Socializing in Times of Social Distancing

Zoom is the New Way to do Social

In mere weeks the way we have gone about our daily living has changed worldwide. Everything from how we grocery shop to how we visit friends and family is different. Social distancing is a “thing” now. Being able to socialize requires us to now think outside the box and come up with innovative twists to stay connected. Online video meeting apps have become essential to how we interact, from business to school and even happy hours.

This past weekend we visited with our sons online via Zoom, my video app of choice. It began as a happy hour to check in with everyone, but by the end we were all eating dinner together. It was so much fun catching up!! We visited online for about two hours, and it felt as if we were in the same room with each other. Almost.

This got me to thinking about other ways to connect via social media. Most weekends we get together with our neighbors for either happy hour or dinner or some other fun outing. Obviously, limits are now in place as to how many can gather in one place, and really, if we are able to gather at all (we cannot here). I decided to send out a group text to everyone and invite them to dinner…virtually.

The text invite read: “We are hosting dinner tomorrow at our place…and yours 😉 We’ll dine via Zoom, and I’ve got a special table big enough for ALL of us. Bring yourselves, your families, your meal (BYOD!!), wine (duh!), and your sparkling personalities!! Who’s in? ”

Most everyone was able to join us, and we met online at 6:30pm the next night. Because I was the host, I set our table and had dinner ready early so I could be available should any questions arise regarding the connection process. I loved that I only needed to clean the part of my house that appeared on video. No one needed to see my messy kitchen or dusty furniture. LOL

I served my homemade ricotta as an appetizer (see this post for more information), a tossed salad, and spaghetti with meatballs & Italian sausage for the main course. And since this was a dinner party, we served one of our favorite Italian bottles of wine with our meal.

Dessert was dark chocolate BarkThins, my latest culinary obsession!! I’m addicted!!

Dessert!

After eating we played “Psych,” a phone app that allowed us to play together even though we were in different houses. Please note the scores. Also, note that my name in Italian is Cinzia…;-)

Cinzia is my name in Italian. You might take note of the score..#NotCompetitive

ZOOM Tips for Social Meetings

As you might imagine, an online video meeting can be challenging, especially if you have a lot of people. I’ve been in other online groups that have been super loud. When too many people try to speak at once some voices get cut out and others don’t have a chance to be heard. Here are some of my suggestions for hosting a successful Zoom dinner party:

  1. Send out the link ahead of time and have everyone sign up early if they don’t already have the app. Obviously, you’ll need your own account to host. Zoom offers a free version; however, if you have 3 or more in your meeting you are limited to a 40 minute session. Your choices are to re-sign in after 40 minutes, use a different video medium (ie Skype or FaceTime), or consider getting the Pro version of Zoom. They currently offer this at $149/year, though I hear there is discount of half off right now. I had the Pro version already, so we used that for our dinner night. I am not familiar with Skype or other video options, so my focus here will be on Zoom.
  2. Send out a reminder the day before your dinner, and again a few hours beforehand.
  3. Set up in an area you are okay to have seen. As I mentioned above, one advantage of an online meeting is you only need to clean the space that is on camera. 😉
  4. If you are the host, plan to sign in a few minutes early. Be ready to assist anyone having difficulties, and also to make sure you are not having any connection issues yourself.
  5. Once the dinner has begun, use gallery view so you can see everyone present at once. In gallery view you can see up to 49 people depending on your particular computer screen. *For this reason, if there are more than 4 in your group it’s better to use a computer rather than join via phones. ‘With Zoom you cannot see more than 4 screens at a time.
  6. Microphones. As I mentioned above, it can be tricky to have so many people on at once. We did not have an issue for this gathering, and there were 8-10 of us over the course of the call. Having said that, I have been in other video meetings where speaking was difficult. A couple of my recent online classes requested mics to be muted except when comments were made or questions asked. I’m not sure how well this would work in a social video meeting and don’t really have any suggestions on how to solve this. One tip I’ve seen is to wear ear buds or good headphones because that helps with the echoing effect. I have not yet tried that.

