Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Things -- And People -- We Count On

The dill I planted eight weeks ago is gone.  Dammit.  Why does this bother me so much?  After all, I didn't expect it to survive.  I even predicted its hasty demise.  I regarded it as $3.48 tossed in the wind.  Instead, when it ended up taking root and flourishing, I came to count on it, stepping outside every few days to snip a handful for baked potatoes or salad or grilled fish or dip.

Then, this morning, when I needed a few fronds for lentil salad, only a few short, stubby stalks remained.  I could've cried.  WTF?

It wasn't a matter of too much water, or a lack thereof.  It wasn't too much sun, or a lack thereof.  It wasn't even the frosty temperatures of a few weeks back.  Nope.  The dill surrendered its greenery to a most ignoble creature:  The slug.  Those fragrant, feathery fronds had been slimed out of existence.  Out of sheer vindictiveness, I rushed inside to grab a salt shaker.  It was too late for the dill, but I was going to make sure those slugs died a horrible, cartoonish death.

I'd come to depend on that dill.  If it had to go, the slugs did, too.

Three years ago, when my son was headed to middle school, the forward-thinking mom of one of his friends suggested that the key to middle school success wasn't necessarily studying, or participating in sports, or polishing up those social skills.  Her theory was far more succinct:  A kid needs to know who has his back.  

Middle school marks the beginning of a lot of changes -- large and then, larger.  They get lockers, they dress out for PE, they go to dances, they change classes.  They face new peer pressures.  And then, embarrassingly, puberty hits them full-force upside the head.  Or more embarrassingly, it doesn't.

My mom friend reasoned that, to make his way through it all, a kid, first and foremost, has to be confident in his peeps.  When he knows he has real friends behind him, he can be confident being himself, regardless of the confusion and conflicts swirling around him.  

We moms would have to help them, of course.  We couldn't rely on their Y-chromosome wiring not to go haywire.  So we regularly made plans for our boys to be together, carpooling to dances, pool parties and football games.   Subtly, we hoped, we helped them remember that they always had each other -- not only each other, but at least each other.  Not coincidentally, we moms got together, too -- just to keep our fingers on the pulse.

Here's the unexpected part of the story.  We moms came to count on each other, too.  We'd talk about our kids, school and sixth grade sports.  Eventually, we counted on each other for advice on weightier concerns -- social dilemmas, sex and substance abuse.  Then, I think we just counted on each other -- whether it had to do with the boys or not.  Or at least, I certainly counted on them.  We comforted each other, we found relief and strength in each other, we learned from each other.  We laughed, we cried, we drank sangria.  

And the boys, each in his own absolutely unique way, successfully made it through middle school.  They picked up new skills and strengths and talents and friends.  We moms did, too.  Next year, the boys will head to high school together.  We moms will still count on each other. 

We got together today for lunch -- kind of an end-of-middle-school wrap-up.  My contributions were quinoa salad and that dill-less lentil salad.  Turns out I can endure the loss of an herb -- as long as I've got these remarkable, insightful, funny, informed women in my life.

Next time we get together, though, instead of "good-for-us" salads, though, I think I'll make a "good-for-us" dessert.  Something like this luscious creme anglaise, that we can pour over fresh berries in some of my favorite stemmed glasses.  And then, a toast to us -- and all the other moms and friends we know we can count on.

Creme Anglaise

Creme anglaise is simply a rich, but thin, custard sauce.  Just be sure to cook it gently, so it doesn't curdle.

1 cup cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar

1 teaspoon minced candied ginger (optional)

In a small, heavy saucepan, heat cream and vanilla until bubbles form at edges.

In a separate bowl, while cream is heating, whisk together egg yolks and sugar until smooth.  When cream is hot, gradually stir about 1/2 cup of hot cream into egg mixture, whisking constantly.  Gradually stir egg mixture into remaining hot cream, whisking constantly over a low heat.  Continue to cook, gently, until mixture coats back of a spoon.  Stir in ginger, if using, and allow to cool to room temperature.  Refrigerate until needed.  To serve, spoon (generously) over fresh berries in a gorgeous, stemmed glasses.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Starting A Band In The New Millennium. With BBQ.

My 14-year-old son had band practice today.

He also had baseball practice, but he's had baseball practice for the past five years. Band practice, on the other hand, is noteworthy because this is their first practice. It's also notable for, oh, let's say a bajillion other reasons, starting with the fact that they acquired a new lead singer this week. And did I mention that their first gig (a talent show) is Tuesday?

I know. Not exactly how a list-making, plan-ahead, don't-you-need-a-sweater, let's-make-sure-we-have-enough-batteries-and-$20-bills-in-the-house-in-the-event-of-an-apocalypse mom would do it, right?

