That Feeling of Care-freeness

Made some strawberry dessert yesterday and it was not bad. The weather wasn’t bad either. Not sunny but not dark and cloudy. A bit of wind blowing and the smell of spring in the air. Perfect day for a road trip, so that’s exactly what we did. Got into the car and headed north awhile along country roads. Ducks and geese sat in pairs here and there along the way, and we saw a red fox and more birds in the air and it was entirely relaxing. Listened to the radio awhile and talked about where we might go on our next vacation and decided maybe Italy or Scotland or even a train trip across Canada.

I have always loved road trips. For me they’re about scenery, conversation, silence and that feeling of care-freeness in simply going somewhere. No definite destination except a place with coffee and soup or pie along the way, nothing fancy, nothing formal. It was like that when I was young. My father would holler, “Who wants to go for a ride?” and my brothers and I would come running and pile into the back seat of the big station wagon and off we’d go. He would take us out on the country roads and up through the hills around my small town. A lover of nature, Dad pointed out unusual trees and random wild life, and sometimes he would park the car and we’d get out and go on a hike in the woods. There he showed us morels growing around rotting trees, winter green berries hidden under their leaves, and markings of deer in rut on the low-hanging limbs of trees. Worn out after a while, we piled back into the car and off we’d go to get some ice cream at the local café. One big scoop on a sugar cone, and the ride home silent as we ate and listened to Johnny Cash on the radio.

Such days those were. Now that I look back, I imagine he took us out on rides to give our mom a break awhile. She did come along sometimes, but most often she stayed home and waved us goodbye from the porch. Funny thing, how we all have different ways of relaxing and just being in the world. Sometimes it’s a car ride, sometimes it’s a hike. And sometimes it’s being home alone awhile with quiet in the house, the radio playing a song from way back when, and an apple-rhubarb cobbler in the oven. Which is how I’m spending today, and I like it. And I’m reminded that – wherever we may go — the destination is, inevitably, home.

Here’s something light and sweet for a cloudy spring day. Just the thing to share with whomever might drop by.

Whipped Strawberry Sensation

4 cups fresh strawberries, divided
1 can (14 oz) sweetened condensed milk
¼ cup lemon juice
1 tub (8 oz.) Cool Whip, thawed, divided
8 OREO cookies, finely chopped
1 T butter, melted
Line 8-4 inch loaf pan with foil. Mash 2 cups of strawberries in a large bowl. Stir in condensed milk, juice and 2 cups Cool Whip; pour into pan.
Top with combined chopped cookies and butter; press into mixture. Cover.
Freeze at least 6 hours. To serve, invert onto plate. Remove foil. Frost with remaining Cool Whip. Top with remaining strawberries, sliced.
Makes 12 servings.

A Simple Way of Saying

Made a ham casserole yesterday and it was not bad. Used up what was left of the ham, and threw in some corn and cheese and potatoes. I have an affinity for leftovers. Always have, and for ham especially. And turkey dinner, too, of course. Sometimes it’s better the second time around. Like egg bake. And spaghetti ‘n meatballs. And pizza. Oh yum. Now I’m making myself hungry. There are things that aren’t good after the first serving, I do confess. Malt-O-Meal. Eggs. Fish. Some things.

Holiday meals are such fun to cook. I love the planning and the ingredient gathering and the mixing together and timing of what goes in the oven when. I love the flurry of people arriving, people tasting this and that, the small talk and the children laughing in the background. I love the smells that rise up and mingle, and the questions of who sits where and more flurry, and at last the serving. Sometimes buffet-style, sometimes family-style. I love the quiet as people dig in, the eventual conversation, the clinking of utensils, the exclamations of “OH, this is good” and “I need this recipe!” and “Pass more potatoes, please.” The lull after the meal and the clearing, and the ensuing review of dessert options. “Apple, please.” “I think I’ll try the Key Lime pie.” And, “How ‘bout a sliver of each?” And the a la mode, the plate of bars, the mints and the scent of coffee. That feeling of satisfaction at a meal well eaten. A holiday meal.

I have to say that I love ordinary meals just as much. Smaller celebrations of the food with which we are blessed, Mr. S and me. Pork chops and apples. Trout on the grill. Tuna noodle casserole. Chicken pot pie. Sausage and kraut. Pancakes and bacon. BLT sandwiches. Just a big ol’ salad and some fresh bread. Oh, sighh. And then the gingersnaps and lemon bars and cinnamon coffeecake. All of it. I just love to cook and bake and that is all there is to it. It’s a simple way of saying so much. “Here, eat. I love all of you and want you to thrive.” And, “Here, eat. I love you and I want you to live for a very long time.”

Just like that. It’s a gift, cooking is. A gift to be able to do it in the first place; a gift to others.
I simply had to say all this, simple though it is. It’s true. Much like most simple things. It is what it is, and thank goodness it IS, and what would a good life be without it?

Get out that leftover ham. This recipe is gonna bring it home.

