Sunday, January 30, 2011

Into Each Life, Some Poop Must Fall.

As I write this, some 1,000 birds are twittering and fluttering around our driveway. OK. Maybe not literally 1,000. But it does resemble a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds." Literally, there are a couple hundred robins out there. Usually, I spy robins in onesies and twosies, so an entire flock might have been a breathtaking sight – except that a couple hundred winged red breasts brings a couple thousand plum-colored splatters. My little white 5-speed looks as if it’s been in a food fight with a case of Smucker’s finest. And the driveway could double as the set where Lucille Ball went foot first into the winemaking business.

Even the sides of our detached garage are spattered with droppings, which makes me wonder what’s going on in those little bird brains. Have our feathered friends found some diabolical way to fling -- or even fire -- their droppings? Or are a stalwart few taking one for the team – kamikaze style – flying directly into the wooden planks, just to deposit their distinctive purple stain for posterity?

It’s temporary, I know, but until the robins move on to juicier grounds, we've been forced to adapt. Son and Darling Daughter have taken to using the infamous “duck and cover” maneuver when making the treacherous 10-step trip from the car to the house. The driveway is no longer a makeshift basketball court. And I only cart groceries into the house under the cover of darkness -- when the winged purple bombers have retired for the night.

Grimly, we’re avoiding the driveway. Most of us, that is.

We spend a good part of dinnertime Chez Wiles fending off Josie-the-rescue-dog and Lionel-the-fourteen-pound-feline. Josie sniffs and prances, endlessly hopeful that a tidbit will fall – accidentally or otherwise -- from someone’s plate. Lionel sits in an unoccupied chair, squinting at the water bottle pointed squarely at his nose, knowing that he'll be spritzed the instant he lays a delicate paw on the counter.

As Josie bustled from one diner to another, I realized a bit of food had fallen on her back. Um.  Ick.  Smuckers-colored “food.” After registering the initial shock, I thought the kids would bust a gut.

Yep. Josie had been “hit.”

Better her than me, I suppose. Still, the story left me struggling to come up with a recipe for today. But then, it came to me. Grilled PBJs.

When I was a kid, I used to make them all the time for my younger brother and sister.  I got the recipe from my very first cookbook, aptly titled, "The Kids Cookbook."  We loved these sandwiches with their crispy outsides, warm melty peanut butter and the inevitable jelly splatter. Those PB&Js were, pardon the pun, the “bomb.”

Not literally of course. But close enough.

Grilled Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches

wheat bread (growing up, we used "Roman Meal" brand)
peanut butter
softened butter 

Heat a nonstick skillet to medium high heat.  Make your PB&J, spreading softened butter on the outsides of the sandwich.  Place in skillet and "grill" on each side, until lightly toasted.  Serve warm.  With napkins.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Know It Or Not -- We've Got It Good.

A few days ago, in a pique of disbelief and irritation and disappointment, I admonished one of my teens, “You’re behaving like one of those over-indulged, over-privileged kids you claim to disdain!”

My child paused. For a single delusional nanosecond, I felt I’d scored a point. Far less than a delusional nanosecond later, though, I crash-landed back to reality. Far from affected, my child was regarding me curiously, as if I were speaking a foreign language, and badly at that. Hardly a proud parenting moment.

Although disappointed, I get it. My kids are no different from most of their peers. They have no idea how “good” they have it. And why would they? I certainly didn’t at that age.

I suppose we can’t help but compare our lives to others’. Maybe it’s a function of being a kid, though, that teens don’t compare their lives to those of the less fortunate. Perhaps our carefully protected and “blindered” children can't help but keep a comparative eye on the more fortunate – the ones not only with vacation homes, but second vacation homes and home theaters and home gyms and passports stamped full long before they expire.

As adults though, we have a better sense of those on the other end of the spectrum: The ones struggling to pay their mortgages; the parents laid-off months ago who flat-out can’t find another job; the hard-working folks who can’t send their kids to college; the families who jeopardize their own health because they don't have access to the basic medical and preventative care so many Americans take for granted.

A few days ago, I wrote about Charlotte Radiology’s current PR campaign. They’ve placed about 30 pink (and hoo boy, they are some kind of pink) tires in front of local businesses. For every picture taken and posted on Facebook, Charlotte Radiology will make a donation to Ann’s Fund, whose mission is to provide mammograms to underprivileged women.

