Monthly Archives: February 2016

Pro Tip: Croutons

We have three school-aged children at our house, so we run through bread at a rather alarming rate. Like almost every other kid ever, they don’t like to eat the bread ends. I hate to waste food, so I’ve come up with a couple of ways to put those ends to use. I store them in the freezer until I’m ready to implement either of these strategies.

Make breadcrumbs!

Remove bread slices from freezer to thaw. This takes about 10 minutes, so don’t go anywhere. Put the slices in your food processor. Turn it on. Ta da. Breadcrumbs. You can use them to coat chicken, stir them into meatloaf, or top a casserole.

If you make more breadcrumbs than you need, store the extra in a Ziploc bag in the freezer.

Make croutons!

This is a new discovery for me, so I remembered to photograph it.

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees. Cut your bread into squares.

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Throw them in a bowl with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and toss them until coated.

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Spread the croutons out on a baking sheet, and bake at 300 for about 30 minutes, until the croutons are dry and crunchy.

Now they’re ready to be deployed in a salad.

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Unused croutons can also be stored in the freezer.

Yeay for saving money and avoiding waste!

 

 

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Selfies are a Young Person’s Game

I am on the back end of my thirties. That means my first picture-taking device was a very basic 110 camera called the Kodak Pazzazz. It was pink. My mother still has it.

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The camera took 27 shots, then you sent your film away to be processed and waited a week for your 3″x5″ prints. Which cost money.

OH THE HUMANITY.

The resulting images were mostly terrible – either your shot was dark enough to be pulled from Season 1 of the X-Files, or the flash had fired and everything was bright white.

My photographs from this era reflect both the simplicity of the camera and the immaturity of the operator. There are photos of my neighbor’s dog, the first boxed-mix cake I made by myself, and a field trip to the Kennedy Space Center (no actual rockets pictured).

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Reviewing my early work this afternoon, I did find one selfie. It is, predictably, not good.

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Looking back, my shots seem careless, but at the time they captured the most important aspects of my little universe. I thought I was rationing my precious frames, only snapping photos of what was noteworthy to me.

I got a better point-and-shoot camera when I got older, and a film SLR camera when I graduated college. My first digital camera was purchased in 2006.

Two thousand six. That’s right. It had five whole megapixels. I was Annie Flipping Leibovitz.

My first shot was, of course, a mirror selfie of me and Tyler.

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By contrast, our older kids’ first photo-taking device was not a camera, but an iPod touch. It had more megapixels, and more photo storage, than the camera I bought when I was 26 years old.

Never having had to ration photos, the kids (and all kids, really) are terrible photographers. They can out-crop and out-filter their own lax photography. They take pictures when they’re bored, and delete them almost immediately. There are no prints.

While self-portrait photographs have been around since 1839, “selfie” has become shorthand for a certain type of self-portrait. On the highbrow end, they are striking artistic compositions. On the lowbrow end, they reek of desperation. Taking selfies has become a Sunday afternoon boredom-killer for middle schoolers, a means of communicating with friends, and a plea for attention.

That said, I get it. I get why young people who grew up with unlimited frames and zero wait times take so many pictures of themselves. It’s an accessible subject, and for most children, they themselves ARE the most interesting thing in their little universe.

But I cannot understand how people my age can cast their eyes upon the vast majesty of the world, in all its shades and textures, and still find themselves the most compelling thing to photograph, over and over. Instagram tells me have posted exactly two pictures of just myself, taken by myself, in the last year.

I’m still not good at it.

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Last weekend I cut my hair pretty short, and one of my first thoughts as I left the salon was how best to present this news, in selfie form, on social media.

GROSS.

I’m not going to give up selfies, because they are the currency of the social media realm, but I do want to be more mindful of how often I choose to focus the lens on myself.

The world, even my little corner of it, is fascinating. Maybe I should put down my iPhone selfie camera and pick up my fancy DSLR. And, you know, learn to operate it properly.

Maybe.

 

 

 

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The First Day

Yesterday morning, a young woman was killed in a head-on collision in Jacksonville. This young woman’s parents are friends of my mom’s and of ours – in fact, they had dinner at our home just a couple of weeks ago. I cannot imagine the immensity of their grief.

The news made me think about the day my father died, and I remembered something I hadn’t thought of in years. I remember not wanting to go to sleep that night, fighting to keep my eyes open.

