Posts tagged ‘menus’

What Color is Your Universe?

I have a pair of sunglasses that make the world look rosier.  They’re just clunky, black plastic cast-offs leftover from my husband’s eye surgery a few years ago; big, unfashionable, monster wraparounds. I’m not sure what tint it is that imbues the lenses with this marvelous quality, but on an overcast day, the gloomy tone is muted, and on a clear day, oh my:  The sky becomes a richer, more poetic shade of  blue, and the sun’s rays take on an intense golden hue that makes everything they bounce off of seem to glow with the promise of spring.  Well, almost everything.  It would require more than a bit of ophthalmic trickery to totally transform the gray-washed landscape this stretch of snow-deprived northland winter leaves behind it.

But lift your eyes to the skies, and the effect will grab at your breath – an intense reminder to soak in the warmth and beauty, and tuck some away for tomorrow.  Perry Como nailed it:  “Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket, save it for a rainy day.”  I think I was much better at that sort of thing when I was a child.  It’s easier, at ten, to be unaffected by news headline that seem irrelevant to your tiny square of cosmic real estate; to instead relive, on a drab, boring Tuesday, the thrill of last Saturday’s birthday party or even borrow joy ahead anticipating next week’s class outing.

But getting back there, to that spot where you are focused on something good and lovely, and you’re built up from the inside-out with optimism, seems a worthy goal for any adult steeped in relentless reality 24/7.  A January Sunday supplement article touched on this idea with a set of recommendations.  I have a history of miserably failing to measure up to such checklists, but I fared pretty well on this one.

For brightened prospects in 2012, the piece suggests, “track your passions,” and focus on core values and natural inclinations.  In my case, a set of negative circumstances – age, gap in employment, national economic decline – backed me into a spot where I am staying home, doing what I love to do.

I had already, to use the article’s catch phrases, noted that I was on a “joyless trail” before I left traditional office work to care for my dad and stepmother in 2005; I also had vivid memories of the consuming pleasure of hours spent writing, and had thus identified my “hot track”; and I’d had decades to “spot the patterns” of those activities that make my heart sing.  I’d even been able to “warm up” my life gradually, as I tiptoed tentatively onto this new path.

As for the author’s urging to “up your gratitude,” once again I felt vindicated, having been moved years ago to start writing gushy notes of appreciation to people in my life, past and present.  So maybe I don’t get an A+, since the ideal is brief, non-syrupy notes – a slightly different breed of correspondence than I’d been indulging in.  But I can try the less flowery approach from now on.  No prob.

Yup, between patting myself on the back for finally being ahead of the curve on a batch of “experts’ advice,” and armed with my own personal version of rose-colored glasses, I am very hopeful about the year ahead.  Just keep following my passion and letting people know that they are loved.  For me, the best way to cover both of those bases is to whip up a large presentation of something hearty and healthy and vibrant with color to place in front of my Partners in Dine.  And then gush about it, of course.

Something like a Simple Chicken Stir Fry with Brown Rice and some Honey-Balsamic Glazed Grilled Plums should  liven up even a snow-cloud-shrouded day like the one I am glimpsing through my study windows this morning.  The main dish requires only one pan, so clean-up is a breeze; it’s colorful, tasty, and nutrient-rich, so dinner guests are both pleased and well-nourished; and the tangy little surprise of grilled winter plums keeps things from getting dull – a good idea at any meal, but especially in the throes of mid-winter, when the next national excuse for celebration is over a month away.  (more…)

February 16, 2012 at 6:37 pm Leave a comment

Paving the Way for Welcome Surprises

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. (more…)

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

Soup Week – Not To Be Confused With Weak Soup

Two weeks ago, my bff Rae sent me a photo of a flowering Tabebuia tree currently blossoming in her yard.  The subject line of the email reads, “I guess it’s officially spring!” 

