When you sit behind that special needs family at church, here’s what you should know

For many parents of kids with special needs, it’s hard to be at Mass. Just being there is hard. It is the one place they ought to be welcome and feel at home, but instead, it’s often stressful and exhausting, and they feel judged and misunderstood, burdensome, or just plain forgotten. 

Some of that has to do with how adaptive the parish has become. Many parishes have made good accommodations, offering ramps and ADA compliant doors, several pews with lots of space for wheelchairs and for caregivers, and even changing tables designed for heavier kids, not just babies. Some parishes offer adaptive religious education and other activities that attempt to include kids with different abilities; and some priests are ready and willing to provide the sacraments to Catholics who can’t express themselves in typical ways. 

When a parish pulls together and offers these accommodations, a special needs family knows they are truly welcome, and it’s a beautiful thing.

But the other thing that really makes a difference is how other people behave in the pew.

When a special needs family shows up every week, how are they received? Sometimes people who don’t have experience with special needs don’t mean to be hurtful; they simply don’t know better. Here are some things special needs parents wish their fellow laymen understood. 

A kid with special needs may may moan, growl, gesticulate, or sing wildly off pitch. He may shout “JESUS!” when he sees Jesus. Fellow Catholics should try not to stare, scowl, or sigh. A pro-life parish welcomes individuals even when their special needs aren’t cute or photogenic, and special needs Catholics are entitled to participate in the Mass according to their abilities. 

People with special needs may need more time getting in and out of pews. Please be patient. If not when we’re in the presence of God, then when? 

The kid who’s fiddling with a toy, wearing a peculiar hat, or dressed in casual or seemingly inappropriate clothing may truly need to do so in order to be there. What looks like irreverence may be what’s allowing them to make it through Mass. And sometimes phones, handheld devices, or juice boxes are true medical devices, and may be saving a child’s life.

Some kids cannot sit still. They are literally physically incapable of it.  This is how God made them, and they should not be banished to the cry room or the foyer every week for their entire lives because of that.

Disabilities and special needs are not always visible or obvious. A child who looks “fine” may have completely invisible struggles, and just getting to Mass every week may have been a huge effort for the family. Things that come easily to typical families may be monumental trials for families with special needs, and their parents are very aware that their kids are being judged as undisciplined “brats.” Fellow Catholics should strive to provide a place where this kind of judgement doesn’t happen.

People with special needs don’t always look their age. Others should simply assume that their parents are dealing with them in an appropriate way, and leave it at that.

If you’re stopping to chat, go ahead and chat with people with special needs, too, or at least smile at them. Even if they have some intellectual disability, they still have human dignity and deserve to be greeted and acknowledged like anyone else. Even people with profound disabilities can have their feelings hurt (and their parents definitely can), so it’s also important to be careful what is said in their hearing.

People with special needs are individuals with dignity, and their possessions are private property. Resist the urge to move them or their wheelchairs or devices without permission. If you need to touch something that belongs to them, always ask first, just as you would with any kind of personal property.

Parents have tried the obvious solutions to their struggles. They are experts, and even if you mean well, they don’t need to hear a suggestion that just popped into your head. Even if you happen to know someone else with that same condition, your understanding is not going to be comprehensive, so it’s not a good idea to belly up to a special needs parent and act like an expert when you’re not living their life.

Families vary, but in general, they probably do not want to be pitied, they probably do not want to be lavished with praise as saints or heroes, and they probably don’t want to hear anyone’s reassurances that God will heal their children. If you see a special needs parent struggling, you can always ask if they need a hand — but don’t be offended if they decline. And you can’t go wrong by offering a sincere word of encouragement, like, “You’re such a good parent” or “You’re doing such a good job” or “I love seeing your family here.” 

Most likely, special needs kids and their parents simply want to feel like they belong, just the same as any other Catholic who takes it for granted that there is a place for them in the pew.

 

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For more information, resources, and community for Catholic special needs parents, visit acceptingthegift.org, an apostolate founded by Kelly Mantoan
Many thanks to all the parents who contributed ideas to this essay. 

***
A version of this essay was originally published in Parable Magazine in November of 2021. Reprinted with permission.

Image: Wheelchair ramp up to the cathedral entrance, Coventry – start of the handrail
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Robin Stott – geograph.org.uk/p/5028944

 

What’s for supper? Vol. 310: Back on my biryani

GOOD
MORN-ING
GIRLS-AND-BOYS!

{Good morn-ing, Miss El-lis!}

Sweet, sweet Miss Ellis, our music teacher who seemed to have descended from another era and remained untouched by all the very small town 1980’s public schooliness that swirled around her modestly clad ankles. She died relatively young, and so she still remains in my mind as a tall, gentle, slightly stooped, slightly pained-looking woman with a feathered bob, still wearing the plaid jumpers, clogs, and clunky folk jewelry that looked right to her while the rest of the world succumbed to Cyndi Lauper. She had us tootling into our recorders and scraping away at our lummi sticks while she labored away on her autoharp, teaching us folk songs from around the world against our will. And I still remember them, dozens of them. What a lovely woman. Good morning, Miss Ellis!

I guess it’s just fall, remembering time. It’s also cool weather, drizzly weather, and time to really start leaning into things that smell lovely and warm you up from the inside out. It helped that I didn’t have a car all week, so I was home to cook and take my time at it. Here’s what we had: 

SUNDAY
Italian sandwiches, fries

Damien made this meal while I sweated and slaved over a hot computer, putting together an Instacart order. Nobody’s tired of Italian sandwiches yet. I’ll tell you, this has not been a great year for tomatoes, though. They look okay, but they just don’t taste like much. The basil is fine, though. 

Sandwiches are a fine time to practice your pepper grinding skills. Also don’t be afraid to really bend that elbow when you’re pouring the balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Tips!

MONDAY
Carnitas, guacamole

Just another manic Monday, that’s my carnita day. You start out with some hunks of pork sprinkled heavily with salt, pepper, and oregano, and simmer them nicely in a ton of oil and some Coke, a few quartered oranges, some cinnamon sticks, and a few bay leaves.

Jump to Recipe

Give it plenty of time. 

Pull the extries out and keep cooking it until the meat just gives up. 

and then maybe cook it a little longer just to give it a little more texture and color. 

I like carnitas with pico de gallo and sometimes beans and rice, but this time I just made a bowl of guacamole. 

Jump to Recipe

It wasn’t the greatest, and I’m not sure why. I forgot to order tomatoes, so that was missing, but it also just had a kind of harsh taste. Maybe the onions were a little old? Not sure. I mean don’t get me wrong, I ate plenty. It just wasn’t the greatest. 

The carnitas were good. Sweet and a little smoky or something. Not smoky, I don’t know. I had plenty. 

TUESDAY
Chicken biryani, coconut mango sorta-sorbet

A new recipe! I could not have been more pleased with how this turned out. This is from Simply Recipes and I followed it exactly, except for extending the cooking time, which I was prepared for, because last time I made biryani, the rice was so underdone. Oh, I also used chicken broth instead of water, and I skipped the golden raisins, because I knew it would prejudice the kids against this meal. 

I started cooking in the morning. First I gathered the spices. Salt and pepper for the chicken, and then onion, fresh ginger, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon sticks and bay leaves. 

Next, I accidentally dumped about 1/4 cup cardamom down the heating vent. This is not a bad way to begin the heating season, and I may sell this idea to Martha Stewart. I did manage to get the rest into the mortar and pestle and grind it up.

The next step is to prep your rice (I just used regular shorty rice, no fancy basmati or anything) and set that aside; and then slice the chicken thighs up along the bone, then season and fry them in oil. 

At this point, I realized that my almost lifelong horror of frying chicken is probably outdated and unnecessary. When I think of frying chicken, I think of a miserable, stressful catastrophe with hot oil spattered all over the place, billowing clouds of smoke, people screaming, the earth cracking open like a giant egg, species going extinct, I don’t know. Just a bad chicken scene in general. 

But that’s probably because last time I tried to fry chicken, I had a ton of little kids in the kitchen literally hanging off my legs, if not my boobies, while I fried. I probably had a terrible, thin, warped pan to cook with, and not enough oil, and no tongs, and maybe a broken stove, and I was probably in the habit of constantly telling myself what a rotten cook I was while I cooked; and supper was probably late, and everyone was upset, and the earth was probably cracking open like a giant egg. The odds, in short, were against me at the time. A bad chicken scene indeed. 

