The Gift of Time

Made some cookie bars Saturday and they were not bad. A new recipe from an old friend, and they were just what I was thinkin’ would be good during a rainy day to myself. And they were. Oh, boy. And so was the leftover bacon and cheddar burger we’d grilled on Thursday, and so was the popcorn I ate while watching Sweetland for the 17th time, and so was the small pile of buckwheat cakes I ate without a fork and with genuine maple syrup. And butter. Oh, my.

It’s my birthday next week, a big ol’ birthday, and I admit I’m feeling more like 27 years along and not nearly old enough to see my lit cake from space. Which could happen, if the sky is clear and Target has enough candles. This year in particular I figure it’s ok to celebrate that I was born. And that my mother survived those 26 hours of sheer agony trying to push into the world the fat baby that was me. And that my father survived what might have been his most anxious hours up until then, pacing the halls of the hospital, waiting for the word back in the day when fathers were off limits in the delivery room and mothers likely were not covered in hot, moist towels after my own challenges to breathe and push and breathe.

A lot of life is like that…you breathe and push and breathe and sometimes you navigate the wheelbarrow up the hill and sometimes it rolls on back down. Sometimes the soufflé falls, and sometimes the sandcastle is there in the morning. Now and then the grill won’t light, and I’ll be darned if I can hang a picture straight. My back kind of goes out (it did last week), but I can stand on my head at any given moment and there’s something to be said ‘bout that.

I’ve got a poem in my head most of the time, and this week it’s one I learned as a child, and it goes like this:

Isn’t it strange how princes and kings,
and clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
and common people, like you and me,
are builders for eternity?
Each is given a list of rules;
a shapeless mass; a bag of tools.
And each must fashion, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block, or a Stepping-Stone.
― R. Lee Sharpe

I don’t know what over the hill is, but I ain’t there yet. Really, it feels as if I am just beginning, the second story of my life, perhaps. The one where I don’t have to push so often or so hard. The one where breathing is a bit easier, and I give away my wristwatches, all three of them, to people who have a need to know what time it is. I certainly don’t. What I know is that I have it, and it’s a gift, and I can open it every day and throw the ribbons all about or wear them in my hair. I can waltz with it, and sing, and take a trip to Italy where, on a second floor, there’s a table by a window with a view of the sea. I can plant a holly bush and watch it grow, and hang at last the hammock I’ve been waiting to try. I don’t plan to retire; life must retire me. Until then, that day, when there is no gift of time, I’ll keep making cakes and lighting candles and making wishes that always seem to come true.

I don’t wish for much, you see. Just my favorite jeans, fresh bread, a cup of coffee in the morning. Windows open when the winds pick up, and a promise to never oil the creak in the swing on the porch. Good books piled about, the children calling now and then, a day to rake the fallen leaves, and hot baths and friends over for dinner with Mr. S at the grill. And in the night when breathing is all there is, and the sheets smell of the meadow as I fall into sleep, I feel grateful I am here, and that I know it’s just for a while. And that I’ve yet to live a day without laughter in the house.

These bars are simple to make, with all the flavor of cutout cookies and I must say they’re not filling at all. Even three of ‘em leaves room for more, and I had to contain my enthusiasm by taking a plate over to the neighbor’s and packing the rest in a Tupperware container I placed on the top pantry shelf. Even had to use the ladder, and that is somethin’.

Sugar Cookie Bars

2½ cups flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
2 T sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract

The Frosting:
5 T butter, softened
3 T milk
1 T vanilla
4 cups powdered sugar
3-5 drops food coloring

Preheat your oven to 375. In a medium sized bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. In a large mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugar for about 3 minutes until light and fluffy. Add egg, sour cream and vanilla and combine.

Slowly add flour mixture while stirring until everything is combined. (The dough will be crumbly.) Press the batter into a greased 9×13 baking dish and spread it out evenly with a rubber spatula. Bake for 15-17 minutes or until edges just barely start to turn golden.

Cool completely. Mix together all ingredients for frosting until creamy. Add in desired amount of food coloring and spread frosting evenly over bars.
Cut into squares and serve. Makes 18-24.


About to Turn the Corner Now

Made some roasted veggies Saturday and they were not bad. Roasted cauliflower, and some red peppers, and Sweet Vidalia onion. It was what we had in the fridge, what I picked up from last week’s farmer’s market. And there were potatoes too, which I did not roast but made into yet another iteration of potato salad as I search for the Perfect Potato Salad Recipe. This one may be it. 6 potatoes, 6 hardboiled eggs, some mayo and mustard and apple cider vinegar, onion powder and garlic salt and half a jar of capers. They’re like little pickle balls and they seem to be just the thing.

