What’s for supper? Vol. 237: Creative naan compliance

Look up! I just flew by! No, not in the Chinese spy balloon. I’m in an airplane, off for a quick visit to a very dear friend, and I’ll be back late Monday. Whee!

Meanwhile, here’s what we ate this week:

SATURDAY
Tacos

Or really tostadas without beans, because something happened that I honestly never thought would happen: We ran out of tortillas. We’ve had a ludicrous tortilla backlog for so long, I had truly forgotten that it was something you need to buy at some point. So I did not, and so a few people had soft tortillas with stale edges, and a few people had rather elderly crunchy tostada shells. 

They were fine. We were hungry. And that has made all the difference. 

SUNDAY
Chicken sorta-caprese sandwiches, chips

Chicken breasts were on sale, so I broiled them with olive oil, garlic powder, oregano, salt, and pepper, sliced them, and served them on baguettes with tomato and basil and miscellaneous cheese. The miscellaneous cheese part was tolerable, but then it turned out we were out of balsamic vinegar, which caused a stir. I had mine with olive oil and red wine vinegar.  

It was fine. Honestly, I will eat just about anything on a baguette. I would eat a baguette sandwich, like bread on bread. Serve it in a bread bowl, I don’t care. 

MONDAY
Monday, Damien and I had to go to a meeting at 5:30, so I set the kids up with lots of ramen and leftover chicken, crunchy noodles and a few vegetables and eggs and things, and told them to have what they wanted. We two went to Wendy’s, and I had some kind of burger with crunchy fried onions on it. My word, it was delicious. I rarely have a burger and fries at a fast food place, but every once in a while, yes. 

TUESDAY
Chicken biryani and naan

Oh, now here we go. I’m thinking a lot about Indian food, but I wanted to get started with a recipe I’ve tried before, so I made this mild chicken biryani. As I remarked on Facebook, of all the cuisines I have attempted to cook, Indian food is the most straight up fun. All the colors, and of course all the smells. It’s just a good time. 

So in this recipe, you sear the chicken thighs in oil, then cook up your onion and ginger, then turmeric and cardamom in the oil, then add the jasmine rice in, put the chicken back in, and add cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, golden raisins, and chicken broth. Cover it up and let all those beautiful flavors meld together as the rice cooks. 

I know from experience that the rice is always still a little chompy at the end, so I make it in the morning and then move it to the slow cooker and keep it warm all day. (Full disclosure, I managed to slop a lot of the chicken broth out onto the floor, so there wasn’t really enough liquid in it and it turned out chompy anyway. But still delicious!) 

I also really wanted to make naan, and I had pretty good luck with the King Arthur recipe last time.  My bread flour had mysteriously disappeared, and I also mysteriously got it into my head that I wanted to knead it by hand, rather than using the stand mixer. I don’t know why, and I don’t know why I didn’t change my mind when it became apparent that it wasn’t going well, but that is what I did. I kneaded that dough forehhhhhhhver and it just didn’t get any smoother, but stayed all knobbly and mottled. 

So eventually I gave up and set it to rise, and did this and that, and came back and cut it into 24 pieces, and decided I really didn’t have time to fry it before it was time to go. 

And that was probably the first good decision I made with this naan, because waiting until just before dinner to cook it meant that Corrie was home, and she wanted to help. Guess what? She was genuinely helpful. 

Naan cooks up really quickly, in less than two minutes, so you want to be rolling out one piece to get it ready while the first piece is frying. You throw it on a very hot, dry pan and watch for it to start forming these bubbles 

and then flip it over and cook it for an even shorter time, and that’s how naan gets those characteristic brown circles. They are fried bubbles. 

Anyway, Corrie was great at it. She has a wonderful feel for cooking, and doesn’t get flustered, and immediately figured out what to watch for and how to time it. 

She brushed each piece of naan with melted butter as it came off the pan, and we had piping hot bread to go with the biryani, which we topped with toasted silvered almonds and chopped cilantro.

Splendid meal. Delightful. 

What next for Indian food? I need more ideas! I get overwhelmed and I never know what to do next. 

WEDNESDAY
Korean beef bowl 

Wednesday was busy-busy-busy, and I didn’t have a chance to start dinner until it was evening. Korean beef bowl to the rescue.

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Even with fresh ginger and fresh garlic, it comes together super fast, all in one pot, and it’s just tasty and satisfying. 

I made a pot of rice in the Instant Pot and chopped up some scallions, and there it was. It actually came together so fast that it was done by 5:00, and suddenly realized I could actually get a yoga workout in before dinner. Which I did, very grudgingly and wobbly-ly. 

The worst part was, fresh off a workout, I only felt like eating one reasonable portion of food, and then I was completely satiated. Which is baloney. It’s propaganda, that’s what it is. 

THURSDAY
Pork gyros

First of all, I would like to say that if I were a grocery store selling fresh SAGE, and some lady who has already been to two stores came in looking for fresh OREGANO, this is NOT HOW I WOULD PACKAGE IT. 

Humph. Anyway, if anyone needs some sage, come see me. I don’t even like sage. Wanted oregano. Don’t care if it’s organic. 

Nevertheless, I forged ahead and made a nice marinade

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with fresh garlic, fresh rosemary, DRIED oregano, red onion, honey, and olive oil, and got the pork sliced and marinating by 10:30. Sliced up some more red onions, cubed a bunch of feta cheese, made some yogurt sauce with garlic and fresh lemon juice,

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chopped up some mint leaves, and cut up a bunch of cucumbers. I briefly considered prepping some eggplant to fry, but that seemed like a bridge too far. 

Dinner time hove around and I pan-fried the meat in batches

and cooked a few pans of seasoned fries, and set out the meat and fries and all my prepped toppings with pita bread. And some hot sauce. 

SO GOOD. So tender and juicy. This particular recipe is a lot more herby and sweet than spicy, but you can add as much heat as you want with the hot sauce, and be generous with the garlicky yogurt sauce, and it’s fab. When I was done eating, I had to wipe off not only my phone but my glasses. 

FRIDAY
Pasta with Marcella Hazan’s red sauce

At least I think so!

Jump to Recipe

Damien is shopping and cooking this weekend as I flit and float away like a giant balloon, but please do not shoot at me. I mean no harm. I promise to come home again. 

Korean Beef Bowl

A very quick and satisfying meal with lots of flavor and only a few ingredients. Serve over rice, with sesame seeds and chopped scallions on the top if you like. You can use garlic powder and powdered ginger, but fresh is better. The proportions are flexible, and you can easily add more of any sauce ingredient at the end of cooking to adjust to your taste.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup brown sugar (or less if you're not crazy about sweetness)
  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp red pepper flakes
  • 3-4 inches fresh ginger, minced
  • 6-8 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3-4 lb2 ground beef
  • scallions, chopped, for garnish
  • sesame seeds for garnish

Instructions

  1. In a large skillet, cook ground beef, breaking it into bits, until the meat is nearly browned. Drain most of the fat and add the fresh ginger and garlic. Continue cooking until the meat is all cooked.

  2. Add the soy sauce, brown sugar, and red pepper flakes the ground beef and stir to combine. Cook a little longer until everything is hot and saucy.

  3. Serve over rice and garnish with scallions and sesame seeds. 

 

honey garlic marinade for gyros

Marinate thin strips of pork for several hours, then grill or broil. This is a mild, somewhat sweet marinade that makes the meat quite tender.

Ingredients

  • 4-5 lbs pork shoulder or butt, sliced into thin strips
  • 6-8 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • small bunch fresh rosemary, chopped
  • small bunch fresh oregano, chopped

Yogurt sauce

Ingredients

  • 32 oz full fat Greek yogurt
  • 5 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • fresh parsley or dill, chopped (optional)

Instructions

  1. Mix all ingredients together. Use for spreading on grilled meats, dipping pita or vegetables, etc. 

 

Marcella Hazan's tomato sauce

We made a quadruple recipe of this for twelve people. 

Keyword Marcella Hazan, pasta, spaghetti, tomatoes

Ingredients

  • 28 oz can crushed tomatoes or whole tomatoes, broken up
  • 1 onion peeled and cut in half
  • salt to taste
  • 5 Tbsp butter

Instructions

  1. Put all ingredients in a heavy pot.

  2. Simmer at least 90 minutes. 

  3. Take out the onions.

  4. I'm freaking serious, that's it!

In which I am old and join a band anyway

Last night, I caught an old, familiar smell: Wood fiber plus the humid heaviness of human breath. That is exactly what it was. It was from a clarinet reed clamped to the mouthpiece and hovering just below my chin, waiting. I’d been sitting on a metal folding chair tensely counting to four for sixteen measures while the brass and percussion labored away, seventeen-two three four, eighteen-two-three-four, nineteen-two-three, then a sharp intake of breath and I’m in! But not before I got a sharp whiff of the reed.

I started playing clarinet in fifth grade. It seemed like the ideal instrument, and it still does. Like a human voice but smooth like water; black and lovely with shining silver keys in abstruse shapes, some long and angular for alternate fingering, one short and to the point, like a little spoon. Elegant little rings over the finger holes to make the little pads work in concert with the motions of your hands. Blow too hard and it squeals and honks like a duck; but tuck your bottom lip over your teeth, plant your top teeth firmly on the mouthpiece, hold your cheeks taut, sit up straight, employ your abdomen, be brave, and the sound comes out like a human voice, but smooth like water. 

Mr. Faro, the stooped, nearsighted music teacher who taught us all was terribly patient. He must have known I wasn’t really learning the names of the notes, and he certainly knew I wasn’t practicing in between lessons. I had enough musical sense to fake my way through the book, and our terrible little band of beginners sat on the stage on folding chairs and breathily trundled our way through “Theme from The Surprise Symphony” and “Grandfather’s Clock” and “Londonderry Air” and, when the time came, we Jingle Bell Rocked.

Mr. Faro’s office was a supply closet about five feet wide, and that’s where he taught probably thousands of dopey children, one by one, to coax a sound out of their chosen instruments. He was a tall, oddly broad man, who dressed like he was planning to sell encyclopedias door to door. His trousers were hemmed too short and his thick, wavy hair was parted with aching precision. Coke bottle glasses made his eyes look tiny. One time I came into the storage closet classroom late, clutching my plastic Bundy rental clarinet and my marked up lesson book, and he splayed out in his folding chair, whaling away at his clarinet with no mouthpiece on it, lips pursed on the neck like a trumpet, and doodling an improvised jazz number like Dizzie Gillespie. His head popped up when I came in, and he said, “Oh, sorry.” I said, “That’s okay,” and we started in with “Oats, Peas, and Beans.” 

I tried it later, on my own, and you can make a sound that way, but I definitely couldn’t make it sound like Mr. Faro. I don’t know if he used to play in a jazz band or what, before he started teaching kids. 

So I wasn’t good, and I didn’t work hard, but hard enough, but there was something about playing in a band. Going from sitting down for that first wretched mess of a read-through to something we all have a handle on, something with a form and a color and an idea. I played in the school band all through elementary school and most of high school, including the marching band. I unabashedly loved marching band, even as I moaned and complained because it was the thing to do. I loved the terrible white vinyl strap-on spats and the crushingly heavy shako hat with its beautiful red plume. Loved parades, loved marking time, loved marching and turning in synch; loved crouching on the bleachers through blustery autumn football games that our team always lost, blaring out fight songs to roust up the crowd that ignored us.

I made a few stabs at going to All State, but high school is where my lazy ways caught up with me, and the judges could tell I had chosen the middle movement to audition just because it was the slowest one, and I never made the cut. I picked up sheet music where I could find it through college and a bit beyond, and I could play as long as there weren’t too many sharps or flats. But more and more time elapsed, and I put the instrument together less and less often, and once I ordered some reeds, and made a stab at some things I half remembered, but there was nothing bringing me back to try again. Then the mouthpiece went missing, and that was that. 

