Menu Planning and What I’m Cooking

Dear Joey,

As you know, I love to cook. But are you aware of how much I dislike planning to cook? I like the idea of it. Pouring over cookbooks and getting lost in words like braise and saute and julienne is my idea of a good time. I have a stack of cookbooks perched precariously on many a surface of our house most weeks, old favorites alongside newly discovered gems waiting to become my new go-to cookbook.

And yet.

Settling on a selection of recipes to make in any given week is not exactly fun because, well, it just doesn’t lend itself very well to my creative cooking style (read: figuring-tghings-out-at-the-last-minute-style cooking). In years pastI thrived on the challenge of putting together a killer menu at last minute. With a well-stocked kitchen, doing things last minute worked for me, for us.

And then there were children.

These days, last minute dinners include Amy’s Macaroni & Cheese, PB&J, grilled cheese, quesadillas, or leftovers. It’s not that I couldn’t throw together something more classy than these things; it’s just that it’s not so easy to get creative with two small children clamoring for my attention, staring me down with hunger in their eyes.

But menu planning hasn’t been exactly easy for me. Plus, there hasn’t seemed to be a need for true menu planning because there is always something to cook with around here, be it a fresh stash of veggies or a nice cut of meat. Thinking about meals perhaps a day in advance worked fine for me in some ways- I had plenty of time to defrost, marinate, or last minute grocery shop.

I admit, however, that this isn’t exactly the most cost-effective strategy for cooking. Maintaining a well-stocked pantry isn’t exactly cheap, mainly because we tend to make a trip to the grocery store the moment a staple ingredient runs out around here simply because we might need it before payday rolls around again. Like a block of cheese or a bottle of oil or frozen chicken breasts or another pint of sour cream. The truth is, we can easily make it through to payday without these things, but we’ve become accustomed to the convenience of having foods fit for last minute cooking around all the time.

My mom and I did the math a few days ago to figure out about what we’ve been spending on food lately, and after that discussion, I knew I couldn’t just play around with menu planning anymore. It has to become a way of life for us, otherwise we’ll waste a lot of resources around here (money, food, time, etc.). But admittedly, the joy of thumbing through cookbooks disappears the moment the pressure is on to choose something that meets all of our family’s requirements. It must appeal to low-carb dieters and those who eat mostly meatless, as well as toddlers and adults. It must be quick and easy enough to cook with children underfoot, and yet make use of a wide variety of whole, real foods. It’s got to reheat well, as the dinner hour stretches from 5:30 all the way up to midnight around here. It’s got to include Mexican food as much as possible (as it is a clear favorite around here), appeal to your love for classic homestyle foods while also being highly health conscious and low calorie, and, it’s got to give me room to experiment and play. Oh – and, it’s got to take into account allergies (sensitivities?) to coconut, peanuts, lentils and possibly dairy.

Sheesh. Do you see why I get a little overwhelmed?

When I sat down to do a menu planning template two weeks ago, I landed on an approach that helped me to feel a little less overwhelmed by this daunting task. First, instead of thinking of it as a “Meal Plan,” I think of it as a list of things I’m cooking (and so, I’ve dubbed my list “What I’m Cooking”) Second, instead of thinking about two weeks’ worth of dinners all at once without any direction whatsoever, I’m doing it week by week, using a template with parameters. Meaning, I assigned different types of meals to each day of the week to take most of the burden off of me; the day of the week decides what type of food I cook. (Example: on Mondays, we have Mexican food.) With this template in place, any requests I get for the week (“Let’s have enchiladas! or “I’m hungry for barbecued chicken.”) will slip into their pre-appointed day.

Take a look – see what I mean?

Sunday: Hearty Meat Dishes
Monday: Mexican Food
Tuesdays: Homestyle Favorites (crock pot soups/stews, easy casseroles and other comfort foods)
Wednesday: Creative in the Kitchen (with an option for leftovers or sandwiches instead)
Thursday: International Flair (especially carb-heavy dishes with pasta or rice)
Friday: “Fun” Food (like homemade pizza, hotdogs/hamburgers, breakfast for dinner, etc.)
Saturday: Something Grilled

To be more specific, here’s what I’m cooking this week:

Sunday: Beef Stroganoff with Roasted Brussel Sprouts
Monday: Taco Salad
Tuesday: Crock Pot Broccoli Cheese Soup with Green Salad
Wednesday: Leftovers
Thursday: Vegetable Curry with Chickpeas (with or without chicken) over rice
Friday: Grilled Bratwurst with Baked Beans and Corn on the Cobb*
Saturday: Fish Sticks with Mac & Cheese*

*I know, I know. I switched themes on Friday and Saturday, but hey – it’s my plan and I have the prerogative to switch it up as I see fit, right? 

I know it doesn’t take a genius to figure out meal planning, and I know that there are many other better meal planners out there (forms, templates and people), but for me, for now, this is hugely helpful. Life changing, really. It gives me freedom to be creative and yet keeps me organized enough to stay sane.

And you know what? I think you agree. You have, after all, complimented my cooking every night for the past week. Without any sort of prodding from me.

That’s my favorite part.


Going Meatless, and Apple Gouda Penne Pie

Dear Joey,

Few things make you happier than coming home to a meat-heavy dinner. You can’t hide the way your eyes twinkle with desire when you come home to a big, juicy roast finishing up in the crock pot, a really good steak on it’s last hour marinating in the fridge, or even a big pan of meatballs simmering away in the dutch oven makes me think you are happier to see dinner than you are to see me.

