A humorous, optimistic blog about Food, Family, Friends and Faith

Archive for July, 2011

Comfort Food

Lately, life has been a little stressful. From finding out I need dental surgery as well as two new crowns, to the events leading up to my sister’s wedding, a visit from my aged parents, money worries and plain old PMS, I’ve been edgier than a cat in a Chinese market.

Today, however, I have carved out a big old chunk of “me” time. That includes making myself some comfort food. It doesn’t fit in with any diet, it’s not vegan. Honestly, there aren’t a whole lot of health benefits to this dish, other than its therapeutic ones. It’s plain old love in a bowl.

Everyone has their turn-to comfort foods. Some people go for salty foods, some for sweet. Some seek the hot sauce, some grab the nearest chocolate available. I go for the ooiest, gooiest, cheesiest thing I can find. Today I made a big steaming pan of whole grain penne with not 1, not 2, but SIX kinds of cheese. And I baked it in my earthenware baking dish so it would have crunchy bits around the edges. Love in a bowl…

Mamadeon’s Six Cheese Pasta Bake

  • 1 box (13.25 oz. – 16 oz.) small tube pasta (today I used Barilla Multi Grain Penne)
  • 2 cartons (10 oz. ea.) refrigerated Alfredo sauce OR 1.5 15-oz. jars Alfredo
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 6 oz. cream cheese, well softened
  • 1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese (any kind) or feta cheese
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 carton (15 oz.) ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, divided
  • 1/4 cup grated Romano
  • 2 cups mozzarella, divided
  • Sriracha sauce for serving
  1. Cook pasta according to package directions. It should be cooked al dente. Drain and return to pot.
  2. In a bowl, whisk together Alfredo sauce, sour cream and cream cheese. Add crumbled blue cheese and mix well. Pour over pasta and toss to coat well. Spoon 1/2 of this mixture into a greased (think Pam) 3-qt. baking dish and spread into an even layer.
  3. Combine eggs, ricotta, 1/4 cup Parmesan, Romano and 1/2 cup mozzarella in a bowl. (Save yourself some  dishwashing – use the same one you mixed the Alfredo sauce in.) Spread over pasta in baking dish. Top with remaining pasta (and all the Alfredo sauce). Sprinkle with 1/4 cup reserved Parmesan and the remaining mozzarella.
  4. Cover with foil and bake at 350F for half an hour. Uncover and bake until lightly brown around the edges and bubbly. Get a bowl, scoop some in, squirt liberally with Sriracha sauce and enjoy!

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Slide, Baby, Slide!

Today I visited with an older couple, both in their late 70s. I haven’t seen them in a few years, and it occurred to me that they are aging in different ways. The husband has a grace about him – a slightly creaky but proud, upright man, still with a crease in his slacks, an ironed seersucker sport shirt and worn but well shined shoes. All of that is no doubt the remnants of his military and police work. The wife is aging in a crash-and-burn, fall-down-the-stairs kind of way – as though she is getting ready to slide into home plate and jump up, dust off her slacks and holler, “Woohoo – that was FUN!!”

It got me thinking about how I want to spend the next 40 years of my life. The other day my daughter and I went to my sister’s grave to tidy up and make sure it looked good for when my parents visit this weekend. We got to talking about death and dying and final resting places. I reminded her I wanted to be cremated and have my ashes sprinkled on a body of water somewhere; put me back into the cycle of the earth. Then we discussed funny things I want people to say at my funeral. My favorite line was, “Damn it, Mom, I told you you couldn’t outrun a cheetah!”

Death is part of life. I was going to get all metaphor-ish and explain my view on life and death in a philosophical way. But that struck me as pointless. When you start at one end of a loaf of bread, you’re eventually going to get to the last piece and that’s the end of the loaf. Everyone knows that and it should come as no surprise to anyone. It’s how we approach that last slice that matters. Do we eat crumb by crumb, miserly portioning out the last piece or do we throw the whole thing in the toaster and eat it with butter and honey, making that last slice as sweet as the first?

One of the most valuable things I ever did in my life was take a course at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. It was led by Elizabeth Lesser, cofounder of Omega and now frequent guest on the O channel. At the conclusion of the workshop she led us on a guided meditation of our own death. Walking up a mountain, carrying the luggage of our lives, putting down the bags one by one, so when we reached the cloud line and walked through the clouds, we were free and unencumbered, ready to experience what was on the other side. It was a liberating experience, one that eradicated the fear I occasionally experienced.