OK. I joke (lamely). I realize they're 14. I know their Y-chromosomes could be playing a role here. For them, this is likely going exactly according to schedule. Just consider the many items they've already checked off the "Let's Start A Band" list.

An epic name? Check. Naming the band required weeks of discussion (a.k.a., "text messaging") and research (a.k.a., "Googling"). "Lycanthrope,"* an early frontrunner, emerged victorious.

A beastly logo? Check. You can't have a band without groupies, you can't have groupies without T-shirts, and you can't have T-shirts without a logo. Duh ... The bass player graciously diverted time from his exam preparation schedule to design the band logo (above). No T-shirts yet, but dude, have you seen the logo?

An awesome Facebook page? Check. Being a band of the new millennium, Lycanthrope (or, as it's known on FB, "Lycanthrope!") requires a virtual fan club. Without a single performance, rehearsal or CD, they'd already picked up 46 potential groupies via Facebook. True, four of them are the band members, but to their credit, none of them are me. Parents and little sisters would surely skew the desired demographics, which are, presumably, major record labels and 14-year-old girls, not necessarily in that order.

Artistic differences? Check. Even before the first gig, the lead singer was replaced. It's possible that, years from now, on VHI's "Behind The Music: Lycanthrope," he'll be compared to Pete Best, the original drummer for the Beatles. It's more likely, though, that he'll have his own skyrocketing solo career, which won't involve sharing concert receipts (or groupies) with any bandmates.

A place to practice? Check. Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good, because practice is not Chez Wiles. Fate was "instrumental" here. As my teen explained to me: Every band (and ostensibly, every band mom) knows that practices are always at the drummer's house. Even though you may tire of listening to it at home, particularly during the hours of, let's say, anytime you're at home, an electric guitar can fit in a car and go to practice somewhere else. A drum kit, not so much.

Hairstyles? Check, check, check and check. Three of the bandmates are going "emo," which has not been clearly translated for me, but is apparently the preferred style of every guitarist who's made an appearance on The Today Show this year. (Sadly, Matt and Meredith are my other primary sources for new music.) The fourth band member has either agreed to, or been coerced into, something slightly more extreme, involving the need for an electric shaver. He's not my kid. I'm not asking.

In truth, we parents are pretty excited to see what comes of this. We've all invested plenty of time in music lessons over the years, although not for any of these particular instruments. My own son took piano and cello. Go figure. We're curious to see how this plays out, so to speak. I, for one, have never known anyone who started a band. It all sounds pretty Disney-Channel to me.

And should Lycanthrope end up with more than one gig, I'll be happy to cater (a.k.a., "spy" and "eavesdrop"). I'll even bring hair products and pick out the green M&Ms. But only after they've had something decent to eat, like this easy, slow-cooker BBQ.

(Bonus: Click here for a peek at the first Lycanthrope practice! Also sure to be featured in "Behind the Music: Lycanthrope.")

* Lycanthrope -- A werewolf or alien spirit in the physical form of a bloodthirsty wolf.

Slow-Cooker Pulled Pork BBQ

1 large Boston butt or pork shoulder, as large as will fit in your slow cooker

1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon paprika
red pepper flakes

1 lemon, sliced
1 onion, peeled and sliced
1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon Liquid Smoke
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup water

Your favorite BBQ sauce (I use 1/2 cup Bone Sucking Sauce and 1/2 cup cider vinegar)

Mix spices and rub over pork. Place in slow cooker. Place lemon, bay leaf and onion slices on top. Mix Liquid Smoke, vinegar and water, and pour in bottom of slow cooker. Cook on low (don't remove the lid!) for about 10 hours. Pork will be very tender. Remove roast from slow cooker, pull apart with forks and discard fat. Remove onions and lemons from slow cooker and return shredded pork. Season with Tabasco and your preference of BBQ sauce. Combine and let heat another 1/2 hour. Serve on rolls with slaw. Leftovers freeze well.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I Want To Be Good, But ...

I want to be good. Really I do.

I want to eat the right foods and burn off the necessary number of calories each week.

I want to go to church and be politically correct and do good works and minimize my carbon footprint.

I want to be a model parent and raise socially-informed, athletically-gifted, musically-distinguished, academically-unrivaled ...

Whoa. Did I just go there? Yikes. That wasn't the plan. I'd intended to write about my own frailties and shortcomings, not about the excesses and egos of cutthroat, competitive parenting.

But you see my point, right? Where does this striving for perfection end?

