Cheeseburger Casserole

We all have our quirks, right? I’m pushing 50 and I love amusement parks. I always have. My brother is 12 years younger than me, and I can remember him tagging along with me on a roller coaster when he was 6 and I was 18. He left nail marks in my leg, but he insisted that he loved it.

When my daughter came along, my mom would babysit while my brother, then 15 to my 27, went with me to Six Flags. And when my daughter was old enough, Disney World became our thing. We’ve gone every year or two since she was about six. Sometimes twice a year. A couple of years, we went three times. She’s 27 this year, and she still loves it.

This past weekend was her first anniversary. My daughter is an emergency medicine resident, which means she’s broke for at least another two years. And my son-in-law took the bar in February and doesn’t have his results back yet. That means he’s also broke. So my daughter called me to tell me she just happened to have five days off this past weekend and asked if we could all go to Disney.

I pointed out that it was her anniversary, and it seemed it would be more appropriate for her husband and her to go by themselves. She reminded me that they couldn’t afford to go much farther than the end of their driveway.

And that’s how we ended up going on a family vacation for my daughter’s anniversary. I still had the top tier to my daughter’s wedding cake in my freezer, and she asked me to bring it. I’ve always thought that was a weird tradition, and I couldn’t imagine that frozen, year-old cake would be any good. Still, she asked, and there’s not much I wouldn’t do for my daughter. So I put it in a cooler and drove it down to South Florida.

They shared it with us. It wasn’t half bad. Happy anniversary, guys. But now I’m back home after a week in (mostly) sunny Florida. I’ve been eating restaurant food until it’s coming out of my ears. It’s time for something healthy.

At first glance, you wouldn’t think this qualifies. That’s the beauty of it–it’s good for you, and it tastes amazing. Enjoy!

Cheesburger Casserole

Cheeseburger Casserole

1 spaghetti squash

1 lb. lean ground beef

1/2 diced onion

1/3 c. nonfat Greek yogurt

2 T. tomato paste

2 eggs

1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce

2/3 c. fat free shredded cheddar cheese

10 sliced dill pickles

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut squash in half lengthwise and remove seeds and pulp. Lightly spray the insides with cooking spray, then place both sides face down on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes.

When squash is done, remove from oven, cool slightly, and scrape insides with a fork to remove flesh. Press strands into the bottom and sides of a pie pan or 8×8 baking pan. Set aside. Spray a skillet with cooking spray, then brown onions until clear. Add ground beef and cook until browned.

Remove from heat and drain any excess fat. In a medium sized bowl, mix tomato paste, yogurt, eggs and Worcestershire sauce until well blended. Add ground beef and blend again, then pour mixture over squash and spread until even. Sprinkle cheese over the top, then spread pickles on top of the cheese. Bake for 40 minutes.

Mississippi Pot Roast

I just discovered something.

Before I tell you what, let me give you a little background. I’ve mentioned before that I was raised all over the U.S., but my family is from a small Mississippi town. I spent a lot of my teenage years in that town, then moved back to the capital (Jackson) in my twenties and spent 16 years there before I moved down to the Alabama coast.

Why is this important?

Because I spent years and years in Mississippi, and I never knew there was such a thing as Mississippi Pot Roast.

My mom’s mother wasn’t much of a cook. She passed away a couple of months ago at 93. She was an incredible woman. Her mother died when she was 8, and she and her four siblings were raised by her father, who never remarried. I understand that was odd for men of that era. Most late 1800s-early 1900s men lost wives early and remarried soon to have help with the family. Grandaddy Earl didn’t.

Her oldest sister took over the household chores because that meant she could work indoors instead of out in the fields. Because of that, Grandma wasn’t exactly a domestic goddess. She worked in a munitions factory in WWII, then met my grandfather at a USO dance and left Tennessee to live in Mississippi with him after the war.

Grandma became a seamstress, then went on to manage a garment factory until she retired when I was a teenager. She always worked and never spent much time developing her home skills. We visited them on weekends because Grandma and Grandpa both worked, and since Grandpa was a butcher, Grandma’s idea of feeding a crowd was to cook a roast. It was easy—stick it in a crock pot, let it simmer for a few hours, and then haul out a hunk of meat. Fifteen minutes worth of effort and a little planning ahead, and she had enough food for a half a dozen people.

