At one of the five (five!!) big celebrations we went to this week, someone asked Andy if he felt like the luckiest guy in the world to be married to someone who loved to cook. He was so sweet and enthusiastically agreed, but I couldn’t help but think about all the work he has to do to make opportunities for me to do these things. He entertains the kids while I spend so much more time than a normal person would choose to in the kitchen. He cleans up mountains of dishes so I can start everyday in a spotless kitchen. And he is relentlessly kind and patient to me and understanding of my penchant for signing on for too many things at once. Andy- I love you. And I’ve got lots of low-maintenance dinners on board for this week! But first, here’s a recap of our week of celebrations and holiday parties.
King Ranch Casserole. The boys ate cheetos for breakfast. I don’t even remember why we had them in the house. Then we went shopping because I had a Joann Fabric coupon (yesss), and it’s one of those places where the boys have become accustomed to getting a treat, so we sat on the sidewalk outside the store and they ate their skittles (Henry) and york peppermint patty (George), before moving on to the playground. Henry has been a solitary sort of fellow for most of his life. Even on playdates, he does more parallel-play than actually engaging with other kids. But lately he’s been enjoying the company of other kids, and playing with them too, and it lights me up to see it. At the playground he befriended a little girl and they played together for a bit, and afterwards he ran over to me and asked excitedly, “did you see my new friend?” The kids stayed at the playground forever. Way longer than I thought- I was hoping they’d play a bit and we’d be home in time for lunch. But it was almost one and everyone was hungry. I hate eating in South Park Meadows. If you’re not familiar, it is a colossally large strip mall sort of thing in South Austin. I think it may stretch over a mile and it’s awful. They bulldozed meadows of wildflowers and put in a target and a walmart and every other chain establishment you’ve ever heard of. I was so grossed out when they built it I vowed I wouldn’t shop there, but of course I do. It’s great to have a target and a joann fabrics and a playground all right next to each other. I am most decidedly a part of the problem. Anyway, back to lunch! There’s nothing I’m excited to eat in the whole of SPM. But right next to the playground there’s a Waterloo Ice House where the Henry and George can get a kids meal that comes with mac and cheese, and french fries (or fruit! as Henry surprised me by opting for) and a drink AND a cup of soft serve vanilla ice cream for $6. And the air smelled deliciously of griddled meat, so I said we could eat there. I broke my no-meat-at-chain-restaurants rule and ordered a burger because I couldn’t get the smell out of my head. It was delicious! Shockingly so. I got one with melted jack cheese, crispy bacon, and guacamole on top and I ate the whole thing in about 3 minutes. And you know what else- the kids were amazing. We sat and talked to each other while we waited for our food, and I didn’t have to chase anyone around the restaurant or keep them from pouring sugar on the floor or anything. It felt momentous. I think it might have been the first time I’ve enjoyed myself while eating out with my kids.
We ate this king ranch casserole for dinner, topping off a day full of bad food choices with a big dollop of sour cream. I made this and froze it when I was buried under a mountain of shredded chicken after thanksgiving, but it got soggy and mushy in the freezer and kind of sucked.