Well, maybe in Florida it is.  Not so here in East Central Minnesota.  As of the second week of March, I still can’t see my 5’2” next door neighbor standing by her vehicle when I walk down my driveway.  The culprit is not poor vision, it’s that imposing barricade of mounded snow – the result of shoveling our record-approaching snowfall out of the way for the past four and a half months.  Even as I type up these notes, more flakes appear and drift lightly to earth. 

78.7”  That’s the figure I’m hearing when I dare to peek at televised weather reports.  Sometimes it’s better not knowing these things. 

A safer bet for non-stressful television viewing is a local program that broadcasts, among other things, recipes and shopping bargains of interest to Twin Cities’ residents.  I tune in most weekdays for some lighthearted chatter as I eat a late, post-snow-trudge lunch, fascinated by a regular feature called Kitchen Takeover.  In these segments, a local media-savvy chef goes into the homes of viewers and teaches them how to introduce some novelty into family meals using ingredients they already have on hand.  The very thought sends shudders down my spine.  So much for the non-stressful bit. 

Surely I can’t be the only observer to whom this sounds more like a living nightmare than a dream come true.  I’ll grant you that it makes for good television.  But I don’t even allow my family and friends into my kitchen to help with clean-up when they’ve just finished dining at my table.  There are numerous reasons for this, not the least of which is that, even though I clean up along the way like Mom taught me, my prep area still looks as if it had been marauded by a hoard of Huns by the time everything gets dished up and set on the table. 

And doesn’t anybody else out there cook in a decades-old kitchen with warped cabinetry, dulled counter tops, squeaky drawers, and cracking linoleum?  Certainly not the eager beaverettes who gobble up the chance to invite this handsome stranger in to rummage around in their pantries.

This brings me to fess up to the foundational source of my horror at the thought:  I subscribe to the Erma Bombeck credo that it is much easier on the conscience to pack away every tiny bit of leftover food into a tightly covered container and then throw it away two weeks later, after it has started to reproduce and turn odd colors.  This practice makes me a bit self-conscious about inviting guests into the clearing-up process.  Just imagine having a celebrity chef rooting around amongst all the various petri dishes.  I can’t even. 

But keeping dibs and dabs of leftovers has advantages as well, and in my defense, I rescue far more of those little bits and bobs than ever get sacrificed to the garbage disposal – which I don’t have in my 52 year old kitchen.  One excellent use for them is in homemade soups, and this being just one more in a long succession of wintry days here in the Upper Midwest, a week of soups seems just the prescription to soothe the weary soul who longs for fresh cantaloupe, but will no doubt miss these bubbling pots of heartiness when the summer heat and humidity come rolling in. 

So, from my own files and adapted from other cited sources, I offer you recipes for Chicken Lentil Soup With Celery, Light Tomato Soup Three Ways, a swoon-inducing Sweet Potato Soup, my carnivore’s version of Rachel Ray’s Curried Vegetable Soup, the Leftover Maven’s favorite Mish Mash Beef Chowder, and finally, Christmas Soup, based on a recipe from Alton Brown.   

That’s six days’ worth; on the seventh day, you rest, and serve up a soup-sampling smorgasbord to ensure that there are no leftover leftovers.  As always, non-foodies can skip to the last paragraph.  (more…)

March 17, 2011 at 2:25 am Leave a comment

Spring Is In The Hair

I saw my breath at 7:20 a.m. a few days ago. No biggie. Except that I was on our enclosed two-and-a-half-season porch doing pre-breakfast Tae Bo at the time. It’s my Rocky Balboa thing – stocking cap, knit gloves, hooded sweatshirt, determined expression; the whole bit. 

But oh, the week we had leading up to that. Teeter-tottering temperatures had taken us from 4° to 44° in a mere three days, and by day four, I was finishing my midday walk in shirt sleeves, enjoying a 54° high – in both senses of the phrase.  

