Hidden Gems: Sterling Renaissance Festival

No summer is complete for my family without a trip to 16th century Warwick, England; or the closest we can get at the Renaissance Festival in Sterling, NY.

Photo credit: Andrew Lesny and Sterling Renaissance Festival

Highlights

Step into the woods at the event, and everywhere you look there is magic.  Both performers and guests really get into character, so be prepared to yell “Huzzah!” and “God Save the Queen!” when cheers grow up from the crowd.

Photo credit: Andrew Lesny and Sterling Renaissance Festival

The many shows are not to be missed! You can download a full schedule ahead of time. There is music, comedy, theater, storytelling and even a “bawdy” performance at the mud pit. No special effects are used there, just mud and lots of it!

There is also a live joust where you can cheer on your favorite knight. My kids loved riding the horses after the event. The swordplay made an impact, too — my son recently told me, in all seriousness, that he wants to be a swordsman when he grows up.

Another must-see for my family is Don Juan and Miguel. They are a comedic act that my husband still loves after seeing them for 20 years.

The author with her son at the festival.

Festival games are not for the faint of heart. My kids like tossing knives, shooting arrows, and visiting the dungeon museum! There are also people-powered rides powered by the stronger members of the staff.

The author’s daughter, shooting a bow and arrow.

If you appreciate fine artisans and their crafts, there is a lot to look at in the royal marketplace. You can see glass sculptures being made, browse through costumes, and purchase a wide variety of products from knick-knacks to jewelry and fine art.

And of course, you will need food and drink to sustain you for the day. My husband will eat a turkey leg, while my vegetarian daughter prefers the falafel. Luckily there are lots of options for everyone.

Prefer Pirates or Bagpipes?

Check out the themed weekends that are available. We appreciate the discounts on family weekend, bit if you prefer pirates, bagpipes, or a romantic weekend you might visit later in the summer.

The Details

Location: 15385 Farden Road, Sterling, NY
Hours: Saturdays & Sundays, July 7th – August 19th, 2018, 10:00 AM – 7:00 PM
Accessibility: The main paths are wheelchair accessible and handicapped accessible. Parking and restrooms are available.
Admission: $25.95 for adults (12 and up), $15.95 for children. Additional charges for games, rides and food.

For more info: www.sterlingfestival.com or 1-800-879-4446

15 Foods You’re Not Eating (But Should!)

My approach to healthy eating focuses on eating more, not less.

Feast more on certain “nutritional rock stars” that are good for your heart, stocked with vitamins and low in calories.

Many of these superfoods also help you feel full longer — a great thing for shedding weight.

Eat more of These superfoods

These foods might not be a staple for you – yet. But they have the potential to transform meal time (or snack time) into a healthier experience.

  1. Oats: Heart-healthy. Fills you up so you eat less.
  2. Canned/fresh tuna: Full of vitamins. Also heart-healthy.
  3. Salmon: Similar benefits as tuna. Also full of brain-boosting fats.
  4. Greek yogurt: Lots of protein. Can energize you and keep you healthy.
  5. Berries: Good for the heart! May help reduce your risk of diseases.
  6. Nuts: Another heart-healthy superfood. Watch your portions. Nuts are calorie-rich, unlike many other foods on the list. Step outside your comfort zone and feast on pistachios, walnuts, and pecans.
  7. Water: Curbs your hunger. Helps you lose weight.
  8. The following veggies are super low in calories. They’re full of vitamins, such as folate, which helps prevent birth defects. Don’t know how to cook these tricky foods? Here are some ideas:

  9. Cauliflower: Try roasting its florets. Cauliflower mashed potatoes is another popular, healthy alternative.
  10. Brussels sprouts: Another great candidate for roasting. Toast with olive oil or Parmesan cheese.
  11. Kale: A great green for salads. Toss with your favorite dressing and toppings. Baby kale tends to be more tender. Or “massage” regular kale leaves to tenderize them.
  12. Arugula: Another salad staple. Or, sauté with other vegetables.
  13. Bok choy: Use its leaves in salads or sandwiches. Or, drizzle with olive oil and throw on the grill.
  14. The following foods are great protein sources. They can serve as a healthier alternative to meat, which tends to have more fat and contains cholesterol.

  15. Beans: Try garbanzo beans for a super healthy kick.
  16. Dried peas: Consider adding to soups. Split pea soup is a classic.
  17. Lentils: Very versatile. Try them in stews, salads, soups and side dishes.

