That time Easter Dinner went on a cleanse…

Easter is a big holiday–it is the cornerstone event of all of us who are Christian.  We will all get to church extra early this morning to try to find parking spots and squeeze into packed pews to greet people we see every week and those we’ve never met before, and together we will celebrate the Resurrection together.  Well, this will happen, my friend “Ryan” claims, until his punch card system for High Holy Day admittance takes off.  Basically, if you don’t go enough times the rest of the year (i.e. enough punches on your card), it’s standing room only for you.  I say that kind of defeats the whole “Jesus died for everybody” thing which is kind of a big part of the Gospel.  He just laughs and says but then we wouldn’t have to leave so early on Easter and Christmas.

And then there are all the food traditions associated with Easter.  (Holidays, in my mind are all together lovely if for no other reason than the special food that goes with them.)  The Greeks roast lamb on a spit (though, in all fairness, Orthodox Easter isn’t for another month yet,) the English get out their lamb and mint jelly, all the Italians I know get out the REALLY FANCY cookies (the Italian bakery down the street from me makes this one that looks like a basket and has an actual hardboiled egg baked into it…), and in my family, we eat ham.

My family doesn’t actually have really strong food traditions with Easter, which is interesting, because we have really strong food traditions for everything else under the sun (including birthdays–three of my brothers have asked for lasagna for their birthdays every year for at least the past decade…)

This year, our Easter food game plan will again be in flux.  My mom is doing some fancy cleanse which takes out all of these things for like a month and then you slowly re-introduce them to accomplish…something.  (I don’t know.  I just run because I like food too much…)  That means, no grains.  No dairy.  No sugar.  No legumes.  (It’s kind of like going kosher and doing Lent at the same time.  I did not point this out to my mother.  I don’t think she would have appreciated it.)  Anyway, we had to get creative with the big family Easter meal.

And, of course, yours truly stuck herself squarely in the middle of the planning.  For example–how do you make mashed potatoes without milk?  Add the potato water–it should do the same thing.  Not quite the flavor, but that’s okay.  Just put the butter on the side and let everyone (who is not cleansing) put it on themselves.  I talked my mom into doing pork tenderloin and sauerkraut instead of ham this year (because it’s more flavorful, I said.  Because isn’t sauerkraut supposed to be super healthy for you because of pickling properties or something, I said.  Really, I just like pork tenderloin better than ham…)  I am also bringing a bunch of new asparagus to roast in the oven with olive oil and sea salt (two great seasoners blessedly not taken off the list.)  I’m also hoping that peas don’t count as “legumes” because they will look so pretty on the plate and they go well with potatoes.  Unfortunately, there is nothing to be done about dinner rolls–you can’t eat hot cross buns when you can’t have flour.  We’ll just have to abstain this year.  I did go rogue on one point though–I made a lemon cake for the non-cleansers in the family, because, well–it’s lemon!  It’s so springy and yellow and citrus-y!  And we had to have some dessert.  It is Easter, after all.

So, really, not too shabby, all things considered.  It will be bright and festive.  My siblings and I will gather around my parents’ table, and we will talk about growing up memories, like we do on every major holiday.  (And because it’s Easter, we’ll pay homage to the time when my folks’ old golden retriever, Gracie, once ate my entire Easter basket–basket, grass, foil, everything–in her puppyhood.)  We will gather.  We will break bread.  We will celebrate.

He is risen!

He is risen, indeed!

Happy Easter.

Impressive Enough

“So, do you know any good dessert recipes that aren’t very hard?”

My roommate (as in “person I share living space with,” not “my soulmate friend with whom I share everything”) walked out of her bedroom and began the conversation without preamble.

I looked up from the solitaire game I was wasting time playing on my phone.  “What?”  I know lots of easy dessert recipes–Rice Krispie treats, blonde brownies, the lemon depression cake that is currently cooling on the kitchen table because am taking it to Easter dinner tomorrow–but the way she states the question makes me think that these would not meet her standards.

“I need a dessert–for tomorrow–I mean, I could make brownies, but those would be too easy, and I’d screw up cookies…” she trails off.

My first thought is, How do you screw up cookies?  You have to sit around forever making all the batches, sure, but they aren’t hard.

My second thought is, Ah, I get it now.

It was the not wanting to take brownies (let’s be real–a party favorite all the time, every time) that tipped me off.  It means that unspoken end to her question “Do you know any good dessert recipes that aren’t very hard…” is actually “…but still impressive so everyone will think I am amazing in the kitchen?”