I loved Grandma, but her roast was a lot like shoe leather. It was typically dry and required enough chewing to make your jaw sore. My mother brought me up to be respectful, so I never complained.

But.

Because of Grandma, I never cared for roast. My daughter never cared for it either, so I went through a period of about fifteen years where roast never made an appearance in my kitchen.

Fast forward to about ten years ago. My husband is also a butcher, and sometimes his customers give him some pretty good tips. When someone told him about this recipe, he brought the idea home and asked me to give it a try.

Oh, mama.

My husband took one bite and told me that was the best roast he’d ever had. I agreed. There were no leftovers. None. We laid waste to that bad boy.

Therefore, I give you Mississippi Pot Roast, a dish that is a tribute to my home state. Happy eating, y’all.

Mississippi Pot Roast

Mississippi Pot Roast

1 Chuck Roast (3-5 pounds)

1 stick of butter (DON’T use margarine)

1 pack of dry ranch dressing

1 pack of onion soup mix

1 jar of pepperoncinis

Place roast in a hot skillet and brown for 2-3 minutes on each side, then transfer to crock pot. Place stick of butter on top of roast, then sprinkle dressing mix and soup mix on top. Drop pepperoncinis all around the roast, then cover and slow cook on low for six hours or until tender. No need to add water-the butter and the roasts’ natural juices will be plenty of liquid.

Dry Counties and Boa Constrictors

What a fascinating world we live in! We all grow up with our own unique perspective, and that perspective is so ingrained in us that we think everyone else thinks exactly like we do.

Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, but sometimes things happen that remind us how different we can be.

I write about small towns because I spent all of my teenage years in a small Mississippi town. Both of my parents, my grandparents, and, if my genealogy research is correct, generations before them came from the same area. With such strong roots in that one place, I forget that things that seem normal to me can seem unbelievable to someone else.

My editor lives in Toronto. She just finished reviewing my latest book, All Bets Are Off, which is set in the same fictional small town as all of my other books. She made margin notes about two things that were, to me, non-issues.

The first had to do with the concept of dry counties. To this day, the county where my family is from is completely dry—beer, wine, and liquor sales are banned. I understand they recently opened up beer and wine sales in the city limits of the county seat (except on Sunday), but that’s a fairly new development. When I was growing up, alcohol was illegal throughout the county. Actually, a lot of the state is still dry. My daughter lives in central Mississippi now, and if she wants a bottle of wine, she has to drive to the next county to get it.

My editor thought my story must be set in Utah, because she couldn’t imagine any other place where you can’t go to the grocery store and buy a bottle of wine. When she realized the story was set in Alabama, she looked it up and was shocked to see that dry counties are actually a thing.

Oh, yes ma’am, they are.

There’s another part of the book, without giving too much away, where a character mentions releasing a snake into a barn to catch mice. My editor’s question: “Is that legal?” I laughed out loud at that. Legal? Have you ever met an Alabama farmer? Trust me, those guys don’t go to the Sheriff to ask permission for anything. Their farm, their rules.

Besides, depending on where you are, county sheriffs have been known to turn a blind eye to a lot of things. People still make moonshine down here (ironic, isn’t it?). I’ve had occasion to try some before–it tastes a lot like lighter fluid. People still make it, though. Do you want to guess how those folks keep the Sheriff off their back? They give him a bottle. No lie. Just like in the movies.

That means setting a snake loose in a barn isn’t something people around here would even think twice about. Apparently, in other parts of the world, that would raise a few eyebrows. Who’d have thought?

Welcome to the South, y’all.

With that in mind, today I’ve decided to post a recipe that’s uniquely Southern. You might be able to get this north of The Line, but I bet it won’t taste nearly as good.

Shrimp and grits

Shrimp and Cheese Grits

For the shrimp:

2 sticks butter (softened)

1 tsp. black pepper

1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper

¾ tsp. paprika

½ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. dried rosemary

2 T. minced garlic

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

½ tsp. hot sauce

1 tsp. water

1 lb. shrimp (cleaned, peeled, and deveined)

½ cup chopped country ham

1 ½ T olive oil

½ cup dry white wine

For the grits:

4 cups milk

1 cup quick cooking grits

1/2 tsp salt (don’t skimp on the salt–in my humble opinion, unsalted grits are gross)

1/4 tsp black pepper

1/4 cup cream cheese

2 T butter

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

 

Combine first 10 ingredients (butter through water) in blender, and whip until smooth. Set aside. Wash shrimp four or five times and drain well (this removes most of the fishy taste). Set aside.

