Some Assembly Required

food networkSometimes I pretend I’m on Food Network’s Chopped and open my fridge and pantry as though it is the wicker basket on the set. Then I create a new recipe with whatever I have on hand. As Lori Greiner on Shark Tank would say, “Sometimes it’s a hero, and sometimes it’s a zero.”

penguinToday after returning from running an errand, and in an attempt at avoiding the papers I need to grade, I decided to make dinner a bit early. Truth be told, I wanted to do something in the kitchen so I could watch the Penguins hockey game, something I really can’t do while grading papers!

rotisserie chickenSo, first I assessed what was on hand: a rotisserie chicken from the grocery, something I usually use as a protein boost to a pot of ramen noodles. I didn’t have much in the way of vegetables except for a red bell pepper, one onion, and a bag of pre-cut broccoli. Digging around in my pantry I found a bag of Basmati Rice Medley, rice medleya Trader Joe’s staple. I also found in there a can of cream of mushroom soup.

A chicken and rice casserole was coming to mind so I grabbed my rice cooker and got the rice started. In a five-quart pot, I sautéed on low heat the chopped onion and red bell pepper in a stick of butter, seasoned that with Kosher salt, freshly cracked black pepper, garlic powder, herbes de Provence, and crushed red pepper flakes. While the aromatics slowly simmered to supple softness, I chopped the broccoli and deboned the rotisserie chicken, chopping up the white and dark meat. I added the chicken and broccoli to the pot, along with the can of cream of mushroom soup. It looked a bit dry, considering I was going to add the rice once it was cooked, so I added a soup can of 1% milk and stirred it all together. I left it on low heat so the milk and cream of mushroom soup could thicken into a nice sauce holding all the other ingredients together.

cream of mushroomWhen the rice cooker chimed, I added rice to the soupy mixture until it looked to be the consistency of mac and cheese. I poured it all into a five quart casserole dish that had been sprayed with Pam, topped it with Progresso Italian style bread crumbs, and popped it into a 350 degree oven until it was bubbling and golden brown on top.

bread crumbsConsidering I used a rotisserie chicken, a pre-seasoned rice mix, and cream of mushroom soup, you can hardly call this cooking. Alright, I did sauté the onion and red bell pepper, and I did chop up the broccoli, but this was much more assembly than cooking. That being said, this chicken and rice casserole will make a lovely Sunday evening dinner served alongside a nice green salad. Best part? This will make me a very happy camper at lunch time all this week as I pop a lunch-size Tupperware of this in the faculty room microwave! Even if it was more assembly than cooking, it’s definitely a hero!

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Chicken with Three Reds

So, today, we returned home from 10:30 Mass, all of us hungry and no one feeling like preparing a big meal from scratch. We had on hand a bag of perfect portionsPerdue Perfect Portions, boneless, skinless chicken breasts. I checked the pantry to see what could I do with them that would be more exciting than a quick saute in a little olive oil. I found a jar of sun-dried tomatoes, a jar of roasted red bell peppers, and tomato saucea small (8 oz) can of tomato sauce. Three reds, right? I had in mind something vaguely reminiscent of the tasty.com video of the “meatball bake” that has meatballs arranged in a pan bathed with marinara sauce and then covered in mozzarella and parmesan (very good by the way, and very low in carbs). I rinsed and patted dry the chicken breasts and arranged them in a 9×13 pan sprayed with Pam. I seasoned the chicken breasts on both sides with kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, garlic powder, and dried Italian herb blend. roasted peppersThen, in my food processor, I blitzed the drained sun-dried tomatoes, the drained roasted red bell peppers, and the tomato sauce. I spooned that evenly over the five chicken breasts and covered them with a nice fluffy white blanket of grated mozzarella. I covered the pan with foil and baked in a preheated 400 degree oven for 30 minutes. During that time, I microwaved a bag of cauliflower rice cauliflower riceand tossed chopped romaine hearts with a homemade balsamic vinaigrette. When the timer went off, I took the foil off the pan and sprinkled the chicken breasts with sundried tomatoesshaved parmesan cheese (the real thing). I put the pan under the broiler (on high) for 3 minutes until they were bubbly and brown. Not a gourmet meal by any stretch, and more heavily reliant on bottles and jars than I usually open for a meal, but in under an hour we had a lovely meal on the table before anyone could get “HANGRY” and ruin our nice post-Mass Christian feelings! Happy Sunday, everyone!

Finish Strong

The April 1issue of Washington Family Magazine is now available online. Please see my article “Finish Strong”, pages 14-15, with quotes from some of the best teachers I know!