That day, the day he died, was also a day in which he lived. He breathed. His heart beat. For me to go to sleep, to end the day, was to bring about the The First Day Without Him. The first day in which he did not live. The first day that the world began to move forward without him in it.

But I lost my fight with sleep that night, and the world has moved on.

When the doctor handed Hazel to me, I marveled at her fragile little body. With each growth spurt and milestone, I feel that she is a little safer. Tiny infants are so vulnerable, and the threats to their health and safety seem numerous. At least Hazel can express her needs now, I think. At least she can let me know when she gets boo-boos.

But yesterday’s accident reminded me that our children are never, never truly safe. Rather than let that anxiety consume me, I have to trust that statistics are on my side and – more likely than not – my babies will be OK.

Yesterday it was difficult to keep the panic at bay. I hugged my kids extra hard, and told them I loved them.

That’s all you can do, in the end.

 

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High Five for Friday!

I recently finished reading Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project,” and a few of her points really resonated with me. But sometimes she’d veer into quasi-maudlin navel-gazing, such as bemoaning the fact that she was too old to be a Rhodes Scholar.

In honor of Friday, I’m going to flip that on its head and give you five things I’m glad to be too old for.

1. I will never die in childbirth.

2. I will never have to flounder for an answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

3. No one can make me put on real pants.

4. No one who rings my doorbell will ever ask if my mom’s at home. 

5. I will never be forced to get fluoride at the dentist’s office.

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Escape from Tallahassee

I love to travel, and while you’ll never catch me backpacking through Europe on $20 a day, I don’t mind having to vacation on the cheap. To that end, we’ve been utilizing Florida’s excellent state park system to take a few mini-breaks that involve (gasp!) camping. We’ve managed three weekend trips in the last six months.

In September, we went with a group to Fort Clinch, north of Jacksonville. It was our first time camping in the non-primitive areas, and it made a huge difference in our comfort level. We had a string of Christmas lights and our own spigot! What riches!

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We also had unseasonable heat, rain, and an unfortunate episode in which raccoons got into the van and ate a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, so we cut only stayed two days instead of three.

It was Hazel’s first camping trip, and she LOVED getting filthy.

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In December, we were invited to St. Joe Peninsula State Park to camp with friends in a camper. In other words, we leveled up.

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The park is right on the beach, and this time the unseasonable warmth worked in our favor.

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Camping in someone else’s camper is delightful, in the same way that riding around in someone else’s boat is delightful. Don’t worry – we gave them lots of beer for their troubles.

This past weekend, Jason, Hazel and I stayed in a cabin at Gold Head Branch State Park in Keystone Heights, Florida. When I was a kid, a bunch of our neighbors used to come here over MLK weekend every year. I was interested to experience the park as an adult.

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The older cabins at this park were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and are just adorable. Ours had a bedroom/living area with a fireplace, a kitchen, and a bathroom. It was furnished and had basic kitchen equipment, but was by no means fancy.

The lake’s a little low this year, but the view is still relaxing.

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Saturday morning we hiked every trail in the park, totaling over 3 miles. Hazel was content to ride in the backpack most of the time, but insisted on getting out for the last half mile or so.

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After lunch at a local barbeque restaurant, we settled in at the cabin for Hazel’s nap. Temperatures started to fall, and we lit a fire in the fireplace. Then it started raining. Guess who didn’t care? Us! We had a roof, and food, and plenty of firewood. We spent the evening reading books, cooking dinner, and playing with Hazel.

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Sunday morning we made a stop in Jacksonville to have lunch with my mom, then headed home.

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One thing I have learned about myself is that I don’t “staycation” well. If I’m at home, I’m looking for projects, worrying about things that need to be fixed, and planning for the next day/week/month. When we went away, there was no laundry to run, no fridge to clean out, no animals to feed. I was able to devote my entire attention to finishing my book and working on a pair of socks I’m knitting. It was perfect.

It was also inexpensive. Major bonus.

I used to say flatly that I did not like camping. I must amend my previous statement, having experienced more than one type of camping in the last six months. I enjoy camper camping and cabin camping. Tent camping is fine with the right equipment. And all camping is made better with an electric skillet for pancakes and breakfast meats.

 

 

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Gumbo for Beginners

For Diana Briggs, because she asked.

