Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Peach Sangria

Recently I went to a dinner party with a lovely group of ladies. It was a hot, steamy evening, where the sweat glistens on your face and runs down the middle of your back. The plan was to eat dinner in the hostess’s beautiful garden, but the heat sent us quickly back inside to the relief of an air conditioned dining room.

As each guest arrived, we were served a glass of this refreshing peach sangria. It was the perfect beverage to temper the sweltering temperatures—flavorful but not too heavy and sweet.

The original recipe uses fresh fruits, but I think frozen would work just as well when the fruit is out of season. I also think it will be fun to play with the mix of ingredients throughout the summer, such as switching to white wine and using flavored vodkas.

I’ve written in the past about my dislike of summer. This sangria may just be the ticket to help me survive the blistering months ahead.

Peach Sangria
Adapted from Southern Living recipe

1 bottle rośe wine
3/4 cup vodka
1/2 cup peach nectar
6 tablespoons thawed frozen lemonade concentrate
2 tablespoons sugar
1 pound ripe peaches, peeled and sliced (or 3 cups frozen)
1 6-ounce package fresh raspberries (or 1 cup frozen)
2 cups chilled club soda

In a pitcher, add the wine, vodka, nectar, lemonade concentrate, and sugar. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Add the peaches and raspberries, and then cover the pitcher and chill for 8 hours. Add the club soda at serving time. Serve in a wine glass or over ice in a tall glass.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Creole Shrimp Boil

I will never forget the look on my New Hampshire friends’ faces as I dumped our meal onto a newspaper-lined picnic table. The look said, “Have you lost your mind?”

However, it’s the traditional—and fun—way to enjoy a Creole Shrimp Boil. Everyone can reach in for a handful of shrimp, corn on the cob, potato, or sausage, all seasoned with zippy Creole flavors. Plates are optional. All you really need is cocktail sauce, lemon wedges, and butter, plus plenty of napkins. (Paper towels are even better.)

For this particular feast, I doubled (maybe tripled, I don’t exactly remember) my recipe to feed all of my guests. The cooking was done in a large pot over a propane burner—the type also used for deep-
frying turkey.

The recipe in its normal size can be cooked in pot on a grill’s side burner or the stove top. Thanks to inspiration from a post on the Family Fresh Meals blog, I’ve switched to making this meal in my slow cooker—perfect for my downtown, no-outdoor-space, Topeka apartment. I use my version of Emeril Lagasse’s Essence seasoning to give the dish its zip, but you could also use Old Bay or any other seasoning of your choice.

Creole Shrimp Boil is simple to make, so it works as a weeknight family meal as well as one for a weekend gathering. Yes, you can serve the boil on a large platter or in a bowl, but at least once try dumping it onto the table. You’ll create an instant memory.    

Creole Shrimp Boil

Serves 4

1 12-ounce bottle of beer (I used a pale ale.)
7 cups water
1/4 cup Creole seasoning (see recipe below or use your favorite)
2 lemons
1 head of garlic, cut in half
1 onion, quartered
2 bay leaves
1 pound red or new potatoes, large ones cut in half
4 ears of corn, husked and halved
1 pound smoked sausage, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 pound raw unpeeled large shrimp
Salt, to taste
Cocktail sauce
Lemon wedges

In a large Dutch oven or soup pot, add the beer, water, and Creole seasoning. Whisk to combine. Cut the lemons in half and squeeze the juice into the pot. Add the lemon halves, garlic, onion, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

Add the potatoes and simmer for 15 minutes. Then add the corn and sausage. Simmer for another 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are almost tender. Add the shrimp, cover the pot, and simmer until the shrimp is just done, about 5 minutes.  

Strain off the liquid from the pot, or remove the ingredients using a slotted spoon or strainer. Pour the ingredients onto the middle of a table covered with newspaper or parchment paper, or serve on a large platter. Sprinkle salt over the top, to taste. Serve with cocktail sauce and butter.

To make in a slow cooker: Add the beer, water, and seasoning into the slow cooker. Whisk to combine. Cut the lemons in half and squeeze the juice into the pot. Add the lemon halves, garlic, onion, bay leaves and potatoes. Cover and cook on low for 4 hours.

Add the corn and sausage pieces. Cover and cook for an additional 2 hours.

Increase the heat to high and add the shrimp. Cook for another 30 minutes. Serve as above.

