#LeaningintoLent

lent 40 daysIt’s Lent, and I’m a Catholic school teacher. That means I bring my faith and religion to work with me every day, and I bring my work to my faith and religion every day. At my school, we talk about our Catholic faith a lot, in all classes-not just in religion class.

what to give upMy middle school students were happy to discuss with me in literature class what they were giving up for Lent or what they were adding to their prayer life to make their Lent more meaningful. We were all ready to begin this liturgical season, all of us #LeaningintoLent together.

lent word cloudOur middle school religion teacher is also our assistant principal, and along with her administrative duties to support the principal, she is also our in-house spiritual guide. In our Sunday evening email entitled “This Week”, she outlines the coming week’s calendar and school events, ending it with a prayer, a reflection on a passage of scripture, or a quote from a saint.

ash wednesdayLast Sunday’s email reminded us that even though Wednesday was February 14th and therefore Valentine’s Day, it was also Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and as Catholics, we were to fast and abstain from eating meat. Abstaining from meat is the easy part…it’s the fasting that takes some discipline.

butternut squashI decided to make a big pot of soup to bring to school on Ash Wednesday to share with my colleagues, to help us all out with having a small snack-sized meal at lunch, something to give us the energy to make it through the rest of the school day. My husband had brought home two butternut squash from the grocery store and one of them was crying out to be made into a thick and creamy vegetarian soup!

leanintolentThere are quite a few butternut squash soup recipes simmering away on the internet, and after researching all of them, as usual, I took the things I liked from one, and added them to the things I liked from another, to come up with my own version. My original twists were the addition of herbes de Provence to season the aromatics at the beginning, and dans le style Belge, just before serving, the addition of equal parts of brown sugar and vinegar to brighten the flavors at the end of cooking.

It must have been a hit, because almost five quarts of my butternut squash disappeared that day!

If you need a belly-warming vegetarian meal for your Lenten Fridays, or if you just want to enjoy the last days of soup weather in a healthy way, try my version of butternut soup. Let me know how it turns out!

Curried Coconut Butternut Squash Soup with Apples

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium link, well-cleaned and rinsed, dark green parts discarded and light green/white parts finely chopped
  • 1 bunch green onions, dark green parts discarded and light green/white parts finely sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, cored and seeded, diced
  • 3 stalks of celery, finely diced
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
  • ¼ tsp herbes de Provence
  • 1 tsp curry powder
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 medium-size butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1” inch cubes
  • 2 medium-sized Granny Smith apples, peeled and cored, diced
  • 1 14-ounce (414 ml) can light coconut milk
  • 2 32-ounce cartons of vegetable broth
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar (light or dark, either is fine)
  • 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

Instructions

  1. Heat oil in a large, heavy pot (5 quart or larger) over medium heat.
  2. Once hot, add leeks, green onions, bell pepper, and celery. Season with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, herbes de Provence, curry powder, and cumin. Sauté until vegetables are soft, about 2 minutes, stirring frequently.
  3. Add butternut squash and apples. Stir to coat. Then cover and cook for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  4. Add coconut milk and vegetable broth. Stir well.
  5. Bring to a low boil over medium heat and then reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes or until butternut squash is fork tender.
  6. Use an immersion blender, or transfer soup to a blender, and purée on high until creamy and smooth. If using a blender, return soup back to pot.
  7. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more curry powder, salt, or chili paste (or sriracha for heat). Continue cooking for 10 minutes over medium heat.
  8. Just before serving, add apple cider vinegar and brown sugar. Stir well. Serve as is or with garnishes of choice (toasted pumpkin seeds, grated fresh coconut, chili paste, etc.). Store leftovers covered in the refrigerator for 3-4 days or in the freezer up to 1 month.
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Winner Winner, Chicken…Chili?

current tempIn case you haven’t heard, it is freezing in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. In fact, below freezing. Today, at 3:30 pm, it is TWENTY-THREE DEGREES. This is not normal, even for mid-January. Also not normal: the Saints, my husband’s beloved New Orleans Saints, are in the playoffs. For his game-time meal he requested chili. No problem.

winner-winner-chicken-dinnerAround 10:00 this morning, I made a grocery list and off he went to the store. Some time later, he comes home and unloads the groceries. I get ready to make chili, and then I noticed. Ground chicken? I had asked for ground turkey but he grabbed ground chicken by accident. And so today I am making Chicken Chili. First time for everything!

