Last night we discovered the groundhog saw his shadow, so we’re hunkering down for another six weeks of winter around here.
More snow and bitter cold is coming for us this weekend, so today’s sunshine and mild temperature feels like a glorious gift. I flung open the windows just now to invite an almost-warm breeze inside. Kansas winds are usually awful in the winter. I can deal with the snow when it comes, but the wind is the worst. But today is almost warm: the sun is shining crisp and clear; the birds are chattering wildly; and the wind is teasing me as it flutters through the kitchen curtains. A miserable weekend just doesn’t feel possible.
But if I’ve learned one thing these past couple years, it’s this: Kansas City weather is absolutely unpredictable, so prepare for every scenario.
When we first moved here, I had a lot to learn: how to gauge the severity of a storm; the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning; the art of dressing in layers; how to drive in the snow; how to manage icy roads; how to hunker down and stay put when things outside got dicey. Thank God I already knew how to feed us well in the winter.
I tackled warm, comfort food classics early in our food allergy journey. I couldn’t tell you why, exactly, other than figuring out how to make hamburger gravy like my mom always made was high on my priority list when I got started. This particular recipe gave me a challenge: will it taste good without milk? (Yes.) Will a grain free thickener make it weird? (No.) For a girl who loves potatoes and gravy, nailing a recipe like this one lifted my spirits and helped me to believe all was not lost in the kitchen. One spoonful and I’m taken back to my own mom’s kitchen and the way its aroma welcomed us to the table: warm and cozy, like a hug. This recipe reminds me of all the good things I still have and the promise of better days ahead, all in one comforting meal.
Six more weeks of winter are waiting, unless the weather decides to change on a whim, which of course it sure could around here. Luckily this recipe will keep us warm, cozy, and well fed regardless of what the weather does in the days to come.
I haven’t been to the grocery store in fourteen days–a record for me, don’t you think?
We are stocked and ready for another couple weeks: I bought our monthly groceries up front this time around because I watched things getting dicey out there. The idea of taking the Goobies shopping with me over spring break was enough to make me toss an extra few packs of lunch meat into the cart. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. Now that spring break stretched into weeks on end, I am certain the decision was a wise one.
Even so, the fridge can only do so much to make food last because the Goobies ask for snacks every five minutes. They are old enough to help themselves when their tummies start to grumble, but maybe giving them permission to dig in whenever they feel like it was a mistake? Emery would tear through an entire pack of ham without supervision. Ditto with snack crackers and toaster pastries. “When it’s gone, it’s gone!” we say as they snack. Even so, things get eaten up fast.
10 Last of all I want to remind you that your strength must come from the Lord’s mighty power within you. 11 Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand safe against all strategies and tricks of Satan. 12 For we are not fighting against people made of flesh and blood, but against persons without bodies—the evil rulers of the unseen world, those mighty satanic beings and great evil princes of darkness who rule this world; and against huge numbers of wicked spirits in the spirit world.
13 So use every piece of God’s armor to resist the enemy whenever he attacks, and when it is all over, you will still be standing up.
Ephesians 6: 10-13 (TLB)
Snow fell unseasonably early last week. You kissed me and we watched it quietly fall while you held my hand in your own.
It’s all a little bit like Snow White tonight: the white snow. Crimson blood. A warm hearth on a cold night. Pies.
I giggled in spite of myself and the grumpiness inside of me eased a little bit. You had a point: several elements of that story were present in the tale that we watched unfold in our kitchen that night, but in our version I was far more like the Evil Queen than Snow White herself.
I know why: the four of us have been together constantly from the moment we left California–that’s a month and a half without much of a break. Moving to a new state compounded the normal stresses of summer, and here we are two weeks away from school starting and the day can’t get here fast enough because (confession): I’m a wreck.
You are the sweetest, most thoughtful man alive. When challenging days threaten to push me over the edge of insanity (and steal my kitchen mojo in the process), you offer to rescue me by bringing home take out. (Or maybe it’s you that’s saved, because let’s face it: walking through the door with take out in hand saves my sanity and saves you from bearing the brunt of my bad day. You’re an automatic hero.)
Lately I’ve been declining the offer, and no, it’s not because my days are any less frazzled than they have been lately. On the contrary, they’ve been just as harried and frustrating as ever, and I imagine they probably will be for the foreseeable future. Here’s the thing: I just don’t trust take out–not right now, at least.
Since my body was ravaged by gluten over the past several months, even the tiniest bit of it sends my body reeling, and I have to press the reset button again and again and again. The timing couldn’t have been worse, really: keeping a house clean enough to show to potential buyers on a whim is pretty much impossible when you have to still, you know, live in the house (and cook in the house). Between staging and photography; showings and open houses; inspections and more inspections, the stove sat idly by while we took the Goobies out to eat so many times they started whining about it. “A restaurant? Again?”
More often than not, neither of us ate a thing, opting to eat hummus and veggies or sheet pan nachos after the kids were in bed because actually getting food into our own mouths while cajoling the kids to eat makes exactly zero sense, not to mention the fact that trying to decipher menus requires fluency in a language we are both still trying to learn. It’s hard being a food allergy family. When the five of us go out to eat, we have no fewer than eight foods to avoid, and while Mia’s peanut and pine nut allergy has become increasingly easier to manage; avoiding dairy and casein is trickier, but possible; and gluten becomes harder and harder to weed out.
