What’s for supper? Vol. 270: I went for a more rustic feel

DID YOU KNOW it’s almost Halloween? I just found this out the other day, when one of my kid’s teacher’s apologized for mentioning it to my kids and throwing said kid into a panic. Somehow this week’s Facebook memories of me making costumes didn’t ring a bell, and I just kept along my merry way, not making or even planning costumes, and now look. Panic!

Happily, we have a sweet, sweet employee discount at Joann this year, so that helps. Benny wants to be a pirate, and Corrie wants to be Athena — specifically, the Athena from a specific graphic novel, where Athena is depicted wearing this weird, raggedy-ass goatskin aegis with snakes dangling off it.

Corrie is sure this garment is made of bright yellow felt. We had a little talk about, if I made the costume she was requesting, how it would feel to keep telling people over and over that she was Athena, and she said that it would feel okay. So off we go. Felt is cheap, anyway. 

The rest of the costume should be pretty easy (I have a long post full of DIY costume tips here). I have a white robe, and I’m going to get a tight-fitting brown shirt and roughly spray paint it bronze for the breast plate armor thingy. May or may not make the forearm armor, but if I do, that can be felt and spray paint. I believe her head is still small enough to fit inside a milk jug, so I can make a helmet that way, using craft foam for the crest, and craft foam and a mop handle for the spear. 

Benny discovered the most amazing fabric for her skirt (the only part of her costume I’m making; we bought or already had everything else), and we agree that, if pirates didn’t make their skirts out of this fabric, it’s purely because they didn’t have a Joann. 

She likes it so much, I may actually follow a pattern, rather than slapping something together. Then again, I may not. 

Okay, here’s what I slapped together in the kitchen this week!

SATURDAY
Carnitas, guacamole

John Herreid’s very easy and delicious carnitas recipe. I finally put together a recipe card:

Jump to Recipe

I had to go to the gas station down the road to get some Coke, and had the following conversation with the cashier:

Me: You don’t have any Mexican Coke, do you?
Clerk: No, unfortunately, we do not. And actually, they need to change that name.
Me: Why’s that?
Clerk: It’s just kind of . . . might make people feel kind of . . . you know.
Me: I mean, it’s just, it’s Coke that’s from Mexico.
Clerk: I know, but if they’re gonna change Uncle Ben’s Rice, they need to change it all.
Me: But it’s, really, it’s just, it’s actually the name of the country.

Clerk: But still.

But still, indeed.

There is actually some controversy over whether Mexican Coke actually makes a discernible difference in taste or in cooking. Despite persistent legend, it hasn’t used cane syrup in its production since 2013. That’s what you get! I bet that rice doesn’t have real Uncle Ben in it, either. That’s what you get. 

So you sprinkle the chunks of pork with salt, pepper, and oregano (special imported oregano from Tina’s Greek gift shop in Newburyport, if you have it!), and simmer for a couple hours in ᵐᵉˣᶦᶜᵃⁿ Coke and oil along with orange quarters, cinnamon sticks, and bay leaves, pull out the oranges (actually I think I used clementines this time). Pull out the oranges and whatnot once they’ve done their job and your house smells like paradise

 
 
cook it some more,
 
 

drain, shred, and that’s basically it. It takes several hours, but it’s super easy, and it tastes so very very good.

I made a bowl of guacamole

 
and had my carnitas with that and sour cream. 
 
 
One of these days, I’m going to make some beans and rice. Uncle Ben’s rice and beans from Hymietown, how bow dah.
 
I just realized half you guys are so young, you don’t even know who Jesse Jackson is. OH WELL. 
 

SUNDAY
Pork nachos, taquitos, grapes

We had so much meat left over from carnitas, I made a second meal out of it. Then I got nervous and bought some frozen taquitos in case there wasn’t enough food, so then there were lots of leftovers from the “use up the leftovers” meal.

Who’s my own worst enemy? I am! I am! I eat well, though. 

The nachos were just tortilla chips with shredded meat and shredded cheese, and then people could add their own extras, like salsa, sour cream, jalapeños, corn, and cilantro. Some of this was by design, some of it was because I forgot to put it in the nachos. 

Look how dark it’s getting at suppertime. My photos are gonna get worse and worse. 

MONDAY
Buffalo chicken wraps

I became confused while shopping for this meal, and forgot some of the elements (pepper jack cheese, crunchy onions, greens), so we had pita bread with buffalo chicken, shredded mozzarella, and cherry tomatoes, with blue cheese dressing. 

(The orange things in the wrap are tomatoes, part of a “medley” of tomatoes called “Wild Wonders,” which seems to be overstating things a bit. They are tomatoes.) Everyone was absolutely starving and thought it was delicious, so there. We also had carrots and dip.

TUESDAY
Sausage lentil soup, apple hand pies

This week, we codified something that’s been the informal rule for several years: I’m allowed one soup per week. Just one. 

To me, because so many wonderful things fit inside a bowl of soup, that makes it all the more magical. It’s like a terrarium, or a crystal ball, or like the Arquillian Galaxy on Orion’s Belt. It’s almost a miracle that so many delights are contained inside that little bowl! Soup! We get to have soup for supper!

To everyone else, it’s Just Soup For Supper.

So this is why I only make it once a week, and only when it’s certifiably chilly outside. This week, I made sausage lentil soup, because I figured no one was going to eat it anyway, so I might as well use lentils. I adore lentils. I love their flavor, of course, and I love their velvety texture when they’re cooked. I love how they slide around like little go stones when they’re dry, and the slithering sound they make. I like the word “lentil.” It makes me feel thrifty and canny and attuned with ancient ways. They also go good with sausage.

I got the idea for this soup when Instagram showed me some kind of fancy NYT recipe with apples on the top, but it was behind a paywall, so I more or less followed this recipe from Life Made Simple, except I fiddled with the proportions a bit. It has celery, onion, garlic, tomato, smoked sausage and lentil, and chicken stock, and it’s seasoned with salt and pepper, “cajun seasoning,” garlic powder, coriander, and somewhat mysteriously, paprika and ground paprika. I settled for cheap paprika and smoked paprika. 

Verdict: Very tasty. Exactly what you want, if you like this kind of soup. Warming and lively without being too spicy. A little too salty. 

Those are my only notes, except that I made the soup in the morning, so it stayed on warm in the Instant Pot for many hours, so the smoked sausage ended up getting . . . I don’t know what the word is, oversteamed: They kind of turned themselves inside out, giving them a kind of comical floating mini hamburger look.

They tasted fine, though. I stirred it a bit and it looked a little less insane in the pot.

You know that meme about how your salad keeps telling you jokes? I get it, but also I’m the one standing there giggling at my lentil soup, so I dunno. 

It was so quick to make, I decided to make a bunch of hand pies, to soften the blow of serving soup. Time to break in that apple peeling tool I got a few weeks ago.  It works great! You just shove the apple on the prongs and turn the crank, and about five seconds later, you have a peeled, sliced, cored apple. I cranked out a bowlful of sliced apples in a few minutes. 

And the dog gets a formidable opponent in the form of a very long peel that moves in unexpected ways.

Guys, he is kind of dumb. Like, really dumb. 

I also like this device because it’s all one piece. Lots of labor saving devices do their job quickly, but then you spend twenty minutes taking them apart and putting them away, but with this thing, you just give it a good rinsing and dry it off, and you’re set. 

I made a double batch of my trusty fail-proof crust, using the butter I had put in the freezer weeks ago when I originally intended to make apple pie. If you grate frozen butter into flour, it’s already basically incorporated, and you hardly have to do any more cutting, so you can keep it really light. Add a little ice water and squeeze it up, and you have a good crust. 

