Beef, Leek, and Barley Soup

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So far, one quarter of the recipes on this blog are soup recipes. Does that seem like a lot? I try to restrain myself from sharing more soup recipes, and in the winter it’s a real challenge to limit the meal plan to one soup per week. This should come as no surprise considering I once wanted to open a shop inspired by one of my favorite places in Wiesbaden, La Soupe, a restaurant  that served nothing but–you guessed it–soup. I have had vast experience as the official “soup maker” at the coffee shop where I used to work, a job I loved immensely. The slicing, sautéing, and stirring became a welcome respite from the busy barrage of caffeinated customers. Soup is the perfect thing to make when you need to catch up with your own thoughts.

Beef, Leek, and Barley Soup

Maybe it’s that respite I still seek when I make soup at home (apparently, Smiley Face Bananas are to toddlers what legal addictive stimulants are to working adults). I’m drawn to its ease and versatility. One dish dinners are my favorite, and soup has to be one of the best ways to get plenty of vegetables, protein, and even whole grains into a meal that passes muster with the family. There is an endless variety of flavors and textures to explore. And I think we’re all familiar with soup’s benevolence towards vagrant leftovers and substitutions alike.

But I can’t help being reminded of a conference I once attended where the speaker advised wives to ask their husbands, “How can I love you better?” One husband’s answer, reportedly: “I don’t like soup. You make soup too often.” To which she replied, “You mean I could maintain the peace in our home and nurture marital bliss by simply serving you solid food?!?” I guess maybe one can have too much soup. Before you make this, maybe you should ask your spouse how they would feel about eating Beef, Leek, and Barley Soup.

 I really hope the answer is, “Great!”

Beef, Leek, and Barley Soup

Beef, Leek, and Barley Soup
Adapted from Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin
Serves 6-8

  • 2 beef short ribs (about 2 pounds), trimmed if very fatty
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 3 leeks, cut lengthwise, rinsed, and sliced (both white and green parts)
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • ½ cup barley
  • 8 cups (2 quarts) beef stock
  • Black pepper
  1. Place short ribs on the bottom of your soup pot. (You can pat them dry and sear them first over medium-high heat for a little more flavor. be sure to scrape up the browned bits when you add the stock.)
  2. Add onions, leeks, garlic, barley, and beef stock. Grind in a little black pepper.
  3. Bring to a boil, then let it simmer, partially covered, on low for 2 ½ to 3 hours, until meat is tender and practically falls apart when prodded with a fork.
  4. Carefully remove short ribs from the soup to a cutting board to cool a bit. I like to break them apart into large chunks to speed this up a little.
  5. Meanwhile, skim the fat from the top of the soup if necessary. If you have the time, a stint in the fridge overnight makes this much easier.
  6. When the short ribs are cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones, break/chop it into chunks, and stir it back into the soup.
  7. Add salt and pepper to taste, make sure meat is warmed through, and serve.

My Spice Rack & Spiced Sweet Potato Fries

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How many more weeks of winter do we have left? Because I have two little boys with a lot of energy to burn, one who gets especially riled up when he hasn’t been outside in a while, and has a tendency to turn into a little monster. Literally, he pretends he’s a monster, growling and rough-housing and being awfully destructive. As for me, I could handle a nice long walk in the sunshine, a trip to the farmer’s market, and something cooked on the grill. But seeing as I’m stuck inside for the time being, I want to tell you about a couple of my favorite things in my kitchen right now.

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First: my spice rack. Have I mentioned that we live in a small, dark apartment? The kitchen is so bad I think it’s actually affected how much I like cooking. If you’ve caught glimpses of it in the background of pictures you’ll know what I mean. This  spice rack is my glimmer of light and beauty. I absolutely love it. Sam made and mounted the shelves, and I did the tins. They’re a generous 8 ounces (the small ones are 4), filled with everything from allspice to thyme (boy, I need to get some Za’atar or something, that didn’t really sound as impressive and exotic as I’d anticipated). They’re labeled alphabetically of course, with a clear label placed just so over the white one for no smearing, and to be honest, I need to make some more of them. Since the shooting of these photos, I’ve amassed a few more spices, which are just sitting on the ends of the shelves awkwardly mismatching, or blatantly nonconforming.

Yes, they do collect a bit of dust. But I love them so much, I don’t even care. You just have to stay on top of it, or get your mom to give you a Norwex* so when you do finally get around to wiping them down, you can do it without any nasty chemicals getting close to your food. And ideally, spices should be stored in complete darkness, i.e. that cute little window in the top could actually shorten the lifespan of your spices. This is the one major benefit of having a windowless kitchen. If I’m going to be deprived of the sun, by golly I’m going to take advantage of it!

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In honor of the beloved spice rack, I give you: Spiced Sweet Potato Fries. They’re my other favorite thing in my kitchen right now, but that’s just barely true because there’s only small amount leftover, tucked away in the refrigerator and it just occurred to me that they’d make a tasty afternoon snack. These are what I always imagined sweet potato fries should be, from the time I first tried them deep-fried but dull at a summer music festival. I’ve since become friends with frozen sweet potato fries, but to me they still need a dip in curry ketchup or mayonnaise for a little zing.

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But these fries, with the lightest coating of oil and some time in a hot oven, come out with the sweet, syrupy flavor of a properly roasted or baked sweet potato.** They’re sprinkled with the robust flavors of freshly crushed coriander, fennel, oregano, and red pepper, plus some kosher salt, and they are perfect. Speaking of baked sweet potatoes, this spice combination might also be good on them, maybe toasted? You’d want to be generous, to account for the fries’ wide surface area. Just a thought. But the fries are hard to beat. They’re quite possibly my favorite food.

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I even added way too much oil this time I made them, and they were still phenomenal. If you must, you can call them Sweet Potato Wedges or Spiced Roasted Sweet Potatoes instead of fries. I tried to estimate what the oil measurement should be when I typed the recipe, but just start with a tiny bit and add more if you think it needs it. I remember back in the days before I had kids, I used to dip my fingers in oil and just lightly moisturize each wedge one at a time.  If this sounds as ridiculous to you as it does now to me, be aware that was also back when I would make only one pan of these; I’ve since doubled the recipe to satisfy all four of us. If it still sounds ridiculous, good, that means you’re sane; just use that illustration as a guide and remember when it comes to the oil you really don’t need much at all. Having kids, or a life, definitely should not mean missing out on these fries.

