please don’t unfriend me.

So, a couple of things.  My apologies to my two, maybe three readers who are so kind to follow this blog- this is my first post since January when I vowed to post at least once per week.  Yes, one-half year ago.  To this I will just say that outside of cyber space I am hugely reliable, so I am sure I have spoken with you on the telephone, had lunch a few times, and no doubt have a regular text thread happening with you as we speak, so thank you for sticking it out.  Also, this post comes at the end of a long, super fun weekend that I swore I would be exhausted from (it’s way past my bedtime) but, I drank a diet soda at 7pm and yep, wide awake.  Lame, I know.

I recently joined Facebook.  This is goes completely against my years-long stance on not joining Facebook.  Deep.  Sigh…

Here’s the thing about it, now that I have been on it a mere 30 days, give or take a few, it is all the things I suspected it would be and most of its aspects are exactly why I said I would never join.

It keeps me up past my bedtime and delays my morning routine. (Something may have happened while I was sleeping!)

It shares everything that everyone you Facebook Friend shares, posts, likes, and dislikes (maybe you can’t actually dislike something, as I said, I’m new).  What’s more?  If you tag someone, you become privy to all of their Facebook Friends’ likes, comments, blah, blah, blah even when they aren’t your Facebook Friend.

It suggests you Facebook Friend Facebook Friends of Facebook Friends. (Just read that slowly one more time.)

The people I am Facebook Friends with are my actual real friends and have been pretty much my whole life.  (This is where it is useful and fun for me-I like learning about what’s happening with faraway friends and family.)

You can unfriend your Facebook Friends by clicking, “unfriend”.  That’s just, ew.  Ew.  I mean, how many people have actually been hurt by Facebook Friends that they confused with actual friends who decided to “unfriend” them because they post too many cat pictures?  Or what about the people who are your actual friends but then after they become your Facebook Friend you see a side of them that is kind of unexpected, but unexpected in a strange and unsettling way? (FYI, this has yet to happen to me because I choose my Facebook Friends very carefully, much as in real life.)  I am thinking about the people who rely on a community of strangers to validate anything from a clothing choice to parenting styles, to belief systems.  Those folks who take social cues from people they have actually never been social with.  In my nearly 40 years I have seen friends come and go, all at the necessary times throughout my life- the friends who have “gone” aren’t my “unfriends”; rather they are just friends I used to know.  I would happily greet them in a chance meeting, or look forward to an impromptu reunion.  Imagine running into  someone you used a button on, and by clicking it you made them your “unfriend”.

My Facebook experience has been limited, I get that.  My social network is not as broad and sweeping as my handful of Facebook Friends and maybe I am just behind the curve on this one.   I mentioned before that it provides a real connection to actual friends you are limited to see in real-live person.  This is important.  This is real.  But for me, it is easy to make a distinction between the necessity of real human interaction with friends and the snippets of virtual moments that are shared through a photo memory, blog post, or news article.  I remember dial-up for goodness sake!  My children, however will/do live in a much different place, surrounded by virtual interactions and memory sharing.  As a family, we encourage lots of playtime with others, plenty of hand-written thank you’s and FaceTime calls with our long-distance friends and family.  We talk about the internet, how we are using it and what it means to do so.

No doubt, the instant gratification that comes with a “like” or a ” friend request” feels nice.  The reassurance that comes with a kissy-face emoji might make the difference between a good morning and a bad one.  But, for me, I think it will just suck when and if one of them are unfriended.

My Best Roast Chicken, etc..

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Behold, good looking AND good tasting

Happy New Year my friends!  I have been slacking on my blog posts and have just decided (like really, just now decided) to try and post once a week.  Of course, I am not banking on having something grand to share each time, but you can count on at least a recipe and/or some family updates.  Also expect a link or two to something I find interesting or funny on The Google too.  So, without more yada, yada, yada, I will go ahead and dive right in on my first post of 2015!

I don’t know about others but for most of my adult life since I have been cooking, I have been trying to master the Roast Chicken.  Now, the Roast Chicken appears simple.  After all, it is a chicken for goodness sake and simply roasted.  However, you and I (you being the person who roasts chickens) both know that it is never as easy as it appears.  You want a nicely browned skin, but not so brown that it indicates a dry breast.  You need to season it properly since what you have left is the flavor that underlies your pan drippings.  The pan drippings!!!  Yet another thing that makes the Roast Chicken intimidating.  Fear not, for if you’ve given up on the Roast Chicken I am hear to encourage you to try, try again.  This recipe might just renew your Roast Chicken confidence.