Bring milk, and remaining salt and pepper to a slight boil on medium high heat. Whisk in grits slowly, stirring constantly to prevent lumps. Reduce heat and cook, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until thick or until desired tenderness and consistency (about 5 minutes).  Remove from heat. Cut cream cheese into chunks and add into grits with cheese and butter.  Stir until well blended and all cheese has melted.

While grits are cooking, pour olive oil into a large skillet and heat to medium-high. Add ham to skillet and sauté until brown. Remove ham from pan. Add shrimp and cook 1 to 2 minutes (you can add a little more oil if you need to), turn, then cook an additional 1 to 2 minutes. Return ham to pan, add white wine and cook until reduced by half. Add butter mixture from step one, reduce heat to low, then simmer until shrimp are done.

Serve shrimp mixture on top of grits.

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Pistachio Salad

It’s the end of an era. At least for me. I recently said goodbye to my last living grandparent. Goodbyes are never easy, especially those that come when someone dies. And when I headed out to the hospital to see her, I told my husband on the way that I knew I was going to see her for the last time. There’s no good way to do that.

I’m nearing fifty, and you don’t get here without losing your share of people you care about. My first major loss was a daughter—she was there one moment and gone the next. You tell yourself over and over that if you’d just had time to prepare, if you’d only known you’d never see them again, maybe it would be easier.

The older you get, the more you realize that’s a fallacy. Since that first horrible experience with mortality, I’ve nursed my share of loved ones through mortal illnesses that lasted months, even years. It’s not any easier. Watching someone suffer, lose their dignity, and deal with the inevitable reality of their coming death is every bit as bad as the gut punch of losing someone who you thought would be with you for the rest of your life.

Which is why I hope you’ll understand why the way she passed was a blessing, in a way. Grandma was 93. She lived alone in her home of nearly seventy years, without the aid of a healthcare worker, until three days before she died. She went into the hospital on a Friday and died peacefully in her sleep early Tuesday morning. We all gathered at her house the next day, and on a calendar in her kitchen, I could see where she had been crossing off each day until two days before she went to the hospital. She was doing fine until she wasn’t, and when it finally came time for her to go home, it happened mercifully fast.

Grandma was born in 1925 in McKenzie, Tennessee. The land she lived on, and the house she was born in, had been in her family since the early 1800s, when a Revolutionary War officer gave his son and his son’s new bride land to build a home. That home had a lot of history, but my grandma’s life in it wasn’t an easy one. Her mother died when she was eight. I wrote about that in another of my blogs–they were farmers, and grandma’s older sister preferred the kitchen to the fields. When their mother died, my great aunt took over cooking duties and refused to teach her younger sisters how to cook, for fear of having to take her turn in the fields.

That meant grandma was not the best cook in the world. Mom wasn’t either, and so neither was I. Mom and I both worked at it, though, and we were able to recover from generations of bad meals by putting in some effort. Grandma never really had time for that. She went from the cotton fields to the munitions factory, where she worked during World War II. While she was there, she met a young soldier at a USO dance. He married her and took her home to Mississippi after the war. And there she stayed until she died. Since her mother had died when she was so young, Grandma didn’t expect to live to see three more generations. But she did. By the time she died, she had three children, seven grandchildren and nineteen great-grandchildren. In fact, she lived to see her oldest great-grandchild (my daughter) marry and graduate from medical school.

What a life, huh? In her honor, today’s recipe comes from her. She might not have had that many skills in the kitchen, but I got two recipes from her that I love. I posted one last year. This family favorite is the other. I’ll never be able to make it without thinking of her.

We’ll miss you grandma.

Pistachio Salad

Pistachio salad

1 can (20 oz.) crushed pineapple in juice, undrained 1 pkg. (3.4 oz.) Pistachio Flavor Instant Pudding 1 cup miniature marshmallows 1/2 cup chopped pecans 1-1/2 cups thawed Cool Whip

 

In a medium mixing bowl, add everything except Cool Whip and marshmallows and stir until well blended. Add Cool whip and stir again, then add marshmallows and blend. Chill for an hour and serve.

