Sunday, September 20, 2015

Different, not less.


For months, I've been trying to figure out the best way to share this, or whether it was even appropriate to share at all.  This is part of why I've been quiet the past few months, and why the posting has been infrequent.  But especially over the past week, I've felt a strong pull to let you into our life.   I feel inauthentic by not talking about this, and I feel as though I'm faking it by pretending that everything is status quo.

For almost the past year, I've alluded to family issues, developmental delays, emotional times, and busy busy weeks.  All of those are simply euphemisms and roundabout ways to get to the point without saying the words.  The truth is -- our sweet Henry was diagnosed with autism this summer.

It wasn't a surprise; we expected this news.  He's nonverbal with a whole host of sensory, behavioral, and social issues.  Yet I still experienced pretty much every emotion under the sun when I heard those words.  I cried both tears of relief and tears of sadness.  Relief because it meant that we now had a diagnosis for what we've known all along, and we could begin to move forward with a real plan in place.  Sadness because, of course I was sad!  Since his diagnosis, I've continued to experience all sorts of conflicting emotions.  But one thing has grown stronger, and that's my love for Henry.  Yes, being diagnosed with autism is indeed life-changing news.  But it did not change our life.  We go on like we always have -- laughing and loving.

Henry has the sweetest soul you've ever known.  If you want to witness pure innocence, just look into his big brown eyes.  When he engages with you, it will melt your heart; whether its a fist bump, a high five, or the rare kiss. Henry is my hero.  Life is not easy for him, and he has a long road ahead of him.  But he wakes up smiling every morning, and he loves life in a way that I've never seen before.  His spirit is strong, and I know he's going to be okay.

Love needs no words, and I feel and see true, unadulterated love every time I look at Henry and anytime he looks at me.  Caroline already knew that Henry was different,  and that his brain works differently from ours; she knew that Henry doesn't use words, and he doesn't always "know how to make good choices."  When we explained Henry's autism to Caroline, we did so with the help of the book My Brother Charlie.  There is a page that I've since bookmarked.  As Caroline read this passage aloud, she replaced "Charlie" with "Henry," and said that this is how she feels about him.  It's how we all feel.

I've learned from Henry that love doesn't always come from what you say.  It can also come from what you do.  And so we do right by Henry.  We love him strong.  And we watch over him with the might of angels.  We have to.


Part of my initial sadness was due to the fact that he's a twin.  He's forever being compared to Tucker, and I felt like it wasn't fair to Henry to live in that comparison for his whole life.  Until I realized something: he has an advocate and protector in Tucker.  They might not be on the same path, but Henry has Tucker (and Caroline and Smith) as built in advocates for life.  I truly feel that they are a gift for us and Henry in that way.  Caroline has already assumed that role; she is fiercely protective of him, and she has made it her mission to educate her friends on autism.

I don't intend to sugar coat this.  It's not a fun road we're on.  We have some really bad moments.  He struggles every. single. day.  We garner a lot of stares and disapproving looks, and have already encountered many people who simply think we need to do a better job of disciplining him.  Some days I feel good about the hand we've been dealt, and I feel good about our plan.  But some days I count down the hours until I can crawl into bed and cry myself to sleep.  At the unfairness of it all; for us, and for the millions of other families who are going though the same thing, in this club that none of us asked to join.

We don't know what the future holds for Henry.  We are hopeful that with the intensive early interventions we are doing, he will be able to use words to communicate and grow to be independent and highly functional.  In a few weeks, he'll be starting at an autism therapy-focused preschool, so we are very excited to see the progress he will make there.  For now, we live and we love Henry, and we've adopted this song by Phillip Phillips as our anthem to him.  These are the word I wish he could understand. Because if nothing else, I want him to always know how very loved he is.

Hold on to me as you go
As we roll down these unfamiliar roads
And though this wave is stringing us along
Just know you're not alone
I'm gonna make this place your home.

Settle down, it'll all be clear
Don't pay no mind to the demons they fill you with fear
The trouble - it might drag you down
If you get lost you can always be found
Just know you're not alone
I'm gonna make this place your home.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sweet Corn Queso Dip

Sweet Corn Queso Dip 

Normally as we round the corner into the fall, I'm digging in my heels and refusing to acknowledge the end of summer.  I'm definitely not one of those people who turns into PUMPKIN EVERYTHING in mid august… or mid September even.  Up until September 23rd, I'm firmly still in summer-mode.  Thus, while bloggers everywhere are bringing you pumpkin and apples, I'm bringing you sweet corn queso dip.  I might not be a cool, up to the minute blogger, but I'm living in the now.  And the now is gorgeous weather, football, corn, and queso.  Queso is always in the now.

