Back When, Until Then, and Vegan Scalloped Summer Squash

September can’t decide which season it is: one minute it’s crisp and cool and apple cider donuts call my name. The next minute it’s hot again and I silently judge all those other people stashing pumpkin everything into their shopping carts.

This in-between time puts me on a seasonal teeter-totter. There’s something inside me that’s really ready for what’s next, so in the cool of the morning I pull on a light sweatshirt and pair it with shorts, convincing myself it will be chilly enough to warrant my wardrobe choice. I head into my day wanting to make apple crisp and pumpkin bars and cider braised short ribs with sweet potatoes; I want to debate whether apple orchards trump pumpkin patches; and I want to order my Chai tea lattes extra hot. But none of that sounds appealing when it hits 88 degrees outside.

But oh, this Scalloped Summer Squash. It’s the perfect culinary bridge between the best of the summer season and comforting fall favorites. I don’t pine after pumpkin when I make it. I’m able to be perfectly present to the moment I’m in, right now. It points back to the beauty and bounty of summer and promises the warmth and wealth of fall.

It is a reminder of “back when” and “until then” in more ways than one. I used to cook with mainstream ingredients: back then I would have layered the squash with whipping cream and Gruyere; I might have added some breadcrumbs for crunch, and you know butter would have been involved somehow. Someday I’ll be able to cook with dairy again, but until then I’m finding ways to use what I have available right now to feed us well. I may be using uncommon ingredients this season, but there’s always something familiar from last season to combine them with. This casserole proves it.

Summer squash is a summertime staple, one that is still widely available during September. The stunning colors of the squash snuggle up beneath a warm blanket of velvety vegan cream sauce made with coconut milk and nutritional yeast, then topped with a little fresh thyme. The result is comfort food September is can be proud to call its own–but one taste and I bet you’ll make it all year, because oh, dear friends–it’s that good.

Of course the first time I made it I wondered whether my people would pout about a cheeseless casserole without noodles. I expected them to protest, but to my shock and delight they devoured every last bit of it.

I made it again last night and I paired it with pan-fried pork chops. When Mia came home for dinner, she walked in the door and and inhaled deeply, asking with a smile on her face, “Oh, mom–did you make that squash thing again? Ooh, and pork chops? Yay. This will be the best dinner ever.”

Back when and until then collided in a delicious, dairy free moment that had me celebrating the right here and the right now. I hope it helps your family do the same.


When the World Goes Bananas, Make Dessert (and Grain Free, Dairy Free Bananas Foster Bars)

I had two bunches of over-ripe bananas sitting on my counter last week. This is a rare occurrence because usually over-ripe bananas go straight into banana bread or the freezer. Two dozen at once overwhelmed me. “What do I do with all this?” I asked myself as I stood paralyzed, staring blankly at them.

For the briefest moment I considered throwing them away. Then I shook my head with a definitive “No way!” because what a waste. But my freezer couldn’t take any more, and a quadruple batch of banana bread wasn’t going to happen (because news flash: apparently I make banana bread a little too often and the freezer was stocked with that, too).

I had a choice: tuck them in the trash then go about my day pretending they were never there, or face the problem and do something.

So I did something. I started with thinking about Joey–the man who goes bonkers for bananas. “What would he like?” I asked myself.

Duh. Dessert.

At first I considered custard, then cream pie, and finally narrowed it down to cookies or bars until suddenly, out of no where, the memory of Bananas Foster barged in and changed everything. The first time I tried that miracle of a dessert, Joey sat across the table from me in the dimly lit, local Italian restaurant that made us feel ten thousand miles away from home. Neither of us was hungry for dessert, but when the waiter asked if we wanted to try Bananas Foster, we exchanged a knowing look and said an emphatic “Yes please.” One bite of the sticky sweet bananas doused in vanilla and rum and we were hooked.

And that’s when I knew: I would make Bananas Foster Bars. I didn’t know how to make them, or even if they were a thing at all. All I knew was I had a pile of bananas that had to be dealt with and I knew how to turn bananas and cassava flour into a moist, cakey treat, so that’s what I did.

As I pureed and measured and whisked, I thought about how so much in our world has changed since that first bite of Bananas Foster. I thought things were bad back then, but it’s bonkers now, right? Hard things are piling up and we don’t know what to do with them, and even if we did, would we know where to start?

It makes me think about the story of the widow and the oil–the desperate widow’s debts piled up. She knew what she had to do (pay the debt), but she didn’t know how to do that (with what money?). And the story of when disciples had 5,000 hungry mouths to feed, but they didn’t know how to do that either. In both situations, someone asks, “What DO you have?” The widow says “Nothing, except a little oil.” The disciples say “Just a few loaves and two small fish.” They realize didn’t have nothing. They had something. And when they used it, things changed.

Maybe that’s where we need to start too. If the world is bananas, let’s make some dessert, you know? We might not have all the answers: but do we have just one? We don’t have the loudest voice, but do we have a voice at all? We don’t know whose word to trust anymore: but we can trust what God says, always.

Maybe instead of looking at what we lack, we look at what we have, and then we use it.

I didn’t have a bunch of useless bananas: I had Bananas Foster Bars just waiting to be made.


A Reason to Celebrate, and Sweet & Smoky Chicken Skewers

Good grief I’m tired. Summer can’t come soon enough.

