Dual Purpose

Paper plates as dustpans, quarters as screwdrivers, and duct tape for everything – everyday items can serve a dual purpose! When things go according to plan, the perfect tool can make a job easier. But life often doesn’t go according to plan. Being able to improvise using what’s available is a skill worth cultivating.

Some of us naturally view each day as a puzzle to be solved. When a problem arises, our minds are quick to look for possible solutions. For others of us, a problem stops us dead in our tracks if we don’t have exactly what we would need to fix it if we lived in an ideal world. It may always be a stretch to envision doing things in a unique way, but anyone can do it with some practice.

Conserve your energy.

Fear, panic, and flailing about use energy that can otherwise be spent on problem solving. It is normal to feel anxious or scared sometimes. It is normal to feel overwhelmed or inadequate sometimes.

Register the feelings and set them aside for a moment if you’re in a critical situation. Otherwise try sitting with the feelings until you feel them dissipate, then return to the task.

Observe the environment.

The solution to a problem will become apparent more quickly when you make a habit of observing your environment. Keeping a mental visual map of your surroundings will reduce search time you might otherwise incur when an issue arises.

As a short person, I’m always looking for a way to reach something. I have been known to use a bread knife to tilt a plastic cup on a high shelf until it falls off into my hand. That may not be the ideal second purpose for a knife, but it works!

I also have some inexpensive metal tongs that I use to grab spices off the top shelf. It’s easy to apply enough pressure to pick up the small jars and it works beautifully.

Prioritize function.

An item serving a dual purpose may not look or feel like the original. The most important thing is that the replacement function similarly enough to accomplish the task without creating further complications.


Everything seems bigger and harder when you think about it. A sink full of dishes feels like it will take forever to wash until you start. The key is getting started. Once you jump in and begin, much of your anxiety will subside and everything will seem easier. Knowing that, you can practice thinking about projects differently.

I so this all of the time. If I see on the news that a bridge collapsed and cars drove into the water, I mentally develop a plan for what I would do in that situation. Would I roll down my window? How far? Would I leave my seat belt hooked? What could I use to cut it if it were stuck….

Here’s how the process goes: Pretend X happens. Break down what you will do first, second, third, etc. into simple steps. You’ll probably want to begin with diagnosing the issue to be fixed. Then you may want to explore the possible causes of the problem. From there, list possible remedies. That will take you to the point that you can determine the tools you need.

Remember, this is just a mental exercise for now. There is no failing. Each new idea you have is a success even if it feels improbable as you think of it.

If this seems pointless, remember that you’re developing a new grove for thinking patterns. The reward will come when a problem arises and you’re able to solve it more quickly and easily.

Have fun.

Exaggerate your solutions. Get the kids involved. Think of the most outrageous fix you can and explore that. What if there were no gravity? How would that change your plan?

So often, we fail to see the solutions right in front of us because we have one particular vision of what they should look like. The truth is, there are many ways to approach a problem.

Understanding how many workable options surround us at any given moment opens the world to much greater possibility and so many things to being dual purpose. It can also enhance a feeling of competency and accomplishment.

And it can put many a rarely used object to use as you discover that it has a dual purpose.

Anything in Moderation?

I’m wondering whether the US knows how to do anything in moderation. I’ve temporarily relocated to an RV where I’ll be living for a couple of months. As with all tiny house living, my 100 sq ft of living area mean space is critical.

My cabinets are plentiful, and I have a large closet, but I still have to think carefully about what I purchase. This morning, I placed my first grocery order and realized it’s next to impossible to get containers of condiments, dishwashing soap, and butter in the amounts I need them. Travel size is a bit too small for my length of stay, and regular sizes are waaaay too big.

This time, I was shopping at an average chain supermarket where I expect to find a variety of brands and all the basics. If I had chosen a wholesale club, the packaging would be even larger. I could have picked a specialty market with expensive brands in smaller containers, but then I’d have to pay more for everything or shop at multiple stores.

It seems crazy to me that we can have acres and acres of ground covered by supermarkets and lack right size options in popular brands that reduce waste and require less cabinet space. I understand the efficiency and economy of buying more, but if that creates waste on the back end, those are diminished.

I don’t know why this surprises me. We are a culture of excess living in an era of increase.

Following an energy crisis in the 1970s, we didn’t abandon the SUV or ever larger pickup trucks, we shook off our initial panic and filled the roads with them.

Over the past 20 years, our bagels have grown from 3 inches to 6 inches and 140 calories to 350 calories. Even turkey sandwiches have doubled in calories.

The average American employee spends more hours at work than workers in Japan, the UK, and Germany at an average of 37.5 hours per week. And that average is lower than the hours put in by many of my acquaintances for whom a 60-hour work week is not uncommon.

It has become a sign of good parenting for children to be enrolled in multiple organized extracurricular activities. Without moderation, this leaves little time for sitting still, experiencing the wonder of a sunset, or lying in the grass watching the clouds.

And we don’t just purchase larger grocery items. Our closets are filled. My grandmother had two or three Sunday dresses, one pair of pants for lawn and garden work, and a couple of casual dresses. She didn’t own 5 pairs of shoes, much less 15. I packed more clothes in my RV than my grandmother owned, and it is a tiny fraction of what I have.

I even have two TVs. TWO in just over 100 sq. ft. I wouldn’t call that moderation. And I haven’t even turned them on. Clearly, I don’t need one, much less two. And yet, the multiples are considered a selling point.

