Saturday, December 31, 2011

Holiday News From The Wiles. Or, At Least, The Bits We Can Share.

Julia and Carter, Christmas 2011
Dear Friends and Family,

For most people, today would be seven days too late for a holiday letter. To that, I say, bah humbug. December 31 is actually the traditional seventh day of Christmas, landing it squarely mid-merriment and prime for festive greetings, right? Provided, of course, that I am also serving up seven swans-a-swimming and figgy pudding.

Truthfully, 2011 has been terrific. However, unlike in years past, I can’t tell you much about the kids because:
  1. Teenagers are keen on privacy, 
  2. I respect my teenagers’ privacy, 
  3. Teenagers’ actions aren’t always suitable for publication,
  4. Which is all to say that teenagers’ actions aren’t always suitable.
Still, we made it through 2011 without extended hospital stays or negative impact on “permanent records,” so I’m declaring the year to be success. As Carter says, “Mom, I may not be smart yet, but my stupidity is on the decline.” OK. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but OK.

Carter is in his junior year of high school, so allow me to speak on his behalf: He doesn’t know where he wants to go to college; he doesn’t know what he wants to major in, he doesn’t know his class rank, he isn’t sure of his GPA, and he doesn’t know where he’ll apply. But go ahead and ask him yourself. Every English-speaking friend, family member, casual acquaintance and complete stranger in the tri-state area does. And Carter loves it. Absolutely adores it.

In fairness, he has identified a few criteria. He likes schools with large football programs. He doesn’t like coats, hats, gloves and scarves. He likes schools with a high proportion of females to males. He doesn’t like studying. But mostly, he really, really, really wants to go to college. Otherwise, what would he do? Work? He did that this summer – as a country club lifeguard – and it was really hard. Like, they wouldn’t even let you text while five-year-olds were jumping off the diving board. Isn’t slavery supposed to be illegal in the United States?

Julia is in her freshman year of high school and can now fit in nearly all my clothes and shoes. But “gross.” Except for my boots, heels, and sweaters. On occasion, my jewelry’s not altogether hideous, either. But even so. Eww.

Seriously, Julia is a diligent student, maintaining an absolute focus on the two topics most critical to freshman success – getting her driver’s permit and finding a dress for the next dance. And shoes. Really fabulous shoes. That no one else has. They don’t have to fit. They just have to look good. Tossed in a corner of the floor. Because no one actually dances in shoes. How could you not know that?

I guess I ended up with the biggest news of the year. Cougar Bait (David Bonner) took full leave of his senses, giving me a surprise birthday party and then, proposing. Marriage. Silly him. According to all accounts, I didn’t draw a full breath before snatching the ring, slipping it on, and asking, repeatedly, “Did I say ‘yes’?” Whatever. The ring is mine. And so is he.

Plainly, 2011 has been a year of blessings for us, and we hope the same has been true for you!

Much love and happy holidays,


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Braces? Or A "Wait" Problem?

11:45 a.m. -- Darling Daughter just walked back for her appointment with the orthodontist. An innocent bystander might think she was being escorted to the gas chamber. But in fact, she’s supposed to have her braces removed today.

11:46 a.m. -- Everything hinges on “supposed to.” DD hasn’t told her friends. She hasn’t told Cougar Bait. She hasn’t told her brother or her dad. Partially because she wants to surprise them. And partially because, well, she’s my girl, which means she won’t be convinced that those braces are coming off until they’re rattling around at the bottom the orthodontist’s bright orange trashcan of hazardous bio-waste.

11:50 a.m. -- So for now, I sit here, heart pounding, hands clammy, trying to concoct a reason to peek into that back office and find out what’s going on. Or perhaps, stride back there and demand, as a parent, to know what’s going on.

11:57 a.m. -- It’s been 12 minutes, which is 12 minutes too long. Or, which means, that in addition to needing to drop five pounds, I have a wait problem.

High noon -- W. T. Aitch?  I could’ve taken those braces off of DD and three other needy teens by now. Probably should have. What?  You don't think I could do it?  Really?  Is my degree in communications worth absolutely nothing?

High noon-oh-three -- What if the reason I haven’t yet seen DD is because they’ve told her the braces need to stay on another two years? Or so? What if she’s sobbing, wretched, inconsolable? What if she is so distraught that she’s disoriented and can find her way back to me?

12:05 p.m. -- This is ridiculous. Really. How did I end up with a kid old enough to have braces – much less old enough to have them removed? Wasn’t it only yesterday that she didn’t even have any teeth at all?. Sigh.

12:11 p.m. --  What are they doing back there? They must be fitting her for headgear. In which case, they may as well go ahead and fit me for a strait jacket.

12:23 p.m. --  Whoa. What’s that?  "Show me.  Show me!  SHOW ME!"

And then, because she’s my girl, she shows me this.

And later, this.


Monday, September 26, 2011

We're On A Boat. And We're Engaged.

When I was a kid, I wanted – desperately – to be surprised.  I craved a surprise party (complete with party horns, streamers and a tiara).  A surprise vacation (to France, first class, please).  A surprise kitten (blue-eyed with long gray fur).  A surprise concert where the leader singer pulled me up on stage to dance.  (I love you, Philip Bailey!)

