Archive for September, 2012

Autumn Awakening

A few days ahead of its official debut, fall has fallen upon us with a decisive “plop.” Last evening I heard my favorite local weather guy issue a hard frost warning for the upper regions of the state.  For those of you living south of the snow belt – for whom the term “seasonal vegetation” is an unfamiliar concept – a hard frost is when temperatures are sufficiently cold, for a long enough period, to seriously damage all those “annuals” we delusional Minnesotans spent good money on last May.  It’s also when the neighbors’ flower beds start looking like a linen sale at Goodwill, in one last desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable.  Like I said, delusional.

But after a summer that was more swelter than anything else, I am savoring every energizing snoutful of crisp morning air, every watercolor wash of cloud across the pale autumn sky, and every creeping stitch of crimson lace embroidering itself around the edges of fading green leaves.  I am also taking a few days to unplug, literally, from the quasi-reality of play-by-play political narration, and focus on events closer to home.  Stuff like friends fighting the good fight against medical challenges, the hope of a positive career change for loved ones, and delightful anecdotes issuing from the mouths of babes.

A friend recently told me that her school-shy grandson, Zachary, answered an inquiry about his first day of fifth grade thusly:  “It was the longest six hours of my life.”  No doubt some facial dramatics accompanied his response.  I sympathize.  I recently spent a grueling six days trying to respond to the IRS charge that we had underpaid our 2010 taxes by $624.00 – the same year, mind you, that they had sent us an unrequested $550.00 refund of overpayment.  At least little Zach will outgrow his grade school desk and move on; barring some miracle of rational legislation, the IRS will be hovering always.

Another closer to home event is the publication by an acquaintance of a lovely little recipe collection titled Desserts in Jars:  Fifty Sweet Treats That Shine.  Now, I am constantly thinking that I’ve come up with a novel recipe idea, only to do an internet search for, say, “peach and fig chutney,” that turns up a dozen variations of my brainstorm that have already saturated the web.  Storm indeed.

Once I got a hold of a copy of Shaina Olmanson’s brightly illustrated gem of a book, I was astounded with the creativity, skillful writing, and beautiful photography – which she does herself – that landed her in this cozy little niche of the cookbook market.  When I cornered her at church last week and further learned that her very professional, award-winning web site has thousands of subscribers, I first reacted like a slightly dazed boxer.  Should I take a TKO, and give up my own meager efforts?  If this is what the field holds – young, ambitious, MFA-seeking bombshells of talent, with the savvy to cut through the jungle that engulfs the path to publishing success – should I even fool myself into thinking I’ll ever have a shot? Apples to oranges, I know, but still…

Fortunately I have another acquaintance who also happens to be a gifted fellow writer and a dear friend, and who helps me past these spasms of self-doubt.  Bless her.  Everyone with a dream should have a half-dozen friends like mine.  “Apples to oranges is correct,” she reminds me in an email.   But it’s more than that.  “The entire focus of why [you and I] write is very different, and our drive to write is also.  I lament that some of the old avenues for publishing are not available today.  Where do I fit?  Or do I even fit?  Apple, orange, pear, or kiwi, I will figure it out, or God will hit me over the head and show me… [but] what and how He is using me outside of writing is the most important.”

She concludes,  “Finally, I get to the Luther quote:  ‘To have faith, to love, to endure suffering, these three should be enough to keep us delightfully busy.’  And by love he didn’t mean the warm fuzzies, he meant love that acts.”

I have been so certain that I was being called to write – profiles of inspiring people of faith; nutrition and recipe pieces promoting good health; advice for a life of purpose and moral courage – that I forget, sometimes, that taking my mother-in-law to the grocery store on Thursday mornings can be an act of love.  But only if I approach it with a right heart and mind, not resentful of time taken away from the keyboard, but consumed with gratitude for the opportunity to serve.

I may not be published, I may not be unique, I may not know exactly what to do next to ensure that I’ll have justified my existence by the time I leave this earth.  But I can learn to listen with an unbiased ear to the echoes of my Lord’s voice, and to maintain my soul “open to the facts of God’s creative purpose, and not muddle it with my own intentions.”  (Oswald Chambers.)

So we work toward goals, as best as we can define them, but we take care not to lose track of the small graces we are invited to participate in every day.  And we don’t compare ourselves to other varieties of produce.

Now, I unabashedly offer you my own modest, not-particularly-original rendition of a Ghirardelli cookie recipe, revised and tweaked and, I think, rather delectable.  I didn’t take a picture, because photography isn’t really my thing, but I’ll trust you to put your imagination in gear.  Can’t you almost feel your nostrils tingle with the taunting aroma of freshly baked cookies on a hard-frost-warning September afternoon?