It’s weird to say that because last summer stretched on forever, and when it was finally over I swore up and down I never wanted the hot, sticky season to come again. Summer is supposed to be slow, but it was more sluggish than a snail last year. The lack of momentum made it feel static, not serene. And that was tiring. I feel like I only just started recovering from it, yet here I am ready for another one? It’s a strange tension.

Today I’m tired in a different sort of way–the best sort of way. The weekend swept me up in a swirl of food and family and fun, and the whirlwind wore me out. I fell asleep on the couch last night recovering. Remembering, too: the smile on Mia’s face as she turned nine. The way she laughed and played and drank it all in–the swimming, the silly jokes, the small cans of Dr. Pepper that are special treat indeed. It almost didn’t matter what I served; the people surrounding her made it the most special, especially after last year’s lockdown.

Her birthday last year was different. We celebrated, but separately. Reality got skewed and our circle got smaller and eventually summer stretched on for days on end. We grilled our way through the long, hot months, trying to enjoy the low pressure days, but secretly stressed out with waiting and wondering what would happen next. This recipe was born out of the lonesome days of lockdown, a time when life was slow and sweet in its own way, even though the world seemed to burn around us.

The days at home were good, but the strife outside our doors made it hard to guess what would come next. This recipe for sweet & smoky chicken reminds me of those days. It gave me hope for a day when we would fill our table with family and friends again–and that day came right along with Mia’s birthday. They remind me of last year when we couldn’t share meals together like this–and why it’s so important we do so again.

A shared meal is never just about the food: it is always about fellowship with the faces that share the food with us. It’s about acknowledging our need for fuel and friendship at the same time; it’s about feeding people’s stomachs and souls by giving them a reason to slow down and savor. Food is so much more meaningful when it’s shared.

And so, as a new summer knocks on our doors and asks to stay for awhile, let’s invite it in with open arms–and along with it, let’s welcome each other again. Let’s find a reason to celebrate and gather around tables together, laughing alongside each other as we pass platters filled to the brim with good things. Let’s feed each other with the sort of welcome that says “I’m so glad you’re here.”

Let’s remember the way it was for awhile and be grateful it wasn’t forever, because eating together is something sacred indeed.


A Good Excuse to Bake, and Cassava Flour Miracle Muffins

I bake when winter’s cold seeps through every nook and cranny, barging inside when it’s not welcome. Spring feels far away on days like these, so I cope by baking blueberry muffins. They brighten the day and remind me that harsh, hard seasons eventually fade into warmer, more welcoming ones, and this season will too.

Winter reminds me of hard days when kitchen life turned upside down. My outlook was bleak. The promise of good food felt elusive, even laughable–nothing like it was in my childhood. Back then the kitchen beckoned, I answered its call out of curiosity, not necessity. I was lucky enough to have parents who indulged my desire to explore to my heart’s content (God bless them). Lots of good stuff came out of those early experiments.

Oh, there were plenty of flops, too, but even the worst of them didn’t deter me from getting back into that kitchen the next day. Trial and error has been part of the process for as long as I can remember. Every miserable failure fueled my drive to get back behind the stove and try, try again. This recipe is the result of that resolve.

Of all the challenges this unconventional kitchen life handed me, baking without grains was the trickiest. Gluten free baking was tough enough, but at least that still uses grains. Learning how to use alternative flours (almond, arrowroot, coconut, tapioca, potato) is like learning a different language. Nuance gets lost in translation, complicating the exchange. Discovering cassava flour was like meeting a good interpreter who makes meaning out of the mess.

Miracles don’t make sense, exactly, but they do have meaning. These muffins are naturally grain/gluten free and accommodate for all the top allergens. (They contain egg, but work beautifully with an egg replacer.). The basic recipe is plain on purpose: it can be dressed up on a whim with all sorts of flavors and textures. Feel like lemon poppy seed? Use this recipe. Curious about cranberry orange? Use this recipe. Craving chocolate chip? Use this recipe. It’s endlessly adaptable.

Today we made blueberry lemon because citrus helps lift our moods in the middle of a dreary day. It reminds us brighter days of spring really will come again and prompts us to watch the miracle unfold.

Until it does, we’ll be keeping warm by baking batch after batch of these muffins. I hope you do too!


Snow Again, Kindness Always, and Double Chocolate Banana Bread

“Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.”

-1 Thessalonians 5:15 (NIRV)

Dear Joey,

The Goobie girls had another Snow Day this week.

They went from cheering for them and luxuriating in the low pressure days at home to groaning at the mere possibility of them. They tire of each other quickly when we are all cooped up inside, stepping on each others’ toes for days on end. They love each other, of course, and they even get along beautifully most of the time, going out of their way to be thoughtful and considerate of each other’s feelings. Lately though–yikes. I wish the snow would melt away so I could send them outside for some much needed space.

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A Quiet Morning, and Grain Free Pumpkin Muffins

Dear Joey,

You were on call this morning, so you were at the hospital before the sun woke up. And I’m so sorry you missed it: a miraculous combination of cooperation and quiet that yielded me a chance to try out a new recipe. After stumbling downstairs with three hungry Goobies in tow; after digging through the freezer to find something other than cereal and bananas to feed their empty bellies; after settling on a combination of sliced strawberries, frozen waffles and hash browns (and letting them each choose whatever they wanted), they were full and happy and ventured off on their own to unleash their creativity before the sun was all the way up. There wasn’t any squabbling or pestering, either–just the happy sounds of happy kids. In the quiet, I was faced with a dilemma: sit and drink my coffee in peace, or take the opportunity to make a batch of muffins?

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