Themed Gardens

When choosing garden plants, a theme can help. I’m in the planning stages of a backyard redo. I’ve enjoyed my pandemic vegetable garden so much I’ve decided to make it permanent. But before I get a quote on fencing, I need to determine how large the garden should be. Making sure I get the most out of that space will require several levels of decisions.

Gardening is a learning process. Last summer, I researched plants for my growing zone, compared that to food I like to eat, and planted a row of summer squash and one of zucchini. Between fights with mildew and squash bugs, my harvest was good, but not great. And they limited the space I had for beans, lettuce, and carrots. This year, I’ve opted for more leafy greens, peas, and green beans. I know they’ll grow well and have a high volume of output for the space they require.

No matter what size your garden, choosing plants to fit the climate and space can be difficult. When dealing with small spaces, one way to narrow your choices is to consider a themed garden.

Pizza Garden

If you love pizza, meatballs, and moussaka, fill your garden with tomatoes, onions, garlic, eggplant, rosemary, sage, oregano, thyme, basil, and arugula.

Latin Garden

If your preferences run to salsa, tacos, fajitas, and enchiladas, consider a Latin Garden with some combination of tomatoes, tomatillos, onions, garlic, jalapeños, sweet chili peppers, green bell peppers, cilantro, oregano, black beans, and lettuce. If you have a large garden space, you can also consider heirloom corn.

Berry Garden

I love berries and it’s so hard to get fresh ones. Planting a berry garden makes perfect sense for me. Raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries all grow well in my growing zone and I have plenty of fencelines to support trailing vines.

Salad Garden

Red lettuce, green lettuce, arugula, endive, escarole, frisée, spinach, kale, and chard are all great in salads. You can also include my favorite salad green – mâche aka corn salad. Yellow squash, zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, carrot tops, radishes, and bell peppers make great toppers. And no salad garden would be complete without green onions.

I only managed to grow one onion in my winter garden, but when I put it in a salad earlier this spring it shone! It was my favorite thing about the salad.

Herb Garden

If all you have is inside window or outside balcony space, consider an herb garden. Herbs will thrive in pots making them easy to move around and perfect for small spaces. Before I started the vegetable garden, I grew herbs in pots. I choose a combination of my most frequently used herbs plus a novelty or two that changes each year.

My standards are basil, rosemary, oregano, sage, thyme, and mint. Some years, I grow dill or chocolate mint, and every year, I try cilantro. This year, I’ve moved the cilantro to the vegetable garden to see if I can keep it alive. For some reason, I’ve never been successful with it in pots.

Once I get past all the decisions and the prep, I love the early days of a garden when the weeds are at a minimum and I feel the anticipation of waiting for the seeds to germinate. That soon gives way to the excitement of watching tiny seedlings grow into mature plants. Then comes the sheer pleasure of plucking a sugar snap pea and popping it directly into my mouth to enjoy its sweet crunchiness!

With a harvest carefully chosen to fit both my space and my taste, the pleasure continues for months. Pleasure may be the best theme of all!

Wine Isn’t the Only Option for Deglazing

Wine isn’t the only option for deglazing a pan. None of us want to miss that tasty brown crust lining our skillet or pan. Some of the most complex flavors lie there just waiting to add flavor to the dish. Deglazing is the process of adding liquid to the hot pan to release those delicious morsels. It’s common to use wine to deglaze, but it isn’t the only option.

While I don’t mind using wine if I have a bottle open, I don’t want to uncork one just to deglaze. Other suitable liquids are chicken stock, beef stock, vegetable stock, pot likker, milk, cream, nut milk, coconut milk, coffee, and water. I try to use something that will complement the flavors of the dish or sauce I’m preparing. I might even use peppermint tea when cooking lamb.

One way to approach this is to choose a liquid that will be included in that or a similar dish. Coconut milk is excellent to use after stir frying chicken for curry. Of course, chicken stock would work as well since the base of the dish is chicken.

I often use pot likker from Cooking2Thrive Killer Beans to deglaze beef I’m cooking for tacos, burritos, or enchiladas. The beans are seasoned with chile peppers and cumin so I’m enhancing the flavors that I’ll use to season my dish.

There are some combinations that may be best to avoid. I wouldn’t use coffee with chicken, but I don’t hesitate to use it with red meat and in brown gravy. And I can’t think of a time I’ve ever used vinegar as a deglazing liquid. If you’re unsure which flavor profile will work best, use a tool like “The Flavor Bible” or do a quick internet search.

Since the goal is simply to remove the caramelized food that is stuck to the pan, use a minimal amount of liquid. I usually pour in a little, stir with a spatula, then add a little more liquid if needed to dislodge any remaining remnants.

