Thursday, December 25, 2014

Silent Morning, Holy Morning

It's 6:30 in the morning. And, as is usual during school vacation, not a creature is stirring Chez Wiles.

Except for me. I've already showered and dressed. Coffee is brewing. And Sausage Bread is warming in the oven. The kids love Sausage Bread any time of year, but particularly as part of our Christmas morning tradition.

That's right. It's Christmas morning, and I'm the only one awake Chez Wiles. Don't hate me.

Carter is 19, and Julia is 17. Long gone are the Christmases when I had to lay down two rules. One: Santa can't come if you don't get to sleep. And Two: No one is allowed downstairs before 6:00 tomorrow morning

Not, of course, that they ever had to wake me up. I was always as excited as a kid myself -- well awake before they were -- making coffee and making Sausage Bread and most of all, making them wait. They'd sit -- with sleep in their eyes and bedheads that would be memorialized in Christmas photos for years to come -- at the bottom of the stairs, on the last two steps, nearly vibrating from anticipation. From that vantage point, they could just peek around the corner into the living room -- without their sweet little feet touching the floor -- at the lit tree and abundant gifts and overstuffed stockings. 

Flash forward to Christmas Day 2014. My "kids" are nearly grown. There's no more waiting on the stairs. Instead, I'm the one waiting. At 7:15  a.m., they're both still dozing. I'll jostle them awake soon enough. We'll tear open gifts and dump out stockings. We'll stuff ourselves with hot, toasty Sausage Bread, and both kids will join me in a cup of coffee.

For just a few more minutes, though, I'll enjoy the silence. We'll have plenty of time for hustle and bustle later. For now, though, I'm grateful to have an awakening of my own -- and a few silent moments to reflect on the many blessings and joys in my life and on this Earth.

Merry Christmas, friends. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Chutes, Ladders, And The Steps To College

So that’s that. Julia’s winter exams are officially over. “World Religions” marked another senior year “last.”

With that exam, she takes another step toward college. I’d rather not think that it’s another step away from me.

You might thing the path is predictable, but it’s not. It’s more like the Chutes and Ladders game we played when she was little.  There’s the Candy Cane Forest of college applications and the Gum Drop Mountain of exams. Julia moves forward a couple of steps, I get mired in the Molasses Swamp, and then, with a big fat college acceptance in the mail, she ascends a ladder. She moves forward a couple of steps, I move forward a couple of steps, she wonders about dorm life without her cat, Lionel, and before you know it, she tumbles down a chute.

Mostly though, Julia moves onward, onward, inevitably onward. And not just onward, but happily onward, too.

But not tonight. Tonight we’ll spend the evening watching old episodes of Parenthood and The Perks Of Being A Wallflower.  Again. And before you know it, I’ll be blinking back tears. Again.

But despite what you think, I’m happy about all these steps toward college. I really am.

Because when she’s gone, Lionel is mine. All mine.

Broccoli Soup
In my usual effort to pack in extra nutrients during exams, this "broccoli" soup also includes carrots and celery and onions and garlic.
1/2 stick butter
1 onion, chopped
16-20 baby carrots, chopped
1 Yukon gold potato, peeled and chopped
1 rib of celery, chopped
6 cups broccoli florets
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 quart chicken stock
1 cup cream
blue cheese crumbles (optional)

In a large, deep skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Stir in onions, sauté until soft. Stir in carrots, celery, potato and garlic. Sauté until soft and slightly browned. Stir in broccoli and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then, reduce heat to low. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, until vegetables are very soft. Use an immersion blender to smooth to an even consistency (I like mine somewhat chunky). Stir in cream. Season well. Serve hot -- with blue cheese crumbles on top, if desired.

Monday, December 15, 2014

One Last Time. With Potato Soup.

It’s broad daylight now, but I’m afraid to go upstairs. OK. I take that back. “Afraid” may not be the right word. More like “terrified.” “Petrified.”

Because although it’s been days since I climbed those mahogany-stained steps and peered over the wrought-iron railing, I know what awaits.

Our home is diseased. Closets, dressers, desks, athletic bags and backpacks are spewing forth their contents. Papers -- printed and lined and blank -- lie piled, stacked, crumpled. All-but-empty Diet Coke bottles are cast about like forgotten bowling pins. Coffee-residued cups line the end table. The bedroom wastebasket – usually emptied every month or so –can’t contain the current collection of dried out markers, inkless pens, inexplicable index cards, and Clif bar wrappers.

