The Easy Way Out? or Sticky Orange Chicken (Top Allergen Free!)

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.


Always Hungry, and Homestyle Hamburger Soup

Cool weather finally showed up on our doorstep and no one was as delighted to greet it as I was. Trading shorts and salads for sweaters and soup pots is the best part of the year, in my book.

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Cold weather always makes me hungry. I don’t know why, exactly, but I blame soup. Soup does more than fuel my body; it warms my bones. Once I start slurping, I almost can’t stop. It’s a matter of cold weather survival around here.

Chunky sweaters are part of the deal of Midwestern life, of course, but if I had to pick between hearty soups or trendy fall fashion? Soup would win every time. Cozying up with a bowl of it while dressed in leggings and an oversized sweatshirt does the trick too.

If I had to choose a favorite soup (and thank God I do not have to do so), Hamburger Soup might be my pick. It tastes like home to me. My mom made it all the time when I was young. She still does, I think. Don’t most moms have a version they serve on the regular? Gluten free, allergy life didn’t throw a kink in this familiar recipe, and I’m so thankful for that because it’s a dinner that connects our family table to the one I sat at when I was a child. We didn’t have food restrictions in our house when I was growing up, and yet I can’t recall a day when my mom’s version of this was served with a swirl of cream before serving. Simplicity makes this soup a star. Ground beef, onions, carrots and celery, and potatoes are almost all you need.

Well ok, you need beef broth too. And tomato sauce and Worcestershire sauce too, but this soup forgives you if you’ve got to leave them out. It’s flexible and fast and filling. If you’re cold and hungry and soup sounds ideal? Cook up buns for biscuits and stir up a pot of Hamburger soup. It’s not fancy, and that’s why I love it. I can cozy up with a bowl of it in under 40 minutes.

Simple and satisfying, this one tastes like home.


Comfort Food Reimagined and Gluten Free, Dairy Free Bacon Ranch Chicken Casserole

Casseroles are like McDonald’s: they get a bad wrap, but secretly everyone loves them.

Well okay, I don’t love McDonald’s–anymore. But gracious me, how I adored their french fries until I learned gluten’s evil reach extends to even them. French fries don’t need wheat to be wonderful.

The same is true for casserole. I know I’m not the only one with childhood memories of noodles and meat tucked into a sumptuous sauce, layered thick with gooey cheese and baked until golden and glorious, right? Casserole was pretty much my favorite, but now gluten is ornery and unwelcome at my table. Ditto for dairy, so clearly, casserole complicates my kitchen. I bet it complicates yours, too.

Allergy life handed us a whole bunch of adversity. Shoot, it’s just plain bananas sometimes, but I have learned to leverage the crazy and bake banana bread. In other words, I’m good at making the best of bad situations, but casserole creates a crummy conundrum. No matter how you slice it, alternative ingredients just don’t swap out the same way in savory dishes.

Even so, when cooler weather compels me to click on the oven and cook something cozy, casserole calls my name. I usually argue with the voice, saying things like “Dairy free cheese is disgusting” and “Gluten free noodles get gummy.” Casserole patiently nods its understanding, then nudges me to try again anyway, saying “I’m problematic, but possible.”

Over the years I have tried to prove my beloved food friend right. Try after disappointing try simply confirmed my opinion until I realized this: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is just plain crazy. Daiya does not–will not— taste like dairy Mozzarella no matter how much I wish it did.

That’s the problem: I’m expecting my taste buds to adjust to something I just plain don’t like. Many alternatives are frankly unpalatable. Others are acceptable, but some really are inspired. Sorting out the bad from the good is an exercise in patience and fortitude.

It’s exhausting.

Once upon a time Mia asked me to make lasagna for dinner. Rarely one to deny a request for comfort food, I hesitated, and it surprised her. I mean, lasagna is all about the cheese. The marriage of ricotta and mozzarella is a match made in comfort food heaven, so I panicked. But something switched that night and instead of asking How can I make that? , I asked myself How will I make that? Saying yes to her simple request taught me to re-imagine casserole instead of trying to recreate it.

Does gluten have to be involved at all? Does dairy? The simple answer is, of course, no. A casserole is really just “food cooked and served in a casserole [dish]” (According to Merriam-Webster, that is), which essentially means anything goes.

So I looked my girl in the eye and said “Let’s do it!” and we rolled out sheets of homemade cassava flour noodles and stirred together a filling of garlic-studded meat and spinach, and layered them together with a simple marinara sauce. Then in a fit of inspiration, I got out a can of black olives. As I sliced them, Mia asked if she could put them on by herself. I laughed as I watched her arrange them into a smiley face.

I can’t redefine casserole, but I can re-imagine it. Food allergy life taught me that. My kids don’t know the difference between a lasagna covered with cheese and one simply slathered with sauce. All they see is lasagna served with a smile. Isn’t that the point? Food doesn’t have to be fancy or familiar to feed my family well. If it’s served with a smile, it’s enough.

Yes, it means letting go of what I know. But it frees my heart from stress and burnout and gives me the gift of saying yes.

Casserole isn’t comfort food because it’s layered with cream or cheese: it’s comfort food because it’s home food, made with all kinds of creativity and love. Experimenting with alternative ingredients yields all sorts of casseroles with character, and cultivated a cuisine unique to our table and taste buds. We top them with olives or thinly sliced tomatoes, seasoned rice-crumbs or crushed potato chips or savory streusel or even gluten free crispy french-fried onions, and then cheer when it comes out crispy and golden. We even argue over who gets the corner piece.

I’m sure the same will be true for you, too, because casserole is a framework, an idea, a canvas for a culinary masterpiece.

This Bacon Ranch Chicken Casserole is top 14 allergen free proof that comfort food of my childhood is possible after all.

It’s not comfort food the way your Grandma would have made it, unless of course your Grandma was cooking for gluten free, dairy free folks, but my family thinks it’s every bit as comforting — and way better than McDonald’s.


Winter Isn’t Over Yet, and Classic Hamburger Gravy (Top 14 Allergen Free!)

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.


More than We Realize and Hawaiian Pizza Pasta (Top 9 Allergen Free)

Dear Joey,

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.

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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.

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The Real Hero and Chicken Pot Pie

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)

Dear Joey,

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.

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Better, Not Easier, and Crispy Baked Tacos

Dear Joey,

The Goobies are bugging me.

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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.

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The Problem with Restaurants, and Easy Oven Baked Turkey Meatballs (GF/DF/NF)

Dear Joey,

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.

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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?”

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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.

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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.

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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 free aren’t gluten free if they’ve been marinated in beer.

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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.)

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

Love,

Scratch

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. 

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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
  • 3 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
Method:

Preheat the oven to 425 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 15 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.


Joey’s 40th Birthday and Chopped Cheeseburger Salad (GF/DF Option/NF/THM S)

Dear Joey,

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’re sorry 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.

Love,

Scratch

Chopped Cheeseburger Salad

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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.

Ingredients:

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
Method:

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.

 


Home Is Where the Heart Is … and Classic Tuna Noodle Casserole

Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it.

Proverbs 4:23 (NIV)

Dear Joey,

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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, and you 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.

Love,

Scratch

Classic Tuna Noodle Casserole (DF/GF/NF)

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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.

Ingredients:
  • 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
Method:

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.