But I’m no kid.  I’m 49.  The only surprises I expect nowadays are bad ones.  So imagine my astonishment when, last week, I celebrated my birthday with a surprise party (on a 90-foot party boat filled my nearest and dearest family and friends) and a surprise marriage proposal (from my nearest and dearest “Cougar Bait,” a.k.a. David R. Bonner.)

Hoo boy.  I could go on and on about what a totally unexpected and fun evening it was.  In fact, “going on and on” is kind of what I’ve specialized in these past few days.  And I could go further on and on about what a darling, conniving, dead-sexy secret-keeper CB is.  In fact, anyone who knows CB can tell you that he’s the first to describe himself as “dead sexy.”

But one week after the fact – and the surprise and the engagement (well, of course I said “yes”!) – the “stun” is now a manageable “glow.”  Looking back, I can admit that I even learned a few things that evening, including:

  1.  Everything is better on a boat.
  2. There’s an entire untapped demographic audience for Depends.  (Let’s just say that surprises can really, well, take a girl by surprise.)
  3. Not many 49-year-olds can say they are engaged.
  4. Not many 49-year-olds have friends who are engaged.
  5. Whether you have been engaged for two seconds or two years, someone – no, make that everyone – is going to ask, “When are you getting married?”
  6. I don’t know when we are getting married.
  7. My friends don’t eat enough.
  8. 15 pounds of barbecue – plus turkey breast and beef tenderloin and birthday cake and heaven-knows-what-else -- goes a long way.  (All the way, in fact, back home to my refrigerator.)
  9. My kids’ ability to keep secrets is somewhat frightening.
  10. Everything I know about love, I’ve learned from a man I met in kindergarten.
I am one lucky girl.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Thanks, Harry Potter. It Was Magic.

It’s 5:30 a.m. and Carter and Darling Daughter just went to bed. Five-thirty in the morning, and we just returned from the movies – an experience easily summed up with a single word – magical.

I’m referring only in part to the movie Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two (or, in devotee shorthand, HP7.2) – the final installment based on JK Rowling’s books set in a world of wizardry and magic. HP7.2 was, far and away, the best in the series, by turns demoralizing and compelling, poignant and playful, thunderous and hushed, terrifying and ultimately, uplifting.

More magical for me, though, was that Carter and DD were willing to tug their sleep-deprived, teenaged selves from bed at 2:15 a.m. so we could make the show. I tried not to make a big deal about it, but I was thrilled – or more apropos of the occasion, charmed, or perhaps, enchanted – that they’d deign to go with me and be among the first audiences in America to say goodbye to magic and Muggles, quills and Quidditch, witches and wands, and horcruxes and hallows.

As the final credits rolled, I was unexpectedly overcome with emotion – not because of the ending (which is faithful to the book – full of promise and hope), but because it struck me that I was marking another “last.”

I’ve made mental notes of “last” times for some 17 years now -- ever since I became pregnant with Carter. Over the years, I sadly noted the "last" time I'd experience the delight of an unborn child hiccuping inside my belly. The last time I’d ever nurse a baby. The last time one of them would be small enough to heft on my hip. The last time I'd be able to get them into coordinating Christmas outfits.  The last time I’d be acknowledged as the family computer expert. The last time I’d reach down – rather than up – to administer a hug.

Over the years, we read the Harry Potter books together, questioning our own “muggle-ness” and magical powers.  We were so smitten with the world set in Hogwarts that Carter once directed a barber to cut his hair "like Harry Potter."  And of course, we’d watched all the movies. In fact, in preparation for HP7.2, we’d “re-watched” all of them. 

HP7.2 was the last one. Another “last.” Another reminder that – at ages 16 and 14 -- my “kids” won’t be “kids” much longer.

Driving home from the movie, the adrenaline rush that had been sustaining us collapsed. The kids were subdued. Drained. Exhausted. As I tried to initiate some post-movie chatter, Carter said, “It was great and I’m glad we went, but Mom, it’s 5:30 in the morning. Can you stop talking?”

Once home, the kids crawled back into bed for a few more winks before Carter heads to his summer lifeguard job, and DD meets up with friends at the mall.

I headed to Starbucks. As I waited for my latté, the barrista listened to my story about getting the kids up for the movie. And then, she said the best possible thing, “Wow. They’ll remember that forever.”

Hmm. Not so sure about that. But I'm pretty sure I will. It was the last one. And it was magical.

Double-Chocolatey Rice Krispy Treats

The best recipes have a magical life of their own.  I adapted this one from my friend Janet in Charleston, who got it from her sister-in-law, Lisa, who got it from her mom, Sandra.  (Aren't moms always the source of great recipes?)  Although these unusual rice krispy treats don't include any marshmallows, they are plenty sweet.  Plenty easy.  And sure to, ahem, "disappear."  

4 cups crispy rice cereal
1, 12-ounce package white chocolate chips
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
1, 12-ounce package milk chocolate chips
1/2 cup chopped roasted peanuts (optional)

Lightly spray a 9 x 13 glass pan with baking spray.  Set aside.  In a large glass bowl, microwave white chocolate chips for 30 seconds.  Stir, and continue microwaving and stirring, in 20-second bursts, until well melted.  Stir in peanut butter until thoroughly combined.  Gently fold in cereal.  Spread mixture evenly in prepared dish and allow to set -- about 3-4 hours.  When treats firm up, melt milk chocolate chips in a small glass bowl or measuring cup, using the same microwaving technique described above.  When well melted, spread over treats.  Sprinkle with peanuts, if using.  Allow to set another 3-4 hours.  Cut into small squares and serve.

