Saturday, May 29, 2010

For A Good Time, Just Add Water.

I opened a bank account yesterday. Kinda.

It’s out in the middle of Lake Wylie. Sorta.

Yep. It’s one of those “liquid” bank accounts – a hole in the water into which you pour money without hopes of ever making a withdrawal. I bought a boat.

I’d been pondering it for some time now. There’s nothing like the freedom and fun you can have out on the water. I grew up on the water, on the beach, on the docks, in the creeks – boating, skiing, cruising, fishing. To me, it feels like an essential part of childhood, and at ages 15 and 13, Son and Darling Daughter won’t be “kids” much longer. As rising 8th and 10th graders, they won’t even be with me much longer. (Son’s clearly-stated college choice is “away.” Followed by, “Do they have colleges in Colorado?")

Plus, it’s that time of year when it seems as if every commencement speaker on the nightly news is urging new graduates to “pursue their dreams.” True, I haven’t matriculated in over 25 years. Still, my dream has always been to use “matriculate” in a sentence. And to have a boat. So now I have one.

This, despite the face that there are at least three good reasons I shouldn’t have done it. First, I didn’t “buy” a boat. I went into debt for one. Second, the boating season isn’t all that long. I know, because I tried to justify the expense by dividing it by the number of times we could get on the water each summer before Darling Daughter graduates from high school in 2015. That kind of math never adds up. And third, well, the truth is, I don’t know how to drive a boat.

As Son’s seventh grade teacher would say, it’s time for me to man up.

It's also time to get cooking, because I can’t think of boating without thinking of food.

When I was a kid, we’d eat a PBJ on the bike ride to the Yacht Club (which is not at all what you think it is), knock on the bar window, put a can of Coke on Daddy’s tab, and think we were gourmands.

That’s one dream that has changed. Nowadays, I think icy beers, hunks of juicy watermelon and French bread and cool, refreshing salads – something like this Shrimp and Cucumber Salad with Dilled Yogurt Dressing.

But first, can someone show me how to run this thing? And what happens if you push that red button?

Shrimp and Cucumber Salad
The salad is easy to assemble, but you have to begin a couple of hours in advance, to allow time for straining the yogurt.
8 ounces plain Greek yogurt, strained
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons fresh chopped dill

2-3 tablespoons fresh minced chives
pinch of ground cayenne pepper
generous grinding of fresh black pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 seedless cucumber, peeled, quartered lengthwise, sliced thickly
1 pound peeled, cooked shrimp, cut into bites and chilled
1 rib of celery, chopped fine and chilled
Leaves of Bibb or butter lettuce

To strain yogurt, line a sieve with a paper coffee filter. Spoon in yogurt and allow to stand for at least two hours, to drain off extra liquid. Remaining yogurt will be very thick and creamy. In large mixing bowl, stir yogurt, lemon juice, dill and peppers together and set aside. Put cucumber slices in sieve, sprinkle with kosher salt, and allow to drain about 30 minutes. (This keeps the salad from getting too watery.) Stir drained cucumber, shrimp and celery into yogurt dressing. Serve, chilled, over lettuce leaves.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Who's Afraid Of The Big, Bad 50?

I’m now 47 and a half. True, I’m still two and a half years away from 50, but I already know lots of people who actually are 50, and I’m not talking about my parents’ friends – I’m talking about mine.

Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t want to be a kid again. But I’m not entirely crazy about getting older. I’m pretty darn happy where I am. And when I think about getting older, I worry. And me worrying is never a good thing.

I don’t worry about absolutely everything, though. For example, I don’t worry too much about wrinkles, although honest to Pete, we live in the 21st century, right? Don’t you think by now some smart little scientist would’ve whipped up a skin-shrinking-serum to tighten us up sans surgery – and make himself a bajillion dollars?

And I don’t worry a whole lot about the sagging “girls,” although I could very well be elected president of the “support” lingerie fan club.

