“probably just been nosin’ through the trash”

I’m choosing to believe that a team of collaborative raccoons did this.

Dag.

Dag.

Because I don’t want to think about the size, skill, and determination of any singular animal with the capacity to knock over our 60-gallon, 4-foot tall, heavy, full trash can, gnaw or tear into bags and containers, and scatter the residual detritus across our yard.

Now, some you folks live around bears, and you’re thinking something along the lines of, “Doesn’t she know how to bear-proof her trash? Why is it just sitting out in the open like that?  What did she expect?”

But I live on the periphery of a bustling city, at least 30 miles from the nearest possible bear habitat.  So practically speaking, it really couldn’t have been a bear.

I need it NOT to have been a bear.  I’m terrified of bears, and I think that’s completely appropriate, rational, and downright legit.

The summer I was fourteen, I went on an Outward Bound trip.  I spent two weeks canoeing, portaging, camping, and surviving in the boundary waters of Canada and Minnesota.  The scenery was breathtakingly spectacular, and it needed to be.  Because it was also riddled with biting black flies, cold rain (and accompanying “foot rot”), and all the luxuries of camping in the wilderness, including texturized vegetable protein and powdered milk for meals.

So lots of bears live up there, and we had some training to prepare for them before we left the base camp.  We streamlined our toiletries so as not to attract them, packing one tube of toothpaste to share amongst the ten of us, and leaving our deodorants behind.  We practiced bear-proofing the food packs, throwing ropes through the cruxes of trees and suspending the packs out of reach.  And we talked about what to do if a bear came to camp.

We had our first bear encounter three days into the trip.  We were portaging, and we “lost” one of the packs.  We looked all along the paths, and we found it about twenty feet into the woods, shredded and depleted of most of the food.  We learned to man the food packs at all times after that.

I shared a tent with the only other girl on the trip, and she was far less of a princess than I. Still, I was making the best of it until I could go home, shower, sleep inside, and eat real food.  Anyway, we heard a bear reconnoitering outside of our tent on the fifth night.  Terrifying.  And not even close to cool or funny.  We did not sleep that night, obviously.

We managed to complete the trip without further bear incidents, fortunately.  But I’ve been thinking about this trip recently, and considering how lucky we were.

This summer, I read Claire Cameron’s The Bear: A Novel.  I’m not going to spoil it for you if you haven’t read it, but it definitely put the fear of bear in me.  Yikes.  I’ve been reading it aloud to some of my students, and it’s even scarier in the dark using one of those tiny lights that clips onto the book.

So all I’m saying is, I’d like to hear from folks that other animals are capable of barreling into our trash this thoroughly.  Decimating deer?  Nefarious groundhogs?

There aren’t coyotes in the Southeast, are there?

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Beef stroganoff

In the midst of this glorious autumnal weather, I was motivated to fire up a batch of beef stroganoff tonight. This recipe represents an evolved amalgamation of several recipes, and I really think it’s my favorite.

Sorry – I took a whole mess of photos.

First, I get out the sour cream so it starts to warm up.  I put one heaping cup into a small bowl.

mmmm, sour cream

mmmm, sour cream

Then, I add the ketchup.  Originally, I used tomato paste.  In addition to the fact that no one ever needs the entirety of those cans and I hate to waste, I actually think 2 tablespoons of ketchup works beautifully here.  Plus it was all I had one time, and then it became my new way.

"Real tomato ketchup, Eddie?"

“Real tomato ketchup, Eddie?”

The secret to a tender stroganoff is the meat.  If you’ve got all day, then by all means, choose stew meat and slow cook it.  But I’m a last minute girl (with high standards) so I use a tenderloin end and slice it into bite-sized pieces.   Pat it dry, cut it up, and give the bits a nice salting and peppering.

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tender, marbled, so good

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salt and pepper’s here

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet or braiser.  Add the beef and brown.  Take a minute to enjoy the heavenly scent, and resist the urge to move the meat around.

browning in butter - legit

browning in butter – legit

Use tongs to turn the meat and brown all over.  Meanwhile, slice the onion into rings.

Vidalia - cuz ya gotta

Vidalia – cuz ya gotta

Also, heat up a half cup of water in which you’ll dissolve the bullion.  I know, it’s a questionable ingredient, and high-brow folks may prefer to use home-made stock.  But dag, it’s so delicious and easy, and there’s something childishly satisfying about dropping the tiny brick into the hot water.

bullion - it feels a little "science-y."

bullion – it feels a little “science-y.”

