Monday, August 24, 2009

The Memory Game. (Curried Couscous with Cranberries and Pinenuts)

If I were still married, today would be my 24th wedding anniversary.

But I’m not, and it isn’t.
Not that today is particularly difficult or regretful for me. (Truly, there’s no pity partying Chez Wiles. I don’t need Kleenexes – or even sangria.) Today is just ... different.

I’m 46 years old, which means that for over half my life August 24 has held special significance. True, I’m now divorced, but none of those fiercely-contested -- or more nicely put, "not-coolly-discussed" -- court documents can spackle that particular groove in my memory.

Part of what I’m dealing with, of course, is simple emotion. Today's date evokes memories of both failure and success. The failure is obvious -- the demise of my marriage; however, severing that tie didn't obliterate the success came from it -- most notably my two remarkable children.

I won't ever be able to think of August 24 as just another day. Consequential dates aside, though, I believe other numbers can take on special significance, too, sometimes clogging and slowing the synapses of our minds.

How else to explain that I still remember the number of my PO box at the University of South Carolina in 1980? (81355, in case you wondered.) I also recall my college checking account number – 1107 4820 – at C&S Bank (which begat NationsBank which begat Bank of America.) I’m now a BoA customer, but when face-to-face with the teller at my neighborhood branch, I struggle to recall my current account number. More than once, I’ve proffered my outdated number. Why does this ancient information continue to occupy valuable brain space a quarter of a century later?

Smokey, my childhood cat, succumbed to feline leukemia before I went to college, but I remember her birthday still -- July 13. To be precise, Friday the 13th. (It was also my next door neighbor Dow’s birthday.) From high school, I remember Karen’s, Kellie’s, Lisa’s and Sharon’s birthdates. And Greg’s and Thomas’s. I feel badly that I can't dredge up Joan’s.

I can also name every single one of my grade school teachers. Unless you’re willing to pay up, don’t test me, because I’m not the slightest bit shaky. My first phone number was 795-2074. The last four digits of my current phone number are 4278, which I first learned by memorizing that four times two isn’t seven, it’s eight. I know. Whatever.

Wouldn’t my mind be better served by being able to recall useful information? Every August, I need to supply the kids’ social security numbers to their school. And every year, I have to look them up. And what about health insurance numbers? Wouldn’t I be better stashing those in my mind? Perhaps replacing the measurements for a perfectly proportioned quiche? After all, who eats quiche anymore? (Other than me.)

We can’t “pick” our memories, of course. Who knows what will stay and what will wash away with tomorrow’s wave of events? And who’s to say that, 20 years from now, one of the kids won’t say, remember that night we had lamb and couscous right before school started? Remember that stupid thing you said?

Time to get started on some new memories, I suppose. But first, I need to get the lamb on the grill. And put together a batch of cranberry-pinenut-couscous, which may be the quickest sidedish known to mankind. Or, at least, to me. So far as I can remember.

Curried Couscous with Cranberries and Pinenuts
1 cup uncooked couscous
1 ¼ cup chicken broth
¼ teaspoon curry powder
1 handful dried cranberries (Craisins), coarsely chopped
1 handful pinenuts, lightly toasted
handful of fresh parsley, minced

In a medium saucepan, bring chicken broth and curry powder to a boil. Stir in couscous, cover, and remove from heat. Let stand about five minutes (until broth is absorbed). Fluff with a fork, and lightly stir in cranberries, pinenuts and parsley. Ta-dah. You’re done!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

On Sleepovers. And The Morning After. (Grilled Pork Loin)

I’m already bracing myself.

No, not for the start of school.  I’m preparing for the return of Darling Daughter (DD) and Satiric Son (SS).  Both had sleepovers last night.
SS celebrated a friend’s birthday at a nearby resort lodge with an enormous indoor waterpark, six-story slides and a video game arcade.  Yes, the host’s parents were in attendance, but wisely planned to make themselves scarce.  They also wisely planned to procure the necessary provisions, i.e., wine and a corkscrew, to enjoy their own pleasant evening.

Any mom knows that water activity – all on its own – is exhausting, but add a hotel room and four teenaged-boys – none of whom, under any circumstances, wants to be first to fall asleep – and, well, re-entry’s going to be a little rough the following day.

On the face of it, DD’s evening should’ve been less eventful.  She stayed the night with her preschool BFF who lives right here in the ‘hood.  From a sleepover standpoint, hers should’ve been a pretty mild – and recoverable – event.  But it was her second sleepover of the weekend.

I know.  What kind of mom lets her daughter go to back-to-back sleepovers?  Let’s just say I'd procured provisions of my own.

Five girls were at the first sleepover.  From what I heard, no one went to sleep before 3:30.  3:30 A.M.  In the morning.  And since it was a party, no one slept past 7:30.  7:30 A.M.  Again, in the morning.