This Christmas, my husband bought me a new clarinet. I’m 48 years old. The original plan was to fix up my trusty old Bundy, but the music store in town is open such odd hours, I guess they never got around to working on it in time, so he just got a new one. And that is how I found myself sitting again in a metal folding chair, correcting my spine position, anxiously tapping my foot through a long rest, then filling my lungs with air, and smelling again that familiar smell of the reed, remembering everything.

I’m in a band for adults. Some are absolute beginners, but most are like me, people who used to play a long time ago, but let it go for one reason or another. Everyone is there because they want to be, and everyone is just doing their best to make a decent sound and learn a little something and help each other out. It is the most friendly, encouraging group of people I have spent time with in ages, and oh, how familiar those band jokes are. There’s a tricky syncopated passage we have to keep returning to, and one random misplaced honk sounds out, and the conductor drops his hands and stares reproachfully at the brass. They all point at each other and giggle. Everyone is giggling, everyone is gray and paunchy. Everyone is wearing reading glasses so we can see the tiny little measure numbers, and everyone is painfully stretching and flexing their fingers out in between sessions, because somehow, in the last 35 years, these instruments got heavy.

And yet they are so much lighter. Last time I was in band, I was a teenager, filled with angst and irritation and guilt and self-doubt. Now there is nothing but just what it says on the group’s website: Your best is good enough. They really mean it! And do you know, music sounds really good when it comes from people who are making it just because they love it. 

What a delight. What an absolute gift to sit in a borrowed basement and feel that beautiful flow when you’ve got it, you’re keeping right up, you’re adding your flavor to the harmony and you didn’t get lost with the tricky codas but you made it right through the crescendo to that long hold, and now this is the fun part, where the woodwinds take over and everyone can hear what you can do. And you do it just right, and the conductor drops his hands and says, “Okay, good.” How lovely. 

And it’s also lovely, in its own way, to get hopelessly lost, to know that we’re somewhere between the key change and the finale, and you’re just gong to have to jump in when it gets familiar. There isn’t a lot of shame or panic like there would have been years ago. I got some of it this time; I’ll do better next time. That’s all. It’s just such a good way to spend time. 

And do you know, my fingers remember. I did fake a lot, 37 years ago, but I also learned a lot. I remember alternate fingering, and I remember all kinds of articulation markings, things I haven’t though about in decades. So much is automatic, and more and more returns to me each week. Do you know what it feels like to have something return to you, when you’re 48 years old? 48 is when things start to fall away, one by one by one. But music, my clarinet, is coming back to me. I think it’s going to be a good year. 

Image © DrKssn / Wikimedia Commons

The life-changing magic of being yourself

As a lifelong untidy person, Marie Kondo is my hero. I have never read her book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” or seen her Netflix shows. I have no plans to stop being untidy. But I want to be just like her.

Let me back up a bit. When Marie Kondo first made her tasteful splash on the homemaker scene, many of my mom friends swooned at the idea of becoming entirely new people who could whip everything around them into delightful, streamlined, orderly shape. Others raged and fumed at Kondo’s insistence that they throw out most of their cherished belongings, get rid of their books, spend all their precious time fussing over trivialities and strive to live in a sterile museum rather than a comfortable home.

None of those folks had read her book, either. They had all heard about Kondo and her ideas through sloppy, sensationalistic headlines and snarky memes that misrepresented what she actually suggested in her book and shows. If they had actually read her (according to my friends who actually have), they would know that she’s quite gentle, doesn’t demand or even suggest radical shifts that work against your lifestyle, and never claims that her system or ideas are best, or that they work well for everyone in every circumstance.

Still, when the Washington Post recently quoted Kondo as saying she had pretty much given up tidying because she has three kids now, the internet exploded in a unanimous, rather vicious, “Ha-ha!” Now she’s a slob, just like the rest of us! Now she knows better!

But my friends who actually read her book and considered her advice were not at all surprised. Kondo never claimed that a rigid minimalism is superior. She apparently only offers suggestions for how to make yourself more functional and peaceful if the current state of your house is making you unhappy.

She is perhaps most famous for her advice to question whether some item in your house “sparks joy,” and if not, to consider discarding it. And now?

“Up until now, I was a professional tidier, so I did my best to keep my home tidy at all times. I have kind of given up on that in a good way for me. Now I realize what is important to me is enjoying spending time with my children at home,” she said.

In other words, it is her children, and spending time with them, that sparks joy for Kondo.

And this is why she is my hero. Not necessarily because she clearly enjoys her children (although that’s a wonderful thing, and refreshing to hear someone say in public), but because she is courageously demonstrating something so few people understand: that you can change how you act and still be yourself. In fact, you have to….Read the rest of my latest for Our Sunday Visitor

Marie Kondo photo by RISE via Flickr (Creative Commons)

What’s for supper? Vol. 236: Lardum et labora

What’s for supper? WEWLL, as Corrie used to say, if you read Wednesday’s post about menu planning and shopping, you already know most of it! Nevertheless, here is the thrilling conclusion to my story about sale pork and such.

We’ve had multiple snow storms and slush storms and whatnot, so this is the week for winter cooking to shine. Damien did this

and Corrie did this

and I just mainly hovered around the stove and cooked. 

Here’s what we had:

SATURDAY
Spaghetti with sauce and sausage

As anticipated, the people who went sledding on Saturday were happy to come home to a big pot of hot spaghetti and sausage. 

Sorry it’s a terrible picture, but I was starving and didn’t feel like messing around.

I also grabbed a few boxes of brownie mix and made brownies. I have a long and dopey history of accidentally buying brownie mix when I meant to buy chocolate cake mix. Once I even went to buy cake mix, bought brownie mix by mistake, went back to the store to correct my mistake, and bought brownie mix again. (You may think this is because I secretly like brownies so much and am subconsciously sabotaging my plans so as to have more brownies, but, as I am constantly whining about, I can’t even eat chocolate at all! I’m just stupid.) So I was expecting to get razzed about the brownies a bit, but everyone was distracted by the fact that I made the brownies, put them in the oven, set the timer, let them bake, and turned off the timer, but forgot to take the brownies out of the oven, and so we got a giant chocolate brick for dessert, and nobody could tell what it was supposed to be. That’ll larn ’em.

SUNDAY
Hamburgers, chips, homemade ice cream

Sunday was the Lunar New Year Festival in Brattleboro. We didn’t eat much because it was a potluck and we hadn’t brought anything, but I did daringly try some kind of exotic egg dish which turned out to be hard boiled eggs with a little splash of soy sauce. We had fun, though. Here’s a few albums:


 

Corrie did a Korean rope tug, the girls and I tried to learn a circle dance, and we followed a dragon through the downtown. Then we came home and had hamburgers. 

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this in a while, but my method for making hamburgers, when we can’t grill them outside, is to use high fat ground beef, flatten the hell out of them, and then broil them in the oven on a pan with drainage. They come out yummy and juicy and you don’t throw grease all over your kitchen. 

Sunday I also made some ice cream. I made two batches of plain sweet cream base (2 eggs, 3/4 cup sugar, 1 cup milk, 2 cups heavy cream per batch), and put chocolate chips in one, and maraschino cherries and mini marshmallows in the other.

That ice cream maker has been an unfailing bright spot in family life. Maybe that sounds silly, but it’s been a tough year, and it’s nice to have something that just straight up worked out great. It’s a quick creative outlet, it almost always turns out well, and when people hear the machine churning, they go, “OOH, what are you making?” and they’re not disappointed like they are when they hear what I’m making for supper. And we get ice cream! If I could change one thing, it would be not having to remember to put the freezer bowls in the freezer the night before, but I usually manage. 

MONDAY
Roast chicken, mashed butternut squash, salad

The dreaded roast chickens. I’ve been trying harder to stick to what we have in the house and not be constantly running out to buy this and that, so I used what we happened to have, which was two elderly lemons, some rather decrepit garlic, and some rosemary that I bought for the soup later in the week.

I just kinda rubbed these on the chicken and then shoved them into the cavity, then added a little olive oil and salt and pepper and hot pepper flakes and more garlic powder to the skin, and roasted them chickens. They were fine. 

The reason whole chickens are dreaded is mainly because we had sooooo much chicken when we were poor, because it was cheap and I could get several meals out of it. I got extraordinarily sick of every part of the process of dealing with a whole chicken, and it hasn’t worn off yet. The whole thing just feels bitter and sad. Feel free to share your special tasty wonderful recipe so other people can enjoy it, but I don’t think I will get over my chicken resentment! 

I did put the carcasses in the freezer, so I suppose we’ll be having soup or something at some point. 

The part of the meal I did enjoy was the mashed squash. This is a surprisingly pleasant and tasty dish.

Jump to Recipe

I loosened up the squash in the microwave for a few minutes so it would be easier to cut, then I sprinkled the quarters with baking soda and kosher salt and put them in the Instant Pot with water, and cooked them for a good long time. 

Removed the seeds, scooped out the flesh, and mashed it up with plenty of butter, some brown sugar, and a little nutmeg, and man, it is cozy, fluffy, and delicious.

It’s like sweet potatoes went to finishing school and learned how to entertain. 

TUESDAY
Bo ssam with lettuce and rice and pickled radishes

The night before, I mixed a cup of salt and a cup of sugar together like an absolute criminal and rubbed it all over a big fatty hunk of pork, and sealed it in a ziplock bag in the fridge overnight. Tuesday, I put it the pork a foil-lined pan at 300 around 11:30 and, boop, the main part of supper was taken care of. 

You make a simple sauce (7 Tbsp brown sugar, 2 Tbsp cider vinegar, and 1 Tbsp sea salt) and spread that on top of the meat and turn the heat up for the last ten minutes of cooking, but that’s the only other thing you have to do. 

Then I needed to figure out what to do with the radishes.

A lot of Korean radish dishes are for Korean radishes, which are a whole other vegetable from radishes, and are also called daikon, which they had at the store but I did not buy. ACTUALLY, a Korean radish is something called “mu,” which is a kind of daikon radish. All I know is they don’t seem to sell mu in the store, and what I had were western radishes, the little round, reddish, peppery kind. The round, reddish peppery kind that are 𝓕𝓞𝓡 𝓨𝓞𝓤

So I pickled them, yay! A cup of rice vinegar, a cup of water, a cup of sugar, and a little sea salt, and a pound of radishes. I simmered the sauce ingredients until the sugar was dissolved, sliced the radishes thinly in the food processor, then poured the sauce over the radishes.

Then I refrigerated it until dinner, and they had turned a delightful pink

Not quite as dark as they look here, but more of a flamingo color. 

They were very nice. Quite sweet and tangy, and truthfully you could’t taste more than a faint a radish taste, but mostly just the texture. It was like pickled ginger, but not, you know, gingery. I thought they made a very pleasant accompaniment to the bo ssam, which is ferociously salty. 

Everyone was very happy with this meal and nobody was mad at me. So I guess it was 𝓕𝓞𝓡 𝓜𝓔 after all.

WEDNESDAY
Tomato bisque, grilled cheese

All week, I was looking forward to this soup. I made a few adjustments to this recipe since last I made it (more tomatoes, more garlic, and add the bacon right at the end), and man, it was scrumptious.

Jump to Recipe

Garlic, onion, tomato, rosemary, boom, you taste it all. (There’s also a bay leaf but I’m starting to believe that’s mainly a superstition.) 

I made cheddar and sourdough sandwiches and grilled them in bacon grease, which probably wasn’t absolutely necessary, but it did make them CRRRRRISP and nobody complained.

Just an excellent little meal, so cozy and good. 

I could eat this meal every week. Gotta have it at least once while there’s snow on the ground. 

