Friday, April 24, 2015

When the Best Part of the Trip is the Return Home

We took a brief overnight trip recently in order to run a few errands up north, and also price some new bedroom furniture. When we were married almost eight years ago, we started out with a card table, two chairs, and a bedroom set that was an old hand-me-down from The Mister's side of the family. Gradually, we accumulated more furniture, a few nice pieces from my grandparent's sale, and a sofa from my parent's house circa 1985. I like to joke that if you attended the family reunion we hosted during the Reagan administration, then you have already sat on my couch. That old thing needs replacing too, but first things first. 

Our trip out of town did not go as smoothly as we had hoped.

We got a later start than planned. When we did get moving, we drove fifteen minutes down the highway when I suddenly remembered that I left a scent warmer on in the kitchen. I knew that would happen the minute I turned the darn thing on. Much to my dismay, our only option was to turn around and head back home to unplug it. I got a head ache from being in the car. Finally, as the sun was beginning to set over the beautiful hills of eastern Pennsylvania, I reached for my camera bag and made a sour discovery: I left my camera battery in its charger, at home.

There was even more nonsense the next day. 

There were some positives, some shopping done, and we were thankful that we didn't have any major catastrophes. No foul weather, injuries, or that most dreaded of all travel nightmares, car trouble. We were even able to take The Little Mister to a restaurant without incident, something we have been unable to do since he was a newborn. A lengthy performance with a finger puppet helped a lot, and elicited many smiles.

When we arrived home, I exhaled so hard that a nearby tree was uprooted. 

We never did find any affordable bedroom furniture, either. I came home and dealt with the same tiny over-stuffed bureau drawers and miniature nightstands that I've been contending with for years. Furniture built for a different time, when people owned two dresses and one pair of shoes.

Two days later I went out to the garden to check on my small spring garden, and saw buds on all the berry bushes, new growth in the strawberries, and bunches of rhubarb poking through the winter weeds. It had all happened so suddenly. When I went to tear out the ornamental hydrangea that I killed last summer, I found it wasn't dead at all. 

Renewal is among the greatest gifts bestowed on us, whether we're worthy of it or not. I can't think of anything better than second chances, new beginnings, and a fresh sunrise each day. 

Perhaps some decent and affordable bedroom furniture could compete with that, but I guess it wasn't meant for right now. Today I'll settle for the reminder growing around me that everything is beautiful in its time. 

Crunchy Pepper Jack Salad with Smooth Avocado Dressing

We've been eating this salad all week, it is so delicious, healthy, and satisfying. I adapted it from several similar recipes to make a salad that is inexpensive but packs a lot of flavor. You can buy every ingredient at a discount grocery store. Just don't skimp on the tasty avocado dressing.


1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup frozen corn, thawed
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1 diced red pepper
1 cup shredded pepper jack cheese
1 small head chopped lettuce- romaine or butter crunch works well
A sprinkling of crushed tortilla chips

1 small avocado, peeled and sliced
1 tsp. diced hot peppers
1/2 tsp. minced garlic or 1 garlic clove
1/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup salsa
1/4 cup milk
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1/2 tsp. sugar
juice of one lime
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cumin
1/8 tsp. pepper
1/8 tsp. smoked paprika (optional)

Blend all ingredients for dressing in a blender until smooth. This made enough dressing for two big bowls of salad, which was fine since two bowls lasted for four meals.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Iced Maple Walnut Cookies

A light rain falls outside as green emerges in the finest wisps on the fields and gardens.

Drip, drip, drip echoes outside the window, and somewhere, it echoes in a sap bucket by a tree.

I'm sure that  growing up, we never had real maple syrup. I hardly knew anything about syrup until I married The Mister, a part time tree farmer and forestry guy who would come home from trade shows in the winter carrying jugs of excitement. Real maple syrup, local or semi-local, sometimes accompanied by recipes in case you ran out of ideas for a half gallon and didn't resort to drinking it straight from the drum. Soon, we had so much good maple syrup that it had its own cabinet. I had to put a stop to new imports, especially after I found out the price. Oh, but I love it too, in all of its sweet goodness.

We finally ran out a couple months ago, around the time I found this handy recipe for Iced Maple Walnut cookies. The beauty of these treats turned out to be two-fold. They are made with maple flavoring, and the recipe makes about three dozen generously sized cookies. 

One more bonus. The smell of these baking in the oven may cause you to entertain the notion of making them every other day. 