A surprisingly delicious summer salad

I didn’t expect this “farro” salad to be tasty. Farro is a kind of super-healthy whole grain that at first glance looks unappetizing. It looks like you’re eating a big bowl of barley!

Turns out I was wrong. Farro has a nutty and pleasant taste that is extra scrumptious when paired with diced apples, raisins and sliced almonds.

As a bonus, farro is rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber. Like many whole grains, farro may also help lower your risk of diseases, including heart disease and diabetes.

So whip up a bowl of this farro salad at your next summer shindig. Surprise your guests with this unusually tasty side dish.

Print Recipe
Apple & Almond Farro Salad
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Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Mix everything together and add oil and balsamic mixture. Feel free to add chopped tomatoes, diced cucumbers, red peppers or other veggies.

Could Whole30 Help My Migraines?

I get migraines. Lie in bed all day, can’t think, light-and-sound-sensitive, pounding migraines.

Since elementary school, I’d get such bad headaches that I couldn’t eat, deal with small amounts of lights or noise, and would occasionally throw up.

I always found a way to deal with them. I’d use pillows and blankets to cover the lights and would always carry a bottle of Excedrin Extra Strength Migraine.

Last year, however, the Excedrin stopped working. I visited doctors and tried different medications. But I’d still get migraines once a week for 24 hours or more.

But as I battled these extreme headaches, my best friend and fellow migraine sufferer stumbled upon something that actually worked. She found a non-medication route that took her from three migraines a week to zero. Those results sounded great! So I decided to give what she was doing a try – The Whole30 eating plan.

Is the Whole30 the Cure to Migraines?

The Whole30 is a “short-term nutrition reset” developed by Melissa Hartwig in 2009. She noticed that certain food groups could potentially cause problems with certain people. Therefore, she suggested that people try cutting these foods out of their diets for 30 days. Then you’d slowly introduce these foods back into your diet to help you determine the cause of the migraines.

While on the Whole30, you eat real, whole foods including moderate portions of meat, seafood, and eggs, vegetables, fruits, natural fats, and herbs, spices, and seasonings.

You avoid eating:

  • Sugar. Whether it’s real or artificial, it is out for 30 days.
  • Alcohol. In all forms, even for cooking.
  • Grains. Think of all forms of grains, even the gluten free ones, and say goodbye.
  • Legumes. This means beans, peas, lentils, peanuts (no peanut butter), and soy.
  • Dairy. Cow, goat, or sheep – it doesn’t matter. All types of milk products are out.
  • Carrageenan, MSG, or sulfites. If these ingredients appear in any form on the label of your processed food or beverage, it’s out.

There are a few exceptions to these rules and additional rules that are important to note, for those check out the full program rules here.

But is Whole30 Really Healthy?

Before I go any further, I have to stress that this story is based solely on my experiences. Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, the sponsor of this blog, does not endorse this diet.

The diet does include a lot of healthy stuff, and removes many unhealthy things. The diet focuses a lot on vegetables, for example, and bans sweets and junk food. Many of the avoided foods in the Whole 30 plan have also been recognized by medical professionals as common triggers of migraines, including MSG, alcohol and certain dairy products.

The concern? The diet also eliminates foods that are great sources of important nutrients, including beans and whole grains, said Amanda Shanahan, a registered dietitian with Excellus BCBS. These types of foods, for example, are keys to digestive and heart health, she added.

“Fortunately, this is only supposed to be a ‘short-term nutrition reset,’” said Shanahan. “But individuals should consult with their personal physician and/or registered dietitian for guidance before tackling new diets, such as Whole30.”

How to do Whole30 on Campus

I live on campus and have a meal plan.  Therefore, my first step was to email the culinary service to figure out what I could and couldn’t eat on campus.  My second step was to go grocery shopping to get snacks and food to eat in case I didn’t have time to eat on campus. After a long trip to Wegmans, and after reading every label trying to find a compliant salad dressing, I picked my start date and was ready.

Eating On Campus

I usually eat on campus for two meals a day: lunch and dinner. I also have a very busy schedule so I don’t always sit in the dining hall for both of those meals. I’m often running to cafés on campus to grab food to eat in class or at work.

