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 merit...so 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.

Friday, January 9, 2015

My Journey to a Clutter-Free Home

I'm not a winter person, but I do like how clean the snow makes everything appear.

A few months ago, I did a big clean out of my belongings as one of my seasonal cleaning projects.

I've been living clutter free for three months now, and I love it. 

It is everything you think it is, and also some things you probably wouldn't imagine. While the mind references popular images of clean counter tops and sparse rooms with decorative baskets holding two books and an umbrella, it is not that. It is livable without being sparse.

Here is what clutter free means at my house: Everything is in use, has a use, or is something we flat out love. If you love it, that alone makes it useful. 

Clutter free does not mean that I never have to take three things out of a cabinet before I find the bottle of vitamins that dropped down behind some dishes. It does not mean there is never anything that needs to be sold, donated, or reassigned. It does not mean that we do not have to store anything. Indeed, there will always be Christmas decorations in the attic, wrapping paper tucked away for the next gift, and swimsuits and towels that await warmer days. I maintain one small laundry basket in a corner for items on their way out, usually the final stop before they are donated. 

While I'm uncertain that there is a one-size fits all solution to getting stuff out of your living space, here is how it unfolded for me:

It took time. Three years worth of cooking magazines did not show up on my doorstep all at once. Also, persistence. Every time something was moved around I would analyze whether it was something we still needed or desperately wanted, especially with seasonal changes. A few posts back I mentioned our small house, and I think that is also a big help. If you don't get rid of the things that are no longer useful, you will have no room for new things to come into your home. Most of us have a finite amount of space to work with, and valuing the creation of empty space is as important as filling a space.

I adopted a one-in, one-out philosophy. If I was bringing home something, what was it replacing? More often than not, something that was broken or worn out.

It's a constant process. Although there is a time when you can savor and enjoy the things you own without the distraction of old stuff that has worn out its welcome, living without clutter require vigilance. After all, we're people who require tangible tools for living, and sometimes that is a family heirloom or less romantically, something made in China. There will be new stuff, old stuff, sentimental stuff, and stuff you can't stand.

The biggest challenge? Getting everyone on board with it. The Mister is a man who likes his stuff, but even he realizes you can't fit a castle in a cottage. The mail delivery assaults us with new paper every day, and if Old MacDonald read just a fifth of the farm journals that arrive each month, there wouldn't be much time for pigs and cows. Be gentle, persuasive, and a good example. If all else fails, buy nice baskets and put stuff in them, and then remind the owner of the contents that the basket needs periodic attention.

 When clutter knocks on your door, it may wear a disguise. It could be a bag of hand-me-downs that are the wrong size and season, or something that seems like a bargain although you don't need it. Calmly explain that your treasures are being stored up in heaven. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Gingerbread Play Dough

 This time of year always fills me with hope, as I ponder the 
miracle of Jesus' birth. If a King could be born in a stable, anything could happen. When I was a child, Christmas was a time of wonder. I hope to never lose that feeling of child-like wonder.

The wonders of His love, the wonders that He doeth, and the wonders of heaven.

It's a spectacular experience to see the wonder in Little Mister's eyes, now that he is getting old enough to comprehend Christmas a little more. All the tiny delights that prompt round eyes and mouth to form an "oh" of awe. I long for a heart filled with awe at the miracle of the season. To see everything anew, through the eyes of a child, is a gift meant for all of us. I'm sure of it, and think it's meant to be carried with us all year too.

 I did little in the way of decorating this year. Just some basics and a few things that were handy. When I decorate for this time of year, I do like to mix old things with new. Treasured and timeworn alongside new.

 One afternoon, as I do every year, I baked a large batch of gingerbread cookies. An army of molasses men waiting for decoration. What fun to surprise those little round eyes with all of those gingerbread men awaiting faces of icing and garments of sprinkles. 

But what's this? An impostor! 

No, it's NOT a gingerbread cookie. It's homemade play dough made to LOOK and SMELL like gingerbread! What a neat gift. One of Little Mister's teacher's shared the recipe for this unique clay. 

1 cup flour
1/2 cup salt
1 Tbsp. cream of tartar
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 cup water 

Food coloring (or Koolaid powder)

Optional: If you want it to smell like gingerbread dough, add 1/4 cup allspice, ginger, and nutmeg. But I want you, it really does smell like gingerbread dough and your kid will want to eat it. So will your pets. 

For gingerbread dough: Mix spices until you get the scent/color that you want. 

Mix all dry ingredients in a pot, then add oil and water to mixture. Cook over low-medium heat, stirring frequently until mixture forms a mound. Remove from heat, cool slightly and knead together. Cool completely before having fun and store in an airtight container. 

For colored play dough: Add food coloring to oil and water before adding to dry ingredients, and omit spices.

Wishing all of my readers a Christmas filled with the joy and wonder of a mighty King.


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