A Contessa Side Dish and a Weeknight Dinner Party

I made the garlic and herb tomatoes from Barefoot At Home a few nights ago, and they were good, but not rave-worthy.

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Then, last night, we had some friends over for dinner. I made salad with strawberries and poppyseed dressing, chicken roulades from Bon Appétit, roasted potatoes, steamed asparagus, and for dessert, the Smitten Kitchen olive oil ricotta cake, with a plum coulis. It was all beautiful and delicious!

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The Astronaut Wives’ Club

We don’t generally watch network television as it airs anymore, not out of some moral high ground because television is trash (side note: it’s totally trash, and that’s why I love it), but because it always airs when we’re putting kids to bed and emptying the dishwasher and trying to put together whatever broke during the day. For the past eight years and counting, we’ve been off the cable/satellite grid, and we now rely on streaming services like Netflix and Hulu for entertainment. I made an exception for the new ABC drama, the Astronaut Wives’ Club, despite its terrible title. (Shouldn’t it be the astronauts’ wives’ club? And why no apostrophes in the original title? America! Get it together!) 

Why was I drawn in to this new show, after years of catching up and binge-watching after the fact? We live in Houston now, and I have two school-aged children, and so a marginal interest in the space program, at a minimum, seems appropriate. Also, there’s something about a network of spouses that get together based on their family member’s profession. In their case, it was the astronauts, of course. In my case, and for most of my family, it’s the clergy. There is an incredible network of clergy spouses (no longer clergy wives alone, of course, now that women’s ordination is mainstream) here in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, and I can’t even begin to describe how grateful I am for it. Some of the spouses are priests themselves. Some have been married to priests for decades, and some are just starting out. Many are married to “second-career priests,” which means that they have had a long marriage, but not necessarily as a clergy spouse. The Diocese of Texas has large enough numbers that there’s a “critical mass” with enough people and resources to form a good-size community. A few of us laugh at the same horribly inappropriate jokes, and some of us have been in this gig just long enough to have a healthy dose of cynicism, while still (I hope) retaining enough sensitivity and a soft underbelly for the important work of our spouses.

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After the terrible events of last week, it was the posts from other clergy spouses that shone out from the shouting pundits and the depressing statistics. One friend reminded us: “What shall do we do in the face of unthinkable darkness? Remember that you are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. Shine light into the world my friends. Pray for the victims’ families and friends. Pray for Roof and his family and friends. Pray for all of us. And then stand up, dust off your knees, and go shine some light into your corner of the world. Make a new friend today. Give a bigger tip to your server. Surprise someone with a cup of coffee. Call an old friend. Be light. Shine in the darkness. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” Another friend posted this prayer from our bishop: “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your Martyrs of Charleston. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, sheep of your own fold, lambs of your own flock, sinners of your own redeeming. Receive them into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.” The same friend also posted this from Brené Brown. Yet another clergy spouse posted a goofy picture of herself in middle school, because she was just too sad to say anything else. 

These are my people. These friends struck just the right tone last week. Instead of wringing their hands or spouting off what they didn’t know, they shared what they did know, which is plenty. They knew that we’d all dust ourselves off and maybe put on some under-eye concealer and go to church on Sunday morning, because that’s what we do. We go to church, and then we might come home and read the newspaper, where some of us read that it was the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney’s wife who called 911 on the night of the awful events in Charleston at Emanuel AME Church. The New York Times reported on Sunday (6/21/2015): “At about 9, gunfire and terrified cries shattered the evening calm. In the pastor’s office, Mr. Pinckney’s wife, who had been waiting patiently with their younger daughter, turned off the lights, locked the door, hugged her child close and called 911.” We clergy spouses have sat in those offices and waited with our children. We’ve stretched out behind the desk and maybe slipped off our shoes after a particularly long coffee hour. We’ve dusted off the family pictures on his desk with the hems of our shirt, and taken inventory of the travel mugs that should be taken home and washed. We might not work there, but we’re there a lot. A community of clergy spouses is damn near necessary to understand both the enormity and the mundaneness of it all.  

And so … what does it look like when another group of spouses get together to support one another while their family members go off and do something important? We might not be sending anyone off to the moon, but we’ve sent them off into the very real world of death and love and budgets and people. My curiosity got the best of me while I tuned in to ABC last week to watch the astronauts’ wives. 

