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A table full of fun. Ready for some curry.

A table full of fun. Ready for some curry.

A funny thing happened where I was assumed to be a food blogger and was then able to attend the media day for Chef Nooror Somany-Steppe’s upcoming Thai cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. Those of you who know my love for cooking and super sleuth like attention to proper ingredients and techniques will find the humor in this story because you’ll be able to picture me secretly geeking out the whole time I was in the great big fabulous training kitchen. Particularly if you’re my Mom, who’s been scolded on more than one occasion for trying to improvise ingredients for holiday cooking. And you’ll really understand my excitement when I learned we got to take our aprons home. I’m really not normal. I suppose I could have come clean with the fact that I’m not really a food blogger, but then again, I do occasionally blog about food. Like now. Plus, I wouldn’t have been able to think I was some sort of undercover spy. Very Bond-like.

Side note: this was the first day “real” eating could happen after a 13 day Master Cleanse, so you can imagine how excited my stomach was too. Especially when we were learning how to make Tom Kha Kai (coconut milk soup with chicken), Massaman Lamb (Massaman curry wth lamb), Pla Koong Avocado (prawns salad with avocado) and Chor Muang (steamed flower-shaped dumplings).

Chef Nooror (R) & Chef Sandra (L)

Chef Nooror (R) & Chef Sandra (L)

So Chef Nooror and her daughter Chef Sandra had just gotten in from Bangkok about 48 hours prior. A darling team those two. Chef Nooror gets down to business while her daughter supplements the atmosphere with great stories and anecdotes about her Mom, their family, and their business.  One of my faves was Sandra talking about her Mom’s wishes to walk along Venice Beach in torn jeans, to which Chef Nooror replied, “I love to wear the broken jeans!” There was a theme of differences between America and Thailand, mostly as it related to food. While I can’t share Chef Nooror’s recipes, I can share those differences and some great Thai cooking tips:

1) In Thailand, if a man wants to find a wife he would judge her character by the way she pounds her curry. A stronger pounder is apparently bossy, a softer pounder more gentle.

2) Coriander root is a common ingredient in Thai food that is not so common in the US. Use cilantro stems instead if you have to.

3) If you’re going to make a dish with raw lemongrass, marinate it in fresh lime juice to bring out color and enhance flavor.

4) White palm sugar is thought to be of better quality than brown palm sugar.

5) American coconut milk and cream is too rich and creamy. Water it down a bit for the right consistency.

6) The root of lemongrass, or thicker end, has a better taste and quality so start on that end when your slicing it. You can also remove the outer layer and slice the rest.

All ready to get aromatic.

All ready to get aromatic.

7) If you want to make Thai food from scratch you’re gonna need a big heavy mortar and pestle ’cause there’s a lot of pounding and grinding to do until things get “aromatic.”

8) Be careful with fish sauce because it likes to dominate. Use sparingly and increase to taste from there.

9) Smashing ingredients before putting them in a pot of broth helps spread the flavor love. And it’s more fun than slicing…sort of cavemanish.

10) Thai garlic is stronger and better quality than traditional garlic.

11) When sauteing protein with oil, place the protein in the pan and then drizzle with oil to avoid things getting too oily. I know…why didn’t I think of that?!?

12) And saving the best for last…”Everything’s bigger in America.” We were talking about shallots and the like, but the crowd couldn’t resist a few laughs on that one.

Galangal on the left. Say it five times fast.

Galangal on the left. Say it five times fast.

Chef Nooror is the owner of the global Blue Elephant Restaurant Group, a cookbook author and owner of the Blue Elephant cooking school. She opened her first Blue Elephant Restaurant in Belgium in 1980 and since then, has expanded to 13 locations throughout Europe and is known as an ambassador for Thai cuisine. Her class is great, so if you’ve ever wanted to improve your Thai cooking skills, or even get them started, get down to Le Cordon Bleu Pasadena. You’ll walk away with some mad new skills. I even met two great food bloggers, Johanna from Low Sodium Blog and Mona from Cook This Get Laid (and Mona turned me on to A Market in Echo Park – one of those awesome markets where you can get all those ingredients you can’t find anywhere because normal people don’t buy them).