Gray hairs don’t get my panties in a wad, either. Have I not mentioned my fabulous hair stylist, Crystal?

What I should worry about is falling and breaking my hip, which is a distinct possibility given that my sole source of daily calcium is a Starbucks venti, nonfat, no-foam chai tea latte. But I’m not even worried about skin cancer, which defies all reason, given that I spent the better part of my youth dunked in Johnson and Johnson Baby Oil, sprawled on towel at Folly Beach in a two-piece.

What I do worry about – what really consumes me – is losing my memory as I get older. This is the one thing I worry about constantly. Or at least when I remember.

Every time I misplace my keys, or forget to return an e-mail, or leave my grocery list at home, I worry. Every time I can’t seem to find a word that was on the tip of my tongue, or I forget the way to someone’s house or one of the kids says, “Remember when I told you [BLAH, BLAH, BLAH] last week,“ I worry.

I even do those little brain exercises that are supposed to keep a person mentally sharp. Crossword puzzles. Sudoku. Brushing my hair and my teeth using my left hand instead of my right.

But then I forget. And I worry.

I recently found a fabulous and fabulously easy chicken recipe in a magazine. I was so taken with it, that I left the magazine open, on my bathroom counter, for weeks. I wanted to make sure I saved the recipe. It was in Food and Wine magazine. Or Oprah. Or maybe Real Simple.

Honest. I have no idea. I went looking for it a few days ago and couldn’t find it. I must’ve flipped through dozens of magazines. (Nope. It wasn’t in the April issue of Money, either.) Convinced I’d seen the recipe in Food and Wine, I checked their website. Dead end. I googled “food wine magazine chicken recipe.” Well, that was stupid. I did another search, adding the word “pancetta.” No good.

WTH? What ? The? H?

Finally, I just came up with my own recipe. I knew the original called for pancetta, but I was out. It called for sage, but that’s not a hit with the kids. But what I came up with instead was really, really tasty. And it’s only got three ingredients, which makes it really, really easy to remember.

No worries.

Bacon-Wrapped Chicken

Boneless skinless chicken breast halves (smaller sizes are best)
Four short slices of raw bacon per chicken breast
Fresh thyme
Kosher salt
Fresh ground pepper

On a 12-inch piece of plastic wrap, lay four strips of bacon, side by side, slightly overlapping to form a bacon “sheet.” Sprinkle generously with fresh thyme. Lay one boneless breast on bacon sheet, season well with salt and pepper. Now, tightly wrap and roll the chicken in the bacon, so bacon wraps snugly around the chicken. Wrap plastic wrap tightly around the chicken “sausage,” and place in fridge. Repeat with remaining chicken and bacon. Refrigerate chicken rolls several hours or overnight. Now, place chicken rolls in large, non-stick skillet, seam side down. Turn on heat to medium and slowly cook, turning until evenly browned on all side (20-30 minutes).

Remove chicken to a cutting board, and cut in thickish slices. Serve hot.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

One Mom's Superpowers.

At Darling Daughter’s middle school, the year-long academic theme for seventh graders is “heroes.”

The students study Greek and Roman mythology to learn about heroes of ancient times.  They read modern novels where everyday people emerge as heroes, albeit occasionally with some reluctance (both the students and the heroes).  In their advisory groups, the kids discuss what makes a hero – both in fiction and in real life.  As I understand it, common heroic qualities are courage, strength, ingenuity, daring and trustworthiness.  Superpowers, while less common, are a plus.

After eight months of having these valuable teachings seared into their brains, each student applies these lessons to identify a bona fide hero in his or her own life.  Now hold on just a minute.  If you're thinking DD named me as her hero, she did not.  I’m her mom – and occasionally, The Worst Mom Ever.  Instead, she named Cougar Bait – who is both fun and funny, not to mention strong, daring, trustworthy, and, to paraphrase DD, doesn’t get all upset when there's a problem.  He also has a boat.  Since I’ve found few occasions in life when I myself wouldn’t rather be on a boat, I have absolutely no qualms about DD’s choice.

