28 September 2009

What to do with darkness?

Do you ever find yourself in a period of darkness?  Your soul feels heavy, but you cannot pinpoint the reason.  All seems to be well on the outside...

For once, I am pondering darkness when I actually don't feel like I'm in a season of darkness.  I've felt light lately.  Encouraged.  Joyful. Free.

I've really been enjoying the book Clinging: The Experience of Prayer by Emilie Griffin that Tara Leigh lent me.  And it's the chapter on "Darkness" that's been most helpful to read when I don't feel like I'm in a dark place right now.   It's one experience to reach for help when your mind is clouded and desperate.  It's quite another to read it from a place of peace, more in preparation and protection for what might come. I'm not being negative to believe that the darkness will come again.  It's a part of life.

"I remember clearly (and any day it might come again) the terrible reluctance to start praying on the chance that the first thing I would find is a wall.  And the wall, I knew, would not be a wall at which I was to stop, but one I was expected to walk through.

And when one asks the Lord in prayer about the wall, asking Him to take the wall away, the answer is simply that the wall exists in order for us to walk through it.

But the remarkable thing is that we do.  We walk into and through the wall in a way that is beyond comprehension.  This impossible thing that is quite beyond us and that we nevertheless are able to do shows us both an inevitability and an incomprehensible overturning of the systematic order of things.  It's the what-we-can't-do-under-any-circumstances that is nevertheless to be done.

Darkness comes to deepen our prayer and to strengthen us.  But God does this not all at once and not by seeming to.  This experience is different from any other, akin to pain but not like pain because it has no sharp edges.  It is the bleakness of grief without any object of grief.  No one has died, nothing is lost to us, except perhaps a vision we once had and were clinging to, instead of God himself." ~ Clinging: The Experience of Prayer, pp. 36-37

What do you think of this?

I'm puttering through this book at a snail's pace, because I keep coming across paragraphs, sentences, or phrases that halt me, like the one above.  I could think for days on a portion of a single page, such as, "the wall exists in order for us to walk through it."  Those are the best kinds of books, aren't they?   I'll keep plowing through it...

26 September 2009

Please vote for my hubby on TheKitchn.com!

I'm so proud of Steven - his recipe for Tex Mex Bacon-Wrapped Chicken Nuggets with Homemade Ranch was accepted for the "Quick Weeknight Meals" contest on TheKitchn.com, an incredible food blog.

PLEASE VOTE for his recipe if it looks scrumptious to you - you vote by giving it a "thumbs up."  Voting is only open for 48 hours!  (until Monday the 28th at 4pm EST)

When we made this recipe the other night for the photo shoot, we devoured the nuggets in about 3 minutes flat.  I can personally say they're easy to make and delicious (c’mon, bacon with honey drizzled on top?!) but I'm a little biased!

25 September 2009

New header!

I'd like to publicly thank my dear friend Justin Williams with Red To Green Design for my purty new blog header!  And just wait, because there are several other variations he created that I'll be unveiling as the seasons change!

If you're looking for an innovative and very affordable website design, please contact Justin!  Not only is he super talented, but he's also a killer racquetball player, does a great fire-breathing dragon pose, and is going to marry my friend Autumn!  You can't go wrong.

Naturtint, I'm sold.

Since the horrifying "Annie" perm stage in 5th grade, I've been a little paranoid about my hair.   A bad haircut or coloring job is pretty much a girl's worst nightmare, is it not?  

My hair lost its virginity sometime in high school when I used my first package of Clairol Glints.  I became very attached to my trusty reddish-brown and practically shed a tear when they discontinued the line.  Most recently, I've been a dedicated user of L'Oreal Natural Match but have become increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that hair color is loaded with harmful chemicals and carcinogens.  I try not to put chemicals in my body, so why would I put them on my head every 6 weeks?   Still I was afraid to try herbal hair color. I'd seen it on the shelves at Whole Foods but frankly dismissed it - "There is no way that stuff works."

Then, I found Naturtint.  I read one glowing review after another on Amazon and Vitacost that heralded its many benefits - multi-dimensional color, full grey coverage, great conditioning, and gentleness on your hair due to the vegetable ingredients.   And, bonus, it's one of the top hair colors in the U.K.!  Not surprising.

It does have some synthetic ingredients but far less than regular hair color. It's not 100% natural like henna, but I live in Dallas, not a hippie commune.   A girl's gotta draw the line somewhere.