But things are different now! I have better equipment, I’m a much more confident and skilled cook, and I almost always cook alone. Or if someone comes in, I tell them to go away, and they do. 

What I’m saying is, I’m going to fry some chicken next week. I will probably still tell myself I’m a rotten cook, but, per my therapist, I will catch myself saying this. 

Anyway, back to the biryani. The next thing is to take the chicken out of the pan and fry up the onions and ginger in the oil. Lovely, lovely. Then you add in the turmeric and cardamom and it gets even better. Turmeric, as you know, is this deep golden hue, and you wonder if it’s going to stay so golden when you mix it in to other things, or if it will become diluted. And you will not be disappointed! Oh, I enjoyed myself so much.

Cook a bit more and then add your rinsed rice into the pan

and then add in the chicken, the broth, and the bay leaves and cinnamon. 

My friends, I had to physically force myself to put a lid on the pan. The aroma was straight from paradise and I did not want to be separated from it. 

So it just simmered for about 20 minutes, and when I took the lid off, this magic had occurred:

I don’t know what I expected, but I was just thrilled. Look at it! It’s biryani! 

According to the recipe, the biryani is now cooked. As I expected, though, it was cooked unevenly, and much of the rice was still crunchy. This is a very common issue with biryani, apparently. This is why I started in the morning. So I transferred the whole thing to the slow cooker and set it on low, and let it steam itself for the rest of the day. 

By dinner time, it was piping hot and thoroughly cooked, but not mushy or anything. 

I served it up with some toasted almonds and some chopped cilantro. 

They liked it! Just about everybody liked it. This dish has plenty of depth and cozy layers of flavor, but it’s not spicy at all. This recipe is most certainly going into the rotation, and I may even sneak some golden raisins in next time. So delicious. 

I love that I was able to make it all in the morning. It would make a great party dish. Tasted even better the next day. Wonderful stuff. 

Now for the sorta-sorbet. As I mentioned the other week, the Concord grape sorbet I made turned out so well, I thought a mango sorbet would be great to go with Indian food. The mangoes I ordered were nowhere near ripe, though, so I asked Damien to bring home some frozen mango chunks, and then quickly chose this recipe, which looked simple but promising enough. 

Foolish Simcha, ignoring the biggest red flag at all. She calls it a “sorbet dessert,” rather than just sorbet. This is classic recipe vacillation language, when you come out with something kind of gloppy and you don’t really know what it is, so you just straight up lie about it, and then call it “dessert” to cover your butt. 

Or maybe I screwed up, who knows. Anyway, you’re supposed to blend the mango, coconut milk, lime juice, honey, vanilla, and a little salt in a blender, and …. that’s it. 

In her world, this comes out of her blender the consistency of thick, creamy soft serve ice cream, and she scoops it into an adorable coconut-shaped ramekin and boops a mint leaf on top for the photo. 

In my world, it looked like someone ate a mango and then their stomachs changed their mind. 

I tried freezing it in separate little cups and everything. No dice. I mean it was fine. It tasted fine. It wasn’t any damn sorbet, though. I probably should have put it through my ice cream maker, but by this time, I was kind of mad, and decided not to, on principle. I comforted myself with more biryani. 

WEDNESDAY
Bacon, brussels sprouts, and eggs

Second dark, rainy day in a row. This is a most excellent, one-pan meal that comes together pretty quickly, and that just about everybody likes. I kifed this recipe from Damn Delicious, and I like Chungah, but she calls for four pieces of bacon, and what is that. I used four pounds of bacon, plus three pounds of brussels sprouts, and about fifteen eggs. It was too much bacon, but on the other hand, it was dark and rainy out

You make a nice little sauce with balsamic vinegar, honey, fresh garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper, and you cook the bacon and brussels sprouts with this on a sheet pan

Then you crack some raw eggs carefully over the pan, sprinkle some red pepper flakes and freshly-grated parmesan cheese over that, and some more salt and pepper, and cook it several minutes longer, just until the whites set but the yolks are still wobbly.

And that’s it. So easy. Gosh, it’s delicious. The bacon and brussels sprouts soak up the sweet vingary garlicky sauce, and you can pick up forkfuls of this and dip it in the hot egg yolk and just have a wonderful time. 

Would have been great with some hot crusty bread or some hot pretzels. I think I served tortilla chips. 

THURSDAY
Chicken soup with matzoh balls, rolls, pizza rolls, cake

Thursday was Clara’s birthday! I still owe her a decent cake and a real present, because the whole entire day was eaten up with the worthy project of BUYING A CAR. 

There is a whole long agonizing story about the old car, which is still unresolved, but I did miraculously find this lovely 2010 Honda Odyssey and now it’s mine. Well, I guess technically it belongs to the Service Credit Union, but in five short years it will be mine! I truly love it. I haven’t heard a single bad thing about Honda Odysseys, and this one has heated seats and a sunroof and it only smells a little bit weird, and only in a cat way, not in an automotive way.

Clara modestly asked for chicken soup with matzoh balls for her birthday, and I had the foresight to get the soup going the night before. The soup could not be simpler. It’s really a broth with a few garnishes, more than a soup. A big pot of water with chicken parts with bones, big pieces of carrots, onion, and celery, salt and pepper, and a big handful of fresh dill and fresh parsley. Simmer all day, then strain. Put back as much of the solid bits of chicken and vegetables as you like, but understand that it’s mostly for texture and looks, as the taste has gone into the broth. Let the broth cool and skim off the fat if there’s too much. Then reheat and use as you wish. (I wish to use it to cook matzoh balls.)

So on Thursday I got the matzoh ball dough going when I got home (it needs to chill for at least half an hour), then strained the soup, heated it up, and started cooking some pizza rolls I bought in a panic because what if there’s not enough food? Then I made about 50 matzoh balls and let them simmer and steam for about half an hour.

Served with some soft rolls because what if there’s not enough etc etc
I threw a little fresh dill and parsley on top of the soup, and it was very nice.

I don’t know if all of the matzoh balls were cooked properly, but all the ones I got were!

And then we had a STORE-BOUGHT CAKE. Because I may be an idiot, but even I know that if you get home after 6 PM, it is too late to start baking a cake. I still owe Clara a real cake. Maybe this weekend. 

FRIDAY
Land, I don’t know. I think we are having spaghetti. 

 

John Herreid's Carnitas

Very easy recipe transforms pork into something heavenly. Carnitas are basically pulled pork tacos with the meat crisped up. Serve with whatever you like.

Ingredients

  • pork butt/shoulder, cut into chunks
  • salt and pepper
  • oregano
  • oranges, quartered
  • cinnamon sticks
  • bay leaves
  • 1 can Coke or Mexican Coke
  • 1 cup or less vegetable oil

Instructions

  1. Sprinkle the chunks of pork with salt, pepper, and oregano.

  2. Put them in a heavy pot with the oil and Coke, oranges, cinnamon sticks, and bay leaves. Bring to a simmer.

  3. Simmer, uncovered, for at least two hours. The oranges will start to get mushy and the liquid will begin to thicken.

  4. When the meat is tender, remove the oranges, bay leaves, and cinnamon sticks. Turn the heat up and continue cooking, stirring often, until the meat has a dark crust. Be careful not to let it burn.

  5. Remove the meat and drain off any remaining liquid. Shred the meat. It it's not as crisp as you like, you can brown it under the oven broiler, or return it to the pot without the liquid and fry it up a bit.

  6. Serve on warm tortillas with whatever you like.

White Lady From NH's Guacamole

Ingredients

  • 4 avocados
  • 1 medium tomato, diced
  • 1 medium jalapeno, minced
  • 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped roughly
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 2 limes juiced
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 red onion, diced

Instructions

  1. Peel avocados. Mash two and dice two. 

  2. Mix together with rest of ingredients and add seasonings.

  3. Cover tightly, as it becomes discolored quickly. 

Bacon, eggs, and brussels sprouts in honey garlic balsamic sauce

Adapted from Damn Delicious.  An easy and tasty one-pan meal that would work for any meal. Great with a hearty bread like challah. 