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In fact, my family loved them. Well, I’m not sure if William even tried them. I could swear he’s happily devoured them before, but as I said, being cooped up all day gets him a little cantankerous. Anyway, the rest of us were just fine with having one less person to share with. You can dial back the red pepper flakes if your kids are not into spicy, or leave it out altogether. Once cooked, the skins are super easy to peel off before serving to little ones if you’re worried about choking hazards. (Titus with his eight teeth did fine with the skins after we got tired of peeling around the fifth or sixth chorus of “More! More!”) Serve them with your family’s favorite burgers, sloppy joes, or ABCLT’s (my attempt at a spin on BLT’s: chicken sandwiches with bacon, avocado, lettuce, tomato, lettuce, and mayo). What more is there to say? Go forth and make sweet potato fries!

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*I have no affiliation with Norwex and they have no idea who I am. Do I wish they did? Of course. That rag is amazing, but I’m still not so sure about spending that much money on…a rag. And I didn’t. My mom gave it to me, because she’s nice like that.

**By the way, because it took me an inordinate amount of time to figure out how to “properly” bake a sweet potato, the technique is this: wash, prick all over with a fork, place on a baking sheet lined with parchment to minimize the mess, and bake at 400 degrees or so for at least an hour or two, or as long as it takes to get them to exude that caramelized, syrupy goodness. Don’t be afraid of overdoing it. Serve with just salt and maybe a little butter, velvety soft skin and all.

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Spiced Sweet Potato Fries
Adapted from Gourmet, January 2002
Serves 6-8

  • 4 pounds sweet potatoes, washed & dried
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil (more or less, just enough to lightly, lightly coat the fries)
  • 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • Mortar and pestle, spice grinder, or some such to crush spices***
  • 2 large baking sheets
  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Cut unpeeled potatoes into 3/4- to 1-inch wedges, and into manageable lengths if necessary. Arrange on two baking sheets with enough room to spread out in one layer.
  3. Rub wedges with oil, or drizzle and toss. There should just be the slightest coating of oil.
  4. Coarsely grind coriander, fennel, oregano, and red pepper with mortar and pestle or spice grinder.
  5. Stir together spices and salt.
  6. Sprinkle half of the spice mixture on the sweet potatoes (that’ll be about 1/4 of it per baking sheet if you’re making a full batch).
  7. Slide baking sheets into the oven, on the two middle racks, and bake for 20 minutes.
  8. Remove sheets, flip each wedge over (I find myself flipping each one individually with a fork and/or clean, quick fingers. Like the oiling, maybe not the most practical, but it’s what works best for me.), and sprinkle remaining spice mixture over fries.
  9. Place baking sheets back in the oven, rotating so the upper sheet is now on the lower rack and vice versa, and turning so fronts are to the back this time–this makes for more even cooking!
  10. Bake for another 20 minutes or until they’re as tender, crisp, and toasty as you like.

***I have a mortar and pestle I use often for things like this. In addition to being useful, I think it’s just pretty sitting out on my counter. I have also used a cheap fill-and-twist adaptation of a salt/pepper grinder–I think it came filled with coarse salt, but I bought it for the grinder. Some people use an inexpensive coffee grinder set aside only for spices (because the oils can be hard to clean out, and unless you like fennel-flavored coffee, this is not so good).

Christmas Cookies

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Isn’t it neat how holiday traditions are formed? It’s rarely intentional; for me, the things that stick are not the things I’ve tried to contrive and force but the ones that just simply fall into place every year. Sometimes this is frustrating for me, because I’m a planner. But when I’m busy complaining or fretting about how things didn’t go as I’d imagined, I’m missing the beauty and the blessing of how they are. Maybe you know what I mean. As a mom, I want things a certain way, I want my family to have good experiences that they’ll remember fondly. But God is good, and he wants to do the same for me.

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I had the idea to get each of my kids a Christmas ornament each year that represented them and their current loves, hobbies, etc. so that each year decorating the tree would be a nostalgic, meaningful experience. But Titus doesn’t even have a “Baby’s First Christmas” ornament, as I was far too busy and tired from actually taking care of a baby last year to make or shop for one. Doesn’t that represent “Baby’s First Christmas” better than any ornament ever could? Such were not my thoughts at the time, but someday I’m sure I’ll cherish the memories of those moments I spent with him that I came so close to wasting stressfully trying to adhere to my self-imposed tradition.

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Our first little snowfall of the winter yielded very little actual snow, but I was still delighted. Saturday morning, by the time all of us got bundled up and outside, the light layer of snow was all but melted, a wet layer of slush scarcely covering the dead grass. I was initially disappointed, but when I put my frustration away, I was able to see that William was completely unaware that this was not ideal snowman-making weather. He and Sam had a “snowball” fight with what unmelted snow Sam salvaged from the top of our car, Titus waddled around in his coat that made him two or three times as plump as normal, and our time ended quintessentially with tears from both boys. Titus finally got fed up with his hat covering half his face and falling down every two steps (adorable), and William was wailing after getting a slush-ball to the ear. We all came in and left a big pile of wet, dirty snowclothes and a row of muddy boots outside our door. It was perfect.

Then there’s the baking. I have an ever-growing list of sweets I want to make so badly each year at Christmas time. Never mind who’s going to eat fifty dozen cookies (we don’t even have that many friends and acquaintances, though I think I know a few people in this house who would happily volunteer). Starting in late November I just have this urge to turn on some Christmas music and fill our home with the scent of sugar and spice. And chocolate. And nuts. And cherries, coconut, dates, espresso, almond, lemon, caramel, and mint, with an overarching aroma of butter. The bigger problem is not who is going to eat them, but when all of this baking is going to take place. Even with my plan of making a batch or two per week, and the help of my trusty freezer, making enough cookies to share with every neighbor in our building is not going to happen.

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So I narrow it down to about five different cookies instead of an infinite variety. These Date Balls and Chocolate Cherry Cookies have made the cut every year. The Date Balls are an old family recipe from my dad’s side of the family, but I never paid them any mind until my my first Christmas as a newlywed. There I was in my own little kitchen in Germany, a clean slate before me of what would be “our traditions” as a family, and it was as if it just wouldn’t be Christmas without these cookies. I made some small adjustments to the original recipe, and they were adored at every Christmas gathering we brought them to. One friend thought he tasted chocolate in them; nope, just dates, rice krispies, and chopped pecans, but these three ingredients give them a similarly delicious, toasty, rich flavor that makes us come back to them every year. As a bonus, I believe they can easily become gluten-free. I’m no expert on the matter, but you’ll want to make sure you use gluten-free rice krispies (some have malt extract or are processed on equipment that comes in contact with wheat or barley). And I’m not sure about the corn syrup, but be very cautious when dealing with someone who is severely gluten-intolerant, and when in doubt, always check with them first on every ingredient.