Jump to Recipe

I’m not saying it will look great. I was extraordinarily distracted, and these were some of the most unsightly hand pies known to mankind.

I mean rustic! I was going for a rustic feel. They were light and flaky, anyway, and tasted lovely. I traced circles of dough on a large soup bowl and put a large scoop of apples mixed with sugar and cinnamon and nutmeg on each one. I meant to add butter, but forgot. I pressed the crust closed with a fork and brushed the tops with beaten egg white, then sprinkled them with sugar. I baked them at 350 for about 35 minutes. Should have baked them at a higher heat and then lowered it after ten minutes, but I had to leave the house while they were baking.

I thought the combination of savory sausage lentil soup and tart, sugary apple pies was perfect. Lovely meal.

The addition of cool Italian parsley to the top of the soup was good for the flavor, and more than just pretty. 

WEDNESDAY
Hamburgers, fries

Just borgers. Damien cooked them outside and I made frozen fries. We assured each other that we had vegetables in the fridge, and then both forgot to serve them. 

THURSDAY
Steak and pear salad with feta

I’m so sad about this meal! It’s such a wonderful treat, and I just bobbled it. The meal is: Mixed greens, steak cooked rare in red wine, fresh pears, feta cheese, maybe some fresh pepper and red wine vinegar. That’s it. So good. Here’s a steak and pear salad of ages past:

Oops, those are blueberries and parmesan. Well, you get the idea.

So I got the meat cooking late, and after about 40 minutes, I realized it was still frozen in the middle. So I transferred it to the Instant Pot, which does great with frozen meat, but, truly, nobody does great with meat that’s halfway cooked and halfway frozen. So it came out a little tough, and then a little bit raw in parts, so I had to cut it up and put some of it back in the oven. 

The other part was, by this time, it was so late that I had eaten four pieces of rye bread and a leftover hand pie, and I truly just wasn’t all that hungry by the time it was time to eat. Old me would have just went ahead and eaten supper anyway, because what are you going to do, not eat supper? But new, somewhat-less-crazy me had to admit that I didn’t actually desire more food in me, so I guess I had four piece of rye bread and a leftover hand pie for supper. Of course I had some bits of meat and cheese and pear while I was waiting for the meat to cook for the third time, because I’m not made of stone.  And that’s my sad story of the steak and pear salad. Alas. 

FRIDAY
Spaghetti

Damien and I are going to a middle eastern restaurant for our still-not-quite-actually 24th anniversary, which I think may be Monday, and the children are having spaghetti. They’re home right now, because there were conferences today and yesterday, and they’re waiting for me to finish so I can do yoga so they can have the TV. I’m typing as fast as I can!

Ooh, but wait, last Friday, I mentioned that Damien was thinking of frying some calamari. He did it, and they turned out wonderful. I’ll get his recipe later, but he used a very light, cornstarch-based coating, and added some Old Bay seasoning after cooking. He served them with chopped pepproncini and an aioli dip, with lemon wedges, and they were tender and perfect. 

We also made some applesauce last weekend. Our apple tree put out tons of apples this year, but they were honestly very poor, very splotchy and misshapen, possibly because we do absolutely nothing to care for this tree. Here’s a typical apple:

You’re not imagining it: It is begging to be release from its existential misery. But I get very bloody minded when I make plans like this, so Benny and Corrie and I picked as many as we could reach, then shook the tree and got a bunch more to fill a big bucket. We cut the apples in half and removed the stems, then simmered them with a few inches of water for about forty minutes, until the apples were soft.

Then we milled the cooked apples, a few scoops at a time, in this lovely foley mill.

(This is supposed to be a gif, but I couldn’t get it to upload properly, oh well.) A very pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon. 

The mill sorts out the cores and seeds and peels as well as crushing the fruit into pulp. To the hot processed apples we added a big hunk of butter, a few scoops of sugar, lots of cinnamon, and a little vanilla, stirred it all up, and ate it warm.

I thought it was fantastic. Nothing like fresh homemade applesauce. I want to make it again, this time from better apples. 

Okay, I think that’s finally everything! Gotta go do not only yoga but my butt-strengthening exercises (this is apparently the root of all my troubles: I have a weak butt, which is putting too my pressure on my hips, which is causing more pain than you’d expect) and then head to adoration. Will pray for you and your butts. 

Recipe cards below! 

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
  • Coke or Mexican Coke
  • 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.

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
  • Coke or Mexican Coke
  • 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.

Basic pie crust

Ingredients

  • 2-1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1-1/2 sticks butter, FROZEN
  • 1/4 cup water, with an ice cube

Instructions

  1. Freeze the butter for at least 20 minutes, then shred it on a box grater. Set aside.

  2. Put the water in a cup and throw an ice cube in it. Set aside.

  3. In a bowl, combine the flour and salt. Then add the shredded butter and combine with a butter knife or your fingers until there are no piles of loose, dry flour. Try not to work it too hard. It's fine if there are still visible nuggets of butter.

  4. Sprinkle the dough ball with a little iced water at a time until the dough starts to become pliable but not sticky. Use the water to incorporate any remaining dry flour.

  5. If you're ready to roll out the dough, flour a surface, place the dough in the middle, flour a rolling pin, and roll it out from the center.

  6. If you're going to use it later, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. You can keep it in the fridge for several days or in the freezer for several months, if you wrap it with enough layers. Let it return to room temperature before attempting to roll it out!

  7. If the crust is too crumbly, you can add extra water, but make sure it's at room temp. Sometimes perfect dough is crumbly just because it's too cold, so give it time to warm up.

  8. You can easily patch cracked dough by rolling out a patch and attaching it to the cracked part with a little water. Pinch it together.

The debate over Pete Buttigieg’s paternity leave is missing one thing: the birth mother

In early October, the news cycle gave birth to a giant red herring, and all the country’s most prominent talking heads have been dining out on it since.

I am talking about Pete Buttigieg’s paternity leave. He and his husband announced in August that they had become parents of newborn twins in October, social media went bonkers with the news that Mr. Buttigieg, who is the secretary of transportation for the Biden administration, had been on paid paternity leave for two months and has only recently returned to work.

I say that the question of paternity leave is a red herring, but do not mistake me: I am not saying it is not a big deal. I know firsthand how desperately new moms need help (and how capable men are of bonding with newborns). Sometimes I hear friends complain that their husbands only had a week or two off after the birth of a child, or maybe they even had to use their vacation days. I nod sympathetically and zip my lips, remembering the time I persuaded my ob-gyn to induce labor on a Friday so my husband could be with me for the luxurious span of Saturday and Sunday. That was the time he had off: 48 hours a week. Period.

The nurses would always ask me what my postpartum support network looked like, and I would tell them, “Nothing.” They would look sad, and that was as far as it went. So you do not have to convince me: A world where moms and dads and babies can be together and rest? That would be very good indeed.

But it is peculiar to see the Buttigieg discourse swirl around the question of paternity leave when a close look will reveal that it is really about so many other things, and that is why people are getting so mad about it.

First, of course, it is because Mr. Buttigieg is gay, as Tucker Carlson so incisively noticed. More than that: He is gay and kind of boring, and some Americans have no idea how to process that combination. So they get mad.

Second, we are talking about paternity leave, but we are really talking about the rights of workers in general, about whether even people in thankless jobs should expect to have full lives or if it is reasonable for them to owe their soul to the company store. We are clearly in the early stages of some kind of cultural spasm regarding labor, and it is not clear if we are going to slide right back into the status quo ante, or if there is some real transformation afoot. That is scary, and scary things also make us mad.