But I have to admit, a big draw for watching the ABC drama was for the glorious mid-20th-century food. Highlighted in Bon Appétit, the colorful conglomerations scream post-war housewife. In one scene, a reporter asked one of the wives, “Is that a family recipe?” She deadpanned, “yes,” even as she was reading the instructions off of the package of lime Jell-O. This is the generation that gave us potato chips on casseroles and the Tunnel of Fudge bundt cake for the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest in 1966 (would anything be named that today??). Ten years after the space race, the world was introduced to 1970s Weight Watchers recipe cards. It was a glorious time for disgusting food.

I was a little afraid that the Barefoot Contessa’s summer pudding with rum whipped cream (from Family Style) would turn into a similar monstrosity. (You knew this had to get back to Ina at some point, right?) I was so wrong. Even though this looks like something that could have come out of the June 1964 edition of Ladies’ Home Journal, it does not have the artificial colorings and flavors that our foremothers used. Instead, it’s all berries and sweetness and bread and goodness. It may look a medical school experiment gone wrong, but it tasted delicious. We could all use a little more summer berry pudding with rum whipped cream in our lives.

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And even if you’re not into summery berry desserts, do something nice for someone else this week. If you happen to know a clergy spouse or someone else who might have a weird supportive role to an even weirder job, open a door for that person, when his or her hands are full with kids and backpacks and the stole that was left at home by accident. Smile, instead of scowling, when she re-introduces herself to you when you’ve already met her three times (or better yet – remind her of your name and wear a name tag). Sit next to him when nobody else seems to know what to say to him. Be that light on the hill.

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All Other Ground Is Sinking Sand

One of my very sweet students asked me this morning, “Miss Carrie, do you know how to bake a pie?” Oh honey. Do I ever. It led us to talking about cookbooks and food, and I realized that his mom didn’t know about this blog. Later in the day, I emailed her a link to the blog with the caveat that it’s “mostly food, with the occasional church rant.”

I’ve had a dozen or so church rant posts in the hopper for the past few months, and they kind of ferment and sometimes die. The theme is usually Kids In Church, which is one of my accidental passions. I really never thought I’d have so much to say about it, but apparently I have some pretty strong opinions about where my little people belong. They can usually be boiled down to this: We All Belong Here. And: Be Nice. Also: Save Your Dirty Looks For Traffic. See also: Come Sit By Me.

But, why do I bring them to church at all? I bring them for the same reason that I bring myself. We need practice. We need practice sitting with people who may or may not look like us or vote like us or think like we do. We need practice asking for forgiveness, and walking to the altar. We need practice singing together. Sometimes it feels right, and sometimes it feels uncomfortable and weird. We’ve had a recent family discussion about what we wear to church, and re-examining what it means to wear our “best” to church. If our best turns out to be my seven-year-old’s favorite shirt, collar or not, so be it. I want my kids to like church, but it’s ok if they don’t. They always want to go, even if it’s the one hour a week they don’t get screen time or running races. They like it there, and they’re learning to practice alongside me.

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None of these ideas are new or original to me. Anne Lamott talks about life as Forgiveness School. (The irony here is that some people will stop reading here because they haaaate Anne Lamott and have trouble forgiving her for saying things that don’t match their worldview. It’s ok.) I’ve heard sermons about our walk to the altar, and how it’s practice for walking together, through the world, toward God. Brené Brown talks about our need for connection, and church is one of those places where we find connection.

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I need the practice more than anyone. There’s this idea that clergy and clergy families have some kind of bullet-proof faith, and that we’re immune to doubt and falling. I think one up-and-down glance at me would dispel any notions of perfection, but just in case it doesn’t, I’m here to tell you that I have spent countless nights doubting and worrying and raging. I’ve called friends late at night, wondering aloud if it’s all a load of manure. I’ve chewed on Jesus’ words on anxiety, and found them impossible to swallow. I need help.

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I want my kids to have a place to go, for practice, and for wonderful, sometimes the best kind of wonderful, and for awful, sometimes the worst kind of awful. Some of the awful happened this week, at an AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine people were murdered at their church on a Wednesday night, gathering just as we have in churches around the country on Wednesday nights for as long as I can remember. I am absolutely sick about it. I am angry and sad and outraged. The people who were murdered there were practicing, just like we do. The pundits have already started shouting from their platforms. In a world where my babies have to know what a lockdown drill is at school, and where churches are targets, and where people are hated for their skin color, I feel all the horrible feelings. And then I read the comments and hear the lines that justify the guns and excuse away the killings and I get sick all over again. I lose respect for people I love because they seem to love guns more than they love people, and I’m called to forgive and love them. And it hurts and it sucks and I hate it. Jesus called us to forgive, but he wasn’t silent when people were being awful to each other, either. Black lives matter. School shootings should not happen. Gun violence needs to stop.