 

Classes Open to the Public

  • ·         Friday, April 26 from 2-6 p.m.: Appetizers taught by Chef Nooror
  • ·         Saturday, April 27 from 2-6 p.m.: Steamed and Stir-Fried taught by Chef Nooror
  • ·         Wednesday, May 1 from 2-6 p.m.: Soup, Satay and Salad taught by Chef Sandra
  • ·         Friday, May 3 from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.: Soup and Stir-Fry taught by Chef Sandra
  • ·         Friday, May 3 from 2-6 p.m.: Soup, Curry, Stir-Fry and Salad taught by Chef Sandra
  • ·         To register for any of these classes, click here.

And one more thing: if you think cooking next to a Sous Chef from Craft is a good idea, think again. It’s kinda like trying to dance Swan Lake next to Rudolf Nureyev. Back in the day of course.

With tax season coming to a close and the IRS having just released information that it plans to issue refunds about as quickly as it did last year (9 out of 10 refunds released in under 21 days (www.irs.gov)), now is the time to start considering what you’re going to do with your refund. While the promise of a big check from the government always comes with some temptations (a new grill for the summer, a gift you missed out on over the holiday season) you should always make sure you’re investing that money wisely. While it may seem like a gift, and an easily spent one at that, remember that it’s mostly money from your other sources of income that you were never able to collect on. Your tax return should be treated like any other money put away, safe from withdrawals for a long period of time; take your excitement at getting such a big break in the mail as incentive to be smart and save. Here are a few tips to get you thinking about putting some of your tax refund to work.

Save it! Invest it!: The importance of either putting some of your return into a savings account or investing it cannot be stressed enough. A good rule of thumb, at the bare minimum, is take ~10% of every check you get and put it into a savings account or towards your investments. Before you know it, you’ll have a tax return a few times over waiting for you whenever you need it that can be used anytime throughout the year.

It’s too much and you don’t know what to do with it!: If it seems like you’re getting too much back on your tax return, get in touch with either a tax preparation specialist or financial advisor. In this case, you can see if there are any changes you can make to your tax documentation in order to get more of that money throughout the year instead of the one big chunk annually. Chances are if you haven’t already done so, you could be seeing a slight rise everywhere else and a reduction in your tax return check.

IRA?: Alongside the 10% rule for saving/investing, it’s also a good idea to look at doing something long-term with some of the money, namely, putting some of it towards an IRA or other form of guaranteed retirement income (annuities, etc). Nothing is more valuable to someone right now than an investment in future stability. Consider asking your advisor, while you’re trying to shrink your tax refund, about recommended retirement investment opportunities.

The pool at the St. Regis Laguna Beach sounds more fun than an IRA, no?

The pool at the St. Regis Laguna Beach sounds more fun than an IRA, no?

 

While it may seem like something of a killjoy at first, making sure that the first thing you do with your tax return is putting some of it in a place that will give you access to it in the future is of utmost importance in tax season. Whether you’re saving, investing, putting it into a retirement fund or contributing to a child or grandchild’s education, just remember that it’s better if your short-term desires wait until your long-term stability is taken care of. Before you know it, they will have caught up to each-other, and you’ll have made some hefty gains in the meantime.

 

IRS_largeEvery year you repeat the same tired task. You collect all your receipts forms, and related tax information and either settle in for a marathon self-preparation session, or you hand it all over (along with a few hundred bucks, give or take) to your tax preparer. When all’s said and done, you’ll see exactly how much money the federal government took from your paychecks, but you certainly don’t see an itemized list of where that money will go.

However, in his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama pledged to develop a new online tool that would allow every American to see precisely how the government spends his or her annual tax payments. The resulting and first-of-its-kind public website, “My Federal Tax Receipt,” launched last year and was just recently updated to reflect current spending. The tool is an online calculator, located on the a site called MyFederalTaxReceipt.gov. Once there, you simply enter your income tax, Medicare tax Social Security tax, and a detailed calculation of how your tax dollars are allocated pops up on the screen.