Besides, I don’t need a 13-year-old to tell me I’m a hero.  Even without the cape and tights – or even sceptor and tiara -- I have no doubt but that I am SuperMom. 

Behold my superpowers:

•  I can shrink everyday objects.  Chez Wiles, I am the only one who, utililizing a secret series of intricate, origami-like folds, can reduce a full-sized, fitted sheet to dimensions suitable for stacking neatly in the linen closet.  (My mysterious abilities further allow me to both open and close the closet door.  My powers do not, however, allow me to reduce my own weight.  Or shoe size.)

•  I have Superman-like vision.  See that clump of cat hair?  See it?  See it?  See it?  No?  Of course not.  I, and only I, can spot the pale orange fur on the dark striped rug, pick it up and properly dispose of it.  All of that, without squinting, closing one eye, or using x-ray vision goggles.

•  I, alone, control the darkness and the light.  OK.  Not the "light" so much, but the "darkness"?  Absolutely.  This is due, in large part, to training my Dad gave me during the 1970s energy crisis, when he would ask, repeatedly and irritatedly, "Am I the only one around here who knows how to turn off a light?"  Why no, Dad, you are not.  You have shared that superpower with me.  And I am grateful.

•  I can make things disappear -- permanently.  Behold the cat vomit and dog poop on the upstairs landing.  Without uttering a single “abracadabra,” I make them vanish, and with a quick spritz of Febreze make it seem as if they never even existed.  Likewise, show me a dishwasher full of clean dishes.  Within moments, the dishwasher will be empty.  Spooky.

•  I am a master of transformation.   Without benefit of a telephone booth or even the aforementioned cape, I take limp, pink, somewhat slimy items (meat), combine them with impossibly crunchy and oversized items (vegetables), apply magic dust (i.e., kosher salt) and voilà – a meal.

This Stir-Fried Chicken – with only a handful of ingredients -- is yet another example of my extraordinary, nay, heroic,  powers.

Anyone see a cape around here somewhere?

Stir-Fried Chicken
This dish comes together very quickly.  I usually serve it with white rice (cooked with a ½ teaspoon of toasted sesame oil), which I prepare in advance and keep warm while preparing the chicken.

2-3 boneless chicken breasts, sliced in thin strips
3 tablespoon soy sauce (or more, to taste), divided
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon toasted (dark) sesame oil (optional)
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 12-ounce bag of pre-cut and washed stir-fry vegetable mix*
3 tablespoons water, plus additional ½ cup water
2 tablespoons cornstarch

Toss chicken with 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, garlic, sesame oil and red pepper flakes and set aside.  In large skillet (with a lid), heat oil over medium high heat.  When very hot, stir in vegetables.  When veggies become bright green, add 3 tablespoons of water, put lid in place, and continue cooking 2-3 minutes or until crisp-tender.  Remove vegetables from skillet and set aside.  Stir together ½ cup water, cornstarch and 1 tablespoon of soy sauce in a measuring cup and set aside.  Reheat skillet over medium high heat.  When very hot, stir in chicken mixture, stirring constantly until done.  Reduce heat to medium, stirring in vegetables, and then, cornstarch mixture.  Stir gently, but constantly, until sauce becomes clear.  Thin with additional water if necessary.  Serve hot over fresh cooked rice.

* I use Eat Smart Vegetable Stir-Fry Mix from my grocery store’s produce section, but you can easily create your own mixture – of broccoli, snow peas, carrots, red bell peppers, etc. --  from the fresh salad bar.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Another Mother Further. Part Two.

Mothers’ Day got off to a lovely start for me yesterday. Perfect weather, a few extra winks of sleep, thoughtful gifts, our favorite brunch, and inexplicably -- non-bickering kids. I don’t know whether Son and Darling Daughter were in cahoots on that last bit, but it’d be silly to ask, right?