This week, the reverse: We’re in the 30s for part one and dropping to below-average temps for part two. Again, no biggie. Once we hit late February in these parts, it’s a waxed toboggan ride downhill to spring from here. You can take a lot of snow, which we have, and dipping temps, which we have, once you know ‘Ol Punxsutawney Phil has done his thing. Even adjusting Phil’s prognostications based on geographics, we can figure eight weeks from February 2nd as a benchmark. Truly no biggie. I am already dreaming of bidding au revoir to the dreadful phenomenon known as “hat hair.” 

And bless that mother-in-law of mine. She called me in to the lower-level grandma apartment this afternoon to see her miniature jonquil garden in full bloom on the bay window sill. That kind of event helps reassure us of what’s in store. Gardening books are climbing onto best seller lists all around the Midwest about now, as eager green-thumbed types draw a breath of hope from such indoor miracles as those tiny golden daffodil blooms. 

I myself have two black thumbs. My impatience for spring has more to do with a craving for prolonged daylight and the joy of seeing God’s handiwork blossom in all of the untended natural areas around us. Even a field of dandelions in the local park can be a lovely thing, since no one expects those grounds to be forced into a state of perfection. A sprinkling of sunshine-yellow in a sea of emerald. Color, at last, after this long monochrome stretch. And no inept planting efforts required on my part.  

But my spring yearnings also tie into being bored limp as a disgruntled teenager with the same Sunday roast beef dinners, pork and sweet potato stews, and mounds of roasted root vegetables that had me salivating last October. While more reasonable folks fantasize about the rainbow of colors they will soon sow all around them in the moist, warm April soil, I am scouring every source available for dishes that shriek out for spring veggies and summer fruits and light protein sources. 

So phooey on the weatherman’s predictions. This week I’m in dress rehearsal mode, gathering up any recipe that hints of vernal renewal and warm-weather ingredients. This trawling expedition nets me a random but enticing assortment: Orzo and Feta Salad and Tuna Waldorf Salad from commercial sources, and my versions of Aloo Tikki and Tilapia Hash as demonstrated by local chefs. 

And for dessert, how about one of the reduced-guilt indulgences recently published on from The Flat belly Diet (or as my brother-in-law calls it, The Fat Belly Diet; works either way, really). I like the sound of a Chocolate Quesadilla for a light, sweet post-meal treat.  

Then maybe I’ll make a March appointment with my hairdresser. A new spring ‘do to go with my new spring ‘tude. Get thee behind me, hat hair! (more…)

February 28, 2011 at 12:32 am Leave a comment

Advisor, Advise Thyself

Last week, after days of being enveloped in blankets of gray above and white below, my e-messages to friends in southern states must have started sounding pretty pitiful, from the tone of the responses I got. “I almost hate to tell you about our weather. Yesterday was an almost perfect day with a high of 73 and a cerulean sky,” wrote a longtime family friend in Tucson. And from my BFF in Mount Dora, Florida, “I hate to rub it in, especially when blizzards are blowing across the country, but it’s flat-out gorgeous here!” 

And then, a blessedly cloudless Minnesota sky mercifully releases huge doses of sunshine to we seasonally affected types here below, and my mood leaps within me. Suddenly, I am inspired to do things I have been vowing to do, like unshelving major writing projects set aside for the holidays, introducing metabolism-revving activity breaks into my desk-sitting stints, and limiting myself to more reasonable serving sizes. 

It is so darned easy to let that morning bowl of cinnamon-laced, raisin-studded oatmeal morph into two+ servings and the weekly sugary treat bloat its way into a cake and ice cream lollapalooza. Dessert splurges aside, lumberjack-size portions of even the most healthful of foods can still bring on sluggishness, adding to the winter lethargy syndrome, and can push that scale needle up incrementally but significantly over the long, cold span of winter. Let’s not even talk about where the excess poundage will – and won’t – end up settling, come ski parka-shedding time. 

