WRITTEN ON June 26th, 2013 BY Meredith AND STORED IN Cheese, Chicken, Dinner, Italian, Leftovers, Pasta, Vegetables

One of my favorite things about this time of year is being able to cook food fresh from my garden.

As a kid, I remember a favorite lunch of cherry tomatoes still warm from the sun, with slices of cheese and a few crackers. BLT’s with garden tomatoes were a treat for everyone – for my dad, brother and me because they were so tasty and for my mom because it was a quick and easy dinner that everyone loved.

We grew pumpkins one year. The wild and crazy vines looked like they fit right into our yard, but we were a little nervous when we realized they had snaked under the fence and trespassed onto Mrs. Long’s perfectly manicured lawn. She took it in stride, left it there all summer and started a competition to see who could grow the bigger pumpkin.

On Sunday nights at my grandmother’s house (better known around this blog as Dot), there were more tomatoes, plus string beans a plenty and cucumbers pickled in the leftover Claussen’s brine and jar (pretty thrifty – she was a child of the depression and also saved used tin foil, washed and folded back into the drawer). We were regaled with stories of her constant battle with the “damn squirrels” and my brother and I secretly laughed at the sight she must have presented to the neighborhood – “that crazy old lady in 5514 is out in her yard again, yelling at the trees.”

Even at an early age, I knew the best cantaloupe came from Debbie’s farmstand on the side of the road where Bellona and 83 met, and that you had to stop on your way to the beach to get the best of the Maryland Silver Queen corn and peaches. I grew up thinking the best of everything in the summer came right from Maryland, and often times from our very own backyard.

This is the third summer I’ve had a kitchen garden. The first summer, it was awesome. I had no clue why. The second summer, it was terrible. I had no clue why. So this spring, I enlisted the help of EARL’s Kitchen Gardens, to help set me straight so that I can plant my own garden for years to come.

So far, so good. We had all sorts of tasty spring crops, like broccoli rabe (my all time favorite green veggie), head lettuces, oodles of herbs and our first figs, just yesterday. My favorite so far as been the sweet peas, which I just harvested the last of this week. I didn’t eat a lot of peas growing up, in fact I don’t think my mother ever served me a single pea, having hated them all her life (she and my uncle apparently used to throw them at each other under the table), so I discovered them only a few short years ago.

They are sweet and delicate, the perfect spring flavor. My son and I have been enjoying them right from the vine, plus I’ve added them to salads and pastas. This recipe used the last of my spring peas.  Though it seems to happen every year, it always catches me by surprise when we go from a chilly, grey, rainy May and early June right into the dog days, sending my tomato plants into a flowering frenzy and signaling the end of the delicate spring plantings.

Tonight, we feast on our own arugula, dressed simply with lemon, good olive oil, kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper, served along side a grilled steak. I love not having to go to the grocery store.

As with anything else in life, I’ve realized over the past few years that a garden is a total leap of faith. Who can explain why some things flourish one year and flounder the next. More than anything, you just have to plant some seeds, give ‘em love, and hope for the best. If nothing else happens, at least you tried. And if all else fails, there’s always the farmers market.

But I’ll tell you one thing – I can’t wait for Luke to taste his first cherry tomato, still warm from the sun.

Give Peas a Chance

Whole Wheat Pasta with Peas, Chicken, Leeks, Spinach and Cheese (makes 4 servings)

I used leftover grilled chicken thighs for this recipe. It’s the perfect way to use up any leftover chicken you may have, or chop up some rotisserie chicken.

½ lb whole wheat penne

1 ½ cups shelled peas

1 ½ cups fresh baby spinach, chopped

1 leek, halved lengthwise and sliced thin

1 ½ cups chopped leftover chicken

1 cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese

¼ cup dry white wine such as Pinot Grigio

¼ cup Olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Cook pasta according to package instructions, reserving ½ cup of the cooking liquid before draining. In the same large pasta pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add leeks, season lightly with salt and pepper. Sweat leeks until they are soft and translucent. Add the chicken and the peas. Season with a little more salt. Saute about 2 minutes. Add pasta water and wine, reduce by half. Add spinach and pasta, cook about 1 minute more until spinach is wilted. Remove from heat, stir in cheese, check for seasonings. Add salt and pepper if needed. Serve immediately.

Little garden helper

Garden Goodness

Try raw peas tossed in an arugula salad with ricotta salata

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WRITTEN ON June 20th, 2013 BY Meredith AND STORED IN Baking, Chocolate, Cookies, Dessert

Over the past month, my son has started saying a few select words. When he started this process, I had high hopes. “Mama” couldn’t be too far off, right? Not so much. Until very recently, my darling boy said one word and one word only. He used it correctly every time, and he used it about 50 times a day. Always very hopefully.

What’s the magic word in our house?

Cookie.

The problem is, I am already totally wrapped around his chubby little finger, and the kid knows it. All he has to do is look at me and say “cooooooo-kie?” with his toothy grin and a giggle and I’m toast.

So I’ve set out to find a healthier version of a cookie, any cookie (he does not discriminate), that I can give him a couple times a day without feeling wracked with Mom-guilt – childhood obesity being on the rise, of course, coupled with the fact that apparently all processed foods, and anything containing dairy, gluten, white sugar or nuts will send us all to an early grave (insert eye roll here). Organics won’t even save you.

Honestly, the way the Mommy world seems to work these days, it would be less frowned upon if I gave him a new trophy every time he said cookie properly (he’s so verbal! I’m encouraging language! His 16 month old self-esteem is soaring!) than if I actually just handed him a damn cookie.

In my quest for a guiltless confection, if such a thing even exists, I stumbled upon coconut oil. Where has this been all my life? The smell conjures hazy, rum-filled afternoons in a hammock on a tropical island (sans toddler), and the consistency is similar to butter so it’s a perfect cholesterol free substitute for baking, especially because, shockingly, it tastes just like, well…coconut.

I bought a jar and considered how best to use it (other than slathering it on my skin and sitting in the sun. Oh, wait, that’s gonna kill me too!). Randomly, I remembered a former high school coach – varsity hockey, a team I was most certainly never a part of, but I did reluctantly end up on her third squad lacrosse team, so I reaped the benefits of her “no bake” chocolate cookies, and I’ve long craved them. A mix of chocolate, peanut butter, oats, sugar and butter, they’re melted together on the stove top in less than five minutes, spooned out onto wax paper and left to chill in the fridge. The perfect icebox, summertime cookie. You never even turn the oven dial.

I’ve revamped them to suit my aforementioned purposes, and I call them my super cookies. Super easy, super healthy, super tasty. I switched out the butter for coconut oil, and to keep things consistent, I switched from regular sugar to coconut sugar, which is much lower on the glycemic index. I used organic 100% cacao powder, gluten free oats, and organic milk. Basically, these puppies are as healthy as it’s gonna get around here (i.e. this is as far as I’ll go).

They’re the perfect sweet treat, rich but not at all cloying. Word to the wise, they melt in the mouth and the hand, so lock the kids in the kitchen and eat ‘em quick, or at the very least, near a hose.

Make no mistake, I’m still a huge fan of a regular old chocolate chip cookie, and I plan to make them for years to come. Hopefully, by then, my son will have learned to ask for a cracker once in a while.