Friday, June 24, 2011

“Close The Door.” Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

“Close the door.”

I’ve been a mom for some 16 years now, which means, without exaggeration, I’ve uttered those three little words some 5,840 times.* In fairness, like most newborns, my firstborn couldn't actually close a door -- much less tee-tee in the potty -- for his first 18 months, but when you consider all the variations of "close the door"  -- “Why's the car door still open?” “Stop standing in front of the open refrigerator,” “Am I the only one who knows how to close the pantry door?” and “I’m not paying to air-condition the backyard,”** -- I’m pretty sure 5,840 represents only a sliver of the actual figure.

Sigh.  Those were the days.  As a parent of two teenagers, I’ve gone from “Close the door,” to “Open the door,” to “What are you doing in there?” to “Well, if you're not wrapping a present for me, then open the door,” and ultimately to, “Open the door.  Dammit.”

course I don’t really say that last bit. Not out loud. I hope.

Still, I don't understand how this happened.  I'm struggling.  "
Close the door" was my mantra.  "Open the door" doesn't roll off the tongue nearly so eloquently.  Besides, what is this need for privacy? What’s the secret? What are they doing in their bedrooms?  Believe you me, my kids are not wrapping gifts.  Presents to me are far and few between.  Besides, between the two of them, I believe only one knows where to find the scissors and scotchtape.

It's comforting, then, to know that after all my rapping and tapping, and pounding and nagging, I still have a predictable way to pry those doors open -- if only temporarily.  I pour myself a glass of wine, and send the following text message, "Dinner's ready."

Hear those sounds?  Those are doors.  Opening.

*  Once a day, 16 times 365 days a year.
**  An homage to my dad.  Re-worded to omit profanity.

Lemon Spaghetti (Spaghetti Al Limone) with Pan Seared Shrimp
After pork, pasta is my kids' favorite food group. The shrimp is optional.

1 pound spaghetti
1 palmful of salt, plus additional for seasoning
1/4 cup olive oil
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined (optional)
2 cloves garlic, minced
One pinch of red pepper flakes
2 lemons, zested and juiced
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup minced parsley
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil with the palmful of salt.  Stir in spaghetti and cook just until done.  

As pasta cooks, in a large non-stick skillet, heat oil over high heat, tossing in shrimp, seasoning well with salt and pepper, and cooking until barely done -- about 3 minutes per side.  Remove cooked shrimp and set aside, reduce heat to low, and stir in garlic, red pepper flakes and lemon zest.  Saute until garlic is very fragrant and very lightly browned.  Before draining cooked pasta, stir two ladlefuls of pasta water into skillet with fragrant oil.  Drain pasta.  Stir cream, lemon juice and parsley into garlicky oil sauce in skillet.  Cook down -- about a minute or two.  Quickly stir in cooked pasta and herbs.  Season with salt and pepper as needed.  Toss with cheese, and serve hot!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Ten Things Learned During Exam Prep

Exam prep continues apace Chez Wiles. As you might imagine, in such a serious and focused and studious atmosphere, Carter and Darling Daughter are learning by leaps and bounds.
Even I have learned a thing or two these past few days, including:

  1. Lionel, the 12-pound indoor cat does not choose to be worn as a hat
  2. The refrigerator contains the very same items it did 15 minutes ago. 
  3. Ditto the pantry. 
  4. The Rapture may not have occurred last weekend, but in one mom's humble -- no make that, "absolutely accurate" --  opinion, Facebook forebodes the end of all learning, focus and individual advancement. 
  5. Nobody else’s mom is as mean as I am. 
  6. French is easy. French exams? Not so much. 
  7. Josie-the-Rescue-Dog will eat green beans. And broccoli. And asparagus. And people of all ages will laugh.
  8. Cleanliness may, indeed, be next to godliness. But it’s not next to my kids. Or their rooms.  Not this week. 
  9. Oreo milkshakes are magic – which, sadly, does not translate to higher grades. 
  10. Everybody has a system for studying. For some people (to whom I gave birth), “system” translates into “a lack thereof.” I’m just sayin’. 
In all honesty, I shouldn't poke fun. No amount of studying would help me successfully pass Darling Daughter’s eighth grade exams – much less Carter’s tenth grade ones. And so, I cook. Tonight we had Grilled Ginger Lime Chicken – a new favorite, and super easy.

Grilled Ginger Lime Chicken
Try serving this with savory Cinnamon Lime Rice.

Juice of two (juicy) limes
¼ cup canola oil
2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
1 pinch cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon kosher salt

6-8 boneless chicken thighs or breasts 

Combine all ingredients in a plastic bag and allow to marinate 30-60 minutes in the refrigerator.  Remove chicken from bag (discarding marinade) and grill, over indirect heat, just until done.  Do not overcook.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Power Of Studying, And Well, Power.

Yesterday morning, I sectioned three grapefruits, sliced two Fuji apples, diced a couple of pineapples, and snipped two pounds of grapes into single serving size clusters.

I stocked the pantry with Triscuits and Cheez-Its and Oreos and pretzels and vanilla frosting.  The fridge is chockfull of pickles and yogurt and baby carrots and Gatorade, but nary a caffeinated soft drink.  I’ve learned that lesson the hard way.