This queso is a little more than just corn mixed into queso.  You puree some of the kernels, then mix in whole kernels; thus creating a perfect corny bite.  While this is an ode to summer corn, it's also pretty much a perfect snack for watching football, cooking out, or just sitting outside and enjoying the perfect weather with a margarita.

I'm pretty much a sucker for any queso dip, but combining it with some of my favorite summer produce was revolutionary.  We all huddled around this scooping, dipping, and munching until the dish was scraped clean.  So whether you are a fall-lover or a stage five summer-clinger, this dip will definitely make you happy!  Long live queso!

Sweet Corn Queso Dip

Sweet Corn Queso Dip
adapted from Food and Wine, December 2013

While you can definitely use frozen corn for this, I'd highly recommend that you use fresh corn when it's in it's peak!  

  • 3 cups fresh corn kernels (4-5 ears).
  • reserved cobs from corn
  • 2 Tbs canola oil
  • 1 poblano chile, stemmed, seeded, and diced
  • 1/2 medium onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • kosher salt
  • 1 tsp chile powder
  • 8 oz Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
  • 2 Tbs minced fresh cilantro
  • cilantro, tomatoes, onions, jalapeño slices, etc for garnish
Cut the kernels from the cob.  Using the back of a spoon, scrape the spent cobs to "milk" them.  

In a blender, combine half the corn kernels, the corn milk, and 1/3 cup of water.  Puree until smooth.

In a medium skillet, heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the poblano and onion, and cook until softened, stirring often, about 5 minutes.  Stir in the remaining corn, a big pinch of salt, garlic, and chile powder.  Cook an additional 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the corn puree and stir to combine.  Bring to a simmer.  Cook until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes.

Reduce the heat to low and stir in the cheese, a little at a time, until it is melted and incorporated.  Remove from heat and stir in the cilantro, then season with additional salt if needed.  Garnish with diced tomatoes, more cilantro, jalaponeo slice, etc.  Serve immediately with tortilla chips.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Cola-Grilled Flank Steak with Fritos Chilaquiles

Coke-Marinated Flank Steak over Fritos Chilaquiles

Do you need a minute here?  A minute to process this?  It's crazy, I know.  When I told Joey what I was making for dinner, he asked if it was a "gas station food challenge." It was not. But what it was, was an irresistible recipe that I couldn't stop thinking and daydreaming about from the moment I saw it.  I have a not-so-secret love of Fritos, so Fritos, cooked in salsa?  Uh, yeah.  Sounds right up my alley.

This was a really fun dinner, and one that I would actually love to serve to company.  How kitschy  and cute is this?  A big platter of Fritos cooked in salsa, topped with a sweet and spicy grilled steak?  It's a little out there, but in the best way possible.  What a conversation starter this dinner is!

Because this is from Food and Wine, they give a wine pairing recommendation, but I'm hard pressed to serve this with anything other than a jack and coke or a forty of beer. ;)

Coke-Marinated Flank Steak over Fritos Chilaquiles 

Cola-Grilled Flank Steak with Fritos Chilaquiles
adapted from Food and Wine
serves 4 to 6

  • 4 cups of coca-cola, preferably made with cane sugar (instead of HFCS)
  • 1 Tbs This green curry paste
  • 1 jalapeño chiles, thinly sliced
  • 1 1/2 lbs flank steak, trimmed and cut lengthwise and crosswise to make 4 steaks
  • 1 Tbs canola oil, plus more for brushing
  • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups salsa verde
  • 8 oz Fritos, divided
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 avocados, diced
  • 3 Tbs Cotija or queso fresco cheese
  • lime wedges
In a 9x13 inch baking dish, whisk the coke with the green curry paste and jalapeños.  Add the flank steaks and turn them several times to thoroughly coat them with the marinade. Allow to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.  

Meanwhile, light and prepare the grill.  

Remove the steaks from the marinade and brush with oil and season generously with salt and pepper.  Grill, turning once, until medium-rarre, about 6 to 8 minutes total.  Transfer to a cutting board, tent loosely with foil, and allow rest for 10 minutues.

As the steaks rest, prepare the chilaquiles.  

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add the salsa verde and bring to a simmer.  Cook until slightly reduced and thickened, about 4 minutes.  Add half of the fritos and cook, stirring constantly about 2 minutes.  Remove from heat, stir in the remaining fritos, along with 1/4 cup of the cilantro and half of the avocado and cheese.   Transfer the chilaquiles to a platter.

