Thursday, March 5, 2015

Simply Stunning Stuffed Shells

I think this is it, people. I think this is the end of the (really) cold weather. The ten-day forecast is hopeful, with highs mostly in the 40s, and one day with a predicted high of 50!! After a historically cold and snowy February, this forecast fills me with an embarrassing amount of joy.

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Sometimes the idea of blogging about my faith, especially my Lenten practices feels strange to me - it feels against the spirit of Matthew 6:17 fasting, like if I bring this part of my life into a public arena, it will have less impact, make less of a difference in my life. But then as I read others' blogs, I remember why this kind of sharing is important. Bonnie wrote about her struggles through Lent, her struggle to challenge herself while also remaining realistic in the face of the everyday sacrifice of motherhood, and I felt encouraged, emboldened, and refreshed. I felt like I had a companion on the journey. Then Jenny shared a post challenging us to take a closer look at the media we consume, to really test whether it is strengthening or weakening our character, our conscience. I admire these women who are sharing their hearts, because they encourage me in my life, help me to be better, challenge me to look closer and dig deeper. I am grateful.

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I guess the key is, as in all things, purity of motive. Why do I feel compelled to share? Do I want applause and accolades? To gain the admiration (and maybe even envy) of my peers? Or am I looking to pay it forward, in the hopes that something I share will encourage someone, help them to live their faith in the way so many bloggers have inspired me to live mine? The key is humility, which is so very hard to nail down, so difficult to live in reality.

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I originally shared this recipe in 2011, and I've only made it a handful of times between then and now. I can't for the life of me figure out why, since it's so simple to make, and results in such a lovely, sparklingly special finished dish. Perfect for a Lenten Friday evening, or any other time when you'd rather avoid meat.

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Simply Stunning Stuffed Shells
adapted from 101cookbooks

1 box jumbo dried pasta shells (you will end up with a few extra shells)
zest of 1 lemon

For the sauce:
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil

For the filling:
1 15-ounce container whole-milk ricotta
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup grated mozzarella
1/4 cup grated parmesan
1 bunch chives, minced

Put a large pot of water on to boil.  Preheat oven to 350.  Coat bottom and sides of a 9x13-inch baking dish with olive oil, and sprinkle half of lemon zest over it.

For the sauce, combine olive oil, salt, pepper flakes and garlic in a saucepan, stirring over medium heat just until fragrant, being careful not to burn.  Add tomatoes and stir until hot.  Remove from heat, stir in basil, and taste for seasonings.

For the filling, combine ricotta, egg and salt in a bowl and mix well.  Stir in mozzarella, parmesan, remaining half of lemon zest, and 3/4 of chives.  Set aside.

Cook shells in boiling, salted water until just barely done - if you overcook them, they'll fall apart when you try to stuff them.  Drain and cool slightly.

Spread 1/3 of sauce over the bottom of the pan.  Fill each shell with ricotta filling, and nestle them closely together on top of the sauce.  Spoon remaining sauce over, and then sprinkle with chives and a little bit of extra mozzarella and parmesan.  Cover with foil and bake 15 minutes, uncover and bake another 15 minutes, until cheese is melted and sauce is bubbling.  Serve with garlic bread. Or garlic knots!

Friday, February 27, 2015

The work of a lifetime.

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I'm starting to realize that I tend to be much too hard on myself. I don't give myself enough grace. I expect too much, too fast. I expect change to happen instantaneously, for myself to grow up already, faster than I should be expected to.

I injured my back a couple of months ago, just lifting Anne up without properly bracing my abs. I have since spent a lot of time in my chiropractor's office, and lately we're down to strengthening and stretching in the hopes that I can prevent similar injuries in the future. One day when I walked in, he asked me how the exercises were going and I sighed in exasperation and said I wasn't noticing much difference at all. He watched me go through the exercises, and said, "You are already much stronger than you were a couple of weeks ago. You're being too hard on yourself." He explained what I should have already known: that muscles don't get stronger overnight. That it takes consistent, focused effort over a longer period of time to really see change.

This is true not just of muscles, but of souls, I think. I'm exhausted of feeling like a failure, and I think that my mission this Lent should be to forgive myself for not being perfect. God is slowly chipping away at my stony heart, replacing it with one of flesh and blood. This is not an instantaneous transformation, but the work of a lifetime.

