Monday, December 28, 2009

Swapping used books is a win-win situation

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 27, 2009)

I've jump-started my New Year's resolutions by joining an online book-swapping site called For years I've been meaning to do something with all the books our family has accumulated. Hundreds of hardcover and paperback novels and nonfiction books fill our assorted bookshelves. The overflow titles are precariously stacked on the floor or tucked away in boxes in the attic.

It's not that we don't like books — it's that we like them too much. Although Ralph and I find it difficult to part with even the most esoteric titles, there comes a time when enough is enough. You look at the untidy mess of dust-catching tomes and ask yourself why you still have every book you've ever owned. Why, for example, do I have two copies of Sue Grafton's A is for Alibi? How much longer need I hold on to Edinburgh City Guide now that my daughter has been back from Scotland for seven years?

Accumulation is easy. Getting rid of stuff … not so easy. But that's about to change now that I've discovered a win-win way to merge my love of books with my need to purge.

At, readers like me can offer books for trade, search for titles they'd like to receive and do it all from their computers. There's no membership fee, and you just pay postage ($2.38 for most paperbacks) on books you send to others. For every book sent, you earn one point. Points can be used to "buy" other books (one point equals one book), accumulated to buy audiobooks (two points for each audio book) or donated to charitable causes such as Books for Schools, which provides eligible elementary schools with one new book for every point donated.

Before joining, I did my homework. I spent several hours researching other book exchange sites, read user reviews and watched the how-to videos offered by some of the top sites. received consistently good user ratings, and I found it to be the easiest-to-navigate, best-designed site of the batch. Its book selection is also impressive, with more than 4 million books available to trade.

In the two weeks since I joined the club, I've posted 35 books and I've sent four to people who have requested them. makes the mailing process simple. When someone wants one of my books, I receive an e-mail from the Web site notifying me of the request. If I agree to send the book, creates a mailing label that doubles as a wrapper. All I have to do is print the label, add stamps and put it in the mailbox. Postage is pre-calculated, so I don't have to go to the post office and stand in line.

Trying to reduce the amount of unnecessary items we have around the house is a worthwhile goal. I'll be overjoyed if someday the bookshelves that line our walls contain only books I really want to own instead of the hodgepodge of miscellany they currently hold. It would also be nice to have a few audiobooks to enjoy and copies of some of my favorite titles to give as gifts and to share with my children and grandchildren.

Although New Year's resolutions often start out strong before fading away, I doubt if that will be the case with my book-swapping plans. I have far more than 35 books to post, and I look forward to adding titles as the months go by. I'm also excited to think that the books I post will be going to people who are happy to receive them. Thanks to the virtual library at, I have entered a new world filled with reading pleasure. If that's not motivation for a successful New Year's resolution, I don't know what is.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Traditional pie -- minus all that unhealthy stuff

(To see recipes, please scroll to the bottom of the page)

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 21, 2009)

Lately I've been in the mood for pie, so I've been baking up a storm. Sweet-potato pie and blueberry-peach pie are my favorites, but sometimes I experiment with other fruit combinations. Our son Toby really liked the cherry-peach pie I cobbled together when he was home from college. And not too long ago, when I had an abundance of overripe pears, I made a cherry-pear pie with a chopped-nut top crust that had Ralph begging for more.

Pie is such an easy and foolproof dessert to make. Even though I don't use any of the usual ingredients — no sugar, white flour, butter or shortening — my pies taste delicious, consistently earning requests for second and third slices.

Instead of using white flour, I bake with either whole wheat or spelt flour. I especially like the slightly nutty, sweet flavor of spelt flour, which creates a crust that is flavorful without being heavy. White flour (also euphemistically called wheat flour) is a refined food that has had two of the most nutritious parts of the wheat grain removed — the bran and the germ. Even the enriched version of white flour is sadly lacking in nutritional value, since it includes less than a quarter of the grain's original nutrients.

By contrast, spelt flour, a grain in the wheat family, is chockfull of nutritional value. It is high in protein and rich in B-complex vitamins, and it contains a carbohydrate that boosts the immune system. Although no one in my family is allergic to wheat, people who are often find the proteins in spelt easier to digest.

