One day when my kitchen counter was uncharacteristically clean and the dinner hour was quickly approaching, I posed a question to my Instagram friends: Should I follow through on my dinner plan and cook Sticky Orange Chicken (and thus keep my kitchen clean), or should I take the easy way out and serve cereal instead?
“Cereal!” the people cried. “Give yourself a break, lady!” they screamed.
I was so far beyond exhausted that the idea of serving cereal for dinner actually sounded appealing. Talk about easy clean up. But after taking a few minutes to consider, I decided to cook the chicken anyway.
I felt pretty bratty as I zested an orange that evening, fully ignoring the call to give myself a break. I swear I heard my Insta-friends shouting, “Show off!” as I ignored their advice. Truth be told, cereal doesn’t really do it for me. I needed real food, you know? And what I really wanted was Chinese take out, or pizza delivered straight to my door, or for Joey to come home from with a bag of sloppy burgers and crispy fries–anything that would keep the kitchen clean by minimizing clean up. But those options don’t simplify dinner. If anything, they complicate it even more than homecooked allergy-friendly food.
I wanted easy, but my people needed to eat. So off to cook chicken I trudged, bad attitude in tow.
As I diced up chicken and dredged it in starch, I thought about all the women who lived on this prairie long before I did–how did they feel about having to do dinner after a long days’ work? Did they cook up cornbread and beans with a chip on their shoulder? (Probably sometimes.) But they did it anyway because if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. Take out wasn’t a thing for them. Their idea of fast food was hard tack or dried buffalo meat.
Oof. Sautéing scallions and fresh garlic in my cushy kitchen suddenly felt luxurious.
My frustration flipped to thanksgiving in that moment of clarity. I had a well-stocked pantry with fresh, flavorful food. I have an indoor stove and a real-deal dishwasher that help lighten my dinnertime load. I have little hands learning to pitch in, and a husband who says my homecooked food is better than take out, anyway.
I saw my blessings more clearly that night. Whisking together fresh orange juice and coconut aminos is an extravagance that generations of prairie people before me couldn’t have dreamed up. My perennial nightly chore went from burden to blessing in an instant, and all my pent-up dinnertime stress melted away. Cooking felt industrious; crying about it felt indolent.
Did I still wish take out was an option? Well, sure, because I’m not a pioneer woman, and it hurts to watch the pizza delivery man deliver dinner to my neighbors and not me. But is my family better fed by the work of my hands? You bet, in more ways than one.
Food allergy life is physically demanding, emotionally exhausting and mentally taxing. Every upside-down kitchen is. Whether it’s an allergy or an intolerance or an autoimmune disease that renders some foods fundamentally off the table, unconventional food life places so much extra squarely on our shoulders, and it overwhelms us. Living in a time and place where convenience convinces us we deserve to take a break doesn’t help either. But when I get to that frazzled place where opting out of responsibility sounds better than orange chicken, I remind myself how easy I have it. Dinner could be corncakes and beans cooked an open fire every night, you know?
And ok, perhaps it’s not fair to compare my cushy kitchen to pioneer life. They didn’t have food allergies to deal with (did they?). But they didn’t have electricity either, so you know–perspective. And honestly? My orange chicken isn’t even hard. It’s my heart that tends to be.
8-11 God can pour on the blessings in astonishing ways so that you’re ready for anything and everything, more than just ready to do what needs to be done. As one psalmist puts it,
He throws caution to the winds, giving to the needy in reckless abandon. His right-living, right-giving ways never run out, never wear out.
This most generous God who gives seed to the farmer that becomes bread for your meals is more than extravagant with you. He gives you something you can then give away, which grows into full-formed lives, robust in God, wealthy in every way, so that you can be generous in every way, producing with us great praise to God.
2 Corinthians 9:8-11 (MSG)
I made fudge this week, and oh how that pan of molten chocolate goodness beckoned me to slip away from the bottomless pile of dirty dishes and unfolded laundry and spend time with it instead of with much else. Why do I do this to myself? We all know chocolate lords its power over me, and if the two of us are ever found in a room alone together, I just don’t stand a chance.
My excuse? I was curious whether I could transform my Nonie’s legendary Magic French Fudge into a dairy free treat that could hold its own against my memory of her classic confection. My grandmother’s fudge was it at Christmastime for me, edging out Grandma Teague’s Russian Teacakes because of this one minor detail: fudge is really just chocolate.
