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.

Friday, November 20, 2009

It's Never Too Early To Prepare -- Gingered Orange Cranberry Sauce

Twenty-four years ago, in the weeks before I was married, I had nightmares.

It's typical, I know, for brides-to-be to envision being abandoned at the alter, or being betrayed by a bridemaid, or being propped up at the altar in something other than -- or rather, less than -- their wedding gown.  (Funny how none of us foresee our eventual divorce.  Hmm.)

My scary dream, on the other hand, was that my mom arrived to the church late.  Silly, right?  But I justify the worry as significant because there was even a song about it.  Remember?  "Get Me To The Church On Time"?

Anyone who knows me knows I like to be prepared.  I plan ahead.  I make lists.  I arrive on time  And in fairness, so does my mom.  Well, everything except that "on time" bit.  (I love you, Mommy!)  Nearly 30 years after their divorce, Dad still torments Mom about her, um, "flexibility" when it comes to schedules.  But really, we don't want to go down that path now ...

You should see the black-speckled composition book Mom gave me a few years after the wedding, crammed with Scotch-taped scraps of paper and Post-It notes itemizing all my wedding details -- catering, flowers, and clothing selections.  Budgets.  Guest lists.  Looking back, I'm surprised it didn't contain a honeymoon packing list.  Perhaps both of us had the good sense to ix-nay that one.

Hmmph.  Not hard to see where I acquired the "need to be ready" gene, right?  Which is why this time of year makes my skin want to crawl right off my body and into a solitary confinement cell.  I know full well what the coming weeks hold.  Lists wouldn't begin to meet my current cravings.  I'm beyond lists now.  I want to check things off those lists.  I don't want to plan.  I want to do.

I want to shop.  I want to procure.  I want to stash.

I want to wrap.  I want to write.  I want to address.

I want to slice.  I want to dice.  I want to cook.

Problem with cooking, though, is that there are still days to go before Thanksgiving.  And even more in the way of me and Christmas.  I've already stashed some Sausage Bread in the freezer, with six loaves of Pumpkin Bread companions.  The Cheese Wafer dough is in the fridge.  Gingered Cranberry Orange Sauce is next.

I love homemade cranberry sauce.  It's super simple to make and keeps for at least a week (maybe two).  This version is particularly flavorful.  Where the canned stuff may seem a little, ahem, peculiar to picky eaters, this version is fresh and tart and flavorful -- and nightmare-free.

Gingered Orange Cranberry Sauce
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 seedless navel orange, cut in fine dice
2 teaspoons fresh grated ginger
2 whole cloves
2 whole allspice
2 peppercorns
1 12-ounce bag fresh cranberries

In medium saucepan, bring water, sugar, ginger and orange to a boil.  Reduce to simmer.  Put spices in a teaball or small cheesecloth bag and immerse in mixture. Stir in cranberries.  Simmer 15-20 minutes until thickened.  Remove spices, allow to cool to room temperature, and then, refrigerate.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

'Tis The Season For Panic -- And For Baking

Right now, our front sidewalk appears to have been booby-trapped by Wile E. Coyote (Supergenius), except that instead of being lined with marbles fresh from The Acme Company, our sidewalk -- weed-whacked-edge-to-weed-whacked-edge – is encrusted with acorns.  Thousands and thousands of acorns.  Which, actually, with their needle-tipped ends, are more hazardous than marbles.  Even steelies.

This sidewalk is hardly a paved path.  It’s an ankle sprain waiting for crutches and the EMS to arrive.  Followed immediately thereafter by a personal injury lawyer.

Our neighborhood squirrels are frenzied – near panic – trying to harvest and store the bountiful harvest before it’s crushed beneath villainous car tires and Mike the Mailman’s heels.  Or worse, collected as evidence in the aforementioned lawsuit.

I’m with the squirrels.  The holiday season is upon us, and I’ve got my own frenzy -- making lists and stashing them in my purse, my room, the desk drawer, on the computer, the iPhone, and the backs of Harris Teeter receipts.  I’ve also begun stashing gifts, and in the process, have even found a few “lost” gifts from Christmases past.  (As if someone in the household could still fit in size “00” jeans.  Sigh.)

I’ve also, joyfully, begun holiday cooking.  Next week will be filled with pies – pecan, pumpkin, the dreaded mincemeat, the Best Cheesecake Ever – and the surprisingly irresistible Gingered Orange Cranberry Sauce.  This week, though, is devoted to things that can be prepared in advance, the impossible-to-eat-just-one Cheddar-Blue Cheese Wafers, cranberry-spiked Pumpkin Bread, Super Savory Crispix Mix, and the inadequately named and homely-sounding Sausage Bread.