I will never forget the excitement in your voice when I told you I was craving a big, juicy steak while I was pregnant with Mia. It probably stunned you to hear those words from me, as you knew my fickle feelings about meat. Your face lit up as you began to imagine all the delicious ways we could cook a steak that night, without forethought, preplanning, let alone the steak itself in the house. Soon we found ourselves at the store and as we perused the various cuts available, I deferred to you because really, I don’t know what I am doing when it comes to steak. I charged you with cooking of said steaks as well, and you looked so proud when you presented me with a beautifully crusted filet mignon drizzled with the yummiest homemade pan sauce I had ever tasted.

Those nights are rare around here because I have mixed feelings about meat. I admit that it is delicious, but it nevertheless grosses me out a little. When I do cook meat (which is becoming more and more rare around here) I generally go easy on the amount I eat (if any at all) because the truth of the matter is that no matter how yummy it is, it creeps me out a little when I think about what meat actually is (cows, chickens, pigs)

I didn’t always have a love/hate relationship with meat. It was a gradual change, one that I can’t really pin to any one reason or moment. When I was growing up, I loved it. Some of my favorite dinners were beef stew, pot roast, hamburger gravy over mashed potatoes, and oven-fried chicken. I had some friends who were vegetarians and I remember wondering what in the world they ate.  

Perhaps I have some sort of genetic predisposition to this, as neither of my grandmothers are not big meat eaters, and their consumption of meat continues to dwindle with age, but I am fairly certain that the real reason I’ve lost my appetite for it because of the less than ideal way most meat makes its way to our collective national table. Lucky for me, you accept this about me and even agree with me on the major issues that get me so fired up. The one area we differ on this point is the fact that you still love meat, and you crave it more than I ever really do.

I’m really thankful that despite your deep love of a good piece of meat, you don’t mind having meatless dishes for dinner, and I am even more thankful that you humor me while I experiment with meatless dishes and find out what vegetarians actually eat. I promise that I will never try to pull a fast one on you or change your favorite dishes into meatless ones (can you imagine tofu stroganoff? Gross.) I’ll not let my little hang up in the kitchen keep me from cooking the kinds of meals you like best, as long as you don’t mind a few meatless dishes here and there to balance it out. Plus, you might find, as I have, that meatless does not mean tasteless. In fact, you may discover (as I did) that meatless can be awesome. Like last night’s dinner: it was a winner, right?

I believe your exact words were, “Apple Gouda Penne Pie, huh? (Taste.) Mmmm. Ya. I’ll eat that. (Double helping.)”

Yes, meatless can be awesome indeed.

Love, Scratch

Apple Gouda Penne Pie
This dish makes meatless meals look good. The  original recipe calls for apple cider instead of broth (which is what I used), but I didn’t have 1/2 a cup of apple cider on hand (who does?). You could even use white wine, if you wanted to. The result will still be decadently rich and satisfying, and would go very well with a crisp green salad dressed with a tangy vinaigrette. Think of it as fancy macaroni and cheese, perfect for grownups with a sophisticated palate, but kid-friendly all the same (my kids devoured it!).

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2/3 cup panko bread crumbs, divided
1 teaspoon dried thyme, divided
12 oz. dry penne pasta
2 medium Granny Smith apples, peeled , cored and chopped
1/2 large onion, chopped
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 cups 2% milk
1/2 cup vegetable broth
6 ounces cream cheese
6 ounces gouda cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a spring form pan and sprinkle sides of pan with 1/3 cup panko bread crumbs. Set aside.

Over medium heat, melt one tablespoon of butter; add remaining 1/3 cup panko and 1/2 tsp thyme. Combine, then remove from heat.

Cook pasta for two minutes fewer than package directions. Drain, and return the pasta to the pan.

In a large pan over medium high heat, melt 3 tablespoons butter and add apple and onions. Sauté until tender (about 8 minutes). Stir in flour, salt and pepper. Cook for two minutes. Add milk and broth; cook  until thick and bubbly, stirring frequently. Reduce heat to low and add the cream cheese, gouda and thyme. Stir until the cheese is melted and combined.

Pour sauce over pasta and gently mix thoroughly. Pour mixture into the prepared spring form pan and top with reserved panko mixture.

Bake for about an hour, or until edges are golden and cheese is bubbly. Let cool for about 20 minutes before slicing and serving.

Old and New, and What Making Enchiladas Taught Me

Dear Joey,

We had enchiladas for dinner this past Friday night and they were awesome for three reasons: first, they were very easy to make (in fact, they could be called “throw them together while daddy gives the girls a bath enchiladas”); second, they were so good; and third, they taught me a very powerful lesson.

I never thought enchiladas to be emotional, really, but this week they were for me. It all started when I decided to try a new recipe for Chicken Enchiladas, a recipe whose author calls it her go to dish to take to new moms. Since I was making dinner for a new mom this week and still hadn’t decided what I was going to make, I figured it was a good enough sign that her version of Chicken Enchiladas was a sure bet.

