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Ask Why

15 Oct

October 10th was World Mental Health Day, a time to raise awareness about the stigma surrounding mental health issues, the serious challenges and problems with mental healthcare affordability and accessibility, and why we can—and should—do better for individuals suffering from conditions than can be debilitating.

The vast majority of the people I have known who suffer from mental illness are afraid to tell those around them. The reasons vary, but it generally boils down to judgment. Will others suddenly begin to treat you with kid gloves? Will they shy away from you? Will they fear that you could blow up or break down at any moment?

Of course, these questions are judgments in their own way. Immediately they judge the individual being told about the problem as someone who does not have the capacity for compassion or understanding. That is just as unfair as being judged over a disease.

About a month and a half ago, I began training to teach yoga. The first weekend was literally life-changing. I’ve honestly been kind of embarrassed at the zealousness I feel when I talk about it outside of the studio. There I am surrounded by a community where my self-consciousness all but disappears. Perhaps it was our teacher’s remark the very first night that our studio classroom was a safe space where there would be no gossip. We began that very evening to put our trust in one another along this journey.

Many people think that yoga is just about the asana practice, but it is so much more. Asana is a component of this science that helps us bridge the gap between what we know and what we understand. On an individual level, each time a breath is taken mindfully, we connect the intellectual and primitive centers of the brain. Yoga is a toolbox that we fill with knowledge of history, philosophy, anatomy, physiology, and ethics, and then take out into the world, hoping that we might share with others. Hoping that by bringing it off of the mat, we will break down the walls that prevent us from acting as witnesses and understanding the true Self. Understanding the commonality that exists between all things, and allowing that to yoke us to everything else that is.

The week after we began our journey together at teacher training, a depressive episode slapped me in the face. It’s always frustrating when it comes out of nowhere. When there’s no specific problem to point to and you’re just depressed, it’s laaaaaaame. There’s not a problem to solve that will achieve the desired result: contentment. I was gritting my teeth thinking of the sheer amount of money I’ve spent on pharmaceutical treatments for depression over the years, how many times I’ve accepted side effects as “tolerable,” and how many times I’ve settled for “okay.” Because okay is better than depressed or manic, right?

My depression. My anger. My frustration.

Then it hit me. Practice aparigraha. The yamas and niyamas are sort of like yoga’s ethical code. I have one of them tattooed on my ankle, the word ahimsa (non-harming). Aparigraha is another of these concepts, and translates to “not grasping,” which is interpreted many ways. Generally I’ve perceived it as not being greedy, not taking from others (or yourself), and not grasping for what is not yours. After all, you already have everything you need when you really think about it.

So why was I so intent on this being mine? My depression. My anger. My frustration. I don’t even want it, so why claim it? Why be greedy and hoard negative thoughts and feelings that do not serve my purpose on this earth. Why let my ego control the game?

A depression. An anger. A frustration.

At that moment, I was looking at these things through a window. We were no longer connected. It was not mine, and it never has been. By changing one tiny possessive pronoun, my whole perspective shifted. Although I felt the lingering of sadness, the ache to hold onto that dark place for comfort and familiarity, it was not mine. That place would not serve me in my quest to love myself and others.

Not a cure per se, but wasn’t this treatment every bit as valuable as the different kinds of medications I’ve been willing to pop into my mouth for the last fifteen years? Why did I consider pharmaceutical treatment the only option for treating a disease of the brain? I truly believe that every doctor who has treated me has been good-hearted. Doctors want to do something to help you. But at the end of the day, my diagnosis was always an educated guess at best. There’s no lab work that shows a quantitative improvement, just a series of vague symptoms entirely told from my own perspective. There are patterns if you look long and hard enough. But there’s no hard and fast way to label it. This isn’t me being all, “Down with medication!!!” because it’s a genuinely valuable tool. There are times in my life that it probably saved me from going down a dangerous path.

But it is just that—a tool. It is not a cure.

I simply realized that it wasn’t the right tool for me anymore. It was right a few years ago, but I am not the same and neither is the condition.

