Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thanksgiving Menu Planning

Thanksgiving meal planning can be a bit of an ordeal, but our family has inexplicably turned it into a rather stress-free affair.  Our family is LARGE, you see.  Rather absurdly large, as a matter of fact (ahem, large in terms of numbers, that is, not weight).  And Thanksgiving is quite literally the only thing we do en masse that is mostly without stress.  We have learned some tricks.

Some very valuable tricks.

Grandma roasts a couple of dead animals, and Preston fries one.  The bird does not at all interest myself nor my mother (at whose house we hold this affair), but the sides, well, that's where we excel.

When you have a family as large as ours, it is par for the course to have at least 50 guests (some years, it's more like 75 or so), and so a few of us go a little crazy with our contributions.  Mom will make a restaurant-sized pot of rice, and will throw in more rolls than you can shake a stick at.  Then, depending on the year, she'll also make a few spinach quiches (my favorite) and/or a big pan of macaroni and cheese.  My sister will make the biggest broccoli casserole you've ever seen, a few pumpkin pies, and a plateful of peanut butter fudge that will virtually vaporize before the main course has been consumed.

Grandma, even though she will have already worked herself to the bones over a couple of turkeys, will also make the gravy, the sweet potato casserole, the green and the red jello casseroles, and, if I've been a good girl, The Carrot Cake to End All Carrot Cakes.

And someone will open a can of cranberry stuff and squirt it out onto a small plate, with the can indentations still proudly showing off.  I have tried valiantly to break us of this habit.  I have made a cranberry chutney, cranberry preserves, and even a cranberry conserve, but it doesn't matter what I do.  Someone will still slide out a can-shaped mound of canned cranberry stuff.  So I have given up.

Over the years, I have tried all sorts of recipes, including slaving away for literally half a day making my own cream of mushroom soup FROM SCRATCH, and then FRYING MY OWN ONIONS in order to make the BEST GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE EVER, but I have learned my lesson.  No one liked that casserole any better than the one in which I used Campbell's and Durkee's, so, you know, screw it.

A few years ago, I made a mushroom and wild rice pilaf that I thought would be a flop (but which I was willing to make because I thought I would have leftovers to live on for the next week) and it was a hit.  The pan was scraped clean.  I made it again the next year, and I'll be making it again this year.

Last year, I roasted three or four giant sheet pans worth of vegetables, and in another shocking turn of events, I watched my siblings snack on the brussels sprouts and turnips like candy.  That one will make an encore appearance this year as well.

Oh, and then there's my very favorite fall fruit salad.  I don't know if anyone besides my mother, my children, and I like it, but I cannot imagine a Thanksgiving without it now (and it is splendid for breakfast the next morning).

I will also be baking a new pie this year.  As much of a success as the chocolate-espresso pecan pie has been, David Leibovitz recently posted a recipe for a bourbon-ginger pecan pie, and that recipe was quickly moved to the top of my list for this year.  It will be the only unproven recipe in my repertoire though, because frankly, the tried-and-true family favorites are the easiest to pull off.

So, here's to Thanksgiving, my friends, the only holiday in which we gather together to do nothing but share a meal, count our blessings, and revel in each other's company.  We give thanks for the food before us, for the friends & family who are with us, and for the love between us.

Our Thanksgiving Favorites:
Preston's favorite fried turkey brine and technique (I don't eat meat, and cannot vouch for this)
Wild Rice and Mushroom Pilaf
Simple Roasted Vegetables for the win
Chocolate-Espresso Pecan Pie
Autumn Fruit Salad (I like to add in a few handfuls of pomegranate seeds)
David Leibovitz' Bourbon and Ginger Pecan Pie

Monday, November 23, 2015

Meal Plan • 11/23/15

It can be so easy to forget to plan healthy meals for the week of Thanksgiving (or even to cook anything at all, frankly).  All thought seems to go into Thursday's feast, but I try to take a bit of an opposite approach.  I love Thanksgiving - it's one of my favorite holidays - but I always feel a little overstuffed afterwards and kind of can't wait to get back to my normal way of eating.

