Rice, shrimp, and more rice, and then preschool and cinnamon rolls

I mentioned in an earlier post that I made some unremarkable rice pilaf from Barefoot in Paris.

Here it is.


We’ve been spoiled by a rice pilaf recipe that I use from a cookbook we bought at the Greek Festival in Richmond, Virginia, and I’m just not sure any other pilaf will compare. If you have a hankering for the same flavors that appear in the tomato rice pilaf in Barefoot in Paris, I’d steer you toward the tomato soup in Foolproof instead.

But we found a surprise new favorite in the shrimp and mango salsa recipe from Parties!

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After a few somewhat ok attempts at the grill and several spectacular failures, I’ve figured out the perfect technique with a charcoal flame: let my Eagle Scout husband do it. The feminist in me dies a little bit inside to admit this, but I’m not gifted with the open flame. I was the girl that volunteered to write up all of the lab reports in high school chemistry to anyone who would light the damned flame for the experiments. I just don’t do fire. Neil does, and the shrimp were delicious. He’s not really much of a shrimp/seafood/shellfish guy, but these changed his mind. I made a half batch, which served the two of us for dinner, and we had some leftover to eat cold the next day.

Along with the shrimp, I made the crusty basmati rice from Foolproof. Neil really liked it, and I liked it ok. I think it was definitely better than the tomato rice pilaf, but not as good as our old Greek standby.



I’m afraid all of this is a little bit boring and bland, though, compared to what Rowan and I cooked up in the kitchen last weekend. When we were on vacation last month in Wisconsin, we discovered a little diner in the Dells that had cinnamon rolls as big as Rowan’s head. He loved them, and he’ll still you that it was his favorite part of vacation. (This, from a child who really doesn’t love eating, and who had a blast doing everything else on vacation, too.) I promised him that we’d try to recreate them at home. He was my enthusiastic helper. (I dressed him in the garishly loud shirt that day because we were going to a huge train show downtown at the convention center, and I didn’t want to lose him in a sea of other 3-to-8-year-olds who all look the same in a huge room. By the way, he’s totally and completely over trains, being a big and important first grader, but that didn’t stop him from going back (again and again) to the LEGO train display.)


And we even used painter’s tape to delineate how large the rolled-out dough should be on the counter. (3M should be paying me for this!) That’s 15×10 in case you’re wondering.



The end result was very, very sticky and rich. There was a lot of filling, which contrasted with our vacation cinnamon rolls, which were much more doughy. Even if you’re going for an over-the-top gooey roll, I would cut back the filling by at least half on these, which originally came from The Pioneer Woman’s cookbook.


That didn’t stop Rowan from devouring several of them, but I think we’ll try a different recipe next time.

But! Most importantly of all! The one and only Benjamin Neil Willard started preschool last week.

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As a kid who loved school, starting in preschool, I’m so happy that he was so excited to go to school on his first day. He loved it. He’s wearing his brother’s hand-me-down clothes, which is really no surprise, but he even insisted on carrying Rowan’s lunch box and (monogrammed) backpack. No identity crisis for this one – he knows who he is, and he owns it, in spite of the initials on his “packpack.” I got out the “real” camera to take the first day of preschool photos, and the lens fogged up so badly within seconds of being outside that the camera wouldn’t even take a picture. I said, “Gah, I can’t do this.” (Neil was at an early morning bible study which runs into a staff meeting, so I was the solo photographer this time.) I went inside to grab my phone to take pictures, and poor Ben turned around and said, “Does this mean I can’t go to pwee-school?” Oh, oh, oh… if I could do anything to take away those split seconds of disappointment that went through his little mind, I would have done it in a heartbeat. I’m glad he said something instead of just melting down, because I was able to tell him in a hurry, “Oh of COURSE you’re going to preschool!” Sweet boy. As you can tell from these photos, he recovered quite nicely.