Why I hadn’t thought to bring Chicken Enchiladas to this new mom before this week escapes me. My Grandma’s Creamy Chicken Enchiladas are something of a legend on my mom’s side of the family, and she made them hundreds of times over the years, I’m sure, for just about any reason or occasion you could think of: for holidays, birthdays, and other family gatherings; for potlucks and funerals and people who needed a little extra help around the house; and she would even make them just because. Her enchiladas were her go to dish, and walking in to dinner at grandma’s house was always extra exciting when the smell of those enchiladas greeted us at the door.

To purposely make different recipe for Chicken Enchiladas felt wrong to me, as if I was breaking some sort of family code by admitting that there could be another creamy chicken enchilada recipe out there that was worth making. But I did it anyway this week, and this recipe became very special to me very fast.

It comes from Shauna Niequist’s Bread and Wine, from the chapter called “Love and Enchiladas” in which she talks about the people who made up the house church she and her husband were part of several years ago now. When I read about her group and how they met on Wednesday nights for dinner in someone’s home, and how week after week they developed a love for each other that became more like that shared among family than that shared among friends, I couldn’t help but think about our own sort-of house church we had before we got married: a group of people who that filled that kitchen with laughter and wine and guacamole and and dirty dishes during what we used to call Family Night.

Family Night is what got us through the week, it seemed. We would text back and forth early in the week, planning menus and deciding who was going to bring what. At 7:00, the door would start opening and we would buzz in and out of that warm yellow kitchen, circling around each other as we poured chips into bowls, popped things in and out of the oven, and crammed mismatching chairs around the kitchen table. As the night wore on, we would ask for seconds and refill glasses and play one more round of Hell’s Pile or marvel at the wonder of who God is – and we would do it all for as long as we could keep our eyes open.

It’s been a few years since we’ve done that, now. Things changed, as things tend to do. Some of us got married; others moved away; babies were born; and jobs were lost and found. Life carried all of us in different directions, and along the way the connections that sustained us during those years started to get lost as we lived our new realities – each of us, in our own way – very much like what happened to that little House Church that ate these particular enchiladas all those times so far away in Michigan.

Even though I was making this particular pan of enchiladas for a newer friend than the ones we shared Family Night with, all I could think about was how those nights would never come again, and feeling sad about that but still somehow happy that life took me where I am today. As I layered together tortillas and chicken and cheese, I thought about and prayed for Adam and Christy, and for Felicia and Kara and Jason and Jonathan and Stacy and Amy and Mike. All of them – I couldn’t seem to help it.

And then I started thinking about all the ways our lives have changed and all the new friends that have come into our lives since that time, some whom were going to receive that particular pan of enchiladas and some who were not. People who I enjoy and pray for and love in different ways than the friends who were part of Family Night. People who are new, but neither more nor less important, really. And I thought about the funny way that God answers prayer and the way that He never leaves us even when we lose the thing that we thought we could never live without, and how our needs are important to Him and He provides just what we need right when we need it. All this from a pan of enchiladas.

So you see, these enchiladas are more than just enchiladas. They showed me that things I’ve known and loved for years are still important to me, they still hold powerful memories, and they retain their power to make me feel comfortable and cared for. But they also taught me that there is a place for change and for new and for doing things a little bit differently.

Just because I love these enchiladas doesn’t mean that my love for Grandma’s version has diminished at all; it just means that I have discovered something new to love as well. And new isn’t bad. New is just new, and I believe there is a lesson in that for me when it comes to change and growth in my life, and that’s what makes these enchiladas so special.

That’s why I made them again Friday night. Because I wasn’t quite ready to move on from the nostalgia I was feeling about those days before we were married, when Wednesday nights were Family Night and we would get our fill of good food and people who carried us through some of the toughest times we had faced yet. And you know what? The truth is I don’t have to let go. Not really. I can hold on to the good from then and accept and enjoy the reality of what is now all at the same time. Those days are part of my history and your history and our history together, and if it weren’t for them, and the people who filled those days to the brim with life and love and laughter, we wouldn’t be who we are today, together.

Love, Scratch

Chicken Enchiladas

Slightly adapted from Annette’s Enchiladas (Bread and Wine)
True to Shauna Niequists’ thoughts in her book Bread and Wine, by the third time I made this recipe it became my own, in that I made it without looking at the recipe at all by then. I knew Joey loved it because he said so after the first bite and went back for seconds after he inhaled his first serving. My dad asked me if I had it written down somewhere because he wanted to make sure I made it again (and again and again). Make this once and I’m sure you’ll feel the same way as our family does about Annette’s Enchiladas.

1 28-ounce can green enchilada sauce
2 small (4-ounce) cans diced green chills
1 cup sour cream
3 cups precooked shredded chicken 

10 oz pepper jack cheese, shredded (about 2 1/2 cups) (or use plain Monterey Jack, as called for in the original recipe)
12 corn tortillas

1 1/2 cups chicken broth

Mix together the first three ingredients and spoon about a half a cup of sauce or so into the bottom of a 9 x 13 baking dish, smoothing it into a thin layer that covers the entire base of the pan.

Next, simmer the chicken broth and pass the tortillas through the broth one at a time as you build each layer.

Create layers of tortillas, chicken, cheese and sauce by layering four tortillas on top of the base layer of sauce. Top with half of the chicken, a third of the cheese, and a third of the sauce. Repeat. Top the second layer with another four tortillas, the remaining third of the sauce, and the remaining cheese.

Bake at 350 degrees for at least 30 minutes (but I baked mine for about an hour so that the cheese got a bit crispy and golden.) Let sit for 15 minutes before serving.