Years ago, in an attempt to eat healthy, we switched to ground turkey for meatballs, meat sauce, burgers, shepherd’s pie, and yes, chili. I am so used to ground turkey now I really don’t like chili made with ground beef. I will still happily eat a “real” hamburger, but for meat sauce and chili, I actually prefer the ground turkey.

Pops at the StoveI didn’t have chili growing up. It’s not really in the Cajun repertoire. My mom cooked, and we ate, mostly what my dad preferred. I think my mom felt that since he was the breadwinner, he should eat the bread he wanted to eat, and ethnic food outside of Cajun or Creole, was not what he wanted to eat. He didn’t really like meatballs and spaghetti, lasagna, casseroles of any kind, any type of Mexican food, or really, any other type of “foreigner’s food”. But, my mom would occasionally serve us hot dogs with good ole Hormel chili right from the can (without beans).

1280px-Dry_Chili_pepperI had my first pot of homemade chili at the home of my college suite-mate’s house shortly after she was married. I was blown away. “You made this?” I asked incredulously. She wrote out the recipe on a 3×5 recipe card, which I still have. As a base for the seasonings, it called for a packet of McCormick’s Chili Seasoning. And that’s how I made chili for years and years, until we moved to Belgium of all places. Yeah, I know. Crazy.

chicken chiliOne night when we were living in Waterloo, Belgium, my good friend invited us over for an impromptu dinner. She had made a pot of chili, and we ran into each other at school that afternoon picking up our kids. That pot of chili was life-changing. She didn’t use a packet of seasonings, mixed up in a factory. She did it all from scratch. Thus, began my quest to make my own perfect pot of chili, with a spice profile that matched the average tastebud of our family. My husband is not a fan of anything too spicy, and one daughter absolutely won’t eat anything spicy at all.

New_Orleans_Saints_alternate_(1967_-_1984)Right now, the chicken chili is simmering on the stove. It smells fantastic! Shout out to my former chili coaches Marcy and Shawna! I have every reason to believe this pot of chili will be delicious, served at half-time while the Saints go marching on to victory and to the next step to their triumphant return to the Super Bowl!

Winner Winner Chicken Chili

Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 lbs. ground chicken
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced
  • 3 stalks celery, diced
  • 2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1 28-oz can whole tomatoes, with juice
  • 1 15-oz can tomato sauce
  • 2 15-oz cans dark kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 tbsp. chili powder
  • 1 tbsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 tbsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions

  • Heat olive oil in bottom of large Dutch oven with lid.
  • Brown ground chicken, breaking into small pieces.
  • Season with crushed red pepper flakes, chili powder, ground cumin, ground coriander, paprika, dried oregano, garlic powder, onion powder, kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Stir to combine, cook on medium heat until all liquid has evaporated from pot. Stir in flour and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
  • Add diced onion, bell peppers, celery, and green onions. Stir to combine.
  • Add whole tomatoes, tomato sauce, and kidney beans. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil, stirring to prevent sticking. Lower heat, cover, and simmer for one hour. During the cooking process, break up the whole tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon.
  • Serve with rice, elbow macaroni, tortilla chips, corn tortillas, or on a hot dog!