The more I look around, the more I observe excess. And it has momentum. There’s a push toward more, longer, faster, bigger. Minimalism pushes back but is not winning the culture war in the US.

Surrounding ourselves by excess, doesn’t seem to make us more content. It just leaves me wondering why we don’t do anything in moderation.


A Little Dab Will Do It

A little dab will do it when you’re taking a dish from good to great! A few years ago, I was talking to a chef who remarked, “I taste things all the time that are good, but if they just added a spoonful of honey, would be great! I just don’t understand why they don’t add that one little thing that would take the dish to the next level.”

I think of this often when I’m testing recipes. Last week, I created a gluten-free, dairy-free lasagna. Unlike many recipes, this first try was remarkably good. I sent some out to tasters. They voted it a keeper.

But as the week wore on, and I tasted it cold, then hot again, I was nagged by the vague feeling that something was missing. It took me a moment (by which I mean days) to determine what.

Nutmeg. I hadn’t thought to grate in a little nutmeg. Once I realized I wanted that flavor addition, I was surprised. I’ve eaten plenty a lasagna wondering why anyone bothered to add nutmeg. Now, I guess I know. The flavors just call for a little dab of it.

I had a similar experience recently in which I created a dish that was nicely balanced and tasty but was missing a standout flavor. I thought of serving it with pico de gallo, but then decided liberally garnishing with cilantro would work better.

I tried it and it was better. That bright pop of flavor worked well, but it still wasn’t quite right. My tasters tried soy sauce, Cavender’s® All Purpose Greek Seasoning*, Tony Chachere’s® Creole Seasoning, and Goyo® Adobo All Purpose Seasoning with Saffron. We also discussed cardamom, turmeric, and orange juice.

Finally, I decided to add another dab of a seasoning blend that was already in the dish – a combination of salt, pepper, garlic, lemon peel, and onion. That did the trick. That 1/2 tsp changed an okay dish to one that left you wanting more.

And you don’t even have to taste a dish to know it needs something. Sometimes all you need to do is stand over the pot and breathe in the aroma. You can smell when something needs salt, or garlic, a savory undertone, or a citrusy top note.

Adding a little dab at a time gives you the opportunity to add more if needed. It’s much easier to add than to dilute, so I like to start small. I say that. I’ve been known to liberally shake spices over a pan before smelling or tasting. Usually, I’m happy with the result, but I’ve overdone it a time or two.

And it’s possible to add a little bit of too many flavors. The first example that comes to mind is gin, specifically Monkey 47. I find the 47 different botanicals less than pleasing (give me Hendrick’s® any day). But the same thing happens with food. Too many flavors can send your taste buds scrambling to decipher what they’re experiencing. That can overshadow the pleasure of cohesive flavor.

Sometimes I like to pretend it doesn’t matter I left out a 1/4 tsp of something or other. But it does. It may not mean the food is inedible, but that little dab does make a difference. It may even be the thing that makes a dish great!

*The Cavenders were customers of my parent’s business. We gave jars of this spice blend as gifts to family and friends for years before it was widely distributed. It was a hit every time!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Why Isn’t Okra a Star?

Why isn’t okra a star ingredient? I mean, it’s even shaped like a star. What gives?

This summer, I planted okra in my garden. It’s still going strong. The plants haven’t required much other than an occasional watering to become taller than I and they are prolific producers. One acre yields 4 to 6 tons.

In spite of that, I rarely see okra at the farmers market and it’s not often available at the supermarket. This left me curious what drives the minimal availability and whether accessibility limits its inclusion in recipes. I started clicking around.

Okra is grown commercially for both the fresh and frozen food markets. Some varieties have round pods. Those preferred for the fresh market have star-shaped pods. That’s what I grow.

Since pods for the fresh market require harvesting with a knife, picking can be time-consuming. And the window for perfect-sized pods is narrow. No need to click around to discover that. I’ve learned the lesson in person many times over. Picking a single acre of okra takes between 10 and 20 man-hours.

Machine harvesting has been attempted with varying degrees of success. Given its labor-intensive nature, okra may never be available on the scale of potatoes, corn, or spinach.

But does that mean okra shouldn’t star in more dishes than gumbo, succotash, okra & tomatoes, and fried or pickled okra? Many of you may be imagining its slimy texture and thinking, nah, that’s plenty of dishes– maybe more than enough.

It’s true okra can be slimy. Pairing it with citrus or adding vinegar will reduce this. You can also cook at high heat to minimize sliminess. For example: sautéing, grill charring, or breading and frying result in delicious flavor and texture sans slime.

I sometimes slice a few pods and throw them in with fresh green beans I’m sautéing. The other day, I added some sautéed slices to pasta. It took the dish from a solid, everyday flavor into the slightly exotic category.

I love using large pods, lemon juice, lemongrass, chicken stock, water, and seasoning to create a broth for cooking fish and rice. It creates a pleasing base that can be taken to another level with the addition of saffron or topped with fresh pico de gallo for an extra pop of flavor.

Okra will grow in zones 2 – 11 but it’s traditionally considered a southern food. That association may contribute to it being a role player rather than a star ingredient.

And while many people may hear the word slime and assume they won’t like it, anyone who has had fried okra done right will fight you for it at the store. It was always the star of my grandmother’s summer table.

Tomorrow, it will be the star of mine. I have some sliced and breaded and waiting in the refrigerator. Once I pull out a cast iron skillet and heat some oil, I’ll be minutes away from a mix of soft and crunchy texture that tastes like nothing else!

I even have vine-ripened tomatoes from the garden to go with. It doesn’t get any better than that!