Food52/Friends-of-Abbie had our annual holiday potluck on Tuesday! Every year, for the past three years, we have come together to support the girls in the local Girl Scout Beyond Bars troop, which is headed up by my beautiful, hardworking sister-in-law, Joanna. The girls in this troop live all over Central Texas, range in ages from 5 years old to 18, but are all united by the common experience of having moms who are currently in or have just been released from prison. These beautiful kids each get a mentor, get to work with a counselor, get to do amazing experiences with their troop leader, Joanna, and best of all, get to spend one day a month visiting their moms in prison, in the same room, where they can hug each other and do fun and healing activities together too. This is the only program of its kind in Central Texas that allows kids to actually embrace their incarcerated mothers. This troop affords girls who would otherwise not have the means to visit their moms a beautiful, structured way to do that, as well as all the support to help them through one of the most devastating things that can happen to a kid. I am completely and thoroughly disgusted by the prison system that rips these families apart without any regard for the well-being of the kids involved. Not to mention the inhumane isolation of a mother from her children! I hate the whole thing. GSBB, and Joanna in particular, show these girls that there are people who care about them. When I came to the foodie lunch group I’m involved with (which meets for lunch monthly and is organized by the tremendously wonderful Abbie) and asked whether or not they would be willing to be involved with the supporting this troop during their holiday party, the women jumped in with both feet. I had initially just asked for food that we could contribute to their party, and every year the group has brainstormed more, bigger, and better ways to show our love to these kids. This year 17 of us sponsored 24 girl scouts and their siblings, 39 kids in all, with huge mountains of gifts, stuffed stockings, and an over-the-top array of treats for their holiday party. The girls’ wishlists, as is the case every year, were heartbreaking. Many asked simply for hygiene products, pads, sheets for their brothers’ bed, or a warm blanket. My sister Helen and my mom sponsored one brilliant little 11 year old whose sole request was a ventriloquist dummy. Helen found the perfect one, used her connections (or generous friend Christy!) to get her five outfits, and still had enough money to buy the girl scout some warm clothes and other necessities. For many of the girls, the gifts we provide are the only gifts they’ll receive for Christmas. I am grateful beyond measure for the generosity of the women who step up for these girls, and their siblings too. Alone, I could do very little, but with these women we can do something incredible. We can show these girls that they are loved.
Thank you to Abbie, for amassing a cadre of powerful, kind, and generous women, and inviting me to join you.
Thank you to Molly, for hosting us every year and for assuring me, year after year, that we won’t have trouble getting every girl covered.
Thank you to Andrea, Barbara, Beth, Carol, Christy, Danielle, Elizabeth, Gisselle, Helen, Janice, Kathy, Laura, Molly B., Nancy, and Sonja for generously sponsoring these girls and their siblings, providing stocking stuffers, beautiful desserts, and for showing your love for children who have had their hearts broken.
And thank you, thank you, to Joanna. You love and care for these girls year round, doing the work of a whole army of people. Thank you for the opportunity to show our support to you, the work you do, and the girls and families of troop 1500.
As many of the gifts as I could fit in the shot!
Before we stuff the stockings for the girls, we always have a potluck lunch. This is as good as potlucks get- these women can cook! Pictured above: a salad packed with apples and seasoned with za’atar and fresh thyme, this ridiculous gingerbread with a burned caramel sauce that I got to take home to share with my overjoyed family plus a delicious pecan pie, tomato caprese skewers, cheesy grits that I could not stop eating, lovely little heart cookies, another shot of the desserts, because, yes, some Argentinean beef empanadas, a delicious crushed lentil/tahini affair, and a pitch-perfect eggplant parmesan.
Beef Empanadas. After the potluck, which I got to attend child-free thanks to my gracious MIL, I raced home to take the kids to parkour. Henry continues to do beautifully, showing more kindness and patience than I ever thought he’d be capable of. Coach Kurt, that fine fellow, has been on vacation the last two weeks. He was back today and after class he said, “Henry, look at my eyes. You did a fantastic job today.” I love him. The kids shut the place down, as usual, so I had to hurry to get dinner ready quickly, before George fell asleep. I decided to fry the empanadas instead of baking them because it was so much faster and, egads! They were 100 times better than the baked version I brought to the potluck! Lots less healthy too, but who’s counting? Also fried plantains with sour cream is the food of the gods. I made a double batch of the empanada dough and filling, but kept them separate, and used about a third of it for the potluck to make 18 mini empanadas, a third for our dinner, to make 8 larger empanadas, and the other third for yet another holiday potluck on Thursday. I recommend it if you find yourself in a similarly potluck-heavy week!
Salted Brown Butter Crispy Treats. For the GSBB holiday party on Wednesday, I made these rice krispie treats. As if the original wasn’t delicious enough, this version from smitten kitchen more than doubles the butter, browns it to add a nutty depth, and throws in a pinch of crunchy sea salt. The result is so good. I added mini M&Ms to put ’em over the top.
The other women of Abbie’s lunch group donated massive amounts of lovely desserts: huge pies, a moist and tender lemon cake, a half pumpkin/half pecan pie that people kept coming back to, crispy treats and caramel corn, cookie brittle and brownie roll-out cookies, chocolate chip cookies, magical marvelous memorable cookies (my favorite!), and huge heaping bowlfuls of chex mix. It was a veritable smorgasboard! Several of the girl scouts made a beeline for this table before being ushered towards the dinner buffet first, and I can’t blame them one bit!