Chocolate Pound Cake

Merry Christmas, all!! Yesterday, I watched A Christmas Carol (well, okay, I watched the Muppet’s version–my oldest daughter is visiting, and she still loves all the Christmas specials she grew up with). It got me thinking about Christmases when I grew up. My great grandfather died about three years before I was born. My great grandma, on the other hand, lived until I was 32. She never remarried. She  lived alone in the house where they had raised their children until her health required round the clock care, which happened somewhere around her 92nd birthday. She was 94 when she died, and had lived a long life surrounded by 5 children, 11 grandchildren, 18 great grandchildren and 3 great great grandchildren. By the time she died, she had outlived my grandma, who had taken responsibility for looking after her from the time my great grandfather died until Alzheimer’s took my grandma from us. That means I spent a lot of time with my great grandma.

Wherever grandma was, my great grandma was close by. I spent the night at my great grandma’s house, sat on her porch and drank Kool Aid, and ran up and down a long dirt driveway while I played with my cousins. I climbed trees in her yard and picked huckleberries from a bush out front. I played in her closet, where clothes and pictures older than my dad sat buried in old boxes. I adored my great grandma. Long after she was gone, when I married my amazing husband, it really hit home that my great grandma had outlived her husband by 35 years. Being born in 1908, she came from a time when women–when people–had to be strong and self sufficient to survive. I would be devastated if my husband died. I’m sure she was, too. But she soldiered on.

Every Christmas, we all gathered at her house. There were a lot of us. Everyone brought food, but she supplied dessert. She made the most amazing chocolate pound cake you ever put in your mouth. I never have been able to replicate it, and I’ve tried many times. This is my closest effort. My stepson loves it, and he doesn’t even like sweets. But it’s not as good as hers. I guess everyone should leave a little mystery behind when they go. She lived alone in the house where they had raised their children until her health required round the clock care, which happened somewhere around her 92nd birthday. She was 94 when she died, and had lived a long life surrounded by 5 children, 11 grandchildren, 18 great grandchildren and 3 great great grandchildren. By the time she died, she had outlived my grandma, who had taken responsibility for looking after her from the time my great grandfather died until Alzheimer’s took my grandma from us.

That means I spent a lot of time with my great grandma. Wherever grandma was, my great grandma was close by. I spent the night at my great grandma’s house, sat on her porch and drank Kool Aid, and ran up and down a long dirt driveway while I played with my cousins. I climbed trees in her yard and picked huckleberries from a bush out front. I played in her closet, where clothes and pictures older than my dad sat buried in old boxes. I adored my great grandma. Long after she was gone, when I married my amazing husband, it really hit home that my great grandma had outlived her husband by 35 years. Being born in 1908, she came from a time when women–when people–had to be strong and self sufficient to survive. I would be devastated if my husband died. I’m sure she was, too. But she soldiered on. Every Christmas, we all gathered at her house. There were a lot of us. Everyone brought food, but she supplied dessert. She made the most amazing chocolate pound cake you ever put in your mouth. I never have been able to replicate it, and I’ve tried many times. This is my closest effort. My stepson loves it, and he doesn’t even like sweets. But it’s not as good as hers. I guess everyone should leave a little mystery behind when they go.

. Chocolate Pound Cake

Chocolate Pound Cake

2 sticks butter, softened

3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup cocoa

1/2 cup vegetable shortening

3 cups sugar

5 large eggs, room temperature

1 cup milk

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a tube pan with butter. Sift the flour, baking powder, salt and cocoa together. Set aside. With an electric mixer, cream the 1 cup butter, the shortening and the sugar until fluffy. Add the eggs one a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour mixture and the milk alternately, beating as you add them, beginning and ending with the flour. Add the vanilla. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour. Check for doneness by inserting a toothpick into the cake; it should come out clean. Cool the cake in the pan for 30 minutes before turning it out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

 

Corn Casserole

I can’t believe we’re almost to the end of the year. Next week kicks off the holiday season, and as the years have gone by, I’ve dived deeper and deeper into it. For the last few years, I’ve gotten up at dawn on Thanksgiving, participated in a charity 5k downtown with my daughters, then come home and cooked a huge meal for my husband, children, mother and grandmother. Then I spend the weekend decorating. The first day, I put up a village that I’ve been collecting at a rate of one or two houses per year since my daughter was eight.  Here’s a picture from last year.