No fake bake

No Bake Super Cookies (makes about 18 cookies)

1 cup coconut sugar

2 tbsp 100% pure cacao powder

1/4 cup coconut oil

1/4 cup milk

1/2 cup natural peanut butter

1 tsp vanilla

1 1/2 cups gluten free oats

Line a baking sheet with wax paper. In a large saucepan, melt the oil, sugar, cacao and milk. Boil about one minute. Remove from heat, add peanut butter, vanilla and oats. Stir to combine. Drop by spoonfuls on to wax paper, let chill in fridge for at least 2 hours. Keep refrigerated.

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WRITTEN ON May 2nd, 2013 BY Meredith AND STORED IN Cheese, Chicken, Dinner, Leftovers, Vegetables

It is a truth universally known (ok, maybe not universal. It’s known among our friends, which some days feels universal) that my husband is a much healthier eater than I.

When we sit at the bar at our local Italian favorite, its standard operating procedure that he will want the thinly sliced eggplant and the grilled veal with cannellini beans, and I will want a pizza. And a pasta. And bread and dessert. And yes, I order all of those things – hey, isn’t that what doggie bags are for?

Way back when, in our early dating life (it’s been 12 years this summer, a fact I am kind of in denial about), we’d try to agree on what to order on Tuesday night for take out. We could get virtually anything delivered in NYC, and I’d always want Chinese, or lasagna pizza from Pizza 33, or burritos from Blockheads.

Hubster generally always wanted to order from a place called The Pump, where he’d crave boring things like whole wheat pita with grilled chicken and spinach. Zzzzzzz…wait, what? Sorry, I just fell asleep.

Strangely enough, I’d always feel so much better about my life, myself, my jeans, after mimicking his choices. I really hate it when he’s right.

Lately, due to a desire to lose the baby weight after a full year and with bathing suit season looming, I’ve been trying to recreate versions of the menu items he loved so much at The Pump. I’m actually finding that I like them too. And while I’m allowing myself to believe that it’s because I’m making them myself and am just a better cook than the linesmen at our former take out haunt, I suspect it’s for the same reason that I’m suddenly finding the window displays at Talbots a lot more appealing.

Quite simply, I’m getting old.

Sigh. I’ll really miss you, General Tso.

Chicken Sausage Pita

Whole wheat pita stuffed with chicken sausage, broccoli rabe and roasted peppers (serves 4)

*This is great with any leftover grilled or roasted veggies you have.

1 lb chicken sausage, casings removed

1 bunch broccoli rabe, ends trimmed

1 red pepper, halved, seeds and stem removed

½ cup fresh mozzarella, shredded on a box grater

1 tbsp olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

4 whole wheat pitas (I like Ezekiels sprouted grain)

Fill a large pasta pot halfway with water and bring to a boil. Add a teaspoon of salt, then add the broccoli rabe. Blanch for about 2 minutes until bright green, drain in a colander and rinse immediately with cold water. Dry on paper towels and chop into 1 inch pieces.

Place red pepper halves skin side up under broiler for about 10 minutes or until skin is blackened. Put into a small bowl and cover with foil. Set aside to cool.

Warm pitas in oven once broiler is turned off. You can just leave them on the middle rack.

In a large sauté pan, add olive oil. Heat over medium high and add chicken sausage, breaking it up into small crumbles. Cook through, then add broccoli rabe and sauté about 2 more minutes, seasoning with a bit of salt and pepper.

Peel the skin from the peppers (should come off easily) and chop roughly. Add to the chicken sausage mixture. Remove pitas from oven, cut in half. Stuff each with chicken sausage mixture, and sprinkle with mozzarella cheese. Serve warm.

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WRITTEN ON March 26th, 2013 BY Meredith AND STORED IN Grains, Middle Eastern, Salads, Side Dish, Vegetables, Vegetarian, Zucchini

Last week I took Luke to a play date at my friend Kim’s house. She asked me to bring some kind of grain salad, as part of the grown ups lunch. I decided on bulgar salad with roasted peppers, zucchini and herbs, purely because it’s what I had on hand.

For the kids, it was PB&J’s on sprouted grain bread, spinach nuggets and garden burgers (did I mention that Kim is Holistic Health Councilor?! Check out her website here).

Of course, as soon as my friends and I sat down to our own lunch of  bulgar salad, arugula and chicken salad and roasted beets, the kids swarmed. Still covered in ketchup and jelly and all things kid-friendly (what? My kid’s a squirmer, I sometimes give up on a really good wipe down), they had a natural curiosity about what we were eating for ourselves. My son in particular seems to have the “I’ll have what she’s having” syndrome – which he absolutely gets from me. Good luck trying to eat a morsel of food in his presence without an insistent pulling on your leg, followed by a rather loud demand to be offered a bite of whatever you are munching on. I have to say, its my favorite thing about him (well, that’s a lie. I’m smitten so there is a laundry list of favorite things…but this is definitely on it!)

Hey, carpe diem, right? A swarm of kids who left a drum set and a gaggle of baby dolls in order to try beets and arugula? The iron was hot, so we decided to strike.

My first introduction to bulgar came from a childhood friend who was half Lebanese and half Afghani. I’d walk over to Mariam’s house and together we would make chocolate chip cookies from the recipe on the back of the Nestle Toll House bag; as American as you can get. But for lunch, Mrs. Ghani would pull a foil covered bowl from the fridge, and spoon out tabbouleh salad that was fresh and piquant and textured – and nothing like what we ate at home. I always loved that salad and remembered the flavors with a certain craving, but it wasn’t until years later when I had it again as an adult at a Lebanese restaurant that I learned what it was. As a 5th grader at Mariam’s house, I had enough sense (and a mother who drilled enough manners into my head) to just eat what I was served. And it turned out I really, really liked it. It never occurred to me to pitch a fit or ask for something more familiar. Maybe because I knew better. More likely because I knew if I just kept my head down and ate what was served I’d get a couple more chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven.

I’m so glad that Mrs. Ghani served me her home cooking, rather than yet another PB&J or grilled cheese (nothing wrong with either, they are both staples in our house). It awakened something in my palate as a child that I remembered for years to come. What a gift. This is why it’s so important to me to introduce my son to as many flavors as possible, as early as possible. You never know when you’re striking sense memory gold.

Looking around the table at Kim’s house the other day made me so happy. For all you hear about childhood obesity, kids who eat nothing but mac’n'cheese and chicken nuggets, here were four kids eating bulgar salad and beets for lunch. Happily. Granted my friends are generally adventurous eaters, and these friends in particular are health nuts. Still, I can’t help but wonder how many health issues could be solved by introducing our kids to tons of different tastes and cuisines early on. I’m not naive enough to think that my son is gonna eat bulgar and beets every day. There are already times when he wants nothing to do with something he loved 24 hours earlier. And I understand that I  as a stay at home mom, I have more time to devote to home cooking and trying out new things. But I hope to help him develop a healthy relationship with and love of food. Why not start now?

Later on that evening Luke scarfed down a bowl of chicken soup with spinach, sweet potatoes and quinoa for dinner. Followed by…a chocolate chip cookie.

Bulgar salad

Bulgar salad

Bulgar Salad with Veggies, Herbs and Feta (serves 6 as a side dish)

This is a guide. Using the dressing and the bulgar recipe, the sky is the limit. Use whatever veggies you have, or try chick peas for some protein .