THURSDAY
Gochujang bulgoki, pineapple, nori, rice, leftover pickled radishes, a little broccoli

The second pork hunk. It was a two-hour school delay, so the day got all messed up and I really wasn’t feeling terribly ambitious about dinner, but I had painted myself into a corner. So I sharpened my knife and started to hack away at the meat. I was listening to a radio show about people who are lobbying for the right to have more fixable appliances, and how they make videos for other people about how to fix things, and they give free advice about what kind of glue to use and stuff like that, and by the time I was halfway through that pork butt, the magic of doing things with your own two hands had taken over. I could have stood there all day, locating the direction of the muscle fibers, carefully trimming the fat, and thriftily separating away only the most inedible layers of onion skin with the tip of my freshly-honed knife. I even decided to trim a bag of baby carrots into matchsticks, which is insane, but the spirit of imaginary stick-to-it-iveness lay about me like a mantle, so that’s what I did.

I snapped out of it, though, because I had shit to do. Like yoga. I had to change out of my pajama pants into my yoga pants and do yoga, which was a special cardio glute burn, and then I took a shower and changed into my leggings so I could pick up the kids, and then I changed back into my pajama pants. Truly the American spirit breathes through my every pore.

I forget what we were talking about. Oh, bulgoki. Well it marinated all day and then I pan fried it, and it was tender and delicious. 

And you know what, it really is better with matchstick carrots than any other kind of carrots.

I made a pot of rice in the Instant Pot, cut up a couple of pineapples, and set out some lettuce and nori, and that is one super meal.

You make little bundles, either with the lettuce or nori, and grab up a little meat and rice and pop it in your mouth, and it’s so tasty, honeyed and savory with just a little gochujang burn. You can easily adjust the marinade to make it sweeter or spicier, but you should know that cooking takes the heat down quite a bit, so if you taste the marinade, it won’t be as hot as you expect.

Jump to Recipe

Although gochujang sneaks up on you a bit. 

FRIDAY
Pizza

Today I shall make four pizzas. And then this week can bite my butt. We are all so exhausted! Life is tiring! Better than the alternative. 

Hey, thanks for being interested in my shopping and planning post. I was unexpectedly moved to hear that people actually read through the whole thing. There is just so much dang work in the world that goes unwitnessed and unacknowledged, not just in big families, but in every family, in every life. It’s a lot of work to keep ourselves alive, isn’t it? I salute you, my dear reader who is getting it together one more time to figure out what’s for supper, whether it’s for a crowd or for your own self, whether you feel up to it or not. You made it to Friday, and you did good. L’chaim. 

5 from 2 votes
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Instant Pot Mashed Acorn Squash

Ingredients

  • 1 acorn quashes
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 2 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg

Instructions

  1. Cut the acorn squashes in half. Sprinkle the baking soda and salt on the cut surfaces.

  2. Put 1/2 a cup of water in the Instant Pot, fit the rack in it, and stack the squash on top. Close the lid, close the valve, and cook on high pressure for 24 minutes. Do quick release.

  3. When squash is cool enough to handle, scoop it out into a bowl, mash it, and add the rest of the ingredients.

 

5 from 2 votes
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Tomato bisque with bacon

Calories 6 kcal

Ingredients

  • 1 lb bacon (peppered bacon is good)
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 56 oz can of whole tomatoes
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 46 oz tomato juice
  • 8 oz cream cheese
  • 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • salt and pepper
  • crispy fried onions (optional garnish)

Instructions

  1. Fry the bacon until crisp. Remove from pan, chop it up, and drain out all but a a few teaspoons of grease.

  2. Add the diced onion and minced garlic to the grease and sauté until soft.

  3. Add tomatoes (including juices), bay leaves, rosemary, and tomato juice, and simmer for 20 minutes. Save some rosemary for a garnish if you like.

  4. With a slotted spoon, fish out the bay leaf, the tomatoes, and most of the rosemary, leaving some rosemary leaves in. Discard most of the rosemary and bay leaf. Put the rest of the rosemary and the tomatoes in a food processor with the 8 oz of cream cheese until it's as smooth as you want it.

  5. Return pureed tomato mixture to pot. Salt and pepper to taste.

  6. Heat through. Add chopped bacon right before serving, or add to individual servings; and top with crispy fried onions if you like. Garnish with more rosemary if you're a fancy man. 

 

5 from 2 votes
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Gochujang bulgoki (spicy Korean pork)


Ingredients

  • 1.5 pound boneless pork, sliced thin
  • 4 carrots in matchsticks or shreds
  • 1 onion sliced thin

sauce:

  • 5 generous Tbsp gochujang (fermented pepper paste)
  • 2 Tbsp honey
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 5 cloves minced garlic

Serve with white rice and nori (seaweed sheets) or lettuce leaves to wrap

Instructions

  1. Combine pork, onions, and carrots.

    Mix together all sauce ingredients and stir into pork and vegetables. 

    Cover and let marinate for several hours or overnight.

    Heat a pan with a little oil and sauté the pork mixture until pork is cooked through.

    Serve with rice and lettuce or nori. Eat by taking pieces of lettuce or nori, putting a scoop of meat and rice in, and making little bundles to eat. 

How I plan my weekly menu and shop! In excruciating detail!

Many people said they would like a post about how I plan my meals and how I shop. I don’t have any amazing tricks or methods. You could sum up my system in three steps: Plan ahead, pay close attention, and be flexible. And everybody already knows that! But I said I would write it, so here we go. 

(IT’S FREAKING LONG.)

The planning part is horrible and I hate it. I started planning my weekly menu back when we were flat broke, like we had $22 for the week and I was rationing apples and serving oatmeal onion soup, and I had to watch every penny. It turned out to be an incredibly useful habit, though. Making a detailed menu and shopping for exactly what I need is a weekly investment that makes life easier every single day. 

The cost of food varies very widely by region, but I know you’re curious, so here you go: I spent about $360 on food this week. There are ten people (including five adults) living in our house full time, two working from home, and we currently do not get SNAP or WIC or free school lunch or anything, so that works out to $5.14 per person per day (and the adult kids do buy themselves lunch sometimes). 

I do not cut our costs to the bone. I buy treats and convenience foods and lots of little things to make our meals nicer, because we can afford it right now, and it’s something we enjoy. But I have made adjustments to compensate for inflation, so I’m not spending much more than I was a few years ago.

I shop once a week, but I usually end up stopping at the store once or twice because I’ve forgotten something. I keep the house stocked with staples, and I replenish those even if I don’t expect to use them during the week. But I only shop for one week of perishables. I would love to stock up on meat when there’s a good deal, there is nowhere in the house that I could possibly fit an extra freezer. We also don’t have a Costco or any other bulk warehouse retailer in driving distance.

I do not mess around with coupons or rebates or points. I have found that coupons are rarely worth it, and I like knowing how much money I have to spend for the week, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

I plan to go to at least two supermarkets, because Aldi is wonderful, except sometimes they’re like, “Oops, no bread”; and also some of their products are cheap but terrible, like their bananas that go from green to brown, or their Asian food that tastes like baked beans. So I always assume there will be a second stop. 

I honestly don’t know if any of this will be useful or tedious or stupid or what, but people did ask, so here is how I do it. 

The actual menu planning

On Saturday morning, I write out the days of the week along the left edge of my shopping list. I like to plan my menu right on my list so I can see what the hell is going on, and make adjustments and additions as I shop.

Next stop: Check my calendar and note down time and energy gobblers for the week. This includes things that will take me out of the house (dentist appointment or a kid’s concert) and also things that might exhaust me physically or mentally (intense telehealth therapy meeting), or even “Friday is the day before a party and I’m going to be stressed out and wanting to focus on cleaning.” I just take a look at what the day will actually look like for me, and be reasonable about what kind of cooking can happen on such a day. I write these things in on my menu to make it real for me.

I also note holidays and feast days that might warrant an extra dessert or a particular ethnicity of meal, but I’m not Little Miss Liturgical Living, and this either happens or it doesn’t. Also, if it’s a birthday, the person gets to choose what’s for dinner.

Then I write the names of the stores I plan to go to on the list, open the online flyers of those stores, and note down “anchor foods” that are an especially good price (mostly meat, but also cheese, fruits, and vegetables). I include the price to remind me of what the sale price actually is, in case they try and pull a fast one (yes, I will argue with the store), and so I can scoop up unexpected bargains they didn’t advertise. Sometimes the flyer in one store brags about blueberries for $2.50 a pint, and then the other store has them for $1.99 and doesn’t think to mention it. So it’s good to know that, if I happen to go to the $1.99 store first. I skim through the whole flyer, because sometimes I get ideas for meals from the photos, even if I don’t intend to buy the foods advertised. Like, “oh yeah, soup! I forgot people make soup” or “hey, we haven’t had a vegetable and dip platter for a while” or whatever. 

I also check the preview for next week, and if there’s a great deal coming up, like chuck roast for $2.69 a pound, I’ll plan a meal around that, and plan to stop by after Mass. I put “buy roast” or whatever in my calendar right then so I don’t forget. 

Then I check my bank account, to see how much money we actually have! I usually spend about the same amount of money, give or take $40 or so, but there are some weeks when I’m like, “oh crap, we need to reel this in.”

So now I have an idea in my mind if the overarching theme of this week is going to be “as easy as possible” or “as cheap as possible” or “I’m actually going to be home for once; let’s have some fun in the kitchen” (remember, I like cooking, so it’s fun for me when I have some time to mess around) or maybe “we have all been subsisting on brown things cooked in grease for several weeks, so maybe we can remember vegetables” or whatever. Or sometimes (I don’t think they realize I do this), when someone in the family is feeling low, I will plan a run of their favorite meals to give them a little lift. 
No matter what the theme is, I have some basic rules that I follow, unless we’re really flat out. 

The rules

Don’t make anything more than twice a month; ideally, no more than once a month. This is as much for my benefit as it is for the whole family’s, because if I make a popular meal too often, they’ll stop eating it, and then I’m screwed. 

Shoot for one new recipe per week. This one gets overridden pretty often, but I do make a stab at it, because I get bored easily, and frankly, making public posts about what we ate is a big motivator to keep things interesting.  (Things like substituting fresh squash for canned pumpkin in the muffins totally counts as “new.”) I subscribe to a number of food and cooking sites and social media groups (I’ll list those at the end), and I listen to a few food radio shows, and if something looks promising, I email it to myself with the heading “food blog” so it’s easy to find. Damien sometimes sends me recipes that sound good, too, either for him or for me to make. So all week long, I’m on the lookout for new ideas. Sometimes if something unusual is on sale or in season at the supermarket, I will grab it with the intention of finding a recipe when I get home. This week, I picked up some radishes that I didn’t have a specific plan for, other than to match the with one of the two Asian meals I was planning.  

Shoot for variety of type of meal throughout the week. So pasta, soup, casserole, breakfast are all one-timers. Sandwiches or wraps, Mexican food, Asian food, and Middle Eastern food, I can probably get away with doing twice a week, but not three times. 

Shoot for a variety of easy and hard meals throughout the week, so I can swap things around if unpredictable things happen. There is no penalty for leaving a planned meal in the freezer for another week and buying Aldi pizza on the way home from school, if we can afford it and that’s the way the day is shaping up. 

Finally, I skim the entire week and see if I remembered to serve vegetables. Yes, I actually do this. I don’t really try to serve a balanced meal every day, but I do aim for a balanced week, if you squint, and I try to get some vegetables in there at least three or four times. 

One more thing: While I’m meal planning, Damien sometimes comes by and takes a look, and either volunteers to make one or more of the meals I’ve planned, or else he volunteers to come up with a meal to fill in one or more blank spaces. 