Hmm.  When thinking of it that way, I’m kind of glad she had that second sleepover.  Who wants to deal with a 12-year-old limping along on four hours sleep?  Surely, her 12-year-old BFF could cope better than I.

Today, however, the Wiles chickens come home to roost.  The peace and quiet and venti non-fat, no-foam chai I’m sipping will do little to prepare me for the onslaught.

When the kids were little, I was so wary of the exhaustion and drama --real or, worse, imagined –- of sleepovers that I avoided them for years, favoring, instead, the “pretend” sleepover.  The kids' friends could come over, eat pizza, chug soft drinks, gobble popcorn, change into their jammies, snuggle down into their sleeping bags, watch a movie, and at 10:00 p.m., go home.

The problem with sleepovers is that, at some point -- usually well after midnight -- someone will get out of control.  Someone will whisper secrets.  Someone’s privacy will be invaded.  Someone’s feelings will be hurt.  Someone will cry.  Someone will stamp her foot and shriek that she'll never, ever, ever, ever have another sleepover.

Oops.  I kind of slipped back in time there for a minute.  Sorry.

But now, it’s T minus 40.  SS and DD are scheduled to return home at roughly the same time.  I’m hunkering down as if Hurricane Bill were headed in our direction:  stocking up on food, pulling out activities designed to distract (movies, games), checking our ice supply (in the event someone returns home with bruised joints – or egos), and securing all loose objects that might, under stormy circumstances, become projectiles.

I’m also planning a simple, quibble-free meal – pork roast, mashed potatoes, carrot-pineapple salad.  Maybe white sangria for me.

It’s now T minus 22.

Let us pray.

Grilled Pork Loin With Garlic, Mustard and Sage
As much as my kids enjoy pork roast, they love even more knowing that the leftovers will show up in pork fried rice a few days later.

2 1/2 - 3 lb. whole boneless pork loin (not tenderloin)
3 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1 tablespoon whole grain mustard
3 leaves fresh sage (or 1/2 teaspoon dried), minced

With a very sharp knife, lightly score pork.  Set aside.  Mince garlic.  When finely minced, use knife to "cut in" salt, until garlic becomes pasty.  Cut in pepper and sage.  Stir in mustard.  Rub paste over pork (all sides), and allow to rest about 30 minutes.  In the meantime, heat up your grill.  When meat is ready, grill over direct heat until lightly browned (about 5 minutes per side).  Move roast to indirect heat and continue grilling until internal temperature reaches 145 degrees (about 1 hour).  When temperature is reached, remove roast to platter and allow to rest 20 minutes before carving.  

Thursday, August 20, 2009

School Is Great, School Is Good. (Pesto's Not Bad, Either.)

I know full well what time of year it is.

I don’t need the news anchors at WCNC reminding me of bus stop protocol, or classroom supply lists delivered by Mike the Mailman, or menacing 6-foot-tall “Back To School” banners billowing at every shopping center to prompt me to check my iPhone calendar.

It is time, time, time for my kids to get back to school.

Yes. I love Darling Daughter and Sensational Son, and I love the time we've shared this summer. But it's time to get those bodies back on the bus. I know this, because we have now completed our unofficial tour of Charlotte medical facilities. In the past 12 weeks, we've propped our feet in nearly every waiting room within a five-mile radius.

No kidding. With school sports, school activities and duh, school work, summer's the perfect time to catch up on routine medical check-ups. Yesterday, however, when I made the mistake of tallying them all up (not a proud admission, but still) I count that the three of us have flashed our insurance cards over 30 times – for appointments at dentists, pediatricians, therapists, allergists, shamans (OK, that last is a stretch) - since school let out.

This, despite that fact that one of us was here only two-thirds of the summer. This, despite that fact that another of us was here only half the summer.

Never mind the fact that we are all -- blessedly -- pretty darn healthy. Never mind the fact that our average age is a robust 24 – not an ailing 76.

Other local businesses may be limping along, but Tar Heel doctors are not suffering due to inattention on behalf of Charlotte moms. Anytime I’ve mentioned our various schedules to another mom (two dental appointments today, orthopedist yesterday, and the orthodontist earlier in the week!), she’ll trump me with her own medical professional schedule (endodontist yesterday, neurologist the day before, and the “down there” doctor later this week!)

I can’t compete with that. And -- hoo boy -- I don’t want to.

I can also tell it's time to pack those backpacks because the kids and I are far enough into summer and are oh-so-very-familiar with each other that I'm now feeling qualified – no, indeed, compelled -- to lead a few seminars these next few days Chez Wiles, including:

How To Turn Off A Light – For advanced attendees only, this seminar will also reveal tips for darkening the wily three-way lamp and the elusive closet light.