In the dining hall I ate:

  • Grilled Chicken. Available at both lunch and dinner, this was one of the first things I asked about when I emailed the culinary service.
  • Salad. There’s a great salad bar with different greens and tons of raw vegetables. I did avoid the salad dressings since I wasn’t sure of its ingredients.  This was a great spot if I needed something fast or just wanted to add raw veggies to a meal.
  • Stir Fry. I’m lucky to have a stir fry station where you load up a container with all the vegetables you want, choose to add chicken, steak, crab, shrimp, or tofu, and then its grilled in front of you. The only Whole 30 compliant sauces were Tabasco and Frank’s Hot Sauce.
  • Fruit. Always choices for fresh fruit.
  • Hard Boiled Eggs. Available daily. I might eat them alone or add to my salad or stir fry.
  • Grilled, cooked, or steamed vegetables. The Vegan/ Vegetarian Section. I made a habit to start checking this section of the dining hall knowing that the vegan foods would be dairy-free and could possibly be complaint with the eating plan.

A typical “Whole 30-approved” dining hall meal

From the on-campus cafés I ate:

  • The build-your-own-salad option with grilled chicken or hard-boiled eggs. Of course, no salad dressing.

Secrets to sticking with the Whole30 diet

I learned that the key was to bring in my own extras. I might bring my own dressing to add to salad, stir fry or on top of grilled chicken.  Or, I’d bring guacamole or salsa to also add on top of the grilled chicken.

I challenged myself to try new foods and found some that I liked, such as parsnips and tilapia.

The dining hall staff was extremely helpful. One day I had a question about whether I could eat something, and found myself talking with the head chef and two sous chefs. They explained how they prepared the dish. The head chef even gave me his cell phone number so I could text him when I had a question.

Challenges to the Whole30 Diet

One huge challenge was walking into the dining hall and being surrounded by food that I couldn’t eat! Passing by the pasta station when I craved a big plate of pasta with blush sauce was torture!

Another big challenge was the Whole30’s limited food options.  I often felt frustrated going to the dining hall or the cafes.

My favorite part of the Whole 30 Diet

The best part of doing the Whole30? The excuse to cook for myself! I love to cook, but it’s hard to cook when you live on campus. Lucky for me I have a boyfriend with who lives off campus, hates to cook, and will gladly eat anything I make. We made a lot of marinated chicken with veggies and potatoes as a fast and easy meal but also explored new recipes. A few of our favorites were crockpot beef and broccoli with cauliflower rice, spaghetti squash with ground turkey and marinara sauce, and almond crusted tilapia with baked potatoes.

Whole 30 and Grocery Shopping

Grocery shopping is a challenge. But I quickly got really good at reading the ingredient list on every label to see if it was compliant with Whole30. I learned that nearly everything has sugar in it. I don’t get why it’s necessary to add sugar to things like salad dressing or marinara sauce or even chicken sausage. But I can confirm there is sugar in most of these products.  Soybean oil is also in most everything, and that’s another item you can’t eat!

Some of my favorite things to buy when grocery shopping were:

  • Larabars. The bars are made from two to six ingredients and are sweetened by dates. They are great for on the go and became a big part of my breakfast. But be careful. Only certain flavors are Whole30 approved. My favorite Larabars were the lemon and cashew cookie ones.
  • Salad dressing. The three dressings I always had on hand were:
    •  Annie’s Lemon and Chive Dressing (bought at Wegmans). A favorite marinade for chicken and a topping for seafood stir fry
    • Trader Joe’s Tuscan Italian Dressing. Another favorite chicken marinade, great on salads and any type of stir fry;
    • Primal Kitchen’s Caesar Dressing (bought at Wegmans). Great on salads.
  • Dried Fruit. My favorite was Bare’s dried apple chips. The plain and cinnamon chips are both delicious. I mean “eat a whole bag in one sitting” delicious.
  • Hint Waters. I got tired of drinking regular water. Naturally-flavored water like Hint saved the day. Again, be careful because not all flavors are Whole30 approved. My favorite “approved” flavors are cherry and watermelon.
  • Guacamole. The brand Wholly Guacamole is approved and makes individually packaged 2 oz. minis, which are perfect to carry around to put on top of grilled chicken or turkey burgers.
  • Unsweetened Applesauce. The perfect after-dinner snack, especially when everyone is eating dessert around you. I typically bought Trader Joe’s brand, but you can also buy Motts or generic brands.

Whole 30: My Results

If you can believe it – I made it through the 30 days without straying from the plan!

I only had two migraines during the time! Both migraines were after stressful days so the cause could be attributed to that. I also lost 13 pounds. The weight loss was something I didn’t expect since I didn’t work out at all that month.