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Dress that sucker up!  For this recipe, I generously salt and pepper the cavity of the bird and then stuff it with sliced lemons and oranges, shallots, onions, garlic and fresh thyme.  If you have a citrus aversion, well…too bad!  It significantly enhances the flavor profile of the meat and gives your pan drippings that little extra something to elevate your gravy.  Trust me, you want the acid to balance the rich, velvety fatty gravy-it is pretty amazing.  Next, rub a little unsalted butter under the skin of the breasts and legs.  Now, you could go completely gonzo here and use truffle butter.  I know, I know, slow down Dena, but seriously my friends, it is divine.  Truffle butter is to the exterior of the bird what the citrus is to the inside – next level flavor and sophistication.  You will have one half each left of the lemon, orange, onion, and shallot.  You will also have a nice fat bulb of garlic.  All of these will serve as your roasting rack and keep your bird moist and flavorful.

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Your pan drippings might look like this.  Lots of melty onions and citrus and broth to make up your delicious sauce.  Ok, I will stop gushing-here is the recipe.

My Best Roast Chicken

1 whole roasting chicken, 3-4 pounds

1 lemon, quartered

1 orange, quartered

1 bulb of garlic, top removed plus 4 cloves, peeled

8 fresh sprigs of thyme; 6 left whole, 2 chopped

1 large yellow onion, peeled and halved

1 large shallot, peeled and halved

4 tblsp unsalted butter or *truffle butter

1/2 cup orange juice

1 tblsp olive oil

1-2 cups chicken stock

1 tblsp flour

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Remove giblets and pat dry the chicken.  Generously season the cavity of the chicken with salt and freshly-cracked pepper.  Stuff the cavity with half each of the lemon, orange, onion, shallot, peeled garlic cloves and 4 thyme sprigs.  Salt and pepper the skin of the chicken and layer the bottom of your roasting pan with the remaining onion, shallot, lemon, orange and whole garlic bulb and rest the chicken on top.  Tuck the two remaining whole sprigs of thyme between the legs and breast.  Add about 1 cup of the chicken broth to the pan to prevent the drippings from sticking to the bottom.  Roast, uncovered for one hour basting occasionally.  In a small bowl whisk together the orange juice, olive oil and chopped thyme.  Pour this over the chicken and continue to roast until the thickest part of the thigh registers at 170 degrees, about 45 minutes longer.  Continue to baste.

Remove the chicken from the oven and transfer it to a platter, tent it with foil.  Place the roasting pan directly over a burner and heat to medium-low.  Whisk in the additional broth and flour.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Once your broth has achieved a thicker, smoother consistency, strain the pan gravy.  Discard the remaining ingredients.

Slice your chicken and serve with the pan gravy.  We like this with smashed or mashed potatoes and a sautéed side of something green – think green beans or kale.

*truffle butter is available in most markets and grocery stores where butter is sold

Dinner #3: Stuffed Acorn Squash

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Tis the season for squash and, depending how you feel about squash, this good be a good thing or a not-so-good thing. We are mixed over here on the circle. I love velvety autumn squash soup, roasted butternut tossed into a fall inspired salad, and can even get on board with Deb Perelman’s spaghetti squash taco if it has the extra kick of cayenne pepper. A couple of weeks ago we received four lovely acorn squash in our farm-delivered Veggie Crate. One week after that, we received four more. Yikes! Did I mention that the kids aren’t huge squash fans? That said, they will devour some white beans, whatever the add-in. This time I opted for kale and tomatoes with a touch of lemon. I think you will like how the citrus juxtaposes the sweetness of the squash.

