Friday, September 03, 2010

Web Find: Nat Geo Blogs

I have 3 sites that load up when I start FireFox: Google's Gmail service, the Blogger dashboard and National Geographic's main web site. The first one is, obviously to see my mail, the second, because it keeps me doing this and the third because it connects me to the real world.

Nat Geo's home site has so many great features that sometimes one contracts "choice blindness" a web malady in which the user is faced with so many selections to explore that they mentally recoil from the challenge. Never fear, beyond the gorgeous photos of river valleys and frolicking endangered animals, the News section of the site contains a ton of amazing blogs.

Deep Survival
The official description: Adventure Contributing Editor Laurence Gonzales shares wilderness wisdom.
My description: Whether you are an experienced world-class mountain climber or a weekend hiker, this is the source for you. Articles such as How To Build a Fire are invaluable. Fire Piston; go google it.

The Green Guide
Offers buying guides, tips for a green home and even a green parenting blog!

Signs From Earth
Completely great and comprehensive "big picture" news on how climate change affects us and vice versa.
Like a good vitamin, is packed with (what should be) your RDA of common sense and information about how to deal with the barrage of information about green living, food safety and climate in the news. Here's one of my favorites, How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic.

The Daily Green
A ton of great info and features, plus blogs such as The Green Cheapskate.
A Seattle-based blog focused on exploring innovative solutions to the planet's problems. Sample it here.

The Mother Nature Network
Eco-awareness news and resources, plus beer!
A blog focused on sustainable, eco-friendly housing and materials. Who knew that wombat-ass is the future of packaging?
A site with 3 sections: Get Informed (articles on various aspects of environmentalism), Interact (forums, games and quizzes) and Take Action (various ways to "go green" and a job board), this is a valuable resource if you're the type who reads about an environmental issue and wants to actually do something about it.

Dot Earth
A NYT blog on the politics of environmental awareness with coverage of environmental disasters, summits and initiatives.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Wok This Way

For my first birthday that I lived on my own in Boston, my sister gave me a Joyce Chen wok. I have since lost, a) the chattie (the little ring that the wok is supposed to sit on to disperse the heat evenly) b) the little wire platform for steaming and c) the lid, which would have probably saved me from burning myself quite a few times with spattering oil.

While I'm nothing close to the masters you see at the Kowloon's Thai Grille, casually discoursing on the merits of various Red Sox pitchers while tending to giant woks that spout 2 foot sheets of flame, I am capable of producing edible meals from a simple rounded-bottom pan. Here's a recipe for yellow curry that makes real use of the time-honored technique of stir-frying tofu and vegetables in stages.

The ingredients:

Basically, a half package of firm or extra firm tofu cut into 1 x 2" slices and drained on some paper towels and whatever vegetables you'd like to stir-fry.

Here, I used 1 red pepper cut into strips, 1 medium sized sweet potato, some pineapple chunks, and some corn left over from a cookout (cut down the length of the cob to strip off the kernels).

For the sauce I used 1/2 can coconut milk, some natural peanut butter (about 1 tablespoon) and about a tablespoon and a half of Patak's Curry Paste.

The best practice is to assemble all the ingredients before you even start the wok, because once you get going, things need to be added fairly quickly.

Once the oil has heated to the point that it starts to smoke (over medium heat) add the tofu and stir fry until both sides are a nice golden brown. Then, using a wooden spoon or spatula, push the tofu up the sides of the wok and make a nice opening in the center. Add the sweet potato and let it get crispy on all sides. It's best to add the densest vegetables first as they will need the longest cooking time.

Once the potatoes have cooked, add the peppers and stir fry until cooked. Then add the corn and pineapple. Remember, you can add whatever vegetables you want, just be sure to cook them in succession, from hardest to softest, pushing each up the sides of the wok as they cook to make room for the next.

After all the vegetables and tofu (or meat) have cooked, make another clearing in the center and add the coconut milk, the curry paste and the peanut butter. Gently stir them together to make a rich, silky sauce and then stir the cooked tofu and vegetables in. Lower the heat and allow everything to simmer together for about 10 minutes. Add to rice or noodles and enjoy!


Friday, July 23, 2010

Craft Corner: Spider Silk Thread

Just in case you have a lot of free time on your hands and a handy supply of 3-5 foot webs in your yard, Boing Boing featured an article today on how to spin your own silk from spider webs. If I had the time (and the source material) I would totally do this. Spider silk is stronger than steel and can stretch to 40 times its length. Plus, imagine the Goth cred I would get for a little black dress woven from spiderwebs?