So, after practically driving my husband insane by pondering out loud over and over which color I should choose, I finally settled on Naturtint Light Chestnut Brown (5N).  I returned home with the box and was still nervous to open it.  "GOOD GRIEF!" my husband exclaimed.  "Just do it!  How bad could it be?"  He actually opened the box, handed me the ingredients, and read the instructions aloud to me from the living room.  The best part?  They provide a small bottle of conditioner you're supposed to use after you rinse the color from your hair.  But only use half, because the other half is supposed to be used "in a fortnight."  A fortnight?  I had to Google that sucker.  It's 14 days.

So, 20 minutes on the roots, 10 minutes on the rest of the hair, then rinse.

How did it turn out?????

I LOVE IT.  L.O.V.E.  Here it is about a week later, still going strong, and it seems to have given me natural coppery yet non-brassy highlights.  Plus, the gray is non-existent!

So give Naturtint a go.  If you end up trying it, I recommend a few things:
  • Get a shade lighter than you think you'll need.  I read that in the reviews, so I chose "light" chestnut brown.  As you can see, it's not light!  
  • If you have a lot of gray, leave it on your roots for more than 20 minutes.  Next time I'll probably do 30 minutes just on the roots.
And of course, dearie, the most important part.  Don't forget to use the rest of the conditioner in a fortnight!

23 September 2009

My turn to try...

Maybe I have a small competitive streak after all.  Tonight, I attempted to match my husband's beautiful salad presentation from last night.  How did I do?

Boneless chicken thighs marinated in soy sauce, garlic, lime juice, red pepper, black pepper, salt, and honey and then grilled in the pan until caramelized
Pearl couscous
Parsley garnish

Alas, I can't take credit for the couscous.  It was made by our dear friend Kyle from the Sunday Suppers blog.  It was incredible!

22 September 2009

So I asked my husband to make a salad for dinner tonight...

...and this is what he came up with:

Honey-coated peanuts (that he soaked, dried, and made himself)
Olive oil
Truffle oil
Fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Carrot shavings
Lemon cucumber

Seriously, who did I marry?  I was expecting maybe some tomatoes, cucumbers and celery in a bowl.  This looks like something out of Bon Appétit Magazine!

Eden Creek Farm.

Early morning rose over Blooming Grove, TX, population 833. The overcast sky, much welcomed in Texas after a scorching summer, created a canopy of coziness over our entire hour drive from Dallas deeper and deeper into the country. We wound our way through the downtown center of Blooming Grove.  About 5 miles down the road, we saw a white pickup truck in the distance. It was Steve Orth, proprietor of Eden Creek Farm, ready to greet and usher us onto his property. He gave us a hearty wave and we entered the gate before him. The dirt road wound through evergreens and mesquite trees, and unsure of what would await us around the next turn, we began to feel that we were entering some kind of fairtytale land.  Finally, the road opened into a clearing where there stood not a wide-porched farmhouse, but a huge grey Adobe home – totally unexpected!

the orth's home

We were instantly greeted by the jovial married couple, Steve and Kristine Orth, who owns and runs Eden Creek Farms. They are clearly in love with each other and their work. Everything from the care of their home to the care of their fields was beautiful.

They offered us steaming cups of fine South Pacific coffee as we sat in their warm living room filled with the scent of incense.  The cozy wood stove and earthy colors were the perfect backdrop to the overcast morning.

We then began a tour of their farm so we could see all the amazing produce grown there, including the cleared land that is ready for new fall crops to be planted.  In our Crocs, boots, and tennis shoes, we began traipsing through the forest, led by Maya, the German Shepherd.  But Maya was only the first of the characters...we were soon introduced to Squeaky the pet squirrel. Kristine Orth rescued him as a baby, and he now lives in a spacious cage with his stuffed animals under a horse apple (bodark) tree.  He also enjoys belly rubs.


We continued our walk, pausing to stoop down and pick some tart wild plums or sweet wild persimmons. A master gardener specializing in edible landscaping, Steve Orth would tear leaves off various plants, hand them to us, and say, “Here taste it! What does it taste like?” as he awaited our answer in childlike expectation. Just some of the goodies we sampled: lemon mint, edible hibiscus that tasted like fresh oranges, purple basil, gourmet cucumber, and gourmet salad greens.

wild plum

As we walked on through the forest, something amazing happened when we rounded a bend.  All of a sudden, four beautiful horses emerged gently from amidst the trees, as if from a scene out of Lord of the Rings.  They were just grazing there naturally.  Oh, how I love horses.  They are such frightening yet gentle creatures.  The horses hoped we had snacks for them, but we gave them some love instead.

steve orth with the horses

i'm a natural, don't you think?