Almost Emeril Lagasse’s Creole Spice Mix

Makes 2/3 cup

2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste

Place all of the ingredients into a bowl and stir to combine will. Store in an air-tight container.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Year of Firsts

Today marks the one year anniversary of The Picky Eater’s death, and with it the end of my “Year of Firsts.” I’ve made it through the first holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries without the love of my life. And I have been forever changed.

The first three months after Mike died, I was in a fog. I don’t remember much about what went on. I know friends took me to lunch, and the Ditch family took me to dinner and invited me to all of the family gatherings. I binge-watched Downton Abbey and read many books for the temporary escape they offered, but mostly I spent each day trying to get to the next, because I knew the sadness and pain would ease with each passing moment. I just had to hang on.  

I spent a lot of time sitting in a rocking chair at my bedroom window looking out over downtown Topeka at all hours of the day and night. That was my comfort place. I cried gallons of tears there, raged at Mike for leaving me so soon, worked through the guilt over things I should have done differently (only to realize everything happened the way it was meant to), and, mostly, remembered all of the wonderful moments we shared. I talked to Mike a lot. I still do. If my neighbors can hear me, they must all think I’ve lost my mind. J

What has helped me get through this year the most is being with people who shared their Mike stories with me, and who let me talk freely about my memories, too. Some of the tales were funny and sweet, while others were touching or even a bit sad. All of them made Mike feel close. I needed the comfort those stories brought to my heart from those who also loved and cared for him.

About six months into the first year, I started to feel more like myself. The sadness was there (still is), but it wasn’t as overwhelming as in the beginning.     

Now I start year two without my love, my biggest fan, my knight in shining armor. I’ve entered uncharted water, where I can no longer think back to what “we” were doing this time last year because there was no “we” from June 12, 2014 on.

I’m living “our” life by writing full time and teaching writing workshops, which Mike and I had planned on my doing all along. Unfortunately, the happiness I feel with each success is tempered by the thought he isn’t here to share it with me.
While I can think and dream about what the future holds when it comes to my career, everything else I take one day at a time. Yes, I still have days when the sadness overwhelms me. When I just have to give in and wait for a better day tomorrow. Then sometimes I feel guilty when, because my day has been busy and full, I forget to think about him for a time. At other moments, he fills my heart so much I know his spirit is walking along side me.

The meaning of “bad times” has changed for me. Negative things happen to all of us, but now I understand what “it could have been so much worse” truly means. Because that “so much worse” happened one year ago.

When something bad happens now, I point to the sky and say to Mike, “You promised you were my guardian angel, so you had better help me through this.”

And he always does, with God’s help.

To mark the end of this year, I have moved my wedding band to join Mike’s on the chain I wear around my neck. It fits perfectly inside his, protected much the same way as he protected me. My beautiful blue topaz engagement ring now resides on my right hand.  

I still miss him more than words can express, and some days more than I can stand. As hard and traumatic as it was to let him go one year ago, I would go through it all again as long as it meant I wouldn’t miss a single moment of our time together. No matter what the future brings, Mike will always have a place in my heart. I will love him forever.

Finally, but most important, let me thank all of those who were key in helping me through this year. I want to start with the entire Ditch family, for rallying around me in support on that terrible day one year ago (the funeral home had never seen that many people show up to plan a service!) and on every holiday and family gathering since. Thank you Steve, Greg, Lisa, Scott, Rocky, Quintin, and Kim, plus your spouses and kids, for continuing to make me feel a part of the family. I would have never made it through this year without you. And to Greg, Lisa, and Steve, for taking charge of arranging all of the funeral details and finances, so all I had to do was approve or adjust some of the finer points. Also, thank you for supporting my choices and making the whole process go smoothly.

I also want to thank my friends, both those here in the Midwest and in New England, plus my blogging, writing and foodie friends whom I only know via the World Wide Web. Whenever I felt sadness and despair, I knew all I had to do was say something on Facebook and the encouragement would roll in. And thank you for the phone calls, emails, and lunch dates throughout the year. I hope you understand how much that meant to me, and I hope you know if I didn’t return a phone call, answer an email, or make a lunch date, it wasn’t because I didn’t want to. It was because I couldn’t.       

Now to thank some specific people:

First, my mom. Think about it…my dad died three months before Mike. So, she not only had to deal with her own grief, but then that of her oldest daughter. Her support, both emotional and financial, was key to my survival. Sometimes I think I would still be curled up in a ball of tears on the floor without her. I love you, Mom.