I need a place to go with all of that. As much as I love books, the library is cold comfort when the awful-est of awfuls happens. My alma mater has a special place in my heart, but no matter how many times I sing Varsity, it’s pretty hollow compared to the Doxology. Even the national anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance isn’t going to get me through unbelief like the confession or the creed … even when the words of the people around me sustain me more than my belief in the words themselves. Walking with people from the parking lot to a ball game, while exhilarating even for a non-sports fan, is nothing compared to walking to the Communion rail. Cooking a meal in my home is one of my very greatest pleasures, and sacred agape love is shared at our table, but the meal that we share with the worldwide communion of Christians is bigger than anything I can find in any of my cookbooks.

People of faith in Charleston walked into a church today, and they came together to practice. Their words are my prayer tonight.

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

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Affogato Sundaes

I was going to make these to eat after our Niçoise salad, but I had a flat of peaches that were just beggin to be made into a peach crisp, so I switched gears at the last minute.

imageThen, we were gearing up for Tropical Storm Bill, which thankfully turned out to be a non-event in our neighborhood, but who doesn’t love a good freezer inventory on a rainy day? We had all of the ingredients, and thought about what a shame it would be to throw away perfectly good gelato in the event of an actual weather event and power outage … And we did  what could only be considered the responsible adult thing to do.

This recipe (from Back to Basics) is a really delightful combination of espresso, gelato, whipped cream, and chocolate-covered espresso beans. It is so much more than the sum of its parts. It would have been equally good by flashlight or candlelight, but I’m more than a little glad that our power and air conditioning stayed on this time!

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Spanish Starters + French Salad

We welcomed old friends to town as they are moving here, and I know they’ve been spending a lot of time on the road and unpacking boxes. Plus, it’s starting to get hot and sticky here. So, fresh and light were what we wanted.

The sangría (from Make It Ahead) is a nice way to stretch a bottle of wine into something fruity. And punchy.

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The Spanish Tapas Peppers (also from Make It Ahead) have an ingredient list that looks like Peggy Hill’s substitute Spanish teacher lesson plan after she dipped into the sangría.

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Olives, anchovies, raisins (????), garlic, sherry… It sounded like a really bad idea. And yet… it worked! The peppers were too small when I cut them into sixths, so I ended up quartering them instead (sorry Trent! But I used all the weird ingredients!).

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Continuing with our continental theme, I made the tuna salad niçoise from the barefoot contessa cookbook. It’s hard to describe how beautiful and delicious and EASY it was! What scared me off before now? The anchovies? Or olives? Or the eight tuna steaks? (We did one giant tuna steak and some lemon grilled chicken from the same cookbook to fill it all in.) This might be the perfect summer entertaining food. I made almost everything in advance and just seered the tuna right before we ate. I bought some radishes and cucumbers to fill it in if we needed more, but we didn’t.

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It was all so good! Yay for summer weekends!

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Herb-Roasted Fish

I know that the Barefoot Contessa recipes have a reputation for amazing flavor and easy-to-follow instructions, but also for over-the-top decadence. Some of that reputation is well-earned, of course. This is the woman that introduced us to truffle butter on everything, after all. But sometimes, she comes up with something brilliant and healthy, and it kind of introduces some balance into our world. Her lentils fall into that category, for example, as do any of the roasted vegetable recipes.

This herb-roasted fish, from Make It Ahead, might be my new favorite way to make white fish. It’s so easy – fresh herbs, lemon juice, a few olives, and a filet of white fish (we used cod), all wrapped up in a beautiful little package and roasted for 15 minutes. We halved the recipe on a weeknight, but you could just as easily double it for a larger crowd.

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You can assemble the packets in advance, but they take less time to assemble than it takes for the oven to preheat. While they’re in the oven, you have just enough time to cook some quinoa and wilt some spinach, and then you have a spa-worthy dinner.

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Or, as long as the oven is hot, you could roast some vegetables, too. We both loved this combination, and I’ll definitely make it again. Costco sells individually-wrapped, wild-caught frozen cod, and so I usually have it in the freezer. It thaws pretty quickly in a cold water bath, and so this is easily weeknight-worthy.

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Just add cheese

Under the theory that everything is better with buttery bread crumbs and grated gruyere, Ina brings us these two recipes from Make It Ahead.

First, these Coquilles St. Jacques, which is a fancy way of saying Delectable Scallops in Amazing Sauce. This is a half batch, minus the curry, and plopped in a pyrex dish instead of individual gratin dishes.

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And then, stuffed zucchini, with fresh bread crumbs instead of bread cubes.

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Both were a little bit labor-and-dishes-intensive, but so, so worth it.

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