Tuesday, May 31, 2016

On Dying Trees, Retiring Chefs, and Graduating Daughters


As I write this, I’m watching history being cut down. A large maple tree, which has probably stood in the middle of my back yard as long as this house has stood on our street, is being removed. The upper branches, still bright with new, green leaves, floating to the ground like blades of grass blown in the wind. The larger branches dropped, one by one, onto the plantings below.

And the main trunk, which from the outside still looked strong and sturdy, sawn in half and brought down with a *thud* that shook the whole house.

Problem is, that trunk was half dead. Full of rotting wood that crumbled at the touch.

This tree, the one that turned golden-orange in the fall and had been the source of many a jumping pile when my girls were younger, the one that held memories of high-soaring branches against winter skies, the one surrounded by hostas planted by previous owners, had become a hazard.

Over the weekend my husband wanted proof. He needed to know for sure that, should a violent storm suddenly blow in, the tree was a threat to our home. He took a pitchfork and stabbed at the bark a little. And that’s all it took. The bark pulled away, revealing more and more rotting wood underneath the surface.

As much as we didn’t want to admit it, the tree needed to go.

*****

I just learned that one of our favorite restaurants closed over the weekend. It was a tiny French restaurant that we had discovered several years ago in a neighboring town.

It was an unassuming place—cheesy d├ęcor, twinkling lights, and oilcloth covering the tables—with the most amazing food that has ever crossed my lips. The first time B and I ate there (probably for an anniversary or a special night out), we asked the waiter what we should order. We were new to French bistro food, and we weren’t sure whether we’d like it or not.

We shouldn’t have worried.

The waiter told us to order the short rib ravioli—it was one of the chef’s specialties—so we did. And when it came to the table we simply sat and drank in the rich scent with silly smiles on our faces. The fontina cheese and short rib meat combined with the deep, dark sherry sauce, simply deserved to be savored like a fine French wine.

Thus began years of family celebrations at that little French place with the famous chef who had cooked for the likes of Frank Sinatra at the Beverly Hills Hotel years before and many other famous people in France long before that.

But this place was his swan song. His retirement. His couronnement.

And it had become like home to us. A comfort. A warm meal on a winter’s night.

Now it’s gone, suddenly pulled away, memories never again to be made there.

*****

Over the weekend our youngest graduated from high school.

[Note: for some reason, I resist calling her my “baby,” even though she technically is. But I don’t like calling her that because she is not a baby, and I don’t want her to act like one. She happens to be the youngest in the line of three, eighteen years old, but she is not my “baby” any longer. Am I weird for thinking that way? Probably.]

So Julia graduated. And we celebrated.

Family drove and flew in from across the country. Friends came to a party we threw on Sunday. Blue and orange balloons (for her NEW school) floated across a perfect early-summer sky.

Our weekend was grand and fun (and also exhausting), but it was also another closing of the books as we will never again have a child in school here. The empty nest is looming.

At various parties we bumped into families and teachers from elementary and middle school days, and we reminisced about “back then.” We talked about how the kids have grown and where they are headed next.

Some, I know, would like to hold on to those “good old” days when everything seemed simpler and sweeter and more serene. But that’s not possible.

Time marches on. Trees die. Favorite chefs retire. And our children move on.

Yet our hearts are forever tied to those memories, those places, those experiences.

For me, time around that tree, over incredible meals, and with our wonderful children are times when I have laughed and dreamed and become just a little richer for the lives that have touched mine.

Today, I’ll admit, I’m struggling just a little with putting the past behind me. But I know the days ahead will be just fine—with or without that tree in our back yard; with or without the amazing food that we occasionally got to enjoy; with or without my children running through my house—because I know that my life is more than the past. I have been promised a future.

Today, despite some changes I don't necessarily like, I can look back and be grateful.


Friday, May 27, 2016

Fabulous Friday Food :: Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp


Last weekend I finally had a chance to stroll through our local French Market. I've told you about the French Market before--my happy place on Saturday mornings in the summer.