You wouldn’t think that two kids in school would send us into too much of a tizzy, but with two different schools/calendars/dropoffs/pickups/schedules/rules/lunches, along with ramping up my piano teaching schedule for fall and trying to keep pace with the new program year at church, not to mention adding new babysitters and their schedules into the mix, my calendar looks like someone melted a bag of Skittles all over it. It’s a little crazy, but the good news is that everyone seems to be enjoying the ride. There might be a lot of takeout consumed here in the next few months, as we all get used to the new schedules. But then there will be a new Ina cookbook, and no amount of back-to-school coffees/conversations/cocktails/cockamamie is going to keep me from that. Stay tuned!

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Come Labor On

I made some mediocre rice pilaf from Barefoot in Paris last week and took over an hour to grill some chicken breasts for Friday night fajitas, but I’ve had something else on my brain this weekend.

Twenty-four years ago, around Labor Day weekend, my beloved grandpa died after a long battle with cancer. I don’t know if I would remember the Labor Day weekend part, except that it was around the time of my first week of Junior High, and I had to bring my excused absence slip for his funeral around to all of my teachers. Every single one of my teachers told me how sorry they were that he was gone, and what a remarkable man he was. At the time, I was an awkward pre-teen and I just wanted to sit down at my desk. It didn’t register with me that they told me what a great guy he was, because virtually everyone had told us what a great guy he was, in the months leading up to his death, and at his funeral. He was a very lovable, and loving, man.


It’s also only appropriate that I think about him during Labor Day weekend. Even though he was one of the last people who would have rallied around a labor-like cause, he was a hard worker, if only to escape the house when my grandma was after him about something. He drove a bread truck, and had an early morning delivery route that took him all over the area. When he was finished with his route, he was allowed to bring home the day-old baked goods to his family, and with three sons to feed, the tradition of toast as a bedtime snack took hold quickly. My family still eats toast before bed – Neil says that toast is practically sacramental for us, and it’s true. It’s one of those things that you don’t realize is unusual until you leave your family of origin and someone takes notice. But try it sometime – there’s nothing more comforting and settling than a piece of toast with a thin layer of butter just before bed.

I thought of my grandpa especially this year because Neil posted a haiku contest on his blog last Friday, about breaking rules. The original topic was about seersucker after Labor Day, and my grandpa would have been the last person I knew who would wear a seersucker suit. He always wore the same overalls, usually with one snap unfastened. But he was rather fond of selectively breaking rules, which is probably why that snap remained unfastened.


My haiku contributions were about him:

He parked in the fire
lane, like his son owned the place.
Grandpa, rule breaker.

That one was about my family’s grocery store, where my grandpa would unfailingly park his pickup truck, with the tailgate down, directly in front of the store, where the curb was painted yellow and there was a clear sign dictating, “NO PARKING – FIRE LANE.” As far as I know, nobody ever ticketed him or complained about it, not that that would have stopped him. While I was digging through some old photos looking for some of Grandpa, I found these, of a grand opening of one of my dad’s grocery stores in River Falls, Wisconsin, c. 1980.

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I’m the little blond girl in the cake cutting photos. Why did I look so disappointed at that giant cake? The cake reads: “Welcome to Dale’s IGA: The Friendliest Folks in Town.” There’s a little card next to the cake that reads: “YES This is a REAL CAKE. Weight 315#, Servings 3000, Size 3 1/2′ by 7 1/2′.” I don’t know how they figured the 3000 servings, but who’s going to argue with someone who makes a cake that big? The guy in the plaid pants is my very stylish dad.

Back to Grandpa. I think the illicit parking was a point of pride. He was so proud of my dad for building that store and running a great business, and he wasn’t afraid to mark his territory in front of it to show his pride. He was proud of all of us, and he would go out of his way to spend time – however short – with his grandchildren. The feeling was mutual – we adored that man. For all of his stubborn toughness, he had a tender heart and a gentle soul. I remember when I had the chicken pox in fifth grade, and I was sent to my grandparents’ house when my parents couldn’t stay home to take care of me. I was starting to feel better but still had a fever, and couldn’t return to school, and so my grandpa and I watched the entire Anne of Green Gables series on television. “That girl is going to get herself in more trouble, isn’t she?” he asked me with a wink. He helped me memorize the states and their capitals so I wasn’t behind when I got back to school.