'Cause truly -- grains, fruits and vegetables are good, but to my way of thinking, sometimes chocolate, wine and the occasional single malt scotch are better. And as good as I feel after a 600-calorie workout, I also feel perfectly fine stretched out on the sofa watching a DVR'd episode of Trust Me. Particularly if there's a bag of Pepperidge Farm Bordeaux cookies around. Besides, after watching TV, I don't have to take another hour to cool down, stretch out, and shower. Pretty efficient time-management, right?

There are gracious plenty Sunday mornings when I entirely yield to the urge to lounge and end up indulging in a beverage served in a disposable cup with a non-recyclable lid, which I know, despite my fervent hopes and disregard, will remain in our landfills for generations to come. As good as I want to be, though, I'm just not ready to turn my back on a venti, non-fat, no-foam chai tea latte. (Even as I type it, I know how arrogant it sounds. But have you ever had one? You'd swell the ranks of Sunday school slackers in no time.)

And regarding the superior parenting thing? The God's honest truth is, I just can't compete. And more brutally honest, my kids don't want me to.

It's not that I'm ready to throw my hands up. It's not that I want to settle and yield to the lowest common denominator. It's that I sometimes want to acknowledge that "good enough" is "plenty good." It's not a matter of seeing life as "as good as it gets." It's a matter of seeing the life we have as already being "pretty darn good."

Yes, I can do better. But I can't do better every time. I can't even do "the best I can" every time. I'm working on it, but I can't.

So today, I had a plenty healthy lunch. Fresh fruit salad. Grilled chicken salad (no dressing) with lots of dark, leafy greens. Unsweetened tea (with lemon). A small bite of dessert. All the right stuff.

Not for dinner, though. At home tonight, we're back to the kids' favorite food group -- sausage. Try as you may, you just can't say anything redeeming about sausage. I don't want to read the nutritional information about it, I don't want to know where it comes from, and I don't want to see it made.

At our house, though, it's one of those ingredients that, when it's on the menu, everyone seems to linger at the table. Everyone seems to have more stories to tell about their day. Everyone seems to have a few more minutes to spare away from their cell phones and iPods and bikes and computers. Everyone seems to be happy enough just to be a member of the family.

I don't know what it says about us that there's this attitudinal (if that's a word) shift that hovers over any sausage-based meal. I'm not necessarily proud that our emotions are so easily affected by ground, seasoned pork. I'm just saying ...

So even though I want to be good, I'll choose an engaging dinner conversation and a chance to connect with my kids every time. For me, that's more than good enough. It's the best ever.

Pasta Sauce With Sausage
This is a great, hugely flavorful sauce, which is easily doubled and tripled.

1 lb. (about 3 links) Italian sweet sausage, grilled, cooled and thinly sliced (alternatively, remove casings and saute instead of grilling)

1 onion, chopped
10-12 baby carrots, chopped (trust me, no one will ever know)
8 oz. fresh mushrooms, sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons dried basil
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh rosemary

Generous splash (about 1/2 cup) red wine
generous grinding of black pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt (maybe more)
28-oz can crushed tomatoes in puree
1 cup water

Over medium high heat, saute sliced sausage in a large, deep skillet. Once sausage starts to brown, stir in onion. When onion begins to turn translucent, stir in carrots and mushrooms. When carrots and mushrooms start brown, stir in garlic. Continue sautéing over medium heat for another 10-15 minutes.

Stir in herbs. Stir in red wine, salt and black pepper. Cook for an additional 5-10 minutes until wine is somewhat reduced. Stir in crushed tomatoes. Pour 1 cup water into emptied tomato can and swirl around. Pour water into sauce, stir well, then cover. Cook at a reduced heat for another 45-60 minutes.

Serve hot over fresh cooked spaghetti -- or even better, a "chunkier" pasta, such as penne rigate, fusille or orrechiete. Sauce freezes well, for at least 6 months.

Monday, May 18, 2009

First Dance, First Kiss, First Dinner.

The instant my Darling (and Drowsy) Daughter pried open her sleep-sanded eyes this morning, I recognized it. Although nearly 60 hours had passed since her first dance (Friday night), she was still enshrouded in that ethereal, walking-on-air, anything-can-happen, post-dance fog. Even as she finally floated out the door to school, precious, girlish memories of that evening were still swarming around her, with odd bits clinging to her hair and fingertips.

Parents of infants are trained to note "firsts." The first time they roll over, the first time they sit up, and first foods. (Huh. Oddly similar to pet-training, isn't it?)

Then, it's all about those first words, the first time they eat unassisted, and eventually, mercifully, the first day without diapers.

