Feast your mind on these 5 tasty books

By the time you read this, I will have spent a couple of days preparing food and cooking food and eating food. You, too? Marriage to my husband turned me into a foodie. I’m not sorry, except when my grocery budget takes a hit or my kitchen ends up in disaster mode because of my experiments with new recipes.

My other favorite thing to do is read, and if I can do both at the same time, I do. (While waiting for water to boil or a soup to simmer, I’ll often stand near the stove with a book or Kindle in hand to pass the time.) And lately, I’ve read some really great stories that focus on food or cooking or baking, so I can enjoy a novel and be inspired to cook at the same time!

So, if you’re at the point of the weekend where you can kick back and stop cooking or baking (and you love to read!), check out these five tasty books that will leave your mouth watering while providing an inspiring story.

1. Under the Cajun Moon by Mindy Starns Clark. This isn’t a new book, but I only read it last year. It’s a mystery set in Lousiana around a family restaurant. I went through a phase where I read several of Clark’s mysteries and I remember liking this one the best because of its ties to the food business.

when i fall in love2. When I Fall in Love by Susan May Warren. This is the third in a series about a family, but it takes place mostly in Hawaii when the main character, Grace, is sent by her family on a surprise cooking retreat. Grace is then paired with a hockey player for a cooking competition and well, let’s just say the food isn’t the only thing that cooks in the kitchen. Reminded me a lot of some of the Food Network shows I love.

3. Five Days in Skye by Carla Laureano. Setting sold this one because the Isle of Skye, Scotland, is magnificent, but this story features a hospitality consultant aiming for a promotion and a celebrity chef with dreams of restoring the family hotel. Another mouth-watering read.

4. All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes by Betsy St. Amant. Another one with a cooking competition element, only this one love and cupcakesfeatures cupcakes. Summary: Best friends who want to be more can’t admit it to each other and don’t want the other person to have to give up their dreams for a chance at happiness. A sweet story and one that you’ll wish came with a cupcake!

5. A Table by the Window by Hillary Manton Lodge. Not necessarily my favorite among the foodie books I’ve listed, but still, it’s centered around a family in the food business–running a restaurant and writing about food. This one comes with recipes which might inspire readers to get off the couch and get cooking!

I feel like there might be others I’ve read recently but those are the first five that come to mind!

Do you have any book recommendations for readers who also love to cook (and eat!)?

When discipline stops being scary

The kids and I are eating dinner at Chick-fil-a tonight, which is not noteworthy since my husband works there and any employee who has been there for more than a month recognizes us when we walk in the door.

What IS new about this is that it’s the first time I’m ordering off the menu while trying to stick to a new eating plan. (Notice I didn’t say “diet.” That’s a dirty word for me.)

See, about three weeks ago, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure. It’s always ridiculously high in the office because I get nervous about doctor’s appointments, but it was so high that my nurse practitioner decided medicine was the best next step. I hate that it’s come to that, but I’m grateful for health coverage and an easy fix. In the meantime, I’m getting to know my new provider really well. I’ve been back several times to check my blood pressure and the medication’s effectiveness, and while it still isn’t where it needs to be, it’s getting better.

That’s a lot of back story for a blog post. Moving on.

While the medicine does its job, I’m trying to do mine by paying better attention to what I’m eating and how much I’m eating and how much exercise I’m getting. You know, the normal stuff I’m supposed to be paying attention to but haven’t been.

And because I’m not a terribly disciplined person, I’ve had to take some actions that lead me toward a more disciplined life. (Just so you know, even typing the word “discipline” makes me uncomfortable. It sounds so structured and binding, and not fun.)

Earlier this year, at the recommendation of my mother, I started using an app called MyFitnessPal to track my calories and activity. Since I’m not a terribly active person right now, either, it helped me set my calories at a level that would help me lose weight.

Then somewhere in the middle of the year, I stopped using it, even after seeing results of 5-7 pounds lost in a couple of months. Nothing drastic, but slow and steady, just the way it should be. I stopped using the app and I stopped caring about what I ate.