Soup: Easy Peasy (Really)

am temperatures

 

AM Temp

 

Let’s cut right to the chase. It’s cold. Really cold. Like single digit cold (as of this morning), and this is not Fargo, North Dakota. It’s Rockville, Maryland, suburb of Washington, DC. Even though the temperature climbed significantly during the day, it was blistering cold walking to my car at 5:15 today. #bombcyclone #teacherslovesnowdaystoo

I’m a Cajun girl, as you can see from my blog’s name. I never owned a coat until I moved to Bethesda, Maryland, in 1988. We didn’t even have many sweaters, other than the requisite wool ones that our Scottish cousins sent us every few years. We never wore them, though. Growing up in my hometown, Port Sulphur, Louisiana, is almost like living in the tropics, except there’s no beach, no resorts, and no celebs arriving on private jets for vacation. So basically, our version of the tropics was just gnats, mosquitoes, 100% humidity eleven months of the year, and summers so hot you ran from your air-conditioned house to your air-conditioned car to run errands or “go to town” which meant a forty-mile drive to New Orleans.

evening temp

 

PM Temp

 

So, waking up this morning to unseasonably cold temperatures, I knew in advance what I would be having for dinner tonight: soup. I love soup. I could eat it every day. In fact, I had homemade chicken noodle soup for lunch today. A few years ago, one of my requested Christmas presents was a baby Crock-Pot which I plug in at my desk in my classroom. It doesn’t cook but it does reheat. I bring my container of soup to school each morning, plug it in, and by lunch time, it is steaming hot and I am a very happy camper, which is important when you are a teacher. Trust me.

soup naziBut, that pot of soup was nearing its end so I had already made up my mind that I was making a big pot of soup when I got home from work. I knew what I had on hand in my fridge: an onion, some celery, two bell peppers, and a package of Italian sausage. That, combined with pantry staples, was all I needed to make a wonderful, belly warming dinner tonight. And the best part: there will be plenty left over for lunches the rest of this week!

easy peasy memeBecause I eat a lot of soup at school, people are always asking me about it. When I say it’s easy to make, they always look at me like I’m crazy. But, really, soup is easy. It’s all about layering the flavors. During the two years we lived in Belgium with limited TV programs broadcast in English, I watched a BBC One cooking show every afternoon, Ready Steady Cook. For me, that show was basically a lecture series in how to make soup. The British chefs made soup on almost every episode, and they always started a pot of soup the same way: in a large, heavy pot, sauté a finely sliced onion in a bit of olive oil. Season it with salt and pepper, dried herbs, and red pepper flakes. Add your veggies and/or protein, a starch if you wish (pasta, potatoes, rice), some broth, and simmer until veggies are tender and protein is cooked. Voila! Soup!

Italian Sausage and Bean SoupSoup du jour chez Michelle was Italian Sausage and Beans. I got home at 5:30, by 6:00 it was simmering away and I was setting the table, and at 6:15 we were soup-soup-souping away. With a little planning we could have had a salad and a crusty baguette, but – still – in under an hour, we were having a lovely bowl of soup and feeling all warm and cozy inside.

Here’s the “recipe”, adapted loosely from dozens and dozens of episodes of James Martin making soup on Ready Steady Cook, with my own Cajun twists here and there.

Michelle’s Italian Sausage and Bean Soup

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely sliced
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced (or orange or yellow, matters not)
  • 2 stalks of celery, diced
  • 1 32-oz carton of Swanson’s beef stock
  • 1 package of Johnsville Sweet Italian Sausage, casings removed
  • 2 15.5-oz cans Hanover cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 14.5-oz can Hunts petite diced tomatoes, with liquid
  • Seasonings

Directions:

  • In a 6-quart heavy pot with lid, brown sausage in olive oil, breaking it up into small pieces. When browned, remove sausage with a slotted spoon and set aside, leaving oil in pot.
  • Add onion to pot, and sauté on medium heat. Season with kosher salt and pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, herbes de Provence or Italian herbs, and garlic powder.
  • When onion is soft, add celery, bell peppers, and tomatoes. Cook on medium heat to allow tomatoes to soften and break down, stirring often.
  • Return sausage to pot and add cannellini beans and beef stock. Stir to combine, cover, and simmer on low heat for 30 minutes. If liquid does not completely cover the solids, add more broth or water.
  • Optional: add a bag of baby spinach near the end of the cooking time to up the nutritional value, although it is pretty healthy as is. Bon appetit!