Many people mistakenly believe that gumbo is a mysterious dish requiring a thick Louisiana accent, possibly the carcass of an alligator, and a large cauldron bubbling in the woods. Not so. Gumbo is a straightforward dish, but does require the cook to get up close and personal with his or her stove for a good chunk of time. Don’t let that dissuade you.

I’m going to share how I make gumbo. I almost always make a chicken and sausage version, because it’s most popular at my house. But if you’d prefer seafood, go for it. Shrimp and chicken? Sure. The mechanics of the dish remain the same.

First things first. You’re going to want to fix yourself a drink.

Then gather your ingredients. Let’s break them down into four groups:

  1. Meats – I usually use 2 chicken breasts and a pound of andouille sausage. Can’t find andouille? Super. Use kielbasa. Prefer skin-on, bone-in thighs? Awesome. You do you. Season your chicken with salt & pepper, and slice your sausages.
  2. Vegetables and Accessories – The Holy Trinity of New Orleans cooking is bell pepper, onion, and celery. I refuse to buy celery on principal (I use one stalk and end up tossing the rest), so I chop up two green bell peppers and one big sweet onion. Put these in a bowl with a big spoonful of minced garlic and a couple of bay leaves. I also add a bag of frozen sliced okra at the very end of cooking, but keep that in the freezer for now. The dish is garnished with sliced scallions and/or parsley.
  3. Liquids – Homemade chicken stock, canned chicken broth, beer, water, canned tomatoes with juice, whatever. You’ll need about 8 cups of liquid, so mix and match. I like to use 12 oz. of beer and chicken stock for the rest.
  4. Roux – this is the foundation of the dish. It’s equal parts flour and fat. I like to use 1/4 cup oil, 1/4 cup butter, and 1/2 cup flour. Again, if you want to go all butter or all oil, you’re not going to hurt my feelings.

Ready? Let’s do this thing.

Heat a couple of TB of your preferred fat in a big Dutch oven over medium heat. Add your meats and brown them for a few minutes. You don’t need to cook them all the way through, just get some color on them. When they’re done, move them to a plate to hang out.

That wasn’t so hard, was it?

Next up, add the rest of your preferred fat to the Dutch oven. When it melts, add the flour. YOU ARE NOW MAKING A ROUX. TRY NOT TO PANIC. I use a whisk for my roux; others use a wooden spoon. Either way, don’t make any plans, because this is the time-and-attention portion of your gumbo.

Remember that drink you made? Be sure it’s handy.

The roux will start out a pale tan color. Keep whisking. You don’t have to be quick, just keep everything moving. After 10 minutes or so, you’ll notice the magic happening.

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The roux is now the color of your favorite novelty coffee drink. Ta-da!

Keep stirring. After several more minutes, your roux should approach the color of milk chocolate.

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It will smell deeply nutty, almost smoky.

Once your roux has gotten nice and dark, add the bowl of vegetables, switch to a spoon or spatula, and stir that mess around to distribute the roux. Let the vegetables soften for 5-10 minutes, then add the meats back in, followed by your liquids. If you want more heat, add some Cajun seasoning or cayenne pepper.

Like any other thickener, roux only works once the mixture has reached a boil. Crank the heat up to medium-high and wait for the bubbles. Once your gumbo has boiled, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for, um, a while. You can simmer it anywhere from an hour to all day, just make sure to add more liquid if it looks dry. Make some rice and chop your parsley and green onions.

When your stomach starts rumbling, add the bag of frozen okra and fish out your chicken pieces. Remove the skin and bones (if you went that route) and shred the meat, then return it to the pot. Test the gumbo for salt, pepper, and cayenne.

Gaze into its majestic depths.

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A word about gumbo file (pronounced FEE-lay): File is made from ground sassafras and was banned by the FDA in 1960 because some parts of the sassafras plant are possible carcinogens. Blah blah blah. If you feel that your gumbo experience is not complete without sprinkling some on your finished product, then by all means get some. But don’t beat yourself up over it. Gumbo is a spectrum, not a single dish – everyone makes it a little differently. I tossed my jar of file a few years ago when it expired and haven’t replaced it.

To serve, spoon the gumbo into a bowl. Top with a scoop of rice, sliced green onions, and chopped parsley.

The hands-on portion of gumbo takes at least half an hour, so you might want to save this one for a weekend. But I assure you the result is worth every minute.

 

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