By Brian Jimenez | Creative Commons

By Brian Jimenez | Creative Commons

So, when I finally went to the doctor late last month, it was no surprise, really, that my weight was up and my BP was high. Without help, I don’t always take the best care of myself. So, I’m back to using the app, and I’m reading labels, and I’m learning all kinds of things. Like there is a ridiculous amount of sodium in stuff that I normally buy. That calories don’t add up very fast when I’m eating fruits and vegetables. And I can learn to like unsweetened iced tea because drinking all those calories in sweet tea is a bad idea.

And surprisingly, it’s not as scary as I thought it might be. Sure, it’s hard. But there are a couple of things I’m learning that make it easier.

So, whether you’re trying to watch what you eat or be more disciplined about other things in your life, maybe you’ll find this helpful, too.

First, I try not to say “no” completely to anything. I could not eat when we go to Chick-fil-a tonight, but I’d probably be a little sad about it. Yes, it’s just food, but it’s also hard for me to resist a temptation right in front of me. So, if my kids were eating it and wandered away, I’d be likely to steal a waffle fry or ten. So, I wasn’t interested in avoiding eating out at all. The same was true last week when I met a friend at Panera. Normally I’d just get a cinnamon crunch bagel with cream cheese. Instead of defaulting, I ordered a breakfast sandwich with avocado, spinach and egg white. It was delicious.

Related to that, I’m trying to plan ahead, too. So, earlier today I researched the nutrition information for various menu items, and now I can order with confidence without totally blowing my eating plan. Making a plan before I’m in a situation is helpful in a lot of circumstances, not just for eating. This helps me feel like I have some control, not like I’m being denied something by an outside force. That would make me miserable.

Third, I’m trying to set myself up for success. That means buying the good stuff from the grocery store. If I have fruits and vegetables and hummus and lower sodium choices in the house, then I will eat them. If I don’t, I will resort to junk or whatever is convenient.

This is not perfect by any means, nor do I follow it perfectly all the time. I have days where I fail or make decisions that are not the best but I start over the next day and try to do better.

I still don’t like to think of it as discipline, but it’s become necessary for my health, and I’m not hating it.

That’s a win, right?

Is discipline easy or hard for you? How do you stick with a plan?

Why the worst thing can also be the best thing

We walked into the WIC office, the boy and I, for the last time a few weeks ago. His fifth birthday is approaching, which means we’ll no longer qualify for the government nutrition program.

It’s the end of an era that began when I was pregnant with him. It was a decision I’d resisted with our first child. When she was born, we were still making just enough money to not qualify for it, but a year-and-a-half later, things had changed. My husband was a student with a part-time job only a high-schooler could love, and I was at home with a toddler and a baby on the way.

The clinic where we confirmed the pregnancy gave us the paperwork we needed for WIC, which was right down the hall, in the same building, and there was almost no decision to it. I am not proud that we needed it or that our poverty was such that our son’s birth was covered by insurance we didn’t pay for. But I’m so very grateful that we had the chance to walk in the shoes of the American poor.

Most days, I hated it. Hated that we had to buy the exact item of food on the check or risk setting off the alarm at the cash register or calling over a manager to fix it or heaven forbid, having to hold up the line while we went back to the aisle for the correct item. You’d think a college-educated woman would be able to perform these tasks faultlessly. But I couldn’t and didn’t and it opened my eyes to my sheltered world of privilege.

No, I’ve never been rich, but I’ve certainly never been poor either. Not really. Even in the days when we had no money to fall back on, we had family to help us. Family by relation and family by church. A support system not everyone who is poor has.

And I know you might be thinking if I hated it so much, why did we take it? Or why didn’t I use my college education to get a job? I’m not sure any of our reasons will satisfy your questions. I’ve learned along the way that no matter how much you argue, how much you try to prove to people that you are not like the stereotypes, some people will believe whatever they want and you only accomplish making your own blood boil.

This is one of the many things I’ve learned from our circumstantial poverty. That those who haven’t walked that path might never understand the whys of it. Some days, I still don’t understand the whys.