Ingredients

  • 4 lbs Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
  • 3 lbs uncooked bacon, cut into 1- or 2-inch pieces
  • 18 eggs
  • oil for greasing pan
  • salt and pepper to taste

Sauce:

  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp honey
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 8 cloves garlic, crushed

Garnish (optional):

  • parmesan cheese, grated
  • red pepper flakes

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400. Grease two large oven sheets. 


  2. Combine sauce ingredients in a small bowl. Mix Brussels sprouts and bacon together, spread evenly in pans, and pour sauce all over. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

  3. Cook until bacon is almost done (almost as crisp as you like it) and Brussels sprouts are very slightly browned, 18-20 minutes.

  4. Pull the pans out of the oven and carefully crack the eggs onto the Brussels sprouts and bacon, here and there.

  5. Return pan to the oven and cook a few minutes longer, just enough to set the eggs. The yolks will get a little film over the top, but don't let them cook all the way through, or you'll have something resembled hard boiled eggs, which isn't as good. You want the yolks to be liquid so you can dip forkfuls of fod into it.

  6. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes and serve. 

One Theresa at a time: A quick note to new Catholics

By this time of year, newly baptized Catholics have really begun to settle in to their pews, physically and metaphorically. The solemn rites are long since accomplished, the party is over, and now the hard and joyful work of practicing the faith begins.

At this stage, it’s not uncommon for new converts to begin to take on a slightly baffled look, because while they definitely felt overcome with Paschal joy at the time, they may now also feel overwhelmed with . . . Catholicism in general. Specifically, the vast and bewildering array of cultural and liturgical and pious practices and customs and traditions that never came up in RCIA, but which everyone around seems to know about, and treats as if they’re completely foundational to their faith. Saints, prayers, holy days, sacramentals, pieties, practices, not to mention synods and sodalities and bitter Twitter fights over doctrine. It’s all a bit much. 

Fear not, my brothers and sisters in Christ. I’ve been a Catholic for most of my life, and I feel exactly the same way. Just about every time I spend time with a large group of Catholics, in or outside of church, I end up hearing something that makes me feel like a newcomer. 

I have come to conclude that the Catholic church is, like, really really big, and as such, it is, like, really really full of stuff. I’m never going to feel completely caught up, and that’s okay. As long as I keep trying to come back to Jesus, it’s okay. 

Here are just a few of the things that I, as a nearly lifelong Catholic, still find confounding:

I can’t keep my creeds straight. When I was little, my mother had me memorize the Nicene creed. Or possibly the Apostle’s Creed. It was definitely the one that we didn’t say at Mass, and I could say it! as long as we weren’t at Mass. If we were at Mass, I could only say the one everyone else was saying, whichever one that was. You just get swept along with the general rumble of the crowd and you don’t stand a chance. I fully understand that people have shed blood over whether it ought to be homoousios or homoiousios, and I admire that, but if I were at Nicea, let me tell you, I would have not have been helpful. The body is not made up of one part, but many, and I am the part saying, “Wha?” and I’m too old to change. And yet I am still a real Catholic. 

I can only know about one Theresa at a time. There are about fourteen different St Theresas (including Thereses and Teresas, not to mention Thérèses). Some of them said something about how people are like flowers; some of them apparently are little flowers in some way that escapes me at the moment. We have a picture of one of them dressed up like an entirely different saint, purely to be confusing. The one I’m very clear on is Mother Teresa, because I remember when she was alive and hanging out with President Reagan, who was also alive at the time. I saw them on TV, so that helps. But then there is the Theresa with the nice cheeks. You know the one. Beyond that, I am completely at sea, and when people start going on about the Interior Castle, my eyes glaze over and I wonder if there will be sandwiches at this thing, or what. And yet I am still a real Catholic. 

I have no idea how to say the Divine Mercy Chaplet. I’m very much in favor of mercy, but when I see a chaplet, it’s pretty clear to me that that’s just a stumpy little rosary, and I feel that this is much easier to lose in the washing machine than a normal rosary. So what you should do is get yourself a normal rosary, say part of it, and fall asleep. Boom, divine mercy. Boom, real Catholic! 

The liturgical calendar in general.  I’m already losing my mind over here trying to keep Christ in Christmas while buying presents for everybody but not too many presents, and making sure we’re all sufficiently praying for the souls in purgatory while we dress up like zombies, because if we don’t do that, we’ll drive our children away from the faith, and so on. And we won’t even talk about what it does to your psyche to cook for Passover while you’re fasting on Good Friday.

So I have given myself a pass for, for instance, having to look up every single Holy Day of Obligation every single time, every single year, and I don’t even feel bad about it. I only have so many brain cells. When I hear about people also keeping track of First Fridays or First Saturdays and then also ember days and rogation days and whatever the hell it is, I just assume they are praying for me, or people very much like me, and it will all even out. See above: Divine Mercy. Boom. 

In short, it’s a big church. A very very very big church. And if you keep coming across things that are unfamiliar, don’t think of it as evidence that you’re a stranger. File it under “treats for later,” and maybe you’ll get to it in this world, and maybe you won’t. But someone is definitely praying for you, and we’re so glad you jumped in and became a real Catholic. Just keep coming back to Jesus, and you’ll be okay. 

*

*

A version of this essay was first published on August 1, 2022 at The Catholic Weekly

What’s for supper? Vol. 309: In which I recommend thighs

Friday again! Can it be believed? I’ll spare you the tiresome story of how I filled the refrigerator with food and then it filled itself with warm air, but I didn’t want to acknowledge what was happening right away, and so most of the meat and dairy went bad and had to be replaced. Like many things, it was my fault, for overstuffing the freezer, which blocked the vents, which prevented the cold air from reaching the fridge. Unlike many things, I was able to fix it, by throwing out a lot of stupid frozen crap and hitting the inside of the freezer with a wooden spoon. But then we had to buy all new food (or rather, Damien did, because I do not have a car), and that was a bummer. P.S. The car is also my fault.

Oops, I guess I didn’t spare you the story. Sorry. Well, here’s what we ate this week: 

SATURDAY
Aldi pizza

Saturday was the first day of our grape adventure, and of course I also went shopping. In retrospect, when did we do all that grape stuff? In the morning, I guess. Sounds like a good day for store-bought pizza. I really like Aldi pizza. The crust, in particular, satisfies some deep ancient transgressive urge to eat hot cardboard. 

SUNDAY
Grilled ham and cheese, raw veg and dip

Sunday was grapetime, part II. I had some ciabatta rolls left over from last week, so I used those to grill some provolone and ham, and that was pretty tasty. 

If you look closely, you can tell I was sitting on the steps, eating my grilled cheese in the rain. Sometimes this is the way. 

MONDAY
Burgers, chips, quinoa with kale

I snacked so much (on marshmallows, if you must know) while making dinner that I wasn’t hungry for a burger at all, so I just had a heaping plate of quinoa and kale (steamed in the microwave) and a big glass of grape juice for dinner.

Strange but satisfying. 

TUESDAY
Cumin chicken with chickpeas, lemony onions and yogurt sauce; homemade pita

Tuesday was dark and thunderstormery, so a good day for a warming, savory dish and a little bit of baking. This is another meal that takes very little skill but turns up tons of flavor. There is a bit of prep work, but then you can just slide a pan in the oven before supper and it’s a great meal.

Jump to Recipe

In the morning, you make a simple yogurt marinade, and marinate the chicken. Bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs are best, but drumsticks or wings are okay. The skin turns out really excellent, so I really recommend thighs. 

You also make yogurt sauce and a side of lemony onions with cilantro. You can also prep some more onions and the chickpeas (you just drain and season them), but it takes like ten seconds. When it’s time to cook, you spread the chickpeas and onions in the pan with olive oil and a little seasoning, snuggle the marinated chicken in, and cook it. I make two big pans and switch their positions halfway through so they cook evenly. 

The light was not cooperating, so this looks a little drab. In real life, the skin was a wonderful, varnished amber, and the chickpeas were shining like little gems. They are crunchy on the outside and hot and mealy inside, and the cooked onions are crisp and deeply savory. The chicken comes out incredibly moist and tender inside. 

You serve this with the bright, piquant lemon onions with cilantro and the garlicky yogurt sauce

Jump to Recipe

and of course some pita bread. Most of the time I buy pita, but since I’m carless and it was raining, it definitely felt like a homemade pita day. I made a triple batch of this recipe from The Kitchn and I guess I’m going to need someone’s grandmother to come over and smack the back of my hands with a wooden spoon if I’m ever going to get better at making bread, but I had fun, anyway. 