Sausage Bread requires only three ingredients and is a holiday necessity Chez Wiles.  Not only is it the mandatory breakfast for both Thanksgiving and Christmas mornings, it makes a terrific tailgating treat, a welcomed hostess gift and is easily prepared in advance and frozen for travel.

Not quite, perhaps, as “genius” as Wile E. Coyote, but pretty darn close.  And to this point, no lawsuits either.

Sausage Bread
1 pkg (three loaves) frozen white bread dough (I use Bridgford)
2 lbs. good quality bulk sausage (I use either Fresh Market’s or Neese’s)
1 lb. grated Cheddar-Montery Jack blend
1 onion, diced, sautéed (optional)
1 bell pepper (any color) diced, sautéed (optional)


Thaw dough and allow to come to room temperature.

Brown sausage in large skillet, breaking into small bits.  Stir in onion and bell pepper, if using.  Drain well in a colander.

Working with one loaf at a time, on a well-floured pastry board, roll and stretch dough out into a rectangle, measuring (very roughly) 9” x 14”.  (Note:  If dough is too chilled, it will not stretch sufficiently.)  Scatter 1/3 of sausage over dough.  Sprinkle with 1/3 (1 1/3 cups) cheese. 

Starting along long edge, gently roll up dough, tucking in sausage and cheese as you go.  This is a sloppy and imperfect process.  The dough will is very forgiving and will stretch, which is a good thing.  Just try not to tear it.

Once you’ve rolled up the entire loaf, jelly-roll style, use your finger to dampen the entire long edge with water, which will help “glue” the dough to itself.

At this point, I either cut the loaf in half, lengthwise, to form two smaller loaves, tugging the dough at either end and using water to “glue” it closed, OR, I form the entire long loaf into a circle, tucking one end into the other.  (The round loaf makes a lovely presentation as a gift.)

Repeat with remaining loaves, moving each to a well greased baking sheet.  Then, allow loaves to rise, until overall size increases by about 50%.  Depending on the temperature in your home, this may take 2-3 hours.

Once risen, bake in a 350 oven for 30-45 minutes, until well browned and crusty.  Remove from oven and cool on racks.  Serve warm with mustard, or allow to cool completely and freeze until needed.

The Key To A Well-Stocked Kitchen and Perfect Mashed Potatoes.

I am not a pack rat.

My local Salvation Army could very well attest to that fact.   Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if they developed a frequent donor program in my honor, complete with key tags, bumper stickers and punch cards  (“After your sixth donation, your seventh one is, um, welcome?”)

I’m not unsentimental, but where some people live by The Golden Rule and others are guided by The Serenity Prayer, the inspirational, uplifting words I live by are, If you haven’t worn it or used it in the past two years, lose it.  I have no problem disposing of unworn clothes, unneeded dishes, unopened boxes of glasses (adorned with hand-painted holly berries), unused gifts (Oh, you shouldn't have -- really!), or even an ex-husband’s bundle of high school newspapers and the snowsuit he wore when he was two.  (OK.  I actually asked whether he wanted those.)

I couldn’t possibly recall all the times Darling Daughter or Snarky Son (before he was "snarky") asked, “Have you seen my Beanie Baby/Lego Star Wars C3PO/15¢ McDonald’s Happy Meal Toy?” and to which, because I’m not a gifted liar, I'd have to look away and mutter in response, “Oh.  Can’t you find it?” knowing all the while that the suddenly-desired toy had taken a one-way, no-return trip to Goodwill.  And also knowing, that I may eventually discard something of such future monetary value that my then-adult child will have no recourse but to take me to court.  Just so you know, I’ll be good for the cost of therapy, but no other damages.

Last week, I loaded the Pilot up to the sunroof with a motley assortment of donation items which had been cluttering the attic for years, including teeny, tiny children’s backpacks, ridiculously-large pieces of luggage, slightly worn double-size bed sheets and twin-size comforters, a kitchen-sized Glad bag of dresses for third grade girls, two unused miniature Bose speakers and a brand new laser printer.  Or, at least it was "brand new" three years ago.

Despite these frequent purges, my closets, cabinets and pantry remain ridiculously well-stocked. I may not be a pack rat, but I stock up like a squirrel in acorn season.

Need some parchment paper?  Here’s a fresh roll.  Lemongrass?  Check the spice cabinet.  A biscuit cutter?  What size? 

And since Thanksgiving’s just around the corner, I’m also reminded that I have a ricer.