All I know is that I see the world differently because of the years–yes, years–we’ve spent receiving government assistance. (I know some of you may find that offensive. If we’re friends and you want to talk about it, I’m all for a civil discussion. I’ve lost “friends” because of this, though, and I’d prefer not to lose any more.)

I know about the limited choices for “free” healthcare and how you don’t always get the best. How the clinic is staffed by doctors in training and sometimes they can’t find the baby’s heartbeat and you panic because you need that assurance. How sometimes they treat you like you’re less of a person because you’re at the free clinic. How sometimes you have to pick a doctor whose office is 30 minutes or more from where you live because there is so much need and so few providers willing to open their doors to those with state-funded insurance. I know the shame of feeling like you’ve been labeled as “lazy” or “pitiful” or “fraud” when your insurance provider is announced at the doctor’s office.

And the grocery store? Don’t get me started on the grocery store. I always liked shopping for our family’s meals, but that was before government assistance. Before we held up the line with our WIC checks and store policies that require the cashier to get approval from a manager on the other side of the store for every single check we’re trying to use. Before I looked at the items in my cart through the eyes of someone not on government assistance, wondering which purchases they would condemn as frivolous or unnecessary. I never thought it was possible to be hated by people you don’t even know, but I feel that every time someone comments on an article about welfare or food stamps on Facebook. It makes me want to scream “You don’t know what it’s like!” But that doesn’t solve anything either because I didn’t know what it was like.

I didn’t know there was a day the grocery stores dread because it’s the day food stamps are dispersed and people flock to the stores to buy food. I didn’t know people so quickly passed judgment on other people just because they’re poor. I didn’t know there were families just like ours–families with full-time jobs and young kids–who still couldn’t make ends meet.

It’s the worst feeling, you know, when you grow up in middle-class homes, when you have two undergraduate and one graduate degree between the two of you, and you still require help. It’s the worst because you feel like a failure. Like it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Like you’re doing something wrong.

But it’s also the best because now you know what you didn’t know. Now you know it’s okay to ask for help. To get help. To do what you have to in order to take care of your family, even if you face criticism and hatred. You know what the paperwork is like. You know that it’s possible to stretch your monthly allowance, no matter how much it is. You know what shame feels like. And you see it on the faces of people you otherwise might dismiss.

Receiving government assistance has made me a more compassionate person. I’m glad we’re nearing the end of it because it means we have hope that things will be better. For some, the hope never comes. There seems to be no way out.

So, I wonder what it looks like to give people hope in their circumstances. What can I offer because of my experiences to those who are where I have been?

I’m not sure I have answers, but I’m glad I’m asking the questions.

Have you ever found yourself in a circumstance you never thought you’d be in? How did it turn out?

Are you able to see the good even in the bad?

A book for foodies: Review of All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes by Betsy St. Amant

Once a faithful fan of Food Network shows, I’m in a bit of a drought. I got a little burnt out on the drama. Or maybe I just needed a break. Lucky for me, though, there are novels that take the idea of cooking competitions and give you a backstage look at the people participating.

All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes is one such book. (Disclaimer: I received a free e-copy of the book in exchange for my review.)

The book’s author, Betsy St. Amant, is a woman I’ve heard a lot about from other authors of her genre, and her writing is just as fun and witty and romantic as the hype. All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes is a sweet (ha ha!) story of two friends, Kat Varland and Lucas Brennan, who have so much more between them than friendship but who are afraid to risk losing what they have for finding something more.

Kat dreams of opening her own bakery. Meanwhile, she’s stuck working at her aunt’s bakery making the same cupcakes day after day: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry. Kat likes to experiment with flavors, and it seems her baking is riskier than her life. Her best friend Lucas is the high school football coach and a willing participant in Kat’s baking escapades. Because he believes in her abilities, Lucas signs Kat up for a spot on a cupcake competition reality show. When she wins a spot on the show, Kat convinces Lucas to come with her to Los Angeles. And the baking isn’t the only thing that heats up.

As their feelings for each other deepen and blossom, each of them must decide what it is they really want from life, and they’re each faced with a decision about their dreams.

