Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Fountain of Youth: French Lentil Soup

I'm 46 years old and happy to be 46.  When I was 35, I was happy to be 35.  When I was 27, well, it's obvious, right?

I've never wished to be younger.  I've never wished to go back in time (even with the undeniably adorable Michael J. Fox).  When asked "the question," I've never been tempted to trim a few years off my age.  (Which is not to say that there wasn't a time when I was tempted to add a few years.  That, however, was about 30 years ago, so I'll plead youth, ignorance and invoke the statute of limitations.)

True, not many people would want to re-visit their middle school years, but I never pined for high school days, either.  I couldn't have scooted across that municipal auditorium graduation stage any faster if I'd had jet propulsion.

College was great fun (and maybe even better than that), but I didn't want to extend the experience.  I was on the four-years-or-bust program. Part of it was financial, of course, but given my tendency to procrastinate, I honestly don't think I could've survived a fifth year of all-nighters.  Or kegging.  Or all-night-kegging.

True, now that I'm "single" again, I wouldn't mind looking younger.  My son asks whether he gave me these wrinkles, but the truth is, they're the hard-earned result of spending the better part of my youth dipped in baby oil and sprawled on a towel at Folly Beach, South Carolina.  (Ironic name for a beach, don't you think?)

Plenty of corrective procedures are available, but wands, not scalpels, would be my instruments of choice.  So unless my plastic surgeon is one Harry Potter, MD, it's not going to happen.  Even worse than surgery would be the recovery.  Why would I want to spend a couple of weeks looking like the post-Chris-Brown Rihanna, when the ultimate result still wouldn't be Rihanna?

I've got to admit that the newly available prescription gel Latisse that grows thicker, longer lashes holds huge appeal.  Apparently, it's both easy and safe.  You just apply the gel to your lashline, and voila -- lusher lashes!  Well, not exactly "voila."  And not exactly affordable.  "Voila" requires two to four months of daily use and $240-$480.

Then, you're stuck.  Those plush, luxurious lashes only stay as long as you use the product.  Leave the Latisse, and you're back to counting those individual hair folicles.  Even I can do that math.  A thicket of lashes for one year would require the financial resources of Harry's account at Gringotts.  I don't know exactly how to convert sickles and knuts (wizarding money), but let's just say that $1,400 buys a lot of Maybelline.

So it looks as if I'm going to have to turn to food for a more youthful appearance.  I took the "Real Age" quiz online (RealAge ), and surprise, surprise, my "real" age is within a year of my, you guessed it, real age.

Naturally, the kind folks at RealAge have come up with a list of things I can do to be more youthful  -- including going back in time and choosing sunscreen instead of baby oil, and avoiding the emotional stress of divorce -- but it's too late for that.  The solution now is working more fiber and vegetables into my diet.  Once again, soup comes to the rescue.

French Lentil and Spinach Soup

This is a very flavorful soup.  Don't skimp on the vinegar -- it really brightens the taste.

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, diced
2 carrots, cleaned and diced
2 ribs celery, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 lb. dried French green lentils, washed and picked over
8 cups of chicken broth (canned is fine)
1 ham hock

1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon marjoram
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon kosher salt

4-6 shakes of hot sauce
1 bag fresh spinach, chopped or 1 (10 oz) package frozen chopped spinach
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

salsa (for garnish)
sour cream (for garnish)

In a very large saucepan or large soup pot, heat olive oil.  Saute onions until soft, about 5 minutes.  Stir in carrots and celery, saute another 3-4 minutes.  Stir in garlic, saute an additional minute.  Pour in chicken stock and lentils.  Bury ham hock in lentils.  In a small piece of cheesecloth (or better still, a teaball), place herbs and secure with string.  Bury this packet under the lentils.  Stir in salt, bring to a boil, and then reduce heat, simmering 1 1/2 - 2 hours, or until lentils are firm, but tender.  While simmering, add water to maintain the consistency you like.  (I like mine "brothy," but you may prefer yours thicker.)  When lentils are done, stir in vinegar and hot sauce.  Remove herbs and ham hock, and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Finally, add spinach (fresh or frozen), and stir until spinach is heated through.  Serve hot, garnished with salsa or sour cream or both.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

What I Want For My Daughter

My darling, delightful daughter turned 12 yesterday.  I am only one year away from having two de facto teenagers in the house.  I'm only 52 weeks away from the much-dreaded/highly anticipated (depending upon your family station) teen years and all the hormones and acne and antics thereof.  I am only 18 score and five days away from realizing no one will ever again take my word as final, my opinions as golden, or my perspective as valid.

Shall we pray?

In truth, my girl is a joy.  She's got worries (oh boy), but she works it out -- admirably.  She's navigating the cliques and classes of middle school with aplomb.  She's smart and able and funny and athletic and giving and loyal.  And while she doesn't hesitate to lay the world's woes at my feet, she's just as quick to spin around and ask, sincerely, about my day.

Because I've been "there" (and wouldn't -- not for love, money, or even perfect hair and lush eyelashes -- ever go "back there"), I ache for her.  I want her to be resilient -- while being open and kind and confident.  I pray that she'll have an abundance of common sense while indulging an unending willingness to take risks.  I want to know that she'll always think of others -- and always see herself as blessed.

Plainly, my "List," which I think all parents have, goes on and on.

But on this, her twelfth birthday, perhaps I can skip my usual verbosity (or is it "verboseness," or perhaps "loquacity"? ) and narrow my birthday wishes for her down to four.

