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Orecchiette with Farmstand Tomato Sauce

IMG_5643I suppose this (from Cooking with Jeffrey) would be the kind of thing you’d make if you were an avid gardener and you had more tomatoes than you could eat. To me, though, that’s like saying, I suppose you could make origami out of your hundred dollar bills if you had more cash than you thought you could spend. I’ve never been able to grow tomatoes, and now that we live in Houston, I can barely find good ones to buy. For a few weeks, there were delicious tomatoes at the farmers’ market, but making them into sauce would seem almost cruel. So, I bought some lame grocery store tomatoes for this sauce, which was … OK. It was better than eating the cardboard-y tomatoes raw, but that’s not saying much. It was a lot of chopping and simmering, when Ina herself admits that Rao’s makes a perfectly delicious jarred sauce. (Which, even at $8 per jar, is less expensive than making this sauce, unless you’re one of those lucky gardeners, I guess.)

It wasn’t horrible, but I don’t think it was worth all of the fuss. Meh.

Completed/remaining: 737/133

 

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Raspberry Rhubarb Crostata

For me, rhubarb falls firmly into the “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone” category. For most of my years in the upper midwest, where it grows like weeds, I didn’t think I liked it. As soon as I developed a taste for it, we moved to Texas, where rhubarb is one of the few things that doesn’t grow.

I scrounged up some rhubarb and made this fun little crostata (from Cooking for Jeffrey). The full pie looked like an autopsy, so here’s a photo of just one little slice with some vanilla ice cream. Happy (almost) summer!

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Ina has just announced that she’s publishing another cookbook this fall. I’m never going to catch up! But I’m still excited to see what else she might have left to show us.

 

Completed/remaining: 736/134

 

 

 

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Lentils and Kielbasa and Easter!

I bought the ingredients for Ina’s Lentil Salad with Kielbasa (from Cooking with Jeffrey) earlier this week, but then Holy Week happened. We had chili early in the week, and it seemed too soon for lentils. Then we had the regular work and school commitments, piled on church schedules, and reasons to go out and celebrate. So when Saturday rolled around, the leeks and carrots and fresh herbs were still looking at me and saying, “what are you going to do about us?” We had invited some friends over for egg dye-ing on Saturday afternoon, and I had planned to go out and get sandwich and salad stuff on Saturday morning. I texted them on Friday night, and they promised that lentils sounded great. I made the lentils with kielbasa, which was visually terrifying but delicious, a salad with arugula, beets, and honey balsamic vinaigrette, fruit, and Rice Krispie treats cut into Easter shapes for dessert. Despite the lentils’ overdone-ness (mea culpa) and terrible appearance, they were delicious. I thought I had a turnip, which is called for in the recipe directions, but it turned out to be a beet, so I didn’t use it. I used homemade chicken stock in place of water to cook the lentils, which I think upped the flavor quite a bit. After we had lunch and dyed the eggs, we made Easter bunny masks.

 

The boys received their Easter baskets on Saturday morning, and we go all out for reasons I discussed here.  They are getting so big, but never too big for Easter baskets.

 

 

Completed/remaining: 735/135

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Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

Neil and I have been watching Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee on Netflix lately, as our guilty pleasure laundry folding entertainment. In one episode, Jerry Seinfeld takes Ali Wentworth out for coffee. They talk about the friendship they share with their spouses as couple-friends, and how rare it is to find another couple who enjoys spending time together, and how nice it is when that happens.

What’s even more rare is an entire family that gets along. We have a few of these friend-families in Houston, and we always have a good time when we’re together. When the kids are happily playing with one another and the adults can talk, evenings pass quickly, especially when we’re sharing good food. One of these family friends came over last weekend, and we made this salmon from the New York Times. We’ve made it twice now, and it’s an instant dinner party hit.