Yep.  It’s exam time Chez Wiles, and this ain’t my first rodeo.  The drama, the distraction, the disruptions and occasionally, the diligence, it’s all coming back to me.  My role remains unchanged:  I grease the rails -- fending off Facebook, disregarding unmade beds and feeding souls and stomachs alike – serving up snacks throughout the day, picking up dirty dishes and glasses, giving Carter and Darling Daughter absolutely, positively no reason not to hit the books.

Turns out, though, I should’ve added one more thing to my exam prep to-do list – keeping the power on.  Oopsy daisy.

That’s right.  Last night, the lights went out in Charlotte.  Or, at least, Chez Wiles.  Or, at least, some of them.

What.  The.  Aitch.  Power to the computer, our internet router, the TV, the oven and dishwasher, the washer and dryer, and the kids’ bedrooms – all gone.  Panicked, I checked the breaker boxes, and called Cougar Bait, my dad, my neighbor, and eventually, a 24-hour electrician, who gave me an estimate for over $3,000 in repairs – which would take three days to complete.  Then, he turned off the air conditioning in the house, which wasn’t safe to run, charged me $300 for the estimate itself, and told me to call him the next day with my decision.

OK.  First of all, $3,000?  That’s not the kind of cha-ching found in my sofa cushions.  And second, did I not mention that it is exam time Chez Wiles – and we now have no air conditioning, no major appliances, no internet, and no lights in half the house?

To his credit, Carter continued studying – lighting enough candles to set the stage for a cheesy romantic comedy.  I half expected Monica and Chandler (Friends) to walk in.  Not to my credit, and lacking sangria, I poured an extra large glass of sauvignon blanc, called Cougar Bait ... and cried.

As Cougar Bait predicted, things looked better in the morning -- although I wasn't one of those things.  Tear-streaked cheeks, swollen eyes and mascara-stained jowls do me no favors.  Nevertheless, I packed up my MacBook, headed to Starbucks for a no-foam, Skinny Vanilla and to take advantage of free internet.  Within a few clicks, I found not one, but two emergency electricians to come by and give me another quote.  (Big shout-out to White Electric and Hill Electric here in Charlotte!)

Both agreed on the repairs needed.  And both agreed that repairs wouldn't require days and thousands of dollars, but instead, hours and hundreds of dollars.  Not that I have a few hundred dollars laying around, but yes, I can manage.

So now, with air conditioning and internet and a functioning dishwasher, I can get back to the important things in life – like this terrific Strawberry Spinach Salad with Orange Dressing – which the kids won’t touch, but at this point, with fruit and crackers and Gatorade and air conditioning, I've done my job.  Studying is up to them.

Strawberry Spinach Salad

One, six-ounce bag raw baby spinach
1 quart strawberries, washed and sliced
1 four-ounce log black pepper goat cheese, crumbled
¼ cup sliced almonds

3 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1 tablespoons raspberry vinegar
1 tablespoon orange marmalade
½ teaspoon kosher salt
freshly ground pepper – a lot

Whisk dressing ingredients together in a small mixing bowl.  In a large salad bowl, toss with chilled salad ingredients and serve.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

It Is -- Shudder -- Time To Tug One On.

I have met the enemy, and the enemy is me – or really, my body, stuffed into and sadly overflowing a seasonal Lycra tourniquet.

Yes, bathing suit season is upon us.  Nine months of the year, I alternate between camouflaging, concealing, and then, refusing to even acknowledge my 48-year-old form in the bathroom mirror, much less behold it in the blinding light of a summer day.

But as May approaches, the rising mercury and my own unpredictable internal thermostat force me to peel back the layers.  I’m obligated to behold – and then, lift and separate and compress and flatten.  Still, I’m reminded of a tube of Crest.  Those parts of me that have worked their way out and spilled over the top of my jeans and back of my bra, can’t possibly be stuffed back in.  And smoothing out that aging, sun-damaged skin?  Better to try and return a wadded up ball of tissue paper to its original sleekness.  No iron in the world could make things right.

I’m not the only one cringing.  According to a recent survey in The Daily Mail, we women would rather that women of a certain age keep it covered up.  Indeed, my own Darling Daughter agrees.  Here are a few of the survey results, plus DD’s 14-year-old perspective.

The Age Women Believe You Should Stop Wearing …
  • A bikini?  47.  According to DD, however, the two-piece should be tossed once a woman graduates from college.
  • A mini-skirt?  35.  Or, in DD’s opinion, if you’ve graduated from anything, the mini-skirt is out.
  • Stilettos?  Age 51.  If I recall, DD’s exact words were, “Mom, take those off.  Now.”
  • A see-through chiffon blouse?  Age 40.  DD’s comment?  “That’s not really a question, is it?”
  • Swimsuit?  Age 61.  But as DD sees it, at age 48, I’m long past my swimsuit years and should stick to wearing shorts.  But not too short.
  • Leggings?  Age 45.  Or, to quote DD, “That’s stupid.  No grown woman should ever wear them.”  Sigh.  Even under a really, really, cute dress.  That I love.  Even when the leggings look like tights.  No fair.
  • Leather trousers?  Age 45.  Or, finally, a reprieve from DD, “Um.  300?”