You see, my perfectionism is keeping me from even making attempts. I'm so afraid that I'll try something and fail that I stay stuck in my old patterns. I'm like a hermit crab who's trying to live in an old, small shell for too long. Sure it's cramped, and I'm starting to lose feeling in my toes, but what if I get hurt trying to move to the next thing?

What if I get hurt?

God has not called me to a comfortable life. He has not created me for the status quo. God desires from me no less than full commitment, courage, daring, and a life fully lived. Fear be damned.

I think what this all comes down to is a deep, nagging fear that even if I do my best, I might still not be enough. It's easier, when I feel inadequate, to at least know that I'm not giving it 100%. But here's the truth: I will never be enough, and I am still called to give everything. Because He who promised is faithful (Hebrews 10:23).
But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Friday, January 9, 2015

A "The King" Cake for Epiphany

I realized a little late what kind of time commitment an actual king cake is, and then I decided to think outside the box. So I made a cake inspired by The King...



...of Rock and Roll. Elvis.

Elvis is reported to have loved a peanut butter-banana-and-bacon sandwich, so I make a banana cake with peanut butter frosting and candied bacon on the top. It was intense.

I have no recipe, since I am apparently the world's worst food blogger, but I have a photo, and if you are so inclined, I invite you to Google some recipes and go crazy. :-)

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The Magi from our nativity scene brought the three last gifts of Christmas, which was pretty fun.

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12 days of feasting is a lot of feasting, especially if you end up sharing three different Christmas dinners. We were feeling pretty feasted out by the end. Trying to work out a way to feast without making myself feel slightly sick next year...

Friday, December 26, 2014

Christmas at Home

This year, we decided to spend Christmas Eve and morning at home in Chicago, before loading up the car and heading for Michigan to spend time with our families. It was a wonderful, intimate celebration - just the three of us, then the two of us. We went to Mass, had a lovely dinner, then made a fire in our fireplace, drank Champagne, ate cake, and enjoyed each other's company. After a long four weeks of waiting to celebrate, it felt just right.

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Merry Christmas!

















Sunday, November 30, 2014

Turkey Pot Pie + Celebrating Advent

Our home felt like it had the happiest of revolving doors this past week, with family coming to stay, sharing meals, laughing, drinking, playing games, watching parades and football and movies, just generally enjoying each other. We had a perfect turkey dinner, complete with 3 kinds of pie (pumpkin, chocolate, rhubarb). Anne made it clear that she likes whipped cream, hold the pie please.

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I love Thanksgiving. But man, what comes after is something else. Pie for breakfast! Leftovers for days! A freezer full of amazing turkey stock! ADVENT!

Last year I started noticing that there are people who really, intentionally celebrate Advent. I have spent my whole life just diving in after Thanksgiving - getting the tree, putting up the lights, listening to nothing but Christmas music and watching nothing but Christmas movies. In the last couple of years, I realized that by the time Christmas rolled around, I was a little bit ready for it to be done. Last year I wasn't totally ready to commit, but I started making plans to really do Advent this year. Here's some of what we're doing to keep the red and green at bay until closer to the actual day. :-)

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Advent candles! We're lighting them every night at dinner. We'll add some greens this weekend from our parish wreath sale.

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Our beautiful nativity scene on the buffet in the dining room, and journeying Magi on the mantel. And the Advent calendar my mom gave us last year, filled with Hershey's candy cane kisses (or as Anne calls them, "pollypops"). We open a door each night after dinner.

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And the most exciting part... the Jesse Tree! We've never done this tradition before, but I love the idea. Each day, there is a Scripture reading that illuminates part of salvation history, part of Jesus' family tree. And for each day, there is an ornament which is a symbol for the reading of that day - 25 ornaments for 25 days leading up to Jesus' birth. We're using Ann Voskamp's book Unwrapping the Greatest Gift to guide us through the stories - I love the beautiful illustrations!



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Turkey Pot Pie

I've started making turkey pot pie after Thanksgiving every year - it's a great way to use up leftover turkey, and a little bit of sherry and cream in the sauce makes it extra-special.