It’s exam time. Julia’s last set of high school exams. Sigh.

This isn’t my first rodeo. I know my job. I grease the tracks. I stay out of the way. I’m ever-present. You want fruit? Strawberries, blueberries, kiwi and grapefruit are in the fridge. Not happy with the lunch at school? I’ll be in the neighborhood – why don’t I bring you a chicken salad bagel? Running low on gas? I’ll fill you up. You’re tired? Let me fluff the pillow.

This is my job. I know it well. I’ve done it for years. But this my last. This is Julia’s last set of high school exams. She’ll have plenty more exams, of course. She’ll rocket off to college and pull all-nighters and down espressos and bounce off walls, but she’ll do it without me.

What’s most important in that sentence, I guess, is she’ll do it without me. She’ll be just fine. She’ll be awesome.

And me? I can’t even imagine. Really? I won’t be tiptoeing around the house at this time next year? I won’t be indulging unexpected requests for soup and cookies and Jello? I won’t be making last minute runs to deliver lunch to school? I won’t be dropping everything to hear what amounts to a 15 second story about a friend’s college acceptance? Or a 15-minute story about the cat?

What am I going to do?

I guess I'll cook. And perhaps, venture upstairs. Which will be neat and orderly and clutter-free –welcoming my exhausted college student home, with clean sheets on the bed, and nary an empty Diet Coke bottle in sight.

Potato Soup
Our tradition has always been that, as Julia studies, I cook and bake and try to anticipate what she'll want next. I lucked out with this potato soup tonight.

4 slices of raw bacon, chopped
1 onion, sliced thinly
16-20 baby carrots, chopped
2 ribs of celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
4-6 Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and sliced thinly
2 bay leaves
4 cups chicken broth
1 cup cream
2 tablespoons butter
sour cream 

In a large, deep skillet, sauté bacon over medium heat. When very crispy, remove bacon browned bits, setting aside for later, and keeping bacon grease in pan. Add onion, carrots, celery and garlic to pan. Reduce heat to low, and sauté, slowly, until onions are translucent and slightly browned. Stir in potatoes and bay leaves. Pour in broth, raise heat to high, bringing to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer 30-45 minutes, until potatoes are very soft. Remove bay leaves, and using a potato masher or immersion blender, smooth out the consistency (we like it a bit chunky). Stir in the cream and butter. Season well with salt and pepper. Serve hot, with bacon bits on top, and, if desired, a large dollop of sour cream.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Chillin' -- And Saving -- Chez Wiles

On this beautiful autumn afternoon, it is 63 degrees in our house. Not in every room, of course. That would be crazy. We've had the fireplace crackling since 11 this morning; the family room is now a toasty 66, and my teens are draped in blankets. Adorbs!

My original intent was to wait until November to fire up the furnace Chez Wiles. But now that November is here, I wonder to what extremes the kids and I are willing to go. Down comforters? Of course. Four-legged, flea-bearing friends in bed? Perhaps. Seeing your breath in front of your face? Probably not. But then again ...

It's not, necessarily, that I'm trying to save money. I wouldn't deny the kids a warm home just to supplement my 401K. I would, however, stop spending $10 bills.

Yes, you read that correctly. I do not spend ten dollar bills. You won't find this advice splashed across the cover of Money magazine ("Single Mom Devises Retirement Strategy!") My plan is not supported by science or economics -- I'm a communications major, not an MBA. All I know is that when an Alexander Hamilton comes my way, I stash it in a pink leather envelope. When the envelope bulges, I deposit the contents at my neighborhood Bank of America.  And why not? Really. You don't see $10 bills all that often. Georges are everywhere. Andrew Jacksons abound. But if you're getting $10 in change, you're more likely to get a pair of Lincolns than an Alexander Hamilton.  So, when I see a $10, I hang on to it -- which has the side benefit of giving my kids one more reason to roll their eyes at me. (Nothing, though, gets their eyeballs spinning faster than my version of Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off.")

Think those eyes will be rolling when the thermostat drops to 60?


Roasted Lemon Chicken and Asparagus
Although this dish is special enough to serve to company, it's also super cost-effective. Use any leftover chicken to make Chicken and Saffron Rice.