In place of butter, lard or shortening, I use extra-virgin olive oil. If you think olive oil is good only for salad dressing, think again. One-quarter cup of olive oil added to a cup of spelt flour and moistened with an eighth of a cup of ice water yields a delicious, flaky crust that has none of the artery-clogging fat of butter, contains no cholesterol and no chemical additives and is an excellent source of mono-unsaturated fats, vitamin E and beneficial antioxidants.

When I'm feeling ambitious, I make a special pie crust created by my friend Selena. Selena's crust combines a cup of flour — I use either spelt or whole-wheat flour — with a cup each of rolled oats and finely chopped nuts. (I like to use a combination of unsalted, raw almonds, walnuts and Brazil nuts.)

After the dry ingredients are mixed, Selena adds a half-cup of both olive oil and maple syrup, but I substitute two teaspoons of calorie-free stevia for the maple syrup. After the dry and wet ingredients are well blended, I press two-thirds of the mixture into a pie pan, with the remaining portion set aside to spread on top of the desired filling. Unlike my flour crust, which does not require precooking, Selena's crust works better when baked in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes before filling.

Stevia, the sweetener I like using in Selena's pie crust and for almost all my baking, is a plant-based product with no bitter aftertaste. A member of the Compositae family of herbs — the same family as asters, sunflowers and daisies — stevia is not an artificially derived chemical and doesn't raise blood-sugar levels. What it does do is add sweetness to food without adding calories. In its powdered form, stevia (also sold under the name Truvia) looks identical to sugar, but it's far sweeter. One teaspoon of stevia is equal to a cup of sugar.

One of the things I like best about baking with wholesome ingredients such as whole-wheat or spelt flour, stevia, rolled oats, unsalted raw nuts and extra-virgin olive oil is the lack of guilt involved. You can make foods, eat them and feel good about the entire process. There's not even guilt the next morning when you bite into a slice of leftover pie for breakfast.

Yesterday Ralph and I made short work of the two remaining slices of our sweet-potato and blueberry-peach pies, which means it's time to replenish the proverbial larder with another batch of tasty treats. Eating healthfully doesn't have to be about giving up favorite foods or eating a bland, flavorless diet. You can have it all — including pie — if you're willing to learn about more nutritional alternatives, experiment with different ingredients and open yourself up to new tastes and textures.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Tangerines add a tangy sweetness to the season

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 14, 2009)

I just came in with a basket full of homegrown goodness. Our solitary tangerine tree is loaded with fruit, and I've been taking full advantage of the bountiful harvest.

Picking citrus is a very "December" thing to do in Central Florida. Although navel oranges and grapefruits ripen a bit earlier, tangerines come into their prime at Christmastime. The bright reddish-orange orbs suspended from the limbs look like nature's own holiday ornaments.

Plant a tangerine tree near a dahoon holly and you'll have a ready-made display of seasonal merriment. Like citrus trees, dahoon hollies are also compact evergreens that produce an abundance of colorful fruit in the cooler months. By year's end, Florida's native hollies are dotted with bright red pea-sized berries, a sharp contrast to the tree's waxy green leaves. Although inedible by people, holly berries are favored by a variety of wildlife. All the dahoon hollies on our property are volunteers thanks to the inadvertent planting efforts of our feathered friends.

That's not how our tangerine tree began. We planted it and several other citrus trees shortly after we settled on the property 18 years ago. Although we've done well growing figs, papayas, loquats, pineapples, bananas, star fruit and Surinam cherries, our success rate with citrus has been less than stellar. Thanks to a combination of our inadequate knowledge of citrus-grove care and the occasional freeze, we've managed to kill about a dozen of the orange, lemon and kumquat trees we originally planted. The tangerine tree is an exception. Despite everything we've done wrong, the tangerine tree managed to survive. More than that, it's actually thriving.

I'm glad it did because fresh-picked tangerines are so much fun to eat. The fruit is juicy and sweet, yet tangy, too. Tangerines are easy to peel and just the right size for a satisfying snack. In December, when Ralph and I go for walks, I like to begin with a stroll past the citrus grove. Because they're so small, two or three tangerines can fit in my pockets. As we walk along, I peel off the thin skin, separate the segments and measure the miles by munches. I've found that if I eat slowly, I can finish two tangerines in the time it takes me to do a one-mile loop around the lake. Even though at about 50 calories per tangerine I'm ingesting about the same amount of calories burned off by walking a mile, I'm gaining a nutritional high.