When I was in elementary school, Grandpa was diagnosed with prostate cancer. In the late 1980s, the diagnosis was different than it can be today. He was an otherwise strong and healthy man, and the cancer took years to erode his life. For a long time, he was still able to go with us after school on apple-picking adventures, and to spend time on my family’s hobby farm, where there were sheep and cows. Even though he wasn’t a farmer, he loved his garden, and both of my grandparents were avid organic gardeners and composters long before it was cool. (Who knows? Maybe the overall-with-one-snap-undone will be the new hipster fashion craze?) Time on the farm always brought a smile to his face, even when he sat in the truck when he was unable to walk around.

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It wasn’t long before he wasn’t able to come along at all, and all of our visits took place in hospital rooms. With all of the cancer treatments, his body wasted away, and so did a lot of his energy. We knew that part of him was still there, though, every time he flirted with the nurses, or insisted on introducing us to his ward-mates, along with a litany of our best attributes and achievements. After so much sickness, though, and with medication that helped his body but fogged his brain, he became depressed and despondent. My dad could hardly stand to see him that way, and so he knew that he had to bring a little bit of the farm to Grandpa’s bedside.

My dad, who inherited the rule-breaking stubborn streak from my grandpa,* pulled aside some of the nurses that Grandpa had been charming for so many months. He asked if maybe he could bring in a baby lamb from the farm on one of our visits. The nurse tried not to laugh, and had a smile in her eye while she willed her voice to be stern: “Sir, that is against hospital policy.” My dad had figured as much. “But if you do it, and I’m not telling you that you can, but I’m not telling you that I wouldn’t just look the other way, either, make sure that it’s on my shift, because I want to see the look on that man’s face when he sees your surprise.”

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And so, my second haiku:

When he was near death
and so sad, we broke the rules,
too. Lamb at his bed.

My grandpa died not long after we brought the lamb to visit him. And on the same day, that lamb died, too, without ever having been sick.

I still think about him whenever my or my children’s stubborn streak shines through, or when breaking a long-standing rule just seems like the right thing to do. I think of him when we make deviled eggs at Easter, or whenever anyone cooks something in a microwave that really shouldn’t be cooked in a microwave. (He tried an entire leg of lamb once. It didn’t work out so well.) I think of him any time I hear someone whistling inside, which he did, probably just to drive my grandma crazy. I think about him every time I can’t read a map or get lost while driving – he was terrible with directions, but could never seem to get himself lost, no matter how hard he tried sometimes. I think of him when I’m driving, and it starts to rain just slightly, and I can’t decide whether to turn on the windshield wipers yet. (He once told my grandma that their new car had sensors in the windshield that detected the rain, and it automatically turned on the wipers. He was full of it, and I think she knew it.) I think about him when I see my own dad with my kids, and how much he loves them, just like our grandpa adored us.


And so: a toast (heh) to grandpas. To laborers. To rule-breakers.

*This photo illustrates another rule-breaking episode. I found it when I was digging around for old photos of grandpa. I’m not at liberty to divulge the details, but remember that every time I substitute an ingredient in a recipe or ignore instructions altogether, I come from the stock that did this, on purpose, without a burning permit.




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Plum Tart and Tuna Steak

I’ve been waiting for Italian prune plums to come back into season to make the last few of Ina’s plum recipes. I was hoping to report that it was well worth the wait when I made the Italian Plum Tart in How Easy is That?, but it was kind of a bust. Bummer.


It looks pretty, but it was just kind of dense and sticky, and not worth the trouble. There are plenty of other plum recipes, though, so I think I’ll stick to those next time.

On the opposite end of the looks vs. substance spectrum was the grilled tuna salad from Barefoot Contessa at Home. It looked like a paleo-style homicide investigation, but it tasted wonderful. this is not your grandmother’s tuna salad.