All of the sudden, we don’t get to witness their firsts. First day at school, first sleepover, first test. First crush, first dance, first date, first kiss. We have to rely on our kids (or more likely, their chatty, less-inhibited friends) to share even the tiniest, splintered details.

My own first kiss was less than magical. Memorable, yes -- but not in a good way. Disastrous is more accurate. A slimy disaster. Like a bad sci-fi movie. We seventh graders were playing Spin the Bottle, when despite the odds, the bottle spun by my so-called boyfriend slowed to point squarely at me. We'd never kissed before, and I was thrilled. My heart pounded. As we leaned toward each other, images from movies and books flooded my mind. I may have swooned. I may have heard a host of heavenly angels.

For about half a second. Eeeewwww. What a disappointment.

Although I'd bet he has no recollection of the event, in my mind, that awkward kiss was a deal-breaker. We broke up the following Monday, and for the next 5½ years -- until we graduated high school and I went to college -- I avoided all contact -- even eye contact -- with him. Ick.

The first meal I ever prepared was more successful – but only slightly. It was a typical, sticky, swampy summer day in Charleston, and I was -- no kidding -- eight years old. I knew what the day held. Phoebe, our housekeeper/maid/babysitter (this was before the rise of nannies) would surely send us out for the day, with the usual admonishment, “I don’t even want to see you children again until lunch.”

But that day I had a plan. I couldn’t go out and play, I insisted. I wanted to make dinner. Seeing as how Phoebe didn’t cook, she agreed to let me have at it. Either I was an convincing liar, or Phoebe had mis-placed her confidence in an eight-year-old. I didn’t know which, but I didn’t care.

I dug through the chest freezer and plowed through The Joy Of Cooking -- looking for ingredients and ideas, so I could compose my menu. Iced tea with mint and lemon. Mashed potatoes, which looked easy because I was actually pretty good with a peeler. Waldorf Salad, which I’d never even heard of, but since we had the basic ingredients (apples, celery, nuts, mayonnaise) I hoped would add an exotic twist. Green beans (canned) were a foregone conclusion, as they were the only vegetable everyone in the family agreed upon. And finally, the piece de resistance – pork roast.

The recipe looked simple enough. Pat the roast down with flour, garlic powder, salt and pepper, and put it in the oven for 25 min./lb. I wasn’t sure why they tacked that “/lb.” on there, but then again, I didn’t understand a lot of things. I was eight. If Mrs. Looper had ever mentioned such a thing in our third grade class, I didn’t remember it. It seemed insignificant, like the way the Waldorf Salad recipe required a “fine dice” for the apples. Whatever.

I made a list and began tackling it. Because I was so eager to have the meal prepared, I put the roast in at about 2:00 p.m., figuring I’d just warm it back up when my parents got home at 5:30 p.m.

I was stunned and confused when I checked the roast at 2:25 p.m. It wasn't brown and succulent. It hadn’t changed color in the slightest. I consulted Phoebe (remember, not exactly a culinary wizard), and we agreed it probably needed a little more time. I kept the roast in the oven, opening and closing the door at five minute intervals, for another 20 minutes, when it finally lost that raw pink color on the outside.

True, it wasn't exactly brown, but I remember thinking, perfect, as I turned off the oven. (Plainly, we hadn't studied trichinosis in third grade, either.) I filled the remainder of the afternoon finishing up the other dishes, setting the table and thinking of all the witty ways I’d announce to my parents that I, all by myself, had cooked dinner!

When Mom got home at 5:30 p.m., she listened to my boastful description of the afternoon, and then, gaped, horrified, at the practically raw, now room temperature, five-pound, bone-in, grayish porcine slab, resting in a pool of pink juices in the oven. I could provide graphic details, but in a nutshell: my dad declared that we needed another dinner plan, my brother couldn’t believe how dumb I was, my sister just wanted to go to bed, and I sobbed hysterically.

Mom persisted, though: We were having roast for dinner. Even, she proclaimed, if it meant eating at midnight. In truth, it didn't take quite that long, but it was a good 2 ½ hours later – well past my baby sister’s bedtime – when we ate. After all the tears, my eyes were swollen nearly shut. I could scarely taste anything. It was one of the finest meals ever.

To this day, I still enjoy a good pork roast, although I usually cook it on the grill now and not in the oven. It's pretty basic. A beef pot roast, I think, can pose a bigger challenges, but even so, there are only two tricks. One, Lipton Onion Soup mix is not enough. You've got to have other ingredients to give your pot roast enough depth of flavor. Two, you've got to cook it way longer than any recipe ever tells you. It may not quite compare to a first dance or first kiss, but still, it's pretty darn good.