Fear can be defined as “alarm or agitation caused by expectation of danger”. This certainly explains how a lot of people feel about death and the unknown. However, fear can also be defined as “awe or reverence”. That is how I choose to approach the next 40 years of my life. Living fully, cramming as much butter and honey as I can into every day, appreciating my approaching last day with reverence and awe (and excitement) for what comes next.

Albert Einstein said somewhat irreverently, “The fear of death is the most unjust of all fears, for there’s no risk of accident for someone who’s dead.” Let’s all work to lose the fear and age in that crash-and-burn way like the woman I saw this morning. So, let’s all pick up our skirts, run like hell for home plate and slide, baby, slide!

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Thank You to the Military

My brother-in-law Anthony wrote a note tonight on his Facebook page that was so heartfelt and so honest that I had to share it. He gave me permission to do so, and I hope everyone reads this and understands the sacrifice of the men and women of our military. Some will come back from “downrange” whole, some will not. Pray for the safety of our military. Pray that all this animosity will end. Pray for peace. His words follow…

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“A few days ago I came home from a long business trip, two and a half months. While I was away my son, an Army Lieutenant, asked if a few of his soldiers could stay at the house a few days. They had temporary duty at West Point and accommodations at the Point weren’t available. Sure, no problem.

“I entered the house after seven time zones and about 20 hours of flying to find seven military police watching Pirates of the Caribbean in my living room. I work in a tough business but this was a tough bunch. There was a kid from West Virginia, another from central Pennsylvania, another from Georgia and the sergeant from Brooklyn. They were tattooed, muscled and I am glad they are on my side. I looked around the room at these young men laughing, joking and ribbing each other, as soldiers do. Two had been deployed twice, in Iraq and Afghanistan, most had been deployed once and they would all be going “downrange” the beginning of next year. The draw down the news mentions occasionally will still leave over 100,000 soldiers in harm’s way: political semantics for an upcoming political season.

“These soldiers were the sons of working men and women, not the sons of politicians. We have elected a congress, the great majority of whom, have never served. Members of congress do not send their children to the military, they send our children to war. I can’t help but wonder if they have any real connection with a military that has been at war for over eight years, two WWII’s.

“As I looked at these young men I was filled with a sense of pride. No matter how poorly thought out the political strategy, they were willing to do their duty. They were willing to go find the enemy, anywhere, to keep us safe at home; safe to complain, safe to whine, safe to live comfortably. Everyone of them was a volunteer.

“We can go days now and not hear about Iraq or Afghanistan on the news, yet every day one of them is a target. Everyday they wake to the reality that they might not be in one piece at the end of the day. The public and the politicians have lost interest in this decade-old war, yet we still have men and women fighting in places that haven’t changed in a thousand years and will be the same after we leave.

“I looked around the room and gave a silent prayer to keep each of them safe, I thanked God that America still produces these silent heroes that stand ready to go anywhere to push out the borders and keep the great majority of disinterested Americans safe this summer. We all need to stop and thank these almost invisible soldiers and sailors and airmen for fighting a war none of us really understand, a war that seems to have no end. They go quietly, unrewarded and many times they go again and again.

“Thank you 91st Military Police Battalion, 563rd Military Police Company. Thank you to everyone going downrange. I don’t think we, the comfortable majority of America, has earned your sacrifice.”

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We have not earned their sacrifice, indeed… Pray for peace…

Expectations vs. Reality

Yesterday was a HUGE day of lessons for me. My daughter and I decided to go to NY shopping for a dress and shoes for her for an upcoming wedding, as well as a pair of earrings for me. She had an idea of what she wanted and I thought it might be fun to go to the world-famous Macy*s at Herald Square. That’s the renowned Macy*s of Thanksgiving Day parade and Fourth of July fireworks fame. The classy Macy*s from Miracle on 34th Street. What we got was something completely different.

To start with, we missed the train. Well, not quite. We were standing on the platform next to the train waiting at the door. The train pulled away. We actually made the train but the conductor wouldn’t let us on. I expected the conductor would open the door to the train and let us on. The fact that we hit the platform 30 seconds after he closed the door, and were technically late, didn’t occur to me. However, it certainly occurred to him. Expectations vs. Reality.