We have a ginormous feast at my mother's house, with millions and millions of side dishes and way too many desserts.  Sometimes Grandma even makes my favorite carrot cake, and after that, I go right ahead and eat a few too many pieces of my sister's peanut butter fudge.  Then I sit around until I feel a little less roly-poly, and that's when I belly back up to the counter for another plateful of vegetables that didn't find their way onto my plate the first go-round.

It's embarrassing.  And I never learn.

What I have learned though, is that there is nothing I crave quite so much as fresh vegetables the next day.  Crunchy, leafy, glorious raw veggies.  Thus, the great big salad (you know, to go with whatever other leftovers I managed to steal home with).  

By Saturday, I will be craving foods that have nothing to do with holidays, so I'll break out the bread machine to make some pizza dough, pull out some fresh mozzarella, defrost some marinara, and we will clean out the fridge to find toppings.  

Tomorrow, I'll pop back in to share my favorite Thanksgiving recipes.  I don't make turkey, of course, but I have a tried-and-true short list of side dishes and desserts that I can't wait to make again this year (along with a new recipe that has me all sorts of excited).

Monday, November 16, 2015

Meal Plan • 11/16/15

  • Monday: Crunchy black bean tacos
  • Tuesday: Moroccan Chickpea Stew, served over brown rice (Whoa - I've been cooking this stew for years, and I've never posted the recipe online.  Will rectify this oversight, stat.)
  • Wednesday: leftovers
  • Thursday: Take-out pizza from our fave local spot (no time to come home)
  • Friday: Creamy Dreamy Cheddar Grits, Blueberry-Pecan Pancakes (upside down day)
  • Saturday: it's somebody's birthday, and we're going out to eat
  • Sunday: I. Don't. Cook. On. Sundays.

I almost didn't come to share our menu this week.  There is a ridiculous (and highly unusual) number of evenings in which we will not be eating at home, but since I figure that happens to quite literally ALL OF US, sharing our own goofy reality seemed valid.

Our family's crazy-busy Wednesdays are finally coming to a close (for the next couple of months, that is), so that one day a week will become a little more manageable, but the holiday season begins now, it seems, so there will be all sorts of other blips in the schedule for foreseeable future.  The kids have their end-of-semester performance on Thursday evening which will preclude any time at home for dinner, and a certain someone in our household is beginning a new trip around the sun this weekend, so a dinner out seems in order for that evening as well.

These are good days, these full and funny, ever-so-slightly-too-busy days of ours.

And Thanksgiving is coming, so next week will be another time for funny little tweaks to the menu.  I am already planning and re-planning the small list of side dishes and desserts that I and The Boy Wonder (who will be bringing his own specialty for the first time this year) will be contributing to our family's feast, and I'm looking forward to revisiting some old holiday favorites and discovering some new treats.

It is difficult right now to find gratitude when horrific acts of terrorism are happening around the globe, but I do not think any of us will survive the darkness without appreciating the little things, the small moments, the time spent together around the table with loved ones.  So we will celebrate each other, and we will remain happy, and we will take a minute to be absolutely thankful for the people we cherish, because we never know what tomorrow may bring.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Quick Lit • November 2015

More than once recently, I have closed a just-finished book and signed dramatically, saying something along the lines of, "Best book ever," or "That was so incredible that I am afraid to begin anything new since it cannot possibly live up to this one," or "From now on, I will only read the best literature available because life is too short to read anything not on caliber with this author."

It is a glorious problem to have, of course, and happens more often now because I collect book recommendations from people who know of what they speak, and I read reviews like my life depends on it.  If it were not for the library and their willingness to truck in books from all over the state upon request, I would go broke.

As it is, there are a few book subscription services that I have contemplated joining (namely Book People Trust Fall and Indiespensable - mostly because those two send out such phenomenal books), but I am put off by both the cost and the clutter that would ensue.  I just do not have much interest in collecting signed first editions with slipcases (as with Indiespensable) and typically pass on just-finished books to the very next person I see.  Instead, I tend to visit the websites of each of those services and fill up my reading list with the newest titles in their subscriptions.