Overall, I was pleased with the results. Even though the 30 days have ended, I will continue with some of my new eating habits. I’m now an expert in avoiding sugary foods and a wiz at finding healthy snacks and making veggie-heavy dishes.

I’ll continue to work with my doctors on treatment options for my migraines. I also want to see if certain foods trigger my migraines. So I will slowly add these foods back into my diet so I can see if one of them is the reason for my headaches. In general, keeping a food journal can be helpful for those with chronic migraines because it can help to identify potential food triggers.

I don’t want to eliminate all these foods forever, especially since many of them – such as beans and whole grains — are the building blocks to good health!

11 Inspiring Stories about Women’s Health

For many bloggers at AHealthierUpstate.org, it’s been an honor to have chronicled the lives of so many women who’ve overcome critical diseases or worked hard to help others be healthy.

In honor of National Women’s Health Week (May 13-19, 2018), we rounded up some of these inspirational stories – from articles about women who battled cancer or struggled with fertility to those who found their own ways to help our communities.

Did you know that only half of women in upstate New York report that their health is very good or excellent? So while we hope you enjoy these stories, we also hope you’ll take away some tips that’ll help you be your healthiest self!

The importance of cancer screening

  1. Cervical Cancer Survivor Christine Baze wants everyone to get this vaccination. Here’s why.

Before you decide whether or not to have your pre-teen vaccinated against HPV, you may want to read about Christine Baze’s battle with cervical cancer.

2. Breast Cancer Survivor Almost Skipped Annual Checkup 

Being proactive about breast cancer screening is crucial to early detection and treatment. Pam Eadi knows firsthand just how important those checkups are.

3. Too Busy for a Colonoscopy? A Story of Regret and Redemption

Lynn Johnson knew she should get a colonoscopy. But she was busy and didn’t get screened. The problem: Lynn had colon cancer, but didn’t know it.

The Motherhood Journey

4. Conceiving a Miracle: When Getting Pregnant Isn’t a Given

Even after giving birth once, getting pregnant isn’t a given. Julie shares her very personal story as to the trials associated with infertility.

5. Pregnant Moms Take Note: Sooner Isn’t Better

Doctors once believed that it was OK for pregnant women to deliver at 37 weeks, but new research shows that development in the womb continues past 37 weeks.

Local Go-Getters and Do-Gooders

6. Spotlight on Kecia McCullough

Kecia McCullough created the Rochester chapter of Black Girls Do Bike. The group is part of a national effort to create safe spaces for female cyclists.

7. Spotlight on Kelly Springer, a Skaneateles Business Owner with a National Reach

Kelly Springer is a Skaneateles local who founded a nutritional company called Kelly’s Choice. Kelly’s Choice focuses on sports nutrition, weight loss, workplace wellness, heart heath, diabetes and more. Kelly shares with us her tips for living her healthiest life.

8. Spotlight on Alana Hughes and H2 Fitness

Alana Hughes is one of the founders of H2 Fitness, a full body “boot camp” program in Syracuse, New York. She believes that when you feel good, you do good.

9. Spotlight on Nydia Padilla-Rodriguez

Nydia Padilla-Rodriguez is the creator of the Borniquen Dance Theater. The program helps youth “find the desire to succeed through the discipline of dance”.

10. Personal Spotlight on Nicole Kazimer of Hikyoga

Nicole Kazimer is the founder of Hikyoga, a hiking-infused yoga class in Rochester. Her Hikyoga journey began with teaching her friends yoga at a Rochester park.

Last but not least

11. Teresa’s Grateful for her Gift of Life

After Teresa’s 12-hour transplant surgery, her doctor told her husband, “it’s amazing she was still alive.”

Snack Your Way to Your Summer Weight

Healthy snacking might sound like an oxymoron. But there are a lot of benefits to snacking – especially if you want to shed a few pounds in time for swimsuit season.

If you snack on the right foods, you tend to consume fewer calories throughout the day. You’ll feel fuller longer and be less likely to overeat or reach for unhealthy foods.

In addition to looking good poolside or at the beach, individuals who stay at a healthy weight reduce their risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, and some cancers.

