the inadequate $20 bill and a recipe: oatmeal double-chip cookies

The man sat with his hands folded in his lap, legs dangling off the edge of the salmon-colored exam table. As we talked, he occasionally rubbed his fingers, swollen from arthritis. He had been my patient for some time, and I asked him about his cancer, his reason for seeing me, and about the rest of his life, something I’m always interested in when I see my patients. I learned that he had recently lost his job. With the income loss, he was in the process of losing his home. In fact, he would be homeless within the week.

He told me this in a straightforward, direct manner, but I could sense the swell of panic rising in his voice as he told me more of the details. He had been through this before, but this time was worse. Plus, he needed two prescriptions, and he couldn’t fill them because he had no money.

“You don’t have any at all?” I asked.

“None,” he said, gravely.

I turned away from him and stared at my computer screen, where I had his medical chart pulled up. I scanned through various screens of his chart as if I were hunting for a critical piece of medical information that would aid in my diagnosis or treatment of this problem. In truth, I was flustered and I felt helpless. I hid those feelings from him by focusing on his chart, on his list of diagnoses and prior surgeries and documented family history. Not surprisingly, I didn’t find any of the answers I was looking for.

Finally, I wrote the two prescriptions he needed, and then I said, “I’m sorry you’re going through this.”

I fished a $20 bill from my wallet, handing it to him. “For your medications,” I said.

That $20 felt so inadequate, so trivial. When someone doesn’t even have a roof to shelter them from the elements, or money for food, does filling a prescription really matter?  Does keeping a doctor’s appointment really matter? I left work that day with a heavy heart, believing that I should have done more.

I still wonder if I could have done more.

I baked these cookies this past weekend, the first baking I’ve done since returning from our cruise. Baking is therapy for me, maybe more so than cooking is. The precision of the measurements, the exactness of technique – it’s a comforting process. And, of course, taking a bite of a warm oatmeal cookie, fresh from the oven, provides the solace like that of wrapping a warm blanket around yourself on a damp, chilly day.

I wish I’d had some of these oatmeal cookies, warm from the oven, to give to my patient along with that $20 bill.  He deserves them right now, more than anyone I know.

Yield: approx 45 cookies

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Oatmeal Cookies with White Chocolate and Peanut Butter Chips

Is there anything more comforting than a warm oatmeal cookie, especially when loaded with peanut butter chips and white chocolate chips? I don't think so.

Note: This dough can be made in advance and stored in the refrigerator for up to one week. Or, freeze balls of dough in the freezer for up to one month.

Ingredients:

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1-1/2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs
8 ounces white chocolate chips
6 ounces peanut butter chips

Directions:

Place oven rack in middle of oven and preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg. Add oats and stir until well blended. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, on medium-high speed, beat together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in vanilla, then add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually beat in flour and oat mixture. Add white chocolate chips and peanut butter chips, beating until just combined.

(Note: You may store dough in refrigerator, covered, at this point.)

Form rounded tablespoons of dough into balls (measuring 1-1/2 inches across) and place on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper about 2 inches apart.

Bake cookies in batches in middle of oven for 20 minutes, or until pale golden. Cool cookies on baking sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to baking rack to cool completely.

spring break and a recipe: slow-cooker sweet-and-sour pork

I wondered whether I would be able to withstand almost five days without checking my email, without sending and receiving texts, without Twitter. I had a bit of anxiety about missing out on things happening with my patients at work, not being available by phone if necessary. I worried that something would happen to my brother or my father and my mom wouldn’t be able to reach me.

Those were irrational thoughts, of course, and I knew that. But it took some convincing.


Even though I couldn’t be reached by email or cell, the world outside continued on without a hitch. Everyone fared well while we were gone; there were no emergency room visits or catastrophes, medical or otherwise. The house and our two cats were pampered by our friend, Deanna.

And the days of technological silence were bliss.

As it turned out, I needed the break. I needed this:

And this:

And I really needed this:

We disembarked in Port Canaveral early in the morning on Thursday. After one last breakfast on the ship, we were shuffled through Customs and finally in the car, headed home. I turned on my iPhone to find over 300 emails waiting for me. Strangely enough, I didn’t mind.

We’re settling into our end-of-spring-break routine. The kids are reminiscing about the cruise, wondering where the ship is now, at this exact moment – “Is it in the Bahamas now? Are they eating dinner or lunch?” The swimsuits have all been washed and put away, and the half-empty bottles of sunscreen have been put back in the bathroom cabinet.

And sadly, we’re having to convince our stomachs that no, we really don’t need an ice cream cone at 10am or a basket of french fries at 2pm simply because they’re free and available. Or that frosty glass of piña colada, just because the pool boy has been kind enough to bring a tray around to my lounge chair.