1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 and 3/4 cup all purpose flour* (see note)
2 cups walnuts, finely chopped
1 teaspoon maple flavoring
1 teaspoon salt

4 Tablespoons butter 
2 cups confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon maple flavoring
3-4 Tablespoons milk

*The original recipe calls for 1 and 1/2-2 cups self rising flour. I used basic flour and that worked fine. Of course, you are free to use self-rising or pastry flour.

Before icing.
Preheat oven to 350. In a mixer, cream the butter and sugars. Add eggs, flavoring, and salt. Beat until just combined. Add flours 1 cup at a time. If dough is sticky, add more plain flour 1/4 cup full at a time until smooth. Stir in walnuts.
Bake for 10-13 minutes until cookies are puffy and starting to turn tan. Remove from oven and let cool.

Mix icing ingredients until texture is smooth and thick. Add more milk or sugar to achieve a creamy texture. 

While I was waiting for the cookies to cool, I discovered my extract had a history lesson on the box. I bet you wish your middle name was "Peppy".

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

And Little Peepers Singing

 If March really comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, then send help because I'm still deep in the lion's den.

 It is by this time that I am well used to shortened school weeks, between the blizzards and Little Mister's with the colds and cough that never seem to completely go away. Muddy floors and cold nights, this is the winter that dragged on.

And on.

And on.

Let me just say that when the first crocus bloomed, I refused to believe it. Surely it was a fake or a fluke, or a blatant hallucination. Yes, I really thought all of these things for a few seconds.

It is the sounds of spring that bring back a cherished memory of one of my favorite childhood books. It had a line in it that I've retained in my heart for always. It is a verse that asks God to take care of all nature, animals, and "little peepers singing." Through my childhood I reflected on what exactly a peeper was; some sort of bird? A cricket? Something small, and vulnerable, in need of God's protection. Something with a mighty song.

I dug the book out, and reinforced the binding with tape, to survive a new generation. In the evening now I'm listening for those little peeping sounds as the snow melts and nature comes alive, having been protected by the Lord's hand through a brutal winter. 

Lately I've developed a fondness for my favorite childhood books, now that there is a child to share and appreciate them with me. There was one I recall about a penguin who hated the cold. He persevered and sailed off on an iceberg in search of a warmer climate. In the end, he finds it. You have to admire his tenacity.  Although it's been out of print for years, I was thrilled to find a copy in very good condition at a reasonable price. It's as much for my own enjoyment as for Little Mister.

One evening, it was after bath and before bed and sometime around sunset when Little Mister spotted his dad's worn Bible on a table and exclaimed, as only he could, that dad forgot his book. He extended his arm at the empty driveway to indicate that dad went to work and forgot his "dad book". He says it in the same matter of fact way that he calls a cup of coffee "mom cup." 

"Dat for you," he says, pointing at my mug.

Well yes, but someone has to caffeinated enough to stay up listening for those peepers, tucking them in with an old nostalgic book, and a prayer for protection over all of us who declare our fragility as we make a joyful noise.

Do you have a special book from your childhood that has never left your heart? I'd love to hear about it.

Rosemary & Olive Oil Focaccia 


This is a recipe that I adapted from a homemaking magazine. In some ways, it's my winter swan song since the cold killed my small rosemary bush. The good news is, in another month or so I'll be able to buy a new one and try again. It's well worth it if you enjoy rosemary as much as we like it.

1 Tablespoon yeast
1 1/4 cups warm water

1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp. sugar

Mix and let sit until foamy.

3 1/4 cups bread flour
1 tsp. salt
Rosemary, as needed

Mix and combine the yeast mixture with salt, flour, and and some finely chopped rosemary. Knead until it forms a ball. Cover with plastic wrap or a towel, and let it rest for an hour. After one hour, place the dough on a floured surface and flatten with your hand to remove air pockets. Grease a 9x13 pan with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and press the dough to fit the pan. (Note: I actually used parchment paper on top of the pan, with a light spray of olive oil.) Brush the bread with olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt and rosemary. Let rise for 1 hour. 

Preheat oven to 400 and bake for 15 minutes.

This is an easy bread that goes great with a bowl of soup. I combined some olive oil with more rosemary for dipping. Also, I tested several flours and like occident (white bread flour) the best. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Lighter Chicken Alfredo Pizza

 I kept seeing all of these delicious pizza recipes made with Alfredo sauce, but the idea of cooking heavy cream and slathering it on dough was a little much for me.

Enter...delicious experiment.