Here are a few tips:

  1. Rather than snacking on cookies or chips, have a handful of raw almonds. A serving is 23 almonds. Put a serving of almonds into individual snack size bags and leave them in key locations such as your desk, purse and the beverage cup holder in the car. Almonds are heart healthy and a protein-packed snack!
  2. Pair a small amount of cheese with whole grain crackers. The protein in the cheese will keep you from feeling hungry.
  3. Try one of my favorite snacking recipes – Cookie Dough Hummus! This recipe is delicious on a piece of toast and as a snack with apple slices, baby carrots or graham crackers. Check out the recipe at the bottom of this story.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also offers the following healthy snacking ideas:

  1. Try three cups of air-popped popcorn instead of oil-popped popcorn. You’ll consume 73 fewer calories.
  2. Avoid the vending machine. Pack an eight-ounce, nonfat, no sugar added yogurt. That’s 82 fewer calories compared to a package of six peanut butter crackers.
  3. Consider packing vegetable sticks and fresh fruit, “nature’s fast food.”
  4. Substitute a sugary 12-ounce can of soda with a bottle of carbonated water for 136 fewer calories.
  5. Instead of chocolate sandwich cookies or other sweet snacks, eat a bowl of berries or a juicy peach.
Print Recipe
Cookie Dough Hummus
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Instructions
  1. Put the beans, peanut butter, maple syrup and vanilla into a food processor. Blend ingredients until smooth. Once blended, mix in chocolate chips.

For more healthy snacking ideas, visit fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org.

Sage Advice: 7 Tips for Your Herb Garden (Recipes Included!)

I’d rather be cooking than gardening, but there’s something about growing and using my own herbs that’s satisfying to the soul and palate and a treat for the senses. Once planted, they grow quickly–sometimes, it seems, right in front of my eyes. In the morning, I do some tactile and aromatherapy as I touch and smell the herbs.

Growing your own herbs can be daunting to the novice gardener. Here are tips for first-timers:

  1. Start small by growing plants in containers. After you bring the plants home from the farmers’ market, garden center or hardware store, repot them in larger containers with good potting soil.
  2. In upstate New York, wait until Memorial Day to grow them outdoors. If we do get a frost or the threat of one, it’s easy to cover the containers with a blanket or move them to the garage. The animals don’t get to my deck where I grow them in containers, but they do get to my neighbor’s garden in the ground.
  3. Check the website herbgardening.com for a wealth of information for growing herbs—from anise to watercress—inside, outside, in containers and even hydroponically.

Here are more tips from Pamela Shade, a horticulturist and curator of the Robison York State Herb Garden at the Cornell Botanic Gardens in Ithaca, New York.

  1. Don’t tuck your herbs into a shady corner of your yard. Most culinary herbs require full sun and a minimum of six hours direct sunlight daily.
  2. Fight root rot and fungal diseases by providing plants with well-drained soil. Add several inches of compost to improve the soil quality of heavy, wet, clay soil.
  3. Because herbs need room to thrive, allow plenty of space between plants for good air circulation and to encourage maximum growth. For example, basil plants should be spaced at least 12 inches apart.
  4. Don’t over-fertilize as this will decrease the flavor of the herbs.

Not all herbs are the same, since some want to be raised in certain ways. Shade offered the following advice:

Some herbs can be started from seed indoors during the winter and spring. These include thyme, a perennial, (February); parsley (March); basil and marjoram (early April).

Other herbs are best grown from seeds directly planted into the garden. They include anise, dill, caraway, cilantro, cumin, fenugreek and mustard.

Longing for lavender or sage? It’s best to purchase plants from a reputable nursery since they take a long time to grow into mature plants large enough to transplant outside into the garden.

Now that you’re an herb-growing expert, you can start cooking! Herbs are a flavorful and calorie-free addition to any dish. Here’s how I use some of my favorite herbs:

  • Basil. Good in pesto or in a tomato and fresh mozzarella salad, on pizza and in marinara sauce. Basil is wimpy and turns limp at the first sign of cold weather. Freeze pesto in ice cube trays, remove to a freezer bag, and take out as needed for a winter treat that reminds you of summer’s bounty.
  • Chives. Excellent potato or cauliflower salad. (See recipe below)
  • Mint. Add to hot or cold water for flavor. Chew on mint leaves instead of gum or candy. Mint is a take-charge herb that spreads far and wide. Grow it in pots to contain it. If you plant it in the ground, cut the bottom off a pot and plant the cylinder in the ground to damper mint’s urge to roam.
  • Parsley. A must for tabbouleh. Hearty parsley lives up to its name. I’ve brushed snow off it and welcomed it to the warm indoors. (See recipe below)
  • Rosemary. Tasty with roasted potatoes or on pork.
  • Sage. Good with eggs or chicken.
  • Tarragon. Transform leftover chicken to chicken salad.
  • Thyme. Delicious in bean salads, vegetables and with meat.