Even so, the allergen information and gluten free menus at our go-to places have worked well enough for us, mainly because we’ve gotten used to what is safe and what isn’t so safe for each of us individually. Over time, and without a definitive positive result for Celiac Disease, I grew a little lax with my standards for gluten free fare in restaurants–mostly because a girl’s still got to stay sane, right? (And people “out there” keep reassuring me that people with a mere gluten sensitivity don’t have to be quite as strict about adhering to gluten free fare.) The gluten free items were gluten free enough for me, until suddenly, after the vitamin incident, they weren’t anymore. The tiniest speck of the stuff throws my body into an uproar now, maybe because I’m still healing, and maybe because after being gluten free for so long, reactions are easier and more contamination I did the only I knew to do, of course: speak up. Ask questions. Dig a little deeper. Be particular. Don’t take labels at face value, but look them in the eye, challenging them to prove it. In the process, I found answers that both disturbed and angered me.
Like that afternoon we took the Goobies to a favorite Mexican spot for lunch. I felt ok enough about going there. We’ve eaten there before and the menu clearly states that most items on the menu are gluten free, but if in doubt, ask the server for more information. Not taking any chances, I chose three “gluten free” items and asked our server about them. After he told me the chicken in the first two dishes had been marinated in beer, I didn’t even want to hear about the third. I stopped him, pointed at the gluten free note, and tried my best to calmly help him understand that the note is misleading, and dishes labeled gluten freearen’t gluten free if they’ve been marinated in beer.
The server got defensive, of course, saying that the chicken can be substituted with something else that is gluten free, and I do understand special markings indicating which dishes can be modified to be gluten free. Here’s the thing: That’s what should be captured in the note (“The items marked GF can be modified to be gluten free. Please ask your server for details.”) As it stands, the note about gluten free menu items means absolutely nothing at all. From that point on, I trusted not one more word out of his mouth. I may have skipped lunch that day, but I learned two valuable lessons: 1) Always ask for clarification, on everything, every time; and 2) Emery is a salsa fiend. Both are equally good to know.)
Sensitive is such a soft word, and saying I have a “gluten sensitivity” makes me feel like I sound like a wimp. People like me are gluten averse, gluten antipathetic–not sensitive, for crying out loud. (And while we’re on the subject, restaurants with a “Gluten Friendly” menu just don’t get it, do they? Talk about a misnomer.) Menus like that just aren’t all that helpful anyway, especially when accompanied by a note that clearly states “Food in this kitchen is exposed to cross contamination. Not recommended for people with Celiac Disease or Gluten Sensitivity.”
This matters because cross contamination is a thing. It is very real. I know how nutty it sounds that foods like scrambled eggs cooked on a griddle shared with pancakes, or french fries cooked in the same oil as chicken nuggets aren’t safe, or that they could wake up the body’s anti-gluten army and make the next several days miserable. But that dastardly gluten is teeny tiny, and it likes to stick around, and so how could a gluten free bun toasted on the same surface as its gluten-laden counterpart not come into contact with the stuff? Even the most minute amount can hurt people who are sensitive to it. Not just, like, cause a little tummy ache, but actually damage the body and incite an array of problems that make a simple tummy ache seem preferable.
I still don’t understand it all, of course. I’m learning too, right along with you. But what I know is this: eating food prepared anywhere but our own kitchen is risky right now because my system is sensitive. (Blech.) Sure, there are many Celiac Friendly restaurants (and I am thankful for them), and I want to trust folks who do their best to provide menu items that really are gluten free. Bless them for the extra effort it takes to do such a service. But the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of restaurants are not friendly for gluten averse folks like me. It makes me sad and angry and frustrated and defeated we can’t just pile the Goobies in the car on a whim and head out to our favorite spot for a sloppy burger with a big ol’ mess of fries to celebrate an ordinary Friday night. It makes me even angrier that my limitations limit you, too, and that our kids are missing out on some of that stuff along the way as well.
We’re adapting, of course, because that’s what we must do if we’re going to survive, right? And besides, there are worse things in the world than cooking and eating at home. Like having bare cupboards. Or not having a home. Or not having a way to feed our family at all. Really, being able to cook food at home is a blessing, and not a bad thing. In fact, it really is the best thing for so many reasons, and I love most of those reasons, which I suppose I can even poke fun at ourselves every so often (Like when I said, We watched that little bunny scamper toward a bowl of what looked like amazing ice cream, and as you salivated, I said, “Now there’s something that would kill three out of the five of us,” and we laughed and laughed and laughed because it felt so true.)
So the next time you offer to bring home take out, please don’t be surprised if I say “No, thank you.” It won’t always be this way, and you really are my hero: your offer is almost as good as a break from cooking itself. I wish I could say yes with abandon, plop down on the couch, throw my feet up on the coffee table and let you serve me. (Wait a second–who says that can’t still happen? Don’t underestimate the power of a man in the kitchen. If I stash plenty of real gluten free (and dairy/casein free; and peanut/pine nut/sunflower seed free) foods in the freezer, sending you in to cook them might be sort of like take out, right? All you have to do is take it out of the freezer and heat it up.
Hm. Let’s try that.
Easy Oven Baked Meatballs, Two Ways (GF/DF/NF)
This recipe was born out of frustration that my kids loved meatballs, but they took a ot of time to make, and buying prepared gluten/dairy free convenience foods comes with trouble all its own. Pictured here are Italian Style Meatballs, perfect to drench with marinara sauce, but if spinach freaks your family out, leave it out or try the other, more basic version that follows, (which is delicious smothered in barbecue sauce). Either way, coconut flour is my favorite grain-free binder for this recipe because it adds body to the meatballs without too many added carbohydrates, plus it absorbs moisture like super sponges.