How To Close A Door – Upon successful completion, seminar attendees will be able to securely close – and lock! – front doors, back doors, French doors, screen doors, storm doors, cabinet doors, car doors, shower doors, refrigerator doors, barn doors (“xyz!”) and the oh-so-tricky garage door.

How To Return A Carton of Milk to the Refrigerator – Should talented attendees show preternatural ability, seminar will advance further to include “How To Dispose of Empty Beverage Containers.” (Seminar progression to be determined solely by seminar leader. Results not guaranteed.)

Yep. Although my Vitamin D levels are nearly back to normal, it seems I’m still a little on edge at this late point in the season. As I step out the back door, the signs of waning summer are there. The lawn is crispy. The mosquitos are the size of flying squirrels. The 4" basil plants I set out in early April are now 24” and bolting.

I can’t control when school starts. That’s firm – August 26. And despite the latest, greatest bug repellents, zappers and barriers, I can't resolve the mosquito problem. But I can do something about that basil. An abundance of basil can lead to only one thing -- an abundance of pesto. And pesto pasta -- which everyone loves -- helps ease us ever closer to the start of school.

(Brrrrr-iiinnnngg! It that a school bell I hear? Love you, kids! Mean it! Have a good day!)

Pesto Pasta
Because I currently have it on hand, I added the bright taste of fresh parsley and mint to this pesto. A squeeze of fresh lemon or lemon zest wouldn't be out of place, either.

2 cups (packed) fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup (packed) fresh parsley (optional)
1/4 cup (packed) fresh mint (optional)
1/2 cup pine nuts
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/4 cup fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or more, to taste)
generous grinding of black pepper

Blend all ingredients except olive oil in food processor. Gradually drizzle in olive oil, pulsing until a coarse paste forms. Taste and season as needed. Recipe makes enough to sauce about 1 1/2 pounds pasta. Use as needed, freezing remainder in tightly sealed zipper bags.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

In My Next Life, I Want To Come Back As My Cat.

Last night, our indoor cat, Lionel, escaped. Twice. This, despite the mantra of my every waking moment: You're an indoor cat, you're an indoor cat, you're an indoor cat.

The word cat, I suppose, is key. Our furry feline undoubtedly hears me as if I'm one of the adults in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

Wah, wah-wah, wah-wah.

Anyhow. He slipped out. Bedlam ensued. Children scurried. Flashlights flickered. Catnip scattered. After a few panicky minutes, though, I had to wonder, “Exactly why is this a crisis?”

Honestly. When I was growing up, pets came and pets went – indoors, outdoors, around the block, in the lake. Wherever. Not that I didn’t miss them when they were “gone,” like Mikey, the parakeet we had when I was a toddler, who reportedly “flew away,” but in truth, had been found earlier that day on his little birdy back, rigor mortis-stiffened feet in the air. Or Snowball, my first cat, who reportedly “ran away,” but in truth had taken a long, one-way car ride. (I learned both these truths on a visit home as an adult, after more than one tongue-loosening glass of wine. Rough night.)

In the 60s and 70s, dogs were not only unleashed -- I didn’t know a family who even owned a leash.

Lassie didn’t have a leash. Neither did Tiger, of The Brady Bunch fame. We might have seen a leash sometime on TV. But only on a fancy dog. Like a poodle. In a fancy city. Like New York City. Or Paris, France.

Our family dog, Snoopy Bonaparte Fountain, was no poodle. He was a loud, quarrelsome, battle-scarred black dachshund who had no idea that the only animal closer to the ground than him was a Palmetto bug (a.k.a., roach). He didn't need no stinkin' leash. He didn’t even have a collar -- unless you counted the occasional plain white plastic Hart’s flea collar looped around his neck. I wasn’t a bully as a kid, but if I’d ever seen a dog with an engraved "My Name Is SNOOPY" tag, I’d have been forced to call that dog a sissy. Or worse.

My similarly collar-less childhood cat, Smokey Jo, was also free to come and go. Except for that night she kept yowling and yowling and yowling and rubbing herself on the furniture, and my parents said, “Do NOT open the door for that cat. Under ANY circumstances.”

Being an obedient child, I did NOT open the front door for Smokey. Or the back door. Or the door to the garage. Eventually, though, I did open my bedroom window for her.

Funny story. Turns out my parents were right. There WERE boy cats out there that night. Or, at least one. Because a few months later, Smokey (nee “Minuit” – French for “midnight” -- which my bullheaded family refused to call her) gave birth to four spicy kittens, Ginger, Pepper, Nutmeg and Cinnamon.<

Shortly thereafter, we paid a visit to Dr. Murray's veterinary clinic to get Smokey "fixed."

I never knew she was broken.