There is only one contingency my hermit roommate would have for needing an impressive looking dessert–and that is that she must be going over to her fiancé’s parents’ house for Easter dinner tomorrow.  My roommate is not much of a cook, and she has been dating her future husband for over two and a half years, so it surprises me that she’s still trying to keep up the façade around his parents.

Apparently it’s still a thing, though, because the next thing out of her mouth is, “What about a cheesecake?  That’s not hard, is it?”

“Weeelll,” I begin noncommittally, “It’s not really hard–it’s just time consuming.  And expensive, because you have to buy all the cream cheese.”

“Huh.”  This is clearly not the answer she was hoping I would give.  “But what about one of those pudding-y ones?”

“Well, sure,” I agree (what else can I do?  She is clearly determined to have her cake and eat it, too, so to speak), “I mean, if you get one of those Jell-o box kinds, sure.  That’s easy.”

“Okay,” she walks back into her room.  (My roommate is like this.  Conversations begin and end without reason…)

She is apparently going with the Jell-o cheesecake idea because twenty minutes ago her fiancé appeared.  Apparently, they are adding Butterfinger to it.  I know this, because my roommate was telling said fiancé that he should have gotten a bag of the mini-candy bars rather than six full-size ones, because the big ones are more expensive.  He is insistent that he looked and this was the only choice.  (I’m sure he’s right because many Easter Bunnies were hitting all the big box stores and grocery stores today…)  And I’m guessing these bars are to be crumbled, because I’m sitting in the living room, and I’m nearly positive I’m listening to somebody beat those candy bars into bits with a rolling pin.

But I digress.  The whole conversation–needing something “fancy” but “easy”–seems a little absurd to me.  I like to impress people with my skills as much as the next girl–but if you’re going to be impressive, I always think “from scratch.”  Of course, I also think, “If I’m trying to impress the family members of a man I like, I’m sure as heck going to make something I’ve done right before.”  But what do I know?  Maybe this is why I’m the single one in this apartment…

I like people to enjoy my food, but I’ve never really worried about if people thought it was “good” enough.  I figure if it tastes good, if people eat it, if I can make it without going crazy trying to get it right–then it’s good enough.  If people sit around the table a little longer because of it–Mission Accomplished.  I’m not sure if this attitude makes me apathetic, a total egotist, or just a girl with a healthy self-image, but I do know that it means I made a lemon depression cake because yellow and citrus make me think of spring, and I’m not worried.  Because a good cake is always “impressive.”

 

“Finish Columbo Episode,” and other things on today’s to-do list

Today is the first day of spring break.  Last night, I folded up my lunch bag and put it on the shelf, where it will stay for the next ten days.  I washed out my travel mug and committed myself to only drinking coffee out of real mugs until April 4th.  I dropped my school bag at the foot of my bed and have no intention of picking it up until I go back to work.  I woke up this morning at a luxurious 7 a.m. and flatly refused to get out of bed until a quarter of eight just because I could.

I don’t have any plans for today.  I only just made the transition from jammies to yoga clothes (which are really just trendy jammies…)  I am almost done drinking my way through a 10 cup pot of coffee.  I get to sit at my kitchen table with the sun (looking far too wintery to be spring break as it reflects off the snow-covered roofs) streaming through the windows.  I have a list, of course–I’m a big one for lists–but my list includes things like, “Cut up and freeze pepper.”  (Yes.  I mean one, single pepper.)  “Call Mom–what to bring to Easter?”  And (my personal favorite) “Finish Columbo episode.”  (Yes, I did that.  On purpose.)

My need for lists probably says a lot about me as a person–the fact that I feel like I need to make sure things are written down, because I can’t remember everything to do it…

When I reflect on the speed of my life, and I mentally tally through the roll of my weekly “Expected’s”–my job, yoga class twice a week, the choir that rehearses for 3 hours on Wednesday, running at least ten miles, helping out with a youth choir, voice lessons, church–that’s busy!  Then I add all those things that aren’t every week–dinners with friends, visiting family, writing letters to my grandma, working on my novel, reading…I realize my life is really, really busy.

This is definitely not a “Oh, pity poor, Millennial me” moment.  I know I did this.  I choose this life–I love the hobbies I fit in because they make me feel more alive.  I treasure my friendships and they are worth creating the time to maintain.  I very much buy into the idea of “living life to the full.”  It will not be said, when I go to meet my Maker, that I did not avail myself of the opportunities in this life He gave me.

I used to just think about having to stay busy all the time–the more I did, the more successful I’d be.  I needed my lists and schedules to make sure I did the absolute most all of the time.  I didn’t want to stop moving because that would be like quitting.  I would be wasting time.  (And we all know, if there’s one invaluable thing in American culture, it’s time.)