Christmas Village

The second day goes to decorating inside. I have a nativity scene that my father gave me years ago. It’s absolutely beautiful, and now that he’s gone, it means even more to me. That goes up, along with the tree and some table decorations that I scatter around my living room. The third day is spent outside. My neighbors across the street are wonderful people—a 94-year-old widow and her late-fifties daughter who never married and moved away from home. They open their living room curtains and watch us install the decorations, then when we turn them on at dusk, the daughter always comes outside and tells us how much her mother enjoys the lights. For the rest of the season, they open their curtains every night when we turn them on.

But this year, I have a Milo. He’s eight months old, and he’s something of a tornado. Here he is–isn’t he cute?

Milo

Milo is twenty five pounds of lovable, curious, happy-to-be-alive bull in a china shop. He loves new people and greets them with a flying tackle that would take down an NFL quarterback. He doesn’t bark a lot, but when he has something to say, he’ll sit down in front of me and speak his mind (he was on a roll one day, and I took a video which I posted here). He plays pranks on my other dog, a seven-year-old Bichon-Poodle named Bear:

Bear

He’ll lay on top of the bed and wait for Bear to walk by, then pounce on him from above. When Bear looks away, he’ll swipe whatever toy Bear is playing with and run off with it. While Bear is trying to eat, Milo will lay down near him and bump the bowl with his paw. Bear loves his little brother, but his patience starts wearing thin when he can’t even get a bite of food from his bowl. I don’t really blame him.

But with all the cuteness that comes with a sweet, fuzzy goofball like Milo, there has to be a dark side. He chews. Everything. Socks. Shoes. Glasses (he LOVES glasses). Boxes. Papers. Leaves. Ice. Bark. The list goes on. And with right at a week before I usually put up the decorations, I haven’t figured out how I’m going to manage, because he will literally eat, break and shred everything that’s waist high and below. He’s going through obedience training for the next month (well, actually, I’m the one she’s training), but we’re not even close to ready to resist the temptation of a Christmas tree yet.  So I might have to tone it down this year. Either way, I have to put up my outside decorations. I can’t stand the thought of disappointing the lady across the street.

But before I can get to avoiding the Black Friday crowds by staying home with my decorations, I have to cook Thanksgiving dinner. This recipe is a family favorite, passed down to me by my mom’s mother who is, coincidentally, almost the same age as my neighbor (grandma is 93 and still lives at home by herself). I’ve written about both of my grandmas in previous posts. Dad’s mom was the old school country cook who could make some of the most amazing meals out of a few simple ingredients. Mom’s mom…well, not so much. It was her sister’s fault. I posted that story here.

This recipe is a delicious and easy exception to the rule. It’s a staple at our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, and a recipe that I frequently get requests for whenever we take meals to holiday parties. My stepson even made it for a work potluck last week. I hope you enjoy it as much as we have.

Happy Thanksgiving all!

Easy Corn Casserole

Easy Corn Casserole

1 stick butter

1 can creamed corn

1 can whole kernal corn

8 oz. sour cream

1 box Jiffy cornbread mix

 

Melt butter in microwave for thirty seconds. Add remaining ingredients and stir till well blended (do NOT add ingredients called for in Jiffy cornbread instructions).  Grease 8 x 8 casserole dish and pour in mixture. Bake at 375 for 45 minutes or until golden brown.

Squash Casserole

Happy Halloween!! My husband and I usually have a party around this time every year, but we took the year off this year. That means a little downtime (yay!), and regular menu. We’re both on diets, which is fantastic going into the holidays, so no treats tonight. It’s fall-ish (I have the air conditioner running and I’m wearing shorts today), and I’m angling for gluten free, low carb, fall food. So I’ve settled on squash.

I’ve talked about my husband in prior posts. As a refresher, he’s awesome. I’ve told him more than once that our marriage was a better deal for me than it was for him. He always disagrees. That’s one of the things that makes him awesome. When it comes to cooking, like pretty much everything else about our marriage, he’s almost painfully easy to please. He’ll eat almost anything. In fact, when we got married, he told me the only things on the “no” list were tofu and squash. One of his step-daughters liked tofu. He said his step-daughter found some tofu in the refrigerator once that was missing a single bite, and she became irate. “Who would take a one bite out of my tofu and put it back?” My husband’s response: “Someone who didn’t have enough sense to not eat it in the first place.”