Here's the Instructables page that details the steps:

And, even cooler, people in Madagascar have actually woven a piece of silk that looks like something from the set of "Lord of the Rings":

The AMNH article discusses how the spiders like to weave webs between telephone lines in Madagascar. This phenomenon also occurs in Viet Nam. I saw enormous webs spun between power lines all along the highway from My Tho to Can Tho. The picture is below. The spiders in the webs were large enough to show up in the picture and at the distance I was from the power lines, that makes them at least 4 inches across.


Monday, July 12, 2010

How to find your photo uploads with the CForms Wordpress Plugin

I love the cforms plugin by Delicious Days just as much as the next Wordpress devotee, but there are a few things that (like too many WP plugins) are just left up to the user to figure out. After a client requested a form that let a user upload a photo to their website, I thought; "No sweat, there's a field to add an upload box." Half true. There is an option for a file upload box when you add a new field to your form, but there's some configuring that needs to be done on top of that. When you have a form with a file upload box created, there will be a File Uploads dropdown menu added to the settings menu below the forms in the cforms "Form Settings" dashboard. I've configured it like so:

I changed the absolute path to read:

and the relative path to say:

Then, it's important to specify the maximum file number in kilobytes or the upload won't work. I said 400 here.

But, when I checked the form that was sent as a test run, no photo was there! Where do the pictures actually go??

Turns out, they go to your uploads folder in your wp-content directory. So, if you know you have a form submittal with a photo, go to this url:

and you will see a listing of the photos as files.

Another tip: If you don't want your form to display the "Cforms by Delicious Days" underneath, go to Cforms>Style and in the stylesheet you've chosen for your form, go to where it has the classes for ".linklove" and set it to display:none;

Friday, July 09, 2010

Ice Box Cook'n: White Trash Key Lime Pie

The past few days may have been hot, but thank your god(s) that at least it's a dry heat. Below the Mason-Dixon line this is what's considered "mild" (spoken with 2 syllables of course). Hence the need for the Icebox recipes in Ernest Matthew Mickler's classic, "White Trash Cooking". I found this recipe in the "Sweet 'Pones, Puddins 'n Pies" section and it's been a hit at a few barbeques up here. All the ingredients y'all need are pictured up above.

Take the can of sweetened condensed milk and combine it with the large container of "dairy" topping and the thawed Limeade. Beat it at high speed for about a minute and then pour the mixture into 2 graham-cracker pie shells. Cover the pies and place in the freezer for at least 5 hours until thoroughly frozen.

Note: Whenever I tried to make this in the past I always ended up with way too much filling left over for one pie. So, make 2 and then fill in the gap between the top of the filling and the top of the crust with whipped cream if company's coming.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Vegetarian Viet-American Stir Fry with Vermicelli

I had a hankering for Vietnamese food today. Maybe it's the heat. Unfortunately,even though you can't swing a dead sea gull on the North Shore without hitting a Chinese/Sushi or Thai place, Vietnamese cuisine is tough to find (one notable exception is Sugar Cane in Peabody). So, I raided the pantry and scraped together enough ingredients to make a reasonable facsimile of rice noodles with vegetables and tofu. I call it Viet-American since yellow squash and portabella mushrooms are North American.


1/2 package extra-firm tofu, cut into oblong pieces and drained on some paper towels
1 sweet red pepper diced into medium pieces
1 or 2 portabella mushroom caps, cut into strips
1 medium yellow squash cut into 1/2 inch rounds
2 green onions, diced
1 clove crushed garlic (if desired)
2-3 tbs Canola oil for frying the tofu and vegetables
1 cube vegetarian bouillon (try Rapunzel from Whole Foods)
3/4 cup water
1 teaspoon of your favorite kind of curry paste. (I used red curry)
soy sauce (to taste)
Sriracha hot sauce (to taste)
Fresh basil and cilantro leaves to taste
1 package "rice stick" vermicelli
(It makes such a mess to try and separate them while dry that I tossed the whole package in a big pot of boiling water. After taking them out after 3 minutes, I rinsed them in cool water and just took what I needed and put the rest in the refrigerator for later.)

The Steps

Step 1: Heat a few tablespoons of oil in the wok until hot but not smoking then put in the drained tofu and fry until golden on all sides.

Step 2: Add the vegetables, one type at a time, stir frying in the hot oil until cooked then pushing aside for the next batch.

Step 3: Add garlic if desired and stir in with the vegetables and tofu.

Step 4: Clear the center of the wok and add the water, then the bouillon. Let the bouillon cube dissolve in the boiling water and stir everything together.

