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Clean Up, Aisle 14

21 Nov

Last year at this time, I was blogging 2-3 times a week, happily writing and experimenting with my Turkey Day Trials, and prepping for the best holiday of the year.  It was my first Thanksgiving cooking, and my parents were coming up to visit – everything had to be perfect.  This year, everything still must be perfect, but I’ve moved up a level in the video game of life, causing more hurdles to jump over and extra-point challenges to face.

Rob and I see each other almost every day.  But our jobs, while enriching and rewarding, have brought us to a new intensity in limited interaction.  Having just entered the Aircraft Commander syllabus, Rob is working even harder and studying whenever possible.  My job leaves me, more often than not, wanting to crash out on the couch saving any laundry or other household chores for “another” day.  We have been busy with bittersweet traveling (going to North Carolina for Rob’s uncle’s funeral; sad occasion, but nice seeing lots of family), busy with friends (Meghan and Daniel’s trip up from Irvine was a blast!), and busy being stressed over Oregon’s missed field goal to lose a should-have-won game against USC (urgh).  We’ve had some,well, busy times, but I’m certainly not complaining – Rob and I live a very full life.  But it all kind of caught up with me yesterday.

In my house growing up, Thanksgiving was the biggest holiday we celebrated.  We ate, we watched the Macy’s Parade, we ate, we watched the Dog Show, we ate, we watched my mom squeal as my dad de-innarded the turkey, and we ate some more.  Last year was pretty much the same, except I was the one de-innarding the turkey, and Rob was the one running after me with 409 to disinfect any poultry germs.  But while last year I had time and ability to experiment with pumpkin pie, taste-test three different stuffings, and concoct the best turkey to herb butter ratio, this year has been a bit different.

Yesterday, Rob and I went to the grocery store to pick up the final fixins for this year’s meal.  We had returned the night prior from the UofO/USC football game feeling drained and exhausted from the expended adrenaline, lack of body warmth, and long drive.  I had a list – no, the list – of Thanksgiving necessities (one year, my mom forgot the black olives.  My dad still talks about it).  We were walking up and down the aisles picking up our loot, when, all of a sudden, all of the to-dos and lack of Thanksgiving preparation that I had been keeping on the back burner, running at a gentle rolling simmer, came rushing to the forefront of my brain reminding me that the BEST day of the year was only 4 days away.  And I had not prepped at all.

I stopped.

“What’s wrong?” Rob asked.

“I…. I….”  the panic levels were audibly rising.

“What?” his concern was obvious.

“Holy Crap I didn’t get to do my turkey trials this year!  There’s so much to do!  This is the best day of the year and I’m not enjoying it the way I should!  And I don’t remember which kind of stuffing I’m supposed to buy!” the verbal vom came out at, what I imagine, was faster and a few pitches higher than normal.  Rob could see it starting.  I was loosing it.

The tears started flowing.  With a mixture of exhaustion, stress, and downright immaturity, my shoulders started to methodically shake.  Rob took me in his arms and gave me his best bear hug.  After including a couple of “it’s alrights” and “shhs,” to ease my “but I don’t even have a dessert!” fears, he broke me of my breaking point like only he could.  Right there between the canned pumpkin and the Shake ‘N Bake, with his quick New England wit he exclaimed, “Clean up on Aisle 14!”

Well, even with all of my grocery store blubbering, it turns out I did get to have a turkey trial this year, even if it wasn’t a planned dish for my family’s Thanksgiving feast.  A friend requested a minimal chopping, gluten-free stuffing to enjoy with her family this year.  Since I often have secret love-affairs with large amounts of gluten when Rob is on duty, I took this as a challenge.  I researched; most gluten free recipes require cubes of gluten-free bread, a food that is difficult to find and can stereotypically be dry, dense, and tasteless.  So I improvised and came up with a “crumble” of sorts using corn meal and almond meal.  The dish had the stuffing-like texture, and the flavors of Thanksgiving were all incorporated.

I called my mom from the grocery store, still sniffling from my “incident” back in aisle 14, confirming the correct stuffing for our dinner (during which time she genuinely asked me if I was 1) okay, and 2) a mental – got to love the east coast mommy!).  So needless to say, despite its tastiness, we will be sticking to tradition and not be having a gluten-free stuffing for our holiday.  But hopefully my friend and her family will, and enjoy the flavors, and the holiday, without scary gluten allergies.

Happy Thanksgiving!

No-Chop Gluten-Free Stuffing (serves 6-8)

  • 1 leek
  • 1 large apple
  • ½ medium sized red onion
  • 3 celery ribs
  • 2 yukon gold potatoes
  • 1/4 c white wine
  • 1 ½ c cornmeal, medium grain
  • ¾ c almond meal
  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary
  • 3 sprigs fresh sage
  • s&p
  • olive oil for drizzling

*** Special equipment needed: Food Processor

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees, and grease a square baking dish with butter.

