’s time to dust off this long-abandoned blog for a new ongoing series: the Sweet Potato Project.

The title for this project came from a conversation in therapy today.  I have a thing for overly complicated metaphors, and this one’s really more of a parable:

I feel like I’m ravenously hungry, and I just sat down at a restaurant serving Papua New Guinean food.  I’ve never eaten this cuisine in my life; the ingredients and techniques only look vaguely familiar, let alone the names of the dishes.  There are hundreds of options on the menu, and while many of them are probably delicious and satisfying, I don’t know which ones will be.  But at the bottom of the menu is a simple hamburger.  It’s not the most delicious thing on the menu, or the healthiest, or the most interesting — but at least I know it’ll keep away the hunger for a little while.

I want to stop ordering the hamburger and start trying new dishes.  Each time I order something new, I may never order it again, but over time, it’ll help me learn what foods are best at making that hunger go away.

The hunger is my depression.

The hamburger is the familiar distractions of internet and reading and television.

The Papua New Guinean menu is the rest of the universe.

I’d picked Papua New Guinea because, off the top of my head, I knew literally nothing about the country’s cuisine — just that it sometimes involved underground pig roasts.  (True fact.)  When I came home, I started researching, and I discovered that while some of the techniques and ingredients are new to me, many of them aren’t.  In fact, Papua New Guinea’s biggest staple crop is the familiar sweet potato, called kaukau in Tok Pisin; they eat over 1000 lbs of it per year (not a typo!), by far the greatest per-capita consumption in the world.  I love sweet potatoes in almost every form — roasted, boiled, fried, baked into pie . . . — so it seemed like an appropriate name for this project.

Today, I started simple: I began a sourdough starter from scratch.  One of the things I’d like to try is baking more and different breads, and this seemed like a good beginning.  I’ll post updates as it develops over the next few days!

I adapted my starter combination from this site, mixing together 170g orange juice, 55g all-purpose flour, and 55g organic barley flour.  The house is cool in the middle of winter, so I expect it’ll develop slowly — but that’s true of most worthwhile things.

Relaxed hospitality.

I really enjoy Israeli ideas of hospitality (even if I’ve yet to practice them much from the other side . . .). Lunch today was a perfect example.

First, there are drinks — generally juice and water — before the meal, while the food finishes cooking.

Next, everyone sits down for the main meal, which usually features meat but in a supporting role, and includes at least one good salad. For example, today there was a kind of picadillo with ground turkey and summer squash, boiled peeled potatoes, a salad with chopped tomatoes and lettuce in vinaigrette, and a salad with small-diced cucumber, mint, and cooked whole grains in vinaigrette. All were delicious.

After the meal, there’s dessert. Today was ice cream (raspberry swirl) and fruit (watermelon pieces), which is also typical.

After dessert comes coffee or tea, little cookies to nibble (today’s were homemade miniature bars with chocolate, walnuts, and marmalade over pastry), and conversation.

If one is willing to assume that all the desserts and drinks are storebought, then it’s not actually that much work: prepping the main course beforehand, making the salads and starch in the half hour before serving, and preparing hot drinks while everyone relaxes after dessert. Nor is it overly expensive, given the cheap cost of fresh produce here in Israel. The result is really lovely, though: a relaxed, extended meal with good, healthy food and congenial conversation. Honestly, it makes me wish I had more chances to be a hostess. Which is entirely up to me!

“You’re interested in religion; what do you think of creation/evolution?”

. . . and why I absolutely hate being asked that question.

Read this, an account of an incident at the screening of “Expelled” which was linked by a friend as being hilarious (which it is . . . if it’s true).

Now read this, a retelling of the same incident from a different perspective.

When I put the two accounts together and try to reconstruct what probably happened, everyone involved looks like an idiot or a jerk. This is why I more or less try to avoid questions of evolution/creation/intelligent design/whatever as thoroughly as possible: they bring out the worst in people, allowing them to mock and denounce and foam at the mouth over something that has absolutely nothing to do with the daily lives of most of the people who get outraged about it.

(Yes, I am sensitive to issues of academic censorship and the tendency of some fields to criticize people who approach the subject matter from a different perspective. But you don’t see nationally released documentaries about the hostility of historical-critical methodology in Biblical studies to literary criticism.)

((I am aware of the mild irony of this being my first blog post in ages, given . . . everything else that’s been happening. I’ll be posting about “everything else” at some point, I imagine.))

Thai Black Rice Pudding

The housemate and I made a big Thai dinner for friends today, and I contributed a dessert of Black Rice Pudding. The pudding was a resounding success, so here’s a record of what I did.

Black rice is, as far as I can tell, a name that encompasses a few different kinds of rice, including the “forbidden rice” that’s in vogue in some stores. I bought mine for cheap at the local Chinese supermarket, but I’ve also seen it in the bulk bins at places like Whole Foods. I based the pudding on a traditional Thai rice pudding that can be eaten as breakfast or dessert; a good recipe is here, though I tweaked it a bit myself.

In the end, the results were superb. The black rice had a fragrant scent and a subtly chewy texture, the coconut milk infused it with flavor and richness, and the sweet spices rounded out the flavors without overpowering them. It had all the unctuous comfort of traditional rice pudding, with a more interesting texture and a wonderfully enticing aroma. Plus, it’s vegan and high in fiber and nutrients.

The color is amazing; it comes out a deep, velvety purple that looks like no other natural food. Sadly, I didn’t have a chance to photograph it before everyone dug in.

Thai Black Rice Pudding
(serves 10-15 as a dessert, fewer if it’s a main breakfast dish)

2 cups dry black/purple rice
2-3 cans coconut milk (13.5 oz each)
3/4-1 cup brown sugar (palm sugar or demerara would be even better!)
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp cardamom
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp nutmeg
toasted slivered almonds or sesame seeds (optional)

1) The night before (or several hours before), rinse the rice and soak it in lots of water.

2) Drain the rice. Put in a medium-size pot with 2 cups water, and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce to low heat, and leave it alone for 20-30 minutes, until all the water is absorbed. The rice should be tender inside but still a bit chewy on the outside.

3) Mix in 2 cans coconut milk, 3/4 cup sugar, vanilla, cardamom, salt, and nutmeg.

4) Simmer for another 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the rice is quite soft and most of the coconut milk is absorbed. If the pudding gets too thick, add more coconut milk; I used an extra half-can.

5) Taste for sweetness and mix in more sugar as necessary. Serve hot or cold, optionally sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds or slivered almonds.