Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Happy Families

Tolstoy summed it up best at the beginning of Anna Karenina.  "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

I was quite indignant with that when I first attempted Tolstoy in ninth grade (I went through a sincere Russophilia stage in high school).  My family was happy.  Idyllic even.  And we were not like the other happy families we knew.

Seventeen years and seven wedding anniversaries later, I'm finally able to wrap my head around the Anna Karenina principle: what makes a family happy is universally the same, but a family can be unhappy in an infinite number of ways.

In fairness to my angst-filled young self, happy families are complicated.  What makes Tolstoy's line resonate century after century, is that it is really all that can be written about happy families.

Marriage is impossibly intricate. My dad once said "there's a reason so many stories end with 'and they lived happily ever after.'"   I think there is something to that.  It's not that life ends after the wedding, it's just that life after the wedding is too complicated for fairy tales.

My marriage is complicated.  I have lived happily, and I pray that continues ever after.  Yet so many cliches come to mind: we've had our ups and downs, its not perfect, it's not without its challenges.  They are all inadequate at describing the tremendous difficulty, pain, joy, healing and growth of being joined with another human being as flawed as I am.

This weekend, a friend sent me a link from Pinterest of 30 text message suggestions for spouses.  She wrote: "I laughed through them so much I was almost crying.  Mainly because I was envisioning myself sending them to [my husband], or the other way around." Reading them, I too choked back laughter imagining myself texting Matt, "no one wears a suit like you do."  The authors of the affectionate, affirming texts are sincere.  I have no doubt that these texts work in their marriage like the building blocks they are meant to be.

But what builds up one marriage, can be useless or even detrimental in another.  And I've finally learned: there is nothing wrong with that.

Two months after we got married, I went away overnight to a woman's conference with our church.  Before I left, I bought heart shaped sticky notes, covered them with my impassioned, heartfelt sentiments, and left them throughout the house for Matthew to find.  When I got back, I asked him "Did you find my sticky notes?'

He said absently, "It took me almost ten minutes to clean all those up."

I wasn't crushed or surprised.  It's not like I had married a complete stranger.  But what I did (and sometimes still) find discouraging, was how little I relate to perfectly summed up blog advice.  Or Pins with heart balloon graphics giving me 50 date ideas.

Date ideas and affectionate text messages are important.  But I worry that they're often Band-Aides for a gunshot wound.  No one can hurt my husband like I can; and I do more often than I ever thought I would.  The only way to be restored is for me to see my own sins (usually a stinging cocktail of selfishness, anger, and pride) and to love him sacrificially.  This means giving up things I want to do to clean the house - rather than littering the house with sticky notes.  It means asking him what he wants to do and actually listening  - even if our "dates" wouldn't appear charming on the world wide web.

Real marriages struggle.  And happy marriages struggle and restore and struggle and heal.  In this way, all happy families are alike.

But healthy relationships that struggle and heal do not fit tidily in a pin.

By all means, use the internet for inspiration!  But if you, like me, fail to find yourself, your husband and your relationship reflected in "5 things to always say" or "10 things I stopped saying" or "100 ways to fold napkins for your husband's lunchbox" remember that we are to find our reflection in Christ's relationship with the church: a searing example of sacrifice, love and redemption.

* because no blog post on relationships is complete without some kind of chalk writing and a bird graphic *

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Good Morning

Good morning.

Matt is at work, so I have fallen into the my usual lonesome weekend habits: Dutch baby pancake, coffee, and musicals blasting from the speakers.  My parents are coming Tuesday, and I have big plans to clean the attic and the fridge later.  A couple times a year my parents descend from the north (usually for a long-distance race of some kind) and visit their older children in a sweeping motion across the east coast.  There is a lot of cleaning going on the week before that so that my parents will "think we're responsible" (as one sibling puts it).

Honestly, though, it's an illusion.  The last time my parents visited, there were baby chicks in the laundry room.

Baby chicks in the laundry room might sound cute.  Charming even.  But they are not.  For one thing, chicks are noisy.  They are loudest when they are unhappy, and our first time around, we didn't know a lot about keeping them happy.  Secondly, they smell.  Any enjoyment from their fluffy, golf ball-shaped bodies evaporates in the distinct stink of baby chick.  Thirdly, about 5% of them die in the first two days.

