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Joy in Pain

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“Well, we all like things to be predictable, don’t we? We expect things to be safe and to keep on happening just the way they always have. We expect the sun to rise in the morning. We expect to get up, survive the day and finish up back in bed at the end of it, ready to start all over again the next day. But maybe that’s just a trick we play on ourselves, our way of making life seem ordinary. Because the truth is, life is so extraordinary that for most of the time we can’t bring ourselves to look at it. It’s too bright and it hurts our eyes. The fact of the matter is that nothing is ever certain. But most people never find that out until the ground suddenly disappears from beneath their feet.”
― Steve Voake, The Dreamwalker’s Child

Sunday night I called my Dad from the road. I had stopped for a break somewhere in Missouri, and just wanted to hear his voice. He sounded good. He was still in the hospital, but was fully hydrated, thanks to an IV line. His speech, which had been horribly slurred and difficult to understand, was clear. You could hear in his voice that he was tickled I was almost there, and would be there the next day. We exchanged “I love you”s and hung up.

I was stoked that he was sounding so good, and started imagining all the things we were going to do – playing cards, maybe making a puzzle, sitting and talking about Life, drinking a sip of port or scotch or beer. A sip is about all he could handle – he hadn’t eaten in over a week due to the tumors pressing on his stomach.

Climbing into my car at 3 am, exhausted after the previous day’s 1000 mile drive, I was determined to make the final push to Albuquerque and get Dad out of the hospital and back into his house. I had to pull over and close my eyes a few hours later, but I kept on going.

Then my sister called.

“Bad news…” uh oh

Dad had died in his sleep peacefully around 8:00 am.

I pulled off the highway – well, that’s sort of wrong. I didn’t gracefully put on my blinker and ease to a stop. I slammed on the brakes and swerved to the shoulder, winding up directly under the Exit 40 sign (Elk City, OK, if you’re curious). I put my head on the steering wheel and sobbed big, heaving sobs. Then I texted the only person I could think of, and he called me back immediately and listened to me blubber. I have no idea what I said…

After we hung up, I pushed back the tears, texted a few friends and family to let them know what was happening, and looked at the road. I took a deep breath, sat up straight, blew my nose and wiped my eyes, and pulled back onto the road. I still had 7 hours to go and, damn it all, I was going to get there.

As I drove, I thought about impermanence. I thought about how none of us really knows from minute to minute what lies ahead, and the only thing we can do is be flexible and roll with life, grabbing it by the horns and living it. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, said,

“It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.”

As that floated through my head, it occurred to me that my suffering was because of MY expectations about the coming weeks, and MY loss and how it affected MY life. I shifted my perspective to think about what his own death meant to Dad.

It meant that he went to see Mom on her birthday (yes, he died on my mom’s birthday).
It meant that she most likely greeted him with huge platters of homemade food and exotic cheeses and fruit and fresh, crusty loaves of bread – a feast to celebrate his arrival. I bet she even made a cheesecake.
It meant that he got to hold my sister Maureen in his arms again for the first time in 40 years. I can only imagine the emotion in that hug.
It meant that he could breathe freely and laugh again.
It meant that he could have a tall, cold German beer.
It meant that he could sit and talk with his mother and father. He never really knew his father, who died when he was only three.
It meant that his pain was gone.

When I started thinking about his death from that perspective, taking myself out of the equation, I became joyful. I cried again, but they were happy tears over the fabulous day he must be having. There were so many good things happening all at once for a man who sacrificed so much of himself here for so many people. How could I be sad?

So, despite my loss, I choose to rejoice over the fact that I had this lion of a man in my life for 51 years. I rejoice that he was my father, and taught me through his actions about honesty, integrity, morality, compassion, and love. I rejoice that I was privileged enough to witness his passionate focus, his sacrifices for his family, his determination, and his ability to overcome heartbreak. I rejoice to know he is walking somewhere, fingers intertwined with my mother’s, whistling as he goes.

Sleep well, Dad. See you in about 40 years…

The Decision

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” – Pema Chödrön

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My dad has cancer. There, I said it. He doesn’t just have some small, localized, fixable cancer. He has the kind that spread all over his internal organs, insidiously invading his whole body. There are tumors hanging on his insides like ripe fruit on a tree, but this fruit can’t be picked. There’s no way to operate and remove his cancer. It dangles, tauntingly, putrefying on the branch, destroying everything it touches.

So we have begun a waiting game. He, waiting for the inevitable reunion with my mother, my sister Maureen and his next adventure in a place unknown to us. Me and my sister Kat, waiting for the inevitability of losing a man whose presence has always been steady and unfailing.