A Battle of Wills and What Addie’s Really Saying

Dear Joey,

Well, it’s happened. One of our children has finally spit on my face.

It didn’t happen on purpose (I don’t think), but the other night while we were in the throes of a dinner time battle of wills, a chewed up medley of tortellini with chicken and zucchini came flying out of Addie’s mouth as she raged against my request for her to swallow.

It all started a few weeks ago when she started flat out refusing to eat vegetables. Fruit came next, and shortly after that pretty much anything other than bananas, crackers, and yogurt or cheese went out the window. This frustrated me to no end, as this was our little foodie, the girl who would eat anything put in front of her with only two exceptions: green beans and Velveeta (which I can’t say I’m too torn up about).

I should have known this day was coming. For months and months I would toss vegetables in with her favorite foods, flavoring them well and making them taste (in my humble opinion) amazing. But not so long ago, she started picking her favorite foods out of her dinner, eating the chicken and noodles and leaving the broccoli, peas, or zucchini on her plate. A dinner like the one we had the other night would have been a major hit just six short months ago. But last week, it was a disaster.

I cut up zucchini into little pieces, no more than 1/4 inch square, and sautéed it with minced onion and garlic powder. Then I added pre-cooked pieces of chicken and cheese tortellini and tossed it all together with parmesan cheese (a simple, quick dinner I would ordinarily recommend to anyone with toddlers). After tasting it myself, I knew I’d hit on something flavorful and yummy, something Addie would be sold on once (and if) I could get her to take a bite of it.

I was wrong.

I put a bit of it on her favorite plate (the pink one) and gave her the Minnie Mouse fork. After putting the plate down in front of her, I encouraged her to take a bite and held my breath. She took one look at it and announced (without tasting it), “I don’t like it.”

Meanwhile, Mia was chowing down. She had two helpings, plus peas. And carrots. And corn. And green beans. But Addie sat in silence, refusing to take a bite, insisting she didn’t like it. I left her alone, as sometimes she gets brave and slyly tries to take a bite when she doesn’t think I’m watching. But she didn’t take a bite this time. She just sat there, full plate left untouched, stubborn as can be. After calmly trying to explain that she didn’t know she didn’t like it because she hadn’t tasted it yet, I finally (somehow) got her to take a bite. And then another. And another. And then, out of nowhere, she stopped eating. And she got very, very quiet – the sort of quiet that has come to mean that she is now holding a bite of food in her mouth and is refusing to either swallow it or spit it out.

And so, I let her keep that bite in her mouth. She asked (full mouth and all) if she could have frozen yogurt stick, and I told her that she could if she swallowed that bite and chewed and swallowed another three bites. But, I warned, if she spit that bite out, or any bites she took after that one, she would not get to enjoy the frozen yogurt, nor would she get to have anything else to eat before bedtime.

There we sat, neither willing to give in to the other. And then, after holding that food in her mouth for at least ten minutes, she started crying, the kind of crying that litters her forehead with red splotches and turns her voice into a high pitched screech. At this point in the game, I knew that she would not swallow, nor would she spit it out. She was hanging on to that food for dear life because she understood that to spit it out is to relinquish her claim on the frozen yogurt she wanted so badly.

Not being willing to let her scream like that for an hour, only to finally have her swallow and then reward her with frozen yogurt, I took control of the situation and made it clear to her that I was going to help her spit it out. She protested, screaming louder, and it was at this point that the chewed up food came flying out of her mouth and landed on my cheek.

I am proud to say I stayed calm. I quietly walked away, gingerly wiped the goop from my face, and returned with a cool cloth to wipe Addie’s face too. And then I lifted her out of her chair, walked over to the nearby armchair, nestled her onto my lap and let her calm down, stroking her hair and waiting in silence as she did.

Eventually, she calmed down. She didn’t get to eat her beloved frozen yogurt, but she did get a bit of one-on-one cuddle time with me. And it made me wonder if it’s true: perhaps this battle is less about the vegetables than it is about attention. With so much attention focused on her baby sister for almost a year now, perhaps she has finally found a way to get the sort of focused attention (negative as it may be) that she lost the day she gained a sister.

And so, instead of feeling defeated and angry, I’m learning to do my best to stay calm and pay attention to what her needs really are over and above her food preferences. And I’ve decided to be more intentional about giving her focused attention in between meals. Offer more encouragement and less bargaining. Get better at hiding vegetables, but let her watch me eat and enjoy the kinds of foods that she refuses to eat. Limit crackers, offer more fruit. Be ok with letting her “go hungry” until the next meal. Bottom line: I’m not going to push too hard or worry too much about it because the truth is, she’ll eat the food she’s offered when she’s hungry enough, just like she’ll come snuggle with me when she needs a hug or ask me for water when she’s thirsty. And that’s a good thing, I think. Learning to recognize what she needs and being able to give it a voice. Differentiating between what she wants and what she needs. Learning how to stand her ground and let things go, all with grace and a bit of humility. I pray that as we teach her these essential life skills, she’ll learn how to do it with a lot more grace than I have, and I pray that in the process we become even better at it ourselves.

Love, Scratch

On Housekeeping, Romance, and Seven Layer Dip

“Cooking is the only part of housekeeping I manage with any grace; it’s something like writing a book: you look in the refrigerator and see what’s there, choose all the ingredients you need, and a few your husband thinks you don’t need, and put them all together to concoct a dish. Vacuum cleaners are simply something more for me to trip over; and a kitchen floor, no matter how grubby, looks better before I wax it. The sight of a meal’s worth of dirty dishes, pots, and pans makes me want to run the other direction.” 