So last night, when Lionel tried on the life of a refugee, I didn’t panic. I knew he’d be back. He may see himself as a rebel, but in truth, he’s one pampered pussycat. Outside was hot, dirty and dark. It didn’t take long for Lionel to reveal his true Mike Tyson personality. Fierce. Belligerent. With a ridiculously tiny, high-pitched voice. Lionel responded loud, clear and pathetically when we called him. Unlike the notorious pugilist, though, our pampered indoor cat didn't lisp.
So welcome back, Lionel. We knew you’d return. The only question now is whether you came back because you missed us -- or because we were having Shrimp and Grits for dinner.

Wah, wah-wah, wah-wah.

I probably don’t want to know.

Super Simple Shrimp & Grits
This zesty casserole version of shrimp and grits is perfect for supper, but I like it even better for breakfast. If you do too, you can save time by making it the day before and keeping it refrigerated 'til morning.
4 cups chicken broth
1 cup regular (not instant) grits
1 8 oz. package grated cheddar/jack cheese, divided
2 tablespoons butter
6 green onions, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 lb. shrimp (smaller is better), cooked and peeled
1 (10 oz.) can diced tomatoes with mild green chilies (Ro-Tel), drained

Bring chicken broth to a boil in large saucepan; stir in grits. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes. Stir in all but 1/4 cup of grated cheese. In a separate skillet, melt butter; add green onions, bell pepper, and garlic, sauté 5 minutes, or until tender. Stir green onion mixture into grits. Add shrimp and tomatoes. Pour into a lightly greased 2-quart baking dish. Top with remaining 1/4 cheese. Bake at 350 for 30-45 minutes. If refrigerated, adjust cooking time (as grits will be cold) accordingly. Serves 6-8.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Simply Wonderful Wings

I am not daunted by lengthy ingredient lists.

On the contrary, I pride myself on quickly scanning a list and categorizing the ingredients – spices, fridge items, pantry items, special-purchase items, etc. Oftentimes, what seems to be an overwhelming list is merely clogged with spices (even the most basic pumpkin pie has four – cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves) or “starter” ingredients (olive oil, onions, garlic, bell pepper and garlic are the foundation of many a soup or sauce), or the occasional “show-off” items. (Really, are shallots necessary in a boullabaise that already includes onions, garlic, and leeks? And I'm still trying to figure out what yuzu -- a Japanese citrus fruit that managed to pop up on nearly every Top Chef episode this past season -- looks like.)

So this past weekend, when Darling Daughter begged me to make her aunt’s and uncle’s “Greek Wings,” I didn’t flinch.

Actually, Greek Wings (I know -- it sounds like something excavated from an ancient Athenian archaeological site) is just one recipe in my sister and brother-in-law’s wing repertoire, which includes Buffalo Wings, BBQ Wings and Teriyaki Wings. DD insisted, though, that the “Greeks” were the best. (Already I know that my Greek brother-in-law, G-BIL, will relish repeating that phrase out of context.) The Greek Wings are grilled, DD revealed and they have the best sauce ever.

That, my friends, was the sound of the gauntlet being thrown.

Being 12, however, DD had no idea what the sauce included. I was horrified to realize that she didn’t even care! I pressed on, though. Was it creamy? I asked, envisioning a tangy cucumber-yogurt tzatziki. Was it chunky -- maybe with Kalamata olives, feta and preserved lemon? Was it zesty – maybe riffing on traditional Greek salad dressing with olive oil, wine vinegar and oregano?

Her answer remained firm. And to make sure her pushy 46-year-old mom got the point, DD cranked the volume: I DON’T KNOW.

Okkkaaaaaayyy. Plan B.

Luckily, G-BIL was happy to oblige. He even sent pictures (which makes it even more embarrassing that it took me a week to post this blog). Turns out, those Greek Wings are the best. And here’s a shocker: Not including the wings themselves, the ingredient list numbered three – and with the wings, just four!

Yep. Keep your shallots and preserved lemon and arcane fruits (I still want to know what yuzu tastes like, though). These three-ingredient wings are going to become regulars on our backyard grill.

G-BIL’s Greek Wings

½ cup lemon juice
½ cup olive oil
1-2 teaspoons Cavender’s Greek Seasoning, plus extra for sprinkling
chicken wings (a couple of pounds), cut into pieces, tips discarded (or frozen for broth)

Mix lemon juice, olive oil and seasoning in a large bowl. Stir in wings (can allow to marinate for an hour, if you like). Then, grill wings slowly over low heat. When wings are nearly done, baste liberally with remaining Greek sauce. Continue grilling and basting until wings are done. (Don’t baste wings the final two minutes or so.) DD likes hers extra “saucy,” so remaining marinade can be zapped in the microwave to be served at the table.