1)  I hope she'll always have a friend.  A friend makes good times better -- more memorable, more funny and more fabulous.  A good friend listens and shares and instructs.  In bad times, a friend helps you know what to do and and how to feel -- whether it's sorrow or anger or good, old-fashioned revenge.  Because she's not mired down in it, a friend can help you steer out of the darkest dilemma.  I'd also remind my daughter that, in a pinch, a good book can be a good friend, indeed.  But even more important, I'd take comfort in knowing that, if she has a friend, she is a friend.  What greater aspiration than that?

2)  I hope she'll always have laughter.  Laughing is fun.  Laughing lightens the heaviest loads.  Laughing makes you feel good.  (This is factual.  Research indicates that a good giggle session increases serotonin and the release of endorphins.)  Even when she least feels like it -- when she's certain she's the object of ridicule or the subject of gossip -- I hope she'll laugh.  I don't even mind if it's that asylum-worthy, eardrum-bursting hyena squawk.  (Since she reads this, she knows what I'm talking about.)
3)  I hope she'll always have a cat.  Cats are role models.  They are soft and finicky and independent.   They are graceful and fierce and demanding.  They command respect.  They are what we want our daughters to be.  I love dogs.   I love that our rescue dog, Josie, loves us to a fault, will do pretty much whatever we ask, and can lick her own, ahem, tail, but is that what we want in a young woman?  I think not.

4)  I hope she'll always have hope.  Believing -- no, knowing -- you can handle a situation means you're halfway done.  Having faith that an answer can be found means you're well on the road to finding that solution.  Holding out for what's good and what's right -- because you know that something good and right exists -- gives you faith in yourself and mankind and your Creator.

There are, of course, other things I think she needs to do.  She needs to learn to drive a stickshift.  She needs to fill up a passport before it expires.  She needs to -- just once -- propose a toast and shatter her drained champagne glass in the fireplace.  And because she's got not one, but two X chromosomes, she'll need one more thing.


Is it coincidence that chocolate can elicit the return of friends and laughter and hope, and, when the wrapper is crumpled just right, bring a cat scampering into the room?

Maybe that's why my beloved 12-year-old daughter requested this favorite cake for her twelfth birthday -- chocolate cake with chocolate chips with chocolate frosting.

Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Cake

3 cups flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 cups sugar
1 cup corn oil
2 cups cold water
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups chocolate chips

1 1/4 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
5 cups powdered sugar
8 tablespoons whole milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 scant cup unsweetened cocoa powder

Make the cake.  Preheat oven to 350.  Butter and flour three 9-inch cake pans.  (This is a delicate cake, so be sure to prepare pans well.)  Sift first five ingredients into a large bowl.  Mix water, oil and vanilla in a separate, small bowl.  Make a "well" in dry ingredients, pour in wet ingredients and whisk well.  Scrape batter into prepared pans, dividing evening.  Sprinkle 1/2 cup chocolate chips over batter in each pan.

Bake 25 minutes, or until layers test done.  Cool in pans on racks for 15 minutes, then turn cakes out and allow to cool completely.  
Make frosting.  Beat butter in large bowl (an electric mixer is best) until fluffy.  Gradually beat in three cups of powdered sugar.  beat in six tablespoons milk and vanilla.  Add cocoa and remaining sugar, gradually.  Beat until blended and fluffy, using remaining two tablespoons of milk, if necessary.

Assemble cake, with layers chocolate-chip-side up and about 2/3 cup frosting spread between each layer.  Spread remaining frosting over sides and top of cake.  Tastes even better the next day -- for breakfast!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What's For Dinner? (Part Two)

"What's for dinner?"

Although I routinely admonish the kids for broaching the question (see What's For Dinner? Part One), it's one that must be answered every day.  And since our household isn't a democracy (more like a dictatorship, I guess), the answer is not Chick-Fil-A.

I can approach it a couple of ways.  One is by flipping through magazines or cookbooks, or turning to Channel 55 -- the beloved Food Network.  In that event, though, I'll end up at the grocery store, spending more than I should.

I could skip the reading and watching and just go straight to the store, but without a plan, I'll likely spend even more recklessly.  Witness exhibits A and B in my pantry:  a) pickled ginger and b) smoked clams.  Honest, they seemed like pantry essentials at the time.

Or, I could just clean out the fridge.

If so, I'll have to think beyond this past Sunday's chicken, because the kids turn up their pert little noses at leftovers.  What I need are some forgotten ingredients -- something that will spark a meal and reduce the chilled chaos in my fridge.

There's an embarrassing amount of stuff in there that I can't bear to toss, but today is Use It Or Lose It Day.  Besides, those ingredients are taking up valuable space I'll need for that post-Lenten wine.  (Twenty-five days to go!)

Inexplicably, I have two jars of hoisin sauce.  One I bought for moo shu pork a few months back, but the second?  Maybe it could be put to use as a glaze for grilled salmon.  I've got sour cream and grated horseradish.  Maybe a light sauce for affordable London Broil?  I've got several handfuls of baby spinach.  Maybe a pasta primaverde?  (I'll tell the kids the spinach is parsley, of course.  Everyone knows that spinach is "disgusting.")

On the bottom shelf, I've also got two different types of barbeque sauce, which, really, is far from excessive, considering I'm a North Carolinian from South Carolina (pork, not beef, thank you).  I've also got four types of hot sauce -- bizarre, considering that I don't have the palate or stomach for heat.

Outside, clouds are moving in and the temperature's dropping.  Soup it is.

I can alter my basic quick vegetable soup by adding a few of these overlooked ingredients.  Add some rolls, and we'll have a meal -- and a much cleaner fridge.  

