What’s for supper? Vol. 304: It’s souvlaki all the way down

Happy Friday! The name of the game this week was souvlaki! We didn’t really have that much Greek food; I just like saying “souvlaki,” and apparently so do Greek people, because every time I look up a recipe for something Greek, they let it slip somewhere in the recipe that this is souvlaki. No matter what it is. I have looked it up, and apparently the main ingredient necessary, in order for a dish to qualify as authentic Greek souvlaki, is “various meats.”

This is what makes me take a dim view of arguments that such-and-such dish isn’t really authentic. I mean, if it’s made of sawdust, then no, it’s not authentic cuisine. One time I told my kid I was eating imitation crab meat, and she said with great condescension, “Weww, Mama, I woudln’t eat wubba cwab if I was you.” But that is as far as I’m willing to go. Beyond that, it’s all authentic souvlaki as far as I’m concerned. (This is a complicated joke about fake meat, mock turtle soup, and turtles all the way down, if you like. If you don’t like, you can just keep reading, and eventually there is a nice picture of pork.) 

Weww, Mama, here’s what we ate this week:

SATURDAY
Hamburgers, veggies and dip, chips, cherry pies with ice cream

My sister and five of her kids came over on Friday. On Saturday, we had a lovely guest for lunch, Fr. Michael Eades, a Toronto Oratorian who was passing through, so we had a little cookout in the middle of the day, and then we went to the beach, and then we came home and had another little cookout, because It Is Summer. 

I had a lot of fun making the pies. I do recommend sitting down in the afternoon and pitting several pounds of cherries while chatting with your beloved sister, and all your kids goof around playing cousin games and being silly. It’s just nice. Then I made the pies and Corrie brushed them with egg wash for me

and of course I managed to burn them, but they still got ate up. 

Here’s my reliable pie crust recipe:

Jump to Recipe

SUNDAY
Spaghetti al carbonara 

Other meats have gotten more expensive, but bacon, which was always expensive, has stayed about the same, so I convinced myself this counted as a cheap meal, because I hadn’t gone shopping yet and it was literally the only dinner I could think of. 

Just about everybody likes it, and I managed not to burn the bacon, anyway. I bet you haven’t made carbonara for a while! Why not make it this week?

Jump to Recipe

Just pasta, bacon, parmesan, eggs, butter, and lots of pepper. Sticks to your ribs, as my grandfather used to say. You can make it fancier if you want, but the basic version is so easy and good.

MONDAY
Chicken drumsticks, pasta salad

Drumsticks really are cheap, to my sorrow. I hate drumsticks. I mean, they’re fine. On the drumsticks, I put olive oil, salt, garlic powder, and paprika, and roasted them, turning them once. The pasta salad had olive oil, wine vinegar, black olives, red onions, sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil, minced garlic, and I imagine salt and pepper. 

Not a sophisticated meal, but I went shopping in the afternoon, got home late, got the food put away because the grocery-put-away kid was at work, and then cooked supper, so everyone has hungry and appreciated food. 

TUESDAY
Taco Tuesday!

I used to think Taco Tuesday was so silly. The kids would get so excited if I served tacos on Tuesday, and I just could not see what the big deal was. It was just tacos, regular tacos, and it happened to be on a day that also started with T, big deal. 

But you know what? Taco Tuesday performs the valuable service of letting me not figure something out. What day is it? Tuesday. What are we having? Tacos. What are people? Happy. Take a little nap, brain. THIS IS WORTH FORTY MILLION DOLLARS.

To the drained ground beef, I added lots of cumin, lots of chili powder, salt, plenty of garlic powder and onion powder, and some water. I guess I am officially weaned off using those little packets of taco seasoning. The secret ingredient is, as I suspected, salt. 

I went to take a picture of my tacos, and the camera was open the other way and captured this somewhat portentous photo of myself, looking like I am considering devouring not only the tacos, but the entire world, because the world is asking for it.

 

And here is the picture of my tacos.

WEDNESDAY
Pork gyros (souvlaki), homemade vanilla ice cream

The star meal of the week. I had a pork loin that I cut into thin slices and marinated in the morning. I sorta kinda followed this recipe (souvlaki), except I used a lot more garlic than it says, skipped the thyme, and went with fresh rosemary and fresh oregano. The one important thing is that this marinade includes honey, which he claims (and which I have no reason to doubt) breaks down the pork fibers. I marinated the meat about five hours and then pan-fried it in batches, and it certainly came out amazingly, yieldingly tender. 

I also made a big batch of garlicky yogurt sauce

Jump to Recipe

and cut up a bunch of tomatoes and cucumbers, and we cooked some french fries and I sent the girls out for a bunch of wild mint leaves, we and wrapped it all up in pita with feta cheese and hot sauce. 

Hot damn, it was delicious. (Actually I skipped the fries because I ran out of room and I secretly think it’s kind of gross.) I forgot to take a picture of it actually wrapped up like a wrap, because I just gobbled it up. You really cannot beat fresh herbs in a wrap. I think I’m going to take another stab at growing herbs inside this winter, because it makes such a difference. 

THEN, my ice cream maker arrived! Actually it arrived on Tuesday. I’ve been haunting Facebook Marketplace, and found a great deal on a Cuisinart ice cream maker (this one, and I didn’t spend any $83.10 on it!). We dashed out (that’s an ice cream maker joke) for some heavy cream and decided to just start with vanilla. I had put the bowl in the freezer in the morning (this is the kind you don’t need ice or salt for, but you do need to freeze the bowl for at least six hours ahead of time), and we made one batch that came out great, but the bowl did not stay cold enough in our sweltering kitchen to make a second batch. So I went ahead and ordered a second bowl from eBay, plus the Ben and Jerry’s recipe book everyone is telling me is the best. 

Benny always strives to dress appropriately for the occasion. 

So, no thrilling ice cream tales so far, but our first foray was pleasant enough. The machine is very simple to use. The ice cream comes out of th machine like soft serve, but I spread it in a pie plate and put it in the freezer for a few hours, and it came out like high quality hard pack ice cream.

There are some peaches on our peach tree, and we intend to make them into ice cream when they’re ripe; and we’re planning some ginger ice cream for next time we have Asian food, and probably, oh yes, blackberry ice cream when we get back from vacation and haven’t been scrounging away at the blackberry bushes for a whole week. 

THURSDAY
Pork ribs, cheezy weezies

Just good old oven broiled ribs with salt and pepper with the fat crisped up, nothing better. I was planning mashed potatoes, but it was and is way way too hot, so cheezy weezies it was. It’s been so hot all week. Hot hot hot. I actually got a bunch of work done on Thursday morning and then did something I haven’t done in decades: I draped myself over a floatie and just drifted around in the pool thinking about nothing. Just drifted like a screensaver, drift, bonk, driffffft. 

Actually before that, I went to jump off the little deck, got caught on a nail, and left most of my swim suit bottoms behind. Straight out of Looney Tunes. The kids may never recover. 

I’ll show you various meats. 

One of my kids immediately climbed out of the pool and went to find me a towel to cover my modesty. And another of my kids immediately shouted, “Not that one! That’s my towel!” And I am taking notes. 

Anyway, after that is when I decided I would just drift for a while. For some reason, the kids got out of the pool after my comic mishap. 

FRIDAY
Mac and cheese

And now, I can hardly believe my luck, but we are getting ready to go to the ocean for a week. I planned (and, in a stroke of good sense, pre-paid for) this vacation back in the middle of winter, and boy oh boy. Are we going to swim in the ocean. We usually go to Hampton Beach, but we’re venturing a little further down the coast this year. I bought Aldi’s entire stock of oversized towels on clearance, and we have our shark-spotting app all fired up, and we might not have our absolute favorite kind of insulin, but we do have insulin, and the check engine lights are on but are not flashing, so off we go! The house we rented has a small balcony and a SPIRAL STAIRCASE in it. And is near the ocean!!!!!!!!!! It allegedly has a little boardwalk leading to a private beach 300 yards away, but many of those words can mean all kinds of things, so we shall see. But still. The. Ocean. I’ll probably be posting photos on Facebook and possibly Instagram if you want to see what we’re up to.

Yes, there will be someone watching the house at home, so please do not feel free to rob us of all our cool and valuable possessions, such as our, um, our very valuable, you know what, go for it. I guess the printer is only a few years old if you want. I may have a Creedence tape in there somewhere.