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It was wonderfully reminiscent of sushi without the rice, and without the hefty price tag of eating at a sushi restaurant. I made a small portion of this for myself for a weeknight dinner when Neil was working. He’s not a big fish guy, and I actually really like it. I’ve come a long way from our newlywed days, when I would make tuna casserole for myself when he was away. I’d still put away some tuna casserole if given the opportunity, but I’m the only one in my family who likes it, so it’s a lot of effort for a starchy comfort food. The biggest challenge to making Ina’s fresher, healthier version is getting a fresh tuna steak on the same day that your avocados ripen. But then you might get to go to Central Market and see this lovely display:


And! Speaking of Central Market, my food horizons have been expanded here in Houston, just in the past few weeks. First of all, we’ve had the most lovely time in people’s homes, with amazing fajitas, our first (addictive) taste of boudin, and maybe the best chocolate cake I’ve ever eaten (which was made even better by watching my 3-year-old take some running laps in the shallow end of the host’s pool while fully clothed, in the style of a frat boy on spring break). If I was feeling a bit lonely on our way home from our trip, that feeling quickly faded as we have spent time with our friends here in Texas.

This past weekend, the friend/food connection continued as a friend and I both took our sons to my inaugural trip to Phoenicia, a giant food market with an international theme. If you’re like me, taking a 6-year-old to a food store can be torture. It could just be my 6-year-old, because my 3-year-old does just fine and loves to shop for food. But my first grader isn’t particularly fond of eating, and he’s always sooooo cooooold and so boooorrrrred. But! When you bring a friend along, suddenly it’s an adventure!


The picture, while capturing the cuteness of the kids, doesn’t do much to capture the wonder that is Phoenicia. As you walk in to the smell of exotic spices, you can see freshly baked pita bread descending from the heavens (or, perhaps, an upper-floor bakery) by way of a conveyer belt, where it is then packaged up to take home, still warm. There are giant vats of feta cheese and Greek yogurt. There were some, um, unusual meat products, and row upon row of imported candy and tea. Nuts, dried fruits, olives, house-made hummus… I think I said about three dozen times in the first minute or so, “I’m going to need to bring my dad here to see this.” It was a great food adventure for a hot afternoon. The kids goofed off in the air conditioning while the moms ooohed and aaaahed over the groceries and filled our cart. Be warned, though, that if you bring young, inquisitive children to Phoenicia, you may have to answer questions about the hookahs for sale and on display behind glass.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a hookah.”

“What’s it for?”

(This is where my kid pipes in.) “I think it’s to help people invent things.”

We didn’t exactly correct them.


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Roots and Questions

Earlier this summer, I made the trek to Buchanan’s Native Plants in North Houston for some herb plants. The herbs were tucked in the back corner with the fruit trees, which fascinated me. I’ve never lived in a place where we could have grown citrus fruit before, and so I was browsing through the meyer lemons and the key limes. An older, wizened lady who worked there approached me, and I asked her a few questions. She looked a little bit like the old goat lady in Cold Mountain. I mean that in the nicest way possible.

I couldn't find a good photo of the goat lady from Cold Mountain, so here's one of Jude Law instead. You're welcome.

I couldn’t find a good photo of the goat lady from Cold Mountain, so here’s one of Jude Law instead. You’re welcome.

The lady at Buchanan’s seemed to genuinely love the plants under her care, maybe to the point that she doesn’t actually *know* that she looks like the goat lady, and I respect that. We started talking about plants, and Texas, and growing seasons, and I learned a lot. One thing that really stuck with me was that with the fruit trees especially, you’re not supposed to let them grow fruit during their first year in a new location. They need to focus on growing their root systems, so if you see a flower, you’re supposed to pluck it off. By doing this, you’re actually helping the tree produce more fruit in later years. They need an entire year to develop their root system.