I only make mashed potatoes six or seven times a year, but this is one kitchen tool that will never see the inside of the Goodwill bin.  When I was a kid, my mom had a ricer too, but to my recollection, she only used it for ricing hard-boiled eggs to serve the day after Easter over shredded lettuce with Thousand Island dressing.  Since I was a kid, my natural reaction was, “Ick.”

I was an adult before I realized that the ricer -- not a masher, or heaven forbid, a handmixer --  is also the secret to making perfect-every-time, never-gluey-or-gloppy, velvety mashed potatoes – the only kind that should grace a table -- at Thanksgiving or any other meal.

Always Perfect Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes
Buttermilk adds the perfect tang – just like sour cream on a baked potato – without adding any real fat.  Despite the rich-sounding name, buttermilk has about as much fat as 1% milk.  Adding goat cheese makes the potatoes a bit richer and fancier.

2 lbs. Yukon Gold potatoes
3 cloves garlic, peeled
3 tablespoons butter
¾ cup buttermilk
4 ounces goat cheese (optional)
1 tablespoon minced fresh chives (optional)
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
fresh ground pepper
gracious plenty kosher salt

Put unpeeled potatoes and peeled garlic in a large stockpot.  Add enough water to cover and one tablespoon of kosher salt. Bring to a boil, then, reduce heat to simmer and cook gently until potato is easily pierced with a fork.  (Potatoes will cook more quickly if the pot is lidded.)

Remove and drain potatoes.  When cool enough to touch, use your fingers to peel off skin.  Cut potatoes in chunks.

Push through the ricer in batches, into a large bowl with remaining ingredients.  Heat from the potatoes will melt the butter and warm the milk.  (You could, of course, zap the ingredients in the microwave before adding the potatoes, too.)  Stir everything together, adjust seasoning, and serve.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Being Prepared. For Mammograms, Good News and Good Health. (Gingered Spinach and Mushroom Soup)

As I write this, I'm sitting in the waiting room of The Presbyterian Breast Center in Charlotte NC.  Because of an as-yet-unexplained abnormality in my mammogram of last week, I'm here for a "diagnostic" mammogram and, depending on that outcome, perhaps some other tests.  I've been assured that I will not leave here today without a fairly definitive reason for my abnormal mammogram.

Coincidentally, October was National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  The event's distinctive pink ribbons were aflutter all month long -- at NFL games, at the kids' school, in doctors' office, and perhaps, most visibly, at an abundance of Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure events throughout the country.

Oddly, as I read the many breast cancer articles and reminders in The Charlotte Observer in October and listened to the advice of expert radiologists, gynecologists and oncologists on The Today Show, it occurred to me that I don't currently know of any instances of breast cancer in my circle of friends.  That's saying something, because it's a fairly extensive circle, including neighborhood friends, former co-workers in Boston, RIchmond and Charlotte, newly re-discovered classmates from Charleston and Columbia, and lots and lots of moms (particularly those of seventh and ninth graders, Boy Scouts and cross country runners).  The American Cancer Society estimates that one in eight of us will develop breast cancer in our lifetime.  My slightly superstitious side couldn't help but wonder and worry -- about all of us.

Sure, I've known women with breast cancer, and sadly, some who lost their lives to it.  The ACS reports that nearly 200,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in American women in 2009.  Over 40,000 U.S. women are expected to die from breast cancer this year.  Lung cancer is the only cancer more deadly among this population.  A stunning 2.5 million U.S. women with a history of breast cancer were alive in January 2006.

I've heard these many facts over the years.  And now, I'm the one in the waiting room.

Despite recent blog posts about my Boy Scout-like desire to "be prepared," there's no way I could prepare for this.

I can't worry about something I don't know about, of course, and this is clearly something I don't know about.  I don't know what "it" is. That's why I'm here.  I suppose my abnormal mammogram could be attributed to any number of things, but the one I keep coming back to is cancer.

I won't keep you in suspense.  After an easy diagnostic exam, which was no more uncomfortable than any other mammogram, my radiologist reported that my breasts were clear for now.  (And yes, she actually did say, "for now," which I believe is the prudent thing to tell a patient.)

It appears that my original mammogram indicated a shadow of what was likely some folded over tissue.  I was reminded, of course, to continue scheduling my regular annual mammograms and monthly self-exams.  And I was reminded, of course, that it's never a bad idea to take good care of myself -- limiting alcohol and fat, getting plenty of exercise and enjoying a healthy diet with lots of veggies.

As luck would have it (and believe me, I already feel plenty lucky today), I'd made Gingered Spinach and Mushroom Soup just yesterday.  For a low-fat dish with lots of veggies -- and good taste -- I think it fits the bill.