It’s an easy recipe. You just mix it all up, knead, let the dough rise once, and then divide it into lumps

and then roll it into discs and quickly bake or fry it. The kids remembered how the kitchen speaker was listening in and judging me last time I made pita and tried frying it, so the hell with that. This time, I baked it and I did it while everyone was in school. 

They really came out lovely. 

Not quite as airy and pillowy soft as the picture in the recipe, and by the time it was dinner, they had of course collapsed and turned a little tough; but I myself ate two straight out of the oven for lunch, along with a peach and a plum, and it was very good. 

WEDNESDAY
Chicken nuggets and fall pasta salad

Grabbed this lovely “fall shaped” pasta from Aldi several weeks ago. I overcooked it because I can’t help myself, but it was still pretty. 

Not the most inspired pasta salad. I added olive oil and balsamic vinegar, a bunch of pesto from a jar, the last tomatoes from the garden, and the last string beans from the garden. 

I had a terrible problem with beetles or something this year, so I got a very puny string bean crop. Oh well. 

THURSDAY
Gochujang bulgoki, rice

Great little Korean recipe, also quite easy, high flavor, moderate effort. The marinade is gochujang, honey, soy sauce, garlic, and a little sugar. 

Jump to Recipe

I sliced up a pork loin as thinly as I could and let it marinate most of the day along with several carrots and an onion sliced thin in the food processor. The carrots are supposed to be matchstick, but I do them different each time because I am a free spirit. 

Then at suppertime, I got a big pot of rice going in the Instant Pot and fried up the meat in oil on the stovetop.

Everyone kept coming in to see what the wonderful smell is, which is always encouraging. I hit the honey pretty hard in the marinade, to be honest, because I wanted people to eat dinner. 

This meal is supposed to have rice and lettuce and/or seaweed, but I forgot to buy either, so we just had rice. I did buy some broccoli to make as a side, but it went bad. So we just had the rice and bulgoki, and it was pretty tasty, if a bit spare. 

In retrospect, there are some scallions on my windowsill that I could have chopped up for at least a little green. Oh well. 

FRIDAY
Mac and cheese

And that’s the end of that chapter! 

I have spent the week prepping my busted underwater car to sell, trying not to take extremely low offers personally, and looking for a replacement. I may have found one! We shall see. Excelsior, right? At least we have macaroni. 

Cumin chicken thighs with chickpeas in yogurt sauce

A one-pan dish, but you won't want to skip the sides. Make with red onions and cilantro in lemon juice, pita bread and yogurt sauce, and pomegranates, grapes, or maybe fried eggplant. 

Ingredients

  • 18 chicken thighs
  • 32 oz full fat yogurt, preferably Greek
  • 4 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 3 Tbsp cumin, divided
  • 4-6 cans chickpeas
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 red onions, sliced thinly

For garnishes:

  • 2 red onions sliced thinly
  • lemon juice
  • salt and pepper
  • a bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
  • 32 oz Greek yogurt for dipping sauce
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced or crushed

Instructions

  1. Make the marinade early in the day or the night before. Mix full fat Greek yogurt and with lemon juice, four tablespoons of water, and two tablespoons of cumin, and mix this marinade up with chicken parts, thighs or wings. Marinate several hours. 

    About an hour before dinner, preheat the oven to 425.

    Drain and rinse four or five 15-oz cans of chickpeas and mix them up with a few glugs of olive oil, the remaining tablespoon of cumin, salt and pepper, and two large red onions sliced thin.

    Spread the seasoned chickpeas in a single layer on two large sheet pans, then make room among the chickpeas for the marinated chicken (shake or scrape the extra marinade off the chicken if it’s too gloppy). Then it goes in the oven for almost an hour. That’s it for the main part.

    The chickpeas and the onions may start to blacken a bit, and this is a-ok. You want the chickpeas to be crunchy, and the skin of the chicken to be a deep golden brown, and crisp. The top pan was done first, and then I moved the other one up to finish browning as we started to eat. Sometimes when I make this, I put the chickpeas back in the oven after we start eating, so some of them get crunchy and nutty all the way through.

Garnishes:

  1. While the chicken is cooking, you prepare your three garnishes:

     -Chop up some cilantro for sprinkling if people like.

     -Slice another two red onions nice and thin, and mix them in a dish with a few glugs of lemon juice and salt and pepper and more cilantro. 

     -Then take the rest of the tub of Greek yogurt and mix it up in another bowl with lemon juice, a generous amount of minced garlic, salt, and pepper. 

 

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. 

 

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. 

We talked about the cross

When I used to teach catechism, with a loud and hopping little class of eight- and nine-year-olds, most of them were more or less willing to learn how to repent of their little sins and get back with Jesus again.

So we talked about the cross. Of course we talked about the cross.

“Let me see your best sign of the cross,” I would call out in my best teacher voice, with one eye fixed on those two boys who would make the most trouble. “Let’s start the class off right,” I would say. And we would cross ourselves: up, down, left, right, amen. Begin.

One of the things I told them about was Miguel Pro. Here was a guy who was so joyful, full of tricks and jokes and trouble, but he was really ready to serve, and things got serious very quickly. He had to sneak around to be a priest, and he soon got arrested for it, and you know the rest.

You know the famous photo, which I decided to show my class: There he stands before the firing squad with his arms outstretched, making a cross with his body. That’s what he decided to do with his life: Make a cross.

Grentidez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Grentidez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I told the kids that, when they were baptized, they were marked with a cross, sealed, signed. “You know how pirates do,” I said. (Things pop out of your mouth when you’re in front of a group of kids).

“You know how, when they bury their treasure, they mark the spot so they can come back for it? How do they mark it?”

They all knew it was with an X. “Well, God marks his treasure with a cross,” I said. “That’s where his treasure is: That’s the spot that he wants to come back to. That’s the thing that he cares about: Right in the middle of the cross.”

And they believed me. They knew that Jesus was on the cross, and they saw that, when they made the cross on themselves, they were right there, with Jesus.

Plain as day. I thought about having them stand and make a cross with their bodies like Miguel Pro about to be shot full of holes, but we settled for making a sign on ourselves, marking the spot where God’s treasure is. 

It’s right there: Up, down, left, right, amen. And I had them shout: VIVA CRISTO REY. It was close to the end of class, and any time we had a little free time, we got a little shouting in. VIVA CRISTO REY.

I know this is too much for little children.

Who is this not too much for?

I’m thinking of Peter, Peter himself, the rock, arguing with Jesus that he should try and get out of suffering and dying, then when they tried to pin him down, denying he even knows the guy, then swinging wildly at people’s heads with his sword to defend him, then in his final wretchedly agonic act, begging to be crucified upside down because when he got a good look at the thing, he decided he wasn’t good enough to be on Jesus’ cross.

Right, left, down, up, good grief. It’s too much. But where else is there to be? Here I am, stuck in the middle with Jesus.

I used to worry, while I taught: How will these little children reconcile everything I am telling them? How will they understand that it’s all the same cross?

This weird little thing I told them about pirates, and the scary picture of the martyr, and the dusty brass crucifix on the classroom wall, and that one funny kid who always whips through the sign of the cross as fast as he can because it makes the other kids giggle, no matter what I say.

The sign that marks them as a spot so precious that God will climb up there and die for them, because that’s where he wants to be. 

It’s something to shout about in triumph, and also something they will probably someday run from in terror, once they get a good look at it. I do. I’m running right now, or trying to. All of my choices are bad and I’m pinned like a bug, so there’s nowhere to run. Last year, my cross was that I felt useless, and I feel like a jackass making that mark on myself, reminding God that I’m his little bitty treasure, and won’t he please come back for me?

People have gotten so mad at me for saying you can’t escape your cross, but I didn’t make that up. It’s always there, one way or another. Open your eyes. 

I recall that sometimes, while I taught catechism, the cross was just showing up. Some classes were terrible, chaotic, pointless, but I had to show up and try. And I did try. I really couldn’t fault the material, anyway. At least I always knew where to start: Up, down, left, right, amen, and begin.

