Life really can throw us for a loop sometimes. I’ve learned – admittedly the hard way – that it isn’t so much what is thrown, but how that situation is handled. And the best way to handle any situation is with grace and strength, with a genuinely kind heart. This is what Mrs. Jones has taught me.
For the last eight years, my parents’ next-door neighbors have become an extended part of our family. We call them our “grandparents next door,” and they have called us their “girls next door.” The Jones’ and my family would have dinners, daily chats, and we always scored the coveted spot on the lawn by the lake next to our houses to watch the 4th of July fireworks. They told us incredible stories of their lives – places they’ve lived, houses they’ve built, military experiences, and the fact that Mr. Jones was once a spy operating in Russia for the CIA helped keep us not only entertained, but open-mouthed and amazed by his experiences. Also, to my delight and appreciation, Mr. and Mrs. Jones would often be members of my test kitchen staff when I came up with new recipes to share. Even if they had already eaten dinner, they would always take the invitation to stop by and have a bite.
Sadly, Mr. Jones is no longer with us to share his stories, his humor, his humility, and his friendship.
This past weekend was the Memorial Service for Mr. Jones, and despite the circumstances, I was happy to be taking a short trip back to Irvine to see my mom and to see Mrs. Jones. The service was beautiful and it was wonderful (though not surprising) to see all of the people Mr. Jones had touched. But aside from the beautiful flowers, touching music, and memorable shared stories, I noticed Mrs. Jones. Lovely and elegant, she hugged every person she saw; despite the tears in her eyes, she had a smile on her face, genuinely happy that people were celebrating her husband’s life. Unlike the feelings I had welling up inside (and showing on the outside), I never saw her break down, or lose her graceful exterior. Yes, she was obviously sad and hurting, but she is also a true Officer’s Wife – strong yet gentle, courteous yet genuine, together and calm. I admire her in so many ways.
I, too, am an Officer’s wife, though only 4 1/2 months into the role. I’m also notorious among my family for reacting to situations in ways that are, well, reactive (really, just put on the sound track to The Lion King and you’ll understand). And as my mom puts it perfectly in a way that speaks to my inner level of understanding (as only a great mother can), I need to be “like Teflon.” Whatever slides on, slides right off. Non-stick goodness that always looks clean and complete (if you’ve ever tried to make pancakes in a stainless steel plan, you’ll fully understand the analogy). Mrs. Jones has got the Teflon thing down pretty well.
Mr. and Mrs. Jones loved gardening. They understood the importance of organic and sustainable practices way before Alice, Jamie, and Emeril solidified the trend. So the dinner I made for my mom the evening of the service would have hopefully made them proud.
Arguably, one of the best Farmers Markets in California is at UCI, where farms from all over the Central Valley and Southern California gather to sell their straight-from-the-ground goodies. For years I was fortunate enough to live only 15 minutes away, and I would always go see the same vendors. There was Farmer John, the Sausage Guy, the Lebanese Fruit Lady, the Snow Mountain Fuji Apple people, and the Cute Herb Guy, among many others. It was always so easy to spend half a paycheck in such a fruitful market, but this time I limited myself to only the ingredients I would need for my Butternut Squash and Apple Soup with Seared Scallops. I’m happy to say that every ingredient I used, minus the scallops, olive oil, chicken stock, and s&p, were grown and picked around 50 miles from my mom’s kitchen stove.
I made dinner slowly that night, trying to respect the ingredients and the techniques used to prepare them. As my mom and I sat down to our humble yet tasty dinner, we knew Mr. Jones would probably have liked to be a taste-tester once again, and we would have wanted him there. But we had to settle for a “cheers” in his honor.
The soup and scallops were warming and satisfying, and I went to bed remembering Mr. Jones, and thinking about Mrs. Jones – her strength, her devotion, and her support of a very important man who was not only an officer and international spy, but also the father to their kids, her partner, and her friend. So, Mrs. Jones, here’s a “cheers” to you as well. Thank you for showing me what a true Officer’s Wife can be.
Butternut Squash and Apple Soup with Sage Seared Scallops (serves 4)
- 1 small-med butternut squash, peeled and diced
- 1 large Fuji apple, diced
- 1 large leek, rinsed and sliced
- 2 garlic cloves
- 4 c low sodium chicken stock
- Sea scallops (as many as you wish – I use 3-4 per person), foot removed
- 2 tbsp butter
- 2 sprigs fresh sage
- 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
In a 425 degree oven, roast the butternut squash with a drizzle of olive oil and some s&p (mix with hands and place on sheet tray). Roast until surfaces are lightly browned, turning once, about 30-40 minutes.
Meanwhile, saute the leeks in the olive oil with some s&p until tender, and then add the garlic. Saute until fragrant. Add the roasted butternut squash and the apple, and let cook, stirring often for about 5 minutes. Add the chicken stock, bring to a boil, and then drop the heat and simmer for another 5 minutes. Using an immersion blender (or a stand blender), blend the soup until it is completely smooth. Still on a simmer, add a sprig on sage, taste for s&p, and cover.
To make the scallops, heat up the butter and the other sprig of sage in a heavy bottomed pan (cast iron works great). When the butter is sputtering and the pan is searing hot, place the scallops (seasoned lightly with s&p), in the pan. Do not turn the scallops UNTIL they release themselves from the pan. If you feel the scallops tug back when you go to turn them, wait a few seconds and try again. Otherwise you will leave a lovely layer of those precious scallops in the pan, which is so sad. When both sides are seared (about 2 minutes each), take them out of the pan to rest for just a second.
Ladle the soup into a wide, shallow bowl, and place the scallops (3-4) in the middle of the bowl. Add a fried sage leave (from the searing pan) for garnish and serve with crusty bread and buttery wine.