Madeline L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

Dear Joey,

I am very, very lucky that you clean and even luckier that you actually like to clean. This is not to say that I don’t clean. I do clean. I’m not sure I’ll ever experience the same satisfaction or enjoyment you experience when you clean. And I know I give you a bad time when you re-do something I’ve just done (especially when I know I did it well the first time), but it’s only because this subconscious,  somewhat neurotic tendency makes me insecure about my not-so-great housecleaning skills. But again, the truth is, I am very lucky that you have any sort of interest in making and maintaining a clean house.

You know how I hate to go to bed before the kitchen is clean? It’s not because I derive a single ounce of joy from washing dishes or scrubbing counters. There is nothing that can ruin a beautiful morning than stumbling into a messy kitchen with leftover, stinky dishes from the night before. I don’t stay up late washing dishes because I enjoy it; truth be told I hate washing dishes, mainly because there is no end to it. An empty, clean sink doesn’t stay that way for long, and the moment another dirty dish finds its way into a clean sink, which it inevitably does, defeat sweeps over me and I get a little bit depressed. Splatters on the stove, a dirty microwave, and the grunge on the kitchen floor all make me uninspired to get into the kitchen and cook again, but I’ve made my peace with the fact that these chores are the price one must pay to have a clean kitchen. The endless amount of work a kitchen demands makes it hard for me to get on top of other household chores, and the truth is that vacuuming and dusting and laundry often get passed over for clean counters and frying pans and sippy cups.

To make matters worse, moving in with my family made the task bigger, more formidable, and far more difficult to keep up with. When everyone is going in a thousand different directions while I am at home with a toddler and an infant, getting (and staying) on top of all the messes on my own was impossible. A source of many meltdowns that have occurred in the past few months. We all tried to do what we could when we could, you included, but the house just never seemed to get really clean. Picked up, yes. Clean? No. In a moment of genius (or mercy), we decided to hire outside help for this season that we’re all here together. As much as I appreciate everyone’s willingness to chip in for it, what I appreciate most of all was one of the sweetest, most thoughtful things you’ve ever said to me: “Why don’t we plan to get take out on cleaning days?”

You have no idea how much my heart swooned when you uttered those words.

Before we got married, I read about women whose idea of romance involved her husband doing the dishes or folding laundry without being asked to do so. I admit that there was a very real part of me that was sad for these women that that is what their definition of romance had (in my mind) devolved to. But part of me was a little nervous that someday I would become one of them, and that I would eventually become one of those women whose definition of romance would involve her husband loading the dishwasher while I sat with my feet propped up after a long day.

I get it now though, how having a break from the unpleasant but necessary drudgery of housekeeping is romantic for a woman. It makes a woman feel important, well cared for, valued. I understand why women’s hearts swoon when their husband makes taking out the garbage, changing bedsheets or pitching in with dinner dishes part of his routine. It isn’t so much about the wife not doing the task; it is about what the husband’s act communicates to his wife. When a husband does these things, he tells her this:

 Just because I am done with my outside job for the day doesn’t mean that I am done with work for the day. You work hard at your job all day too, but you don’t have to be the only one to work around the clock. I know how full and difficult and tiring your days can be, and how discouraging it must be to have more work waiting to be done after the kids get to bed. I’m not off the clock until you are. I am with you on this because we are in this together. 

To me, the suggestion for take out was your way of telling me that you understand how much I need a break – mentally, emotionally, and physically. You see my needs, and by doing something to meet them, you are telling me that I matter. You are telling me that you are with me on this because we are in this together.

So even though I passed on take out this week, opting instead to clean out the fridge of some of the things that needed to be used up, please know that I will gladly take you up on your offer in weeks to come. In fact, I know in the months to come I will eagerly await it, both because it’s very much like a mini-vacation, and also because it is a very real, practical way you show me you love me.

Love, Scratch

Seven Layer Dip

It’s true: I passed up an opportunity for some truly yummy take out in favor of having this dip for dinner. The problem was, we had most of these ingredients in the refrigerator, and they really needed to be eaten up. When looking at them, disparate as they were, a sudden burst of inspiration hit me as I realized  7-Layer Dip could use everything up at once with minimal cleanup. Plus, eating bean dip for dinner reminds me of our earliest days of marriage when we could raid our fairly sparse pantry late at night and almost always come up with bean dip and chips for dinner. This version uses sweet bell peppers instead of tomatoes, a happy discovery born out of the fact that we were out of tomatoes. As it turns out, I like this version much better than the version with tomatoes. If you don’t like bell peppers, add tomatoes instead. If you don’t have tomatoes, leave them out. This dip is ever so forgiving.

