Posts tagged ‘summer menus’

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

Thundershirts For All!

Some days, it just doesn’t pay to tune in to the evening news.  Between the potentially devastating national heat wave, raging fires in Colorado, rampant gang violence in Chicago, and hit-and-run tragedies closer to home, the fear and trembling can be tough to shake off.  

Turn to the internet, and you end up learning about such things as the defunding of highly successful holistic, abstinence-centered sexual risk avoidance education in favor of expanding the reach of contraceptive-centered programs.  So now I’m afire with indignation.  That’s hard to shake off, too. 

Yes, sometimes the world seems like an upside down and backward place, where staying sane and tranquil translates to an impossible mission.  The ads between news segments – or yahoo headlines – offer plenty of pharmaceutical solutions for the disquiet caused by too much exposure to the raw facts of modern life, but I don’t fly that way.  Enter the pet care industry.  I’m serious.  Semi, anyhow. 

Last year about this time I was complaining about the dreadful effects of booming fireworks on my eight-pound chihuahua-papillon.  Quaking like partially-set jello in a 6.3 earth tremor and panting with anxiety – highly contagious responses, I might add –  it was 3:00 a.m. before I finally convinced her that the threat had passed.  

That’s why my ears pricked up when I saw a promotion for the ThunderShirt®, a swaddling garment designed to calm and comfort your furry companion through storms and other loud events.  Since I’m not big on drugs for my pets either, I made a point to look into the merits of this product. 

Bottom line:  My vet’s office offers it for a lower price than online outlets or pet warehouse chains do, and the goofy looking little spandex gizmo is quite effective.  We survived both this year’s July 4th celebrations and recent thunderstorms with very little trauma for Muñeca or her owners, and sailed into July 5th rested and much less angry at the pyrotechnics industry.  Lessened anger is a good thing.  It clears some emotional space for the angst that goes along with those nightly news reports. 

But wouldn’t it be great if we could come up a human equivalent of the Thundershirt®?  Maybe a stretchy, velcroed version of that ultimate in fad Christmas gifts, the Snuggie®?  Please contact me if you are interested in a little entrepreneurial effort in this area.  I have plenty of ideas, but I’m a bit challenged in the action department. 

Where I am not challenged is in the eating department.  Heat-wave or no heat wave, the old appetite  always chugs heartily along, eager for a novel enticement.  At this week’s in-law dinner it was something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blueberry.  Or cherry, whichever does a better job of floating your boat.  The “old” would be Grilled Marinated Chicken Breasts with Sesame-Dressed Gourmet Brown Rice Blend and Steamed Sugar Snap Peas; the “new” and the “blue,” Creamy Fruit Salad with Pistachios in Wonton Cups; and the “borrowed,” simply the inspiration of Alton Brown’s online fruit salad recipe, which I adapted to suit my family’s tastes. 

No anxiety at our table on this night.  The entire crew was pleased, and my stomach was appeased – two sometimes impossible missions in themselves. (more…)

July 12, 2012 at 6:14 pm 2 comments

Sweet Promises and Sauerkraut

I’m working on a major writing project about caring for elderly parents, so I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs lately.  It’s been a depressing experience. 

It’s not that these accounts don’t hold touching examples of tender human exchanges; of forgiveness and grace; of healing and renewed relationships.  Where aging is their focus, well-chosen anecdotes often reveal the unpredictable, tragi-comic nature of physical and mental decline. And some of the authors’ insightful verbal snapshots are sheer rhetorical genius. 

What troubles this former apostate is the prevailing agnostic viewpoint that seeps into the texts, extinguishing any flicker of hopeful expectation that eternity offers a glorious, new future to step into as earthly life subsides.  It’s a faith-void that ultimately sucks all the meaning out of human existence.  

“What could I say?” writes Meg Federico in Welcome to the Departure Lounge, wondering how one is supposed to live when an end is in sight.  “Nobody tells you this stuff,” she laments.  “But shouldn’t a lifetime of church on Sunday offer some comfort, especially now?”  Indeed it should.  But I guess it depends on which pew you’ve been warming and your reasons for plopping into it once a week.  Somebody sure told me “this stuff,” once I was willing to sit still and listen. 