 

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.

 

Spaghetti carbonara

An easy, delicious meal.

Ingredients

  • 3 lbs bacon
  • 3 lbs spaghetti
  • 1 to 1-1/2 sticks butter
  • 6 eggs, beaten
  • lots of pepper
  • 6-8 oz grated parmesan cheese

Instructions

  1. Fry the bacon until it is crisp. Drain and break it into pieces.

  2. Boil the spaghetti in salted water until al dente. If you like, add some bacon grease to the boiling water.

  3. Drain the spaghetti and return it to the pot. Add the butter, pieces of bacon, parmesan cheese, and pepper and mix it up until the butter is melted.

  4. Add the raw beaten egg and mix it quickly until the spaghetti is coated. Serve immediately.

 

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. 

What’s for supper? Vol. 303: We all scream for Joachim

All things shall be well, and all things shall be well, and all manner of things shall be, well, here’s what we ate this week:

SATURDAY
Hot dogs, hot pretzels

I vaguely remember Saturday. 

SUNDAY
Thai food

The kids had chicken nuggets at home and Damien and I went to a party at the house of one of his editors. We had a really nice time! We took our time coming home and stopped for dinner at Siam Orchid Thai Bistro in Concord, which has a pleasant outdoor table area. Lovely meal. We had a plate of various appetizers, all very fresh and delicious, and then Damien had some kind of amazing crunchy duck arrangement on spicy noodles, and I had a spicy beef and vegetable situation, also scrumptious. My rice came in an adorable little basket. 

We felt like such hot shots, we even ordered dessert. Damien had mango fried ice cream and I had coconut ice cream with peanuts on sticky rice. 

This refreshed and enchanted me so much, I went home and starting mooching around for information about ice cream makers, and I ended up getting an excellent deal on a like-new Cuisinart ice cream maker on FB Marketplace. It should get here in a few days, so hold on to your butts. 

MONDAY
Blueberry almond chicken salad

Easy and pleasant. The blueberries are sweet and cheap this year. I roasted some chicken breasts with olive oil, salt and pepper and garlic powder, sliced it, and set it out with mixed greens, blueberries, slivered almonds, thinly-sliced red onions, and some freshly-shredded parmesan cheese.

I had mine with red wine vinegar for a dressing, and stale crackers on the side. I didn’t toast the almonds, because it was already monstrously late, and sometimes you feel like you don’t even have two more minutes to spare. But here is my periodic reminder that you can easily toast nuts in the microwave, and it makes them crunchier and nuttier, and only takes two minutes.

TUESDAY
Chicken enchilada bowls

I keep making this meal and it keeps not being anything more than okay. Why do I keep trying? Nobody knows.

I made a big pot of rice in the Instant Pot, and roasted the chicken breasts with olive oil and lots of Tajin seasoning, and then shredded it. I mixed half the shredded chicken with red enchilada sauce and half with green enchilada sauce, from cans. And I served the rice and two saucy chicken varieties with some black beans, shredded cheddar cheese, corn chips, and sour cream.

It was fine. I guess I’m just going to have to break down and make actual enchiladas again, though. I guess the real problem with this dish is that it’s not actual enchiladas. 

Tuesday, or possibly Wednesday, was also the feast of Saints Anne and Joachim. The only reason I know that is because I was looking for something that rhymes with “ice cream” for the title, and I was like, hey; so I looked it up the date, and I was like, hey! Or should I say: “AIEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!” 

WEDNESDAY
Carnitas, guacamole and tortilla chips, corn on the cob

Now this meal turned out great. I made a large dish of guacamole, including one of the more successful tomatoes from our largely unsuccessful garden

Every year, I plant six tomato plants, and five of them are spindly, wizened, and blighted, and one of them is cheery, robust, and prolific. I water and fertilize them all exactly the same, and they all get the same amount of light. I know why this happens, though. It’s to drive me crazy.

I didn’t take a picture of the guacamole, but one must imagine guacamole. One must imagine Simcha happy. Guacamole makes Simcha happy. 

Jump to Recipe

For the carnitas, I followed John Herreid’s simple, delicious recipe, which I have finally made up into a card, because I altered it slightly.

Jump to Recipe

It turned out so lovely. You cook the seasoned meat up in oil and Coke with cinnamon sticks, orange quarters, and bay leaves,

 fish out the flavoring elements, continue cooking, and then scronch that meat.

I forgot to drain the fat out of the meat at the end, but there were zero complaints. I took my plate outside with the carnitas, some guacamole chips, and an ear of corn, and listened to Benny talk about how beautiful the world is.

And this is the best possible way to eat carnitas. 

THURSDAY
Burgers and ever so many raw vegetables

I’m vegcoring

I ate outside again and saw THREE hummingbirds. Here are two of them.  I think they were mad at each other:

I installed the Merlin app on my phone, and it’s very entertaining, but I can’t say it’s taught me anything. I’ve always had a hard time remembering all but a few bird calls, and now that my phone tells me what they are, I still can’t remember them unless I’m looking at my phone. Nicely designed app, though. 

FRIDAY
Pizza

Later today MY SISTER IS COMING OVER. I AM EXCITE!!!!! Get ready for lots of food, because that’s what I do when I am excite!!!!!!! She and several of her kids are staying the weekend, and we are also having lunch tomorrow with a priest who is passing through on his way home from seeing the pope. I hope the hummingbirds behave themselves. 

And don’t forget to tell me about your homemade ice cream! I want to make ridiculous delicious flavors. We still have a few weeks of vacation left, and we are most definitely open to all kinds of ideas. 

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. 

 

 

Carnitas (very slightly altered from John Herreid's recipe)

Ingredients

  • large hunk pork (butt or shoulder, but can get away with loin)
  • 2 oranges, quartered
  • 2-3 cinnamon sticks
  • 4-5 bay leaves
  • salt, pepper, oregano
  • 1 cup oil
  • 1 can Coke

Instructions

  1. Cut the pork into chunks and season them heavily with salt, pepper, and oregano.

  2. Put them in a heavy pot with the cup of oil, the Coke, the quartered orange, cinnamon sticks, and bay leaves

  3. Simmer, uncovered, for at least two hours

  4. Remove the orange peels, cinnamon sticks, and bay leaves

  5. Turn up the heat and continue cooking the meat until it darkens and becomes very tender and crisp on the outside

  6. Remove the meat and shred it. Serve on tortillas.

How to clean a child’s room when you can’t see the floor

This is an actual advice essay, not a joke. I write joke articles about cleaning pretty often, but that is because I would rather do anything than clean, even write; and I would definitely rather tell jokes than write. 

But not today! Today, I cleaned the middle upstairs bedroom, where three children sleep, including two of the rattiest packrats known to mankind. I’m a bad housekeeper, and I do a bad job making my kids clean. So their room was horrible. That’s just a fact.

However, I have a room rescue system that offers quick gratification; and, if you stick with it, you will eventually be able to see the whole floor. This essay is not about how to organize, how to decorate, how to make your children be tidy, how to optimize space, or anything of the kind. It’s just about how to get from “Oh Lord of mercies, please smite me now” to “Welp, now we have a floor again.” It’s fairly common sense, but I’m offering it in case you find yourself in this situation and need a clear plan and some moral support.

YOU WILL NEED:

Several garbage bags 
A trash barrel (or upright laundry basket)
About three smaller collection containers 
Broom and dustpan
Vacuum cleaner
Optional: A fan, because you will get angry and hot; a cool drink; music or podcast that’s going to encourage and energize you (not the news or anything challenging or upsetting). If the room is dusty, maybe take allergy medication at the beginning of the project. 

OPTIONAL PREP:
NUCLEAR WINTER

If you want to really go hard, sweep everything onto the floor, including what’s on the beds and under the beds, what’s in the closets, what’s on and in the drawers and shelves, etc. It all goes womp on the floor. Only do this if you have a ton of time and energy and mental fortitude, and your kids have already been given an opportunity to take care of it themselves. Save the nuclear option for rare, dire situations. I recommend just sweeping clean the bed and under the bed. 