1 cup bulgar wheat – I like Bob’s Red Mill Organic

1 cup boiling water

Salt to taste

1 large zucchini, diced

1 red pepper, halved and stem and seeds removed

1 large handful each or parsley, mint and dill, chopped

3 scallions, sliced thin

½ cup crumbled feta cheese

Juice of one lemon

1 tbsp Dijon

¼ cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Bring the water to a boil and add salt. Put bulgar in a large mixing bowl, pour hot water over and cover tightly with foil. Lets stand 30 minutes while you prepare other ingredients.

Place pepper halves on a baking sheet under the broiler. Broil until the skins are black, about 6 minutes. Place in a separate bowl, cover tightly with foil.

In a sauté pan, add a small glug of olive oil, heat to medium. Add zucchini, season lightly with salt and pepper.  Saute until zucchini is soft and golden brown, stirring occasionally. Add to bowl with bulgar.

Remove foil from peppers. Making sure they are not too hot, peel the blistered skins away. Chop the peppers and add to bulgar bowl. Add scallions.

In a small bowl, mix Dijon and lemon juice. Add a pinch of salt and pepper. Slowly pour olive oil into mixture, whisking constantly. Pour dressing over warm bulgar and vegetables. Cover with foil, place in fridge for about 1 hour to cool. Add feta and herbs, toss and serve.

*Salad is best made a day ahead. Just wait to mix in the herbs and cheese until shortly before you serve.

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WRITTEN ON March 20th, 2013 BY Meredith AND STORED IN Bacon, Beans, Dinner, French, Holiday, Pork

This latest installment in the Mommy Wars has me fired up and feeling the need to vent a little.

Oh, hi. Remember me? Caterer turned recipe blogger turned stay at home mom who left you all for months to lap up every second with my kid? Right. Glad we got that awkward re-entry over with…

I recently read the latest New York Magazine cover article. At first, I was thrilled. It finally seemed as though someone was looking at this whole working/stay at home mom/leaning in/not having it all/having it all debate from a fresh perspective. One that was similar to mine.

The idea that some women don’t feel as though they have to choose between their career and their family. They want to choose.

Sadly, the article ended up once again ridiculing one woman’s choice to leave her career and stay home. The writer clearly had a “gotcha” agenda from the very beginning, and by the middle of the piece her bias was pretty clear.

By now you all are fairly familiar with my background (though I daresay it’s been so damn long since I’ve posted anything, you’ve probably forgotten I exist, and I don’t blame you!) – several years working in the pharmaceutical industry, followed by culinary school in NYC and two plus years working as a caterer, both freelance and privately.

While I loved many aspects of the food service biz (and few aspects of pharmaceuticals), I never felt as though I wanted to have twenty gourmet shops throughout the city, or work every single night and weekend from here to eternity to become millionaire caterer to the stars.

When I was at Forest Laboratories, I was never starry-eyed over the life of our female head of marketing. She was an incredibly impressive woman, and I still have a huge amount of respect for her. But she (and all the other male department heads, incidentally) seemed perpetually on the go, pulled every direction. I’d fill in for her assistant on occasion in my early days there, and her calendar was overwhelming in a way that depressed me rather than thrilled me. She actually had to schedule, in advance, time to see her kids, and time to speak to her husband on the phone.

This never seemed exciting to me. Even as a young single girl in the city, with time to devote to my career and a need for more cash, I never had dreams of being the CEO. Does this make me less of a person? A disappointment to all those working women who came before me? Less valuable – more shallow? I never thought so. But lately I listen to these debates, and read comments on the internet and I realize that a) there is a special kind of resentment towards college educated women who don’t work outside the home and b) much of the world views me as a totally superfluous ninny.

Awesome.

I decided to stay at home with my son because it is what works best for my family. I will not offer any further explanation, because that implies that I actually have to explain my choices to others who are entirely unaffected by them. I would never, have never, asked a woman who made a different choice to explain herself. I have friends who stay at home, friends who work, friends who make the lions share of the income, friends who work at home, friends who stay at home AND have nannies. Look, in my opinion, a happy mommy means a happy home. Do what works best for your family…I ain’t mad at ya.

And yet I feel as though increasingly, those women who decide to make family and home their career (I will not say priority, as I truly believe that most women who go to an office every day still prioritize family first) are viewed as somehow letting down entire generations of their gender. As if staying home to raise your child is now akin to mooching off of society and the backs of other stronger, smarter, more valiant women.

Lest this become too meandering a manifesto, I will simply say this: can’t we all just get along?

We are supposed to teach our kids kindness. To be non-judgemental. To accept lifestyles different from our own with grace and respect. And yet we, their own mothers, are in-fighting and back stabbing and dumping all over each others choices. How sad.

My real choice? To be happy. To put my efforts into making sure that I feel satisfied and fulfilled each day, and to worry less about what the world (and Gloria Steinem, and some writer at New York magazine, and some jackass in the comments section) think about my choices. To try my hardest to help populate this Earth with happy, well adjusted, kind people who love well. To stop wondering if I can “have it all” (what a self-absorbed, upper middle class “problem”) and start focusing on the things that I do have. What if we all tried it? Maybe it seems naïve. Or maybe, just maybe, it really is that simple.

Not every woman can be the next Sheryl Sandberg, Anne Marie Slaughter, or Marissa Mayer. More importantly, not every woman wants to be the next Sheryl Sandberg, Anne Marie Slaughter, or Marissa Mayer. Does that make us less interesting? Less worthy? Our lives and choices less valid? I guess that’s your call. But while the world spews its judgement, I have a life to live, a kid to raise, and dinner to make. Join me. Let’s eat.

Time to eat

Highly Ambitious Duck Cassoulet (Serves 4)

This sounds high falutin’, but it’s actually French comfort food at its best. Don’t let the name scare you. It’s delicious and perfect for a Sunday night meal or a special occasion when you want to show someone you really, really love them. Serve with a nice Pinot Noir or Cotes du Rhone, a crusty baguette and a green salad with dijon vinaigrette.

1 lb dried Great Northern beans

2 ribs celery, chopped

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

2 medium sized onions, peeled and chopped

6 cloves garlic, chopped

1 tbsp tomato paste

1 14 oz can chopped tomatoes

1 bay leaf

2 leafy sprig parsley, plus 1 large handful chopped

3 thyme sprigs

2 cups low sodium chicken broth

3 cups water

4 legs duck confit (such as D’Artangnan, or make your own)

1/3 lb slab bacon, cut into cubes

1 tbsp olive oil

2 cups breadcrumbs fresh from a baguette or panko

½ cup freshly grated parmiggiano reggiano cheese (this is not a traditional French ingredient in cassoulet, but then, I ain’t French)

Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the beans: Rinse beans well – I do not soak my beans. I find that it makes them mushy once cooked. Place in a large heavy pot, cover with water, broth, tomato paste, chopped celery, carrot, onion, half of the chopped garlic, bay leaf, parsley sprig and thyme. Season very lightly with salt and pepper (remember that your water is going to cook down into the beans, so if you season too heavily with salt when the water is high, your beans will end up tasting like salt lick once the water has evaporated). Bring to a boil, then reduce right away to a simmer. Simmer until just barely tender, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Add tomatoes, cook about 10 minutes more.