Sice the steak thinly across the grain, and arrange it over the chilaquiles, along with any accumulated juices.  Scatter the remaining avocado, cilantro, and cheese over top, and serve with lime wedges.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Macaroni and Cheese-Stuffed Zucchini Boats

Mac and Cheese Stuffed Zucchini Boats

Oh boy.  There's a lot to love about these babies.  Creamy, cheesy, mac and cheese baked inside tender, sweet zucchini?  Yeah, sign me right up.

Just because there's half a zucchini in every serving, I'm not fooling myself (or you guys) into thinking this is healthy.  BUT.  It is built in portion control.  And there's a serving of veggies along with your carbs and cheese.  Thus, it's not the most indulgent calorie bomb in the world, but rather a nice treat that you don't have to feel super totally guilty about enjoying.  Really you can use any mac and cheese recipe you'd like; I'm just sharing what I did this time… but feel free to mix it up or add some extras!  Bacon would be great, as would tomatoes, shredded zucchini, chicken, or an infinite number of cheeses as well.

My kids are mac and cheese aficionados… er, addicts.  So I fully expected them to just scoop out the mac and cheese and leave the zucchini, but surprisingly, they ate up the zucchini as well!  I've made countless variations of stuffed zucchini - sausage and cheese, chili, enchiladas, etc.  The mac and cheese was a new one for me, but it's definitely going into my rotation.  Do you have zucchini coming out of your ears these days?  If so, stuff it with some mac and cheese!

Macaroni and Cheese-Stuffed Zucchini Boats
inspired by Melt, by Stephanie Stiavetti & Garrett McCord

  • 3-4 medium zucchini (about 3 lbs)
  • olive oil, for brushing
  • 5 oz elbow macaroni or other small pasta shape
  • 1 Tbs butter
  • 1 shallot, finely minced
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1/4 tsp dry mustard powder
  • pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1 Tbs flour
  • 1 cup milk or half-and-half
  • kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 oz Swiss or Gruyere cheese, shredded
  • 3 oz sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Halve each zucchini lengthwise, and use a large spoon of scrape out the seeds and filling, leaving a thin border on all sides.  Brush the inside lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Arrange in a single layer, cut side-down, on a baking sheet or 9x13 inch baking dish.  Cook 5 to 7 minutes, and remove from the oven.

Decrease the oven temperature to 350 degrees.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add the pasta and cook until just al dente, about 8 to 9 minutes (or according to the package instructions).

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.  Add the garlic, shallot, mustard powder, and cayenne pepper and cook, stirring constantly, about 1 minute.  Add the flour and cook, again, stirring constantly, until the flour is golden-brown, 2 to 3 minutes.  Slowly pour in the milk, whisking constantly.  Bring to a simmer, reduce heat, and cook until the mixture is slightly thickened, about 4 minutes.  

Remove from heat and stir in the cheese, one handful at a time, until it's melted and the sauce is smooth.    Reserve about 1/4 cup of the shredded cheese for topping.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Stir in the cooked pasta.

Using a large spoon, fill each zucchini boat with the macaroni and cheese, and arrange the boats in a single layer in a 9x13 inch baking dish.  Sprinkle the reserved cheese over the top.  

Bake 25 to 30 minutes, or until the mac and cheese is bubbly and the zucchini is tender and cooked through.  Serve.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Okra-Cornmeal Cakes with Whipped Goat Cheese

Okra Cornmeal Cakes with Whipped Goat Cheese and Black Eyed Pea Salad

I'm not always the best at "going with the flow, " and I don't particularly consider myself to be easy going.  I like order.  I like plans.  And I like to know what's coming and what to expect.  I only like surprises if I didn't know the surprise was coming (as in, don't tell me "I have a surprise for you!"  and then make me wait!). Oh, right.  I'm also impatient.

Thus, cooking on the fly is not really my thing.  Sure, I make up and develop my own recipes, but it's always with a plan in place already, or at the very least, a general idea of what I'm going for.  Never do I start cooking dinner without having at least a vague idea of what I want to end up eating.

Okra Cornmeal Cakes with Whipped Goat Cheese and Black Eyed Pea Salad 

 But maybe I should.  Because that's what I did when I created this dinner.  I picked up a bounty of beautiful produce that morning at the farmer's market, with no real intention or plan for any of it.  I knew I wanted to make a veggie-heavy dinner that night, but that's all the direction I had.  So I started by cooking my black eyed peas and chopping some veggies.  I thought about making some sort of bean burger with the black eyed peas, a southern vegetable risotto, a hash topped with a runny egg, or a simple veggie-heavy salad.  But then I struck gold when I recalled these okra-cormeal pancakes I've had saved for ages.  And I thought they'd go well with my black eyed pea salad.  I was done!  Or so I thought… I'd picked up a wheel of the most amazing aged goat cheese that morning at the market, and I decided to incorporate that as well.

