Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Top 10 “Overheard In My House” 2009. In Other Words, Can You Not Hear Yourself Speaking?

I love this time of year – not just because of all the holiday gatherings and new movie releases and celebratory drinks (Bacon Bloody Mary, anyone?), but also because we’re finally, finally, finally reaching the conclusion of those irritating Snuggie commercials, featuring -- inexplicably -- full-grown adults oblivious to the fact that they are wearing unusually-flammable bed coverings in lieu of clothing to sporting events.

Thank the advertising geniuses that be, those mawkish Lexus “December Holiday Event” ads are also winding down.  Which means I no longer have to ask, every time one airs (which feels like every six and half minutes), “Cheese and rice.  Did she really have no idea she was getting a car?  And where did he get that big-ass bow?  At the big-ass Wal-Mart?”  (Sorry, Mom.  I know how you feel about that kind of talk.)

Actually, what I love most about this week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is the cornucopia of lists proclaimed and broadcasted in every media outlet:  The 50 Best Movies of 2009, Most Popular Baby Names for 2009 (Jayden?   Really?), YouTube Top 2009 Videos (including the JK Wedding Video I adored) Noteworthy People Who Died In 2009, and the Top Ten Cryptozoology Stories of 2009.  (Honest folks, you can’t just make this stuff up.  Or, considering the cryptozoology example, maybe you can.)

I guess I’m so enamored of these 365-days-summarized-in-bullet-points, because I’m an unrepentant listmaker myself.  My own year-end wrap-up comes straight from posts I’ve made this year on Facebook.  So here now, the Top 10 “Overheard In My House*” quotes from 2009.

*Note:  These are actual quotes, but to protect both the innocent and the guilty, I’m not naming names.  Although yes, you could probably guess.

Overheard In My House -- 2009
  1. My child, “I didn’t know what you meant.”  Me, “When I said, ‘Get the wet towels off the floor,’ you didn’t know what I meant?”
  2. From a child trying out for a sports team: "I don't want to practice. Practicing doesn't make any difference at all. Everyone knows that."  Me: [Silent.  But only because rolling eyes don’t make any noise, and with enough practice -- which I have -- neither do grinding teeth.]
  3. From a teenager, “You know, I might want to go to the University of South Carolina.  It looks like you don’t have to know what you want to do there, but you still get to have a lot of fun."
  4. Me, "No. That would be three sleepovers in a row. Come Sunday, you would be so awful that I would do something awful and that means I'd get arrested." My child, " Just let me do it, Mom. I can break you out of jail." 
  5. Four weeks before Christmas, spoken by a child who should know better, "I know it's $500, Mom, but it's better for you, because then you’d only have to get me one gift."
  6. From a child, hoping to go to a friend’s house, "I DO SO understand. I've got to do my homework, take a shower, pick up my room and eat dinner first. So do you think I can go over there in about five minutes?"
  7. Me, “You’re hungry?  How about a bowl of cereal, or some scrambled eggs, or a quesadilla, or a peanut butter sandwich, or some nachos, or a bowl of soup, or some buttered pasta?”  My child, sighing, “No.  There’s nothing to eat in this house.”
  8. Son, "Mom, where's the rug?" Me, "You mean the 6 x 8 rug that was at the top of the stairs, which I rolled up and removed FIVE days ago for cleaning?" Son, "Yeah. That one. Where is it?"
  9. My child, “I don't have any homework today. Unless you count those vocab words. And reading. And that presentation that's due tomorrow. And there's a math test, too. But, you know, you can't really study for math. So, nothing, really.”
  10. And the prizewinning quote (drumroll, please), overheard in my house, 2009, spoken by a teenager, “When you write down what I say, I sound stupid.”
Ahem.  Nuff said.  I may, however, need a little something sweet for my kiddoes after posting this blog.  Fortunately, everyone here loves fresh fruit.  This unusual and simple salad should do the trick.

Minted Grapefruit, Cherry and Strawberry Salad
Two red grapefruits, peeled and sectioned
2 cups fresh cherries, pitted
2 cups strawberries, halved or quartered

3 tablespoons orange juice (or Triple Sec)
3 tablespoons honey
3 sprigs mint

Combine dressing ingredients in a small bowl and let macerate for at least 30 minutes.  In a large bowl, gently combine fruit.  Pour dressing over, straining out the mint.  Serve chilled.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Post-Christmas Chez Wiles: Paper, Pets, Poop, Poundage and the Perfect Dessert.

Christmas is done.  The gifts unwrapped, the stockings unhung, the trashcans overflowing, and the frenzy, somewhat abated.  Looking back, there are a few things I’d like to do differently next year.  Let’s review. 

First, I'm thinking Christmas should be a giftwrap-free holiday.  It’s unseemly that I’ve got to dump trash twice for every single gift – first, when I bring it home and toss tags, original packaging, and finally, the shopping bag (and those flimsy plastic ones seem procreate if left to their own devices), and again on Christmas, discarding the wrapping paper, ribbons, gift tags, bows, and -- much as I hate to admit it -- gift boxes.  (I know.  Why is it that I feel just fine re-gifting, but, despite the Ed Begley Jr. example set by my mom, who resurrected the same Belk department store gift boxes, as well as one from a Ohio department store that started with a “K”, for decades, I just can’t bring myself to re-giftbox.)  Next year, though, ribbons only.  Or perhaps, I’ll just put the gifts under the tree, while still in those procreating shopping bags.

I’m also lobbying for pet-free holidays next December.  Honest.  I can’t imagine a better time of year to ship Josie and Lionel off to doggy daycare and kitty camp.  Not, of course, that pets are more difficult to wrangle than kids.  But what are the options with kids?  Or, what are the options that don’t result in a call to DSS?

