Bad Mood Berry Crumble

Poor Ben was in a state one night after dinner. He’s usually such a cheerful little guy, but he gets worked up when he can’t keep up with Rowan. It’s normal, I know – they are a little more than three years apart in age, and Rowan is naturally going to be able (and want) to do things that 8-year-olds can do, but 5-year-olds can’t. This time, he was programming a robot. Rowan has been writing robot programs all week, but not actually downloading them to the robot. Have you ever watched someone else program something? Even if it’s someone you adore, as Ben adores Rowan, it’s more interesting to watch the grass grow. Ben’s solution was to use the copier/scanner near the computer to copy toys and other household objects. HILARIOUS … at least until your parents tell you that we’re not going to waste any more paper and ink copying your socks. Combine that injunction with a case of the Mondays and just being agitated in general, and you have a recipe for whiiiiineyness.

Luckily, I had realized just before all this started that I had overbought berries this week at Costco. It’s easy to do – when there are piles of blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries, all organic, and all stacked up high on pallets that look so tiny in a huge warehouse refrigerator … well, it’s easy to get carried away. I made some into a fruit salad with some watermelon and kiwi, but I knew we’d need a little more help than that before the berries started to mold. I washed everything except for the strawberries, put them in a pie plate before dinner, and let them sit with a little bit of sugar at room temperature to get everything going.

So, when Ben started to get worked up after dinner, I recruited him to help me in the kitchen with something he can do. He cheerfully, but earnestly, stirred the berries with some lemon zest, lemon juice, and the few tablespoons of sugar I had added earlier. Then, he stirred together some oats, brown sugar (it looks like sand!), and butter, and we dumped it all on top of the berries. We baked it in a pie plate (on top of a cookie sheet, to catch drips) at 350 for about 45 minutes. Ben’s mood was transformed right along side the berries – from something tart and kind of prickly to something soft and delicious. I love combining berries like this, because the deep purple color that you get in the end is so beautiful.

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And that’s not so different from little Ben, either. He perked up, and we played at the park, where he wished me “Happy Mother’s Day!” at least a half-dozen times. He knows that it’s still almost a week away, but he’s so excited. Berry season and five-year-olds don’t last forever, so it’s best to enjoy them while you can. Both are sweeter when enjoyed with ice cream.

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Feta-Brined Chicken, and an Ode to SuperWoman

Have you ever made a friend that you feel like you’ve been waiting your whole life to meet? I’ve been fortunate to make several of those friends, and one of the Houston friends who fits this category is someone I’ll call SuperWoman. She’s a partner in a law firm, also a clergy spouse, an amazing cook and baker, and she’s also hilarious. Plus, I like her kids and her husband. Win-win-winning. I would hate her for being so talented and gorgeous, but she’s way too nice for me to envy-hate. THE NERVE.

SuperWoman shares my love for the Smitten Kitchen blog, but she also re-introduced me to the wonderful recipes on the New York Times’ Cooking site. I had known about it for some time, clipping recipes when we received a print subscription, and occasionally meandering to the site by clicking on Facebook links, but I hadn’t paid as much attention to it as SuperWoman does. I think she’s even a beta-tester for their recipe site, because she’s Just That Awesome. Also, she knows the difference between the different NY Times food writers, and knows which ones she prefers. Meanwhile, I never remember if I read something in the NY Times or the Washington Post, or maybe it was in a magazine? SuperWoman remembers all of these things, and puts them to good use. Every meal we’ve had at her house has been fantastic, and they almost always lead back to the New York Times.

About a year ago, she started raving about Melissa Clark’s Feta Brined Roast Chicken. I believe she called it “the best yard bird” she’d ever eaten. The combination of cheese and chicken kind of squigs me out, and my jaw clenches up a bit if I start to think about it too much. They just don’t play well together, in my opinion. (Chicken cacciatore is enough to send me into hiding.) And so maybe that’s why it took me a year to make this. But it isn’t so much cheesy as it is just deliciously brined. The recipe uses a very small amount of feta mixed with a large amount of water, combined make what might look like medical waste. But don’t be turned off by that, because the brine is so worth it. I used two 2.5-gallon plastic bags to seal everything up and let it marinate overnight.

Non-food-related aside:The 2.5-gallon plastic bags, by the way, are one of my very favorite things. You can fit an entire puzzle or board game into them, or an entire change of clothes for swimming lessons, or a leaky gallon bag of something else. These, along with kitchen timers, may be my new gift for new parents. The plastic bags, for the reasons I mentioned, and the kitchen timers, because 1) your children will break your existing kitchen timer (“but I didn’t mean to do it!”), and 2) timers are useful for everything from taking turns to clean-up time.

