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

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

Dressing
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 FirstBoat.com, 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"?

Slaw
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.