Hopped up on this year’s holiday insanity, Lionel-the-pugilistic-cat became a ‘round-the-clock predator, stalking, pouncing, and attacking everyone Chez Wiles, including (naturally), Josie-the-anxiety-dog.

At this point, you’ve got to ask:  How hard is it for an indoor cat to track down a mostly-indoor dog?  During these agitated holidays, Josie made it particularly easy, dividing her time fairly evenly between the upstairs cat litter box (her favorite dining spot) and the downstairs dining room, where she revealed her true talent -- devaluing the most valuable rug in the house.  Yes, I’ll be calling the cleaners after New Year’s.

I’m also thinking there’s a huge need for a rice-caked based Christmas treat.  I don’t think I’ve seen a chocolate-dipped, butter-laden cake, cookie or candy these past few weeks that I haven’t used as hip-padding.  Not before, of course, topping it with whipped cream.  And washing it down with champagne, or in a pinch, red wine.

So to recap, my plans for Christmas 2010 involve no paper, no pets, and no poundage.  But since Christmas 2009 isn’t quite over, today I made these lovely little Chocolate Pots de Crème.  They’re like the most intense little chocolate puddings you can imagine – kind of like chilled and creamy chocolate truffles.

Hmm. Slight revision.  Next year, no paper, no pets and no desserts that aren’t Chocolate Pots de Crème.  There.  I feel better already.

Chocolate Pots de Crème
2 eggs
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups whipping cream
3 tablespoons sugar
8 ounces good, semi-sweet chocolate chips (I use Ghiaradelli)
2 tablespoons Frangelico
whipped cream (for garnish)

In blender, quickly blend eggs and salt for a few seconds.

Now, in a medium saucepan, scald whipping cream and sugar over medium high heat, stirring constantly.  Do not boil.  When bubbles form at side of pan, whisk in chocolate chips.  Remove from heat.  When chips are melted, drizzle a ladle of the hot mixture into the eggs, blending over a low speed.  (This tempers the eggs, effectively cooking them, but keeping them from curdling.)  Blend in another ladle or two of chocolate cream.  Then, blend in remaining chocolate cream and Frangelico.  When well blended, pour into eight small, individual ramekins.  Cover and chill at least eight hours.  Serve chilled, with whipped cream.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Love and Warmth From The Wiles. Kind Of.

Dear Friends and Family,

Depending on how you look at it, mea culpa (“my bad”) or pulvis vos felicis  (“aren’t you lucky?”).  I haven’t sent a holiday letter since 2006 – mostly because I was caught up in the complications and cussings of divorce.  Truthfully, ours was as amicable as a divorce could be.  No courtrooms.  No surprise witnesses.  No machetes.  It was final last April, and as one of the kids put it, “Divorce sucks, but we’re better than we ever thought we could be a year ago.”  Truly, we’re all fine – every one.  However, there have been plenty of goings-on Chez Wiles, so I’ll try to catch you up.

The kids are great.  Snarky Son's now in high school, which he has embraced like some kind of prickly brick wall.  Turns out, ninth grade’s a lot tougher than eighth.  Shocking.  Over Christmas break, he’s taking drivers’ ed.  I’m not worried a bit and you shouldn’t be, either.  Well, not until March, I guess.  That’s when he actually turns 15.  Now that SS is a teenager, I’m also pleased to report that he and Darling Daughter (DD) have grown a lot closer.  At one point this fall, he told her, “You’re not unattractive, you know.”  Sigh.  Just about brings tears to your eyes, right?

DD's in seventh grade and is playing basketball.  Despite being one of the (very) tallest girls on the team, she’s spending a lot of time at point guard.  Either her previous coaches have overlooked an undeniable talent, or this current team is a wee bit short on ballhandlers.  Hard to tell.  She went to summer camp this past year for four weeks.  Surprising how quickly her letters turned from, “I want to come home” to “can I stay another four weeks?”  Again, just about brings tears to your eyes, right?

DD had to come home, though, because there’s some sort of “no felines” rule at her camp, and although she might get over me, there was no getting over her 12-pound-cat, Lionel, who likely believes his name to be, “you’re an indoor cat, you’re an indoor cat, you’re an indoor cat,” which is what I say to him, over and over.  Every.  Single.  Day.

We have a new addition to our household.  (C’mon, now.  Don't even go there.  Remember that I’m 47 and single.)  In February, Josie-the-rescue-dog came to live with us.  She’d had parvo and been starved nearly to death, so mostly what she wants from us is to be fed and loved.  Here’s what we want from her:  To leave the #%$@* cat alone.  Every.  Single.  Day.

I’m still a stay-at-home-mom (I told you the divorce was amicable), so my life as cook-driver-sock-finder-poop-picker-upper continues.  I have, however, been keeping a blog, Feminine Wiles, which I hope you’ll read sometime after the holiday rush slows down.  I try to include a recipe in every post, as well as a funny story.  Or, at least, a story that is funny to me.  To find it, just Google “Cheri Wiles blog” or “Cheri Feminine Wiles.”  Or, try, “master stir fry in peru keep cats in basement.”  No kidding.  Someone once landed on my blog by Googling these very words.  I can't even imagine.

The response to Feminine Wiles has been mixed here at home.  DD says the word “blog” (which actually is short for “web log”) sounds disgusting – like some sort of bodily function.  Nice.  SS's friends actually read it, but what he wants to know is, “Does this mean you’re finally getting paid to write?”  Uh.  No.  But thanks for asking.