STEP ONE: 
ESTABLISH CATEGORIES

Look at that mess on the floor! Decide what the mess is basically made out of. For a child’s room, it’s usually: Clean clothes, dirty clothes (including anything that needs to be laundered), costumes, books, toys, sorty things, art supplies (including papers they want to save), trash, little bitty things, and Hey That’s Not Yours. 

STEP TWO: 
ESTABLISH FLINGING ZONES

You are going to pick up every last thing on the floor, decide what category it belongs to, and fling it into a zone. The zone will not be its final resting place; it will just be a good spot for a pile. Try to help yourself, and make the dirty laundry zone be near the door, the book zone near a book shelf, etc. 

STEP THREE:
SIT YOUR ASS DOWN ON THE FLOOR AND START FLINGING. 

Just like it sounds. Make yourself comfortable, pick up the first thing you can reach, brush it off if it’s gross, and fling it into its zone. Do this over and over and over again until you can see the floor in front of you. Then shift slightly and do the same thing in the spot next to the clear spot. Continue until you can’t reach anything from where you’re sitting. Then move and do it again. And again. And again.

I know. It’s stupid and squalid, but I have found this to be the most efficient way to get through a knee-deep mess. It’s much easier on your back than plodding around the room with a bag, trying to pick out all the books, and all the socks, and all the toys, etc. It also gives quicker gratification, and is therefore more encouraging, then sweeping or raking the entire floor contents into a Towering Pile of Everything and sorting through it. This top-down,-one-spot-at-a-time method rewards you with a glimpse of the floor pretty quickly, and if you haven’t seen the floor in a while, it’s surprising how encouraging that can be. It’s very satisfying to watch the patch of clear floor grow and grow as you work your way around the room. 

It is very helpful to have a trash barrel (or a bag inside a tall laundry basket) that stands up and stays open, rather than a trash bag, so you can toss things in from where you sit, rather than having to pull open a slithery trash bag ten thousand times. This is going to be a very frustrating job, so you want to save frustration wherever you can. 

STEP FOUR:
SORT AND PUT AWAY YOUR PILES. 

Once every last thing that’s on the floor has been picked up, judged, and flung into a pile, and the room is all sorted, haul out all the trash and dirty laundry. This will clear out the room tremendously, which is encouraging. Then you just have to put away the already-sorted piles of stuff. 

A few need explaining: 

Little Bitty Things are items you pick out of the dirt pile before you sweep it up because you’re tender-hearted — things like like money, jewelry, tiny ceramic kittens, important Lego heads, and so on, that you don’t feel like finding homes for yourself, but which you don’t want to get lost. If the kids care, they can sort through it, but at least you rescued them.

Sorty Things are pieces of sets and kits that have been strewn all over the place. The kids will enjoy these things so much more if they’re all together again, so you don’t want to just throw them away. But you don’t know if you’re driving yourself crazy saving out pieces of a set that the kid only owns half of anymore. If you just put All Sorty Things into one box and then sort it all (or better yet, present it to the kids to sort) afterwards, you have already done the hard part. Way easier than roaming around a chaotic mess stopping and making a million decisions about whether or not to save something, and what set it belongs to.

Hey That’s Not Yours is obviously dishes and utensils, my missing cardigan, 46 pairs of scissors, etc. Feels a little like Christmas, in a profoundly pathetic way, to exit the room clutching your little treasure trove of reclaimed goods to restore to their rightful places in the house until someone immediately comes and steals them again. 

STEP FIVE
SWEEP AND VACCUUM

If the room was so bad that you can’t see the floor, it will be necessary to sweep said newly-exposed floor before vacuuming. Then vacuum. (This kind of content is why people pay me the big bucks to write.) 

And then the room is . . . cleaner. It is a good stopping place, and if you want to continue organizing and sorting, you can do that the next day. At least you can see the floor. 

AND THE EMOTIONAL SIDE OF IT ALL 

You don’t really need this essay, right? It’s a stupid essay. The truth is, cleaning is easy. All you have to to is pick up the things and put them back where they go, and everybody already knows this. But it’s the emotional side of it that makes it so daunting. When you’re facing an overwhelmingly, wretchedly chaotic mess, it helps to have a clear plan about how to tackle it, and to make things as encouraging for yourself as possible. It’s okay to encourage yourself. 

The other thing that makes cleaning hard is the guilt and other emotional baggage that goes along with it. You’re not just sorting through Barbie shoes and Halloween candy wrappers, but also feelings of guilt that you let it get to this state and you never taught the kids better, feelings of rage that they made this mess, feelings of shame that you spent money on toys and never made them take better care of them and now they’re not enjoying them and you’re filling the world with plastic and what about the poor dolphins, and then maybe the ghost of your mother or grandmother is haunting the closet making hissing sounds about all the socks on the floor.

All I can tell you is that, if you are feeling not just aggravation but crushing, paralyzing guilt over a messy room, it’s almost certainly inappropriate guilt. You can feel bad about a mess, but you shouldn’t feel like you murdered someone. 

Unless the mess is actually dangerous — like there is mold, or vermin, or your children wear the same outfit every day because they have no clean clothes — then whatever failings have led up to this point are probably not as bad as you’re telling yourself. Really. It’s just a mess. I say this as someone who just cleaned a real stinkhole of a room, and who (thanks to several years of therapy) just shocked myself by feeling nothing more than moderate irritation because, oh, that’s where my tape measure went. It was a big mess, but it was just a mess. I should have cleaned it sooner, but oh well, I’m cleaning it now. This is something I’ve been struggling with my whole life, and I think this is just as good as it’s going to get. I’m good at other things. The end. Got my tape measure back.

Good luck! Good luck with it all. 

 

How to clean every room of the house, according to my kids

We have a small house, by American standards. It’s about 1500 square feet, and 11 people live and move and have their being, and all their stuff, inside those walls. The trick to surviving and thriving in such limited quarters is to clean and organize assiduously. Assiduously, I tell you! This will require all family members to pitch in and do their fair share.

Does this happen? Well, I’ll tell you.

I’ll tell you.

My children care deeply about cleanliness. Or, at least, they have some very deep feelings about cleaning. I’ve been watching them in action, and I’d like to share with you some of the ways they manage their responsibility.

How to wash the dishes

If you’re overwhelmed by the massive heap of miscellaneous pots, pans, bowls, plates, and utensils, it will become easier to tackle the job if you stop and organize things first.

This is the last thing you want. Your goal, as with all cleaning projects, is not to end up with a tidy space, but to assemble legal evidence for the cosmos that you’ve been grievously wronged; so it’s best to make the job as unmanageable as possible.

Turn up your worst music, angrily tear open the dishwasher and begin cramming dirty dishes into it in this order: A single butter knife, a giant mixing bowl with onion skins clinging to it, a set of measuring cups still on the ring, the last remaining special blue glass from Mexico that your mother got from her sister for a wedding present; an iron frying pan, a novelty plastic souvenir cup in the shape of an ear of corn that always flips over and fills up with soapy water, and another butter knife. I guess this basting brush with glitter glue on it. Maybe a whisk, but sideways.

And that’s it. If you can find a pot with eggs burned onto the bottom, cram this down over everything else to seal in the doom and prevent the spray arm from spinning. If you’re out of dish soap, squirt some shampoo in there. It’s probably fine. How are you supposed to know, sheesh? Close the door, press ‘start’, and remind yourself that the reason the counter top is still crowded with dirty dishes is because you never asked to be born anyway, so how is this possibly your responsibility?

How to vacuum

A vacuum cleaner is a handy time saver, but like all tools, it has its limits. For instance, you can use it to suck up dirt, dust, dog hair, cat hair, sister hair, glitter, sister glitter, and sister dirt, but do not attempt to use the vacuum cleaner to suck up hair that is still attached to your sister. Why? Because girls are always screaming about something, who knows why.

Other than that, just sort of push the machine around the middle part of the floor until it starts making whining, gasping noises, and that’s the sound of being done. Shove it toward the corner of the room and leave it plugged in, with the cord flopping all over the place, as a courtesy to the next person. Man, that is some courtesy. You are awesome.

How to clean your bedroom

Spend all of Saturday morning begging and pleading to watch cartoons because you never get a chance to watch TV anymore because you work so hard. Watch cartoons for three hours, turn it off, think about cleaning your room, and announce that you never got to have breakfast. Eat breakfast for three hours. Turn on the TV again. When your parents notice you are still watching cartoons and demand you turn it off, shriek that it is a two-parter and it’s unfair to turn it off now, and anyway, your room isn’t even that bad because you just cleaned it.