I loved this story. Maybe because I like to cook and bake with my husband. Maybe because we were friends before we were more. Maybe because it was just a good story about love and sacrifice and dreams.

I’m adding Betsy St. Amant to my list of must-read authors. And I’ve got another foodie favorite novel to add to my growing list.

Here’s more about the author: BStAmant-257

Betsy St. Amant lives in Louisiana with her young daughter and has a heart for sharing the amazing news of God’s grace through her novels. A freelance journalist, Betsy is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers. When she’s not reading, writing, or singing along to a Disney soundtrack with her daughter, Betsy enjoys inspirational speaking and teaching on the craft of writing.

Find out more about Betsy at http://www.betsystamant.com/

And here’s how she’s celebrating the release of her book!

Don’t miss Betsy St. Amant’s latest fiction release, All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes. A “sweet” tale of two best friends and the choices they make between dreams and a possible “sure thing,” St. Amant’s novel is sure to satisfy your romantic-fiction craving.

cupcakes-400-click

Betsy is celebrating with a fun Kindle giveaway and a Love & Cupcakes Facebook party!
One winner will receive:

  • A brand new Kindle
  • All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes by Betsy St. Amant

Enter today by clicking one of the icons below. But hurry, the giveaway ends on September 18th. Winner will be announced at the Love & Cupcakes” Author Chat Party on 9/18. Betsy will be hosting a “sweet” book chat, giving away prizes, and answering questions from readers. She will also share an exclusive sneak peek at her next book project!

 
So grab your copy of All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes and join Betsy on the evening of September 18th for a chance to connect and make some new friends. (If you haven’t read the book, don’t let that stop you from coming!)

Don’t miss a moment of the fun; RSVP todayTell your friends via FACEBOOK or TWITTER and increase your chances of winning. Hope to see you on the 18th!

 

The cookbook I’ve been waiting my whole life for: Review of The Chopped Cookbook {plus a giveaway}

When my husband and I first started cooking together, I was amazed at his ability to take common, seemingly unrelated pantry ingredients and turn them into a meal. It’s a method he learned growing up in a house where he cooked a few dinners a week. Food Network’s spin on that method is the show Chopped, where contestants open a basket of mystery ingredients and are tasked with making an edible appetizer, main dish or dessert out of them. It’s addicting.

choppedWhich is why when I found out Food Network was offering a Chopped cookbook, I pretty much freaked out. Because there are nights when I look in the pantry and I’m sure I don’t have enough stuff to make something tasty. Now, I have no excuse.

(And even though I received a free copy of the book in exchange for my review, I believe this cookbook is worth every penny you might pay for it. But keep reading because I have a surprise for you!)

The Chopped Cookbook is everything I’ve ever wanted in a cookbook: Tantalizing pictures, creative ideas and doable recipes. And did I mention flexibility? Most cookbooks want you to follow their instructions to a T. This cookbook emphasizes flexibility based on a basic knowledge of how foods work together. It gives you the building blocks and says, “Go, create.”

As of writing this post, I’ve paged through the entire book and tried two recipes from it. The first was Marinated Tilapia Tacos. I lacked some of the ingredients but improvised a bit and still turned out a tasty meal. Even the kids ate it! The second was Quick Skillet Kielbasa Pork and Beans, which again, I lacked some of the ingredients but was able to improvise. And it was good! (Seriously, my husband rarely raves when I experiment and both of these dishes gained his approval.)

The instructions are easy to follow and some recipes look more complicated than others, but there are 188 recipes in this book and I want to try them all.

A few of my favorite features:

  • The pantry list at the beginning. It gives you a foundation on which to build. Many of the recipes assume that you have some basics on hand. But again, the emphasis is on flexibility. No points lost if you don’t buy everything on the list.
  • The theme. “Use what you’ve got to cook something great.” It’s a confidence builder and ought to be a theme for life in general.
  • The variety. Scattered throughout the book are “go-to guides” for pan sauces, salad dressings and grains. This is where the creativity and versatility come in.

It’s been a long time since I was this excited about cooking.