This is by no means a diet dish. This is what it is:

  • An Alfredo pizza with no heavy cream.
  • Kid friendly, husband approved.
  •  Versatile, easy, and tasty.
 After making my regular pizza dough and shaping it on the pan, I grilled some chicken and chopped it until it was almost shredded. Then I made the sauce.

Lighter Alfredo Sauce:

2 Tablespoons of butter
1 1/2 tsp. minced garlic
1 1/2 tsp. grated lemon zest
3 tsp. flour
1 1/2 cups low fat milk (I used 2%)
3 Tablespoons low fat cream cheese
1 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
fresh parsley
salt and pepper

A small amount of shredded mozzarella
Bacon bits

In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat, and then add garlic and lemon zest. Cook for two minutes. Add the flour, and cook for one more minute. Whisk in milk and a teaspoon of salt, stirring continuously until thickened. This will take about five minutes. Add the cream cheese and Parmesan, whisking until melted. Season with salt and pepper.

I spread two-thirds of the sauce on my prepared dough, followed by a sprinkling of parsley, the chicken, and then drizzled with the rest of the sauce. I finished with a handful of mozzarella, some bacon bits, and chopped scallions. Then I baked at 425 for about 15 minutes.

This was tasty and a little different from our regular homemade pizza, but next time I'll add some spinach and chopped tomato. 

It only lasted long enough for this quick picture.

On a side note, I can't begin to tell you how frigid it has been here. Could I really be planting peas a month from now? It doesn't seem possible. My garden is a barren wasteland inhabited only by tiny birds frequenting the suet feeders. A hot pizza supper on a Saturday while on snow-watch  sounds good to me. 

When Your Cup Runneth Over (But You're Complaining of Thirst)

 Some years ago, on a cooking blog that no longer exists, I used to follow a young wife and mother who shared her wonderful creations. Once, she wrote a post in which she gave a tour of her lovely kitchen, complete with photos. It was then that she made the startling announcement that, with the exception of two counter top appliances, she hated the whole room. Everything in it. In fact, she hated her entire house.


The kitchen was brand new. The whole house was new. How could this happen?

She elaborated on everything she felt was wrong with her kitchen, but no matter how hard she made her case, I just couldn't see it. After all, I didn't even have a kitchen. We had just torn out our kitchen right down to the dirt crawlspace. Here is what it looked like:

Yes, that's The Mister, our dog, and a room with no floor.

Don't worry, we had a temporary kitchen set up in another room of our home. It was a necessary inconvenience.

Anyway, you can just imagine what ran through my mind as I read the words of this ranting ungrateful queen in her castle who hated her new cabinets and new counters in her spacious kitchen in her brand new home. Also, why was she wasting time complaining about this? The rest of the time she was busy showing off delicious meals and baked good concocted in this inadequate kitchen. So, why THIS?

You probably think I'm going to call her spoiled, and a host of other titles of discontent. I probably did call her many things, in my head, many moons ago. But here is what I'm really here to say: I can out do her. Or at least, there was time, when I could have blown her out of the water in a contest where having it all was not enough. That was back before I had to build a kitchen from scratch. Back when I was young and felt the same. Far before I realized that everything I have has been given to me and it is a gift. Everything.

Now we've built a lovely kitchen filled with things I have collected and love. I'll share some of those things with you in this post.

I saw this wreath on Etsy for $40. I made it for less than $20.
We found that 29 cent box of canning lids in a barn at my in-law's.
 Still, I am bombarded with hundreds of images a week of breathe taking kitchens that make me second guess everything from lights to faucet handles. Even after personally selecting the finer details of my kitchen, something will find me and send me into a tunnel of wonder. Did I pick the right faucet? That floor was an awful choice. Should we have bought the lot next door and just made the whole thing bigger? (No, definitely no, on that one!)

My enamelware collection and Grandma's old kettle.
Finally, I remind myself that I have a working country-type kitchen and could never be bothered with cleaning tomato splatter off of a chandelier, so just stop it already. I'm annoyed I even had to have a debate with myself over having a chandelier in my kitchen. Stop the madness. At it's core, my kitchen is a tool for sustenance, not a museum or gallery. It was made with our own hands, paid for in cash and sweat. It's fit for the daughter of a King.

Sometimes it is a refuge, my happy place to knead and sigh and hastily type out a note to a friend.

I'm not kidding when I say it's a refuge.
But that young woman mired in a spirit of discontent? She lurks, and I catch glimpses of her sometimes. Lock your pantry, ladies. She may be prowling in a room at your house next. If she whispers in your ear that you need a chandelier, soundly evict her.