“What about God?” the author asks her troubled mother.  “God isn’t working anymore,” comes the addled response. 

God isn’t working anymore.  I had a magic talisman that was wonderfully reassuring to tote around with me when I was fit and able, eager to dress in my finest and meet with friends for coffee after the 10:00 o’clock service.  It was all glittery and shiny, just like youth, but no matter how hard I shake the darned thing, it has quit working now that life’s cherry bowl has gone sour on me. 

“Mom wouldn’t buy dumb platitudes,” daughter Meg concludes, drawing a moral equivalence between Holy Scripture and Kahlil Gibran.  Nobody with a true need ever does buy dumb platitudes.  That’s why there is a True God with a True Message who offers True Comfort when we most desperately need it.  Of course, we have to meet Him half-way.  He can’t guide us through the rough patches if we’re walking away from Him. 

It’s been claimed that every foxhole is populated with instant converts.  Not so every nursing home sick bed, it seems.  Depressing.  And inexpressibly sad. 

Because they are research, I read these books through to the end, but I do feel a need to push the “refresh” button on my mental computer screen when I’ve finished.  I might revisit an uplifting email from a fellow writer, compose a note to a granddaughter who is facing unusually tough challenges, or whip up a batch of Caramel Crispy Chex Mix for my in-residence mother-in-law. 

Then it’s out the door to steep in the scent and color of resplendent apple blossoms, wonders of Creation waiting just around the bend in the path to the park; to meditate my way through a power-walk and reconnect with the Source of my own hope and assurance.  Even as the child of God in me prays for those who face illness and recovery, and especially for those who walk in darkness, the perpetual foodie in me drifts to thoughts of a knee-slapping menu:  a comfort food meal to beat all, on a coolish day in June.  

That’s what works for me.  Stretching to the heights and then grounding my thoughts in the practical.  A crock pot of Pork Ribs Braised in Beer with Sauerkraut and Cabbage; some simple, light and fluffy Mashed Swidaho Potato Pancakes; and a batch of Brown-Bread Muffins takes me back to childhood, and turns out to be one of the most succulent meals I’ve offered at the family dinner table in months.  Truly comforting, it fortified this diner enough to go back and take up another volume in her current research assignment.  For basic directions, see below.  And I’ve thrown in my Customized Chex Mix recipe for good measure – and guilty pleasure.  A mixed fruit compote would work for the highly conscientious.  (more…)

June 18, 2012 at 4:23 pm Leave a comment

Summer’s Picks and Pans

Welcome to another edition of The Curmudgeon’s Corner, as I furrow my brow in distasteful contemplation of yet another beloved American pastime.  Today I’m talkin’ Fourth of July pyrotechnics:  firecrackers; Roman candles; aerial repeaters; Catherine wheels; flying spinners; fountains; ground spinners; parachutes.  Large-scale or small, I just don’t get fireworks.  All that noise and expense, just for the opportunity to “ooh” and “ahh” over a handful of colorful sparks cascading across the sky, and then fading away into disappointing nothingness. 

Of course, huddling in a corner of the bedroom cradling my petrified pooch as she quakes and shivers through 90 minutes of taxpayer-sponsored pre-blast whines and climactic booms does nothing to help me warm to the notion of explosives as entertainment.  Even on an Independence Day hot enough for closed windows and cranked up air conditioning, my little Papillhuahua is one terrified Pupetta by the time the overhead threat subsides. 

And it has been hot here, at least by Midwest standards.  That wasn’t the case in late June of 2009, according to my journal entry from that date:  “Tuesday, extended-family dinner night on another cool, damp ‘summer’ evening.  A simmering pot of old-fashioned beef stew calls for some giant, hot-from-the-oven whole-wheat Parmesan basil biscuits, and the contrast of a cool, crisp bowl of homemade coleslaw on the side.  Egg custard with a dusting of nutmeg provides a creamy, comforting finish to this traditional fare, while it’s kept healthful by the use of reduced fat milk.  Mmmmm,” I wrote back then.  But with temperatures in the mid-90s, I have no plans to let anything bubble for long on my stove-top or to offer up anything “hot from the oven” this first week of July, 2011. 