About 4-5 cups refried beans
1 pint sour cream
Taco sauce & hot sauce
1 sweet bell pepper (red, orange or yellow), diced
Sharp cheddar cheese, grated
Black olives, sliced
Green onions, sliced
Tortillas (whole wheat, corn, or flour–whatever you prefer or have on hand)

Spread the refried beans in the base of a shallow 9 x 13 pan. Spread the taco sauce on top of that (in whatever thickness you like–more will yield a sloppier finished product, but that might just be tastier in your opinion). Sprinkle hot sauce on top of that, if you like your dip spicy. Then, sprinkle the sweet bell peppers evenly, covering the whole pan. Next is the hard part: spread the sour cream evenly on top of the bell peppers. I did it by first stirring the sour cream a bit to loosen it up and then dolloping a good bit of it every few inches over the bell peppers. Then, using a spatula, I played connect-the-dots between each dollop, eventually making it easier to spread the sour cream evenly over the top. (Please note that it will not look pretty, and that’s ok. If some taco sauce peeks out between dollops, so be it. No one will know.) Cover the sour cream with the remaining ingredients: first the cheese, then the black olives, and finally the green onions. Refrigerate for an hour or so, or until the dip has time to firm up a bit.

To really cut down on dishes, eat the dip with chips right out of the pan. We won’t judge you if you do.

Imperfectly Perfect and Classic Pot Roast

Dear Joey,

Do you ever notice how much of our lives is improvised? Really, I feel I go about life with little-to-no definite plan of action, and the truth is that most of the time I’m just winging it.

I thumb through books and skim over blogs and pick the brains of people who have gone before me all in an attempt at gracefully dealing with whatever situation I find myself facing, like sleep training babies and disciplining toddlers and making my life both orderly and functional as well as creative and meaningful. As much as I try to pretend, the truth is I haven’t the slightest idea how to actually make some of these things happen.

And so I live my life wavering between a constant state of panic that I’m not doing things exactly as they should be done and learning to lighten up and go with the flow. It’s a dance that I’m getting pretty used to, if not good at. Example: I have gotten used to the idea that our now-11 month old will never learn how to drink from a bottle (despite our best efforts to teach her), and that letting our two year old skip a nap is far preferable than trying to force her to take one anywhere other than her own bed. Also (and no less important) I’ve learned that making classic pot roast in a crock pot is simple to do once you know the basics. 

I admit, I started out the day a little nervous at the prospect of making this classic. I have made fancy roast beef in the oven, and I have made pork roast in the crock pot, but I could not remember the last time I had made classic pot roast with carrots and potatoes in a crock pot (or if I have ever done it at all). This realization confused me a bit because this used to be the meal in my house, the one that got me almost more excited to eat dinner than anything else.

Oh, the joy of coming home from school to the aroma of a big roast cooking in the crock pot, encircled by potatoes and carrots. It was a staple in our house when I was growing up, the kind of thing that never ever ever got old, even though we had for dinner fairly often. We would shred the meat and drizzle it with its own juices, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, and nice dollop of ketchup on the side, and enjoy every bite of those meaty potatoes and carrots.

Having made this dinner over and over during my childhood, my mom was the first person I thought to ask for instructions on how to make it, but she couldn’t remember how she did it, exactly. She couldn’t give really specific instructions at least, which is what I was after. Alas. To the computer I went, and as it turns out, everyone has an opinion for how to make pot roast, stemming from a combination of how their own mothers used to make it and their own trial and error.

Two dozen recipes later, I realized a simple truth: I was wasting my time because I already knew what to do: I would improvise. The general consensus of all of these recipes was the same: put the roast in the crock pot, make sure to season it, add a little liquid and let the heat do the rest. Armed with that information, I headed into the kitchen and just did my thing.

That is perhaps why I like the kitchen so much: it is a place where I am free to make mistakes because most of the time, the mistake yields a delicious discovery. (Unless, of course, you add one cup of salt to a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough instead of one teaspoon. Speaking from experience.) In the kitchen, imperfectly perfect is beautiful. In the kitchen, there is room for interpretation and for improvising. For taking what you do know and applying it to the situation in which you find yourself.

Believe it or not, this mode of thinking helps me as a mom. Despite all the best parenting advice I have ever read, no one has raised these kids before, with a mix of quirks and personalities all their own. And so, the best I can do is apply whatever knowledge I have gleaned along the way to the choices I make every day as their mother, never forgetting that I am their mother, and I know a thing or two about them. I envision the sort of people I hope they become, and I’m doing the best I can to nurture them toward that without putting unrealistic expectations on them or on myself. And I do it, for the most part, simply by doing.

I think that’s the best any of us can do sometimes. Envision the outcome we hope for, do some research to help us figure out how to make it happen, and then jump right in and start doing the work it will take to meet our goal. I am pretty sure that deep down, we actually know a lot more than we think we know, and if we follow our instincts (and say a lot of prayers in the process), we will probably do better than we ever thought we could.

Love, Scratch

Classic Pot Roast (in the Crock Pot)In my mind, basic is nearly synonymous with classic, so maybe this should be called “Basic Pot Roast (in the Crock Pot).” It is, after all, a very basic dish, one that could be dressed up with a variety of additional ingredients. Garlic, rosemary, thyme, mushrooms, red wine, or any other number of lovely flavors could be added to make it a fancier dish, but this, in my mind, is the classic, the one to start with to learn how to do it. After you do, follow your instincts and try something new. You might make a beautiful, delicious mistake.

1 chuck roast (4-5 pounds)
4 medium russet potatoes, peeled and sliced
8 large carrots (peeled or unpeeled), cut into thirds
1 large yellow onion, peeled, halved and sliced
1/2 cup beef broth
kosher salt
black pepper
olive oil

First, wash and dry the roast and cover it in kosher salt and pepper (you almost couldn’t over do this). Then, over medium high heat, sear the meat on all four sides. The darker the color, the more flavor it will yield.