Ingredients for Italian Style Meatballs:
2 pounds ground turkey
1 pound frozen spinach, thawed, drained, and most moisture squeezed out
2 Tablespoons coconut flour
2 eggs, lightly whisked
4 teaspoons onion powder
4 teaspoons Italian Seasoning (or 2 teaspoons each dry oregano and dry basil)
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, or more to taste
Ingredients for Regular Meatballs:
2 pounds ground turkey
2 Tablespoons coconut flour
2 eggs, lightly whisked
1 Tablespoon onion powder
3 teaspoons dry parsley
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, or more to taste
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line two baking sheets with aluminum foil and spray with coconut oil non-stick spray.
Next, dump all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl and smush them together (don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty). Once the meat is thoroughly mixed up with the spinach and spices, wash those hands and get scooping, using a 2 T/ 1 1/2 inch scoop (which makes the job quick). Line those meatballs up like little soldiers, about 24 to a pan. Bake them as they are, or smooth them out a bit (like they are in the picture above) by rolling them gently between the palms of your hands. Either way works fine.
Pop the trays into the oven and bake for 18 minutes.
For the freezer: Let the meatballs cool, then plunk them into a two labeled gallon sized zip top bags (for two batches of 24 meatballs, each), or use one batch now and save one for later. Your call.
You were dreading your big day –turning 40 — for months. Ever since you turned 39, really. The day loomed over you, big and foreboding, like a storm cloud. I was dreading the day too–not because I wasn’t looking forward to being married to a man in his 40’s (Ha!You’re older than me!), but because I felt like I owed you a big birthday debt because I blew it when you turned 30, and the sting of disappointment over that flop of a milestone birthday still bothers you. It bothers me too.
It’s been ten years, but I remember that evening clearly: I must have been putting groceries away because I was I crouched down low in front of the refrigerator, nestling lettuce and cucumbers into the crisper drawer when Christy reminded me we were supposed to take you out for dinner that night. What she ordinarily would have used as an excuse to get the two of us in the same room suddenly seemed like a big inconvenience. She was feeling just as pressed for time as I was that night. Her bridal shower was in the morning and the groceries I was struggling to put away were minor details compared to the long list of other things awaiting our attention in the next few hours. We went back and forth for a minute or two trying to figure out how to make good on our promise to take you out to celebrate your birthday, finish our to-do list, and get a little bit of sleep. Something had to give, and that night, it was you.
Was it Christy who called you or was it me? I don’t remember, to be honest. But I do remember how awful I felt about it the moment you hung up. You spent your 30th birthday alone because we flaked on you. Every so often you remind me how much it disappointed you, usually when you are giving me a hard time about how I am so dense that I didn’t even know our first date was, in fact, a date at all. But a week ago, your frustration over the circumstances surrounding this birthday erupted. The rainy weather, another round of coughs and congestion, our weekend getaway on the verge of falling through rattled you. “We have to do something, otherwise this birthday will be just like my 30th,” you said. Here we go again, you seemed to be saying, another big birthday left uncelebrated.
I felt it too–the weight this milestone put upon you. I wanted to make your 40th birthday awesome anyway, so awesome it would inspire you to forgive me for flaking on you all those years ago–but after you said that, the pressure was on. The problem is: my hands were tied. By the time I realized how much this day meant to you, there were only three days left, for crying out loud. Three days didn’t give me enough time to do much other than move ahead with my original plans for a low key birthday at home (which by then were feeling much more ho-hum than anything).
I trudged through the week, worried and stressed and failing miserably at the smallest of gestures I hoped would make your birthday week special–making your top five favorite meals each night of the week, culminating in Beef Stroganoff and Grandma Adeline’s kuchen on your big day. But the only meal I managed to tick off the list was Chopped Cheeseburger Salad–I was too busy fretting that the super awesome birthday present I ordered the week before wouldn’t make it here in time for your big day; wracking my brain to figure out how to make good on my promise of making your annual birthday dinner now that food allergies and intolerances complicate things around here; afraid you would be unhappy with the bill that came with even the most modest attempt at making your day special; and worrying that my best effort to make your birthday special still wouldn’t be enough to make you feel loved and important. It wasn’t a good week, admittedly, and my attitude was just as volatile as the weather patterns around here have been.
But there was a break in the clouds by the time your birthday rolled around, and the lingering guilt over this big debt I felt I owed you dissipated when I realized that small things done with big love aren’t really small at all. It also helped that you seemed genuinely happy all day. If there was any disappointment in your heart, you covered it well.
I imagine there must have been some disappointment. The gluten free, dairy free kuchen failed miserably. I didn’t get around to cooking the Beef Stroganoff until after the Goobies whispered their last “Happy birthday, Daddy!” as we tucked them into bed, and we weren’t quite over whatever bug we’d been fighting that week quite yet. Our weekend plans were cancelled, more rain came in–but that super awesome birthday present found its way to you on time. And you loved it.
As piddly as my gestures felt compared to the grand plans with which I wish I could have surprised you–these small things were done with great love. And that right there is the biggest difference between your 40th birthday and your 30th. Ten years ago, I didn’t love you yet. That we’resorry we hurt your feelings birthday dinner we took you out for to celebrate your 30th birthday was a bigger party than your 40th birthday dinner, indeed. There were more people there, more food, more presents, more fun, and you spent the evening surrounded by people who loved you. This time around, there weren’t as many people around the dinner table, the food was only so-so, and the presents were small, too. But I showed up. The Goobies thrilled at throwing you a party. The food mattered to you. And the presents knocked your socks off. Most of all, this time, even the smallest, seemingly insignificant screamed how much I love you, because this time around, I do.