Third, we are also talking about paternity itself, fatherhood, manhood. Lord, do we have some sorting to do on this. One writer opined on Twitter that there is not much for a dad to do when there is a newborn in the house, and babies do not care either way. It is an old but often true trope that the men who sneer at hands-on dads are often secretly grieving that their own dads never had the time for them, and that is why they care so much. In any case, it is harder than it ought to be to step away from what is familiar, and being asked to do so makes us mad. So now we are mad about fatherhood, too.

The White House arguably degraded the discourse further by calling Mr. Buttigieg a “role model” for taking two months off in the middle of an economic crisis. Press Secretary Jen Psaki probably meant something more like an “aspirational example,” but her words came off as critical of dads who cannot take time off, especially since Mr. Buttigieg is undeniably part of privileged sliver of society with the money and access to choose when and how to start a family.

So there is all this stuff: about sexuality, class, money, work, fatherhood, legislation and so on. But do you know what has not been talked about at all?

The mother. The woman who gave birth to her two little ones two months ago and then said goodbye. That is what I am here to do: talk about her.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

 

How to actually raise teenagers

A lot of digital ink gets spilled over what it’s really like to raise older kids. I mean really, truly, no jokes, just the unvarnished truth.

We currently have four teenagers, and I’ve tried, myself, to put down some useful words on the topic, but the truth is, nothing scrambles your brain or flattens your ability to function like raising kids this age, these days. And yet it must be done. So here’s my contribution:

Writing about teenagers tends to fall into two categories.

The first comes across like a final report discovered decades later from deep inside a sealed bunker. You know the kind : “They have taken the bridge and the Second Hall. We have barred the gates but cannot hold them for long. We cannot get out. They are coming” kind of thing.

Poor miserable souls these parents are, for so many years they clung to the illusion that their own children would be different, and that they alone would maintain discipline and order and even an amicable relationship with their offspring.

But they suffer the same fate as everyone else. Their kids are absolute sociopaths, and the parents can’t wait to warn their peers about the fate that awaits them. They hang around at maternity wards just to gloat. They turn up at kindergarten graduations of strangers and throw tomatoes at the stage, because these kids may look adorable now, but they know what’s coming as soon as puberty sets in.

So that’s one kind of advice you’ll get from parents of teens. The other type valiantly pushes back against these tired tropes of the surly, smelly, antisocial adolescent. These parents insist that it’s neither necessary nor normal for teenagers to behave so poorly. Give them some higher expectations and a little guidance, and they’ll grow and bear fruit like the most elegant of topiaries.

They themselves have an entire phalanx of teenagers in their house right now, they will tell you, and the only way you’d guess it is because of the sounds of the viola wafting up through the floorboards as they willingly practice their arpeggios. One teen is tutoring his younger brother, two are about to come home from work at the Fine Young Man Store, and one is sitting at the desk he built himself, writing a letter to apologise to his elderly neighbour for how unevenly he chopped the shallots in last Sunday’s boeuf en croûte.

It is simply a matter of having the right expectations, and you must simply expect your children to be as inexhaustibly fabulous as you are yourself, and the job’s halfway done.

(The other half happens at boarding school, it turns out, which the grandparents pay for. Also the kids spend their weekends at the grandparents’ house. The grandparents themselves live in a metal trailer in the desert, desperately petitioning the courts to terminate their visitation rights.)

I joke, I joke. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Teenagers are by no means natural sociopaths, but neither are they [excuse me while I get up and make sure my door is locked] especially willing and eager to be formed into useful members of society. Not. Especially. Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image source PXhere (public domain)

ishmael and queequeg and ahab and pip

Happy 170th birthday to the greatest American novel ever written, Moby Dick. Here’s a little poem I wrote for some reason. 
 
~’~’~’~’~’~’~
 
 

ishmael and queequeg and ahab and pip
went down to the sea(to board a ship)

and ishmael befriended a giant harpooner
who turned out to be a non-amorous spooner;

and queequeg discovered he’s destined to die
but his coffin ends up keeping ishmael dry;
 
and ahab was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and 
 
pip came home with a vision of god 
and therefore his shipmates called him mad.
 
for whatever we lose(like a leg past the knee)
it’s actually god that we hunt in the sea 

What’s for supper? Vol. 269: In which I push my luck

Happy Fribeday! Today’s edition includes several delightful foods I certainly did not cook myself, plus some rolls which no one but me could or would have made. And I am wined and dined and manage to complain about it. 

So, Saturday and Sunday and part of Monday, Damien and I were away at a little getaway for an early anniversary trip. 24 years, just about! We somewhat randomly decided to go to Canobie Lake Park Screeemfest, which means their normal amusement park with miscellaneous spooky decorations, plus some haunted houses and shows.

American Halloween is weird, man. It’s such a mishmash of different aesthetics. We both discovered that we don’t like haunted houses at all anymore. I honestly think I would have just gotten completely overwhelmed and not been able to find my way out, so Damien basically grabbed me and pulled me through as fast as possible, and then we sat on a bench for a while until I could stop saying, “My goodness.”  We did go on a bunch of normal rides, including bumper cars, my favorite ecstatic swings-on-chains one, and one that is the same as a washing machine spin cycle, except that, instead of the dirty water going out, it is your blood trying to escape. 

The first thing we did was eat, though, which may have been a tactical error, but I was starving! We both had a smoked brisket sandwich with jalapeños, coleslaw, and beer. Holy cow, it was delicious.

Can’t remember the name of the vendor, but they were set up near the flying rooster ride. I really must learn how to smoke brisket. We used to occasionally have brisket when I was growing up, but Jewish brisket is not the same as smoked brisket on a sandwich. I have no desire to recreate the occasional brisket of my childhood. 

We stayed at the park for a few hours until we began to feel too old, and then made our way to the hotel. We had requested a second night, but hadn’t heard back, so Damien called the front desk, who rather rudely told him to talk to Priceline, who had him wait for a long time before letting him know that they didn’t really know what was going on and he should talk to the hotel, who then informed him that the hotel was all booked up. I was a tiny bit relieved, and it smelled somewhat like wee in there, and I also had it in my head that there might be bedbugs (there weren’t). Damien then booked a room at a much nicer hotel at Hampton Beach for the second night with no problem. This becomes important later. I was a little nervy, with the imaginary bedbugs, and my blood trying to escape, and only slept a few hours, but we were still having fun! I brought orange juice. 

SUNDAY

We got up, went to Mass — well, went to what turned out to be the wrong church, and then launched ourselves to the right church only a few minutes late for Mass — and then proceeded to Newburyport, MA. We didn’t really have a plan, but it looked like a pretty town, so we stopped for lunch.

I quickly realized that it was an aggressively nice town. Half the roads were cobblestone, either original or put in just to be cute, it was hard to say. Absolutely adorable architecture, gift shops selling silver and crystals and mermaid everything everywhere, touristy to the max. A trans woman with long white hair and a long white dress playing a harp in the town commons, and every single damn dog I saw was in a stroller. I quietly renamed it Painintheass, MA in my head. Honestly, a really nice town, but just Too Too Much.  However, after I browsed around the shops and Damien got some work done at a café, we got a table at a lovely restaurant by the riverwalk, and had a magnificent brunch at Sea Level Oyster Bar

We had an order of fried calamari that included batter fried hot peppers, very nice

but the real star was the oysters. I have never had such wonderfully fresh, luscious, tasty oysters. There were three different kinds

and one of the accompaniments was a tart pineapple mignonette. Wowzers. 

I ordered something called Sluice Juice IPA from Bent Water beer. Terrible name, but a really wonderful beer, very citrusy and refreshing, with lots of different flavors. I don’t really like beer unless I’m eating, and this was the absolute perfect beer to go with seafood. 