And so, standing in the MOMs getting brown rice from the bulk bin, I froze. My head understood something that my heart had been repeating over and over again:

This is not yours. You do not have to keep it. You do not need to keep it.

I did not flush my medication down the drain, but waited for my regular quarterly check-up with the doctor and told her how I felt. I expected resistance; after all, she has guided my medical treatment for five years. But she embraced my perspective and gave me the confidence and a reasonable pathway to slowly taper away from pharmaceutical treatment. We made our plan to follow up in four months and I left her office feeling a sense of independence. I had advocated for myself as a patient, and felt like I was on a path that’s right for where I am today, and not where I was four, eight, or fifteen years ago when I was first diagnosed with depression.

Again, I want to make it really clear that I’m not anti-medication in any sense. My point is this: Ask why. If you’re doing something and it’s not working, ask why you’re settling for that. Maybe it’s because a thousand other things are crowding your schedule / life and you don’t have time or energy to deal with that one dissatisfaction (for now), maybe you’re afraid because change could be worse than something that works half-way, or maybe you think that you haven’t given it a fair shot and want to see where it can take you long-term. Whatever it is, it’s worth a few moments of meditation, a few pages of journaling, and asking yourself honest questions. The answer might not be an “a-ha” moment, and it probably won’t come right away. That’s OKAY. Just observe it, and let yourself be where you are.

You are smarter, more resilient, and stronger than you believe.

You already have all of the best parts of yourself.

The littlest perspective changes can make a huge difference: “I can’t” becomes “I am currently unable to…,” or “I’m not there…yet.” There is always the capacity for positive change. As much as the source is silly (an old Nike ad), they got it right:

“All your life you are told the things you cannot do. All your life they will say you’re not good enough or strong enough or talented enough; they will say you’re the wrong height or the wrong weight or the wrong type to play this or be this or achieve this. THEY WILL TELL YOU NO, a thousand times no, until all the no’s become meaningless. All your life they will tell you no, quite firmly and very quickly. AND YOU WILL TELL THEM YES.”

Open your heart to possibility, realizing that change is available, it is not linear (ups and downs are a fact), and overcoming the fear is probably the most difficult part. Don’t stop asking questions. Don’t stop learning.

Ask why.

And then listen…really listen for what comes up.

Ciao for now,


Project Yogurt: Fun with Fermentation

10 Mar

It’s an underestimation to say that I like yogurt…

I find it hilarious to type that because it was only a few years ago that I distinctly recall wretching at the taste of the various low-sugar/low-fat yogurts I tried to choke down in a vain attempt to get some protein. To me, most of it tasted like chalky, artificially-flavored goop. I decided that yogurt just wasn’t for me and it never would be.

Then I started using it in baking. As you’ve probably noticed if you read this blog regularly, I use Greek-style plain yogurt as a replacement for oil or buttermilk in a lot of my recipes. At the outset, it was just to add some protein, but along the way I found that it brought a softness to the texture of muffins/quick breads that applesauce or other fruit puree didn’t seem to copy. It was a win-win situation in my head: the benefit of yogurt without the taste!

One day at the farmer’s market, the vendor I regularly bought ricotta cheese from was selling tubs of fresh, homemade Greek-style yogurt. “Alright,” I thought, “maybe I’ll like fresh yogurt. After all, I can flavor it myself and peaches are in season.” At worst, it would end up in my latest loaf of strawberry bread. Not a bad fate.

But that yogurt was destined for greater things. One spoonful and I was hooked. I started eating it nearly every day with a touch of raw honey and whatever fruit I could find. Peach-cinnamon, strawberry-apple, blueberry-banana…the possibilities were endless. It was so rich and creamy I found it hard to believe that it was fat free, but the vendor swore up and down that it was. Soon, every week I came home from the market with at least 2 tubs of it that might last the week (if I was lucky).