We’re about to turn the corner now, lately, with the sun setting a bit earlier each day, and the green of the trees fading a bit. The neighbors are rolling up their hay in big ol’ bales, and the mazillion baby frogs that appeared a few weeks back have become fewer in number but big as walnuts now. And today, as I drove by the school, I saw a whole bunch of teachers out getting some sun over their lunch break. It’s prep week already and they are hard at work. And I imagine they are full of thought about how to go about things with all that’s happening in our country. I imagine they’re thinking about things like bias, and tolerance, and peace and hope and connection and truth.

I know I’M thinking about all that. I’m not one to rant, but my goodness. We each have a line that ought not be crossed. It’s kind of like personal space, and it has to do with how we are treated and how we observe others being treated. It has to do with how we carry ourselves. And, it seems, we have a line Together. The one where the crossing has a bearing on humanity itself. Compassion awakens. Empathy rises up. Time to stand up. To speak, to walk, to write, to talk with each other. Time to reach out, to embrace, to lift up.

Whispers won’t do much good right now, it seems. Nor will silence. We need to talk with each other. Conversations all the heck over. In classrooms and churches and parks and restaurants. On the streets and at home in the living room. On the light rail, airplanes, the phone and in waiting rooms. On road trips, in seminars, over lunch and on the beach.

And by Each Other, I mean every person. Every human. And until we can see that, and talk about who we are and from where we come and where we wish to go and how and why, and feel heard, and listen to Others until they feel heard, well, I just can’t see much progress happening.

Each of us is an Other. Let’s consider making “Other” not about segregating but celebrating.

Here’s one to balance out the fried fish. Nice ‘n light and worth the trip to the Farmer’s Market.

Baked Cauliflower Bites

1 large or 2 small heads of cauliflower
1½ cups all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
2 cups seasoned bread crumbs
½ cup grated Parmesan
½ cup grated cheddar
½ tsp garlic salt (optional)
Olive oil

Preheat oven to 425°. Wrap cauliflower in a clean dish towel, then turn it upside down, and bang it against the surface of your counter until you feel the cauliflower crack (rotate to break it up on all sides). Pull florets off stem and break apart the bigger florets into smaller pieces.

Pour flour in one small bowl; in another, whisk two eggs; and in a medium bowl, combine bread crumbs, Parmesan, and cheddar cheese. Coat each piece in flour, followed by the eggs, and finally the bread crumb mixture.

Spray a baking sheet and place all cauliflower bites in it, then drizzle olive oil over them or spray with cooking spray. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown.

Serve with marinara, ranch, or sour cream, and enjoy!

Fireflies in the Buckthorn

Fireflies in the Buckthorn

Made some lemon dessert Saturday and it was not bad. Especially on a hot day, meal of garlic-rubbed grilled chicken and corn-on-the-cob and roasted new potatoes. I’m not a fan of heating up the house with oven cooking on humid days, especially, and I must say we’ve lit the charcoal grill nearly every evening these past few weeks. Lots of roasted vegetables and grilled salmon and chicken and brats. Today we roasted cauliflower and garlic and parmesan and I think it’s the best thing I have eaten in a long while. Except for the lemon dessert on Saturday. And the fresh pineapple I ate yesterday. Whole thing. Couldn’t help it.

I get summer in my head like a warm mist and it’s in no hurry to leave. Unfortunately, it – and its heat – slows me down. Makes me a bit less productive. Makes me forget appointment times and things I need at the grocery store and where I put my sparkly flip flops. Makes me lazy about fixing my hair, and not much interested in washing floors. I prefer to grab a book and spend the afternoon on the porch swing, or wander down to the lake with a fishing pole and a basket full up with fruit and cucumber sandwiches and molasses cookies. I prefer to lounge a bit in the morning and stay up late watching the fireflies in the buckthorn.

If life were all summertime, well, it would be lovely in ways, but the mosquitoes would make it less so, and we wouldn’t have autumn to look toward, or winter to prepare for. We’d own more swimsuits and coolers and probably wouldn’t need a closet for quilts. We’d eat more ice cream and fly to Canada to go skiing and have more visitors and maybe even palm trees, and fewer arguments about whether macaroni noodles belong in chili. Though I think we’d still have macaroni and cheese. And hot chocolate. And caroling.

What makes summer so lovely is that it ends. The cicadas start to sound and mailings come from the school and the mist begins to dissipate with the occasional cool breeze. The sun is setting a bit earlier now, and there’s a need some evenings for a sweatshirt. Soon it will be time to let go and look toward the turning of the leaves, the harvest of pumpkins and squash, the nights when we might rise in the wee hours and shut all the windows. Time for gathering and canning and apple picking and pie.

So for now, find your dock and sit there awhile. Let the sun find your skin. Dive into the waves. Eat berries for breakfast and take a long walk and build your campfire. Pile on the wood, and pull up a camping stool and stay ‘til the coals are hot red and small sparks find their way into the cool blue night, the same night that comes and goes always, whatever season, whatever life, and dies itself before the same sun rising. Something to count on, at least for now, as the bright daylight of summer gives way to the golden light of fall.