Social Connection Tips from YOU!

This was a wonderful experiment, and I look forward to many more opportunities to gather with friends and family via social media. As of this time we are planning a birthday dinner next week with one of my sons.

I’m rather new to the hosting side of Zoom. Anyone out there with other solutions and ideas, not only with Zoom but with your own innovative ideas, please post in the comments. I’d love to hear how you are staying connected.

Until next time, I wish you health and connection with others (from a safe distance!). Bon appetit, y’all!

Leftover Milk? Make Homemade Ricotta Cheese!

What to do with leftover milk?

We sorta got caught up in all the storing-up-for-a-rainy-day hustle and bustle at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. This resulted in us having more food on hand than typical. This morning I went through my fridge to see what needs to be used up before it expires. I was happy to find there wasn’t much. [Thank you, stress eating!] It seems the whole milk from our “quarantine package” – bought from a local restaurant last week (see yesterday’s post on comfort food here) – is the only thing on the edge of its expiration date.

I went on the almighty Google to see what I could do with about a half gallon of leftover milk and came across a recipe for homemade ricotta cheese on thekitchn.com (click here for the recipe link). With my first perusal I thought, “This looks super easy!” I then checked recipes on a few other sites to see if there might be omitted steps or ingredients.  Nope. They all seemed similar and just as easy. For my final bit of research, I called a neighbor who has made his own homemade ricotta. He verified how simple it is to make from scratch, and said the main thing to make sure of is that the whole milk is not ultra-pasteurized. If so, the mixture would likely not separate into the necessary curds and whey. Mine was pasteurized, but not ultra-pasteurized. Yay!

It took less than an hour to go from this:

Whole milk, salt and lemon juice are the only ingredients you need to make your own ricotta

To this:

The finished homemade ricotta, less than one hour from start to finish

So simple to make homemade ricotta!

With only 1/2 gallon of milk, 1/3 cup of fresh lemon juice (you can also use vinegar or citric acid…read the recipe on the above link for more info), and 1 tsp of salt I now have homemade ricotta!! In under an hour!! I spent most of that time waiting. Waiting for the milk to reach 200 degrees, then waiting 10 minutes for the curds to form…and THEN waiting for the mixture to strain.

**By the way: DO NOT throw away the whey! You can use it in place of water for a variety of things. I’m thinking of using mine in pizza dough.

Little Miss Muffet would be very happy sitting on her tuffet with this!

Fresh ricotta is so delicious! Spread it on crostini, then drizzle it with local honey (as I have done). For a savory version, use olive oil instead of honey and top with fresh tomatoes and basil. Use it in dips or pasta (think stuffed shells and lasagne). It can even be a healthy dessert when topped with figs or fresh berries and mint.

The world’s your oyster, or in this case, your homemade ricotta cheese!

Bon appétit, y’all!

 

 

Comfort Food for the Soul

Strange times we find ourselves in these days…

I admit that I don’t mind the staying home as much as some might. We’ve stocked up here. We are fully loaded on cleaning supplies, pantry staples, and the ever-elusive toilet paper. There is a calm over my soul knowing my husband is working from home, not traveling all over the place picking up who-knows-what germs. It’s still early enough that the novelty of being together 24/7 has not worn off. Yet.

Was it only this week the stay-at-home order went into place? Feels like it’s been ages.

This world has gone crazy overnight, with lots of anxiety floating around. I’m doing my best to keep from absorbing it, by looking in the areas I do have some control and influence. News intake is one place. I have chosen to limit how much I watch, and certainly I don’t have the TV on right before bed. I’m also doing what I can to help out smaller local businesses and restaurants. If ordering online is an option for a local business, I’ve been doing so.