So, open your eyes, and see that the cross isn’t empty. I don’t understand it, but that is where Jesus wants to be. Viva Cristo Rey. Mark the spot, and begin.

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A version of this essay first appeared in The Catholic Weekly on November 14, 2021.

Photo by Randy Greve via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Concord grapes, three ways

WELL, I HOPE YOU LIKE PICTURES OF GRAPES.

This past weekend was the very last weekend to pick our Concord grapes, which have gone completely cuh-razy this year.

They were so ripe, some of them were spontaneously dripping on the vine

and the birds and the yellow jackets were having a continual feast. Buzz buzz buzz, gobble gobble gobble.

So we got some scissors, and some buckets and boxes and bowls

and we snipped off as many bunches of grapes as we could before we got too scared of getting stung.

It was quite a lot!

Last year, we picked about this many, and made grape jelly, which turned out . . . not wonderful. Some of it never set right, and some of it did, but it turns out nobody really likes grape jelly all that much. But we sure did make a lot of it! So this year, my goal was to process the grapes into something people actually wanted. 

The kids voted for juice, and I wanted to try gelato or sorbet, so we split the grapes up and made both. 

The first step was to clean and de-stem them.

This took about two-and-a-half hours. Because I only do this once a year, I’m always shocked and amazed to discover that tannins or histamines or something in Concord grapes make your hands itch all the way up to the elbows. But we forged ahead, rescued several spiders, snails, and other annoyed critters, and finally got through the whole harvest. The green ones you see here are not unripe; they are so ripe that the skins have sloughed right off. 

Toward the end I became fascinated by the many forms taken by rotten grapes, especially those whose innards had been sucked out by birds and bees and whose skins were left intact to wither around the seeds. Sometimes the skins are gone but the translucent flesh remains with the seeds just visible inside, giving it a startlingly embryonic look. I took uhhh kind of a lot of pictures of rotting grapes, but I won’t share any of them! I’ll just keep them for myself, for reasons. 

I lined the cooler with a kitchen trash bag and filled that sucker with clean grapes.

The first project was sorbet. I chose a very simple recipe (non-hinky, with reviews this time, unlike the mysterious blueberry sorbet evaporating recipe). I also treated myself to a larger sieve, after the somewhat unhappy experience making twice-sieved Lucky Charms-infused ice cream.

Grape sorbet is very simple. Two ingredients, and only a few steps. I used this Epicurious recipe. You throw the raw grapes in the blender and puree them. The seeds survive the blender, but part of the skins get pulped up, so you end up with a pretty thick raw grape pulp. This you dump into the sieve

and push it through, leaving the seeds and some skin debris behind

Then you whisk some superfine sugar into the pulp.
Superfine sugar is finer than regular granulated sugar, but not as fine as powdered sugar. I made it by whirring granulated sugar in the food processor for two minutes while whispering “ssssuperfine” to myself.

Several of the comments in the Epicurious recipe said to use half the amount of sugar in the recipe. I tried this, but everyone who tasted it gasped and said “WOW” like in the vodka scene in Stalag 17, so I ended up using about 3/4 the full amount of sugar called for (I made a double recipe). I don’t know if our grapes are just more snarly or what, but they did need some sweetening up. Here’s the grape and sugar mixture.

I don’t know if anyone else is fascinated by the subtle changes in color and texture throughout the process, but I could do this all day, pushing grape mash through sieves, running it through blenders, dumping it in and out of various bowls and pots, blorp blorp. In fact it is what I did pretty much all day, and all weekend. My therapist is going to be so happy.

So you chill the grape and sugar mixture for several hours, and then you can put it into the ice cream machine. I discovered I hadn’t put both freezer bowls in the freezer, though, so I ended up chilling the grape mixture overnight and finishing making the grape sorbet in the morning. 

I also made a double batch of Neapolitan trail mix ice cream with a Ben and Jerry’s vanilla cream base. 

I also had about 2-1/2 cups of grape pulp left over, that I never added sugar to. I just stored that in the fridge to think about. And that was about enough excitement for one day!

The next day, Sunday, first thing in the morning, I put the chilled sorbet mix into the ice cream machine for half an hour, and then into the freezer.

Then after Mass, we got started on the juice. I followed these instructions. (She also took a lot of grape photos.)

The first step is to mash the grapes with a potato masher. We did it in several batches. 

Benny changed into purple, in preparation for splashes. 

A few times, I ran the mixture through the sieve to separate out the solids to mash again, so the skinless grapes didn’t just slip away from the masher along with the juice. 

Then you put the juice and mash, seeds and crushed skins and all, into a big pot

 and bring it to a simmer, and let it go for ten minutes. It looks very dire and occult at this point. Strange purplish frothy scum collects, and then bright raspberry-colored lava seethes up from underneath. It smells ancient and wonderful. 

 

Everybody is impressed by this part.

Then you run the mixture through a sieve, or through cheesecloth. I know I have cheesecloth in this house somewhere. I remember bagging it after the jelly debacle, grimly thinking “Next time will be different.” I looked for a while, then gave up and called the convenience store and made them look, was delighted to hear that they do have some; gave Benny some instructions for how to keep the pot from boiling over, grabbed my purse, and . . . remembered I don’t have a car. So, sieve it was. This is fine, except that you’re supposed to let it sit for several hours or overnight, and the sieve was only big enough to hold about 1/3 of the grapes. I ended up putting some grape mash in the sieve over a bowl and the rest carefully in a colander, just hoping the seeds wouldn’t slip through the holes. 

After a while, I started smushing the pulp in the sieve to help it finish dripping, and then I transferred the colander pulp to the sieve and smushed that too. I’ll smush you all, eventually. 

And that, my friends, is how you make grape juice. Everything that drips through is 100% pure, powerful, pungent, tart, extra-purple grape juice. It’s the grapiest. It tastes the way it feels to dive from a hot sunny rock down into a cool dim pond. Sploosh!

Look at those beaded bubbles winking at the brim.

I have to say that at least once a year, to prove I went to college. 

You can add some sugar if it’s too tart, but we thought it was great the way it was. I don’t know why the grape juice was sweet enough without sugar when the grape sorbet was too sour. I suppose the cooking brought out the sugar in the fruit.

We got about three quarts of juice.

Of course it was still hot from cooking, so I put it in the fridge to cool. You’re supposed to run it through a sieve a second time to get any sediment out, but I forgot.

Then I remembered that last bit of leftover raw pulp! I briefly considered grape pie, but I just don’t think people want that. At least, not on the same night as we have grape juice and grape sorbet. 

So I found an old sheet and tore it until it was about the size of a curtain. I mixed the 2-1/2 cups of grape pulp with four cups of water and four heaping tablespoons of salt, heated that up, and then started simmering the cloth.

It made me feel extraordinarily thrifty to be using up every last bit of the grapes we picked. Basically Kristin Lavransdatter over here, whipping Husaby into shape. I simmered the cloth for about three hours. There wasn’t quite enough dye to submerge it, so I knew it was going to come out somewhat splotchy, but all I had to lose was a torn sheet and some leftover mashed grapes. 

It was covered with gritty little bits of grape crud when it was done

so I rinsed it off in the shower and let it dry. Tah dah! On Monday morning, after drying overnight, it was most definitely a pleasant lavender shade, and seems to be colorfast. 

But back to Sunday. After supper, we had the trail mix ice cream and the grape sorbet. I was delighted at how it came out. It was luscious. Dusky and tart, but not sour, just very intense and refreshing. 

Will absolutely make again, and we’re getting ideas for other fruit sorbets. Next time I make Indian food, I think a mango sorbet would be so nice. Possibly even . . . . superfine. 

And that is the story of how I used up all the grapes, and I didn’t get stung, and I didn’t even yell at anyone! Please clap. 

 

How to pray after receiving Communion

You would think that, by now, I would know how to get through the Mass. I don’t have little babies to keep me trotting up and down the aisles, and I don’t have toddlers that need to be taken to the bathroom three or four times. I’m not even breaking up rosary tug-of-war tournaments or fishing pieces of the bulletin out of anyone’s mouth. I have arrived: It’s finally just more or less me and the Lord.

And I’m finding I’m not exactly sure what to do — especially right after I receive Him in the Eucharist.