I hurled a few choice words at the train as it lumbered away down the tracks. Then I stomped up the stairs to the ticket machine, and, with tears in my eyes, kicked the stupid machine. I really did. I kicked a ticket machine. I was SO frustrated that our trip had just been delayed a full hour that I lashed out at the poor, defenseless unit. There’s probably a security guard somewhere reviewing yesterday’s surveillance tapes wondering what the heck my problem was. But one kick, which torqued my big toe, was all it took to realize I was overreacting. I took a deep breath and was OK. Louise and I spent the next hour throwing cherry pits at the third rail (and yes, I hit it once. I also apologized to Louise for making a scene.).

When we finally got to Macy*s, the cabbie asked if going in the 7th Avenue entrance was OK. Of course, pretending to know what I was doing, I said, “Sure! That’s fine.” Umm… I’ve never been to Macy*s in my life. I expected it to be like the big Macy*s stores I’ve been to. High ceilings, recessed lighting, adequate space and shiny display cases. The reality was nothing like that. This store, immortalized in films, is a shabby, cramped, noisy, smelly, messy store. Few of the clothing racks are actually sorted so one needs to pick and choose through the merchandise. I expected the latest designer fashions, I expected beautiful clothing, I expected well manicured salesclerks assisting customers. The reality was that the Macy*s women’s dresses department looks like Filene’s basement after a bridal sale. The dresses are dirty and torn. They look like fashion from the 90s, all frumpy polyester and ruffles. Horrible stuff. And my manicured salesclerks? Try hard working stiffs just like me. Boy was that an eye-opener.

I also expected to be able to find my way around the store. After all, a 9 floor department store MUST have directories, right? WRONG! There is one directory in the center of the store in a stairwell. There are no signs hanging from the ceilings to guide shoppers, no signs at the head of the escalators to say 2 floors down you’ll find the ladies’ room or 3 floors up is the bridal department. AUGH!

Completely disappointed, we finally gave up on Macy*s and made our way out of the store through the phenomenally boring jewelry department (I can get the same stuff in our local mall). The crowds were so dense I grasped Louise’s hand to keep from losing her on the way out. We wandered north through the sweltering heat (in the mid-90s) north from 34th to 47th Street. We stopped at a few small stores along the way, in great part because they have their doors open in summertime and the frigid air beckons from the sidewalk to all passersby. At one I actually found a pair of earrings to go with the dress I’m wearing. SCORE! We stopped in a shoe store, and Louise found a great pair of sandals, which they didn’t have in her size. She tried on a fun pair of lace stiletto boots that fit, but cost $180 and would NOT be appropriate for an entire day on her feet. We kept going, because we wanted to check Forever 21, a shop that generally has some really fun dresses. Expectation? That we would find some fun dresses. Reality? We found NONE. We didn’t even find any shoes.

Since it was now 6:30 pm, and we were hot, tired and hungry, and had only one pair of earrings to show for our effort, we decided to hike back to Grand Central and take the train home. On the way, I spied a Dress Barn on a side street. Guess what? … We found her dress there. Silver and black with a tulle ruffle at the bottom. It looks fabulous on her, it flatters her figure and it was in a place we didn’t expect.

I’ve noticed that, when we need them the most, Life gives us lessons. Yesterday I received the gift of two. One was yet another on the impermanence of time. We all have a finite amount to live our lives in. We can choose to freak out and kick the ticket machine because an hour was wasted, or we can relax and spit cherry pits at the third rail for an hour. I now choose the latter.

The other was something I’ve struggled with all my life – expectations vs. reality. When life gives you an experience to live through, don’t enter it with expectations, because the reality the Universe has in store for you may be quite different. How you handle that difference is a telling barometer of how you live your life. Be open to anything and embrace it with open arms.

Yesterday I learned that I have a lot of learning left to do.

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The Green-Eyed Monster

Has there ever been a person in your life who you can’t stand visiting? A person who makes you roll your eyes into the back of your head when you find out you’ve been invited to their house (and you really can’t say ‘no’)? Did you ever invent excuses for not visiting someone like, “Gee I’m sorry, the garden needs weeding this weekend and I volunteered to make 25 crocheted baby hats by Monday.” Sound familiar?

There’s a person like that in my life, actually a family like that. I found out today that we are supposed to go to their house for a weekend this summer. A whole weekend! Ugh. Last year I had a valid reason for not coming – I had to go pick Louise up at Harvard. At least, I think that was the reason; I’m pretty sure I didn’t go. There’s no way out of it this year, though, so I decided to try to figure out why I can’t stand going.