How an actual week got planned: 

I wrote “dentist” and “S band” on Tuesday, and Sunday was Lunar New Year and I wanted to go to a festival, but those were the only unusual things. So I knew there would be at least two days I would want to have something easy. 

There weren’t any very inspiring sales. Bone-in pork butt for I think $1.69 a pound, which is good, but I’m pretty tired of it, and the bone makes it hard to judge how much meat you’re getting; drumsticks for 99 cents, which I just made and people didn’t eat very much of; whole chicken for 99 cents, which I despise, and that’s about it. Boo. Nothing great next week, either. 

The first thing I did was write in “pizza” on Friday. Pizza can be either a meatless Friday meal or a meat meal, but people have been a little grumpy about my Friday meals lately, and I wanted to make something I knew everyone would like. We’ve had a lot of pizza lately, but we’re still on the right side of that line. One meal. 

I was getting a late start shopping because a lot of people needed rides, so I needed a quick, easy meal for Saturday; but we’ve had a lot of frozen chicken burgers and hot dogs lately. Also I knew Damien was taking the kids sledding while I was shopping, and the would work up a big appetite, so I figured they’d welcome pasta with sauce and sausage, which cooks up quick, is relatively cheap since not everybody likes sausage, and is great for cold, tired people.  So that’s two meals. 

Sunday was the Lunar New Year festival. They were going to have some food there, so maybe people would fill up and not be hungry for dinner, but hmm, I couldn’t count on the kids eating a lot of unfamiliar Asian food, so I figured hamburgers would be a safe choice. I could make them quickly when I got home, and everyone likes them, so if people are crabby after an outing, which sometimes happens: yay, hamburgers! Three meals. 

Four spots left. I had to face the cheap meats. I really despise cooking whole chickens, but I’ve avoided it for months, and it’s a great price, so I bit the bullet and wrote that down for one day. I knew we had some potatoes in the house, and I wrote “veg,” figuring I’d see what there was that looked decent. If I had been home, I would have looked up a recipe, like that nice one with fennel, but I was making my list in the parking lot for various complicated reasons, so I didn’t have the chance to check my supplies, and ended up having to find a recipe that matched what I happened to have (half a head of garlic, some rather dejected lemons, and a bit of rosemary), rather than vice versa. That’s four meals. 

The other really cheap meat was the bone-in pork butt. Good choices would be pulled pork or carnitas or chili verde, but we’ve had all of these a lot lately. So I did what I often do: I did an image search for “simcha fisher pork” and remembered about gochujang bulgoki. Yes! So that goes on the list. Too spicy for some kids, but I serve it with nori and rice and maybe a pineapple and they can eat that. (My original thought was actually that we’d have an Asian dinner on Lunar New Year, but I considered my audience and decided not to push my luck.) Five meals. 

Pork is really cheap, though, so I try hard to think of a second thing. But I’m going to be busy on Tuesday, in the morning and in the evening. Aha! Bo ssam. All you have to do get it going with salt and sugar the night before, and pop it in the oven by noon, and it’s done by dinner. Six meals. 

So this illustrates one of my big meal planning revelations: There are different kinds of quick and easy meals, and they all have drawbacks and advantages.

There is the kind where you open a box and throw the food on a pan and heat it up, which really is quick and easy, but it’s expensive for a big family. Sometimes that’s the right way to work the equation, though. My time is worth something! I don’t always have to immolate myself on the pyre of dinner. 

Then there is the kind where you assemble it quickly and cook it right before dinner time, like a stir fry or breakfast for dinner or sandwiches. These are often quick if you have a few people to feed, because the individual portions come together quickly; but they can end up taking forever to fix for a big family, especially if all your burners don’t work, which they never all do. 

Then there is the kind of quick meals that you do a moderate or large amount of prep work for, but it’s mostly just prep work, and by dinner time, it’s just a matter of opening the oven and enjoying it. This is what bo ssam is, and also many other favorites, like shawarma. 

I am at a time in my life right now where the third variety of “easy” is by far the easiest on me, and it often ends up being a cheaper option, too, because a lot of stinko cuts of meat get tenderized with long cooking or marinating times. Spending a lot of money and eating mediocre food too often is stressful for me. It makes me feel bad, and doesn’t feel good; it just feels yucky. And my mental state is a big part of this equation.

So I’ve discovered that for me, figuring things out and doing things ahead of time gives me lots of peace of mind, which is energizing in its own way. I can do the prep work when I have time and strength, which is often in the morning or late at night, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing a decent meal come together at the end of a busy day, because I planned it well.

This has a lot to do with the fact that I enjoy cooking, I’m home a lot during the day, and I don’t have little kids! None of this is a moral issue. It’s just where I’m at right now, and who I am. I’m just telling you this because people often say to me, “Oh, you make such elaborate meals. I don’t go to that much trouble for my family,” and I often feel like I’m giving people the wrong idea about what they should be doing. When I had a bunch of little kids and less time and money, we had a lot more hot dogs and blah chicken, believe me. 

So I guess to “Plan ahead, pay close attention, and be flexible” I would add “know yourself.” Be realistic about your state in life and your actual strengths and your actual responsibilities, and work within that framework, not someone else’s framework. Not your mother’s, not your sister’s, not some blogger’s curated version of reality. If people you’re responsible for aren’t going hungry, you’re doing fine. 

So, back to my menu! I had the weekend figured out (pasta and burgers), and also Friday (pizza), plus three weekdays (roast chicken, bulgoki, and bo ssam), including a busy day. That just left one day to fill in. I was still pouting about having to roast some chickens, so I decided to make soup, which is something I like. I thought back over all the soups we’ve had so far this winter, and the only one I could think of that we haven’t had yet is tomato bisque. I had noted that bacon is $3.99, so I could add that in pretty cheaply and maybe make the soup more attractive. Add some sandwiches and, boom, that’s dinner. Seven dinners! A whole week!

After I have written in the main courses, I cross out the good price items I decided not to use, and note that I will need two hunks of pork. Then I look at each meal and make sure I have all the ingredients I will need to make it, and if not, I write them down on the list under the correct store name. I visualize every bit of the meal, and I look up the recipes I don’t know by heart, because I often forget important ingredients. 

Then I go through and see what can be the side dishes for everything. I write in “chips” with the hamburgers, “veg” with the chicken (to be determined; turns out to be squash, because I didn’t feel like dealing with sad old potatoes); rice for both the bulgoki and bo ssam, so I wrote in “rice” at the expensive supermarket, because Aldi rice cooks up chompy; sourdough bread and extra cheese for the sandwiches; make sure we have mayo to fry it in, and tomatoes and rosemary for the bisque; and I grabbed a pineapple and some radishes and lettuce and nori, which could go with either Asian meal. 

Then (assuming I am home), I walk around the house and check to see what else we are out of or low on, and add in those items; then I look at my blackboard and see what unintelligible nonsense people have scratched onto it throughout the week, make my best guess, and add those items in. There are things I buy every week, like seltzer and milk and coffee, and I don’t bother writing those down. 

I do the Walmart shopping (for non-food items) at the same time, so I also walk around and figure out what we need from there, and write that in its own column. And then it’s time to go!

But first I take a photo of my list! Because I lose it about 30% of the time! But I only lose my phone about 10% of the time, so it’s helpful to have a photo. 

The actual shopping

I do the Walmart shopping first, so the perishable foods don’t sit in my car for long (yeah, it’s winter, but a habit’s a habit). We don’t have a Walmart grocery, so their food items are fairly limited; but I usually grab one or two school lunch items that I know are cheaper than they will be at the supermarket, like Valentine fruit snacks or little bags of Halloween pretzels, and also fancy cereal on clearance or whatever. Basically I know the price of everything at all times and am constantly comparing it in my head and making ten thousand decisions for three hours straight every Saturday. This is just a thing that happened to me, and I don’t know if it’s something you can learn if it doesn’t come naturally because of how your life is, but it’s the main component to my budgeting. 

When I’m done with Walmart, I reward myself with a Wendy’s salad. This is my one weekly meal out, and it is not part of the food budget, so if you’re wondering how I itemize this kind of thing, it’s by fluttering my hands and saying “Oh no, I bought myself a salad, lock me up!” 

Next is the Aldi shopping. I try to buy things in season, especially fruit, because they taste better, they’re cheaper, and it just makes life more piquant not to have all the things all the time. I also try to vary what I buy so the kids don’t get too bored. I will buy bananas three weeks in a row, then take two weeks off, to build up a little banana excitement. One week, pretzels rods; next week, pub style pretzels; next week, those weird flat pretzel cracker things. It’s a real whirlwind around here. 

I noticed that Aldi bacon was an unadvertised $3.69 pound, which was better than the sale price I had noted down for the other store. Score! I know it’s only forty cents, but this is the game I play. It was the same with a three-pound bag of oranges. Forty cents here, sixty cents there. Like I said, I’m not spending more than I was a few years ago, so I guess it works. 

If there is anything they unexpectedly didn’t have at Aldi, I transfer that to the other store column, and then shop there. The main reason I have settled on this supermarket as our secondary one is because our prescriptions are here. I sometimes go to a third food store if I’m looking for something unusual like oysters or some unusual spice, but my time is worth something. Sometimes I know very well that I’m paying extra for something, and if I feel bad about it, I think, “This meat that’s closer is costing me an extra three dollars. If someone offered to make the trip for a further-away, cheaper meat for me for three dollars, would I pay it? Yes, gladly. So I’ll pay myself three dollars, and not make the trip.” It’s possible you have to be crazy for this to make sense, but it makes sense to me. 

Then I come home and collapse like a bunch of broccoli. All the kids lug the groceries inside, and we pay one kid $5 a week to toss out leftovers and put the new week’s groceries away. 

The next day, when I can stand to think about food again, I write all the meals in on the menu blackboard. I make on last stab at variety, and don’t serve pork twice in a row, for instance. Everyone still asks me what’s for supper every day, and I tell them to look at the blackboard, but this is another game we play. Half the time someone has added “and cheese” to every meal, or else they’ve cleverly altered my letters so it says we’re having — well, I can’t think of anything funny right now, but my kids usually can. They’re very funny. 

And now you know!

Oh, the other thing is that I have to have my list clutched in my paw while I shop, or else I won’t remember anything, but I never look at it, because the act of thinking it through and writing it down lodges it in my head. I wrote a poem about this one time, but it was pretty bad. 

And yes, I had to pick up some milk on the way home from band last night because I forgot to buy milk. Right in the middle of hot chocolate season, too. 

Sites I refer to often lately:
New York Times cooking (I get their emails, and usually end up googling around and finding a simplified version of their fancy pants recipes, but it’s not bad for inspiration)
Damn Delicious
My Korean Kitchen
Milk Street 
Saveur
Sip and Feast
But honestly, I usually start with the major ingredients and I have and then google that + [ethnicity] and just see where that takes me. And as I mentioned, I will very often do an image search for my name and “sandwich” or “soup” or whatever, just to jog my memory. I have no idea what people eat every week, and I have to start from scratch every time. 

Eyes on Jesus

Many years ago, I used to pick up some extra cash by doing short interviews with priests, asking for their stories about how they heard the call to enter the seminary.

This was maybe 10 years after the first news of the sex abuse scandal broke, which meant that these men were in elementary school when they first started hearing headlines about predatory priests and widespread coverups.

I am not sure how it hit all over the country, but we lived just a short jaunt down the highway from the absolute epicenter of this earthquake, and from the endless aftershocks as more and more news was revealed of how the bishops hid and lied and dissembled and suppressed the truth.

The horror and misery and shame and shock and rage of those first years is something I will never forget. I thought I knew that the Church was a human institution as well as divine, but I was not prepared for just how human it was. Just how ready some humans are to say the words of heaven, while building up hell.