Couldn’t last, of course.

As Son drove us to brunch, our Honda Pilot’s TPMS (Tire Pressure Monitoring System) indicated that the driver’s side rear tire was low. A fluke, right? It was, after all, Mothers’ Day. Just to be sure, I called Charleston to check with my advisor of all things manly -- Cougar Bait. Hmm. CB didn’t want to alarm me, but he noted that if I left the tire unattended, I might wake up to a car limping along on only three good tires the next morning. And then, just to be sure, he called Costco on my behalf, confirmed their operating hours, and told them I was on the way for repairs.

Sigh. I really didn’t have the time. Or the inclination. Weekends are special to me. Especially considering that the custody agreement specifies that Son and Darling Daughter are with their dad every other weekend. That means I only get those two full days of nagging -- uninterrupted by school attendance -- every two weeks. With exams only three weeks away, I had a good bit of nagging to do.

But then, unbidden, DD appeared in the kitchen, asking me to sign a math paper and before I could offer the considerable benefit of my wisdom, giving me her detailed plan to improve her grade.

Not one to be derailed, I went upstairs to explain to Son, in detail, exactly how (in my humble, yet expert, opinion) he ought to spend his afternoon. But it seems he had some kind of spooky, voodoo mindreader thing going, because when I poked my head in his room, he’d emptied out his closet and was making piles of clothes and books – to be donated, to be passed on, to be questioned.

Could Mothers’ Day have ameliorated the need for nagging?

I had no choice but to head to my CB-arranged appointment, where, as I cooled my heels in the aisles of Costco, I acquired a few intriguing facts:

1) You can make a tasty spread with smoked salmon, sour cream and cream cheese. To quote my enthusiastic and aproned friend, “That’s right! Just our special smoked salmon, sour cream and a bit of cream cheese!”

2) “On your way to the hospital [presumably due to choosing an inadequate ladder], you’ll be wishing you had a Little Giant MegaLite.” This is a direct quote.

3) Pub Mix is back! Inexplicably, my favorite snack mix is hit or miss at Costco. Today was a hit. Maybe Mothers’ Day luck? 

4) Edamame, of all things, is available for purchase in 24-ounce packages and can be microwaved.

5) And finally, “A tire can lose half its pressure before it appears to run low.” Sad, but true.

Two and half fact-filled hours later, I drove off with one new tire, arriving home just in time to allow Josie-The-Rescue-Dog -- who spends 23 ½ hours of every day outdoors -- indoors. So she could vomit five times. No kidding.

So much for Mothers’ Day luck.

No sense complaining, of course. I just needed to readjust and arrange to have pizza delivered.

To be truthful, I actually would’ve had time to make the Chicken Cavatappi I’d planned. It’s that simple. And in all likelihood, the kids would’ve enjoyed it more. But somehow, the home-delivered pizza made a much better story. And it reminded me how much more I like my own pizza sauce.

Happy Mothers’ Day.

Chicken And Cavatappi
This is another super simple – and absurdly flavorful -- recipe for my friend Megan, and inspired by CB's recipe for Pizza Chicken, which is the very same recipe, minus the pasta.
8-10 ounces cavatappi (or other hearty pasta) 

3 tablespoons olive oil
3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, each cut in 3-5 large chunks
2 cups marinara sauce (homemade or from a jar)
2 cups pre-grated mozzarella cheese

Preheat oven to 350. Prepare pasta according to package directions, cooking until al dente. While pasta boils, heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Season chicken chunks generously with salt and pepper, and then brown evenly in skillet. Spray an 8-inch or 9-inch pan with nonstick spray. Drain cooked pasta and pour into pan. Place browned chicken chunks on top of pasta. Pour sauce evenly over chicken and pasta. Spread grated cheese over all. Put dish in oven and bake 10-15 minutes until cheese melts, bubbles and begins to brown. Remove and serve hot.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Fifteen Mothers' Days Later, I'm Another Mother -- Further.