Melt 3 tbsp of butter in a large sauté pan.  Chop the leek, apple, onion, celery, and potatoes into very large dices (about 2 inches each).  Toss into the food processor.  Pulse 3-4 times; just enough so the veggies are chopped up, but NOT pureed.  Pour the veg into the sauté pan, and season with s&p to taste.  Sprinkle in the thyme leaves and sauté until the veg has softened, but not browned.  Add white wine and simmer for a few minutes, then turn the heat to low.

Change the blade in the food processor to the dough blade.  Add in the cornmeal, almond meal, butter (broken up with your fingers), rosemary, and sage.  Season with a sprinkle of s&p.  Pulse until the mixture comes together like damp, grainy sand.

Mix ¾ of the cornmeal mixture with the vegetable mixture, and pour into the baking dish.  Using a spatula or the back of a large spoon, even out the mixture.  Sprinkle the rest of the cornmeal mixture on top, and drizzle olive oil over the top (to help with browning).

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the top is crusty, and the inside has cooked all the way through.


The view from our bedroom window.

Fruit and Veg Therapy

28 Sep

There’s a part in the movie “Up In the Air” where George Clooney’s character comments that he is surrounded, rather than isolated, in the traveling life that he leads.  Physically, yes.  There are people everywhere!  But emotionally?  I think he needed a bit of a reality check.

That’s just what I got the last two days.  I have always enjoyed traveling, even for work.  Educational conferences are usually beneficial and have me leaving with a sense of cognitive renewal.  At 6:17 tonight, I returned from one of those conferences that, while started out a bit rocky, ended up leaving me with some new insight and information.  But the travel?  I needed my own bit of therapy at the end.

It started with a four-hour drive, mostly in the dark with the first Oregon Autumn rain.  Pouring rain.  Then, arriving to our destination close to 11:00pm, I drove up and down the same ½ mile of street looking for the small motel that would serve as our residence for the following two days.  Once the motel (that shall remain nameless due to liability reasons) was found, and we were properly checked in, the overwhelming smell of cigarette smoke and pet urine overwhelmed the fact that there were no doors on the bathroom.  I’m not recalling a four-hour rain-soaked delusion – it really smelled.  And had no doors on the bathroom.  Really.

So, with a few quick phone calls and a small argument with the lovely lady at the front desk, another hotel was promptly booked, which, in educational standards “met” (rather than “did not meet,” nor “exceeded”) what we needed for our stay.

After two NyQuil-induced nights, one of which was restless, another four-hour drive home, and the residual effects of conference food (while tasty at the time, you know what I’m referring to), there was something left to be had: my own therapy.  Veggie therapy.

So I whipped up a spesh.  A lovely fruit and veg salad that not only hit the spot, but reminded me that the lovely fall air was still crisp and comforting.  Combined with my favorite sweatpants, a good glass of wine (Oregon’s first Baco Noir), and a DVR’d Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, the night erased all travel stiffness.

Please, don’t wait for a memorable travel experience and vegless conference food to make this salad; it’s easy, comforting (thanks to the oh-so-wonderful sharp cheddar cheese), and slightly unexpected on the taste buds.  It’s good for any night, not just a veggie therapy night.

Fruit and Veg Salad with Lavender Balsamic Dressing (serves 2) 

For the salad:

  • 2 c torn baby red lettuce (I prefer the tender tops rather than the inside ribs) 
  • 1 medium sweet apple, cored and diced (I used Gala – their season is just starting up here)
  • ½ small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 c red grapes, sliced
  • 1 med head broccoli (or two small heads), stems removed and cut into florets
  • about 3 oz sharp cheddar cheese, diced (really, use as much cheese as you want – the cheddar flavor pairs perfectly with the onion, apple, broccoli, and apple).
  • 1 large sprig basil, leaves removed and thinly chopped

For the dressing:

  • 1 tsp good quality honey
  • 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ tsp fresh lavender buds, rubbed between your hands to release oils
  • 1 ½ extra virgin olive oil
  • s&p

Mix the dressing by adding the honey, vinegar, and lavender buds.  Pour in the extra virgin olive oil while whisking to emulsify.  Season to taste, and set aside. 

Put all of the ingredients for the salad into a bowl and quickly mix to combine.  Pour over the dressing, and toss again, just so the dressing lightly coats the ingredients.  Taste for seasoning (I found I needed more pepper), and serve.


Like Teflon

18 Jan

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
  • s&p

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.


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