Back to the chicken: after brining overnight, you cover it with a gorgeous combination of oregano and lemon zest, giving the whole thing a Greek flair. I bought two organic chickens from Costco, and made one with this recipe, and one with just a little bit of salt, because the gorgeous Greek flair is completely lost on my children. I’ve eaten a lot of roast chicken, and this was by far the best. The recipe says to serve it over greens with some crumbled feta and some of the pan juices. We did one better and added some cucumbers and kalamata olives. This goes in the “make it again – SOON” category in our house.

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I made chicken stock from the carcass, also using some greens from our farm co-op box (carrot tops, etc.). The result, because of the herbs on the chicken and the greens in the stock, was a sort-of-green stock, but still rich and delicious. I made Mark Bittman’s risotto the next night, using the stock, and we’re still talking about it.

In conclusion, check out the New York Times Cooking section, and get to know the wonderful food writing there. Also, find yourself a SuperWoman to inspire you to new levels of awesomeness yourself. If she’s a true SuperWoman, she’ll build you up and encourage you to be a SuperWoman, too.

 

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I Do Humbly Repent

I wrote this blog post once before, on my phone, waiting for Neil in his office. The cell signal is terrible in his office, and everybody there is way too smart to give me the wifi password, and so when I went to hit “publish,” the whole blog post disappeared. OR it was divine intervention, stopping me from admitting I was wrong, and my dad was right. It went something like this.

I’ve already told you about cranoccoli, but allow me to tell you again.

About ten years ago, my parents sold the house where I spent my childhood. My sister and I came home to help them sort through decades of memories there, and I was naturally charged with sorting through the recipes and cookbooks. The shelves ranged from sentimental treasures from churches and restaurants, to cherished family recipes hand-written on index cards (or in my grandma’s case, probably on the back of an envelope), to the 1980s version of Pinterest, those little magazine-like cookbooks sold at the grocery store checkout lane, with titles like: “30 Ways To Use Your Crockpot!” or “New and Interesting Chicken Breast Recipes!”

One recipe stuck out, because my dad had kept multiple copies of it. Cran-occoli. It should be noted that I grew up in the “Gateway to Cranberry Country,” or a region in Wisconsin where a lot of cranberries are grown. And so, there’s a cran-do attitude about everything. Cranberry festivals, cranberry glass, cranberry soda … you get the idea. I thought this was another one of those recipes, but I’ve discovered since then that this recipe is found outside the little county where I spent my youth.

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You’ll see my hometown is also known for the “Grand National Tractor Pull,” a random turkey, and “Where the I Divides.” The “I” stands for the interstate highway. I’m from the armpit of the interstate. I don’t know why there are grapes on the border.

Anyway, the recipe sounded disgusting: raw broccoli, red onion, mayonnaise, and craisins (dried, sweetened cranberries). I knew the recipe had to be my dad’s, because 1) mayonnaise, and 2) my mom doesn’t keep a dozen copies of anything.

“What in the fresh hell is this?” I asked him. He likes it when his daughters use profanity, because it reminds him that we’re his, as if the broad shoulders and round faces don’t give us away.

“It’s good!” he replied. This is a man who enjoys pickled herring before bed, so “good” is a relative term.

“But why so many copies?” I asked.

“It’s in case I lose one.”

“But they’re all here together.”

“So what’s your point? Get back to work.”

I turned to my sister. “Doesn’t this look disgusting?”

“Um, well, I think I’ve had it, and it’s actually pretty good.” This from a woman who’s never admitted to me that she likes raw broccoli in any form. I still didn’t believe her. Traitor.

And then, years later, I bought the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook on the day it was published. You all know how much I love the Smitten Kitchen. I love her work as much as – and maybe more than – Ina’s. And there it was – her broccoli slaw recipe, IN THE COOKBOOK no less, not just in some throwaway blog post. I’ve skipped over it dozens of times in the past few years, never really wanting to admit that this weird deli-case concoction could actually be worth eating.

But this week, my dad’s influence showed up again when I bought a 3-lb. bag of raw broccoli florets at Costco. (I call it aspirational shopping.)

And so, I made the Broccoli Slaw Formerly Known as Cranoccoli, and it was delicious. As much as this pains me, I will admit it: I was wrong. Dad, you were right. (This time.)

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I can’t link to the recipe online because I think Deb Perelman (of the smitten kitchen) pulled her cookbook recipes off of her blog when the book was published. I think you should go buy the cookbook anyway, because it’s that good, but if you just want a recipe for the broccoli slaw, you can probably find it elsewhere on the Internet.

Or, ask my dad for it. He’ll mail you a copy.

PS – thank you all for your messages of care and concern after the Houston floods. We are, gratefully, safe and dry. The kids and I had a second day off of school and work, when I organized another room but didn’t do much in the kitchen. (Clean desk = really happy mom.) But those couple of chill-out days really helped me get back into the kitchen, and I really  needed that. I just wish my time off hadn’t come at the expense of so many affected by the Houston floods, who are still recovering. We are now enjoying a sunny, dry weekend in Houston, and we hope it stays that way long enough for the city to dry out and recover.