Stuffed Acorn Squash

4 acorn squash, halved, seeds removed
3 tblsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 can cannellini beans, drained
1 can petite diced tomatoes with juice
6 cups chopped kale or swiss chard
1 tblsp fresh lemon juice (for extra citrus, add a tsp of lemon zest)
1/4 cup white cooking wine
1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese
Salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Slice the squash in half and spoon out the seeds and pith. Place them face down on the lined baking sheet and roast for about 35 minutes, or until a fork can easily be inserted into the skin and flesh. While they roast, heat the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute for 3-4 minutes until tender, never burnt. Add the drained beans, can of diced tomatoes and continue to saute for about 10 minutes until the beans begin to soften and can be smashed a little with the back of your spoon. Add the kale and stir to coat with bean and tomato mixture. Once it is wilted, add the lemon juice and the zest if you opted for it. Stir in the white cooking wine, increase the heat a little and reduce the wine by about half. Season with salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste. Turn off the heat and fold in half of the Romano cheese. Remove from the heat.

Remove the squash and arrange them in a baking dish cut side up. Reduce the heat in your oven to 325 degrees. Fill each one with a heaping amount of the filling and top them with the rest of the cheese. Bake, uncovered for 20 minutes.

I serve these with a greens salad and slice of crusty bread if it is available. They reheat perfectly for lunch the next day.

Dinner #2: Marinara

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Marinara is a staple in our house. My hunch is this-you either open a store-bought variety or whip something up off the cuff. Either works, and until about five or so years ago, I opted for a jar of pre-made tomato sauce. When I was growing up my parents canned their own tomatoes every year. It was quite an event, actually. They had a Victorio Food (read:tomato) Strainer and it came out only once per year. My mom prepped the jars, seals and lids and then they both cleaned and then strained ungodly amounts of tomatoes. We had a storage for approximately one year-that is, after they distributed several quarts to friends and family. In those days, mom would simply heat a little olive oil, saute a handful of chopped onion and garlic and pour in the sauce to simmer. I feel like I can still smell it cooking in their kitchen. They buy cans of tomato sauce now, and so do I. I hope that Cory and I will feel motivated one day to dust off the old Victorio strainer, until then we make sauce like this:

Marinara

3 tblsp olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1/2 cup dry, red wine (optional)
1 28oz can tomato sauce (crushed is fine too if you like a thicker, sweeter sauce)
2 tblsp wet Italian herbs (I use these), or a handful of freshly chopped basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano and parsley
Salt
Freshly ground pepper

In a heavy bottomed sauce pot heat the olive oil to simmer. Add the onion and garlic and saute over medium heat until the onions are soft and transparent. If adding the wine, increase the heat to medium high and stir it in to deglaze the pan and cook off the alcohol for about 5-7 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir in the tomato sauce. Add the herbs. Continue to simmer on medium-low heat for 15-20 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste and enjoy over pasta.

A couple of cooking notes. I prefer to add red wine when I am pairing the sauce with red meat or eggplant-think richer, more complex flavor. If I’ve made chicken or pasta alone, I might omit the wine for a lighter version. One other thing. Sometimes I will add a dry Italian seasoning. More recently I seem to love dried tomato and garlic basil seasonings, something like this. I add it when I add the Italian herbs.

Enjoy!

i thank my friend

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Lily and Bryce sitting on our front step the day the Hale family moved.

We talked about it happening someday. We discussed support systems, family and the like. We also shared our fears of moving, beginning again. We knew that we couldn’t be neighbors forever, but up until the day they left, I may have naively thought it a possibility.

Let me back up a bit. When Cory and I moved to our neighborhood over seven years ago, I was a lone wolf. We quickly, and happily became a family and suddenly I was a lone wolf with a little cub. I knew the young woman across the street, but not yet personally. I knew she had what appeared to be a 2 year-old and, not long after we moved in, I observed a newborn in her arms when she would walk to the end of the driveway to pick up her mail. In those days I knew how to get to the grocery store, Cory’s office, my work, my parent’s house, and then back again. I was new and not yet connected to the community where we were growing our family. She seemed confident, capable and I was certain she knew her way around town. She had friends too, local friends who seemed to come by often. My friends had to plan weeks ahead for a visit, living over an hour away from me now. When I think back to that time I remember sitting at the kitchen table and watching the world outside. It breathed activity, lives in motion, routines and happenings. I wasn’t depressed, I wasn’t lonely, just idle-waiting, unbeknownst to me, for someone to pull me out of the house and teach me how to make a really good sugar cookie.