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The Chocolate Cherry Cookies also date back to our time in Germany. A friend gave me the recipe one Christmas and I have made them every year since. Sam goes crazy over them, and has already eaten a good portion of my give-away stash under the guise that he will make another batch for me. They are so easy to eat. A perfect little chocolate cookie gets topped with a maraschino cherry, which is then hidden under a cap of creamy, decadent chocolate-cherry ganache. I’m thinking a double batch would definitely be a good idea next year. UPDATE: He is indeed in the kitchen making another batch as I type! What a good man.

I hope your Christmas is filled with unexpected blessings and joy. If you find the time to work these into your holiday baking, I’d love to hear about it. If not, that’s wonderful too. Have a lovely, peaceful Christmas enjoying the traditions your family has grown to love.

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Date Balls
Yield: 50-60 1-inch balls

  • 8 ounces fresh dates*
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon corn syrup
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 heaping cup pecans
  • 2 1/2 cup rice krispies
  • 14 ounces shredded, sweetened coconut
  1. Toast pecans: heat oven to 350 degrees, spread pecans in a single layer on a cookie sheet, and bake until fragrant and slightly crisp, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.
  2. Meanwhile, split dates, remove the pits, and chop finely (roughly 1/8 to 1/4-inch pieces). Place in a medium-sized saucepan along with the butter, sugar, corn syrup, and egg white.
  3. Chop pecans finely and add to a big mixing bowl. Add rice krispies, and mix to combine.
  4. Spread some coconut on a plate for rolling the date balls in later. Prepare a workspace and a place to set warm date balls once rolled; I use a baking sheet lined with parchment. You’ll also want some softened butter for your hands.
  5. Heat date mixture to boiling, boil 3 minutes.
  6. Pour date mixture over rice krispies and pecans, stir gently to combine.
  7. With buttered palms, make balls about 1-inch in diameter, rolling each one to coat with coconut as you go and placing them on your cookie sheet. No need to space them very far apart. The size is about 2 teaspoonfuls. The key is to keep them on the small side; 1-1/4 inch is okay, but you’ll be tempted to make them bigger and bigger as you go along. Try to avoid ending up with golf-ball sized date balls. Trust me, you’ll only come to regret it.
  8. Let them cool and enjoy!

*Are you very familiar with fresh dates? They’re worth seeking out; when made with them, these cookies are far superior than when made with dried ones. But, okay, I cringe to tell you this: examine fresh dates and remove any moldy-looking ones before using. There is no excuse for this even being an issue, but let’s face it, fresh dates are not the most popular item in the produce section, and it happens. I hope that all your dates are perfect and you don’t have to deal with this at all, but I’ve run across it a couple of times and feel it my responsibility to warn you. (I have never gotten sick from dates.) If it freaks you out, use dried ones.

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Chocolate Cherry Cookies
Yield: 48 small cookies

  • 6 ounces semisweet chocolate (Don’t skimp and use the cheap stuff here! The success of the ganache depends upon good chocolate. Trust me. It doesn’t have to be super high end, I use Baker’s Bittersweet Chocolate, the purple box, which is exactly 6 ounces. Just not the cheap-o Aldi chocolate chips, though their Moser Roth chocolate bars will work in a pinch, if you, like me, insist on learning the hard way.)
  • 1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 4 Tablespoons maraschino cherry juice from the jar
  • 1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 10-ounce jar of maraschino cherries, juice reserved for ganache (see above), cherries halved and set on paper-towel-lined plate; you should have about 48 cherry halves
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Make ganache: place chocolate, sweetened condensed milk, and cherry juice in a bowl and microwave about 30 seconds at a time, stirring well, until just melted and creamy. Don’t overcook. Alternately, you could use a double-boiler or a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Set aside.
  3. In a medium bowl, stir together flour, cocoa powder, salt, and baking powder with a whisk until combined. Set aside.
  4. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy.
  5. Add egg and vanilla, beat well, scraping bowl as needed.
  6. Gradually add the flour mixture and mix until blended. This will be thick. I like to give it one final stir by hand to make sure everything is fully incorporated.
  7. Shape dough into 1-inch balls and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet about 1-2 inches apart.
  8. Make a small indentation with your thumb in the center of each cookie, then place a cherry half into each hole and press gently.
  9. Spoon 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of ganache on top of each cookie. If it has thickened a bit, just use the tip of your spoon to give it a little swirl to cover the cherry and make it pretty.
  10. Bake for 10 minutes. Cookies are done when the edges are firm and cracked a little, but the rest of the cookie should still be soft. Let them cool on the cookie sheet for a couple minutes before moving to a cooling rack.

Sam’s Notes: He made a slight change to the cookie dough when he made them and I had to guess what it was. He doubled the salt. It was good.

Also, I heard a despairing, “My thumbs are too big!” from the kitchen as he was making the indentations for the cherries. If you have this problem, just use a smaller digit. :) Silly as it sounds, it does help to make the hole a little smaller than the cherry itself, because then when you press the cherry in, it will stick a little, which will help it stay in place when you’re spooning on the topping.

Sausage, Potato, and Kale Soup

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When Titus was  a newborn, a good friend brought us a couple of awesome suppers, and this soup was one of them. Hearty, spicy, rich but balanced by the healthy kale, it was happily devoured by all of us, and shortly thereafter I took to the internet in search of a recipe. When I made it myself and it was a hit, I knew we had a keeper. It has been enjoyed many times since, which is saying something because if you talk to Sam you’ll learn that much to his frustration, I don’t often make the same dish twice, even if it’s good. He’s made sure this one has made it onto the “Sam’s Favorite Meals” list.

So, at church when it was announced that the annual Reformation Day Party would include a Soup/Chili Contest, it was kind of a no-brainer. I’m pretty sure I leaned over right there in the pew and whispered to Sam, “Sausage Potato Kale?” “Yes.” We were sure we had this one in the bag, but guess who beat us out for Best Soup? My mom.

I kid, of course, I kid. To me, all the soups were winners, and I should know, I think I tried about nine of them. Pumpkin, bacon, beans, chicken, potato, leek, squash–moderately small portions, mind you!–but yes, always a lover of variety (some might say chronically indecisive), I did have a taste of almost everything. It was wonderful.

Equally wonderful was seeing my boys have fun playing in the leaves. Some of the young ladies made a huge pile of leaves and they all had fun jumping in it. How sweet is that? I love my church family.