Then, though, Charlotte Radiology upped the ante, rolling out their new mobile breast care center.  You've got to see this thing.  It’s also pink, and hoo boy, it is some kind of pink. More important, it provides a more convenient option for breast cancer screening, serving women who might not otherwise have easy access to mammograms.

The mobile unit is the only one of its kind in our area, and not only will it make mammograms more accessible, it may remind others of us – like me – to continue getting our routine screening – not only for our own sakes, but for the many people – grateful and not – who rely on us.

Mammograms, of course, aren’t the only way we can take care of ourselves. Study after study indicates that, with changes in our diets, we can help affect our future.

Of all things, lowly, humble kale – with its beta-carotenes and luteins and phytochemicals -- is one of the foods highly recommended.  And although I adore greens of all sorts, not everybody does.  This recipe, though, may change their minds.  Just as Charlotte Radiology is changing lives.

Crispy Kale Chips
Super easy and super tasty, this recipe will convert many avowed greens-haters.  You could serve these as a side dish, or even with fried or poached eggs at breakfast, but I'm crazy about them just as they are.  They shatter crisply and satisfyingly on first bite.  All on my own, I can devour an entire bunch of kale -- and feel great at the same time!

One bunch of kale, well washed and spun dry
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, very finely minced
2-3 shakes of red pepper flakes
kosher or sea salt

Preheat oven to 500 degrees.  Cut out ribs of kale.  Stack leaves and cut, crosswise, into 1 1/2 inch strips.  Set aside.  Combine olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes.  Toss well with kale.  Spread evenly on a very large baking sheet.  Sprinkle well with salt.  Roast in oven for 6-7 minutes, tossing and fluffing every few minutes.  When kale is crispy (like fine potato chips), it's done.  Serve warm or at room temperature.  Yum!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

On A Roll -- And You Can Help.

It’s a wonder I ever get on a plane.

It’s not that I have a fear of flying. Well, at least not a travel-altering fear of flying.  I can endure a little knuckle-whitening to arrive at a destination where a single layer of clothing -- or less --  is the only one required and the only salt on the road is spilled by the Morton Salt Umbrella Girl.  And it’s not those ubiquitous Cinnabon shops. I adore cinnamon -- adore it --  but the gooey over-sized yeast rolls have never held much allure for me.

What stops me in my tracks -- every single time -- is those danged “Find A Word” books in airport bookshops. Even though I've never actually bought one, I can't walk past one, either. Because believe me, I can flat out find a word. What I can’t do is not find a word. And while I’ll resist actually picking up the book (which would almost surely result in a missed flight), I can’t stop myself from finding and mentally circling every word or close-to-word on the front cover.

For a while, The Charlotte Observer ran an amusing little series featuring two seemingly identical pictures, side-by-side. The reader’s challenge was to find the maddeningly slight, doctored-up differences between the two. Let’s just say it was a good thing the series didn’t run when the kids were babies requiring every-other-hour-feedings, or at least one of them might still be suffering from malnutrition.

Which is all to say that you know there’s no way I could pass up this challenge:  To raise awareness of breast cancer and the importance of mammograms, Charlotte Radiology has placed pink tires in front of businesses around Charlotte. Our mission? To find the tires and post pictures on Facebook. For every photo posted, a dollar will be donated to Ann’s Fund, which helps underprivileged women get mammograms.

Are you kidding me?

Who would even have to think about this?  What could be easier?  Smarter?  Or more fun?

I spotted one of the tires before I even knew what this was all about.  And let me tell you, those tires are some kind of pink.  And, thanks to modern technology, every single one of us has a camera with us at all times.  Although I'll be the first to admit that it's my kids who remind me, "Mom, why don't you just use your phone to take a picture?"

What a great cause.  Won't you help?  C'mon.  Pull out that iPhone. 

I wish I had a "pink" recipe to share, but since I'm well over the age of eight, those recipes are in short supply.

What I do have, though, is Darling Daughter's "Blueberry Lemonade."  It's a repeat of a recipe I used over a year ago, when DD wanted to make Pink Lemonade.

In fact, I think I'll dedicate this post to DD -- and the many other young women who will work to make sure that every woman in need gets the mammogram she deserves.