Prepare the duck and bacon: remove all skin and fat from duck legs, and pull them into large pieces. Add duck bones to beans cooking. Set aside. Cook bacon cubes in olive oil, reserving fat. Set bacon aside with duck.

Prepare topping: In reserved bacon fat, lightly sauté the rest of the garlic about 1 minute. Add breadcrumbs, stirring to make sure that they are evenly coated with fat and golden brown. Add parsley, cheese, salt and pepper to taste and set aside.

Assemble and bake: Remove duck bones, thyme, parsley sprigs and bay leaf from beans. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in duck and bacon. Pour entire mixture into a large casserole dish, top with breadcrumbs. Bake in oven about 1 hour.

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WRITTEN ON May 13th, 2012 BY Meredith AND STORED IN Baking

As most of you have probably figured out by now, I had my baby. A month early, in the dark of a February night. At the risk of sounding like a complete cliché, it has been the most incredible experience of my life. I don’t imagine anything will ever eclipse the combined joy of giving birth and new motherhood. The speed with which I fell in love with my son was mind-bending, and while I’m sure I’ll have lots of baby related posts in the future, I’m not sure I’m ready to fully process the emotion of it all just yet.

Having said that, this is Mother’s Day, and my for first blog post post-partum, I wanted to take a minute to thank my mom in a deeper way, because I finally know what it’s like to love your own child.

I had the kind of mom that most kids wished they had. She was a perfect mix between career woman and at home mom. She was a full time art teacher at my school, and always up to her elbows in clay, and paint and stencils, but somehow still found time to coach my lacrosse and hockey teams and make us dinner every night. She was home with us after school every day, and all summer long. And I’m only just now starting to appreciate all those little things she did that most likely annoyed me at the time. Like bring me water bottles full of ice water and physically squirt them into my mouth while I was sitting on the lifeguard stand on witheringly hot days in July (this makes her sound like a helicopter mom, which she categorically wasn’t. She just knew her kid and she knew I wouldn’t drink it if she just left it there.)

The first time my dear sweet baby boy had a massive-blow-out-man-sized turd, the first thing I thought as I was cutting him out of his onesie wasn’t “this is disgusting” but, “wow, I should really call Mom.” There have been so many moments lately where I’ve fleetingly realized, she did all this for me too, as I’m doing it now for my little bear.

So I wanted to rattle a few quick apologies – just the first things that come to mind. I’m hoping the statute of limitations hasn’t run out on some of these.

I’m sorry for telling you I hated you when you grounded me (what for?) and prevented me from going to the Court Dance in seventh grade, resulting in Chase Martin asking Beth out instead of me (which was rumored to have been the original plan.) You were right.  Twenty years later and I couldn’t care less (no offense, Chase.)

I’m sorry for any time I forgot to call and tell you I was going to be home late (or not at all.)

I’m sorry for coming home from every college break and making a beeline for my boyfriend or my friends, barely staying home long enough to tell you I’d gotten a D in Psych 101.

I’m sorry for every time you spent an hour making dinner for all of us, after your own long work day, only to hear “ugh, chicken again?”

I’m sorry for interrupting your Winesday dinners by insisting that you and your friends listen to me sing the entire Peter Pan album, when all any of you wanted to do was have a kid free evening to drink pink wine (hey, it was the 80’s) and kvetch.

But most importantly, I’m sorry for ever taking you for granted, for not reaching out enough, for not giving you enough in return. I finally realize just what it takes to love a child – the bizarre cocktail of unfettered joy, utter amazement, and sheer, wild terror. I realize that I’ve signed myself up for a lifetime of wonder and worry – and heartbreak – all rolled into one. Which is of course what you have been dealing with for the past 33 years.

So thank you, Mom. Thank you for being such a fantastic role model – funny, smart, good-lookin’, committed, competitive, easy to be with, intimidatingly capable. But most of all, thank you for just being present. I love you madly, and not just on Mother’s Day.

I'm bananas for Mom

Mother’s Day Banana Bread

Banana bread wasn’t something that was a standard at our house, but I remember a batch my mother made several years ago that was so delicious I’ve been trying to live up to it ever since. She told me the secret was to use bananas that were so brown any sane person would throw them away. She was right – the skins are yucky but the flesh is soft and super sweet.

¾ cup white all purpose flour

¼ cup + 1/3 cup whole wheat pastry flour

¼ tsp salt

½ tsp baking soda

¼ tsp baking powder

1 cup sugar

6 tbsp butter, at room temp

2 eggs, at room temp, beaten lightly

2 over-ripe bananas, mashed

1 tbsp vanilla extract

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350. Combine the flours, salt and baking soda and powder in a small bowl. In a large bowl, beat the butter and the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the flour mixture and beat till just combined and the texture of sand. Add the beaten eggs, chocolate chips and pecans. Fold in the bananas and vanilla extract. Pour into a greased loaf pan, bake in lower third of the oven for about 50 minutes until a toothpick comes out just clean. Cool on a rack and share with your mom.

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WRITTEN ON January 30th, 2012 BY Meredith AND STORED IN Appetizer, Salads, Side Dish, Spinach, Vegetables, Vegetarian

On the way home from the Apple store today, I found myself listening to the Miranda Lambert song, “The House that Built Me.

When this song came out two years ago, I got emotional every time it played, thinking of the house where I grew up. It was an 1800’s Victorian-style farmhouse, with brown shingles, white trim, red shutters, a wide red door, and a front porch with gingerbread eves and hanging baskets of geraniums in the summertime. Outside, there was a line of dogwood trees which came alive every spring. The steep front walkway was made up of crumbly stone steps leading to a stone wall where our cats, Purr and Zeus, would sit and wait for us at the end of the day, pacing anxiously, only to act completely aloof and ignore us the moment we stepped out of the car.

Of course, it wouldn’t have been complete without a street filled with wacky neighbors. The Morrows, who lived in the big house on the corner, where we made cotton candy from a huge old circus contraption and where I could freely rummage through the Chanel lip stick of Ellen’s single mom, who was never really around anyway. The Hitchners across the street, by far the most normal of the bunch, and our good friends to this day. The Carlins, a Swedish/German family a couple houses down who didn’t own a TV and believed their garden to be populated by gnomes (let it be known that their kids would come over to our house to “play” and promptly park themselves in front of the telly until they heard their mother calling them home for supper). And next door, the intrepid Mrs Long, the neighborhood busy-body, a caterer by trade who loved us so much she would make us ice cream cones in the summer and send leftover shrimp to our cats (but who didn’t ever have one nice thing to say about the “Nazis” next door).

Ours wasn’t a big house, and it certainly wasn’t the most fancy house in the neighborhood. I grew up in Roland Park, a truly one of a kind place filled with rambling, turn of the century Victorian houses, originally built as summer homes for wealthy Baltimoreans living downtown. The houses were set on wide lanes with lots of hundred year trees and azalea bushes older than my grandmother. We lived on the back side of Roland Park, not as upscale as the more visible areas, but it suited us fine. The Friends School playgrounds were right down the street, we could walk to school, the library or to get candy at Tuxedo Pharmacy and sandwiches at Eddie’s, and in the summer we could hear the spring of the Roland Park Pool diving board from our front porch. It was an idyllic childhood, made more so by the drafty old house about which I heartily complained (no AC! Sharing a bathroom with my parents! No 80’s style wall-to-wall carpet!) but thoroughly loved.