Which is all to say that 2009 has treated us just fine, and we all hope it’s treated you just as well -- or in some instances (poop-scooping comes to mind) even better.

Much love and happy holidays,


P.S.  If you need a great coffeecake for Christmas morning, I've got an idea that's a snap. Note that you've got to assemble it the night before and pop it in the oven the next morning.  As unlikely as it sounds, it always turns out perfect.

Butterscotch Monkey Bread

1 bag frozen parkerhouse style rolls
1 (small) box butterscotch pudding (not instant)
1 cup pecans, chopped
3/4 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup butter

The night before, spray bundt pan with nonstick coating.  Place frozen rolls in pan.  Pour dry pudding mix over rolls and sprinkle with pecans.  Combine brown sugar and butter in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.  Drizzle hot mixture over frozen rolls and cover pan loosely with plastic wrap.  Leave pan out on counter overnight.

The next morning, preheat oven to 350.  Rolls will have risen, doubling or tripling in size.  Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes.  Let cool slightly and pass the napkins!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Exams Are Over, and All I Want For Christmas Is A Clean House. And Soup.

With so many stomach “bugs” going around, I’m wondering whether furniture can get sick, too.  Because here we are, Day Four of exams, and it appears that every desk, dresser, backpack and closet Chez Wiles has violently and uncontrollably spewed their contents. Hoo boy. This, my friend, would be a good day for a HazMat suit.

Mysteriously, it’s not only textbooks and quizzes, notecards and calculators, highlighters and writing utensils that now carpet every flat surface. It’s also laundry and blankets, soft drink bottles and bread wrappers, dust pans and tape dispensers, boots and bathing suits (bathing suits? really?), and an extensive collection of "lucky" wool socks. (I also understand that "studying" is lucky for exam-taking, but what do I know?)  

It's going to take more than a vacuum to reverse this wreckage.  More like a shovel.  Or a backhoe.  And of course, the aforementioned HazMat suit.

The kids aren’t solely to blame. In an effort to minimize distractions and maximize opportunities for exam prep, I let a lot of things slide. That ride, however, is over.  I am the Fat Lady, and I have sung.

So today, we’re back to the real world. Back to beds made before noon. Litter boxes cleaned before the cat relocates his potty to my down comforter.  Bedtime before sun up.  Shoes put away before the dog uses them as expensive – very expensive -- chew toys.

We’re also back to “mom” food.  Not that the kids have been complaining as we’ve enjoyed everyone’s favorite breakfast-for-dinner (Waffles of Insane Greatness), hard-to-argue-with Pan-Roasted-Chicken and many meals featuring the Wiles’ family favorite food group, sausage (Not So Dirty Rice, among other delights.)

A few weeks ago, when Little Sis (LS) was here (and the kids were not), she made a huge batch of avgolemono (Greek lemon egg soup) for me and some girlfriends. Tart and well-seasoned, it’s one of my favorite soups ever.  LS, of course, made it the “real” way, starting with a whole chicken and vat of water.  And that’s what I craved while the kids sat for exams and Project Exam Aftermath commenced here at home, but I didn’t have time for all that.  So, using some of the chicken stock I had stashed in the freezer, I came up with this “Greek-inspired” lemon soup.  Not authentic, to be sure, but making this quick, and somewhat more hearty, version gives me a little more time to get the house back in order.

Does this HazMat suit make me look fat?

Greek-Inspired Lemon Chicken Soup

Six cups chicken stock with chopped chicken
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon lemon zest
½ cup orzo (or rice)
2 eggs, separated
juice of one lemon
salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot, bring stock, bay leaf, oregano and lemon zest to a boil.  Stir in orzo.  As orzo cooks, whip eggs whites in a mixing bowl until soft peaks form.  Whisk in, individually, egg yolks.  Whisk in lemon juice.  When orzo is almost done, remove stock from heat, and remove and discard bay leaf.  Very gradually, stir in one cup of hot stock into egg mixture.  (This important step tempers the eggs, so they stay frothy and don’t curdle.)  Gently stir tempered egg mixture into stock.  Soup will be creamy-looking, and somewhat frothy.  If you want to be fancy, sprinkle fresh chopped parsley, or better still, fresh dill, on top and serve.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

How To Study For Exams In 20 Easy Steps: A Mom's Perspective

This week, Snarky Son faces his first full round of high school exams.

Fortunately, his school recognizes how overwhelming the coming days will be and has gone to great lengths to help the new freshmen class prepare. The dean of students and department heads met with parents to help us understand the gravity of the situation. Individual teachers handed out exam packets weeks ago, impressing upon their classes the need to prepare in advance. Some teachers have held review sessions outside of class, giving students additional opportunities to study and ask questions. Advisors have met with students, to help them manage the inevitable stress of exams.