There’s nothing like harvesting your own herbs and savoring their smell and taste firsthand. To paraphrase an old saying, the scent of the rosemary stays on the hand of the giver. Share your abundance with friends and co-workers. You’ll both be glad you did!

Print Recipe
Roasted Potatoes and Cauliflower with Chives
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Instructions
  1. Cut the potatoes to ¾ inch cubes. Place on a jelly-roll pan and toss with the oil, garlic powder, rosemary, paprika, salt and pepper. Roast the potatoes in the middle of a preheated 450°F. oven, turning them occasionally, for 15 minutes. Add the cauliflower, toss the mixture well, and roast 10 minutes or until the cauliflower is tender and golden in spots. Toss the vegetables with chives and serve topped with a garnish of whole chives.
Print Recipe
Tabbouleh
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Instructions
  1. Place bulgur in a heatproof bowl. Pour boiling water over, then cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and let stand 15 minutes. Drain in a colander, pressing on bulgur to remove any excess liquid. Transfer bulgur to a bowl and toss with remaining ingredients until combined well. Enjoy!

Buffalo Chicken Sweet Potato Bake

Buffalo chicken. Is there anything better? I’d submit to you that there is not. However, it is generally not a nutritional practice to eat buffalo chicken wings and dip on a regular basis. That is, until I discovered this casserole that’s equal parts nutritional and flavorful. This is our family’s go-to recipe for any event or occasion, and great for feeding a crowd or freezing for later.

Print Recipe
Buffalo Chicken Sweet Potato Bake
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You'll need:
Additional toppings:
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You'll need:
Additional toppings:
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Heat 1 tbsp of olive oil or ghee, and add the bell pepper and onion. Season with salt and pepper, and saute until soft, about 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat.
  3. In a bowl, mix hot sauce of your choice (6 tablespoons get you a "mild" heat, 4 tablespoons is good for kids, 8 tablespoons is for your heat lovers!), with 1 tbsp of olive oil or ghee, 1 tbsp of paprika, 1 tsp of garlic powder and salt and pepper. Stir in the raw chicken to coat, then add the sweet potatoes. Then stir in the seasoned bell pepper and onion. Mix together in a baking dish, and bake, covered at 350 for 40 minutes. Stir occasionally.
  4. At 40 minutes, remove and add the crumbled bacon and stir in the greens. Cook for another 10 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through and the sweet potatoes are fork tender. Remove from the oven and top with the green onions and another swirl of hot sauce.
  5. Serve with assorted toppings. Pairs nicely with a cold beer!
Recipe Notes

Make it vegetarian: Use firm tofu or tempeh! Pat your tofu dry, then dice. Meanwhile, heat 1 tbsp of olive oil in a skillet. Season your tofu with salt, pepper, paprika and garlic powder. When the oil is hot, sear the tofu until browned on each side. Stir into the baked sweet potatoes, vegetable and sauce mixture with 10 minutes left.

Weeknight hack: Use rotisserie chicken to reduce your cooking time!

18 Fabulous Fiction Books for 2018

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

This quote from Albert Camus is why I love fiction. Reading about other peoples’ made up lives, I learn something about myself. Fiction transports me to other times, places and events. Yet, universal truths about the human condition are true for all. For convenience sake, I’ve linked these 18 favorites of mine to Amazon, but you can find them at other sites, including my favorite, the library!

Double Jeopardy

  1. “I Know This Much Is True” by Wally Lamb

I didn’t think Lamb could beat “She’s Come Undone” (how could a man know so much about being a woman?), but he does with his second book. Both were #1 New York Times bestsellers and both Oprah Book Club selections. Like the best of fiction, “I Know” made me abandon reason and stay up reading into the wee hours despite having to work the next day. This tale of two brothers, one who has schizophrenia, begs the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

  1. “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese

With so many books and so little time, I rarely read the same one twice. This was an exception. The second reading held me as spellbound as the first. Ethiopian, African and American cultures and politics intertwine across decades in the telling of Marion and Shiva Stone’s complicated relationship. Written by a medical doctor, the book not only intrigued me with the twin brothers’ storyline, but also taught me about the plight of many poor Ethiopian women; some suffered female genital mutilation and often vaginal fistulas, making them outcasts.