Clean Out The Fridge Soup

2 cans (14 ounce) chicken broth
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce (or 1 teaspoon soy sauce)
1/2 teaspoon grated ginger (if you've got it)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon or lime juice
shake or two of hot sauce

One handful of uncooked, fine egg noodles (optional)
1-2 cups broccoli flowerettes, cut into small, bite-size pieces
1/2 cup sliced baby carrots
1-2 cups raw spinach, sliced into fine ribbons
One handful of mushrooms, sliced thinly (optional)
1/2 - 1 cup cooked chicken, cut into bite-size pieces

Combine and heat broth ingredients to boiling.  Reduce heat to medium high and stir in egg noodles, if using.  Cook five minutes.  Stir in broccoli and carrots.  Cook one more minute.  Stir in chicken, mushrooms and spinach and cook until heated through (about one more minute).  Vegetables should now be just barely cooked and still slightly crisp.  Adjust seasonings and serve immediately. 

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Put The Lime In The Coconut

We're in a funk here at the Wiles house, but it doesn't take a medical degree -- or even WebMD -- to diagnose the problem.  We've got a wicked case of vacation hangover.

Any mom would recognize the symptoms.  After a carefree vacation, the doldrums set in.  People who should know better start saying silly things like, "I'm bored."  Sorted laundry clutters the floor, awaiting a spin with Cheer.  Emptied suitcases cluster at the top of the stairs, because no one has the energy (or motivation) to haul them to the attic.  Odds and ends are strewn across the kitchen counter -- baggage claim tags, receipts, amusement park maps.

Lionel, our indoor cat who was left to his own devices and evil plans while we were gone, is both unusually affectionate and frantically plotting an escape to the backyard.  Josie, our rescue dog, who spent the better part of the week at "puppy camp," is again somewhat unsure of us and mysteriously, is shunning her usual food.  It's pretty good stuff, too.   I can't imagine what they were feeding her at the kennel -- some type of Top Chef kibble, perhaps?

Just as we begin to get a grip on reality, other symptoms pop up.  I'd hoped to watch last week's missed episode of American Idol while the kids were at their dad's last night.  The Simpsons, The Office and Scrubs were all recorded in our absence, but American Idol (the much-anticipated "country" episode, no less!) was not.  True, it could have been an operator-error, but it smells suspiciously of operator's-son-error.  What?  You think I watch The Simpsons?  (I've got to admit, The Simpsons ride at Universal Studios was hysterically fun -- if you're a 46-year-old mom, that is, not a jaded 14-year-old son.)

The fridge is oddly understocked.  We've got milk, but no eggs, grapes, but no lettuce, hamburger buns, but no bread.  All three of us are within a few days of scurvy, and we're somehow managing to perpetuate the situation.  I served up the beloved "sausage pasta" (see February 23, "Comfort Food") as a remedy, but the broccoli dodged their forks.  The kids, I guess, are determined to have a spring break completely devoid of nutrition.

I'll try again tonight -- with my version of grilled chicken, but if that doesn't work, I have one surefire cure.  The school bus arrives tomorrow at 7:20 a.m., and I know two kids who won't miss it.  And they'll both be packing lunch bags with fresh fruit, peanut butter and whole wheat bread.

Chicken Banzai Marinade

1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup pineapple juice
1/4 vegetable oil
juice of 1-2 limes
1 scallion, finely sliced
1 "knob" ginger, grated or finely minced
2 cloves garlic, minced (optional)
freshly ground pepper

Mix marinade ingredients and pour over cut-up chicken (I use all thighs, but even boneless, skinless breasts are good) in plastic zipper bag.  Allow to marinate at least one hour, then grill over indirect heat until done.  (Poke with a skewer.  When juices run mostly clear, chicken is done.)  Delicious served with grilled slices of pineapple, and garnished with pineapple bits and fresh scallions.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

What A Trip

I'm beat.  The kids and I spent the past three days spiraling out of control, spinning upside down, whirling in circles, plunging perilously close to the ground, and on occasion, emerging drenched to the skin.

Yep.  We were at Universal Studios Orlando.

It was an absolute memory-maker of a trip, and we couldn't have been any luckier.  Due to the divinely inspired Express Passes, lines were reasonable, if not non-existent.  Service was unfailingly pleasant, and Mother Nature provided perfect weather.  The food was fine, the parks hygienically clean, and the rides both thrilling and accessible.

Blah, blah, blah.  Honestly, it was all good.  And that's pretty astounding when you consider that I was seeking to please a relatively cautious 12-year-old girl, an absolutely incautious 14-year-old boy, and well, me.

We were lucky enough to be vacationing with several other families -- all with similarly-aged kids.  Every one of us rode the scariest rides as many times as we could stomach.  Not surprisingly, 14-year-old stomachs differ from those of 46-year-olds.

Even my daughter, for whom a plane ride is sufficiently adrenaline-churning (the taxi ride from the airport nearly did it for me!) took on the tallest, twirliest, zippiest, ear-popping, stomach-dropping, and undoubtedly, brain-swelling, ride -- the Incredible Hulk.  She also got to celebrate her (early) birthday perched on the bar of the Hard Rock Cafe, where she and another friend were saluted.  Is it too much to hope it was the last bar she's invited to dance on?

Even though this wasn't an "educational" trip -- no statues, artwork, memorials or history lectures for the kids -- I did squeeze out one essential lesson on this trip.  No woman should ever shop for a bathing suit on her own.

Holy Margaritaville.  How else to explain some of the, ahem, "bathing suits," I saw down by the pool?

Friends don't let friends drive drunk.  Likewise, no woman would ever let another woman walk out of a dressing room -- much less onto a pool deck -- in some of the ill-fitting get-ups I saw.