Chopped Cheeseburger Salad
Cheeseburger salads are everywhere–I get it. What makes this one stand out? Nothing much, I guess, except that Joey likes it better than any others he’s eaten at a restaurant, which of course makes my heart soar–but also, I totally agree. Many cheeseburger salads plop a lukewarm burger with plastic cheese on top of a pile of lettuce leaves and bun-sized slices of tomatoes, pickles, and onions, and serve thousand island dressing on the side. You end up having to chop the thing up yourself, making it feel like a lackluster bunless burger rather than a hearty, somewhat indulgent salad. At home, I chop the lettuce into bite sized pieces and pile them high with classic cheeseburger toppings: shredded sharp cheddar cheese (Daiya cheddar style shreds for Emery, if he’s around), ripe red tomatoes, chunks of dill pickles, and diced red or green onions if we feel like fussing around with them. Sometimes I get fancy and add some bacon or avocado, but we like the simplicity of this version best. Also–a note about the Pink Sauce. It’s really just Thousand Island Dressing like my mom always used to make, but we call it Pink Sauce because that’s what our girls call it. I use Trader Joe’s brand mayonnaise, ketchup and dill pickles in this recipe. Other varieties will work too, of course, but I’m devoted to these Trader Joe’s staples and way their flavors meld into the perfect thousand island dressing. If you don’t want to use all that pickle juice, swap some out and use plain white vinegar instead. The salad and dressing are naturally gluten free, but swap vegan cheese for the sharp cheddar (or leave it out altogether) to make it dairy free. THM friends, this is an S.
For the Salad
1 pound ground beef (plus salt, to taste)
2 romaine hearts, washed, dried and chopped into 1 1/2″ pieces or so
2 handfuls of grape tomatoes, chopped (or try 1/2 – 3/4 cup chopped Romas or beefsteaks)
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
dill pickles chopped, as few or as many as you prefer
Red onions, chopped (go easy on them–start with 2 Tablespoons or so) or 4 sliced green onions or so
Pink Sauce (as below)
For the Pink Sauce
1 cup mayonnaise
3/4 cup ketchup
1/2 cup dill pickle juice (see note above)
2 Tablespoons Pyure Organic Stevia Blend (or other sweetener equivalent to 1/3 sugar, or clearly–just use sugar. 1/3 cup should do.)
1/2 cup diced dill pickles
First, brown the ground beef and season it with about 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Once the meat is cooked through (no more pink), drain it and set it aside to cool.
Next, work on the dressing. In a large jelly jar, measure the mayonnaise, ketchup and dill pickle juice and sweetner. Whisk until smooth. Toss in the diced pickles, give it another stir, and set aside (after tasting to make sure you like it, of course).
And now, on to the salad. Shred the cheese (if necessary) and set aside. Wash and dry the romaine lettuce. Next, chop it all up, along with the tomatoes and pickles, and toss it into a big bowl: first the lettuce, followed by the ground beef, then the shredded cheese, followed by the diced tomatoes, onions and dill pickles. Finally, swirl the dressing on top–about a 1/2 cup at first–and toss with tongs to coat. Add more dressing if it suits your taste to do so.
Pile high on plates, top with freshly ground black pepper and enjoy.
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.
Proverbs 4:23 (NIV)
After a couple weeks of onethingafterthenext busy, things slowed down a bit, and I feel like I’m sleeping better and catching my breath and able to be more in the moment instead of being so preoccupied with preparation: first for celebrating Addie’s birthday, and next for celebrating four of her friends’ birthdays, all within two short weeks. The clerks at Target probably have money riding on whether or not I’ll show up to grab that one last random thing I forgot (again) every single morning during the first two weeks of November. We literally bounce our way through those first two weeks, fueled by all that sugar the neighbors so generously gave out to our children at the end of October, and then by cupcakes and pinatas and bounce houses and laughter. It’s fantastic. November is delightful madness, and even though it’s exhausting, it is fun.
But it’s also a little…hard. Watching Addie navigate social gatherings is eye-opening for me because she watches from the shadows as the party swirls around her. As I watch her, it’s as if I’m seeing myself at her age because she is me–a blonde-haired, greenish blue eyed version of the very bashful little girl who I was. She doesn’t mean to be antisocial. She wants to break out of her shell, and I imagine she doesn’t really understand why it’s there in the first place. She wishes it were easy for her to join in with the other kids, I think, the ones for whom talking and laughing and joining in the fun comes naturally, but it doesn’t come easily, and she ends up very stressed out by it all.
But her friends love her anyway, perhaps even because of those things. For some, she is a kindred spirit whose calm demeanor and quiet spirit speak safety to their own introverted selves. For others, she is a buried treasure, a challenge and a reward all in one cute little package. For others still, her laughter is a song in the soundtrack of life, and the album would be noticeably different without her around.