I was mulling this over in the car on the way home, with the smell of fresh thyme wafting up to the driver’s seat from the back of the car. I think people need some time to develop their root systems, too. Houston feels so much like home to us already that it’s sometimes hard to remember that we just got here. Every week holds a different errand or task that takes us out of our comfort zone. We are learning names and places and helping our children adjust to new schools and friends. It’s work, and even though it may sometimes look like we’re not producing a lot of fruit as a family, we’re digging in our roots.

This past Sunday was Rally Day at Palmer, where different ministries and committees educate Palmer’s members about what they do, and how newcomers can participate. I had my elevator speech prepared about our root-making activities, in case I was asked to sign up for something. It’s not that I’m completely opposed to signing up for anything. I’m simply overwhelmed. Most of the time, I’m overwhelmed in a really good way. But this root-growing business is exhausting and can be all-consuming.

In the church where I grew up, rally day wasn’t a thing. I think my mom was in charge of Sunday School, and she roped whatever half-dozen kids between the ages of 5 and 12 that attended on any given Sunday into one of the back rooms. I think there was a felt board. The same people were junior and senior warden for my entire childhood, and the solitary fundraiser was a sandwich stand at the cranberry festival. Vestry meetings lasted for about 15 minutes, I think.

Back to present (rally) day. I’m ever mindful of how my participation might affect a group. I want to be helpful, but I’m also not an unofficial message-taker for my husband. Things get weird when I get asked to “put a bug” in Neil’s ear about something, especially now that we’ve experienced Texas-sized bugs firsthand. I don’t want to disrupt the vibe if it means that people feel like they can’t be themselves around me. It takes me a while to decide how we’ll fit into the big picture, and the big picture can feel a bit overwhelming. In the past, finding my way has meant starting something completely new that has never been done before (so I don’t run the risk of disappointing everyone when It’s Not As Great As Last Year), or volunteering outside of the church walls for another related organization. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, of course, but for now it feels right to show up and be present.

So, in order to preserve my own sanity and family harmony, it’s better for me to wait a little while, grow those roots, help the family adjust to a new community, and make decisions about our participation deliberately and sometimes slowly. I’m not complaining. I’m just looking at our family health in the long haul.

As it turns out, I never gave my root speech on Sunday. Rally day was a little nuts, and after some bathroom trauma with the kids, we ended up going back into church to retrieve my purse and the kids’ things, and things got a little nuts after that. We were inside, then outside, then inside again, and one kid wanted chips while the other one wanted to go home. We finally made it home to let the dogs out about an hour and a half after church let out. What’s that? You want another Birdie photo? OK.


But in the course of that crazy morning, I think I may have discerned another calling for myself, which goes hand-in-hand with my root-growing experience. I will head up the Ministry of Silly Questions.

Anyone who had a dorky enough adolescence will remember Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks routine. I’m heading up my very own Silly Questions Committee. I don’t know if this is true in all large, long-standing organizations, but it can be true of churches: there’s some “insider language” that can be confusing to newcomers. “We’ll meet in the Nave during the season of Pentecost, but during the change ringing the vestry will meet in the undercroft.” “It’s TEC weekend, so there won’t be a communion anthem, but we’re keeping the creed and the confession.” “The meeting will be in the Saints and Sinners Memorial Chapel, which is in the south of the building behind the small kitchen – the old one, you know, where we used to have the big kitchen.” “Someone needs to tell the Thurifer that we’re in Ordinary Time again, but that the suffragan will be here next week. Not the coadjuter – she’s on sabbatical.”

Huh? It’s like a meeting of the Skulls, but more confusing. Most of the time, we don’t even know we’re doing it. And so, when there might be an opportunity to translate it for someone who is new (and probably confused, and maybe self-conscious), we can make the whole experience more accessible. You can find approximately one meeeellion blog articles about “being the church” and “spiritual but not religious” and “why millennials aren’t going to your church and what you need to do about it yesterday because you’re doing it wrong,” but I think what every church needs is someone to ask the questions that nobody else will ask. 