So, that was the atmosphere. Those were the clouds that lay low and heavy on the ground around the words “Catholic Church.” This was what would come to mind first, and maybe only, when you thought about Catholic priests.

The job I had, interviewing priests, wasn’t the kind of job where I was supposed to ask about sex abuse, but it came up anyway, because how could it not? Many of these men told me that their mothers, in particular, were terrified about how they would be treated.

Not so long ago, being a priest in the community meant getting a certain amount of respect and deference. Suddenly, understandably, it was just the opposite. People automatically viewed priests with suspicion or even disgust. They treated them as if they were all molesters, or at very least as if they condoned and were comfortable with molestation.

And you can understand why. Listen, you can look up statistics and show that pediatricians and public school teachers and gymnastics coaches are equally or more likely to be molesters than Catholic priests. But show me the gymnastics coach who claims to act in persona Christi. The proportion of abusive priests shouldn’t be comparable to the proportion of abusers in the general population; it should be zero, throughout all of history, forever. And it’s not.

It’s not fair to individual innocent priests to be treated with contempt. But the Church as a whole has more than earned it.

So imagine being a young man at this time, and knowing that this is how people think. Imagine growing up while this is the norm, and still hearing that call to the priesthood, and still answering it. I think about this all the time, because it’s surely something that comes up for priests all the time. Any time a priest says anything in public online, you know that at least one person is going to make a pedophile comment. It doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. And still, they answer the call.

Most people don’t meet priests in person very often, and it’s only online that they make any contact. There is an exception that I think about a lot: On the feast of Corpus Christi, we make a procession out through the streets of our small city. We live in one of the two least religious states in the country, and it’s pretty rare to see any kind of religious expression in public, except for maybe the vaguest kind of nods toward crystals and nature fairies.

You certainly don’t see embroidered vestments outdoors every day, and you don’t hear a Salve Regina in the open air. But there went the monstrance, under its satin canopy, squeezing its way down the sidewalk in the midday sun. Shining.

While I tried to focus on the rosary we were praying as we walked, it was hard not to take a peek and see what effect our procession was having on people, as they tucked their feet under their cafe tables to let us pass. You could see they were wondering: Do I keep eating this taco? Do I pause? Most people averted their eyes, and most pretended they didn’t notice us. Many looked uncomfortable. A few looked glad. A few laughed.

My kids felt uncomfortable, and I told them it was okay to feel that way. It’s weird for the people on the streets to meet this way, and it’s weird for us. But I told them not to worry too much about feeling weird, because Jesus was at our head, and that is who we were following. That’s the only part that matters.

Sometimes it feels like we are following him up out of hell. Sometimes it’s a hell other people have made; sometimes it’s a hell we have built ourselves.

I know it’s easy to look back and pine for the days we see in old photographs, when even the old man sweeping the streets knew enough to stop and fall to his knees when the blessed sacrament went passing by. And now we’re in such disarray that half the Catholics I know can barely bring themselves to go inside a church building, because the hidden sickness is finally out in the open, and it’s too much to bear.

But one thing has not changed. Jesus is still calling men, and men are still answering. They are still following him, knowing how normalized it has become for people to treat them with contempt. Many of them are answering the call because of this, because they see the carnage and they want to accept the honor of helping us find a way out of it.

A priest was once giving me some spiritual direction. We met several times, and although we talked for hours, the only thing he said that I clearly remember is, “Eyes on Jesus. Eyes on Jesus.” What else is there to say? Where else is there to look? Who is else there to follow? Where else is there to go? You find out where Jesus is, and you go that way. 

Jesus is still calling, not only priests, but everyone. Right now. Not only on his special feast day, but every day that starts with the sun rising. Calling and shining. Come up out of hell.

***

Photo of Corpus Christi procession by John Ragai via Flickr (Creative Commons)

A version of this essay was first published in The Catholic Weekly in November of 2022.

What’s for supper? Vol. 325: (salad)

Okay, this may be a little obnoxious but I am not spending more money on groceries these days. I’m just being more strict with the budgeting habits I’ve followed for years. Would people be interested in a separate post explaining how I plan my weekly menu and how I make my shopping list? It won’t be useful for everyone, but it might be interesting. I promise not to try to sell you a $60 planner. 

Anyway, here is what we had this week: 

SATURDAY
??

I certainly do not remember what we had for supper on Saturday. It was the kind of day that made me google “minimum age child at home alone legal NH,” because there were a lot of duck-fox-basket of corn situations, including the celebration of Sophia’s birthday.

Halfway through our first batch of teenager birthdays, we discovered that, for a surprisingly reasonable price, you can rent an entire small theater a couple of towns over, and they will play a DVD you bring. So she obviously brought The Mummy and invited some pals, and Damien popped a ton of popcorn and they had a nice time. Clara made this snazzy chocolate BTS cake:

and we got some Aldi pizza for lunch. By the time dinner came around, it was a blur. 

SUNDAY
Pork ribs, rice, honey roasted Brussels sprouts

Everything with very simple seasoning. Pork ribs heavily salted and peppered, and roasted right under the broiler, turned once; rice cooked in chicken broth, which the kids desire most ardently; and Brussels sprouts roasted with olive oil, honey, and sea salt. 

I had to do a little fancy footwork with the pork and the brussels sprouts pans, to make sure they both got a turn under the broiler and the brussels sprouts didn’t get overcooked, but Somehow I Managed. Little blorp of bottled sauce and you got yourself a decent meal. This concludes this week’s Spotlight On Pork. I will spare you the other pork photos I took, which look disconcertingly like Martin Luther King Jr’s uhhhhh arm. 

MONDAY
Beef barley soup, butternut squash muffins

They had big hunks of beef on sale for $2.99 a pound, so I got two big ones and cut one up for soup. Here is my trusty, hearty, cozy beef barley soup recipe:

Jump to Recipe

I’m still waiting for my Instant Pot replacement float valve to arrive, so I cooked this on the stovetop, and forgot to keep an eye on it, so the barley and mushrooms gobbled up most of the broth. So we had a savory assemblage of beef, barley, tomatoes, mushrooms, carrots, garlic, and onions, graced with a little whisper of beef broth. Honestly, no complaints. 

I really wanted some bread to go with, but I didn’t have time to let anything rise, and we didn’t have any beer to make a beer bread (which is a great easy quick bread to know. Here’s that recipe: Jump to Recipe); and we didn’t have any canned pumpkin to make pumpkin muffins. 

We did, however, have half a butternut squash left over from last week’s one pan chicken thighs. So I covered it with damp napkins and put it in the microwave for about 15 minutes, three minutes at a time, until it was forkable.

Then I scooped it out and mashed it and used it in place of pumpkins in this very reliable pumpkin bread recipe, which makes two loaves or 18 muffins

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and hoooo doggie they were delicious muffins.

Light and kind of buttery and very tender. (I don’t know why I felt it was necessarily to get right up in this muffin’s face for the only photo I took, but at least you can really see the texture!) This is a nice, easy recipe (which any muffin recipe should be), and I often turn to it when I need a quick side for soup. 

I like the pumpkin muffins very much, but these squash ones were clearly superior. More flavor, more interesting texture, lighter. I don’t know if it’s because butternut squash is a better vegetable than pumpkin overall, or because I was using fresh squash instead of canned pumpkin. Probably both reasons. Anyway, I’m going to do it this way from now on, whenever I can. They were a good accompaniment to the soup, as a sweetish quick bread, but if you added a cream cheese icing, they would easily work for a dessert. 

Some of the kids had them for breakfast the next day, too, so I felt massively accomplished. 

TUESDAY
Pizza

Tuesday was my first band practice! Very exciting! I started playing clarinet in 4th grade and continued playing in the school band all through high school. I noodled around a bit after that, but this is my the first time playing in a group in more than thirty years. What an absolute joy. It’s a band for adults just like me, who used to play and are getting back into it, or who are just learning to play, so it’s very friendly and encouraging, and I absolutely love it. Damien got me a clarinet that packs up into a cute little backpack for Christmas, and I got myself a folding music stand, and my fingers are all, “yep, we remember this,” and away we go. It’s awesome. If you are an old bat and feeling a little bit now-what-ish about your life, I strongly recommend checking to see if there’s a New Horizons band in your area. I also dropped my high school band director a note just to let him know I’m still playing and that I have happy memories of band. Wish I could write to Mr. Faro,  who taught me to play all those years ago, but he passed away quite young. Sweet man.

Speaking of sweet men, Damien made pizzas because I was in a bit of a tizzy about my first practice. He made two cheese, one pepperoni, and one garlic, onion, anchovy, and artichoke heart. Veddy good.

WEDNESDAY
Chicken burgers, leftovers

I’m trying to throw away less food, and I can’t seem to actually cook less food, so I cooked some frozen chicken burgers and then heated up some of the massive amounts of leftovers clogging up the fridge, so we had chicken burgers, rice, Brussels sprouts, and nachos. The kids complained a lot, which tells me we need to do this more often so they get used to it, because it was perfectly good food! 

Oh, you know what, we must have had nachos on Saturday, because there were leftover nachos in the fridge. 

THURSDAY
Steak and pear salad, french bread

Not really steak, but I don’t know what to call it. “Beef salad” just sounds gross, and this meal was actually delightful. Damien took the other large on-sale hunk of roast beef, chuck roast or whatever it was; seasoned it, and seared it in oil with garlic cloves, then cooked it slowly in the oven

until it was beautifully rare inside, which I swear I took a photo of, but apparently it was on my imagination camera.

I served it with mixed greens, sliced pears, toasted walnuts (microwaved for two minutes), crumbled blue cheese, diced red onion, and white wine vinegar for a dressing. 

Absolutely delicious. 

I got it into my head that there was’t enough meat (there absolutely was), and we needed a side, so I made some french bread. I started somewhat late in the day, so the bread came out of the oven right at supper time

and my poor family was forced to eat piping hot french bread with melted butter sliding off the top. 

If you are wondering why one of the loaves has a little jog at the end, that’s what happens when you balance a large pan of rising dough on top of a toaster when people are rushing around in the kitchen, and it gets knocked onto the floor but miraculously flips over and the dough lands on the floor on top of the plastic wrap because, well, God loves you all the time, and sometimes he shows it by not letting your bread dough get all crapped up on the dirty floor. So that was nice! One loaf got a little jog at the end of it, but who among us. 

FRIDAY
Tuna noodle or salmon 

It is a snow day! See?

A snow day that they announced yesterday, so we could turn off our alarms, and they sent the kids home with work packets, so the day off won’t get counted against their summer vacation, and the kids industriously did their packets yesterday. I am rewarding them with tuna noodle (which I was planning to make anyway, but they do like it), and the big people are having salmon of some kind, because I happened to be at Aldi right when salmon hit the “sell or freeze by” date and it was 50% off. 

Not sure exactly how I will prepare the salmon. I might just pan fry it and serve it with, hmmm, steamed potatoes and peas or something. My goal is not to run out to the store. Or make anyone else run to the store. 

Anyway, let me know if you want that “how I plan and shop” thing. It might just be annoying, I don’t know. 

 

Beef barley soup (Instant Pot or stovetop)

Makes about a gallon of lovely soup

Ingredients

  • olive oil
  • 1 medium onion or red onion, diced
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 3-4 medium carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2-3 lbs beef, cubed
  • 16 oz mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
  • 6 cups beef bouillon
  • 1 cup merlot or other red wine
  • 29 oz canned diced tomatoes (fire roasted is nice) with juice
  • 1 cup uncooked barley
  • salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Heat the oil in a heavy pot. If using Instant Pot, choose "saute." Add the minced garlic, diced onion, and diced carrot. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions and carrots are softened. 


  2. Add the cubes of beef and cook until slightly browned.

  3. Add the canned tomatoes with their juice, the beef broth, and the merlot, plus 3 cups of water. Stir and add the mushrooms and barley. 