I recently reminded my slim but cholesterol-challenged brother-in-law that what he does eat is just as important as what he doesn’t eat. Cutting out deep-fried foods is a good move, I instructed, but adding in lots of fresh fruits, leafy greens, and fiber-rich good stuff – like legumes and whole grains and pears, oh my – is equally essential. The bottom line? Substituting a bowlful of Good and Plenty candies for his usual three-Hershey-Bar bedtime snack isn’t exactly the kind of swap that’s going to contribute to a goal of good health. Cliff Notes version: “Fat-free” isn’t necessarily “okay.” 

Well, I may be preachy but I also have a conscience, and my loving lecture to my brother-in-law really did intensify my focus on my own errant habits. I vowed to stop fooling myself into calling that mound of peanut butter into which I am dipping my sliced apple “two tablespoons” when the application of measuring utensils belies it to be more like four, and I committed to revamping our favorite winter comfort food menus to fit everyone’s needs for both taste satisfaction and a nice result on their next lab reports. 

A good start on that promise was a very simple menu of Boneless Roast Pork Loin, Steamed Sugar Snap Peas with Roasted Red Peppers, Second-Thought Twice-Baked Potatoes, and Pear, Apricot, Pineapple Bake. And for that slender but misguided brother-in-law who dines with us once a week, I pulled out a whole hatful of tricks for amping up the nutrition in a batch of Trail Mix Cookies for the road. The how-tos follow.  (more…)

February 10, 2011 at 4:21 am Leave a comment

“Hallelujah,” And Other Mood-Altering Mental Exercises

In my small CLC congregation, we have a lovely tradition of singing the the Hallelujah Chorus at the close of our Christmas morning worship services. Well, I say “we,” when in fact it is our golden-toned choir joined by visiting choir alumni who provide this rendition of Handel’s most inspired contribution to the world of music. And oh, what a glorious, rafters-lifting sound they produce, as they author wave after wave of goose pimples on the flesh on this particular pew potato. The audio memory replays inside my skull for days and weeks following my enjoyment of the original performance. 

Nothing too unusual about all of that, except that I have turned this healthy compulsion into a sanity-preserver, and the formation of that new habit went something like this: Like most people who try to make sense of society’s capacity for moral malefaction, distressing thoughts sometimes creep into my consciousness – most often when I am out walking and away from mundane distractions. But recently we’ve had many personal reasons to direct “hallelujahs” heavenward, so I promised myself I’d abandon my old, futile habit of fuming over the irrational ways of the world and adopt a new plan. 

The next time I caught myself grieving over the government meddling that has brought our once-great health care system to its knees over the past 66 years, I thought about the dear wife of a dear friend, and her recent miracle of a successful kidney transplant. “Hallelujah!” I shouted inside my head, and the resentment evaporated, poof, like a cost-of-living increase in a stinky economy. 

Later, as thoughts about the recent Tucson tragedy and how it was further embedded with angst by finger-pointing politicos started to stir up some ill will, I reminded myself that a wonderful human being we know and love, who shops regularly at the Safeway store where the atrocity occurred, was spared any personal harm or injury in that dreadful event. “Hallelujah!” echoed the now-automatic mantra inside my cranium.

And yet again, as I stewed and brewed over the recent announcement that only 35% of the 1.4 billion in relief aid sent to Haiti after last year’s earthquake has sifted through a corrupt government to reach desperate citizens, I recall that we just got news that a friend got a fine report on her cardiac stress test following complications from gastric lap-band surgery, and the “hallelujah!” burst forth out of nowhere, as if it had taken on a life of its own. 

Over and over, this little psychological tool worked to hone my perspective and balance my mood. The renewed spring in my step is sure welcome, since I’ve been experiencing “winter fatigue” lately. 

