Thursday, October 25, 2012

On rearranging letters and substituting dairy products

Do you know how to keep a budding linguist occupied for hours? Hand her the word i-n-s-u-b-o-r-d-i-n-a-t-e and ask her to find all the possible words hidden inside. It's a fantastic word for that, really. It has all the vowels, plus r, s, and d, which leave open all kinds of affix possibilities.* 

As it turns out, I don't just see *words* as a series of abstractable components, I see everything this way.** Especially cooking. This doesn't lend itself well to baking, but is excellent for on the fly substitutions. Like when you realize that your playgroup will have 6 adults and 5 kids at it and 1 quiche isn't going to cut it, even though you only have a pint of half and half for a recipe whose single quiche requires 1 1/2 cups! A quick google reveals that you can make a quiche with the same amount of yogurt as of half-and-half in an otherwise identical recipe, and your lunch is saved! 

Since I'm going to be including a recipe with every post, it seemed only fair to warn you that the recipes will likely be a bit more of a meta-narrative of ingredient assembly than a precision manual to follow, and it's likely that my blogging may be a bit esoteric as well. Feel free to ask for clarification on either any time. :)


I grew up thinking that quiche was in the mystical category of things that were best left to the professionals. It's been a delightful surprise to discover that I was wrong. Once you've got a good pie crust - make or buy, whatever works for you!- it is not any harder than anything else made from scratch. You put a bunch of shredded cheese, (semi-)liquid dairy, beaten eggs and some precooked filling (if you don't "sweat" it first, it will make your quiche more watery than you want) into a pie crust and stick it into the oven. 40 or so minutes later, you get a glorious egg pie.

Basic Quiche:

3 eggs

1 1/2 cups half-and-half (or today, I made it with 1c half-and-half and 1/2c plain yogurt)

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

4 ounces Jarlsberg cheese, shredded (I used baby swiss)
2 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded (I used cheese sticks!)

1-2 oz shredded parmesan

1/2-1 cup of other filling ingredients (I used a mix of bacon, broccoli and onion).

1 (9 inch) unbaked pie shell

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C).
In a large bowl, whisk together eggs and half-and-half. Season with
salt, white pepper and nutmeg. Place shredded Jarlsberg and mozzarella
in the pie shell. Pour egg mixture over cheese.
Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F
(175 degrees C), and bake for 25 minutes, or until crust is golden and
filling is set. Allow to set 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

*To be honest, I'm kind of itching to stop writing this now, bust out a ballpoint and an envelope back and go to town. ursine! bruised! binders! … Where were we again?

**Bureaucracies, man. They are just a bunch of people with boxes to check. Help them check their boxes and it will go well with you.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

On perfectionism

I cannot tell you how much I miss working part-time. It was such an ego-boost. The walking away from the ineptitude of new mothering and into the competence of perfected roles. Tidy, and even not-so-tidy, piles of Important Things that Other People needed done. In my eclectic life, I've done various jobs: I can plumb and ventilate a building (its plans, at least); I can find host families for exchange students; I can executively assist a small corporation. What I cannot do is delight while anxious, follow through when distracted, engage when tired. And yet, those things, not alphabetizing and collating, are the lion's share of my current job description.

Eighteen days this summer were spent in a thin-walled, small town hotel. Eighteen. With my then five- and one-year olds. My husband was working 8-16 hour shifts, helping people get safely home from unlocking the atmosphere's secrets. Days were spent with rigid structure - you can't go with the flow the same with two as with one - but nights found me sitting in the dark in our open plan suite, reading Flannery O'Connor* by tiny booklight, so as not to wake the tiny ones unaccustomed to sharing a room. We had a mini-fridge and a microwave. I brought along our fondue pot and some kitchen utensils. I had such plans! I still ended up one night piling the kids, shoeless, into the car to use the drive-thru in the adjoining parking lot, to buy burgers and fries.**

Having left my smartphone on the roof of my car as we left home***, structured life with children left me no access to my usual lifelines. No friends to talk to without waking little ones. No internet to drown my sorrows in, no camera to step back, and document, and instagram into beauty the ups and downs of our life. There was nowhere to be, nowhere to go but right there, with myself for company. I was so very tired of myself.

The summer almost broke me. Truth is, I was already broken.