Turn the TV off. Slither up the stairs like you were born with some kind of abnormal tendons, and announce that it’s impossible to clean such a messy room in such a short amount of time. Lie down on the floor and start playing with dolls.

When your parents come in to see how you’re doing, explain that the whole entire mess isn’t even yours, because you keep everything on your bed anyway, and everything else isn’t even yours! Throw three socks down the stairs, because they are laundry. Ask if you can have a little break. Turn on cartoons. Suddenly announce you never had lunch, and it’s unfair.

How to clean the bathroom

Don’t even go in there. Seriously just lie about it.

How to clear the dining room table

A place for everything, and everything in its place! Mail goes on the kitchen counter. Books and papers can be placed on the counter in the kitchen. Jackets and hats, straight to their spot in the kitchen, and why not on the counter? Laundry, apple cores, dog toys, a single roller blade, a puppet covered with very loose glitter, a broken table fan, a small plate of chewed-up mushrooms, a large paper mache model of Machu Picchu, a fleece blanket of Our Lady of Guadalupe with oatmeal on it, someone’s job application, and a curling iron: counter, obviously, kitchen-style.

A coffee mug: UGH, there’s nowhere to put this. Who’s supposed to be cleaning the kitchen counters? DO YOUR JOB, LAZY.

How to wash windows

I can’t believe they let me have a spray bottle of ammonia. We’re all gonna die.

***

And that’s how we do it at our house. Hope this helps. We feel that training children in household cleaning chores not only teaches them responsibility, it gives them a sense of ownership and pride, which sounds great, and someday we hope to get started on this. But right now, we’re watching cartoons, and it’s a two-parter.

Image: Detail of The Galley by Arthur Young (public domain)
A version of this essay was originally published in The Catholic Weekly in 2021.

What’s for supper? Vol. 302: “Blueberry” is a complete sentence

Around 3:30 a.m., I thought of a really good joke to begin today’s post. I considered writing it down, but then I realized that it was so good, there was no way I would forget it. 

Welp. Here’s what we ate this week: 

SATURDAY
BLTs, Boba Fett cake

Saturday was Lucy’s birthday. She frolicked at the beach and came home to have BLTs. If you are wondering what it looks like when you slowly and methodically burn five entire pounds of bacon, wonder no more. 

Happily, the cake turned out better. When I asked what kind of cake she wanted, she just said “Boba Fett.” When I asked for more details, she said, “His slappable bald head,” which is a little strange, and I may or may not take these lines out before I publish.  What I came up with is Boba Fett in his luxurious bacta tank/Polynesian spa. You guys, I spend way too much time online.

But check out this cake:

It is made of one flat, rectangular cake for the base, one cake baked in a loaf pan for the tanks, and for the rounded end pieces, a small circular cake baked in a glass dish in the microwave (which I only recently found out you can do) and cut in half. A microwaved cake turns out rather dry, but if you need a cake in a particular shape and you don’t have an oven-safe pan in that shape, this could be your solution. 

I used gum paste for Mr. F

and for a few of the trimmings on his tank, with some chocolate details dabbed on, and the rest is frosting from a can and melted candy wafers piped with a sandwich bag with a hole bitten in one corner, I mean hygienically cut with scissors that I can easily find. 

Lots of toothpicks in there. Gum paste dries fairly quickly, and you can fix mistakes somewhat by getting it wet and rubbing them out, but … only somewhat. Not my favorite medium. I only got it because it was a dollar cheaper than fondant.

But this is one of the few times a cake turned out exactly like the picture in my head. (In my head, I also only have butter knives, baggies, and toothpicks to work with.) 

I briefly considered making some kind of transparent lid, or even a shaped dome of “water” to shield Mr. Fett’s modesty, and even went so far as to buy a package of unflavored gelatin, but I came to my senses in time. 

A success!

SUNDAY
Grilled ham and cheese, chips

Sunday I went shopping, and Elijah grilled the sandwiches for me. 

MONDAY
“Souvlaki,” dolmas, pita crackers and feta, cherries

Pork was very cheap this week, so I bought to large, boneless pork loins. What to do? I had written “Greek pork” on the menu, but I don’t really know what that is. I ended up cutting the pork into long, thin strips and marinating in for several hours in olive oil, lemon juice, white wine vinegar, garlic powder and oregano, and a big handful of lemon pepper seasoning. Then I threaded it on skewers and broiled it.

It was, as expected, okay, not amazing. I wish I had made some garlicky yogurt sauce. That would have made it delicious. It also would have been great grilled outside, which we can try some other day. 

I did have fun making stuffed grape leaves with Benny. The grape vine has ramped all over the side of the yard and the leaves are nice and juicy, so she went out and picked 40 or so. 

I boiled some water and poured it over the leaves and let them sit for two minutes, then drained the water and added ice water. Then we drained that, trimmed off the stems, and died the leaves off for stuffing. Fresh grape leaves are slightly rubbery, but have a mild but distinct tart taste, like wood sorrel. 

I know some people roll their dolmas with raw or perhaps sauteed rice, and let it cook entirely by steaming, but the house was already incredibly hot and steamy, and I didn’t want to have a pot on the stove for hours and hours. So I halfway cooked the rice, then added some chopped scallions, plenty of fresh mint leaves (also from the yard) chopped up, salt and pepper, and a squeeze of lemon juice. If you want a recipe for no-meat dolmas, here is one we kinda sorta followed, but not really

We lined the bottom of a heavy pot with about a dozen grape leaves to keep it all from sticking, and then we rolled the rest. You put the leaf on your work surface, bottom side up, points facing you, and put a heaping tablespoon or so of rice mixture in the middle. Fold in the sides, fold up the bottom, and roll it up as tightly as you can, from the points up.

This startlingly patriotic picture is brought to you by the fact that I wanted to put away the giant flag we hung up for the 4th of July, but it kept raining in between the searing heat waves, and I had to dry it somehow. 

It was, as I mentioned, very hot, and we were rushing a bit, so these are pretty sloppy, but they did hold together.

I added about a cup-and-a-half of water, a big slosh of olive oil, and a big squeeze of lemon juice on top, loosely covered it, and let it simmer for about 40 minutes. 

You’re supposed to eat them chilled or room temperature, but we ate them right out of the pot. I put out a plate of lemon wedges and squeezed that all over everything on my plate, including the cherries. 

 Again, it would have been really nice to have some yogurt sauce, but with the crackers and cheese and cherries, it made a very pleasant summer meal.  Corrie said, “Mama’s really outdone herself this time!”

TUESDAY
Shepherd’s pie

I had to go out of town on Tuesday, and Elijah volunteered to make something he’s apparently been craving: Shepherd’s pie. His version uses mixed frozen vegetables, condensed cream of mushroom soup, and Worcestershire sauce, and he sprinkled cheddar cheese on top of the potatoes, and added chopped bacon in with the ground beef. 

If you take your left hand and stretch it out as far as it will go, and then hold it there and take your right hand, and stretch it out as far as it will go in the other direction, that’s how much shepherd’s pie I ate. 

WEDNESDAY
Chicken thighs, cherry tomatoes, peppers, and onions tray bake

Wednesday continued extremely hot, and I just gave up trying to get anything done, and took the little girls to the pond. Wonderful, wonderful, cool, cool pond. 

My original plan had been this recipe from Sip and Feast, but there was no fennel to be found at the store, and I certainly didn’t feel like de-boning anything, so I just put the chicken thighs on a pan, sprinkled cherry tomatoes in between them, threw some chopped Bell peppers and red onions in there, drizzled it all with olive oil, sprinkled it heavily with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and oregano, and cooked it in a hot oven until the chicken was done. 

Not sophisticated or dazzling, but it was fine. I do love blistering hot cherry tomatoes. 

THURSDAY
Spiedies

Oh look, another sand worm, I mean boneless pork loin! I cut it into chunks and marinated it for several hours in a marinade of oil, lemon juice, wine vinegar, fresh mint, lots of crushed garlic, red pepper flakes, and a little sugar.

This is an actual recipe that you can follow, if you so desire.