The market has been open for a few weeks now, but I hadn't had a chance to get down there until last Saturday, and imagine my joy when I noticed huge bundles of my favorite fruit/vegetable (I think there's some kind of debate about this, but not one I'm about to get involved in) stacked on a table.

Ah, rhubarb. Alone, you are sour and bitter and stringy and gross. But paired with some sweet, juicy strawberries and you become some sort of nectar that I can't get enough of.

[You know, that's kind of like people. When we stand alone, we can become bitter, but when we're paired with just the right friend, we become something sweet and delicious. Just a little thought for your day.]

So last weekend we had a family dinner. As in, everyone was home, which is a super-huge reason to celebrate, so I cooked a really great meal. And Kate had a special request: Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp.

I think my love of crisps is well-documented here. I love the texture. I love the sweet-juiciness. I love that it's not a pie (my lack of pie making skills is also well-documented). I love how easy they are to make.

And this crisp is one of my favorites. And apparently one of Kate's favorites, too.

Now that Memorial Day is right around the corner, and since it's rhubarb season (a much-too-short season in my estimation), I thought I'd share this delicious recipe with you. Why not try it this weekend?

You basically need two bowls and an oven. You've got those, right?

In the first bowl, combine 3 cups of chopped rhubarb with 2 cups of sliced strawberries (which are also very good right now). Add some sugar and corn starch and mix well. Set that bowl aside for a few minutes so the fruit has some time to release some of their juices.


In the second bowl, combine the topping ingredients: oats (I prefer the regular oats to the quick cooking oats, but you can just use what you have on hand), brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt, and melted butter. Mix those together until you have a crumbly mixture.


Now you have to make a decision: ramekins or baking dish? I kind of like to use ramekins because that way everyone feels like they have their own special little dessert. But if you're feeding more than six people, you might want to make one baking dish so that it goes a little further. (Or, heck, just double the recipe--you'll want a lot.)

Whatever you choose, butter the dish, then spoon in the fruit, which by now is probably juicy and sweet and you might just want to eat it straight from the bowl.

Next, take the topping and crumble it evenly over the top. Do not pack it down! You want the topping to be crumbly, not thick. It's a crisp, not a pie.

That's it! Now pop it in the oven and bake for 35-40 minutes if you're using ramekins or 40-45 minutes if you're using a baking dish. Just keep checking it. When the fruit is bubbling around the edges and the topping is getting a little brown, you're ready to go.


Serve the whole thing with some vanilla ice cream and you're in summertime heaven.

(Yeah, you'd think I'd show you a picture with some actual vanilla ice cream melting over the top of the warm crisp. But no. As I usually do, I forgot to take a picture of the final product. We were so excited to dig in that the picture went by the wayside. Use your imagination.)

Have a happy Memorial Day Weekend, friends!! I'll be celebrating our youngest daughter's high school graduation with all of our family, so I know ours will be fun. See you next week!

****

For a printable version of this recipe, click here.

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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Do Hard Things


At least twice a week someone asks me, “So what do you DO now that you’re not teaching?”

Seems that people like others to live in neat little boxes, to work regular hours, to have a job or kids at home to fill their time.

They like titles.

I like titles too. I tend to categorize people—“She’s a doctor;” “He’s a plumber.”—just as much as the next guy. Yet, my season of life right now can’t be categorized.

I’m not working for pay, but I’m busy every day.

I’m not a teacher, but I am still a mother, a volunteer, a board member, a writer, a mentor.

I’m also getting ready to do something really hard: let go.

My nest will be empty this fall, and for as much as I feel excited about this new phase of life, I know it will be hard. I’ll have days when I will just have to push through, to gut it out, and to just make it to the next day.

I’m not kidding myself here. It will be hard.

It takes preparation to do hard things. It takes training. It takes practice. It takes prayer.

And it takes commitment to a cause higher than oneself. (In my case, my daughters’ growth and maturity is definitely worth the temporary pain this will cause me.)

*****

This past weekend I was deeply privileged to take part in a very special ceremony. A young man whom my husband and I have mentored for the past three years was commissioned into the Army as a Second Lieutenant.