Who’s Your Favorite?

top tenThese “top 10 of this” and “favorite 5 of that” lists are very popular these days. Someone is always posting a list of these types of things on Facebook: list your favorite book (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier), favorite song (“Your Song” by Elton John), favorite color (pink), favorite day of the week (Sunday), favorite Beatle (Paul), favorite food (cheese), etc. Answering these things on Facebook is supposed to help your “friends” get to know you better. To be honest, I enjoy reading these lists on my friends’ posts every now and then.

jesus and god with holy spiritRecently, one of my husband’s coworkers, a devout Catholic, lost his mother and my husband and I went to the wake. He and his wife are active in their church parish, which is something his wife mentioned about my husband and me when she introduced us to a friend of hers. priest cartoonShe then shared a story with her friend and me. She said she had recently been on a flight seated next to a man dressed in clerical clothing. She asked if he was a priest and he responded that yes, he was a Catholic priest. They chatted amicably for a few minutes, and then she asked him a question. She said that she hoped he wouldn’t think it was irreverent or sacrilegious, but she wanted to know, “Is it okay to have a favorite member of the Holy Trinity?”

whoa“Whoa!” slipped out of my mouth before I could catch it. She laughed and said that the priest had a similar response. As Catholics, we are taught about the Holy Trinity early on in our faith formation: “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, God in three persons, the Holy Trinity.” If they are three in one being, then how could you have a favorite? They can’t be separated that way, or can they?

mary with rosaryIn the weeks that have transpired since that conversation, I have thought about it quite a bit, and then, yesterday morning, after daily Mass, the priest gave a brief reflection after the Mass. He recounted a story to us about praying the rosary in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary, while his father was very ill in the hospital. In the middle of the rosary, he had a feeling of overwhelming spirituality come over him, and he stopped his rosary to pray directly to God the Father. He said it was almost as though Mary had stepped back and away from him in order for him to have this intimate conversation with God the Father. After this brief interlude, he resumed his rosary and felt at piece with the many issues weighing on him involving his father’s illness.

So, this young priest had clearly separated God the Father from the rest of the Holy Trinity. This made me think that perhaps my conversation with this woman at the wake was not that unusual after all.

The story from our priest reminded me about a similar episode in my own prayer life. Sometimes in the early ‘90s, I had just found out some bad news about my mother’s health. I left work and drove home, crying and sobbing over the dismal news. rosaryWhen I got home I went straight to my bedroom and got my rosary from my bedside table. I knelt there at the side of my bed and said the rosary, but somewhere in the middle of a decade of the rosary, I stopped saying a Hail Mary and turned my prayer directly to God the Father. I asked Him to please not take my mother then, to allow her to watch my girls grow up, to give her more time with us. God heavenI talked to Him about how she had struggled in her life and how she had had so many crosses to bear, losing both her parents at a young age, marrying my father and being part of a completely different culture, her many ongoing health issues, and later, losing every single thing she owned in Hurricane Katrina. I told Him everything, and I asked Him for peace in this crisis in my life. A calm came over me and I returned to saying my rosary. Clearly, I had had a spiritual and intimate conversation with God the Father, but until Saturday morning’s reflection, I had not really thought of it in that way.

god the sonAs a regular churchgoer, I think of the Mass in terms of God the Son. He is there, up on the crucifix, up on the altar, present in the Eucharist. We hear His stories in the Old Testament, we are His invited guests at the Last Supper during the Eucharistic Prayer. So, when I am in church, particularly in Mass, I feel that I am having that same spiritual and intimate conversation with God the Son.

holy spiritThat just leaves God the Holy Spirit. Catholic middle school students are told at dances to “leave room for the Holy Spirit” when dancing to slow songs. We’ve all heard the phrase, “It was the Holy Spirit” that did this or that. Last May, I received a call from a friend who told me of a job opening at my parish school, where my daughters were educated, where my husband and I spend so much of our time. I had always wanted to teach there but there was never an opening when the timing was right. This was the third time an opening in my content area and grade level had come up, and this time, I decided I would go in and interview for the position. Changing schools was a challenge, as I had only ever taught at one school for my whole career. Many times, I had taught four or more children from a single family, had watched the whole family grow up, graduate, and go to college. I had (and still have) many dear friends on faculty there. But, I felt the Holy Spirit was calling me to make this change.

hands on the earthYes, it was a change, fraught with challenge. I have six preps (lesson plans) a day now which is twice as many as I had before. I am teaching 6th grade literature for the first time. At my school, the 5th grade is part of the middle school, and before this year, I was not around 5th grade very much. The student body is very diverse, with students from El Salvador, Peru, Ethiopia, South Sudan, the Philippines, India, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and many more. Learning to pronounce and spell some of the first and last names has been a bit of work, to say the least.

keep calmBut, there have been many blessings as well. All of those cultures blend together to make a very interesting and rich classroom environment. They are lovely children, polite and courteous, full of energy and enthusiasm, the same as children from my old school. I have grown greatly as a teacher, improving in many areas of my classroom skills. With increased preps, I have become much more efficient in my lesson planning and grading; I use my planning periods much more resourcefully. The atmosphere in the hallways and among the faculty is positive and upbeat. There is laughter everywhere. My commute is now only 1.7 miles each way, and I can be at school in about 5 minutes. I am more fully a part of my church parish community. And, I have my friend to thank for it, or do I? We both have commented that it was the Holy Spirit that made this happen, and so I offer prayers of thanksgiving to God the Holy Spirit each day for this opportunity.

gold triangleThe Holy Trinity has been a part of my faith life since I was born and baptized into the Catholic Church, but until that recent conversation at the wake, I’ve never really thought of them as having distinct and separate effects on my life. Saturday’s reflection after Mass has given me new insight into my prayer life and how I view God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, God in three persons, the Holy Trinity.

#ampublished!

Hot off the presses! Profile article on artist Angie Meche Kilcullen of Barn Again Home, in March issue of Washington Family Magazine, page 10. My first print publication!

http://digital.washingtonfamily.com/issues/March-2018/index.html

#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 leek, 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.

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!