Coconut, Pecan, Butterscotch, Chocolate Chip Cookies

1-1/4 C unbleached flour                                                          1 C white wheat flour

1 tsp baking soda                                                                        ½ tsp salt

1 C softened butter                                                                     ¾ C sugar

¾ C brown sugar, packed                                                         2 tsp vanilla

3 eggs                                                                                             ¾ C bittersweet chocolate chips

¾ C butterscotch chips                                                              ¾ C sweetened flaked coconut

¾ C chopped pecans

Whisk together flours, soda, and salt; set aside.  Beat butter with sugars on low speed until creamy.  Continuing on low speed, add vanilla and eggs, one at a time, until mixture is well blended.  Gradually blend in flour mixture.  Stir in chips, coconut, and pecans and drop by 1/8 cup measure (or cookie scoop) onto ungreased cookie sheets.  Bake on middle shelf of oven for approximately ten minutes, rotating cookie sheet after five minutes, until golden but still a bit soft.  Cool on wire racks.  Pour large glass of cold milk.  Enjoy.

As I prepare to hit the “publish” button, I am hearing that the city of Duluth got a dusting of snow last night.  Plop, plop.

September 24, 2012 at 3:35 pm 2 comments

Summer, When It Sizzles

It’s been a cruelly hot season.  I could be uttering that comment from almost any state in the union this summer of 2012, or from a lot of international locales for that matter.  But then plenty of our ancestors, living in eras predating the “threat” of greenhouse gases, have suffered similar heat wave conditions.  London, in 1858; New York in 1896; most of North America in 1936. 

Such references are sacrilege to those who view the dogma of Global Warming as Gospel Writ, but historical cycles of radical temperature fluctuation are documented by both human records and geological evidence.  On the other side of the argument, some of the prime movers behind the concept of climate change – at Britain’s University of East Anglia, for example – have been exposed as having deleted, doctored, and withheld information that fails to support the theories upon which their careers are founded.  They also sought to blacklist both the scientists who refute those theories and journals which publish opposing viewpoints.  That’s a clincher for me. 

But I really didn’t intend to make this a piece on political controversies.  (There’s always so darned much to fume about, is the problem.)  I’m thinking in more down-to-earth terms, as I while away a rare Monday morning when my husband and I can both sit in the study together, clicking away at our keyboards – he playing solitaire and listening to Mexican music on Pandora, me rambling my way to the true topic of the day for this blog posting.  Guess we’re the 21st century version of celebrating Labor Day by avoiding real labor of any kind. 

As for that practical perspective, I could thank this scorcher of a summer for forcing me to make some positive changes:  A literally sickening bout of overexposure one 105° day in early July motivated me to move my four-mile power walk from pre-lunch to pre-breakfast.  Who needs all that direct sun exposure, anyway?  How much cooler, more comfortable, and shady the walking path is at seven a.m.  I got a particularly early start one day last week, and was treated to a soul-stirring view of the sun, glistening like a freshly-cut blood orange just above the eastern horizon.  Talking to God feels like a true one-on-one in those still quiet hours, before the neighborhood starts to rumble into full-gear. 

I’ve also changed some cooking habits, like starting things – oiled, quartered red potatoes, for example – in the microwave, then finishing them on the stovetop.  Or maybe starting a main dish on the stovetop, allowing for a 15-minute finish in the oven rather than an hour-long sauna-maker of roasting time. 

And the weather has apparently been very good to people’s vegetable gardens – at least to those who were diligent about watering.  More than one kind neighbor has gifted us a bucketful of cucumbers and tomatoes.  Now there’s another motivator:  a pile of plump, luscious, juicy, red lycopersicon esculentum – that New World discovery which our European friends can thank Christopher Columbus for exporting back to them, along with its full complement of 14 essential nutrients. 

I cubed some of the Roma tomatoes and tossed them with peeled, diced cucumbers and a light lemon juice and olive oil dressing, with salt and pepper to taste, but any good Italian-style dressing would work for this summer version of an enticingly crunchy tossed salad. 

When most of the beefsteak tomatoes came to full ripeness at the same time, I remembered I had a drawer full of zucchini and two eggplants waiting impatiently in my vegetable crisper.  A little recipe skimming on the internet, and PING! came the idea for my new favorite veggie casserole.  Add some lightly sautéed, sliced smoked sausage and it could easily become a main dish. 

I served pork chops braised in red wine with shallots with the Cheesy Layered Eggplant, Zucchini, and Tomato casserole to a whole tableful of non-eggplant eaters.  They scraped every last bit from the serving bowl and never knew what hit ’em. 

On another sweltering afternoon, I discovered a really good price on chicken thighs and let Better Homes and Garden online inspire this lightened version of Chicken With Golden Raisins.  Served with ultra-quick-cooking whole grain couscous and a spinach salad, we gave thanks for the blessing of digging into a pile of appetite-reviving richness, even in the middle of…whatever you choose to call this.  I call it a good excuse to sound off a little, and an even better excuse to cook light. (more…)

September 5, 2012 at 4:28 pm Leave a comment

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