The writer Jane Green, in her book The Beach House, said, “Nothing in this world happens without a reason. That we are all exactly where we are supposed to be, and then the pieces of the puzzle have a tendency to come together when you least expect it.”

There is truth here. Decisions made by a family member living close to my father, the breakdown of my marriage, the independence of my daughter, a contractual obligation that I move out of my apartment by the end of June, are all pieces of my puzzle that, when completed, reveal a perfectly clear picture of what I need to do in response to my father’s diagnosis. I will be moving to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the duration of his illness, which according to the doctors is expected to be between three weeks and three months. I will be vacating my apartment, putting my belongings in storage, and hitting the road with only the desire to make my father’s last weeks on this earth joy filled and loving.

This was a remarkably easy decision to make. There is, despite my poor skills at keeping in touch, nothing more important to me than my family and friends. I routinely forget to send birthday cards, frequently forget to update my family on changes in my life, and don’t have the best track record for staying in touch. However, that just means I’m a poor communicator, not that I love any of them with any less than my full heart.

It is my hope that this blog will afford me an outlet. It is a chance to chronicle my father’s journey as well as my own journey toward becoming a more whole, compassionate human being. I would like to talk about the lessons I learn, the things my father teaches me, and small moments of each day. I would like to share the joyful and loving moments, and the moments of heartbreak as well. I will share his humor, his stories, and reveal the lion among men that he is. My father has lived an extraordinary life, one that is part of a lineage that has its roots in Ireland’s County Roscommon. I am honored to have the opportunity to share the end of his life with him.

This is going to be a fairly raw journey, to pretend otherwise would be to lie. I have to remember, however, that there is still much joy to be had in my father’s life. There is still much living to be done, and so I will help his failing body accomplish what his strong soul still reaches for… And Life goes on.

“Before us great Death stands
Our fate held close within his quiet hands.
When with proud joy we lift Life’s red wine
To drink deep of the mystic shining cup
And ecstasy through all our being leaps—
Death bows his head and weeps.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke

Doing the Southern Thing

“Savannah is amazing with the town squares and the hanging moss and the French Colonial houses. It’s brutally romantic.” – David Morrissey

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River Street, Savannah, GA

Last summer, I went on vacation to visit friends and family up and down the east coast. My southernmost stop was Savannah, GA, a city that was totally new to me. I fell completely and totally in love with this city, from her oppressively humid nights redolent with the smells of salt marsh and flowers to her gracious inhabitants. I also fell in love with southern food.

A friend called me up one morning at 7:00 and asked me to meet him for breakfast. He was just getting off his shift at the firehouse and wanted to eat before he headed home. So we met at a restaurant on River Street (pictured above) and sat at the worn wooden bar. He ordered a Bloody Mary and we got two plates of shrimp and grits. It was the one dish that I had on my “must try” list, and if breakfast was a good time to have it, I was game. When I put the first forkful of warm, creamy, cheesy grits into my mouth, I thought I might swoon. It was the ultimate comfort food, and exceeded all my expectations. I couldn’t get enough! I remember giving him some of my shrimp, because the meal became all about the grits for me.

Since returning home, I’ve tried recreating that unbelievable plate of grits. I’m not there yet (I suspect they used some shrimp stock in theirs), but this is a passable version. There are a lot of recipes that call for using milk instead of water, but I don’t love it that way – it’s too creamy. If you want to go that route, start with half milk (unsweetened almond milk) and half stock and adjust to taste from there. I’ve added chopped spinach, which is completely optional. Let the grits cool in a mold for slicing and sauteing or add a little extra water for a softer version.

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Cheesy Spinach Grits

serves 4 as a side dish

  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tsp. Better than Bouillon vegetable bouillon paste
  • 1/2 cup white grits, not instant
  • 1/2 cup frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
  • 3/4 – 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese (use Daiya if going vegan)
  • a palmful of parmesan or vegan parmesan cheese
  1. In a medium sized saucepan, bring water and bouillon paste to a boil over high heat. Whisk in grits, reduce heat to low, and cover.
  2. Cook 12 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent lumps. Uncover and add cheeses and spinach, stirring to incorporate well.
  3. Taste for seasoning, adding salt if desired (I found the salt in the bouillon was adequate). Pour into molds and chill or eat right away.
  4. To reheat, cut cakes out of the molded cold grits. Melt Earth Balance or butter in a nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat. Add a teaspoon or so of oil. Add grit cakes and fry until golden brown and warm.

These are good any time of day or night.