Then came winter. And we were pummeled with snow. I couldn’t get to the market as often and missed my yogurt. In vain, I searched for a store brand that didn’t taste goat-cheesy (not my thing), runny (gross), or somehow…off. (I get it, I’m picky about yogurt. Sue me.) I even tried the more expensive, organic “all-natural” flavored ones and they were tasty, but had enough sugar to make me remember why I’d scratched them off the list years ago.

I also began to consider just how much money I was spending on that particular dairy product (oh dear). The label read only: skim milk, non-fat dry milk, live active cultures. Could it really be so hard to just make it myself?

Answer: Nope.

And here’s how I did it…

Basic Yogurt

*image from

Ingredients and Equipment

-2 quart-sized mason jars with lids and rings. Plastic containers are also fine, but make sure you sterilize whatever you use. I do this by putting the jars in my dishwasher on a heated dry cycle. Leaving them in a pot of boiling water for 5-10 minutes works too.
-1 large saucepan.
-1 candy/fry/probe thermometer that you can leave in said saucepan.
-A warm place for incubating. I created a small incubator by placing a heating pad set to “low” on the bottom of an insulated cooler and placed the jars of yogurt on top of that. A crockpot set to “keep warm” works well, as does simply wrapping up the containers in thick bath towels and setting them in a warm place in your house.
-Half-gallon of the milk of your choice. It can be pasteurized, but avoid ultra-pasteurized varieties as it is more difficult to cultivate the necessary bacteria in these. I used skim milk, but any fat content will do.
-1/2 cup of plain yogurt containing live active cultures OR a powdered yogurt starter (which can be found on I used a small container of store brand plain, non-fat yogurt.
-1/2 cup of non-fat dry milk to aid in thickening.

For thicker, Greek-style yogurt, you will also need a colander lined with several layers of coffee filters or cheesecloth set over a large bowl.


-Begin by placing the half gallon of milk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and putting the pan over medium heat. Clip the candy or fry thermometer to the saucepan and allow the milk to heat to 185 degrees F.
-Remove the saucepan from the heat and allow the milk to cool to 110 degrees F. (You can do this quickly by gently setting your saucepan in a sink full of very cold water.)
-Once the milk cools to 110 degrees F, add the 1/2 cup yogurt and 1/2 cup dry milk and whisk until smooth. Ladle this mixture into the jars or containers and secure lids and rings.
-Incubate the yogurt in a warm place for 7-8 hours. At this point, it will have thickened and some liquid (whey) will probably have settled on the surface.

At this point, you may CHOOSE YOUR DESTINY!

You can either move the jars directly from incubation to the refrigerator. After several hours of cooling (overnight is best), you will have delicious yogurt that can then be flavored with any number of things. Fruit puree, jam, raw honey, cocoa powder/raw honey, agave, cinnamon, and even herbs are all great.

Or if you’re like me and love the thick, rich flavor of Greek-style yogurt, pour the just-incubated yogurt into a colander lined with several layers of coffee filters or cheesecloth set over a large bowl. Set that in the refrigerator and allow it to strain for several hours. You will be left with a colander full of thick, wonderful, protein-rich yogurt and a bowl full of whey (which you can discard or use in other recipes). Ladle the yogurt back into the jars and store in the refrigerator.

What does one do with nearly two quarts of yogurt? Well if you’re like me that won’t last you very long, but if you need some ideas these are my favorites:

-Mix 6oz. yogurt with 1 tbsp. all-fruit strawberry preserves and a drop of vanilla extract for strawberry creamsicle yogurt.
-Mix 6 oz. yogurt with 1/2 tbsp. raw buckwheat or apple blossom honey and a shake of cinnamon. This goes great on top of diced apples or peaches.
-Mix 2-3 tbsp. yogurt with a can of tuna, some Dijon mustard, and assorted vegetables for a high-protein tuna salad.
-Mix 4oz. yogurt with one small cucumber, pinch of thyme, and cayenne pepper and use it as a spread on sandwiches or as a vegetable dip.
-Mix 4oz. yogurt with 1 head of steamed, diced cauliflower, a dash of cayenne pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, and a handful of parmesan cheese.
-Blend 4oz. yogurt with 4oz. light cream cheese, a can of drained artichoke hearts, a few tbsp. of parmesan cheese, herbs, dry mustard, and some sautéed leafy greens and garlic for a fantastic dip.
-Use in Zucchini-Apple Quick Bread (see the post before this one!)