I know they curate these subscription boxes to make money, so it seems a bit cannibalistic of me to then take the title and put it on hold at the library instead of supporting the independent bookstores from which I obtained the title, but I read at the rate of approximately 50-60 books per year, and money doesn't exactly grow on trees...

Today I am linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy to share short and casual snippet-like reviews of the books I have read over the past month.

Pretty Girls is straight-up psychological thriller stuff, the kind of book you might pick up at the airport and take to the beach, but I do not mean that in a derogatory way. Karin Slaughter is an absolute master in this genre, and her novels never disappoint. As always, the characters are flawed and well-drawn, and the setting itself seems part of the story. This one takes place in Athens, GA (where I live) and it is spectacularly eerie to see the streets, restaurants, and bars that are *my* stomping ground used as the sites for these (fictional) events. The plot is centered around the disappearance of a college student in 1991 (when I was a student at UGA), though it takes place 20 or so years later, and it has all the elements of a good suspenseful page-turner. As with many books of this type though, the highly sensitive reader might not be able to stomach the violence.

The Thirteenth Tale reads like a love letter to bookworms. The novel is, in fact, a story about a story, and though there is suspense, it is nearly secondary to the characters and to the setting. I lost myself in this glorious book, and walked around in a daze when it was over. To say more would be to spoil the depth and the magic.

Ann Patchett is in top form with Bel Canto, a novel in which a large party of diplomats, politicians, and corporate heads (and one world-renowned, beloved soprano) are taken hostage by a group of terrorists. The entire action of the book takes place within the walls of the compound (somewhere in South America), and though the story is told from many different points of view, never is the reader given a glimpse of what is going on in the outside world. The hostages and the terrorists are bound together by proximity and by their own humanity during the months-long standoff, and while the story appears light-hearted through much of the daily goings-on, there is a sense of urgency as the book comes to a close and the reader is tormented with the sense that each and every one of the characters cannot possibly ride off into the sunset.

The Art of Memoir is a master class in both writing and reading the memoir genre. Karr has written three top-notch memoirs of her own, and heads an award-winning graduate seminar at Syracuse on, you guessed it, the art of writing memoir. The first part of the book was a little slow, but it didn't take long before it was so engrossing that it became hard to put down. The author takes apart and analyzes both well-known and obscure memoirs, and even spends a lot of pages (so many pages) writing about her own process of writing about herself. Were she anyone else, this might seem self-serving or cringe-inducing, but as she is a phenomenal writer in her own right, it made me want to go back and re-read her earlier books. At the end is a fairly exhaustive list of memoirs which has turned my library hold list into a behemoth. The book may sound a little dry, but if you have any interest in writing (whether memoir or not), the insights are invaluable. As well, reading this has changed the entire way I read and think about autobiographical works. Highly recommend for those who want to hone their own writing, who enjoy reading, and/or who would like to better examine their own life.

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Monday, November 09, 2015

Meal Plan • 11/9/15

The sun hasn't come out here in years, and it has rained for 175 days straight.  We have been abandoned by light and beauty.  Clouds are settling into our brains.  Our toes are forever pruned and our shoes will never again be dry.

The weather report shows part of a sun for tomorrow.  We shall see about that.

In the meantime, because I couldn't bring myself to leave the house today in this cold, dreary drizzle to obtain the ingredients I needed for the recipe I had originally planned for this evening, I made our favorite (and absurdly easy) risotto recipe.  It was perfect.  Warm and creamy, nourishing and comforting - everything I need right now, really.

Tomorrow's recipe has me excited (and not just because there is a chance of sunlight during the day - before the sun sets at 3:15, that is).  The recipe sounds a lot like my favorite burrito filling at Chipotle, and will be a glorious addition to our Taco Tuesday repertoire if it turns out as deliciously as it sounds.

Wednesday and Thursday are more new-to-us recipes, but Friday is a return to an old favorite.  Have you ever made croutons out of phyllo dough and butter?  It's worth writing home about.  Yesterday, someone mentioned calzones and I've had them on my mind ever since, so I'm breaking out another old recipe for Saturday.