As always, comments are welcome!

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Comfort sweets

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The other day, after dropping my daughter off in Cambridge, MA, I was hit with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. The first time I left her in Cambridge, she was a high school junior about to study calculus at Harvard University for the summer. I cried my eyes out on the Mass Pike on the way back to New York, begging and pleading the powers that be to keep her safe. She was fine and earned 8 college credits.

Now she’s nearly 21 years old and going into her junior year at college as a physics major. She is a remarkable young woman, full of promise and potential. I offer this recipe to you because it was one of our favorites before she became a vegan. It’s based on the Famous Amos recipe from the 1980s, and, yes, vegans can substitute any egg replacer for the eggs. We’ve done it with great results.

A note about the ‘lumps’ ingredient. This could be any combination of candy chips (chocolate, butterscotch, coconut, M&Ms, etc.) and dried fruits. You are limited only by your imagination. If you are a vegan, know that Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips are vegan. Yay!

Sorta-Famous Amos Cookies

  • 2 sticks softened butter or Earth Balance vegan margarine (1 cup), softened
  • 3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 tsp. water (omit if you use large eggs)
  • 2 medium sized eggs
  • 2.5 cups all-purpose flour (whole wheat pastry is fine)
  • 1 tsp. baking soda, sifted
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 3.5 cups lumps
  1. Preheat oven to 375F.
  2. Beat butter/margarine, sugars, vanilla, water and eggs with electric mixer until creamy and thoroughly blended. Sift together flour, soda and salt and add to wet mixture. Dump in lumpy stuff and mix until well distributed.
  3. Measure dough by spoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets (works great if you have parchment paper). Allow about 1.5 – 2 inches between dough balls. Bake for 8 minutes for teaspoon sized cookies, longer for bigger ones, or until golden and done to your liking. A tablespoon sized scoop takes about 11-12 minutes to my liking.

Enjoy these cookies with the people you love. Life’s too short not to eat chocolate!

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snoopy_chocolate chips

Summer Bounty

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness?” – John Steinbeck

A few summers ago, we went to visit my mother-in-law at her summer home in upstate New York. The weather may or may not have been perfect; I don’t recall. There may or may not have been other people visiting; I don’t recall. I may or may not have had a good visit; I really don’t recall. What I do remember is that one evening she brought a pie to the dinner table and the angels sang.

My mother-in-law is a queen of pie generation. She can take any fruit in any stage of ripeness and make a pie. She can whip out a pie crust in seconds flat with a fork. (As an aside, I’ve tried her method and it doesn’t work for me; I just wind up flipping chunks of butter and flour all over myself and the kitchen floor. So I usually use my food processor to make pie crust.) This night, she presented us with a tomato pie. It contained beautiful beefsteak tomatoes from her garden, fresh herbs, and cheese. It tasted like the very essence of summer and I immediately fell in love.

After requesting the recipe, which my mother-in-law graciously gave me, I brought it home and made it immediately. Mine had the right flavor, but it was soggy on the bottom. So I went into tinker mode, because I knew this recipe had good bones and I wanted it to work so badly. I tried to make it with a different crust, but the second pie had the same bottom defect, so I surmised the filling was the problem, not the crust. (My daughter became a vegan shortly after this, so I had to start using a different crust from the original recipe, anyway.)

One of the things I love about tomatoes in season is their juiciness and sweetness. The juiciness, however, was killing my crust. So the question became, “How do I remove some moisture but retain the sweetness of the fruit?”  Seeding the tomatoes helped, but it’s awfully hard to seed a beefsteak tomato. Seeding Roma tomatoes is easier, but I still had a moisture problem. I hit on the idea of roasting the tomatoes before putting them in the pie, which removed about half the moisture and concentrated the flavor. I also layered the pie more like a lasagna, which put a layer of cheese in between each layer of tomato. The end result was a pie with intense tomato and herb flavor, gooey cheesiness, with a lovely dry bottom crust. I was elated!

Since that summer, I’ve made this pie many, many times with all sorts of variations. I have used a nut crust, a whole wheat crust, a standard short crust, and a cheese crust. I also have used store-bought crust. I’ve used all sorts of different mustards. Sometimes I put in a few tablespoons of pesto, either basil, spinach or black olive, in place of the fresh herbs. Occasionally I add thyme and oregano as well, or just a good sprinkle of dried Italian seasoning. I have varied the cheeses and added pepperoni to give it a more pizza flavor. It is a very versatile pie, but you must ALWAYS roast the tomatoes.