We were in a dinner deficit with another friend-family, and invited them over this weekend. I had a whole St. Patrick’s Day menu planned, and went to the farmers’ market, Whole Foods, and Costco for Irish cheddar and butter, fresh carrots and turnips, lamb for stewing, and even Guinness. But about an hour before our guests were set to arrive, Ben came down with a fever. We had to cancel at the last minute, which made me feel horrible, but not as horrible as I would have felt if we had gotten their whole family sick. I had already made all of the food, so this is what we enjoyed in their absence. (And we’re grateful they’ll take a rain check!)

From Cooking for Jeffrey, I made Irish Guinness Brown Bread, Lamb Stew with Spring Vegetables, and Kale Salad with Pecorino and Pancetta. The brown bread was delicious, but not Neil’s and Ben’s favorite. If you need a quick bread recipe that doesn’t call for eggs, this is for you. It uses mostly whole wheat flour, but it doesn’t taste too dense or boring. Neil and I both devoured the lamb stew. I’ve learned with Ina’s stew recipes to cook them longer for more tender meat. I doubled her 1.5-hour cooking time, and it was just about perfect. I accidentally left out the pearl onions, which aren’t our favorite anyway, and it didn’t taste like anything was lacking. I had to split it up among two pots because it made a huge batch. If Ina were in a more creative naming mood when she wrote the kale salad recipe, she could have called it “Kale, Caesar!” It was deliciously garlicky and lemony, and gave us a nice green touch for the holiday. To finish, I made the Smitten Kitchen’s chocolate stout cake, which might be (no kidding) the best chocolate cake I’ve ever made, and we didn’t even need the ganache.

Here’s hoping that next year, the Luck o’ the Irish will keep everybody healthy so we don’t have to cancel any plans!

Completed/remaining: 734/136

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The Willards Go To Washington! For a week!

A lot has happened since my post-Harvey check-in in September! I’ve actually been cooking a lot, but not so many new recipes from Ina – more like soup and casseroles for the freezer for people who are still putting their houses and their lives together. We’ve had quite a couple of months – our beloved dog Tippet died in October, and I’ve been struggling to get over a nasty chest cold since then. But it hasn’t been all bad news: the boys have adjusted amazingly well to their new school, and they are wowing their teachers in first and fourth grades. And, we took a trip that we’ve been planning since February! Neil and I traveled to Washington, D.C. for a conference he attended last winter, and as soon as we came home, we started planning a trip with the boys.

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Our offices close for the week between Christmas and the New Year, and the kids are out of school, so we figured this would be as good a time as any to take a trip. Washington, D.C. seemed as good a choice as any because it’s so easy to navigate, there’s so much that interests the boys, and it’s a relatively inexpensive city. As soon as we started out, Neil said, “We need to remember this for next time!” So we’re all hoping there’s a next time. We’ve had friends who have done their lists of Disney hacks, to make a Disney vacation affordable and doable for a family. Here’s our list of D.C. hacks. Some things aren’t D.C.-specific, but I suppose they’d work for any city travel.