But I don’t think that’s true anymore.  I’ve learned that doing nothing–checking things off my to-do list like “Drink all of the coffee”–is not wasting time.  It is pausing and stepping back.  That my body and mind and spirit need that rest.  That break.  (This is probably why God gave the whole “Sabbath” thing.)  When I take time back to do nothing, to be bored, to stare at the sun coming through my kitchen window, my heart sings a little song I don’t usually hear.  I breath a little deeper.  The knots of the stress of my zany, modern life relax.  I feel whole.  I feel better.  I feel alive.

It’s a chili kind of day…

Today never dawned–not really. From the time I left my house until the night set in, the world was bathed in that eerie, half-light–an unending twilight.  There was no sun, there were no impressive thunderstorms, just a vague, shiftless gray and a steady, freezing rain.

I hate days like today when I have to be a part of them.  As the day “dawned” (if you can call it that..), I peered through my car windshield and just wished to be back home, wrapped up in an old sweatshirt and my funny, homemade quilts, reading a book and drinking coffee.  Today was the sort of day designed for scuffling around in house slippers and watching Netflix.  Today was not the sort of day for fighting the good fight with students more anxious to be on vacation than I am.

Today was,  however, the sort of day to make chili.

Chili is one of those dishes that “sticks to the ribs,” as they say, it warms you up from the inside out–your own personal defense against the bitterly cold (and cruel, depending on the situation) world outside.  It is a dish designed for the northern tier, where I live.  I am amazed that anyone south of the Mason-Dixon has ever even eaten chili.  As any good Northerner will tell you–chili just doesn’t taste as good when it is 75 and sunny out.  Chili is a dish you make on days like today–when sleet is blowing in 40 mph winds because the clouds can’t make up their minds and commit to either snow or rain.  Today was definitely a chili day.  (It was also a chilly day, for the record.)

It’s probably good that I do live in the frozen north, because I LOVE chili  I love it.  I must have a million different chili recipes, and I spend all the long winter months mulching through them like locusts through the harvest.  I have white chili, chicken chili, CrockPot chili, spicy chili, mild chili, vegetarian chili, chili with stew beef, chili with ground.  Chili with black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, no beans. Then there are the variations of dishes to be made with chili: chili pie, chili-polenta casserole, and chili chip dip.  I am basically like the Hallmark Card Company of chili recipes.  I have one for every occasion.

So, needing to clear out my fridge and fight the evil of lingering winter in one fell swoop, I naturally skipped all of these recipes and trolled up a new one on the internet.  Originally, I thought it would be a great chance to give a shout out to another blog…until I realized that I had literally changed every ingredient in either essence or quantity.  (I also added about three other things.)

It started out when the grocery story I went to was out of the kind of ground beef I wanted…so I got ground turkey.  Then they only carried pinto beans in a larger can–what am I going to do with half a can of pinto beans?  So I used it all.  Then I threw in the green pepper I had before it could go bad…doubled the garlic…added cumin…doubled the amount of beer it called for (so much easier to just use a whole bottle) and switched from a stout to a cream ale (because it’s what I had…)  Then I added a can of tomato sauce, and those chipotle peppers in adobo sauce…because they were there…and suddenly I had a completely different recipe.

Chili is a great place to experiment with flavors, I think.  It’s hard to screw it up to the point it’s beyond consumption.  It’s got a basic flavor outline to follow, and then you can sort of go nuts–add your cinnamon or cocoa or whatever you like.  Plus, if it goes really wrong, you can always add cheese…or sour cream…or chives or whatever.  (Or mix it with some Velveeta and serve it with chips and then nobody will notice.)

I like doing that.  I like going off book in a recipe.  I feel like that’s where you really learn to cook–how you figure out what steps you can skip or modify and what you can’t.  What flavors blend well together.  How long is really the time you should simmer that pot.  (With chili, of course, you know the answer is the longer the better…)  It’s empowering.  It’s creative.

Plus it’s a great way to fend of the Winter Blues.

If you’d like to try out my new Invent-a-Chili, you can check it out on the drop down menu under the “Recipes” tab.  It’s easy.  Also yummy.  And please, feel free to completely change it because of what you’ve got in the house… 🙂

Captain Kitchen (or, Kitchen Geek-dom)

For the first time since moving back to the U.S., I am going on a proper vacation next week.  I’ve been  away several times over the past few years, but mostly I’ve just been going to visit friends where they live–super exciting places, like Boise…or Huntsville…or Columbia (MO, not SC.)  Not exactly what one may call “tourists hot spots.”