So, I will count my blessings and call myself lucky for the short six years I got to live across the street from my dearest friend, Tara. We bonded for the first time over sugar cookies and few of our million conversations happened outside of our kitchens. On our watch, we added more children to our families, sadly saw marriages end, but then new ones begin, picked every Ohio fruit available to us, sought parenting advice, watched countless television shows, exercised (quite faithfully for a while there;), shared viruses between us and our kids, shared recipes and lots of good food, dinners out, shopping trips and pedicures, playground dates and babysitting emergencies. We loved and cared for each others children as if they were our own. We embraced our fundamental differences and it made us more tolerant and loving human beings. I think we somehow managed to cover it all, and in a very short amount of time. We decided that things were just getting about perfect when they decided to move 1,700 miles away.

Today I know my way around. I love where we live and have made friends locally, really good people. Cory and I agree that it feels more and more like home every time we return after being away for a while and have vowed to stay here for a very long time. Tara and her family are still a part of my community, just the one that’s in my heart. I can’t run across the street to say hello or to grab an egg, but I can call her up or Face Time whenever I need to, which is most days. We still come home some evenings and I will catch myself glancing across the street and wondering, “Are Ben and Tara home?”…They are, but in a new home, establishing a new community where they are lucky to be surrounded by family and old friends; where those folks are now lucky to have Ben and Tara and their boys closeby.

I miss Tara deeply. Everyday. But for as much as I miss her, I am also overwhelmed by my gratefulness to her for bringing me a plate of sugar cookies that day, for coming into this house and helping to make it feel like home. She is everywhere here and always will be as long as we live in this neighborhood. So, I thank my friend. I thank her for love, support, and a kindness like I might have otherwise never have known. She continues to inspire me from afar to be a better wife, mother, daughter and friend and no amount of distance will ever change that.

Dinner #1: Meat-a-balls

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Lily and Grandma Theresa making meatballs last summer

Mmmmmm meatballs. I am sharing this recipe today because I have modified it some since I passed it to a few friends. Please note, this is not the recipe we published in our cookbook, however that is a great one too from my Uncle Joe.

Dena’s Meatballs

1 1/2-2lbs meatloaf mix*
2lbs ground beef (no more than 90% lean)
1/3 loaf stale Italian bread, ground into fine breadcrumbs (my grocery store offers a delicious rosemary pugliese I prefer)
11 eggs lightly beaten
1 tube of wet Italian herbs**
1 1/2 cups of grated Romano cheese (a little more never hurts)
4 cloves garlic, minced
Salt
Black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients. Mix gently with your hands, shape into 1-2 inch round balls and bake for 25 minutes.

*about meatloaf mix: it is usually available in the meat department; equal amounts of ground beef, ground veal, and ground pork.
**about wet herbs: these are a must-find them in the produce department in a tube. I buy this brand.

Another last minute recipe note, I really do think freshly ground breadcrumbs really make all the difference in the moistness of the meat. Dried can easily be substituted but you may want to add an extra egg or two. Also, I don’t turn my meatballs while they bake, but my mom does. She likes them to stay shapely and round. Sometimes I reserve a large handful of the meatloaf mix and roll tiny balls that I am able to freeze for soups. This recipe makes approximately 3 1/2 dozen large meatballs and they freeze perfectly in Ziploc freezer bags. Next week I plan to post my recipe for quick pasta sauce.

the kitchen, tiled.

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We did it! We tiled the backsplash in our kitchen AND painted! It is really feeling like we have come full circle, despite the old floors (we foresee that project happening in about a year or so). Even with builder-grade linoleum, our kitchen is looking fantastic and, even more importantly, is a dream to work in. Cory cut and laid each individual piece of tile by hand and then I stepped in at the end for the glory when it was time to grout. The pot faucet, pictured above, does make me feel pretty glamorous, I must say, and the nifty stainless shelves we added are practical and stylish-we are super pleased with the turnout. A few more pictures…

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Grouting is a real pain, by the way and white tile, of course, doesn’t make it any easier. We had fun this day though and later it made our cocktail taste THAT much better.

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Cory also installed under-mount cabinet lighting. It uses tiny LED bulbs so it is very bright and incredibly efficient-we turn them on a lot.

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As I said, we love our shelves. The open storage forces me to be more organized.