Knowing that about him, I’ve never tried to make anything with tofu. I’ve never eaten it myself, but I figure if my husband won’t eat it, it must be pretty awful. This is the man who considers unusual food to be a challenge. We saw avocado popsicles at Steel City Pops in Birmingham, and he just had to try them (they were actually really good). The beer milkshake? Must have it. Donut hamburger? Bring it on. But he draws the line at tofu. Therefore, so do I.

Squash, though…

I love fruit, but I’ve never been much of a vegetable person. I’ll eat them, but other than onions, I have to work at it to enjoy them. Still, my sister-in-law made some squash one time that smelled so heavenly that I had to try it. It tasted every bit as good as it smelled. That was many years ago, before my husband came back into my life. And now that he’s eating low carb, that means meat and non-starchy vegetables. The list of non-starchy vegetables I really like is short–brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, and maybe a salad here and there (my favorite involves spinach, feta cheese, strawberries and infused balsamic vinegar). That puts everything in short rotation, and we get tired of it pretty fast.

I remembered my sister-in-law’s squash and decided to give it a go. She’s not much of a cook, so I figured if she could make it taste good, I could probably make something my husband would eat. A smarter, more patient woman than me would simply text her sister-in-law. My sister-in-law is like a real sister to me, so we chat fairly often. However, she’s a terribly busy woman who designs websites in the seven-figure range. And she has a small child. Yeah, sometimes my texts go unanswered for a few days.

Instead, I tried to remember something about her dish and then typed those search terms into my search engine. This is what it spit out. I knew by looking at it this was going to be a hit. My husband loved it (ta-da!!!) and so did my step-son. So did I. My step-daughter is a picky eater, so I didn’t expect much there. Three out of four ain’t bad, right?

 

Squash Casserole

Squash Casserole

6 cups sliced squash

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

Salt, to taste

1 cup chicken broth

1 garlic clove, minced

3/4 cup shredded cheddar

Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add squash and saute until lightly browned. Place squash in casserole dish. Add diced onion and butter to skillet and cook till onion is clear. Add garlic and cook another minute, then add contents of skillet to casserole dish. Add chicken broth to casserole dish and top with shredded cheddar. Cook in oven on 350 until hot and cheese is melted.

Greek Meatballs

The family just got back from a vacation to Cozumel. Woohoo! Ten of us hopped on a cruise ship and set sail for territory that’s hotter than it is here. The water’s a lot prettier, though. A lot.

My family is pretty close, and we have a lot of fun together. I mentioned in a post last June that I took a cross-country trip with my youngest brother and his family. I usually spend at least two weeks a year with them.

My husband doesn’t get away much (he works too hard!), but I can usually talk him into a getaway at least once a year. I take my two daughters to Disney once or twice a year. And my mom has tagged along with me on most of my European trips. But everyone in one place? That doesn’t happen but once every four or five years.

So anyway, the worst part about a vacation is readjusting to life back home. You’re tired. You have (substantially) less money than when you left. The work has piled up while you were gone.

Yeah, I know. Boo hoo, right? I get it.

On the bright side, I don’t know of two dogs who have ever been happier to see a person than my dogs were when I got back. I actually spent half of my vacation feeling guilty for leaving the pups at home. Bear got to stay with my husband’s stepdaughter, which meant kids to play with and car rides. Milo, on the other hand, spent the week alone in the kennel getting neutered.

Ouch.

Still, when I walked through the door, they were equally happy to see me. Milo got so excited he pelted me under the chin with his head. I was delighted to be home.

It’s doesn’t get any better than that.

Of course, we got home at noon, and routine took over quickly. So I owed the family a dinner, and we’d been eating out for a week. I texted my daughter and got her favorite meatball recipe, then matched it with some homemade dill sauce.

Greek Meatballs

Greek Meatballs

1.3 lbs. of ground beef

1 egg

1 lemon, zest only

1/4 c. fresh parsley, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp. oregano

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. cumin

1/2 tsp. pepper

1/8 tsp. allspice

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray baking sheet with non-stick spray. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and blend well. Divide into equally sized balls (about 1.5 inches in diameter). Bake for 18-20 minutes, or until done.