With a few more hot days on the calendar, here’s something light and tangy with which to fill your belly. Serve it with berries, or on its own.

Frozen Lemon Dessert

2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup sugar
1 stick butter, melted
Mix. Set ½ cup aside.
Press remaining crumb mixture into an 8×8 pan.

8 oz Cool Whip, thawed
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1 6 oz can frozen lemonade
Combine. Mix well and pour over crust.
Sprinkle with ½ cup crumbs.
Freeze until firm.

Easily doubles using a 9×13 cake pan, and if you are so inclined, try a cup of vanilla yogurt instead of the second can of sweetened condensed milk. Serve on hot summer evenings or after a spicy meal.

At the Twilight’s Last Gleaming

Made some ribs on Saturday and they were not bad. A friend brought them over, smoked ‘em himself, keeping watch over the smoker while his wife worked in the garden and he stained the deck. It was that storm not long ago–the one with all the hail–that got him going on repair work and, eventually, staining the workshop and sun deck and the “Stairway to Heaven” as he calls it. I’m guessing it’s a loft where his grandchildren play, as his workshop is down below.

I served up the ribs with kraut, of course, and corn on the cob and corn muffins and potato salad. The foods of warm, sunny days. Our son, who is home from studying abroad, working nights at the local nursing home for the summer, ate some of everything except the sauerkraut. “It smells,” he says. “I can’t believe you eat that. It smells a Hessian military camp.”

Some foods belong to a season; some are good all year ‘round. Smoked ribs? Any day, any time. Any place. Same with pizza. And enchiladas. And, for me, brats. Cheddar brats, wild rice brats, blue cheese bacon brats, beer brats. We had cheddar brats this evening, the Fourth of July. And potato salad, and calico beans with bacon; dill potato chips and brownies (made with olive oil because we’re at the cabin and that’s all we had) and there were sloppy joes, too, and some pork chops and some cider ale, apple flavored. And watermelon. A whole one, cut into triangles.

Thing is, sometimes what we’re eating doesn’t much matter. Season-appropriate or no, as long as there’s something to eat, what matters most is that we’re together. “We” being any number of family members or friends who love each other, who know each other, who listen and laugh and tell stories and gather on the dock as the sun sets to sing “The Star Spangled Banner,” loud as can be. And there’s the campfire behind us, coals burning hot still with a half-empty bag of marshmallows on the tree stump and some graham crackers on the ground and only the empty wrappers of the chocolate bars. There’s a light on in the cabin, and my brother is playing his guitar, making up the words as he goes while all the kids push and pull to get to the dock for The Song. The dogs are lying near the fire, tired out from a day in the lake, and my mother is waiting on the dock for all of us to assemble.

Someone hollers for more sparklers. Someone else for another apple ale. The sisters-in-law talk in their lawn chairs after a long walk, and my other brother is watching, on his phone, the biggest firework in the world going off. “Wow!” he keeps saying. “More than fifteen minutes of display in ONE firework,” he says. The kids come in looking for cardboard so they can blow fireworks off the dock. It’s the hum of it all. The hum of family and life lived. Our college son, on the couch reading a book about the Plantagenets asks, “Is there any pork left?” Our college daughter is lying on the living room floor sipping a lime margarita from a can, singing a song about summertime. And our pregnant teacher daughter is out on the porch, reading a book about the holocaust for a summer class she’s taking, wrapped in a blanket. “While we are waiting for something to happen,” she announces, “I am going to brush my teeth.”

“Isn’t anyone going to come and SING?” hollers my mother, the grandmother here, and at long last we all stop what we’re doing and head to the dock. The sun is setting over the lake, which is the only thing of quiet here. The lake. I take a photo and send it to Mr. S, who stayed back to chop some wood and give a talk on “The Peace of Walking in the Woods.” He prefers it this way, I think sometimes. The quiet, you know, in the midst of all the traffic and people whooping it up and exploding things. I get it.

And at last we assemble, all of us on the dock, perhaps the only time we’ll be together like this for a good long while. Grandma starts us off. “Oh oh SAY can you SEE!” And we all join in. “By the DAWN’S EARLY LIGHT. What so PROUDLY we hailed, at the TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING…”

Our voices rise up together, over the still water, over and across to the lit cabins dotting the shores along the lake. We hear other families join in, here and there, and by the song’s end we are a massive choir, shouting the words of our national anthem to the very stars emerging in the clear, clear sky: “Oh SAY DOES THAT STAR SPANGLED BANNER YET WAVE? O’ER THE LAND OF THE FREE, AND THE HOME OF THE BRAVE…”

There’s a round of applause. Whoops and hollers and woo-hoo’s. All ‘round this lake. And, I like to think, ‘round all the more than 10,000 lakes in Minnesota. ‘Round each and every lake in this blessed country. And yes, I say, to what is really a question, but isn’t, yes, that banner does yet wave. And will. Always. As long as We may be.