When making a sauce, you may desire more liquid in the end, but I deglaze first, remove the main dish ingredient, and allow any remaining deglazing liquid to evaporate before adding a thickener. From that point, I stir the thickener into the fat until it’s smooth and then add the liquid that forms the base of my sauce. After that, I allow my sauce to simmer and reduce. If I add all of the liquid when I deglaze the pan, I end up making my job more difficult.

If your dish doesn’t require a sauce, but needs a little something, something you can add a can of Rotel® Diced Tomatoes & Green Chilies and use the liquid to deglaze. When I do this, I don’t treat it as a sauce, I just dump them in and stir to deglaze. The same can be done with tomato juice, tomato sauce, or strained tomatoes when making chili.

In the past few days, I’ve deglazed numerous pans and I haven’t had to open a bottle of wine. I’ve used chicken stock (already open & in the refrigerator), coconut milk (already open and in the refrigerator), and water instead. And there were other workable options in my pantry.

 So, if you’d rather have your wine in a glass, you’re in luck. Wine isn’t the only option for deglazing.

Artificial Intelligence is a Limited Tool

Spend a week in my family, and you’d never know artificial intelligence is a limited tool. Every time I swear at Siri or complain about a search engine, of my sons delivers the dire warning that I have now insulted the AI and it will make me pay! Even though I know he’s kidding, there’s a part of me that feels there’s a kernel of truth in that message. Our lives are hugely influenced by algorithms that may or may not capture us correctly. And as our lives move more online, artificial intelligence controls more than we may realize.

I feel like I’m stating the obvious, but I am concerned that we’re approaching an inflection point at which we may no longer recognize the line between real and contrived. And we’ve already reached the point at which keyword searches have become less accurate and less useful. Even broad Google searches no longer give me broad responses. It has become harder to find scientific research on a general topic without knowing the title or author of a study.

Since AI makes our lives easier, why don’t I just shut up and enjoy it? It’s a valid question.

I do enjoy the ways in which artificial intelligence works well and saves me time. But that pleasure is tempered by the bias AI learns through natural language processing. For example, if the word doctor is grouped with male pronouns more often and nurse is grouped with female pronouns more often in natural language, then AI learns this pattern and determines doctors are usually men and women are usually nurses. From that point forward, the information that is aggregated and sent to you will be influenced by that bias. Over time, this creates an environment in which AI bias can become predictive by the manner in which it filters the information you receive.

There are ways for programmers to address such bias, but companies may not be motivated to do so if no one is paying attention, especially if the bias is feeding their bottom line. I know this may seem trivial on the surface, but it can affect our medical care, food choices, dating options, job opportunities, business success, and whether or not we receive our phone calls.

Research has shown that AI is more accurate than a majority of radiologists in reading mammograms but less accurate than the most accurate humans. That means your best chance for an accurate diagnosis would be the most accurate humans.

As a practical matter, there’s no way to know who those are. That’s where AI can be a useful tool. What if all mammograms were read by both a radiologist and AI? Essentially, the technology would work as a second opinion. If the two diagnoses differed, then a second human opinion could be consulted.

But as medical AI expands into more areas of medicine, the possibility grows that it could carry undetected bias as well. Studies that identify possible substance use disorder patients based on the language in their tweets can be affected by the algorithms Twitter uses. Not to mention, I believe there are people who can have drug using friends and not participate. But they still may use the language of those around them and risk being improperly identified and stigmatized.

Data is important and useful, but it often presents an incomplete or flawed profile. Think of the sheer number of fake profiles on dating sites or the number of polyurethane handbags that show up in a search for genuine leather handbags.

Last year, I received numerous job listings for epidemiologist positions in Los Angeles. I am not remotely qualified to be an epidemiologist and I live 1500 miles from LA, but something in my online history made search engines think those jobs were appropriate. While AI seems like a great tool for matching people with jobs, it may not bring the candidates you need.

So I say all of this mostly to raise awareness of what is happening behind our screens and to remind you that artificial intelligence is a limited tool. It cannot be trusted to replace human intelligence. We must provide the checks and balances it needs.

Believe it or not, that will soon be critical to thriving.

Poor Mental Health or A Normal Response?

The past year has been, and continues to be, emotionally exhausting so how do you know if you’re experiencing poor mental health or a normal response? It’s difficult to watch the news any given day without hearing a story about increasing occurrences of poor mental health. Often, the slant of the story is geared to support a particular policy objective.

I find this rhetoric dangerous and unhelpful. It increases the chance that we will begin to catastrophize normal responses that are, in fact, temporary and healthy. This is especially true if we are already isolated and lacking support. And it’s hard to dismiss worry about our mental health when we’re bombarded by emotionally taxing events one after the other: pandemic, insurrection, natural disasters, infrastructure failures, police shootings, and mass murders.