 

The only non-chocolate dessert was apple pie in a jar, so I ordered that. It came with what must have been a sugared mermaid or fishtail crust garnish, but it looked more like antlers and didn’t taste like much. The rest was lovely, though, tart and fresh with plenty of whipped cream and a kind of streusel on the bottom. 

We had a seat near the water (I think it’s the Merrimack River), the service was fast and friendly, and I would absolutely go back to that very pleasant restaurant.

We spent a little time browsing the antique market (which requires vaccines and masks), and stopped at a Greek gift store, where I had spotted a blue icon sun catcher I wanted, and then got bullied into buying a quite expensive bottle of olive oil from Sparta. Yia Yia was very persuasive. She kept shouting at us, and there was something about her three grandchildren in heaven that she cooks for every night using that same oil. I swear I only had one beer, and that’s what she said. I narrowly avoided buying an entire can of the oil, which was $50. She also threw in some oregano. 

We eventually got back on the road and found ourselves in Seabrook, which has a nuclear power plant, but it turns out you can only see it in the summer. And then we got to Hampton Beach. 

Here’s the short version of what happened next: We had allegedly checked in online, and should have been able to go straight to our room, but it didn’t work. When we tried to check in at the desk, the clerk seemed a little flustered, and asked if my name was [something other than Simcha]. Then she said that there was another family also called Fisher, and that was unusual.

Ok? I didn’t think much of it until we got up to our room and unlocked the door, and … There were already some people in that room! Goodness gracious. So embarrassing. 

At first we apologized, but then we realized our key had opened the door. So I said, “Wait a minute, is your last name Fisher?” And it was.

It turns out the other Fisher family’s credit card had been declined, but the clerk thought we were all together, so they went ahead and put them in the room and charged our card! And then when we checked in, they charged our card again! So we got charged twice, but did not get a room! So I sat down in the hall with our luggage, and Damien went to the desk to straighten things out. And see if they actually had a room for us!

Which they did, eventually. With an upgrade, as is meet and just. We had a great ocean view and a big ol’ bed and a big ol’ balcony, and I opened the door to the ocean and cranked up the heat and we just put our feet up for a while, whuffing the breeze and not doing anything for a while, because it was already evening by this point.  It was at this point that I began to think we had packed in too much walking for someone with arthritis in her hip, and too much driving for people who are supposed to be relaxing, and possibly not accounted for this much ridiculousness for a very short weekend, but what can you do.

We eventually made our way to the hotel restaurant, where I ordered maple bacon scallops and a white Russian

which tasted exactly like it sounds, hot and tasty if not terribly sophisticated. Then I ordered a Reuben and another white Russian, and we just kept reminding each other that there is an employment crisis and the waitress is obviously trying her best, because it took about five hours to get that damn sandwich. 

At this point, I was fairly white Russian, and wasn’t able to make much headway in the sandwich. I will say that that was the most goyishe pickle I’ve ever had in my life. It was just a piece of cucumber having a hard time, that’s all. (Yes, we tipped well. Everybody’s having a hard time.) 

So up to the room and I stashed my leftover Reuben in the mini fridge. All night long, the fridge was making these peculiar clattering, howling sounds, and I kept thinking, “This is the second night in a row that I’m not sleeping at all! I should get up an unplug the fridge! But no, my Reuben is in there!” Finally, around 5 a.m., I drifted off to sleep. At 7 a.m., the neighbors STARTED UP A KARAOKE PARTY. Sweet Caroline, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, the whole nine yards. Who does that?? Damien called the front desk to complain. This being the same crew that so adroitly arranged the whole Schrödinger’s Fishers rooming situation, they honestly did not do a great job making the neighbors be quiet; but eventually they sang themselves out, and we dozed off again, and then it was time to check out. We somewhat blearily packed up our stuff and put it all in the car, and then we had a few hours to enjoy the beach; only, to be honest we were both freaking exhausted, and it was cold. So we spent a little time breathing in the salt air and watching the seagulls swoop around, then picked out some candy for the kids, and then we were all done. And I forgot my Reuben.

It was a very pretty ride home, though, really the very peak of foliage glory. A few times, we would come around a bend and get smacked in the face with so much color, we both just started laughing. I do love that man. We have the weirdest anniversaries, though. 

MONDAY
Chili

We used to do a big Italian feast for Columbus Day, but we’ve moved that to St. Joseph’s day, because, c’mon. We didn’t have a lot of time to put together anything indigenous, but Damien made a highly delicious chili.

Jump to Recipe

Do you know, it’s not easy to take a photo of chili that shows it looking delicious, but I tried.

I might have knocked down the salt content a bit, but it was nicely spicy and the balance of meat to bean and corn was great. I had mine with sour cream, cheese, and chives.

Did eat leftovers for lunch.

TUESDAY
Chicken caprese sandwiches

On the theory that we may be dead tomorrow anyway, I went ahead and set out the good Greek olive oil and weakly warned the children that it was Very Expensive Indeed, and then just walked away. 

As you can see, I sloshed on as much as I liked. Maybe we’ll be dead tomorrow. It was really good. Tasted like olives. 

WEDNESDAY
Meatball subs on homemade french bread

On Wednesday, Dora borrowed my car and did my afternoon school pick-up, meaning I had the afternoon free to fritter away in whatever manner I pleased. So I made a bunch of meatballs in the morning.

Jump to Recipe

I made them with about four pounds of ground beef and two pounds of ground turkey, which happened to be on sale. This lightens meatballs up quite a bit, and I prefer them this way. I cook my meatballs on a broiler pan in a 450 oven, and then transfer them to a pot with sauce. This is ten thousand times easier, neater, and faster than pan-frying them, and they’re not quite as scrumptious, but they are meatballs, absolute balls of meat, and nobody every complains.

The roll, though.

Aldi was completely out of rolls when I went shopping. Aldi is like that. They have such great prices and some really wonderful products and treats, but then they’ll be like, “Oh sorry, we’re not doing the whole bread thing today” or they’ll act like they never heard of potatoes. You have to assume, when you go to Aldi, that you’ll also be going somewhere else afterward.

OR, you could think, “Wait, I don’t have to go anywhere this afternoon! I could MAKE MY OWN ROLLS!” Forgetting for the moment that you’re kind of a cruddy baker and your bread turns out well maybe one in five times. 

Jump to Recipe

Well, I did remember a good tip, which is that you can proof your dough in the Instant Pot. Grease the pot, plonk your dough in there, cover it with plastic wrap or a damp towel, and press the “yogurt” button. If you need more of a cover, use a plate or a pot lid, not the regular Instant Pot cover, because, as a few friends warned me, you’ll have a horrible time picking the dough out of the sealing ring and the valve and such if it rises too much. 

My dough rose pretty well the first time, but then I decided to start a huge bulb planting project, and I think here is where my bread went wrong, because I had to keep setting timers and dashing in and out of the house, and not always hearing the timer because I was planting bulbs next to the highway and it was pretty loud, what with trucks rushing past and people honking at me. I had a giant tub of cayenne pepper I was spreading around to keep the squirrels from digging up my bulbs, and the wind was blowing, and the cars were honking, and my alarm kept going off, and I kept running in and out, I don’t know. It always goes wrong somehow. Also I was kind of low on flour, so I had to throw some cornmeal in there. Anyway, I decided to make a bunch of short, skinny rolls, and some of them looked so flabby, I tried to scrunch them up a bit before putting them in to bake, and THAT  . . .

IS HOW I GOT TARDIGRADE ROLLS.

Water bear rolls!

Moss piglet(?) rolls!

A lot of them actually turned out looking like normal rolls, but I didn’t take pictures of those, because this isn’t actually a cooking post, sorry. 