A friend asked me at the party what else I do with kale. We love it. This soup is probably our favorite way to eat it. There’s another kale soup that I’ve written about, Kale, Bean, and Noodle Soup. I’ve also made kale with spicy tomatoes and beans, braised collard greens (a recipe in which kale and collards are basically interchangeable), Bruised Kale Salad (use a nice, delicate kale, but don’t bruise it as heavily), kale with pasta, and most recently, Kale Chips. William likes to crumble them over everything. Mainly I think he just likes to crumble them. I caught him with  a handful of the light, crispy flakes just as he was blowing them–poof!–into a shower of kale confetti. But if you’re looking for a recipe that is sure to please, this soup is the way to go. It’s delicious.

I just got another request for the recipe, so without further ado: Sausage, Potato, and Kale Soup.

Sausage, Potato, and Kale Soup
Adapted from The Pioneer Woman
Serves 12

  • 2 bunches of kale*
  • 12-15 small to medium potatoes
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 to 1-1/2 pounds Italian sausage (different brands vary in heat and saltiness, I used Hy-Vee brand bulk Italian sausage)
  • 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  1. To prepare the kale, tear the leafy parts from the stems in bite-size pieces. (Keep in mind you’ll want to pick them up with a spoon with a little potato and a little sausage too, to help you gauge the size of your bites. Can you tell I’ve made them too big before?) Put the kale in a colander or salad spinner as you go. Discard stems.
  2. Rinse the kale well. I use my salad spinner: fill it up with water and swish the kale around. Give it a bit of time to let any dirt settle (I might slice or prep some other ingredients while I wait), then lift out the insert and dump out the water. Spin dry, or just shake as with a colander. You don’t need to get it super dry as you’re just going to be putting it in a pot of liquid in a bit, but you don’t want it dripping so much it waters down the soup.
  3. Slice potatoes about 1/4 inch thick, halve any large discs. Put potatoes in a medium pot, add water to cover, bring it to a boil and cook until tender, about 10-15 minutes. Drain.
  4. Alternately, you can cook the potatoes in the microwave. Do not slice, but place whole, dry potatoes on a shallow microwave-safe baking dish or plate. Microwave on high, turning potatoes every 3 minutes, until skewer can be inserted with little resistance, 9 to 12 minutes. Cool about 10 minutes before slicing as directed.
  5. In a large pot, brown sausage and onions on medium-high heat. Drain off fat. Add broth, cream, milk, red pepper flakes, oregano, salt, and pepper. Bring to a low simmer and cook gently for 30 minutes. Try not to let it boil, but if it does and your milk curdles, don’t despair! I did that at least three times and was surprised to find when I added the potatoes that it seemed to be fixed!**
  6. Stir in potatoes, then kale, slowly to give it a little time to wilt and reduce in volume. Stir gently and simmer until kale is tender, about 10 minutes.
  7. Remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed. (I usually add quite a bit more salt and pepper.)

*That’s 2 supermarket bunches, which seem to be pretty standard in size, as opposed to farmer’s market bunches, which can be quite generous. If you have one of those giant bunches, you’ll need only one, maybe even half of one bunch. (You can use what’s leftover to make Kale Chips!) For this recipe, I usually have about a colander/salad spinner full of kale when it’s all torn up. I know, that still seems like a lot, but it does cook down. The time I took these pictures, I overdid it with one of the huge bunches from the farmer’s market. It wasn’t horrible, just extra kale-y.

**I don’t know why I’ve never tried cooking the potatoes in the soup; it would certainly simplify the recipe. It might be worth testing, as would upping the cream-to-milk ratio. Both starch and fat help keep proteins from bonding. I don’t know if it un-bonds them after the fact, all I know is I couldn’t tell it had curdled after I added the potatoes. Good news though: it tastes great either way!

William’s Camping Party: Part III

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Who else is loving this Indian summer we’re having? Yesterday I was actually tempted to turn on our air conditioner, but I abstained because it’s almost November, and that would just be wrong. Can somebody tell me how it is almost November already? I still have pictures from William’s birthday party hanging out on my computer, which was more than a month ago. It’s high time I shared them with you.

I wanted to get William involved in making things for his party. I figured he was old enough to understand giving a small token of gratitude to his guests, and we had a nice little talk about what makes birthday parties special and showing how we’re thankful for the people that are there to celebrate with us. These are the favors William helped to make. We took a special shopping trip and he got to pick out the ingredients from the bulk bins at the natural foods store to make his very own trail mix. He came up with a pretty tasty mix! I ordered these die-cut forest critters from Etsy and together he and I glued them onto labels (just folded squares of paper). Then I wrote out the labels, filled the bags, and simply stapled them on. I love how they turned out, but mostly I enjoyed making them with my boy.

Camping must include fishing, right? Here is our fishing game. I sewed some fish out of felt, sewed some key rings to their noses, and made a fishing pole from a stick, cotton twine, and a couple of magnets. (Tutorial here, felt was another Etsy purchase from this lovely shop.) William thought it was awesome that the fish stuck to the tackle: “Look at dat!” And yes, I did think about the fact that the magnets would stick to the galvanized bucket. I figured it would be an added challenge for the rest of our guests, as 80% of us were over the age of 13.

Titus came up with his own variation.

And yet another version of the game: Auntie Erin caught a William!

I came up with a nature hunt to go along with some of William’s other presents. His aunties got him some adorable stuffed animals, and I made him a little nature notebook with descriptions of each of them, based on these from National Geographic. Here is an excerpt: “I am an active-at-night, or nocturnal, mammal that can live throughout much of the world…My nickname is ringtail, and it’s easy to see why: black and brownish bands encircle my bushy tail…I make my den in trees or at the tops of houses or buildings, high above ground. You can also find me living in in abandoned barns or buildings, hollow trees, or brush piles.” William had to listen and then use these “clues” to figure out what the animal could be and look around to find it. (I had hidden the critters around the campsite prior to the party.)

Can you guess this one? “I am very fast: when I sense danger, I ‘chirp’ and dart into a nearby tree hole or log for protection. I eat insects, nuts, berries, seeds, fruit, and grain, which I stuff into my generous cheek pouches and carry to my home to store…My den can be dug under tree roots, rocks, or nestled inside old logs.”

It’s a chipmunk! There was also a hedgehog. He was my favorite. Unfortunately, one of our four-legged guests found him before William did. It was my own fault, I should have been more mindful. Oh well.

There was also this. A Duplo fire engine. Quite possibly William’s favorite gift. I think he plays with it every single day. And now, I leave you with this picture of Auntie Erin instructing William on the finer points of marshmallow roasting technique.

I still can’t believe I have a three-year-old! William, I love being your mom.