One, 4-5 pound fryer chicken
1 lemon, zested
4 cloves garlic, grated (or minced fine)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 stems fresh oregano
1 pound asparagus

Preheat oven to 500, and remove all racks except bottom rack. Line a baking sheet with heavy duty aluminum foil. In a small bowl, combine lemon zest, garlic, oil, salt, pepper, and oregano. Use your hands to carefully loosen skin from chicken. Rub lemon garlic mixture under skin. Prop chicken on an upright roasting rack (I use a Roastup Rocket). Insert rosemary into chicken cavity. Tuck wings in back. Put chicken on the aluminum foil-lined baking sheet, put in oven, and immediately lower temperature to 400 degrees. Prepare asparagus by snapping off the woody ends. After chicken has roasted 45 minutes, add asparagus to baking sheet and toss with chicken juices. Roast an additional 15-20 minutes, or until chicken tests done. (Juices run clear when thigh is poked with a toothpick.)  Remove from oven and squeeze lemon juice over chicken and asparagus. Let chicken rest for 10 minutes before carving and serving with roasted asparagus.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Ten Tips For Cross Country Parents

I love cross country running. Whoa there, Speedy Gonzalez -- I love cross country running for my kids, not for me! Running is hard. Running hurts. It hurts when you practice doing it, it hurts when you're actually doing it, and then, it hurts for days after. Or, if you're 52 years old like me, it hurts for months after doing it, because you've torn a hamstring and can't recall where or how. Do you have any idea how ridiculous you'll feel when you try to explain that to a medical professional?

But I digress, because really, from a parent's perspective, cross country is a terrific sport. Trust me. Sure it's hard, and it hurts, but have you ever had a kid wrestle? I have. Every match, I had to choose: Shall I hyperventilate or asphyxiate today? Because there was no way I could draw a normal breath as some mini-Hulk Hogan put a move on my kid.

Ever had a kid play baseball? Not as physical as wrestling, of course, but baseball is a sport without a clock, folks, which sounds charming enough until you remember that you've got bills to pay, beds to change, meals to make, and oh yeah, other kids who know how to dial DSS if you don't at least occasionally check in on them.

Ever had a kid play soccer? Right -- that just makes you and every other American parent of the 21st century -- and all of you are sure that, among the swarm of shinguard-sporting magnet ball players, yours is the next Mia Hamm. Let me know how that goes for you.

Seriously. Cross country is perfect. Not too physical. Pretty darn quick. And when you get down to it, your kid is really racing against herself, so if she beats her previous time, she's a winner -- and you get to scoot along home.

There are pitfalls, though. I've been a cross country mom for eight seasons now, so believe me when I say that there are a few rules you'll need to follow.

1)  Race courses are pretty wide open, so when you arrive at the event, you'll be able to walk right up to your child. DO NOT DO THIS. If you must acknowledge your runner, do so from a distance. Behave as if you may have met before but are not quite sure. Only after making eye contact should you try to determine whether she wants you to approach. That's it. So now you think she wants you to approach? You are wrong.

2) Observe your runner from a safe distance. Did he warm up sufficiently? Are his laces tied? Should he be doing something to hydrate? Should he look that relaxed? Should he look that tense? Why is he acting exactly like everyone else? Why isn't he acting exactly like everyone else? Stop. Here's a rule of thumb: For every question you ask before a race, your runner will blame you for adding 10 seconds to his finishing time. Don't do it.

3) Cross country races tend to begin right on time. Give yourself time to get to the starting line, and set your watch. Do NOT attempt eye contact with your runner. Do NOT call your runner by name.

4) At the gun (the start of the race), start your watch. Again, do NOT call out your runner's name. Although she wouldn't actually hear you, another parent might, which would ruin your runner's entire life.  Do not cheer other runners by name, either. You may, however, cheer the team because, as noted, your runner will not hear you.

5) After the runners pass, you will see parents "in the know" walk hurriedly in another direction. Follow them. They know the course and know where you'll be able to spot your runner mid-course. One thousand, two hundred and twenty-three runners will pass before you finally see your runner. Just when you worry that you must have missed him and that he has already crossed the finish line, you will see him. At this point, remember the rule of NO engagement The only POSSIBLE exception to the rule of NO engagement is photography. For most parents, this is ill-advised. Proceed at your own risk.

6) Find the finish line. Other parents may know additional spots where you can spot your runner along the course; however, they also then know how to sprint over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house before catching the final seconds of the race. Don't risk it. Get thee to the finish line.

7) Note the time as your runner crosses. Do NOT note as she grimaces, hobbles, and limps through the final chute.