I know this is not normal behavior, daydreaming about fudge even as I change a messy diaper (Gross. But true.), and I realize most people do not spend the majority of their waking hours daydreaming about transforming the comfort foods of their childhood into allergy-friendly versions of themselves. But as for me, well–let’s just say it’s as common as packing a lunch or slicing apples or–yep–changing diapers. It sounds ridiculous, I know–just make a batch of the stuff already, Rach. Sheesh. But fudge is not the sort of thing people make just because they feel like it (unless you’re Monica Gellar and you’re trying to comfort your older brother who is in the throes of a tumultuous heartbreak). I needed a reason to make it, an occasion that warranted such a treat (and doubled as a good excuse). Since Valentine’s Day is next week, I took advantage because I figured I could sort of explain away the pan of rich chocolatey goodness by claiming February as THE month for chocolate (but I believe I could say that about any month, if pressed).
It bothered me that even though Nonie’s Magic French Fudge holds a place of honor in my memories of Christmastime treats, I still hadn’t even tried to make an allergy friendly version of it. The Goobies are starting to remember, you know? And traditions aren’t traditions unless you do them again and again and again. Fudge wasn’t on their radar, and it’s something I wanted to plant firmly in their repertoire in the same way you want your Grandma Adeline’s kuchen to be. The key ingredient that makes Nonie’s fudge so magical posed a big problem, though: sweetened condensed milk contains dairy, clearly, and with a not-quite-two-year-old with a severe dairy allergy (and a sweet tooth the size of Texas), I wasn’t about to risk making fudge with the same ingredients my grandmother used to use because I knew Goobie #3 would find a way to get his grubby little hands on a piece or two. And so, we haven’t adopted Nonie’s fudge as part of our family’s Christmas treat line up.
But–I happened upon a can of sweetened condensed coconut milk at some point in the past few weeks. I can’t remember when I first saw it exactly, but the moment I spotted it all I wanted to do was grab a can and scurry home to whip up a batch of my beloved fudge–but I didn’t. It wasn’t Christmastime, after all, and Nonie’s fudge dominated December, so making it at any other time of the year just felt a little…strange. But it’s nagged me ever since, so once February rolled around, I went back to the store and tossed a can of the stuff into my cart, quietly plotting when and how I could get away with attempting a dairy free version of it, and soon the idea infected me like a virus.
Earlier this week, Mia unknowingly helped my cause when she asked if we could make something special in the kitchen after lunch, when her brother would be happily settled in for his nap and before her own quiet rest time. This is fairly typical; she soaks up my full attention for those few minutes as we measure, stir, pour, laugh. After licking the spatula clean, she skips off to her room, filled and happy. With the ingredients for fudge at the ready in the cabinets, I couldn’t not say yes to her, now could I? So clearly, we measured chocolate chips, melted them down, and stirred in the sweetened condensed coconut milk (or rather, liquid gold), and eased that molten goodness into a pan to set–all while restraining ourselves from breaking out spoons and making the stuff disappear. The funny thing is, once the pan was nestled deep inside the refrigerator to chill, all I wanted to do was give it all away.
I realized this was a perfect opportunity to show the Goobies what an unselfish heart actually looks like. We talk about selfishness around here a lot lately, it seems, mainly because the girls often point accusing fingers at each other, screaming, “You’re being selfish! You need to share that with me now!” (Sigh.) They’re really good at spotting selfishness in others, but aren’t as good at actually being the thing they clamor for their sister to be: unselfish. And as I thought about that pan of fudge chilling in the refrigerator, I wondered: do we demonstrate unselfishness often enough, in a language our children can understand, so that they can see it, know it, imitate it?
The idea of giving away that batch of my beloved thick, rich chocolate fudge actually hurt a little, so I paid attention that feeling. The girls would understand it wasn’t easy for me to freely give away something that meant so much to me (Wasn’t it Mia who wanted to give me a box of fancy chocolates for Christmas because she knew how much I love the stuff?) More than that, it hurt them a little too. They wanted to eat the whole batch just as much as I did. But I decided that putting an unselfish heart on display was worth more than hoarding it all for ourselves. So I sliced up that fudge into small little morsels, piled the pieces high, and wrapped them up to give them away. (Yes, I snuck a bite for myself as I did so, but let’s focus on the big picture here.)
Those Goobies were conflicted, honestly. Excited as they were to bring that plate of fudge to the ladies at your office, they really didn’t want to give away so much of it. They were, not surprisingly, a little concerned about themselves. Their weakness for chocolate rivals my own, and they were a bit peeved I didn’t reserve more than just one piece of it for them. But they chose the higher road and fought over who got to be the one to carry the plate into the office and who got to actually hand the thing over, and after they finally gave it away, they put other people else first and didn’t even ask if they could take a piece or two for the road. (The lollipops they got from the ladies there might have helped.)