  1. Find a hotel near the Metro. For the price of about a one-day car rental, we bought week-long Metro passes for the four of us. The biggest benefit of this isn’t just the rental car savings, but the parking savings and avoiding the city traffic. Even though Houston is bigger than D.C., the population density here is three times as … dense. So, the traffic can get out of hand, and parking is extremely expensive. We found a hotel somewhat close to a Metro station in Arlington. It’s a lot cheaper than hotels in the city, and we’ve only traveled by train and by foot, and so we’ve been able to budget for an entire week here. Also, the kids LOVE it, and I figure I’ve bought myself a year or two more before dementia sets in by re-learning the routes we need to take. All that being said, the $8 cab ride we took one day was the best money we spent all week. There’s something to be said about knowing when to ask for help. We also took an uber to the airport (and donated our used-just-once booster seat to the uber driver, much to his delight), and that was also worth it. By that time, I had a full-blown case of influenza, though … more on that later.
  2. If you don’t plan to uber/lyft/cab/drive your way around the city and you’re going to use the Metro and your feet for most of your travel, you’re going to want to pack light. We each packed one small suitcase for a week, which might not sound like any big thing, but we are all of us chronic over packers. Knowing we’d have to haul our stuff everywhere, though, made us think twice about what got packed and what could stay home. When you find that hotel near the metro, look for a hotel with laundry machines for guest use, or a nearby laundromat. Pack a few laundry detergent “pods” to do a load or two of laundry in the hotel. It might not feel very vacation-y, but neither does dragging half your wardrobe three blocks from the Metro stop. If you feel like splurging, I’m sure there are a lot of reliable wash-and-fold services in the city, but we figured since we’d be in by 8 pm with the kiddos anyway, we might as well do it ourselves. I packed one basic outfit: leggings, a cotton dress, and short boots. It might look like I’m wearing the same outfit in every photo, but I’m OK with that.IMG_0124
  3. Plan to eat at least one meal in the room every day. For us, breakfast made the most sense. For your family, it might make more sense to have peanut butter sandwiches on the go for lunch, or a picnic dinner in the room in the evening. We went to a grocery store (the Whole Foods off of the Foggy Bottom Metro stop – or “Foggy Butt” as Ben likes to call it – is excellent for this), and picked up fresh fruit, yogurt, and croissants. So, if your hotel doesn’t have an included breakfast, check for one with at least a mini fridge. This has saved us money, but it has also saved us the bother of bringing kids to restaurants three times a day. Our kids are great travelers, but we all need our time at “home,” and breakfast was a good way to start the day that way. That way, by the time we left the room, we were ready to go to our first attraction. Even if you don’t want to eat in the room, plan on at least one grocery trip for snacks and other essentials. In addition to the Whole Foods near the Foggy Bottom stop on the orange/silver/blue line, there’s a Trader Joe’s across the street from the Clarendon stop on the orange/silver line. Buy a roll (or two) of paper towels and a bottle of hand soap for the room. We traveled at the peak of cold and flu season, and after being with so many people all day, the last thing I wanted to do was to wash hands with the same nasty bar of hotel soap with my whole family. Hand soap. Trust me.  As long as you’re at the grocery store, pick up some fresh fruit for the room. M&Ms are super fun for the airport and one or two nights in the hotel, but you’ll all feel better if you have some fresh fruit and veggies in you. We ended up eating our entire dinner at Whole Foods at least two nights – the kids could eat pizza, Neil could eat a sandwich, and I could pick up some sushi and a salad. I added some sliced bell peppers to my salad bowl and then put them in front of the kids with their pizza, and said a prayer that the vitamin C in them would help stave off any nasty travel germs.
  4. Whatever you don’t want to pick up and drag home on the metro, use Amazon’s Prime Now or Uber Eats. We had bottled water, a few sodas, and a few other essentials delivered to the room one night. I don’t know why I feel guilty about this, because it’s AWESOME. We did New Year’s Eve dinner with Uber Eats, and everybody got what they wanted without waiting in line at a restaurant or having to travel home through a crowd of partygoers. (We are so old.)IMG_9999.JPG