Dysfunctional Families

  1. “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver

Another great read with a history lesson. The setting is Belgian Congo in the late 1950s. Although I had a hard time getting into “The Poisonwood Bible,” once I did, I couldn’t put it down. Told by each of the four daughters and the wife of a misanthropic missionary, the different points of view offer a unique perspective on the times and religious beliefs.

  1. “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout

I couldn’t quite put my finger on the title character. Olive is by turns harsh and uncaring,  then compassionate. She’s one tough cookie, especially with her son and husband, a softie. HBO made this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a “true to the book” miniseries starring Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, and Bill Murray. I rarely watch movies twice; this was an exception.

A Difficult Life

  1. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon

“The Curious Incident” involves a teen boy in England. On the autism spectrum, Christopher is a math wizard with few social skills. When he discovers a neighbor’s dog murdered with a pitchfork, he decides to play Sherlock Holmes. Christopher sees the world in black and white, sometimes to comic effect, with a touch of sadness. The Syracuse Stage play of the same name was an amazing production. It was also true to the book, which always makes me happy.

  1. “Icy Sparks” by Gwyn Hyman Rubio

Set in eastern Kentucky, Rubio’s first novel captures the sad and touching life of a young girl with Tourette Syndrome in the 1950s, when little was understood about the inherited neurological tic disorder. The book chronicles the orphan’s growing up among misguided adults and children and her acceptance of her condition as a young woman. She’s one of those fictional heroines who makes you want to stand up and cheer.

  1. “Left Neglected” by Lisa Genova

Neuroscientist turned author, Genova sheds light on a number of neurological diseases in her well-researched books. You may be familiar with “Still Alice,” Genova’s account of an accomplished college professor who has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Left neglect is the result of a stroke or traumatic brain injury. The condition can affect either side of the brain. In “Left Neglected,” a young suburban mom learns what it means to live without awareness of one side of her body–and more.

Mystery/Thrillers

  1. “The Good Daughter” by Karin Slaughter

I’m a fan of Slaughter’s “Will Trent” series, but with her latest publication, the author outdid herself. If gruesome details bother you, then skip Slaughter’s books. But if you like well-written legal thrillers, then check out this cold case thriller that deals with a young female lawyer’s horrific past, her troubled family relationships, and small-town secrets.

  1. “In the Bleak Midwinter” by Julia Spencer-Fleming

In this first of a series of mysteries set in the Adirondacks, Spencer-Fleming sets the stage for the thorny relationship between the Episcopal church’s new priest, the Rev. Clare Fergusson, and the Miller Kill’s chief of police, Russ Van Alstyne. The author creates a cast of memorable characters that appear in subsequent novels. I can’t wait for the next installment, where I hope she resolves the cliffhanger in #9.

Mystery With History

  1. “Alice’s Tulips” by Sandra Dallas

Dallas’s books may appeal more to women, often centering on the social network of the past known as “quilting bees.” In this book that takes place during the Civil War, Alice is a new bride who lives with her formidable mother-in-law while her husband is off fighting for the North. Alice soon finds herself accused of murder, and so the mystery begins.

Love Story With History

  1. “The Sandcastle Girls” by Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian, like Wally Lamb, writes with wisdom about women (“Midwives”). In “The Sandcastle Girls,” I learned about  Armenian Genocide during World War I. The narrative weaves between past and present for Elizabeth, a wealthy American who volunteers to help Armenian refugees in Syria, and Armen, a young Armenian engineer. It’s a love story set in the background of man’s inhumanity to man.

More Than a Mystery

  1. “Leaving Time” by Jodi Picoult

Although some dismiss Picoult as a “chick” author, she researches her subjects in depth. There’s always a backdrop to the main character’s story that deals with current social issues. In “Leaving Time,” Picoult enlarged my knowledge about elephants and their culture. At the center of this tale is Jenna, whose mother studied grief among elephants. Jenna is determined to find her mother, whose sudden disappearance has never been explained. Did she abandon Jenna or worse?

Coming of Age

  1. “Ordinary Grace” by William Kent Krueger

Middle-aged Frank Drum recalls the summer in New Bremen, Minnesota, in 1961, when several deaths rocked the small community. “Ordinary Grace” not only deals with the crimes and their effect on the townspeople, but also Drum’s family dynamics. Many have compared it to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” especially with the similarities between Atticus Finch of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Drum’s father, the town’s Methodist minister.