Jump to Recipe

At dinner time, I spread it on a pan and broiled it

then served it on toasted rolls with mayonnaise, with chips and salsa and a big bowl of just plain blueberries, because it is July, and like my therapist is always saying, “Blueberries is a complete sentence.”

(Nobody is actually saying that.)

A slightly weird but not bad meal.  People went to Burger King anyway, but I take comfort in the fact that this is not actually a reflection on my cooking; it was done solely to hurt my feelings. And it worked! 

FRIDAY
Bag o’ tentacles lo mein 

This “mixed seafood” lo mein turned out really well last time, so I got the pouch of frozen ocean misc. from Aldi again.

Here’s my lo mein recipe:
Jump to Recipe

Pretty sure there is some tuna in the cabinets for people who don’t like it when their dinner waves at them. They have no idea how easy they’re getting. Off. Gosh, I cannot get that sentence to work out right. Well, goodbye. 

pork spiedies (can use marinade for shish kebob)

Ingredients

  • 1 cup veg or olive oil
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup red or white wine vinegar
  • 4 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 1 cup fresh mint, chopped
  • 8-10 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 4-5 lbs boneless pork, cubed
  • peppers, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, cut into chunks

Instructions

  1. Mix together all marinade ingredients. 

    Mix up with cubed pork, cover, and marinate for several hours or overnight. 

    Best cooked over hot coals on the grill on skewers with vegetables. Can also spread in a shallow pan with veg and broil under a hot broiler.

    Serve in sandwiches or with rice. 

basic lo mein

Ingredients

for the sauce

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

for the rest

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

Instructions

  1. Mix together the sauce ingredients and set aside.

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

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

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

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

You can make it across

It was scorching hot at our little town beach.  I roamed back and forth, from the blueberry bush to the rock, counting the heads of the swimming kids, trying to keep the baby from eating too much sand.  People came for a long stay or a quick, cooling dip, catching up with old friends as they bobbed up and down in the water.

There was a couple with two kids, a baby and a boy about seven.  The young mom was tall and lovely, with a fierce, classical beauty. But in the heat of the day, she wore many layers of clothing, and she kept adjusting her top and glancing down, frowning at her postpartum belly and hips.

The dad was busy, almost frantic, in his effort to give everyone exactly the right kind of attention:  asking solicitously about the mom’s comfort; tickling and splashing with the baby, but showing his wife that everyone was perfectly safe; making sure the older boy didn’t feel neglected.

The man, tough and heavily muscled but overfed, was insisting that his son wait on the rock for him while he swam out to the buoys.  “Dee Dee can’t swim!” he explained. 

Ohh, I realized. Dee Dee is the mother of the baby, but not of the older boy.

 “So that’s why she can’t be in charge of you in the water.  If you have a cramp, she can’t even save you.  You have to wait for me,” he said. Too loudly.

The dad got his swim in, they all played and splashed for a while, and then retreated to a picnic table behind me.  A little family storm was brewing there, and their voices rose.

“I can make it!” insisted the young woman.

“No, you can’t, Dee Dee,” her man said, as he toweled off their baby’s curly head. “Just because you could do it a long time ago doesn’t mean you can do it now.”

“I can make it!” she said again.

“Fine,” he said. “So when you get halfway across the lake and you can’t make it, then you’ll drown and then you’ll be dead.  You’ll be dead.  You can’t do it, Dee Dee.  You have a totally different body now.  I don’t even know if I can make it across the lake.”

She snatched the baby away from him and finished changing his clothes, dusting the sand from his bottom, carefully buckling useless sandals onto the tiny, soft feet.  The man called his older son, and the two of them went into the water to roughhouse, and Dee Dee stayed on the shore.  The sun beat down, and the waves of anger and hurt lapped against the sand.

Maybe he was right. Maybe it would be foolish to try to reach the other shore, if her swimming wasn’t strong. But there was nothing foolish about needing so badly to know that, even though she was a mother now, she could still do things.  That her life wasn’t going to be over just because her body had shifted.  That she wasn’t going to spend the rest of her life waiting on the shore, wearing clothes she hated, being safe and watching other people enjoy themselves.

I believe I saw a man was trying to be a man, as he understood it:  teaching his older son to be responsible, playing with his baby, trying to keep everyone secure.  He was showing his love the way many men do, performing services for them, keeping them safe, taking everything into account, assuming responsibility for everything he thought was in his purview.  But he did it in the worst possible way — showing his son that his stepmom wasn’t trustworthy or capable; using the new baby as an anchor to keep his woman under control.  In his insistence, I heard fear. Where was the mother of his first child? Not with him, and who knows why. But now he wanted everyone to be secure, and so he preyed on their worst instincts to keep them that way.  Leaning on the fissures to keep it all together.

This works, until it doesn’t work. It works until the pressure becomes intolerable. And then everything breaks apart. 

Someone needed to tell this little family:  But you do love each other!  Any fool can see that. Any fool can see that you want to be what a family is supposed to be.  Someone needed to tell them, please keep trying.  Please get help, to learn how to do this right. You’re so young.  You can figure out how to understand each other better, how to take care of each other, how to give each other freedom to grow strong.  You’re on the right track, you just need to refine your methods.

Other people shouted out their personal lives as they splashed and waded.  I heard: 

“No, we ain’t together no more.  Got a court date next week, because he don’t pay no support.  Last time the judge called him a bully, and he didn’t like that too much, let me tell ya!  So, this your little one? Ain’t she cute!  She looks just like your big girl.  She still livin’ at home?  My God, is she seventeen already?  Oh, when’s she due?  Where’s the baby daddy?  Yeah, that’s what I heard.  He don’t want to work, he’s gonna lose that Honda he’s been workin’ on.  When’s your court date for this little cutie?  Good luck with that!  You like seein’ your daddy, honey?  I bet you do!  Have fun, guys.  I gotta get goin’, rest up before my night shift.”

Friendly, smiling people, hard workers, doting on their kids, and chatting amiably about their court dates, their anger management, their restraining orders, their tangled family trees, their days when the kids get to see their daddies. Sometimes this is how it is: The body of the family not just weakened, but fractured beyond repair.

But not always. Somebody needed to tell the resentful young mother, her baffled and terrified husband, his impatient boy, their imperiled baby with the curly hair:  Wait. Only wait. You’re right to be angry, and right to be afraid. But don’t split apart just yet. Maybe you can make it across the lake. Maybe no one needs to be left behind.  Maybe you just have to work at getting a little stronger.

.

.

.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

A version of this essay was first published in the National Catholic Register in 2013.

Childhood is a wild bird

The first time I took my kids out to hand feed wild birds, it didn’t go well.

I had hit upon the activity out of desperation at the beginning of spring vacation. The kids were so bored, but I had COVID and was much too tired and contagious for outings. We had long since exhausted the charms of reading books via FaceTime, with and without silly filters, and even the kids were tired of TV.

But maybe we could feed the birds together! We could sit in chairs, safely distanced, enjoying nature, being quiet, doing something wholesome and memorable, and did I mention being quiet?

It didn’t go so well. But that was okay. It was pleasant enough just being outside, and I’m a firm believer in the value of unstructured, unplugged time for kids. We thought we might get a nibble or two, but you really do have to be quiet to attract birds, and my youngest is made out of monkeys. The first few times she squirmed or chattered, I fondly and gently shushed her; but I recalled that our goal was to have a nice time together, so before long, I released her, and we dispersed without having fed or even seen a single bird.

We agreed it was fun, though, or at least potentially fun. Apparently you really can train birds to get to know you. I talked about our attempt on social media, and people shared photos and videos of their kids’ success in making friends with these wild creatures.

The idea began to take hold. I started to see hand feeding wild birds as the ideal summer activity. By the end of vacation, I thought, this is how we would greet every morning: We would step into the backyard with a handful of seed, and our feathered friends, who knew our gentle ways, would flock to us like a gang of modern day St. Francises.

A eager twittering grew in my heart. It was everything I wanted for my kids: A break from screen time, a memorable bonding experience, and a naturally contemplative pastime that would sweetly, easily open the gates for all kinds of other goods of the spirit.

The idea took flight. This could be about so much more than birds, I thought…

Read the rest of my essay for Catholic San Francisco here

Stars thick as daisies on an uncut lawn

Have you SEEN the new pictures from the crazy new James Webb telescope? The first images are gorgeous, just glorious. Images from space are almost always joyful and exultant, each one surpassing the last, and I’m always a little baffled by people who say they see them and feel small and insignificant.  For me, they have just the opposite effect. 