On Sunday I decide I can put off mowing the lawn not one day longer, in spite of temps hovering just above 100.  I do pretty well with the heat, since I’m well acclimated by daily, year-round outdoor walks, but our challenging landscape produces consternation at every turn-around.  I huff and puff my way up  45° inclines; wrestle the stubborn, bulky Toro over fifty-year-old tree roots; get mired in huge dusty divots marking the sites of trees long since departed.  Then there are curved brick garden borders to navigate and overgrown pine tree branches to dodge, both tempering my patience for the test of maneuvering around several husband-designed aqueduct projects.  

Earlier this summer we made the responsible decision to save $80.00 a month by not employing our neighbor’s eldest son for this task.  It takes me at least an hour and a half to do awkwardly what he would accomplish in less than 60 minutes, and with apparent ease – and I don’t even mess around with trimming the edges.  By the time I reach the finish line, I’m ready to walk across the street and hand him a twenty anyway, in simple awed recognition of his superior abilities in the arena of lawn care. 

Fortunately, I had my reward waiting for me inside a modest little crock pot on the counter of my blessedly air-cooled kitchen.  Just web-search any list of ingredients along with the word “recipe,” I have found,  and you will invariably come up with the inspiration for turning whatever you happen to have in your freezer and vegetable drawer into a delightful, often novel repast.  I happened to have the makings for Slow Cooker Turkey Legs with Vegetables, and had exercised the uncharacteristic foresight to stash half a dozen White Cornmeal and Chopped Corn Muffins in the freezer.  To my further amazement, I also had on hand a box of Instant Brown Rice – perfect for a day when fifty-minute side dishes aren’t an appealing proposition, or even a practical possibility.  

Finish off the meal with a scoop of frozen vanilla yogurt topped with fresh blueberries and sliced peaches, and now I’m in the mood to go “Mmmmm” again.  (more…)

July 14, 2011 at 3:20 am Leave a comment

Unsolicited Observations and Flexible Feasting

    If you asked me to describe last Thursday and Friday – or, apparently, even if you didn’t ask – I would say they were two of those virtually perfect summer days that the Upper Midwest is capable of producing: 80-ish temps with reasonable humidity levels; whisper-light breezes; powder blue skies, quilted with just enough cloud batting to keep the sun from scorching through. 

Of course, all of this will change. Things have a way of doing that. Even the most reasonable bits of advice can devolve into bad counsel. Just the other day I stumbled across the claim that brushing your hair the traditional 100 strokes a day is bad for it, for heaven’s sake; that it “pulls hairs out of their follicles and possibly weakens individual strands.” Is nothing sacred? Next thing you know, someone will decide that eating eggs and drinking beer and coffee doesn’t constitute nutritional suicide. Oh, wait; I guess we’re already hearing that flip side message, aren’t we? 

But then change is what keeps life interesting – life and food preparation. So at the risk of spraining something maneuvering through this contorted transition, I’ll ease into a short discussion on one of my favorite topics: revising great recipes to meet the goal of keeping people healthy. Only a few tweaks are required to lighten up Rachel Ray’s Chutney and Cheese Stuffed Chicken Breasts, so that may be a good place to start. Next, my version of her BLT Potatoes, a big panful of Roasted Yellow Pepper Strips (follow directions for red pepper strips in 11/25/09 posting), a cooling batch of Cucumber Raita, and a refreshing rewrite of Peach Melba on a Tuffet – short or long version.

Guess it’s time to revise my long-held suspicion that the only good change is the kind you get back from a five dollar bill. (more…)

August 9, 2010 at 5:54 pm Leave a comment

Marvelous Melons and Not-So-Glittering Generalizations About Weather

    “Minnesota is either too hot or too cold,” my Florida-craving stepmother once observed.  That phrase in turn inspired her brief rendition of Jimmy Dorsey’s lyrical lament on behalf of the gals (and in regard to the guys) left stateside during World War II:  “They are either too young or too old…Either they’re gray or they’re grassy green…The pickings are poor and the crop is lean.” 