Agricultural life is gruesome.  By the time my parents came, the death toll had evened out, but chicks were still cheeping, eating and pooping right under the loft where my parents were sleeping.

"I bet you never imagined that this would happen one day," I said to my mom.

"Trust me."  She shrugged.  "This isn't even on my radar of strange."

This year there are no chicks.  I'm already ahead.

I've been debating whether it is necessary to address my long absence from writing here.  Those of you who keep up with me in this forum, probably already know me well enough to know that my focus has been diverted.

These past few months have been incredibly difficult for me.  Perhaps the hardest I have ever lived through.  In the wake of a devastating loss, I have painfully sorted through pieces of myself.  We've all been there - examining the fault lines we never noticed or ignored.  I have been shifting through guilt, remorse, shame, and grief piecing together the truth of who I am in the grace of God.  It was difficult for me to see my way to anything creative when I was so shaky in what was true.

I've heard an account of a Russian woman who said, "Of course there is a God.  I have a thumb!"  The perfection of her dexterity was proof of a perfect Creator.

My proof of God these past six month has been the perfection of His chastisement.  I have no words to describe how He has disciplined me and saved me all so completely.  There are days when the grief has literally brought me to my knees.  But on my knees I find mercy and forgiveness.  There has been grace in my life.  I know that it must have always been there - God's hand mercifully saving me from myself - but I see it more clearly these days.

Today, in the quite house, glory and grace shine through in the mundane - it is in the smell of butter browning in a cast-iron skillet, the feeling of Henry's silky ears brushing against my leg.  The iPod switches to the next song.  Almost exactly thirteen years ago, my dad caught my mom up in his arms and twirled her around the kitchen to this song.  My brothers and sisters and I watched them rapt, basking in the glow of their love for each other.  Now, those memories are carried over to me on the swell of the chorus.

This is a different kind of pain.  There is an ache in my chest that comes from the beauty and mystery of it all.  It too is enough to make sink to my knees.  So I thank God and ask for more mornings like this.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Stitch Fix 1

"The rumors of my death have been exaggerated."  Mark Twain

I'm still alive.  My zucchini, however, is not.  Greenville has been hit with a ton of rain, and it killed our squash.  I did manage to get in one more zucchini dish before then that I'll share with you soon.  Right around the same time as my zucchini dying, I took on some new responsibilities at work.  I've been busy learning a new job and adjusting to a more demanding schedule.  But, obviously, a new job means new clothes!

A friend at work put me on to Stitch Fix.  For a $20 styling fee, a stylist sends you a box of 5 items based on an comprehensive clothing profile. You have three days to try things on and decide what you want to keep.  The styling fee goes towards anything you purchase.  If you purchase all 5 items, Stitch Fix takes 25% off the total.

I'm not good at thinking outside the box, and thought this might be a good way to get myself to try new things.  And it's every bit as fun as it sounds!

Look what was waiting for me when I got home!

I could not wait to open it.  But first I had to make the bed so that my pictures would be internet-ready.

Seriously, everything about the packaging is adorable.

Every item comes with a cute styling card that shows how to dress the item up or down.

There's a lot of attention to detail in that little box.  Here's what I got from top to bottom:

Portland Ikat Keyhole Back Belted Dress 

No.  Just no.  I don't care for ikat in general, and this pattern didn't change my mind.  Also the top was about 2 times too big on me.

Matt's reaction: Uh, no.

Verdict: Going back.

Calafia Jersey Wrap Dress 

I was very on the fence with this one.  The color is great - not too purple, not too burgundy.  And the fit was perfect too.  Not only is it incredibly comfortable, it has pockets!  But I just bought a wrap dress from Banana Republic, and I was considering ordering that in another color.  In the end it was the cap sleeves that did it.  I always have problem with things looking fitted on my narrow shoulders, and the absence of sleeves solves that.  Plus it will be nice to have another piece that will work for the office or the weekend.