A New Year, A New Me

 

plannerA new school year has begun, and week two is in the books, or grade books as it were. However, my school year began a day late, due to a back injury that sidelined me for the first day of school. Calling in sick has never been easy for me; I was even more devastated to miss the excitement of the first day back, and particularly this year. In early June, I accepted a teaching position at a new school and spent all summer working on new curriculum and moving into a new classroom. I was ready for the first day at least a month ago, but God sure does have a sense of humor. You think you are ready, LOL, I’ll show you.

First Day

My “1st” day of school this year, back pain and all!

This is my eleventh year as a teacher. Starting at a new school this year, however, really meant coming home for me, as I am teaching in my home parish school, where both my daughters were educated and where my husband and I have been parishioners for over twenty years. While I was excited and thrilled with the opportunity to make this change, leaving my former school after ten years meant leaving colleagues who have become dear friends and saying goodbye to a truly wonderful school community filled with supportive and generous families.

classroom

Control Central (LOL)

Starting over, being the new person, adapting to new policies, and making new friends can be difficult, and sometimes, we hold ourselves back from new opportunities because of being too comfortable, and perhaps because we are afraid of change. But, change can be good. Change is an opportunity to push that reset button, to abandon bad habits, to refresh and renew one’s enthusiasm for work.

class photo

My daughter’s 5th grade class photo from Belgium, Johanna far right middle row

Over the summer, as I worked my way through three new literature textbooks and a bag full of new YA novels, I learned of the untimely passing of one of the greatest educators I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. Johanna Bambridge was my younger daughter’s fifth grade teacher. Within minutes of meeting her in the late summer of 2002, I knew I had encountered someone very special. Her warm smile and obvious enthusiasm for teaching was so reassuring as we began a school year in a foreign country. She knew that, even though we were moving to Belgium from Maryland, my husband and I were both Louisiana natives. She had already chosen a mentor family for us, also from Louisiana, with a daughter the same age as our 5th grader.

Early in that school year, my daughter came home and told me she had volunteered me for something at school, and that I needed to call Mrs. Bambridge, which I did. Mrs. Bambridge told me that she had asked if anyone’s mother could come in to do a cooking demonstration on the foods of ancient cuisines, and that my daughter had assured her I was the perfect person for this.

Now, let me tell you that I knew almost nothing about foods of ancient civilizations, but I do love to cook, so I sat down at my computer and began to research the foods of ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt. And, so began my adventure in the classroom. My first cooking demonstration was karkadé (iced hibiscus tea) and kosheri (lentils and rice) with sausages. For dessert, I served the 5th graders seed cake sweetened with honey and dates. It was a smashing success. As I was cleaning up, Mrs. Bambridge said to me with her usual 1,000-watt smile, “You should be a teacher!” At first, I was startled at this (what, me?), but I admit I was also intrigued, and for the rest of our time in Belgium, I volunteered extensively at the school, including substitute teaching in the middle school and working in the high school library. Five years later, after completing grad courses and the Praxis, armed with state certification in English for grades 7-12 and with Johanna Bambridge’s endorsement ringing in my ears, I began my second career as a middle school language arts teacher.