  4. If cooking on stovetop, cover loosely and let simmer for several hours. If using Instant Pot, close top, close valve, and set to high pressure for 30 minutes. 

  5. Before serving, add pepper to taste. Salt if necessary. 

 

Beer bread

A rich, buttery quick bread that tastes more bready and less cake-y than many quick breads. It's so easy (just one bowl!) but you really do want to sift the flour.

This recipe makes two large loaf pan loaves.

Ingredients

  • 6 cups flour, sifted
  • 2 Tbsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 12-oz cans beer, preferably something dark
  • 1 stick butter

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 375

  2. Butter two large loaf pans. Melt the stick of butter.

  3. I'm sorry, but you really do want to sift the flour.

  4. In a large bowl, mix together dry ingredients, and stir in beer until it's all combined and nice and thick.

  5. Pour the batter into the loaf pans and pour the melted butter over the top.

  6. Bake for about 50 minutes until it's crusty and knobbly on top.

 

Pumpkin quick bread or muffins

Makes 2 loaves or 18+ muffins

Ingredients

  • 15 oz canned pumpkin puree
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup veg or canola oil
  • 1.5 cups sugar
  • 3.5 cups flour
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1.5 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
  • oats, wheat germ, turbinado sugar, chopped dates, almonds, raisins, etc. optional

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350. Butter two loaf pans or butter or line 18 muffin tins.

  2. In a large bowl, mix together dry ingredients.

  3. In a separate bowl, mix together wet ingredients. Stir wet mixture into dry mixture and mix just to blend. 

  4. Optional: add toppings or stir-ins of your choice. 

  5. Spoon batter into pans or tins. Bake about 25 minutes for muffins, about 40 minutes for loaves. 

 

French bread

Makes four long loaves. You can make the dough in one batch in a standard-sized standing mixer bowl if you are careful!

I have a hard time getting the water temperature right for yeast. One thing to know is if your water is too cool, the yeast will proof eventually; it will just take longer. So if you're nervous, err on the side of coolness.

Ingredients

  • 4-1/2 cups warm water
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 Tbsp active dry yeast
  • 5 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup olive or canola oil
  • 10-12 cups flour
  • butter for greasing the pan (can also use parchment paper) and for running over the hot bread (optional)
  • corn meal for sprinkling on pan (optional)

Instructions

  1. In the bowl of a standing mixer, put the warm water, and mix in the sugar and yeast until dissolved. Let stand at least five minutes until it foams a bit. If the water is too cool, it's okay; it will just take longer.

  2. Fit on the dough hook and add the salt, oil, and six of the cups of flour. Add the flour gradually, so it doesn't spurt all over the place. Mix and low and then medium speed. Gradually add more flour, one cup at a time, until the dough is smooth and comes away from the side of the bowl as you mix. It should be tender but not sticky.

  3. Lightly grease a bowl and put the dough ball in it. Cover with a damp towel or lightly cover with plastic wrap and set in a warm place to rise for about an hour, until it's about double in size.

  4. Flour a working surface. Divide the dough into four balls. Taking one at a time, roll, pat, and/or stretch it out until it's a rough rectangle about 9x13" (a little bigger than a piece of looseleaf paper).

  5. Roll the long side of the dough up into a long cylinder and pinch the seam shut, and pinch the ends, so it stays rolled up. It doesn't have to be super tight, but you don't want a ton of air trapped in it.

  6. Butter some large pans. Sprinkle them with cornmeal if you like. You can also line them with parchment paper. Lay the loaves on the pans.

  7. Cover them with damp cloths or plastic wrap again and set to rise in a warm place again, until they come close to double in size. Preheat the oven to 375.

  8. Give each loaf several deep, diagonal slashes with a sharp knife. This will allow the loaves to rise without exploding. Put the pans in the oven and throw some ice cubes in the bottom of the oven, or spray some water in with a mister, and close the oven quickly, to give the bread a nice crust.

  9. Bake 25 minutes or more until the crust is golden. One pan may need to bake a few minutes longer.

  10. Run some butter over the crust of the hot bread if you like, to make it shiny and even yummier.

Who is Pinocchio?

The first thing you need to know about Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022) is it is beeeee-yoootiful. It will take your breath away. It is a work of art, and everyone who had a hand in it should win prizes and be proud forever.
[where to watch it]

The second thing to know is that it’s absolutely full of Jesus. Or someone. More about that later! 

I am recommending this movie heartily, but it’s tragic and alarming, scary, weird, and dehydrating, because your mouth will hang open the whole time. My seven-year-old loved it, but she’s a tough kid, and she was grabbing my arm the whole time. It has the death of a child and others, drunken grief, air raids and naval mines, hair-raising supernatural creatures, startling scenes from the afterlife, and lots of painful strife between fathers and sons.

It’s also extremely witty and playful, tender, suspenseful, and, I really cannot emphasize enough, so beautiful. I cannot decide, yet, whether it’s coherent or not. I’ve only seen it once so far! (This review will have spoilers, so beware.) 

Del Toro has set it in the middle of World War II, and he’s given Gepetto a backstory: He’s not just a whimsical toymaker, but a skilled carpenter who’s teaching his beloved young son, Carlo. 

In the original book and the Disney movie, Pinocchio is a concupiscent rascal who will always take the easy, pleasurable way out. He doesn’t go to school; instead, he choses Pleasure Island and must be put through a horrible ordeal and hit rock bottom before he cathartically emerges, chastened, ready to try to be obedient and self-sacrificial.

But in this movie, Pinocchio is more of a blank slate (and he is literally unpainted; just plain pine), and other people see uses for him. The puppet master sees the ideal entertainer; the fascist Podesta sees the perfect soldier; and Gepetto simply sees a burden, something that fails to be his son.

It almost sounds like typical theme for recent children’s movies: This young person is different from all the others, and the adults must learn to appreciate him for who he is. But it’s not so facile. Gepetto does learn to love Pinocchio for who he is, rather than trying to transform him into a substitute for his lost son Carlo (at the end, Pinocchio becomes “a real boy,” but his body remains pine, and does not transform into human flesh). But this is because the movie is just as much, or more, about Gepetto and about parenthood and what it does to you as it is about Pinocchio.

And others around him are changed, too: The monkey rebels against his cruel master; Candlewick has the courage to say “no” to the father he wants so desperately to please; and of course Pinocchio physically saves Gepetto’s life, first with his bizarre ability to extend his nose, then by dragging him up from the water in a profoundly affecting scene where, having deliberately set off a naval mine to kill the sea monster, he pathetically thrashes in the depths with his burned stump as he flails to bring his unconscious father to the surface. 

In another way, his very existence saves Gepetto. The only thing left of Carlo, the first son, is the perfect pinecone he found, so that is what the father has to bury. Gepetto tends the tree that sprouts up, year after year. But he’s not doing well. He’s wasting away, being eaten up by his grief, and he continues to live while his son does not. Finally, in a nail-biting, Frankenstein-esque scene,  he cuts down the tree in a drunken frenzy and crafts it into the rough body of a boy; and a passing wood sprite brings it to life while he sleeps. 

Pinocchio commences to make terrible trouble for him, raising the wrath of Podesta and the priest and putting him in debt to the carnival. And Gepetto does his best, trying to tolerate him and teach him what he needs to know; but ultimately Pinocchio saves him not only by helping him out of the sea monster’s mouth, not only by pulling him up out of the depths of the water, but by being alive in the first place. Pinocchio makes him suffer, but he also draws him out of the dark hole of grief over Carlo. 

Here is the real shift that this movie makes. I wondered why del Toro took out the Pleasure Island sequence, and why he decided to make Pinocchio more innocent. I thought perhaps the idea was to shift the emphasis onto cultural themes: Rather than pleasure island, the boys are sent to its sort of dark parallel, war training camp.

But there’s also something else, that happens in the first ten minutes of the movie.Before Gepetto made Pinocchio, he was at rock bottom. He was the one who had given in to his worst impulses, and was wallowing in the weakness of his sorrow. He had, you could say, gone to Grief Island and couldn’t escape. It’s only after his entire ordeal with his travels and with the sea monster and his horrible grief of losing a second son and then getting him back again that he returns to his home and resumes to something like the life he had before Carlo died. We see him back in the church at home, fitting a new arm on the damaged. crucified Christ. And we see that Pinocchio, too, has two arms once again. Gepetto has been restored. 

Which part was cathartic for him? It’s hard to say. He is an old man. It was hard not to think of Abraham, taking such delight in his son, and then losing him on the very altar of God. Well, this is what I mean by not being sure how coherent the movie was. There was so much in there, I truly cannot tell if it doesn’t hang together, or if it’s just incredibly complex. 

The creature that guards the hour glasses in the underworld says that human life is precious because it is short. It’s clear that this being has a somewhat different approach to humanity from her sister, and is exasperated that the sister brought Pinocchio to life. She does allow Pinocchio the free choice over whether to break the rules, smashing the hourglass and exiting the netherworld early, for the sake of his father’s love; but it’s not clear whether Pinocchio’s heroism is meant as a rebuke to the idea that the shortness of human life is what makes it precious. Being a “real boy” is clearly about more than the ability to live and die. At the end of the movie, he’s somewhere in between mortal and immortal: he outlives Gepetto, and the monkey, and the cricket, and it is suggested that he has undone the experience of his father. Gepetto, too, outlived his beloved ones; but Pinocchio, silhouetted on that same hilltop, isn’t wasting away at the grave and refusing to live on while his loved ones are dead; but he is also not suffering the terrible fate that the timekeeping creature warned him of, where everyone he loves dies while he lives on forever. It is suggested that he goes out into the larger world and is accepted for who he is; and then, says that narrator: “What happens, happens, and then we’re gone.”

Well. Listen. As far as I’m concerned, that last line was the equivalent of Gepetto mumbling something lame about the other people getting to know you better over time. That’s no answer, and I think del Toro knows it. 

As a Catholic, when I review movies, I try to catch myself and make sure I’m not Jesus juking anybody, and confabulating religious themes where they weren’t intended. Here, I’m finding myself having to do the opposite: Scrambling around busily gathering up all the explicit references to Jesus, and not being able to make anything out of them. Trying to work through what this movie was doing is like trying to put together a complicated, detailed kit that has all the tiny pieces and all the directions, but no glue.  Or maybe I just haven’t found it yet.

Very early in the movie, I was surprised and gratified to see Gepetto and his son making the sign of the cross to pray before a meal, and then they had a crucifix on the wall of their house. I thought, “Oh, wartime Italy was Catholic and they’re not gloss over it; that’s neat.” Next scene: Gepetto is carving an enormous crucifix for the town church. They linger over the face of Christ, and shortly afterward, after they hoist the crucifix into position at the altar, Gepetto climbs up and is painting blood onto the face. He asks his son to send him up some more red paint. I gasped.

Did you know that children make you suffer? This movie will tell you so, if you didn’t know. Children will make you suffer, and they will transform you.

But Pinocchio is not just any son. Who is he?

At one point, after Pinocchio is somewhat understandably ejected from the church (he really is kind of ungodly looking, and after wandering up the aisle, he innocently apes the outstretched arms of the crucifix and grins at the crowd),

he explicitly asks his father, “How come they like Him and not me?” Meaning Jesus. They are both made of wood, but people sing to Jesus, but they throw Pinocchio out. Gepetto doesn’t really have an answer, partly because he doesn’t like Pinocchio very much himself, yet. He mumbles something about how people will get to know him better, and he must go to school. But you can see, the question has occurred to del Toro, and he wants us to ask ourselves: Who is this, anyway? What does it mean to be made into a human? What kind of incarnation are we talking about? 

And there’s more. The question of obedience to the father is brought up several times, always in terms of it being a good thing, a sign of respect, the right way to live. 