Everything on their farm is grown 100% organically and never touched by chemicals.

kristine orth in one of the fields

Along the tour, Steve and Kristine gathered a variety of items for us to take home and enjoy, including a squash that was so long it could wrap around your shoulder like a boa constrictor!
One of the great things about working with a local farm is the close relationship we can develop with the farmers.  Eden Creek is going to be growing some items especially for our co-op!  We can't wait to start sharing their farm-fresh bounty with our community!

gigantic zucchini, Torch of Tuscany squash, lemon cucumbers, onions, purple basil

18 September 2009

Here's to you, Lulu.

wedding day, july 16th, 2005: 
me, steven, aunt lucille, my brother glen, sister-in-law trish, cousin paula, mom, dad

A week ago today, my dear Aunt Lucille left this world.  I can hardly believe it's true that I'll never again hear her say "Christineey-Weenie," her lifelong nickname for me, or the sound of her contagious laugh.  She fought a 3-month battle with lung cancer and in the end, her body just couldn't take it.  "Get me outta here!" were some of her last words to the Catholic priest, Father Owen, who anointed her head with oil as she labored for each breath. He prayed a blessing over her in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, she closed her eyes, and never opened them again.

The day before she passed away, after previously hearing that she was doing well and about to leave the hospital, my brother and I got an unexpected call from my parents.  Aunt Lucille had taken a turn for the worse and was now asking for her last rites and for her family to surround her.  My brother and I tearfully booked the next flight out of Dallas that night, only to frustratingly have our flight canceled at the last minute due to bad weather.  We returned to the airport early Friday morning for the first flight out, and as we were boarding the plane, received the dreaded phone call: "She's gone."  After cursing American Airlines, a haze surrounded me as I realized that I would never see her alive again.  I thought back to my last phone conversation with her in late July - she had giggled a lot in her usual way.  She had sounded totally normal.  Her voice still echoes in my head.

* * *

The sound of laughter and the smell of marinara sauce and meatballs filled the entry way of the house on Kinney Street.  The air outside was chilly in the December New Jersey air.  Bundled in a wool coat and boots, a little girl of age 4 climbed the tunnel-like steps to the second floor apartment of her Aunt Lucille and Uncle Tony.  Her feet could barely reach above each stair, but the comforting aroma led her quickly into the warm home.

It was Christmas afternoon, and about twenty people were already crammed into the tiny kitchen and around the dining room table which was the centerpiece of the family.  It was the site of classic Italian-American meals of baked ziti, homemade meatballs, braciole, and garlicky salad with black olives {and that was just the first course}, along with every dessert you could possibly imagine.  Before dinner, the little girl's favorite thing to do with olives was to put one on each finger and call them "meatballs."   Her favorite Italian cookies were the ones shaped like leaves and shells.  After dessert, the little girl sat on their laps for awhile before going back to the livingroom to lay on her stomach and draw in her Sunshine Family coloring book that her aunt kept for her in the cabinet beneath the coffee table.  Meanwhile, those in the dining room erupted into a game of Pinocle or long conversation over unmarked bottles of red wine made by Uncle Tony...

* * * 

These are some of my most vivid childhood memories.  Most of them include Aunt Lucille, her warm home, and my loving Italian family.   As an adult, there was the long evening we all shared the day after Steven and I got engaged in Central Park.  I remember every moment of that night, how happy we all were, and how they received my soon-to-be husband like he was one of their own.

steven sitting next to aunt lucille in red

aunt lucille laughing

Last weekend, my cousin Paula, Aunt Lucille's daughter, asked me to write the Eulogy to be read at the funeral mass.  How do you capture the beauty of a person's life in 3 minutes from a church lectern?  It doesn't seem possible, but I did my best.  When the service was over, one of her lifelong friends came up to me and said, "You knew her well."

Then, we all went back to Paula's house where there was more food than you could imagine - it seemed every five minutes the doorbell rang with another neighbor bringing a tray of baked ziti.  When it was all said and done, every fridge was full of about 15 varieties of ziti and penne.  We enjoyed another meal together, and the warmth in the room was tangible, as always.  Choking back tears, I realized that some things change, and some things never do.

After dinner, I poured myself and my dad each a glass of Cabernet.  We looked at each other, and as if with an unspoken understanding that runs deep in our blood, we clinked our glasses together as a toast. "Here's to you, Lulu!" we said in unison, and threw our heads back and drank.