Whatever.  Call me old-fashioned, but I’m appalled by “see-through blouses” at any age.  However, I’ll be tugging on a bathing suit – and complaining about it – for the rest of my life.  Sometimes you’ve got to go against the flow.  Like in this unexpected flavorful, savory rice dish.  Rice?  With lime?  And cinnamon?  You’ve got to, got to, got to try this.  Even DD agrees.  (But only a small serving for me.  Did I not mention that it’s bathing suit season?)

Cinnamon Lime Rice
1, 14-ounce can chicken broth + ¼ cup water
1 cup raw rice
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon olive oil
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 pinch cayenne pepper
zest of one lime

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan.  Bring to a boil over high heat, stir once and reduce heat to low.  Put lid in place, and cook for 13 minutes.  Remove lid, fluff gently with a fork and serve.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Naming Kids. And Boats. And Strippers.

Nearly 17 years ago, as soon-to-be-parents, and before settling on "Carter," we considered a number of names for our son, including Cooper, Conner and Fisher.  (OK.  That last one was just me.)  Two years later, for Darling Daughter, we considered Cecelia, Eliza, Lila and Larissa.  (Again, that last one was all me.)

To make the cut, a name had to meet certain criteria.  Given our single-syllable last name, the first name had to be polysyllabic.  I wasn’t looking to raise a Jane Doe or Don Ho.  Furthermore, the name had to be easily spelled.  Think about it.  I’m “Cheri.”  With a “C.”  No, a “C.”  One “r.”  No “y.”  “I,” not “i-e.”  “S-H-E-R-R-I-E”?  Whatever.  Close enough.

So far as I can tell, though, when it comes to naming a boat, no rules apply.  According to, the top 10 most popular boat names in the United States are:

1. Serenity
2. Happy Ours
3. Feelin' Nauti
4. Family Time
5. Liberty
6. Black Pearl
7. Andiamo
8. Knot On Call
9. High Maintenance
10. Just Chillin'

For my own boat, which is now a year old, friends have also suggested, “Cheri’s Jubilee,” “MeanWhiles,” “Worth Wiles,” “Always Write,” “Cougar Bait,” and, more than once, “Wiles Ride.”

What to do?  Well, when I first began writing Feminine Wiles, it was to let friends and family know that I was all right.  When it comes to schoolwork, I always tell the kids that, if they are able to write, their grades in every class – with the possible exception of math – will go up.  And when I landed a job – after spending a decade as a stay-at-home mom – it was as a copywriter

Yep.  “All Write” it is.

But then, as I was in the midst of writing this post, I heard from Super Sis .  She’s an elementary school principal, and her work ethics and behavior are beyond compare.  So imagine my surprise when she texted the following message:

“This morning, a parent shared with me that, if she were a stripper, her name would be Tess Tickles.”

Tess Tickles?  Tess Tickles?  TESS TICKLES?

Nah.  Just kidding.  I'm still "All Write"!

Shrimp Tacos with Apple Slaw
This recipe has absolutely no bearing on kid names, boat names or stripper names.  It's just really, really good.  Really, really unexpected.   And really, really, easy.  Or should I say, it's "all right"?

1 large granny smith apple, cored and cut in quarters, and then, cut in matchsticks
2 cups of shredded Napa cabbage
1/4 cup canola oil
Juice of one lime (1-2 tablespoons)
1 pinch cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

In a medium sized mixing bowl, toss together apple and cabbage.  Whisk together remaining ingredients and toss with apple and cabbage.  Keeps, refrigerated, at least one day.

Shrimp Tacos
1 1/2 pounds raw shrimp, peeled, deveined and cut into bite-size pieces
1/4 cup canola oil
Juice of two limes (2-3 tablespoons)
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon chili powder

flour tortillas
bottled salsa verde

Stir all ingredients (except tortillas and salsa) together, combining well.  Heat a large skillet over high heat.  In batches, stir fry shrimp just until done -- 4-5 minutes.  Serve hot, in tortillas warmed one-by-one in the microwave --about 15 seconds each.  Drizzle salsa verde over top  and serve with Apple Slaw.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"How Do You Learn To Cook?"

To be honest, I don't like being asked questions.  I don't like being cornered.  I don't like thinking I may not have the "right" answer.  All that said, there is still one question I could answer over and over again:  "How do you learn to cook?"

The question was posed by Darling Daughter -- twice -- this week.

Fair enough.  I'm always sad to realize how many people -- kids and adults alike -- never realize the satisfaction of preparing a meal for a loved one, of peering in the fridge and coming up with a dish on the fly, or ultimately, having someone ask, "Can I have the recipe?"

C'mon.  Cooking's not hard.  I'll grant though, that it can be intimidating.  And for some folks, that's a game-ender.  There's an absolute learning curve, and I'm the first to admit that there will always be, um, "mistakes."  So why risk the inevitably salty soups and slightly charred chocolate chip cookies, much less the bizarrely-seasoned steaks?  (Word to the wise:  Filet mignon + nutmeg = Domino's extra large double pepperoni.)  After all, Harris Teeter is chockful of frozen meals requiring little more than a microwave and a fork.

I'll tell you why.  Because cooking lets you nourish the body, the soul and the ego.

I've written about the first meal I ever cooked -- which resulted, but didn't end, in tears and sobs.  Even then, though, I did what nearly every cook has to do.  I based the meal on what we had on hand.

I still believe that's the key.  You look at what you have, and you see the opportunity.