They tasted okay. Slightly mealy, no doubt because of the cornmeal. 

THURSDAY
Yakitori chicken, rice

Damien made this fabulous Japanese chicken on the grill. He made a triple recipe of this sauce, and you’re supposed to use it on boneless, skinless chicken on skewers, but I got offended at the boneless, skinless chicken price, so I came home with about 20 intact chicken thighs, and he opted to cook it that way. Great choice. I don’t know if “yakitori” means that it’s on skewers, or if it refers to the sauce. I just don’t know. But look at this chicken!

This is how he prepared it: He whisked together the sauce ingredients and boiled and stirred for 5 minute until it thickened up. He set aside half the sauce and then smoked the chicken for about an hour, coating it on both sides with the sauce a few times. Then he grilled the chicken and coated it over indirect flames, and coated and smoked a little more to make sure everything was cooked all the way.

He served the chicken with the rest of the sauce, plus sesame seeds and chopped scallions. I made a big pot of rice cooked in chicken broth, which the kids consider a delicacy.  

Deee-licious. The sauce is sharp and dark savory and tasted wonderful with the charred chicken skin. I really hope we have this again. 

FRIDAY
Mac and cheese for the kids, possibly fried calamari 

On the way home from our wanderings on Monday, we stopped to pick up the chili ingredients, and I happened to see a bunch of frozen calamari rings, which I couldn’t turn down because they don’t sell it at my normal supermarkets. How much should I push my luck? How hard could it be? Actually I think Damien is going to make fried calamari. I don’t even know what I’m for around here, anymore. I guess I do yoga and eat, and sometimes I plant flowers for the spring, just in case. 

Meatballs for a crowd

Make about 100 golf ball-sized meatballs. 

Ingredients

  • 5 lbs ground meat (I like to use mostly beef with some ground chicken or turkey or pork)
  • 6 eggs, beaten
  • 2 cups panko bread crumbs
  • 8 oz grated parmesan cheese (about 2 cups)
  • salt, pepper, garlic powder, oregano, basil, etc.

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400.

  2. Mix all ingredients together with your hands until it's fully blended.

  3. Form meatballs and put them in a single layer on a pan with drainage. Cook, uncovered, for 30 minutes or more until they're cooked all the way through.

  4. Add meatballs to sauce and keep warm until you're ready to serve. 

 

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
  • 4-1/2 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.

Damien's Indigenous Chili

Ingredients

  • 3 lbs ground beef
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 1 head garlic, chopped
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 2 jalapeños, chopped
  • 28 oz crushed tomatoes
  • 16 oz canned kidney beans, drained
  • 16 oz canned corn, drained
  • 16 oz beer
  • 16 oz chicken broth
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 2+ Tbsp cumin
  • 2+ Tbsp chili powder
  • 1/4 cup white vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 bottle (?) Frank's Hot Sauce
  • olive oil for frying

sour cream, chopped chives, shredded cheese for serving

Instructions

  1. Cook up the onions garlic and peppers in a little olive oil until soft.

  2. Add meat, brown, and add salt and pepper.

  3. Add the rest of the ingredients, stir and then cover loosely and simmer a couple of hours.

  4. Serve with sour cream, chopped chives, and shredded cheese.

Leaning into the boringness of the rosary

For several years, family prayer night at our house went like this: We would shout, “Time to pray! Time to pray!” and everyone would slouch into the living room and hurl themselves onto the couch.

When everyone was sufficiently hurled and all screens were darkened, we would make the sign of the cross, then my husband or I would ask, “What are our intentions?” and the kids would mumble out a few names. Then we would say, “And what are we thankful for?” This was our stab at keeping prayer fresh, personal, and meaningful, and for our efforts, we invariably got the youngest child screaming out something like, ‘I’M GRANKFUL DAT ELIJAH GOT A NEW BUTT FOR A FACE” and we’d have to dampen the ensuing riot.

We would then launch into a rocket-speed recitation of a list of prayers that we kept adding to, because it seemed important that the kids knew more and more prayers. And it is important, except that even though I do not have the gift of seeing into hearts, I felt pretty sure that, while our lips were rattling out “our life, our sweetness, and our hope; to thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve,” we might as well have been saying “fadatta, fadatta, fadatta, beepum, boopum, bah.” It’s just human nature. Say the same words in the same order night after night, and after a while, you don’t even know what you’re saying.

We tried to correct it. We’ve made various stabs at liturgy of the hours, but keep discovering that we are both too lazy and too stupid to keep up with it. (Please don’t make suggestions about how to help this happen. I said “lazy and stupid” and I meant it.) We’ve tried this and we’ve tried that. And finally, back to the scriptural rosary we crept, like a dog to its . . . well-loved tennis ball that it keeps chewing on, because something in its poor simple brain makes it seem satisfying, comforting, and even worthwhile, and it was a gift from its owner.

I used to have no end of trouble with the scriptural rosary. I used to try to flog my brain into some kind of hyper-vigilant state where I would ferret out some new insight every time we revisited each mystery.

There we would be at the finding in the temple for the 723rd time, and I would give myself the space of ten Hail Marys to discover something I had never noticed before, some new little crumb of understanding hidden away behind Jesus’ sandal or some unexpected wrinkle in Joseph’s travel cloak…

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image by DaModernDaVinci via Pixabay (Creative Commons) 

What’s for supper? Vol. 268: The eleven silly eaters

Wasn’t that a long week? We’ve almost made it!  Here’s what we ate this week: 

SATURDAY
I think burgers?

Saturday we also made Mrs. Peters’ birthday cake. This is from the delightful book The Seven Silly Eaters, which I was not yet familiar with when I wrote about positive portrayals of large families in literature.

In the book, this nice mom ends up catering to her seven picky kids more and more, and every day makes each of their favorite foods: applesauce, bread, eggs, milk, lemonade, and oatmeal. One night, exhausted, she realizes it’s her birthday tomorrow. She assumes the family has forgotten, but they haven’t, and the kids sneak downstairs to make their favorite foods for her as a surprise. But it’s harder than it looks, and they end up mixing all the foods together and hiding the mess in the still-warm oven overnight — and Mrs. Peters wakes up in the morning to discover the combined foods have transformed themselves into a delicious birthday cake for her (and from that day forward, the kids all pitch in with the cooking).

It’s a very cute story in non-irritating rhyme with a satisfying end, beautifully illustrated by Marla Frazee. The story and the illustrations both show an understanding of both the delights and the trials of family life. 

Last week, when Corrie was home with a sniffle, she decided to make the cake as described in the book,

with predictable results.

I even left it in the oven for many hours at a very low temperature, just like in the book, because I uh forgot it was in there.

As written, the ingredients could not, of course, actually make anything like a delicious cake; but the author, Mary Ann Hoberman, did put together a recipe based on the story, so that’s what we decided to try on Saturday. 

It turned out . . . okay.

It was exceedingly wet. Like, juice ran out when I turned the cake out of the pan. The flavor was pleasant enough, sort of like apple-y bread pudding. You couldn’t really taste the lemon, but the egg taste was prominent. 

It was unclear if you were supposed to use cooked oatmeal or oats. Possibly using oats would have given us different results, but it did say “oatmeal” in the recipe. I also underbaked it, because I was so afraid of overbaking it, which I always do with cakes. Anyway, I didn’t yell very much when we were baking, and Corrie was pleased with her cake. Actually, she quit halfway through, even though it was her idea, and Benny stuck it out through to the end. And that’s our story. 

I guess that’s our third fictional dessert, really, if you count the Earl Gray tea cake being something like an Amelia Bedelia cake, and the several lemon meringue pies we have made, also inspired by Amelia Bedelia. We have no plans to dip fish in chocolate as yet, although I spent a lot of time thinking about it as a child.