This . . . seems like a problem, because I know perfectly well that the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life. So it feels weird to receive it and then go back to my pew and not be overwhelmed. I know spiritual integrity is not about emotion, but it really is disturbing that I find it much easier to focus and pay attention at every other part of the Mass. Right after receiving the Eucharist, though, my mind wanders, and I hate that.

There are, of course, prayers for this. It’s never a bad thing to look up prayers written by someone else for a specific occasion, and you get zero points for having memorized a prayer, or for coming up with something original. But somehow I can never find the right page, or it never occurs to me to print something out ahead of time. And to be honest, I have never found one that I really like.

You can see that I have a tendency to fret and interrogate myself over whether I’m praying right, which very effectively prevents me from praying at all. And I hate that, too. Although I take some comfort in remembering that even the twelve apostles, who knew Jesus personally and intimately and were sitting at the same table with Him at the very first Mass, were also pretty confused, and were not sure what to say or think when He started offering them His body and blood. This is strange stuff!

Some people will say “Just tell Jesus what’s in your heart!” Fine, but also not happy with my own extemporaneous prayer. Somewhere along the way, in my efforts to focus my conscious prayer properly and not miss the moment, I started to feel that the miracle of transubstantiation was sort of the main attraction, and that it was this mystery that I must train all my attention and focus on.

Don’t get me wrong; transubstantiation is very cool. There’s plenty of food for thought, as it were, in the idea of Jesus using ordinary, physical food and making it into his body and blood that feeds us. But it would be a mistake to lose sight of the thing that happens whether we consume that food or not: Christ does not die again, but he does give himself to us again. He does not suffer again, but he does come to save us. Right there, at the altar, right in front of us.

The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life, but we don’t necessarily go to Mass only to receive the Eucharist. We still have the obligation to attend Mass even if we don’t intend to receive; and while we’re there, what we witness and, to whatever extent we’re able, what we join ourselves with, is the sacrifice of the Mass. I have found it very helpful — centering, if you can tolerate that word — to recall and dwell on the unbloody re-creation of the sacrifice of Jesus, rather than on my subsequent reception of it.

In fact, it’s been a relief to put the focus on the sacrifice, rather than on receiving. On Him, rather than on me — imagine that.

Maybe I’m making this sound very theologically elevated. It’s really not.  It’s sort of like realizing that someone has been quietly, faithfully tending and irrigating your farmland, and will continue to do so, should you chose to plant something. 

Here’s a little background:

Several years ago, I got it into my head to interview one of my children on the occasion of the annunciation. I suppose if it had gone poorly — if she had claimed there were four persons of the trinity, or that the middle one was named Jeremy — I wouldn’t have saved it; but as it happens, it went well. So well that it popped into my head the other day, as I was struggling with these questions of how to arrange my heart at Mass.

Here’s the pertinent part: I asked her what day it was, and she said it was the annunciation, “when Mary was told she was having a baby”.

Me: Who told her that?
Kid: A angel.
Me: What did the angel say?
Kid: You are gonna have a baby.
Me: Who will the baby be?
Kid: Jesus.
Me: Is Jesus just a regular boy?
Kid: No.
Me: Who is he gonna be?
Kid: A ruler of the world.
Me: A ruler of the world like a president or a king?
Kid: No.
Me: How?
Kid: He made the earth, he made everything, he even made himself!
Me: Kind of! God was not made. God always was. There was never a time when there was no God, ’cause that’s what we mean when we say ‘God’: That nobody made him. So, when the angel said to Mary, ‘You’re going to have a baby,’ what did she say?
Kid: ‘But I’m not even married!’
Me: And what did the angel say?
Kid: I don’t know.
Me: The angel said, ‘Don’t worry, this baby comes from God, and God will take care of you.”
Kid: But he is God
Me: It’s confusing, huh?
Kid: I know. Maybe God had a duplicator machine.
Me: Okay. So, anyway, so what did Mary say? Did she say, ‘Heck no, I don’t want any part of that?’
Kid: No.
Me: So what did she say?
Kid: ‘Thank you.’

This is not strictly scriptural, but doesn’t it sound right? What do you say what someone offers you Jesus? You say “thank you.” And he will never take advantage of your gratitude, or use it against you, because he’s not a regular boy.

Many times over the years, from many people, I’ve gotten the advice to simply be quiet, simply rest in Jesus. This is not bad advice, but I don’t think people realize how aspirational it comes across, to an anxious person. It’s sort of like telling an unemployed person to have a nest egg for their retirement. That does sound wonderful, but how to get there?

Well, if you’re an anxious pray-er who would like to rest more in prayer, just saying “Thank you” is a good way to start. Or even just remembering, “I am here because someone is offering me Jesus” is a good way to start. You don’t have to know exactly what it all means; it’s more like you’re acknowledging that you’re there in a receptive mode, or that you would like to be. It’s simple, it’s honest, and frankly, it puts the ball in Jesus’ court. When you go to Mass, you show up because you  know (or even maybe you just hope, or would like to believe) Jesus is coming; and when He does, you say, “Thank you.” When the sacrifice of the Mass happens at the altar, I try to remember to say “thank you.” If I’m able to receive communion, I try to remember to say “thank you.”

And that’s it. That’s the whole thing. You can elaborate on this approach and you can certainly grow in sincerity as planted seeds take root; but I suspect you can’t improve on it. Because Jesus is not a regular boy. 

 

 

 

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A version of this essay was first published in The Catholic Weekly on August 9, 2002.

Image: Andrzej Otrębski, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

What if the older brother is Jesus?

Once during adoration, someone nudged me in the ribs with an elbow. Which was odd, because the only other person in the room was an old man in high pants, deep in prayer or possibly fast asleep, way on the other side of the chapel.

Well, he wasn’t the only other person in the room. I was, of course, at adoration to visit that other Person in the room. And there he was, jabbing me in the ribs, for some reason. I had been reading something about Jesus as brother, and there he was, by my side, pestering me.

It is hard to tell stories like this without coming across as spiritually self-congratulatory and/or insane. No, Christ did not appear in the flesh, and there were no beams of light or audible hosannas, but I sure felt that elbow with my actual, physical nerves.

I can still feel it, years later. It has meant different things to me at different times. One thing: Jesus is not a glowy, hollow-eyed, bleachy-robed, mystical, ultraman but a man, a guy, who looked and acted so normally that most of the world assumed he was just another Jew. Just our brother.

I thought of that nudge, that “by your side” sensation, when I was chatting with my husband about the Prodigal Son, who had a brother, too: the infamous elder brother. Commonly, Christians assume the elder brother is the Jewish people, kicking up a fuss as the Gentiles are grafted onto the tree. Or else maybe the elder brother is all of us, everyone who has been a good child to the father, and just cannot deal with the screw-ups getting mercy and welcome.

But my husband asked: What if the elder son is Jesus? Jesus, our brother?

Read the rest of my 2017 essay on the prodigal son for America Magazine here

Image: The Prodigal Son by Albert Sterner, 1930. New York Public Library digital collections (Creative Commons) Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication (“CCO 1.0 Dedication”)

 

What’s for supper? Vol. 308: A kind of Koyaanisqatsi mouthfeel

This week starts so well.

But, dear reader, read on. 

SATURDAY
Italian sandwiches, fries

Always a tasty option. A variety of cured meats from the deli, some jarred pesto, olive oil and vinegar, basil and tomatoes, and plenty of fries. 

And cheese! Do not forget the cheese. 

SUNDAY
Bagel, bacon, egg, cheese sandwiches, OJ

Ran out of eggs; was not sad to have to send a kid to go get some fresh local eggs, some with those lovely blue shells. Fresh eggs just fry up different, especially in bacon fat. 

I set a timer for eighty seconds to toast the bagels in the oven, and immediately forgot they were in there, so if you were wondering how quickly I can forget something, it’s much shorter than eighty seconds. 

This reminds me of a joke Irene once told when she was four, when she owned a riddle book and would adjust most of the jokes to make them funnier:

Irene: Will you remember me in a year?
Me: Yes.
Irene: Will you remember me in eight years?
Me: Yes.
Irene: Will you remember me in a million years?
Me: Yes.
Irene: Knock-knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Irene: HIYA, GRAMPAW!!!!!!!!!
 
Anyway, I didn’t burn the bagels OR the bacon. 

 

Still some chances to eat outside. The hummingbirds have departed, though. 