Because as great as the folks were at The Breast Center, I don't plan to be there again next year.  Instead, that'll be me in the Susan G. Komen Race For The Cure.

To get a free annual mammogram reminder, visit The American Cancer Society website (click here) and tell them which month you'd like to receive your e-mail reminder.  You can even sign up a friend!

Gingered Spinach and Mushroom Soup

3-4 cups flavorful, homemade chicken stock (for recipe, click here)
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger (or more to taste)
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil ("regular" sesame oil doesn't have enough flavor)
3 cups (about 4 ounces) raw baby spinach, rolled up and sliced into thin ribbons
6 button mushrooms (I used cremini), sliced very thinly
1 tablespoon miso paste* (or to taste)
2 teaspoons lemon juice (or to taste)

In a large saucepan, heat ginger and sesame oil until fragrant.  (Just a few minutes.)  Stir in chicken stock and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium and stir in spinach and mushrooms.  Cook until spinach is completely wilted, but still bright green.  Stir in miso and lemon juice.  Adjust seasonings and serve hot.  (If I'd had it on hand, some firm tofu, cubed, would have been perfect in this soup, too.)

*Miso paste is a Japanese ingredient, found in the international aisle of the grocery store.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Being Prepared. Part Two. (Chicken Orzo Soup)

I shouldn't say this out loud, but -- knock on wood, knock on formica, toss salt over your shoulder, toss the used Kleenex in the trash -- everyone Chez Wiles is currently in good health.

Of course it's temporary.  But given our recent cases of H1N1 (or as my no-nonsense sister says, "It's the SWINE flu.  Just call it that."), the stomach bug (another pleasant euphemism, but this is one I prefer) and a Halloween weekend trip to the ER, I'm glad to report that both kids are at school, and both made it through a full day yesterday as well.

True, we have been through our share of Advil.  And Kleenex.  And hand sanitizer.  And bags of throat lozenges.  (We highly recommend Halls Defense Vitamin C.)  And anytime I walk near my 14-year-old son, he still reflexively lifts his bangs so I can check his forehead.

Plus, we've washed our hands.  And washed our hands.  And washed our hands.  To the point that it irritates me to have one television doctor after the other advise me to "sing The Happy Birthday song" to make sure I'm washing long enough.  Why The Birthday Song?  I'm a grown-up, for Pete's sake.  Why not something from my high school days?  Something by Earth Wind & Fire, perhaps.  Or maybe the chorus to Aerosmith's Dream On?  "Sing with me, sing for the year, sing for the laughter, sing for the tea-ahhh ..."

But I digress.  (OK.  Indulge me for one more second, "Dream on, dream on, dream on, aahhhhhhhh ...")

All the hand-washing is part of that prevention and preparation thing.  And heaven knows, I like to be prepared.

But I can't prepare for everything.  And as much of a planner as I am, also know that, sometimes, I've got to let go.

Since I'm with the kids so much, I can find them pretty predictable.  I can anticipate the instant shedding of moodiness when the right friend calls.  I can discern the difference between, "I don't know" and "I don't know (but if you keep talking maybe I'll come up with another answer)."  I can brace myself for the drama of seventh grade.  I can plan for the adjustment of moving up to high school.  I'm prepared for the unavoidable pouts and taunts of siblings.

But just as I get things down pat, I'm gobsmacked.

At dinner recently (and really, the best tidbits come out over a meal, don't you think?), Darling Daughter (DD) was expressing the occasional uncertainty you'd expect from a middle schooler.  Snarky Son (SS), as is routine for a high schooler, interrupted her.  I said nothing, but braced myself.  DD plainly had the floor.  She had the metaphorical microphone.  SS plainly snatched that microphone.  It was rude.  He deserved a smackdown.

I clinched my jaw for the inevitable eruption of bickering.  Before DD could spit our her comeback, though, SS got out what he needed to say, "You're not unattractive, you know."

Huh?  What was that?  A compliment between siblings?  And let's be truthful here -- that was about the highest praise an older brother can offer a younger sister.

So sure, I'll keep preparing and planning -- starting with this soup that's a cinch if you keep your own flavorful chicken stock on hand in the freezer.  (Recipe here.)  But every now and again, knock on wood, knock on formica, I'm happy to embrace the unexpected.  It's not all bad, you know.