CCD Dinner

Religious Ed Dinner (2002 or 2003), Johanna Bambridge far left, me far right

I not only knew Johanna Bambridge as my daughter’s teacher, but also as a fellow parishioner and parish council member at our Catholic church parish in Belgium, Our Lady of Mercy. Meetings were on Sunday nights, which all teachers know is the time when we wind down from the weekend and prep for the school week: lesson planning, grading papers, posting grades, emailing parents. But, Johanna was there for each and every meeting, prepared and ready to discuss parish business, plan events, and prepare for liturgical feasts. She was also there to represent the religious education program for the English-speaking families of the parish. Even though she was a wife and mother of two with a very full day-job, she was the Director of Religious Education and taught one of the classes herself every Sunday. It was hard to say no to her when she asked me to teach a class myself. After all, I was technically a stay-at-home mom for our two years in Belgium. Like the platoon leader who vows not to ask his soldiers to do anything he wouldn’t do himself, Johanna not only talked the talk, she walked the walk.

When I casually mentioned to her that I wished we would have shipped our piano to Belgium when we moved, she offered me her piano, free, “just pay to have it moved,” she said. It was an old upright with many years behind it, but after having it moved to our house and getting it tuned, it added much to making our assigned housing a real home during our time in Waterloo.

SJIS

St. John’s International School, Waterloo, Belgium (Source: Wikipedia)

Shortly after her death on July 6th, a colleague from St. John’s International School created a tribute page on Facebook for Johanna. Each day I logged on to Facebook to read the condolences and remembrances left there by friends and former students from all over the world: Japan, Belgium (when we knew her), France (where she moved after Belgium). All, without exception, carried the same themes: selfless, caring, faith-filled, devoted to education, energetic. Many, many people said that their most vivid memory of Johanna was of her with her arms wrapped around children. She embraced everyone in her path.  She enveloped them with her warm smile and blazing, bright eyes. How many lives did she touch? How many children did she inspire? How many teachers, including myself, did she mentor and motivate? How many hearts did she open to her love of the Catholic church?

book-nook-e1505611853705.jpg

Book Nook, my classroom

And, so, now at the beginning of this, my eleventh year in education, I re-dedicate myself to the values that Johanna so effortlessly lived and shared. I will greet each child with a warm smile. I will make learning fun. I will be compassionate and caring, even when I need to be firm. I will bring my faith and love of the Catholic church to every school day, to every lesson, to every encounter. I will do more, I will pray more, I will be more.

 

Johanna Bambridge will be greatly missed by all whose lives she affected, but she will not be forgotten. I know in my heart that she was welcomed with open arms to her final reward, where she heard, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Rest in peace, Johanna. This year is for you.

In Remembrance

Man reading newspaper and me

WTC Plaza, November of 1985, bronze statue of man reading newspaper (I am unable to find the name of this piece or the artist, although it is similar to The Man with Briefcase by Seward Johnson, which was found in the debris after 9-11)

On a recent Saturday morning, my husband presented me with several boxes of “stuff” from the garage and politely asked me to go through them. I believe my agreement to do so was in part due to some compromise where he agreed to do something for me that he didn’t want to do either. And so it goes in our 28-year old marriage: I’ll do this if you’ll do that.

In one of the boxes I was surprised to find a few items from my childhood. Not much, however, due to the fact that most of my childhood memorabilia was stolen from my parents’ house by Hurricane Katrina, who had the unbelievable gall to take their house as well.

The first item to surface was a page of poetry, written by me on my portable (manual) typewriter. Somewhere around 5th grade I had hoped and prayed that Santa would bring me a typewriter for Christmas. One of the first things I typed was the lyrics to a song I had made-up while riding my bike to and from the swimming pool across the street from my house. Sadly, that page was not among these papers, but I did find this page of seven short poems, neatly typed out in two columns. As much as I aspire to being a published author, I don’t think a book of poetry is in the cards. In analyzing these poems of a young Michelle, I did note some commonalities that exist in all grown-up Michelle: my love of rice, my desire to travel to foreign lands, my love of reading and being near water, deep feelings for my friend Marian, an obsession with yarn (still an issue), and cats!