Here’s a little essay I wrote in 2018 (and sightly updated), about that expansive sensation. (And I’m once again amazed at what a great guesser stodgy old C.S. Lewis turned out to be, when he imaged what you’d see as you plow through the fertile fields of space.

***

Astronauts grow in space! Actually, they don’t really grow, which would mean they would have more cells. What they really do is stretch, especially in the spine, because their bodies take a vacation from the constant compression of gravity.

Most astronauts grow a few centimeters, but Japanese astronaut Norishige Kanai mistakenly thought he grew 9 centimeters, or 3.5 inches, during only three weeks aboard the ISS. Happily, even such prodigious growth was anticipated, and the space suit and custom protective seat that cradles the astronauts’ bodies at the impact of landing and suit could be adjusted to keep Kainai safe. As it turns out, he measured wrong, and he had grown a more typical 2 centimeters. He and his companions made it home safe (and he apologized for the measuring error).

I love listening to astronauts. They always convey some combination of the good cheer of rugby players, the unflagging courtesy of retired military men, and the bland precision of engineers. The fellow they interviewed for the BBC was no exception, but I was taken aback when the interviewer asked how quickly astronauts return to their normal height after they return to earth.

Almost immediately, it turns out. The astronaut’s tone remained cheerful, but (snd I apologize that I can’t seem to find the recording online) his vocabulary suddenly turned rather florid as he described feeling the discs of his spine compressing under gravity, the “punishing oppressor.”  He seemed to take the effects of gravity personally; and he seemed to feel that space was where he truly belonged.

I thought immediately of Out of the Silent Planet, which I recently re-read. It’s the first in C. S. Lewis’ “space trilogy,” and has philologist Dr. Elwin Ransom kidnapped and forced onboard a small ship that travels to Malacandra (Mars), where, his captors erroneously imagine, the natives demand human sacrifice.

Out of the Silent Planet was written in 1938, nearly twenty years before the launch of Sputnik; so the science of space travel in the book is vague and conjectural. The kidnappers’ spaceship is spherical, and the cabins are grouped around a hollow center, which feels “down” to them. It’s never explicitly explained, but presumably some kind of artificial gravity has been contrived. Ransom’s body, we are told, feels unmanageably light, and so the three men wear weighted suits — which they later strip off when their vessel gets too hot for clothing. So, some inconsistency, unless I’m missing something.

(I also tried reading this book to my kids, and they got very hung up on the part where Ransom is still naked, but decides to hide a kitchen knife in case he needs to defend (or kill) himself. Where did he hide the knife? We never got past that chapter. )

Anyway, I adore the way Lewis describes the effect of the sun on Ransom. Here are some of his first impressions after he gets over his initial terror:

The Earth’s disk was nowhere to be seen, the stars, thick as daisies on an uncut lawn, reigned perpetually with no cloud, no moon, no sunrise, to dispute their sway. There were planets of unbelievable majesty, and constellations to dreamed of: there were celestial sapphires, rubies, emeralds and pin-pricks of burning gold; far out on the left of the picture hung a comet, tiny and remote: and between all and behind all, far more emphatic and palpable than it showed on Earth, the undimensioned, enigmatic blackness. The lights trembled: they seemed to grow brighter as he looked. Stretched naked on his bed, a second Dana, he found it night by night more difficult to disbelieve in old astrology: almost he felt, wholly he imagined, ‘sweet influence’ pouring or even stabbing into his surrendered body. All was silence but for the irregular tinkling noises. He knew now that these were made by meteorites, small, drifting particles of the world-stuff that smote continually on their hollow drum of steel; and he guessed that at any moment they might meet something large enough to make meteorites of ship and all. But he could not fear. He now felt that Weston had justly called him little-minded in the moment of his first panic. The adventure was too high, its circumstance too ‘solemn’, for any emotion, save a severe delight.

How I would love to ask some astronaut if any of this rings true. Lewis continues:

But the days — that is, the hours spent in the sunward hemisphere of their microcosm — were the best of all. Often he rose after only a few hours sleep to return, drawn by an irresistible attraction, to the regions of light; he could not cease to wonder at the noon which always awaited you however early you were to seek it. There, totally immersed in a bath of pure ethereal colour and of unrelenting though unwounding brightness, stretched his full length and with eyes half closed in the strange chariot that bore them, faintly quivering, through depth after depth of tranquillity far above the reach of night, he felt his body and mind daily rubbed and scoured and filled with new vitality. Weston, in one of his brief, reluctant answers, admitted a scientific basis for these sensations: they were receiving, he said, many rays that never penetrated the terrestrial atmosphere. But Ransom, as time wore on, became aware of another and more spiritual cause for his progressive lightening and exultation of heart. A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now — now that the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it ‘dead’; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren; he saw now that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the Earth with so many eyes — and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens — the heavens which declared the glory — the ‘happy climes that ly Where day never shuts his eye Up in the broad fields of the sky.’ He quoted Milton’s words to himself lovingly, at this time and often.

Whether or not the actual experience of being in space is anything like what Lewis imagined, his fictional description has forever rescued the word “space” for me, too — Lewis, aided by many happy childhood memories of bundling into the car in the middle of the night with a telescope to see some wonder, a comet, a convergence of planets, or just the naked, glorious river of the Milky Way, way out in the country where no streetlights glared and the only sound came from cows shifting their weight as they slept.

I never understood the common trope that gazing at space makes us feel small and insignificant. Why on earth would beauty make you feel that way? Beauty tells us that the world means something, and so do we.

Whenever there is a story on the news about space, I feel myself stretch and grow a little bit, and I don’t compress again until the story is over.

 

Image from NASAWebbTelescope on Flickr.  (Creative Commons)

What’s for supper? Vol. 300: We eat in the shade

For months, I’ve been watching the approach of What’s for Supper? Vol. 300 and wondering what spectacular thing I would do to mark the occasion. It turns out vol. 300 hit on a week where I was insanely busy and did almost no cooking, I wrote up a long post complaining about all the home renovations we did instead, and the whole thing was so whiny and boring, I couldn’t bear to publish it.

So here we are at actual vol. 300, and guess what? I’m VERY EXCITED ABOUT THIS NEW COLD SICILIAN FRIED SWEET AND SOUR ZUCCHINI DISH. So it all worked out! I wish it were a Spartan zucchini dish, but it is still very good. 

There were be no further 300 jokes. That’s all I got, unless I think of another one. 

Here’s what we ate this week:

SATURDAY
Chicken tenders maybe? 

We were, as I mentioned, coming off a long week of very intense home renovations, some planned, some thrust upon us. I think we also had cold broccoli.

SUNDAY
July 3 cookout!

Sunday was our lovely annual Independence Day/family reunion cookout, somewhat smaller than some years, but still a wonderful day with perfect weather and the very best of company. Here’s the whole album of photos on Facebook, if you care to take a look at all the cousins and hamburgers and sparklers and one very happy puppydog

We kept the menu pretty basic: Hamburgers and hot dogs, veggie burgers and tofu dogs, and smoked chicken thighs with a sugar rub

Jump to Recipe

I decided life would be better for everybody (me) if we didn’t need forks for anything, so I didn’t make any side dishes at all; I just bought about forty bags of chips. Didn’t even buy corn. My neighbor Millie brought over a banana bread. Clara made patriotic cream puffs

and I made a bunch of red and blue Jell-o cups with Kool Whip on top, and we had little ice cream cups and lots of candy, lots of soda and beer, and dark and stormies (ginger beer, dark rum, lime juice, and ice).

We had sparklers, snappers, glow sticks, googly-eyed glasses, patriotic tattoos, the pool and trampoline, and Damien flew the drone around and the dog just about lost his so-called mind.

Then we read the Declaration of Independence, ate candy, swatted bugs, and set off fireworks. A very good day.

Sharing this one photo out of sheer vanity, because my arms look okay for once.

MONDAY
Hamburgers, chips, cherry hand pies

This seems strange in retrospect, but I guess I felt like making eleven little pies the next day, so that’s what I did. I wasn’t really sure what shape to do, so I made them ridiculous.

