Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Darling Daughter Takes "Some Time To Do The Things We Never Have."

There's been a world between me and my 16-year-old daughter this summer. Literally. Not figuratively. Not metaphorically. Literally.*

She’s been an exchange student in Pietermartizburg, South Africa. 8,472 miles away. It took a full 24 hours for her to travel there. The time difference is six hours. When I wake up in the morning, she’s enjoying lunch. When I sit down for dinner, she’s deep in slumber. She’s seen lions and elephants and cheetahs and rhinos. She’s been welcomed as an ad hoc member of a loving South African family, who in turn, introduced her to loving South African friends. She’s been doing and trying things that I never will. To quote a line from the Toto song, Africa, she took "some time to do the things we never have." 

I have missed her like crazy.

I miss her wit and her insights. I miss her fashion advice and her compassion. I miss the way she adores and understands and makes fun of her brother. I miss the way we can communicate in knowing phrases, abbreviations, and even emojis. I miss her countless bottles of nail polish, cluttering kitchen counters, coffee tables and sofa cushions. And I miss her more when she sends texts like these:

“BTW, I like cabbage now. I really like it.”

“Raw beets are so good.”

“Well now, I’m a fan of eggplant.”

Plainly, the girl knows the way to my heart. I mean really, what greater passions do I have than cooking, grocery shopping, eating, writing recipes, and then, cooking some more?

I’ve got to admit, I was worried in the beginning. It must have been hard to get used to new things, new people, new classes, and new accents. It must have been hard to be away from familiar surroundings and familiar food and beloved things and beloved people. And beloved pets. Particularly beloved pets. But a few days ago, I get this:

“The best graduation gift in the world would be a trip back here.”

Sigh. She's not even home, but she's already planning a visit back.

Tomorrow, however, she’ll board the first of thee planes, and the next day -- 8,472 miles later -- she’ll be back in Charlotte. Different. Wiser. Dazzling. And with an appetite for raw beets.

I can hardly wait. Literally.

* Beloved Son, as an aside, note my use of the word “literally.” Note that I do not write that I “literally” cry myself to sleep while your sister is gone. Because I do not. My pillow is perfectly dry. Nor did I “literally” die when she went away. Were that the case, I would now be either six feet under or a zombie. I am neither. I am alive. Literally.  Julia, however, is still half a world away. Literally.

Roasted Brussel Sprouts
I am unreasonably fond of brussels sprouts, although the kids have always shunned them. Is it possible that my 16yo, "cabbage-loving" intrepid traveler might now give them a try? Fingers crossed!

1 pound fresh, cleaned brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
1/4 cup olive oil
4-6 cloves garlic, peeled
kosher salt
fresh ground pepper

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Toss brussels sprouts and garlic in olive oil. Spread evenly on the baking sheet and season well with salt and pepper. Roast in oven for 25-30 minutes, tossing occasionally, until browned and tender. Serve hot -- and eat as a side dish, or cool to room temperature and eat with your fingers!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Sounds Of Silence. For Four More Days.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013. Julia is winding up seven weeks as an exchange student in South Africa. Carter is three weeks into his freshman year at the University of Georgia. DB is working in Raleigh, which is notable only because he usually works where he lives -- in Charleston.

And me? And I am home alone.

Just writing about it makes me take a deep breath. Because I miss them all. I do. But to the consternation of well-intentioned friends, I am actually fine. Peachy. Hunky dorey. A-OK. In other words, don’t hate me because I’m beautiful* (because I am not), hate me because, when I wipe down the kitchen counters in the morning, they’re still clutter-free when I return from work. Hate me because I only do laundry once a week and when I do, the hamper remains empty until I fill it myself – with my own clothes. And that Ben & Jerry ‘s NY Super Fudge Chunk in the freezer? That’s right. It's mine. It will be there whenever I want to dive in. Unless later tonight, I use it to soothe myself in the wake of nightmare involving under-nourished lions, elephants and bulldogs roaming a college campus in search of their Monday morning Afrikaner history class.

No worries, though. Because even if I end up with a self-imposed ice cream headache, that sticky empty container will end up in the trash. See? Now you can hate me. Because while my teenagerse are away, there are no “all-but-empty” pints of ice cream in my freezer. No teaspoonfuls of milk remaining in a gallon jug. No deceptively empty boxes of Nilla Wafers.

Enough gloating. As you can see, I don’t mind being alone. “Lonely” just isn’t part of my vernacular.

But I miss them. Oh, how I miss them.