Ham Casserole

2 cups cooked, cubed ham
2 cups diced, cooked potatoes
1 can whole kernel corn, drained
¼ cup fresh minced parsley
1 T chopped onion
¼ cup butter
1/3 cup flour
1 ¾ cup milk
1/8 tsp pepper
4 oz shredded cheddar cheese (or Velveeta)

Combine first four ingredients in bowl and set aside. Saute onion and butter for a few minutes; add flour and stir well. Add milk and pepper and bring to a boil. Cook and stir for 2 minutes. Pour over ham mixture and stir well and pour into an 11x7x2 baking dish. Cover and cook at 350. After 20 minutes, sprinkle cheese over. Bake another five or so uncovered.


It All Rolls Together Somehow

Made some wild rice casserole today and I plan to serve it up on Sunday, alongside a corn casserole, green bean hotdish, a basket of fresh rolls, cheesy potatoes and, of course, the ham.
For dessert, some lemon bars and vanilla ice cream with lemon zest. Simple. Just plain simple.
The way it should be. Because Jesus is Risen, not hatched, and the main thing isn’t what we’re eating on Sunday, but that we are together with people we love celebrating something of a glorious mystery. We eat to live, not live to eat, my friends. Though I’ll confess I am planning a candy and egg hunt, and I’m taking a break from frosting a hundred or so cutout sugar cookies.

I thought holidays would be a bit more calm now that the kids have gone, but I was wrong. They aren’t necessarily more stressful; the type of stress is a bit different. Trying to get everyone and his/her partner at the table is a major challenge, along with the grandbaby’s nap schedule, work schedules, church events and cooking time. Plus we have three other families to keep in mind with two married children and one in a close relationship, along with our parents and our own siblings. But it all rolls together somehow near the big day, though sometimes our time together is the day before or after when everyone else on the planet seems to be celebrating. Doesn’t matter much to me, and our policy is and has always been if you can make it, great; if you can’t, no worries. No guilt.

Holiday guilt is something I have simply done away with. I no longer experience it, and I make a point to not to elicit it from the kids. Guilt in general feels like a waste of energy to me, except for those things we do or don’t do that are simply WRONG, if you get my gist. You know. Stealing, lying, causing harm with intent, prejudice, and so one. Guilt has its purpose, but feeling guilty or making someone feel so because they can’t make it on Thanksgiving Day or Easter Sunday? Bah. Might as well flush your good life energy right on down the toilet. Rather, give that energy to something good. We need to feel good, not crappy. You might Skype with someone who couldn’t make it. Or send photos. Or make a phone call. Or write a group letter.

I have some cookies to frost and decorate with sprinkles and jellybeans. One of my favorite things to do. No guilt attached for this cowgirl. Giddyup.

Here’s one to serve up alongside a nice spiral sliced ham, glaze and all. YUM.

Wild Rice Casserole

1 cup wild rice
3 cups hot chicken broth
1/2 stick butter
½ onion, chopped
4 oz fresh mushrooms, sliced
¼ cup chopped cashews, optional

Heat butter in a frying pan over low heat. Saute onions and mushrooms. Add the wild rice and blend all together. Transfer to a greased casserole dish and add chicken broth.

Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until all liquid is absorbed.
Garnish with chopped cashews.

Kitchen Dancing

Made some lentil salad yesterday and it was not bad. Was listening to the radio while I cooked and heard the word “bouquiniste” which caught my attention. Lovely on the ear, and I was pleased to learn when I looked it up that a bouquiniste is a dealer in old and used books. I love that such a person has a title, and when I think about it, I am one myself. A bouquiniste. I love books and giving books and receiving books. I exchange books and lend and share. One of the things of joy in my life.

This life holds all manner of things of joy. Candles are another. I love that light can flicker and spark and waver through the day when someone passes by. I love how candles smell, and how they make their reaching presence known. And then there are wooden spoons that bring me joy, and flour sack towels, and underwear that fits just right. Peanut butter M&Ms are a joy and so is Spam sliced thin and fried. In butter. Cotton is a joy, and blankets, and the smell of the grass growing outside this very moment. And dancing is a sure joy, especially kitchen dancing, which I do often and sometimes with Mr. S, if he’s in a mood.

Kitchen dancing has made an appearance in every generation of my family, all the way back far as I can recall. The stories go back even further than my own memory, which is a long way. Safe to say, kitchen dancing is in my bones and I never give a jig a second thought. Nor a waltz. Nor a loose two-step keepin’ time. Sometimes when a pie is baking, I do a whole routine. My own show, in the private spotlight beaming down from above the chopping block. Sometimes I pretend a tango, and now and then I roust up a good polka. It’s all true, and yes, Mr. S will join me from time to time, mostly on the slow tunes and the ones without words so I can’t nudge him into song. He’s a quiet man that way. Not much for song and dance unless he has a reason, and I respect that. But when he does cut loose a bit, well, laughter isn’t far behind. Belly laughter, the kind that gets you down on the ground rollin’ about. Laughter that almost hurts, then leaves you gasping, and sighing, then smiling and thinking, a few days after, “OH, how we danced!” Such joy in the kitchen these spring days. Oh, yes.