Meal planning for the win, again. Each week, due to either a change in schedule or some unforeseen minor disaster, we generally end up having to scrap the plan for one of the nights, but rarely is it more than one, and there's a lot to be said for the relief I feel when I get the plan made at the beginning of the week and know that there's one less worry to take up valuable real estate in my head while I'm playing whack-a-mole with everything else that comes up over the course of the week.

I read a blog post recently in which the writer said she liked to have the dinner plan in place by 10:00 each day so as to not have to worry about it for the rest of the day.  To me, that's no bueno.  I don't want to think about it every day.  It forever stays an urgent and pressing problem to be solved if it is a daily issue, and I need to know when I wake up tomorrow that I can get right to work because dinner has already been solved.  I set up meal plans for the same reason that I depend on seasonal uniforms and set specific days each week to concentrate on specific clients' work: because I am an idiot and I thrive in situations that have been idiot-proofed.

Also (and this is turning into my new favorite thing), I love running into friends throughout the week and hearing which of these recipes they are cooking for their own dinner tables.  You guys are awesome.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Meal Plan • 11/2/15

• Monday: Black Bean Chili, served with tortilla chips & guacamole
• Tuesday: New Year's Noodle Soup, served with baguette
• Wednesday: leftover chili or soup
• Thursday: Farfalle with Asparagus, Shallots, & Blue Cheese; served with bruschetta
• Friday: Roasted Cauliflower & Gruyere Frittata, served with green salad
• Saturday: Kale & Potato Casserole, served with Wild Mushrooms w/ Mozzarella
• Sunday: Every Man for Himself

Between the time change (hello full-on darkness before 6:00) and the past 28 hours of steady rain, I find myself already hunkering down for the season.  I spent the day swaddled in leggings and my favorite threadbare sweatshirt, drinking cup after cup of steaming herbal tea, and digging through my recipe archives for comforting soups and hearty casseroles.

I'm sure I'm jumping the gun.  It wasn't even cold today, and we are likely to have another 15 or so sporadic days of 80-degree weather (which I will gladly treat with respect and the requisite amount of spring fever) before winter sinks its claws into our region , but for now, I think it best to remind myself of all the ways I can nurture myself until the sun returns.

This week's menu is full of some of our family favorites (the chili and the soup recipes are some of my go-to meals for soggy, dreary days) and though I make variations on frittatas fairly often, I am looking forward to trying a new riff on the old standby with this Real Simple recipe that includes roasted cauliflower.  And the wild mushroom with mozzarella recipe?  THAT THING IS MAJOR.  I haven't made it in years (three years of veganism will do that), and I can't wait to surprise the family with that one.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

About Last Month • October 2015

Halloween 2015

October was absurd/stressful/fun/hilarious and I wouldn't change a single crazy second of it.  For some inexplicable reason, after the busy days of September, I was under the mistaken impression that October would be more subdued, but I was - as usual - wrong.  We are in a busy season of life, and it is probably best that I just accept that.

In the midst of the busyness, The Musician and I escaped to Charleston for a long weekend for our 15th wedding anniversary.  The trip was glorious, of course.  We ate well, wandered and explored to our hearts content, stayed out too late every night, talked our way into not just one, but two, sold-out Jason Isbell shows, and acted like we didn't have a care in the world.  It was a little bit perfect.  And it was just what we needed.

During the month, I also marked a full year of daily yoga practice.  Yoga has been a part of my life for about ten years, but it wasn't until I began tracking my practice with an app on my phone that I turned it into a seven days a week habit.  I celebrated the milestone by (drumroll, please) practicing yoga, of course, and I have done a lot of reflecting on my experience over the past few weeks.

I am stronger after a full year of daily yoga, and I find that I now prefer to begin my day with yoga so that I can get on my mat and get into my body as preparation for the rest of the day, but a lot of things went much differently than I think I expected.  I still cannot stick a handstand, and I tip over in headstands as often as I hold them.  Arm balances are still out of reach, and it turns out that muscle really does weigh more than fat - after what is now 376 consecutive days of yoga, I still wear the same size of clothing, but I weigh seven more pounds than I did at the beginning of this project.