When I laid down to take a nap this afternoon I was stewing about the visit, and it occurred to me what was really going on. It’s not that the people aren’t nice; they’re very nice and more than generous. It’s not that we’re not made to feel welcome – we are. The food is always lovely and the wine flows freely. Anything you ask for appears. I would try to do this for my guests, as well. It’s that I am, well, in a word – jealous. Me! The green monster lives in my heart. {sigh} The task then became figuring out why. Why am I jealous of these wonderful, giving people who are such good hosts?

I am not a well-off woman by any stretch of the imagination. I make $14,000 a year at my school job and my husband puts some of his earnings into the joint household account every month as well. I scrimp and try to stretch our dollars the best I can, understanding full well the difference between need and want. I have EVERYTHING I need. Absolutely everything. But when I go to their lavish house with its massive kitchen and monstrous flat-screen TV, in-ground pool and Mercedes Benz in the driveway, I can’t help but feeling a little poor. Not a little poor, a lot poor. I stand in their massive family room (with cathedral ceilings, full wet bar, pool table and a view out the wall of glass of the pool and hot tub), wearing my single pair of shoes and my six-year old (still serviceable) dress and feel very, very small.

It’s silly, I know, to be envious of “stuff” when there are so many more important things in life. My family, my health, my friends, my faith are all more important. The ability to sit here quietly on a cool, sun-kissed summer morning, listening to the birds sing is more important. The skill to make a meal that feeds people emotionally as well as physically is more important. Working in a place where I help children learn and grow and stretch to reach for goals they thought were unattainable is more important.

Plato said, “The greatest wealth is to live content with little.” He was absolutely right, and I suppose I am content. Most days I think Life is so very sweet and I feel privileged to be part of it. Most days I don’t want tons of stuff, I want adventure – I want to go out and live Life to the fullest – damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead. But when I come home on a hot summer afternoon, it sure would be nice to have central air…

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Formula Three

My husband and I decided that, due to our ever increasing corpulence (well, his increasing, my maintaining), we are going to start on healthier eating plans today. He decided to use the Nutrisystem Plan. He’s used it before and decided to do it again, since it’s familiar to him.

I don’t go in for packaged food – to me food has to be fresh to be edible, so I’m falling back on the venerable Fit for Life plan. Written in the mid-1980s by Harvey and Marilyn Diamond, Fit For Life was a breakthrough for me because it was the first plan that used REAL food in virtually unlimited portions, not fat-free this or processed that or a skimpy 1 oz. of chicken. About 70% of the food consumed should be high-water content food (think fruits and veggies) and the other 30% is concentrated foods like proteins, carbs, etc. Simple and elegant and so non-restrictive. There’s more to the program, but if you want to know more, read the book!

In the Fit for Life program, one eats fruit in the morning. You can eat as much as you need to feel satisfied, any kind, any combination. Stagger your fruit intake over the course of the morning – eat 4 times if that’s what it takes to make you comfortable. Just eat fruit until noon. This morning, I decided to have one of my favorite things – a smoothie! Like my soup formula, this formula is adapted from the Fit for Life program. It requires a blender and fruit. That’s it. Don’t be mucking up your smoothies with yogurt or milk or (shudder) sugar. All you need is fruit. So, here’s my formula for a delicious, healthy smoothie, with the usual explanation.

Smoothie Formula

  • 1/2 cup fresh juice, any flavor
  • 1 cup fresh fruit, in chunks
  • 1 cup frozen fruit, cut in chunks

Put all ingredients in the blender and blend. If smoothie is too runny, add more frozen fruit. If it’s too thick and won’t blend properly, add liquid or more juicy fresh fruit. Pour into a glass and sip, savoring the wonderfulness of real food.

Explanations

Fresh Juice – if you have a juicer and can make your own, that is the optimal way to go. If not, use a 100% bottled juice from the store. The refrigerated stuff will be fresher than the canned and bottled, but it all works. DON’T get anything labeled “cocktail”. Check the ingredients – you want 100% juice! Apple, pear and white grape are nice flavors that work with just about any flavor profile. Start with them and move to mango and pineapple and strawberry.

Fresh Fruit – Anything you like and have available. Peel fruits that have heavy skins (like apples). Seed fruits that have inedible cores (like apples). Consider first juicy in-season local fruits. They will be sweetest and juiciest. Don’t forget unusual fruits like kiwi, star fruit, mango and papaya. This is a great formula for trying out new fruits and learning about new flavors. One caveat about the fresh fruit: If you want to use citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, pomelos, etc.), the best way to use them is to juice them. As your fresh fruit addition, you would have to supreme all your fruit and that’s a pain in the butt.