My sister-in-law, Lisa, who is not only family but also my best friend. Mike knew we would be great friends—he said so before I even met you! Since the day he introduced us, you have never hesitated to come running when I needed you, even if it was just to meet and talk over a cup of coffee. Your friendship means the world to me…more than I can express.

Also, to my brother-in-law, Don, for your friendship and support, plus for letting me join the family fantasy football league. Not only was it fun, but it made me feel even more connected to the family…and Mike. (Who knew I’d win all those games!)

Next, my brother-in-law, Greg, because you answered the phone. Soon after Mike died, while the police and paramedics were still swarming around the apartment waiting for the coroner to arrive, I realized it was time to start telling people he was gone. I didn’t want to do it. I kept thinking about how my phone call was going to change everyone’s normal day into one of the saddest they would face. How could I inflict that kind of pain on others? Especially before 5 a.m. I made one phone call after another…and no one answered their phone. They either didn’t hear it or slept through it. One after another, no answer, no answer, no answer, until finally you answered the phone…and instantly became my hero. Not only were you there on the other end of the line, but through your own sadness you took on the burden of spreading the news to the rest of the family. Hearing the grief in your voice made me feel less alone, and you saved me from going through that horrible task over and over while the fog of grief settled on my heart, for which I will always be grateful.

My stepson, Mike Jr., has been a rock through it all. He took on the responsibility of telling his sister and mom the sad news, which couldn’t have been easy. Now he answers all of my emails about my writing business and life in general. Plus, he lets me in on his fantasy golf fun for the major tournaments, which helps me feel connected both to him and his dad. Thanks Picky Eater, Jr. J

Plus Jennifer, Anthony, and Brad, thank you for asking me to lunch, hanging out with me on the Carnival Magic, and taking the time to talk to me and ask questions about my life. You guys are amazing.

Thank you to my fellow residents in Kansan Towers, our own little community within the larger downtown neighborhood. Many of you stopped to wish me well even though our only contact was occasionally riding together in the elevator. A special thank you goes to the manager, Teena, who stayed with me that terrible morning a year ago as I processed the worst event of my life. A big thanks also goes to my neighbor Jan, who is always there to share a drink when I need her, and to the unstoppable Marge Heeney, whose spirit is an inspiration.

And a final thanks to the leadership and congregation at Grace Cathedral, for your warm welcome, acceptance, and positive message. When I was searching for a church home to find comfort after Mike’s death, God led me to your door.

Everyone, thank you for your patience, understanding and support. Please don’t go anywhere! I may need you even more in the year to come.

The journey continues…  

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Blissful Cranberry Cookies

Lately my appetite has been stuck on cookies. For some reason, when a sweet craving strikes, I want homemade cookies dunked in ice cold milk.

Perhaps it's the time of year. While cookies take center stage at Christmas, I think summer is cookie season. These sweet morsels are easier to make than pies and handier to transport than ice cream. Need dessert for a picnic? Want a treat to munch on at the lake or beach? Cookies are the answer!

Once you know a basic cookie dough recipe, what kind it becomes is completely up to your imagination…or what’s in the pantry at the time. For example, these Blissful Cranberry Cookies were inspired by the Starbucks Cranberry Bliss Bars. To my basic cookie dough, I added dried cranberries, white and semi-sweet chocolate chips, and walnuts. However, you could add any dried fruit, chips, nuts and flavorings to make your own signature cookie.

Blissful Cranberry Cookies
Makes about 5 dozen

Basic cookie dough:
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs

1 cup dried sweetened cranberries
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (I used Ghirardelli.)
1/2 cup white chocolate chips
1 cup chopped walnuts, optional

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Set aside.

To make the basic dough: In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the butter, brown sugar, sugar and vanilla. Beat until creamy. Add the eggs and beat until well combined. With the mixer on low, gradually add the flour mixture until combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl a couple of times.

Add the dried cranberries, chips and nuts, and mix for just a moment to combine.

Drop rounded teaspoons of the cookie dough onto the baking sheets. Place in the oven and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, turning the cookie sheets and swapping shelves halfway through baking. Take the cookies out of the oven and allow them to sit on the baking sheets for two minutes. Then place them on racks to cool. Store in an air-tight container.