And I’m even more excited because due to a processing error, I received an extra copy of this cookbook and I want to share it with you!

To enter to win, leave a comment answering ONE of these questions (and leave your e-mail address, if you don’t mind so I know how to notify you if you win):

What’s your one must-have in-stock pantry item?

What one ingredient would you hate to see in your Chopped basket?

What one ingredient would you love to see in your Chopped basket?

I’m going to leave the contest open till Sunday, July 27, when I’ll pick a winner. (Because of shipping costs, I have to limit winners to continental U.S. only.)

Happy cooking!.

To the mom at the grocery store trying to make ends meet

I used to love grocery shopping, especially in the early days of my relationship with my husband when we planned meals together and had oodles of time to wander the aisles dreaming of dishes to create together in the kitchen or daring to try something completely new.

Photo by Jenny Rollo, courtesy of www.freeimages.com

Photo by Jenny Rollo, courtesy of http://www.freeimages.com

Then we had kids. And we made decisions that affected our finances and before long grocery shopping was a necessary evil. A stress-inducing, let’s-get-this-over-with errand. Even then, though, we had flexibility to shop during the daytime hours. On rare occasions we’d find ourselves in a pinch for dinner at the end of a long week and we’d be in the store scanning the aisles for something quick and not too expensive. Because take-out or pizza delivery wasn’t an option. That’s where we first saw you. Maybe you were a working single mom in the same boat as us, looking for a quick meal at the end of a long week. Or maybe your situation was otherwise. But here’s what I want you to know: I see you. And not in the oh-look-at-her-can-you-believe-some-people-are-like-that kind of way. I. See. You. I know you think people are staring at you and judging your decisions and coming up with all kinds of neat and tidy solutions for your life that they know nothing about. I know this because I’ve done that, to my regret, and I’ve felt that unseen pressure to hide what’s in my cart, to shush my children so they don’t say anything that would draw attention our way. I’ve fumbled with my money and my WIC checks and my SNAP card at the register, certain that everyone in line is both staring and trying not to stare at the circus act that is our family. If you catch me looking at you, it’s not to judge or stare. It’s because I want to see you. I want to look at your face and smile. I want to tell you you’re doing fine and you’ll get through this. I want to. But I probably won’t because my courage leaves me the moment I open my mouth. I see you. And I hear you. Ridiculous, right? Because who doesn’t hear you snapping at your kids asking them to just make a frickin decision? It’s hard not to notice the frustrated words that come out of your mouth. Maybe other people can tune them out, but I don’t do that because the words I hear from your mouth are the same ones I’m thinking and sometimes saying. I’ve wandered the aisles muttering, speaking forcefully to my kids when they’re misbehaving. I’ve threatened and yelled and sighed with exasperation. So, I hear you, but I don’t blame you. I know that it’s hard to make one more decision in a long line of decisions you make every day and hour to keep your family afloat. And the grocery store isn’t exactly peaceful. I see you. I hear you. And I know you. I know you’d love nothing more than to fill your grocery cart with fresh fruits and vegetables but when it’s a choice between eating for a week or eating for a day, eating for a week, even when it’s not the food you want to eat, wins every time. And I know you feel like a bad mom when your kids ask for grapes and you have to say “no” because when you get home the grapes will be gone faster than a snowball in July and you know that the $5 or $6 you spent on grapes could have bought five boxes of pasta instead. I know that some days you’d rather have anything else than peanut butter and jelly, and that you know ramen noodles aren’t healthy but cheap and filling. I know you aren’t ignorant and I know you want what’s best for your kids, but sometimes, the best is too far out of reach. I know. And I’m sorry. It’s a battle our family is still fighting as we emerge from our lowest point, financially. But can I also tell you this? Your kids see you, too. I know you feel unappreciated and like all they do is take and you have nothing left to give. But someday, they will know, too. They’ll remember all the days you did your best with what you had. They’ll remember what a treat it was to have ice cream. They’ll see how you sacrificed yourself for their good. They’ll see, and I hope they’ll thank you. In the meantime, keep the faith. Do what you have to and don’t worry about the people who think you should be doing something else. And if a strange woman gives you a smile and gushes nonsense in the grocery aisle, just know she’s trying to help you feel noticed.