But you don’t actually have to do anything at all to satisfy your general curiosity — after all, you could just simply scan the numbers and learn how much of the collective federal income tax is allocated where, as it’s all broken into categories and subcategories and measured by percentage. While the information on the site is incredibly informative, intriguing, and perhaps even a bit surprising, I’d be less than honest if I neglected the site’s democratic political bent, but the information is still interesting, despite the occasional overt partisan prose.

Exploring the site is a fascinating way to see where your national priorities lie when compared to those of the government. How much goes to job development and education compared to health care? How does health care rank when it comes to foreign policy and even foreign aid? Most of us don’t have a clue, let alone how much tax money is allocated to each different cause.

The programs and services funded by your income tax, as well as the percentage of your total income-tax payment they receive, are as follows:

National Defense 24.9%
Health Care 23.7%
Job and Family Security 19.1%
Education and Job Training 3.6%
Veterans Benefits 4.5%
National Resources, Energy, and Environment 2.0%
International Affairs 1.6%
Science, Space, and Technology Programs 1.0%
Immigration, Law Enforcement, and Administration of Justice 2.0%
Agriculture 0.7%
Community, Area, and Regional Development 0.5%
Response to Natural Development 0.4%
Additional Government Programs 7.9%
Net Interest 8.1%

In addition to these statistics, the site offers a great deal of interesting content. Curious about foreign policy issues, for instance? You’ll easily find your way to a cache of information including everything from the National Security Strategy, Obama’s National Strategy for Counter Terrorism, and short pieces describing things such as “Refocusing on the Threat from al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” to other stories that tout presidential achievements such as “Stopping a Massacre and Supporting the Libyan People” or “Promoting Peace and Security in Israel and in the Middle East.”

In addition to these 12 major categories, there are an additional 34 subcategories to break the spending down further into segments such as “Ongoing operations, equipment, and supplies,” which consumes 10.3 percent of the total slice of pie that goes toward National Defense, or “Child care, foster care, and adoption support,” a subset of the Jobs and Family security category that sees only 0.6 percent of its share of your tax dollars.

The site certainly warrants a visit, regardless of your political affiliation. Having a better understanding of what we pay for and how makes us stronger citizens, and let’s face it, it’s information we deserve to know.

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Who doesn’t want to maximize their refund? If you’re like most Americans, when tax time rolls around and you start collecting paperwork like a raccoon building a nest, you start thinking about the deductions you can take to ensure you pay no more in taxes than you’re legally obliged to. And if you earn a refund, it makes uncovering every possible deduction that much more rewarding.

This year, make the most of your tax situation by remembering the following deductions that may be available to you.

Refinancing Points: With interest rates at near-historic lows, odds are good that you’ve refinanced your home a time or two over the last few years. If so, any points you paid to refinanced can be deducted for the life of the loan at a $10 per-month basis. While these deductions aren’t substantial, they do add up over time. For example, if you refinanced your house’s mortgage on July 1, 2011 for a 20-year term, six of 240 months will have gone by before year’s end. Therefore, if you paid $2,400 in points, that’s a $60 write-off. You can continue to take a $120 annual deduction until you’ve deducted all your points in full.

Health Insurance Premiums: If your medical expenses exceed 7.5 percent of your adjusted annual gross income, your health care premiums may be deductible. These health care deductions also can be granted to long-term care premiums (depending on your age) as well as Medicare premiums. If you’re self-employed and have purchased individual health insurance, your premiums are 100 percent deductible. If this is the case, as long as you haven’t included these premiums in other itemized deductions, you don’t have to worry about meeting the 7.5 percent threshold or itemizing these costs.