Really Good Spaghetti Bolognese. I am aware that this picture makes this dish look atrocious, so let’s not beat around the bush about it. Don’t let it stop you from making it though! It is everything. You cook carrots, onion, and celery down in a pile of cubed pancetta, along with finely minced mushrooms that disappear in the sauce but leave a robust meaty flavor, then you brown ground beef, add a little tomato, and let it cook for a good long while. And then, get this, you add almost a cup of heavy cream. Everyone loved it.
We spent the first half of the day shopping and doing random acts of kindness for a few people we love and a few strangers. It felt really good. And we got to play in a gorgeous park with a duck pond and a huge, cascading, several-story waterfall. And if that weren’t enough, Andy and I got to go out on a date to his holiday Toastmaster party. That’s a good day right there.
On Friday we spent the day celebrating my brother-in-law Jordan, who graduated with an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Texas State. We ate barbecue, hung out with his family on campus, watched him get hooded (this is a thing! I didn’t know), watched him walk the stage, and then celebrated some more with dinner and arcade games at Pinballz. I took no pictures, but I had to write here how proud we are of Jordan, and my sister Helen, too. In the past two years, they’ve gotten engaged, pregnant, had a baby, got married, finished school, embarked on a career as a professor (in addition to getting numerous awards and recognition for all of the plays he’s written in that time!)(Jordan), and become a successful entrepreneur (Helen). These two people are talented beyond measure, hard-working, and passionate. I am so proud and inspired by both of them, and all they have been able to accomplish together. It is astounding. Congratulations to you both on this momentous accomplishment! We love you so.
And speaking of graduations, on Saturday we got to celebrate our dear friend Dustin’s! My BFF Molly reached out to Helen and I to help her pull off a celebration for him and we are all just so happy with the results. Molly suggested that we could do a very subtle Indiana Jones theme, because it’s one of his favorite set of movies, and also because his major of anthropology is tangentially related. Helen put together so many loving details- a centerpiece with a handpainted canvas and chalk art globe, amid Indian-inspired lanterns, golden chalices in homage to the grail scene in The Last Crusade, and tons of flowers that she artfully arranged in the colors of his alma mater. Please check out her facebook page for more and better photos of the work she did- it looked fantastic. For the food, I made a little appetizer from each of the main locales of the first three movies. Arancini (risotto balls) and roasted vegetable skewers from Italy, an exotic fruit and nut platter, pork and cabbage potstickers from China, Kofta (lamb meatballs) in a tahini sauce from Egypt, Peruvian chicken empanadas with an aji amarillo sauce from Peru, miniature vegetable samosas with an apple and cilantro chutney from India, and linguiça and potato skewers from Portugal. I was happy with how everything came out, though I don’t recommend cooking potstickers in not-your-own kitchen in front of a lot of people you don’t know! It was really fun too, because several of the people there had never had any of these dishes. How fun to introduce people to the joys of samosas and potstickers! The risotto balls were the biggest hit- they went fast. Dustin’s sweet sister asked me what the “cheesy things” were, and gestured toward them, and I got to share with her that it was just rice and butternut squash cooked slowly in chicken stock and then deep fried!
I also made 45 chocolate cupcakes with cream cheese frosting, though only 41 made it to Molly’s house (George:3, Henry:1…ok, George did take three, but didn’t finish any of them. Whenever I encountered a partially-eaten cupcake around the house, I was more than happy to dispatch it). I am so lucky to have such wonderful friends in Molly and Dustin, who are always so generous and kind to me and my family. I loved having the opportunity to be a part of Dustin’s big celebration. We love you both!
Venison and Black Bean Chili. And you guys, we did it! This long week is over. It’s been fun, but I am thoroughly exhausted. We spent the day doing comparatively little. George and I shopped while Andy and Henry stayed home and played a kids version of D&D, we played in the yard and made gingerbread cookies. We lit the last candle on the menorah and ate a quiet and happy dinner together. And my avocado was perfect too, which always makes me giddy. And I get to write my blog post on time and I don’t even have to stay up until 2:30 to do it! Life is sweet.