I used my very reliable pie crust recipe, with the frozen grated butter and ice water

Jump to Recipe

and I made a filling with just cherries (Benny used the “narrow-neck bottle and chopstick” system of pitting her half of the cherries, but I prefer the “just rip their little hearts out” method, with is messier but faster), a handful of sugar, a few spoonfuls of cornstarch, and a little salt. I brushed a little egg wash and a sprinkle of sugar over the top and baked them up, and I thought they were just swell.

Tart and juicy with a tender shell.

I actually just had pie for dinner.

No regrets. 

TUESDAY
Nachos, fruit salad

Nothing fancy. Just seasoned beef and cheese on chips, with salsa and sour cream and cilantro on the side, and a fruit salad of watermelon, strawberries, and blueberries.

I bought four watermelons for the cookout and forgot to serve them. I managed to smuggle two of them into my sisters’ cars as they drove away, but I still have two to get through, so that’s been a feature this week. 

Not exactly a hardship. The fruit is all so sweet right now, you can’t imagine. Well, I hope you’re having some fruit yourself, right now, so you don’t have to imagine. 

WEDNESDAY
Bo ssam, rice, garden lettuce, and sweet and sour zucchini and summer squash

Bone-in pork shoulder was 99 cents a pound, so I knew what I had to do. I got this pork, about a 9-pounder, going the night before, with a cup of sugar and a cup of salt rubbed all over it and wrapped up tight with plastic wrap. Then at about noon the next day, I unwrapped it again, put it in a 300 (oh! 300! There you go) oven in a pan heavily lined with tin foil, and that, my friends, is just about the whole entire deal. It’s so easy.

Goes in like this

and comes out six hours later like this

You don’t even need a knife.

There is supposed to be a part at the end where you put brown sugar, cider vinegar, and a little more salt on it and let it finish cooking into a crunchy little savory sugary crust, but half the time I forget to do this part, and nobody notices. The pork I got had a nice fat rind on it, so it already had a wonderful caramelized crust on top. Oh, this roast is just superb. You squint hard at it, and it falls to pieces, that’s how tender it is. 

Now, how about sides? Damien and I admitted to each other that we just don’t like kimchee. We’re not all that crazy about spicy coleslaw, either, which is kimchee for babies. But I wanted something piquant and tart to go along with the dark, salty flavor of the pork. Seemed like the perfect time to try this recipe I’ve been eying: cold fried sweet and sour zucchini, or zucchini agrodolce (literally “soursweet”) from Sip and Feast.

I followed the recipe slavishly (I used three zucchini and two summer squashes), and it turned out so well. I was so skeptical! You fry and salt it,

then make a little sour onion sauce for the vegetables and let it chill,

and serve it cold? Or room temperature? But I cannot stop eating this stuff. It’s sparkling tart, and the vegetables retain a nice crunch.

But it doesn’t have that “every cubic centimeter of this tastes exactly the same” that you get with pickled vegetables, and they didn’t get rubbery at all. I don’t know! I just love it. The recipe was written very clearly and agreeably, too. Looking forward to exploring the site for more recipes. 

So in the morning, I threw the pork in the oven and made the zucchini and put that in the fridge, and then spent the rest of the day going out of my mind because everything smelled so good, but it wasn’t time to eat yet. I guess that’s how the dog feels all day, every day. 

In the evening, I made a big pot of rice and sent Benny out for some lettuce from the garden, and we had a wonderful meal. It all went together so well.

An exceptional summer meal, mostly made ahead of time.

THURSDAY
Korean beef bowl, rice, leftover zucchini, watermelon, leftover broccoli

I’m a little tired of Korean beef bowl, but this time it turned out really tasty with a tiny tweak. I usually fry up the fresh ginger and garlic in sesame oil, then add the beef, then drain off the fat, feeling sad about draining away all the flavor from the ginger and garlic. So this time, I cooked the meat 3/4 of the way, then drained it most of the way, then added the ginger and garlic, then finished cooking the meat.

The flavor was much brighter this way. You can see I also left the ginger and garlic in fairly big pieces. I also upped the amount of red pepper flakes. I’ve updated the recipe card

Jump to Recipe

and I’m definitely doing it this way from now on! Of course you can still use powdered ginger and/or garlic, rather than fresh.

I served it with rice, sesame seeds and chopped scallions, and of course more watermelon, and leftover zucchini, and some leftover raw broccoli from who knows when. Great little meal that went from a hunk of frozen beef to hot dinner in about 25 minutes.  

It didn’t hurt that, after I got my writing done for the day, I had spent a hour stapling welded wire to the garbage enclosure, and then an hour playing cow-catcher choo choo train with the girls in the pool. If you ever need to work up an appetite, this is a recommended method. 

And I helped myself to some more cold zucchini and squash, and it was even more delicious

It was a little bit of a hassle to fry all that zucchini and squash, but it was totally worth it. I hope you can tell I’m going to keep harassing you about this dish. 

FRIDAY
Pizza

I even remembered to take the dough out of the freezer. I am a golden god. 

 

 

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. 

 

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.

 

Korean Beef Bowl

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

Ingredients

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

Instructions

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

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

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

12 more chapter books to read aloud!

The only good thing about the pandemic was how many books we read out loud. We really got back in the habit, and I’m so glad, because read-aloud nights are almost always good nights. I read mostly to the youngest kids (now ages 10 and 7), but pretty often, the older kids casually drift in and hang around to listen (not that I notice or secretly overflow with glee).

We gravitate toward books that are funny and adventurous, with strong dialogue, and not necessarily books that have any strong intellectual or moral content. A good story is good enough.

Back in 2016, I made up a list of ten such books. Now here’s an update, with twelve more books we liked and recommend:

  1. The Hobbit (and the Lord of the Rings trilogy) by Jolkien Rolkien Rolkien Tolkien

Oops, this was on the list last time, too! Well, I’m including again, because we read it again, and also to give you permission to skip the songs. I know, I know. They’re integral! But if they’re bogging you down and making you want to stop reading, then it’s fine to skip them and keep reading. Don’t settle for watching the movies! (Which I also liked!)

As I said last time, everyone loves the story and characters, but you may have forgotten how wonderful the writing itself is. Here’s a tiny excerpt:

Bilbo never forgot the way they slithered and slipped in the dust down the steep zig-zag path into the secret valley of Rivendell.

Clearly designed to be read out loud. So good.

2. The Chronicles of Narnia, all seven books

It’s trendy to snicker at C.S. Lewis for being heavy handed (“If every last reader doesn’t understand that Aslan is an allegory for Jesus, I will set myself on fire!” goes the meme) but this is mainly a backlash against over-analyzers who behave as if he’s the only Christian writer who exists. Don’t you believe it! Even after all these years, I find each book fresh and compelling, and they stand up as independent stories without any subtext, or else they wouldn’t have lasted all these years. Lots of action, lots of cliffhangers, lots of comedy, lots of beauty and images you will keep returning to. And the dialogue deft and reveals things about the speaker. This is a rare gift. (I cannot get myself to care about which order the books are supposed to be listed in, though.) 

We just finished The Silver Chair, and I still haven’t gotten tired of the part where Puddleglum stamps out the fire and the unenchanting smell of burnt marshwiggle fills the room. 

I am, however, finally ready to admit that the Pauline Baynes illustrations I grew up with are really lacking, and I would not mind a completely different, less constricted approach.

3. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

May require some more patient listeners, as some of the chapters include lots of description, and some of the sentence structure is fairly sophisticated, but it’s some of the most lush and gracious lyrical writing you’ll even encounter in a children’s book. And it’s funny, and tender, and most of the chapters are full of action, and it tugs at your heart, and has wonderful characters that will stay with you for life.

Warning: Toad’s car horn goes “Poop-poop.” Some children may never recover from this. (Come to think of it, the Narnia stories with ships in them also mention the poop deck, and some of your worse children may not get over that, either.)

4. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson 

Damien has read this aloud to some of the kids a few times, and they were absolutely riveted. You will be required to do some accents/pirate voices, but you can do it. This book is completely thrilling. Just absolutely nobody writes like this anymore. I can’t get more specific because I was pregnant when he was reading, and dozed through it, but I got the general impression wonderfully crafted prose and everyone on the edge of their seat.