Be alert. 

She is We. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

Warmth, Wonder, and Pumpkin Soup

 Last week, I saw a beautiful picture that no one could never capture. A man leaning against a window, his crisp shirt and best Sunday vest a perfect complement to the white wood frame and clean window glass. A perfect silhouette, his hands folded in prayer as a halo of sunlight surrounded him. Then he wiped away a tear. Those who saw it knew his prayer. A sick wife, doctors and treatments and fear. It was a holy moment, never to be recorded by film but painted for a moment in time on a canvas of faith.

I'll never know who else quietly observed the discreet prayer said in the open, but I understood the lesson. We are constantly being shown faithfulness and love, and each moment that we notice and capture in whatever way we can is a gift. A twinkling jewel in our hand that will fade with memory and lose luster in time, but it sparkles for us for a season. The jewels are not rare, they are abundant. Sometimes they are recorded and shared, but more often they are tucked away in our hearts. At the worst times, they go unnoticed and are ignored completely. Lord, help me to notice each one.

Later that same day, our family drove to the beach and showed Little Mister the wonderful ocean for the first time. There, I witnessed and captured many moments of wonder, curiosity, and awe. 

 Someone was a little surprised to discover that the waves come AT you.
 So many discoveries...shells, bits of crab, driftwood, and even a forgotten sand shovel from summer past.

He could have given us one type of treasure, one sweet moment, one type of shell, one color in the sky. He has given us an abundance.

 He got the hang of running from the waves.

Oh, and that crazy hat. It's from last year and too small for his head. But it is warm and snug.

Tonight, it is twelve degrees and the wind is blowing. It was the perfect night for soup and grilled cheese. This recipe would work just as well with butternut squash, but I used pumpkin. The garlic and thyme make it very flavorful.

4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 scant tsp. salt
3 cups pumpkin puree
3/4 cup chopped onion
1/2 tsp. thyme
1 1/2 cloves minced garlic
1/2 cup milk
1/4 tsp.pepper 

Heat stock, salt, pumpkin, onion, garlic, thyme and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Puree the soup using a stick blender or in batches with a blender/food processor, and bring to a boil again. Reduce heat and simmer for another 30 minutes.
Stir in milk or cream, and garnish with parsley.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Photo Contest

For the past couple years, I had been trying to take a photo of the deer crossing the road in front of our house at sunset. It was especially tricky as they time it perfectly to the sunset and not the clock, and the whole dance lasts less than a minute. Finally, one evening, I readied my camera and stood on the edge of our property. I waited for the deer to gather in the field and then make their crossing against the scenic backdrop. 

Well, the best laid plans. 

The first deer spotted me and seemed reticent to do anything. That deer promptly told the others. Just as I moved in for the shot, they threw it in reverse and bolted into the woods wagging their white tails behind them. 

My fault for not attaching my best zoom lens.

Now, let me tell you the story of the picture I did get which was tainted with laughter, confusion, and a surprise ending. 
Last summer I snapped this adorable picture of the Little Mister in the corn field behind our house. Taken with an old low megapixel point-and-shoot, I humbly submitted it to an annual photo contest in a popular state-wide farm newspaper. When the submission was initially printed, they made a horrible mistake on my last name. Here are some facts about my last name: 

  • It was originally The Mister's, of course.
  • It is only three letters long.
  • It is impossible to mispronounce and is not uncommon. 
How could this go wrong?

Well, they could misspell it as I-S-L-A-M. Yes, my photo was credited as "Monica Islam".

How on earth? 

I laughed about it for three days before sending a polite and well humored e-mail to the editor, who was extremely apologetic and very embarrassed. He assured me he had no idea how this happened, admitted it was a terrible mistake, and thanked me for my gracious e-mail. He also assured me there would be an attempt at a correction in the next issue. Only there wasn't, and none was ever printed. Ah, well.

I forgot about the contest for a while, and enjoyed the other entries as they were printed. Charming little girls in milking parlors and brothers posed in wooden wagons.

Then, the new year rekindled my memory.
"You know," I said to the Mister just last week, "The least they can do since they didn't print the name correction is select me as winner and award my son a cash prize." I was joking, of course.

Except that it did win. Within a week I was notified that my picture won the 2014 photo contest and a nominal monetary award for Little Mister's farm fund.

"On its own sorry again about the name..."

It was announced as winner in the paper and reprinted along with my correct three-letter last name. 

Never could I imagine a story of delayed gratification quite like this, one that writes its own ending.


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