  5. If you want to see any of the paid attractions (e.g., anything outside the Smithsonian museums and the National Gallery), buy a “Go Pass”we got ours at Costco. We figured out that it would pay for itself even if we only used two of our four passes each. We used ours for the International Spy Museum, the National Building Museum, the National Geographic Museum, and the hop-on hop-off bus tour of the monuments. The boys loved the spy museum; I do not understand espionage, and so I’m probably not the best person to ask about that one. I did love the National Building Museum and the National Geographic Museum, though – even more than I expected. The National building Museum has a huge “great hall” to run around in -for free! You only have to pay (or use a go pass) for admission to the exhibits. There are also a ton of clean bathrooms there (moms notice these things!), and it is directly across the street from the Judiciary Square Metro stop. This was a godsend on a very cold day. We could have used one of our “go pass” passes on the National Cathedral, but we paid separately for that. Side note: the Cathedral is not on a Metro line, but it is free to tour on Sundays, and there’s a great little cafe on the Cathedral grounds. Next time, we’ll make more of an effort to go to church there on a Sunday. As it was, we used our one non-Metro day to go there, because our seven-day Metro pass had expired at that point. We did use our “go pass” on a hop-on-hop-off tour bus which was a mistake on a 22-degree day, but was a good way to see other things not on a Metro line (the monuments and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing). We had hoped to see Mt. Vernon and Arlington Cemetery, but when the highs were in the low 20s, we changed our tune. Which brings me to my next point:
  6. Make a plan, but make it flexible. We made a general list of what we would try to do and ideas of which days we would do them, but circumstances like weather, moods, and different friends we wanted to see made us glad that we hadn’t nailed ourselves down to a certain date for any one activity. We only made one restaurant reservation for the entire week. I might have felt differently if we were traveling without the kids, but for our purposes, it just made more sense to find something nearby wherever we happened to be. Along those lines:
  7. Know your limits. No matter what time we left the room in the morning or what we had planned for that day, we tended to start to melt after hitting about 13000 steps. I think we probably would have gone a lot further and longer if it had not been extremely cold. That made it nearly impossible to spend time outdoors, but it also added to the time it took to get through security checks and get everything settled so we could get to the good stuff. Speaking of that:
  8. The National Gallery has a free coat check room, and the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Museum of American History have free lockers. For a quarter, you can use the National Museum of Natural History’s lockers. If you’re wearing a few pounds of winter gear and/or hauling around a bag full of everybody’s everything, you’ll want to remember this.
  9. Speaking of the bag full of everything, you might want a lightweight backpack. I can’t carry a purse around all day without getting a backache, and I wanted some of the males in the family to be able to carry around the family bag for some of the day, too. I needed something for my wallet, phone, extra phone charger, a metro map, and all of our passes and cameras. I didn’t do a ton of research on this, but I bought this one before our trip. It’s big enough without being too big to squeeze into those free lockers. The boys got cameras for Christmas from my parents, which has been awesome, but there were enough exhibits that did not allow photography that it was nice to be able to tuck them away.IMG_9915.JPG
  10. The Mitsitam Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian has very good “real” food (not just chicken tenders and hot dogs). There is also a very good restaurant downstairs in the National Gallery, but it’s a bit more expensive and less kid-friendly.
  11. Wear comfortable shoes. This is a walking city. Like, go try some on in the store. Maybe get some new socks, too.
  12. On Friday afternoons, the National Portrait Gallery has a free make-your-own art time. It was a lovely, quiet, warm corner of the city that helped us decompress after a crowded morning and create something (for free!) that we could bring home with us.
  13. We didn’t make reservations ahead of time for any attractions or tours. If you want to tour the capital building, you should contact your senator or representative several months in advance. You’ll need to plan in advance to tour the White House, too. For this trip, we knew we’d have plenty to see without reservations, so we just planned to do that. The one Smithsonian museum that requires some planning in advance is the African American History museum, but it’s not impossible to visit without a months-in-advance plan.
  14. The Air and Space Museum is very popular. We went on a Saturday. That was probably not our best move. If you need a nap, get tickets for a planetarium show. The kids were mesmerized, and Neil and I could close our eyes for a few minutes. Don’t tell Neil deGrasse Tyson.