A few weeks back, Cougar Bait, my 200-mile-away-lifeline, who, although wise and strong and fun beyond reason*, is not yet a Top Chef, called me up.  "I bought a package of pork chops," he said,  "Now what?"

"Now what," indeed.  Before I even blinked, I was thinking sage and proscuitto and apples.  Potatoes and gruyere and thyme.  Rosemary and parsley and garlic.  But that's not Cougar Bait's pantry.  In fact, neither is he likely stocked with the precise measuring spoons and razor-sharp Wusthoff knives and Emile Henry baking dishes that line my shelves.  But are those necessary?

Absolutely not.

So together, on the phone, we came up with a quick dish, based on what he had on hand.  Later that evening, he reported the rave reviews to me as if I had been the chef.

But it wasn't me.  And it wasn't hard.  And next week, 14-year-old Darling Daughter will give the same recipe a shot.  Because that is exactly "how you learn to cook."

No question.

*Cougar Bait would also like me to mention that he's "drop dead sexy."  But that seems to be revealing too much.

Brined & Barbecued Chops
Although it sounds "fancy," brining is a simple technique that adds loads of flavor and juiciness.  Other recipes make it sound ridiculously difficult and time-consuming, but it doesn't have to be.  Just get started 2 to 6 hours in advance.

2 cups hot tap water
2 tablespoons (one palmful) salt
2 tablespoons (one palmful) sugar
4 tablespoons (one healthy pour) plain white or cider vinegar
1 big pinch red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf (or not)
4-6 boneless pork chops
bottled barbecue sauce

In a large bowl, combine all ingredients, except pork chops and barbecue sauce.  Stir until sugar and salt are dissolved.  Now, stir in another two cups of cold water. Drop in pork chops and allow to brine, refrigerated, for two to six hours.   Remove from brine and pat dry.  Grill over indirect heat, 5-6 minutes per side.  Baste liberally with barbecue sauce and continue grilling just until done -- an additional 3-4 minutes per side.  Do not overcook.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Mother's Day Story

Dear Mom ,

It was me.

I can’t -- and my somewhat protective, surely selective memory won’t -- recall the exact circumstances, but do you remember that sophisticated crystal vase from the Daffodil Shop? The one that was so elegantly angled and curved that you received as a Christmas gift when I was about 11?

It was marked with the distinctive “Daffodil Shop” sticker and a lush, richly relaxed yellow satin ribbon. Inside, the vase itself was nestled in an extravaganza of tissue paper – sheets and sheets more than a frugal family like ours would ever tuck in a box of common socks or shirts. After opening, you left it on display under the tree, in its whiter-than-white gift box with the sticker tucked inside, as a reminder of the “special” origins of the gift.

To this day. I don’t exactly remember what happened next, but I suppose we kids were messing around – or, truth to tell, tormenting each other. One thing lead, as it always does, to another. And yikes.  Next thing I knew, I was scavenging through the “junk” drawer, desperately seeking the SuperGlue, so I could reattach the base.

But to you, I never said a word.

Inexplicably, except for a brief interrogation of all three of us kids, you didn’t either, although I suspect you knew all along.

I’m sorry.

A few years later, when I was old enough to drive, I stopped by the Daffodil Shop, naively hoping to find – and afford – a replacement. Silly me.

For these last 16 years, I’ve been a mom, too. And I’ve been fortunate enough to learn “how” to be a mom from a host of role models. From friends who brim over with wisdom. From kindergarten teachers with 10 times my experience and expertise. From neighbors who never knew I was observing (and learning). From unrealistic and optimistic TV shows. From my sister who is both an educator and a mom. And, of course, from my own mom – who, on occasion, but not very many, let me “slide” – and, as a result, learn an unforgettable life lesson.

Thanks, Mom. I love you.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Freedom, Responsibility and Filling 'Er Up

The day before yesterday, I watched as a stranger drove away in my car. Had it been necessary, I’d have had no problem picking him out of a line-up; he was an exceptionally fit young man, tanned, blue eyes, sporting his brown hair in what appeared to be a fresh buzz cut.

It was Carter, of course, my 16-year-old son. And I’d even helped wield the razor on that buzz cut. Still, the sight rocked me back on my sensible mom heels. I blinked – more than once – as if I could “refresh” my vision the same way you “refresh” a website – but nope, there he was, backing cautiously out of the driveway before driving himself to school.

What a week.

In the space of a few days, Carter earned his driver’s license, interviewed for and was offered a summer job (lifeguard), and shaved his distinctive shaggy brown hair into a high and tight buzz. The transformation couldn’t have been more remarkable than if he’d morphed from a black-and-yellow-striped caterpillar into a Monarch butterfly.

In more ways than one, though, I guess he did get his wings – lots of freedom wrapped up in lots and lots of responsibility.

He’s not the only one. I got more freedom wrapped up in even more responsibility, too. On the one hand, having another driver in the household slashes my chauffeuring duties in half. On the other, I can hardly form a complete thought when I know he’s on the road. And I pity the innocent soul who calls when I know Carter is en route. Before I can eek out a frantic “hello,” I’ve already imagined countless “what if” scenarios – none of which bear repeating here.

I’m proud and terrified. Excited and devastated. Thrilled and saddened.

I love my boy. And I need him to know that he still needs me. But then, unexpectedly, I get a text message, “What side of the car is my gas tank on again?”