So you see, yogurt has a multitude of sweet and savory uses. Usually, if a recipe calls for sour cream or mayonnaise, I like to see if part or all of that can be replaced with yogurt. It adds a significant amount of protein and is also a great source of calcium.

There you have it: Yogurt 101. Go to it!


Battle Zucchini Bread!

7 Mar

It all began with a simple craving: Zucchini Bread.

Using all of my Google-fu, I searched the vast depths of the Internet looking for a whole wheat zucchini bread recipe. I found thousands, but the vast majority had this in common:

1 cup of sugar, raw honey, brown sugar, or other sweetener
1/2 cup of oil

Not okay. I just don’t think that a full cup of sweetener is necessary for one loaf of zucchini bread. At that point, aren’t you just masking the taste of the zucchini rather than accentuating it’s natural sweetness?

The 1/2 cup of oil seemed excessive too. Some recipes replaced part of that with applesauce, but I was out.

Still, I understood the need for a good deal of moisture, especially in a whole-grain bread. I had a small, sweet honeycrisp apple in the fridge and suddenly….it all just came together. Recipe out of nowhere.

Sweet, sweet victory. Moist, fluffy, sweet (but not cloying) and perfect with a dollop of plain yogurt on top. Even if you don’t like zucchini, try this recipe. It’s one of my favorites to date.

Whole Grain Zucchini-Apple Bread


1 1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup spelt flour
1/2 tbsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt

1 apple, grated
1 zucchini, grated
1/2 cup plain non fat greek yogurt
1/4 cup honey
1 egg


-Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F and grease an 8×4 or 9×5 loaf pan.

-In a large bowl whisk together the flours, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside.

-In a separate bowl whisk together the grated apple, grated zucchini, egg, yogurt, and honey.

-Add the wet ingredients to the dry and fold until just combined.

-Spread the batter in the prepared loaf pan and bake until golden brown, 40-45 minutes.

-Yield: 10 slices

Nutritional Information per slice:
112.7 calories
0.8 grams of fat
23 grams of carbohydrates
2.8 grams of fiber
3.7 grams of protein



A Holiday Wish

14 Dec

Baring my soul to the vast depths of the Internet has never been what blogging is about for me. When I began writing this blog after our move from Boston, I tried to not make any expectations or plans. It was one of the first projects I ever embarked on without a plan for how often I would work on it or update it. I didn’t really know what I would write, and so that’s why I simply titled it “Neen’s Notes.”

Over the past year and a half, I’ve shared some of my favorite recipes, reveled in the joy of local food, reminisced about life, plugged some of my favorite progressive causes, and even yakked a bit about sports.

But, dear readers, I confess to feeling guilty (again) lately. Not only because the blog has been so neglected, but because I’ve been making a lot of wonderful goodies and fun recipes for the holidays that are admittedly not “clean” foods. It occurred to me then that perhaps my focus has been too narrow. I’m still sourcing the products I do buy from local or fair-trade growers and while the recipes may not necessarily be healthy, they are important in another way. They make my heart feel good. To share them with the people I work with or my family and friends makes me feel so much happiness.

It wasn’t until I was sitting in a yoga practice a week or so ago that it occurred to me. Extremes, by their very definition are drastic and radical. Why make my life so full of that kind of tension? Why carry that with me all of the time?

Many, many times my yoga instructors have said, “Take the ego out of it. Respect what your body and mind can do today and let that be enough,” and I only just at that moment really let it sink in. A deep sense of peacefulness came over me. To capture that—if only for a few moments, was enough to make me reconsider my approach to writing this blog.