This was one of our first home-cooked dinners after the gluttony of dining on the Disney Dream. I wanted something relatively light, a dish that went easy on the butter and fat. I also wanted my slow cooker to do most of the work for me. Slow-cooked sweet and sour pork, served with jasmine rice and steamed broccoli, fit the bill.

And I’m already thinking of my next technology-silent vacation…

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cook Time: 8 hours (low setting) or 4 hours (high)

Slow Cooker Sweet-and-Sour Pork

Most of the prep work for this dish can be done the night before, making this easy to assemble before you leave for work in the morning. Serve the sweet and sour pork over jasmine rice and with some steamed broccoli for a complete meal.

Ingredients:

1 can (20-ounce) pineapple chunks, packed in juice
2 carrots, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 large onion, sliced into thin wedges
1 red bell pepper, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 pounds boneless pork loin, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 tablespoons packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca, crushed
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

Directions:

Drain pineapple chunks and reserve juice. Refrigerate pineapple chunks until ready to use.

In a slow cooker (at least 4 quart), combine carrot, onion, red bell pepper, and pork. In a medium bowl, stir together the reserved pineapple juice, brown sugar, rice vinegar, tomato paste, tapioca, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, salt, and sesame oil. Pour over the vegetables and pork.

Cover and cook on low for 8 hours or on high for 4 hours. Stir in reserved pineapple chunks. Taste for seasoning, adding additional salt as needed.

 

remembering a moment

Sometimes when I write, food doesn’t take center stage.

Sometimes, food is in the wings, waiting for the right time to enter the story. And, at times, it never enters.

I’ve just wrapped up a 6-week creative writing class, and this class has been just what I needed at this time in my life. I’ve had the opportunity to branch out from my usual professional writing (at work) and food writing (in this space). I’ve written a little fiction even, and I’ve explored some hidden corners in that right-brain side of my head that doesn’t see as much daylight as it should.

I’m sharing a piece with you today, a moment remembered from the past, from last fall. I wrote it last week when I was in Austin, sitting at my hotel room desk with only the sound of the tapping of the keyboard to keep me company. When I was nearly finished writing it, I ordered room service. A glass of champagne and a slice of chocolate cake.

Food is glaringly absent from this memory, as it should be.

*    *    *    *    *    *

My birthday was tomorrow, Wednesday. On Thursday, Sam and I were to fly to Manhattan for a long weekend, in theory to celebrate my birthday, but really, that was just an excuse to get away. We were to have dinner that Friday night at Gramercy Tavern.

Instead of packing, I was in the Trauma Intensive Care Unit at the hospital I work in. But instead of wearing my usual professional, “Attending Physician” attire, I was dressed in jeans and sneakers. I was there as a family member of a patient. I was there as the daughter, the daughter who also happened to be a doctor.

The night before, Dad had fallen. It seems so trivial – just a fall, a simple fall. But my father, a large man – maybe 5’10″ and 270 pounds – landed hard. The back of a straight backed wooden chair, positioned just so, broke his fall when it caught him squarely in the rib cage. The impact fractured five ribs, in multiple places each, driving one of those ribs into his right lung.

Now, I stood by his side, holding his hand carefully so as to not disturb the bandages protecting the IV and the arterial line in his wrist. My father looked confused and uncomfortable, his face covered by a clear plastic mask attached to the oxygen tubing. He struggled to breathe, and the forced intake of air with each breath caused a sharp wheeze, as if he were trying to breathe through a plastic straw. Dad had stridor, that awful
harbinger of a narrowed airway that often leads to complete respiratory failure.

The respiratory therapist, Eric, a cocky young man who, despite the arrogance he exuded, seemed to know what he was doing hovered on the opposite side of the hospital bed, positioned between my father and the beeping electronic monitor that gave continual readings of my fathers vital signs.

“I think I’m going to have to get intubation kit,” Eric said to me in a quiet voice. He was trying not to alarm my father. “I’m also going to bring a ventilator in.”

Eric left, and in less than a minute, the surgical chief resident entered the room and moved directly to my father’s side. I moved out of the way so that the surgeon could listen to my Dad’s chest with his stethoscope and inspect the chest tube protruding from my dad’s collapsed lung. The surgeon looked up from my father, meeting my eyes.

I cut him off, before he could say anything. “Just do what you have to do,” I said.

He nodded and left the room. I could hear him calling for the crash cart.

“Dad,” I said, moving close to my father again, leaning in close to speak in his ear. “Dad, the doctors are going to try to help you breathe better, okay?”

He looked at me, not understanding, but unable to talk because he was so out of breath.

“I’ll be right here,” I said. “And I’ll be here when you wake up. I promise.”

He nodded. A calmness took over his face.

“I love you. It will be okay, it really will.”

But I wasn’t sure about that. I had a strong feeling that I had just lied to my father, and I would never forgive myself for it.