My parents moved from there after I graduated from college, to a totally different neighborhood. Most people familiar with the area would say their “new” place is in an area that’s considered to be a bit tonier (though in my humble opinion a lot less fun). While I love where they live now, I still find myself taking a detour past the old place every time I go home. Much has changed, but my Grateful Dead sticker is still stuck to the bedroom window where I put it in 8th grade, the stone wall is still in tact and Mrs. Long, ever vigilant, still knows everything that’s happening on the block.

So this morning, imagine my surprise when Miranda Lambert got to the end of her song and I realized that I’d been thinking about an entirely different house. I’d been lost in thought and getting emotional about the house where the hubster and I now live, 200 some miles from the neighborhood of Roland Park, in Huntington, New York.

I’ve done a lot of growing up here too. We bought the house almost two years ago now, after having loved it from afar for a long time. We knew it would be an ongoing project. It celebrates it’s 100th birthday this year, and though the previous owners had taken great care of it, there was a lot we wanted to do right off the bat to make it “ours,” not to mention bring it into this century.

Over the past two years we’ve put tons of energy into the place. An overhaul of the heating systems, a new burner, a conversion from oil to gas, central air, a new patio, moving a line of trees, not to mention all the cosmetic updates that come with moving – ripping up carpets, refinishing floors, painting, wall papering, the list goes on. Most recently, we’ve undertaken the project of completely gutting and renovating the two bathrooms on the second floor, the small “master” bath and the Jack and Jill bath that will be the baby’s when he makes his appearance.

What I’ve learned throughout the process of making this house our home is that nothing is perfect. I have grand plans for this place, and it feels as though we’ve only just scratched the surface. I have to stop myself from thinking ahead to the next project while we are still in the middle of the current one. I think this is an inherently female trait – we tend to want to make the things we love better, forgetting that part of what we love about them is their imperfections. I’m working on it (turns out I’m a work in progress too).

What I loved about the house initially remains in tact. In fact, it’s mostly things that I couldn’t change even if I wanted to. The way the setting sun filters through the trees in our back yard at dusk, bathing everything in a soft pink glow just around dinner time. The light reflecting off the neighbors pool and into our upstairs bathroom window, making it feel as though I’m being bathed in a million tiny diamonds. The south facing exposure which ensures that even in darkest winter, our house will have some bright warmth most mornings. The neighborhood itself, which feels a bit similar to my beloved Roland Park: houses close to one another, neighbors you can see and wave to, crazy kids across the street who wear shorts year round and shoot the worst game of hoops I’ve ever seen but who never stop playing. Oh, and did I mention Boo Radley lives down the street? Yup, the ‘hood even comes with it’s own haunted house. All within walking distance to those very important necessities: ice cream, diner, library.

But I think what had me ruminating this morning over my beloved Dewey Street pad is that, while it’s perhaps not “The House that Built Me,” it is most definitely the house that saved me.

At the time of purchase, we were about a month past a miscarriage that left me completely shattered. At the time, I needed a project and a change of scenery, and I needed it bad. Little did I know what else was to follow: a year and a half of more fertility procedures and surgeries than I care to count, an apartment in New York City that refused to sell, and a mother-in-law fighting a losing battle with colon cancer. Sometimes, it’s a good thing we can’t see the future.

Through it all, I had a house and a husband that provided me with a safe haven where I could escape when things got tough – a failed IUI, yet another period that I had convinced myself wasn’t coming, bad news from Carol’s doctor, another offer fallen through on the apartment. I would often wake up in the middle of the night, anxious and terrified that I might never be able to conceive a child, and think to myself, if all I have for the rest of my life is this man and this house, I will still be ok.

I’ve posted pictures of our house to Facebook the way most of my friends post pictures of their kids, because at the time I needed it most, this house was my baby.

I would take myself out to the garden and dig for hours, or paint some old piece of furniture, or just sit on the screened porch, listening to the breeze coax a tune from my flying pig wind chime (his name is Bacon). When things got really bad I’d set off for a run through my new neighborhood and town, heading towards the harbor and the healing lap of the waves in the Sound. Always retuning home feeling better about things, because as soon as I walked into the door, the house enveloped me in its 100 year old embrace. A steadfast old friend, who had seen and known more than I ever would, and somehow had the ability to protect me and make everything ok again.

Who knows how long we’ll live here. As much as I love it, I also know that at some point we may decide we want more space, or a new adventure. I like to leave my options open. But for now, and for the foreseeable future, I am so thankful to have this place to come home to. It’s not anything crazy, but it’s ours and I love it. More than anything, I feel so blessed to be able to share it with our son, whose arrival creeps closer every day. I cannot wait to bring him home to the place that his mom and dad created expressly with him in mind, a place we hoped would help raise and shape him before he was even a possibility.

I realize what an incredible gift that is, not for the baby, but for us, knowing that we have a place that we love to provide shelter and stability for the tiny being who encompasses our biggest dreams. The house that saved me is the house that will build my son, and I will love it forever (must remind myself of this the next time the heat goes out and I find myself bleeding radiators in my 50 degree living room).

My plates runneth over

Dewey Street Garden Salad (serves 2)

This salad was made this fall with produce from my organic garden, but beets and spinach are readily available and still considered seasonal at this time of year!

5 small beets, whichever color you can find

1 small head freshly washed spinach

1 bunch fresh chives, finely chopped

2 oz goat cheese, crumbled

1 handful walnuts, toasted lightly for about 10 minutes at 300

Walnut oil

Good quality sherry vinegar

Salt and pepper to taste

Turn oven to 375. Wrap each beet individually in foil and place on a cookie sheet. Place in middle rack of oven, roast until soft and tender about 45-50 minutes. Remove from oven, cool completely. Unwrap beets. Using a kitchen towel, gently rub off the beet skins (if you are using red beets they will stain your fingers if you don’t use gloves or a towel). Chop beets roughly, season lightly with salt and pepper and set aside in a small bowl. Tear spinach into large pieces, toss together with beets, walnuts, chopped chives and crumbled goat cheese. Drizzle about 3 tbsp walnut oil over top, then drizzle about 1 tbsp sherry vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Toss and serve immediately with crusty bread.

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WRITTEN ON January 23rd, 2012 BY Meredith AND STORED IN Avocado, Beans, Beef, Chocolate, Dinner, Mexican, Soups, The Big Game, Tomatoes

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a purple-bleeding, jersey wearing, never-miss-a-game-watching, die hard Ravens fan. But it wasn’t always thus.

Growing up, Baltimore was a town without a team. Sure, we had the Orioles, but we were a football town at heart, and in the fall we had nothing but the Redskins and the shadow that the Colts had left behind. The stadium and training facilities were filled only with the ghosts of seasons past. Most of our parents and grandparents were still getting over the loss of said Colts, who up and left in the middle of the night in ‘84, leaving a town brokenhearted and confused. Indeed, I grew up regaled with stories of the good ‘ole days at Memorial Stadium. My grandfather had two season tickets. He never missed a game. He’d take with him my grandmother, mom or uncle for company, along with wool blankets to spread out on the bleachers, where they’d sit eating hot dogs and peanuts, and spend the day rooting for Johnny U and company. Father knew best, the Colts always won, and my mom, a daddy’s girl if there ever was one, basked in the glow of an afternoon spent watching her hero watch his heroes. It was a simpler time.