Noncash Charitable Contributions: If you’ve donated clothing or furniture — in good condition, of course — to Goodwill, the Salvation Army or a similar organization, you can deduct the value of your donations. The trick is to remember to get a receipt whenever you make a donation. If you’ve neglected to get a receipt, you can still deduct these contributions, as long as you understand that if you’re audited and can’t produce a receipt, they won’t allow you to take the deduction. But since you’re unlikely to get audited, most experts agree that you can determine the fair market value of whatever you donated by going to a thrift store to learn the price of comparable items, or you can visit the Salvation Army’s regional websites to help determine the value of donated goods.

Higher Education Expenses: There are two ways to get some money back for your undergraduate or postgraduate education. If you earn less than $65,000 a year (or $130,000 if filing jointly), you may take as much as a $4,000 deduction for each year of your higher education. You may also qualify for a $2,500 credit under the American Opportunity Tax Credit for undergraduate work, or, if you’re working on a graduate degree, you may be eligible for the $2,000 Lifetime Learning Credit. You cannot take both a deduction and a credit, so determine what’s available to you and go with the option that gives you the biggest tax break.

Energy Savings Home Improvement Credit: If you are an environmentally conscious homeowner, you may be eligible for savings under the Energy Savings Home Improvement Credit. If you perform home improvements such as installing skylights, windows, outside doors, high-efficiency water heaters, pigmented roofs, or central air conditioning, you can take a 10 percent credit for these costs, the cap on which may not exceed $500. If you add alternative energy sources such as wind turbines, geothermal heat pumps or solar water heaters to your home, you can take a 30 percent credit on the costs of these improvements, and there is no cap through 2016.

If you do just a bit more exploring, you may discover even more deductions you’ve never thought of before. Be sure to discuss maximizing your tax refund with your tax preparer, and encourage him or her to help you uncover as many deductions as possible. After all, you worked hard to earn your money, so the less of it you must give to the Internal Revenue Service, the better.

Need recommendations for tax professionals? We’ve got a long list and are happy to share it.

bigstock-Child_with_many_question_marks-40193056Like most Americans, you probably have insurance on your home, your automobile, and even on your iPhone. This is great, as should something happen to any one of these high-priced commodities, you’ll be taken care of. Yet alarmingly, when it comes to insuring one’s life, Americans tend to be far more lax in their approach to ensuring that their loved ones are taken care of should the unthinkable happen.

Perhaps that’s just the reason that we are so collectively underinsured: Who wants to think about their own mortality? While it may not be a pleasant thought, you know it’s an inevitability. And while it’s not inevitable that your house may burn or you’ll be in a car accident, the time comes for us us all — no matter how prepared we may be.

And the statistics support the fact that we are not nearly as prepared as we should be. According to LIMRA (the Life Insurance Marketing and Research Association), a full third of Americans have no life insurance at all, and of those that do, their coverage amounts to less than four times their yearly income. However, according to the LIFE Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting consumers to make smart insurance decisions to protect their families’ financial futures, most insurance professionals agree that you need at least 10 times your annual income to ensure your family is comfortable now and into the future.

So, before you decide that a $250,000 life insurance policy should be plenty of money for your family to survive on should you die unexpectedly, the LIFE Foundation encourages you take the following into consideration when determining if you have enough coverage:

Your family’s immediate needs, such as:
● Health care costs
● Funeral and burial costs
● The need to take time off from work or school to grieve
Everyday or ongoing needs, such as:
● The mortgage or rent
● Car payments
● Traditional cost-of-living expenses such as heating and cooling, cable, Internet and food
● Paying off credit card or other debts
Future needs, such as:
● Your childrens’ college education
● Your surviving spouse’s retirement needs
● Paying for weddings or celebrating the birth of grandchildren
Your family’s existing resources, such as:
● Your collective savings
● A spouse’s income
● Any life insurance you might already own
● Investments

After adding up all of these costs and available resources, if there is a gap between the sum at which you arrive and what would equal 10 times your annual income, it’s time to get more insurance. What’s more, since every year tends to brings change, no matter how large or small, if you’ve experienced any of the following life changes, be sure to review your existing coverage to make sure you’re adequately covered. Sometimes you might even find you have too much and can take it down a notch.