5. Dominic by William Steig 

We’re very familiar with his offbeat stories and deliberately ornate vocabulary in Steig’s picture books like Shrek!, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Doctor De Soto, the surprisingly existentialist Yellow and Pink, and others, but I think this may be his only chapter book.

It’s about a dog, and it starts off:

Dominic was a lively one, always up to something.  One day, more restless than usual, he decided there wasn’t enough going on in his own neighborhood to satisfy his need for adventure.  He just had to get away.

And off he goes. Very lively and fast-paced. It ends in a slightly unsettling way, as many Steig books do, but I don’t recall that it’s actually upsetting; it’s just a little weird.

6. The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

Kind of a mannered fairy tale that you may find absolutely delightful or somewhat irritating.

It begins:

Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there live a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold.  His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, an he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins o the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales, He was six feet four, and forty-six, and even colder than he thought he was.

You can absolutely tell Thurber wrote it when he was supposed to be working on something else.

The hero and heroine aren’t much, but some of the minor characters are unforgettable (Hagga who used to weep jewels, but who weeps no more; and of course the Golux with his indescribable hat, and the Todal that glups) May be a little creepy for especially sensitive little ones. Try it! It’s short and it may hit the spot. Do get the edition with copious illustrations by Marc Simont.

Another take on fairy tales, but a little change of pace:

7. The Light Princess by George MacDonald

I’m including this with a giant helping of caveats, because old George needed and editor like fresh meat needs salt. Great stories, nifty characters, but oy, that prose. Here’s a George MacDonald passage (from The Princess and the Goblin) that made me want to set the book on fire:

When in the winter they had had their supper and sat about the fire, or when in the summer they lay on the border of the rock-margined stream that ran through their little meadow, close by the door of their cottage, issuing from the far-up whiteness often folded in clouds, Curdie’s mother would not seldom lead the conversation to one peculiar personage said and believed to have been much concerned in the late issue of events.

The Light Princess is like this in some passages, but it’s definitely his most accessible children’s book, and the story is the most intelligible. It follows  a standard fairy tale format: King and queen insult a fairy at a christening, she curses the newborn, the princess grows up under a strange enchantment. A prince falls in love with her, and disguises himself to get near her to have a chance to win her heart. The details are bonkers, though. You really have to read it. Like all GMC books, it goes hard at the end, but unlike many, it has a happy ending, so that’s a relief. And you can grok the Eucharistic subtext if you want, or you can just let it be (although Maurice Sendak’s exquisite illustrations make it pretty hard to ignore)

8. Half Magic by Edward Eager

This is a story by someone who has read and digested and adored many, many fairy tales and adventure stories, and understands exactly what children love about them. The whole book is just plain fun. Four children discover a tricky magic charm one summer, and barely survive the adventures that ensue. The relationships between the children, who are siblings, are very realistic, and the story reveals their exasperating flaws in a way that just makes them each more sympathetic even as they endanger everybody else.  It’s also the rare story where the magic comes to an end at the end of the book, and you truly don’t mind, because the kids have gained something else really valuable and satisfying. Just about a perfect book. 

The book (written in the 50’s) is set in the 1020’s, so some plot points may need a bit of explanation, but kids age 7 and up or so should be able to follow along easily enough. Another thing I like about this book is that, while it takes the interior lives of children seriously, and treats them as full people, it also recognizes that they are just children and have their limits; and the children meet some adults who are dopey and ridiculous, but they also meet some who are good and wise and helpful. 

Eager wrote six other books about kids encountering magic, and they’re all enjoyable, but Half Magic is in a league of its own.

9. Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren

We’ve read the Pippi Longstocking books, and they are deservedly well-loved. (The most extraordinary thing is that Pippi is a hero who is kind — a virtue you rarely find in heroes.) We watched part of the Studio Ghibli animated series Ronia, which I knew was based on a book by Lindgren, but lost interest, I think partially because it actually followed the book too carefully, which made the pacing odd for screen. 

The book, though, turned out to be fantastic, and perfect for reading aloud. The chapters are short and satisfying, and the translation is fluid and natural. 

Entertaining and fast-paced and really makes you long for adventure in the natural world. Ronia is the only child of a robber chieftain, a strong, happy, wild person, born on the night of a terrible storm, when harpies swarmed through the air and a giant bolt of lightning cleft the ancient fortress in half. Ronia has just discovered that another child, the son of a rival robber chieftain, has moved into the other side, which is separated from their living quarters by a bottomless chasm — and that the two robbers were friends as children. Has some spooky magical peril that might be too much for very sensitive kids.

10. My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett

This one is aimed at the youngest audience of all on this list, but anyone listening in will enjoy it. A peculiar, dream-like story about a boy who, at the behest of a talking cat, travels to a faraway island and outwits several different kinds of animals to rescue an imprisoned baby dragon. Strange, sweet, funny, and very much in tune with a child’s imagination. There are two sequels, Elmer and the Dragon and The Dragons of Blueland, which are okay but not brilliant like the first one.)  

I can’t find my copy at the moment, but the illustrations are to die for. 

11. Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang by Ian Fleming

Okay, I haven’t read this for many years, but I remember it being silly but still gripping and brisk, and nowhere near as cloying as the movie (and in the book, the family is intact, with two kids and two happy parents). The author, Ian Fleming, is of course also the author of the James Bond books, which were always intended to be corking good adventure yarns with lots of fighting and narrow escapes and jumping around, and that’s what this is. The style of the prose is very playful and dramatic. It’s also quite a short book, so not a huge commitment. Warning, you will be required to do some corny French accents toward the end. It also includes a fudge recipe.

Look at the fun illustrations from my edition from the 60’s:

Bad guys!!!

12. The Jack Tales collected and retold by Richard Chase

Not a chapter book, but a collection of Appalachian folk tales. It takes a little practice to get into the swing of the dialect, but it’s not hard after the first page or so. Gleefully violent, with lots of beheadings and other kinds of mutilation. Jack is a cheerful, resourceful hero in overalls who kills not one but several giants — sometimes giants with multiple heads — and meets all manner of magical creatures, crafty witches, dishonest kings, and beautiful maidens while seeking his fortune in I guess North Carolina.

This illustration kills me. All four giant heads have male pattern baldness. Life is hard!

Really interesting intersection of fairy tales and tall tales and Americana, and some of them are hilarious. Not for the faint of heart. 

BONUS: We’re only a few chapters in, but we started reading Mio, My Son by Astrid Lindgren and . . . boy, it’s weird. The kids are loving it, but I don’t know what to think. It’s extremely action-packed, and so far, it’s written exactly like a polished version of a book that a kid would write, or want to hear, anyway. The names of the characters are names a child would invent (his friends are Pompoo and Totty, and the golden-maned horse is Miramis), and the plot is very oddly framed, and is making me uncomfortable, because I feel like there’s a psychological layer to it that may or may not ever be acknowledged.

A young orphan lives a wretched life, unloved and neglected by his aunt and uncle, until suddenly one day he’s whisked away by a genie and discovers that his father is alive and is the king of a magical country, and he is the cherished heir to the kingdom. He enjoys some very heavy-handed wish fulfillment, and remarks several times about what the people in his former life would think if they could see him now. But even as he plays in the garden of roses and eats the Bread That Satisfies Hunger, there are some early hints of dark foreboding, and within a few chapters it becomes clear that it’s his fate to do battle with the great kidnapping villain, Sir Kato, who is the only blot on the great happiness that pervades Farawayland. I don’t know! If you’ve read it, don’t tell me what happens! We’re definitely finishing it, and I’m very curious about how it will get wrapped up. I would love to have met Astrid Lindgren in real life. What an interesting person. 

And that’s the list! I feel like I’m forgetting some major good reads we’ve enjoyed recently, but the titles are eluding me at the moment. What have you read out loud that everyone liked? 

Note: I linked to Amazon throughout this post just for convenience, but Mio, My Son appears to be out of print, so it’s priced pretty high. Just wanted to make sure everyone knows about booksprice.com. You put the title or the ISBN in and it will show you new and used books for sale from a variety of sellers, including Amazon, AbeBooks, Alibris, Biblio, and more; and it shows you the shipping upfront, so you don’t get hornswoggled. So here’s the listings for Mio, My Son. If you don’t mind clicking around a bit, you can often get yourself quite a deal. I use this site all the time.