Tucked behind the poetry was a torn scrap of green notepaper containing what can best be described as a short ode to my favorite time of day. This little gem is in my own handwriting, and while I can tell it is from when I was young because of the affected way in which I made the cursive uppercase “L”, I seem to already have sensed that returning home after a long day of work is the perfect time of day.

Digging further in this box of treasures I found a short story featuring as the main characters the two little girls who lived across the street from me in 1985. They were next door neighbors and best friends, and when I moved into a small rental house across the street from them, they “adopted” me as one of their own. Some days they spent more time at my little house on Robert Street than in their very own dwellings! In a nod to e e cummings, this little short story contains no uppercase letters. The short story doesn’t bear a title, but after reading it after all these years, I decided to call it “mimi and the tube steaks”.

IBMSelectricIITypewriterOperatingInstructionsI don’t remember actually writing that story, but I do remember, even then—more than thirty years ago—that in my little house on Robert Street, I had converted a walk-in closet in the hallway into a small writing studio. I moved the linens and cleaning supplies to the bathroom and cleared out the other junk that had found its way in there. I went to a thrift store in town and swapped an old beat-up chest of drawers for a small desk. It fit nicely under the shelving on the back wall of the walk-in closet. I ran an extension cord from my bedroom into the closet and hooked it up to a desk lamp and my IBM Selectric typewriter that my boss had given me when the first word processors were being brought into the law firm where I worked. I had visions of manuscripts lining the shelves, patiently awaiting their publication and eventual placement on the New York Times Best Seller List. Update: Has. Not. Happened. (Yet.)

Me on top of Empire State Building

Observation Deck, Empire State Building, November of 1985

The last notable item in the box of junk from the garage was a piece of my writing also from 1985, handwritten on pages torn from a yellow legal pad. Again, I don’t remember writing this, and frankly, I was rather shocked by it as I was reading it. It obviously is a reflection on NYC after my very first visit there in November of 1985. I managed to find photos from that trip that document visually what I wrote about in this piece. With the 16th anniversary of 9-11 in just one month, I share with you today (unedited) my thoughts on the majestic twin towers of the World Trade Center, as I reflected on them in 1985.

I recently returned from a trip to New York City. It was my first time in the “big apple” and so many things rushed through my senses, I felt the need to gather my thoughts on paper.

Atop WTC

Observation Deck of World Trade Center, NYC, November of 1985

My first impression was of the massiveness of the buildings. The streets – both sides – are crowded with them, like soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder, single file, with their proud heads stretching upward to the sky. Some soldiers are taller than others, they are the young ones, new to the streets, each trying to grow taller than their neighbor. There amongst all of them are the twins, the tallest of all—the World Trade Center, with its two mighty towers, 108 stories high. The elevator ride to the observation deck is in itself comparable to a ride at the amusement park. Once on the top floor, one can walk the perimeter of the building—which is totally encased in glass. The eerie feeling of being that high struck me immediately. I had to sit on one of the metal benches which lined the windows around the top floor. After catching my breath, I began to walk around—I am certain my mouth was gaping open—the site of New York City spread out before me was astonishing. The image was no longer of soldiers standing single file, but of a mob of intense people, huddled together, awaiting the coming of some main event.

Brooklyn Bridge from WTC

View of Brooklyn Bridge from atop the WTC, NYC, November of 1985

When an old soldier can no longer march to today’s fast tempo, when the maintenance and replacement of his old “parts” is too costly—he is laid to rest, with the help of a wrecking crew and demolition equipment. And then as quickly as the old soldier leaves; a new, young soldier springs to attention in his place. He wedges himself into the same tired space, bringing new spirit, new architecture, new faces to the street. It is impossible to imagine creating a new structure in NYC, with its crowded streets, the throngs of people rushing, rushing, rushing everywhere. How does the heavy equipment arrive on the scene?