Same goes for restaurants. Most of those in our area offer take-out with curb side delivery. One has paired with local farmers and offers “quarantine packages” in lieu of their regular menu. Each day the package has been slightly different based on what they get from their suppliers, but usually includes several types of meat (uncooked but sometimes marinated), a gallon of milk, a pound of butter, 15 eggs, some sort of vegetable, and 2 rolls of toilet paper. They are able to help local farmers get their products out to others and stay up and running. Each order helps multiple local businesses stay up and running. Beautiful!

I find myself leaning toward comfort foods and have been cooking most nights. Somehow that helps get me through. Most nights it’s basic stuff or meals that can be thrown together quickly. But many nights I’ve slowed things down and fired up meals that simmered much of the day. We had a corned beef hash with eggs fried on top on St. Patrick’s Day. Another day found me searing beef cubes for a hearty Guinness Stew, ultimately served over creamy mashed potatoes.

Some of my comfort food favs: Pork Ragù over Creamy Polenta; Spaghetti served with Meatballs and Italian Sausage on the side; A bowl of fresh picked red ripe raspberries, still warm from the sun…[sigh]

I for sure find myself grabbing for ice cream more frequently after dinner. As a child I often spent the night at my grandparent’s. My grandmother would bring me ice cream before bed.  Just a little mind you, but she topped off the rest of the bowl with Love. I suppose it’s only natural that I reach for a scoop – or two – when feeling a bit anxious.

And finally, roast chicken. Just the aroma wafting through the house creates an instant zone of zen. Add a little gravy made from the drippings for your mashed potatoes, and suddenly everything feels so much better! Bonus: the carcass can be used to make a hearty stock…and what, my friends, puts the word ‘comfort’ in comfort food more so than homemade chicken soup?

Tonight, I’m making halibut for dinner and will be serving rice and a tossed salad with it. My husband was in Alaska last summer for a fishing trip and brought back a variety of fish to fill our freezer. While salmon was in short supply at the time he went, halibut and rockfish were not. I’ve been using this recipe from Epicurious quite often. It is simple, tasty, and can be assembled in advance.

Hope you are all finding your own ways to work through any anxiety or boredom or pent up energy during these trying times. I invite you to share your own comfort foods or any other ways you are coping in the comment section.

Until next time, stay healthy! Bon appétit, y’all!

Sometimes You Just Gotta Say, “What the Pho!”

Pho: Yeah!

Today has been super busy. Lunch time came and went before I knew it. My stomach grumbled at me, reminding me that I had not yet eaten.

“What IS there to eat?” I asked myself.

Eerily enough, I answered back, “I don’t really give a damn, but eat SOMETHING!”

To which I then replied, “Pho kit!”

I rummaged through my pantry for rice noodles and chicken broth. The fridge yielded scallions, a lone Fresno pepper, bean sprouts, cilantro, garlic and chili paste. Oh, and some rotisserie chicken remnants and shrimp for tonight’s dinner.

I was good to go!

I put some water on to boil while I heated the broth in the microwave. Once they were hot I added them to a bowl with my noodles, letting the noodles cook while I chopped the veggies. This all went into the bowl with the noodles, along with the chili paste. I threw in the chicken and [already cooked] shrimp at the end, and voila…Pho!

Delicious AP (As Pho)!

In less than 10 minutes I had a healthy, delicious meal. It took me longer to write this post than to make the Pho. You can add your own favorites to tailor it to your specific tastes. I had some cherry tomatoes I would have tossed in had I remembered them…and there is Thai basil growing in my yard that would have been a nice flavor addition. I guess the hunger pangs were to loud for me to think straight. Next time for sure.

One final note: the secret to great Pho is the broth. You can use beef, chicken, vegetable…homemade….whatever you like. Just make sure it is the best you can get. I will often use my own, but in a pinch I have found this brand by Kettle and Fire (see below). It sure speeds up prep time.

Buon appetito!

 

Suicide – Why Don’t We Reach Out?

Sobering Statistics

Anthony Bourdain. Kate Spade. Two names forever linked through one killer: Suicide.