Chicken Orzo Soup
4 cups homemade chicken stock with chicken pieces
(optionally, use two cans of chicken broth with 1 cup, cut-up cooked chicken)
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 sprig of fresh thyme
Two handfuls uncooked orzo (about 2/3 cup)
16-20 baby carrots, sliced thinly
1 cup broccoli flowerettes (cut in small, spoon-size bits)
1/2 cup frozen peas (optional)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
kosher salt

In a medium-sized saucepan, bring stock to a boil.  Stir in thyme and orzo and cook until pasta is almost done (still firm in the middle), about 7-8 minutes.  Stir in carrots, cook another 2 minutes.  Stir in broccoli (and peas, if using) and cook additional minute.  Stir in lemon juice and salt to taste.  Serve hot.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Be Prepared. Or At Least Keep The Freezer "Stocked."

I like to be prepared.

By that, I mean I like to be really prepared.  How else to explain that I currently have 10, 28-ounce cans of crushed tomatoes in the pantry?  (One day soon, but probably not tomorrow, I’ll buy an equally ridiculous amount of Italian sausage and make red sauce.)  I also have nearly 20 dozen regular tampons in my bathroom cabinet.  (Never mind that I’m practically perimenopausal -- it was triple coupon week!)  And what about the 21 black Sharpie Markers in the desk drawer?  (Hmm -- can’t really explain that one.)
A person might reasonably assume that my need to “stock up” is a reflection of my recent divorce, but I’ve got to confess that emergency preparedness is part of my very nature.
Remember New Year’s Eve 1999?  I do.  I was able to enjoy myself very much, because I’d heeded warnings of a catastrophic, cataclysmic computer and banking industry meltdown.  Included in my Y2K “kit” were a stack of twenties, a bunch of ones, several jugs of drinking water, a few coolers of ice and a stash of D batteries that, nine years later, has yet to be depleted.  Just to be sure, I also prepared New Year’s Day dinner the day before.  No way was I stepping into the 21st century without my share of luck and fortune.  I made enough Hoppin’ John and collards to feed the entire neighborhood. With leftovers.

Still, nothing could’ve prepared me for last weekend.  Snarky Son (SS) came down with the flu – complete with a 103 fever, a rib-clutching cough and an unusual appetite for horror movies.  (True, it was Halloween, but I also attribute the scream cinema marathon to the fact that SS was too weary to change the channel.)

Darling Daughter (DD) then got a walnut lodged in her throat.  She could still breathe and speak, but after the doctor's office warned us of the possibility of "aspirating in her sleep," we spent three-and-a-half hours in the emergency room, which was overrun with all the flu-afflicted kids in Charlotte who weren’t at home scaring themselves silly in front of the TV.  Which explains why DD and I both availed ourselves of the complimentary ER hand sanitizer every 20 minutes until her release.

All of that came on the heels of four sleepovers, a rainy Halloween block party and a miserable evening of trick-or-treating with umbrellas.  Astonishingly, no one called DSS.  Or if they did, they must’ve given the wrong number.

And here's the capper:  I had no chicken stock in the freezer.

How could that be?  I had one kid with the flu and another with a bruised throat.  Without chicken stock, there'd be no vegetable soup, no gingered spinach mushroom soup and certainly no homemade chicken noodle soup.

You can be sure the stock shortage was temporary.  I couldn't control disease or destiny, but I surely could brew up a batch of broth.  Before long, the aroma wafted through the house, warming both the kitchen and, after a compliment from DD, my heart.  Not only was there orzo vegetable soup on the stove, but the freezer shelves are stocked.  I can now sleep easy.  As soon as I figure out what to do with those Sharpie markers.

Chicken Stock (with Chicken)
10 chicken thighs (along with any other parts you might want to toss in)
3 whole carrots, peeled
3 stalks of celery (with leaves)
1 large onion, cut in quarters
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon whole peppercorns
4 whole cloves
5-6 sprigs parsley
1 half lemon
1 teaspoon kosher salt

Put all ingredients in a large stock pot, cover with 4-5 quarts of water, bring to boil and reduce to simmer.  Skim foam from top as needed.  After one hour, remove chicken from pot, and allow thighs to cool to touch.  Separate meat from skin from bones, discarding skin, setting aside meat and returning bones to pot.  Allow stock to simmer an additional hour, skimming as needed and adding water if needed.  Allow to cool somewhat, then strain stock, first through a colander, and then, through cheesecloth.  Skim fat, taste, and add additional seasoning, if needed.  Chop thigh meat into small bite-size pieces and return to stock.  Freeze in quart-size plastic containers, dividing meat equally among containers.  You now have the makings for homemade chicken noodle soup any day of the week!  Or, try one of these Feminine Wiles recipes, Greek-Inspired Lemon Chicken Soup, Gingered Spinach and Mushroom Soup, or Chicken Orzo Vegetable Soup.