New World Cheeses & Roasted Squash, Gorgonzola, and Arugula Pizza

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Sam and I recently attended a couple of cheese tastings/classes at our local natural foods store, where we learned all about European, or “Old World,” cheeses, and “New World” cheeses, as in cheeses produced in the U.S. based on those traditional, timeless techniques. Working our way backwards, we started with the New. In this first class, we tasted four different cheeses from the Wisconsin cheese company Sartori: Parmesan, Asiago, MontAmoré (a Sartori original), and Gorgonzola. Sharing “tasting notes” and recipes while munching on cheese, fruit, bread, and wine got me thinking about one of my favorite recipes involving one of my favorite cheeses: Roasted Squash, Gorgonzola, and Arugula Pizza. Okay, all of my recipes involving Gorgonzola are among my favorites, but this one might be at the top. I thought I’d also share my class notes in addition to the recipe.

The first two cheeses we tried are two I think are pretty familiar, and, to me, fairly similar. Parmesan and Asiago are both hard, aged cheeses, and the particular ones we tried from Sartori were really nice. I’m no aficionado, but the differences I noted were that Parmesan was drier, crumblier, where the Asiago was a bit moister and creamier. Personally, I preferred the flavor of the Parmesan; it had that classic, complex Parmesan nuttiness that the Asiago lacked. Perhaps the simpler flavor of the Asiago however is what makes it so great and versatile for so many different uses. Some of the suggestions made were: pasta, cheese plates, sandwiches, soups, casseroles, and fondue. So, pretty much anything—I venture to assume that the texture of the Asiago makes it a creamier melting cheese, and I will turn to it more often as an all-purpose cheese now that I know a little more about it.

The next cheese we tasted was even creamier, the MontAmoré. This was my favorite cheese of the four we tried that night, which is saying a lot because they were all good. Sartori actually created this “hybrid” cheese from a cross of Parmesan and Cheddar cultures. I should have taken better notes when they were talking about cultures, because that’s all I remember, oh and something about different cultures being integral in the production of different cheeses. I consulted Sam to see what he remembered about cultures from the class. “Well, the Italians liked cheese because of their Mediterranean culture,” he said with a smirk.

A little internet research and I’m reminded that there are many different kinds of cultures (living microorganisms), originally native to a particular environment, and that is what is meant by “New World Cheeses,” that is, that the cheeses are made in the New World, but from cultures originally found in the Old World (Cheddar from England, Parmesan from Italy, etc.). “New World” also refers to the cheese’s literal place of origin, as the land, the climate, the air and water, the cows and what the farmers feed them, all play an important role in the terroir of the final product.

For MontAmoré, that final product is fruity, creamy, tangy cheese flecked with tiny, delightful calcium crystals. I once tried a cheese that had these crystals and unknowingly found them off-putting. At this class I learned they are actually a difficult-to-achieve, desirable natural effect of the aging process, but it was not this knowledge that changed my mind about them but simply the wonderful intrigue they add to this semi-soft, easy-to-eat cheese.  I loved the pairing of MontAmoré with a chewy, yeasty bread, so when someone mentioned it made a great grilled cheese sandwich, I ardently wrote that down.

Our last cheese of the night was chosen appropriately as it was the brashest, strongest-tasting of the bunch. It may not have the smooth seductiveness of the others, but I love Gorgonzola. That said, the Sartori Gorgonzola I found to be a bit too salty for my preference. Upon reflection I would say this one might be better enjoyed in small quantities on a cheese plate with some dried fruits and honeycomb, and a red wine assertive enough to stand beside it, rather than in a recipe where it needs to integrate and complement other flavors simultaneously. On this pizza, however, it plays well with others.

I will talk about two Old World Gorgonzolas in my next post; I’ll tell you now that all three varied wildly, but this pizza is a good canvas for any of them. It’s a little different, but if you like even one of the elements, you must try them together. The contrast of flavors atop each slice just balance one another so well. The squash is soft and sweet from roasting with a little oil and maple syrup, the salty Gorgonzola melts around it, and then you top the whole thing hot out of the oven with lightly dressed, peppery arugula. It’s warm and rich and bright and fresh all at once. Old World or New World, I highly encourage you to make it with whatever Gorgonzola you can find.

Roasted Squash, Gorgonzola, and Arugula Pizza
Adapted from Giada DeLaurentiis, via Smitten Kitchen
Serves 4-6

These measurements will make two pizzas, which I almost always do these days when I make pizza at our house. It can easily be halved, but who doesn’t like leftover pizza? The arugula will probably wilt completely, but it’s not gross . You can add more fresh arugula after you reheat it if you like. Another note: this is a great way to eat squash on its own. We’ve had Maple-Red Pepper Roasted Squash as a yummy side dish on many occasions.

  • 2 acorn squash, one pound each, or two pounds of butternut squash (get small ones if you can, they are less stringy and more flavorful)
  • 4 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 pizza crusts or 2 pounds pizza dough (Remember you’re going to be using one baking sheet to roast your squash, so plan accordingly. This is when parchment paper or Boboli pizza crusts can come in handy.)
  • 4-6 ounces (about 1 to 1 1/2 cups) crumbled Gorgonzola (Use more or less depending on your taste and your particular Gorgonzola. Sartori Dolcina Gorgonzola is rather salty, I used less than 4 ounces total.)
  • 2 cups shredded mozzarella
  • 2 cups arugula
  • Squeeze of lemon juice or a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. For acorn squash, rinse and dry the outside of the squash, then slice in half from top to bottom and scoop out seeds and gunk. Slice squash into 1/2 to 3/4-inch wide half moons and pile on a baking sheet large enough to hold squash in a single layer. If you’re using butternut squash, follow the same procedure, but peel it first (no need to rinse since you’re doing this). The butternut squash is going to turn out a little softer, the sturdy acorn squash might look a bit prettier. Really the decision is between whether you prefer peeling a big raw squash (butternut) or many small, cooked squash slices (acorn). It’s up to you.
  3. You are going to spread the slices out to cook, but for now, roughly pile them on your baking sheet to make mixing easier (or use a bowl). Drizzle with the syrup and olive oil, sprinkle with the red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper, and give it a light toss to evenly coat. (I use my clean hands.)
  4. Spread out the squash in a single layer and bake for about 10 minutes, flip the slices, and bake 10-15 minutes more. The squash should be tender and golden.
  5. While the squash cools a little bit, prep your crust. On a parchment-lined baking sheet, press and stretch out two 13-inch rounds if using fresh dough.
  6. Crumble (or smudge, if you’re using a deliciously buttery Gorgonzola) 2-3 ounces or about half a cup of Gorgonzola on each crust, followed by 1 cup of mozzarella on each crust.
  7. When squash is cool enough to handle, remove skins if needed (acorn squash) and scatter on top of the cheese. You can leave the crescents whole or tear them into pieces, as I do, to crowd more on!
  8. Bake pizza until golden and cooked through, about 20 to 30 minutes.
  9. Toss arugula with lemon juice or balsamic and scatter across pizza right after it comes out of the oven. The arugula will wilt just a bit and be ever so delicious. (Oh! Untested tip: I was thinking you could cut the pizza before you add the arugula to keep more of that leafy goodness from sticking to your cutter instead of making it to your mouth!)