Sigh. Not exactly what I was looking for, but yep -- he still needs me.

Salmon With Curried Cauliflower Couscous

When Carter was little, his most-requested birthday meal was grilled salmon, sliced cucumbers and steamed broccoli.  This meal is somewhat more sophisticated -- appropriate, perhaps for someone earning his first paycheck.

Grilled Salmon
salmon filets
rice wine vinegar
hoisin sauce
kosher salt
fresh ground pepper

Sprinkle fish liberally with rice wine vinegar (or, in a pinch, squeeze fresh lemon wedges over).  Baste with hoisin sauce, and season well with salt and pepper.  Grill skin side down, over indirect heat, about 10 minutes, or just until done.  Try not to overcook.

Curried Cauliflower Couscous
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cup uncooked Israeli couscous
1 (14 ounce) can chicken or vegetable broth
2 cups raw cauliflower, broken into small bitesize pieces
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 pinch red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

In a lidded saucepan, heat oil over medium high heat.  Stir in raw couscous and sauté 3-4 minutes.  Stir in broth, cauliflower, curry, salt and red pepper flakes.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and cook 6-7 minutes.  Stir, remove from heat, and allow to stand an additional five minutes (or until all liquid is absorbed) before serving with salmon.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mom vs. Chick Fil A. And The Winner Is ...

I may be a 48-year-old single mom, but you may call me The Conqueror, for I have vanquished Chick Fil A.

OK. “Vanquish” may be a tad aggressive, but you be the judge.

Sixteen-year-old Son called (by which, of course, I mean “texted”) me after track practice. He was riding home with a friend and wanted to know if he could stop for his usual “number five combo, large, 12-count with Dr. Pepper.” And no, I’m not embarrassed to know his order by heart. I’m only embarrassed to admit it.

So could he stop for dinner? “
Well sure,” I tapped back, “as long as you use your own money.”

A few minutes passed  – almost surely because I rank rock-bottom in the texting cue – before I heard back from him, “
np” (no problem).

Doggedly, I clicked on, “
The thing is, I’ve already made dinner.”

Another few minutes passed, reminding me of my low texting rank, before he asked, “
What did you make?

This was like shooting fish in a toilet bowl -- ridiculously easy, although not always advisable. On this night, though, I knew I had a winner. Just for effect, I paused before typing back, “
Not So Dirty Rice.

His response was instant, “
Oh. haha nevermind i’ll just grab a milkshake and eat with you.”

Game, set and match. Cheri: 1, Chick Fil A: 0 – provided you don’t count the previous 1,314 encounters.

Still, on this night, I emerge victorious.

Pardon me while I bask.

I’ve already posted the recipe for Not So Dirty Rice, but this Simple Red Rice With Shrimp – without any suspicious tomato bits – is another surefire winner Chez Wiles. 

Simple Red Rice With Shrimp 

1 onion, chopped

1 rib celery, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup raw rice
1 14-oz can chicken broth
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1 8-oz can tomato sauce
1/4 water
1 lb. raw shrimp, shelled

In a large skillet with fitted lid, sauté onion and celery over medium heat until onion is translucent.  Stir in rice, broth, salt and Tabasco.  Reduce heat to low.  Put lid in place and gently cook for 10 minutes.  Remove from heat and gently stir in tomato sauce, water and shrimp.  Replace lid and cook an additional 10 minutes until rice is done and liquid absorbed.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Divorce Etiquette For Every Day Use.

On the bookshelf in the house where I grew up, there was, snugly tucked between Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, and Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid To Ask), a copy of Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette.

Go ahead and laugh, but as a teenager, I all but memorized Miss Vanderbilt’s 700-page opus. I mastered the proper placement of seafood forks and marrow spoons. I understood that a "real" lady would never deign to use stationery pre-printed with the words “thank” or “you.” I was primed to meet both elected officials and foreign royalty. And should I ever be invited to travel abroad with the family of a boarding school pal, I was poised to prepare, or at least host at a fine restaurant, a dinner party to convey my gratitude.

As it turns out, though, my real life hasn't required a single curtsey.  My most used seafood utensils are my fingers.  I wouldn't know where to procure a pair of everyday white gloves – much less ones (with delicate embroidery and fastened with a single pearl) for formal occasions. And “boarding school pals”? Puh-leeze.

Not that there isn’t a profound need for etiquette in our society. There is. However, I think we need to hone our manners and civility on more practical and useful levels.  The guide for me, for example, might be titled, Divorce Etiquette for Every Day (DEED).

DEED might help me deftly maneuver such tricky situations as, how to refer to the person to whom one once was married? “My ex” can sound harsh and oddly possessive, yet “the kids’ father” might imply children born out of wedlock.

DEED would also provide examples of how to respond to someone (i.e., everyone) who questions the reason for divorce. “We grew apart” doesn't work.  We're not shrubs, we're humans. And yet “Our other option was dueling machetes at high noon” plainly cuts a little too close to the bone.

And what about situational divorce etiquette? How best, for example, to handle a phone call from one’s former spouse, in which he asks if you’ll drive him to the emergency room?  If only I had a copy of the DEED in hand right now. Seriously. Because I'm currently in the emergency room. With the person to whom I was once married.

If I remember correctly (and I trust me, I do) Miss V. doesn't broach this particular topic.