I read a post the other day at Deeper Story, that so captured the ache I have from mothering imperfectly these tiny children that I love. I want so much to be perfect, for them, and for myself.  But perfectionism makes me weight things wrongly. In looking for ideal performances and easy excellence, I miss beauty, and the glory of a hearty, fully-lived life.

This summer, in the midst of what some days felt like an endurance cage match, there was fun and there was wonder - trips to the zoo and the sculpture tour, to the playplace at the mall, to the park and splashpad, to touch-a-truck day. Days spent at "home" because all the going was too much. Secreted naptime tea parties, fancy sugar cubes and all!, with my daughter while my tiny son slept. So much ice cream that my kids didn't want to go to Braum's for a month afterward.

I can't afford to miss the good moments for fear of the imperfect ones.

As much as I crave one to know I'm on track, family doesn't come with a quarterly review, and letting go of unrealistic expectations is one of the best gifts I can give all of us. They are my children. I am their mom. We can't all be Mobutu Sese Seko.****


This recipe was my go-to in our hotel room, one of the gifts of a challenging summer. It's become an easy, from the pantry/freezer favorite at home, too. I have to say, though, that it's much easier to make on a stove. :)

Salina Noodles:

1 lb pasta of your choice (usually shells or rotini)
12-16 oz frozen mixed vegetables
3-4 T butter, cut into chunks
generous teaspoon (or to taste) of pasta seasoning (this or this are great!)

Add-ins we tried this summer:
1-2 finely chopped green onions
3-4 chopped cheese sticks (mozzarella, generally, but experiment!)
diced bell or sweet pepper
or whatever you feel like you want to add :)

Bring fondue pot (or any 3-4qt pot) of salted water to a boil. Add noodles, setting timer for 2 minutes less than suggested time. When timer beeps, add frozen vegetables, then cook for 4 more minutes, or until noodles are done and water has returned to a boil. Strain noodles, then return to pot and add butter, seasoning blend, and any optional add-ins. Serves a family of 4 with little kids. Especially with a salad or fruit on the side!


*Pro-tip: I suggest if you are going on a month-long trip, bring something other than the entire collected short stories of Flannery O'Connor. Her stories are a great choice for pondering the nature of Humanity. They are NOT a great choice for times when you are lonely and facing the fundamental weakness of your nature. 

**I'm not sure I could hit any more of an American stereotype if I tried: harried, slightly overweight white lady piles two kids into minivan to get drive-thru fast food someplace they could have walked to. Maybe if there had been organized sports or TV involved? Our hair was still wet from the hotel swimming pool, if that helps. 

*** #$%#@$!!!!

****In 1972, Mobutu renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga ("The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake."), Mobutu Sese Seko for short. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Poem: Book I, #17

Rilke's Book of Hours has been blowing my mind lately. This one, especially, takes my breath away.

She who reconciles the ill-matched threads
of her life, and weaves them gratefully
into a single cloth –
it’s she who drives the loudmouths from the hall
and clears it for a different celebration

where the one guest is you.
In the softness of evening
it’s you she receives.

You are the partner of her loneliness,
the unspeaking center of her monologues.
With each disclosure you encompass more
and she stretches beyond what limits her
to hold you.

I, 17

Casseroles... known only by their contents.

So, one day I made up a casserole. It's gone through several iterations. Here's one that doesn't require the unorthodox things like Krakow Nights seasoning that I have in my spice cabinet thanks to @Amyonymous (if using that, put in 1tsp of it instead of the dried parsley). You can substitute basil for the marjoram.

It comes in two parts - the casserole, and the bread-crumb topping.

Chicken Broccoli Rice Cheddar Casserole (serves 4 adults)

  • 4T butter, divided
  • 1.5c dry rice, cooked per package directions (~3c cooked)
  • 2 chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1/4c minced onion (~1/2 small onion)
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1.5c frozen chopped broccoli
  • 1 tsp dried marjoram
  • 1 tsp dried parsley
  • 2c grated cheddar
  • 1/2c whole milk
  • Crumb Topping, as listed below
  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Begin cooking rice.
  3. Meanwhile, combine chicken, garlic, onion, salt & pepper in bowl.
  4. Create crumb topping as listed below.
  5. Over medium heat, melt ~2T butter in large dutch oven.
  6. Add chicken mixture and cook approx. 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  7. Add marjoram, parsley, and broccoli. Cook, stirring occasionally, until chicken is cooked through. Add more butter as needed.
  8. When rice is cooked, add to cooked chicken. Stir.
  9. Add cheddar cheese and milk. Stir until cheddar is melted in and mixture is well blended.
  10. Transfer mixture to 2 quart casserole dish, cover with crumb topping and heat in oven until topping is lightly browned or crisped ~10-15 minutes.
  11. (Optional) Any remaining butter or extra cheddar cheese may be used over crumb topping.
Crumb Topping