 

 

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If You Give a Mom a Rain Day

I’ve written before about how I got my start with cooking and baking during “snow days” – days off of school for inclement weather where I grew up in Wisconsin.

The likelihood of my own kids getting a snow day here in Houston is pretty slim, but today we had a rain day. Their school and my office were closed for dangerous flooding around Houston. We are very grateful to be dry and safe, and quite frankly, glad for a day at home. The idea that clergy families don’t have any expectations, or only have expectations on Sunday mornings, is a load of hot manure. Sure, we’ve signed up for most of it, and it all goes with the territory. But we all needed this day to just … be.

We needed this day to reconnect, to sleep, and to just hang out together. The best part might have been sleeping in, after we sorted out the work and school details before sunrise, as the storm was rolling through. My instinctual response to natural disasters is to sleep … hard. I would not last for a hot minute in the wild. (Where’s the chatty female human? Sleeping? Ah, leave her.) In my mid-morning snoozy state, I had a dream that Neil confessed to being irritated by the same people who irritate me. That was really the best dream I’ve ever had, and easily the best part of the whole day. This is marriage, people.

The next best part, after reading and cuddling with the kids and having some nice quiet time in our pjs, was reconnecting with the kitchen. I had one other weekend about a  month ago where I cooked a lot of food to be eaten throughout the week, and then that Sunday I got horribly ill, and so we had to pitch everything. It was damn near tragic. Over the winter break, I tackled the pantry and reorganized the whole thing, but this week our refrigerator was screaming (almost literally) to be cleaned, and I cooked and baked throughout the day, too.

You should have seen it before. If I didn’t take a photo of it, it might not count. There were multiple cleaning products, boiling water, and a lot of elbow grease involved. I’m so proud. Now, nobody go near it.

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First, I made the kale parmesan chips  from Make It Ahead. I’m probably the only one who will eat these. They’re good, but I’d actually prefer the smitten kitchen’s kale salad, which is my favorite way to eat kale. I think there are probably two types of people in the world: those who don’t like kale, and those who convince the other group that they should like it. I’m trying not to be in the latter category, because I really don’t care what you eat. But if you *want* to like kale, try the smitten kitchen’s salad instead of Ina’s kale chips. The kale chips are OK, but they’re not all that. (But I have to say, the kale is what got me started on the fridge-cleaning rampage, so I owe it a debt of gratitude for that.)

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I also made the zucchini basil soup from Make It Ahead, and it was delicious. Two thumbs up from both Neil and from me. It was easy and surprisingly good. I found myself thinking at several steps during the cooking process, “Well, I’d eat that,” just as it was, without continuing. But I’m glad I kept cooking. It was delicious, even though it might look like fancy baby food. I went rogue with the directions – Ina warns that you use an immersion blender instead of a food mill at your own peril, risking the texture of the zucchini. I was willing to gamble with those odds, because the food mill and I don’t get along very well. The shaved parmesan and olive oil at the end made it extra good.

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I also made Alton Brown’s oat waffles – a double batch for the kids to eat all week. This is minus the mini-stack they each ate for dinner. We add a little vanilla extract as our secret ingredient. Ben helped with these, which made them extra delicious.

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I made hard boiled eggs for weekday lunches and snacks while cooking the soup. Not pictured: a filet of salmon we ate with the zucchini soup, a roast chicken and sweet potatoes to eat for dinner tomorrow, and two loaves of the smitten kitchen’s oat wheat sandwich bread. The dishwasher is earning its keep this week!

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I’m still calling the clean refrigerator my biggest victory of the day. I keep on looking at it because it’s so pretty, and it was so gross before. That, and that glorious dream about Neil’s irritation with the same people that irritate me – I’m still basking in that.

Back to the grindstone tomorrow! We’ll have lots of good food to get us through the week!

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Ermapalooza

I went to my first-ever writing conference!

The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop takes place in Dayton, Ohio (home of her alma mater, the University of Dayton) every two years. There, writers gather to be inspired, and to learn more about the art of writing, especially humor writing. I’ll be the first to say it: most books that fall into the “humor” category at any given bookstore are just lame. I’m more drawn in by memoirs-that-happen-to-be-funny (David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, Erma Bombeck!) than toilet jokes. Generally (and I’m sorry if this sounds harsh), I’ve noticed that people that write *about* humor are the least funny people on the planet. And so I didn’t really know what to expect from a humor writers’ conference, but I was excited to go anyway. Erma Bombeck has always been one of my favorites, even though I read her books long before I was living in the stage of life she described so well in her columns and books.