A friend would say, "Let's see what else they have."  Or, "That one really doesn't work to your best advantage."  Or, "You know, I think that runs a bit small.  Let me see if they've got it in another size -- or three -- up." 

Actually, I'd like to reconsider.  A friend might not get the job done.  A better choice might be a daughter.  Mine would never mince words.

"How do I look in this?"  "Do you think this fits right?"  "Does this color look good on me?"

There'd be no hesitation from my soon-to-be 12-year-old.

All I can figure is that the barely bikini-clad ladies at the pool don't have daughters.  Plainly, "gross," "disgusting," and "are you serious?" are the kinds of forthright comments they'd never heard.  

Harsh? Sure.  But I'd far rather hear the soul-searing truth in a dressing room, than see it on the faces of hundreds of poolside strangers -- particularly on a deck laden with plenty of perfect bodies flaunting perfect suits.

I'm one of the lucky ones, though.  I do have a daughter to help me out -- and she loves to share her critiques of me as freely as she loves to shop.

Before heading to the mall, though, I've got a a little section around my midriff to address.  I see a lot of salads in my future, including this favorite green salad, with lots of green ingredients and lots of textures and bright flavors.

Green, Green Salad

3-4 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground pepper

1 Granny Smith apple, unpeeled, diced
1 rib celery, diced
1 scallion, sliced thin
1/4 cup green olives, sliced (no pimentos)
1 avocado, diced
2 stalks hearts of palm, sliced (optional)

1 bag of prewashed baby salad greens (butter and Bibb are good)

4 ounces good blue cheese, crumbled (optional)

Whisk together dressing ingredients.  Stir in apple, celery, scallion, olives and hearts of palm.  Gently fold in avocado (don't mash).  Spoon dressed ingredients over individual servings of salad greens.  Season with more salt and pepper, if needed, and serve immediately with crumbled blue cheese, if using.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

(Very) Misty, Watercolored Memories

I've long maintained that my decreasing ability to remember things is due to the fact that I have an ever-increasing number of things to remember.

Think about it. At age 46, I have 33 more years of classmates, co-workers and neighbors, dinners, vacations and parties, phone numbers, e-mails and gift ideas to remember than my kids have. I may not remember what we had for dinner last night (or whether we had dinner last night), but I do remember what I ate the night of the Fort Johnson High School Junior-Senior Prom, 1980. We splurged at the Cork and Cleaver, and I had a whole artichoke with lemon butter, mushrooms sauteed in wine, medium-rare filet mignon, and cheesecake. The cheesecake wasn't very good.

I could be wrong about that, though.

Last week, 60 Minutes aired a story about the fallibility of our memories. Apparently, when it comes to recall, "crystal clear" can be Cooper River murky. In the report, we meet a woman who, based on her unwavering, eyewitness identification of the rapist in a lineup, helped convict a man to life in prison. Even when she saw the actual rapist, she didn't recognize him. Twenty years later, DNA evidence proved that the convicted man wasn't guilty, and he was released from prison.

My own memory lapses don't have such life-altering implications, but after only a month or so on Facebook, I'm finding more and more examples of how we remember things differently.

Our recollections can be small, single events or larger, longer-lasting ones. According to the posts I've read, some of the musings of Fort Johnson High School alums include: Remember when you had your wisdom teeth out? Remember that night at Big John's? Remember the (very painful) last Fort Johnson-James Island football game? Remember that week at Folly Beach our senior year? (OK. I admit that there could have been some contributing factors to our collective memory loss that week.)

On the Facebook discussion board, "You Know You Went To Fort Johnson If ..." several alums fondly remember our French teacher as the hottest teacher at school.

Really? I've got to admit, I had to do a double-take there. Then again, I was pretty naive in high school. OK, now that I look back, I can see where kids may have thought that, but back then, it never, ever occurred to me. Ick. (This, despite the fact that she was, in the vernacular of the day, built like a brickhouse. By the way, you know you went to Fort Johnson if you're now singing, "she's mighty, mighty, just letting it all hang out" under your breath.)

Particularly shocking in my Facebook communications to this point is how people claim to remember me: "always smiling," "energetic," and "witty."

Here's how I remember me: awkward, uncomfortable, inappropriate.

Sadly, no one remembers me as having "great hair," "glowing skin" and "fabulous clothes." Rightly so. Nobody's memory is that inaccurate.

Is it always this way? Is there always a vast divide between one person's perception and another person's reality?

Seems like this was once the discussion of a philosophy class I took in college -- but to be honest, I can't remember.

Here's what I can remember: to pick the kids up on time, to make sure the dog is fed and to take care of teachers' gifts. I can remember that my son likes extra cheese on his nachos but no cheese on this tacos. I can remember that my daughter likes potstickers, but only if they're panfried, not steamed. I remember what it felt like to become a mom. And I remember that being a mom is the most important job I could ever have.

And about that prom night cheesecake -- it may have been great. Maybe my memory was tarnished, though, by this recipe, which I acquired a few years later and is truly the best cheesecake ever -- dense, creamy, sweet and slightly tart. (And I'm pretty certain about that, as I've "refreshed" my memory many times in the 20 years I've been making it.)

David's Mom's Cheesecake
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1/4 cup melted butter
1/4 cup sugar

2, 8-ounce packages of cream cheese, at room temperature
3 eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

2 cups sour cream
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 375. Mix crust ingredients together (will be crumbly) and press into a 9" springform pan.

For filling, beat cream cheese until fluffy. Gradually add sugar. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Finally, stir in vanilla. Pour filling into crust. Back 20 minutes (no longer) and remove from oven. Cool 15 minutes.