Combine the following in food processor and blend until bread and crackers are crumbled:
  • 2 slices bread
  • 1/2c cheddar goldfish
  • 1/4c grated parmesan
  • 1 tsp rubbed sage
  • 1/4tsp paprika
  • 1/4tsp black pepper
  • dash cayenne (optional).
If any of you try this, can you let me know if the recipe works out? A friend asked for it and it's hard to proof your own directions. Thanks!:)

For Amy, and maybe Stephanie, too.

I'd say for Heather, but I didn't take any pictures;-).
(Below is the recipe verbatim. Below that are my adjustments - not too many, though.)

Chicken Minestrone
(aka, quite possibly my favorite soup)
(from Cook's Encyclopedia of Soup by Debra Mayhew)

1 Tbsp olive oil
2 chicken thighs
3 bacon slices, chopped
1 onion, minced
a few fresh basil leaves, shredded
a few rosemary leaves, minced
1 Tbsp chopped fresh flat-leafed parsley
2 potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 large carrot, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 small zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 or 2 celery stalks, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 quart chicken stock
1&3/4 cups frozen peas
scant 1 cup stellette or other small soup pasta
salt and freshly ground black pepper
parmesan cheese shavings, to serve

1. Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the chicken thighs and fry for about 5 minutes on each side; remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

2. Add the bacon, onion, and herbs to the pan and cook slowly, stirring constantly, for about five minutes. Add the potatoes, carrot, zucchini, and celery and cook for 5-7 minutes longer.

3. Return the chicken thighs to the pan. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 35-40 minutes, stirring the soup occasionally.

4. Remove the chicken thighs with the spotted spoon and place them on a board. Stir the peas and pasta into the soup and return to a boil. Simmer, stirring frequently, for 7-8 minutes or according to the package directions, until the pasta is just al dente.

5. Meanwhile, remove and discard the chicken skin. Remove the meat from the chicken bones and cut into 1/2-inch pieces.

6. Return the meat to the soup, stir well, and heat through. Taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary.

7. Serve hot in warm soup bowls, topped with parmesan shavings.

YUM! This last time I made this (read: Thursday), I substituted about 4-5 big leaves of kale, chopped, for the celery and zucchini. For pasta, I use small shells (which amusingly get the frozen peas stuck in them all the time). Dried herbs are fine, with the standard rule of use half as much dry as you are asked to use fresh (although the fresh herbs are just a little more awesome). And no, I neither measure my olive oil nor warm my soup bowls. I like to live on the edge like that;-).

How Motherhood kicked my butt (into shape!)

A friend of mine called yesterday to say she had just seen her baby in a sonogram for the first time. Since Ella's little 20wk-in-utero face was the last thing I had posted on my previous blog, this got me thinking about all that has happened during the last two years. If I remember right, I was pretty awesome at being pregnant. We moved across town, we helped 3 people move, we drove to Wisconsin, then flew to Iceland, 2 weeks later we flew to NY unexpectedly, we had house guests 3 times, and I worked part-time through a 100+ degree summer 7 months pregnant. I was still doing my own grocery shopping at 8.5mo pregnant. I kept myself busy enough that I didn't really let myself work through my insecurities and fears. But when Ella was breech and I had to have a c-section, everything changed. Suddenly, that veneer of strength was removed. I went from being pregnant and hauling groceries to not being allowed to lift any more than my 9lb baby. I went from driving all around town for work and errands, to not being allowed to drive for 2 weeks, or to flip the laundry or empty the dishwasher for 6. And I was a wreck emotionally. I was lucky to not have PPD as badly as some, but I think Post-Partum Anxiety might actually capture the irrational fear I had of driving to Jamba Juice and the weird insomnia/nightmares and instance of sleep paralysis (see possible causes - if that doesn't sound like new motherhood with a major surgery, I don't know what does!) that sent my world emotionally crashing down around me. Even though I regained my footing somewhat after a few weeks (months?), I was still hesitant to go anywhere I hadn't been before with Ella. What if she ... cried?!? The powerlessness was overwhelming. I can honestly say that if I were looking for the easy path (just for me personally, I can't speak to your experience with either of these!:)), I would take grad school any day over being a SAHM. Being a new mom kicked my butt.
BUT, this is where motherhood has also jumpstarted a part of my soul that was dying off. Being a mom reveals my every weakness all day long. For a long time I hated it, ran from it, sat zombie-like in front of my computer hoping that someone, somewhere would write something that would take my mind off of the numbing sense of inadequacy that haunted me. I still have those hours (and occasional days), and I still hate my weaknesses, but as I see Ella beginning to grow, and to imitate me, I find that something finally appears more important than my neuroses. I realize that I want her to be better than I am, more confident, more aware of her passions, more able to dive in and determine her own course. And that means having to model that, and to dare to let myself want it for me, too; this is where motherhood is kicking me into shape. I want our home to be beautiful and orderly so that Ella can find peace and delight here. I want to take good care of my body so that she can know hers is worth loving and taking care of, too. I want to pursue my interests wholeheartedly, because looking through the mirror of a small child makes me finally ask, why in the world would I not do what I love? And so, I'm starting to, step by step.
I was terrified when I found out I was having a little girl 3 Mays ago because I feared the gaping holes in my identity. I'm so thankful that loving her has opened the door for me to find myself worthwhile, too.