I forgot to mention the rhubarb pilaf I brought along as a kind of experiment, which went over quite well. It was delicious, and goes well with pork AND brats. And, I imagine, just about anything with which you serve it up. Kind of like apple pie. Or pickles.

Rhubarb Wild Rice Pilaf

1/4 cup almonds
2 T olive oil
1 cup chopped sweet onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups chopped rhubarb
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
2 T honey
1 T soy sauce
1 cup cooked wild rice
1 cup cooked long-grain white rice

Spread almonds onto a baking sheet and toast at 400 until fragrant, 7-10 minutes.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Saute onion in hot oil until just translucent, 5 to 7 minutes, add garlic and saute about a minute more. Stir the rhubarb into onion and garlic and saute until softened a bit, about 2 minutes more. Stir wine, raisins, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper into rhubarb mixture; cover the skillet with a lid, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer until rhubarb is tender to the bite but still firm, 5 to 8 minutes or so. Add honey and soy sauce; stir. Mix wild rice and white rice into the rhubarb mixture; cook and stir until rice is heated through. Top with toasted almonds.
Serves about 6.


Stars I Tried to Count

Made some lasagna Saturday and it was not bad. Not the usual Italian lasagna, but a Mexican version that seems a bit more summery to me. Even though it’s been pretty warm during the days here, evenings tend toward chilly and it’s not such a thing to heat up the house with a bit of cooking and baking. Nice thing about the weather is that we’ve been sleeping with the windows wide open most nights, and that’s about the best sleep a person can get. Especially when there’s a breeze.

I remember when I was a child, I would wait until my mother tucked me in and shut my door behind her, and I would slide out of bed and – with both hands – lift open the old, creaky window looking over the old oak tree and the backyards of neighbors. And there – to the light of the moon– was the Symphony of the Night. On my knees, I folded my arms on the windowsill, rested my chin on my forearm, and closed my eyes. The breeze in the leaves, crickets out on the walk, a cacophony of frogs down at the creek. An owl, now and then, and the dog stirring in her straw-filled house, and a raccoon rustling in Mrs. Roesler’s bushes. The swish of a car driving by, a dog barking down the block, two young boys’ voices coming from the Jungerbergs’ back porch, a car honk down the street toward the tavern, more frogs, and then the train.

My favorite night sound, that train. The low rumble in the distance, growing, soon drowning out the other night sounds, and then the whistle. Once, then twice again, the rattling and the clacking of wheels on track, people coming from somewhere, going somewhere, passing through. Past the Corner Store, the old mill, the taverns, the cemetery, past the neighborhood by the park where my friends Matt and Steve lived, past the bank, the dental office, the nursing home. The whistle again, and the slow, slow diminish of sound as the train pressed on toward the West. On past the park with the pond where we jumped – often – from that old railroad bridge. The same bridge where I gathered taconite pebbles to keep in a green Mason jar up on my bookshelf in my bedroom.

The same bedroom where I imagine myself some nights, a young girl gazing out a window at stars I tried to count, hoping for everything, the glow of the sun’s pink-orange setting still warm on the treetops to the west.

Got family in town for a summer weekend? Try this one. Sure, it’ll heat up the house, but not for long, and it’s perfect served out on the patio with homemade cornbread or corn on the cob, chips and guacamole, sour cream, taco sauce, lettuce, etc. And some margaritas, too. Especially if it’s a hot one.

Beef Taco Lasagna

24 lasagna noodles
2 pounds ground beef
2 envelopes taco seasoning
4 egg whites
2 cartons (15 ounces each) ricotta cheese
8 cups (2 pounds) shredded cheddar cheese
2 jars (24 ounces each) chunky salsa
A dash of cayenne

Preheat oven to 350°. Cook noodles according to package directions. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, cook beef over medium heat until no longer pink; drain. Stir in taco seasoning. In a small bowl, combine egg whites and ricotta cheese. Drain noodles.

In each of two 13-in. x 9-in. baking dishes, layer four noodles, ¾ cup ricotta mixture, half of the beef mixture and 1-1/3 cups cheddar cheese. Top each with four noodles, 3/4 cup ricotta mixture, 1-1/2cups salsa and 1-1/3 cups cheese. Repeat.

Bake, uncovered, 35-40 minutes or until heated through. Let stand for 10 minutes before cutting.
Garnish with cilantro.

Makes 2 casseroles (8 servings each). This recipe makes two big pans, so you can freeze one or both for the weekend. Thaw in the fridge for 8 hours and bake as directed.