Beef Pot Roast
3-4 pound chuck roast
olive oil

2 onions, cut in half lengthwise and sliced thinly
10-12 baby carrots, cut in 1/2-inch chunks
1 rib celery, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced

generous splash of red wine (about 1/2 cup)
fresh ground pepper
bay leaf
1 packet Lipton Onion Soup mix
1 cup water

Thinly coat the bottom of a large, heavy-duty lidded skillet with oil. Heat until oil is rippling, then brown both sides of roast well.  Remove roast from pan, and stir in onions. Saute until translucent, then add carrots and celery. Continue sauteeing until carrots are slightly browned. Stir in garlic and continue cooking another 2-3 minutes.  Return browned roast to pan, adding wine, pepper, bay leaf, soup mix and water. Cover, and cook over low heat 3-4 hours until roast is absolutely fork tender. Using fork, pull apart roast and serve over egg noodles with broth.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

On Gardening, Baseball and Dancing -- Hopefully, With Dilled Dip.

I did it. Again.

I visited my neighborhood gardening center today to get a couple of "filler" plants for the yard. I had a list. The actual plan was for three filler plants. All right -- if you insisted on counting each individual plant, it would have totaled five, but I'd planned to consider the three silver coral bells as a single item. (I know. That kind of thinking does not win me any friends in the 10-item-only checkout lane.)

It was a fine plan. But 30 minutes later, after perambulating the aisles and at one point, exhorting another shopper to "buy more!" (she plainly didn't have enough -- she didn't even have a cart), I ended up with a trunkload of plants. Deja vu all over again. Shoving even one more verbena, salvia or butterfly bush into the back of the Pilot would have required a crowbar. Or a good-sized sumo wrestler.

What was I thinking? Not thinking, actually, but hoping?

In a way, it's been a weekend packed with hope Chez Wiles. After enduring a fairly, or let's be honest, wholly miserable school baseball season, my son began a new rec league baseball season. Being 14, he tried to keep his hopes in check for this weekend's season-opener, but still, a victory would've been a thrilling start to the new season. Some time on the mound would've been even better. And a monster hit, a bona fide ego-distender.

And what could be more hopeful -- or hope-filled -- than my daughter's weekend? Friday was her first middle school dance -- and she spent most of the preceding 634 waking hours hoping that her outfit would be cute enough, that her hair would be smooth enough, that she wouldn't embarrass herself, and that someone, anyone, that one, would ask her to dance.

Like some kind of Disney channel movie, it was all good. On the baseball front, despite a second-inning injury, my son helped his team pick up a win -- both with his pitching and his hitting. More surprising, despite expectations of Kilimanjaro-esque proportions, that first dance was everything my daughter had hoped. She and her girlfriends had a sleepover later that night, and their breathless giggling and gushing descriptions made my own heart skip a beat.

That hopefulness was bound to spill over, and so it did -- into the aisles of the Lowe's gardening center today. I really had no business buying more plants. When I began spring planting, my very first trunkload of purchases included a dill plant. (To see that post, click here.) In my mind, though, the dill was a kind of disposable purchase. I'm inordinately fond of the herb, but never had any success growing it. Six weeks later though, either through my own dumb luck or its own sheer tenacity, the dill is still here. Now what?

I minced some over our baked potatoes tonight. I know I can fold it into scrambled eggs, or stir it with melted butter and lemon to drizzle over salmon, but I think I want to try something new: An herbed dip. I'll admit right now that the following recipe is one that I'm making up as I type, but the proportions look right, and really, how can you go wrong with dill and cream cheese? Here's hoping ...

Dilled Dip

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, at room temp
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1 small bunch (thickness of your index finger) of chives
2 tablespoons fresh dill, minced
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoons kosher salt
fresh ground pepper

You could drop all the ingredients in a food processor and give it a whirl, but to make the dip by hand, start by mashing the cream cheese with a fork, until it's smooth. Incorporate sour cream, one spoonful at a time, and then, mayonnaise. Stir in herbs, lemon juice and seasoning, adjusting seasoning as needed. Serve with chips or crudites.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Toughest Job In The World and My New Goal In Life.

Oprah (no need for a last name, right?) often trumpets, "Moms have the toughest job in the world."

All right, first the obvious: Oprah knows this because ...?

And second, although she is right about it being tough, is it a job?

If so, I've got a couple of questions.

When's my performance review? My peer evaluation? I'm an achiever. I need someone to tell me I'm doing a superior job, identify areas in which I've improved, and areas that need work. The more flowery, ego-inflating adjectives, the better.