In high school, football was the sport that the guys played to keep in shape for lacrosse (soccer was a distant third). Sure, I went to the games and cheered on the current crush’s team, but I paid less attention to what was happening on the field and more to what the wind was doing to my hair. I have a distinct memory of David Freedlander (a childhood friend who was not on the team) trying to explain a fourth down to me at a Gilman/McDonough game. Let’s just say it took fifteen minutes and I still didn’t get it (nor was I listening.)

True, I did attend one of the Ravens first ever pre-season home games. It was August of 1996, at good old Memorial Stadium. They played the Packers, I lusted after Favre (my how the mighty fall), we all drank too many beers and payed little attention to what was actually happening on the field. I headed for college a couple weeks later, where I happily left behind the “all sports, all the time” mentality that I had grown up around in suburban Baltimore. I majored in Art History, got a weird haircut, smoked a lot of cigarettes, and skipped a lot of class.

The next Ravens game I attended was during my senior year of college, on Christmas Eve, dragged by my parents. It was a 1:00 game, freezing cold, and like most college aged girls I was not in the least bit prepared for it (what, like, wear a parka and snow boots? Please. What if I saw someone I knew?) In the first quarter I got a cold beer spilled on my head and nacho cheese on my coat. I left in a cab at halftime vowing never again to spend a second with these violent, boorish red-necks who were swathed in purple camo fatigues, flapping their arms like angry birds and yelling at the ref to “move those chains.”

So imagine my surprise when, upon moving to New York City the following fall, I found myself “watching” (or should I say ignoring) football on several Sundays, mostly as an excuse to swill beer and down wings at The Park Avenue Country Club or Mad River Bar and Grille.

It began in the fall of 2000 as an entirely social endeavor, a way to stay connected with those Baltimore-ons who were living in the city and an excuse to deter the Sunday blues (or drown them in Bud Light). Then, when I was least expecting it, the Ravens got good.  So good, in fact, that we played in the Super Bowl against the New York Giants. All of a sudden, it was fun. I found myself organizing a group table at Brother Jimmy’s on the Upper West Side for the Baltimore crew to watch the Ravens hand it to the G-men. Damn, that felt good. We swarmed out into the night, caw-cawing our way through hordes of bitter Giants fans, bar hopping down Amsterdam dressed in purple and black. At that point, I’d only been living in New York City for four months.

I met my now husband that following summer and quickly realized that the fastest way to this man’s heart was not in fact through his stomach (damn, I totally had that one covered!) but through his sports addiction.  Sure, I’d watched a few games and knew the difference between Ray Lewis and Jamal Lewis, but really, I was a strange girl in a strange land and completely, utterly screwed. Since I pretty much decided after our first date that this was the man I was going to marry, I knew I had to get this right.

For the first couple years, we watched football every Sunday, religiously, at The Firehouse on 85th and Columbus. We had a raucous bunch of stalwarts, fans from all over the map, from the Ravens (woot, woot!) to the Bucs, the Niners, the Packers, the Eagles and the local Jets and Giants.  We met every week, dragging ourselves in from a late Saturday night, noshing on wings and nachos washed down with pitchers of beers and spicy Bloody Mary’s. This was my first real NYC “crew,” and I came to know and love them while watching hours of NFL games.

Over the years, people went their separate ways. Many of my Baltimore friends left the city to move back home.  All of a sudden I found that I was the last man standing, a lone Raven among a sea of blue and green. I think this is when it really clicked. My devotion to my team was solidified not because I was immersed in hometown antics, going to every game, participating in purple Fridays and listening to the local Baltimore sportscasters. I fell in love with my Ravens because they provided a weekly link to a place that’s in my blood. I may live in New York, but my own personal roots will always furrow a little further south, and they are tinged with purple and gold.

It’s been eleven years since I started really watching the Ravens play every week. A lot has changed. I’m no longer a twenty-something boozing it up on Sundays in the city (these days I do my boozing in the ‘burbs.) My life is a lot more settled, and probably a lot more predictable than it was a decade ago, and I’m ok with that. Turns out my plan worked – all that football watching helped me snag the guy I knew I was going to marry. Sundays have become our favorite day of the week, and watching football is our “thing” that we do together, as a package deal, rooting for each others teams even when no one else will (he’s a Niner’s fan.  Yeah. Bad day in the Shanley household.) I fell in love with my husband over a decade of football Sundays, and he supports me and my team and my right to watch, even when I’m the only girl in the room.

But I got a lot more than that. I also became a card carrying member of Ravens Nation, and it turns out I’m a particularly passionate one. I have had my heart broken more times than I can count over the last several years. I am a shameless Steelers hater, on principle alone (it has nothing to do with the fact that Rothlisberger is a dirty bum and Hines Ward smiles like the clown from a certain Steven King movie). I have more purple in my wardrobe than I care to admit. I have, on several occasions, worn my pajamas out of the house purely because they are covered in Ravens logos. I am proud to say that I wake up on many Sundays and reach for a Todd Heap jersey that I wear all day long, much to my husbands chagrin. I actually know how the game works. I know the players. I’ve learned about the league and about the other teams. I’ve had my own fantasy teams and done pretty well with them without help from a guy. I actually watch the games by myself when the hubster is away. In every single neighborhood I’ve haunted for the past decade I have found a watering hole where I show up every single Sunday to cheer on my team from afar, because they don’t show my game at home.

I do not miss a week. I do not like it when the other wives and girlfriends show up and try to talk to me while I’m watching my team, assuming I’m like all the other girls and just there to hang out. I do not like it when they aren’t showing my game on an acceptable screen in the bar. I do not like it when the Steelers beat us, and I often stalk out and go home alone to get in bed or stress eat.

And (ok, here goes) I cry when we lose in heartbreaking fashion.

Last night, through a flurry of sobs that lasted well into the second game, my love for my Ravens was reaffirmed. We outplayed the Patriots and should have won that game, God dammit. We played with the heart that we have always been known for. We are not a pretty team to watch. We do not have legions of supporters outside of the people of Baltimore. We don’t have GQ cover boys as our quarterbacks. We do not have an army of bandwagoners or fake “fans” who tune in a couple times a year or for championship games only. The commentators don’t ever wax poetic about our team, salivating like underfed dogs over the legacy or the dynasty or some such nonsense. We win ugly and we lose ugly. But we play with an uncrushable spirit. This has always been the Ravens style. It’s maddening, it’s hard to watch, it’s nail biting, and its infectious. To be a Ravens fan is to know that the calls don’t always go your way. That football, like life, is sloppy and can’t always be tied up with a neat little (purple!) bow. There aren’t always Hollywood agents and super models waiting for you when you get home.

Our team, like our city, is gritty and imperfect, and we love it that way. I’d rather be a Ravens fan than any other kind of fan in the world, today more than ever. They have allowed me, for over a decade, to tune into my hometown every Sunday from afar, to show my stripes and cheer for a place that I love and have not left behind, but where I probably will never live again. They have taught me the love of the game. They have taught me to Believe.