Please. Of course I drove him to the ER. And after a couple of tests, a couple of prescriptions, a couple of hours, and a couple of confused looks from the ER staff, I drove him back to his home. Who wouldn’t?

But now what? Where’s Miss V when I really need her? Do I call tomorrow to check on him? Do I offer to have prescriptions filled? Do I call his family to let them know?

It’s a sticky one, but in the end, I’m guessing I'll do what I always do: cook. This quiche is one that I often make for folks in "times of need."  It's a complete meal that can be eaten hot, at room temperature, or straight from the fridge -- with or without utensils.

No etiquette required. 

Shrimp & Broccoli Quiche
  • One unbaked pie shell (I use Pillsbury's)
  • 1 1/2 cups cooked, peeled shrimp, well-drained and cut into bite-size pieces
  • 1 1/2 cups lightly steamed broccoli florets, well-drained and cut into bite-size pieces
  • 1 1/2 cups grated gruyere cheese
  • 1 1/2 cups half and half
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Preheat oven to 350.  In medium mixing bowl, whisk eggs together.  Stir in half and half, salt and cayenne pepper and combine well.  Sprinkle half of grated cheese in bottom of pie shell.  Top with broccoli, then shrimp, then remaining cheese.  Pour egg mixture evenly over all.  Bake for 30-35 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Kindness of Friends, Family, Strangers -- And Eggs

Last week was wretched.  Miserable, horrible, terrible.  So very bad that, if it hadn't had been so very awful, it would been comical.  But not very.

I don't want to re-live all the details, but suffice to say that divorce is devastating.  Being a single mom is gut-wrenching.  And being kids of divorce is worst of all.  At some point last week, everyone Chez Wiles was enraged or tearful or both.

Then, Cougar Bait (my 200-mile-away lifeline), who was recovering from the flu, came down with pneumonia. I ran out of shampoo. Son's Eagle project got tanked two days just before he finished the proposal.  The dog peed on the rug.  A dear 87-year-old friend passed away.  I left a raw chuck roast on the counter overnight.  A much-needed therapist was hospitalized.  And although all these things were true, I plainly couldn't even prioritize which things were worth grieving.

I was wretched.  At one point, I called in "wretched" to work.  Some people call in sick.  I call in sobbing.

To clear my head, I decided to go for a walk-run on a 5K trail in another part of town.  Historically, this doesn't always work in my favor.  A few months back, I made a similar choice and ended up with a fractured elbow. (See "Worst Mom Ever Falls Down And Goes Boom.")  This time, though, I finished with a more peaceful attitude, a fresh perspective and tear-free eyes -- that is, until I got to the parking lot and found my rear passenger window shattered and my purse gone.

Shap.  Shap, shap, shap, shap, sh*%!

I couldn't even think what to do next.  Who to call?  After initially dialing CB, I hung up to call the police.  Shap.  Then CB.  Then "All-Knowing Neighbors."

And suddenly, things began falling back into place.  When the officer arrived, and I glumly said, "Tomorrow will be a better day," he smiled and said, "C'mon now.  Tonight will be a better day."  (To my credit, I didn't even point out the difference between "night" and "day.")

Before the policeman had even finished his report, CB had already ordered a new window and made arrangements -- with Jordan, my new friend, who has no problem with crying women --  for repairs.

"All-Knowing-Neighbors" brought gracious plenty cash.  And the sandwich bags and bread I needed to pack lunches the next day.  And the number to the DMV, so I could get my license replaced.  And wine.  A whole bottle.  It's hard to say which was more needed.

"Beloved Family" called and sympathized, saying to me what I'd been preaching to the kids all week, "Not to worry.  You're strong.  You're smart.  You can handle this.  It'll be OK."

So I cancelled the credit cards, notified my bank, and tried to think of what else had been in my purse.  (Duh.  Health insurance cards.  Two prescriptions -- one filled and one not.  An unreasonably large check made out to me.  And -- my Costco and Starbucks cards.  Sigh.)

Then, no kidding, some young kid in a button-down and tie shows up in my driveway.  He works for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and when he stopped for a Big Gulp on his way home from work, he found some of my cards -- including my license -- strewn through the parking lot.  I could've cried.  And I probably did.  I'd already cancelled the credit cards, but still, it just felt good to get some of my stuff back.  And even better to know that someone would be kind enough to bring them back.  Even if I didn't have any cash to give him as a reward.

Turns out the police officer was right.  With the love and support and bank accounts and wine cellars of friends and family -- not to mention the kindness of strangers -- "tonight was a better day."

We're going to be just fine.

Shrimpy Eggs
Tough times call for comfort food.  Wretched times call for comfort food in a hurry -- and nothing's quicker or more satisfying than eggs.  In Charleston, we'd have variations of this dish for breakfast -- based on leftover shrimp from the night before -- but it's also a terrific dinner dish all on its own.

For every two eggs, you'll need ...

1 teaspoon butter or olive oil
4-5 raw shrimp, peeled and cut into bitesize pieces
2 tablespoons chopped red bell pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
fresh ground pepper
1 tablespoon crumbled goat cheese (optional)

Heat butter over medium heat in a medium-sized nonstick skillet.  In hot butter, saute shrimp and bell pepper until shrimp is pink.  Whisk eggs together with salt, pepper and a small splash of water.  Stir into skillet, with chives and goat cheese (if using).  Cook, scrambling, until eggs are done to your likeness.  Count your blessings.  And savor.