On Sunday I also made two batches of ice cream for Monday, as I will describe shortly. 

MONDAY
Smoked pork ribs, coleslaw, grapes; homemade ice cream

Monday was Labor Day, and the two moved-out kids came by for dinner, which was lovely. Damien smoked three racks of pork ribs for several hours using his sugar rub and Sweet Baby Ray’s sauce. (This recipe says “chicken thighs,” but it’s the same rub)

Jump to Recipe

An absolute pile of luscious, juicy, tender ribs, so good. Lena made a bowl of wonderfully tart coleslaw and I contributed by washing off some grapes. 

We all liked the ribs, but Corrie really enjoyed them. 

Then for dessert, we had ice cream sundaes. I made two kinds of ice cream: Chocolate and Lucky Charms. I just now had to google “Marshmallow Mateys vs” to remember the phrase “Lucky Charms,” because my brain is too smooth to remember the name of rich person’s cereal at this late date.

I followed the recipe at We Are Not Martha because they told a sad story about how they once got picked up by Bon Appétit but now the food blogging world is clogged with Pinterest copycats and people who put all their effort into photography, and I guess I have a soft spot for people who lead with a kvetch. 

The recipe was fairly labor intensive, because they are trying to get the taste of cereal without including actual cereal, which would be gross. So you have to infuse some milk with Lucky Charms cereal for half an hour, then strain out the cereal

and then use that milk to make a custard

Any time I use a thermometer in a recipe, I feel so put-upon. I feel like I’m using a bellows or an Erlenmeyer flask or forceps or something. Of course this was all 100% my idea, but never ind. I have the ability to create resentment against nobody at all, out of thin air, and to sustain it for hours. So you whisk and heat this custard and then mix it with heavy cream and push it through a sieve again, cover it with plastic wrap, and chill it for four hours. And then you can actually put it in your ice cream machine. 

I churned it for thirty minutes, then added some marshmallow fluff and the marshmallows I suddenly realized I needed to pick out of the remaining box of cereal; and then I refrigerated it overnight. I have to admit, it turned out great. It’s very cute ice cream. The ice cream has a very cozy, custard-y taste that absolutely reminds you of watching cartoons on a Saturday morning, which is something I don’t think I ever actually did. We did not have a TV when I was growing up. I remember once my father brought home a film projector from the college where he worked, and he tacked up a sheet on the living room sliding doors and we watched Koyaanisqatsi, and that’s why I am the way I am.

The marshmallows softened slightly, but some of them still had that peculiar cereal marshmallow crunch. I skipped the sauce and whipped cream and just had ice cream with a cherry. 

I also made chocolate ice cream, which I somehow haven’t made yet, in all our ice cream-making adventures. I was reading over the various recipes and Corrie was looking over my shoulder and reading the little recipe descriptions. 

Corrie: ‘Mouthfeel?’ What’s mouthfeel? 
Me:  It just means how it feels in your mouth. I think I’ll make this simpler recipe, instead.
Corrie: Dang. I like mouthfeel.
So obviously you know how this story ends. I used the Ben and Jerry recipe for Jerry’s Chocolate, which is the version with, as the book says, “a more complex texture. Jerry refers to this as ‘mouthfeel.'” 
It’s a slightly more time-consuming recipe than some of the others I’ve been making, but mainly just because you have to chill the cream mixture for a few hours before you pour it into the machine to churn. I froze it overnight and our freezer is having some kind of personal crisis, and parts of it are MUCH colder than others, so this one came out so hard, I couldn’t scoop it at all. I had to pry it out of the container with a pancake flipper and then carve it into blocks with a knife. Yes, I covered it. I bought a special container with a lid, and lectured the family about how it was just for ice cream, and everything.
 

It was delicious, though. I already had a migraine, so I had a spoonful, and it was very rich, like the ice cream version of very good hot chocolate. And that mouthfeel! Superb. 

TUESDAY
Taco Tuesday!

Back to school. My car mysteriously broke down, so we had to do a rigamarole with borrowed cars to get everyone to school. I shalln’t keep you in suspense: We just got the call today that my car will need an ennnnntirrrrreee newwwww enginnnnne. Yes this is my “nice” “new” car, which I took out a loan to pay for for the first time in my life, which I have had for less than a year and a half, and which already required, among other major repairs, a new t i m i n g c h a i n, which takes twenty hours of labor. My feelings about the car are . . . not very mouthfeel, let me tell you. 

Unless you would like to buy it from me. In which case it’s a great little vehicle, very clean, hardly driven. DM me. 

Anyway, we had tacos. 

WEDNESDAY
Chicken shawarma with pita and yogurt sauce

On Tuesday, because I was carless at home, I decided to prep Wednesday’s meal ahead of time, so I marinated the shawarma meat. Then on Wednesday, all I had to do was cut up some cucumbers, wash a bunch of little tomatoes, chop up some parsley, make a batch of yogurt sauce

Jump to Recipe

open a bunch of cans and bottles of various kinds of olives, cut up a bunch of feta, pile up a bunch of pita bread, and slice up a bunch of onions. I’m making it sound like a lot, but it’s like 20 minutes of work, and the rest is just fishing the meat out of the marinade where it has been resting all night,

Jump to Recipe

spreading it in a pan, festooning it with onions, and cooking it just nicely. This is such a low-skill, high-reward meal. Look at this lovely chicken. I included some breasts, some thighs. Red onions are better than yellow, but it’s all good. The thighs are the superior meat for this dish, but it’s all good. 

And here’s my lovely tasty plate. 

Just a fantastic meal. Everybody likes at least a few elements of this meal, and several people like every last bit of it. Everyone’s happy on shawarma night. 

THURSDAY
Pulled pork, cheesy cabbage, hash browns

On Thursday I industriously got the pork into the slow cooker bright an early. I added half a liter of Coke, some onion quarters, a few chopped jalapeños, and bunch of cumin, salt, and pepper, and I set it to low and went away happy. 

Several hours later, I realized Suzy Homemaker here never plugged the damn thing in.

Luckily, the Coke was very cold and the crock pot kept it chilled, so the meat was okay. I moved it all to the Instant Pot and pressure cooked it on high for 22 minutes, then moved it back to the slow cooker for the rest of the day. Came out looking promising.

and it shredded well enough.

I had been planning coleslaw, but I’m a little tired of coleslaw, so I looked up other cabbage recipes, and guess what? They all suck. The only one that seemed remotely tasty was a kind of au gratin idea, with a cheese sauce and maybe a buttered crumb topping. But I was caught between some obnoxiously high brow recipes that called for gruyere and heavy cream and braising, and some distressingly trashy ones that wanted you to smother the whole thing with Cheez Wiz and top it with Ritz crackers. Caught between two worlds, story of my life, very tragic.

So I ended up cutting the cabbage into eight wedges, drizzling it with olive oil and salting and peppering it, and roasting it for about 45 minutes. Then I made a white sauce and added in plenty of various kinds of cheese, plus paprika, nutmeg, and salt and pepper. This I spread over the roasted cabbage, and topped it with crunchy fried onions and parsley. Then I baked it in a high oven for about 20 minutes until the cheese was melted. 

It was disgusting. Never making this again. I don’t know what I was thinking. Cabbage can go screw. 

Here’s a nice picture I took before I tasted it.

I mean it was not the worst thing I’ve ever had in my face. But the cabbage was underdone and the cheese only reached the top layer, so most of it was just plain cabbage; and the cheese sauce had a flavor I can only describe as . . . bricky. It tasted like if you ground up a brick and tried to pass it off as seasoning, with cheese. Maybe put some pennies in there. I don’t know what happened. 

I also served some hash browns. Well, that was the plan. I bought four bags of what it said were hash browns (and this may actually explain what was up with the freezer. That is too many bags), but which turned out to be just straight up shredded potatoes, nothing else. Which is fine, but look, I don’t know, I guess I can’t read. I definitely cannot think. By this time the sun was low in the sky and I was already worried about the cabbage, not to mention the demoralizing Suzy Homemaker situation, so I just spread the potato shreds in a pan, drizzled it with oil, and sprinkled it with salt, and cooked it at a high heat until some of it was burnt and some of it was pale and limp, and it was just going to have to do. Good grief. We did have some leftover Baby Ray’s sauce and everyone was very nice about it.