The best part of the story, I think, is this: the day after we gave the fudge away, Mia asked if we could make another batch so we could give more of it away, this time to our neighbors next door. And ok yes she also managed to squeeze in a suggestion that we not give all of it away this time, but I’m choosing to see this request as a win. When we give out of unselfish hearts, we all win. We are blessed so we can bless others, and when we bless others, we too are blessed. Clearly, my answer was yes. Clearly, I will let her lick the spatula and I will sample the finished product with her and I will even agree to keep a small portion of the stuff here for our family to enjoy, too, because isn’t this what we pray for almost every single night at bedtime when we thank God for blessing us, and ask Him to show us ways we can be a blessing to others?
A small thing, fudge. Insignificant really. Almost too common or mundane to be all that exciting. But this once-Christmastime treat has planted itself firmly in my heart as a symbol of selflessly giving love away, which in my mind makes it a perfect treat to make in the middle of February.
Nonie’s (Non-Dairy) Magic French Fudge (GF/DF/NF)
Most families have their favorite recipe for fudge, I imagine, and this is ours. Nonie’s recipe sets the bar high in my opinion, because whenever I taste fudge from anywhere else (even fancy fudge made in artisinal chocolate shops), I tend to prefer hers. I’m not sure if there’s anything particularly magical about this recipe (and I have no idea where the name came from); I’m not even sure where she got the recipe in the first place or how it came to be her go-to recipe for fudge. But for me, this is the gold standard. Using sweetened condensed coconut milk made me nervous that the flavor would change (and taste like coconut-flavored fudge), but the finished product doesn’t taste like coconut at all. Of course, substitute regular sweetened condensed milk for the coconut version if your family can handle dairy, but after tasting this version, you may not even want to. I used Nature’s Charm Sweetened Condensed Coconut Milk, which is available at Sprouts for $2.99. Also, I like to use either extra dark chocolate chips, or a combination of semi-sweet chocolate chips and unsweetened chocolate squares (for a darker version than Nonie’s original), but you can use all semi-sweet chocolate chips if you prefer (use a total of 18 ounces of chocolate per batch).
18 ounces extra dark chocolate chips (or 14 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips + 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate; or 18 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips)
1-11.25 ounce can Nature’s Charm sweetened condensed coconut milk
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
pinch of salt
First, line an 8×8 pan with wax paper, making sure to create a 2″ lip (or so) of extra paper around all sides (this will aid with removing the fudge from the pan once it has set).
Next, set a glass bowl set over simmering water and gently melt the chocolate chips (or a combination of semi-sweet chocolate chips and unsweetened chocolate squares, as noted above), whisking as you go and making sure no water drips into the bowl. Once the chocolate is completely melted, carefully remove it from the pan of water (and turn off the stove). Pour in the sweetened condensed milk, vanilla and salt and whisk to combine. It will begin to thicken almost immediately, but don’t worry about that. Keep whisking until fully combined and smooth. Pour into the prepared pan, smooth with a spatula, and chill until set, about an hour or so.
When ready to slice, ease the fudge slab out of the pan by grasping the lip of wax paper and gently lifting. Peel the paper away from the fudge and set the slab on a cutting board. Slice as you like, and share the love.
3 “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are–no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for. You’re blessed when you get your inside world–your mind and heart–put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
–Matthew 5:3-8 MSG
I remember that night well: I was all alone in that quirky old house on 12th street. My roommates were off doing other things with other people, leaving a rare quiet in the middle of that little house that typically served as the after-work gathering spot. When I got home that evening, I sank into that velvety red couch and inhaled deeply as I took in the quiet. There were five of us living there at the time, and moments like this didn’t happen much. The house was hushed, as if it were holding its breath waiting to see what I would do to fill the void. It got its answer before long: I picked up my phone and sent you a text almost without thinking, as if dinner with you was the obvious choice for how to spend my time.
This did not surprise me until the moment after I hit the send button. No one cajoled me into meeting up with you, dared me to take a risk, or hounded me to just give you a chance. Those days were long gone by then; everyone (including you) had let the idea of you and me together drift away about a year before this particular night. And yet there I was, asking if you wanted to meet up and grab dinner with me. A moment or two later, another surprise: you said yes.
We ended up at My Thai, an unassuming local spot tucked in the corner of an otherwise forgettable strip mall in the northern part of Fremont. I knew two things about this restaurant before we went there that night: one, their food was supposed to be fantastic; and two, they took pictures of customers who survived eating the spiciest of their fare and posted it on the Wall of Flame, a challenge you feverishly embraced.
We ordered a slew of curries, mine fairly mild and yours the hottest of the hot, and lavished it over mounds and mounds of rice. The molten exotic goodness was a revelation to me, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I hadn’t liked Thai food before that night, and really, I can’t think why I suggested the place at all. But there we were, being adventurous together, trying new things and laughing our way through the evening. By the time we finished, you had earned your place on the Wall of Flame and in my heart.