But also presented as a virtue: Saying no to authority, and breaking the rules when the time is right. This is what Candlewick does when he and Pinocchio both tie their flags to the tower, and he refuses to shoot his friend despite his father’s order, and despite his desperate desire to win his father’s approval. He openly says to his father something like, “I’m strong enough to say no, are you?” You can see that the priest and others in the town feel somewhat conflicted when they clumsily salute; they’re not strong enough to say no.

And Pinocchio, of course, faces a moment when he is given a choice to break the rules. In his third sojourn in the sandy underworld, he can’t wait for the hourglass to run out to return to life, so he choses to break it, knowing it means he will die. 

There’s more Christ imagery: In the final struggle with the puppeteer, Pinocchio is tied to a tree at the edge of a cliff in an unmistakable echo of the crucifix that fascinated him; then shortly after, we see Pinocchio descending down into the waters after his father and struggling to bear him up. He gives up his life for his friends! He dies, but he comes back to life! Pinocchio is Jesus! Right? Sort of? But not really! 

This is fairly on brand for del Toro. I guess he can’t shake the idea that, in every movie he makes, he’s looking for that perfect, unblemished pinecone, and he knows it has to be buried, and knows it will become a tree that will be cut down and craft into something that will ultimately save him. But he can’t quite bring himself to say its true name. At one point, a terrified congregant in the church says, “Malocchio!” and the puppet brightly responds, “No, Pinocchio!” 

My dude, no, it’s Jesus. 

Boy, though, what a movie. 

What’s for supper? Vol. 324: O tempora, o meatballs

What a weird week!  Anyone else having a weird week? Just a weird ol’ week. But I just opened the curtains and there was a bluebird sitting on roof of the shed. First one I’ve seen this year. Bluebirds are neat. They’re a little bit boisterous, but very graceful, and they are happy to hang around in gangs at the feeder, without chasing other birds away. Very decorative birds, always a welcome visitor. 

Here’s a slow mo video I took last year:

Anyway, here’s what we had while boistrously hanging around our feeder: 

SATURDAY
Chicago style hot dogs, chips

These were not quite 100% authentic, which would require poppy seed buns, some kind of bright green relish, and sport peppers, but we did have tomatoes, pickled peppers, relish, mustard, pickle spears, chopped onion, and celery salt. 

Really delicious. I got the idea for this from that meme that says the existence of a Chicago style hot dog implies the existence of an MLA style hot dog, which is a silly joke, but on the other hand, mmm, hot dogs. 

SUNDAY
Steak, pork dumplings, cheesecake, strawberry ice cream

Sunday was my favorite husband’s birthday, so we had some of his favorite foods. He cooked steaks for everyone, pan fried in butter with garlic

(sorry, I know it’s Friday, sorry!)

and I used the pork dumpling filling I had stashed in the freezer from New Year’s Eve which is this recipe. I had seen one of those amazing videos where someone’s twinkling fingers forms dumplings into all kinds of beguiling shapes with a few simple pinches and folds, and woop! You have a dahlia and a lotus and a pinwheel. So even though I had dumpling wrappers that were fairly stiff and paper-like, and the video showed dumpling dough that was soft and pliable, I thought, “I CAN DO THAT.” 

Friends, I could not.

But I gave it the old college try, and I did get some raw pork on my phone. And then I went back to using my dumpling press, which works great. So everyone had steamed dumplings while waiting for their steaks. In fact, I had leftover filling after I used up all the wrappers, so I added some panko bread crumbs and made little meatballs

so some people had little birthday meatballs.

I also made a bunch of strawberry ice cream

following the Ben and Jerry recipe, which always turns out light and sweet and lovely 

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and I made a gigantic cheesecake. I have been sworn to secrecy about the particulars of this recipe, but LOOK AT MY CHEESECAKE

I think this is the first time I’ve achieved no cracks. I put all the ingredients out to come to room temperature the night before; I mixed it very lightly, so as to introduce as little air as possible, and scraped down the bowl often; and I baked it in a water bath, and then turned off the oven and let it sit in the cooling oven for a few hours before I took it out and started to chill it. 

It was luscious.

I wish I had started 24 hours sooner, so I could have chilled it over night after baking it, but it was rich and smooth and lovely, and about a mile high. 

MONDAY
One-pan garlic chicken thighs and roast veg

I used to make these one-pan chicken thigh meals a lot, and got kind of burnt out on them, so I backed off for a while. I guess it’s been long enough, because this was very popular.

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You can add whatever vegetables you want. My advice is to think about how long they need to cook, and try to cut them to the appropriate thickness, so they end up done at the same time. 

I used about three pounds of potatoes with the skin on and few zucchinis and half a large butternut squash in wedges. In this variation, you season the vegetables, then lay the chicken on top and brush them (well, really smear them, as it’s pretty thick) with a garlicky brown sugar sauce, and then just chunk it in the oven. 

Quite tasty. The sugar runs down into the pan and caramelizes the bottom of the potatoes, giving them a nice little crunch, and the chicken is juicy and the vegetables are tender. 

TUESDAY
Meatball subs, fries

I wish I could remember what I did to these meatballs, because they were much better than my usual meatballs. Humph. I have become aware that I tend to underseason things, so possibly I just took a heavier hand with everything I sprinkled. 

I briefly considered pan frying them, but then I remembered the shortness of life and just threw them on a broiler pan and baked them in a hot oven like I usually do, then transferred them to a crock pot with plenty of jarred sauce.

Good enough for the likes of us. O tempora, o meatballs. 

WEDNESDAY
Chili verde, chips and pico de gallo, cornbread, pineapple, vanilla and peach-mango ice cream

On Wednesday, our friend Fr. Matt from Louisiana came for supper! My chili verde recipe

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is reasonably spicy, and calls for specific peppers. Well, the supermarket didn’t have those specific peppers. It just had bags of mixed peppers called “hot pepper combo” or something, and the label was one of those “may contain one or more of the following.” This is what I got:

I liked the looks of that, so I roasted them. I also tweaked my recipe a bit and roasted the onions and garlic along with them, rather than putting them onions and garlic into the food processor raw

then I puréed it all up with some cilantro, browned up a good amount of fatty, salted and peppered pork chunks in oil, and —

here is the point where I was already several hours behind schedule, because the school called to say that Benny had bruised her eyeball, and what should they do??? I had no idea, so I spent the new few hours calling various doctors and trying to get an appointment with the right person, and sending a kid to the store with a list of stuff I forgot to buy, and making other kids clean up the hideous house because we are really still in shock from Christmas and the house was looking PRETTY ROUGH, and by the time I got back to my chili, it was laaate. So I threw it in the Instant Pot, because it could tenderize the meat faster.

Unless, of course, the Instant Pot float valve is mysteriously missing. Which it was. So I put everything back in the regular non-instant pot, hoped it would cook fast enough, whizzed through making some corn bread (I just used the recipe on the package, which is fine)

and some pico de gallo

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and rescued the kitchen from complete squalor, and then one kid went to pick up some of the kids, and I called the school to tell them to tell Benny to wait for me to pick her up, and we went to the eye doctor and her eye is fine, thank God, just a little creepy; and when I got home, the chili was, if I may say so, perfect. The pork shredded readily with a wooden spoon

and when Fr. Matt got here, we had a lovely meal. 

I made two kinds of ice cream: Plain vanilla, which is just two eggs, 3/4 cup sugar, 2 cups milk, one cup heavy cream, and a dash of vanilla; and then I wanted to make mango, which I made for our anniversary baked alaska, but I couldn’t find mango pulp anywhere. (Here’s the recipe anyway, in case you can.)

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In theory, you can use your big brain and make mango pulp by pureeing mango, but I was being smart (even bigger brain time), and I knew that was a bridge too far. Just altogether too much work, and I definitely didn’t have time for that. So instead (tiny brain time) I went to the other store and bought some canned peaches, and pureed those, and also bought some fresh mangos and cut them up and macerated them in sugar with (possible big brain?) a little ground cloves. 

The ice cream was . . . fine. I think peach and mango would have been fine, and peach and mango and cloves might possibly have worked, but peach, mango, cloves, and onion . . . now that really is a bridge too far. Yep, everyone was too polite to mention it, but I had cut the mangos up on the wooden cutting board and they had picked up an undeniable onion flavor (very tiny brain). Oh well! That’s why I made vanilla (big brain, with vanilla ice cream on top).

THURSDAY
Old Bay drumsticks, risotto, leftover cornbread

On Thursday I collapsed like a bunch of broccoli. I did something I almost never do: I got the kids to school (which took two trips, because one kid promised twice that she was awake, but then when it was time to go, she was just stumbling out of bed, so I had to come back for her) and then just went back to bed and conked out for another three hours. And then when I did get up, I was so dang dopey. Really the only thing I accomplished all day was to make risotto. 

BUT WHAT RISOTTO. I was planning a butternut squash instant pot risotto, because I still had half the squash in the fridge left over from the chicken thigh meal; but oops, the instant pot pin was still missing. So I was tragically forced to spend a good amount of time slowly stirring ladles of chicken broth into the creamy rice and dreamily stirring it around, smelling the fragrant, buttery clouds of steam, and occasionally tasting it to make sure it was still, uh, I don’t know, I was just eating it. 

Toward the end I threw in a giant mound of freshly-grated parmesan cheese and a big fistful of chopped parsley. You know what, no one complained that it didn’t have butternut squash in it. 

The drumsticks were fine. I just roasted them in melted butter with plenty of Old Bay seasoning, and I set out the leftover corn bread. 

We had to run off and get to an art show that the two high school girls had pieces in. Arty kids! We met the art teacher and warned her about the kid who’s coming next year. The general principle is that, if you’ve met one Fisher kid, you’ve met one Fisher kid, but this is especially true with Irene. 

FRIDAY
Seafood lo mein 

And finally Friday. Man.

I haven’t made lo mein for a while. It’s easy, and Damien and Lena and I and maybe one other person really like it, but no one else does. 

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When I made the chili verde, I got some cup o’ noodle for the kids who wouldn’t want it, so I expect they’ll be returning to that well for this meal. I don’t insist that people eat what I make. They’re welcome to fix themselves something else, as long as they’re not rude about it and don’t make a huge mess. I aim to make foods that most of the family will enjoy for about five days a week, and then one or two meals can be things that people with more cultivated palates will enjoy. I have found that this no-pressure constant exposure to different foods is as good a way as any to introduce kids to a variety of foods, and pretty often, they start venturing into new territory of their own volition, just out of curiosity. But if they don’t (and some kids don’t), that’s okay, too. Because it’s just food. There are plenty of other things to fight about! I do care about food, a lot, but I care more about not making anyone miserable over food. 

Guys, I’m trying so hard to bring this back around to bluebirds, but it’s just not working, so I’ll just say goodbye. 

 

Ben and Jerry's Strawberry Ice Cream

Ingredients

For the strawberries

  • 1 pint fresh strawberries
  • 1-1/2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

For the ice cream base

  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 cups heavy or whipping cream
  • 1 cup milk

Instructions

  1. Hull and slice the strawberries. Mix them with the sugar and lemon juice, cover, and refrigerate for an hour.

Make the ice cream base:

  1. In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs for two minutes until fluffy.

  2. Add in the sugar gradually and whisk another minute.

  3. Pour in the milk and cream and continue whisking to blend.

Put it together:

  1. Mash the strawberries well, or puree them in a food processor. Stir into the ice cream base.

  2. Add to your ice cream maker and follow the directions. (I use a Cuisinart ICE-20P1 and churn it for 30 minutes, then transfer the ice cream to a container, cover it, and put it in the freezer.)