I’ll take my football, like my life, with a little dirt in the eye, and I’ll do it (mostly) without whining. Thanks for another great season, Ravens. I can’t wait for next year.

Chill-free Sunday

Sore loser, I mean,  Slow Cooker Beef Chuck Chili (serves 6)

2 lbs beef chuck, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

2 cups unsalted beef stock

1 1/2 cups chopped tomatoes (fresh, canned or from a box such as Pomi)

1 dark lager beer

1 red onion, diced

1 fresh jalapeno, diced

2 cans chopped green chilies

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tbsp chili powder

2 tsp cumin

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1/4 cup freshly brewed coffee

1 small handful bittersweet chocolate chips

2 tbsp finely ground cornmeal or masa harina

1 can each pinto, black and kidney beans, drained and rinsed

Add all ingredients except for cornmeal and beans to slow cooker. Turn to high and cook 4 hours. Remove beef chunks to a large bowl, shred with two forks. Add shredded beef, beans and cornmeal to slow cooker, cook on low for another hour. Serve with sour cream, cilantro and diced avocado.

Stress eating, with avocado on top

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WRITTEN ON December 19th, 2011 BY Meredith AND STORED IN Holiday

I spent the morning wrapping gifts and drinking coffee out of a Christmas mug that I inherited from my mother-in-law, Carol. This probably doesn’t sound significant to most people, but it was actually an incredibly emotional couple hours for me.

We lost Carol to colon cancer at the end of August. She was 63 years old. This will be my husband’s first Christmas without her, and I’m acutely aware of this. For months I’ve been doing the “I’m not hovering hover,” trying to gauge his emotions while also trying to keep things as routine and normal as possible. When the person you love most in the world loses a parent, you kind of go into overdrive. You do everything humanly possible to make it easier on them. You plan and host the memorial service lunch. You clean out their apartment and deal with the lawyers and the real estate agents so your dear one doesn’t have to. You keep the spirit of that lost person alive as much as you possibly can, even if it means decorating your house with a tacky Christmas village you’d never have imagined you’d actually care about the year before.

But in doing all of these things, I’ve found that I really haven’t thought that much at all about my own sadness. Until this morning.

I’ll come right out and say that my mother-in-law had a tendency to drive me nuts a lot of the time. This post would be completely disingenuous if I didn’t admit that up front. To me, a young woman raised in a time and in an environment that allowed me to believe that anything was possible for women, that confidence is a girls best friend, that I was smart and worthy and capable, Carol often seemed a victim in her own life. It irked me that she depended so much on her grown sons for her own happiness (how obtuse of me to presume to know anything about the complexities of motherhood.) That she often seemed scared of her own shadow. I felt like she was a bystander in her own life, waiting for other people to include her or make plans for her. Always doing what everyone else wanted to do. Too often it felt like she turned things down before really even trying them, sure she wouldn’t like it, positive that that’s not how she was supposed to do things, stymied by how it would look or what other people thought. She was as traditional as they come, and it often seemed as though she was from my grandparents generation, rather than the hippie culture to which my own parents subscribed.

When I met her,  I was a 23 year old wild child just out of college, living out loud in New York City, millions of girl friends at my finger tips and the stories of Carrie Bradshaw and crew filing my head (a more shallow, vapid role model there never was.) She was a 53 year old mother of three “adult” boys, recently divorced and trying to make a new life for herself. Hindsight being 20/20, I now realize she was terrified, but at the time, and to my trumped up, impenetrable ego it came across as weakness and timidity, and it bugged the hell out of me. Looking back, I kick myself for being so insensitive to many of her greatest worries and fears. How could I have judged how she felt or acted, when our experiences had been so vastly different?

The bottom line is that she loved with a huge heart, and that she raised three boys who know how to love well and fully. A gift that cannot be overstated. Her gift to me, given before Kevin and I even met.

Over the decade that I knew Carol, I came to see she was a lot more layered than I first gave her credit for (isn’t everyone?) I like to think I did a little layering myself, as I grew up and into true adulthood. I came to see that despite our differences, we had a great many things in common. I used those things to form the basis of my relationship with her, and now I cherish them as fond memories of the woman who so lovingly raised the man that I couldn’t live without.

Carol loved Christmas and everything about it. She loved gift giving and making merry, celebrations and being surrounded by friends and family. We were much alike in this way. She loved nothing more than spending a day in the kitchen baking all kinds of sugary treats to lavish upon guests, especially her children and grandchildren. She wrapped Christmas gifts carefully and beautifully, often including some special touch like an ornament with the recipients name on it. And she made a mean Manhattan.

While cleaning out her apartment this fall, I came across her massive collection of Christmas wrapping and ribbon. To me, this is the true spirit of my mother-in-law, and looking through the huge boxes full of tissue, raffia, wired bows and 35 different kinds of cards this morning, I found myself longing to talk to her for the first time in many months.  Turns out that in trying to make sure my husband was ok, I didn’t even realize that I missed her in my own right.

I want to sit with her and tell her all the gifts I got for hubster this year. I want to tell her about how her future grandson is kicking up a storm and making my bladder seem the size of a grain of sand. I want to snap a pic of all the gifts I just wrapped and text it to her, because I know only she would truly appreciate the symmetry of the massive green bow I tied, or my use of her red and green holly twine. I can picture her face lighting up at these little anecdotes. She loved nothing more than being kept in the loop, feeling in touch with the people she loved in her life.

As I wrapped this morning, drinking coffee out of her Vermont village Christmas mugs and listening to Perry Como (her favorite) crooning “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” I felt as though she were looking down on me, guiding my choice in matching bows and nodding in approval at my use of a snowman card here and there.

I suspect I will wrestle with guilt over her loss for a long time. While I tried my utmost to be there for her whenever she needed someone, I fear that I was never as emotionally available to her as she needed me to be. I will always wonder if I could have been more generous with my time, if I should have picked up the phone and called more, or included her more. These are the things we grapple with after losing a loved one. Did I do enough? Was I there in the right way?

I’m always inspired by stories of giving at this time of year. News reports of Kmart secret Santas, Toys for Tots bins over-flowing, a run on turkeys for the local food drive. Ever the optimist, I truly believe that Christmas puts people in the spirit of giving, and that the act of giving is what makes people so merry throughout the month of December. But this year, do me a favor, dear readers. Rethink generosity. Look around at the faces of the people closest to you and imagine how you could be more generous of spirit with those you see every day. Include the woman who has been trying to finagle her way into your coffee klatch – maybe she needs it more than you do. Smile at the family members that drive you to drink (come on, we all have them) and swallow the nasty comment that bubbles its way to the tip of your tongue. Be magnanimous when your mother calls you for the tenth time asking what you want for dinner a week from now, and let your dad drag your suitcases in from the car, even though you can perfectly well do it yourself. Try to recall what it was like being a teenager when your 15 year old niece or nephew sits sullenly in the corner playing on their new iPhone. Let your parents hug you even if you’re 45 years old. Lend your laugh to socially awkward Uncle Mel’s jokes, rather than rolling your eyes and looking for the door.

Be grateful for the people that you love in spite of themselves (and remember that they love you in spite of yourself, you brat). This year, give of your soul and your love and your time to those closest to you, because someday you’ll wish they’d call you to annoy you just one more time.