“Where’s the bathroom?”

“What time do I need to be there?”

“Where should I park?”

“Which Sunday School class is my 3-year-old in? Does he need to be potty trained?”

“Do I have to sign up for the whole year, or can he try it out for a week or two first?”

“Can I find it on the website?”

“Can I meet with you later this week, or maybe email you? I have a lot of questions.”

“I don’t drink/have Celiac/can’t walk to the altar rail, but I want to receive Communion.”

The way I figure it, I’m not afraid to embarrass myself over a couple of silly questions, especially if it means that someone else doesn’t have to embarrass themselves by asking it. Who’s with me? What’s the silliest question you’ve ever asked? Did you live to tell the tale?



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Steak. Onion Rings. Vacation. Puppy. First grade.

A lot has happened since my last blog post!

A few weeks ago, I made the Ribeye Steak and Cornmeal Onion Rings from Barefoot Contessa at Home. As is becoming usual, I missed the mark on when to fire up the grill for the steak, so we did a combination of stove and oven again, which worked great except for the part when I gave myself a second degree burn (again) with the steak. Ouch. The onion rings tasted good, but I think it’s one of those things that’s way more of a pain to make than is worthwhile. Which is probably why we shouldn’t eat too many of them, I suppose. I must not have been too impressed with them, because I think the photos are stuck somewhere on Neil’s phone.

Venturing out of Ina-land for a while, I made the Smitten Kitchen oven pancake, which was awesome, and just the right size for two adults for a weekend breakfast.


As long as I was trying new recipes from other sources (because, let’s face it, when you’re down to the last 150 recipes after 500+ completed, the ones that are left are probably the ones you’re not too jazzed about, so you may or may not be biding your time until the next cookbook comes out in October)… I tried the Homesick Texan’s chocolate peanut butter ice cream sandwiches. I was inspired by the new peanut butter oreos, which are a good thing in theory, but I found to be lacking in reality. (I’m kind of glad that I thought they were only ok – I don’t exactly need a new cookie addiction that can just hop into the cart at Target any old time.)

The cookies from the Homesick Texan recipe turned out really well, and I think they’d be particularly well suited for ice cream sandwiches because they were very firm and wouldn’t crumble apart. The ice cream was another story. I forgot to freeze the ice cream maker in advance. I have an excuse: I had a sick kid the night before I made it, and a sick kid in my world kind of makes everything shut down. When I did finally freeze the ice cream, it was good, but very, very rich. I should have cut down on the sugar when I used Jif peanut butter instead of the natural peanut butter used in the original recipe. Ooops. Oh well. If the ice cream had been paired with the cookies, as God and the Homesick Texan intended, instead of shoveled into our mouths with a spoon, that might have worked out better for us. We’ll know next time. Again, I don’t know where the photos are for this – I think they must be on Neil’s phone. I will definitely try more of the Homesick Texan ice cream recipes, though – it was sufficiently creamy without being as futzy as some of Ina’s ice cream recipes.

And then! Speaking of ice cream, we went on vacation to Wisconsin!


This was our first honest-to-goodness vacation in over three years, and it was so much fun. The occasion was my cousin’s wedding festivities and a mini family reunion. We made a road trip of it, because have you ever flown with a three year old? The kids did really well in the car, and with trips in Little Rock, St. Louis, Madison, and Plano, they saw cities that we would have missed if we had just flown over them.

One of my favorite parts of the trip was staying with friends in Madison, where I went to college at the University of Wisconsin. Since before they were even born, I’ve been waiting to take my kids to Ella’s Deli, a kitschy and kid-friendly deli on the east side of Madison. There’s a carousel, and about a gazillion moving “decorations” to watch while you wait for your food.


