Hi friends! It’s been a while since I checked in, I know. Work got a little overwhelming, as it always does during Open Enrollment, and then I had a ukulele-related injury that made it difficult to type for a while. (Yes, really - more on that later.)
But 2020 is finally (finally!) coming to a close, and so it’s time for my annual review. This exercise of recapping what happened feels like an odd one in a year of so much suffering (and, let’s be honest, very little “action”) but I think it’s important to carve out space for gratitude and reflection. This post is loosely organized into a few sections (gratitudes, learnings, reading, cooking, and resolutions) so if you’re here for the food, feel free to skip ahead.
When COVID hit, I was newly engaged, newly promoted, fresh off a two-week trip to DC that left me invigorated and excited about the year ahead. And then came the lockdowns, and the period of mixed messaging on masks and transmission when, not knowing what to believe, we just didn’t leave the apartment for weeks. But even in the most anxious moments, our immense privileges have been obvious — chief among them that we are healthy and have jobs that pay us well, let us work safely (in our case at home) and offer us health insurance. It’s unconscionable that these aren’t things everyone can count on.
Beyond these bigger gratitudes, there have still been many moments of light. I’m deeply fortunate to have gotten paired with the best quarantine buddy in Sam, my fiancé and partner of seven years. We had a fancy dinner to mark our engagement anniversary a few weeks ago and joked that the fact that we’re not sick of each other yet bodes well for our eventual marriage, but if we’re being honest, I appreciate him even more after spending day after day together.
This year would have been a lot tougher without a partner who constantly makes me laugh, cleans up after my cooking experiments, gently reminds me not to neglect my basic needs of sunshine, exercise and snacks, and picks excellent movies and TV. He also wakes up at 7:30am every Sunday to take a multiple-hour Turkish lesson. I’ll never get tired of being woken up to the sound of my chosen life partner suffering through vowel harmony for me — it’s like being bathed in Acts of Service.
The first book I read this year was Atomic Habits by James Clear, and I went in skeptical - I binge-read from the “self improvement” genre in 2016 and found everything to be pretty repetitive. I don’t know if it was something inherent to the book or just that I’m in a different place right now, but something about this one and its focus on tiny habits stuck.
Mostly, I finally started to grok that life is long, and I don’t have to get where I’m going in a matter of weeks or months or even years. The ultimate goal isn’t to be able to do a bunch of pull-ups aged 27 - it’s that I have a well-ingrained habit of daily activity and a stable spine when I’m 50.
This helped me a ton psychologically, because when your goal is consistency, it’s more important to get back on the horse when you fail than it is to meet a specific target. It’s also more important to do something than to do a specific thing. Would your life be better if you did a 20 minute walk every day? Yes? Great! So don’t feel bad if you only did a 20 minute walk today - or a 15 minute yoga video, or five minutes of stretching, or whatever checking the “I showed up” box looks like for you.
I love James Clear’s analogy of lowering the “activation energy” for a task you want to do rather than relying on some weird Protestant-work-ethic insistence on summoning up the willpower. In general, I’m trying to shift my mindset to think about processes rather than goals: if I go to the farmer’s market on Sunday and buy, then wash, then plan how I will use a bunch of vegetables, that vastly improves the likelihood that I’ll eat healthier foods. It’s not rocket science, but I’ve found it helpful.
Atomic Habits aside, I read a grand total of 89 books this year - a major step up from the 46 I read in 2019. I’d like to pretend that this was some result of great productivity and focus, but in reality, reading is my primary coping mechanism, and the trends in what I read certainly reflect that.
I kicked off the year with lots of nonfiction and literary fiction and went through a slow descent into reading pretty much exclusively romance and speculative fiction - my favorite forms of escape. One of the nice things about this was that I discovered some new-to-me favorite authors with bigger backlists, which meant I spent virtually no days unsure of what to read next. In particular, I’ll be auto-ordering anything new from Talia Hibbert, Naomi Novik, Robert Jackson Bennett, Evie Dunmore, and Mary Robinette Kowal.
Without further ado, here are my top 16 from 2020:
I would fervently recommend the above, but also read many, many more wonderful books that didn’t make the master list. Here’s the full list on Goodreads (add me!) and if you need a recommendation, hit me up. I also want to give a shoutout to Nina, Joelle and Sarah who collectively recommended dozens of incredible reads over the course of the year - thank you!
As is abundantly clear to anybody follows me on any form of social media, my other primary coping mechanism for 2020 was taking on increasingly elaborate cooking projects. By far the biggest catalyst of my culinary adventures has been my weekly trip to the Stonestown Farmer’s market to pick up a big box of beautiful and always surprisingly affordable fresh vegetables from Vang’s Green Produce, a wonderful family owned operation out in Merced.
It’s been transformative to start eating seasonally rather than just picking up whatever looked good at the supermarket - everything’s fresher, yes, but since things come in and out of season all the time, you also get a lot of natural variety. Plus, I feel 10x safer at a diligently distanced farmer’s market than I do rubbing elbows with everybody indoors at Costco.
If you’re not already a farmer’s market regular, I can’t recommend it highly enough, and also recommend picking up a copy of Joshua McFadden’s cookbook Six Seasons, which is organized by season and by vegetable. I got a copy for my birthday just before everything shut down and derived an inordinate amount of joy from coming home with my vegetable haul and then sitting down and flipping through to decide what to cook.