Back at home, I type into my search engine, “Why am I so tired during the winter months?” The results tell me pretty much what I’d expected: Too little daylight translates to sluggishness. Get plenty of sleep; exercise regularly – outside whenever possible; hang around with upbeat people, I read. With a new strategy for not letting life’s woes settle in to roost in my psyche, a few sunny days here and there, distraction in the form of workouts and editing projects, and a whole universe of healthful recipes yet to be sampled, I have stopped grumbling and taken action. 

Need a little extra energy to conquer your own internal and external roadblocks? How about a lovely New Year’s Day Bean Soup, some classic All-Beef Meatloaf with Mashed Sweet Potatoes, a Whole Wheat Spinach and Mozzarella Pizza for color and a virtual alphabet of vitamins, and a little dietary indulgence therapy in the form of Orange Buttermilk Cranberry Upside Down-Upside Down Cake? (more…)

January 22, 2011 at 5:59 pm 1 comment

Christmas Passed…Or Did It?

How to Stay Warm Through a Minnesota Winter

When temps dip too low, my outdoor thermometer flatlines, as if to say, “You donwanna know.” On this first day of 2011, it is cold enough that my husband has trouble surfacing from the warmth of the quilted comforter, so I send little Muñeca in to keep him motivated. Her self-defined job description? To paw for a little petting attention and keep him from falling hopelessly back into a REM state. Soon I hear his gravel-voiced declaration, “She’s a big help in getting me up,” and peer in to see her snuggle-bugged up close to his side, her own eyelids heavy with sleep. 

As the mercury grunts its way up to 14°, the crunch of powdered sugar under my boots, the pup and I try our footing on the snow-frosted layer of ice that came down in one five-minute deluge on New Year’s Eve afternoon. The pup thinks better of it and heads back inside, while I trudge forth – if not smarter, at least hardier. But iced-over streets prove less of a challenge than the park paths, where planting my foot in the frozen imprint of a previous trekker is essential to staying upright and not breaking an ankle in the deep, crusted snow. Bundled in quilted outerwear, I must look like the Michelin Man on a tightrope. 

Meanwhile, the 40 percent of my mind that is not occupied with this balancing act idly marvels at the fact that the Christmas commercials that have plagued us for over two months are still jingling out their “buy me” messages a week after The Day itself has passed. As an antidote, I try to reconstruct the beautiful Oswald Chambers passage I read from the December 31st offering in My Utmost for His Highest. 

It seems that no matter how I hard I try to stay focused on the Real Reason for the season, a hustle and bustle atmosphere inevitably churns up around me as I rush to get baked goods into the mail for dear ones far from us and try to keep on schedule with seasonal projects that pile up on top of daily chores. But that Chambers’ entry haunts me, so I remind myself that the four weeks of Advent have led us directly into the brilliant illumination of the Epiphany season, and seek it out for a refresher read: 

“Our yesterdays present irreparable things to us; it is true that we have lost opportunities which will never return, but God can transform this destructive anxiety into a constructive thoughtfulness for the future. Let the past sleep, but let it sleep on the bosom of Christ.” These two straightforward sentences put all the mainstream New Year’s resolution advice to certain shame. 

And I am definitely a New Year’s reformist, a believer in fresh starts. The very possibility of God guiding me to improve on (or build on) the week before delivers me into each Monday morning with a sense of hopeful enthusiasm. You can imagine what a thrill January 1st ignites in me. So I’ll cast only a quick glance back at Christmas Dinner Past before striding into 2011. 

Our celebration menu started with one of my (in)famous improvised punches, poetically labeled Kirhamshire Cranberry Shrub, followed by Butternut Squash Soup with Rye Toast Croutons, Sirloin Tip Roast with Sherry Pan Sauce, Sautéed Mushrooms and Onions, Roasted Yukon Gold Potatoes, Green beans with Crumbled Bacon and Pine Nuts, Citrus-Avocado Salad, Tweed Popovers, Roasted Pear Wedges, and Red and Green Ice Cream Bombé with Assorted Christmas Cookies. (more…)

January 3, 2011 at 11:17 pm Leave a comment

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