We know we feel different. Many of us have never been through an extended period of disruption and trauma. If an expert appears in front of us and says these feelings reflect poor mental health, we’re going to believe them. The reality is much more nuanced. and nuance is not the forte of news reporting or social media.

Most of us cling to the idea that if we can just get back to normal, we’ll feel relieved and joyful. But an ongoing experience of trauma is not that easy to shake. Knowing this can help alleviate excessive worry about our state of mental health.

One thing that can provide perspective is to view the effects of trauma as wounds. Think of them like a sprained ankle or a broken bone. If you sprain your ankle, you expect it to swell, bruise, hurt, and prevent you from walking normally for a significant period of time. In order for it to heal, you understand and accept that you’ll have to do things differently for awhile.

This doesn’t usually mean you’ll be crippled for life or never be able to wear those cute heels again. It just means that it is normal and reasonable to change your daily routine to facilitate healing.

If viewing an emotional wound as a physical wound doesn’t work for you, try thinking of a friend who is grieving. Would you be alarmed if they get choked up at unexpected times or don’t have the emotional energy to hang out? No, you’d understand that they feel sadness and loss and need time to work through that before they’re ready for fun and frivolity. And, most likely, you’d understand that their capacity for joy may be temporarily hidden beneath a flood of tears.

The point of all of this is to remind you that certain “negative” emotional states can be a normal and reasonable response to circumstances beyond our control. They are not problematic or signs of poor mental health unless they become chronic, or we use poor techniques for dealing with them.

For example, depression is a normal response to change. Think of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, DEPRESSION, acceptance. Depression is an expected, normal phase that represents great progress through the process. But watch the news and you’ll think any amount of depression is a reason for desperation.

The quicker we become aware, acknowledge, and allow ourselves to feel so-called negative emotions, the quicker we can release them and return to a positive state of equilibrium. It is more difficult to do this if we view such states as catastrophic or as signs there is something wrong with us. All of us want to avoid feeling that we’re defective.

We’d often rather hide our distress than acknowledge it. And there may good reason for that. Expressions of vulnerability can make the receiver of the message also feel vulnerable. To avoid that feeling, they may turn away from us when we share our deepest feelings.

If you’ve ever experienced this, you’ll be less likely to attempt to share again. This cycle can result in a significant lack of support for those who are experiencing trauma and attempting to express its effects. And unfortunately, the research of Dr. Brené Brown has indicated that most of us are not comfortable in a vulnerable space.

That means many of us will find that we must be our own best advocates in the arena of mental health. So where do we start? In any moment that I am struggling, I like to first examine what is going well for me before deciding what needs adjustment. This helps give me perspective when determining what I need to do next.

The easiest way to do this is to view myself as a close friend, then ask myself a series of questions: Am I sleeping well and on a regular schedule? Am I keeping my environment clean and uncluttered at the level I would when I feel I am functioning well? Am I eating regularly? Am I making reasonable food choices? Am I making time to move on a regular basis – walk, run, swim, lift weights, row, do yoga, bike, etc? Has my alcohol consumption increased? Do I rely on medication more than I did before? Am I doing too much? Am I able to feel or am I numb? Am I making forward progress at work? Am I able to be alone and feel content? Am I able to connect with at least one person?

If my answers to those questions wouldn’t concern me if they were a friend’s answers, I let go of the idea that I am suffering poor mental health and address anything that may need to change from the point of view of thriving. If I’m not sure, I reach out to someone I trust to help me gain insight.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting that anyone avoid professional help. In fact, I’d encourage you to seek the advice of a professional in lieu of assuming you fit some profile you saw online. My purpose here is simply an attempt to provide a path to find balance to the rhetoric that has become increasingly pervasive and alarmist.

I can’t determine whether you are responding normally, adaptively, problematically, or in the best possible way given a particular set of circumstances. But I know it’s always worth believing in yourself and asking questions before accepting someone else’s take.

If you feel pain over something, that pain is real. If you feel sad about something, that sadness is real. If you feel angry, it is a signal that you feel a need to protect yourself. Accepting that these feelings may be normal and not an indication of anything other than a response to the circumstances in which you find yourself, can be a great start toward thriving.

In this cultural moment when we are all experiencing trauma and there is the cancel culture tendency to only accept a narrow range of beliefs and behavior, it is important to step back, take a moment, and give ourselves permission to feel how we feel even if it’s out of step with the majority. If you are an introvert and enjoy being able to work from home, it’s okay to relish in it just as it’s okay to feel sad about the loss of breakroom chats.

Trust yourself. Trust your process. Just because the world is falling apart doesn’t mean you are. Give yourself some time and space to learn whether you’re experiencing poor mental health or a normal response to a difficult circumstance.