In all this free time, I’ve put clean sheets on all the beds and clean towels in the bathrooms. I’ve tidied the closets and cleared the desks. I’ve stocked the pantry. True, I haven’t actually sorted through all the old family photos, but I did think about it more than once, and surely deserve some credit for that.

And, inspired by Julia, who sends me regular text messages about all the meals she’s been in enjoying, I’ve been cooking. Julia it seems, has found a new-found appreciation for under-appreciated vegetables like cabbage and squash and legumes. So I’ve been a frequent visitor to our local farmers' market  and dining on lentil salad, black-eyed pea soup,  apple slaw, and cauliflower soup. And, in a nod to Julia, I’ve worked butternut squash into the repertoire, too.

Because in four days, she’ll be home. Carter will be back for a visit. And DB will be with us, too.

So now, I’m not lonely. I'm not. Really. But in four short days -- clean countertops and full freezers be damned -- I won’t be alone, either!

Roasted Butternut Squash, Cauliflower and Tilapia

I am always a fan of "one dish" meals. This summer, I've enjoyed a number of variations on this particular one, roasting a pair of veggies -- in this instances cauliflower and butternut squash -- until nearly done, and then, adding a piece of fresh fish for the final five minutes.

1 cup of diced butternut squash (per person)
1 cup of cauliflower "florets" (per person)

4 tablespoons good olive oil
4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
red pepper flakes (to taste)
curry powder
kosher salt
fresh ground pepper

1 tilapia filet (per person)
chopped fresh chives

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Toss together all ingredients except tilapia and chives. Using a strainer or slotted spoon, move vegetables to a flat baking sheet. Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes, tossing occasionally. In the meantime, marinate tilapia filet in remaining juices. When vegetables are slightly brown and fork tender, add tilapia filet to baking sheet. Bake an additional 5-7 minutes (until fish is done and flakes easily). Remove from oven, garnish with chopped chives and serve!

* Remember that old Pantene commercial?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

You Can’t Go Away To College!
You’re Not Ready!

Dear Son,

As I count the dwindling days until you depart for college, it has become apparent that I have failed you. Miserably so.

Yes, you hold a high school diploma. Your AP exam performance has earned you college credit. And your grades and scores paved the way to substantial college scholarships. You remain, however, ill-prepared to leave home. And sadly, as is so often the case Chez Wiles, the blame can be plunked squarely on my parental shoulders. I tried, but I plainly didn’t try hard enough. Here are just a few lessons I have yet to successfully impart:

How to replace toilet paper. In the few remaining days before freshmen year begins, we will begin with this most basic of tasks. When I have shared my knowledge with you, you’ll be able to replace a roll of toilet paper – without prompting – in fewer than 60 seconds. Moreover, if I have done my job properly, you’ll also install said toilet paper in the proper direction – with the paper rolling over the top, and not from underneath. With this under your belt, next summer’s class -- Replacing Paper Towels 201 -- should be a breeze.

How to turn off a light. This summer, I gave you 100% responsibility for purchasing and changing all light bulbs here at home, in hopes that you’d recognize the necessity and importance conserving energy and managing our electric bills. At the very least, I thought you’d weary of constantly climbing up and down the ladder. Silly me. Still, I will persevere. Indeed, once you’ve mastered this skill, you'll also learn how to determine – entirely on your own and without parental eye-rolling– when any given light should be turned off. Even those dastardly lights outside the house and in the pantry.

Load the dishwasher. Here, I must congratulate you, as you have nearly mastered the task of returning dirty dishes to the kitchen. Now, though, I’m going to push you further than you ever thought possible, beyond the limits you’ve self-imposed, so you can get to the point of opening the dishwasher door and then, accurately placing each dish so it can be properly cleaned during the wash cycle. If this goes as well -- and I believe it can -- you’ll have the opportunity to earn extra credit by operating the garbage disposal. Otherwise, we can address that particular task next summer.

How to close a door. What does it say about me as a parent that I’d assumed this lesson to be self-evident -- that he who “opens” would naturally – even gladly -- take on the responsibility to “close.” And while I’ll grant that the consequences of an open door are hardly on par with global warming, your inability to properly close a door does lead to “local cooling,” as the air conditioning (for which I pay handsomely) flows freely into the garage, the backyard and crawl space. Similarly, the refrigerator door, when left ajar, contributes unnecessarily to an already air-conditioned kitchen. Perhaps the difficulty of this seemingly basic task lies in not understanding the needed action: Is it a push or a pull? Confounding, I know, but as you’ve noted many times this summer, you are now 18 years old. As such, I have faith in your ability to conquer this. With college beginning in 19 days, however, you must begin now.