SUNDAY
Normal tacos

I was sick as heck on Sunday and went ahead and used Instacart for the weekly shopping like a millionaire. I hate Instacart. Last time we used it, the gal pestered me for every last thing (me substitute blueberry yogurt instead of mixed berry yogurt? YES, THAT’S FINE) and then delivered $260 worth of groceries to a fence company down the road (I mean a literal fence company. They don’t fence for anybody nefarious, as far as I know) and it took a full day to figure out what happened to the food, and almost a week to get my money back.

This time, the shopper did a pretty good job, but we still ended up with stuff like three peaches instead of three three-pound bags of peaches, and some kind of unexpected chicken, and (ptui) lean ground beef, and five cans of sour cream and onion Pringles.

Excuse me, Stackerz. Oh, did the kids carry on about how ridiculous that was! All those sour cream and onion Stackerz! Actually, I’m not telling them this, but that’s exactly what I ordered: Five cans of sour cream and onion Stackerz. I was sick and didn’t feel like clicking around to get a variety of different flavors, sheesh. It’s like a children’s book in here. Fussy fussy. 

MONDAY
Chicken tortilla soup, giant quesadilla slab

I was feeling a little better — well enough to make soup, sick enough to crave soup, especially soup that gets you right between the eyes. I love this chicken tortilla soup from Two Sleevers.

I gathered up the very last of the outdoor tomatoes and put them in the food processor along with onion, lots of garlic, several chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, a giant jalapeño, and a ton of cilantro, and some salt, and you get this wonderful pungent base

and you sauté that in oil. I did it right in the Instant Pot, nice and easy. Oh my land, the smell. 

Then you throw in your tortillas and chicken and some water and cook it until the chicken is shreddable.

And that’s it. I was going to put some beans and corn in there, but I wanted to appeal to as many silly eaters as possible.

We had it with a nice dollop sour cream, plus avocados and more cilantro, and I think some people had shredded cheddar cheese.

Just great. This soup has a sneaky little punch that builds up as you eat it. Really good for people with head colds. 

I knew several people would be sad we were having soup for supper, and corn muffins would just make them sadder, so I made a giant baked quesadilla slab.

Spray the pan, put on a layer of overlapping tortillas, lots of shredded cheese, and another layer of tortillas, then drizzle on some olive oil and sprinkle on some chili lime powder, and bake at 350 until the cheese is melted and the edges are crunchy. Carve into pieces with the pizza cutter. Boom.

Everyone likes it and it takes about three minutes to throw together. Nice easy side for soup, and they can’t moan at you for making just soup for supper. 

TUESDAY
Chicken burgers, chips, misc.

Strange burgers, weird burgers. I also decided I was going to clean out the fridge and make a giant, attractive charcuterie board of all the miscellaneous leftovers that are crammed in there making my life miserable. In my head, we had all sorts of delectable deli treats and wonderful cheeses, crisp vegetables and appealing tidbits just begging to be appreciated. In reality, there was six or seven dented, half-frozen hardboiled eggs, a handful of horrible blackened avocado in a sandwich bag, a large amount of rancid salami in various sizes and also some rancid gabagool, and some cold leftover tortilla slab, which . . . I mean, I will eat it cold, but I am not everybody. I laid it all out on a tray, smiled at it, scowled at it, and slid it into the garbage, and put out five cans of sour cream and onion Pringles, excuse me, Stackerz. I’ll show you a silly eater. 

One of these days I am going to do something about the grout on my dining room table. But not today. Today, I’m not even going to bother sweeping the crumbs off before dinner. 

WEDNESDAY
Asian meatballs, rice, raw broccoli

When I first discovered this recipe

Jump to Recipe

I loved it so much. It was such a revelation. Lighter than normal meatballs, versatile, tangy, easy, exciting. Then I made it a few more times, and it turned on me. I don’t know what happened, but the last three or four times I’ve made it, it just wasn’t any good. 

This time, I was determined to do everything carefully, use all the freshest ingredients, prep everything fastidiously in the food processor, measure everything meticulously, and time it precisely. The verdict: Still not that great! Way too salty, for one thing. So I have changed the salt from a tablespoon to a teaspoon. But it seems like the problems go deeper than this, and I cannot understand why. It grieves me. I want to retvrn but I don’t know how.

I did eat four meatballs, dipped them in soy sauce, because that’s what you do when something’s too salty. We also had rice and raw broccoli. 

THURSDAY
Pizza

One cheese, one olive, one pepperoni, and one with sliced garlic, roasted red peppers, and anchovies. 

Very nice balance of sweet and savory. Damien and I are thinking we will try a fennel, pepper, and anchovy pizza next; won’t that be nice? Ooh, maybe some spinach. I don’t know about the fennel and spinach together. 

I also took my final crack at that soup, for lunch, and it will still magnificent. Look, it looks like tomato galaxy. 

Of course there were plenty of rather gravid tortilla strips lurking beneath the surface, and lots of shredded chicken. The recipe calls for chicken breast, which certainly shreds easily, but I think I’ll use thighs next time, for a little more flavor.

FRIDAY
Pigsnetti

That’s what one of my kids used to call “spaghetti.”Isn’t that crazy? So much harder to say that “spaghetti” or even “puhsketti” like a normal human child. 

***

Well, I guess the only recipe card I have is the Asian meatballs, which don’t exactly come with a ringing endorsement this week. Maybe you’ll have better luck somehow. 

Vaguely Asian meatballs with dipping sauce

Very simple meatballs with a vaguely Korean flavor. These are mild enough that kids will eat them happily, but if you want to kick up the Korean taste, you can serve them with dipping sauces and pickled vegetables. Serve with rice.

Servings 30 large meatballs

Ingredients

  • 2.5 lbs ground beef
  • 1 sleeve Ritz crackers, crushed finely
  • 1/3 cup soy sauce
  • 1/2 head garlic, minced
  • 1 bunch scallions, chopped (save out a bit for a garnish)
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 Tbsp ground white pepper

For dipping sauce:

  • mirin or rice vinegar
  • soy sauce

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 425.

  2. Mix together the meat and all the meatball ingredients with your hands until they are well combined. Form large balls and lay them on a baking pan with a rim.

  3. Bake for about 15 minutes.

  4. Serve over rice with dipping sauce and a sprinkle of scallions.

Kids and scary stuff: where to draw the line?

This is the time of year when my kids start begging to visit those pop-up Halloween shops that appear in vacant store fronts. We let them go, but we use caution, because the aisle with silly wigs and spooky skeletons is right next to the aisle with ouija boards and pentagram necklaces. One minute you’re having fun, and the next minute you’re literally summoning spirits.

Like so much of parenting, dealing with issues like magic, occultism, and plain old spookiness is a balancing act; and like most balancing acts, there’s danger on both sides. 

My more conservative friends think I’m dangerously lenient. They believe that hanging fabric bats and telling ghost stories by the light of a jack-o’-lantern glorifies evil, and if we’re going to be that careless with our children’s souls, we might as well just sign over to Satan when they’re born.

My more progressive friends friends think my caution around magic and the occult is laughable. They reason that if a ouija board is made by the same company that makes Monopoly and Hungry, Hungry Hippos, how perilous could it possibly be? It’s just a game.

So here is what we tell our kids: There is nothing inherently dangerous about spookiness, at Halloween or any time. It’s psychologically healthy to explore our natural human fascination with death. When we tell ghost stories or watch scary movies, we turn our normal fear of darkness and the unknown into something manageable, even enjoyable. As Catholics, we don’t need to run and hide our faces from any encounter with death and darkness, because Jesus conquers death. 