A list of common life changes to review with your insurance professional:
● The birth or adoption of children or grandchildren
● Marriage, separations or divorce
● Changes in you or your spouse’s employment situation
● The purchase of a new home, or the unfortunate loss of a home
● Refinancing a home or exploring reverse mortgages
● Serious changes in your health or that of your spouse
● The long-term care needs of family members
● The need to provide financial, health care, or other assistance to a parent
● Your current retirement-savings status
● Receiving an inheritance or a financial gift
● Any new tax or estate-planning concerns

With all this in mind you’ll be better prepared to confidently address your life insurance needs when trying to determine how much and what kind of coverage would be best for you… and for your family.

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bigstock-Female_executive_filling_out_tax_forms_while_sitting_at_her_desk.-13012826The perennial nature of tax time does nothing to assuage the overall stress, anxiety, frustration, procrastination and general loathing associated with the chore of preparing your income taxes. For those who prepare their own taxes, the strain can seem particularly acute, yet even ensuring you’ve provided all the necessary documentation to a paid tax preparer can be stressful.

This year, countless Americans will labor over mountains of paperwork, hunt for rogue receipts, itemize ad nauseum, and search for every possible deduction to ensure they don’t overpay even a single dime to Uncle Sam’s outstretched hand. And when it comes to deductions, you might be surprised at the creativity — or plain stupidity — of your fellow taxpayers. So, as the dark cloud of the April 15th deadline looms, I thought I’d attempt a little humor by relaying a few anecdotes of ridiculous and outlandish deductions desperate taxpayers have attempted to declare that shockingly, didn’t pass the proverbial IRS muster.

Fur to Foster Conversation

One businessman thought he could get away with deducting the mink coat in which he draped his wife when entertaining or speaking to clients. His rationale? This cunning guy claimed that his wife’s lavish coat served as a delightful icebreaker and conversation piece. Too bad he got skunked by the IRS.

Drug and Prostitution Expenses 

Shocking though it may be, it turns out that you cannot deduct expenses for careers that are, well, illegal. For those who declare “prostitution” as their profession, the IRS won’t be footing the bill for the fancy lingerie or condoms the job requires. The same is true of marijuana growers and dealers, some of whom have tried writing off the cost of everything from potting soil to the plastic baggies in which they package their “product.”

The Doctor’s System

Sure, doctors require all sorts of high-tech and serious-sounding tools and gadgets to practice medicine, but what exactly is a “time monitoring system”? When one CPA reviewed the taxes of a physician who was being audited came across this rather large deduction, he had the same question. When he asked the doc to explain this mysterious “time monitoring system,” he was treated to a display of the doctor’s blinged out Rolex.

Watch for the Fallout 

During the height of the Cold War, one patriot followed the cue of other frightened Americans and constructed a nuclear fallout shelter on his property. Granted, those things aren’t cheap, but none of his other fallout-fearing peers tried to take it as a tax deduction. So just how did he list his new shelter? As “preventative medicine,” of course!

All for Education

One creative Spanish teacher ordered the Spanish-language subscription from his cable provider and, of course, purchased a new television on which to watch his favorite Spanish-language shows. Since he was an educator — and an educator specializing in Spanish, no less — he thought it only appropriate that the IRS reimburse him for these “teaching expenses.” How do you say “Nice try” in Spanish?

Up in Smoke 

This one has to be my personal favorite. A failing and frustrated furniture store owner decided the best way to get out of business was to hire someone to burn it down. And as it turns out, this man was very diligent when listing the expenses he incurred in this calamity. Not only did he accurately report the loss of his building, as well as his payout of $500,000 in insurance money, he also listed a $10,000 deduction as a “consulting fee.” As it turns out, no matter how much you consult with an arsonist, the whole thing is illegal. Imagine that. Both business owner and arsonist/consultant ended up in prison.

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