Anne and me in front of The Sphere in WTC Plaza

In front of The Sphere in WTC Plaza, with Anne, November of 1985

How is the concrete foundation poured? How do the large trucks of supplies make their way amidst the thousands of taxi cabs and hundreds of buses? Ah, but everything is possible in NYC. And, soon, the young, tall, proud soldier makes his way among the other giants. People scurry in and out of his revolving doors, up and down his escalators and elevators shopping, typing, learning, serving the millions of New Yorkers and visitors each day.

Chicken and Waffles, Minus the Waffles

Today marks the end of Week One of my kitchen renovation. I use the word renovation loosely, however, as it is more of a building of a kitchen rather than a renovation of a kitchen. As documented in my essay “A Unique July 13th”, it’s a gut job, not a simple matter of new appliances and new counter tops. down to studsMy contractor has demo’d the floor down to the sub-floor and the walls down to bare studs in some places, and in addition, he has demo’d the wall dividing the kitchen from the dining room to counter-height.

This was a difficult decision for me because I was torn over whether to open the kitchen to the dining room. I went back and forth and finally made the decision to leave the wall in place so I could have upper cabinets installed on that wall to create additional storage for my extensive cookware and kitchen gadget collections. half wallBut, my neighbor came down for a chat and said to me, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.” We had a good laugh and I immediately emailed my contractor with the change. I know it is the right thing to do, and while sacrificing the additional upper cabinet storage, I can already get the sense that my tiny shoe box-sized kitchen has magically increased in size.

This week my contractor has been busy moving electrical wires that were hidden in the soffits above my old cabinets. Since my new cabinets are going all the way to the ceiling, the wires have to be moved.

This week I, on the other hand, have to figure out how to prepare healthy meals for my husband and me using all that I have available to me: microwave, rice cooker, slow cooker, toaster oven, and waffle iron. I mean, we can’t eat out every day for four weeks! Not only is it expensive, it’s time consuming and not always as healthy. Originally, I thought I would be able to use my gas grill to make dinners but since it is on my back patio, and my egress to the patio is somewhat restricted due to the renovations, I would have to go out my front door and walk around the back of the house, up a slight hill, to get to my grill, carrying raw food up the hill, and then the cooked food back down the hill. I may still get to that point, but for now, I’m trying to work around that.

Today I really wanted a grilled or sautéed chicken breast. So, I headed to the grocery and purchased thin-sliced boneless, skinless chicken breasts. They were sliced maybe two to three slices per whole breast. If I butterflied a whole chicken breast and pounded it thin, I could get the same effect for a cheaper price, but without a kitchen and a dishwasher to sterilize raw chicken cutting boards and other utensils, this was a good option. I marinated the thin slices in a little olive oil, kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, garlic powder, and herbes de Provence. I set up my toaster oven in one location and my waffle iron in another, and I preheated them both. I sprayed the waffle iron with Pam and lined the toaster oven tray with foil and sprayed it with Pam.

While they were preheating, I set up my rice cooker and set it to make two cups of jasmine rice (I use Tilda, it is fragrant and lovely). I briefly microwaved one cup of frozen mixed vegetables and set them aside to toss into the cooked rice. Now on to the protein.

waffle iron chickenI put two of the thin slices of chicken breast in the toaster oven set at 350 degrees and two other pieces in the waffle iron. (Yes, the waffle iron is set up on the top of my dryer.) The toaster oven pieces cooked quickly but were a bit bland looking. But, when I lifted the lid of the waffle oven, well, quite frankly, I was shocked to see two beautiful pieces of chicken with “grill” marks, nicely browned and very appetizing. I then moved the two pieces from the toaster oven to the waffle iron to get the same grill marks on them.

Once all five slices were cooked in the waffle iron, I put them all in the toaster oven on 150 degrees to keep warm while I made a caprese salad to finish off the meal.

chicken and waffles minus the wafflesMy husband was skeptical at first, “Danger Dan” was worried that the waffle iron did not get hot enough to safely cook the chicken, but when he sliced into the thin chicken pieces, he could see that they were completely cooked through. It was a lovely meal, and I’m ready to experiment with cooking other proteins in my trusty waffle iron!