When the thankfulness takes thought

Yesterday I was feeling anything but thankful.

Lonely. Stressed. Overwhelmed. Ungrateful. Bitter.

Yeah, that’s more what my day before Thanksgiving was like. The list-making, the shopping, my daughter home from school giving us an extra six hours of potential fighting with her brother. I wanted to be thankful. But wanting it wasn’t making it happen.

Earlier in the week I’d realized this is our sixth Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania. The sixth year we’ve been absent from our family celebration in Illinois. It was coupled with the realization that Thanksgiving is our favorite holiday. Phil and I love the food and family, the togetherness in playing board games, laughing, sharing stories of years gone by. On Thanksgiving there’s no pressure to bring anything except yourself (and maybe your signature dish). No gifts. No pressure. Don’t get me wrong, I like Christmas. In theory. Maybe those are thoughts for another day.

So, there I was missing my family, not looking forward to the food prep ahead of me, feeling bad for feeling unthankful.

My hands were covered in flour, sticky and dough-covered as I formed and shaped the rolls. Our daughter stood next to me, her hands matching mine, doing her best to make round balls of dough that would later become dinner rolls. Our son was crumbling cornbread into a bowl, readying it for the cornbread dressing to be baked the next day.

And I realized something else.

In the six years we’ve been in Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving, I’ve learned a lot of things I might not have learned.

Making homemade rolls, for one. It’s taken me years to decipher the traditional recipe from my husband’s side of the family, and I still don’t get it right all the time. But I can make rolls from scratch using flour and yeast and everything, and they taste like dinner rolls, even if they look like blobs instead of clovers.

For this, I am thankful.

And cooking a turkey. I was terrified the first year, sure I would screw it up. But for five consecutive years I’ve brined and cleaned and oiled and roasted a turkey. (This year, we opted for a pork chop Thanksgiving.) And I learned that I actually like turkey.

For this, I am thankful.

I make pie crusts from scratch. We have our own food traditions now.

For this, I am thankful.

Over these years we’ve celebrated Thanksgiving with select members of our family, with other people’s families, with just the four of us. One year, we celebrated in anticipation of the arrival of the fourth member of our family.

And I’ve learned that sometimes family is geographic, rather than genetic. As much as we love our blood relatives, we’ve found friends who are as much like family here in Pennsylvania.

For this, I am thankful.

And I’ve learned to be thankful even when my husband had to work on Thanksgiving because at least he had a job.

This year, we’re glad to have him home for the day.

As we cooked up kukelas (pronounced like koo-kah-luhs), the German fried and sugared dough of my husband’s family’s heritage, and ate our fill of sugary goodness, the thankfulness hit me again. I’m thankful for this family, this house, this season of life, not because I think we deserve it or even because we have so much, but because we know what it is to not have, to nearly lose what’s most important, to take for granted.

For this, I am thankful. 

Not only for the blessings of God but for His mercy. For the grace of others. For love that covers a multitude of sins.

In everything, give thanks.

 

Where there is darkness and light

I was slow to get moving yesterday, drinking coffee, waiting for laundry to dry, reading blogs and Facebook posts after taking our daughter to the bus. There was upsetting news about the government shutdown. About people not getting paid for their work. And about programs like WIC running out of funding until the shutdown is over. I thought of all the days we’ve relied on WIC to provide healthy, nourishing food for our family. I thought of how those who are food insecure would get a little more insecure with the news. How going to the grocery store is drudgery for me, especially when I’m using WIC checks because they take more time and there’s almost always a delay or a problem.

I left for the grocery store bearing burdens too heavy for my shoulders.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

Genesis 1:1-5

light from darkness

Photo source: Carlos Koblischek via Stock Exchange

I pulled my van into the Aldi parking lot and dug out my quarter for the cart. I was mercifully alone on my grocery errand, the boy at home with his dad so I could be quick about restocking our shelves. I opened the hatch to find our reusable bags when the man with the broken English approached.