* * * 
My Aunt Lucille's Eulogy
We had many different names for her: Mom…Lou…Aunt Lucille…Grandma Lulu…Lulu Belle...Lucille. But there was one name we all had in common, and that was family. Even Aunt Lucille’s friends were like her family to her. That is just how she lived life – she was devoted and loyal and would do anything for those she loved. Photographs of her friends and family covered every surface of her home – the walls, her bedroom mirror, the refrigerator, leaned up against knick-knacks on shelves, even stuffed into a sauce pot in the closet. All those smiling faces are evidence of a life well lived, a life where she loved deeply and was deeply loved.

To me, she was “Aunt Lucille,” my dad’s dear sister, and in my 31 years of being blessed to share life with her, she was the epitome of fun, honesty, kindness, and love. I could write an entire book of my wonderful memories and stories of Aunt Lucille, but for now I’ll just focus on how well she loved other people, and how much fun she was to be around.

Aunt Lucille has been taking care of people her entire life. When she was a child, she wouldn’t let her brother Frankie leave the house without being properly dressed. All his clothes had to match – his socks with his tie, his shirt with his pants. As an adult, her home was a place you would always feel comfortable. There would always be a smile for you, and a plate of cookies. There’s no question that this is what Aunt Lucille was put on earth to do. We are all better people because of the way she raised us, taught us, celebrated with us, walked beside us, loved us, and cared for us.

With any decision Aunt Lucille ever made - whether it was going to the grocery store or going on vacation - she always thought about how it would affect her family and others she loved. She was fiercely loyal and serious about her relationships. She was an integral part of the community. Everyone in town knew “Lou” who worked at the Borough and was a part of the Madison and East Hanover communities for almost 70 years. Some of her closest friends - many of you in this room - are friends she had, literally, her entire life.

She walked with us through marriages, divorces, baby births, and graduations. She was shopping partner, travel buddy, confidant, mother, sister, cousin, aunt, grandma, and the best friend you always wanted by your side. She loved fashion and good Chinese food and country music and the beach. Her meatball recipe can probably never be replicated. And who could forget that smiling face? Glowing cheeks, honest, sparkling eyes, wide flashing grin. She was vivacious, full of life…and oh so silly.

Yes, Aunt Lucille loved to laugh almost as much as we loved making her laugh. We would say something funny to get her going and she would giggle and giggle until she begged us, “Stop it! You’re gonna make me pee!” That, of course, only made us laugh harder. Her favorite recliner chair was the site of a lot of crazy antics. We'll never forget the day she decided to relax in her recliner chair and enjoy an ice cream cone. When she went to sit down, she didn’t just sit, she plopped. Well…that day, she plopped a little too hard. The force swung her back and tipped the chair until her back was on the ground and her feet were sticking straight up in the air! “Briiiiiiaaaaan!” she hollered for one of her grandsons to come rescue her. When Brian arrived, there was Aunt Lucille, still stuck on the floor, but holding her ice cream cone desperately in the air like it was the Statue of Liberty’s torch. I wasn’t there that day, but I’m almost 100% sure that when he tipped her upright again, her face was wet with laughing tears.

From Aunt Lucille, we learned how to be better people – how to laugh at life, how to embrace those we love, how to watch over our siblings, and how to treasure our children and grandchildren. So, how can we best remember her?   Go on living.  Go on loving. Be happy for her that she is at peace now, free from pain, and that she’s still doing what she does best, just now in Heaven.

From all of us here left behind, bye bye Lulu. We miss you so very much. Thank you for bringing so much goodness into our lives. We promise to keep laughing and caring and loving and serving each other well, as you taught us to do.

07 September 2009

My silly girls.

{Greta and Heidi, the two German Doberman sisters}

"I think we are drawn to dogs because they are the uninhibited creatures we might be if we weren't certain we knew better."
~ George Bird Evans 

Oh, how much joy these two bring to our lives!  That is, when Heidi (only 7 months old and larger than full-grown Greta) isn't chewing or licking everything in sight.  I seem to get a full foot bath everyday. She gallops like an antelope all throughout the house, eyes and ears as curious as can be.  When we talk to her, she cocks her head intently.  Greta could be stroked, scratched, petted for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  She rests her head on the thigh of anyone who enters our home within about 3 minutes of meeting them.