I was 32 when I became a mom.

I’d been married for nearly 10 years, but we’d chosen to wait to start a family.  Wait so we could finish school.  So we could be settled.  So we could be successful.  So we could travel.  So we’d be ready when the “perfect” time finally arrived.

As if there’d ever be such a thing.

We were lucky.  When we finally felt the time was “right,” we didn’t have to wait.   I was pregnant right away and nine months later, give birth to Son – who had one of the most gigantic heads you’ve ever seen on a mammal and yet, was still an ounce shy of nine pounds.  Seriously, we wondered whether that cranium would hinder Son's ability to walk upright.

I wasn’t home from the hospital more than 24 hours, before I knew that all that waiting and considering and planning did nothing to ease the transition to momdom.  Parenting was hard.  Hard?  Cripes.  Talk about an understatement.  As much as I loved, adored and doted on Son, as much as his needs and future needs consumed my every waking hour – and many of my sleeping hours, too – I felt like I’d never get it right.

I remember blubbering to Son’s dad, “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry.  I'M SORRY!  I know this was my idea, and I thought I was ready. But I never knew it would be so hard.”

Sure, I was sleep-deprived.  And clueless.  But damn.  That was hard?

I had no idea.

Soothing a bawling baby is one thing, but a tantrumming teenager?  Please.  And it may not be easy, but yes, I can scrounge up a decent meal while traveling with toddlers.  But I don’t know where to begin to comfort a heartbroken teen.  And I’m ill-prepared to exert my influence on people as articulate as Son and Darling Daughter have become.

I can only hope and pray that all the energy devoted to worrying about naptimes and pacifiers and potty-training, made me better equipped to address curfews and less-than-ideal-grades and hurt feelings and not making the team.  That somehow, when the skinny envelope arrives instead of the fat one, when “he/she” says “no” to the dance invitation, when everyone else’s mom says “yes,” but I stubbornly cling to “no,” that I’ll have some worthwhile guidance to provide.

Which is all to say that, 15 Mothers’ Days later, I still don’t know what I’m doing.  I’m not sure any Mom does.

The proof will be in the person.  Or, in my case, the people – the people Son and Darling Daughter become and the people whose lives they touch.

Until then, I keep trying and worrying and watching and guiding and planning.  And, of course, cooking.

Marinara/Pizza/Red Sauce
This marinara sauce is the perfect thing to cook when worrying and watching and planning.  I try to keep some in the freezer year ‘round, to serve with meatballs, to spread over pizza, to use in the ziti DD adores.  Even Son, who doesn’t usually care for red sauce will eat this one, because (thanks to an immersion blender), there are no telltale “chunks.”

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
20-24 baby carrots (or 2-3 large carrots), chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
3, 28-ounce cans crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon dried oregano leaves
1 tablespoon dried basil leaves
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon (or more, to taste) fresh ground pepper
1 cup dry red wine

In a large saucepan or Dutch oven with a lid, heat oil over medium high heat until rippling.  Stir in onion, sautéing until translucent.  Stir in celery and carrots.  Continue sautéing until vegetables are soft and slightly browned.  Stir in garlic and sauté another 2-3 minutes, or until fragrant.  Stir in remaining ingredients, bring to boil, and then, reduce to simmer.  Simmer, lidded, for 1 ½ - 2 hours, stirring occasionally.  When fully cooked, use an immersion blender (carefully) to smooth out the “chunks.”  (Optionally, give sauce a whirl – in batches – in a blender or food processor.)  Adjust seasoning and freeze in two cup containers.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Grass Is Greener – Everywhere But Here.

Another super simple recipe for my friend Megan -- one pot and seven ingredients -- if you include lemon juice and red pepper flakes.