I ended up creating a napoleon of sorts… or rather, stacks of deliciousness if you don't want to use fancy terminology.  Buttery, crisp okra cornmeal pancakes, topped with whipped goat cheese and black eyed pea salad… repeat layers.  Absolutely incredible, and for sure one of the highlights of my summer cooking.   This dinner totally hit the spot, and we were exclaiming and "mmm-ing" with every bite.  My picky toddlers even ate the pancakes, okra and all!

So lesson learned:  sometimes it's nice to loosen the reigns a bit, and just cook through improv. And while I'm at it, maybe I should apply that same advice to my life.  It can't hurt, right?!

Okra Cornmeal Cakes with Whipped Goat Cheese and Black Eyed Pea Salad 

Okra-Cornmeal Cakes with Whipped Goat Cheese
cakes adapted from Basic to Brilliant, Y'all; Whipped Goat Cheese from Smitten Kitchen

  • 2 cups yellow cornmeal
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 Tbs melted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups water, plus more if needed
  • 8 oz okra, stems trimmed, sliced 1/2 inch thick
  • 1 jalapeño, cored, seeded, and finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • canola oil, for frying
  • 3 Tbs heavy cream
  • 4 oz goat cheese, softened
  • black eyed pea salad
Line a baking sheet with paper towels or a lint-free kitchen towel, and set aside.  

Prepare the batter by whisking together the cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl.  Combine the egg, butter, and water in a large liquid measuring cup.  Pour into the dry ingredients and whisk until just incorporated.  Add the okra, jalapeño, and garlic, and stir to combine, using a wooden spoon (The batter is thick, but not dry.  Add water if needed, a few tablespoons at a time).

Heat half of the oil over medium heat in a 12-inch skillet, preferably cast iron.  Scoop 1/4 cup of batter into the skillet, and use the back of a spoon or the measuring cup to press the batter into an even layer.  Repeat with more batter to make as many pancakes as you can fit into a single layer without crowding (likely 3-4 per batch).  Cook until the bottoms of the cake are brown and bubbles begin to form on the tops, about 2 to 3 minutes.  Use a spatula to turn the cakes, and cook on the second side, an additional 2 to 3 minutes.  Transfer to the lined baking sheet, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and repeat with the remaining batter and oil.  

Meanwhile, use an electric mixer to whip the heavy cream until peaks form.  Add the goat cheese and beat until the cheese is light and fluffy.

To assemble, spread about a tablespoon of the whipped goat cheese on an okra cake, and top that with a spoonful of the black eyed pea salad.  Repeat with another okra cake, more goat cheese, and finally a healthy spoonful of salad.  Serve.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Summer Tomato and Black Eyed Pea Salad

Summer Tomato and Black Eyed Pea Salad 

I'd like to introduce you to one of my favorite dishes of all time.  This salad is pretty much on repeat for me all summer long.  Fresh black eyed peas are one of my favorite summer treats, and they really shine in this salad.  The creamy peas, fresh tomatoes, sweet corn, and tangy vinaigrette all come together in perfect summer vegetable harmony.  I make a big batch of it to go with dinner one night, then eat it in various ways throughout the week - as is, over greens for lunch, over chicken or fish, rolled up into a wrap with turkey and cheese, and my personal favorite, as a salsa with tortilla chips for a snack.  Most recently I used this salad in an absolutely killer dish, and I'll be sharing the details of that later this week!

This salad is not only versatile, but the flavor combinations are endless as well.   As written here, it is very simply and neutrally seasoned, but I sometimes like to use lime juice, cilantro, and add some jalapeños to the mix as well.  I've also been known to mix in a little crumbled bacon.  A huge variety of veggies work well here too -- green beans, okra, shredded zucchini, bell peppers… really anything you find at the farmer's market this time of year will work beautifully.  What grows together, goes together!

Summer Tomato and Black Eyed Pea Salad
barely adapted from Bon Appétit,Y'all, by Virginia Willis

  • 3 ears of corn, shucked
  • 2 cups fresh or frozen black eyed peas (or lady peas, or any other field pea)
  • 2 large tomatoes, cored, seeded and chopped
  • 1/2 sweet onion, preferably Vidalia, finely diced
  • 1 stalk of celery, finely diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup basil, chopped
  • 3 Tbs fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 Tbs apple cider vinegar
  • pinch of sugar
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add the corn and cook until tender, 2 to 3 minutes.  Use tongs to remove from the pot, and drain them on a paper towel-lined plate.