One pan honey garlic chicken thighs with fall veg

Adapted from Damn Delicious 

Ingredients

  • 18 chicken thighs
  • 2 lbs broccoli in spears
  • 4-5 lbs potatoes in wedges, skin on if you like
  • 1 butternut squash, peeled and cubed

sauce:

  • 1/3+ cup honey
  • 1/3+ cup brown sugar
  • 3 tbsp dijon or yellow mustard
  • 9 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp oregano
  • 2 tsp dried basil
  • salt and pepper
  • 6 tbsp olive oil
  • olive oil for drizzing

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400. Prepare the sauce. 

  2. In a large, greased sheet pan, spread the potatoes and squash. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. 

  3. Lay the chicken thighs on top of the potatoes and squash. Brush the sauce over the chicken skins. 

  4. Roast the chicken for thirty minutes or more until they are almost cooked.

  5. Add the broccoli, arranging it on top of the potatoes and in between the chicken. Return the pan to the oven and let it finish cooking another 10 -20 minutes so you don't die. The skins should be golden and the broccoli should be a little charred. 

 

Mango ice cream

Ingredients

  • 30 oz (about 3 cups) mango pulp
  • 2 cups heavy or whipping cream
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 mango, chopped into bits

Instructions

  1. In a bowl, whisk the milk, sugar, and salt until blended.

  2. Add in the mango pulp and cream and stir with a spoon until blended.

  3. Cover and refrigerate two hours.

  4. Stir and transfer to ice cream maker. Follow instructions to make ice cream. (I use a Cuisinart ICE-20P1 and churn it for 30 minutes.)

  5. After ice cream is churned, stir in fresh mango bits, then transfer to a freezer-safe container, cover, and freeze for several hours.

Spicy Chili Verde

You can decrease the heat by seeding the peppers, using fewer habañeros, or substituting some milder pepper. It does get less spicy as it cooks, so don't be alarmed if you make the salsa and it's overwhelming!

Ingredients

  • 5 lbs pork shoulder
  • salt and pepper
  • oil for cooking
  • 2 cups chicken broth or beer (optional)

For the salsa verde:

  • 4 Anaheim peppers
  • 2 habañero peppers
  • 4 jalapeño peppers
  • 4 medium onions
  • 12 tomatillos
  • 1 head garlic, cloves peeled
  • 1 bunch cilantro

For serving:

  • lime wedges
  • sour cream
  • additional cilantro for topping

Instructions

  1. Preheat the broiler.

  2. Pull the husks and stems off the tomatillos and rinse them. Cut the ends off all the peppers. Grease a large pan and put the tomatillos and peppers on it. Broil five minutes, turn, and broil five minutes more, until they are slightly charred.

  3. Take the pan out and cover the peppers and tomatillos with plastic wrap or tin foil for ten minutes. When they are cool enough to handle, pull the skins off the peppers and tomatillos. At this point, you can remove the seeds from the peppers to decrease the spiciness if you want.

  4. Put the skinned tomatillos and peppers in a food processor or blender with the onions, garlic, and cilantro. Purée.

  5. In a heavy pot, heat some oil. Salt and pepper the pork chunks and brown them in the oil. You will need to do it in shifts so the pork has enough room and browns rather than simmering.

  6. When all the meat is browned, put it all in the pot and add the puréed ingredients.

  7. Simmer at a low heat for at least three hours until the meat is tender. If you want thinner chili verde, you can add chicken broth or beer. At some point, if you don't want the pork in large chunks, press the meat with the back of a spoon to make it collapse into shreds.

  8. Spoon the chili verde into bowls, squeeze some lime juice over the top, and top with sour cream and fresh cilantro.

 

Pico De Gallo

quick and easy fresh dip or topping for tacos, etc.

Ingredients

  • 2 large tomatoes, diced
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and diced OR 1/2 serrano pepper
  • 1/2 onion, diced
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 1/8 cup lime juice
  • dash kosher salt

Instructions

  1. Mix ingredients together and serve with your favorite Mexican food

 

Suppli (or Arancini)

Breaded, deep fried balls of risotto with a center of melted mozzarella. 
Make the risotto first and leave time to refrigerate the suppli before deep frying. 

Ingredients

  • 12 cups chicken stock
  • 8 + 8 Tbs butter
  • 1 cup finely chopped onions
  • 4 cups raw rice
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 cup grated parmesan cheese

To make suppli out of the risotto:

  • risotto
  • 1 beaten egg FOR EACH CUP OF RISOTTO
  • bread crumbs or panko bread crumbs
  • plenty of oil for frying
  • mozzarella in one-inch cubes (I use about a pound of cheese per 24 suppli)

Instructions

  1. Makes enough risotto for 24+ suppli the size of goose eggs.


    Set chicken stock to simmer in a pot.

    In a large pan, melt 8 Tbs. of the butter, and cook onions slowly until soft but not brown.

    Stir in raw rice and cook 7-8 minutes or more, stirring, until the grains glisten and are opaque.

    Pour in the wine and boil until wine is absorbed.

    Add 4 cups of simmering stock and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally until the liquid is almost absorbed.

    Add 4 more cups of stock and cook until absorbed.

    If the rice is not tender by this point, keep adding cups of stock until it is tender. You really want the rice to expand and become creamy.

    When rice is done, gently stir in the other 8 Tbs of butter and the grated cheese with a fork.

  2. This risotto is wonderful to eat on its own, but if you want to make suppli out of it, read on!

  3. TO MAKE THE SUPPLI:

    Beat the eggs and gently mix them into the risotto.


    Scoop up about 1/4 cup risotto mixture. Press a cube of mozzarella. Top with another 1/4 cup scoop of risotto. Roll and form an egg shape with your hands.


    Roll and coat each risotto ball in bread crumbs and lay in pan to refrigerate. 


    Chill for at least an hour to make the balls hold together when you fry them.


    Put enough oil in pan to submerge the suppli. Heat slowly until it's bubbling nicely, but not so hot that it's smoking. It's the right temperature when little bubbles form on a wooden spoon submerged in the oil. 


    Preheat the oven if you are making a large batch, and put a paper-lined pan in the oven.


    Carefully lower suppli into the oil. Don't crowd them! Just do a few at a time. Let them fry for a few minutes and gently dislodge them from the bottom. Turn once if necessary. They should be golden brown all over. 


    Carefully remove the suppli from the oil with a slotted spoon and eat immediately, or keep them warm in the oven. 

basic lo mein

Ingredients

for the sauce

  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 5 tsp sesame oil
  • 5 tsp sugar

for the rest

  • 32 oz uncooked noodles
  • sesame oil for cooking
  • add-ins (vegetables sliced thin or chopped small, shrimp, chicken, etc.)
  • 2/3 cup rice vinegar (or mirin, which will make it sweeter)

Instructions

  1. Mix together the sauce ingredients and set aside.

  2. Boil the noodles until slightly underdone. Drain and set aside.

  3. Heat up a pan, add some sesame oil for cooking, and quickly cook your vegetables or whatever add-ins you have chosen.

  4. Add the mirin to the pan and deglaze it.

  5. Add the cooked noodles in, and stir to combine. Add the sauce and stir to combine.

 

Do women need ascesis?

A few years ago, I interviewed James Baxter, the developer of Exodus90, a spiritual exercise aimed at Catholic men who want to find spiritual freedom through prayer, ascesis, and fraternity.

One thing lots of people wanted to know: Why is this only for men? Why was there no companion program for women?

Although I have mixed feelings about the program in general, I was impressed by Baxter’s answer to this question. He said that, while “there’s nothing exclusive about prayer or asceticism or community,” the program had been written with men and fatherhood in mind, so he didn’t want to just — boop! — shift it over to women.

But people kept pressing him to write up and market a version for women. He said:

“We’re a bunch of men. You don’t want us writing a program for women. So we got a religious order we respected. Their whole mission revolves around feminine identity. We asked them, ‘Would you study Exodus, and if you think this is a model of healing for women, would you write a program, if you feel called to?’

“Six months later, they said they didn’t believe this structure is a model of healing for women.”

I have my own theories for why this may be. Warning: I’ll be painting with a broad brush here, so please keep in mind that my words won’t apply to every last individual human. 

In general, women are introduced at an early age to the inescapability of suffering, and to the ultimate helpless of humans in the face of nature and before the will of God.

When women hit puberty and realize that menses are their fate for the next 30 or 40 years, they get smacked right across the face with the notion that their bodies are not under their control, and there are larger forces at work in their lives. They learn that, while there may be things you can do to mitigate suffering and helplessness, you won’t be able to escape it entirely, and the best you can hope for is to either replace it with a different kind of suffering, or just to accept it and try to become stronger through it.

(I’m not even going to talk about sex, here. Hey, maybe someone should write a book about that.)

Then if they get pregnant, intentionally or not, the next nine months hammer that lesson home: Your body is not your own. Your life is not your own. What you do affects other people, even possibly fatally. At the same time, this thing that is so very intimate is also very much out of your control. Life can happen within you. Death can happen within you. Very often, there is nothing you can do.

Then comes childbirth, with its unpredictability, its glory and its terror.  Like grandmother Mary Rommely said, “When a woman gives birth, death holds her hand for a little while. Sometimes he doesn’t let go.”

Show me a woman who feels the same about life before and after giving birth, and I’ll show you . . . I don’t know what I’ll show you, because I’ve never seen it.

Then comes raising a child, and learning to live with the idea that every effort you make to nurture this child goes toward the loss of that child. Helping your baby to grow means helping your baby to grow away from you. Every inch of life is an inch toward loss. You’re simultaneously responsible for the life of another human, and forced to accept that you cannot protect them from suffering and sorrow.

Motherhood means understanding they will die without you, and also your whole work is to teach them to live without you. You’re constantly preparing your own heart to be broken.

AND THAT’S JUST HOW IT IS.

Women already know they are not in control. Women already know their bodies are going to let them down. Women already know that life is shot through with loss and helplessness. Women already know you can’t always make things better by trying really hard. Women already know that God is immense and that they are very small. Women already know that God can make Himself small to be within us.

Or at least they can know these things, just by paying attention to the things that happen to them over the course of a lifetime.

Women are, as we all know, fully capable of strolling through womanhood vapid and selfish and shallow. They can flee from the reality of the suffering and loss that are baked into human life, and many do.

But the thing is, they do have to actively flee from it, because it’s front and center, inside and outside and all around them, every day.

It’s not so for men.

Don’t get me wrong: Men suffer. Individual men suffer, some at an early age; and manhood presents its unique trials and deprivations. Life asks a lot of men, and without the personal, sometimes brutal sacrifices of men on behalf of people they care for, life would grind to a halt. So you don’t have to start yelling at me about firemen and soldiers and guys who uncomplainingly stand in ankle-deep freezing water while their wives are snugly home in bed.

But, in general (in general! in general!), men must actively choose to take on these sacrifices. They must decide to accept suffering. They must be willing to step into a role where they lay down their lives for other people: To work for other people, to put their bodies in the way of danger, to deny themselves, to take responsibility for their own behavior. It’s a choice.

It’s not that life is harder for women than for men. Everybody’s life is hard! It’s that women have to opt out of suffering, whereas men have to opt in.

And that, perhaps, is why spiritual guides for women are less apt to insist on a lot of regimented self-denial and ascesis as the road to God: Everybody needs it, but men often need a push to go down that road, whereas God has (in general! in general!) already set these things in front of women, and we find Him in learning how to accept them with grace, rather than with fear, anger, and resentment.

So, while I could certainly use some ascesis in my currently rather soft life, I don’t think I really need the lesson that ascesis is meant to teach. I already know it, because I’m a woman.

Well, what do you think?  I will readily admit that this is half-baked idea, but every woman I’ve talked to knows exactly what I’m talking about.

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Photo by Daniela Fazendeiro
A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly on March 4, 2020.