The other big change in my cooking this year is that I cooked far, far more meat than I usually do. This was largely because until COVID hit, both Sam and I generally ate at work and if we wanted meat, we just got it that way rather than cooking it ourselves. This isn’t something I feel great about given the environmental impacts, and ideally we’d be eating less of it overall, but I’ve tried to mitigate that impact by buying most of my meat from smaller farms where I know the meat is high-quality and ethically raised.
My favorite is Ballerina Farm out in Utah, which raises cows and pigs in the beautiful mountains of Kamas and ships nationally. I’m obsessed with their ground beef and pork and love their larger cuts too. (Plus, their Instagram is a charming bright light on my feed.) More locally, I try to buy at farmer’s market stalls from places like Root Down Farm and Fallon Hills Ranch. And critically, I try to make it as special as possible; please do not cook your pork over 145F, thank you.
My other favorite new cookbook of the year is Simple Thai Food by Leela Punyaratabandhu. I first discovered Leela’s work via her recipe for pad ka-prao (which became my go-to dinner this summer, RIP the holy basil season) and then promptly bought her first cookbook. It’s a fantastic introduction to Thai cooking, both a collection of recipes and a guidebook of sorts, with an expansive glossary of ingredients, where to get them, and when it’s appropriate to make substitutions versus just leaving something out.
I’ve also made a conscious effort this year to learn to make all my favorite Turkish dishes. Part of this was, frankly, just the general nostalgia that pervaded the whole pandemic for me (see: the months where I re-read every book Tamora Pierce has ever written.) But another part is tied to my anxieties around being sufficiently Turkish and the knowledge that, given I likely won’t ever move home, most of what I’ll be able to pass on to my children is the language and the cuisine.
I’m indebted in this regard to Özlem Warren for her phenomenal cookbook and blog, both titled Ozlem’s Turkish Table, which present familiar recipes adapted for Western ingredients and measurements. Between her and the generous friends and family who’ve shared their own written-up recipes, I’m now able to whip up a batch of köfte, mücver or patlican oturtma without a second thought.
At final count, I tried more than 160 new recipes over the course of the year - almost one every other day! Here’s a list of all of them - I track them by things I’d make again and things I make a lot rather than best / worst, mostly because a recipe with a spectacular outcome feels less useful if it takes 10 hours. Here are the new-to-me recipes I make most often:
Daniel Gritzer’s Sheet Pan Fajitas (I usually make them with a thin pork chop)
Stella Parks’ Buttermilk Biscuits (I leave out the sesame + serve with sausage gravy)
Sho Spaeth’s Filipino-Style Chicken Adobo (cured my anxiety about cooking chicken!)
Judy’s Dry-Pot Cauliflower from The Woks of Life (I use bacon, still great)
Özlem Warren’s Mücver (Turkish zucchini fritters) (I don’t use feta, and I add a little flour to compensate))
Joshua McFadden’s Deep fried cauliflower with spicy fish-sauce sauce (Just trust me on this one, it’s awesome)
Leela Punyaratabandhu’s Pad Ka-Prao (works great with any ground meat)
Andy Baraghani’s Turmeric Salmon (I eat it with chili crisp instead)
Hetty McKinnon’s Turmeric and coconut-braised cabbage with chickpeas
I’m really proud of how much I’ve grown in ability over the course of the year, though I suppose it was inevitable given the sheer volume of practice. I’ve deep fried everything from calamari to chicken poppers to cabbage, steamed puddings, nailed buttermilk biscuits and pie crust, and embarked on a Big Duck Project. I’m genuinely excited to see where 2021 will take me food wise, and can’t wait until the day when we can have dinner in person again.
Alright folks - it’s time for resolutions. But first, that ukulele story I promised you!
On Black Friday I was browsing through Wirecutter’s deals section and noticed a ukulele on sale for $45, which seemed like a bargain to me, so I impulse-bought it. Please note that my only prior experience with string instruments is a year of ill-fated guitar lessons in middle school, but I took voice lessons for 15 years and miss singing, so figured it would be a fun way to accompany myself.
And it was indeed fun! So much fun, in fact, that I started practising for an hour or more per day which is apparently not recommended, especially when you have a poorly set-up budget ukulele. A week later I lost all sensation in my fingertips and was informed by my doctor that I had managed to give myself minor nerve damage and should not type with my left hand for a few weeks. Fun! (And somehow not even the stupidest way I’ve injured myself - though that’s a story for another time.)
Anyway, my fingertip sensation has thankfully just about returned, and as soon as I’m able I’m hoping to start up again (at a slower pace, after adjusting my ukulele.) It was really nice to have an outlet that doesn’t involve a screen, is more creative, and that I don’t have to be particularly good at. So, my goal is to practice for 15 minutes a day, fingers allowing!
Other than that, my resolutions are simple: get back on my early-to-bed, early to rise, work out and read routine. Eat mostly vegetables. Get in at least 20 minutes of physical activity per day. Oh, and plan a wedding - for real, this time!
For the past few years I’ve taken the first three weeks of January off of social media, hopping back on in time to tweet about the Families USA Health Action conference. I’m going to do that again this year, so starting tomorrow morning won’t be posting on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook for a while. (And will be deleting Tiktok as well, sigh.) Until then, wishing you all a happy, healthy, start to 2021 - may it be a better year for all of us.
Can't wait to get Simple Thai Food! All of this is amazing, thanks Aleka!