Masoor Dal (Red Split Lentils with Cabbage)

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What is a beautiful shade of orange, warmly spiced, hearty, creamy, and isn’t pumpkin? It’s called Masoor Dal, or Red Split Lentils. With Cabbage. File this one under “Perfect Weeknight Meals for Fall.”

I’ve mentioned before that we like to keep our meals relatively cheap. This means I have a cupboard stocked with various bags of dried beans, a heart full of good intent, and very little idea of what to make with them. There is something very appealing to me about starting with something so wholesome; taking the time to soak, simmer, season; and ending up with a satisfying meal. Part of what appeals to me is the foresight it takes to do that. Ah, ever-elusive foresight!

With the emergence of sweaters, wool socks, and pumpkins, I’m also smitten with the image of a pot of beans simmering on the stove, as the air outside turns crisp, the days grow short, and the trees across the way turn golden. Can’t you just picture it? How much more perfectly “fall” can you get? Thanks to masoor dal (which requires no soaking!), I was able to live out this image on a chilly October day.

A staple of Indian, Nepali, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, West Indian, and Bangladeshi cuisine, dal is basically just a stew made from split beans. (Yes, I took that directly from Wikipedia. And Google, how well do you know me by now? You should know when I type “dal” I mean “dal,” the slightly obscure Indian dish, not “Dallas,” city in Texas, home of that one football team.) I suppose you could sub in any split lentils or peas, but the red lentils here are what give the dish its beautiful orange hue. It’s also flecked with red from one tomato, and little slivers of green from a thinly sliced jalapeno. I think it’s really pretty, and if you’re not familiar with Indian food, this is a good introduction to it, because visually it converts your mind from “big serving of mushy food” to “vibrant, richly flavored creamy sauce enrobing tender shreds of cabbage and onion!” It’s a gentle push into the world of cumin, curry, and chiles, into which I’m only beginning to venture myself.

What I mean is, it’s pretty kid-friendly. William said, “It has good flavor!” (Incidentally, that’s the same thing he said about the higher-sugar breakfast cereal I bought recently.) Even the baby liked it. Though I mentioned there’s a jalapeno in there, it’s not too spicy. As with anything involving chiles, it is adjustable–I deseeded half of my jalapeno. Also, my jalapeno had been aging in the fridge a week or two; I don’t know if that made any difference in the heat, but the dish turned out fairly mild. I served it with pre-cooked frozen brown rice–you know, because I have no foresight–with a couple handfuls of peas thrown in, and some naan that I had tucked away in the freezer for a meal like this. Oh, and I made myself a cup of hot chai, because it seemed like the right way to end a lovely fall meal.

Masoor Dal (Red Split Lentils with Cabbage)
Adapted, very slightly, from Smitten Kitchen; Originally from Madhur Jaffrey, Indian Cooking
Serves 4 to 6

The lentils cook long enough that you can get away with waiting to do all your slicing and such after they are underway. If you prefer to prep everything before you begin, you’ll have about ten minutes of active cooking of the cabbage mixture and then have some time to relax before you come back to add it all to the pot of lentils. That’s why I split up the ingredients list like this. The tomato, ginger, and 1/4 teaspoon salt can be prepped and kept in the same bowl; and the cabbage, onion, and jalapenos can also be put together (I used my colander to hold them, it was already “dirty” from rinsing lentils). Also note the two different measurements of salt. Of course, you should always read over the recipe before you begin, but do let me know in the comments if this type of breakdown is helpful.

  • 1 1/4 cups red split lentils, picked over, washed, and drained
  • 5 cups water
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 medium tomato, finely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon peeled, finely grated fresh ginger
  • 1 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 5 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 2 to 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped (I went for the middle ground and used 3)
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and sliced thin from pole to pole
  • 1/2 pound cored and finely sliced cabbage (I found that this was about 1/4 of a supermarket head of cabbage. Going to have to figure out another thing to make with the rest of that cabbage. Good thing it’s cheap!)
  • 1 to 2 jalapenos, stems removed, halved and finely sliced (I used one old jalapeno with half the seeds removed for a pretty mild dish)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  1. Put lentils and water into a heavy pot and bring to a boil. Remove any scum that collects at the top.
  2. Add the turmeric and stir to mix. Cover, leaving the lid very slightly ajar, turn heat to low, and simmer gently for 1 1/4 hours. Stir a few times in the last 30 minutes of cooking.
  3. When the lentils are underway, prepare the rest of the ingredients (see headnote). Heat oil in a skillet (at least 9-inch) over medium heat. When hot, add the cumin seeds and let them sizzle for 3 to 4 seconds.
  4. Add the garlic and watch carefully; as soon as it begins to brown, add the cabbage, onion, and jalapenos.
  5. Stir-fry the cabbage mixture for about 10 minutes until tender-crisp, or longer if you prefer more tender cabbage. (This will probably vary due to the thickness of your shreds and the heat of your stovetop. Feel free to increase the heat to medium-high, as I probably should have done from the get-go as I suspect my stovetop runs cool.)
  6. Stir in 1/4 teaspoon of salt and remove from heat.
  7. When the lentils have cooked 1 1/4 hours, mix in the tomato, ginger, and remaining 1 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cover and cook another 10 minutes.
  8. Add the cabbage mixture and and remaining oil in the frying pan and stir to mix. If necessary, bring to a simmer for a few minutes to heat cabbage through.
  9. Excellent served with rice, vegetables, and Indian bread such as naan or roti, especially on a crisp October evening.

Behind the Scenes + Make-Ahead Oven-Barbecued Beef Brisket

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As I was making things for the boys’ parties, Sam remarked, “All women are crafty!” Without making a distinction as to which homophone he may have intended, I’d say this may not be universally true, but I think his statement is right to some degree. He’s said things like this before, and to clarify, it is not in an air of sexism or stereotyping, but rather bewilderment at having married into a family of six women, and after nearly five good-humored years, of still trying to figure out why we are the way we are.