Heidi Swanson's rye pie crust (my very favorite)

Filling:

3 tablespoons butter
1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
2 tablespoons flour
1/4-1/2 cup sherry
2 cups chicken or turkey stock
1 baking potato, peeled and diced
1 cup frozen peas
1 cup (or more, if you like) shredded or chopped cooked turkey
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
splash of heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste

In a large wide, shallow saucepan or Dutch oven, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the carrot, onion, and celery, and sauté until they begin to take on a little color and softness. Sprinkle the flour over the top, stir, and cook another minute or two, until the flour is evenly distributed. Deglaze the pan with the sherry, then add the chicken or turkey stock, potato, and peas, and bring to a simmer. The filling should be slightly thickened - not too runny or too thick. Add the turkey, thyme, cream, salt and pepper, and give it a taste. Allow to cool before pouring into the pie shell.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees, and roll out pie crust. Arrange crust in the pie plate, and pour in cooled filling. Cover with second piece of dough, decoratively crimp the edges, and make a few steam vents in the top with a sharp knife. Brush the top with an egg wash (1 egg whisked with 1 tablespoon of water), and bake until the crust is deeply golden and the filling bubbles, about 45-60 minutes. Allow to cool slightly before slicing.




Monday, November 24, 2014

Halloween Candy Cookies

Last week I broke down and hired some help. Her name is Elvia, and she's available to play with Anne for up to 3 hours every day so that I can do things like work out, shower, and get dressed without a small person clinging to and climbing on me.

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At least that's what it feels like. What I really did was join a gym that has childcare.

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Now, I'm not going to jump to crazy conclusions (who, me?) and say that this is life-changing, but you guys... this might be life-changing. Last week I swam laps while Anne played. Today, I spent a half hour on the elliptical machine, reading a book. This is my kind of multitasking! It's amazing to have a reason to get out of the house (especially since winter has settled in a few weeks early this year), and I have the energy and time to do the things I need to do (things like craft make cookies clean the house) when Anne goes down for her nap.

Did I mention this is all for $40 PER MONTH?! I'm so excited.

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Changing gears: I realize that I'm late in sharing this recipe. But here I go anyway. Better late than never! I bought a Costco-sized bag of Halloween candy, hoping for some trick-or-treaters. We got none. I ate a little of it, and then decided I either had to get creative with it or throw it away (never!). So I unwrapped it, chopped it all into pieces, and folded it into cookie dough. It is exactly as amazing as it sounds.

P.S. The irony of a post about joining a gym combined with a recipe for ridiculously decadent cookies is not lost on me.

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Halloween Candy Cookies

1 cup unsalted butter
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
4+ cups leftover Halloween candy, chopped up

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cream the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and vanilla, and beat until well-combined. Add the flour, baking soda, and salt, and mix, scraping down the sides as needed. Dump in all the chopped up candy and fold in. Scoop onto cookie sheets and bake 10-12 minutes, until golden. Allow to cool for a couple of minutes before transferring to a cooling rack. Chow down!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Our First Michaelmas!

Last night we celebrated Michaelmas (the feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael) for the first time! There are so many different ways to celebrate it, and I had a hard time choosing. A friend of mine from our parish did a bonfire on the beach a couple of years ago, so we teamed up together this year to recreate it.

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We reserved a fire pit on the beach, and the weather yesterday was absolutely ideal. As we drove up, I  rolled down the windows and enjoyed the 78-degree sunshine and the few leaves that were starting to turn. A few blocks from the beach, though, a cold burst of wind started blowing, a layer of cloud settled over the lake, and the temperature dropped about 20 degrees in 15 minutes. While I would have preferred one last warm evening on the beach, you can't deny the appropriateness of such a drastic shift on a night when you're celebrating the changing seasons, among other things.

Michaelmas 2014

Michaelmas 2014

Michaelmas 2014

Michaelmas 2014

Each child received a cape of light, which I made the day before by dyeing white silk scarves with turmeric (I followed the instructions here). The capes are symbolic of the courage and strength needed to stand up and fight against evil. All of the kids in our group are under 7, so we didn't say much else about them - just tied the capes on and let them run around. It was great. Then we gathered around our bonfire and said the St. Michael prayer together, which I printed out on quarter sheets using this lovely download from Kendra.

St. Michael Prayer

We had such a wonderful time around the fire, enjoying each other, talking and eating s'mores. It was one of those rare, sweet times when I feel like I am living just the life I want to, and giving Anne exactly the childhood I dream for her.

Michaelmas 2014
St. Michael? Are you on your way to help?