A few weeks prior to the ceremony, Sam asked if I would help out by pinning the shoulder board onto his uniform during the ceremony. Usually this is an honor reserved for the mother or girlfriend of the cadet, but since his mom couldn’t be there that weekend, he asked me to stand in.

(And, yes, there were some tears. Obviously.)

Sam’s sister and I pinned those boards, one on each side, like we were champs, thrilled to have a small part in the service. It felt significant, like we were helping launch him into this next phase of life.


Later, his dad, a retired Air Force Colonel, administered the oath of office.

“I, _________, having been appointed an officer of the Army of the United States, . . . do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

(More tears.)

I watched as our dear friend, handsome in his uniform, stood in front of his father and those gathered in the auditorium, raised his right hand, and took a most solemn oath of allegiance to and protection of our country. I could not have been prouder.

I’ve thought many times over the past few days about this hard thing he is doing.

He has already practiced for four years. He has trained, hard. And I’m sure he has prayed quite a bit about this next step he is taking.

He is prepared.

But it won’t be easy. He will have days when he will wonder what he’s done, when he will want to quit, when all he can do is rely on the training he’s received and just keep going.

This commitment he’s made is not easy, but it is to a cause greater than himself. I am so thankful for the men and women who make such a commitment to our country. 

*****

We’ve told our girls over the years to do hard things. When it comes to a sport, a job, school, or a friendship gone awry, we’ve often counseled them with the same words: “Do hard things.”

In other words, keep at it. Stick to your commitments. Say you’re sorry. Grant forgiveness.

Whatever it is that seems hard right now is probably the right thing to do because what I’ve learned is that the good stuff of life never comes easily. It takes time, dedication, commitment. It takes a character that has developed over time, one that will last.

And developing character? That’s hard.

But the rewards? Oh, the reward of knowing you’ve done the right thing is so worth it.

*****

As for me, I’m going to do that hard thing (OK, two hard things) this summer. I’m going to send my last daughter off to college, and I’m going to help another daughter move across the country. I’m going to keep my chin up and not whine or complain.

I'm going to let go of my children this summer like it's my job . . . and it is!

(I may cry a little, too, but that’s normal, right?)

Because I know that what’s best for my children is to pursue their dreams, and they can’t do that sitting here at home. They need to be free to fly. Without reservation.

What's hard for you right now? Maybe it's getting up night after night with a newborn. Or watching someone you love walk through a cancer diagnosis. Maybe you've been given a not-great diagnosis yourself. Or maybe it's just getting out of bed to face another day full of really hard things.

Your hard thing may not be the same as my hard thing, but each of our hard things make us who we are. People of character. People of commitment. People who see beyond our own needs and act for the greater good.

Persevere, friend. Carry on. And pray like crazy. 

You've got this.

*****
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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Intentional Parenting :: Reprise :: Intentional Stewardship, Part 2




Last week we talked about some principles for teaching our kids about money, focusing on giving and saving. This week we'll talk about a financial principle that's a lot more fun: spending. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

*****

Spending
“One for God, one for saving, two for spending.” Our family mantra. 

B learned it another way when he was growing up: “Give ten percent, save ten percent, and spend the rest with joy and thanksgiving.” 

Those numbers may have been tweaked a bit over the years, but the principal remains: if God has blessed you with money to spend, enjoy it. Don’t squander it, make sure you’re giving, but also don’t feel guilty about it.

When our girls were younger we adopted an allowance principal that my parents made up for me when I was a teenager. It taught me so much about how to budget and how to handle money that we thought it was important to share with our girls. (Let me say right here that I know lots of parents who have different philosophies about allowance. This is just what has worked for us.)

Once our girls reached high school we put them on a bi-weekly allowance. Their allowance is an amount that B and I decided upon together, one that we feel is fair, that allows our girls to pay for their clothing and entertainment expenses. We still, however, expected them to tithe on their allowance. If they don’t feel like they have enough money for all of their expenses, then they needed to get a job to make up the difference.