While cheesecake is cooling, increase oven temperature to 475. Mix topping ingredients together and carefully spread on cheesecake. Return to oven and bake and additional 10 minutes.

Cool completely, and then, refrigerate before serving. If you must top with something, sliced fresh kiwi is ideal.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Tonight Is All About Mom

I spent the better part of today with my feet up in the air. And I'd appreciate if you'd get your mind out of that gutter. I sprained my right ankle yesterday afternoon, and the medical experts (i.e., WebMD) agree that the key to a speedy recovery is elevating my softball-sized ankle above my chest. Ice and ibuprofen are also recommended. Sauvignon blanc probably is, too, but I gave it up for Lent. Next year for Lent, I'm giving up spraining my ankle.

Nevertheless, I'm a mom, and as long as I still have my hands and senses about me, I'm in charge of everything that no one else wants to do. It also means I have the powers of prophecy. I can absolutely foretell that, in the next hour or so, someone's going to be bold enough to ask, "What's for dinner?"

Between you and me, it's lasagna.

For reasons that escape me, my kids aren't fans of lasagna. Sure, they manage when it's on the plate in front of them. I've even heard them choke out "thank you, that was good" when served lasagna at someone else's house. But at home, it's a dish that elicits an overly prolonged, overly vocal sigh. That single exhalation could inflate a small raft.

Too bad. I want lasagna. My ankle hurts, I can't have wine, the dog peed in the dining room and homemade lasagna's in the freezer. If the kids dare ask what we're eating tonight, I'm invoking "don't ask, don't tell."

I love lasagna and consider it a parental failing that the children don't share my enthusiasm. I learned to make it in college and still have an overblown sense of accomplishment when I sprinkle on that final layer of cheese. I bet you know what I'm talking about. Lasagna requires both culinary sensibility and architectural expertise. With 38 years of cooking and 10 years of Lego construction under my belt, I have both.

So lasagna it is. Lasagna -- and an ice pack.

No-Boil Lasagna With Sausage

1 lb. sweet italian sausages, casings removed
1 large onion, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large carrots, grated
3 large cloves of garlic, minced
(1 zucchini, grated, optional)
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes with puree
1 14-oz can diced tomatoes
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

1 10-ounce package frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
2 15-ounce containers of ricotta cheese
3/4 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese
2 large eggs, beaten slightly
salt, pepper, nutmeg and dried oregano

Sauce (see above)
Filling (see above)
12 uncooked lasagna noodles
1 cup fresh grated Parmesan
4 cups grated mozzarella (or 1 lb, sliced)

Make sauce. Saute onion and sausages in hot oil, using large spoon to break up the sausage. (I sometimes simply grill the sausage and slice them.) Continue browning, adding garlic, carrots, (zucchini, if using) and herbs. When all vegetables are soft, stir in remaining ingredients, bring to a boil and simmer at least 30 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.

Make filling. Thoroughly mix all filling ingredients in a large bowl, using hands if necessary.

Preheat oven to 375.

Assemble lasagna. Spray a 13x9 inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Spread 1 cup of sauce in bottom of dish. Arrange layer of 3 uncooked noodles on top. Spoon 1 1/2 cups of filling over noodles, spreading evenly. Sprinkle with 1 cup of mozzarella and 1/4 cup of Parmesan. Repeat layering two more times. Top with another layer of noodles, and spread remaining sauce on top. Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Spray a large piece of foil with nonstick spray and use it to cover lasagna.

Bake 40 minutes, remove foil, increase oven to 400 and bake another 20 minutes, or until noodles are tender and sauce is very bubbly. Let rest 15-20 minutes before serving.

One Dog's Life

A few weeks ago, we adopted a beautiful Brittany rescue dog, Josie.

She'd had a rough life prior to her arrival Chez Wiles. She'd had parvo, been starved nearly to death, and had never been in a house. So here's what she wants of us. To be loved. To be fed.

Here's what we want of her. To sit, stay, come and "go." To be docile and obedient. To not pee on the floor. To not pee on the rug. To not pee on the most expensive rug in the house. (This morning.) To not eat my 6th grader's course registration form. (Too late.) To not eat my 8th grader's French homework. (Again, too late.) To lie calmly at our feet. To zoom in circles around the coffee table. To jump up and catch treats in her mouth. To not jump up on us. To welcome our friends -- whom she doesn't know. To ward off strangers -- whom she doesn't know either. To play with the cat. To leave the @#%$!! cat the **&%^$@! alone.

And that's just Month One.

Not really a fair relationship, I guess. Sometimes, you can see in her eyes that's she's not 100% sure of us just yet. Still, it's somehow working.

Maybe I shouldn't be focusing so much on what we want of her, but instead, on what she does for us. She's the best alarm clock I've ever owned. Just the threat of me unleashing the "canine clock," makes both sleepy-eyed kids pop up like life-size jack-in the-boxes. She's a grueling personal trainer for our cat, Lionel. Jillian, from The Biggest Loser, would be shamed by the intense workouts that Josie gives. Best of all, though, she's helping us happily re-define our post-divorce family, making us feel more complete.

For all she does, maybe I should be doing more for her. I may have to start researching some dog biscuit recipes. Until I figure out a canine version, though, I bet Josie won't mind these a bit.