A Unique July 13th

Today is my younger daughter’s 25th birthday. Any other July 13th, I would have been busy baking her a beautiful birthday cake and cooking one of her favorite meals. I would have spent all day in the kitchen, making everything from scratch, chopping, dicing, slicing, and mixing away while watching my favorite cooking shows on TVbirthday. I’m pretty sure I know what she would ask for as her birthday dinner: Aunt Kay’s Sesame Chicken with white rice and steamed green beans.

But, this is not a normal July 13th. First of all, my daughter lives in Los Angeles now, where she works for a film company that makes movie trailers and other marketing tools.

And secondly, the real reason why I am not in my kitchen today, though, is because technically I don’t actually have a kitchen right now. I mean, the room is there, but as of Tuesday, July 11th, none of the components of a kitchen is in there.

This is Day 3 of a full kitchen renovation, a gut-job as they call it on all the home improvement television shows. New floor, new cabinets, new countertops, and new appliances. A brand-new kitchen.

Copy of Copy of soffits and weird wood cutout over fridgeOn Tuesday, Day 1, my contractor ripped out some of the cabinets and the white appliances, including the electric double wall ovens and “built-in” microwave original to the house when we purchased it in 2004. The dishwasher and gas stove-top were things we replaced, and they are gone, too. The new-ish stainless steel fridge with French doors is the only thing that is staying in place. It is currently playing musical chairs in the kitchen space, moving from corner to corner as the contractor works around it, because it is too big to move out of the kitchen. When it was delivered two years ago, the delivery men had to take off the back door of the kitchen to get it inside.

IMG_0359 (2)On Wednesday, Day 2, out came the rest of the cabinets and some of the soffits above the cabinets. The new cabinets are going all the way to the ceiling, giving me more storage, and thankfully, less wall space to hang knickknacks and my crazy collection of vintage and reproduction copper molds.

Dragged to the contractor’s trailer with the cabinets were the countertops, light gray Formica with tiny charcoal speckles. I think they were masquerading as granite, which is what will be their replacement. Although those countertops saw their fair share of dripped Kool-Aid and Crystal Light, I always managed to clean any stains with the Magic Eraser. Copy of Copy of French Onion Soup SmirkI never cut anything directly on the Formica so there were no chips or scratches either. The only blemish was from the cooking of a very large pot of French onion soup, which I left to simmer on the back burner in a pot really too large for the burner. Boy, was I surprised when it came time to serve the soup: the large black “smirk” on the Formica backsplash has mocked me ever since. The soup was a welcome home meal for my older daughter, who had brought a friend home from college for the weekend.

white ceramic floorToday, Day 3, started with him smashing to smithereens the white ceramic tile floor. GOOD-BYE FLOOR. I am so happy to never walk on you again! I have hated that floor since we moved in. What were they thinking, a white floor in a kitchen? Every crumb, every drop, every speck, it all showed up on that white floor. That floor has seen it all: drops of plum jam as I filled Mason jars for canning, chocolate cake batter as I filled cupcake tins for church bake sales, Italian bread crumbs as I dredged chicken strips or pork chops for frying. We even bought one of those steam mops to try to keep that stupid floor clean. On top of all that, the tiles were not set evenly so if you walked barefoot in the kitchen your toes would inevitably get caught on the lip of a tile sticking up higher than the rest.

My daughter and I had a lovely chat this morning as she was walking to work in West Hollywood. She told me of her birthday dinner plans with a group of friends at a trendy dim sum restaurant. She was happy, doing her thing out there on the west coast. My contractor is busy doing his thing, tearing my kitchen down to bare walls and floor. Even though I didn’t spend the day baking and cooking, this July 13th turned out pretty good. And, in honor of my daughter’s favorite birthday dinner, I leave you with the recipe for Aunt Kay’s Sesame Chicken (or Beef)!