We moms, of course, have also swapped notes, and have come to the consensus that the recommended study techniques aren't necessarily the utilized study techniques. Here are the exam preparation steps observed Chez Wiles:
  1. Clean your room. Make sure your desk is clutter-free, so you’ll have room to spread out. A clean room may also minimize distractions. 
  2. Organize your study materials. Make sure you have old tests and quizzes, class notes and books. 
  3. Check for text messages.
  4. When Mom hollers upstairs, stop playing electric guitar. 
  5. Start playing acoustic guitar. 
  6. Glance over French notes. Wonder why everyone is so worried about this exam.
  7. Check for text messages. Probably ought to check Facebook, too, to see if you’re missing anything. Quit Facebook when Mom catches you on Farmville.
  8. See whether Lionel, the 12-pound cat, wants to be worn as a hat. Nope. Maybe he wants to go in dryer. Nope. Make note to self to try again later.
  9. The bedroom is starting to feel stuffy. Time for a change of scenery. Lay on hallway rug to review vocab.
  10. When Mom hollers again, tell her that you’re not just playing the guitar – you’re putting your vocab words to music. Everyone has their own study technique and this is yours. You might be a genius. Everyone should study this way. Can you think of a rhyme for “complacent”? How about “obstinate”?* 
  11. Go downstairs for a snack. Notice that Mom has put out an assortment of cut fruit and vegetables. Eat one baby carrot, pour a liter-sized cup of Cheerwine, fill a mixing bowl with Tostitos Scoops and take them upstairs with you. 
  12. Wait. Did the dog want to come in? Go back downstairs and check.
  13. Go back upstairs, spread Physics notes and tests across the bed. This will be the Physics work area. There. That looks good. Good organization. Check text messages. Check Facebook.
  14. Wow. That was tiring. A shower will re-energize you. Time to take a shower.
  15. Now that you’re re-energized, your brain works better, and you remember that comfortable clothing is important to successful studying. Sadly, your favorite sweatpants aren’t clean. Time to do laundry.
  16. Walk through kitchen. Someone’s hidden the Cheerwine. Consider asking Mom to go to the store for more. Look at her and notice the creases in her forehead. Reconsider. Open a two-liter bottle of 7-Up instead.
  17. While the sweatpants wash, pull out your World History notes. Realize you can’t read your own writing. Wonder if Mom had a point when she said you have poor handwriting. Oh wait. If you squint your eyes just right, you can read it. See? Mom was wrong.
  18. Check text messages.
  19. Whew. Time to take a break. Breaks are important. You’ll know breaktime is over when Mom yells again.
  20. Finally. It's time to get down to studying. Go back to step 2. Repeat steps 3 – 18. Again.
*Two of SS's actual vocabulary words.

Sigh. I can't do his studying for him. One, because I won't. Two, because he's got to learn sometime. And three, let's be honest. Advanced Conceptual Physics? Me? Shut the front door!

What I can do, as always, is make sure he's gets ample sleep and plenty to eat. And not every snack has to be a "healthy" snack. This afternoon, I made up a batch of rich, chewy Chocolate Toffee Cookies. They'll be perfect with a cold glass of milk. And may -- almost -- compensate for the fact that I'm about to confiscate his cell phone.

Chocolate Toffee Cookies
I adapted this recipe from one for Salted Chocolate Covered Caramel Cookies on the blog A Good Appetite. Note that the dough must be refrigerated for at least two hours before baking.

1 bag of good semi-sweet chocolate chips (I use Ghirardelli)
1/2 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup Heath English Toffee Bits (found on baking aisle)
kosher salt

Melt 1 1/3 cup of chocolate chips in microwave. Stir in butter until melted.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together eggs and vanilla. Whisk in a spoon or two of chocolate, to temper the eggs. Gradually stir in remainder of chocolate and brown sugar. In measuring cup, stir together flour and baking powder. Then, stir flour mixture into chocolate mixture. Fold in caramel bits and remaining chocolate chips. Refrigerate at least two hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Scoop dough, by tablespoonfuls onto parchment, allowing ample space for spreading. Flatten cookies slightly. Sprinkle each cookie -- lightly -- with a few grains of kosher salt. Bake for 10 minutes. Let cool on cookie sheet for 5 minutes and then, move to baking racks to allow to cool completely. Makes 3 dozen cookies.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

No Need To Apologize For A Southern Girl's 3-Ingredient Salsa.

Elton John once sang, “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word.”

Suffice to say, Elton’s not a woman. Or not, at least, a Southern woman.

For us, “I’m sorry” isn’t a phrase. And it’s not an apology. It’s a reflex.

There’s nothing difficult about saying “sorry.” The word escapes our lips at nearly every opportunity. You backed into my car? I’m sorry. Your kid shoved my kid down the slide and broke his arm? I’m sorry. I'm so achey I can't walk up the stairs and I have a fever of 104? I'm sorry. My car is wrecked, my kid’s in the hospital, I have H1N1, and I can’t bring cookies to the class party? I’m sorry.

“I’m sorry” isn’t the only verbal reflex in a Southern girl’s arsenal. Far from it. We’ve also got “I’m OK” (although this paring knife cut may require stitches, but only after I’m done with the dishes), “I can do that” (even though I don’t have the time, energy or inclination to manage that school festival requiring 250 volunteers) and, my personal favorite, “bless his heart” – the well-intentioned, and dimly-concealed attempt to soften any criticism, even the most-deserved. Well he just said he was tired of being married, and up and left her and their six kids, and then, before you knew it, he moved to Mississippi with that little blonde girl who is half his age. Bless his heart.

And let’s not forget the ever-popular “What can I bring?” which is a far cry from, “Can I bring anything?” which actually would indicate a girl’s unwillingness to make a contribution. Bless her heart.

Nope. When another woman says, “Why don’t y’all come over for supper later?” the only proper verbal reflex is “What can I bring?” As if, at the drop of a cupcake tin, we all have the time and ingredients to whip up an appetizer, dessert or main dish. As if we always have a liter or two of spiced and fruited rum in the fridge, waiting to be mixed into a tasty sangria. (OK. I may be an exception on that one. Click here for my recipe. It's worth it for the space the rum takes up in the fridge.) And trust me, “what can I bring” never means how about I bring some storebought cupcakes.

That’s why I love this next recipe. You can make it in a jiffy and present it proudly anytime “What can I bring?” slips your lips.