  1. “Snow in August” by Pete Hamill

Set in Brooklyn in 1947, the story involves the unlikely friendship between an 11-year-old Catholic boy and a lonely rabbi from Prague. From the rabbi, Michael learns the mysteries of the Kabbalah, and the pre-teen introduces the rabbi to the joys of baseball. Terrorized by an anti-Semitic Irish gang, the unlikely duo is rescued by a miracle, otherwise known as a golem.

Fiction by Female Authors

  1. “The Robber Bride” by Margaret Atwood

Although I enjoy Atwood’s dystopian fiction, including “The Handmaid’s Tale,” I remember “The Robber Bride” for its depth of characters–four women who met in college. Twenty years later, three of them gather for the fourth one’s funeral, but is she really dead?

  1. “The Story of Arthur Truluv” by Elizabeth Berg

Berg had me at “Talk Before Sleep,” and since then, I’ve read every book she’s published. Although a few have fallen short of the author’s elegant writing and in-depth knowledge of human nature, her latest one does not disappoint. The story of an elderly man who visits his wife’s gravesite every day, a rebellious teen he befriends and their relationship with Arthur’s spunky senior neighbor lady makes for a quick, pleasurable read.

Out of My Comfort Zone

  1. “Angle of Repose” by Wallace Stegner

Shout out to my local library in Marcellus, New York, which sponsored a Pulitzer Prize-winning book club. The moderator introduced our suburban group of readers to books that often took us out of our comfort zone. “Angle of Repose” was my favorite. Lyman Ward, who lives alone despite a crippling bone disease, is the focus of this story within a story. Ward explores the life of his pioneering grandmother, who, with her engineer husband, struggles to raise a family in the hardscrabble west in the late 1800s.

  1. “Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri

Preferring novels to short  stories, I had enjoyed reading Lahiri’s “Namesake.” My book club selected this collection of nine stories, some set in India, others in the U.S. Although she considers herself American, Lahiri features her ancestry prominently. Her characters, however, transcend borders and cultures, with their feelings of love, loss and other universal experiences.

Homemade Sauerkraut is Easier Than You Think

I’m mostly Irish and German and my wife is mostly Polish and Irish. Thus, explaining why we make our own sauerkraut seems indulgent, but here I go anyway. I love sauerkraut with my hot dogs and Reubens, and she loves to use it to make pierogi and kapusta. We both love it with some kielbasa. And like most everything else food related, it tastes better when it’s homemade.

Whether or not you have a genetic predisposition for pickled cabbage fermented in lactic acid bacteria, read on, as I share with you my family’s recipe for sauerkraut. This recipe comes from my mother and stepfather, who passed it on to my wife and me.

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Sauerkraut Recipe
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Instructions
  1. Wash and then cut the heads of cabbage into pieces small enough to fit into the food processor. Using the appropriate blade for 1/4-inch slices, process one head of cabbage and place the result into the fermentation crock. Sprinkle a little salt on the cabbage. Massage the cabbage vigorously with your hands to bring out its moisture (this process forms the brine). Do this for 10-15 minutes with each head, using the rest of the salt. Let it sit for one hour.
  2. The next step is to pack the salt and cabbage mixture down into your crock. The brine should cover the kraut completely. If there is not enough brine to cover the cabbage, you need to massage the cabbage some more. When you are done packing, spread a sheet of cheesecloth across the top so that, later, when a layer of scum or moldy residue appears on top, you can easily remove the cheesecloth, rinse it off, and replace it. Then place the fermentation weights on top of the cheesecloth; these weights will keep the cabbage submerged in the brine. Finally, cover the crock with a top. We have wooden fitted tops with handles, while my stepfather uses a flat piece of plywood and a brick. Either will work.
  3. Allow the cabbage to ferment for approximately three weeks at room temperature. Feel free to give the cabbage a taste after one or two weeks to see how it's going, but try not to open the crock repeatedly. When you think the kraut is done, transfer it to quart-size freezer-style zip-lock bags and freeze them.
  4. With the sauerkraut in these bags, it is so easy to, say, pull a couple of bags out, run them under hot water for a minute to loosen the kraut, put the contents into a crock-pot with two kielbasa, sit it on low for 5.5 hours, and you will have a delicious dinner waiting when it's done!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!