On the other hand, side plank now makes me feel like Superwoman, and my standing balance poses are strong and steady.  Most importantly, I find that I am more willing to try scary things on the mat.  And when I fail - which is often - my ego doesn't get as hung up on the outcome as it once did.  These days, when I fall out of a pose or find that I cannot even get into the pose in the first place, I laugh, make sure nothing got broken or sprained, dust myself off, and keep on going.

Princess Hazelnut has been very supportive, and decided that she too needed to begin practicing yoga to increase her own strength.  Most days now, she rolls out my mat and finds an episode of Cosmic Kids for herself while I am at my desk.  My ego is totally stoked about that.

What I'm Listening to

It's been all Jason Isbell, all the time, around here lately.  I still think Southeastern is his best album - and one of the best albums of the past ten years - but Something More Than Free is pretty phenomenal in its own right.

What I'm Reading

I spent three hours curled up in bed Saturday morning finishing The Thirteenth Tale.  It was the kind of book that you simply can't put down, but also desperately do not want to ever end.  Next up is Bel Canto, a book I have had on my TBR list for some time now.

What I'm Focusing On

Every November, I take the time each day to post something I am thankful for on social media, and serendipitously, right now I am in the middle of a study on One Thousand Gifts with a small group of women at church.  As part of the study, I have begun keeping an actual-factual pen-and-ink gratitude journal, and it is keeping thankfulness front and center as this month begins.  Gratitude is a very centering, grounding practice, and as absurd as it sounds, I am thankful for gratitude.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Meal Plan • 10/26/15

Monday: Black bean chilaquiles
Tuesday: Brown Rice Bowl with miso, poached egg, & kale-radish salad
Wednesday: Slow-cooker spinach & ricotta lasagna
Thursday: Penne with Roasted Cauliflower
Friday: Creamy Kale & Garbanzo Soup (family favorite)
Saturday: The kitchen will be closed for Halloween
Sunday: The kitchen will still be closed.  I mean it.

This week is shaping up to be a doozy.  Quarterly payroll tax returns are due on Friday, I have a client knee-deep in the midst of a crisis, Book Character Costume Day is this Wednesday at the kids' homeschool academy, and I HAVE LESS THAN A WEEK LEFT TO WORK OUT THE DETAILS OF OUR FAMILY COSTUME FOR THE WILD RUMPUS.

{I will not freak out, I will not freak out, I will not freak out...}

Last year's costume is going to be hard to top, but coming up with family costume themes and participating in the bizarro community parade is waayyyyyy more our speed than trick-or-treating.  Besides, having The Great Pumpkin visit the house and leave a few favorite treats on All Hallow's Eve means that I can control the amount of sugar and the quality of the candy that we have around.

But all that is going to take a backseat for the next couple days while I knuckle down at my desk and Get. Things. Done.

It's going to take a lot of juggling to keep all these balls in the air for the rest of the month, and the meal plan is where I'm turning for warmth and nourishment - at a faster pace than usual.  Quick comfort foods for the win.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Meal Plan • 10/19/15

Monday: Screw it.  I'm not cooking.
Tuesday: Kale & White Bean Risotto (family favorite / super easy)
Wednesday: Little Caesar's ($5 hot & ready to the rescue)
Thursday: Orecchiette with Onions, Almonds, & Olives (new to us)
Friday: Vegetable Pot Pies (another new to us recipe)
Saturday: Braised cabbage, Wild Rice & Mushroom Pilaf
Sunday: Every Man for Himself

The Musician and I returned late yesterday afternoon from a restorative four-day escape to Charleston, where we ate our way across the city, caught some excellent live music, spent longer than we should have in a fascinating used bookstore, and just generally enjoyed the view.  I love that city so much, and am still shocked that we haven't chosen to live there (yet).