Once browned, remove the meat onto a plate to rest, and let the butter / meat drippings sauce heat up for a skinny minute.  Add the onions to the pan and let them sear up.

golden brown and ready

golden brown and ready

Deglaze the pan with the bullion, using a wooden implement to get all the flavorings from the bottom of the pan.  Inhale just a little.  Yes . . .

deglazing

deglazing

Add a package of sliced mushrooms and mix them into the heavenly sauce with the onions.

sliced white mushrooms

sliced white mushrooms

Once the veggies are tender, spoon a bit of sauce to temper the sour cream mixture.

about this much

about this much

Mix this hot sauce into the sour cream mixture so that it doesn’t curdle when you add it to the hot pan.  It looks horrifying, but don’t lose faith.

it's not ruined - promise

it’s not ruined – promise

Add the sour cream mixture into the pan, and mix thoroughly.  Then return the meat to the pan.  Salt, pepper, and dill – everything’s going to get friendly for awhile.

I heart dill.

I heart dill.

I don’t measure the dill.  I like a LOT, so I’d guess it’s something like a tablespoon.

more than a pinch

more than a pinch

Let everything mingle over low heat with a lid while you make wide egg noodles on which to serve this hearty sauce.  A robust red wine would be nice, but since it’s a school night, I had sparkling water.

Cheers!

Cheers!

Serves 4-ish, depending on how hungry everyone is, and freezes well.

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No crepes for you!

I’m unapologetically über-cheesy. In that vein, I’m always searching out ways to be ridiculously thoughtful and nostalgic. Several months ago, after having read a terrific blog post about making crepes, I decided to commit to recreating our wedding luncheon on our anniversary.
Here’s what happened: I was overruled. My kids want nothing to do with vichyssoise, fancy salad, and chicken crepes, and my husband admitted that he prefers a steak anyway. And, truth be told, I’m afeard of the burn-y, demoralizing mess I would have made.

So here’s our family selfie at Outback Steakhouse.

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Good thing you’ve got long arms, honey.

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15 years, and we’re still smiling!

 

We had a glorious meal on our 15th anniversary, without the crepes.  Highlights included delicious food, not having to do any dishes, and the fact that our waiter closely resembled Angus Young from AC/DC.

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Annie Kournikova? Nah.

Years ago when Jamie and I were planning our honeymoon trip, we made a deal: Jamie would learn to scuba dive, and I would learn to play tennis. Because hey, what’s nicer than embracing your partner’s passion?

I went straight out and bought a cute white tennis dress in which, with my hair pulled back in a pony, I vaguely resembled Anna Kournikova. I loved it, because I felt amazing in it. I got some white-soled Stan Smiths and a racquet, and I gingerly packed away my tennis gear.

I did not, however, pursue any sort of instruction in how to actually play tennis.

I felt awfully guilty, of course, since Jamie and his dad were faithfully attending classes, taking tests, diving in a quarry, and procuring expensive gear in order to fulfill his end of the deal.

Like a student without her homework, I ruminated on how to get through a few tennis episodes without admitting that I’d blown off our deal. Fortune was in my favor, because it was searingly hot most afternoons, and we were diving every morning. I thought I might get away with it.

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Mr. & Mrs. Bond, James Bond.

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“Shall we play a little tennis this afternoon?”

The moment of truth came to pass on our fifth day of the trip, when I donned my sporty outfit and faced my husband from across the net. Again and again, I whiffed, missed, dropped, and overshot. We got sore backs and legs from running to retrieve all the flying balls, and Jamie apologized on my behalf to the couple playing in the adjacent court at least four times.

Because it was our honeymoon, and I looked adorable, and my husband is a forgiving soul, he laughed it off and we went out for a drink.

Over the years since, Jamie’s taken an occasional lesson, played with a few friends, and watched tennis in person and on TV.  But he hasn’t had a regular partner, until now.

To Jamie’s delight, our sons have asked to take tennis lessons.  So far they love it, and Jamie is beaming.

But if anyone want to play doubles, I’d better seek professional help.  At least I still have the outfit.

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Come and get it, breakfast edition

When I was growing up, my mother maneuvered, organized, and stretched like Elastic-man himself to hold family dinners every night. Granted, there were rare occasions when one or more of us would miss the event, but it was clearly a family priority.

These days, I find myself underachieving in the family meal scenario. My husband is finishing out coursework toward a master’s degree, I have work events and tutoring clients, and even our kids are busy.  As much as I keep planning and trying to make family dinners happen, we’re eating separately more often than we’d like.

But you know what? EVERYBODY is home at quarter to six in the morning. “Family breakfast” has being going on strong for two weeks now, and it’s exactly what our team needed. We’re talking together, enjoying one another, and feeling terrific about our upcoming days at school.