In six days, we saw a lot:

  • International Spy Museum
  • National Portrait Gallery
  • National Museum of the American Indian
  • National Air and Space Museum
  • National Gallery
  • White House
  • The Willard Intercontinental Hotel
  • National Museum of Natural History
  • National Museum of American History
  • National Geographic Museum
  • National Building Museum
  • Union Station
  • National Cathedral
  • Bureau of Engraving and Printing
  • Jefferson Memorial
  • FDR Memorial
  • Lincoln Memorial
  • Albert Einstein Memorial
  • Old Ebbitt Grill
  • Smithsonian Castle

 

 

Even with all of that, we had a fun New Year’s Day brunch in Georgetown, we made it to the Apple Store in Arlington one night to replace our sad old phones, we had time for rest and relaxation, and we managed all of our errand-y running around things. The kids played in the snow for about an hour one morning at the hotel while we sipped our hot coffee inside. For us, not having too much structure was key, and we still saw plenty of things. It was also bone-chilling cold there (and we’ve lived in Minnesota, so we know cold!). If we had fewer days, we probably would have squeezed more into each day, but we probably wouldn’t have felt the need to pace ourselves as much, either.

We got a great deal on our flights (Southwest from Hobby to Reagan), and an unbelievable rate at our hotel just across the river from DC. Other than that, we paid for our food, the Metro passes, our “Go Card” and admission to the National Cathedral. We had a few short cab rides on the last day after our Metro week-long passes expired, and an uber to the airport. For a week away from home, I think we did really well.

We came home and all had influenza. It was the PITS. But even after a week at home for Christmas, a week in Washington, and a very long sick weekend at home, I’m still not sick of my family, so I’m calling it a win. We can’t wait to go back!

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Post-Harvey Check-In

Most of you know from social media or the mockingbird blog that my family survived, grateful, dry, and safe, through Hurricane Harvey in Houston last week. Many people were not so fortunate, and we’ve been trying to help in any way we can. For me, of course, that meant taking to the kitchen, even before we were able to safely leave our house. I made a giant batch of chicken noodle soup, which is my very favorite comfort food. I made lentil vegetable soup, which seemed like good hippie energy food after people had been living on shelf-stable pre-packaged food for a while. I gathered up the little bit of fresh fruit we had in the house after being away from a grocery store for several days, and I tucked it in with soup and homemade bread and oatmeal cookies. I made browned butter Rice Krispie treats for a church playground playdate. I made a big batch of chili and a bigger batch of ribollita, knowing that we’ll need soup in the freezer for the weeks and months to come. I found the ingredients for peanut butter granola and made approximately a metric ton of it. I ran out of containers to give it away, and started using Danish butter cookie tins and Mason jars and anything that would hold it. It might be the perfect post-storm recovery food: fiber, protein, no refined sugars or flour, delicious, shelf stable, and can be eaten with one hand while working with another. Also: it makes the house smell amazing while it bakes.

 

 

The people of Houston, and Palmer (our church) in particular, have been nothing short of amazing. People have stepped up to the plate in remarkable ways. Some of that is described in my husband, Neil’s, sermon this morning when we gathered for worship for the first time since the storm.

People everywhere want to help Houston get back on her feet. We are so incredibly touched by friends’ generosity and giving spirit. Right now, Houston needs monetary donations more than in-kind donations, as described here and here.

Where to donate? I can help with that!

The church building itself was fortunately undamaged, but many of our people’s homes were severely damaged. If you’d like to help families at Palmer or associated with Palmer who were directly affected by floods, you can donate online here, or checks can be sent to Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, 6221 Main Street, Houston, Texas 77030, with “storm relief” written in the memo line. Gift cards can be sent to the same address, and Palmer will make sure they get into the right hands. Local stores are HEB, Costco, Wal Mart, Target, Whole Foods, Kroger, Randall’s, Trader Joe’s, Lowe’s, and Home Depot.

Many parents will return to work this week, but many schools (including the Houston public schools, which serve a large number of students) will not start classes again until at least September 11. Palmer is running a day camp for those children, so that parents can return to work, work on their damaged homes, or volunteer to help others in their homes. This day camp is being offered free of charge, and will include a meal and snacks for the children. Some families who will be using this camp are families of police officers, medical staff, and other security personnel who have been working to keep Houstonians safe and well since before the storm began. The camp is being run by volunteers and Palmer staff on Palmer’s campus with a lot of donated goods, and so the overhead is virtually nothing. But they are accepting monetary donations for food and supplies. Donations can be given here, or checks can be sent to Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, 6221 Main Street, Houston, Texas 77030, with “hurricane day camp” written in the memo line. Any extra funds will be used for the general storm relief, outlined above.