Just to be clear, they are only two of the estimated 105 deaths by suicide in the US each day.* That’s over 700 suicides each week . Multiply that by 52 weeks and you end up with a yearly rate of over 38,000 deaths…it’s a staggering number, one that has been growing exponentially in recent years.  And those numbers are only for the US.

Worldwide there is one suicide every 40 seconds.*

My Story

I could go on with statistics, but I won’t. There are plenty to be found in other posts and articles and online sources, so I’m taking things to a more personal level.

In the past I’ve mentioned my own battles with depression. I have visited those creepy corners where dark shadows lurk. At times I’ve had my own suicidal thoughts.

Too many times.

For anyone who has never gone through this, it must be difficult – perhaps impossible – to understand why someone suffering doesn’t reach out and talk to someone, seek some sort of help. Lately, especially with this past week’s two high-profile suicides, I have seen a lot of press about how we can help those considering suicide: hotline numbers, vows to listen to those who need to talk, etc. Facebook is rife with the cut and paste posts vowing the door is always open, yadda, yadda, yadda. That’s great if it works. I am in no way discouraging those posts. But why don’t they typically work? 

I have mulled over what it might take for someone to ask for help; more specifically, I’ve mulled over what it would have taken for me to ask for help. What I came up with? I would never have reached out to someone when I was in that space. As for now? I’m not so sure I’d be able to do it now either, though I’m closer.

Shame: Suicide’s Ugly (AF) Friend

My reasons? Let’s see…

–I cannot speak as to why others don’t reach out, but my number one reason is Shame. Shame is the ugly beast who persuaded me my life was hopeless.  It said I had made a lot of bad choices, that I was a terrible mother and wife and friend. Shame told me many things about myself: that I was broken, that I would never overcome, that I must suppress my disgraceful “flaws.” I would wager that most of us who have depression also have a crud-load of shame that pairs with it.

–I was convinced I would be doing the world a service by leaving. I believed that not only was I NOT contributing to this world in a positive way, but that I was making things worse. When the darkness enveloped me logical thoughts were blocked, as if there was a shield surrounding me repelling all that was rational. When one thinks they have royally screwed everything up, that they are broken – and I was sure I had, that I was – that’s when the Ugly-AF Beast (Shame) shows up and agrees with you; tells you you are worthless. Shame is a conniving MFer. 

When the darkness enveloped me logical thoughts were blocked, as if there was a shield surrounding me repelling all that was rational.

–Was I really going to call someone at a time like that? I already felt worthless, like I had messed up my life and maybe even the lives of others. Was I even worthy of receiving help? Beyond that, was I capable of being helped? Remember, Shame let me know just how broken and unfixable I was. And calling someone to chat about it would only spread my darkness that much further. Who wants to be someone else’s Debbie Downer? Certainly not me. I’d done enough damage to others. In my warped mind, by not reaching out I was actually protecting you. 

…by not reaching out I was actually protecting you. 

–Over the years Shame discouraged me from committing to things, be it volunteering, getting a job, even being part of social groups…you know, the kinds of things people tell you you should do to help work through the depression. I never knew when the next bout of depression would strike. When it did, I withdrew; I could not be relied on. Shame reared its ugly head once again, convincing me it was better to not renege on commitments by not having any on which to renege. 

[UN]Helpful Comments

Take all of the above and add in a society that contributes to the shame – under the misled guise of being helpful – with such statements as:

“You have so much to live for/so much going for you. What do YOU have to be depressed about?” (I saw this one a lot in the comments regarding the deaths of Ms. Spade and Mr. Bourdain)

“You need to get up and move, do something physical. Get out of bed/off the couch/[insert your own form of ‘laziness’ here]. You’ll feel much better if you get moving.”

“Snap out of it!”

“Think positive.”

“You have it so much better than many others in the world. Count your blessings.”

They are but a few, and they all ooze shame. Want to know why I didn’t – couldn’t – reach out? Those sorts of statements added to my already deep sense of shame, further emphasizing that I had a weakness to overcome rather than an illness. My strength of character was in question. Just to clarify, I am not laying guilt on anyone. If you have said these things to another I assume you did so from a desire to help not hurt.  But it’s time to stop now.