“You are going into the Aldi?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Come, follow me. I give you my cart free.”

I closed the back of the van and followed him to his car. I briefly wondered if this was wise but the parking lot was full and it was daylight. I watched him unpack a few things into his car. He gestured for me to take the cart. I held out my quarter and he shook his head.

“Thank you,” I said. “Have a great day.”

I walked into the store a little lighter for the kindness.

The days may be dark, but here was a glimmer of light.

I filled the cart, checking it against my list, grateful for the chance to take my time and make decisions slowly. I was halfway through the store when I noticed her. She was agitated and looking for her friend to borrow a phone. With her Access (food stamp) card in one hand, she furiously dialed and punched in numbers to check her balance. I’d made the same call a day earlier, checking to see if our monthly allotment had been distributed in the chaos of government bureaucracy. I’m forever fearful that I’ll get to the checkout with a cart full of groceries and not be able to pay because of a technological glitch.

I watched out of the corner of my eye as she was visibly upset with the result of her call. I don’t know the circumstances or lifestyle of the woman but I know what it is, at least in part, to stare at empty pantry shelves and wonder when and how you’re going to put a meal together.

My mind immediately leaps to the worst-case scenario, and as I looked at my cart, I wondered if maybe there was a problem after all and maybe I wouldn’t be able to pay for my groceries.

I walked on in faith, paid for my groceries and bagged them, grateful that another trip to the grocery store was done.

When I got to the car, I checked my phone. Even though it’s October and I’ve had less than a handful of calls from our daughter’s school, I’m still paranoid that she’ll need something during the day and I’ll miss the call.

I saw an e-mail instead. An urgent prayer request. A tragic loss.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

I said the words out loud.

In the beginning there was darkness. And there was light. And I wondered if God could have made a world without darkness.

I tire quickly of the darkness. I avoid the news. I keep to the safety of the neighborhoods I know. I shut my eyes to the horrors of the world because it is too much to bear. Too much darkness. Not enough light. Never enough light.

light candle

Photo source: Andrey Gorshkov via Stock Exchange

I tire quickly of my darkness, the black parts of my heart that seep out through my words and actions. I forget that the story doesn’t end with darkness.

You are the light of the world.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.

The city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb.

In the beginning there was darkness. But the Spirit of God was moving. Light was being born.

There is darkness, yes, but there is light and it is us, and we are pushing back the darkness one kindness, one act of love at a time.

5 on Friday: Go-to recipes

So, cooking. I have a love-hate relationship. I love cooking. I hate trying to cook and do a zillion other things at the same time. I also have very little patience for the kids wanting to help. I try; I do.

I’m best at dinner when I have a plan, but with school starting and moving and budgets being a little out of sorts, I haven’t really meal planned in a while.

pantry raidWhen that happens, I search the pantry shelves for ingredients to make something. It’s a skill I learned from my husband. He’s the master at it, but since his work schedule doesn’t allow him as much time in the kitchen as I’d like, I’ve had to get creative myself. Okay, so maybe these recipes aren’t going to win me a cooking show, but they’re relatively inexpensive and I generally have everything on hand. (I also have a love-hate relationship with the grocery store.)

So, here are five recipes I return to again and again when I’m in a time crunch or ingredient pinch.

1. Pie. Last night we had a turkey pie. (You thought I was going the dessert for dinner route, right? It’s an option.) I make my own crusts out of butter-flavored shortening, flour, salt and water (I could eat just the crusts!) and then I just mix a bunch of stuff together and put it in the pie. Cooked turkey or chicken, a frozen vegetable mix, a couple of cream soups, some mushrooms. Other times we’ve thrown in potatoes or gravy, especially after Thanksgiving. Turkey pie is great for Thanksgiving leftovers because you can use just about anything.

Similarly, shepherd’s pie. Usually with ground turkey or beef, some vegetables and a biscuit mix topping.

2. Black beans and rice. If I make the rice ahead of time, this comes together quickly. Some peppers and onions sautéed in oil, a can of tomatoes (with or without chiles), a can of black beans, thyme, hot sauce, apple cider vinegar. Heat it all up in a skillet and serve over rice.