Other Episcopal churches in the area have taken on devastating damage. To donate to their restoration, check here and here for details.

For general relief through larger Episcopal organizations, you can donate through the Episcopal Diocese of Texas for flood relief or Episcopal Relief and Development.

Fellow foodies following this blog may be interested in donating to the Houston Food Bank, or buying a gift card for flooding victims through Penzey’s.

Animal lovers may choose to donate to the city’s animal shelter here.

I’ve seen devastating photos of flooded libraries. You can donate to the Houston Public Library here to assist libraries in rebuilding their collections, and to support the other work that public libraries do in the community, particularly with storm recovery services. Here is another link to donate to a local library. While schools have special laws governing how they can accept donations, our children’s school’s Parent Teacher Organization has set up a fund especially to help faculty and staff who have been affected by the storm. You can donate here.

The Montrose Center supports the LGBTQ community in Houston, and they have been doing remarkable work following the hurricane, as described on their website. You can donate here.

For those who are interested in supporting the recovery community in Houston, Archway Academy is a high school for teens in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. It meets on Palmer’s campus, and is the largest high school of its kind in the country. To support the families of current and former students affected by flooding, donate here.

This list doesn’t even begin to describe the remarkable work done here on the ground in Houston, or the enormous needs being filled by these organizations. Thank you to everyone who has already donated, and please don’t hesitate to reach out for more suggestions if you have something specific in mind.

Thank you, mostly, for keeping us in your prayers this past week. It has been an overwhelming week in Houston, to say the least, but there’s nowhere we’d rather be. The work is just beginning, and so we appreciate your continued prayers and support!

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Sweet Potato Empanadas, Herbed Goat Cheese, and Kale Salad with Pancetta and Pecorino

Last week, I was in New York for a work conference, and it was the best kind of work trip. I learned a lot and came back energized about the work I do. But I also had enough time before and after the conference to explore New York, experience some off-Broadway theater performances, go to some museums, and eat at some amazing restaurants. Nobody should be surprised that I googled Ina Garten’s favorite restaurants in the neighborhood where I was staying, and I roped some colleagues into eating breakfast with me at Nougatine by Jean-Georges. It was delicious and amazing, and even though we didn’t see Ina Garten, I feel just a tiny bit more stalkerish-close to her than I did before.

Now that we’re back in town, we were invited to friends’ house for another cooperative dinner party. This is now my favorite style of entertaining: someone else with a pool and some grilling know-how invites us over, and we bring various and sundry side dishes and desserts. I don’t have to pick up all of the nerf bullets and legos around our house or even put away the laundry, and we can finish the prepping dishes clean-up after we get home. The kids get a nice long swim while we catch up with friends, and everybody’s happy. This week, we sampled three more from Cooking with Jeffrey: sweet potato empanadas, herbed goat cheese (I used Boursin) and kale salad with pecorino and pancetta. The empanadas were slightly fussy to make, but less fussy than Ina’s instructions to cut circles in puff pastry, because we live in Texas, and I could buy pre-cut perfectly sized empanada dough from Goya at our local supermarket. They were tasty, though, and we’re already daydreaming about what else we might put inside an empanada. The herbed goat cheese was very popular, as you can probably see from the photo. And the kale salad was as good as kale salad gets: generously dressed with a garlicky caesar-type dressing and combined with pancetta and bread cubes.

We also brought some drinks, two very midwestern desserts (the now-ubiquitous browned butter Rice Krispie treats from smitten kitchen, along with my brother’s favorite chocolate revel bars), and a salad from Melissa Clark’s “Dinner” cookbook. I throw everything on trays from IKEA, which are inexpensive and cute, and they travel well. We came home with full hearts and tired kids, which is my favorite way to come home on a Saturday night.

Completed/remaining: 732/138

 

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