I’m a fan of salsa. And while I enjoy the vast array of chunky “gourmet” styles with ingredients like black beans and corn and Vidalia onions, I prefer the simple, thin, zesty style served in Mexican restaurants. That’s exactly what I had a recent tailgate party in Tennessee. When I begged for the recipe, the cook was somewhat embarrassed. “It’s pretty simple,” she said. Because “it’s simple” can be another one of those verbal reflexes, I braced myself for a lengthy description of roasted tomatoes, fire-smoked peppers, etc. No need. “It’s just two ingredients,” she continued. And holy cow, she was right.

But you know, when I made it again here at home, I thought it needed a little something more – just to brighten the flavor – so I added the juice of a lime. That makes it three ingredients, but I really think it makes it better.

I’m sorry.

Restaurant Style Salsa in a Flash
1 14-ounce can Ro-Tel tomatoes
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes (not in sauce), drained but liquid reserved
1 lime, juiced

Dump all ingredients (except reserved juice) in a medium sized mixing bowl. Use an immersion blender to quickly combine all ingredients, stopping well before the salsa becomes the consistency of sauce. Taste for thickness and seasoning, adding reserved liquid and salt as needed. Chill for an hour or two, and serve with tortilla chips. Proudly. With a lime garnish.

Friday, December 11, 2009

On The List Of Things I Won't Buy For My Kid: A Snuggie.

In the spirit of the season, Darling Daughter and Snarky Son submitted their wish lists for my consideration a few weeks ago. Since then, in the spirit of the 21st century – or, more precisely, in the spirit of a generation accustomed to cutting and pasting and clicking and inserting 10 minutes before class begins -- they’ve each made countless clarifications and embellishments.

If only they were so thorough when editing their schoolwork.

Still, the lists – in writing – are essential, because I’m the “Go-To.” When someone, anyone, everyone wants to know, “What do DD or SS want for Christmas?” they don’t ask DD or SS, they go to me. I’m the “Go-To.” I am the mother lode. More accurately, I am The Mother.

Although I always remind the kids that the Baby Jesus only got three presents, I like to have gracious plenty ideas to choose from. (Dangling participle. My bad, my blog.) Some years, the kids are stumped. (Until, of course, I remind them that I love nothing more than buying books.) This year, though, they were downright prolific. I wanted ideas, and hoo boy, I got ‘em.

DD’s list included possibilities priced from $1.97 (a toothbrush) to $997 (not a toothbrush). As an added benefit, I could actually read and was familiar with the items listed.

By contrast, the list “written” (a word I use loosely) by SS was largely hieroglyphic – even after he de-coded it. Does every other mom on the planet know what a Boss DS-2 distortion pedal is? And MacBeth Brightons? Anyone? Anyone? Nah. I’m not that lucky. MacBeths have nothing to do with The Bard.

So here we are, two weeks from Christmas, after two weeks of list fiddling, and it comes down to this. DD wants a ceiling fan. And braces. Sigh. Neither one of those will fit into a nice, neat gift box. However, she’s asked for the ceiling fan for lo these past five years. And the braces? She already knows that her Dad will be getting them for her as soon as the orthodontist flashes the green flag. What we have here is yet another example of why some people call her “The Golden Child.”

SS slimmed his list down, too. Having blown through more phones in the past year than he has fingers, SS’s top priority is a basic, no-frills flip phone. And a Snuggie. True, either one would fit in a nice, neat gift box, but I refuse to buy him another phone. And a Snuggie? Not gonna happen. There's no way I can click the "Buy Now" button. Not for him. Not for a frostbitten child. Not for a featherless penguin. Not for the cryogenically-preserved head of Ted Williams. OK. Maybe for the frostbitten child. Other than that, not gonna do it.

Not that I’m not flexible. I’m plenty flexible. OK. Maybe not that flexible. But I’m bendy enough. Take this tomato basil soup recipe.

I came up with the recipe for Cougar Bait (I know, he’s only 23 days younger than me, but he likes to believe ...), who’s something of a connoisseur of Tomato Basil Soup. But at the last minute, I remembered I had some ground turkey in the fridge. Just like that, a totally vegetarian dish became not-so-much.

Just a little cutting and pasting and clicking and inserting and voila – I had a very nearly vegetarian Tomato Basil Soup – with meatballs.

Almost Vegetarian Tomato Basil Soup – With Meatballs
Despite the ingredient list, the soup comes together pretty quickly -- and it's very good without the meatballs, as well.

1 minced garlic clove
1 pound ground meat (turkey, beef or pork)
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons dried breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon dried basil
2 tablespoons minced parsley
½ teaspoon kosher salt
fresh ground pepper

1 large onion, chopped
2 dozen baby carrots, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 quart vegetable broth
1 bay leaf
red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon kosher salt
fresh ground black pepper
½ cup fresh basil, sliced very, very thinly (chiffonade)

First, make the meatballs. Preheat oven at 350. In a large mixing bowl, gently mix all meatball ingredients. Try not to “pack” the meat. Form into ¾ inch meatballs. Place on an ungreased baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes. Remove and let cool.

Make the soup. In a very large skillet or soup kettle, saute the onion, carrot and celery in the olive oil until the onion is very translucent and the carrots and celery are slightly browned. Stir in the tomatoes and vegetable broth. Stir well, and add the bay leaf, a sprinkle of red pepper and salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove bay leaf, and carefully, carefully, use a handheld immersion blender to smooth out the soup. (Alternately, allow soup to cool, and then, puree in a blender until smooth. Then reheat.) Taste and adjust seasoning (particularly for salt). Stir in basil and meatballs. Simmer another 10 minutes and serve hot.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Making Lists, And Then, Reindeer Cookies.