And! There’s this:

sauerkraut juice

We had a wonderful time. There’s nothing like going “home” to some of the places you visited as a child, especially when you get to bring your own children along for the ride. I bought corn on the cob directly from a farm on the side of the highway, and when we pulled up next to the barns, Neil was all shocked and awed that there was a CHILD! driving a HUGE TRACTOR! Yup. We ate cinnamon rolls at an ancient diner, which has inspired me to try to make them from scratch at home. We ate cheese curds and saw the Oscar Meyer weinermobile. We saw cousins. We rode on boats. We drove through the campus of my alma mater, and the kids saw where I lived during my freshman year in Madison. I just love Wisconsin. (People who aren’t familiar with the upper midwest have said, “But you live(d) in Minnesota! That’s, like, the same thing!” No, it’s really not, or at least not any more than Texas and Oklahoma are the same, or California and Nevada. “But they’re right next to each other!” Sure. But no.

And then! On our way home, feeling a little sad that our vacation was over, we started looking for puppies online. You see, where other people might ooh and aaah over a human infant, I’m the crazy lady that crosses the street to talk to a puppy. We were a two-dog family forever, but our Georgia died right as we were considering adding the baby-now-known-as-Ben to our family. The timing would have been terrible.  And then we had a newborn, and a toddler, and two moves, and potty training, and a vacation… and then. Then.

Then there was Birdie.


We’ve been looking at the online listings for the Houston area shelters since we moved, and although there are a ton of cute puppies and dogs there, there wasn’t quite what we were looking for. And besides, setting me loose in a shelter would just be inviting an animal hoarding case to begin. We ended up finding Birdie just north of Austin, and we changed our route to make that on our way home from Wisconsin. The vet thinks she is a lab/border collie mix. She is 100% cute, and we’re thrilled that she’s a a part of our family. Tippet, our 9-year-old lab mix, also loves her, much to our relief and joy. Tippet has taught Birdie how to play and romp around, which is about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.

Birdie got her name because we like how it sounds, which is how we name most things around here. But we thought a tribute to Ladybird was fitting for our new Texas home, and one of my very favorite books is Waiting for Birdy by Catherine Newman. We’ve been waiting for Birdie for a long, long time.

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Last but not least, our big kid started first grade this week. He skipped right into a brand new school without hesitation – I think he’s more brave than I have ever been. Pardon some of the untucked/unbelted uniform photos – that is 100% my fault. Rookie uniform mom here – but we’re learning!

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His brother starts preschool in a few weeks, and our hope is that he loves school as much as the rest of us do. Stay tuned for photos that day – yay!

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Jambalaya (on the Bayou)

If there were a buzzfeed quiz about “Which 1980s movie are you?” (and there probably is), I think that the results would land me directly in Steel Magnolias territory. Sure, it’s become almost cliche in its zippy one-liners and gut-wrenching emotional scenes, but I love it for what it is. And so, as I was making Amelia’s Jambalaya from Foolproof, I couldn’t stop myself from half-humming, half-singing the song from Shelby and Jackson’s wedding reception scene:

Of course, the version of jambalaya that I ended up making would probably have any real Cajun grandma feeding it to the gators, but I’m ok with that. Like Steel Magnolias, I love it for what it is.

First of all, I omitted shrimp, because this recipe makes a huge vat of food, so I knew we’d be eating leftovers, and leftover shrimp is just not going to happen in my world if I can help it. There are so many different versions of even this jambalaya recipe floating around (the cookbook version, and a different online version) that I took it as kind of a free-for-all anyway, at least in terms of the meat and fish varieties you wanted to include. Think of it as an Americanized paella of sorts.

Second, I substituted the jalapeño peppers for some crushed red pepper. I realize that this admission has the potential to get us all kicked out of Texas, but everybody seems so friendly that I’ll hedge my bets and we can stay here for a while. And besides, this is the beauty of cooking at home, right? Making something the way that you and your family like it seems to be one of the biggest advantages of going through all of the trouble of preparing a meal at home.