But there is a line. Lighting a jack-o’-lantern isn’t going to summon demons, but that doesn’t mean demons don’t exist.

The Church forbids superstition and divination, and that includes trying to summon spirits of the dead, trying to tell the future, or any other practice that reveals, in the words of the catechism,”a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings … They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.”

The Church also forbids “[a]ll practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others,” even if it’s to help other people.  It’s not that God is afraid of losing his power to us; it’s that he knows how  how easily we can be hurt in spiritual warfare. 

So, if so much spiritual danger is truly out there, shouldn’t we lock our kids down completely to keep them safe? Avoid even the whiff of anything otherworldly, on the off-chance that it’s something harmful?

There are two dangers with this approach. One is that our children will become stunted and fearful, and won’t enjoy the wholesome riches of the imagination that God has given us for our enjoyment. 

The other is that our children will eventually see that no one ever got possessed by eating candy corn. From there, they may easily and logically go on to doubt other things we have taught them — things like the malice of Satan or the goodness of God. Teach kids that everything is dangerous, and they grow up to believe all caution is foolish, and all limits on their behavior is an offense against their right to be happy. And that’s the short path to misery.

So here’s a good rule: It’s not objectively wrong to pursue an emotional thrill, a shiver, a scare. It is objectively dangerous and sinful to engage in an activity that goes beyond a feeling, and is meant to actually make something happen in real life.

The caveat to this rule is that some things are designed to make something happen whether the participants believes in them or not. So if I have a seance with friends just as a goofy joke? I might actually be put in touch with something dangerous. If I rest my hand on a ouija board planchette, and I believe with all my heart that it’s just a stupid game? I’ve still opened a spiritual door, and something demonic could come through. Even if I don’t believe in it, and I’m just doing it for fun, if the thing itself is designed as an invitation for spiritual forces to come into my life, it should be shunned. The forces of evil are real, and they are not fussy. 

The other caveat is that some kids are susceptible to a slippery slope. Most kids can play Dungeons and Dragons, read stories about magic, watch scary or gory movies, or dress up as witches and monsters for Halloween, and their interest remains safely in the realm of fun and thrills. They know the difference between games and stories and fantasies, and reality. But some kids’ interest in the magic and the macabre goes from a fascination, to an obsession, to an entrapment with something objectively dangerous. This depends on the child in question, and should be managed on a case-by-case basis, with the advice of a sensible priest.  

And if your child is already involved in unsavory things, don’t despair. Ask a priest for help, and pray. Spiritual warfare is real, but it can be won, if we keep going to Jesus. 

***

This column was originally published in Parable magazine in 2020. Reprinted with permission.

Image by Petr Krotochvil (public domain)

You’re having a hard time right now because life is hard right now

I didn’t even bother coming up with a little introduction for this essay to work my way up to that idea, because you’re ready to hear it, right? Everyone is having a hard time. Everyone on the globe is feeling the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic in one way or another, and it seems like everyone I know is also struggling with some unusual problem on top of that.

The only other thing we all seem to have in common is that an unusual number of people seem to be thinking poorly of themselves because they are struggling. So many of my friends seem to feel that there is something wrong with them because they are so sad and exhausted. They feel like there are so many other people with worse problems than theirs, or they ought to have adapted to a new normal, or they ought to be glad things are not as bad as they were in the past, or something.

Not only are they having a hard time, they’re angry at themselves, embarrassed and ashamed because they’re even struggling. Everyone I know seems to be fighting terrible battles, and their worst enemy is their own self, who constantly sneers, “Oh, stop your whining. It’s not so bad.”

If you are hearing this voice, you should know that it’s not really your self saying it to you. Or that’s not where the thought has its roots, anyway. It’s an idea that comes from the evil one: This idea that your suffering is imaginary, not worthy of tears or attention.

Isn’t that strange, to think that the devil would want to deny suffering? If you look at medieval paintings, it looks like suffering is, as they say, extremely his jam: You’ll see bony, many-clawed demons gleefully cramming bushels of suffering souls into bubbling cauldrons, stretching them on racks, slicing them into ribbons, searing their flesh.

But I’ve found that some of my most hellish mental states come when I’m unwilling or unable, for whatever reason, to clearly and calmly identify my own suffering as real suffering. It’s counterintuitive, but there is something demonic about being unwilling to look suffering in the face. And there is something holy about calling suffering what it is. Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Photo by Ron Porter via Pixabay (licensed)

 

What’s for supper? Vol. 267: The ramens of the day

Cozy foods this week! Brussels sprouts! Some fish sauce comparison! Amusing tricks with lemon! The rediscovery of fennel! And more. Come see what we ate. 

Despite my excitement, I didn’t get around to using my new foley mill last week, for applesauce or anything else. We do go to an apple orchard; we did not pick apples from our own tree yet. I did buy a second single-use appliance, though: One of those cast iron apple slicer and peelers that clamps onto the counter and does everything with a crank. Pretty ingenious. 

The kids like to put apple slices on their ham and cheese sandwiches, so this will probably get regular use, beyond just the production of tasty, tasty apple peels

We are really slipping as a family, though. In the past, we would have been knee deep in denuded onions, potatoes, and baseballs,  with little peels of doll heads all over the floor. Now we’re just, “tee hee, I can peel all the apples I want.” We’re slipping.

SATURDAY
Hot dogs and chips

An extremely drivey day that started out with a Saturday morning alarm and two loads of cars through the drive-thru flu shot clinic, and kept going like that. Benny had a pal over, Damien cooked hot dogs on the grill, and we had a campfire and roasted marshmallows. I did buy a skeleton. We haven’t settled on a ludicrous display for the year, but we now have two fully posable skeletons. 

SUNDAY
Salad with chicken, feta, walnuts, cranberries

Sunday was the day we chose to go apple picking. We’ve gotten pretty good at planning day trips. Damien cooked the chicken after Mass, and we had the kids make their Monday lunches and do their evening chores in the afternoon, so when we got home late and full of apples and smelling faintly of goat poo, all we had to do was eat the prepped food and slither into bed. Truly, the greatest organizational hack of all, though, is to not have a baby or a toddler. Nothing beats it. Also, let people go apple picking in their pajamas if they want. 

I myself wore a sweater and leggings, which are pajamas. As I mentioned, we are slipping. (If you care to see our apple picking photos, they are here.)

The dinner we prepped was salad with roast chicken, toasted walnuts (toast on a pan in the oven for a few minutes or, even easier, in the microwave for a few minutes), feta cheese, and dried cranberries. I had mine with wine vinegar. 

Decent and filling. I feel like there was some kind of bread component, but maybe I’m confused.

MONDAY
Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, roast honey balsamic Brussels sprouts with walnuts

My big secret with meatloaf is only to make it a few times a year, so it doesn’t become an emotional burden. The other thing I struggle with, with meatloaf, is the desire to get cute with it. I want to make adorable little meat muffins, and I know nobody wants that, even though I feel like deep down they would enjoy it. 

Or I start pulling out my silicone pans

or I start felling sculptural, and we end up with meat horrors

Or, not pictured, giant meat boobies. It’s just . . . you give me big hunks of raw material, and I want to create. Anyway, this time I just made three big loaves, that’s it. That’s what kind of month it’s been. Here. Here’s yer meat. 

It’s a serviceable recipe, though, as long as you don’t underseason it.

Jump to Recipe

I use red wine and Worcestershire sauce inside and ketchup outside, and it has a pretty good savor. It would make good leftover sandwiches, but that doesn’t fit into my current calorie arrangement, so the leftovers are just hulking in the fridge, awaiting their doom. And who isn’t. 