8) Find your runner. Have water. Have a towel. He will not accept either, but that's not the point. These are merely good-parenting props. Your runner may, in a lapse of exhaustion-induced insanity, deign to speak to you. He may ask, "How did I do?" Even though you will know the precise time of his finish, there is only one possible response: "That was a strong finish!"

9) Post race, your runner will be required to do warm downs and hydrate. She may even have to endure speeches from the coach. She will be hungry and thirsty. She will be hot and sticky. Offer to help with her bags. Remember, she will not appreciate your thoughtfulness. You make this offer only to know that you did the right thing in front of other parents.

10) As your runner hobbles to the car, he may finally speak to you -- to remind you of how awful cross country is. In this case, revert to number one -- acknowledge him from as much distance as you can wrangle inside of a car. Do not attempt to engage. If you think he wants you to engage, you will be wrong.

On the upside, though, the whole thing took something like 30 minutes -- giving you plenty of time to get home and and throw together something super simple like this "Green Pasta."

"Green" Pasta

I've prepared a number of "Green Pasta" versions this cross country season, but this one is our favorite, especially when served with grilled chicken tenders.

2 cups of uncooked ditalini pasta

2 cups of small broccoli f1orets
3-4 cups of baby spinach leaves, chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 zucchini, cut in a small dice
1 garlic clove, minced
red pepper flakes

juice from half a lemon
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 can chicken broth

Bring a large pot of well-salted water (it should taste like the ocean) to a boil. Stir in pasta, cooking until almost done. In the meantime, heat olive oil in a heavy skillet over high heat. When rippling, stir in zucchini, garlic and a light sprinkling of red pepper flakes. Sauté until zucchini is lightly browned.

Just before the pasta is done cooking, stir in broccoli. Cook two minutes, drain, and return to pan. Toss spinach with hot pasta until wilted. Stir in zucchini mixture. Stir in lemon juice, oregano and about half the can of chicken broth. Adjust seasoning. Add more chicken broth, according to your preference. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Beginning Of The End.


A few days ago, Julia ran her last high school cross country meet here in Charlotte. And hoo boy, she sure wrapped things up in style. Far and away her best race of the season, Julia's time cemented her spot on the team going to States. In fact, it put her on the school's all-time top 25. As a team captain, she's worked hard -- insanely disciplined with her training, nutrition, sleep, and leadership. The results speak for themselves. I stand in awe.

Friday, she'll run her last race in Hendersonville, NC. And as she crosses that finish line, I'll check one more thing off my "last ever" list.

For better or worse, it's habit. I don't think of myself as particularly sentimental or sappy, but for 17 years, I've mentally noted and lamented the "last" time she rode in an infant car seat, her last day in preschool, the last time she let me to read to her before bed, the last I held her hiked up on my hip, the last time I drove her home from a meet, because she wasn't yet old enough to drive herself.

Now, though, during her senior year, the "lasts" are relentless. I've snapped my last "first day of school" picture. She's pinned on her last homecoming boutonniere. I've attended my last "meet the teachers" evening. She's about to submit her last college application.

I should be happy, but as one "last" after the other slaps me upside the head, I often find myself blinking back tears.

She's my "last" baby. The last one I felt kicking and hiccuping inside of me. The last one I potty-trained (she made it easy). The last one I taught to ride a bike, and then, in a blink, the last one to get a driver's license.

Together, we'll mark a lot of "lasts" as she navigates her final year of high school, not the least of which will be 212 days, 23 hours, and 52 minutes from now, when she'll don a cap and gown, and walk confidently across a stage and into her future.

I want to make it last.

Quinoa Kale Salad
One delightful consequence of cross country training is that we're eating healthier than ever Chez Wiles. This salad is a current favorite.

1 cup quinoa
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
3-4 cups raw kale, chopped fine
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 yellow bell pepper, chopped
1 cup pinenuts
1 clove garlic, grated
1 teaspoon grated ginger
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons light-tasting vinegar (rice or champagne, for example)
1 teaspoon dark sesame oil
kosher salt
fresh ground pepper

In a small lidded saucepan, bring quinoa and broth to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until done. (About 15 minutes.) Toss quinoa with kale, and allow to cool to room temperature. Stir in chopped bell pepper and pine nuts. In a separate small bowl, whisk together remaining ingredients to make a dressing, and stir into quinoa mixture. Serve at room temperature or chilled.