So much of Charleston is walkable, which is always a boon in any destination with great food.  It is forever my goal to return from a vacation at the same weight in which I left, and this trip did not disappoint despite a (totally necessary) afternoon sojourn at Jeni's where I fell in love with a scoop of Bourbon Salted Pecan.  As for restaurant favorites, Magnolia's on Easy Bay was an upscale dinner to write home about, and the hipster Butcher & Bee on Upper King knocked our socks off for lunch, but there were another fifteen or so places on my list to try that we never made it to (see also: reasons to return soon).

I'm keeping the standards pretty low for much of this week.  So low, in fact, that even though I made the menu on the drive home yesterday, I already knew there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell that I was going to either cook dinner or link the recipes until today (luckily, there were some leftovers in the fridge that fed the hungry members of our family fed last night while I was on strike) .

I know my limits, friends, and I am comfortable with them.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Quick Lit • October 2015

I had to abandon a book recently (not the book shown above in the photo), and it devastated me.  In theory, it makes sense that life is short and that we should not feel obligated to finish a book that is either boring, awful, or frustrating beyond belief, but in practice, it's hard to walk away from a book.

I feel like I am insulting the author, or worse, in the case of this most recent abandoned book, I feel like I am admitting I'm not smart enough to handle it.  

I waited for months for The Country of Ice Cream Star to come in at the library, and I was so excited when I opened it (on Reading Day, no less), but all my hopes were quickly dashed to the curb.  The entire book - every single last word of it - is told in a form of (how can I put this without coming off as a complete jackfruit?) uneducated slang.

The author pulled off an amazing feat by writing an entire book in that form, but her artistry, her ability and her stunning premise just weren't enough for me to overcome my horror at trying to "hear" the book in my head.

Every evening for a week or more, I would steel myself to open it back up and try again, but each time, I would grow agitated within a paragraph and my horror only grew with each page.  Finally, I had no choice but to give myself a pep talk and put the book down for good.  I felt something like relief when I put it in the drop at the library and walked away.

Today I am linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy to share short & casual snippet-like reviews of the books I have read over the past month.

The Sweet Life in Paris is the hilarious account of an American pastry chef living in Paris, and all of the quirky, absurd idiosyncrasies of, as he says, "the world's most glorious - and perplexing - city." The book is presented as a series of vignettes with recipes. The author is an award-winning blogger and cookbook author, and so each chapter is told in the familiar tone and stand-alone style of a blog post. Highly entertaining and (literally) laugh-out-loud funny.

Pastrix is the spiritual memoir of a fascinating, irreverent, highly intelligent, heavily-tattooed female Lutheran pastor (fair warning: profanities make this an R-rated religious book). Nadia Bolz-Weber manages to show the truth of grace at the same time that she herself requires a dose of it from the reader. I was made uncomfortable while I read, which is precisely what I expected and hoped for, and, I suspect, is what the author also hoped for in the writing. Whatever you think of her, Nadia Bolz-Weber is doing important work and she just might be the shot in the arm that complacent religiosity needs.

I had to to jump ship on The Country of Ice Cream Star. Generally, I love post-apocalyptic novels, but this one has stressed me out for the first 100 pages, and life is too short. The issue at hand is that the book is told in slang, a heavy, nearly-impenetrable slang, and it's too distracting. I'm impressed by the author's ability to perform a linguistic trick of this magnitude, but I read books for the beauty of the language, for sentences that grab me and don't let me go, for turns-of-phrases that blow my mind, and sometimes, just for the way they take me to another (easier) place. This one is difficult to read and hard to understand, and my love of grammar is being stomped upon, and I'm frustrated beyond belief. Walking away.

The Gracekeepers is an ethereal, darkly fanciful story of a haunting, post-apocalyptic future in which the vast majority of the planet is covered with water, and only the elite live on land. One of the characters lives alone in a tiny house in a "graceyard" where she performs restings (sea burials of the boat people), and the rest of the main characters are part of a rag-tag traveling circus that floats from island to island. The ending is a little weak and rushed, but the rest of the story is absolutely lovely.