We also had ten pounds of mashed potatoes, which I meant to make as garlic parmesan mashed potatoes

Jump to Recipe

but I just plain forgot, so they were just plain with milk and butter and salt

and I also forgot how dang long it takes potatoes to cook, so we had supper pretty late.

I also had four pounds of Brussels sprouts, first of the season. They turned out swell, with very little effort. I stemmed and halved them, spread them in a pan, and drizzled them with olive oil and honey, and some balsamic vinegar, pepper and kosher salt, and then – aha! – tossed in a few handfuls of chopped walnuts, and roasted it under the broiler. 

I don’t know why I have two photos of this, but here you are. 

To think that I spent most of my life not knowing about roasted vegetables. You throw a few nuts in there, and it’s almost a meal in itself. Thank you, Aldi, for cheap nuts. 

TUESDAY
Banh mi, pineapple

I have, in the past few years, tried banh mi from various places, and mine is the best. It just is. I recommend mine. I’ve also tried making my same recipe with various meats, and it always tastes the same as very cheap pork, because the sauce is just that powerful. 

Jump to Recipe

I use a lightly toasted baguette with plenty of plain mayo. I put out sriracha mayo for anyone who wants it, but for me, there are enough other spicy elements. Pork, sweet pickled carrots, plain cucumbers, plenty of cilantro, a few jalapeños, and that’s it. It’s just the best sandwich going. 

Here’s the recipe for pickled carrots, which I may fiddle with. It’s a bit sweet.

Jump to Recipe

I served pineapple on the side because I got confused. It was supposed to be for Wednesday, but I had already started cutting it up, so it was too late. 

I also used a different kind of fish sauce in the sauce this time, and it was just as savory and salty and weird, but the smell wasn’t eye-watering. I mean, my eyes were a little concerned, but they weren’t absolutely streaming. Fish sauce is made by mixing anchovies with salt and then I guess letting it sit in giant fermentation vats for several months, and then collecting the runoff, or something? I haven’t looked into this deeply. Anyway, I’m drinking more. 

Now you know everything I know. The less stinky sauce was considerably cheaper, too. 

WEDNESDAY
Pork ramen

I cleverly timed this so we would have leftover vaguely Asian sandwich fixings from Tuesday to top the ramen on Wednesday. Oh, I’ve got a few tricks up my sl– ope, nope, sorry, that’s a carrot. Damn shredded carrots got everywhere. I’m not joking, it was terrible. 

So we just had a big pot of ramen, and I cooked up some boneless pork ribs in sesame oil and sloshed on a little soy sauce toward the end

and sliced them up. I considered messing around with some garlic and brown sugar, but then I remembered how lazy I am.

Also set out soft boiled eggs, cucumbers and carrots from the previous day, some nori, pea shoots, crunchy noodles, sesame seeds, and all the various sauces I could find that seemed like they came from the right hemisphere. 

I do like this meal, and it’s so easy and cheap. I think the most expensive part was the nori.

Top view. Dive in!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THURSDAY
Ina Garten’s roast chicken with carrots and fennel

Damien was in charge of Thursday’s meal, and he went for this spectacular roast chicken and vegetable dish. The chickens are stuffed with garlic, lemon, and thyme, and wow, can you taste it. It’s so juicy and absolutely packed with flavor, not to mention hilarious to look at. 

Hello, lemons! The chickens get roasted on a bed of vegetables, and I think Damien made a separate platter of just vegetables so there would be plenty. I always forget about fennel in between having this dish, and it’s so good. It’s like all the best parts of onion and cabbage, but it takes up other flavors very nicely. People describe fennel as having a licorice-like taste, and I guess it does, but I don’t like licorice (or anise), and I like fennel a lot. It’s just sort of fancy and peasant-y at the same time, sort of elegant and cozy, juicy and crunchy. I don’t know. Don’t even get me started about the carrots. 

This is a very fine meal, very cheering on a gloomy, rainy day. We served it with plenty of baguettes and soft butter to sop up the lovely lemony juices. 

Look at that beautiful fennel, so elegant, so cozy.

FRIDAY
Grilled cheese

Finally Friday. Kind of a draggy week. Just a lot of covid tests and . . . I don’t have to tell you, the same nonsense everyone is dealing with. Everything is medium terrible and I feel medium guilty for not managing it better. Whatever. We live to grill another day. My stupid hip is still endlessly healing up from ??mysterious non injury maybe arthritis?? so I’m on day 2 of a yoga program. It’s this one, which is on Amazon Prime, if you’re interested. It’s not too woo woo, and she’s pretty good at explaining what you’re actually supposed to be doing with your parts. Then at the end she’s like “and now we will pray to honor the body” and I’m like “sorry toots, gotta shower and get to adoration” and I boop it off. 

 

Meatloaf (actually two giant meatloaves)

Ingredients

  • 5 lbs ground beef
  • 2 lbs ground turkey
  • 8 eggs
  • 4 cups breadcrumbs
  • 3/4 cup milk OR red wine
  • 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

plenty of salt, pepper, garlic powder or fresh garlic, onion powder or minced onions, fresh parsley, etc.

  • ketchup for the top

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 450

  2. Mix all meat, eggs, milk, breadcrumbs, and seasonings together with your hands until well blended.

  3. Form meat into two oblong loaves on pan with drainage

  4. Squirt ketchup all over the outside of the loaves and spread to cover with spatula. Don't pretend you're too good for this. It's delicious. 

  5. Bake for an hour or so, until meat is cooked all the way through. Slice and serve. 

 

Garlic parmesan mashed potatoes

Ingredients

  • 5-6 lbs potatoes
  • 8-10 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 8 Tbsp butter
  • 1-1/2 cups milk
  • 8 oz grated parmesan
  • salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Peel the potatoes and put them in a pot. Cover the with water. Add a bit of salt and the smashed garlic cloves.

  2. Cover and bring to a boil, then simmer with lid loosely on until the potatoes are tender, about 25 minutes.

  3. Drain the water out of the pot. Add the butter and milk and mash well.

  4. Add the parmesan and salt and pepper to taste and stir until combined.

Pork banh mi

Ingredients

  • 5-6 lbs Pork loin
  • 1 cup fish sauce
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 minced onion
  • 1/2 head garlic, minced or crushed
  • 1.5 tsp pepper

Veggies and dressing

  • carrots
  • cucumbers
  • vinegar
  • sugar
  • cilantro
  • mayonnaise
  • Sriracha sauce

Instructions

  1. Slice the raw pork as thinly as you can. 

  2. Mix together the fish sauce ingredients and add the meat slices. Seal in a ziplock bag to marinate, as it is horrendously stinky. Marinate several hours or overnight. 

  3. Grill the meat over coals or on a pan under a hot broiler. 

  4. Toast a sliced baguette or other crusty bread. 

 

quick-pickled carrots and/or cucumbers for banh mi, bibimbap, ramen, tacos, etc.

An easy way to add tons of bright flavor and crunch to a meal. We pickle carrots and cucumbers most often, but you can also use radishes, red onions, daikon, or any firm vegetable. 

Ingredients

  • 6-7 medium carrots, peeled
  • 1 lb mini cucumbers (or 1 lg cucumber)

For the brine (make double if pickling both carrots and cukes)

  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup rice vinegar (other vinegars will also work; you'll just get a slightly different flavor)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 Tbsp kosher salt

Instructions

  1. Mix brine ingredients together until salt and sugar are dissolved. 

  2. Slice or julienne the vegetables. The thinner they are, the more flavor they pick up, but the more quickly they will go soft, so decide how soon you are going to eat them and cut accordingly!

    Add them to the brine so they are submerged.

  3. Cover and let sit for a few hours or overnight or longer. Refrigerate if you're going to leave them overnight or longer.