Pecan Blue Cheese Crackers

My husband and I love comedy shows. This restaurant near us used to have comedy shows every Thursday, and we went to one and made the mistake of sitting up front. Oh, boy.

I don’t know if you’ve ever sat up close at a comedy show, but if you don’t want your entire life on display, don’t do it. You will be made fun of. And if the comedian is good, it will be hilarious.

This particular comedian made the mistake of asking how many children we had. I had to stop and think, then gave him an answer that was the comedian’s equivalent of the best Christmas gift ever: “It depends.” You could see it all over the guy’s face. He didn’t even know where to start.

The math goes something like this. I have two children from my first marriage, one of whom died as an infant. My husband also has two kids from his first marriage. We share our kids with each other. His kids were 10 and 13 when we married, and my husband and I had full custody. I raised them. They’re mine, too. My daughter was 17. Her father passed shortly afterwards, and my husband took care of her. He even walked her down the aisle when the time came. She’s his, too.

But does that mean we share the one he never met?

Then it gets interesting. His first wife had two daughters, neither of whom had any relationship at all with their father. He raised them for twelve years, and they both considered him to be their dad. When he divorced, they decided to keep him. And when we married, they adopted me as a stepmom. Neither of them are legally or biologically tied to either of us. But can we still consider them our kids? I hope so.

When my niece was seventeen, we took her in because of problems she had with her stepmom. We finished raising her and got her through high school. Do we count her? In our hearts we do.

And then there’s my son-in-law. He’s awesome, and I adore him. He and I share a lot of the same interests, and we have the exact same education–a bachelors in communications and a law degree. We talk about minute points of law that make my daughter’s eyes glaze over. He’s like a son to me. Do we count him?

Well, yes.

And don’t even get me started on my dogs.

That means we have eight kids. Sort of. And we love them all as though they each belonged to both of us. My youngest, my husband’s bio-daughter, recently asked me to figure out how to make these crackers for her. My husband’s mother used to make these before her health declined. She had lung cancer several years ago, which she survived but came out of it with a condition so rare that only 250 people per year in the U.S. get it. And, if I have my facts right, because it’s attached to lung cancer, the survival rate for it is non-existent. My bio-daughter (the doctor) told me when she studied the condition in med school that my mother-in-law is truly a walking miracle. Unfortunately, since the condition is so rare and so often fatal, the medical community doesn’t quite know what to do with her.

So, would I be willing to make Nana’s special crackers for my youngest because Nana can’t do it anymore? Is that even a question? I searched around until I found a recipe that sounded right, then tried it out earlier today. I gotta say, I think I nailed it. These are dead simple to make and have the added benefit of being gluten free. I don’t like blue cheese, and I still love these.

Here’s to you, Nana.

Pecan Blue Cheese Crackers

Pecan Blue Cheese Crackers

1 1/2 cups pecan halves

1 large egg

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

1/2 lb blue cheese crumbles, softened

1 cup all-­purpose flour

In a preheated 350 degree oven toast 1/2 cup pecans, about 7 minutes, and cool. Set remaining pecans aside. Chop toasted pecans into a meal-like consistency. In a bowl with a fork cream butter and blue cheese until smooth. Separate egg. Add egg yolk, stirring until combined well. Set whites aside. Add flour and chopped pecans and stir until mixture just forms a dough. Halve dough and on separate sheets of waxed paper form each half into a 12 by 1 1/4 ­inch log. Freeze logs, wrapped in waxed paper, just until firm, about 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 375 degrees and lightly grease 2 large baking sheets. Cut logs crosswise into 1/4 ­inch thick slices and arrange slices about 1/2­inch apart on baking sheets. Top each cracker with a remaining pecan half, pressing lightly into dough. Brush tops of crackers, including pecans, with lightly beaten egg white. Bake crackers switching position of sheets halfway through baking, until golden brown, about 12 minutes total. With a spatula transfer crackers to paper towels to blot and transfer to a rack to cool.