At home, she’s strong-willed and passion-driven, all while being tender at heart and gentle in spirit. This kid is complicated, I tell you, and I’m exhausted trying to figure her out. But her timidness pushes me out of my own similar nature and toward bravery, and I have her to thank for where I am today: in a place where social situations don’t make me want to run and hide. When Addie’s bashfulness started showing up, that’s when I fully understood being brave is about doing hard things even though–and especially when–you are scared. I overcame a lot of my own timidity because of her. The past six years of my own life propelled me forward into a new sort of confidence, one I pray I can pass on to her. This came up not long ago while I was talking to a friend, a newer one who didn’t know me when I was a child. I admitted that by nature, I am a slow-to-warm sort of person, super introverted and, well, shy. Genuinely confused, she said, “Really? I wouldn’t have guessed that about you.” When I look back on myself as a child, I want to tell her to be brave and jump in and open herself up to the truth that people actually want to hear her voice. I want her to run wild with the truth that she is welcome and wanted, to be the girl in Proverbs 31:25 who is “clothed with strength and dignity, and […] laughs without fear of the future.“
Unencumbered laughter from a heart at rest is a beauty more breathtaking than much else, I think. That’s the beauty we see everyday from Addie here at home. For now, that’s as it should be, I think, because I would rather see her true self come alive only at home rather than not at all because if she cannot be free to be herself here–goofy and graceful, tender and fierce, loyal and loving and messy and imperfect–what does that say about our home? Home is where the heart is, right? Maybe it’s more than that. Maybe home is where the heart is most comfortable. Maybe home is where the heart is most fully alive. Maybe home is where the heart learns who it is, and whose it is, and finds a rhythm all its own and grows confident in dancing along with the beat. Where else can Addie’s heart possibly learn those things if not at home, where we guard and protect and encourage and grow that little girl, that sweet little piece of our own heart? Maybe home itself is a beating heart, fully alive, out of which everything else flows.
Every once in awhile, Addie surprises us. When she’s comfortable enough, she lets go of her inhibitions and gets downright loud and silly. Most folks wouldn’t recognize her if they saw her dancing in the freedom of who she really is. But I hope, I hope, she will gain the confidence she needs to do so sooner than I did. I hope our similarities are only a passing resemblance, in that regard, and that she breaks through her own shell far before I ever did. But until then, I’m giving her space to be who she is in the safety of our home. But I’m also helping her do hard things by encouraging her with my smile and holding her hand for a little while, letting go of it a bit sooner each time. I whisper in her ear “You’ve done this before. You know how to do it, andyou can do it,” as I send her on her way. She smiles at me, sometimes through tears, and does the hard things. And when she’s done, she comes flying back to me, beaming, with arms flung wide and says, “I remembered that when I am afraid, I can trust in God. And I did it.” We hug, I try not to cry, and I feel like we’ve both won.
Classic Tuna Noodle Casserole (DF/GF/NF)
This meal tastes like home to me because my mom made it so often when I was growing up, and every time I make it I feel a little more at ease with life. I made it again this week when the pantry was looking a little bare, but we still needed a come-together sort of meal to help us all slow down and really see each other after the busyness of the past few weeks. This non-dairy version uses mayonnaise for creaminess, and I thought that was a pretty good idea. It’s feels a little strange to add mayonnaise to a casserole, it transforms this dish into a dinner our whole family loves so much that we rarely have much left over. The cool thing about this recipe is you don’t have to be dairy free to enjoy it. The ingredients are simple, the flavor good, and it’s very pantry-friendly. No milk in the fridge? No worries. Out of cheese, too? Don’t stress. Dig out your chicken broth, a little bit of butter and flour, and a scoop of humble mayonnaise. All will be well (which is sort of what comfort food like Tuna Noodle Casserole speaks to the soul anyway, right?). I hope one day my own children will cook it for their own children and remember pulling up their chairs at our table, scooping out a big helpings of this very humble dish, and pretending not to munch on the stray potato chip crumbles as they wait for everyone to be served.
4 T refined coconut oil (or Earth Balance, or Olive Oil, or…)
3/4 cup chopped yellow onion
1/4 cup brown rice flour (or use regular All Purpose Flour, for a non-GF version)
2 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup mayonnaise (not low fat!)
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 pound brown rice noodles (we like Organic Brown Rice Fusilli from Trader Joe’s, or regular wheat noodles)
2-7.5 oz cans albacore tuna, drained
1 cup frozen peas
a few handfuls of plain salted potato chips (like Kettle Brand), for topping
First, boil the noodles according to package directions. Cook al dente so they don’t turn to mush in the oven.
Meanwhile, saute the onion in the coconut oil. (Remember: refined coconut oil doesn’t taste like coconut. Use a different neutral tasting oil if you prefer.) When the onions have softened, sprinkle in the flour, salt and pepper and and whisk to combine. (You’re essentially making a rue here.) Next, pour in the chicken broth a little at a time, whisking until smooth with each addition. It will be clumpy at first, but don’t despair. Keep whisking and it will smooth out. Once you’ve added all the chicken broth, cook the sauce until it begins to thicken. Then, add the mayonnaise and vinegar and whisk again until it is fully combined. Finally, add the tuna to the sauce, then toss in the peas and pasta and mix well. Pour the mixture into a greased 9 x 11 glass pan and top with crumbled potato chips. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes or so, or until the chips have gotten even more crunchy than usual.
I’m so sorry you weren’t able to be really present to all the fun of Halloween again this year.
I wish we could have watched Vertigo together, huddled together on the couch and balancing bowls of pumpkin chili on our laps after a successful night of trick-or-treating, instead of the way it actually turned out: you living through an episode of Vertigo yourself while I tried very hard to keep the day from further unraveling my already frayed nerves. You stayed in bed most of the day trying to feel better, and we were both pretty bummed out when we realized this would make two years in a row you would miss out on enjoying the best parts of Halloween with us.