Meanwhile, peel the onion and cut it into about 1/2″ slices. Lay them in the bottom of the crock pot. Peel and cut the potatoes and carrots and set aside.

When the meat is seared on all sides, lay it on top of the sliced onions. Pour 1/2 cup beef broth into the base of the crock pot. Put on the lid and turn the heat onto low. Cook for about 5 hours.

At the 5 hour mark, add the carrots and potatoes, layering them around the roast in the crock pot. Cover and let continue to cook another 3 hours or so.

When about ready to serve, you have a few choices. Remove everything and serve along with some of the juices (and Worcestershire sauce and Ketchup, if you’re like my family), or remove the potatoes and carrots, set them aside, and thicken the juices in the crock pot while the roast continues cooking a little longer (add 1 tsp of cornstarch to a little bit of the cooking liquid and then stir in and re-cover; let simmer until it thickens a bit). You could even remove everything, strain the juice, and make a gravy out of it (cook on the stove and add butter, flour, etc.), but that’s a little more involved than I would get for this dish. The point is, do whatever your family would enjoy most. I am pretty convinced there are a great many “right” ways to make this classic, and very few (if any) wrong ones.

Vulnerable, Honest, Bare-Faced Love and Chicken and Rice Soup with Lemon

Dear Joey,

Somewhere along the lines when I was growing up, someone (and honestly, I cannot remember who it was) told me that if I wore make up everyday, then people would be so used to my made up face that my un-made up face would look sort of funny to them. In my young mind, I thought that meant if I chose to start wearing make up, I had better always wear it, in every situation –even when I was at home, sick — in order to not look funny.

Jokes on me, because the closest I came to wearing make up this week was that little bit of mascara I wore yesterday when I took Addie to the doctor’s office. Other than that, I’ve been bare-faced and pajama clad, wiping noses and tears and hands and mouths, miraculously dodging the bug that has infiltrated our house this week. And you have forgiven me this, praising my endurance and coming to my rescue with Children’s Advil, Vapor Rub, Kleenex with lotion, and Chocolate Truffle Coffee (which you have had ready and waiting for me in the coffee pot many mornings this week).

I shouldn’t be surprised at this. After all, the first time you saw my unshowered, no make-up self, you ended up spending the whole Saturday with Christy and me lounging around in the living room playing Mad Gab, eating deli sandwiches, introducing us to Tapioca Express, and listening to our stories with an eager ear.  You didn’t seem to notice my bare face, messy pony tail, saggy gray sweatpants or frumpy college sweatshirt.

And then, in another surprising moment, I answered your early morning knock on the door with towel-dried hair and a not-yet-made-up, somewhat confused face; it was the time you came to tell me how sorry you were that you hadn’t asked me to dance with you the night before, when we were both at a wedding for our dear friends. I remember the way your face looked when you saw me that morning, choking back tears as you told me how beautiful I had looked the night before, and I remember thinking two things in that moment: the first was disbelief that you would say these things to me while my make-up-free face was staring back at you, and the second was really wishing I was in love with you.

It took some time, but now here we are nearly six years later, and my wish came true, and you have probably seen more of my bare face than you bargained for. You’ve seen my I’m so sick I can’t move face and my I haven’t slept since last May face and my I’m trying to hide the fact that I’ve been crying face. You’ve seen my swollen, pregnant face and my angry face and my happy face and my excited face and my frustrated face and my content face. All, might I add, sans make up.

When I look back on those moments, the ones when I was brave enough to let you see the real me, both before you loved me and the ones well after, I realize those are the moments that showed you who I really am, the moments when you really saw me, and you still wanted to marry me because no matter how I appeared, you saw the real me beneath it all. Bare faces are beautiful because messy or not, they are vulnerable and honest.

With the girls’ colds have come red-rimmed, weepy eyes and  swollen, stuffy noses, and even though they have been too sick and frail to do much other than cry or whine, I realize how deeply I love them. I love them because of who they are, not who they appear to be in their messiest moments. It astonishes me that even though I’ve scarce had time to change my clothes or brush my hair in these past few days, let alone fuss with makeup, neither they nor you seem fazed by it. In fact, you all seem to love me even more.

That’s the kind of love we all need: vulnerable, honest, bare-faced love. Perhaps the world would be a better place if more people loved like that.

Love, Scratch

Chicken and Rice Soup with Lemon


This soup is not at all fancy, but is sophisticated and delicious all the same. It began as a simple chicken and rice soup, but became something special when Joey suggested we add lemon juice to give it a bit of Greek flair. The result is sort of like  avgolemolo, but is made without eggs. Don’t let the lemon deter you: it gives the soup a bit of added zing that is most welcome when you’ve got a stuffy nose and sore throat. We use Meyer lemons, but regular lemon juice can be substituted easily. Start with 1/3 cup and add more to taste. The soup should not be sour, but should have a distinct lemon flavor. 

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 large carrots
3 large celery ribs
1/2 medium yellow onion
6 cups chicken broth (I usually use Better than Bouillon)
2 cups cooked short grain brown rice
juice of 3 Meyer lemons (or about 1/3 – 2/3 cup lemon juice)
Optional: 1/2 cup whole milk (2% or half & half can be used if needed)

Heat broth on the stove to boiling. Throw in the chicken breasts (frozen is ok). When they’re cooked through, remove them and set them aside to cool. Meanwhile, cook up the rice. Once it’s done, set it aside until ready to use.