Speaking of trouble, this recipe looks like trouble at first glance. An entire page is dedicated to ingredients, and there’s a lot of “brown this, then set it aside, then saute this, then….” I was intimidated at first, thinking for sure that I would forget a step or get an ingredient out of order, but once I got it started, it wasn’t too complicated at all. The first step involves browning the sausage, and that will make your kitchen smell amazing and put you in a good mood for the rest of the recipe. Give yourself an hour to finish it all – this is definitely more weekend cooking than weeknight cooking, but so worth it.


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Still Alive

The listeria hasn’t gotten us … yet. We’re still kicking along, and dare I say it, feeling more settled in. I don’t know what it was about this week that just made things feel like they have “gelled” here. The boxes have been unpacked since the beginning of June, but something didn’t quite feel permanent yet. Maybe it was the last few annoying things on the miles-long to-do lists, or buying Rowan’s school uniforms and shoes, or maybe it was finding the long-lost car keys that I thought were gone forever. But somehow, things seem more permanent and settled. I’m not saying everything is perfect, and I know we still have a lot to learn. But for this semi-settled state, I feel grateful. We celebrated my birthday last weekend, and I loved it. If there’s one thing my parents taught me, it was to revel in birthdays, even as an adult. My dad still celebrates his with shameless abandon, and my mom, orphaned at a young age, is always grateful for another year. “Better than the alternative,” right? For my birthday this year, we went out to dinner, really to celebrate both my and Neil’s birthdays, since his was overshadowed by the big moving week. I got a lovely stack of vintage cookbooks from Half Price Books, some lovely cookware (on eBay!) and a slice of cake from one of our favorite new bakeries. All of my boys sang to me and wrote me the most adorable cards. I’m a lucky lady.

Once we came down from the sugar high of birthday cake, I made a few Contessa recipes. I had planned to grill the French Bistro Steaks with Provençal Butter (Back to Basics) and Grilled Bread with Prosciutto (How Easy is That). I had planned on grilling both of these recipes, as instructed, but anyone who has spent any time in Houston knows that a thunderstorm can come up out of nowhere and ruin outdoor plans. (As it turns out, a storm can also ruin the outdoor planTs without proper drainage – sorry, oregano.) Until we get a gas grill (it’s on the wish list), we have to plan ahead to light the charcoal and heat it up. And I do love a charcoal grill, so I don’t regret having it. With the unpredictable weather, I did a google search on how to cook a hangar steak indoors. I found this method, and using a cast iron pan, I cooked it all inside. As it turns out, I could have used the grill after all, but after a stormy day, I didn’t want to take any chances.

A note on ingredients: when I asked about hangar steaks at the meat department at the grocery store, the butcher told me that they don’t carry hangar steaks, but that the closest thing that they had was a fajita steak. I bought that instead, and it worked just fine. For all I know, it’s the exact same thing. The herbed butter called for herbes de provence, which, I’ll be honest, I just forgot to buy. But then I read online that herbes de provence include lavender only in the United States. I’m not a big fan of lavender as a scent, so I can’t imagine I’d be thrilled about it on steak. So, I used just the fresh herbs instead, and they were all kinds of awesome.

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The “grilled” bread with prosciutto was less of a hit. I don’t know – maybe I should have broiled it for longer, or maybe I should have sliced the mozzarella a little more thinly. (Whenever I get stuck in a long line of “maybes” like this, I can’t help saying that line in Steel Magnolias when Truvy says, “Maybe she’s praying because the elastic is shot in her pantyhose! Who knows!”) For whatever reason, this recipe didn’t wow me, even though there was nothing terrible about it. I do think it would have been better on the grill. It reminded me a little bit of what could have been a grilled pizza, without sauce. So, if you’re itching to try a grilled pizza but you’re still a little gun-shy about raw dough on the grill, try this first.

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The final summery recipe this week was the honey vanilla fromage blanc from Back to Basics. This is one of a long line of “honey vanilla [fill in the blank]” recipes from Ina, and sadly, I think this was my least favorite. It was just too tangy for my tastes. It was easy, so if you’re short for time and need a quick dessert for guests, I guess you could whip it up, especially if you don’t really want them to come back.

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