How many vacation days do I get? What's the tech guy's number? My computer's running kind of slow. And can I talk to the HR person about my chair? It's really bothering my back.

What's my projected career path? When is lunch? And oh yeah, I'm taking a sick day tomorrow.

Yep. Being a mom isn't so much a job as it is a living. On my resume, it would read, "Mom. 1995 to the present, into the foreseeable future, atrophying into a permanent, occasionally crippling, condition."

Now, don't get me wrong. I love being a mom. But it's pretty obvious what I miss about working. With the mom gig, no one ever says, "The way you waited out that temper tantrum was masterful. Good job!" You never hear, "Well, thank God that laundry's over. Now you can just stick it in a file and forget it." Or, "The way you handled that talk about substance abuse? Brilliant. What do you say we podcast it?"

I just can't tell when or if I'm doing the right thing as a parent. The people for whom I am mom (my clients, I suppose) will never say, at the end of a carefully-worded, well-crafted "talk" on my part say, "You know Mom, you make a good point."

And the odds of my ever hearing, "You're right"? Well, let's just say it's appropriate that I've never been a gambling kind of girl.

A mom friend of mine recently received what I consider the consummate mom compliment ("mompliment" maybe?) from her 19-year-old son. As she put it, "We were discussing how some of his peers had screwed up -- probably because their parents had taken it too easy on them over the years. I wondered aloud if I had been tough enough on him and his brother." There was a pause, then her incredible, perceptive, profoundly honest son replied, "Believe me, Mom. You were sufficiently hard-ass."

Sufficiently hard-ass. My new goal in life.

First though, dinner. And since I'm the kind of mom who, although they don't know it, likes to please her kids, I'm making "Not So Dirty Rice." I once made the mistake of referring to it as "Dirty Rice" but since I'm also the kind of mom who can learn from her mistakes, I quickly changed the name. Nevertheless, this is quick, easy and always a crowd-pleaser.

Not So Dirty Rice (with Sausage)
A traditional Cajun dish, Dirty Rice is often made with chicken livers, as well as sausage. The crumbly livers give the rice a particularly "dirty" tinge.. Although it's often served as a side dish (with fried chicken or ham), Dirty Rice is a main dish at our house. This version serves four.

1 lb bulk breakfast sausage

1 onion, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, minced

pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
fresh ground pepper
1 cup uncooked rice
2 cups (approx.) chicken broth

In a large skillet (with a lid), begin browning sausage. When no longer pink, stir in onion and celery. Continue sauteeing. When vegetables are translucent, stir in garlic. Keep stirring. When sausage is browned, season with cayenne pepper, salt and pepper. Stir in rice. Cook an additional 2 minutes, then pour in chicken broth, reduce heat to low and cover. (Don't stir again.) Check to see if all liquid is absorbed after 20 minutes. If not, replace lid and cook an additional 3-5 minutes. (If liquid is absorbed, though, and rice isn't done, add some more chicken broth.) Fluff, and add additional seasoning, if necessary. (May depend upon the spiciness of the sausage.) Serve hot. Pass the Tabasco.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Just Like They Make It In Peru.

Just to be clear, I will not be cooking guinea pig tomorrow.  Will not.

Ditto for beef heart.  Not gonna do it.

This is relevant, because for the past four months, my daughter's sixth grade humanities class has been working on "International Day."  Students are assigned countries from around the world, researching the culture, geography, history and yes, cuisine.  The only part requiring parental assistance -- or more accurately, parental intervention -- is the cuisine portion.  For tomorrow night's International Day Festival, we're to bring food representative of the student's assigned country.

Perfect.  Because really, who better to intervene than me?

Of course it's not that easy.  Never is.  Darling Daughter's assigned country is Peru.  Riiiiiiiiiiiiiggghhht.  Peru.

A quick Google search turns up a number of recipes, including such national favorites as beef heart and guinea pig.  Apparently, beef heart (anticuchos) is a popular casserole dish.  I actually enjoy a good casserole, but this one doesn't have to touch my tastebuds for me to know that I'm anti-anticuchos.  Guinea pigs (cuyes) can be prepared any number of ways -- grilled, roasted, fried, stewed and baked.  (No mention of Bubba Gump-style gumbo, pilaf and scampi.)  However, since none of the cuyes actually survive to spin the wheels in their little cages another day, I can't go there, either.

I interrogate Darling Daughter:  Why couldn't you get France?  Croissants, boeuf bourgogne, coq au vin?  Sign me up.  How about England?  Shepherd's pie may not be the most sought-after dish in middle school, but at least it's familiar.  And Mexico?  Hello, four-one-one, can you give me the number to Taco Bell?  