FRIDAY
We have two different school cookouts that we’re supposed to be at, and we were going to try to split up and go to both, IF the mechanic was done with my car by now. And you know how that story ends! It ends well! My car is diagnosed as having a terminal case of cheesy cabbage and there is no hope. Oh well, maybe there’s some ice cream left. 

Speaking of ice cream, this weekend I intend to hide from reality and spend my time picking the millions of concord grapes we grew for some reason, make some grape juice, and see about making grape gelato. The only reason people don’t make grape gelato more often is that they are cowards, I’m sure of it. 

God save the queen. 

Smoked chicken thighs with sugar rub

Ingredients

  • 1.5 cups brown sugar
  • .5 cups white sugar
  • 2 Tbsp chili powder
  • 2 Tbsp garlic powder
  • 2 tsp chili pepper flakes
  • salt and pepper
  • 20 chicken thighs

Instructions

  1. Mix dry ingredients together. Rub all over chicken and let marinate until the sugar melts a bit. 

  2. Light the fire, and let it burn down to coals. Shove the coals over to one side and lay the chicken on the grill. Lower the lid and let the chicken smoke for an hour or two until they are fully cooked. 

Jerry's Chocolate Ice Cream

This is the more textured chocolate ice cream from the Ben and Jerry's ice cream recipe book. It has a rich, dusky chocolate flavor and texture. Makes 2 quarts. This recipe requires some chill time before you put the cream mixture into the machine.

Ingredients

  • 4 oz unsweetened chocolate
  • 2/3 cup cocoa powder
  • 3 cups milk
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups heavy or whipping cream
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract

Instructions

  1. Melt the unsweetened chocolate. I used a double boiler, but you can use a microwave if you're careful. Whisk in the cocoa and continue heating until it's smooth. It's okay if it's clumpy. Continue heating and whisk in the milk gradually until it's all blended together. Remove from heat and let cool.

  2. In another bowl, whisk, the eggs until light and fluffy. Gradually whisk in the sugar and continue whisking until completely blended. Add in the cream and vanilla and continue whisking until blended.

  3. Add the chocolate mixture into the cream mixture and stir to blend. Cover and refrigerate for about three hours, or until it is cold.

  4. Use the cold mixture in your ice cream machine. I used my Cuisinart and let it churn for thirty minutes, then let it cure overnight.

Chicken shawarma

Ingredients

  • 8 lbs boned, skinned chicken thighs
  • 4-5 red onions
  • 1.5 cups lemon juice
  • 2 cups olive oil
  • 4 tsp kosher salt
  • 2 Tbs, 2 tsp pepper
  • 2 Tbs, 2 tsp cumin
  • 1 Tbsp red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 entire head garlic, crushed

Instructions

  1. Mix marinade ingredients together, then add chicken. Put in ziplock bag and let marinate several hours or overnight.

  2. Preheat the oven to 425.

  3. Grease a shallow pan. Take the chicken out of the marinade and spread it in a single layer on the pan, and top with the onions (sliced or quartered). Cook for 45 minutes or more. 

  4. Chop up the chicken a bit, if you like, and finish cooking it so it crisps up a bit more.

  5. Serve chicken and onions with pita bread triangles, cucumbers, tomatoes, assorted olives, feta cheese, fresh parsley, pomegranates or grapes, fried eggplant, and yogurt sauce.

 

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. 

Try a little wedding de-planning

Someone I know once worked at Michael’s craft supply store. It wasn’t a very challenging job, so she took it upon herself to add a new duty: Wedding De-Planner.

When feverish brides-to-be (or their mothers) would approach the counter with armloads of what could only be described as frilly garbage, she would try her best to talk them out of buying it. Put some of it back, let some of it go. Snap out of it! Nobody needs this stuff. (No, she did not work on commission.)

It’s not just that they were buying tasteless decor that would look ridiculous in six months, when the current hot trend had cooled. It was that they were openly making themselves miserable trying to pursue some ephemeral aesthetic ideal, and spending gobs and gobs of money, trying to create something that . . . wasn’t really anything. They were letting themselves be bullied (by Instagram, by magazines, by the wedding industry and the culture in general) into loading themselves down with a bunch of stuff that won’t and can’t make anyone happy.

I can’t claim any credit for not having fallen prey to this impulse myself, when I was planning my own wedding. The only reason I didn’t is because I didn’t have the time or the money. We had something like two months and maybe $1500, and we ended up with what looked on paper like a bare bones wedding and reception, but which I remember as being loud, colorful, and joyful. There was singing and dancing and laughing, and everyone had plenty to eat and drink, and if anyone was dissatisfied, I either missed it at the time, or I’ve forgotten it by now.

We got away with such simplicity because we were young, only the second couple in our group of friends to get married; so the standard wasn’t very high yet. Also, the overall emotion of the day was rejoicing (and more than a little bit of relief on the part of my parents), which goes a long way to making a good day. I’ve been to weddings that are extremely elegant and tasteful, but are bogged down with an invisible fog of hostility and tension, so that’s mainly what the guests feel.

Looking back, there are very few details I would have changed, and none of them have to do with spending more money.

I don’t remember what the organist played, but it was something appropriate for Mass, so no harm done. I don’t remember which readings we chose. I don’t remember our wedding vows! But we’ve spent the last 25 years figuring out how to live together, which I imagine we also would have to do even if we had painstakingly crafted some personal and meaningful vows and memorized them.

There was a Mass. We got married at it. The ceremony was done the way it was always done at that parish, which included an ultra-tacky Unity Candle that has a little story attached to it and the priest repeatedly saying my name wrong; but we definitely got married.

My husband’s brother took a bunch of pictures, and some of them turned out good. I had asked my bridesmaids to choose their own dress, as long as it was dark green. Everyone had a few flowers to hold (I do wish I had spent more on their flowers and on flowers for the church, and less on my own bouquet). We had bought wedding rings at a kiosk at the mall, and we still have them, and they are still ring-shaped, so that worked out.

The reception was in the church basement. My plan was to decorate with freshly-picked wildflowers, but it turns out there aren’t any in late October; so we had baskets of polished apples and bottles of wine on the tables, instead, which turned out to be both festive and practical. I borrowed a stack of CDs from the library, and a friend volunteered to play them for dancing. We bought lots of cheap wine and good bread and ordered some plates of meat and cheese from the deli, my sister made a giant bowl of pasta salad, and my father made a giant pot of French onion soup.

My mother was going to bake my wedding cake, but she got sick, so I baked it myself, but completely forgot to plan any decorations, so a friend strewed some bridesmaid flowers and ferns around it. Voila, a decorated cake. There were balloons and bubbles and lots of little kids at the reception, and . . . we were happy. It was a happy day, and off we went.

I remember being annoyed that one of the groomsmen wore a tan sweater instead of a dress jacket; I remember being annoyed that the best man gave a speech that was basically a lament over losing his best friend to some random chick (me). I remember getting over it, dancing with my new husband, and leaving early, because we couldn’t wait to be alone together.

I wish I had thought harder about thanking everyone for pitching in so much. I dropped the ball with that. Something else that would have made the day better: An opportunity for confession and adoration before the wedding. I’ve heard of couples doing this and vastly altering the atmosphere of the entire day, for the couple and for everyone in attendance. But still and all, even a wedding day is just one day. We’ve had plenty of confession and adoration since then, and we plan to keep that up.

Like every other married couple, we’ve accumulated some regrets. We’ve been married for nearly 25 years, and it’s not hard to look back and find some things we wish we could have changed. But I will tell you, not a single one has to do with something I wish I had bought at Michael’s, or anywhere else. There’s nothing I wish I had gone into debt over, to make the day more special.

So if you’re planning your wedding and feeling the tug to add more things to your cart, and make it more elaborate, more loaded down, more fancy, more expensive, may I encourage you to resist? Or if you need some encouragement, I know a wedding de-planner who can help.

I’m really not joking! I know there are a lot of cultural and circumstantial pressures that go into weddings. But when you’re planning the day, do think most of all about how you’re going to spend your life together. Think about how to make that joyful. Believe me, believe me. The details may seem important now, but eventually, very little else will matter besides everything else.

 

A version of this essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on July 25, 2022.
Image: Tom Harpel from Seattle, Washington, United States, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons