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.

For As Long As the Winds May Blow

Made some homemade soup on Saturday, and it was not bad. It’s been a bit chilly out lately, but warm enough that the frogs sing through the twilight hours, and unless there’s rain comin’ down, we’ve been sleeping with the windows open. Last of the hot soup weather, I’d say, and a good time of year for cleaning out the pantry and the freezer, and that’s exactly what I did Saturday afternoon.

And Sunday we grilled out. Three kinds of brats from a place called “Grundhofer’s” on Hwy 61 down near the Twin Cities. Hugo, I think, is the town. Drove through there a while back and picked up some Whiskey Peppercorn brats and Apple Pie Moonshine brats and – my favorite – Beer, Bacon and Cheese Curd brats. (And yes, if you’re wonderin’, I DID have one of each.) We had potato salad, too, and five bean hotdish (more bacon) and pasta salad and corn on the cob, and a chocolate cake I made as an afterthought, which quickly became a forethought as Mr. S lit the charcoal and my stomach got to rumbling.

A bit of a somber weekend, as always, this one. Thoughts of our grandfathers long gone and the time they spent in service to our country, along with friends of friends and family members and people all along the way who have given up time, peace of mind, limbs, lives…so that we may continue on in this land we love with our good lives, our families, our own peace of mind.

Went to the Memorial Day service Monday, and it was lovely in quiet ways. The wind blew and there were clouds and children hollering and people in lawn chairs gathered round the gazebo in the center of the park. The pastor led us in prayer, and we sang “The Star Spangled Banner” and people stood and were acknowledged as the clouds spilled out of themselves over us in shades of blue and grey. And a man spoke, a soldier, who has been out and back twelve times. He was decorated and composed, even as he named the many friends he’d lost. What he read was a quote from David Eagleman’s Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives:

“There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”

And we stood for him and clapped, and then a longer list was read, men and women who have served and passed away in the last year. There were so many, and their names rang out in the quiet morning, over the people in their blankets and lawn chairs, over the parking lot and the boat landing and the lake. Off in all directions, those whispered names, rising up into the blue, where they entwine with the winds, and circle the planet for as long as the winds may blow.

Here’s one last hurrah for comfort food. Chicken soup, homemade. For a windy evening after a day of rain. This one goes with a light salad, or some fresh rolls, and a little pat o’ butter.

Homemade Chicken Soup

3 T butter
1 onion, chopped
2 large carrots, sliced into rounds
2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1 lb boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 T fresh thyme leaves, plus more for garnish
3 cloves garlic, minced
Freshly ground black pepper
3 T flour
4 cups chicken broth
1 cups heavy cream
1 cup wild rice

In a large pot or Dutch oven, melt butter. Add onion, carrots, and celery. Cook, stirring, until vegetables are tender and liquid has evaporated, 6 minutes or so. Add chicken and cook until golden, 10 minutes, then add thyme and garlic and stir until fragrant, 1 minute. Season generously with salt and pepper.

Add flour and whisk until golden.. Pour over chicken broth and milk and season with salt and pepper. Add rice and bring to a simmer until rice is tender and chicken is cooked through.


The Sun and the Wind and the Scent of Lilacs

Made some Oreo Pudding Dessert Saturday and it was not bad. Our youngest is home from college for a week or two, mostly to regroup and gather things for her summer stay on campus and recover from the tonsillectomy she underwent last week. The house is full of “soft foods” like applesauce and yogurt and tapioca and beets and kale (for smoothies, seriously. The dessert I made mostly for a Mother’s Day treat, as we have been good lately about not indulging and it sounded so good and it was.

I woke at 2 a.m. this morning to give our daughter her meds. She was in pain – four days after the procedure – and has been taking painkillers every four hours since. It has meant little sleep for the both of us, and a bit of a challenge getting out of bed in the morning. When Mr. S is around (he is in Arizona until Tuesday giving a talk called “How to Be Positive When Things Are Not”), he often acts as my alarm clock. When he is not, I place the alarm across the room so I have to get up and walk and that often helps. But when I’m worn out, well, I need a strategy. Ideally, I would attach my alarm to one of those Roomba vacuums that travels about the house. Then I would have to get up AND search the house. Couldn’t fail.

We’re seeing the light at the tunnel’s end. She’s feeling better today, and talking more, and swallowing forkfuls of lo mein. The headache has gone away, and some of the swelling, and we got to spend four days together which is a rare and lovely thing. I got to make homemade tapioca and macaroni and cheese for a reason, and we watched a movie or two together (I dozed off) and I got to give her a head and neck rub when things were at their worst. What else could I do?

That’s one thing about being a mother. Your children always are just that –your children; you want, always, to alleviate their pain; you want to feed them and do so well; and when they come home your heart races, and when they drive away, it aches.

Another thing is, once you’re a mother, you are so for all your life. It doesn’t end until you do. (And even then, who knows?) They come and go, and they look for you, and for them it is enough, often, to know you are there.

She’ll be feeling better by Thursday, when she plans to head back to school. And our son? Well, he arrived from Ireland today, where he spent a semester studying and loving stray cats and wandering through castles. And our oldest? Well, it’s because of her and her dear husband that I’ve been smiling now and then in the quiet hours. This time next year, I’ll be a grandma. Not sure how ready I am for THAT, but it ain’t about me. It’s about them, about their life, unfolding and beautiful, and I’m all for it. Just like I’m all for traveling to faraway lands, and spending the summer working at school.

Mother’s Day was – with all the questions about airport pickup times and whether this prescription can cause damage long-term and what is the best lotion to use to combat stretch mark – perfect. I don’t remember much of it, I was so tired. I do remember Mr. S calling and thanking me for who I am (and the bottle of Bailey’s and the card and the massage gift card hidden in the closet). I remember the sun and the wind and the scent of lilacs. I remember eating shredded barbecued pork Mr. S made before he left. And the peanut butter M&Ms my youngest managed to procure. My son’s face during a video chat from Dublin, and my oldest daughter’s gift of lovely mini-roses. Red. And her phone call. All those phone calls, all the flurry on a day when sleep felt especially good. And so did waking around 2 am, and – after meds and a bathroom visit and a glass of mango juice – tucking in that healing young woman and turning out the light. There was silence awhile. And then, her sweet, clear voice in the night: “Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.” Oh, and it was. And is. And evermore shall be.

Here’s one for any crowd, any occasion, any time, any place.
Speaks for itself. Give it a whirl.

Oreo Pudding Dessert

1 package regular Oreo cookies (Not Double Stuff) – about 36 cookies
6 Tablespoon butter, melted
8 ounce package cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons cold milk
12 ounce tub Cool Whip, divided
2 of the 3.9 ounce packages Chocolate Instant Pudding
3 1/4 cups cold milk
1 1/2 cups mini chocolate chips

Begin by crushing 36 Oreo cookies. I used my food processor for this, but you could also place them in a large Ziploc bag and crush them with a rolling pin. When the Oreos have turned into fine crumbs, you are done.

Transfer the Oreo crumbs to a large bowl. Stir in 6 tablespoons melted butter and use a fork to incorporate the butter into the cookie crumbs. When the butter is distributed, transfer the mixture to a 9 x 13 inch baking dish. Press the crumbs into the bottom of the pan. Place the pan in the refrigerator while you work on the additional layers.

Mix the cream cheese with a mixer until light and fluffy. Add in 2 Tablespoons of milk, and sugar, and mix well. Stir in 1 and 1/4 cups Cool Whip. Spread this mixture over the crust.

In a bowl, combine chocolate instant pudding with 3 and 1/4 cups cold milk. Whisk for several minutes until the pudding starts to thicken. Use a spatula to spread the mixture over the previous cream cheese layer. Allow the dessert to rest for about 5 minutes so that the pudding can firm up further.

Spread the remaining Cool Whip over the top. Sprinkle mini chocolate chips evenly over the top. Place in the freezer for 1 hour, or the refrigerator for 4 hours before serving.


A Corner of Paradise Itself

Made a meal of hot ham and Swiss sandwiches and chicken soup on Saturday, and it was not bad. First beauty of a spring day we’ve had, I’d say, with warm breezes and puffy white clouds and enough sun to give my shoulders what I’d call a light burn while I was out staining the deck. Yep, that’s right. Once again, the deck was in need of a coat of stain and Mr. S and I had at it. Together. We. Us. Now there are about seven directions I could go with this, but let’s just say I’d recommend it for those of you having occasional disagreements, struggles, or a general lack of communication.

See, there are a good number of life situations that will tell you just about all you need to know about a person. Being stuck in an elevator together, a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, two weeks on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic, a wad of large bills just lying there in a ditch, a house fire, an insane tax bill, a warm frosted chocolate cake just sittin’ there on the counter, a venomous snake bite, wallpapering a bathroom and, well, staining a deck. Yep. You pay attention and you’ll know what you need to know about where a person’s heart is, about his or her priorities, about what makes the person with whom you are…tick.

They say it’s the things that attract you to another person that will one day grate your nerves down to filaments. It was Mr. S’s quiet, gentle nature that caught my attention. His cornball sense of humor. His affinity for plaid shirts and work boots. His love for animals. And I imagine it was my organized self, my determination, my baking frenzies, my down-to-earthiness that drew him near. And it’s true; those very things, over time, got to us. I told him he was too quiet; he told me I ought to talk less and I’d hear more. I suggested he dress up now and then; he asked exactly how many pounds of flour I go through in a month (and proceeded to calculate what I will spend on flour in my lifetime). He told me I ought to sit down and relax. I told him if he didn’t stop drawing onto the porch most of the animals within a one mile radius, I was going to go out and buy a new enormous crock pot and have at it.

Of course, he didn’t mean it about the flour bill, or that he wanted me to talk less. And I do still enjoy his quiet presence and wouldn’t imagine cooking those raccoons that have been visiting lately. Thing is, being with another person for more than a stretch is not all the proverbial wine and roses, walks in the park, naps in the hammock and nights under the stars. No, siree Bob. It’s WORK. Hard work. Exhausting, frustrating, sometimes agonizing work. That’s where the naps in the hammock come in. And the walks in the woods. All those small things — a bunch of wildflowers, a homemade cake, an offer out of nowhere, “You wanna stain the deck together tomorrow?” – that make Life in a life.

Yeah. I’d recommend it. Or if you’re really up for a challenge, pick a room and wallpaper it. The smaller, the better. Or consider re-sodding the lawn, or sealing the driveway. Together. Because the most important things take the most patience, the most energy, the most understanding and diligence and even some faith. And I’m not talking about yard work here. I’m talking about life work. The relentless kind. The work that makes your very soul tired some days, and jump for joy others.

Learned it when I was young pulling weeds in my grandmother’s garden. It was a circle of hell, I was convinced. For all the times I hadn’t eaten my vegetables. And then, nearing harvest time, I visited that garden, and lo and behold. A corner of Paradise itself. Works that way most times, seems to me.

Here’s a batch of soup for a round of spring colds, rainy days, chilly evenings.

Homemade Chicken Soup
3 tbsp. butter
1 onion, chopped
2 large carrots, sliced into rounds
2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1 lb. boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 tbsp. fresh thyme leaves, plus more for garnish
3 cloves garlic, minced
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tbsp. all-purpose flour
4 c. low-sodium chicken broth
1 c. heavy cream
1 c. wild rice

In a large pot or Dutch oven, melt butter. Add onion, carrots, and celery. Cook, stirring, until vegetables are tender and liquid has evaporated, five minutes or so. Add chicken and cook until golden, about ten minutes, then add thyme and garlic and stir until fragrant. Season with salt and pepper.