I think it is in the nature of humans to be drawn to things that look good, to want to be surrounded by things we think are nice, to wish to imitate that which we admire. It’s what drives the entire enterprise of Pinterest, am I right? Could it be an effect of being made in the image of God? I mean, as far as I know, no other creatures are quite like this; creative, nurturing, caring for beauty and not just survival. A squirrel doesn’t delight in the state of her pantry, and a mama bear doesn’t make an effort to make her den look cute. Ants and bees are exemplary in the running of their households, but no ant or bee ever marveled at the intricacy and efficiency of their organization, and to be sure the animal model lacks the nurturing effect of love.

I think what we are striving for when we pin those gorgeous homes, adorable crafts, and ingenious household hints is perfection.  Deep down we know we fall short, we have a gnawing sense of discontentment with ourselves and our surroundings. What we seek is outer perfection, what we need is holiness. As we are made in the image of God, but are in fact sinners living in a fallen world, this craving is only natural, and is, I daresay, inescapable. We very well ought to desire holiness, to be perfect, as our Father in Heaven is perfect.

In the same way I believe it is part of the makeup of women in particular to want our surroundings to be perfect too. Our homes are meant to be a reflection of our eternal home, but how often I get it all wrong in the carrying out of this endeavor. A party is to honor others, but I was thinking of no one but me when I carried on and cursed my stupidity for not knowing basic geometry and rolling out my double-batch of pigs-in-a-blanket pastry to quadruple the proper size. (Divine justice I’m sure for the gloating I was doing not long before as I chuckled at the task of dredging hot dogs—hot  dogs!—in flour for homemade pigs-in-a-blanket.) And it was all about me when I botched the frosting. I should have scraped the bowl during mixing; a realization that became clear only after ¾ of the cake was frosted. Notice there are no close-up pictures of any of the sewing projects I worked on for the parties? That’s because I’m an even worse seamstress than I am a baker, though I may have spent more time trying not to be than I did spending quality time with my boys. A home is to be a haven of comfort, but I’m sure there was not much of that when I snapped at Sam for SITTING DOWN! HOW CAN YOU EVEN THINK OF SITTING DOWN RIGHT NOW THE PARTY IS SUPPOSED TO START SOON AND THERE IS SO MUCH LEFT TO BE DONE! WHY DON’T YOU HELP ME! I appreciate all your kind comments on the posts and pictures of the boys’ birthday parties, but you have to know, what may not be visible in the pictures (or perhaps I’m just fooling myself there, maybe it is) is my pride.

I could go on. And on, and on. I have about a million examples of my failure to make my home a reflection of my heavenly home, let alone be holy myself. Perhaps that should just become the subtitle on the header of this blog, as it truly is a constant theme around here.

The point is, although I am happy with the way both parties turned out, it did not do a thing to remedy that gnawing sense that I have when I browse the internet, that sinking feeling I get when I look at the messy ugliness of my life. Only God is holy, and only he can make me so. I must strive to emulate Him, who by grace has given me a whole year with one of the sweetest baby boys I know; the privilege of being “Mommy” to my favorite three-year-old in the world; a gracious husband who helps me even when I’m awful to him and loves me in spite of it; and generous, loving sisters, parents, in-laws, friends, and grandparents to boot. He is a creative God, maker of all things beautiful, unapproachably holy yet abounding in love so that I may, somehow, with my imperfections and failures, stand before him and be seen not as I am, but as covered by his perfect Son.

I started to write this post weeks ago, before we even celebrated William’s birthday. Shame on me for delaying so long in sharing what really went on behind the scenes of these parties. Writing my thoughts did help me to have a better mindset the second time around, for William’s party, but I still have a twinge of regret for not getting any pictures of the food table in all its glory (because it wasn’t all that glorious), and I know it’s so selfish and silly! And I still want to write a post about the Camping Party games, but now you know. I don’t deserve your words of praise. Is there a good segue from “I’m a sinful, superficial human being,” into “Oh, by the way, here’s that brisket recipe I was telling you about”? Anyway, here it is.

Make Ahead Oven-Barbecued Beef Brisket
Adapted from Cook’s Country
Serves 10

  • 4 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 4 teaspoons paprika
  • 2 teaspoons dry mustard
  • 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1  4 to 5 pound beef brisket, fat trimmed to about 1/4 inch thick
  • 1 pound bacon
  • heavy-duty aluminum foil
  1. Make dry rub: mix all but brisket and bacon together in a small mixing bowl.
  2. Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 275 degrees.
  3. Massage dry rub into both sides of meat and poke all over with a fork. (This allows the flavors and fat to permeate the meat = tender and yummy!)
  4. Arrange half of the bacon strips on the bottom of a 13×9-inch baking dish. Place brisket, fat side down, on top of the bacon, and lay the rest of the strips on top of the brisket, tucking the ends under  the brisket if possible.
  5. Cover the pan with foil and roast until meat is fork-tender, about 4 hours.*
  6. Very carefully remove pan from oven. (I can’t stress this enough. My 5+ pound brisket fit snugly in my pan at the start of cooking. When the time came to take it from the oven, I was unaware it was brimming with juice. I sloshed a lot of it onto my stovetop and into the oven. I’m lucky to not have been burned, but what a mess! So, be careful!) Let the entire pan rest until cool enough to handle.
  7. Lay out a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil, large enough to wrap entire brisket. When cool enough to handle, remove bacon from the top of the brisket (save for homemade barbecue sauce, if desired), place brisket fat-side up on the foil, leaving bottom bacon in the pan. Wrap tightly in foil (I do the “match up ends and fold over” method). Now do a second layer of foil.
  8. Refrigerate brisket up to 3 days. About 1 hour before serving, heat brisket in 350-degree oven about 1 hour, or on covered grill, until heated through. (Oven method has not been tested, and since grill temperatures are hard to measure, I can’t give an exact time, but I believe our brisket took less than an hour on the  Smokey Joe. Use your best judgement; the meat should already be fully cooked, you just want to get it up to serving temperature. Overcooking it a little will just yield fall-apart tender meat, and anyway, it’s camping food, not gourmet fancy restaurant food.)
  9. Unwrap brisket, slice against the grain, and serve with barbecue sauce.

For Will’s party, I served our brisket with a jar of Russ and Frank’s BBQ Sauce, but for those who don’t like to waste, you can make your own barbecue sauce with the leftover bacon and cooking juices from your brisket. Since I haven’t tested the recipe or adapted it in anyway, I don’t feel right about posting it on my own blog, but after having mentioned it in a previous post, I thought I’d at least direct you to it over at Cook’s Country. With a pound of real bacon in it, how could it be bad?