Here’s a healthful side dish for your Easter table. A little something different, with a good amount of garlic and the cooling surprise of mint.

Lentil Salad with Olives, Mint, and Feta

1cup lentils, picked over and rinsed
Salt and pepper
6cups water
2cups chicken broth
5garlic cloves, lightly crushed and peeled
1bay leaf
5 T extra-virgin olive oil
3 T white wine vinegar
1/2cup coarsely chopped pitted kalamata olives
1/2cup fresh mint leaves, chopped
1large shallot, minced
1ounce feta cheese, crumbled (1/4 cup)

Place lentils and 1 tsp salt in bowl. Cover with 4 cups warm water (about 110 degrees) and soak for 1 hour. Drain well. (Drained lentils can be refrigerated for up to 2 days before cooking.)
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Place drained lentils, 2 cups water, broth, garlic, bay leaf, and ½ teaspoon salt in medium saucepan. Cover and bake until lentils are tender but remain intact, 40 to 60 minutes. Mean-while, whisk oil and vinegar together in large bowl.
Drain lentils well; remove and discard garlic and bay leaf. Add drained lentils, olives, mint, and shallot to dressing and toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to serving dish, sprinkle with feta, and serve warm or at room temperature.

“Bring It and I’ll Fix It!”

Made some Hawaiian Pineapple Dessert the other night and it was not bad. Pineapple is right up there with lemons in the springtime for me. Not sure why but it may have something to do with its color. Yellow is fresh and new as any shade of green, and the sweetness of pineapple is a nice counter to the tart of lemons. Mr. S is partial to lemons — I think pineapple doesn’t necessarily agree with him, if you know what I’m sayin’ — so I took the dessert to my book group and they ate it up. While I was out, Mr. S set about replacing the toilet in the guest bathroom. It wasn’t broken, but it was old and leaking a bit and the wax ring had gotten all messed up and the toilet seemed about to give up the ghost, and that’s when Mr. S got out his tools.

I used to kind of tease him about his tools. He has so many of them in the garage and his work room downstairs. Thing is, even with two storage places, he seems to leave tools in every room of the house, whether repairs are being made or not. This once seemed somehow counterintuitive to me, but he did point out my affinity for kitchen utensils and how I decorate with bowls and spoons and how there is always something sitting out on the counter, and he is right. It isn’t fair that I can scatter my favorite things about without him being able to do the same.

So the toilet installation has been a three day event, and throughout all of it he came out to report progress in a language I don’t quite understand. But I try. “Well, that didn’t work,” he said yesterday. “I got a 5/8 instead of a ½ but I made the old one fit just fine. That wax seal was really messed up but I got ‘er. I sure got ‘er. I am gonna turn off the water for a while and we’ll see about getting it all in place.” Which he did. And, bless his heart, he invited me to be the first to use the toilet. I politely declined. “The honor ought to be yours,” I told him. He asked if we had any champagne, and we didn’t, so – there in the bathroom – we raised glasses of wine and toasted the new toilet. And he informed me late last evening that the new toilet does, indeed, work, and that he feels really good about it. I told him I was glad and I thanked him.

Today, when I was putting together a grocery list of things to pick up before the impending snow storm, I hollered out his name and there was no answer. I went lookin’, and sure enough, there he was admiring the new toilet, polishing it with a brand new flour sack towel. “Ain’t it a beauty,” he said. “Now I’m thinkin’ that tile needs some attention,” as he gestured toward the tub. “How ‘bout I rip that out and we put in something nice and new?” I smiled. New tile would be nice. Might even be worth a couple weeks of tools scattered about. Then he kissed my forehead. “I feel like a MAN!” he exclaimed. “Bring it and I’ll FIX IT!” Well, that right there is about the most hepped up Mr. S gets, and I confess I rather like it. It’s good to feel good about domestic accomplishments. It’s good to feel productive. And so our springtime goes, and one more winter storm to go and I’m thinkin’ we’re over the hump.

Here’s a sure thing for a spring time day. Pineapple, cream cheese, pudding and whipped cream, and a bit of toasted coconut to top it off.

Hawaiian Pineapple Dessert

1 yellow cake mix (regular size)
3 packages (3.4 ounces each) instant vanilla pudding mix
4 cups cold milk
1-1/2 tsp coconut extract
1 8 oz package cream cheese, softened
1 20 oz can crushed pineapple, well drained
2 cups heavy whipping cream, whipped and sweetened
2+ cups flaked coconut, toasted

Mix cake batter according to package directions. Pour into two
greased 13-in. x 9-in. baking pans. Bake at 350° for 15 minutes
or until the cakes test done. Cool.

In a large bowl, combine pudding mixes, milk and coconut extract;
beat for 2 minutes. Add the cream cheese and beat well. Stir in
pineapple. Spread over the cooled cakes. Top with whipped cream; sprinkle with
coconut. Chill for at least 2 hours.

This recipe makes 24 servings, and can be frozen.