Believe me, as a parent this freed me up so much because I didn’t have to make on-the-spot decisions about whether I could afford to pay for this expensive pair of jeans or that trendy top. The girls had to make those decisions for themselves based on whether they needed it, wanted it, or could afford it. I didn't have any input, and the way I saw it, the whole situation was a win-win all the way around.

As soon as our kids turned 14 (the youngest age our bank would allow) we got them a checking account and a debit card. This way they could write checks to church for their tithe and transfer money into their savings account using the ATM machine.  (Today they do all of that online.) We also wanted them to have the responsibility of paying a bill each month, so we make them pay for a portion of their cell phone bill.
 

Some of you may be reading this and thinking, “
Wow, that’s harsh! Making your kids pay for their own clothes AND camp (see last week’s post) AND still give some away. What do your kids think about it?

Well, I asked them, and they all said they liked the allowance concept because they didn’t have to run to me for money all the time. They could make decisions for themselves about whether they wanted to pay to see a movie with their friends or whether they wanted to save their money for something else. If they wanted to buy expensive jeans, they could; if they preferred to buy cheaper jeans and something else, they could do that too.
 

Lessons Learned
As I was writing this post the first time around I asked Kate, who was almost 18 at the time, about some of the financial lessons she had learned over the years. Here’s what she told me.

• It’s very easy to get into trouble with your money. You must be very wise with how you use it.

• Saving money now will make you happier later. (At this point I thought I had to do some re-teaching, but Kate clarified her point. She knows that money does not bring happiness, but what she meant was a sense of security, maybe a sense of peace in knowing that there is a little money saved up for the future.)

• She said she’s learned the value of a budget through getting an allowance. Getting into the habit of paying a bill every month has been good too.

• She said it has been good to do her taxes with her dad instead of him doing it for her. B takes the time to walk through the tax form with her each year, showing her how it’s done rather than just having her sign on the bottom line.

• It’s O.K. to spend money on yourself . . . as long as it’s not in excess.

• She also learned the importance of staying out of debt. (This is a biggie for a kid! Start teaching them this NOW!)

Kate’s final comment to me really made me stop for a second. She said, “You and Dad have prepared us to be poor when we get out of college.” She said that our stories of really struggling in those early years have made an impact on her, and they made her realize that she probably wouldn’t have much money right out of school. And that’s O.K.
 

She also said that too many kids her age just think that they will get out of college and live the way their parents live. Kate knows that she will have to work for what she has, she’ll have to budget with what she has, and she will have to be a good steward of her finances because, after all, it’s God’s money in the first place.

I warned her that there are no guarantees that she’ll have much money EVER, and that’s O.K. too. In the day and age we’re living, we really need to give our kids a realistic picture of what may be ahead for them. (Believe me, my financially savvy husband does not paint a rosy picture of the economy.)

But by giving our kids some good, solid financial principals to live by, they can be on a healthy path toward financial freedom. By helping them to become good stewards of their money now, we are helping them to, hopefully, stay out of financial trouble later.

Now talk. What have you done to teach your kids about money? What changes do you need to make to teach your kids sound financial principles? Leave me a comment!

*****

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Friday, April 29, 2016

Fabulous Friday Food :: Mexican Food Done Three Ways {slow cooker recipes}



Some days call for taking it slow. Some days call for Mexican food. Some days call for walking in the door to a dinner that's ready to go.

And some days call for all three.

This week we're talking Mexican food done in a slow cooker for just those days when you want to throw something together and forget about it until dinner time. And, bonus! I'm giving you not just one, but THREE ways to do Mexican in the slow cooker.

This week's post is for Kate, my busy working girl who likes to cook but needs new ideas. Easy ideas. Slow cooker ideas. (And who asked me to do a post specifically for the slow cooker).

I got to thinking, what do I like to eat from the slow cooker? And one of my favorite things is Mexican food. Carnitas, tacos, shredded meat of any kind.