How to manage email. I understand the issue here. Managing one’s email involves a number of seemingly absurd steps, such as: 1) Checking your email, 2) Opening your email, 3) Reading your email, and on occasion, 4) Responding to your email. When you acquire this sadly outdated skill, it will work to my benefit, as I am your most frequent email correspondent; however, I must also note that the your chosen university has announced its misguided, but firm, intentions to notify you, and only you, when tuition is due. Madness. Moreover, they insist upon notifying you (and only you) by email. What evil is at work here? Do they not know how to text? Only God, AT&T, and the Board of Regents know. Regardless, my darling Son, should your college tuition email remain unopened, unread, and unpaid, you will resume your less than promising life as yard boy living in the basement Chez Wiles. Surely, a person such as yourself, who can manage and sift through tens of thousands of digital downloads and can instantly (through means I do not wish to understand) procure virtually any television show or movie ever produced, can manage his email on a daily basis. You can do this, Son. I know you can.

How to cook. This may be my most appalling failure. As recently as last week, you declared that you didn’t know how to make a simple grilled cheese sandwich. Or a quesadilla. Or nachos. You even stated that bacon is “too hard to make.” It was a fork to my heart. So here, I share my "recipe" for grilled cheese. The key, you’ll see, is to use good bread and good cheese. Be sure to cut all the richness by serving with a pickle. And for bonus points, try cutting the sandwich on the diagonal. It’s more photogenic that way.

As you can see, Son, I’m here to help. Together, we can work through this, and you’ll be fine. And God willing, I will be, as well.

xxx ooo


Grilled Cheese Sandwich

Two slices of "good" bread (You know full well what I mean -- either whole wheat or a hearty French or Italian loaf. I do not want to find that over-processed mushy white bread in your kitchen. Ever.)

Yummy slices of cheese (You prefer sharp cheddar, pepperjack, edam, fontina or provolone. There is no such thing as American "cheese." Only American cheese "product" or cheese "food." Which doesn't sound appetizing because it is not.)

Softened butter

Heat a non-stick skillet or griddle over medium heat. Spread one side of each slice of bread with softened butter. Assemble the sandwich by laying one slice of bread, butter side down, in the skillet. Top with one layer of sliced cheese, and then, the remaining slice of bread, with the butter side facing out.  Cook slowly in the skillet until golden brown (may take 6-10 minutes). Flip carefully, and cook remaining side until golden brown. Slice diagonally, serve with a pickle, and thank Mom that you know how to cook.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Darling Daughter Packs Her Bags

“My 16-year-old is in South Africa.”

“My baby girl won’t be home for seven weeks.”

“Julia has abandoned me.”

A little dramatic, but yes, I’m struggling. And incredibly proud. From now until Labor Day weekend, Julia is participating in an exchange student program, at St. Anne's Diocesan College in a place called Pietermaritzburg. Some 8,500 miles away from home.  Nearly 9,000 miles away from me.

These past few weeks have been a safari-swirled whirlwind. Together, we’ve shopped and returned and researched and packed. We've made lists and made plans. But looking back, I know Julia did most of it on her own. She remembered her summer school assignments. She remembered gifts for her host and host families. She remembered to pack layers. She remembered her toiletries. She remembered hairbands and socks and she even remembered nail polish remover, because the school she’ll attend doesn’t allow nail polish. Or makeup. Or jewelry.

So what did I do? I reminded her to take chewing gum. I told her to pack a journal. And a pen. And in the end, when I didn’t know what else to suggest, I told her to pack cat treats for the feline member of her host family.

That's when I knew it was time for her to board that southbound plane.

She was ready. I may not have been, but Julia was. The only thing left for me to do was what I always do – cook. And bless Julia's heart, for her “last” supper, she asked that I make the first recipe I ever included in Feminine Wiles – Waffles of Insane Greatness.

I love that girl. Love her like crazy, miss her like crazy, and believe in her like crazy. And in 45 days, 15 hours and 21 seconds, I'll have the chance to cook for her again.

Maybe we'll make even make cat treats.

Waffles Of Insane Greatness
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/3 vegetable oil
1 egg
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)

First step, unless you're only serving one other person, go ahead and double the recipe. These waffles are that good.

Then, in a medium bowl combine the dry ingredients, mixing well. Add the buttermilk, oil, egg and vanilla and mix well.

Now here's the hard part. The batter has to rest for 30 minutes. Seriously. Use the time to set the table, chop up some strawberries, brew some coffee and get the paper. Now you're ready.

Preheat your waffle iron and bake according to the directions on your waffle iron. Serve with butter and syrup. Or, the way Julia prefers -- with confectioner's sugar, strawberries and whipped cream.