It was inevitable, I suppose.

I can’t find …

I seem to have misplaced …

I just can’t put my hands on …

Dagnabbit.  I lost a list.

I am an inveterate list-maker.  At this time of year, I even keep a list of my lists, including:

•  Wish lists from Snarky Son and Darling Daughter, itemizing their ideas for gifts I purchased months before they made their lists; gifts I’m not giving, but may purchase on behalf of stymied (I did not say “feckless”) family members; gifts they probably don’t want but I’m giving them anyway; and gifts I wouldn’t give even if they came with a bucket of water and my hair was on fire.  Doesn’t hurt to ask, though.

•  List of things to make/bake/mix/ladle/freeze, including the usual holiday sweets like the saltine-based Chocolate Toffee Treats, the semi-homemade Sausage Bread we have to have but never actually eat while tearing into gifts Christmas Day, and, inevitably, something ridiculous, like Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon, which I have no business attempting under the best of circumstances, much less during the time of year when a bowl of cereal is considered a fairly complete dinner Chez Wiles.

•  Gifts to wrap/deliver/mail, including the Feminine Wiles cookbooks I had made up which are absurdly priced, but I am  distributing as if they were Belk department store perfume samples.

•  The always outdated grocery list.  Despite constant updates and the best efforts of SS and DD, who know that, if you don’t write it down, it won’t go in the cart, I’m now visiting our neighborhood Harris Teeter at least twice a day.  On no fewer than half of these visits, I’ll be distracted by something like those darling bags of crushed peppermint (perfect for Chocolate Toffee Treats!) or tiny cinnamon chips and will completely forget that milk, milk, MILK is the one item I’m supposed to buy.

•  A Christmas card list.  What am I thinking?  For the previous two years, during my separation and divorce, I didn’t address a single card.  Even my parents have abandoned all hope of finding anything in their mailboxes bearing my return address.  But if good intentions count for anything, I do have a list.  Check.

•  The daily “To Do” list.  This one includes such important items as when to pick up my various carpools, and more importantly, where.  It also includes “clean out the fridge,” which seriously, is something I have to do at the beginning of any holiday season.  For me, a clean fridge equals a clean mind.  Or a clean slate.  Or at the very least, a place to put the milk.  If I remember to buy it.

Santa help me, because the List goes on and on, including everything but the kitchen sink -- and, regretfully, the misplaced Shared List I made with Little Sis which included such mundane things as parent gifts I said I'd buy.

Umm.  Sorry, Sis?

Yep.  Time to simplify.    I can’t really eliminate any of the items on the lists.  They’re important to me.  They’re important to the kids.  They’re part of our holiday tradition.

What I can do, though, is lighten up.  I don’t have to wrap every cookbook with hand-painted paper.  A bow-tied ribbon (a really lovely one, of course) is plenty.  An e-mailed Christmas letter or card will get the job done.  And although I’m desperate to try the Salted Chocolate Covered Caramel Cookies described in A Good Appetite,  I may not get to them before DD’s cookie swap this weekend.  Instead, these adorable three-ingredient Reindeer Cookies, made with Pillsbury dough will be plenty good enough.

But first, has anyone seen that list?  I think it was on graph paper.  Three-hole punched.  And have you looked inside my fridge?  Nice.

Reindeer Cookies
1 package Pillsbury Gingerbread refrigerated dough
Pretzels (for antlers)
Red and green M&Ms

Preheat oven to 350.  Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.  (Parchment paper, I think, is the key to any successful cookie.)  Using a serrated knife, slice dough into ¼-inch discs, placing on parchment paper 3-4 inches apart.  Know, using your thumb and forefinger, squeeze each disc into a kind of hourglass shape.  Press two pretzels into the top of each cookie, as antlers.  Add two green M&M candies into the top half of the hourglass, as eyes.  Press a red M&M candy into the bottom half, as a nose.  Bake about 8 minutes, or until dough puffs up and loses that “shiny” look.  Let cool and remove to racks.  There, that was easy.  Check it off the list.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Eighteen Days Before Christmas And Top On My List? Greasing The Track.

It’s 10 p.m. Chez Wiles, and not a creature is stirring.

Unless, of course, you count Lionel, our Napoleon-complex-afflicted feline, who is stalking and pouncing on what, given the season, I imagine to be a few stray, zippy and unusually aggressive elves, who are leading a frantic chase through the living room and into the dining room.  And back into the living room.  And into the dining room.  This cat is in constant need of conquest.  This morning, he managed to track down and slay a blue gel ice pack, which Snarky Son (SS) left on the floor.  (Don’t get me started.)  That poor, floppy ice pack never knew what hit it.  I did, though, thanks to a trail of azure goo.

Likewise, Josie the rescue dog, despite utter exhaustion, can barely doze for more than 30 minutes at a stretch, thanks to regular holiday visits from those three men bearing gifts:  the FedEx man, the UPS man and the mailman.  Oh --  perhaps those bouts of explosive diarrhea could be disrupting her sleep pattern, as well.  After two nights of, well, do I have to describe it?  Can't I just say -- thanks to baby gates -- it was confined to the kitchen?  Anyhow, I finally decided to dose her up on Benefiber and now can’t decide:  Was that caring, controlling or comical?

Let’s not forget SS, who, being deprived of his cell phone and Facebook during exam prep, has resorted to enthusiastically pounding, drumming and thumping on whatever piece of upstairs furniture is immediately over my head, no matter where I am downstairs.  He says it helps him study.  I say even the cast from Stomp couldn’t study with that commotion.  This, after I insisted that a person can't study effectively while talking on the phone.  Or while reading a book.  Or while “listening” on the phone.  That’s right. New rule. No studying while listening on the phone.  Not even on speaker phone.