I'd even go with Australian Vegemite (yeast paste) sandwiches before noshing on a pet.   Or a rodent.  Or a pet rodent.

(As an aside, it does tickle my funnybone to imagine going to my neighborhood Harris Teeter and asking Frank the Butcher for a couple dozen guinea pigs, gutted, skinned and butterflied as described in one recipe.  But I digress.)

Hey!  Isn't Juan Valdez of the coffee commercials from Peru?  My dear friends at Starbucks could cater!  Except, sadly, a Google search indicates that Juan isn't from Peru.  He's from Colombia.  Which means he's got other problems on his plate.  And probably wishes he lived in Peru.

Still, I may be on to something.  A Peruvian beverage might be just the ticket.  Pisco sours look interesting.  But I suspect Darling Daughter would be transferred to another school, posthaste, if I were to serve Peruvian brandy to 100 kids and parents.

Just when I'm ready to throw up my hands, I see it.  Quinoa Salad.  Who knew?  Even though I've never made it before, I'm certain it will work.   And given the alternative, I bet I can even get Darling Daughter to give it a taste.  More to come ...

PS -- Darling Daughter concurs that the salad was very tasty and should become a regular staple here at the Wiles house.  It may not be authentic, as I adjusted some of the quantities to my taste, but still, it's very good!

Quinoa Salad

6 cups cooked quinoa (more, of course, if you're cooking for 100), cooled
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 seedless cucumber, cut in fine dice
2 roma tomatoes, diced
1/4 cup fresh mint, chopped

1/3 cup fresh lime juice
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt
fresh ground pepper

1 head iceberg lettuce, shredded (optional)

In a large bowl, whisk together lime juice, olive oil, salt and pepper until creamy.  Gently fold in remaining ingredients.  If desired, serve over bed of shredded lettuce.  Garnish with additional mint leaves if desired.  Be glad you're not eating guinea pig.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Hello. I Am The Worst Mom Ever.

I want my crown. Scepter, too, because as it turns out, I am The Worst Mom Ever.

I have no doubt, because I heard it from someone to whom I am mom. I suspect most of the neighbors also heard, as yesterday had been a lovely day (weather-wise, anyhow), and our screen door was open when the announcement was made loudly, forcefully and more than once. Neighborhood dogs were treated to their own, distinct, high-pitched version. Because Indignant Beloved Child and I were inside, no one else witnessed the accompanying eye-rolling, snorting and foot-stamping, but surely those within earshot could come up with a pretty good visual.

Worst. Mom. Ever. WME.

Like I haven't heard that before.

Little did Indignant Beloved Child (IBC) realize that, like many moms, I'd bestowed that particular title on myself as soon as I learned I was pregnant. I hadn't been eating enough potassium! I'd had a glass of wine over the weekend! I'd gained too much weight! I'd slept on the wrong side -- my right! Or was it my left?

That, my friends, was within the first hour of the little white stick turning blue. Witness my coronation. WME.

I continued to terrify myself by poring over What To Expect When You're Expecting. Although written to inform and soothe, any parent can tell you of the fresh nightmares brought in each chapter of that horror story. Like a Stephen King novel, it's one of those books that should be read only in broad daylight.

Post-delivery, I continued the torment with What To Expect The First Year and later, What To Expect: The Toddler Years. If What To Expect: The Teenaged Years were ever published, I could ditch my bedroom furniture for a treadmill and rowing machine. I'd never sleep again.

Nothing really prepares us parents for the size and scope of the problems and potential consequences of our parenting decisions. Sleeping through the night, potty-training, pacifiers and organic versus convenient -- about which we worry incessantly when our kids are tiny -- are dwarfed by later concerns about drinking, driving, friendships, sports, poor-decision-making in general and worse-decision-making in specific.

Some of these concerns we discuss openly in school meetings. Sometimes, we seek confidential advice from our closest friends and family. Still other worries lurk in our hearts and prey on our minds late at night, when everyone else -- seemingly unaware of the pitfalls of wily college applications -- is blissfully asleep.

IBC and I managed to work it out yesterday -- and pretty expediently at that. Although it wasn't exactly a Proud Parenting Moment, I handled the situation by -- giggling. Other Beloved Child pitched in, speaking harshly and disdainfully to IBC, "Huh! Did you really think that would work?"

A few excruciatingly long minutes passed before IBC came around, sticking a Best Mom Ever sign on my back.

Like I believe that. Particularly since, tonight, I'll be sneaking roundly-reviled spinach into the pasta, insisting that it's an abundance of somewhat-less-abhorred parsley.

Where's my crown? And has anyone seen my scepter?