Verdict: Keeping it.

Alan Cowl Neck Asymmetrical Jacket 

I've been on the lookout for a grey cardigan for a long time, so I was very excited to see this in the box. I had put on my personality profile that I wear sweaters all year long (our office is set to Klondike). Sadly, the zipper didn't do nice things for me, and the fabric was just a teeny bit itchy.  I wanted to love it, and almost kept it.  But if I'm going to spend that much on a cardigan, it's going to be one that I have no questions about.

Verdict: a reluctant goodbye.

Jacy Hooded Knit Jacket 

So many things to like about this: the long cuff, the grey lining, the wide belt, the fact that it was like wearing a  giant blanket.  But I couldn't wear the hood to work, and I'm not spending that kind of money on something I can't wear to work.  Plus, Matt said it was a little drab looking.

Verdict: going back

Hammered Geometric Strand Necklace 

I'm terrible at picking out and buying jewelry, but this is wonderful.  My wedding bands are yellow gold, so I'm thrilled to have some new yellow gold jewelry.  An added convenience of Stitch Fix is that I could try everything on with all my clothes at home.  I tried this necklace on with about four different things, and I loved it with everything.

Verdict: Keeping.

I promised myself there would be no awkward mirror selfies, but it seems it's impossible to go through a Stitch Fix box without one.  Here I am rocking my new necklace.

I've already signed up to receive my next Stitch for my birthday in a couple months.  This was some of the most fun I've ever had shopping!

If you're interested in signing up, would you mind using this referral link?  Stitch Fix will give me a $25 credit, and Matt will be very grateful.

Sign up here

(This is in no way funded by Stitch Fix.  Until I placed this order, they had no idea I exist.)

What do you think?  Do you want to see an awkward mirror selfie of the wrap dress?  What do you think about ikat? If you're curious about the prices, message me.  I'm happy to pass them along to give you an idea of the price range.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Guest Post: Zucchini Feta Scones

Charis of Hazelnuts and I have been friends since English 102.  In between raising Hurricane Hazel, working part-time, cooking, being involved in church and refinishing furniture, she keeps me sane and reminds me to take time to enjoy life.

When Liz started The Great Zucchini Challenge, I was enthralled. I studied every recipe, laughed through all her amusing anecdotes, and may have shed a couple of pregnant tears at her nostalgic memories. I wanted to be just like her, in my pretty kitchen after a productive day of work, gently cooking my cares away while becoming a more meaningful person through my varied intake of zucchini. She made it sound so fulfilling.

I asked her to pass along any extra zucchini, since she had enough to roll around on the floor of her kitchen, apparently. She obliged with the most enormous green vegetable I’ve ever seen.

My husband noticed it on the counter and took a step back in a rather horrified way. I explained that Liz had inspired me to do our own version of The Great Zucchini Challenge. He looked at me and then at “that thing” rather dubiously.

I first tackled the chocolate cake Liz had shared. I even made a chocolate ganache to accompany that warm goodness. It was DEE-VINE.

Brian ate one piece and said it was nice. I pointed out that you couldn’t even tell there was zucchini in it. He said that’s what made him uncomfortable about it. Zucchini shouldn’t hide and try to be something it was not. It made him squeamish. 

Whatever. I ate his share obligingly.

He was much more comfortable with the chicken tortilla soup. The slices of zucchini stood out and did not hide ashamedly. 

Then I tackled a recipe I found for scones. I have a thing for scones. And I could envision myself in my bright, clean kitchen, mixing up a merry batch of scones and throwing out witty sentiments left and right for a Zucchini Challenge Guest Post. I was feeling fulfilled just envisioning the baking process.

Then Hurricane Hazel wandered in. Well, mother-daughter bonding time over baking can be fulfilling, too. At least, that’s what I’ve read in the Mommy Blogs. As if anything I’ve ever read in a Mommy Blog resembles what my life actually looks like. I set her on the counter and we got started. 