Add flour and whisk until golden, and pour over chicken broth and milk and season with salt and pepper. Add rice and bring to a simmer until rice is tender and chicken is cooked through.

And one for the road. Sometimes when Mr. S is away, I make a pan of these sandwiches for myself. They are best left over, and when everyone’s around, they disappear. A batch’ll last me three or four days, and my oh my.

Sweet Hawaiian Ham Buns

12 Hawaiian Buns
Ham Slices or shaved ham, enough for 12 small sandwiches
Cheese, your favorite (cheddar or Swiss are good)

Cut buns, place ham slices and cheese inside buns, put buns in 9×13 cake pan.

1 stick butter
2 T. brown sugar
1 T. mustard
1 T. Worcestershire sauce
1 T. poppy seed (optional)

Bring all sauce ingredients to a boil in a saucepan.
Pour sauce over ham sandwiches in cake pan
Bake @ 375 until lightly browned.


This Land of Seasons

March 27, 2017
Made some soup Saturday night, and it was not bad. Butternut squash with beans, one of the last few comfort meals of the season. Perfect time of year for soup, I’d say. Things are shifting, and it is exciting and unsettling all at once. We’ve got the cold, still, and rain on its way for a good stretch, and today there was sun. Glorious sun. Sun to warm one through and through, and my gosh, did it. I went out there and stood in it awhile, and thought about spring and why and how, and remembered something I wrote a while back and want to share it with you. For no reason except I’d say it all the same if I said it right now:

When it comes to seasons, spring is the quiet sister. You’ve got summer with its hazy stretch of laze and sun and hammocks and books, dozing on the dock, mowing lawns and diving into rivers. I love the burning colors, the wood smoke scents, the gathering tables and orchards of autumn, and the reason I live here when you add the fury and wildness of winter, snow piled high and blowing, the sharpened definition of “cozy”, the sense of something impending, of survival mode. Spring, to me, is a restorative walk in the park, the planting, baskets of eggs, and the great prep time for the rest of it. Birds, yellow flowers, people sweeping garages and sidewalks and steps. Spring is a cool shower, the scent of rain, mud holes and the ascent of spiders on the windowpanes. Spring is the smell of dirt and worms, the haze of green fields, glistening red berries and fluffy pastel salads with pineapple and coconut and lime.

All of which is why I keep secret, most years, my early-spring wish for just one more storm. Bring it on, dark skies, and cover the house with snow. Blanket the drive so I can’t get out, and release Time awhile so I might bake, and pay a few bills, and dust the shelves that have gathered a layer. Let me run across a documentary by chance, something on the suffragettes or a forest in Japan or the giant squid no one ever sees. Or a love story I watched when I was younger and less wise, or the biography of Dolly Madison, or Roosevelt, or Rosa Parks or Rasputin. Give me a small stretch of time for a nap late in the day, and please let there be hot chocolate in the cupboard and leftover soup in the fridge. Yes, some soup and bread, and lit candles, and a text or two, or a call even, from someone dear, somewhere out there, to the north or west or east or south, in this land of seasons I love.

Here’s one for those partial to vegetables and goodness and a bit of white wine.

Megan’s Bean and Butternut Squash Soup

2 T olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, diced
2 tsp fresh sage, chopped
3 cups (2 pkg thawed frozen) squash
cut into 1″ cubes
2 T tomato paste
1/2 cup dry white wine (taste to make sure it’s good)
5-6 cups chicken stock
1 can white beans, drained
1 large bell pepper, cut into 1″ squares
1 cup thinly sliced kale
salt and pepper to taste
generous pinch red pepper flakes

In a large pot, heat oil over medium heat. Saute the onions, garlic and sage until tender. Stir in the squash, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and the tomato paste. Then add the red wine and chicken stock. Increase heat and bring to a boil; then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook, partially covered, until squash is tender, about 25 minutes. Stir in beans, pepper and kale. Heat through and season further as desired.