The Stigma of Mental Illness

And here is where we need to begin when it comes to tackling these crises: we must undo the stigma we have created regarding depression and suicide and any other mental health illness…we must stress the fact that they are “illnesses”  NOT  weaknessesThis is not an easy task. Read through a few of the comments following articles on Ms. Spade’s or Mr. Bourdain’s death and it’s apparent there is much work to be done.

Suicide is anything but selfish. It is anything but a weakness. I never considered suicide “the easy way out.” Quite the opposite. The decision to stay in this world weighed very heavily on me. I actually felt shame that I didn’t have the courage to end it all and make things better for everyone else. How fucking crazy is that? Even when I [eventually] understood from a logical place that my depression was an illness, my inner critic still cried “Weakness!” Sometimes it still does.

The decision to stay in this world weighed very heavily on me.

Think about it, our brain is an organ, just as our heart is one. Why should it be treated any differently from a medical standpoint? Why do we act as if mental illness is about weakness of character? It has nothing to do with being lazy, “less than,” or weak. Some of the strongest people I know have depression. It is time to treat it like the illness it is. Would you throw a bunch of feel-good statements at someone having a heart attack and expect them to pull through without some sort of medical intervention? I think not.

Would you throw a bunch of feel-good statements at someone having a heart attack and expect them to pull through without some sort of medical intervention?

When the darkness eventually passed (which it thankfully did), I was a different person (until it hit again, which it also did). I saw things the way I assumed “normal” folks must see them. The clouds parted, birds sang, the sun shone. I reflected on the thoughts I’d had in my periods of despair, and Shame whispered, “Don’t tell anyone.” I’m not sure what I thought would happen if I did.  Maybe that I’d be locked away, or that my friends and family would shun me – or worse, pity me. I sought normalcy. Caught up in the shame of my “weakness” I felt I had to hide what was going on inside. 

Inner Battles

I share this not so anyone will feel bad for me, but rather to offer up a window into the mind of someone who has contemplated suicide. It is great to be there for others, and even greater when those of us in need are able to take you up on those offers of help. But that is not always the case, and with this post is a plea: do not be so quick to judge someone going through it and why they do/do not seek help. These are battles fought from within. I can tell you that for me, those battles have been the toughest I’ve faced.

do not be so quick to judge someone going through it and why they do/do not seek help. These are battles fought from within.

Why NOT Me?

What kept me from ever attempting suicide? That would be Fear. Specifically, I was afraid I was so royally inept that I would screw up any attempt to end my life, possibly rendering myself even more of a burden to those around me. The idea that if I failed my shame would be exposed, thus bringing shame to those around me, petrified me. It makes me cry to think about it.

What is even sadder is I know I am not the only one out there who has had or is having such thoughts. (And if you are reading this, and you are having these thoughts right now, PLEASE HOLD ON. As bad as it seems, this WILL pass. You are NOT BROKEN. YOU MATTER.) 

I still on occasion go to those dark places, but the visits have been fewer and farther between. I have received help over the years via medicine and talk therapy…and they BOTH have had a healing place in my continuing recovery. And don’t get me started on how many people told me to stop taking meds, that I should find a more organic way or that the meds would mess me up (Seriously? I was already messed up!). I felt guilty that I needed them (here comes Shame once again); as if I was weak for using my meds. Yet in the end, I took them. And guess what? They helped me. 

I don’t have the answers. I can only tell you my story and the insights I gained from living it. Namely, that depression is an illness; that we must release the stigmas and shame attached and focus on treatment. What worked for me may or may not work for you. Therein lies a large part of what makes mental health diseases so frustrating: they can vary from one person to the next requiring different solutions. 

I sincerely hope that sharing my experience sheds a slice of insight for someone out there. I welcome your comments, thoughts, and suggestions.

*source for above suicide statistics: https://save.org/about-suicide/suicide-facts/