While we do sometimes seem to be hurled abruptly from the deep freeze of winter into the cauldron of summer heat and humidity, weather absolutes of course invite refutation – just as the Dorsey verse must have raised objections among the “gray and grassy green.”  Weather statistics confirm that we did have a smattering of lovely days in the upper 70s just a few weeks ago, for example, although the memory of them melts away pretty quickly from a brain exposed to 90+ degree temps and a wet blanket of air that holds water vapor like a freshly baked loaf of French bread sucks up warm olive oil. 

As I write this, the official readings for the Twin Cities are a temperature of 83° with 58% relative humidity and a dew point (whatever that is) of 65.  I don’t know where these guys take their measurements, but my suburban thermometer reads 90, in the shade – literally. 

But weather-gauging arguments aside, I do know that when I walk every day, year-round, my body doesn’t seem to be jarred by seasonal changes, so perhaps nature does ease us more gently from “hot to cold” than fickle human perceptions apprehend.  And I also know that I am blessed – or cursed – with an appetite that is virtually never diminished by atmospheric conditions.  So into the kitchen I take my shower-refreshed self to drum up something tasty but light, since not everyone is endowed with my steel-hulled constitution. 

I return to basics and assemble a classic favorite, Cobb Salad, and turn to my recipe files to ferret out a version of Honey-Pecan Bran Muffins I came up with a few months ago.  For a final course, some chilled, cubed Canary Melon.  I discovered this lovely, mildy sweet variety just last week, and managed to impress my table mates with the find.

I think, as summer menus go, you could call that a meal.  I like these muffins so much that I eat them without spread, but a schmear of orange juice flavored margarine would be lovely, too.  Tall glasses of brewed iced tea with lemon or lime wedges round out this hot weather lunch or dinner.  Just remember to bake the muffins first thing in the morning.  Even a devoted cook can’t stand the heat and gets out of the kitchen at some point. (more…)

July 19, 2010 at 11:02 pm Leave a comment

Health Care Catch-22s and Other Modern Day Challenges

   Here’s a solution to the politically-exploited “health care crisis” for you: Stay well.  Now don’t yell at me.  I know there are people beset by environmental risks beyond their control or by genetically ordained conditions.  My husband is one of them.  But those in the know tell us its the epidemic of preventable diseases that threatens to overwhelm our once-thriving medical system. 

In his 1988 Surgeon General’s report, C. Everett Koop blames the American diet for two-thirds of illness-related deaths in the U.S. each year.  Combine poor eating habits with inactivity and you can add to that grim statistic long-term suffering with heart disease, strokes, some cancers, Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, chronic fatigue, stress disorders, and even Alzheimer’s.  That’s one blaring wake-up call. 

So here’s the Catch-22 part:  My husband – who discovered new hope for complications stemming from 50 years of trying to control inherited Type I diabetes by adopting Dr. Richard K. Bernstein’s approach – lost 35 pounds, reduced his overall cholesterol level by 30 per cent, brought his blood pressure into normal range, reduced the amount of insulin he takes, slashed his triglyceride count, and regained control over his blood sugars. 

Great news, huh?  You’d think he would have left the doctor’s office with a medal rather than a new prescription.  Sadly, since they keep lowering the targeted range for ideal test results, you’re less likely to get a pat on the back for progress than a skeptical scowl for declining to pump more drugs into your body – even when your earnest efforts are paying off quite nicely for you, thanks anyway. 

The logical deduction? We have to be our own researchers, educators, and advocates.  The information is out there, and it doesn’t have to be complicated – or Spartan.  Move around more; exercise pumps up the immune system and boosts insulin sensitivity.  Read labels religiously.  Better yet, prepare your own wholesome meals.  Eat a colorful variety of fresh foods.  Fill half your plate with unsauced vegetables and the rest with complex carbohydrates and lean meats. Discover how delicious seafood can be.  End each meal with fruit. 

And, of course, read my postings here whenever you have the chance.  I will always red-flag “once-in-a-while” desserts,  otherwise what you’ll get are good-tasting, nutritionally-dense offerings, like recipes for Smothered Pork Chops in White Wine, Brown Rice with Currants, Green Beans with Chopped Toasted Walnuts, and Grilled Nectarines with Crumbled Feta.  If this is sacrificing, then I’m a martyr ’til the end.  (more…)

July 9, 2010 at 2:54 pm Leave a comment

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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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