Buttermilk Biscuits
2 cups flour ("soft" Southern flour, like Red Band or White Lily, really is best)
1 tablespoon sugar (I know most Southern cooks don't include it, but I think it makes the dough more tender)
1 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
6 tablespoons shortening (chilled, cut in small cubes)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter (chilled, cut in small cubes)
3/4 - 1 cup buttermilk
Preheat oven to 425. Blend together dry ingredients. Using pastry cutter or two forks, cut in shortening and butter until mixture is crumbly and mealy. Quickly blend in 3/4 cup of the buttermilk. Dough should be soft and sticky; if needed, stir in remaining 1/4 cup buttermilk. Scrape dough onto well-floured board or counter. It will not (and should not) be as elastic or dry as bread dough. Using floured hands, gently pat out dough, and fold it over itself several times (patting, not kneading). Pat dough out to 3/4 inch thickness. Cut out biscuits, placing on ungreased cookie sheet. Repeat with remaining dough scraps. Bake until very lightly golden -- about 10-12 minutes.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Talking 'Bout My Generation

To the dismay of my 14-year-old-son, it turns out that Facebook is chockfull of 40-something moms.  Bummer.  For him.  The way I see it, FB was practically  invented for us.

Think about it.  Kids FB to communicate with the very same people they see all day long.  Adults, on the other hand, FB to keep up with scarcely seen friends, co-workers, former neighbors, old classmates, and your 6th grade boyfriend from Harborview Middle School, who along with you, was named "Most Likely To Succeed."  Hah.  Go ahead and toss that crystal ball in the trash.  But back to the story at hand.

As much as I embrace the idea of letter-writing, if my out-of-town family ever got a handwritten note from me, hand-delivered by the US Postal Service, they'd understandably expect the worst -- either I was communicating from beyond the grave or sending a request for ongoing financial support.  Neither bodes well for me.  Facebook is a far better means of reaching out and touching them -- if not as lucrative.

Facebook isn't the only takeover target for us acquisitive middle-aged moms.  Years ago, our kids claimed Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Springsteen, so I have no qualms about embracing Coldplay, Maroon 5 and Five For Fighting.  And you know, I don't think (lead singers) Chris Martin or Adam Levine mind one bit.  Who do you suppose can better afford their concert tickets -- me or my babysitting kids?  True, as childcare providers, the kids earn ridiculous money, but it's an easy win for me.  They can't drive.

And how about blue jeans?  I truly felt for dear Jessica Simpson when she wore those absurd high-waisted jeans.  Anyone from the Fort Johnson High School graduating class of 1980 could have told her that even the bendiest pipecleaner of a girl would find those things unflattering, uncomfortable and just plain stupid-looking. Why do you suppose we moms practically stampeded to buy the low-rider jeans of today's generation?  We couldn't wear our maternity jeans (with their comfy, stretchy, jersey front panels) forever.  Low-rider jeans are the new "mom" jeans.  Leave those silly high-waisted things to the young and ahem, visually- or at least, fashion-impaired.

Sure, the younger generation fights back.  I hear that there's a renewed interest in some of the more budget-minded food we ate growing up.  They can have it.  But I've got to ask, why resort to canned cream of mushroom soup, when you can make a version of tuna and noodles that could be voted most likely to succeed any night of the week?

Not Your Mama's Tuna and Noodles

3/4 pound angel hair pasta, broken into 3" - 4" pieces and cooked al dente
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (maybe more)
1/2 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced fine
2 cans tuna, packed in oil (not drained)
1 small can black olives, drained and sliced
2 tablespoons capers, drained
1 lemon, juiced and zested
red pepper flakes
handful of parsley, minced
salt and pepper
1/2 - 1 cup of chicken broth

After noodles have cooked, drain well.  Heat olive oil in hot pan, saute chopped onion until soft and stir in garlic until fragrant.  When onion and garlic are soft, stir in tuna (undrained) olives, capers and lemon zest.  Heat through, and gently stir in hot, drained pasta.  Season with red pepper flakes, parsley, salt and pepper.  Stir in reserved lemon juice, and enough chicken broth so that pasta is loose.  Serve carefully, making sure everyone gets plenty of the "good stuff" left at the bottom of the pan.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Another Favorite Word -- And Food

I suspect that one reason Charlotte was ranked number two, rather than number one, in the recent "Manliest City" survey is because we have two Trader Joe's grocery stores. Nashville, which took the top honors, only has one. Someone had to pay the price, and if it means I get to have a Trader Joe's just a few miles away, it's OK by me.

Trader Joe's, if you're not familiar, is a privately owned, groovy kind of grocery store, chockfull of organic produce, fresh-made salads, imported cheeses and various oddities (chocolate-covered, salted edamame, anyone?) that make it a destination, rather than an errand. ( They also have a large selection of very fairly priced wines, but I'm on the abstinence plan until Easter.)

Among the mouth-watering, wallet-opening selection of prepared foods, Joe offers "balela," a chickpea salad, which, in addition to being both unusual and flavorful, is also a lot of fun to say. I'm adding it to my list of favorite words, along with "serendipity" (see my February 22 blog entry) and "malaka" (a handy Greek word I won't define here because my kids may read this).

Balela, balela, balela. There. I'm already smiling.

Oddly, balela is only available seasonally, which means I haven't been able to get my fix for a couple of months. Last night, I made my own attempt to duplicate it, and three, no, make that four, servings later, I've got to say it's pretty good -- even if it does nothing to improve our fair city's "manly" rating.

Balela (Chickpea Salad)

2 cans of chickpeas (rinsed and drained)
1 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup chopped mint
1 roma tomato, diced
1/4 cup red onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced fine
1/2 cup white balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
generous squeeze of lemon juice
1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
generous grinding of black pepper

Gently stir together chickpeas, parsley, mint, tomato and red onion. In a separate bowl, stir together remaining ingredients and pour over chickpeas. Stir gently and refrigerate. If I can restrain myself, it will last 4-5 days in the fridge.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Failed Foodie

I want to know what yuzu tastes like.  Actually, I'd be happy to know what yuzu looks like.  Is it a fruit, found in the produce section?  Can it be a powder, like wasabi or mustard?  Does it come in a jar -- like some sort of exotic jelly?