Drum Parade - before and after!

I have another post kicking around in my head about the rhythm of life I actually live vs what I would do if left to my own devices, but until that one comes together, here is a picture of the drum I made for Ella today:
It is a pretty small thing, but it feels like a triumph on so many levels - coming up with a fun way to reuse what would be sent out in the trash, actually making it to the store with Ella and surviving her in a stroller with racks of fabric everywhere to be grabbed, getting up my gumption to actually cut fabric and use modgepodge, and generally just getting this done instead of leaving it to decay in my "good ideas" bin. I had a lot of fun doing it.
I'm especially proud of the strap. There is a smaller blue button on the inside of the sturdy polyester ribbon that slots perfectly into the slot left behind by the old blue ice cream handle and which is sewn through to the fun decorative yellow button that hides the end of the strap. (This picture does not do it justice) It was fun to come up with a way to attach it that worked with the structure of the ice cream tub and was still decorative and neat.

Thoughts on processing life in community

(This entry is from an old blog, now deleted blog - starting over!)

Last Thursday night, I discovered I am not the only one who lies to my diary. In a roomful of talented fascinating women, I discovered about half of us would openly admit to such ridiculous self-censorship. The reasons varied. What if my parents read it? What if the only record of me were this book, these writings? What if I admit to myself who I am, and I don't like what I see? For me, I realized, it is a question not of my own character as much as facing denial. Not so much of finding myself in the wrong, but finding myself being wronged, choosing passivity, suppressing rage. And seeing my own responsibility in enduring that fate. And then one of my fellow self-censurer said maybe it's best that way. As I listened, I heard her lay out, as she does so often, a powerful challenge. She said maybe we can't process all these big things alone. We're meant to live in community, having our rough edges smoothed and our finer points sharpened by the grace and forgiveness offered by others, and affording them the same. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that she's probably right. I lie to my diary because it can't give me what I want, what I need. It's not worth the arduous pain of self-expression to keep it to myself. I am so thankful to the dear friends who have let me share my heart with them and have had the tissues ready, and who don't hide their pain from me. And I grow more confident each day that sharing all these heavy burdens really makes the loads lighter all around.

There's a hole in my blog....

A good friend of mine is always telling me that I should write. To which my response is always: well, what shall I write, then, dear Liesl?*

However, I have just recently come to the realization that that, in fact, is the central question of writing, and one that no one else can answer for you. I find content modification to be more natural than content creation,** but in an effort to stretch both my comfort zone and my skills, I'm planning to put up a blog post every Thursday for the next six months, with the likely exception of Christmas break. I have no idea what they will be about yet, but I guess we'll find out together!

 Thanks for leaving me in your RSS feeders for so long, friends. I'll be back to visit again soon. :)

* Hole in my Bucket Song Lyrics, in case you are unfamiliar due to living on an awesome island in the middle of the North Atlantic. :)

 ** Send me your papers, your resumes, your complicated training manuals and your translations, rough drafts of all shapes and sizes! I will help bring out their beauty, and it will make me so happy to do so!