Frozen Fruit – Frozen fruit is the thickener of your smoothie. It’s also what makes it cold. Too much will give you ice cream headache, too little and … well, what’s the point of a smoothie without the smooth? You can use any fruit as your frozen addition, but  it should be in pieces no larger than the top knuckle of your thumb. Larger pieces don’t blend well. As with juices, make sure that the frozen fruit you buy contains no added anything. Just honest fruit.

Consider buying fresh fruits in season and freezing them (in pieces, of course….) I have peaches, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and bananas in my freezer right now. I peel, seed, core (if needed) and slice, put the fruit in a single layer on a sheet pan and freeze uncovered. Then I transfer the frozen fruit to a freezer container (or baggie) and am ready to reach in and grab a handful. You can freeze entire peeled bananas. They are easy to cut when frozen, provided you have a sharp knife.

That’s it! Perfectly healthy, wonderful smoothies that cost nothing when compared to the commercially available, nutritionally inferior ones. Consider the following flavors (given in “juice-fresh-frozen” order) and then experiment and discover your own favorite combinations! Mix two juices together, do a fridge clearing smoothie and use 3 different fresh fruits together (banana-pineapple-peach, anyone?). Play! You really can’t make a “bad” smoothie.

  • Orange-mango-raspberry
  • Pear-watermelon-apple
  • Apple-blueberry-banana
  • White grape-kiwi-strawberry
  • Blueberry-blueberry-blueberry (yum!)

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Celebration Cupcakes

This Saturday there’s going to be a whiz-bang party to celebrate my daughter’s graduation from high school. Because her academic career was so spectacularly successful, I want the food for this party to be spectacular as well. Louise loves her sweets, but we wanted the menu to be healthy, so for dessert we decided to bake up Morning Glory muffins and top them with vegan cream cheese frosting. Truth be told, it looks and tastes like a muffin with cream cheese frosting. I believe, however, that once you top any baked good with frosting, it automatically enters the realm of cupcake. Therefore, these have been renamed Celebration Cupcakes.

My version of these muffin-cakes is different from the original. I offer the recipe here in its altered state, because this is how I’m serving it on Saturday. Feel free to tweak it to suit your tastes. This will make about 32-34 cupcakes. You can stretch it to 36 if you don’t fill your cups all the way. You might also find it easier to cut the recipe in half and only make 16 at a time, depending on the size of your mixer.

Celebration Cupcakes

  • 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 T ground cinnamon
  • 4 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup shredded sweetened coconut
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped dried apricots or dried cranberries
  • 2 large apples, peeled and grated
  • 2 cups crushed pineapple, drained (a 20-oz. can is just right)
  • 4 cups peeled and grated carrots (about 8 large carrots)
  • vegan substitute for 6 eggs (I use EnerG brand)
  • 1 1/2 cups applesauce
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 2 tsps. pure vanilla extract
  1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line 3 muffin pans (a dozen on each pan) with cupcake liners, then spray the liners with Pam.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the first six ingredients. Add the coconut, apricots, apples, pineapple and carrots and stir well. (I find that a large meat fork works well when mixing in all the shredded ingredients.)
  3. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg replacer with the applesauce, oil and vanilla. Pour into the bowl with the dry ingredients and blend well.
  4. Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin pans, filling each one to the brim. Bake for 35 minutes, or until your muffin passes the toothpick test. Let cool 10 minutes in the pan, then transfer to a cooling rack to finish cooling. Top with cream cheese frosting. Refrigerate whatever you are not eating right away.

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Vegan Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 3/4 cup non-hydrogenated margarine, softened (I use Earth Balance)
  • 1 cup vegan cream cheese (I use Tofutti)
  • 6 cups confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 T pure vanilla extract

(Note: If you have a stand mixer, use the whisk attachment to make this frosting.)

  1. Cream together margarine and cream cheese until combined.
  2. Add confectioners’ sugar in 3/4 cup batches until smooth and creamy, scraping down the bowl as needed. Add vanilla and whip until smooth. Spread on cooled cupcakes.

Variation: You can add 2-3 T of grated lemon or orange zest for a citrusy twist. Garnish with minced candied ginger or toasted coconut.

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