I honestly don't know, but after taking in countless cooking shows, including this season's Top Chef, I'm beginning to feel like that one girl in 6th grade who didn't get an invitation to the slumber party.  Has yuzu become some sort of double top-secret ingredient for chefs?

Since I don't know what yuzu is, I'm not sure where to find it.  Can I even get it on the shelves (racks, bins, freezer) of my friendly neighborhood Harris Teeter?

Is it near the truffle oil?  That was last year's foodie favorite and it also blew right past me.  But at least I can imagine what it looks like.  (Oil, right?)  I also understand how to cook with it.  (Sparingly, duh.)

One food trend I wish I had missed is cilantro.  It rolled into Charlotte about 15 years ago and just won't go away.  The first time I cooked with cilantro, I dumped the entire dish in the trash.  I figured it was the recipe, but nope, it was the cilantro.  Everyone else seems to love cilantro (a.k.a. fresh coriander).  I even hear folks order, for crying out loud, extra cilantro on their burritos and tacos.  To me, it tastes like parsley-shaped pieces of Dial soap.  But not as tasty.

I'm very comfortable cooking with balsamic vinegar, goat cheese, frozen puff pastry and proscuitto, which is a clear indication of how far off the food trend cliff these ingredients have fallen.  They had their day in the sun and now they're having their day in my fridge.  I regularly use a couple of these foodie fashion outcasts in one of my favorite go-to hors d'oeuvres -- Proscuitto Palmiers.

These savory bites are scarfed up every time I make them.  Flaky puff pastry may be passé, but this is a case where, I don't care who you are -- good is just good.  And I know exactly where to find the ingredients in my grocery store.

Proscuitto Palmiers
1 pkg. frozen puff pastry (two 18 x 11 sheets), thawed
dijon mustard
fresh thyme, finely minced
2 cups freshly grated parmesan or gruyere cheese
8 oz. thinly sliced proscuitto
2 egg whites
2 tablespoons water
sea salt

Roll out one sheet of puff pastry on a lightly floured board.  Brush scantily with mustard and sprinkle with thyme and half of the cheese.  Arrange half of proscuitto evenly over the cheese.  Starting at one long edge, roll up the puff pastry (snugly) like a jelly roll just up to the middle of the dough.  Then, roll up the other side in the same fashion, making the two rolls meet in the center.  Repeat with second puff pastry sheet and remaining ingredients.  Chill rolls for about 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Using a serrated knife, slice the rolls crosswise into 1/2" slices.  (At this point, slices can be frozen, well-packaged -- for baking later.)  Place slice on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper and press lightly with your hands to flatten.

Beat the egg whites and water together and brush tops of palmiers.  Sprinkle lightly with sea salt.  Bake until puffed and lightly golden, about 10 minutes.  Remove to rack to cool.  Can be prepared a day in advance.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Manly Man's Birthday

Are you sitting down? The Associated Press reported today that Charlotte (yes, N.C.) is the second manliest city in the United States. (See complete article.)

True, Nashville, with all its country singers and cowboy hats took top honors, but given the amount of tomato sauce in their BBQ, I think we can claim the crown in 2010. Or is it a belt? On the other hand, we did just land an IKEA store, which although thrilling, certainly diminishes the Queen City's masculinity. (Lucky for us they didn't consider city nicknames, huh?)

I'm doing my part though. My own son turned 14 today. In Medieval times, it's the age at which he could have become a squire. For him, it's just another day in eighth grade. For me, it's a milestone.

In the "manliest" survey, researchers looked at our city's cars, snacks, professional sports teams and power tools, but a parent's perspective is different.

And while I harrass my own 14-year-old a good bit, I can see that he's well on his way to manhood. He's a good guy. A good friend. A good student. And a good son. He's not a follower, but has the judgment to know when to go with the flow. He can pitch a tent, make a friend laugh, write an essay, cheer a teammate, do his own laundry, ask a girl to dance, work for a good cause, and explain homework to his younger sister when I (despite being repetitive and using my loudest voice) have failed.

He can admit when he's wrong -- usually with good humor. He can stand up for what he believes in. He's a fan of The Dark Knight and Spamalot, but for the right girl, can also watch Marley and Me -- with no snarky asides. And he's the kind of babysitter little kids love and parents too, because he does the dishes and puts away the toys.

Today's his day.

To my unceasing surprise, though, he's not a cake-eater. In years past, we've celebrated with cookie cakes, ice cream cakes and even tiramisu. This year, I've insisted on a "real" cake. I promised to replicate the Starbucks marble loaf he routinely orders, by tweaking one of my own favorite recipes.

A good man deserves a good cake. But only after today's English test and baseball game. He is, after all, still a kid.

Marbled Pound Cake

2 sticks butter, room temperature
3 cups sugar
6 eggs, room temperature
3 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 oz. semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate, melted

Preheat oven to 325. Grease and flour 10-inch tube pan or bundt pan. Sift together flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In mixer, cream butter and slowly add sugar, beating constantly to cream well. One at a time, add eggs, beating well after each addition. Stir in flour mixture, 1/2 cup at a time. Stir in vanilla and sour cream. Put about 1/3 of batter in a separate bowl, stirring in cocoa powder and chocolate.

Spoon half of "plain" batter into prepared pan. Spoon (randomly) chocolate batter into pan, trying not to make a "layer." The result should be blotchy. Spoon remaining "plain" batter on top. Draw a butter knife through the batter -- one time around the pan. (Don't swirl.)