Don’t let the cute pictures deceive you. There were eggshells in the wet ingredients, Hazel tried eating the flour, I burned my protruding bellybutton on a hot pan, and most of the dry ingredients ended up on the counter when I let my “helper” stir them. We had to have a second attempt. And there was nothing calming, fulfilling, or serene about any part of it. I eyed the scones sourly as I shoved them in the oven and wondered if Liz had days in the kitchen like that.

But I repented when we pulled them out. Tender, not too crumbly, and so savory. In fact, they reminded me a bit of Red Lobster’s cheddar biscuits (is it kind of trashy to mention a chain restaurant in a blog post? Sorry…). And that’s how I described them to Brian. They are savory, I explained. Like those ones you love from Red Lobster.

Ever dubious, he tried one. Nice try, he said. The zucchini is trying to hide again, and it’s not like Red Lobster.

I pointed out that we were being frugal and were living off of free food from farming friends. He pointed out that prison food is free, too. I ate another piece of chocolate zucchini cake and ate his scone, too. 

For the record, Brian is not a scone fan. Don’t be dubious about them based on his hesitance. They are the best savory scones I’ve ever made. They freeze and thaw well, and are the perfect addition to a meal of greek chicken pitas. Next time, I’m going to add a little extra lemon zest, as the called-for amount wasn’t very noticeable. Also, next time, I’m just going to bake them at Liz’s house and leave Brian and Hurricane Hazel at home to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. 

The original recipe encourages you to crumble your own feta from a fresh block. I am an Aldi shopper and impatient. I used the pre-crumbled jazz fresh from the plastic container and it was lovely.

Also, the recipe didn’t tell me if I was supposed to drain or pack my zucchini. I ended up squeezing out my shredded zucchini and packing it in, so I may have used a more generous amount than was intended. 

Zucchini and Feta Scones (as adapted from Rook No.17) http://www.rookno17.com/2011/07/baking-with-olive-oil-savory-zucchini.html

2  cups all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed
2 large eggs
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups (approx. 2 medium) shredded zucchini
1 cup crumbled feta cheese 
Zest of one small lemon

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Line a baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and salt.  Stir in oregano.  Set aside. In an electric mixer, beat eggs and oil until smooth and lightened in color.  Stir in the zucchini, feta and lemon zest.  Add the dry ingredients and mix to combine.  Using a 1/4 cup kitchen scoop, portion dough on to prepared baking sheet. Bake for 35-40 minutes, until tops of scones are lightly browned and spring back to the touch.  Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes before serving.  Best when served warm.

I am flattered that my writing conveys images of peaceful zucchini relaxation, but I assure you there is a reason all my food shots are close-ups - no better way to hide all the dirty dishes and chaos.  

Monday, July 1, 2013

Day 9: Let's Not Haggle for Darling Courgette

We finally got to try Tupelo Honey Cafe.  Everything I'd heard about it is true.  Matt said, "I had high expectations, and this exceeded them."  I concur.  Would also like to add, that although it isn't pictured, it was the best asparagus I've ever eaten.  I'm still thinking about those Appalachian egg rolls.  How did I get so lucky as to be born in the era of food fusions?

Took me two days and five false starts, but I finally finished watching Les Miserables.  I cried.  I would have cried more if Matt hadn't been present with a commentary.  There are plenty of haters, but I thought that the method of recording the actors singing was incredibly moving.  I come away from every performance of Les Miserables with something new, and this was no exception.  

If you're familiar with the musical, then you know that M. Thenardier can never remember Cosette's name.  At one point he refers to her as "Courgette."  This is French for zucchini. What better movie could there be for taking a break from a zucchini challenge?

We liked Tupelo Honey so much that we went back for brunch on Sunday with the sisters.  

Our neighbors had us over to eat with them Saturday night.  At dusk, I climbed over the fence to put up the birds.  I will never get tired of looking at that sky over our property.  When I went back to the neighbors', Matt was holding an hour-old keet (baby guinea fowl) to keep it warm.  It was the color of a pussy willow catkins and almost as small.

Sunday afternoon Rebekah and I sat out on the back porch, listened to the rain, and played with acrylic paint.  Matt questioned my ability to paint, but later he told me he'd frame my painting and hang it on the wall.  That's love.