It wasn’t your fault you were laid up this year, and last year wasn’t your fault either. I certainly wasn’t upset with you for being in South Dakota to say your final farewell to Grandpa Maier, paying tribute to his memory with your brothers by toasting tomato beers and homemade schnapps, swapping stories, and eating your weight in kuchen.
This year you were equally unavailable to join in on all the (work and) fun of Halloween, but if it’s possible, I was even more disappointed about it this year. My heart was heavy with a strange mix of frustration and disappointment because Vertigo came on so suddenly. You were here, but you weren’t here, not really. And this would make two years in a row that I had to do this thing Halloween thing by myself. At least this time around you got to see the Goobies in their costumes and help sort through their collective candy haul, listening to them marvel over how crazy it is that strangers just kept filling their buckets with the stuff.
Keeping true to tradition (and a true testament to the sort of people they are), Thomas and Katelyn drove all the way out to our place to go trick-or-treating with us. The tradition started the year Eli was born; he was just a little Sweet Pea asleep in his stroller as Katelyn walked around the Fremont Hub with me and the girls, Addie dressed as a butterfly and Mia as a strawberry. Mia was only four months old at the time, and Addie was a breath away from turning two years old–none of them old enough to appreciate the whole experience, really. You and Thomas were both still at work, but we dressed those kids up and took them anyway, and Addie hesitated to let strangers fill her pumpkin with candy. I’m not sure either Katelyn or I could imagine a day when those kids would run ahead of us to the next house and say “trick or treat!” without our prodding. They came back to our place (in Fremont, at the time) for pumpkin chili, and a tradition was born.
Through the years we’ve wound our way through crowds of big-kids together, coaxing our own very small ones to say “Trick or treat!” to strangers, while holding their hands and helping them to be brave. Our nights used to end with tucking all those little ones into their beds (or pack and plays), and uncorking a bottle of red wine, piling our bowls high with pumpkin chili, and watching a Hitchock flick.
Last year you were out of town for your Grandpa’s funeral, but Thomas and Katelyn brought their boys to our place to trick or treat with us anyway. This year when I told them you had Vertigo, they offered to come help me take the Goobies trick-or-treating (because trying to take three small kids out on Halloween by myself would have been mayhem, and they knew it). By the time the kids’ loot was sorted, sampled, and stowed, it was bedtime. And so, instead of enjoying dinner together, we split the pumpkin chili and said goodnight, happy to have another year of friendship in the books as we waved goodbye.
Next Halloween things may go a little differently than we plan again. Unexpected things happen on Halloween, and that has sort of become a tradition itself. When Halloween comes around each year, perhaps I should ask: what will be different this year? and always expect there to be an answer. Life happens, and we can’t predict what circumstances we will face year after year after year. People pass away. Others move away. Sometimes we get sick. Kids grow bigger and braver and have bedtimes that matter (because sometimes Halloween is on a school night). I think the best we can do is come up with a framework for what we would like our tradition to look like, and do our best to make things work within that framework, like friends celebrating together; a hearty, warm meal waiting for us after a long trek through the neighborhood soliciting candy from strangers; dressing up in silly costumes and letting the kids eat just one piece of candy before bedtime.
This year I learned that if I keep my expectations low enough–and give myself a whole lot of grace when things aren’t just so–then maybe I won’t be disappointed. And if I’m not disappointed, then perhaps I can enjoy things for what they are, as they are, because even in the middle of disappointment, there is always something redeeming if we look for it, right?
I’ve made many iterations of pumpkin chili until finally landing on this one. It is the one, in my opinion. The first time I made this Mia was a baby (and couldn’t eat it), and she still cries when I try to make her taste it. The kid just doesn’t like chili. But Addie loves it, and actually sighs and says, “Oh, yum. YUM!” when I serve it to her. There isn’t anything super special about it–it’s quite straightforward and similar to my classic beef chili recipe. The biggest difference is I use pure pumpkin puree instead of tomato sauce, a swap that make the chili slightly sweeter than its classic counterpart, but equally hearty and satisfying. Use beef if you prefer, but I like the combination of turkey, pumpkin and butternut squash. I use Heavenly Homemaker’s recipe for homemade taco seasoning in this recipe because I always have a stash around, and using it makes this chili a snap. Make the chili a day ahead so the flavors have plenty of time to meld together–and so you don’t have to spend time fussing in the kitchen on Halloween night.
1 Tablespoon refined coconut oil (or other neutral tasting oil)
First, roast the butternut squash. (Do it a day before you plan to make the chili, and two days before you plan to serve the chili, to make chili-making super easy on yourself.) Grab a 2 pound bag of cleaned, cubed butternut squash (from Trader Joe’s, for example), pour the bag out onto a sheet pan, and drizzle some olive oil on top. Give it a sprinkle of salt and pepper and spread it into an even layer. Roast at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about 25 minutes, or until the butternut squash is tender and golden, but not burned.
Next, chop the onions and mince the garlic. Then, heat the coconut oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until almost translucent, then add the ground turkey to the pan and then turn up the heat to medium high. When the turkey is almost all the way browned (as in, when it’s still slightly pink), toss in the garlic, taco seasoning, coriander, kosher salt and stir it the meat, crumbling it up as it cooks. When the meat is browned, add the pumpkin puree, diced tomatoes, water and red wine vinegar; stir well to get everything incorporated. Next, add the beans and butternut squash. Cover and let simmer for about an hour, but remember that the longer it simmers, the better the flavor will be.