Step 5: Season to taste with the curry paste, soy sauce and hot sauce.

Step 6: Add some of the cooked rice vermicelli to a bowl and spoon in the vegetables and tofu along with some of the broth. Garnish with the basil and cilantro and enjoy!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Work-At-Home Mom Survival Guide

So I lifted my nose up from my keyboard the other day and realized that I've been a WAHM for 2 and a half years now! How did I do it with out going crazy? Just loosen the straps across this canvas jacket and I'll show you.

Confession time, I read a couple of articles here and there about how to work from home before setting up my business, but found them hard to relate to. Basically the assumption is that you have a loving supportive spouse who works nice steady hours and LOVES to distract the kids when they get home and a small gang of relatives and friends who like nothing more than looking after your child because you need the house quiet when a client calls.

My reality consisted of a spouse that never knew when they were going to be hired for their next freelance gig from one day (sometimes one minute) to the next. The (sort-of) discussed plan was that he would take our daughter out for an outing during the day and that's when I could have meetings, take business calls and get work done. In practice, this made every day a delicate touch-and-go. Turns out that trying get a small child with the attention span of a mosquito to commit to some sort of plan for the upcoming 8 hours is surprisingly difficult. Several times I had to run upstairs clutching the phone to my ear as a co-tantrum erupted over exactly which Elmo pullover was to be worn for the aforementioned outing.
The always offered help from friends and family was greatly appreciated, but somehow I could (almost) never quite bring myself to call up out of the blue and "drop-off" a somewhat-pottytrained toddler for more than 20 minutes. Relatives had either lives of their own or had become Snowbirds, so I had to adapt to the actual having-the-kid around part of being a WAHM.

1. Learn to love distraction.

Meet my admin assistant

I worked in a fairly busy office for a while and if there was one thing that I had a love/hate relationship with, it was the constant kibbitzing with co-workers. Sometimes I welcomed the distraction of a juicy tidbit from as relayed by my office neighbor, other times I didn't want to be bothered unless we were under definite terrorist attack. For some reason, I thought I would leave that all behind by working at home. There may be times when I just need to barricade the door, but most of the time I find that turning away from the screen for 5 minutes to play soccer or admire a crayon rendering of a skyscraper, saves me a half hour of arguing and yelling. Sometimes taking that mini-break re-sets my mind and an issue I was stuck on before playing Barbie for a few minutes, magically acquires a solution when I come back.

2. Fight distraction with distraction

The Distraction Bucket

Find a basket or box that will hold a good amount of small, interactive toys and leave it right by the door of your office or near your desk. This is where the majority of Happy Meal doodads end up in our house. When your kid(s) see the bucket, they can't resist its many charms and may actually leave you alone.

3. Learn to use your time wisely.

This is, of course, the main piece of advice most home-office dwellers hear. It's also the hardest to get used to, mainly because everyone's definition of time well-spent is a little different. Give me 3 or 4 hours of "free time" and I'd probably waste the first one trying to figure out what to do first. So, hopefully I've saved the best for last and by doing so, will save you some of your valuable time.

My main rule-of-thumb when faced with a (finally!) empty house and a large to-do list is to take a few seconds and prioritize what needs to happen. I find the whiteboard above the monitor in the photo above to be a huge help. If I have 3-5 clients that all need small housekeeping tasks done, I write down each task according to its priority level. Sounds dorky, but it does feel good to stand up, stretch, and erase a completed task off the list. The left side of the board is for long-term or on-going projects and the right side is the day-to-day list.

But wait! In the photo, the right side is almost blank! That's because I make it a priority to take care of clients' needs before doing things for my own little online world. Some other things that keep me on-target are not having the TV on and not "surfing around". When I am working, I'm working because when you are your own boss, you are constantly looking over your own shoulders right?

Also, forget housework. At least try to. If I need to go upstairs to get food, I do one or two little tasks that need doing, like sorting a load of laundry or washing a few dishes. The big stuff can wait until I'm done for the day with actual paying work.

In the foreground of the photo, you can see two things in front of the keyboard. One is a spiral bound notebook where I take notes as I work or talk to clients on the phone. There are times where it's invaluable to have a log of what happened during the day especially when kid-induced chaos returns to the house. The other thing is a green hand-held grip strengthener. This is great for when you have to wait for a lengthy download/upload since it helps reduce stress too.

Overall, the main thing to bear in mind is that even though you may want to plan your day like Patton planned the landing at Normandy, you can't control everything in your environment, but it's best to let go and focus on what you CAN get done instead of what you can't!