Just ask any of our overnight guests.  We've needed a new coffee carafe for long time.  When we went to Bed Bath and Beyond to buy one, they didn't carry it in store and had to order it for us.  Since we had a 20% off coupon burning a hole in our pocket, Matt bought the Cuisinart ice cream maker he's been eyeing.  We made roasted strawberry ice cream from Zoe Bakes.  Zoe is behind the artisan bread that changed my life, but this ice cream was not life changing.

Ice cream is one of those things that really is better homemade.  Even the best quality grocery ice creams like Haagen Dazs and High Road can't taste as fresh  (I tried Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream once.  I know she's the darling of the food blogging world, but I couldn't even finish the pint we bought.  And I'd paid...no, I don't want to admit how much I paid).  So, of course, this ice cream was good, but it wasn't spectacular.  And it wasn't worth the mountain of dishes.  I'm currently collecting ice cream recipes.  Zucchini is so last week.*

* Just kidding!  Zucchini is far from over.  Already gearing up to try this, this and this.

Not pictured:  the laundry village growing up in my laundry room, the turkey poop, the turkey's hitting me in the face with their wings when I tried to catch them, and us running 20 minutes late for breakfast while my hungry sisters waited.  Some things just don't photograph well.

What did you do this weekend?

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Day 8: Zucchini Fritters pt 2

Subtitle: Variations on a theme by Smitten Kitchen.

Posterity, you're welcome.  For your benefit I've eaten three batches of zucchini fritters.  I'm not done yet, but I like what I've come up with so far.

From what I can tell from Martha Stewart and Bon Appetite (and about ten other food blogs) the proportions are pretty consistent across the board.  I stuck with the Smitten Kitchen egg - flour-zucchini ration, and experimented with the flavors.

Even though I enjoyed the first batch, they weren't as flavorful as the cauliflower fritters I'd made from Smitten Kitchen.  Crushed red pepper and Parmesan cheese came to mind; but I liked Bon Appetite's idea of goat cheese.  I did what had to be done, and made two batches.

The results: there was nothing wrong with the goat cheese and scallions.  Especially with an egg or sour cherry jam on top.  But I think I'll be making them with Parmesan cheese and crushed red pepper next time.  Really, really good.

You can make them however you like. The salt from the cheese and the heat of the red pepper just worked for me.  If you try it another way, I'd love to hear about it!

Third place: Original Recipe

Second place: Zucchini fritters with scallions and goat cheese

Add 2 ounces of crumbled goat cheese to the original recipe.  For topping: mix 1 teaspoon of lemon juice and 1/4 tsp lemon zest to 1/2 cup of Greek yogurt.  Serve with fried egg or jam.

First place:  Zucchini fritters with Parmesan and crushed red peppers

Omit scallion from original recipe.  Add 2 tablespoons of grated Parmesan and 1/8 tsp of crushed red pepper.  For topping mix 1 tsp of lemon juice, 1/4 lemon zest, and 1 clove garlic, minced to 1/2 cup of Greek yogurt.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Day 7: Zucchini Fritters pt 1

The answer to all food-related questions should be: fritter.

What should I eat? Fritter.

What should I serve at my dinner party?  Fritter

What should I do with all this zucchini?  Fritter.

They are easy, they can be made with almost anything, and they are fried.  Hello.

My Aunt Mary Beth suggested I try zucchini fritters after she saw a recipe for them in Bon Appetite.  The BA recipe wasn't available online last night, so I made the zucchini fritters from Smitten Kitchen.  They were good.  But now that Aunt Mary Beth's original inspiration is online, I want to try those as well.  And I think I could develop my own that I like even better.

This zucchini project is digressing from a zucchini obsession to a zucchini fritter obsession.  I might need an intervention.

Matt had a work thing until late last night, so I took about 2 hours to make these fritters.  The recipe doesn't call for stopping to check Facebook, singing along with Les Miserables, texting Holly, or taking pictures of the pink sky, so it probably won't take you that long.  Thank goodness I didn't half the recipe, because I ended up devouring them all.