3. Creamed tuna on toast. It sounds kind of gross, but really, it’s yum. Make a creamy white sauce with butter, flour, pepper and milk. Stir in the tuna. Toast some bread slices. Serve the warm tuna sauce over the toast. (This is one of those I love to make in winter because it’s warm and comforting.)

Similarly, goldenrod eggs on toast, a dish I’d never had before I met my husband. Hard-boiled eggs, separated after they’re cooked. Yolks crumbled. Whites stirred into a white sauce. Layer toast, white sauce, crumbled yolks. It’s surprisingly tasty.

4. Cheesy salmon rotini. I have my friend Nikki to thank for this one. It’s another winter-comfort food. A similar cream sauce to the previous recipe, only with canned salmon and cheddar cheese stirred in, over cooked rotini (or sometimes bow tie noodles). I almost can’t wait for winter.

5. Soup. When I lived on my own and didn’t regularly stock chicken noodle soup and didn’t have my mom in the same house to take care of me when I was sick, I experimented with homemade chicken noodle soup. In the fall and winter, we try to have soup once a week, at least. It’s another one of those dishes you can clean out the cupboards to make, especially if you keep a soup base on hand (or make your own stock from bones, which I have done several times–a surprise for even me!). My chicken soup starts with sautéing some sliced carrots, celery and onion, then evolves from there with chicken, broth, noodles and seasonings. Rice, potatoes, frozen veggies, canned meat, beans … the possibilities are endless. (And if my husband was cooking, they’d be amazing. A couple of years ago, he created two soups in one day just on a whim. Man, I miss his cooking. Hint, hint.)

What recipes do you find yourself reaching for when you’re low on groceries or time?

When a book is good enough to eat: Review of Bread & Wine by Shauna Niequist

Shauna Niequist has written about two things I love: cooking and community. Her newest book, Bread & Wine, is part memoir, part cookbook, part travel journal, and it is a book you’ll want to savor, and read multiple times. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Bread & Wine from Zondervan through the Booksneeze program.)

bread and wine coverFrom dinner parties, to family get togethers, to cooking clubs, to crisis and disappointment, Niequist writes about the role of food and life around the table in all of life. She loves food and people and the memories that surface of good times and sad and how food and community minister and comfort and heal. If I could eat the pages of this book, I would, but then I wouldn’t be able to try the recipes.

Bread & Wine left me hungry–for community and delicious food–and full–of my own memories of life around the table and hope that offering community around a table doesn’t have to be perfect or difficult. I dog-eared dozens of pages and found myself nodding in agreement with Niequist’s observations about life.

Here are some of my favorites.

On the role of food:

It’s no accident when a loved o ne dies, the family is deluged with food. The impulse to feed is innate. Food is a language of care, the thing we do when traditional language fails us, when we don’t know what to say, when there are no words to say. … It’s the thing that connects us, that bears our traditions, our sense of home and family, our deepest memories, and, on a practical level, our ability to live and breathe each day. Food matters. (14)

On hospitality:

But it isn’t about perfection, and it isn’t about performance. You’ll miss the richest moments in life–the sacred moments when we feel God’s grace and presence through the actual faces and hands of the people we love–if you’re too scared or too ashamed to open the door. (109)

And,

The heart of hospitality is about creating space for someone to feel seen and heard and loved. It’s about declaring your table a safe zone, a place of warmth and nourishment. (114)

Niequist’s stories of travel and cooking and experiences make her the kind of person I’d secretly love to hate, but she is brutally honest about her shortcomings (there’s a swimsuit chapter I will be referring to often this summer) and disappointments (infertility between her first son and her second) and in the end, she’s the sort of person I’d love to hang out with for a day. The writing is personal, like she’s telling you her stories around the table, and the recipes are accessible, like she’s standing with you in the kitchen walking you through each step.

If you’re a fan of food and community, this is a book you MUST have on your shelf. Inspiring and encouraging.

Niequist has written two other books, both of which I’m eager to read now.

For more about the author, visit her website: http://www.shaunaniequist.com/