 

Eclairs

My seventh anniversary is coming up. In honor of the occasion, I’d like to introduce you to my husband. He’s one of the most awesome men on the planet-part saint and part Prince Charming. My grandfather was a WWII vet, a sailor who served on a ship in the Pacific. Grandpa was a prankster–he’d move your glass while you weren’t looking and was always ready with a joke. But he took his duty to his family seriously, and he worked hard to make sure no one ever did without. I’ve often thought he was the greatest man I’ve ever known. I miss him every day.

My dad was like him in a lot of ways. They were both stoic men, born of generations that were more strong than affectionate. Dad had a sense of humor, just like his father, but dad’s was stealthier–it popped out when you least expected it. He also took care of his own. I took care of dad through his final battle with cancer. That made my list of the top three hardest things I’ve ever done, although of the three, it’s the only one that was as rewarding as it was difficult. I was in the kitchen one day when I cut my finger with a knife. There was a lot of blood, and I couldn’t get it to stop. Dad called me over to the couch, where he spent most of those final weeks laying down, and insisted on helping me bandage it. As weak as he was, he still wanted to take care of me.

My husband is a lot like both of them, with even more of a sense of humor and less stoicism. He never met my grandfather, but he has said he takes it as a compliment to be compared to him, which my dad and I both did. And he could not have cared more for my dad through his final days if that had been his own father, which says a lot about both men. My husband is affectionate, considerate, caring, funny, intelligent, and he treats me like a princess. To hear his friends and family tell it, he’s never once had a negative thing to say about me.

And I will admit that I give him a fair amount of material.

Like all good heroes, my husband has flaws. Because he is such an amazing person, I find his flaws every bit as endearing as he is. My sweet, even-tempered husband’s patience evaporates when he gets behind the wheel. He tends to misplace things, mainly because he is an unfortunate combination of busy and disorganized. He has a collection of “somedays” in the yard—a firetruck, a car, a couple of motor scooters, a bicycle, and a boat that he wants to fix up when he has the time. The fire truck is my favorite of the collection because he beamed like an excited little kid on Christmas when he drove it home. And, other than his friend who’s a fire captain, I think his friends might be a little jealous at his life-sized toy.

You might have picked up on the fact that I still adore him every bit as much as I did when I was a teenager. My husband and I are a real-life second chance romance story. We dated for almost two years when I was in college, then broke up because a jealous friend interfered (every good story has a villain, I guess). Twenty-three years later, we came across each other again and had our first re-date at a fondue restaurant. He joked that he couldn’t believe, after so many years, that he’d taken me to a place that required me to cook my own food. I loved it.

We got married a year and a half after that. So life really does imitate art. My girlfriends think it’s sweet, and even my husband’s guy friends have told us we’re “too cute.” With only a little bit of sarcasm. As they tried to steer their wives away before they got any ideas.

In honor of our upcoming anniversary, today’s post is one of his favorite desserts. I went looking for this one a few years back when I wanted to make something he would really like. He did, but any time I make something just for him, he says it seems like I’m going to a lot of trouble for him. Is it any wonder I adore him?

Despite what he said, this recipe is pretty easy. I’m not sophisticated enough to keep a pastry bag around, but if you snip off the corner of a gallon storage bag, it works just as well and you can throw it away when you’re finished.

Eclairs

Chocolate Eclairs

For the pastry:

1 c. water

1/2 c. butter

1/4 tsp. salt

1 c. all purpose flour

4 eggs

For the filling:

2 1/2 c. milk

1 5.1 oz instant vanilla pudding

1 c. heavy whipping cream

1/4 c. confectioners sugar

1 tsp. vanilla

For the frosting:

2 oz. semi-sweet chocolate

2 tbsp. butter

1 1/4 c. confectioners sugar

3 tbsp. hot water

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. 1 cup water, 1/2 c. butter and salt to a boil. Add flour all at once and stir until a smooth ball forms. Remove from heat and let stand for five minutes. Add eggs to flour mixture and beat well. Using a pastry tube, pipe dough into 4 x 1.5 inch strips on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for 35 minutes. Remove from oven, split open each pastry, and scoop out any soft dough that remains inside. Set aside until cool.

Beat milk, pudding mix, and whipping cream until peaks form. Add 1/4 c. confectioners sugar and vanilla and stir till blended. Fill pastries with mixture.

Melt chocolate and butter in microwave, stirring at least every thirty seconds. Add remaining sugar and water. Stir till smooth, then frost pastries.

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