Merry Manhattan

Carol’s Christmas Manhattans

Carol would make these in a pitcher and chill for several hours in the fridge. Family legend has it she inherited the recipe from her brother-in-law Steve. Wherever it came from, it’s the only Manhattan I’ve ever liked, and boy do I like it a lot (not in my current state, however!). Sip it slowly in front of the tree, ice cold.

Mix equal parts Canadian Club Whiskey (this is important – other whiskeys and bourbons are too strong) and sweet vermouth (such as Martini and Rossi Rosso) in a small pitcher. Add three or four dashes of Angostura Bitters and several maraschino cherries, along with a healthy glug of the cherry juice. Muddle the cherries around in the pitcher to release their flavor. Chill for several hours, covered. To serve, pour over a lot of ice (crushed is better, if you have it), add a stemmed cherry and a small spoonful of extra cherry juice. Toast your loved ones and enjoy.

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WRITTEN ON December 14th, 2011 BY Meredith AND STORED IN Uncategorized

A couple weeks ago I went to my doctor for a standard glucose tolerance test, which checks for gestational diabetes. Feeling lighthearted and utterly cocky, I had a late night snack of two mini-Snickers bars, the last vestiges of our Halloween stash, less than 9 hours before I was to get my blood taken. Big mistake.

Not so long story short, I ended up spending four hours last week in the Quest diagnostics lab, drinking ungodly amounts of syrupy sweet orange flavored swill and getting stuck in the arm five times. Honestly though, I think the worst part was that I was forced sit in the waiting room and listen to the drivel that is Fox News, followed by the Wendy Williams show (is “she” a woman or a man?)

This follow up test was ordered when I failed the first test by two measly points. Two points! Are you kidding me? I get that it’s better to be safe than sorry but come on. Two points? Even my doctor told me that he thought it was a bunch of bull. So, naturally, I made cookies in protest.

Now lets get one thing straight. I am not some goody two-shoes, gotta get an A, over achiever when it comes to test taking. In fact I’m pretty much the exact opposite. In college I was lucky enough to pass my classes and graduate in the requisite four years, but more often than not I was wholly unprepared, arriving at an exam having skipped the three classes beforehand, completely unaware that it was test day. Let’s just say there was a lot of winging it, and a natural talent for BS involved. You know that phrase never bull shit a bull shitter? I coined it. For real.

Having said that, when it comes to tests taken at the doctors office, I am a straight A student. HDL? Sky high. LDL? Lower than dirt. Blood Pressure? 110/70. Lungs? Clear. Cavities? None. So maybe I was a little cavalier about the damn glucose thing.

Alls well that ends well, I passed the second test with flying colors because I actually followed the directions and fasted for 12 hours prior to the test. My reward to myself was a batch of chocolate chip cookies. Not your average run of the mill chocolate chips. They’re made with vanilla soaked dried cherries, flakes of sweet coconut, lightly toasted walnuts and dark chocolate chunks. They’re the black tie version of your standard chocolate chip, and perfect for the holidays.

Growing up, my grandmother made the most insanely beautiful, impossibly delicate and incredibly labor intensive hand painted sugar cookies. She’d start the day after Thanksgiving; her kitchen and laundry room (storage and prep area) would turn into an all out cookie factory for the holiday season. They were treasured nuggets of buttery sweet Yuletide gold, and she earned herself quite a reputation as cookie maker extraordinaire. Those who were lucky enough to be on her list of recipients knew they had just received the holy grail of holiday cookies, not to be taken for granted. These cookies were to be savored, one at a time, slowly, and rationed with extreme care.

Sadly, when she passed, the tradition (mostly) passed with her. The cookies require so much work that my brave mother only makes a few dozen (still considered a Herculean effort) to be eaten on Christmas Eve and Christmas, because it just wouldn’t be the same without them. But gone are the days when we’d have an unlimited supply (Dot would make upwards of 100 dozen.)

When I first started dating that darling hubby of mine, I got the idea that I’d make Dot’s Christmas cookies for his family as gifts. We’d only been dating a short time, and it seemed weird to buy them gifts when I hardly knew them, but I wanted to show I’d remembered them in some way. Much to my chagrin, my grandmother rarely let anyone help, and my mom lives in Baltimore, so I was on my own. My teeny tiny New York City galley kitchen tuned into a veritable holiday mine-field. My poor roommates were banished entirely, for fear that they’d knock over the sprinkles, or spill the thin confectioners icing I’d use to paint the cookies into dozens of stained glass-like snowmen and wreathes.

Proudly, I presented the tins of cookies, tied with beautiful ribbon (I’m a sucker for big bows), to my then-boyfriends family members. My now-brother-in-law Brian accepted them graciously, and, I later learned, never even brought them in from the car, preferring to keep them to his sweet tooth-afflicted self. He apparently ate the entire tin of cookies while driving around the following day (he was a medical sales rep at the time, and spent most of the day in the car), one hand on the wheel, the other dipping into the tin and shoveling the cookies whole into his mouth, as if I had handed him a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. Never bothering to look at or appreciate the beauty of a hand painted cookie. Sacrilege.

My father-in-law, who shall remain nameless seeing as he lives around these parts, accepted the holiday offering with a chuckle and the following comment “Great, as long as they’re not sugar cookies!” My heart shrank three sizes that day, and I slunk off, muttering “Bah, Humbug” and looking for a bowl of egg nog big enough to drown myself in.

Lesson learned.  For better or for worse, I’d married into a family of chocolate chip men. Still, for years I tried to find a version of that venerated, All-American cookie that could be used for the holidays. To me, a chocolate chip cookie, while a thing of beauty in it’s own right, is an every day kind of treat.  At Christmas, I want to make something a little  more special, and I believe I’ve found it.

Ten years later, I’ve just about forgiven my beloved in-laws for their poor taste in Christmas cookies.  Turns out I quite adore them, so it made swallowing my pride a lot easier. And hey, marriage is nothing if not a compromise. Besides, it’s the holidays. ‘Tis the season to be merry.

Christmas cookie redux

Christmas Chocolate Chip Cookies (makes 3 dozen)

Adapted from Epicurious.com

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

2 tbsp pure vanilla extract divided into 1/2 tsp and 1 tbsp + 1/2 tsp

3/4 cup dried cherries, roughly chopped

1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

1 large egg

1 cup semi sweet chocolate chunks

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1/2 cup sweetened coconut

Preheat oven to 350. In a medium sized bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt. In a small bowl, pour about 1 cup boiling water over cherries and add 1/2 tsp vanilla. Let stand 5 minutes. In the meantime, combine butter and sugars in a large bowl, mix on medium high speed until light and fluffy. Add the egg and the remaining vanilla, beat till combined. Set mixer to low, add in flour slowly.  So not over mix- this should take no longer than 30 seconds. Once combined, gently stir in cherries, chocolate chunks, nuts and coconut. Drop dough by heaping teaspoons full onto a non-stick cookie sheet, 12-15 per sheet. Place cookie sheet on a rack in the middle of the oven, bake about 10 minutes until golden brown.  Remove from oven, allow cookies to cool on tray about 5 minutes before moving them to a cooling rack.  Bake rest of dough in the same way.

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