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I learned so many things, but mostly it was nice to be reminded that I enjoy using the creative part of my brain, and that the world needs as much funny as it can get right now. Making people laugh is valuable!

And just to show you what a terrible erotica writer I would be … I have to cut to the chase about the best part of the weekend without any dramatic build-up or long descriptions. I loved sleeping in a quiet, dark hotel room by myself. I’m right on the cusp of “mom of young kids” and “mom of older kids,” which means that I *could* sleep for eight hours every night, but I rarely do. There are always loads of laundry to fold, or emails to answer, or field trip permission slips, or all of the above. Those crisp, white hotel sheets and the bathroom all to myself … it was heaven. I missed my family so, so much, but they actually had a blast without me! It was really good for all of us.

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I went to some workshops about turning blogs into books and refining your “brand” and marketing and blahblahblah. I wouldn’t say that my time was wasted on those workshops, but the overwhelming voice in my head kept on saying “Not Now.” Maybe later, maybe not ever … but not now. I have enough on my plate, and I’m just barely treading water in the getting-enough-sleep and emptying-the-dishwasher whirlpools of life. But that’s OK. I wasn’t disappointed to know that about myself, or to hear that voice in my head telling me to cool it. I feel like injecting marketing and business into this hobby would make it less enjoyable for me. But I still learned a lot from those sessions. If I really felt a tug to publish right now, I would do more (or anything) to make it happen, sleep be damned. But my instinct is just to enjoy it for its own sake, at least for now. For me, this conference was more like going to a knitting retreat, or a fly fishing workshop. I see the people who do it for a living, and I feel more interest than envy. I like doing this as a hobby, and other people make a living doing it, just like some people have a professional knitting or fly-fishing career.

(PS If anyone wants to give me a million dollar book deal, I’ll take it. You know, if you’re offering. But don’t ask me to come up with a new color scheme or brand name or mission statement. Use me for my raw talent, and then pay me piles of money.)

What I really loved, though, were the workshops about the craft of writing. I learned about how to use anecdote to move a story along. I watched a one-woman show based on Erma Bombeck’s writing. I’m still laughing at lines from the keynote address. I met a ton of new friends – did you know that writers are crazy loud? You might expect a lot of pale wallflowers with their noses stuck in notebooks, but holy wow these people were loud! It was really fun. Maybe best of all, I got to meet “The Bloggess,” Jenny Lawson. Jenny is a hilarious truth-teller, and she has been brutally honest about her own struggles with mental illness. (See every post she’s written with the tag “Depression Lies,” and read her books. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.) She is one example of how creative, intelligent, entertaining writing can be a strong tool for advocacy.

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I had a great time. The best lesson I learned is that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to how all of this works, and that it’s important to keep having fun with it. Also, I learned that my boys were all fine for a few days while I got away, and they were even cuter when I got home.

 

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Dayton or Bust

I am going to my first-ever writing conference in Dayton, Ohio this week.

I am ridiculously excited.

The conference was started in memory of Erma Bombeck, who might have been the first funny writer I ever read, if you don’t count the comic strips. I was the weird kid in middle school who read the goofy mom memoirs, and I even used an Erma Bombeck piece for a forensic speaking competition. I adore her writing, and I’m so excited to learn from other people who admire her. (If you’ve never heard of her, or even if it’s just been a while since you’ve read her stuff, you owe yourself a trip to the library.)

I don’t ever expect to make any money from writing, but it’s been a great hobby for me. Some people go to fly fishing retreats, and some people go to needlepoint workshops. I’m flying to Ohio to learn how to entertain you people better. You’re welcome!

This is also the first time that Neil is going to be flying solo with the kids for longer than an overnight. I think he is excited, too, and I’m so grateful to him and the boys for springing me loose for a few days. I’ve been gone for three hours and I miss them all so much already, but I think this will be good for all of us.

Just for kicks, here’s what went down this morning when Neil dropped me off at the airport.

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All glory, laud and fish eggs!

Happy Easter!

Easter is my favorite, as I describe in this piece recently published on the Episcopal Cafe. And so, it seemed as good a time as any to roll out the Caviar Dip from Barefoot Contessa Parties!

It was easy, delicious, and fancy, which happen to be my trinity of requirements of food to bring for a holiday celebration. (I didn’t even know that someone else was bringing poached salmon – how perfect was that, to go with the salmon roe?) I think the caviar was beautiful and Eastery. I made a double batch of the dip, and left some uncaviar-ed for those who don’t care for it. The un-fishy version was just a really nice dill dip for carrots or crackers.

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Another dish that fits these requirements is the zucchini with almond pesto recipe from the Smitten Kitchen cookbook:

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And as long as you’re here, check out these Easter revelers, with their Easter gardens that they planted at church on Holy Saturday. They make me smile every day. The last one is blurry because life.

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