Darling Daughter (DD), blessedly, has been asleep for over an hour.  I wish it were because she is living up to her reputation as the “Golden Child,” but the sad truth is that she may be coming down with something. She crawled into bed and collapsed well before her usual bedtime tonight, and I've lost count of the number of times I crept upstairs to gently lay an anxious hand on her forehead.

We’re all a little out of sorts right now.  SS is facing his first exam week as a high schooler.  DD, a middle schooler, only has one exam, but it’s also a first for her.  DD’s first basketball game of the season is this Saturday, too.  SS is anticipating driver’s ed instruction later this month.

On top of that, we've got to figure out The Schedule -- who's where and when for the next few weeks -- never a pleasant or easy task for the kids of divorced parents.  And oh yeah, it’s Christmas time, too.  Sigh.

Yep.  We’ve got plenty on our plates, and I know full well what my job is in times like these:  I grease the track.

My job is to make things easy.  To make sure that favorite jeans are clean, favorite snacks are on hand and friendly adults -- repeatedly asking the inocuous "Are you ready for Christmas? -- are fended off.

Likewise, I try to choose meals that are filling, nutritious and, most important, non-controversial.  This is not the time to try out that Julia Child boeuf bourgignon recipe.  Nope. I’m looking for tried and true and loved.  Pasta will surely be playing a leading role these next couple of weeks, with the beloved sausage pasta taking center stage, but tonight, it was meatloaf and mashed potatoes.  And stockings hung with care.

Best Ever Meatloaf
What makes this meatloaf particularly flavorful is the mix of meats.  The recipe makes two loaves, so I cook both, and then, freeze one for dinner at another time.

1 onion, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil

1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground veal
1 pound ground pork

2 eggs
½ cup dried bread crumbs (I use panko)
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
¼ cup cream (or milk)
¼ cup minced parsley (unless you’re greasing the track at your own house, then omit, because it’s gross)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon dried oregano
fresh ground pepper

In a large skillet, sautee onion and celery in olive oil over medium heat.  When vegetables are translucent and slightly browned, stir in garlic, and cook another few minutes, or until garlic is fragrant.  Remove pan from heat.

In a large mixing bowl, combine meats with your hands, using a light touch.  Mix in (still using your hands) eggs, bread crumbs and remaining ingredients, including vegetables.  If you'd like to check for season (and I do), take a tablespoon or so of the meat mixture, flatten into a patty and brown quickly in a skillet.  Taste, and add additional seasoning to the meat mixture as needed.

Divide mixture in half, and shape into two loaves, placing each into a loaf pan.  Bake, in a preheated 350 oven for about 1 hour.  Check for doneness by poking with a skewer or toothpick.  When juices run clear (not pink), meatloaves are ready.  Remove from oven and allow to rest 15 minutes before slicing and serving.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Where Would We Be Without God, Spiderman Underwear and Bacon Bloody Marys?

Some 12 years ago, when Snarky Son (SS) was merely Sweet Son, his preschool class made a Thanksgiving “tree.”  Each child came home clutching a six-inch green felt leaf and was given the assignment of decorating it with a picture of something for which the child felt grateful.  SS didn’t hesitate.  His thankfulness was both sincere and well-placed.  For God.  And Spiderman underpants. 

I think – and laugh – about that every November.  Make no mistake, there are many blessings in my life and I am thankful beyond words for my family and friends, my health and happiness, my faith and freedom, and my country and the honorable men and women who make it a safe home for me and mine.  I can’t even begin to express my gratitude for these life-altering blessings, despite the many times our family has attempted the “write down what you’re thankful for” game at Thanksgiving dinner.

Even so, at this time of year, I can’t help but think of the other blessings in my life, including:

•  My mother and the scales in her guest bathroom.  Mom’s scales are consistently set back about five pounds.  What a gift to any guest silly enough to step on before a holiday meal.  These scales are practically a signed permission slip to head back to the buffet for more mashed potatoes and gravy.  Or just gravy.  And maybe some macaroni and cheese.  For this, I am grateful.

•  Folly River oysters.  OMG.  Salty.  Succulent.  Slurp-worthy.  Dang.  Does anyone know how to clean drool off a keyboard?  For that, I would also be grateful.

•  Christmas music.  For 47 years now, I’ve practically made a career of mangling lyrics.  It was 25 years before I realized that, in Dream On, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith was not crooning “sing women,” but instead “sing with me."  And it turns out that Jimmy Buffett stepped on a poptop in Margaritaville.  Not a Poptart.  Christmas music, mercifully, inundates our eardrums 24/7 for some 45-60 consecutive days of the year.  We begin chanting it before we begin kindergarten.  And we never have to learn new songs or lyrics.  It’s the same.  Every.  Single.  Year.  Perfect for a lyric-impaired-learner (LPL) like me.  For this, I am grateful.

•  Turkey roasted in a brown paper bag.  For details, see “Folly River oysters” above.

•  Krispy Kreme doughnuts.  But I digress.

Cell phones.  The only reason this might not make my children’s top five list is because I’m constantly marveling at the ways I can use my cell phone and pointing out to the kids that “back in the day” (not when dinosaurs roamed the earth, but perhaps, sabertoothed tigers), we didn’t even have cordless phones.  We were tethered to the wall – usually in the most popular room in the house – which made those tearful “I know, but WHY are you breaking up with me?” calls all the more painful.  Nowadays, I don’t know how to complete a shopping trip without someone calling me to ask, “Are you still at the store?  Well, can you go back and get some whole cloves/limeade/shoe insole inserts?”  For technology, I am grateful.