Return the water to a boil and add the black eyed peas.  Simmer until they are tender but not mushy, 15 to 20 minutes (cooking time will depend on their freshness, so start checking by tasting around 12 to 15 minutes).

Meanwhile, use a sharp knife to cut the corn kernels off the cob.  Place them in a large bowl, and add the tomatoes, onion, celery, garlic, and basil.  

Once the peas are cooked, drain them in a colander and rinse well with cold water.  Drain them very well, shaking to remove as much water as possible, then add them to the bowl with the other vegetables as well.

To make the dressing, whisk together the oil, mustard, and sugar in a small bowl.  Whisking constantly, slowly stream in the oil.  Season with salt and pepper.

Gently stir the dressing into the salad, taste, and season with additional salt and pepper as needed. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Grilled Shrimp and Summer Vegetable Panzanella

Grilled Shrimp and Summer Veggie Panzanella 

This summer has brought about a new family tradition.  On Friday evenings, we meet a few other neighborhood families at the pool, grill our dinner, and engage in general merriment with the kids.  It's something that I very much look forward to all week long.  Because I am who I am, I spend most of the week thinking about what we'll grill and eat, what cocktail I'll mix up, and what we'll eat for dessert.  Sometimes we go simple - burgers or hotdogs, chips, and watermelon.  Sometimes we go REALLY simple and order pizza.  And sometimes I get inspired and end up creating one of my favorite dinners of the summer.

Obviously I'm talking about this salad.  I planned to use my favorite recipe for grilled shrimp, and serve it alongside a simplified zucchini and corn salad, along with some grilled garlic bread.  In a moment of inspiration, I turned it into a grilled shrimp and bread salad.  I was so excited and enamored with the final dish that I made it again a few days later.

This was not only a big hit with Joey and me, but it was a huge hit with the kids as well .  They were especially obsessed with the grilled shrimp and bread, and couldn't get enough.

I have revamped and remixed my chopped summer veggie salad in several ways, spanning numerous cuisines and seasons, but this may be my favorite yet.  When I've made this, I just keep it to the veggies, shrimp, and bread, and leave out the grilled romaine.  I certainly think it would be a great addition though!  If you're looking for a side for this salad, I'd recommend that you keep it simple - a plate of sliced tomato with salt and pepper is perfection here!

Here's to summer grilling and dinner at the pool!


Grilled Shrimp and Summer Veggie Panzanella

Herb-Grilled Shrimp
adapted from Ina Garten
  • 1 1/2 lbs large shrimp, peeled and deveined, but tails left on
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium yellow onion, minced
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh basil
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh black pepper
  • pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 lemon, juiced
Combine all the ingredients and toss to coat the shrimp.  Allow to marinate at room temperature for 1 hour, or in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours.
Summer Vegetable and Grilled Bread Salad
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for dressing
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  • zest of half a lemon
  • 2 ears corn, husk and silks removed
  • 3 medium zucchini, sliced lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick planks
  • 6-8 slices baguette or other crusty bread (I used a roasted garlic loaf and it was really really good!)
  • 2 Tbs chopped fresh basil
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese (about 2 oz)
Prepare the grill to cook at medium-high heat.  Allow to preheat at least 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk together the oil, garlic, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 teaspoon of pepper, lemon zest, and red pepper flakes.

Brush the zucchini, bread slices, and corn with the oil mixture. Reserve the remaining oil mixture to use for the dressing.

Clean the cooking grate, then place the zucchini, corn, and bread slices on the grill.  

For the corn, grill, turning every 2 to 3 minutes, until the kernels are lightly charred all over, about 10 minutes total.

For the zucchini, grill it until it is well-browned and tender (but not mushy), about 4 to 5 minutes per side.

For the bread, grill it 1 to 2 minutes per side, or until it is lightly charred.

Meanwhile, prepare the dressing.  Add enough oil to the remaining oil-garlic-pepper mixture to reach a volume of 1/4 cup, then whisk in the lemon juice.  Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.

Prepare grill. 

 Thread the shrimp on skewers.

Grill the shrimp for about 2 minutes, then flip skewers and grill until cooked through, an additional 1-2 minutes.  Remove from the grill and cover lightly with foil as you prepare the rest of the salad.

Once everything is off the grill, begin building the salad.    Cut the kernels off the corn and add them to a large bowl.  Cut the zucchini crosswise into 1/2 inch-thick slices, and add those as well.  Slice or tear the bread into bite-sized pieces.  Crumble the feta into the bowl, and top with the chopped basil.  Drizzle the dressing over the top, then toss well to combine.  

Divide among plates, then lightly sprinkle each serving with salt and freshly ground pepper.  Top each serving with several shrimp, and serve.