Lemon Shrimp and Pasta

1/2 pound dry pasta (I'd prefer linguini, but I've got penne, so that's what I'm using)

1/2 - 3/4 pound shrimp, peeled (deheaded, if necessary)
1 lemon, zested and juiced (reserve juice for later)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
red pepper flakes
about 1/2 cup dry white wine
about 1/2 cup chicken broth or clam juice
3-4 handfuls of baby spinach, rinsed, stacked and sliced in ribbons
kosher salt

Cook pasta (al dente) in well-salted boiling water and drain. Set aside.

While pasta is cooking, stir together shrimp, olive oil, garlic, one teaspoon of lemon zest and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes.

When pasta is done, place a large skillet over high heat. When skillet is hot, stir in shrimp mixture. Keep stirring, over high heat, so garlic doesn't scorch. When shrimp turn pink, stir in reserved lemon juice (about 2 tablespoons) and wine. Continue cooking another 1-2 minutes, until liquid is reduced and shrimp is cooked through. Stir in spinach, broth and pasta to heat through and wilt spinach. Adjust seasonings and serve hot.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Looks As If I Need To Make My Own Luck

I am, without a doubt, a see-a-penny-pick-it-up, jinx-you-owe-me-a-Coke, lift-your-feet-over-the-railroad-tracks kind of girl.  (I still raise my feet at the railroad crossing by South Windermere in Charleston -- even though those tracks were extricated years ago.)

I have limits, of course.  Despite having a baseball player in the house, I've never indulged in the lucky-unwashed-socks, inside-out-dorky-looking-rally-cap, jockstrap-over-the-head approach to altering life's courses.  Given my age and gender, that's better for all of us.

Still, for much of my life I've felt "luck" was on my side.  I'm somewhat embarrassed to consider how many times I've said, verbatim, I am the luckiest person I know.

I have been lucky -- particularly when it comes to lovable, quick-minded, fun-to-be-with, thought-provoking kids  Before them, I had a career where people paid me -- really good money -- to do what I loved.  Even my recent divorce wasn't as dreadful as it could have been.  We never showed our faces in court.  And I was never arrested for slashing his tires with a machete.  (Just a fantasy.  No reason.)

Still, I can't say I've felt terribly lucky as of late.  Maybe part of luck has to do with perspective.  So here's the question:  Do we make our own luck?

I used to think I was lucky.  And I was.  Then, I didn't think I was lucky, and well, tah-dah -- that's what the inside of the crapper looks like.

Then again, maybe I am.  That Rembrandts' song I adored, but no one else ever listened to 15 years ago (Just The Way It Is, Baby)?  It was playing in a neighborhood shop recently.  Carole King's You've Got A Friend popped up on the radio a few days later.  A vacationing friend asked me to keep an eye on her pool this weekend, and sure enough, it's 78 and sunny.  And get this -- the dill I planted a month ago, with zero expectation of it surviving?  It's thriving.  (See my post, "Hope Springs".)

In the novel I'm currently reading, American Wife (ironic, I know), the main character, apropos of nothing, makes lentil salad.  Although I've never tasted such a thing, I couldn't get it out of my mind.  I determined to make it today.  How hard could it be?  Lentils, some seasoning, fresh veggies and a piquant vinaigrette.

I can't get enough of lentils.  I wasn't looking forward to cooking them, though.  It's already hot and sticky outside, and I didn't want to make the house hotter and stickier still.  Nevertheless, preparing lentils is pretty basic.  Simmer gently in a simple broth including a rib of celery, a carrot and a bay leaf.  Don't season until they're done.  I could handle that.

I headed to my beloved Trader Joe's for ingredients.  Cuke and tomatoes?  Check.  Feta cheese (in brine)?  Natch.  But look at this -- right there on the bottom shelf, where no one would ever think to look -- pre-cooked beluga black lentils. Are you kidding?  Serendipity!

The tiny, tender lentils look like little black pearls.  And there are only two bags.  Sold.  Looks as if I will, indeed, be having lentil salad tonight.  The salad would be great, too, with a slab of grilled salmon.  But I won't press my luck.  I'm doing just fine as it is.

Lentil Salad

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon (maybe more, depending on the saltiness of the feta) kosher salt
1 tablespoon fresh chopped dill
fresh ground pepper

3 cups gently cooked lentils (preferably black beluga or French green)
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1/2 of an English cucumber, peeled and diced
20 grape tomatoes, halved

In a large bowl, whisk together vinaigrette ingredients -- oil, lemon juice, salt, dill and pepper.

Gently stir in remaining ingredients.  Serve at room temperature.  Omigosh.