Don’t get me wrong.  It was great visiting all my sundry friends in all their sundry new homes, but I am ready to leave my car in the driveway, my practicality in my classroom, and go on a real vacation.  And next Monday, I’m doing it.  I’m getting on a plane and I’m flying someplace WARM to do nothing for a whole glorious week.

Needless to say, in my zeal to make my Next Week as stress-free and idle as possible (save swimming, reading books of fluff, and getting a sun tan), it has made my This Week pretty hectic.  School is rough–the kids are climbing the walls and it is a constant battle to keep them even marginally engaged (Guess who’s giving every class an assessment this week?). Then, in addition to all the normal things I do “of an evening,” I’m running weird, pre-vacation errands (Such as, but not limited to, hunting all over the place for a beach bag smaller than Texas that costs less than one million dollars.  Going to the scary tanning booth so I can have some sort of a base so my natural alabaster doesn’t turn to fire engine read in the tropical sun.  Trying on ever sandal ever designed…)  I am also trying to clear out my refrigerator.

As I’ve mentioned before, I work hard to try to avoid throwing away perfectly good food because I forgot about it and it went bad in my fridge.  I’ve been doing a pretty good job–making the stuff I buy, eating what I make, and so on.  So when I made up my list of “Things to Do Before I Leave” I flippantly added, Clear out fridge.  It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?  Three simple little words.  Something I do all the time, right?

Wrong.

What I now know is that I’ve never actually had to clear out my fridge since I made this resolution of mine.  I’ve pared it down, sure, when I was going to be out of town for a few days, but I’d always leave a chili or a stew or a pasta sauce that would be good when I got back.  This is the first time I’ve actually (completely) cleared it out.

And it’s hard.  It’s hard because I’m determined not to waste food.  I’ve had to get creative (what am I going to do with that half-bag of spinach before it gets slimy?  What am I going to do with two random little zucchinis?)

I have made (I am ashamed to admit this) a list of the meals I’m eating between now and IMG_0525when I leave.  I have legitimately done this. I actually mapped it all out.  This list is now hanging on my refrigerator in case I try to “go rogue” and make something I don’t need to before the other stuff is gone.  I wrote down everything.  I included when a friend of mine is buying lunch this week because he lost a bet over March Madness and the friend I’m meeting for dinner because I actually have a night free. I have (since taking a photo of this list) decided to make a chili to use those peppers and zucchini–because I can freeze what I can’t finish.  I’m actually contemplating making a grilled cheese sandwich to use up the last of the shredded cheese and the loaf of bread.   I am trying to eek out my coffee to make it last until I leave so I won’t have to leave perfectly good beans to go stale in my absence. As I write all of these things, I’m becoming increasingly overwhelmed by my own geekiness.

I am actually concerned about this.(I mean, a list?!)  I actually took the time to think all of this through.

Yes.  I admit I probably taking it a bit far, but I don’t think what I’m doing is bad.  I’m kind of proud of myself for using forward planning and trying to be a good steward of my few resources. I feel accomplished that I can make the puzzle fit together.  I’m like the superhero of Kitchen Conservation.

Just call me Captain Kitchen–defending refrigerators everywhere from the dangers of mold…Okay, wait.  Stop.  That’s taking it a little far, even for me.  Let’s just leave it with the fact that I made a list…

 

Childhood in a time of peace

IMG_0510These are my salt and pepper shakers.  I will be honest and say that, most of the time, I only get them out when I have other people over.  On my own, it’s easier to stick with the pepper grind and the salt ramkin…or salt pig…or salt cellar…or whatever you call it.

These were an impulse buy at a thrift store when I was actually looking for something completely different (but the whole thing cost less than a dollar, I think, so why not?)  I actually bought them because of the tray.  I had never seen S&P shakers on their own special plastic tray, so I bought them.

Later on, when I was trying to figure out how to get their seasonings into them, I flipped them over and saw the “Product of W. Germany” written in relief on the bottom…back when West Germany was still a “thing.”  That made them cooler to me–because I have a product from a place that technically doesn’t exist anymore.

I was only in kindergarten when the Berlin Wall fell, and I remember being in first grade when the U.S.S.R. officially dissolved.  I remember sitting at my grandparents house–all the grown-ups watching the news.  I remember how shocked and amazed they all were.  I also remember not understanding why, but my six year old self sensed that this was important.

I was thinking about that the other day, when I was putting out my salt and pepper shakers for my friends.  I am probably among some of the youngest people who actually remember those events taking place.

I lived my whole childhood in a way not many Americans have had the opportunity in the 20th and 21st centuries.  My memories start with the fall of the Wall, the Communist threat a thing of the past.  I played and went to softball practice and sang in school concerts in a time of peace.  I was safe.  There were no “bad guys” lying in wait.  (This also made generic bad guys for action movies hard to come by…) I grew up doing fire drills and never worrying about something bad happening to me.  My childhood and our country’s sense of security ended at the same time.  My senior year of high school was defined by September 11, 2001.  The world changed, and we were not the same.