And so I have decided that my theme for this holiday season (and hopefully one that I will carry into the coming year) is flexibility. Neen’s Notes will continue to be a blog about living healthy. That means taking out the ego, accepting who I am on any given day, and striving each day to live with a sense of peace, love, and respect for those around me and for the planet that provides so many valuable resources.

If there is one wish I have for all of you this holiday season, it is that you come to find that sense of peace amid the insanity of crowded shopping malls and busy work days. Let it in and let it just be.



6 Nov

Okay, so I admit it. I’ve been avoiding the blog…a little. Around mid-September life got back to being crazy with school and work. Unfortunately, I ran out of hours in the day and so blogging took a backseat for awhile.

I would be lying and doing my readers a disservice however, if I did not admit that my absence was partly due to feeling a little “off the wagon” so to speak. I struggled throughout October particularly and found myself making easy, bad food choices more than I’d like to admit. I’d been dwelling on those choices and generally lazing in a “guilt-funk” that made me feel pretty grumpy.

Finally, finally I feel like I’m out of that place of negativity and getting back to feeling like Neen. It is amazing how rejuvenating it can be to stumble, recognize your own weaknesses, accept that you have them, and then resolve to strengthen them as best you can. Because honestly, while there were some food struggles, it has ultimately been a wonderful autumn thus far…Let me share some of it with you…

In mid-September, I finally joined the Energy Club gym in Shirlington so that I could keep up running during the cold months to come. What I’ve found there so far is a great community of gym-goers and instructors. Everyone is incredibly friendly and I’m enjoying the classes (particularly Flow Yoga and Body Jam) more than I ever thought I would. My goal for next year? Run the Army 10-miler.

Yoga has been particularly good for working through negative or intrusive feelings. It’s soothing and empowering all at once—a very unique blend of emotions.

October 3, 2009

I run AIDS Walk Washington (5k) and finish in around 26.5 minutes. An exhilarating experience that raised over $800,000 for the Whitman-Walker Clinic of Washington, DC. I was nervous with it being my first race, but I kept thinking of all of the people that sponsored me. That was what ultimately gave me the boost I needed during the last stretch up Pennsylvania Ave. Hearing the announcer say my name as I crossed the finish line was pretty cool too.

October 9, 2009

Joe and I take a trip to Smith Meadows Bed and Breakfast to celebrate our five-year anniversary (awww). While staying at their lovely Summer Kitchen Cottage on a 400-acre sustainable farm, we cooked a great meal, walked the grounds, enjoyed cigars and champagne by sunset, and were treated to an amazing breakfast prepared by the B&B proprietor. It was honestly the most peaceful place I have ever been in my life.

mid-October, 2009

Mystery Food 2009 comes to an end with a final basket loaded with squash, peppers, tomatoes, apples, salad greens and fresh HONEY! I was thrilled. Thank you to Leigh at Bull Run Mountain Farm for a wonderful CSA season.

October 31, 2009

I put the final touches on our fabulous Halloween costumes. Joe and I hit the town Saturday night as Batman villains The Riddler and Poison Ivy. I took most of my Ivy inspiration from how she appeared in “The Long Halloween.” It ended up looking better with less leaf-applique than I originally did. Joe’s Riddler costume was centered mostly around the amazing lime-green polyester suit that we found for a rather inexpensive price on Amazon. (Seriously, what can’t you find on that website?) He took inspiration from several comics and I did my best to bring his vision to life with limited time. I wish I’d had more time to sew more question marks on the suit, but he says he liked it simple.

A busy month and a half, huh? Somewhere in there I juggled work and a full course load and managed to get the flu (ugh). No one can say I’m (to use an Alton Brown expression) a unitasker! I’ve been doing some cooking as well and getting back into using the crockpot more now that the autumn chill seems more permanent. I’ll post some new recipes soon—stracciatella is on its way as well as a slow cooked tomato-cubanelle sauce that I guarantee will impress even your grandmother.