A note about store-bought crust: I am all for convenience. I usually keep a package of Oronoque Orchards (made by Mrs. Paul’s) deep dish pie crust in my freezer. However, don’t sacrifice convenience for health. Check the ingredients on the crust label. If it contains lard or partially hydrogenated ANYTHING as the primary fat source (very close to the top of the list of ingredients, probably right after flour), don’t buy it! Give your body every chance at health you can.

Tomato Pie

(serves 6, if you’re lucky)

  • one single crust pie crust, deep dish if you buy it from the supermarket
  • 1 T dijon-style mustard
  • 2 or 3 large beefsteak tomatoes, cut in 1/2″ – 1/3″ slices
  • 2 cups grated cheese, at least half mozzarella, divided (I use Daiya brand shredded vegan cheese if serving my daughter and regular dairy cheese if serving my husband)
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided (I use Galaxy brand vegan parmesan for my daughter)
  • 2 T fresh basil, julienned
  • 2T fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • salt
  • ground black pepper
  1. If making your own pie crust, place in deep dish or tart pan, prick bottom liberally with a fork and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. If using frozen pie crust, let thaw, prick with a fork, then place in fridge for at least 30 minutes.
  2. While crust is chilling, preheat oven to 400F. Place a sheet of parchment paper on a 13″ x 17″ half sheet pan or two smaller cookie sheets. Spray lightly with Pam.
  3. Place tomato slices close to each other, but not touching, on prepared sheet pan. You should completely fill the sheet pan. Get more tomatoes if you need to. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Roast for half an hour in preheated oven. The slices should collapse a little but maintain their shape. Remove sheet pan from oven and set aside.
  4. Remove chilled crust from fridge and place on cookie sheet. Put a sheet of foil or parchment paper inside crust, fill with pie weights or dried beans and place in oven. Bake for 8 minutes. Remove foil and beans and bake another 2 minutes. Crust will not be fully cooked. Set aside to cool.
  5. Reduce oven temperature to 350F.
  6. Brush the bottom of the cooled crust with a thin, see-through layer of mustard (I usually squirt mustard in and use my fingers to smear it around).
  7. Using a spatula (I use a small offset spatula) place half the tomatoes, overlapping, on the bottom of the crust. Evenly sprinkle with all the herbs, half the Parmesan, and half the shredded cheese. Layer the remaining tomatoes, Parmesan and shredded cheese in the pie.
  8. Bake for 25 – 30 minutes, until crust is browned and cheese is melted. Remove from oven, set aside for 5 minutes and serve warm with your favorite salad. (You MUST set it aside for a few minutes. Otherwise you will be biting into molten tomato pie, which will result in that little flappy burn right on the roof of your mouth like the one you get from pizza.)

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Summer bounty: It’s a beautiful thing!

 

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A final thought: One night last week, Louise snuck out to the fridge in the middle of the night and ate the remaining tomato pie. She left us the following in its stead. Such is the madness that tomato pie inspires in our home…

 

SOS – the Vegan Version

NOTE: I offer this somewhat sentimental post with thanks to the millions of men and women in the Armed Forces who have given their sweat and blood to protect our country. Thank you.

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from OneMansWonder.com

Not too long ago, my husband and I were talking about a dish that both our fathers used to make: creamed chipped beef on toast, lovingly known in the U.S. military as “Shit on a Shingle”. It’s a very thrifty, humble, yet exceedingly quick dish to prepare, requiring only a few ingredients. It is a balm on those days when old-fashioned comfort food is needed.

In 1910, the Army included creamed chipped beef in its cookbook for the first time. The recipe was simple, using beef stock, evaporated milk, parsley and black pepper, and served over dry toast. The beef was added just before serving to keep the sauce from getting too salty. As World War II approached, the Army changed the recipe, omitting the beef stock and parsley, replacing it with a medium thickness cream sauce. What the early recipe omitted (but what was known by the cooks themselves) was that the dried beef had to be soaked overnight in water, then the water drained off in the morning.