So I decided to try slow cooker Mexican recipes using three different types of meat: pork, chicken, and beef. I thought I'd do a little taste test and tell you which I liked best, but to be honest, I loved them all so much I couldn't pick a clear winner (although one person in the house did say that she liked the pork the best). The recipes I'm sharing today are all equally delicious, easy to prepare, and versatile.

And, as a bonus, they make a TON of food, so you can use the meat for leftovers all week. Think tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, nachos. No two meals need to be the same. (Although, if you really like tacos, go ahead and eat them every night. There's no rule about not repeating meals that I know of.)

This week, rather than step-by-step instructions, I'm just going to tell you a little about each recipe. Then you can just head to my Recipes page to get the printable recipe.

First up, Pork Carnitas.

This recipe came about because I saw a huge chunk of meat at Costco and knew I needed to have it. (Yeah, I'm not that girl who sees a new jacket or a cute workout top at Costco and needs it. I see meat and need to try it out. I'm so weird.)

Pork shoulder is a cut I had heard discussed on Food Network lots of times, but one that I had never bought before. I thought it would be fatty and gross, but actually, the meat turned out to be tender and flavorful. Absolutely delicious!

For this recipe, I bought a 7-pound pork shoulder and cut it in half. One half went directly into the freezer for another time (hmmm, this weekend, perhaps?), and the other half got cut into chunks, seasoned with a spice rub, and placed in my slow cooker.

You guys, there was nothing to it! Seriously. Rub the meat. Put it in the slow cooker. Squeeze some lime juice over the top. Chop up some onions and garlic. Add a couple of chipotle peppers and some chicken stock, and you're DONE!

Oh, the juicy goodness that came out of this one. We loved it.

[And can you believe that I forgot to take a picture? Yeah, me too.]

Up next, Slow-Cooker Chili Chicken Tacos (via Martha Stewart because, well, she's Martha and it's hard to improve on perfection).

I was a little hesitant to try this recipe because it called for boneless, skinless chicken thighs, and I am not, repeat NOT, a dark meat person. But I searched a ton of recipes for the one that met my criteria--moist, easy, and sounded delicious--and this one seemed to fit the bill.

So I put my big girl panties on and used the chicken thighs. Oh, I know, I could have probably substituted boneless, skinless chicken breasts, but sometimes the white meat can turn out dry in the slow cooker, so I got the thighs. I'm so glad I did!

This chicken turned out so tender and delicious, plus it was SO EASY to throw together.

You basically just toss all of the ingredients in the crock pot and let 'er go. Amazing.



Finally, the beef. This may be my favorite recipe of the three because I'm a farm girl and I love me some beef.

I've been making this recipe for a while now, and I can tell you that it's really, really good. It takes a little more effort than the previous two recipes, but it's worth it. Trust me.


As far as cuts of meat go, I've used a chuck roast (a pot roast for those of you who don't know your cuts of meat), and I've used round steak. The chuck roast comes out a little more juicy and tender, but in a pinch, round steak works just fine. It's a less fatty cut, too, if you're worried about that kind of thing.

For this one you make a spice rub, which you rub all over the meat, and then you brown the meat in a skillet or dutch oven until the meat is very brown on both sides. These are the extra steps. If you can get through rubbing and browning, you're home free.

Next, just place the meat in your slow cooker, throw some onions, garlic, chipotle peppers, and beef stock on top, and forget about it.

Until you come back home later and your house smells like Mexican food heaven.


Obviously, all three of these recipes require shredding the meat with two forks. You can do this. I have faith in you.

And toppings. I suggest avocado or homemade guacamole, tomatoes, salsa, cheese, sour cream, lettuce, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime.

Ahhhhh. This is making me so hungry that I'm going to go thaw some meat and make some more.

And you should too. Make one of these recipes this weekend. You'll have more time to get outside and do fun stuff and your family will thank you.

For the printable version of these recipes, click on the recipe title below.

Pork Carnitas
Slow Cooker Chili Chicken Tacos
Shredded Beef Tacos

Let me know how it goes in the comments!

*****
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