DD’s Blueberry Lemonade
(serves two)

2 large lemons, juiced
1/ 1/2 cups water
1/3 cup sugar
a dozen blueberries, pressed through a fine sieve
additional blueberries for garnish

Pour the lemon juice, water and sugar into a pitcher. Stir, vigorously, until sugar is dissolved. Stir in strained blueberries. Pour over ice. Garnish with whole blueberries. Drink while dancing.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Snow Day By Any Other Name -- A Very Good Day.

Today was a good day.

I’m not normally a fan of “snow days.” Yes, I get the whole "winter wonderland" thing.  And as a born and bred South Carolinian, I know full well how uncommon snow days are in the South.  Here in Charlotte, we only get snow once or twice a year.  I'll concede that it is pretty, and even "magical."  And the kids have a blast.

They know all kinds of tricks to “make” it snow. Wear your pajamas backwards. Wear your pajamas inside out. Sleep with a (silver) spoon under your pillow. Flush ice cubes down the toilet. However, through the years, even as they’ve plotted, schemed and followed the intricacies of these “rules,” I’ve tried to summon counter-curses, because, as a mom, I know the mess that Old Man Winter brings.

I cringe as the first few flakes flutter down.  Yes, they're charming, but I know what's really coming. Piles of laundry. Slushy, muddy floors. Gloves, scarves, hats and boots hung and strung around the kitchen to “dry out.” A clammy pile of “et cetera,” meaning, “I didn’t know what else to do with it, Mom, so I just left it there on the floor for you to clean up.” Cold, wet dog. And the inevitable cold, wet dog smell.

Still, as we racked up an impressive 4-5 inches here in Charlotte today, I’ve got to admit: This was a good day.

I cooked and cooked and cooked. Potato Soup. Lentil Soup with Spinach. Ginger Spice Cookies. And the piecè de resistance? “Brinner.” Breakfast for dinner. Which included “Waffles of Insane Greatness,” the very first recipe I ever posted on Feminine Wiles.

The best part, though, was that the kids were involved. No. Not in the soup-making. That, indeed, would be “insane.” Nope. They had their own culinary adventures. Son made tiny grilled cheese sandwiches using sliced bagettes and slivers of Gruyere cheese. Darling Daughter and friend made Snow Cream. And then they made Snow Cream. And -- wait for it -- more Snow Cream. Et cetera.

The first version followed a Paula Deene recipe calling for sweetened condensed milk. Not a winner, according to the palates of discerning 8th graders. The second version went over better – a more traditional “vanilla” version. Then the gloves came off. Peppermint. Grape jelly. (Shudder.)  And Son made Snow Coke, with two secret ingredients that you probably could guess.

Yep.  Today was a good day.  A very good day.  Now back to laundry.  And snow shoveling.  And wearing our pajamas the right way.

Peppermint Snow Cream
1 large bowl of clean snow
1 cup of sugar
1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract
About two cups of milk

Stir sugar and peppermint extract into snow.  Splash in about a cup of milk.  Continue stirring.  Add more milk as needed, to make a spoonable consistency.  Add a drop or two of red food coloring, if desired.  Devour.  Complain about how cold you are.  Do it all over again.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Forecasters Call For Snow. I Call For Panic.

Lionel, our "indoor" cat, making his way through snow earlier this season.

Just two days ago, the gas gauge on my beloved Honda Pilot (there’s no seat like a heated seat, there’s no seat like a heated seat) hovered perilously close to “E.”*  Yesterday, on the way to Darling Daughter’s basketball game (where, by the way, she had the game of her life), the gauge pointed squarely to “E.” And this morning? Well, let’s just say it could only have been faith that got us to church and back, because fumes were in short supply.
No problem. This evening, I made a quick trip out to “fill ‘er up.” And what to my wondering eyes should appear but … a line? At our neighborhood gas station? Why yes, Virginia. There was a veritable crush of cars snaking around, backing in askew, with drivers leaning out their windows to kindly correct and traffic-direct others.

All that, for the privilege of paying $3.05 a gallon.

It’s January here in Charlotte, so the signs could only point to one thing: Snow’s in the forecast.  But silly me, I still wanted to stop by the grocery store. I know my neighborhood Harris Teeter like the inside of my own pantry, and I only wanted three things -- hamburger buns (for BBQ tonight), Italian sausage (for marinara sauce tomorrow) and grapefruit (for me). Easy peasy. Unfortunately, I also know the parking lot like the inside of my own pantry – and even better now after circling it for far too long to locate a space for the beloved Pilot. (Hey – that wasn’t agression, I really was there before that Highlander.)