Lionel, our now 14-pound indoor cat, got out again yesterday.

I retrieved him fairly quickly  this time – not because I’m particularly fleet of foot, but because I’m patient and he, well, he was distracted.  He started out well enough, zipping past the catnip flourishing by the door, but then, couldn't make it another five feet before being waylaid – by a leaf, a twig, a bug, the “outsideness” of it all. 

Poor kitty.  His furry fanny was tossed back inside before he set paw off the driveway.

I can’t help but laugh.  That cat spends most of his waking hours, which admittedly aren’t many, lurking by the back door, plotting his getaway.  But why?  Inside, he’s kitty king – with his choice of canned or dry food, a cat condo, and two litter boxes.  Not to mention access to every bed and sofa when we’re home, and every countertop and table when we’re not.

All that, and yet, he yearns to be outside.

Josie, the rescue dog, is of like mind – although she only has access to the beds and sofas when we’re not at home, and the counters and tables when she masters the art of canine levitation.

The grass is always greener, I suppose, somewhere else.

My eyes are blue.  If I believe what folks have told me, they are blue, blue, bluer than blue.   So why, when I was a kid, did I want brown eyes?  As well as braces?  And glasses?

Along these same lines, Son and Darling Daughter would always rather be at someone else’s house.  Sure, there are plenty of extenuating circumstances, what with the divorce and our lack of a hot tub, but I don’t take this personally.  There’s even a Facebook fan page titled, “I’d rather do nothing at your house than at mine.”  Already, 1.6 million fans have signed up.  And counting.

Lucky for me, the exception – for my kids and kids of all ages  – is Mom’s home-cooking.  Sure, there have been incidents where my kids have begged me to get recipes from other friends’ moms.  (Let it be noted, though that on two occasions, the recipe was “boxed Alfredo sauce” and “pre-made mac n’n cheese.")  Still, when it comes to certain dishes, no one does it like your own Mom.  Son and DD love my Sausage Pasta.  My Waffles of Insane Greatness are -- for my kids -- beyond compare.   And they wouldn’t know what do with Pork Fried Rice served in a restaurant.

My former mother-in-law, who was an enthusiastic and accomplished cook, used to tell her son, “You can't talk about my cooking with other women in your life.  Don’t talk about my macaroni and cheese.  Don’t talk about my cheesecake.  It’s just not fair or right.”

I agree.  No one does it like Mom.  Even now, I won’t put a fork to any egg that wasn’t fried by my Mom.  Green tomatoes fried anywhere other than "home" may as well have been left on the vine.  And although it may not be authentic, my Mom’s version of Veal Parmesan prevents me from ordering it in any restaurant.  Ever.

In a way, I suppose, we moms ruin our kids for anyone else.

Take this “Not Clams Linguini.”  Couldn’t be tastier.  Couldn’t be simpler.  And I’m guessing my kids believe it couldn’t be made any better than than it is at home.

The grass may be greener elsewhere, but home is home and dinner is dinner.  And no one wants lawn clippings for dinner.

Not Clams Linguini
Sadly, if you’re wearing braces, linguini – as well as spaghetti, angel hair pasta and vermicelli – can be a challenge to eat, so for now we’re using lots of other pasta shapes, including piccolini.  Wide egg noodles would also work well.

8 oz. piccolini (or slightly more)
4 slices of bacon, diced
2 cans, chopped clams
1 cup chicken broth
1 pinch red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
fresh ground pepper
½ cup (or more) chopped parsley

Cook pasta according to package directions in large pot of boiling, well-salted water.  Drain.  In same pot, cook diced bacon over medium high heat until very crispy.  Remove bacon bits and set aside.  In remaining bacon fat, stir in clams (including juice), broth and seasonings (except parsley).  Bring to a boil.  Stir in cooked pasta and parsley.  Sprinkle bacon bits on top.  Serve hot, making sure to include ample broth in each serving.