This recipe crept into the Navy recipe books as early as 1932. Below is a page from 1932’s The Cook Book of the United States Navy. As can be seen, dried beef was used at this time, and soaking the meat was now an official step in the recipe.

image of individual page

Somewhere around the time of the Vietnam War, (1944’s Cook Book of the United States Navy still listed dried beef as an ingredient), the U.S. Navy made a switch to minced (ground) beef. They also added tomato sauce and mace or nutmeg. During my research, I was unable to find an online copy of the Navy’s Cook Book from the 1960s, so I can’t confirm this change; it remains a word of mouth alteration. Regardless, the current U.S. Navy cookbook has recipes for creamed chipped beef, creamed ground beef, and creamed ground turkey. The ground meat recipes add onions and worcestershire to the basic recipe, and the tomato sauce is nowhere to be seen. (Note: If you want to see the current recipes that the U.S. armed forces use, go to: http://www.combatindex.com/recipes/recipes_meat.html)

In the 1960s and 1970s, both my father and my husband’s father made this dish for our families. Rick’s dad (who never served in the military, but learned the recipe from his father, a cook in a logging camp) made the Navy version with ground beef and the addition of peas, and my dad made the Army version with chipped beef. It was always served over dry white toast, which always got soggy within minutes (blech). My father served in the Air Force, and, although I cannot find an online Air Force cookbook, I have to believe that the version he remembers is more likely from the Army, as the Air Force was originally the Aeronautical Division of the U.S. Army, not becoming an independent coequal entity until 1947, and my Dad served in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Fast forward to late Spring 2012. My husband had a craving for SOS, but these days we are eating a healthy diet. He challenged me to make a lower fat, healthier version of SOS. Then he dared me to make it vegan. He wanted it the way his Dad made it – with peas. I was glad to whip something up. Following is vegan SOS. Although it has been veganized, and it is a far cry from the salty, fatty version I grew up with, I believe it will do in a pinch.

Vegan SOS, ready to dish up

Vegan Shit on a Shingle

  • 1/2 roll Gimme Lean ground beef style crumbles
  • 2 T Earth Balance vegan margarine
  • 2 T all-purpose flour
  • 1 3/4 cups almond milk, warmed in the microwave or in a small saucepan
  • pinch salt
  • generous black pepper
  • two handfuls frozen baby peas
  • two slices toast, halved diagonally (thick white slices are best. I used rye because it was all I had in the house.)
  1. In a non-stick frying pan, saute Smart Ground in olive oil until crispy on the edges, breaking up the larger lumps as you go. Set aside when done.
  2. In a separate sauce pan, melt Earth Balance over medium-high heat and whisk in flour. Cook, whisking occasionally, until roux is light golden brown, about 3 or 4 minutes. Whisk in the almond milk and salt, and cook until thick and bubbly, stirring constantly. Add ground black pepper to taste.
  3. Add in the cooked Smart Ground and two handfuls of frozen peas. Turn off the heat, leaving the pan on the burner for a few minutes, letting the residual heat cook the peas.
  4. Place the toast on a plate and ladle on the hot creamy mixture. Serve with hot sauce (my father’s addition).

SOS, served up and ready to go!

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Epic Fail

photo by Stephanie Weaver

One of my favorite dishes EVER is curried roasted cauliflower. I like it with grilled meat, with vegan dinners, or even by itself as a snack right when it comes out of the oven. My daughter LOVES it, as does my husband, who once said the famous words, “I’ll never eat cauliflower!” Now he eats roasted cauliflower and cauliflower soup. If I could only get him to eat beets…

Today I set out to make some masala dal (a soupy Indian dish made from legumes not unlike split peas, spices, chiles and herbs) and roasted cauliflower for dinner. I thought I might also make coconut rice, but the jury was still out.

So, armed with a decent menu and plenty of time, I prepped the dal and got it going in the crockpot. I cut the cauliflower into bite-sized pieces, tossed them with olive oil, curry powder and a pinch of kosher salt. I put them on a sheet pan sprayed with PAM and put them in a 350 oven to roast. About 15 minutes later, I flipped them so the crispy part of the cauliflower was now up and another part of the florets could get crispy. All was well.

I decided to run downstairs and switch out the laundry. Then I put the clothes away, decided to brush my teeth. Realized I was sleepy and lay down for a nap. Woke up an hour later to an unpleasant aroma.

I jumped out of bed, shouted a four-letter word, to which my daughter replied very concernedly, “What’s WRONG?” I ran down the hall, trailing the word “Cauliflower!” behind me. I turned off the oven, grabbed a kitchen towel and Pulled the smoking tray of charred vegetable matter out. With smoke billowing behind me, I raced to the deck, and dropped the sheet pan on our metal deck table. I could hear the cauliflower popping like corn. I imagined every last little bit of moisture in them had long since been baked out and now little black holes were forming in the interiors of the stalks. Here’s what remained.

Epic fail.

But fortune smiled on me. I went to the grocery store to buy another cauliflower and they were on sale for 99 cents each, so I got two. Now I have a spare in case it happens again.

Wish me luck!

Just for fun, here’s a video that my daughter posted, post burn.

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I should have sent the cauliflower here…