When both the broth and chicken are cool enough to handle, shred the chicken and set aside. Strain the broth, reserving it in a large pot and discarding any unwanted chicken bits.

Next, dice the onion, carrots and celery ribs. (I usually cut them into about 1/2 cubes, but they can be chunkier if you prefer.) Sauté them in a little bit of oil until softened, adding some salt and pepper to taste as they cook. Add the cooked vegetables, chicken, pre-cooked rice, and lemon juice to the reserved broth; bring it up to a boil and then let it simmer for 30-45 minutes or so, which will transform the broth into thicker, more creamier version of itself. The soup is ready to serve at that point, but if you’d like to amp up the soothing creaminess factor (and your family can handle dairy just fine), read on.

Temper the milk a bit (by gently warming it up in the microwave for about 20-30 seconds), then swirl it into the soup pot. I don’t make it at our house this way anymore, but this step was standard before Emery joined our ranks. The good news? The soup fares well either way, so the decision is completely up to you. (Ah, food allergy flexibility.)


Traditions, and Red Velvet Chocolate Chip Cookies for Valentine’s Day

Dear Joey,

I’m big on traditions. I will likely make a big deal about them in the years ahead, so I’m warning you now.

Things like chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast on birthdays, or going to the Niles Christmas parade the day after Thanksgiving. Opening stockings before presents on Christmas morning. Writing in your Birthday Book every year. Being surprised and delighted by flowers on our anniversary.

Traditions give me something to look forward to, something to count on every year. On the surface,  traditions may seem boring or tiresome. I admit, some certainly can be, but they also offer a bit of stability in this volatile world we live in. At their best, traditions connect. Traditions carry a rich history of where we’ve been, culturally and personally, and they offer the promise of where we will go, if only we keep them alive. For us, traditions connect my years to yours, and ours to the girls’,  shaping them into a lovely picture of our life.

When I was growing up, my family kept many traditions. Some were small (like checking beneath Grandpa Teague’s recliner for loose, lost change) and some were big, so big that if my parents had ever missed them, it would signify for my brothers and I that the world was, in fact, coming to an end. Like pajamas on the night before Christmas. Every year, like clockwork, my parents would act as if they were having mercy on our anxious hearts by letting us open just one present before going to bed on Christmas Eve. And every year, the present was a new pair of pajamas. (My brothers and I always acted surprised.) One of my favorites, though, was choosing our birthday dinner and eating it off of a cherry red porcelain plate that said, “You Are Special Today.”

And really, that’s what traditions tell us: something about today is special. 

At the heart of Valentine’s Day is something very good: it’s a day to let the people we love know how much we care. Sure, it’s overly commercialized and sentimentalized and sensualized and blah blah blah, but I will never stop making it a point to tell you I love you on Valentine’s Day. You are my forever Valentine.

Last year for Valentine’s Day, I made Red Velvet Cookies. I made them again this year. You can count on the fact that I’ll make them next year, too.



Red Velvet Chocolate Chip Cookies

These cookies are soft and chewy, thanks in large part to corn starch. Omit the red food coloring altogether if you rather (and I wouldn’t blame you if you did), but I use it to make it festive. I figure if I’m only making this recipe once a year, I can make an exception and use it. Swap butter for vegan buttery spread and all purpose flour for gluten free flour 1:1 if desired. Perfect results every time.

1 cup Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Spread, softened
1 cup pure cane sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons red food coloring
2/3 cup cocoa powder
3 cups all purpose gluten free flour
4 teaspoons corn starch
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 cup Enjoy Life Chocolate Chips (or other allergy friendly brand)

Preheat the oven to 375. Cream together the softened butter and both sugars. Add eggs and vanilla and beat until smooth. Carefully add the food coloring (it splashes easily!). Stir in the cocoa powder, then add the flour cornstarch, salt, and baking soda. Mix until everything is combined. It will be sticky. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Scoop out onto ungreased baking sheets, making dough balls about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. (I suggest using a mini ice cream scoop to minimized the mess, as the dough is very sticky.)

Bake for 10 minutes; let rest on the sheet pan for 30 seconds or so, and then let cool on a wire rack completely.

Yields about 3 1/2 dozen

Where I Find Inspiration

Dear Joey,
This week, more than any other perhaps, I’ve been inspired by Addie’s dramatic imagination.  She has been obsessed with Maria from The Sound of Music. She loves listening to the songs over and over and over and over again. In the car. At the kitchen table. In the living room, the playroom, while she’s playing with dolls or reading books or playing with Mia. 
“Watch Maria on the TV?” she asks a dozen times a day. And when I say no, she says, “How ’bout ‘The Hurley Goat Song?’ and ‘Fav’ Tings’ and ‘Do – Re – Mi’ on the CD?”

But not only does she listen to and sing along with the music nearly all day, every day, but she also pretends to be Maria – dresses up, plays guitar, and even does the same hand motions as Julie Andrews does in the movie. Check it out:

By the way, I didn’t coach her on this; she came up with this little performance all on her own. I was just lucky enough to grab the camera in time to catch most of it.
Unser Mädchen hat ein Talent, nicht wahr?

All that to say, don’t be surprised if you come home to a very Bavarian meal in the coming week – perhaps crisp apple strudel and schnitzel with noodles?
Love, Scratch