To serve, top it with hot sauce, or sliced green onions, or cheese and sour cream (if you can have them), or nothing at all, because it’s good that way too.
“We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.”
Proverbs 16:9 (NLT)
Tuesday night was such a departure from my expectations–not because what actually happened was so far outside of the norm that I walked away all that surprised by the turn of events. In fact, that night turned out to be what most folks might call typical. But for me, the way the after school hours unfolded revealed again that I can (and should) make plans for my day, but ultimately, I have very little control over what actually happens.
Just after I panicked about what to do about dinner, I rushed out the door to pick up Addie from school so I could whisk her over to ballet class on time. Once she was settled in the car, munching on her granola bar and humming along to the music, I reminded her we were on our way to ballet. Her response surprised me: “Ugh. I forgot it was ballet today. I don’twant to go.” She insisted she just didn’t like ballet, and I was surprised to hear it. This is the girl who used to wear tutus all day long and beg me to click on a YouTube video of real ballerinas dancing in The Nutcracker so she could mimic their every move. She practically begged us to let her take ballet lessons, and up until now she seemed to really enjoy them. This complaint seemed a little out of left field.
Except for it wasn’t, really. She didn’t want to go to ballet last week either, but when she asked not to go on that particular day I just figured she didn’t want to leave her post at the kitchen table. She hadn’t had school that day and so she set out her markers and tracing paper on the table and colored to her heart’s content. Ballet, I assumed, was an unwelcome interruption in her creative flow for the day. I was mistaken. There was more to it than that.
We dialed your number and talked together with her about all this in the car, sort of on the way to ballet and sort of on the way home. She admitted she was just so tired at the end of her school day that dancing was the last thing she felt like doing, and she just didn’t love ballet as much as we thought she loved it. We decided it wasn’t worth forcing her to do something she didn’t really want to do in the first place, and if being at home sounded like the best thing in the whole world to her? Well, that was alright by me.
So it turns out I did have time to make zoodles with Quattro Rosso sauce for dinner that night after all. But I still wasn’t sure about whether you were bringing home take out or not (you didn’t), or whether our friends would be coming over to join us for that night’s basketball game (they didn’t), so while I waited for answers I just did what felt right: I started in on that sauce with just the one pound of thawed ground turkey that was ready and waiting. I figured if friends came over, we’d just send you out on a taco run; and if they didn’t come over, well, we would just eat those zoodles. I chopped garlic and browned the meat and whirled the roasted peppers into velvety submission. The sauce was simmering when you got home from work early and said this to me: “You have two choices: we go on a walk right now, or we eat dinner right now and go for a walk after. Either way, we’re going.”
The zucchini hadn’t been spiralized yet and the Goobies’ brown rice noodles hadn’t been cooked yet, so clearly eating right then wasn’t going to happen. But the idea of leaving for a long sunset walk and feeding the kids a late dinner made me panic. I like spontaneity in theory, but the practice of it is tough for me. But I clicked off the stove and set the pot of water for noodles aside anyway, and we loaded up the wagon with snacks, blankets and children to set off for an adventure. I did it begrudgingly at first, I admit. But the kids couldn’t have cared one whit about a later than normal dinner time. They were happier than I have seen them in a long time–full of glee and excitement. They shrieked and smiled and obeyed and embraced the idea as if it was the first time in the history of the world that a dad suggested taking a wagon ride at sunset.
We were gone for over an hour and by the time we got home those Goobies were hungry. They ate their noodles with Quattro Rosso sauce with gusto (and without complaint) while I spiralized the zucchini. Later that night, after take-home projects, baths and bedtime stories, after they were finally in bed and I felt too tired to blink let alone cook again, I somehow mustered up the energy to tackle the pile of uncooked zoodles waiting for me in the kitchen, and we ate them piled high in our bowls and swimming in that beautiful red sauce as we watched the Warriors lose a game we expected them to win.
I was exhausted by the time we went to bed. My brain was aching from the strain of a stop-start afternoon and evening, but I rested well in spite of it. My mind didn’t replay the events of the afternoon, keeping me in that frantic place where dinnertime seemed like such a problem to be dealt with instead of a time to enjoy. Instead, God whispered to me in those quiet moments, reminding me when I surrender my will to His and open myself wide to the mysterious truth that His ways are higher and better and far more exciting than mine, my stress sort of just melted away.
So much about my life feels out of control these days, but in his kindness, God took me by the hand and showed me that He’s leading me through my harried days, and I am so glad about that. This life is far too hectic to handle by myself, and really, I don’t know why I ever try to.
Quattro Rosso Sauce
I came up with this fancy red pasta sauce nearly three years ago, probably on a day when the cupboard was fairly bare and I’d have to get creative to get dinner on the table. We liked the magical combination of the four red elements in this sauce enough to write down the recipe alongside a note that reads, “Mia devoured this. ‘More! More! More!'”. This time around the girls were old enough to ask why I call it Quattro Rosso Sauce. When I explained I gave it that name because there are four red ingredients in it: roasted red peppers, tomato sauce, grape tomatoes and red wine, they both raised their eyebrows and Mia said, “Oop, I feel like a grown up.” Joey and I giggled and asked her why she felt like a grown up, and she said, “Because I’m eating wine.” Enjoy the sauce over pasta (like our kids did) or zucchini noodles (like we did, which would make this an S for you Trim Healthy Mamas out there. Or use lean ground turkey and serve it over zucchini noodles to make it an FP.)