Tangerines pack a powerful punch of Vitamin C, folate and beta-carotene. They also contain some potassium, magnesium and vitamins B1, B2 and B3, and they're high in fiber. Although some people might object to the fibrous white "strings" on tangerines, I've always enjoyed peeling off and eating the rutin-rich pith. I also don't mind the pits. Some tangerines are seedless, but the variety we grow contains a number of small seeds.

Ralph, who has never been fond of seedy fruit, has no patience with tangerines. "What do you do with the seeds?" he'll ask as we walk along.

"I spit some out and swallow others," I respond matter-of-factly. "It's no big deal."

It is to him. His seed-removing skills are pitifully lacking.

It doesn't take many trees to satisfy a family's needs for citrus. The one tree in our yard provides enough fruit to fulfill my citrus cravings, with plenty left over to share. For those without a tree of their own, fruit is available at roadside stands. In this season of giving, what better gift to bestow on those we love than nature's own edible holiday ornaments? It's a sweet, juicy way to welcome the New Year.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Working together, we build our lives

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 7, 2009)

Last weekend, Ralph and I worked on a building project. We spent several hours finishing off sections of a bamboo gazebo with two attached pergolas. Our friend, Robbie Taylor, had already done the hard part. He had built the roof and the main frame of the structure, a beautiful eight-sided outdoor room made entirely of bamboo poles. When Robbie went off for a weeklong cruise with his wife and grandson, Ralph and I decided to pick up where he left off.

For a couple of out-of-practice carpenters, we didn't do half bad. We had our share of Laurel-and-Hardy moments resulting in a few scratches, splinters and a bit of wasted wood, but overall the project came together much as we imagined. I'd like to say it was fun and, in a way, it was. We were outside together, doing what we do best — planning things out and then making them happen. But the truth is, we're not really carpenters. Ralph doesn't like working with wood the way Robbie does, and although I have a passion for designing structures, I'm impatient when it comes to completing them.

There was a time when we felt different. In the 1970s, we were an idealistic young couple eager to build the house of our dreams. Because we weren't trained carpenters and didn't have enough money to hire others, we decided to do the job ourselves. I drew up plans and paid a carpenter to put up the frame. Ralph worked alongside him, watching everything he did and asking endless questions. I've always admired my husband's ability to pick up new skills. He's a remarkably adaptable and capable person who doesn't get discouraged the way some of us do — me, for example — when their first attempts fail or their beginning efforts are less than perfect.

With his newly attained skills, Ralph worked his way through the remaining homebuilding tasks. He insulated, wired and put up drywall. He built and installed cabinets, put on the roof, installed windows and shingled the exterior. He was in charge. I was the gofer.

"Sherry, bring me the box of six-penny nails," he would ask, or "Get me the screwdriver with the Phillips head bit." Unlike Ralph, who never felt insignificant or bothered when he assisted the framer, I often found myself annoyed by his constant demands. That feeling resurfaced last weekend when we worked on the gazebo.

"I feel like I'm not doing enough just standing here holding the ladder and handing you things," I told my husband as we worked on attaching the pergola roof.

"You're doing fine," he reassured me. "It saves a lot of time with you there to help."

In my younger years, I might have dismissed that comment as condescending, but not anymore. I've realized the truth in those simple words. When you work together, you share responsibilities, acknowledge each other's abilities and do whatever is necessary to get the job done.

Instead of getting upset because I wasn't the one in charge, I used the time to stand back and admire the man I married 39 years ago this month. As I stood there on the ground, watching my husband sacrifice his time to give me a structure I wanted, I realized how far we'd come since that first carpentry project in the 1970s. Working as a team, we've not only built and renovated dozens of houses but, more important, we've constructed a life that reflects our dreams.

Building a long-lasting marriage is a lot like framing a gazebo. Someone has to be willing to pick up fallen nails, steady the ladder and get the necessary tools to make the structure stronger. You don't have to be a master carpenter to whittle together a satisfying life, but it helps if you can share the work with someone you love.