Until then friends, stay healthy and get out there and VOTE tomorrow.


Cooking from the Heart…

9 Sep

I strive to be a really positive influence on others, but we all experience times of doubt and insecurity. Sometimes, I don’t think I am as honest with my readers as I could be about the struggle that is a part of healthy eating and living. The truth is that for as often as I am happy about the progress I have made, there are days where I beat myself up. It could be that I finally broke down at the deli and bought a candy bar after months of clean eating, or simply that I woke up that morning I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. There’s a part of me during those moments that knows it’s time for a reality check, but sometimes that voice can get stifled.

Food and I have a tenuous relationship. As humans, we need sustenance to live. At a young age we come to acknowledge those who provide us with that sustenance as our caregivers. From very early on, we learn that to feed another person is to love them. When I met Joe and discovered that I liked him, one of the very first things I did for him was to make sauteed balsamic-thyme sirloin tips with mozzarella cheese. And it was not a dish I made to be particularly impressive, but because I had those ingredients in the fridge. It won him over, and the feeling of providing that kind of comfort to another person won me over. True, I’d spent the latter half of my freshman year of college cooking weekly meals with a friend for our group of friends, but that was the first time it was me alone just whipping something up on the fly for someone else. In any case, I kept cooking. I read culinary textbooks, southern cookbooks, cookbooks for every ethnic food imaginable…anything to stimulate my imagination to create new things. But at the same time, I found it difficult to avoid overeating when I was always trying out new recipes. I walk the line. I am constantly trying to balance between being passionate about the creation and sharing of food while avoiding gluttony and irresponsibly grown/created food products. It becomes overwhelming, it becomes burdensome, and worst of all…cooking becomes guilt-ridden.

And then I know it’s time to step back, take a breath, and just go home again. Time to take a day and remember why the act of sharing a meal is an act of love. Remove everything else from the equation and just create out of the desire to love another person.

And on Sunday, I did just that. Taking flour from Morris farms, eggs from Polyface farms, cheese from Blue Ridge Dairy Co., tomatoes, garlic, and basil from Bull Run Mountain Farm, and cayenne peppers from my own backyard, I brought together those who provide me with products I know are grown and raised with love and a sense of pride.

First, I made these:
I made the pasta dough from a combination of whole wheat and whole grain durum (semolina) flours, two eggs, a few tablespoons of olive oil, and a few tablespoons of water. It made a fine, elastic dough that was surprisingly light. I think that one of the keys to whole wheat pasta is to make sure that the dough gets a proper rest before it’s rolled out. The filling is comprised of part-skim ricotta, parmesan, and pecorino romano cheeses. I bound it with an egg and added a few herbs and spices to bring out the flavors of the individual cheeses.

What good are ravioli without a nice sauce? Since Leigh said that it was likely the last week for big, ripe tomatoes (damn blight) I took the bunch of gorgeous orange and yellow ones he gave me and sauteed them in a few teaspoons of bacon fat with garlic, some bell pepper, thyme, basil, and spices. I finished it with a diced cayenne pepper. I’m not really a huge spicy food fan, so I removed the seeds first. After tasting the sauce, I instantly mourned that it would be gone so quickly. Even Joe, who normally asks me to go light on the marinara sauce when I serve him pasta, asked for more of it on his plate.

And what better to serve a lovingly prepared meal on than a dish designed with the earth in mind?[FYI, that’s a seven-inch triangle plate in grass green from Riverside Design Group’s Sea Glass collection. How awesome is that color? If I didn’t already have an “Empire Red” theme going on with my kitchen appliances, I think I’d go with that green. It’s refreshing!]

After it was all said and done, I felt accomplished. Even satisfied.

But it wasn’t until Joe brought me his empty plate in search of a few more ravioli that I felt “the happiness.” There was that same look that made me feel all warm and fuzzy five years ago, and I thought “Yes. I may not always do right. I may not always make the best choices. But if I can always give this kind of comfort and love to the people around me, then I think I’ll be okay.”