They are both little thiefs.  Greta, the "peach bandit," was caught a few weeks ago standing over her pillow going to town on the remnants of a fuzzy peach that had previously been on the kitchen table out of her reach.  How she got it, I have no idea.  But it was stealthy.  I found the pit licked clean on the living room carpet.

On Saturday afternoon, we brought home our produce bins from the co-op stocked full of a plethora of fruits and veggies.  I turned my head for one second, turned back around, and there was Heidi, standing before me with a full banana hanging out of her mouth.  At least they have good taste!

04 September 2009

Favorite homemade tomato soup.

The soup repertoire is officially on deck. And the whimsical firepit with stars carved into the side by our friend Paul is prepped with twigs and sticks gathered from the fried flower beds.  Yes, we are expectantly awaiting for autumn to arrive.  Somehow, I believe that the constant simmering of my favorite tomato soup will make it so.

I have a theory about cooking.  One can tell a great recipe by simply examining the recipe card.  Not the words or ingredients, but the card itself.  Is it stained?  Yellowed?  Full of splatters and smeared handwriting?  If so, then yes, this is a beloved recipe, most likely one that has been touched by sticky hands for many generations, or at least for several years in one generation...

{full recipe down below}

I wish I could say this recipe was born from my own culinary genius, but it comes from the famous Napa Valley chef, Michael Chiarello on The Food Network.  Don't you just love his cozy, festive home in Napa?  When we had TV, I would always look forward to his show on Saturday mornings.   Since then, this soup has become a staple.   It's fresh, simple, and if you add meat, quite hearty.

There is something about tomato soup, too, that reminds me of my Italian youth - cauldrons of thick tomato sauce bubbling on the stove for hours on a Sunday afternoon in preparation for Sunday dinner.  Sprinklings of fresh basil and oregano.   Was there ever an Italian-American girl who didn't grow up on meatballs, pasta, and homemade marinara sauce?  It was sacrilegious to buy sauce out of a jar.  Ragu? A cuss word.  Only homemade would suffice.  It's in my genes and always will be.  

I have yet to make this recipe with fresh tomatoes from the back yard, but I am going to try that next summer.  In the meantime, the organic diced tomatoes from Whole Foods will have to do.  Here they are roasting and beginning to caramelize...

While the other veggies are sizzling away, you must stop to inhale one of the sweetest scents known to humankind - yellow onions sautéeing in a pan...

It might look like tomato sauce now, but oh, it's not.  Just wait until it's blended and creamy.

And now, here's the funny thing - of all times I have made this recipe, I have yet to capture an "after" shot of the soup!  I guess I have been too busy carefully ladling it into a rustic pottery bowl and then gobbling up every last spoonful.  You'll just have to try it for yourself!

Homemade Tomato Soup
Recipe by Michael Chiarello

1 (14-ounce) can chopped tomatoes
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 stalk celery, diced
1 small carrot, diced
1 yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup chicken broth
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup fresh cream, optional

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

Strain the chopped canned tomatoes, reserving the juices, and spread onto a baking sheet, season with salt and pepper, to taste, drizzle with 1/4 cup of the olive oil and roast until caramelized, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a saucepan, heat remaining olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the celery, carrot, onion and garlic, cook until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the roasted chopped canned tomatoes, reserved tomato juices, chicken broth, bay leaf and butter. Simmer until vegetables are very tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add basil and raw cream if you’d like {but the recipe is already so creamy, it doesn't really need it!}  Puree with a hand held immersion blender until smooth.  Or, let it cool slightly and ladle in batches into a regular blender and puree until smooth.  Make sure you hold the blender top down tight, or it will splatter everywhere...trust me!

01 September 2009

Thank you, Hail Merry.

This, my friends, is the Hail Merry Chocolate Tart

Just a small slice...half of a half is all you need.

Rich, dark cocoa and a chewy crust.  And the best part?  Only 5 - count' em - 5 ingredients:
dark cocoa, organic coconut oil, organic maple syrup, blanched almond flour, sea salt

Gluten-free, sugar-free, and as the Hail Merry ladies say, "No processed anything."  That is what I'm talkin' about.

It's perfect for PMS days.  Or hard-day-at-work days.  Or just I-need-chocolate-and-I-need-it-now days.

I've met the Hail Merry ladies at our local organic co-op, and they are lovely people.   If there's anything better than a healthy decadent dessert, it's knowing the hands that prepared it.

Rush to your local health food store and grab one.  Then eat a sliver with a cup 'o tea.  Or more than a sliver.  With a dessert this healthy, it won't really matter if you eat the whole thing!