I ate them with the sour cream topping, I ate them without the sour cream topping, I ate them with a fried egg, I ate them with a fried egg and the sour cream topping.

I had finished all but the last fritter, when I saw Matt's headlights coming down the driveway.  Grabbing the last fritter for him, I went outside to help him unpack his car.  Just as I was shutting the door behind me, I realized that there was a man walking up to the house and it wasn't Matt.  His shoulders were squared, and the grim line of his mouth said that he was geared up for a confrontation.  Kicking myself for being so stupid, I hoped that Henry's "Danger! Danger!" barking sounded more dangerous than I thought it did.

In a rush, the man introduced himself and explained he lived on the property that bordered us on the west.

"Do you have a medium-sized, red dog?"  He tugged at the bill of his ball cap.

"Oh, no." I nodded my head in the direction of Henry's frantic howling. "We just have a small pug."

The neighbor went on to explain that there'd been a dog terrorizing his horses, and every time he chased it off, the dog ran straight to our house.

It was during this discourse that I realized I was wearing only one shoe.  Why?  Maybe it had fallen off when I tripped on the zucchini on my kitchen floor.  Maybe I absently slipped it off while I was posting on Facebook about tripping on a zucchini.  But for whatever reason, I was standing in front of my new neighbor, wearing only one shoe and holding a fritter.

Looking up, I saw he'd followed my gaze and seen my unequally shod feet.

"Hmmm."  I tried to casually tucked my hand down by my hip as though I always carry a fritter like some women carry clutches or small monkeys.  "I haven't seen any dog like that.  But it's not ours."

He visibly relaxed.  "Well, I tried to come by earlier this afternoon, but no one came to the door.  I'm on my way home from cowboy church, and thought I'd stop by and see if you's home."

I introduced myself and observed that it looked like he had a big operation going on behind us.

"Well," he dragged out the word.  "We have some horses and a miniature donkey."

Aha!  I sensed common ground (he'd lost me momentarily at the cowboy church reference).  "We need to talk to you, then," I said.  "We've been wanting to get a miniature donkey."

He pulled at his ball cap again.  "Well, I've had her a long time.  I don't reckon that I'm wanting to give her up."

So now I was not only the crazy neighbor wearing one shoe and waving a fritter around, I was trying to take away his precious miniature donkey.

"I didn't mean your donkey."  I hurried to reassure him.  "I just thought you could give us some tips."

After this, our conversation progressed smoothly.  His wife came out of the car and we talked about sheep, camping, chickens and horses.  (Our area is very horsey).  We exchanged phone numbers and parted with the words "Good to meet you!" and "Stop by any time" on our lips.

I went inside, found my other shoe, and celebrated by eating that last fritter.

Zucchini fritters
adapted from Smitten Kitchen (go read hers and look at her beautiful pictures.  Her detailed directions are great!)

1 lb of zucchini, grated
1 teaspoon of salt
2 scallions, split lengthwise and sliced thin
1 egg, lightly beaten
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking power
(I added 1/8 tsp crushed red pepper to the second half of the batch)
olive oil

1/2 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon lemon zest
1 small garlic clove, minced

Heat oven to 200 degrees.  In a colander, toss grated zucchini with salt.  Let rest 10 minutes.  This will draw out the excess moisture.  In a cheesecloth or towel (or paper towel because your cheesecloths are dirty) squeeze small sections of the zucchini until most of the liquid is squeezed out.  It will be a lot.  In a bowl, mix zucchini with the egg, scallions and pepper.  In a separate bowl, mix the flour and baking powder together.  Add to zucchini mixture and stir to combine.  Over medium heat, fill the bottom of a cast iron skillet (or whatever skillet you use) with oil.  Heat over medium heat.  Add spoonfuls of the fritter batter, using a wooden spoon to flatten into little zucchini pancakes.  Cook until brown and flip over to cook the other side (about 2-3 minutes per side for me).  Drain briefly on a paper towel them move to the oven to keep warm.  Deb suggests keeping them in there for 10 minutes to keep them crispy, and I can vouch for the success.  No more soggy fritters for me!

Stay tuned for the continuing zucchini fritter adventures.
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