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Behold the newly painted walls. This is a real bonus and a big, bright improvement! We love the chalk walls and have fun making lists and drawing pictures here and there. We lucked out last weekend at a Farmer’s Market in South Haven, Michigan and found a beautiful print by local photographer, Bobbie Bush. Things are really shaping up on this side of the house!

moody

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It’s back to school and back to schedules, back to planned meals and back to looking at the calendar at least twice per day. Lily wants to nap when she gets home at 3:30pm, Michael wants to sleep in “at least until 7:35am”, Ella already has a sore throat and headache and Cory and I are exhausted by 8:30 (although, this isn’t entirely new). No one wants to wake up and get dressed immediately and everyone wants to have a movie night on a weekday. How quickly we go from carefree summer days to tightly scheduled weeks that force us to view life in large blocks of time rather than small, sacred mini moments.

This morning over breakfast we talked about some of these changes. How does it feel to have a happy teacher and familiar friends in the classroom? What is the feeling you get when you walk out onto a wide open playground? Is sitting down to a snack or a lunch with your friends something you would miss? How lucky are you to be dropped off and picked up from school by mom and/or dad? All of their responses were pretty expected and Michael even reminded Lily that his school is all day so she should stop complaining (mind you, she has never once complained about school yet this year-quite the opposite really). During this discussion, our old friend chipmunk perched himself on the rock outside our patio door. We have been tracking him all summer and, there for a while he was visiting quite regularly. Lily and Michael immediately left the conversation to sit by the door and observe. Before I could get annoyed and worry about how much time was left to eat breakfast, I joined them.

Flashback to yesterday when I walked into a quiet house and knew I had at least two hours and forty-five minutes of silence. I surveyed my tidy kitchen, the pillows in their proper places on the sofa, shoes in the baskets where they belong. On a rough day for me, these things matter. I care deeply if the floor is vacuumed and the toilet bowls are brushed. I hate dishes in the sink or an overfilled can of garbage. I invest so much energy in the outward appearance of my house that I almost always never stop to ask myself questions like I asked the kids this morning. What would we do without each other? When the day is said and done, what is the good stuff I want to remember about it? If given the choice, do I really choose dishes over a game of Sorry with my family? I use my “me time” to clean and organize, run errands no one else wants to, and prep for dinner. Today I think I will call a friend or read a book instead, try to store up some great moments, rather than chunks of time. Who knows, it may help to make all of us a little less moody.

*The family photo above was taken by my friend and local photographer, Amy Bartley. Her work reflects her lighthearted nature and we had a ton of fun working with her on this particular day. I like how this picture reflects how we are all capable of living in the moment.

Snack Recipe #1: Kettle Corn

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A few years ago we discovered, by the grace of none other than Alton Brown, how to pop popcorn at home on our stove top with out any of those fancy whirly thingamajigs.  We stopped buying microwaved versions and never looked back-nothing beats fresh-popped corn.  I will also add that we use a large stockpot with lid.  We used to use a large bowl and foil, as Alton suggests, but a pot works just as well and the handles make it easier to agitate the pot.  This popcorn recipe is brought to you by my good friend, Tara.  She shared this with me after she spent a weekend with her friend, Emily, who shared it with her.  Now I am sharing it with YOU!  I have made a tiny adjustment on the sugar, simply because we favor more savory than sweet flavor, but you can use up to a 1/2 cup if you like.

Home-popped Kettle Corn

1/4 cup coconut oil

1/4 popcorn kernels

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1-2 tsp fine sea salt, or 1 tsp popcorn salt

In a large stock pot with a tight fitting lid, melt the coconut oil over medium high heat.  Add the popcorn kernels and then the sugar once the oil is looking bubbly.  Replace the lid and continue to agitate the pot over the flame until the kernels stop popping.  *Note: this will cause you to sweat and perhaps even give you an arm cramp-keep on!  The result is totally delicious and you will say, as you eat it, “I can’t believe I made this at home!”  Sprinkle the salt over the popped corn and toss to mix.  Eat it until you feel sick.

queen elsa

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There isn’t much to say really, is there?  She is everywhere all of a sudden.  Flooding our speakers with her beautiful power ballad, haunting me with her coy cat eyes, possessing our daughters with her icy long fingers and silvery … Continue reading