•  Food.  I know, it sounds as if I’m about to revisit that whole oyster, turkey, doughnut thing, but my point here is different.  It’s variety I’m talking about.  I still marvel over the fact that there are now some three dozen options in my local Harris Teeter for salad greens.  And you no longer have to purchase parsley in dessicated little flakes, fluttering in a jar suitable for a urine sample.  Fresh is available year-round.  And does anyone else remember the days when there were three types of peas, and all were canned?  Green Giant.  Le Sueur.  And the tragically labeled Generic.

Yep.  I’m plenty grateful.  And grateful to have so many things to be grateful for.  Like this crazy good Bacon Bloody Mary.  Not as giggle-worthy as Spiderman underwear, perhaps, but still, I am grateful.

Bacon Bloody Mary
Note that you have to begin this a couple of weeks in advance – but it’s worth it!  Would make a great holiday hostess gift, too.

Pepper Bacon Vodka

4 cups good quality vodka
1 teaspoon peppercorns
12 strips of bacon, cooked ‘til crisp and drained

1/4 teaspoon Liquid Smoke

Combine all ingredients in a glass pitcher.  Cover and keep in a dark, cool place, allowing it to steep for two to four weeks.  Strain through cheesecloth (or a coffee filter) before serving.  (Discard peppercorns and bacon.)

Bloody Mary Mix
46-ounce bottle V8 juice, chilled
2 cups Pepper Bacon Vodka
Juice of six limes

¼ cup prepared horseradish
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon celery seeds

Crisp strips of bacon
Lime wedges
Celery sticks

Combine all ingredients in a large pitcher.  Stir well, and serve over ice, garnishing with bacon, etc.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Day Before The Night Before Thanksgiving, And We’re All A Little Bit Nuts

For our family, no holiday is as draped in tradition as Thanksgiving.

Most obvious, there’s the food – eagerly anticipated and unfailingly abundant.  Then, there are the activities:  truly, there’s an unsettling sense that the earth might violently split open and gulp us down whole if we didn’t shuck oysters at Dad's on Wednesday, or whine about driving through the Festival of Lights after the Thursday feast, or slip out way before dawn to shop with Super Sis on Black Friday. 

There’s the music, too.  From this moment through December 25, only holiday music (and variations thereof, including, but not limited to, anything that’s ever been heard on a Peanuts television show) will blare in my car.  And should Darling Daughter and Snarky Son complain, (as they will even before their seatbelts are buckled), I’ll also sing.  Loudly.  Enthusiastically.  Off-key.  With no respect for actual lyrics.

We are also proud defenders of the “I forgot my toothbrush” tradition – which usually isn’t even acknowledged until a good 48 hours after we hit I-77.  There’s a variation of this at Thanksgiving dinner as well.  Just after we’ve said the blessing and everyone has been served, Mom will announce, “I forgot the rolls/salad/cranberry sauce.”  And we'll all be thinking the same thing: “For the love of Pete.  I don’t want any rolls/salad/cranberry sauce.  But lookey there, I can make extra space if I just shove this marshmallowed sweet potato casserole on top of that molded lime gelatin salad.”

All of this, of course, follows the decades-old tradition of pulling the turkey from the fridge and remarking, with great surprise, “Hmmph.  This turkey is still frozen!”  Come on.  I don’t care what it says on the label --  no self-respecting turkey can thaw after two nights in a refrigerator.  Sadly for our family, we can only remember that fact once a year -- Thanksgiving Day -- and no sooner.

Throughout the weekend, our family will also remain entrenched in the fine tradition of picking up other people’s full drinks and claiming them as our own.  Until, of course, that drink is sucked down below the ice line (or, if a beer, below the coozie line), at which time it’s necessary to subtly abandon that drink and claim someone else’s.  I actually tried to “remedy” this tradition one year, by handpainting our names on a set of glasses.  Didn’t work.  The glasses were pretty, though.

The best Thanksgiving tradition of all, though, is the stories.

I'm not certain, but in the TV shows I’ve seen, other families don’t engage in the full-on, get-down-and-dirty tattletaling we revel in.

There’s nothing like those “remember the time?” dinner stories that leave your face streaked with tears, your hands clutching your freshly fattened sides, and your eyes darting wildly about to make sure the kids didn’t catch the details and innuendoes.  Most of the stories are about us growing up, but there are gracious plenty about the adults we knew back in the 70s, too.  The way we see it is, “Hey, if you don’t want us to talk about you, then you ought to drag yourself to Thanksgiving.”

Nah.  That’s a lie.  Everyone is fair game whether they're here or not.  But if you were here, at least you could defend yourself.  Or distract everyone with a story about someone else.  (And no, I’d rather not hear yet another re-telling of the night the bridge was stuck and the parents couldn't get home after work and we teenagers were left to our own devices.  I was young, OK?  And stupid.)

I guess we’re all kind of nuts.  But it’s not just the time of year.  It’s just us.  And oddly enough, we all look forward to it.  Just like these Sugar and Spiced Pecans.

Here’s to family.  And traditions -- even those that are a little bit nuts.

Sugar and Spiced Pecans

2 egg whites
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups sugar
4 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
2 pounds pecan halves

Beat egg whites, water and salt until frothy, but not stiff.  Stir in sugar and spices.  Add pecans and mix until all nuts are coated.

Spread on cookie sheets sprayed with nonstick spray. Bake in a 225 degree oven for one hour or until dry, stirring every 15 minutes.  Separate nuts and let cool.  Store in resealable freezer bags.  Can be made 3-4 days in advance.