1 pound ground turkey
1-12 oz. jar roasted red peppers (or a combination of sweet peppers, such as the ones from Trader Joe’s)
1-15 oz. can tomato sauce
1/2 cup red wine (such as Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon)
1 pint grape tomatoes, cut into quarters
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons herbs de Provence
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
First, mince the garlic. Then, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook gently for a minute or two, just until they become fragrant (and be sure not to burn them). Once you start to smell the garlic, add the ground turkey to the pan and then turn up the heat to medium high or high (being careful not to burn the garlic). Add 1 teaspoon kosher salt and stir the meat, breaking it up as it cooks.
Meanwhile, drain the roasted peppers. Using a food processor (or a blender, if you don’t have one), whirl the peppers, tomato sauce and herbs de Provence together until smooth. Add the mixture to the browned ground turkey and give it a good stir. Next, add the grape tomatoes and wine and mix well. Bring the sauce to a gentle boil. Cover and lower the heat so the sauce gently simmers for a good half hour (at least). The longer the sauce simmers, the better the flavor.
I remember the first time I made this dish for dinner so clearly. That’s how it usually is with a keeper: my very favorite recipes tend to be cemented in my memory by the story of how they earned their spot there in the first place. So it is with this recipe, which satisfies my need for eating really good Chinese while loafing on the couch with you. Chinese take out isn’t really a viable option for us anymore (because gluten), but this recipe has become one of my favorites, at least–and I’m pretty sure you agree (because you eat bowl after bowl of it…).
I didn’t know it would turn out to be such a hit the night I first made it, of course. That was sort of a fluke. I hadn’t gone shopping in awhile and the fridge was pretty bare, so ground turkey and frozen green beans were what I had to work with that night. I had no idea how I would sell those two fairly lackluster foods to hungry kids, but as it turns out, I didn’t have to. I didn’t even cook dinner at all for the kids that night anyway.
What happened was this: we took the kids to the park after feeding them an early dinner. It was a Saturday, and we promised those kids all day long if they would just play nicely together for a little while longer so we could get some work done around the house, we would take them to the park in a little while. The afternoon raced by and dinnertime was upon us before we made good on our word. But the girls practically boycotted the idea of dinner that night, rightly arguing with us because we hadn’t been to the park yet, and we had made them a promise. As a compromise, we scrounged around to find something that could pass as an acceptable meal for them and scooted off to the park before it got too dark to play. Neither you nor I had eaten a thing yet, a habit that gets us into trouble when bedtime comes around (because if we would just feed ourselves at the same time, well then, we wouldn’t be so ill-tempered and impatient with kids who beg for “Just one more story?” at bedtime, would we?).
But alas, we didn’t eat dinner with the kids and by the time we left the park that evening all I could think about was that pound of ground turkey I thawed earlier. By the time I gave any thought to what to do with it, I was tired and very much wished I could send you out to grab Chinese take out. Instead, I snooped around Pinterest as you drove us home and saw an idea for Chinese Green Beans with Ground Turkey over rice from The Weary Chef. Fitting, I thought. Chinese food for tired cooks? Sign me up. The ingredients were minimal, and luckily I had most of them on hand. The recipe wasn’t gluten free exactly, but that was easy enough to fix by swapping out regular soy sauce for Tamari (gluten free soy sauce) and leaving out the hoisin sauce altogether (I didn’t have a gluten free version on hand anyway because, well, I’ve never kept hoisin sauce on hand).
When we got home, we tucked those Goobies into bed, kissed them goodnight, and I set to work on what became an instant favorite. A bowl piled high with quinoa and ginger-infused ground turkey with chili-and-garlic-studded green beans, along with a chilled glass of Chardonnay (and you, of course) is enough to create a truly delicious quick-to-throw-together dinner at home that satisfies my need for Chinese take out–once the Goobies are in bed, of course.
Chili-Garlic Ground Turkey and Green Beans
So ok, ground turkey and frozen green beans aren’t exactly ingredients that I would put together in just any context, but I promise the the flavors here are out-of-this-world. Ginger, garlic and chili paste mingle with soy sauce to create a savory, just-spicy-enough stir fry that I swear I would think came straight from a restaurant if it were served in a traditional Chinese takeout box. The original recipe called for hoisin sauce, as I mentioned, but I left it out and changed the quantities of everything else to make up the difference. The result? Well, what I said above. This is a keeper. (THM friends, this recipe is an FP. When served with quinoa or rice as pictured above, it’s an E. Turn it into an S by using regular ground turkey (not lean) and serving it over cauliflower rice.)
First, make sure you’ve sliced the onions and minced the garlic. Keep them close by because you’ll need them soon. Next, mix the sauce: add the Tamari (or soy sauce, if you’re not gluten free), chili paste, vinegar and ginger into a small bowl and whisk together until well combined. Set aside and keep it handy.
Once your veggies are prepped and the sauce is ready to go, set a skillet over medium heat and pour in the sesame oil. Add the garlic and onions and saute slightly to soften them, about two minutes or until they begin to smell fantastic. Crank up the heat to high and add the ground turkey, crumbling it in your hands as you go. Sprinkle on a little kosher salt (about 1/2 teaspoon) and cook until the meat is no longer pink. Pour in the sauce as well as the (still frozen) green beans. Toss everything together and cook over high heat (or medium high if your stove top gets scorching) until the beans are warmed through and tender. Pile high on top of a bed of quinoa or rice (but my favorite? Quinoa.)