I didn’t tell you that, of course–not yet, at least. I had to sit with those feelings for awhile, marinating in them until my mind caught up with my heart, which had already turned tender toward you. I didn’t understand what was happening at the time, and its taken until this moment to see the pattern that had to happen in order for the sinewy strings of my heart to be softened, and I found the answer in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus talks with his disciples about what it means to be blessed.
In those verses, I see a process of transformation: for everything lost, something else is found. Change occurs as blow builds upon blow to ultimately bestow blessing upon blessing. I went through that process of transformation, beginning at the outset of adulthood with hurt and isolation, having lost so many of the things and people in which I had come to find my identity. My losses put me on a path toward contentment with who I am, as I am. In the process, I grew desperate for God’s love, and I learned He was all that could really satisfy. Once my heart was fully His, that’s when it began to soften and my inside world settled into a new rhythm of peace. My mind eventually caught up with my heart and once they began working in tandem, that’s when I started to see what God was doing in me and in you. You went through the same process, albeit at a different pace than I did, but eventually, finally, we both made it to the place where we could really see what God was doing outside of ourselves and inside of each other.
We live far across the hills from that little strip mall now, in a time and place very different from those first few moments we flirted with the idea of us. My Thai has long since closed, sadly, but your picture hung alongside your comrades on the Wall of Flame until the day the restaurant closed its doors. I’ll remember that modest little place fondly forever though, because it opened my world up to taking chances, enjoying unfamiliar things, savoring things I thought I didn’t like in the first place. It is where you became mine, after all (even though it still took some time for me to admit that to you).
P.S. – My favorite part of that story is what you didn’t tell me until well after we were married: that you were sitting in a dark theater, already in the middle of that Steve Carell remake of Get Smart when you got my message. Without hesitation, you got up and left mid-movie to come have dinner with me instead. I love that.
This recipe is inspired by my memories of the night Joey and I first enjoyed Thai food together. Clearly, we can’t really flit off to dinner at our favorite local spots on a whim these days, but this recipe satisfies our cravings for spicy, adventurous flavors–and it just happens to be one of the easiest recipes in my rotation (bonus that it’s gluten free and dairy free, too!). If you like the coconut-laden flavors of Thai curries, this is an easy way to make it at home without all the fuss of an exhaustive list of exotic-sounding ingredients. The ingredients are flexible: use chicken if you don’t really like pork. Ground turkey would be delicious as well. Hold the cilantro or pile it on. Amp up the spice or not. Serve with more lime wedges or forget it. It doesn’t really matter–do it how you like it best. Joey and I like to serve it over riced cauliflower, but of course regular old rice will do. I have made this in the crock pot as well, and it does work, but I think the flavors are better when made on the stove. To make it in the crock pot, stir together the coconut milk, curry paste, lime juice, basil and red pepper; then toss uncooked sliced meat into the crock pot and pour the coconut slurry on top. Cook on low for 4-6 hours (adding snow peas during the final hour or so), or high for 3-4 hours (adding the snow peas the final 30 minutes).
2 pounds pork (such as a sirloin roast), cut into 1″ strips
1 – 9 oz. bag snow peas, ends snipped and cut into 1″ pieces
2-15 oz cans coconut milk (I prefer to use full fat, but reduced fat works fine as well. The end result won’t be quite as rich and creamy, but the flavor will still be fantastic).
1-4 oz jar green curry paste (Thai Kitchen is our favorite!)
1/3 cup lime juice
3 Tablespoons unrefined coconut oil
1 1/2 Tablespoons fresh basil, chopped (or substitute Thai basil if you have it, which I usually don’t. Regular basil from my garden works just fine. Also, 1/2 teaspoon dry basil works in a pinch.)
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
First, prep the pork by trimming off any excessive fat and slicing it into strips, about 1/2 ” x 2″ or so. Season with kosher salt. Next, set a large pan over high heat and plunk a tablespoon of coconut oil into the bottom. Once it’s melted and the pan is hot, brown the strips of pork, separating them into two batches so they brown (and don’t steam). Once the first batch has browned, remove it from the pan and start the next batch, adding an additional tablespoon to the pan. Once that is browned, remove it from the pan as well. Turn the heat down to medium. Add one final tablespoon of coconut oil to the pan along with the minced garlic, curry paste, chili flakes and basil; stir until fragrant. Return the browned pork back to the pan.
Add the coconut milk and lime juice and give it a good stir. Bring to a simmer, cover, and let cook for 20 minutes, then add the trimmed snow peas and cover again. Continue to simmer for another 20 minutes, or until the snow peas have softened to your liking. Add a sprinkle more kosher salt if the flavor seems a little flat (in other words, adjust seasoning to your taste.) Serve with cauliflower rice or regular rice and top with a squeeze of lime, sprinkle of more red chili flakes, and a garnish of cilantro (if you like).