Bake 1 1/2 hours or until cake tests done. Place on a rack to cool for about 5 minutes, before turning out to cool completely. Serve with confectioners' sugar, whipped cream and fresh berries. (Alternately, bake in three 4" x 8" loaf pans, for about an hour. Freezes well.)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Snow In The Carolinas

On long car trips, I'll do nearly anything to "de-bud" the kids' ears of their iPods.  So we play the "license plate game," checking off the various state license plates we spot on drives to Charleston, the beach or camp.  Sound a bit young for kids the age of mine?  It is.  But we're crazy competitive about a couple of things.  Being right is one of those things.  The license plate game is another.

Since Charlotte's only a few miles from the state border, South Carolina plates are common.  Florida, Georgia and inexplicably, Ohio and New Jersey, are next.  South Dakota, Rhode Island, New Mexico and Oregon are nearly impossible.  And based on our unscientific research, North Dakota has quietly seceded from the Union.

Oddly, we've noticed an influx of out-of-staters since the New Year.  I suspect it has something to do with the economy.  At our neighborhood grocery store today, I spied plates from Vermont, New Jersey, and New Hampshire.  Imagine those drivers' confusion earlier this week, when our fair city nearly shut down for a mere four inches of snow!  Laugh -- but in this case, the powers that be were right.  None of us should have been out on the road.  And with our city's limited road-clearing resources, even those drivers from I-95 (way) north were better off at home spending quality time with Matt and Meredith, Oprah and Phil.

When those first fat flakes floated down Sunday night, my daughter, who knows full well how fleeting Charlotte snow can be, rushed outside, where she stayed for over two hours, clad in her cold weather gear -- hat, gloves and a nylon windbreaker.  As it turned out, the snow lingered long enough the next morning to get in some sledding -- followed shorter thereafter by some frozen mudding.

Even so, there was an absolute magic to it.  We hunkered down, made potato soup, and enjoyed the frozen finale to our winter.  The forecast for this Saturday, no kidding, is 70 degrees.  And even better for me, the kids were back in school today.

Potato Soup Plus

1 onion, sliced
2 tablespoons butter
2 14-oz. cans of chicken broth
4 large Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and sliced
2 bay leaves
1 slice ham hock
1 cup light cream
salt and pepper to taste
chopped ham (optional)
steamed broccoli florets
steamed sliced carrots
sour cream (for garnish)
minced chives (for garnish)

Very slowly, brown onion in butter over very low heat.  (May take 15 minutes -- or longer -- but worth it for the rich taste.)  When nicely browned, stir in chicken broth, potatoes, bay leaves and ham hock.  Bring to a boil, turn to low and simmer about an hour, adding water if needed to keep soup from getting too thick or sticky.  When potatoes are very tender,  and broth very flavorful, use potato masher to break potatoes into small pieces.  Gently stir in light cream.  Heat carefully and season well with salt and pepper.

Put a handful of steamed vegetables and ham in bottom of each individual bowl, ladling soup on top.  Garnish with sour cream and chives.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Counting My Blessings

Today started with a crash.  My daughter's 4' x 6' corkboard, crusted with the mementos of an 11-year-old life, fell to the floor, waking us all.  Which turned out to be a blessing, as I'd overslept, and this wasn't a morning for lounging.   It was the last day our priest of 10 years would be serving our parish -- our last chance to bid a fond farewell before he is called to another congregation.

The temperature was plummeting, and it was raining cats and dogs.  Snow -- an anomaly anytime of year here in Charlotte -- is forecast.  I point out to the kids that we need to dress accordingly.  Frantically throwing on clothes so we can get to the 8:30a service, my son finds he has only two pairs of pants.  Not two pairs of CLEAN pants, but somehow, in the entire house (including hamper, backpack, washer, dryer and under the bed), TWO pairs of pants -- and they're both lying damply in the washer.

Now, any parent of a teenager can tell you that the wardrobe is limited -- not only is there a finite number of items they'll wear, but there's an even smaller number which fit their ever-stretching bodies.  But still, TWO?  Last week, there were at least half a dozen, but that can't be addressed now, because we're late, we're late, we're late.

On the way out the door, I realize we haven't seen Lionel, our year-old (indoor) cat, but again, we've got to scoot.  The service begins at 8:30a.  We arrive, soggy, shivering, irritable -- and mid-sermon.  My bad.  The early service began at 8:15a.

Taking our seats in a back pew, I listen with half an ear to the service I was determined not to miss.  As my heart rate returns to normal, concern for the cat sets in.  I try to think of when we last saw him.  Losing Lionel is not an option.  We lost our dog in September.  The cat is a necessity.

After the service, we all say our goodbyes and I drive home, telling the kids that I think Lionel is missing.  We come up with a plan of action.  But first, we've got to change out of our church clothes.  It's freezing.  It's teeming rain.  I try to calculate our odds of finding Lionel in this soggy mess.  As my dad would say, there were two chances -- "slim" and "none."

I send the kids to change, but I run outside, holding my jacket over my head, calling Lionel, looking anywhere I think he might be.  No good.  Eyes brimming with tears, I run upstairs to change, so I can lead a more thorough search.

Just as I'm tugging on dry jeans, I hear my daughter scream -- or is that a squeal?  Her brother, the one who claims to hate the cat, has just climbed the stairs, in waterlogged church clothes, and bearing an even more drenched cat.

My hero.  Time for a well-deserved favorite meal -- corned beef.  No recipe necessary.  I can just offer up that, for some reason, corned beef is always better (not too tough, not too mushy) when prepared in a slow cooker.

Perfect.  All that slow cooking gives me ample time to count my blessings.  Which are many.