Paving the Way for Welcome Surprises

April 4, 2011 at 1:36 pm Leave a comment

My stepchildren in Texas tell me they are enjoying a summer-like 82 degrees this last week of March. Up north, the pup and I walk streets bordered with an almost sculptural, frothy meringue of slowly receding snow accumulation, and at 28 during a pre-breakfast trot, our temperature is reversed. But the natural artistry of that crystallized curb-cover enchants me. “What a welcome surprise,” I observe to my unimpressed furry companion, “wrapping up a prolonged arctic season of not-so-welcome-surprises.” 

Life is like that, too. In varying degrees, our paths may be strewn with unanticipated unpleasantries. Perhaps that’s why the joy of an unforeseen gift has such a glitter about it. In my own experience, the real tragedies have been things I brought upon myself – natural consequences of accepting the group-think mentality of the popular culture. (“PC” stands for “politically correct” in most circles; to me it stands for “practically comatose,” as in, don’t bother applying critical thinking, just float along on the stream of conventional wisdom.) 

I am perpetually thankful to have those mindless days behind me. But in the course of doing a bit of moving around and a lot of floundering as a young adult, I ended up in my late-thirties with a wonderful husband, a fresh start, and trunk loads of regret over having lost touch with important people in my life. One day about fifteen years ago, said wonderful husband – who is also patient and eminently rational – responded to my moanings on this subject with a suggestion: Maybe I could locate one of the parents of my two dearest fourth-through-ninth grade girl friends, whose friendship I desperately missed.  

A decade and a half later, I have reconnected with, corresponded with, visited and been visited by, and now communicate regularly with both – two gems from the past, unearthed and treasured. What an astonishing turn of events, to be accepted back into their lives unconditionally, after decades of separation.  As a bonus, the sibling of one of them has joined the group, making us a jolly “sistahood” of four. Precious stuff. 

Emboldened by this discovery, I reached out to others: a former mother-in-law whom I adored, which led to visits with an admired former sister-in-law as well; a long-lost cousin with whom I share bonds of common interests and faith that I would never have imagined; another like-minded cousin discovered by accident on Facebook just last year; my best friend from high school, whose brother I tracked down and took to lunch one day, the ripples of re-acquaintance spreading from there; former neighbors and high school chums.

When my father became seriously ill five years ago, I also contacted people from our shared past. In particular two very dear men, one my father’s best friend from graduate school whose memory and influence have never left me, and who kindly emailed me daily when Dad’s health crisis was at a climax. The second, one of my dad’s navy buddies, another very dear man whose delightful caretaker son – whom I last saw when he was still a mischievous tween – turns out to be a spiritual “brother” whom I now count as a trusted friend and confidante. 

Each of these “reconnectings” has been a blessing in my life. Welcome and unexpected gifts, cautiously rewoven from the remnants of important ties once eroded through neglect and self-consciousness. Little surprise packages dropped on my doorstep by a loving Heavenly Father. 

Bringing about unexpected moments of wonder is, of course, much simpler when it comes to the culinary realm. Let’s explore a few possibilities together, and then invite an old friend over for an interestingly unpredictable menu of, say, Arabic stuffed zucchini known as Kusa Mashi, a Salad of Marinated Vegetables, and Mango Coconut Bread Pudding for dessert. Non-foodies, feel free to jump to the last paragraph.

Put together the vegetable salad the day before: 

2 C cauliflower florets                                           2 C broccoli florets

1 C button mushrooms                                         2 red bell peppers

1 C green beans or*                                               1 C white onion

1 large carrot                                                           1 C red wine vinegar

1 tsp coriander                                                        1 tsp dried tarragon

6 drops pure liquid stevia                                   ½ tsp salt

½ tsp garlic powder                                              ¼ C olive oil 

Remembering that any of the vegetable suggestions can be deleted and the other quantities increased to compensate, combine cauliflower, broccoli, mushrooms, red pepper (seeded and cut into 1” chunks), raw green beans or *crisp Chinese pea pods cut into 1” pieces, onion (peeled, halved lengthwise, then cut into 1/4” slices), and peeled, sliced carrot in a large non-metallic bowl. 

In a medium saucepan, heat the vinegar and seasonings just until small bubbles appear. Remove from heat, stir in olive oil, and pour over vegetables. Mix well. Cover and refrigerate overnight. 

For the stuffed zucchini, you’ll find this the perfect opportunity to pull out that time-saving box of instant brown rice you have tucked away in the cabinet: 

8 med zucchini (2-1/2#)                                      16 oz ground turkey or chicken

¼ tsp each : cardamom, coriander, gr. cloves, chili powder, & salt

1 tsp each: cumin, allspice, dried marjoram, & dried mint

1/8 tsp each cinnamon & cayenne pepper

½ C finely chopped onion                                   1 C instant brown rice

1-1/2 TB lemon juice                                              1-28 oz can chunky tomato sauce

½ C chicken broth                                                   ¼ C chopped golden raisins (opt.)

½ C raw pine nuts 

Brown meat in a nonstick skillet over medium heat along with spices about eight minutes or until no longer pink. Toss seasoned meat in a bowl along with rice, onions, lemon juice, and additional salt to taste. Add raisins if desired. Slice zucchinis lengthwise and use a small spoon to hollow out a canal from end to end, reserving excised pulp for another use – zucchini fritters, maybe? 

Place zucchini halves, cut side up, in a heavy oven-proof casserole and fill cavities with stuffing, allowing for rice to expand during baking. Stir broth into tomato sauce to thin it, then carefully spoon sauce over stuffed zucchini halves and bake at 350° for 40 minutes. Sprinkle with pine nuts and bake an additional 10 minutes. 

For the bread pudding, round up: 

4 large eggs                                                                1-1/2 C low fat evaporated milk

1-1/2 cups low fat coconut milk                         ¼ C honey

2 tsp pure vanilla extract                                     1 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp ground ginger                                            1/2 tsp ground allspice

canola oil cooking spray                                       6 cups dense-textured bread cubes

2 C mango cut into ½-inch cubes                     1/3 C flaked coconut, toasted

Combine first eight ingredients in a large bowl. Fold in bread and mango and let sit at least 30 minutes. Coat well an 11” x 7” baking dish with cooking spray and pour egg mixture into dish. Bake 60 minutes at 350°, sprinkle with coconut, and bake an additional 10 minutes. 

Top the warm pudding with a sauce of:

1 C frozen raspberries                                            ½ C canned mango pulp

1 C softened low-fat vanilla ice cream

Whir in a blender until smooth.  Keep chilled until serving. 

All of the above, just a touch of the mildly exotic to create a bit of novelty for bored diners – and cooks. 

As I put the finishing touches on this piece, a dingy-white crust still borders neighborhood yards and the morning walk time temperature has crept up to 34. But I also see a brave little orange-breasted robin hopping across the canvas of emerging beige lawn – an unexpected and delightful flash of promise, flitting across a winter-dulled landscape.  Surprising.  And most welcome.

Entry filed under: Musings of a Midwestern Foodie. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

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Recipe. According to Encarta, "a list of ingredients and instructions for making something." The thesaurus offers the alternate terms, "formula, guidelines, directions, steps, technique."

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