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before all the magic

Every night before bed, I set the table. (I’m already gearing up mise en place for tomorrow’s lunches, so it’s no big whoop.) Then I gently wake the kids up after walking the dog but before getting dressed – this is the preliminary rousing. Then I wake the kids up again after I shower and dress. (My husband dresses while I’m walking the dog, and the kids are already dressed, because they’re not pajama folks.)

We all come together at the table and have breakfast. I concede that “breakfast” has meant cereal and coffee so far, but I’m not far off from being able to fire up pancakes or eggs. Probably by next month.  (And now I’m remembering Rose from So I Married an Axe Murderer – “We didn’t have those other things.”)

Of course, we continue to strive for more family dinners. But this quiet, happy time together at breakfast before we go out to face the world is a beautiful, calming investment in our happiness.

I highly recommend it.

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Annie want wing-y

This morning, I was stirring the iced tea that I brewed before putting it into the fridge to chill.

“Can I help you with that, Vickie, please?”

One of the joy-wrending aspects of my relationship with my husband is that he, too, lives his life alluding to movies, shows, and songs. After sixteen years together, we don’t even notice it much anymore, except when we simultaneously quote the same line, which happens about thrice a fortnight. When we’re around our families and friends, folks often tell us we’re meant for each other.  Indeed, we found each other.

As we’re watching football this afternoon, I’m frying up some hot wings because,”Tommy want wing-y!”

wing-y

Of course, our allusions are characterized by our viewing histories and preferences, and they depend upon our connections to our experiences. Here are some examples of the other quotations we’ve thrown down this week:

  • “She works hard for the money, eh eh, eh eh.” (My husband, referring to our first week back to school)
  • “…decroded piece of crap!” (Me, referring to laptop while attempting to set up the shiny new document camera I’m using next week)
  • “If you need me, just give me a holler. I’ll be upstairs, asleep.” (every. single. night.)
  • “I don’t mind stealing bread…” (while making lunches)
  • “Have some bread!” (also while making lunches)
  • “…that wife of his..”  (with regard to anyone’s wife)
  • “After you shower, of course.”  “Of course.”
  • “We can talk, or not talk, for hours.”
  • “You can trouble me for a nice glass of shut-the-hell-up.”  ( always follows a top-up of coffee)
  • “Pool or pond.”   (headed to the pool with the kids)
  • “I’ve got my little secrets.  Little secrets.”
  • “Is there gas in the car?”

Hey, it’s not everyone’s “bag, baby,” but it’s how we roll.  And when one of our little nuggets reacts to some spilled juice with, “well, that’s a shame,” I smile at the legacy.  Also, they’re “really, really, ridiculously good-looking.”

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If you could have a cat-sized pet dinosaur…

Several years ago, I had a vivid dream in which colorful, miniature, tame dinosaurs walked about. It was as delightful as it sounds, and I was fairly disappointed to wake up to the reality that, of course, people cannot have tiny dino-pets.

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Still, one can imagine, right?

I asked my husband what sort he’d have.

“A T-Rex, absolutely.”

“Really? Don’t you think a cat-sized stegosaurus would be awesome?”

“Well, sure, of course, but that wasn’t your question. If I had to choose one, I’d definitely choose a T-Rex, definitely.  I mean, come on.  It’d be so boss.”

“Yeah, it would be cool, roaring around with his tiny arms.”

I’m still deciding.

How about you? If you could have a mini dinosaur as a pet, what kind would you have, and why?

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“The Summer of Mixed Drinks”

peach mojito

peach mojito

Back in June, I was chatting online with a college friend, and I declared that this summer would be the “summer of mixed drinks.” I tend to be a dry white wine kind of girl – sauvignon blanc, torrontes, unoaked chardonnay – but I do love the over-the-top, celebratory experience of a fancy drink. As I typed out the words to my friend, I began imagining all of the recipes I’d try, create, and enjoy in the steamy months of summer respite.

Yeah, big ole FAIL.

I’m staring down staff week in 6 days, and I have not concocted a single beverage worthy of a garnish. The last mixed drink I made was green sangria back in March. What happened? How can this be?!

It pains me to admit this truth, but the fault lies in my own audacity. Although I decreed that this would be the “summer of mixed drinks,” there was no goal or plan. I thought I could just say it, and then it would fall into place.

I failed to establish a SMART goal: specific, measurable, achievement-oriented, realistic, and time-bound. (Actually, depending upon what school system or business you ask, those letters might alternatively stand for criteria such as strategic, achievable, rigorous, research-based, etc.)

Whatever.  The point is, I disengaged entirely from my process mindset, and I lost sight of one of my summer goals for joy as a result.