Inside the Teeter, I saw everyone I know. Or at least that’s how it felt. And while everyone I know was there, nothing I know was on the shelves. Truly. It’s not that I needed bananas. Or lettuce. Or spinach.

But who did? I need to know. What were people doing? What were they planning to cook? I could understand the disappearance of milk. (Hot chocolate. Duh.) Or diapers. (There is no substitute.) Or pinto beans. (Who doesn’t want a pot of chili steaming on their back burner during a snow storm?)

But spinach? What are people making? Oysters Rockefeller?  Spanakopita?  Gingered Spinach and Mushroom Soup?

I was all but twitching. What was I missing out on? Did we need spinach Chez Wiles? Is it possible I’d be up in the middle of the storm, whipping up a spinach-artichoke casserole? Should I be looking to find a fix at another grocery store?

Nah. I was already confused enough.  Time to get home. Besides, I already had what I needed to weather a storm. A gas grill. Gloves. Beer.

And look. In the back of the fridge, I've got some fresh spinach -- perfect for one of my favorite salads.

Tomorrow, though -- chili!

Spinach Salad with Hearts of Palm, Cranberries and Blue Cheese
One bag baby spinach (6-8 ounces)
1 can hearts of palm, sliced
1/2 cup dried cranberries
4 ounces blue cheese, crumbled
1/3 cup salted sunflower seeds
1 orange, peeled and cut in sections

1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup raspberry vinegar
1/4 orange juice
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
healthy grinding of black pepper

Toss salad ingredients in a large bowl. Whisk together dressing ingredients and toss -- lightly -- with salad. Serve immediately.

*As an aside, I never look at the “E” and “F” symbols on the gas gauge without recalling my Dad’s observation when I was a kid: “’E’ is for ‘Edna.’ ‘F’ is for ‘Fountain.’” “Edna,” of course, is my mom. “Fountain” is my maiden name. And still, they were married for nearly 20 years.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Losing It In 2011

It’s Day Two of 2011 --  a.k.a. the “Year of Loss” Chez Wiles --  in which I’ve resolved to lose weight, bad habits, and mental stressors.

I lost it, all right.

My wallet, that is.  Along with my cool, sleep and patience.  (You might think the stress would also cause me to lose my appetite, but that would make it the “Year of Wishful Thinking,” not the “Year Of Loss,” much less the “Year Of Lose Five Pounds By Skipping Dinner And Sharing A Pitcher Of Beer.”)

I don’t mean to whine.  But "shap."*  It’s not that my wallet held much cash.  $40 altogether -- although it was all in $10 bills, which are my very favorite.  (Think about it.  How often do you see a $10 bill? $5s and $20s are much more common.  It somehow feels unfair to spend the under-circulated $10s.)

It’s not even that I’m now without a driver’s license, which can’t be replaced online because the NC-DMV site is down.  It’s not that I’m so distressed about losing my American Express and MasterCard.  I’ve checked online (obsessively) and it doesn’t appear that anyone is partying down on Four Lokos, Slim Jims and Funyuns at my expense.

What’s keeping me up at night and causing me to lose my train of thought before I can key in a complete sentence is all the “extras” that were in the wallet.  My insurance cards.  My Costco card.  My well-worn Starbucks card.  My Taco Mac Brewniversity card.  Christmas receipts.  Doctor’s appointment cards.  And my ex’s Visa card.

Cheri, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do.

It’s one thing, of course, to tell friends and family of my foibles.  It’s another thing altogether to have to ‘splain them to my ex.  Particularly when the credit limit on that single card is likely higher than all of mine together.  Plus a year’s worth of mortgage payments.  And a weekend’s spending at Costco.

Of course, it is the “Year Of Loss,” so it’s entirely apropos that – along with everything else, including my mental faculties -- I should be losing face.

To be fair, he took it well.  He even offered a replacement card.  Which makes me feel like, well, a loser.  Which, considering that I have no idea where my wallet is, I guess I am.


So it probably goes without saying that I’m not including a recipe today.  Yes, I had a great photo of a surprising Sauteed Brussels Sprouts.  And I’m very happy with my new Bison Chili Recipe.  And I just know folks will love my Cranberry Spinach Salad  Recipe.  But at this moment in time, I can’t lay my hands on any of them.

You win some, you lose some.  Welcome to 2011 Chez Wiles.

*"Shap."  "Crap" with an "sh."