I think about my childhood compared to that of my parents, that of my students–how different my world was from either of them.

My parents grew up in the shadow of the Cold War.  They had to do nuclear attack drills in school (precious little good, though, that these drills could have done.)  There was always the unspoken danger of Soviets, speaking eerily in Russian, lurking in America’s corners.

In many ways, it is the same for my students.  None of them know a world before the threats of al Qaeda and ISIS.  None of them know that there was a time you could get onto a plane without having to take off your shoes first.  They have grown up doing intruder drills.  For them, there is always the vague and unspoken threat of terrorists.

 

It makes childhood seem a lot more scary.  It makes me thankful for my time of peace.

Kitchen Renegade

I like cookbooks.  A lot.  As in, I actually read them, cover to cover, for fun.  As in, I own 44 (I literally got up from this computer to count them), and I have cooked multiple recipes out of 34 of them (I also just counted that).  As in, one of my favorite parts of the week is sitting down with a stack of randomly selected cookbooks to pick recipes and make my grocery list.  As in, I have been known to check cookbooks out from the library. On purpose. 

Most of my cookbooks are finds from bargain bins, community book sales, and charity shops.  Nearly all of them had previous owners, and I think I only paid cover price for two.  Like many things in my life, I believe in recycling.

Whenever I go to a Goodwill, I always make sure to do a flyby of the cookbook section.  I like reading the titles and seeing what’s there.  You tend to see a strong representation of cookbooks from last year’s diet “miracle” (Atkin’s, South Beach–I’m sure the Paleo collection will be in season in the next year or so…) and there are always at least four copies of that Oprah cookbook, In the Kitchen with Rosie.  (I guess every person in America must have owned at least five copies in 1998.)    Through my perusal-ing, I have gathered that, in the early ’80’s, people believed that the secret to healthy living was removing all the fat from all the things (titles along the line of Feed Your Family the Fat-Free Way, and Living Healthy: Old Time Flavor without the Fat).  It was also widely accepted, apparently, that it was only a matter of time before microwaves completely replaced the traditional oven (There is usually an entire shelf dedicated to things like Microwave Miracle!: 101 Microwave Oven Recipes for the Modern Cook).

I usually end up leafing through the oldest cookbooks there, myself–the ones from the ’60’s and ’70’s.  I like getting the window into a world that is so different than my own–a world where kids still took homemade birthday treats to school, getting together with friends meant someone was going to “entertain,” and Betty Crocker’s marketing team had not yet convinced America that from-scratch cakes are so much more difficult and complicated than ones from a box.  (They aren’t, incidentally.)

The recipes in these faded books are a lot better, by and large, than their modern counterparts.  I think it’s because when these cookbooks were written, people still, well, cooked.  Today, most cookbooks have recipes that call for about a million ingredients, at least a dozen of them impossible to find if you don’t live in one of the Food Capitals of the World (New York, London, Paris, L.A.), let alone Smalltown, America.  I mean, you can only cook recipes out of a book like Plenty (a truly beautiful cookbook–it’s like food porn) if you have about three to four hours, decent skill, a professionally outfitted kitchen, and access to some crazy ingredients.  And that book was a New York Times bestseller–a bestseller! I’d wager this cookbook sits in cabinets all over America with pristine pages while their owners eat Chinese take-out for the third time this month. 

Most people I know maintain diets that include a significant amount of restaurant food (be it from fast food, delivery pizza, or sit-down restaurants) supplemented heavily by premade food that we just heat up (chicken nuggets, burritos, frozen pizza, pre-portioned frozen dinners).  We live in a culture where we watch other people cook food on television while we pull the plastic film off the top of a Lean Cuisine.  We, as a culture, honestly believe that cooking is a thing reserved for professionals, retirees, and rich women with nothing better to do.

Let me say that in another way:

We have bought into the lie that cooking–the act of going into your kitchen and making something from scratch–is a luxury the average American can’t afford. 

That doesn’t sit well with me.  It bothers me that we think we’re “too busy” to do something that makes us so fundamentally human.  It bothers me that we’ve let marketing campaigns convince us that we “can’t possibly” make a pizza by ourselves or that we’re “too busy” to make chicken noodle soup that doesn’t come from a can.  I think we’re better than that.  I think I’m better than that.  I think you’re better than that.

So prove the marketing people wrong.  Take back the kitchen from the people on T.V.  Be a renegade.

Cook dinner tonight.

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