By the way, if you end up with leftover brisket, as we did, there’s no better way to use it than smoky, barbecue nachos. I’ll admit, I may have had this idea in mind all along; for quite a while I’d been craving my favorite thing on the menu at Jethro’s, a local barbecue joint, just waiting for an excuse to recreate it. It’s not precise, but here’s the how-to:

Jethro’s Barbecue Nachos
Adapted from Jethro’s BBQ

  • Tortilla chips (You could fry your own, or not.)
  • Leftover barbecue brisket (If you made a whole brisket just for nachos, I would not judge you.)
  • White Cheddar cheese sauce (Again, you could make your own, but I went the lazy route and picked up a can of Rico’s Queso Blanco. I intentionally did not look at the ingredients list, but it tasted decently good, and certainly true to the creamy sauce of the college town sports bar original.)
  • A sprinkle of taco seasoning (Only here must I insist you use the homemade stuff. I have a rough mixture in my cupboard that involves brown sugar, paprika, cumin, cayenne, chili powder, salt, and pepper.)
  • Shredded cheese, if you so desire
  • Sour cream
  • Avocado
  • Pickled jalapenos, if you like ‘em

I love these with a drizzle of barbecue sauce, but Sam prefers the classic salsa. Do as you please, or go with both! Jethro’s also tops theirs with smoked corn pico de gallo, so some fresh tomato, onion, chiles, and/or corn could only put these over the top.

William’s Camping Party: Part II

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I’m trying really hard not to procrastinate posting the details of William’s camping party. If you only knew how many pictures are on my hard drive intended for blog posts that never make it into existence, you’d applaud me right now. Perfect camping weather is quickly fleeting, but it’s not too late to have your own camping party or backyard camp-out!

September has to be the best time of year to go camping, doesn’t it? Sure, it gets chilly at night, but with plenty of sleeping bags, wool blankets, and somebody to cuddle, it’s cozy! (Says the girl who slept inside with the baby.) If you’re reading this with your window open right now, try to tell me you don’t want to go outside and take a nature hike. You can smell the leaves starting to change, find plenty of cool seeds and leaves to learn about, see some wildlife busily preparing for the cooler months. You can’t beat the crisp air that makes you really appreciate that campfire, or the golden glow that falls over your campsite at dinnertime. And the days are short enough you don’t even have to keep the kids up way too late to do a little stargazing.

For Will’s birthday, a slow-cooked “smoked” brisket was the obvious choice for supper at the party. It not only says “camping food” to me, but makes enough to feed a crowd, and this particular recipe (coming soon now added!) is cooked in the oven, so it can be made ahead and warmed on a grill, campfire, or in your oven the day of the party. We topped our brisket with Russ and Frank’s BBQ Sauce (because I liked the look of the bottle!), but the brisket recipe comes with instructions for making your own sauce with the flavorful juices leftover, which you could serve in a recycled Mason jar.

We also served Kettle Chips (I also chose these for the appearance of the packaging–I know, I know), beans cooked over the fire, and my mom made her famous orange jello salad.

That’s root beer. Will also picked out a couple flavors of IZZE sparkling juice to drink. But my favorite part of the meal was dessert…

You can’t have a camping party without s’mores, so we had those of course. But William also kept requesting–or rather declaring–that there would be cupcakes at his party, so we made owl cupcakes. I decorated, William helped make the batter and the frosting. Since we were having s’mores and cupcakes and jello “salad,” and Swedish Fish, I opted for mini cupcakes instead of normal ones, in an attempt to keep the sugar high from being…higher.

It didn’t help much. Will was still pretty wound up as we were getting him ready for bed that night. Thank goodness for aunties who read to him and got him calmed down a bit.

But you can’t deny a Birthday Boy sugar at his own party, and seeing him eat his very first s’more made my heart feel all warm and melty.

And a little sticky.

William’s Camping Party: Part I

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I don’t mean for it to feel like Birthday Party Central around here, it’s just that I have two little boys with birthdays less than a month apart, and throwing their parties has been pretty much the only “productive” thing I’ve done since August. Don’t worry, I can’t do more than about two of these themed, thought-out gatherings a year, so now that these are over, I’m putting away the balloons and the cake flour and getting back to dusting and cleaning the toilet regularly. (I can hear Sam breathing a sigh of relief.)

My Grandpa Dave and Grandma Mary spent many of their summers while their kids were growing up introducing their family to much of the country, camping at National Parks in canvas tents and thick, warm sleeping bags. I remember seeing pictures and hearing of their adventures as a kid, and when I was about four they even took me camping with them on Lake Superior, in Minnesota. I still remember that trip to this day, and as our kids get older, I want to emulate that experience. I want them to see the country through the window of an over-stuffed car, to explore it on foot, bike, canoe. When I think of camping, I think of my grandparents’ iconic 60′s-70′s* experience, and that was the inspiration for William’s birthday party this year.

We wanted to take the boys camping this summer or fall, but as we talked about it, we decided they’re a little too young to go on a real camping trip yet. (Or we’re a little too weak to brave a real camping trip with a three-year-old and a baby.) However, William was old enough, we thought, to sleep in a tent with his dad, so our campsite (Grandma’s backyard) furnished the perfect backdrop for the party.

I slept in the house with Titus, and we joined the guys again in the morning for breakfast cooked over the fire and camp stove. Then we packed up camp and headed to a nearby trail for a long bike ride and picnic lunch.

Camping this way proved to work well for us, as we could let Titus nap in the house and send William up to harvest potatoes with Grandpa when he got tired of helping set up camp. (Plus, I needed him distracted while I set up one of his party games–more on that later.) I also borrowed a few things I inevitably forgot to pack. Not to mention, we had real bathrooms just a walk away, and–most vital on a camping trip with little ones–fresh coffee in the morning.

There will be more details to come about the food, favors, and that party game I mentioned, but right now I need to go clean up a boy who just finished a snack of leftover graham cracker and chocolate frosting from the party.

*Now that I think of it, it was probably more like the 70′s and 80′s, but I can’t help it, 60′s and 70′s is what I pictured in my childhood mind. I just don’t want to be presenting inaccurate information here! Grandma, if you’re reading this, you can set me straight! :) And thank you so much for letting us borrow the camping gear–Sam and Will layered all the sleeping bags to keep warm at night, and you may have caught the dishes in some of these pictures. But most of all, thank you for all the great memories to recreate with my boys.

**It was brought to my attention that I should make it clear that the vehicle was not in motion while the boys were playing in the trunk. I do not reccommend that, in fact I’m told it is illegal. They were just hanging out in there while we were loading up, me at arm’s length from them the whole time. Safety first! I guess the cheesy caption should be, “Packing up camp–we’re not forgetting anything, are we?”

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