And I can’t believe the irony.

My friend has been gracious enough not to call me out on the fact that I have dropped the fancy drink ball. (Darn nice of her, too.) But I can’t live with it. I feel like a flaky, under-achieving heel. I need to redeem myself, lest this become the “summer of NO mixed drinks.”

Tonight, I’m making these peach mojitos. We’re having fajitas and making the whole scene festive and delicious.

Lesson learned.

Cheers!

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She’s making a list…

Earlier this spring, I read The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande.  My brother recommended it to me, and I really “drank the Kool-Aid,” as they say.  I’ve been considering checklists in all areas of my life: at home, at school, for my kids, etc.  Now that we’re staring down a new school year, I’m particularly juiced about checklists.

My newest checklist is a complicated one, containing several moments of required discussion among my family members.  Because simplicity is essential to success, I’m still refining this Getting Ready for School list, streamlining it to improve efficiency and accuracy.  And interestingly, this checklist requires the generation of several straight-up lists (of the non-check variety.)

To explain, let me first say that my children are fascinating, creative, brilliant, energetic, passionate boys, and I wouldn’t change a single thing about who they are.  That said, they are not exactly “typical” children.  We need an inordinate amount of structure in our home in order to accomplish ordinary, daily tasks.  (Executive function is slim around here.)  And my younger son wrestles with sensory concerns that impact his eating.  Smells and textures are particularly overwhelming to my little guy, and the list of foods he will eat is minuscule.

For the past two years, he has been attending a tiny school where he had access to a microwave.  So I’ve been able to pack chicken, bacon, or pizza in his lunch.  But this fall, he’s headed to our neighborhood public school, which has a standard cafeteria situation – no microwave.  So we’re making a multi-categoried list of foods (that he will actually eat) that can be ready for consumption using ordinary lunch containers.  (As an aside, I totally lust after those PlanetBox containers, but I can’t bring myself to throw down that kind of money on something I don’t genuinely need, and I wonder how well it keeps foods hot.)

Here’s what we’ve got so far:

  • Proteins and main dishes – almonds, chicken (if I can get a container that keeps it warm,) “cupcakes” which are actually muffins in which I have hidden Greek yogurt and pulverized fruits or vegetables
  • Breads and carbs – granola bars, pretzels, chips, corn nuts, popcorn, cereal
  • Fruits and vegetables – apples
  • Drinks – water, juice, milk

That’s it.

"Look, honey, he's eating something!"

“Look, honey, he’s eating something!”

I’d love some suggestions about containers that work well for transporting hot foods, containers for milk that don’t leak (for the cereal thing) and food options.  So please comment with your wisdom and creativity.  And I’m always looking for reading suggestions.  (Check out my recent reads here.)

Best wishes to all of you who are embarking upon a fresh school year!

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Penne Rosa with Italian Sausage

I’ve been home from my trip for almost two weeks now, but I’m still recovering from the awkward dessert encounter at the college cafeteria.  Therefore, we’ve been making lean meals around here.  However, I’m jonesing for some carbs at this point, so we cooked this tasty meal last night.  I was inspired by this recipe by Cassie Johnston because it looked so amazing I could almost smell the photo.

It was totally worth it.

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Penne Rosa with Italian Sausage

  • 4 hot Italian sausage links
  • 1/4 cup wine (whatever you’re drinking – red would be nice, but white works, too)
  • 8 ounces white mushrooms, sliced
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 5 cups baby spinach
  • 16 ounces penne
  • 6 ounces plain Greek yogurt
  • 2 – 3 cups tomato basil sauce (depending on how “saucy” you like it)
  • 1 cup diced tomatoes (fresh or canned, no judgment)
  • shredded parmesan
  • salt & pepper
  1. Remove casings from the sausage; fry over medium heat.
  2. Meanwhile, prepare the pasta according to the directions.
  3. Remove the sausage from the pan and place onto a plate of paper towels.
  4. Deglaze the pan with the wine, scraping all the delicious bits from the bottom.
  5. Simmer the mushrooms in the pan, remove and add to sausage.  At this point, it may be wise to move the whole scene into a larger bowl and throw out the paper towels.
  6. Sauté the spinach and garlic for two minutes; remove, add to sausage and mushrooms, and remove the pan from heat.  You’re all done with that one.
  7. Drain pasta.
  8. Using the now empty pasta pot, simmer your sauce: mix the tomato basil sauce with the yogurt, add the tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste, and mix in everything you set aside earlier.    Simmer for about 2 minutes.
  9. Mix your pasta back into the pot.  Let everything return to bubbly and enticing, then serve with generous sprinklings of parmesan.

 

 

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